At some point in school I learned about the Mekong Delta, where waters from the river rise and seep out onto low lying flood plains, transforming dry land into shallow marshland for months every year. Receding waters dump alluvial deposits, rich in nutrients to form a perfect fertiliser for growing rice and vegetables. It was beyond my imagination that decades later I would find myself inhabiting this floodplain, cycling and tuk-tuking through colourful rice and vegetable fields, interacting with locals and learning about a culture as rich as the alluvial plains that feed it.
Months since I’d been to Kampong Cham I determined to spend a weekend visiting. It had to fall the same week that our medical referent was visiting from Tokyo. I was obliged at a 4pm Friday debriefing with her and my polyglot colleagues who are not averse to holding long, humourous, productive, interesting, but ultimately long, meetings. I asked my translator to call the driver and book the car. He put the phone on hold to ask “will you book the whole car?”. The options are many – half or even a third of a seat, a whole seat to yourself, or the whole car. The 125km, two hour journey costs US$35. I took the whole car. The other options involve waiting at known “hot spots” connected to your province, until enough passengers appear. This can take hours.
On Friday morning my translator took a call, then informed me my driver had arrived! He had brought a car load of passengers to Phnom Penh and so now all he had to do was drive me back in the evening. His car sat outside the office all day while he waited at a local coffee shop and lunched with my translator! Informing the team that I had a driver waiting and so I would be departing at 5pm regardless of anything, it was great to be able to spend the whole meeting with them and learn about the plans for our project which are many, varied and interesting.
At 5 o’clock I was out of the door and in the car. A reasonably quick journey across the width of Phnom Penh and onto the highway north, I pondered as usual on the many sights sharing the road with me. My cousin messaged me from New Zealand, lying awake with a young baby late at night. The road grew dark without street lights. Tuk Tuks and motorbikes become difficult to see and horse driven carts are invisible until you are upon them. As she talked about how well her baby sleeps we passed a young man sitting forward on his moto to make room for the 50kg bag of rice hanging over the edge obscuring his tail light, a tiny baby sound asleep over his shoulder and one hand on the handlebars to steer his precious load. How different those two babies’ futures are.
This morning I knew we were in for an adventure and I kept wondering at the idea of drowning in the Mekong. With the villages I usually visit by road underwater, we had to take a wooden boat. When I asked Dan “are you afraid” he replied “a little bit because I don’t know how to swim”. Instead of death though, our adventure was all about birth. We started at the market, where we piled Dan’s tuk tuk with 100kg rice, four bags of charcoal, a box of miscellaneous groceries and 20 eggs in a plastic bag on my knee. Not a single egg cracked, traveling by tuk tuk then wooden boat – this fact constantly amazes me. Eggs in solid containers traveling in my car on smooth Australian roads inevitably crack, but Cambodian eggs seem impenetrable!
The elderly woman who scavenges for recyclables in the city streets on her poorly healed broken leg to feed her 3 orphaned grandchildren told Dan she had moved to the pagoda because her house was flooded. With the tuk tuk heaving we started over the river at this pagoda where locals have constructed a makeshift village inside the temple grounds, of canvas, tin, bamboo and wood huts. We located her and amidst much laughter and excitement delivered a 50kg bag of rice, half the eggs and a bag of charcoal onto her wooden platform under strips of tin next to a young family squatting under their similar structure about 1 metre away. A small gas cooker was boiling something on the bamboo platform as two chickens clucked around hoping for a morsel, apparently unperturbed by the fire. None of these sights seemed terribly interesting to the locals, who were all far more mesmerised by the foreigner in their midst.
After many platitudes, most of which I didn’t understand, we departed for the riverside. Dan rang the boat driver whose directions were unclear and as the floodwaters crept closer to the floor of the tuk tuk I shouted out “are you sure about this?”, just as Dan decided to u-turn out of waters which felt like they wanted to carry us away. Excited children soaked from playing in the brown lagoon that has submerged their yards, ran alongside the tuk tuk shouting and laughing, holding the sides and jumping onto the steps until Dan told them to jump off. We finally found the docking station and our groceries were offloaded from the tuk tuk and carted down the muddy bank onto the rickety wooden boat by a bunch of men including the skipper. Climbing down into the boat, Dan instructed me to sit on a plank of wood, where I stayed the rest of the journey, surrounded by about ten Cambodians clearly unexcited about going on a boat on the Mekong Delta.
At our first drop-off point I asked Dan, would we also be walking in knee-high water? “Probably” was not the answer I had hoped for as I talked to myself calmly that “Albendazole can kill hookworm, it’ll be okay”. Steering us through a gap in the bushland we pulled up at the house next door to “the eyes” family, who were waiting in knee-high water to greet us. More self-assurances before stepping down into muddy water, I embraced the feeling of all that fertile alluvium squishing between my toes somewhere underneath my knees and trusted that every step was going to be okay. A short visit to their elevated house to deliver charcoal, rice, eggs, oil, canned fish, ant killer and some fruit, we arranged for “the eyes” to come by tuk tuk to Phnom Penh on Monday. Seven year old’s strabismus has not been corrected by two years of wearing glasses so she needs to see the eye specialist again. They will travel in Dan’s tuk tuk because they all have serious travel sickness. Dan thinks he can get them to Phnom Penh in two hours, so I can meet them at the hospital in my lunch hour and work out the logistics of their stay thereafter.
Within half an hour the boat was pulling in next door to pick us up so we squished our way through knee-high mud and climbed back onto the boat, promising to see them on Monday. Crossing a large expanse of water that I’ve only ever known as a corn field, we arrived at the next village where I spotted a pregnant woman walking along the dirt track, aided by a young man and accompanied by an older woman and a girl of about 7yo. Dan informed me “she is having an emergency and needs to go to hospital”. They boarded the boat and she sat facing away from me as Dan told me “this is her first baby and she is having problems”. I immediately called my housemate, an obstetrics trained physician who didn’t answer, so I texted her “I’m on a wooden boat in the middle of nowhere with a primip in labour. Help me”. She called back and talked me through it saying the woman was highly unlikely to deliver anytime soon, just keep her comfortable.
Writhing and calling out in pain her husband and mother looked distraught. I offered them a bottle of water and my umbrella and moved down the boat near Dan to give them as much privacy as possible. The journey was long and painful for all of us but I had assured Dan she wasn’t going to give birth on the boat. As we approached the muddy bank Dan stood up and said to me “oh the head is coming!”. The bottle of alcohol hand rub in my bag came out like a shot, and I rubbed my hands vigorously, pouring some into grandma’s hands, who thought I wanted her to rub it on the baby’s crowning head! She soon followed my lead, but was apparently confused as to what this was all about.
The boat pulled into the muddy bank. My telephone against my left ear, taking housemate’s instructions; my right hand pressing a clean-ish looking krama scarf that I pulled out from underneath grandma against the woman’s perineum, I listened as housemate said the head would pop out and rotate, just as it did. A head! She then said the baby would come out of it’s own accord, just as he did! A boy! Screaming to the heavens! Delivered on the wooden floor of a rickety boat on the Mekong Delta!! Not my first delivery, but my first “such” delivery! Unwrapped the cord from little one’s neck, lifted him onto Mum’s chest, reassured everyone, and tried to relax as housemate said as long as he remained attached to the placenta it would be okay. Dan followed my orders, finding a plastic bag from dry land to keep the placenta inside so that it could remain as clean as possible until we could find a way to cut and tie the cord. While looking for the plastic bag he also found a doctor at a nearby clinic and soon enough we were joined by a woman in a white coat with latex gloves. I took my blood-stained hands and creeped away silently up the muddy bank. Dan and I will visit the family at hospital tomorrow.
Just another day on the Mekong Delta. They didn’t warn me about this in school!!