People From The Sky

Good enough

It’s okay to be imperfect.  On the other hand, we should not allow perceived success or praise for perceived success affect our ego.  Someone cycling Road X is no better or worse than someone walking Road Z.

In the field of humanitarian work it’s easy to find people willing to shower you with praise.  This sits uneasily with me as I’m well aware that I am living the life I want to live, because it suits me.  I don’t believe there is a humanitarian anywhere with entirely selfless motivations.  Living as a nurse in a place like Cambodia is really not so different to living as a nurse in Australia.  The challenges are different and there are difficulties that don’t exist in the wealthy world, but ultimately I’m using the same skill set to do similar work, only for a different population and with different resources.

Yet it could be easy to believe the praise.  Which I guess is why it is not so difficult to find people working in the so-called humanitarian world, who are driven by ego and power.  Thankfully my current assignment has no such characters among the expatriate team.  My first assignment was a mixed bag, as I made firm friends but I also struggled enormously with one or two conceited narcissists.  Some of my Khmer friends with a long history working in international NGOs such as MSF confirm that it can be extremely difficult to work with “the people from the sky” (they fly in, dominate with an air of aggrandized importance then fly out again).

It’s very true, that you find all sorts in all places.  It’s also true that there are different motivations towards pursuits which are seen generally as altruistic.  The best example I have is a French doctor some years ago who, in criticising MSF for not approving an extra day off, declared “They should be grateful to have me!  I don’t have to be here!  I am not a local staff who has no choice!  I am a Ewe-Manit-Eerian!  So are you!  We are both ewe-manit-eerians, ‘Elen!”.  Never had I wanted the ground to swallow me up so badly!  Being ewe-manit-eerian is a running joke within my current team who appreciate the farce of over-inflated ego.

The definition of what makes a humanitarian is also an interesting question.  MSF focuses on emergency relief so that many of our expatriates have experienced war zones, famines, disease outbreaks and natural disasters.  Some of these field workers, after multiple assignments, move into the ranks of management based in first world cities such as Paris, Tokyo and New York.  One recent such visitor from London suggested that “you should not stay too long in one place, because it becomes something other than a humanitarian action if you end up staying for your own reasons”.

With a deep love of Cambodia, I’ve ruminated on this statement greatly.  It is dangerous to be poor in this world – you will be forced to live in varying degrees of peril.  If you are incapacitated there will be almost no assistance outside of your own unqualified and un-resourced family or village.  If you die prematurely, it will likely be as an invisible non-statistic who was never counted anyway.  The billions of dollars going towards medical research in first world institutions across the globe generally don’t benefit anyone but those living in the wealthy world, so that preventable illness, injury and death is a common theme in the poor world.  I have loved realising the experience of making small differences to lives which ultimately, to the powers that be in their own higher society and levels of government but also to most of us in the world, hold little to no value.  Stay or go, like all of us with a choice, I’ll choose what suits me most.  Whether here or elsewhere, my main hope is to avoid becoming one of the “People from the Sky”.

Meanwhile, The Excruciating Fundraiser has surpassed it’s goal and our friend can have surgery with a safe and more comfortable recovery than would otherwise have been possible.  We took the family swimming today at a local resort with a small water park.  It was their first time at a swimming pool and a very happy day was had.  On the way home we crossed a bridge over the mud brown river, where a bunch of children were playing on a black tyre in the muddy water lapping at the doors and floors of their little wood and tin shacks. The contrast with where we were coming from was stark.

This 4 minute video, which I think I’ve shared before, explains why this stark contrast exists.

The Richest 300 People

Delta Deliveries

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!!

The Excruciating Fundraiser

My heart sinks in Australia whenever I get a cold call at home, or accosted in the streets by charities looking for donations.  Ditto when friends write saying they have a cause and would I donate?  It is not possible to help everyone and the phenomenon of donor fatigue is something I experience on a regular basis, particularly from Australia, where I can quickly feel disconnected from the need that I see here in Cambodia.  From within Cambodia it is quite the opposite, you could almost say I’m plagued by donor impulse here!  But I identify well with donor fatigue and I understand what my friends are experiencing when they see yet another appeal coming from my general vicinity.  This is what makes me loathe what I call The Excruciating Fundraiser.

On that note, I hope anyone reading this understands that my sharing this story is not to make you feel obliged, pressured or judged in any way.  Read it as a story of interest.  And if you are inclined to donate, then do; if not, no problem.  If you are inclined to share it with others then do; if not, no problem.  It really is interesting to know this story though, and if you click on the link you can watch a very touching video that was filmed before the family received the help that has since seen some improvement in their situation.

This project involves a single mother of 4 who broke her ankle >2 years ago now.  I talked about her in Bongs and Tycoons.  She walked on the bone for over a year because she couldn’t afford to seek medical care. This obviously did further damage. She finally sought care at a South Korean charity hospital, but has to pay to get there and for any medicines and tests – it’s just the doctor’s consultation that is free.  The surgery is much cheaper than it otherwise would be, but has (and will) still cost her. These small things have put strain on her financially and at one point, for an extended period her 13yo son was out of school in order to walk the streets pushing a cart selling clams and banana fritters.  Since getting to know this family my perception of the many similar street vendors in Phnom Penh has changed.  Where once they were mysterious, appealing and sometimes funny, now they are all these things while I also contemplate on what led to them purchasing a steel cart to wander the streets through traffic as a way to earn money.  Even more so when the seller is elderly, very young or visibly disabled, which is often the case.  No doubt every one of them has a story worth sharing.

In May this year Mum was climbing the rickety ladder from the door of her elevated wooden shack to the ground (about 2 metres high) when she slipped through the gaps to the ground, breaking the steel fixer pin holding her bone together! So now she is walking around with a broken pin in her bone.  When I visit her, I physically tremble climbing up and down this ladder with it’s rotting rungs.

We got involved when a friend shared the video with me and asked if I could find her because a wealthy businesswoman wanted to offer her some money. I met her and took the family out for a meal (pizza – if you watch the video or read the earlier post you’ll know why). Then I met her again with the businesswoman’s daughter and nephew, who gave her an extremely generous donation which is going towards the expenses of her ongoing medical consultations. She has to have repeat surgery in September and meanwhile needs to travel to consultations weekly, pay for medicines, tests and transport etc.

The doctors have told her the only hope for a reasonable recovery is if she rests her leg.  With no back up welfare system here, she has no choice but to work – except for the fact that she has since had this help, meaning that at the moment she can rest (but she has a 2yo daughter, so can’t stay off her leg the whole time). So we are trying to help by raising enough money to get her into a ground level home that is not dangerous (her elevated shack is very dangerous, the ceiling leaks during rainfall, some of the ladder rungs are rotting, the floor slopes and feels soft underfoot in places), plus have a carer for the baby during school hours when her sons cannot help her, plus replace the income she cannot earn.

We will need a minimum of $4,000 to make this possible for her, for about six months post-surgery. So far we’re only a quarter of the way there.

See the link created by my MSF colleague / housemate and watch the video if you are interested in just one of the many stories that surround me, provoking my constant battle with Donor Impulse.

The Excruciating Fundraiser

Battle of the Balance

Only in the past few years have I come to appreciate that I was born on the lucky side of life.  Not only do I have enough food, love and shelter but I have the ability of having experienced going on an aeroplane, visiting towns and countries beyond my home, obtaining a first class education and many, many other things which most in the world cannot even imagine.

A friend’s son is doing a project on Cambodia with his primary school class in Australia.  When the class learned that I live in Cambodia we tried to work out a meeting of some sort.  With various protections in place through the school, Skype and other meetings were not approved.  So the children’s teacher filmed each of them asking me a question about Cambodia which was then emailed to me.  For the past few weeks I have been working on a filmed response.

Some of the questions were far easier to answer than others.  Compare “what is the main form of transport?”, with “do you have fidget spinners in Cambodia?”!  One child will get a range of short clips showing motorbikes in their various forms of hard labour.  The other was more challenging but I managed it.  One of our doctors, who looks about 12 years old, was interested in the question and she went out and bought herself a fancy metal fidget spinner.  I filmed her responding to Ben’s question with “you asked if we have fidget spinners in Cambodia and yes, we do, and in fact I also own one <as she pulls it from her white coat pocket and spins it>, but to be truthful, I don’t really know what is the fun thing about this?”.  It’s cute.  But it is brief!  After a few days I came up with a solution.  Today I am going to Siem Reap to work on Project Rav (the tuk tuk website we are designing).  Yesterday I bought 4 cheap fidget spinners to give to Rav and Seth’s 4 boys.  Ben’s video will show the boys receiving / playing with their fidget spinners, with the message that these children have almost no toys so I bought them a fidget spinner each on your behalf.

Over the next few days in Siem Reap, as well as photographs for the website, I will be video-replying to the last few questions: “what are your houses made out of?”, “how many ruins are around your place?”, “how many rice paddy fields are around your place?” and “is most food imported or grown there?”.  All much easier to find relevant video footage of in a rural area, than in the city.

Last night I wandered around the busy market local to my home, taking video footage for the question “do you have supermarkets or do you have to go fetch your food?”.  Dying fish laid out on banana leaves streetside made their last few leaps of death beside rows of unpriced shoes.  A mother with two school boys on one moto pulled up at a vegetable stall and leaned out sideways to sort through the cucumbers and choose a few of the best, her sons both bored to tears and unaware I was watching them.  A woman with a large flat tray of food perched on her head and a small red stool hooked on her arm spotted me videoing her and stopped to pose for me.  A man with small twisted, twig legs sat on the ground, obviously placed there by someone who I wondered about (could they love him or could they be a pimp?) with a hat held out for donations, telling me that he comes from Prey Veng (a province bordering Vietnam).  A woman in pink pyjamas and a massive floppy brimmed sunhat poured fish cake batter onto a pan over an open fire burning inside a tin box attached to the side of her moto, at one of the many mobile takeaway joints.  Next to her a young woman in a wheelchair sat on the corner begging.  Motos crawled slowly through the sauntering crowds on this busy street which is really an al fresco drive-through supermarket.

Closing my $1000 iPad, the umpteenth moto-dup driver asked “Madame?”, hopeful of a fare.  I shook my head and the look of disappointment on his face suggested a stressful existence.  I walked over to the ATM, aware that the crowds all around me neither have bank accounts, nor anything to keep in an account.  Then I walked into a trendy, dim-lit bar to join a friend for drinks, aware also that the crowds outside neither know that this bar with it’s unassuming frontage exists, nor could afford to enter if they did.

The next few days will be spent with Rav and Seth, getting the final photographs for their website organised.  Yesterday Rav’s sister who lives in a $30/month rented room smaller than my bedroom with her mother and three small children, called me to say that she is in hospital with the 2yo (on a general ward) and 6mo (in ICU).  Our language barrier means that I remain unclear of what is wrong with either of them but the Kuntha Bopha Hospital offers free treatment which is less than adequate to western expectations, but more than she could otherwise afford.  Unable to offer any practical assistance, I sent some money instead, to help reduce her stress at being away from work (selling rice cakes wrapped in banana leaf at a local dust-tracked market) and unable to continue the daily loan repayments she must make to her loan shark.  When I told her I will be in Siem Reap for a few days she asked, was I going for work?  No, holiday.  Oh so lucky Helen.  Yes, I KNOW.  I really DO know.

Recently on a car trip to a work training session, our new translator asked me “have you ever been to Angkor Wat?”.  Without thinking I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!  Many times!”.  An ensuing silence brought to mind Sam, my tuk tuk driver who has lived his whole life only 350km from Angkor Wat but has never been there.  Could Sam be the norm?  Can most Cambodians not afford to visit their nation’s most famous attraction?  I asked the translator, “have you been to Angkor Wat?”.  He paused and seemed to compose himself before giving an awkward “no”.  After another pause I said to him “I think most Cambodians cannot afford to go to Angkor Wat?”.  He nodded and I said, as much for my own sake as his because I never want to be a bombastic foreigner, “there are so many things that foreigners don’t understand”.  Again, he nodded in silence.  That day we visited his family home, a sprawling wooden shack in a square of mud surrounded by verdant rice fields which at this time of year, he spends his weekends ploughing.

On that note I now have to get showered, dressed and packed for a $40, 50-minute flight to Siem Reap.  Because that’s the life I was given.  There is no way to express my gratitude for this fact.  Except to share in some small way, what I have, with those who have-not; and to share some of what I know of their stories.

Pimp My Tuk Tuk

may you always do for others

Many hours of many days during my first 2 years in Cambodia were spent adventuring with my good friend, a tuk tuk driver who I blog-named Chom.  He is currently living in Japan to earn $60 per day as a farm worker (10 hours per day, 7 days per week).  This is big money to him and should ensure that his family will be more comfortable than they ever would have been had he stayed in Cambodia for the three years that he plans to be away.  His children were 6yo and 1yo when he left at the end of last year.  He often told me that tuk tuk drivers are considered lowly on the social spectrum here.  Nevertheless only this year did I comprehend the fact that tuk tuk drivers are often very poor.  They usually don’t have enough education to be competitive in the private, government or NGO employment market (where salaries reflect a local “middle class” of US$300+ per month depending on the role and qualifications required).

Under Medecins Sans Frontieres local regulations which state we should not travel by motorbike, I’m reliant on tuk tuks to get around.  I hate negotiating prices and so I tend to find a regular driver and stick with him.  This means I get to know and usually befriend my drivers.  In Cambodia everyone’s story is so far flung from anything we are accustomed to in Australia and the wealthy world, that all of “my” drivers have something foreign and interesting to share.  My housemate, colleague and good friend Theresa, who started a few short weeks after me earlier this year, is a kindred spirit and we have many discussions about the tuk tuk drivers we encounter.  Yesterday none of our regulars were around and very unusually, we had to walk towards the corner of our street to hail a tuk tuk.  We didn’t make it to the corner.

A few metres out of our gate, a driver passing on the crossroad spotted us, making a quick half-u-turn into our street to approach us hopefully.  In our rudimentary Khmer we negotiated a price and hopped on.  It’s become an impulse for me to assess the state of the tuk tuk I am in.  This tuk tuk had old, worn out upholstery.  One of the arm rests was completely missing so that the only thing separating the loose seat cushion and the road below, was thin air.  The carriage’s suspension was distorted so that I seemed to be sitting on a slant.  We got about halfway to our destination when his moto stopped at an intersection and no matter how many kick starts he gave, it refused to restart.  He called out to a passing driver and swapped us into another tuk tuk.  As we drove away I looked back to see him pushing the vehicle into a driveway and turning it around.  With any luck the downhill slope helped his bike to un-flood.  It can’t be a fun work day when that’s your lot.

Two years ago I was stranded in Skun en route to Kampong Cham.  Pushing my case along the main road, voices from a passing tuk tuk shouted “hello” before pulling over.  Full of people and luggage, they were amazingly traveling from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham to visit their grandmother and offered to take me.  They squeezed me in Khmer-style and saved my skin.  I promised that I would always use Dad (the tuk tuk driver who I’ll call Sam,) whenever I was in Phnom Penh, and so Sam has become my regular guy in the city.  A quiet and unassuming guy with better English comprehension than we realise because he only uses it when we give him no choice, we recently went halves in the cost of replacing his torn tuk tuk upholstery.  Since then, with our regular custom, he has pimped his own tuk tuk somewhat, adding a plastic wire guard to reduce the chances of bag-snatchers and we now travel with Cambodian flags flying from the back seat.  Our conversations with Sam are always fun, particularly by telephone when we recite what we have to say before calling, always hopeful that his reply will be a simple “yes” or “no” because the minute any detailed information has to be shared, we’re lost!  He knows our regular routines – the family I visit on the outskirts of town every few weeks; the other family Theresa and I visit together near our office; Theresa’s weekly swim lessons; our occasional social hot spots; our various strange little ways.  It’s so much easier having someone who knows where we want to go and who we don’t have to negotiate with.

Around the same time that I was befriending Chom in Kampong Cham over three years ago now, I met Rav in Siem Reap who I have also become very fond of, along with his friend Seth and their wives and young families.  He impressed me when Kim and I were in need of assistance to communicate together the day I bought Kim’s wife a sewing machine.  Rav not only translated for us, but he drove us to the market, negotiated a decent price for the machine we wanted, guided me over the busy street, and was generally very kind and helpful.

Theresa and I currently have a Rav-Seth project underway with a group of Khmer graphic designers building a website to promote their tuk tuk services.  Siem Reap is a very touristic place with a focus on the temples of Angkor Wat stealing from the other attractions of the province.  Hundreds of tuk tuks vie against each other and low season means many days are spent with no income.  We are working on promoting attractions off-the-beaten-track for tourists interested in a more authentic experience of Siem Reap.  Plans are still underway but may include overnight stays in Seth’s floating village, where he grew up on a small boat which he says “sometimes had a roof but sometimes the roof would break and we didn’t always have enough money to make a new roof.  I like sleeping under the stars but it is too hot under the sun and so bad under the rain”.  Rav is from an equally impoverished background and we have been discussing the fact that sometimes tourists don’t want to see the temples and stay in fancy hotels; the chance to interact with locals, experience local knowledge and connections can be marketable assets which are as yet, untapped.  We hope that a website can increase their access to customers in what is an extremely challenging market.  If this website is successful then we plan to replicate the project for another tuk tuk in another resort town who we know and have been trying to help.

Meanwhile you could say that, as with anything, poverty is always relative.  It’s impossible to help everyone and important to remember this when you live in a place such as Cambodia where at every turn you see another level of poverty.  Waiting at the intersection yesterday, in the ricketty tuk tuk which wouldn’t kick start, an elderly man rested on his decrepit cyclo which Theresa suggested for emphasis, “was built by the Russians”.  A few hours later, waiting for friends near the corner I wondered at the story of the many small children working the busy streets to collect recyclable rubbish or sell fruit from plates atop their little heads.

Rav’s family often say to me that they feel lucky to know me, because of the little things I’ve been able to do at no sacrifice to myself, for them.  A conversation with his sister yesterday went along these lines: “you help us so much”, no I only help you a very little “no, it is little for you but it is big for us”.  Rav recently said “there are 15 million people in Cambodia, so it is amazing that I could be the one who met you”.  I reminded him that he met me because he was helping Kim, so any gratitude he has for his so-called good fortune ought to be for his own willingness to help someone in need.

Do good and good will come

 

Bongs and Tycoons

There are so many cultural quirks in Cambodia that you could write a book on them, if you were confident enough in your knowledge.  One of my favourites, perhaps because of the similarity with Central Australian indigenous custom, is the practice of referring to people according to an assumed kinship status.  Here I am often referred to as “Bong”, meaning “older sibling”.  These people to me, are “P’un”, or younger sibling.  It is a polite reference, favoured over using a person’s name; if you know their name then you can add it after the title, eg I can be Bong Helen.  If you’re in a restaurant and you want the attention of the wait staff, you call to them as Bong or P’un, depending on their age against yours.  If you’re unsure, then you default to Bong.  Other designations include Uncle and Teacher, depending on the relationship, eg a man old enough to be your father or someone deserving of respect due to their wisdom.  Something about this practice seems to give you an immediate affinity with the person you are interacting with.

In my last blog I mentioned the video clip a friend in Kampong Cham sent me, of a young boy being interviewed on camera about his struggles trying to earn an income for his family after his mother was injured in a moto accident.  My friend had contact with a local Khmer “tycoon” who had seen the video and offered to help the family if someone could locate them.  Fortuitously, unbeknownst to my friend when he asked me to help, the young boy’s usual trolley-hauling route seemed to be very close to my workplace in Phnom Penh.  On Monday my colleague/housemate came in a tuk tuk with me and within ten minutes we had located the boy’s mother.

Some transcript from the 12 minute video which is only available through Facebook so I can’t share it here:
Boy: I want to start up business to feed my mother.  I don’t want her home alone.  I want her take a break and not in difficult situation.  I also want to take care my siblings so my mother not in trouble.
Mother: Since I broke my leg I am very difficult.  I jobless and no money.  Sometimes I beg money for my children and pay electric, water.  I really suffer.  No matter my leg hurt, I have to try for my children.
Boy: Talks about selling shellfish, fried bananas and fried potatoes while the cameras show him preparing the food and pouring it into a shallow tray on a barrow which he then pulls through the streets amongst traffic, including at night.  My mother wake at 2am to cook until 6am.  When she feed my sister I go to sell.  At the day I push clams and call customers, anybody buy clams or not brother?  After sell and get money I give to Mum for buying food.  My Mum think about children more than herself.  Sometime she not eat in order to get enough food for us.  Father leaves us for a long time so we don’t have father.
Their story continues and Mum talks about lending money from her neighbour to get to hospital, her concerns for her malnourished baby, not wanting her son to become a beggar, her experiences with a violent husband and deciding to finally divorce.  I really suffer when my son asked me, “Mom, when we go to eat pizza?”  I responded “It is very expensive, I can’t afford it son”.  I pity my son so much.

On locating Mum last Monday, we told her via telephone translation with Win, that we’d like to take the family to eat pizza, and a date was set for Saturday.  Today we ate pizza together.  Samantha joined us for translation with her sister, her daughter and her niece, so with the family and my housemate and I, we made up a table of ten at The Pizza Company.  Mum came with her three youngest children, the oldest son who is 16yo and did not appear in the video, was in school today.  Upon arrival the children (sons 13yo and 7yo and 15mo baby sister) were initially shy.  When we told them we’d seen them on the television screen they relaxed and soon enough we were bombarded with smiling, playful, happy children who beamed thank yous at us from the motorbike of five people as they drove away, pizza digesting in stomachs and boxed leftover pizza hanging from the crook of a small boy’s elbow.

During lunch we learned a few things.  All three brothers are engaged in school at an NGO involved with vulnerable children.  They like school and they like their teachers.  They are not learning English but they wanted us to know they can say “what is your name” and “my name is”, which we practiced together.  As lunch drew to an end the two boys put their hands together in sampeah gesture and said clearly “thank you”!  Mum broke her ankle in a moto accident two years ago, whilst pregnant with her now-1yo daughter.  She walked on the broken bone for over 1.5 years before finally seeing a doctor.  To be poor in a country where the health care system is user-pays, keeping a significant portion of the already-impoverished population in debt, unregulated, under resourced and of variable quality, means that when you have a health problem, you avoid seeking health care until often it is too late.  She has since had an internal fixation of the bone, but it was probably performed far too late after a lot more damage had likely been done.  She walks with a limp and does not sleep well at night due to ongoing pain.  Doctors have told her she should not walk on it but her only income generation comes from pulling her cart of food for sale through the streets.  Her next appointment with the orthopaedic surgeon at a hospital for the poor, is later this week and we have arranged for Samantha to attend with her so that my MD housemate/colleague can get some more detail and find out if she’s receiving quality care.

We arrived home just before a tropical downpour, at the same time as my telephone rang.  The nephew of my Kampong Cham friend’s so-called “tycoon” introduced himself in perfect English and asked me if I knew how he could contact the family?  Yes I did!  I gave him the family’s telephone number and we spoke for a while about today’s pizza outing.  When he heard me speak a few words of Khmer he broke into Khmer, immediately referring to me as Bong!  We said farewell before he called me back to say that tomorrow he will visit the family with the money from his aunt.  This wont solve the problem of this mother’s badly injured ankle or her poverty.  But it will relieve some of her stress.  And for today at least, she and her children know that they matter in this world.

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A first they thought would never happen: eating pizza

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Hijinx in the restaurant car park with baby sister

Miracles, Swallows and Amazons

Just over two years ago, during a boat cruise on Lake Windermere in north-west England, a small island in the lake captured my imagination when the guide described it as the place which had inspired Arthur Ransome’s children’s adventure series, Swallows and Amazons.  Tonight at a hotel in Siem Reap I turned on the television and correctly guessed the film as Swallows and Amazons, based on the English accents and unmistakable scenery.

Yesterday I woke with abdominal cramps and diarrhoea and had to call in sick.  Bed bound with frequent rushes to the toilet, by mid-morning something had taken its hold on me and I wasn’t sure whether to sit on or put my head inside the toilet bowl.  Either option was only a 50% solution.  Shivering cold and feeling like I might faint at any moment, I dragged myself into the main part of our apartment to let a Khmer colleague, working in the kitchen, know that things were not going well for me.  She followed me to my bed and as I flopped face down she said “Oh you have a lot of rain”.  Peering through one half-opened eye at her, I asked “rain?” and she motioned towards my head.  Sweat was raining off me!  She then suggested she should call the doctor.  Unable to imagine how anyone would get me off my bed let alone out of the apartment and into a tuk tuk to hospital, I replied “I have to stay here”.

I asked for a vomit bowl and she returned hastily, rubbing my back as I heaved spasms of clear water into the bowl.  The force of heaving caused a panicked rush to the toilet, with my colleague leading the way, holding the vomit bowl at my chin before passing it to me and leaving me to my devices.  Flopping back on my bed, she returned with a small pot of tiger balm which she proceeded to rub all over my abdomen.  Amazingly, it did help the nausea and drooping consciousness.

Within about half an hour whatever it was had expelled itself from my system so I must have looked fraudulent, propped up on pillows sipping water, when my housemate rushed through the door, stethoscope and thermometer in hand, on her emergency rescue mission!

Plans to travel to Siem Reap for a long weekend were not easily cancelled so I monitored myself all afternoon and determined by mid-evening that I would be safe to travel.  After a quick tuk tuk ride to the bus station I was horizontal on the cushioned floor of my own roomette on the Night Bus.  Eight hours of mostly-sleep later, we were pulling into Siem Reap.

International Children’s Day is a public holiday in Cambodia and I’d promised a lunch time swim at the hotel for Rav and Seth’s families.  Four very excited small boys arrived with two babies and four parents in tow.  The boutique hotel likely didn’t know what had hit them but we all need to be taken out of our comfort zones from time to time and a splashingly fun time was had as staff looked on wide-eyed at the commotion.  Tonight Seth, whose English is entirely self-taught, wrote:
Hello Helen how are for today now you get for dinner , and my family thank you also and very very happy swim and for lunch time, this is my first time for my family to swim pool thank you so much for today
It’s hard to imagine living in a resort town such as Siem Reap which must have hundreds of swimming pools at it’s hundreds of luxury and middle-range hotels and hostels, and never having been in a swimming pool.

The two hours-or-so of lunchtime excitement saw me nana napping this afternoon when my telephone woke me.  A Khmer friend in Kampong Cham who never calls, had also sent a private message on Messenger.  I clicked on the 12 minute video he shared to me, watching a small boy speak in Khmer to the camera with English subtitles, describing his dream to go to school and help his mother and younger siblings. Instead, he is forced to spend days and nights selling ripped banana sugar, ripped potato sugar and dry freshwater clams from a hand pulled cart in the streets, in order that the family can keep a roof over their heads.  At the end of the video I learned that he lives and works within a five minute walk of my workplace.  Not knowing this, the Kampong Cham friend had contact with what he called “a tycoon” in Kampong Cham who watched and was moved by the video, wanting to help the family.  My friend called me in hope I might be able to help locate the family.  As it turns out, I probably can!

So on International Children’s Day I reflect on my own childhood summers, spending hours everyday in New Zealand’s public swimming pools or crystal clear rivers and beaches.  Unaware of my childhood fortunes, I transitioned into an equally oblivious adulthood of visiting or living in places that most people may never even know exist but which I can frequently recognise on the privileged television channels I get to watch.  In comparison, two families splashed today in a pretty blue swimming pool for the first time in all of their lives.  Meanwhile a distressed family in Phnom Penh may be about to have a new lease on life thanks to an uncanny series of connections.

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