Every Time I Go On A Plane

Kung Future is a tiny NGO working in Phnom Penh off the smell of an oily rag, with landless Cham people who live on their boats at the conflux of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.  This week Kung Future reported the death of a two year old boy who fell off the boat he was living on and disappeared, despite the efforts of many who tried to find him by diving into the muddy waters.  His body was found some days later.  Kung Future do a lot of work in this community including organising birth certificates for children who would otherwise officially not exist; enrolling children whose parents cannot pay the fees, to school; some health care support when possible.  They also provide upkeep for boats in disrepair, which often leaves families with no choice but to try and fill holes with whatever they can find, even rolled up paper!  The community’s needs are high and the resources to meet their needs are extremely limited.

Cham fisherman painting his newly repaired boat, courtesy Kung Future

Meanwhile back in Australia, I feel a world away from all that.  The Project is a current affairs entertainment show airing here on weekday evenings.  One night recently, musing on a news item related to our national airline Qantas, one of the commentators said “every time I go on a plane…” as if it was the most ordinary statement, along the lines of “every time I eat breakfast…”.  As ordinary as they may have seemed to most Australians, these words revealed the extreme privilege that simply being born in Australia bestows upon us.  Our privilege is so normalised to us that we don’t see it.  Not every Australian can speak so casually about plane travel, but every Australian can hear it with a feeling of mundanity.  In contrast, I have lost count of how many seemingly worldly Cambodians have asked me with genuine fascination, about flying on an aeroplane, or how many countries I have visited.

Almost daily someone currently asks me if I find it difficult to settle back in at home.  The biggest impression I have on my return is our normalised privilege.  I don’t struggle with it at all; I am merely returning to my own normal life.  However I do have a very heightened awareness of it after moving rapidly (in the space of a 10+ hour flight), from a place where survival and limiting hunger are the focus for a large proportion of the population, to a place where liberty and comfort are central to our reality.  My friends and family here are securely employed, living in homes with solid roofs, paying off affordable and regulated mortgages, driving safely maintained cars, with opportunities to travel and the right to hold political opinions without fear.  My friends in Cambodia have between none and a few of those things, on a much smaller scale and in a suffocating economy where poverty is a highly visible feature of everyday life.

Something else many people ask me is why I would choose to follow my plans to return to Cambodia rather than stay in Australia.  A Cambodian friend suggested that maybe I don’t really love myself, that I would choose to live there rather than be among the comforts of my first world existence.  Friends in Australia frequently suggest I need to focus on settling down / building a nest egg for the future.  To the contrary, these quotes speak the most to me:

~ Jim Carrey

In The powerful way that normalisation shapes our world, Jessica Brown comments that “our grasp of normal is an entanglement of objective and subjective, moral and social judgements, prone to changing for the better and for the worse“.  She highlights the complex nature of normalisation, in that it can easily change (eg the normalisation of various previously unacceptable behaviours during the era of Trump) but can also be very fixed (eg ideas on female beauty).  It is an intricate phenomenon that most of us probably never really think about.  The reason I think about it is because what seems normal when I am living in Cambodia, is very different to what seems normal when I am living in Australia and these differences are particularly heightened for me now, as I settle back into a six month stay in Australia.

As one of many examples, I am staying with friends at the moment, who due to some veterinary visits, have spent more on their pet dogs in the last two weeks than most Cambodians can spend on themselves in a year.  These friends are living well, but they are not wealthy by Australian standards.  Yet to my adjusting brain, sharing their lifestyle for this short time highlights how extremely privileged we in Australia are, with very little recognition of the fact because it is merely normal to us.  It gives me some context to refer to, when trying to understand the complex nature of my relationship with impoverished villagers in Cambodia, who see me as infinitely wealthy.  My existence is beyond their normality, for the sole reason that I have enough money to appear in, and disappear from their lives, seemingly at whim.  Most of these are people who have never traveled away from their own village.

Before leaving Cambodia I wanted to visit Boat Baby, who I “caught” when he was born on the small wooden boat over the Mekong Delta in August.  About six weeks ago now, I spent a weekend in Kampong Cham, visiting various people with Dan (tuk tuk driver), to say farewell.  Boat Baby lives in the village next to the blind family who I have often talked about, so we added him to our itinerary in that direction and picked up an extra bag of rice for his family.  Five months old, he was swinging in a hammock inside the family’s elevated bamboo shack as we arrived.  He appeared to be asleep and I tried to stop grandma from waking him, as she bent to pick him up.  As she did so, I realised he was awake, but with semi-closed eyes.  A short conversation with Dan ensued, who then turned to me and with a tone of surprise said “Helen he is blind”.

Yet another vision impaired person in the same village?  Can this really be just coincidence?  My thoughts keep reverting to the knowledge that this area was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange in the 1960s.  We will never know because this is not a place where researchers will spend money or time investigating, and even the American veterans exposed to Agent Orange, still reporting high rates of disability in their offspring, have had limited recognition.  There is almost nothing written about it, but according to this article from 2008:,

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.

I was predictably horrified at the news and wanted to help.  His grandmother was forced into the jungle in this area during the Vietnam War and remembers living as a soldier alongside the country’s Prime Minister, who also comes from this region.  When I asked via Dan, does she know if they sprayed Agent Orange in the area, I understood her swift answer immediately – a very normalised “yes”.

The family had returned days prior from Phnom Penh, where doctors had already advised them to go to the paediatric hospital in Siem Reap where surgery may help.  Having just traveled to Phnom Penh, they did not have any money for this and would have to wait.  I gave them US$200 for the purpose of having him seen immediately but they could not leave now due to harvest commitments.  Last week they finally took him to the hospital, a day-long bus trip, and were given a planned appointment for the end of this month.

My communications with Dan following this trip to Siem Reap not only saddened me but also highlighted the complexities of relationships such as mine with this family.  A return bus trip and 1 or 2 days’ stay in Siem Reap would have cost a tiny portion of the $200 I had given them.  So I was confused by their request via Dan, for more money to attend the next appointment.  Dan never says anything bad about anyone, yet his reply to me when I asked why they needed more money already, implied that they had spent the money on other things assuming my money was free flowing, and that “everything not good” (ie he is unhappy with them).

Obviously I won’t continue to support the family in these circumstances.  Which means the baby will either not receive any treatment for his congenital blindness, or his family will have to go into debt for the purpose.  Health care debt is a normality in Cambodia where all health care works on a user-pays system.  Poor families may receive discounted or waivers if they can produce a “Poor ID” card, however these cards are notoriously provided by village leaders to their own family, leaving the poorest in communities with no evidence that they need support.

In my world, people do the wrong thing all the time but they don’t have to pay for it with their health, the health of their children, or as is so often the case in Cambodia and other poor places, their lives.  I feel very disheartened by this little boy’s circumstances and his family’s inability to understand the risk they took by making assumptions about my perceived wealth and perhaps my perceived obligation to him.  Finding a balance in this situation is going to take some time, patience and soul searching.


Boat Baby at home with Mum and Grandma

World Wealth Distribution

From Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank

Anyone interested in where they fit into this scale of global wealth can enter their basic information into the calculator at GivingWhatWeCan.org.  Despite my exposure to poverty which I think is probably more than most Australians, my hunch about my own wealth was completely wrong and I am far wealthier than I would have thought.  That’ll be normalisation playing games in my head!


This Week’s First World Problem

Near one of my work locations a 3 year old girl sits in grandad’s tuk tuk with him everyday for the six hours that grandma spends at work as a cleaner.  It is a busy road and I have always joked that I think this is the road where I will die.  Phnom Penh’s footpaths are crowded with parked vehicles and shop stalls so pedestrians become a part of the mix in the traffic chaos.  Standing aside to let bigger vehicles pass by and brushing up against moto drivers is normal.

I always stop at the parked tuk tuk to say hello to my little friend as I walk  past.  The other day with my phone and some cash in a small clutch purse, I said farewell to her at the tuk tuk.  She has taken to kissing me goodbye on the cheek.  As we said goodbye I laughingly turned away from her as a moto driver no more than about 20yo came towards me on the wrong side of the road. This was not unusual until he brushed his hand along my arm.  With barely enough time to wonder why he was touching me, he gently took the wallet from my hand and accelerated across the road.

Opportunistic muggings are the most common type of robbery in Cambodia, with teams on motorbikes working together to snatch and grab items.  One of our cleaners recently came off her motorbike when a team of young men pulled her bag, sending her crashing to the ground.  She broke a leg, a bone in her shoulder and lost a tooth.  This is not an uncommon outcome of bag snatching.  So I consider myself beyond lucky to have experienced such a gentle robbery.

Not knowing any of the right words to shout, I stood speechlessly pointing at him in the distance, collected my thoughts in time to read his license plate number and ran to work for English speaking help.  When two colleagues and I returned to ask for grandad’s tuk tuk service to the police station, my little friend was furrow-browed and worried.  I imagine it was not the first time she’s seen the seedier side of life, nor will it be the last, despite her own family being perfectly respectable.  A side effect of being born into poverty, is that you’re not protected from the outside world the way we are when we live in comfort.

Grandad drove us to the nearest police station.  A house converted to an office, with a few people in the yard who told us they were not responsible for robberies and we should go to a second station to make our report.  The second station referred us to a third.  I was surprised to learn that I pass by these police stations regularly and had never noticed them.  Their blue signage is in Khmer and there are almost no police vehicles in Phnom Penh, certainly not at the stations, despite a presence of heavily armed military police, particularly near the Prime Minister’s home and office buildings.  Still lunchtime, a lone bare-chested staff member sat on a plastic chair in the austere concrete floored garage, watching television.  My colleagues informed him of why we were there and he pointed to a telephone number on the wall.

A short telephone conversation ensued and within about five minutes the responsible person arrived on a private moto, in khaki clothes.  He found the right forms and completed them in Khmer based on what my colleagues and then the tuk tuk driver, visibly uncomfortable inside a police station, informed him on my behalf.  The plate number I had memorised was incomplete so he did not write it down at all.  There were no computers in any of the stations we visited which were furnished with old wooden desks, hammocks slung between posts and layers of dust.  I got a clear impression that no investigation would be carried out.  The form was signed with my thumb in red ink.  At least a copy is available for insurance purposes, perhaps the only real use of reporting it to the police?

Friends have nearly all since told me that often thieves and police work together, with police taking a cut of any spoils in exchange for impunity.  The police know who their local thieves are and everyone has suggested that my mugger had probably followed me for a while, getting to know my routine so that he could know when to pounce.  This seems likely given that he happened past me just as I was walking away from my little tuk tuk friend after lunch – a daily routine.  It also probably suggests he is local to the area which doesn’t help me as I walk the streets now, and I need to stop obsessing with finding him vigilante-style!

Reading what I can about the police in Cambodia, I have learned that, as with all government staff, police are some of the country’s lowest paid workers.  The salary of government staff, be it doctors, teachers, administration or cleaners, is not enough to live on, meaning that people are forced to supplement their incomes.  Positions are sold to the best candidates, and the money trickles up through the ranks systematically.  The benefit of government work is that once you have a position, it is lifelong and includes a small pension beyond retirement, which is unavailable to most.  For doctors this means that all medical care is user-pays, with fees for every test, investigation and treatment openly displayed on hospital walls.  For nurses it means that patients wanting any intervention, prescribed or otherwise, will have better luck if some small amount of cash exchanges hands.  Most doctors and nurses also have their own private practices or pharmacy dispensaries, where they work afternoons unless allocated “on duty” at their government job.  In the police force, supplemental income is available through fees for writing reports or, as everyone openly states, collaborating with petty criminals.  There was no mention of paying this guy any fee for writing my report.

Today my Facebook wall includes stories from a friend who is visiting Copenhagen from Australia; another in Oslo from London; another on Lake Titicaca from Australia; my cousin who was recently in Cambodia from Australia; a friend who traveled via Cambodia for a few days en route to Myanmar; another friend who has been at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne; and the list of travels and fun seems endless.  All of them are hard working, ordinary people.

Those hard working, ordinary people from the rich world enjoying everything that life has to offer, are not any different from my hard working, ordinary friends and colleagues in Cambodia.  The single difference is that one group were born in a strong economy with functioning institutions, while the other group exist in a micro, trickle-up economy.  When survival is your main focus, being forced to work inside a corrupt system victimises people as much as being a customer of corruption.  A friend once told me “I don’t like it when the People From The Sky accuse my country of corruption and point to me like it is my fault.  I am not the corruption.  I am the victim of the corruption and if I can fix it then why can’t the People From The Sky, who know so much, fix it?”.  His frustration was palpable and I could not agree more with the sentiment.

To quote Michael Wunsch in his January 2017 article, The Significance of First World Problems, privileges of those of us in the rich world include well-paying jobs, functioning institutions, access to education, freedom of speech and seven types of chocolate ice cream in stores.  Part of being someone with these privileges must surely include fighting to keep them for ourselves; and fighting for those who don’t have the same privileges.

These thoughts remind me of the Australian government’s collusion with the Cambodian regime in 2014, when a $55 million agreement was negotiated in secret for the relocation of refugees detained on Nauru, to Cambodia.  (The Cambodia Agreement).  A monumental failure for everyone but the Cambodian authorities, three or four refugees have so far made their way to Cambodia under the agreement.  Only one remains here which comes as no surprise given the nation’s incapacity to look after their own, let alone vulnerable people from elsewhere.  Are our two governments so different?  One is perhaps doing what the other would do if they could find a way to break down our established and functioning systems, enough?

An Epidemic The World Needs

Einstein on Empathy~ quoted in Born to Love

As an expat living in Phnom Penh it is perfectly easy to ignore the poverty that the people surrounding you are immersed in.  Two nights ago I walked through a crowded Night Market making my way towards colleagues at a Sky Bar above the market.  A detached bystander weaving through the throngs, I declined the advances of a few beggars and sellers.  With a jolt of surprise at the mass of squirming fish in shallow metal bowls, drowning on a sea of bitumen, I took a sharp turn into a dark alleyway.  Did the man saying “Hello” to me from a plastic chair near the entrance even know there was a bar upstairs?  Was he guarding the entrance to ensure only a select few with the right profile were entering or was he merely sitting in his usual spot watching the world go by?

At the top of the stairs I approached the bar and ordered a $5 glass of wine.  That’s more than most traders working into the night two storeys below us could hope to make in a day.  But they were out of sight now.  From the open air verandah you look out across the single-storey, multi-coloured, rusted tin sheets crammed ruggedly together to form a patchwork roof over the block-sized marketplace, to scattered high rise apartment blocks beyond.  Looking across poverty to prosperity; across the foreign to the familiar.

The open air bar was crammed with people all enjoying our affluence, who had all entered via the Night Market below.  Every one of us knew we were two storeys above a mass of bustling traders existing in a micro-economy but it seemed no obstacle to our indulgence.  My national colleagues’ reference to “People From The Sky” seemed a pertinent phrase from this elevated position.  [Some of my Khmer friends talk about “the people from the sky”, who fly in, dominate with an air of superiority for their chosen amount of time, then fly out again].

A housemate once told me when I was studying indigenous health and planning to move to Alice Springs to work, that “you are enjoying indigenous health now but once you work with them you’ll soon change your mind”.  His comments proved to be very wrong, but they reflected an attitude I have encountered for more than 20 years now, that indigenous people deserve their disadvantage through their own individual choices.  So it comes as no surprise to learn that in Cambodia, some who prosper also malign the impoverished as deserving of their plight and undeserving of support or empathy.  This belief evades recognition that systems and institutions will favour some while excluding and even repressing others, based on factors that are often beyond an individual’s control.  Perhaps the issue is too abstract when black-and-white thinking is a much easier way for us to comprehend the world’s complexities.

Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and Maia Szalavitz, a journalist, describe this phenomenon well in their book Born For Love.  Expressly, from the book’s introduction, “There’s been a recent explosion of scientific research ….. that show how empathy and the caring it enables are an essential part of human health …..  Empathy remains both intensely important and widely misunderstood ….. Though Americans especially like to proclaim independence, our health, creativity, productivity, and humanity emerge from our interdependence ….. The <ability to empathise> helped us become one of the most successful species on earth.  We survive because <we can empathise> …..  This book is about why we need an empathy epidemic.  Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work – like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity.  Failure to empathise is a key part of most social problems – crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few ….. By understanding and increasing just this one capacity of the human brain, an enormous amount of social change can be fostered.  Failure to understand and cultivate empathy, however, could lead to a society in which no one would want to live – a cold, violent, chaotic and terrifying war of all against all.  This destructive type of culture has appeared repeatedly in various times and places in human history and still reigns in some parts of the world.  And it’s a culture that we could be inadvertently developing throughout America if we do not address current trends in child rearing, education, economic inequality, and our core values“.

My personal theory is that the evolution of financial comfort triggers a risk of losing our ability to understand the complex reasons for poverty and disadvantage, as they become remote and therefore less important, to our personal experience.  We have also twisted our definition of what success actually means, with an exaggerated fixation on financial factors.  This is often accompanied by a focus on highly superficial concerns such as the suburb where you live, the type of car you drive, how many countries you’ve traveled to, or which university you studied at.  The quote above from Born To Love brings us back to the reality, that success is actually determined by our ability to relate to and care for each other.  As a society, we seem to have forgotten this!

It’s Not About Angels

Recently I discovered Birdy, an English folk musician with the most unique and dreamy voice.  Assisted by Birdy, the dulcet harmonies of Ed Sheeran, a good book and good friends, I enjoyed a week off with neighbours from Australia at Siem Reap and Battambang.  I must have listened to Birdy’s Not About Angels a thousand times in the past week and I am still listening to it obsessively.

My Siem Reap highlight was the opportunity to bring Rav with his two sons and their two cousins, to swim and play with my friends’ son, 10yo Dylan, at our hotel.  Dylan is having a very adult holiday with his parents and I, so the chance to hang out with other boys was welcomed.  Rav’s sons have been in English school for two years now, so there was a tiny bit of shared language, but it doesn’t matter where children are concerned as play is always a common language, especially when water is involved.

Kids 001 cropped

A swim, some food, and an Australian toy to play with – fun in any language.

It was my third time making the boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang, across the top end of the immense inland lake known as the Tonlé Sap and up the winding, narrow Sangker River.  Only able to travel on the Sangker during the wet season when there is enough water, when Caz and I did this trip in February we had to disembark the wooden boat when it could finally no longer be pushed off the sand bed another time.  Along with dozens of other mostly foreign passengers we climbed the river bank and packed into the back of two pick up trucks for a 1+ hour journey through alluvial crops across the floodplains.

Last week the river was high enough that the same blue painted wooden boat could pass through floating villages from the mouth of the river, and as the river narrowed, past riverside villages.  Many if not most homes in this area are made from nothing but scraps of any material the residents have been able to scavenge so that those not living on their small canoe-sized boats are under tarpaulins attached to shabby frames of wood and bamboo.  These are the poorest of the poor.

As the boat burns it’s way across the Tonlé Sap, it’s impossible not to be awestruck at the magnitude of this inland sea.  Sun rays strike the water’s surface turning the lake into an immense sparkling diamond, barely another boat in sight despite the thousands out there.  At the mouth of the Sangker the boat pushes through dense growth of bright green sponge-leafed water hyacinth before reaching the first of many villages floating in the waters that fall and rise with the seasons.

Our boat picks up speed, generating a ripple of waves towards the embankment where I notice a gaggle of children in charge of a small boat bobbing up and down in the undulating swell.  One holds onto the nose of the see-sawing boat, another jumps off the edge into a soaring wave as his friends wave excitedly at the tourists gliding past.  Just behind them a man emerges from the water onto dry land, a cane basket filled with fish positioned on one shoulder.  I realise that the man at the bow of our boat is not another passenger, but working with the driver, waving him around fishing nets buoyed by plastic water bottles and checking for traffic at each bend in the river.  Occasionally a head and some shoulders emerge from beside a moored fishing boat.  A tiny boy lurches from a swing rope fastened to a tree branch, out across the water and back again, afraid to let go despite goading from his friends waiting their turn at the river’s edge.

Farmers plough land which we assume was probably submerged recently and new crops peek demurely from under alluvial soils.  Men swim and fish, sometimes at the same time.  At a wooden pier a woman in a yellow sarong washes a naked toddler who waves excitedly at our boat, taught by older groups of children who shout frantically as they dive into the water, showing off their moves to the foreigners.  I lose count of how many quite tiny children deftly manouever the boats in their charge.  Willow trees droop over short but steep waterfronts and I realise the impression of hundreds of sleeping birds hanging from their branches, are actually plastic bags, snared as they floated past during the recent torrents.  An old lady crouches on the edge of a tiny boat washing herself in the brown water from under the modesty of her sarong.  Three canoe sized wooden boats are pinned to each other by a single bamboo platform across their surface, forming a ferry upon which people sit on their motorbikes, being transported from one side of the river to the other.

A few days later at the bus station a small girl in a red pinafore dress smiles bashfully at Dylan as we decide that despite being significantly smaller than him, she is probably a similar age.  A station employee brings three plastic chairs for the three adults to sit on.  Dylan stays standing, smiling back at Red Pinafore who stands up and walks away.  A few moments later she reappears from around a corner with a fourth chair, presenting it to Dylan quickly before running to the safety of her mother for more sheepish ogling at the foreign boy she would like to have as a friend!

In Battambang we had a night out with Phare Ponleu Selpak, a youth circus of extraordinary talent who entertained us with their comedic acrobats which are as good as any international standard troupe I’ve seen, only on a smaller stage with a smaller budget.  Meaning “Brightness of the Arts”, Phare Ponleu Selpak began in 1986 at a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border with nine children as a way to help them express the trauma of war.  In Battambang since 1994, the association now provides education, arts training and social support to over 1,000 disadvantaged youth.  Any visit to Battambang should include a visit to this circus, for your own sake as well as to support a very worthwhile cause.

Ciet 007

The Cambodian tradition of teamwork in action at Phare Ponleu Selpak

As Birdy croons at me that it’s Not About Angels, I think of little Dara in Kampong Cham telling his mother that he saw angels at the Night Market with me in 2015.  As this was translated to me I struggled to imagine what he was talking about, until I remembered that we had seen an Apsara performance.  Apsaras are celestial spirits in Buddhist and Hindu mythology, featuring strongly in stone carvings at ancient temples across Cambodia (most famously on the walls of Angkor Wat).  I have since had the privilege to learn a little about Khmer classical dance and that while used as a general term to describe this dance style, Apsara dancers are only one character in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  During the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979, 90% of Cambodia’s classical artists were killed.  From 1979 the tradition was resurrected, beginning in the Thai-border refugee camps with the few surviving dancers.  Once more a proud tradition, you can see dance performances at various places around Cambodia including but not restricted to, the very talented village youth at Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham, where I took the below photographs.