Christmas Now and When

One of my favourite sanctuaries in Phnom Penh is a restaurant with a secluded garden terrace on a corner.  I first came here in January 2014 with Mum and Ruth, attracted by the leafy entrance as we wandered past one evening.  Today a noisy construction site on the opposite corner destroys the ambience somewhat.  I have just spent about 15 hours of my weekend on this terrace, blocking out the incessant construction noise with headphones.  This interrupted my attempts to study as You Tube took me on a journey of music and comedy shows, sabotaging my already-limited concentration span.

As I sit here preparing to leave, darkness has fallen and the construction noise has been replaced with Christmas music matching to the red and white elf hats all the restaurant staff are wearing.

As is so often the case here, the construction site doubles as temporary accommodation for workers who sleep on the cement shelves of the slowly materialising building.  Corrugated iron slides across to form a fence at night, closing the workers in for their night’s sleep in the open air a few levels up.  A number of similar construction sites exist near my home and it’s not unusual to get a sneak peak of someone washing themselves with a hose behind the fence, or for children living on the site with parents to run excitedly over rubble mounds to the entrance shouting “hello” as you walk past.  If you know they are there, you can see workers behind canvas sheets or blankets hanging as a wall, sitting in a circle in the dark.  About eight young and gorgeous people, a mixture of men and women, just emerged from behind that iron fence, showered and heading off to dinner, at a guess.

Win joined me for a chat this afternoon and while he was here a blind beggar being led by a checked scarf tied around his waist and pulled by a young boy approached the corner entrance where we were sitting.  Win invited the young boy in so I could give a small offering of riel but he was stopped by the security guard who passed the money to him on my behalf.  The division of rich and poor is explicit and legitimised here and I am a part of it.

With Christmas Eve upon us, this has been my least Christmas-like season ever, despite occasional elf hats, carols or trees interrupting what has otherwise seemed like everyday normality.  I like it!  I may yet not escape it however, as the Europeans working with me appear hell-bent on celebrating it despite their opportunity to completely avoid it!

This got me to thinking about what Christmas should mean to us, a message that seems to me to have become lost in the asphyxiating consumerism of modern culture.  I think this short sentence says it all.  Tomorrow I’ll look for a way to put it into action, as my one acknowledgement of the fact that it’s Christmas.

Opportunity for Kindness

An Arabian Night

This week I was invited to a Cham wedding through an American connection I made when we took Paula to her surgery.  Despite learning a lot about Cham people in recent years, they still seem foreign and exotic to my western eyes and last night’s wedding did nothing to expel this notion.

Our arrival at the right hotel was confirmed by the vision of an archway adorned with white bougainvillea, underneath which a couple wearing golden clothes borrowed from the pages of an Arabian fairy tale were posing for many photographers.  My American friend met me at the hotel gate, dressed in satin turquoise from head to toe – a hijab fitted tightly to her scalp, a skirted paplum bodice bouncing out from her waist and fitted skirt flowing over her toes so that she appeared as an exquisite floating angel.  She guided me to the bride and groom to pose for an entrance photograph before parading along patches of cellotaped red carpet, past rows of family members reverently welcoming us inside.  Her five or six sisters and their mother were all dressed in matching attire, identifying them as part of the official wedding party.

Dozens of round dinner tables were arranged either side of a central passage of bougainvillea-garnished arches leading from the door to the stage where two gilded thrones waited underneath a multi coloured fluorescent light.  I was seated at a table beside a Cham woman who spoke some English and welcomed me warmly, teaching me to say As-Salaam-Alikum and it’s meaning, peace be upon you.  The other table guests were less inclined to speak English with me but seemed to understand some of what I said and even replied in English a few times.  When I asked was the soup fish (“trey?”), the man beside me struggled to find the English word before replying in Khmer that it was “k’dam” (crab).  I nodded in understanding, causing a domino of laughter around the table.  I was unable to explain that the reason I understood such a random word, is the hours I have spent at Phsar K’dam (Crab Market) in the seaside resort of Kep. At our table alone, the ten people wore a rainbow of Islamic colour – combinations of green, gold, pink, blue.

Platters of delicious food flowed to the table in a succession of multi courses of salad, seafood, rice, chicken, soup and a dessert of lotus seeds floating in a sugary syrup.  I kept thinking of the Cham people on their shabby wooden boats floating riverside nearby and wishing those going to bed hungry could experience such an amazing feast.

Mostly Islamic-sounding a capella music played in the background but at one point I found myself enjoying a beautiful rendition of Silent Night which seemed entirely appropriate to the time, culture and occasion.

The aunt and uncle who distributed books to the village children with me in Kampong Cham last month appeared, as did some other American contacts I was not expecting to see.  It’s a small world especially in the Cham community of Cambodia, which carried over today at work when one Cham colleague asked me if he had just seen my photograph on Facebook at a Cham wedding and another informed me her brother was at the same wedding!

As dinner came to an end, the table dispersed and I figured that the hour I had asked TTM to wait for me was probably up, so I made my way to the door.  I placed some money in an envelope with my name and put it in the golden money box, a practice that substitutes wedding gifts here.

Many more introductions were made to various guests asking about the weird foreigner in their midst, and I heard my friend talking about Paula a number of times as her way of explaining how I came to be here.  One woman wrapped from head to toe in golden swirls on black silk, wanted to tell me about a family struggling to understand their genetic heart disease and trying to keep afloat in the debt they have incurred so far, trying to keep their children alive.  We agreed that the user pays system here causes an immense amount of unnecessary suffering and premature death in an already stressed population.  And on that note I bid my farewell, boarded the tuk tuk and drove through the quiet streets of Phnom Penh, past homeless and scavenging people surviving on the dark streets, to my comfortable home.

Touching My Heart

I get off the tuk tuk and the limit of what I can say to Tuk Tuk Madame (TTM) translates into something like “See you next time.  I don’t know.  Me …. Telephone … You” (including a little sign language just to be on the safe side).  He laughs and I laugh back.  The best medicine connects us courtesy my ridiculous Khmer.

We had just farewelled a family of nine traveling home in a single tuk tuk after a day of swimming together.  Two mothers, a grandmother and six children (including a few ring-ins), heading home to their little tin shack in the dust on the very edge of town.  Two weeks ago I visited to assist with grandma whose health is deteriorating and the family have almost no capacity to access any health care for her (a story which is the norm, not the exception, in these parts).  They invited TTM and I to stay for dinner.  In return I promised the family a day out to a swimming pool playground, causing great excitement.

A small hotplate sat on the slightly elevated, partly rotting wooden floorboards, wide gaps and the occasional rotted void peering to the stone and weeds about a metre below us.  With a couple of pots and a few bowls the two sisters cooked rice, fried chicken, prepared salad and sliced fruit from crouched positions on the floorboards as children played around them and husbands came and went.  Above us I observed holes in the roof and with hesitant laughter they described the experience of waking to rain drops landing on heads and needing to squeeze into a particular corner of the room for shelter during rainfall.  Mosquitoes flew in and around, disappearing conveniently when hands attempted to clap them dead.  We sat cross legged on the floor sharing a delicious meal before TTM and I headed back out into the dust for the hour-long journey across town.


The young woman in this photograph makes sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf to sell at the market, to supplement her husband’s small wage.  Yesterday en route to the pool I informed her that I will be leaving Cambodia in February.  When she asked why, I replied that my job was finishing and I have no other job for now.  Without hesitation she said “you can sell rice cake with me!  We can share – I can cook and you can help me to sell.  But oh, hard work and not easy money”.  How much do you earn in one day?  “Maybe if I sell a lot, can get $5.  But must buy rice and everything to make more.  But you can share me, maybe $1.50 per day?”.

Her offer was serious and genuine.  My reaction, which I hope I successfully suppressed, was equally so!  Yet I felt honoured that someone with nothing was willing to share her nothing with me.  She spoke in one sentence, what I have spent many years slowly learning: that the poor and most marginalised have the most to give – warm hearts, generous spirits, humility and compassion.

I Was Here

MUCH has been happening here and I will blog about some of it when I can find the time.  Meanwhile this powerful and beautiful song is worth a share.  Especially the message at the end of the video.

World Humanitarian Day
One day, one message, one goal.

To inspire people all over the world
To do something good, no matter
How big or small, for someone else.

“I Was Here” performed on World Humanitarian Day 19 August 2012

I wanna leave my footprints on the sands of time
Know there was something that, meant something that, I left behind
When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets
Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget!

I was here!
I lived, I loved
I was here!
I did, I’ve done
Everything that I wanted and it was more than I thought it would be.
I will leave my mark so everyone will know
I was here

I wanna say I lived each day until I die
And know that I meant something, in somebody’s life
The hearts that I’ve touched will be the proof that I leave
That I made a difference!
And this world will see!

I was here!
I lived, I loved
I was here!
I did, I’ve done
Everything that I wanted and it was more than I thought it would be.
I will leave my mark so everyone will know
I was here!
I lived!  I loved!
I was here!
I did!  I’ve done!
Everything that I wanted and it was more than I thought it would be!
I will leave my mark so everyone will know!
I was here!

I just want them to know
That I gave my all, did my best, brought someone some happiness,
Left this world a little better just because
I was here…

I was here!
I lived, I loved
I was here!
I did, I’ve done
Everything that I wanted and it was more than I thought it would be.
I will leave my mark so everyone will know
I was here!
I lived!  I loved!
I was here!
I did!  I’ve done!
I was here!………….

What will you do?

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.