He lives in a home with walls constructed of bamboo, elevated on wooden stumps ten ladder steps from the ground. I have cycled or tuk tuked along this track which runs parallel with the Mekong countless times over the past four years. The track passes through many impoverished communities, an interweave of Buddhist and Islamic villages living side by side for at least 50km. About twenty metres from the road, a large expanse of open flat delta leads to the front steps of his shack. With Wet Season in full swing, this land is currently a muddy swamp.
Yesterday was nine weeks to the day since Boat Baby arrived on the floor of that wooden boat. Dan pulled the tuk tuk in at the roadside and pointed the house out to me. Looking across the quagmire between us, BB’s mother waved from the front door as his grandmother bounded down the ladder and immersed herself in the mud, striding deftly through the swamp towards us. I registered the depth by the mud marking her legs. Dan asked me, is it okay for you to go there? I replied I don’t like it but I’ll do it, should I take my shoes off? No, keep them on. He informed grandmother of my reply. She took a firm hold of my elbow and guided me to the bottom of the ladder. With my thongs jamming in the mud I removed them and now there was mud to the top of my ankles and on my left hand, holding the rubber strips as daintily as I could. Parasite OCD kicked in and I concentrated on shaking it because BB was waiting to meet me.
Grandmother bounded back up the ladder and returned a moment later with a plastic pot of water. I swished my feet around in the brown water at the edge of the ladder to soften the mud, then she poured clean water over them and I stepped onto the dry first rung. Up ten ladder steps, a red hammock was swinging between two wooden foundation poles, tiny Boat Baby snoozing as he rocked. Mum picked him up and handed him to me. Tiny, but fat and perfect.
Only about ten minutes ride from The Eyes family, I was shocked to hear that Mum, who is about 20yo, does not work because she also has vision problems! She has had three operations on her eyes so far, all at the nearest District Referral Hospital, who operate at no cost and offer transportation fees. My limited knowledge of the way the health system works here confirmed that this family fit the criteria of poor enough to warrant financial assistance when they engage with hospitals. This is not a guarantee however and when they registered at the maternity ward the day Boat Baby was born, they were not deemed poor enough and charged $40 for an overnight stay – money that they did not have.
Boat Baby’s father, who was on the boat with us the day of his birth, moved to Phnom Penh a month ago to wait tables at a restaurant, to earn money for the family. He has been unable to return home at all – a bus ride costs $7 one way.
This area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was sprayed across the region by US forces to kill the foliage, making the bombing campaign more efficient. Could it be that the common vision problems apparent through my own small anecdotal experience of this one small village, are connected to the use of Agent Orange less than 50 years ago? Local doctors apparently claim that babies in this area are 50 times more likely to be born with disabilities than in other parts of the country. Little or no research has been undertaken. Research is another example of privilege preserved for wealthy nations.
We said our farewells, Grandma holding my hand tightly as if to let me know of her hope for a connection between her family and this mysteriously lucky foreign woman who can travel far and wide and wants for nothing.