Notes From A Tuk Tuk

Thongs on Tuk Tuk

Some of every day in Phnom Penh is spent in a tuk tuk with my colleagues.  A few regular drivers have become firm friends through shared amusement at each other’s little ways and our limited common language.  My fellow expatriates and I are currently holding a photographic competition, each of us preparing to show our best ten snapshots of Cambodian traffic scenes.  We regularly interrupt each other to point out astonishing scenes, often annoyed that cameras were not at the ready or excited if we manage to capture a shot, occasionally noticed by a quizzical local wondering what the fuss is about.  Today I was out and about during work hours in the city’s Central Market area which is a hive of side and back alleys bustling with people living in crowded spaces alongside each other.  The narrow labyrinthine lanes serve as a continuous open air kitchen-bathroom-dining and living room.  A nursing activity I oversee takes place out of a service provided from a little old den-like apartment hidden away inside one such block.

A tuk tuk can wend through these narrow corridors if everyone makes room, which of course they do because making room out of tight spaces is a skill cultivated from infancy in Cambodia.  Purring into the lane, an old man sits in his doorway at the top of a narrow wooden ladder about six feet above ground level watching the world go by.  A young woman squats at a concrete slab pouring water over a plastic bowl of still-squirming fish a few doorsteps from another young woman chopping what was very recently a pig into fresh steaks with a large machete.  Men sit on plastic chairs at a metal fold-out table playing cards, glancing sideways to watch the tuk tuk navigate carefully past them and their row of tightly parked motorbikes.  A rusty step-through bicycle, a cane basket filled with baked sweet potatoes balanced on the carrier, leans against a plank of wood acting as a stand, in the middle of the alley.  We park behind it and wait.  Soon enough the seller, dressed in floral pyjamas and a wide-brimmed sunhat, emerges from an entranceway to move her bike and let us through.  We pull over again to wait for a moto-sidecar mobile restaurant parked too close to centre-lane for us to get past.  Someone calls out and the driver appears, pushing his vehicle further to the side.

Depositing me at the door, Tuk Tuk agrees to return for me in a couple of hours and I disappear inside the dark little room where so much goes on out of sight, providing medical assistance and social support to some of Phnom Penh’s poorest.  Two hours later I am done and Tuk Tuk is waiting at the door as promised.  We purr back out of the lane and as we round the corner, across the road from us is the entranceway into another alley darkened by afternoon shadows, where the silhouette of a woman with a bamboo pole balanced across her shoulders, pots of takeaway food for sale hanging parallel to her from each end, walks towards us.  The next alley we pass swallows a woman pulling a trash cart overloaded with massive rice sacks bulging with recyclable cans and plastic bottles.

Slowing in traffic at a busy corner I notice a dignified elderly man in spectacles, trouser suit and narrow-brimmed straw Pendleton hat who has stopped his bicycle to wrap his checked scarf around his neck a couple more times.  As we inch closer to him, I realise through the throngs of motorbikes, he is sitting on a bright pink step-through child’s bicycle that is too small for him and has a cushioned pink seat on the carrier.  Three girls in school uniform not more than 14 years old pull up behind him, sharing a moto that one of them is in charge of – nothing too out of the ordinary.  Workmen carry their hardware – ladders, paint pots, doorframes, mirrors – on their motorbikes.  Whole families or bags of rice or a television, any combination of valuables can fit on a motorbike if you need it to.

I ask Tuk Tuk if he knows the hotel where I am attending a workshop tomorrow?  It’s just around the corner so he makes a dog leg through traffic and drives past, agreeing to pick me up there tomorrow.  Around the next corner he turns into traffic on the wrong lane and pulls up beside another tuk tuk who moves over as soon as he gets a chance to move forward, making room for us!  Holding my expensive iPhone in hopes of a photo opportunity, a young woman with a tiny baby tied to her body with a checked scarf crouched in the gutter makes eye contact with me.

I take a photograph of my shoes on the floor of the tuk tuk and jot a few notes for the blog I want to write, about an ordinary tuk tuk ride on another ordinary Phnom Penh day.

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Eye Is For Ice

This week I lost my housemate and friend to Bangladesh, where she will work with the Rohingya refugees escaping indescribable violence in Rakhine State across the border in Myanmar.  We spoke a lot about them and about Cambodia before she left.  It always looped back to ourselves, our appreciation for our extreme luck of birth and our drive to make the most of our good fortune.  I’ll miss the thought provoking conversations.

Rakhine State

For now I live alone.  Right now I am typing a blog overlooking the skyline of Phnom Penh from my balcony.  Five floors above the streets where people are doing whatever they can to simply survive, it is a “bubble” up here.  Outside people are searching for ways to have enough food for the day while I live in protected luxury, with the comforts that have always constituted my charmed life.

As a first year student nurse in England the first essay I ever wrote was 5,000 words on Inequalities of Health.  I still have that essay somewhere, with it’s featured photograph from The Independent newspaper in 1991, of a homeless man lying in a sleeping bag in the snow in a London park.  The wealth-poor divide is highly visible in Phnom Penh, as it is in any location where travelers from the Rich World live alongside locals who never have the opportunity to leave the small patch of territory where they toil day after groundhog day.

Last week The Eyes came to Phnom Penh so that 7yo could have her surgical appointment with visiting overseas ophthalmologists via SEE International .  Her behaviour suggests more than just eye problems.  So do some of her facial features.  She is odd looking and oddly behaved, does not learn well at school, has no friends in school, and generally a highly unfortunate little girl.  A child like this in Australia would be known to various specialist support services.  In Cambodia she lives in a little village in the dust with a blind widowed mother and widowed grandmother whose most recent distress came from the theft of their chickens.  I received a call from Dan about a month ago, the chickens have been stolen and they needed them to sell at market and now they have no food to eat.  As well as sorting out some food for the month we put our heads together with the village builder and organised a new chicken coop.  I’m always entertained by these unlikely agricultural interventions I find myself engaged in!

Chicken coop 02

Hoping to avoid further chicken thefts

The day that Boat Baby was born we were taking supplies to The Eyes, who live in the same village but across the vast corn field which was under water on that visit.  These peoples’ only experience of water is shown in this photograph of Little Sister greeting me as our wooden boat arrived in the brown slush of the Mekong Delta outside their house.  Last week those little girls had their first and only taste of water as I grew up knowing water.  Oneday at the hospital we were sharing lunch together with noone to translate so I was forced to practice my Khmer.  I picked up a chunk of ice and announced it’s Khmer name.  They smiled and agreed, before asking me it’s English name.  “Ice”.  “Eye”.  “Ice”.  “Eye”.  S never comes at the end of words here, so I agreed they had it right, laughing privately at The Eyes repeating the word Eye to me!

Three out of five members of The Eyes family have vision problems which were not addressed due to their inability to access health care, until I met them three years ago.  It has possibly cost me in the vicinity of US$500 to engage them with SEE International over the past three years.  We have lived through three operations, four sets of glasses, a number of trips to Phnom Penh for pre- and post-operative appointments, severe travel sickness on buses and mini vans leading to tuk tuk rides of >5 hours each way and all kinds of other issues.  The eye surgery is offered free of charge but villagers with no income have no way of affording the transport, accommodation and other associated costs such as post-operative medications.

This is only one family of the millions worldwide who cannot and therefore do not access necessary health care.  Their story includes grandad Joe, who I wrote about many times, a probable victim of Polio whose death a year ago this month was likely due to Post-Polio Syndrome.  All he could tell me when I asked, was “during Pol Pot I got a fever and then I couldn’t walk properly”.  For years he survived without the wheelchair he needed, which I was able to organise almost immediately thanks to my financial ability to bring him to town and engage him with the relevant organisation.  Their story also includes the girls’ father who drowned in the Mekong, with no clear story of what happened.  As a friend of mine said at the time “it could be murder, but she is a blind woman and very poor, so she has no power to talk to the police”.  It could also have been suicide.  We will never know although people seem to think it was not an accident.  He and his motorbike were dragged out of the Mekong three years ago.

I always assumed a genetic cause for The Eyes vision problems.  Last month when I visited Boat Baby I learned that his mother also has vision problems.  Could this be mere coincidence?  Reading up on Agent Orange, I have learned that 173,000 acres in Kampong Cham were sprayed with Agent Orange between April 18 and May 2, 1969.  The spraying took place at night with evidence that it was carried out by the CIA.  Villagers allege in fact, that similar spraying continued frequently into the 1970s.  There are no official records of most of these sprayings which defoliated vast areas, intending to expose enemy troops to the bombers flying above.  I am unable to find a map showing exactly where the spraying occurred.  The area was also heavily bombed and many of my friends and colleagues here have vivid memories of bombs exploding on their villages and homes, killing family members and leading to the digging of rudimentary underground bunkers covered with layers of bamboo.

Vietnam War veterans in New Zealand, Australia and America have long held strong opinions that exposure to Agent Orange has caused high rates of developmental, immunological and neurological problems in their children and now, their grandchildren.  Governments have been reluctant to accept the argument, but compensation is provided in various ways to children born to Vietnam War veterans with certain disabilities.

The issue can be summed up briefly with these two statements:

The US military denies any link between the defoliants and the illnesses and deformities found in Vietnamese children who have become the world’s most recognizable symbol of the effects of Agent Orange. Among scientists the debate over the (alleged) adverse effects of Agent Orange remain a contentious issue.
Cambodia Daily March 2004

Kampong Cham, Cambodia | The proportion of babies born with disabilities in eastern Cambodia is more than 50 times higher than in other parts of the country, according to local doctors….While the reason for the higher rate has not officially been confirmed, it is generally believed to result from the use of Agent Orange, a dioxin-containing defoliant, by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War….The scale of the damage wrought by use of the chemical in Cambodia is still unclear as there has been little research into the victims. Local doctors have called for an official survey on the effects.
Star News article 2008

 

agentorange

A child at the Ba Vi orphanage, part of the third generation of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and other chemicals used by the U.S. military a half-century ago.   Ahkoblitz Blog   Visiting The Eyes at hospital last week I saw a child with a similar affliction to this.

My Cambodian Kaleidoscope

My second bicycle ride in Kampong Cham in 2013 was with another Australian nurse and a German doctor.  Four years ago perhaps even to the day, it was the end of the rainy season and the Mekong waters had receded.  Planting on the floodplains was well underway, with lush green crops contrasted against deep blue skies. We cycled dusty country lanes, visiting golden Buddhist temple grounds, photographing village life and farm scenes, and enjoying the calls of “Haaallooo” from excited children, on a 50km circular trip.  We observed that some of these villages were Islamic, noticing the mosques and colourful attire.  I have since cycled these tracks many times, been thrown from the tuk tuk and (per Chom), “landed in the banana flowers” on our most dramatic tuk tuk ride of many, delivered a baby on a wooden motorised canoe traveling over flooded cornfields, met Paula and her family, and so many other momentous experiences.  I continue to feel wowed by this little patch of the world but four years ago I could never have predicted that the scenery so impressing me was actually a blank canvas upon which a million human brush strokes were about to paint colourful details into my life.

When we took Paula to the US for surgery an Imam in the American Cham community picked us up at the airport and drove us to the hospital.  Some time later he informed me that, referencing the city skyscape on our horizon, Paula said to him in Cham from the front passenger seat “It will be okay if I die after having this experience”.  When the local Cham community descended upon us in droves, killing my western hopes of solitary independence, even in America Cambodia showed her power to rip my notions of world order apart.  The Imam explained that he had grown up in a village a few short kilometres from Paula’s home.  Upon questioning, I was as astounded as him, to realise that I knew his home village!  I was even able to produce a photograph of myself standing beside his neighbour, an elderly man who had approached and stood with me as I waited for my friends at a turn off near his village oneday.

Last week the Imam contacted me with this message:
I am planning to ask my uncle from Phnom Penh to go to my village, would you have time to go visit my village?  He bringing my books to give to students in my village.  Could you please go with them?  This is his family and I already paid for everything for them.  This is his daughter and she speak English very well.  Please let me know if you interested.  About safety don’t worry because almost all villagers are our relatives.
Familiar enough now, to know that any invitation from the Cham community makes my world bigger and better, I jumped at the opportunity and so plans were put in place.  When I asked if I should put a scarf on my head when I go into the school he replied  No you don’t have to do so because we know and understand the culture. Just dress what ever you like.  Just show them that we are different but we still can make friends.

Early on Thursday morning a car pulled in at my riverside hotel in Kampong Cham.  I climbed in to the back seat with greetings of Salaam Ali Kim to Imam’s aunt and uncle.  We made our slow journey out of town as they said they had been told I spoke good Khmer, soon learning they had been told wrong!  In three months the track has transformed from floodwaters to slush to mud to impacted dirt.  Our low suspension scraped along the rough surface more than once during the journey as they asked about the state of roads in Australia and I tried to give a rudimentary reply without any of the vocabulary I needed.  As we passed the waters, now reverting to cornfields again, where Boat Baby was born almost three months ago and then Boat Baby’s semi-flooded house, I wished I had the vocabulary to tell that story.  We passed the turn-off to The Eyes who are coming to town tomorrow for their appointment on Monday with SEE International.  Through familiar villages, past temples, mosques, hay stacks, fields, markets and over familiar bridges.  Almost an hour later yet only 20km from town we arrived in their village, immediately greeting family members walking along the track from the car windows, before continuing a short way.  At just after 7 o’clock in the morning, we drove into the tiny school perched on a little hilltop on the edge of the track.  Immediately children appeared from nowhere in their vibrant outfits of hijabs and flowing skirts, skull caps and tunics, obviously rehearsed in forming orderly rows for school assemblies in the dust.  My heart immediately melted at the extreme cuteness.

Teachers coordinated the growing rows of children.  One teacher approached me to introduce himself, explaining that he teaches English to the children once a week on Sundays.  Villagers milled around facing the children and I was ushered into a small classroom where 85 books were awaiting distribution, a small yellow envelope to be given with each book.  A short photo opportunity was taken with the teachers, uncle, aunt and I, before we were given a pile of books and envelopes each, proceeding out to the waiting rows of students.  Encouraged and reassured by a teacher approaching each child ahead of me, some of the children were too timid to speak, others uttered oor kun (Khmer thank you) and some knew the words “sank you”.  Soon enough all books were distributed and I was asked to give a short speech, so I spoke in single sentences for the young man translating, who is home from university studies in Saudi Arabia, of the joy of knowing Cham people and giving books to children and having cycled through this village many times, and how special it was to come here again for this occasion.

029

85 books delivered

With formalities over, we formed a procession and walked through the village to what I guess was one of the teachers’ homes, where breakfast of beef noodle soup was served.  To me alone!  When I suggested I shouldn’t eat alone (thinking, especially not about two hours since breakfast and with this many eyes upon me!), Uncle took a small bowl and joined me.  Bottles of water were presented, a child was sent away and returned with a packet of paper napkins, and atop a shaky bamboo ladder leading into a traditional wooden home, with dozens of witnesses, I ate a delicious but second bowl of breakfast on the shining wooden floor.  As I photographed the open fire atop bamboo floorboards responsible for creating this feast, one of the women asked me was this unusual to me?  I motioned that in Australia we don’t cook on open fires, we use ovens with doors, eliciting a lot of exclamations and laughter.

With breakfast eaten, we proceeded back onto the dust track to visit a number of other homes including the homes that my Imam friend grew up in and lived in until his move to America around 10 years ago.  We sat around vibrant bamboo mats on a number of different floors, mutually curious about each other’s lives, and the Imam’s cousin translating at his father’s instruction, did I have children, did I have a husband, what about parents and siblings, when was I returning home, etc.  At around 9am Uncle told me through his son, that he hoped I could visit again oneday, but for now, it was time to go home.  With babies kissing my hand and waving bye-bye, more posing for group photographs and happy farewells, I climbed into the back seat before being instructed to get in the front.  This time the family were traveling with us, so three adult children sat alongside their mother in the back!  The ceremonious occasion had ended and an hour later I lay down in my hotel room, exhausted enough to sleep for three hours!

This tiny part of the world doesn’t warrant a mention on the map which reads as though it may be uninhabited.  Yet this small area perhaps spanning a 60km radius across the Mekong river delta, has magnified my own world into a kaleidoscope of peculiar human experience and friendship.