The Year That Was

As 2015 draws to a close recurrent flashbacks plague me.  It’s a very pleasant affliction.  Six weeks back at work and I remain well and truly in a chilled out frame of mind.  Eventually the memories and mood will fade, but in the meantime I continue to soak up the constant flashes of spontaneous memories from a most amazing year.

Prior to departing Cambodia two months ago I had my hard drive erased and refreshed for $5.  I only remembered to back up documents and photographs, losing all of my emails including a travelogue saved in my draft folder which chronicled the timeline of my travels as they unfolded.  While the memories are fresh I have written them down here, mostly based on the flashbacks I keep having.  They are not in accurate chronological order.

Given my obsession it’s interesting to note that in the year between October 2014 and October 2015, I was actually outside of Cambodia for six months.  The below map gives an idea of the various places I managed to take myself across the globe throughout my year off.  From aeroplanes to trains, buses, cars, tuk tuks, motos, bicycles and on foot, I really did have an adventure, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, which was life changing in many ways.

World Map Aus Centre 02

Even the world’s wealthiest, most capable and most energetic people cannot aspire to do, see or experience everything.  Assuming zero financial obstacles, the world is infinite in places and possibilities for travel and experience.  No matter who you are, time is always a hindrance.  Not just in the linear sense that we are all growing old in the direction of death, but also in relation to the normal interruptions of everyday obligations and needs.  The desire to be near your family and friends, to have a stable place to call home and not live out of a suitcase, are normal human senses that will sooner or later, override desires to travel.  Everyone has commitments requiring us to be in a certain place at a certain time, even if we do not have to turn up for work or family.  Travel has also taught me that no matter where you are or what you are doing, you’re just the same person, the same insignificant dot in the universe.  I love travel but it does not solve problems.  Your imperfections and your difficulties continue to exist no matter where in the world you happen to be.

A few months before I left Australia in October 2013, I met with my accountant to complete my annual tax return.  He told me that “from a purely financial perspective”, my plans to take two years at a combination of half pay and without pay, were unwise.  It crossed my mind that I may be making a mistake.  Returning home broke but memory-laden, I can confirm categorically that no decision should ever be “purely financial” in nature!  I am also – constantly – aware that the fact I can say this places me in a position of utmost privilege which most, surviving day to day, can never consider.

When I began planning my two years away from work I had no idea where I would go.  At one point I thought I would spend a whole year living in New York, at other times I romanced going to so many places that it would have been physically impossible.  I always knew the two years away from home, which seemed endless at the start point, would come to an end and I wanted to make the most of it.  The planning stage was very exciting but I could never have envisaged what lay ahead, in my wildest dreams.  Reality eclipsed all imagination and in fact, “you couldn’t make this stuff up” describes a number of events which unfolded, not least of all the infamous lunch in Provence!  My below random memories are long and probably not particularly interesting unless you were with me, so I’ve tried to break it into compartments, so you can find yourself if you were there.

Returning Home

After my year with MSF I returned to Sydney for a few weeks, entering the Spring Cycle Challenge and MS Sydney to Woollongong charity bike rides.  With my cousin’s trusty bike complete with basket at the handlebars, in which my green backpack was perched, it was hard not to laugh as I pushed my way through the streets of suburban Woollongong to shouts of encouragement singling me out, such as “good on you 4657!!”, allluding to the number plastered across my t-shirt and the apparent lack of vigor in my pedalling!

From Sydney I headed home for  a month with Mum.  We had time in various locations including Christchurch, Akaroa, Kaikoura, Blenheim, Picton, Wellington, New Plymouth, Thames, Coromandel, Whitianga and Napier on a road trip in her little car.  The highlight was definitely the Cambodian fundraiser organised by Rae where I spoke to an audience and we raised over $800 for the children at Phter Koma Children’s Home.

New York Festivities

Flying from Wellington to Sydney to Los Angeles to New York, I discovered Taylor Swift’s new release “Welcome to New York” on the Qantas music channel between Wellington and Sydney!  (You couldn’t make this stuff up!)  Greeted in SoHo by Karen at her fabulous apartment which was to be my home for the next month, we promptly cracked open the wine, adding alcohol to my jet lag as we caught up and made plans with great excitement.  For half of each week I had Karen to hang out with and for half of each week I had her magnificent brick-walled loft-like apartment to myself.  I even blogged from the window-box-adorned bay windows looking out over the cast iron stairwells of neighbouring brick buildings.  After fantasising for years about pretending to be a New York based writer with my own loft apartment, this provided more couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up moments.

Walking the streets of Manhattan, especially SoHo and Greenwich Village, but also Central Park, Downtown, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ground Zero Memorial Museum, The Cloisters, Art Gallery Walking Tours, a family Christmas in New Jersey.  On Boxing Day we drove to the utterly charming and very American town of Lambertville, on the shores of the Delaware River.  Here we strolled through streets of pretty multi-storey homes decorated with lights, wreaths and trees and walked over the bridge from Lambertville NJ, to New Hope Pennsylvania.  We had a night out in Jersey City.  Nights on Broadway and at live comedy in Greenwich Village.  Thank you, Karen!

Cambodia

I returned to Cambodia on the evening of New Years Day, arriving on January 4th and staying for three months.  Many blogs were written during that time.  Trips outside Cambodia for visa extensions included a few days in Kuala Lumpur in February (I think) and a bus trip from Siem Reap, to Poipet where we walked across the Thai border before continuing on to Bangkok, where I spent one night before flying back into Phnom Penh, sometime in August.

England

In anticipation of Hannah’s wedding I flew to London at the end of March via a 6 hour stopover in Kuwait.  This looked like a long and painful wait until a group of Pakistani women awaiting a different flight noticed me.  Without any shared language we wiled away a few hours working out that I in fact, have no husband, that I should come to Pakistan where they have suitors lined up for me, and having Henna designs tattooed on my hands and wrists.

An entertaining visa approval met me at Heathrow Airport before being greeted by Kate in Arrivals.  We headed home along the outer London motorways in her swank sports car which a few weeks later drove us to France.  I stayed for a week in Hampshire, an hour out of London, before deciding that I really wanted to be nearer the city and moved into a YHA hostel at St Pancras on Euston Road.  Directly over the road from St Pancras International Railway Station, my room overlooked the imposing and magnificent St Pancras Renaissance Hotel which I fantasised about every time I so much as glanced in it’s general direction.  Some weeks later Karen informed me she would be staying there and I soon found myself dining in their ritzy restaurant the night before we took the Eurail on our sojourn to Provence!  You couldn’t make this stuff up!

England holds untold memories for me and I fell in love all over again.  After a 12 year hiatus, perhaps the biggest surprise was the unrecognisable skyline of London with so many new and unique skyscrapers.  I stayed in London a number of different times, with a variety of trips from a day to weeks, breaking up my time there.  Twice to Norfolk for days to a week, ten days in The Lakes, a day trip to Paris, a week in Prague, three weeks in France and Spain, five days in Linolnshire, day trips to Kent and West Sussex and various other trips.  The memories still come at me from nowhere of all of these travels.  But London deserves special mention.

Allegedly haunted Mabel’s Tavern became my local where I blogged from when I wasn’t chatting with travelers and/or locals at nearby tables.  I sat in on a murder trial at the Old Bailey court one morning, walked many miles of London’s historic streets alone and with long lost friends.  One lunchtime Lesley and I met my old boss for a leisurely and nostalgic lunch at Leadenhall Market.  I returned to Blackheath and visited my old home overlooking the heath and All Saints Church. Strolled through Greenwich, Regents, St James, Green and Hyde Parks on different days.  Strolled through South Kensington and Chelsea which was home for a year in 2002-03.  Went to the theatre to see Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre, where at interval we stood on the first floor deck overlooking Old Compton Street’s old Tudor style buildings.  Pubs of London were once havens of meat with chips or mash but today they are in competition with each other, serving gourmet meals at sometimes rather hefty prices.  London oozes museums and I touched upon some of them including the mammoth British Museum and a photographic exhibit of Victorian London photographs at the very low key London Metropolitan Archives.

Last there on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral when the girls were very young, I found myself once more in Lesley and David’s beautiful suburban garden, lazing in the sunshine with their daughters, including my god daughter who is now a law graduate with honors, and their boyfriends.  On another day we drove into the countryside of Kent to attend a guided tour of historic rambling old Godington House set in beautiful English gardens.

Oneday I took a train to Hampton Court Palace where actors dressed in Tudor fashions mingle with visitors and put on dance shows and recitals in the palace and throughout the gardens.  Locals visit to picnic on the lawns, boats power past on the river flowing beside the palace, a maze, ponds, herb and flower gardens, an ancient grapevine, Tudor and Georgian architecture, rooms furnished as they would have been during Henry and Elizabeth’s reigns, digital photographs and text fade in and out on a wall in what was once a reception room.  You could spend all day here and still not see everything.  The same can be said for the Tower of London, where I spent hours one sunny day exploring the walled grounds and buildings steeped in historic traditions, tragedies, dramas and mysteries.  Yeoman Warders guard the coveted Crown Jewels and give guided tours while costumed performers enacting scenes from well known historic events.

I traveled the length of England by train and repeated part of the journey by bus when I returned to Norfolk for Hannah’s wedding.  Sue drove me through rural Norfolk.  We sat on the banks of one of The Broads watching boaters traffic past us in a pub garden as though it was a most natural backdrop.  She took me to her father’s old parish church.  We rounded the corner to a shock of yellow tulips drowning the churchyard, hiding tombstones and painting sunshine onto the grass.  Hannah took me to Norwich Castle and through beautiful Norwich Market, while another day Sue and I sat at a marketside pub sipping wine and watching the world go by.  We strolled through ancient Norwich where an eagle with chicks were nested in the spire of the cathedral, underneath which a team of birdwatchers had set up camp with birdcams and telescopic binoculars in the old village gardens.  Hannah got married on one of the Norfolk Broads, on a very English, cold and rainy summer’s day and it was perfect, beautiful and fun.  We drove to Cambridgeshire for a family get together with four generations of the family who I’ve known more than 25 years.  Ron took us out for dinner at an old coach house which once accommodated travelers on the Roman Road between London and Scotland.

I took a train to The Lakes and hired a car for ten days.  With stunning weather, stunning scenery and loaded with history I walked around lake shores including the very remote Lake Buttermere where the YHA is a rambling old stone house on the hillside above the lake.  But also the more accessible, much larger and equally beautiful Lake Windermere.  Beautiful towns of Kendal, Keswick and Ambleside come to mind but there were also many villages, often quite scarey to get to along narrow, stonewall-lined country lanes climbing to magnificent heights up mountains and falling back down dales where ancient stone bridges cross trickling streams with shaggy sheep grazing on green pastures.  At Buttermere I even found the pub I’d predicted I would find, beside a sheep-filled paddock!

Chris picked me up at Brighton Station one morning and we drove to the striking, hilly and historic town of Lewes in East Sussex.  We walked through the castle grounds, pretty parks, ate lunch at an olde worlde pub, then drove through country roads in undulating valleys near the English Channel.  Another day Kate, Allan and I drove to Brighton for the day and walked through The Lanes with it’s many boutique and antique shops, getting soaked in the wind and rain.

I visited Michelle and spent a few hours cycling through neighbouring Lincolnshire villages.  Helen picked me up and drove me to Leicester before dropping me the next day at the train station, where I travelled up to the Lake District.  I met Helen again in Lincoln City a month or two later, where I volunteered with her street performance company on the Magna Carta anniversary celebrations.  Here, my job was to escort parading artists, don a mask and dance in the street when a child performer got stage fright, walk at the back of a parade through the city streets as a metres-long Magna Carta interpretation was carried up to the hilltop castle where it was presented to King John (the actor, not the dead king!).  My rail journey to London from Lincoln included changing stations at a town called Newark, where I found myself dragging my case past a previously unheard of, grandiose and very old castle ruin perched beside the river.

Prague

I stayed in a 100 year old war-era rambling fourth-storey apartment near the Old Quarter of Prague, belonging to a celebrity couple and feeling like it was straight out of a scene from Schindler’s List or The Pianist.  A beautiful and beguiling city separated by the Vltava River with ancient alleyways, hilltop castle and cathedrals, an archaic Jewish Quarter, restaurant lined plazas, bridges, markets, churches.  I loved it and would like to have spent some time exploring beyond the city.

France – The Second Time

My first trip to France was a day trip to Paris to meet up with a Cambodian colleague who was there for the MSF annual general meeting.  We climbed the Eiffel Tower, lunched on a boat restaurant on The Seinne, and took a cruise tour up the length of The Seinne underneath famous bridges and past sights such as The Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral.  I left London at 5-30am and arrived back into St Pancras Station sometime after 10pm the same night.

My second trip to France was a more rural experience.  Kate met me in Folkestone and we drove to the Eurotunnel entrance, passing through Customs and entering the hollow train carriage, designed solely for vehicle transport.  Half an hour later we drove off the train onto a motorway somewhere on the outskirts of Calais!  Driving almost the whole length of France, including around the peripherique of Paris, sighting both Eiffel Tower and Sacre Couer, about ten hours later we landed on Kate’s mother in her rural Dordogne home.  Our journey passed untold hilltop castles and crossed rivers rippling through thick forested valleys, where I half expected to see horsemen in silver armour emerge.

A week in the Dordogne staying with Kate’s family, who have been visiting and living there for years now, was the first of a number of local experiences.  Medi-eval villages such as Brantome, Thiviers and St Jean de Cole with their olde worlde bridges, churches, clock towers, flowing streams, town squares, farmers markets, cottage boutique shops and more.  The French style lunch Menu du jour which we enjoyed in the shadow of Chateau de Jumilhac on one day and under the church bells of St Pierre de Cole on another.  We drove through many country lanes and forests, pulling into villages as the mood suited.  The monumental but almost entirely unfurnished 16th century Chateau de Puyguilhem was an interesting lesson in the difference between French and English heritage.  Unlike England’s National Trust and public estates, many French chateaux sit empty.  This seems to be due to the cost of keeping a large old building maintained and furnished.  It is far more charming to visit a castle that is furnished, but an empty chateau gives the imagination a lot of room to play.

Car filled with French cheese, bread and wine, Kate drove back to England alone and her mother saw me onto the train at Thiviers.  Two hours later I was in Bordeaux which one English friend describes as “one of the most beautiful French cities” and another as “the toilet of France”!  Here I transferred to another train and about three hours later found myself in Toulouse.  My Phter Koma colleague was there to greet me and I spent a fabulous four days in and around Toulouse, having another very local experience.   This included a day cycling through Toulouse city with it’s red stone architecture which shades the city pink, visiting town squares, markets, cathedrals and synagogues through alleyways and along the beautiful river.  A drive to the historic town of Albi, birthplace of Henri Toulouse Lautrec (“the short guy in Moulin Rouge”).  Here we visited the enormous cathedral before entering the equally impressive Musee Toulouse Lautrec, an old palace converted into a gallery dedicated to the works of Toulouse Lautrec and other significant French artists.  Overlooking manicured gardens and the river, across red tiled roofs of the town.

We drove into the Pyrenees to a spa town called Bagnere de Bigorre (don’t ask me to pronounce it!) for a magical two days feeling like I was inside the world of Heidi.  We strolled through a busy open air market place stocking up for an evening at a very generous architect friend’s self-designed-and-built alpine lodge high in the mountains.  We walked uphill and down dale, enjoying the bell-necked cows and goats, stone and timber farmhouses, snowy peaks and blossoming fields undulating around us.  That night the men cooked and poured wine while the women sat at a 12-seater timber dining table being fed, watered and entertained.  Through the glass doors and across the timber deck the famous Pic du Midi topped with snow looked down upon us.  We took the scenic route home, through magnificent mountain peaks, steep passes and villages perched on banks of ice cold turquoise rivers.

Spain

The train from Toulouse in south-west France to Leon in north-west Spain took me via Barcelona railway station.  Every transfer was quick, efficient and simple and another love now, is rail travel in Europe.  The trains reached speeds of 200k/h, dashing past many clifftop castle ruins.  The green pastures of France gave way to dry brown Spanish terrain very quickly before nightfall turned everything to dark shadows.  At 4am I disembarked to the sight of my lovely Spanish friends walking up the platform towards me!  Maria’s family home is in a village on the outskirts of Leon.  A traditional hacienda style enclosed by stone walls with thick wooden farmhouse doors opening into the central courtyard.  We spent a week here together, exploring Leon and beyond.

Leon is famous for the Gothic Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral, where we attended a haunting organ concert. The city has many plazas lined with cafes and tapas bars, various churches and architectural marvels which we spent many hours strolling and exploring.  We also visited a friend in her fourth floor apartment with a rooftop balcony as big as my house, overlooking the tiled roofs of Leon including a church spire with nesting stalks.  We baked in the sun, sipped champagne and ate tapas one very memorable afternoon on this magical rooftop.  Other afternoons we visited the local village bar or sat in our private hacienda.

I learned about El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim’s walk, when we drove to Astorga for the day past many hiking pilgrims.  In Astorga we shared the town square with these pilgrims, watching the church bells chime.  We walked more ancient streets and alleys, explored another towering cathedral and made our way through Antoni Gaudi’s genius Episcopal Palace – one of few buildings he designed outside the region of Catalonia (in and around Barcelona).  Maria taught me about the Maragatos, travelling salesmen with a reputation for hard work, honesty and defending the goods they transported fiercely.  Because of this, the King employed them as tax collectors and money couriers.

A traditional Spanish meal is a progressive dinner called Cocido, made of three or four courses.  In the Maragateria, where the Maragatos lived, this dish has been rearranged and named Cocido Maragato.  The courses are eaten in reverse order, starting with the meat dish, moving to vegetables, chickpeas and then soup.  The reason for this is because they were such hard workers, they began with the highest energy course first, in case they had to rush away mid-meal.  We had a delicious, leisurely Cocido Maragato at a very friendly local restaurant in Astorga.

En route home that afternoon we stopped off at a traditional Maragateria village, Castrillo de los Polvazarez.  This quaint little town has retained most of it’s original form with uneven cobbled streets, stone farmhouses and haciendas with their doorways opening into private courtyards from the street, a market square with fountain and statue and people living much as their ancestors must have generations before them.  I have never felt as though I was really and truly inside Spain, as I did at Castrillo de los Polvazarez, which I never would have found without my local Spanish hosts.

From Leon we took the bus one afternoon to Madrid, a four or five hour very scenic journey south.  From Madrid bus station we wheeled our cases through the city streets to Berta’s family home, a fourth storey apartment where she grew up, in a building where other extended family also have their homes.  On arrival an aunt from upstairs was visiting, she disappeared and returned a few moments later with a plate of tapas for us, which was promptly served up with an afternoon wine.  We then headed out into the evening streets and walked to one of Madrids’ many cobbled plazas to sit at an outdoor cafe and watch the world.  Almost every evening in Madrid we did the same, moving from one plaza to the next depending on who we were meeting, where we’d been during the day and what I hadn’t experienced yet.

By day we also walked streets, exploring town squares (plazas), churches, castles, statues and parks.  Parque del Retiro is Madrid’s version of Hyde Park, with flower gardens, statue-lined avenues, boulevards filled with walkers, runners, skaters, cyclists, locals and tourists.  It has it’s own Palacio de Cristal which was exhibiting Bedouin tents the day we were there.  The park’s exhibition hall, Palacio de Velazquez was displaying a modern art exhibit at the same time.  We lazed on tree shaded grass watching the human and bird worlds pass us by, reminiscing of Cambodia, talking about language and art and travel, singing and laughing.

As always Spain was pure magic, but my previous visits were always as a tourist.  Seeing it with local hosts, staying in family homes, being welcomed as a guest, learning the customs and culture and heading a little off the beaten track, made this trip far more special.  I even got to have my hair cut and coloured by a reputable and talented “stylist to the stars”, went clothes shopping with advisor-translators and generally had an utterly magical experience.

France – The Third Time

From Spain I returned to England for Hannah’s wedding and more time in London.  St Pancras Station with it’s public pianos for anyone to play, busy underground-overground-Eurail concourse, restaurants and bars and shops, entered my life again.  Meeting Lesley outside St Paul’s Cathedral which has an expensive entrance fee, we opted to walk through the grounds instead, before walking up the road through the City of London, into the quaint St Mary le Bow Church.  So many other little but meaningful memories like this of my time in London continue to zap unexpectedly into my head.  I took the bus to Norfolk for Hannah’s wedding, staying a short time before returning to London.  I think it was about ten days later that Karen arrived from New York for a night in London, en route to Provence.

Lining up early morning to board the Eurail was again exciting and, as with all Europe rail travel, expensive but easy.  London to Paris is three hours by high speed train.  At Paris Gare du Nord I had to find the underground line to take me across town to Gare Lyon, which was difficult due to my lack of language skill but easy thanks to the helpful and friendly Parisians I approached.  Paris brims with heavily armed police patrolling the stations and tourist attractions.  From Gare Lyon it was about another three hours to Avignon through beautiful green countryside with regular hilltop castles, village church steeples, fields of wheat, forests and rivers.  An hour later Karen’s train arrived and her booked taxi drove us about an hour through rural Provence, a million vineyards and more clifftop castles and pretty rural villages, to the medi-eval town of Vaison la Romaine.

Karen had a two bedroom apartment near the market square, with views from the kitchen, lounge and balcony, of the – yes – hilltop castle!  She attended cooking classes daily and by night we socialised either on the balcony or in the nearby bar-and-restaurant-lined plaza.  A charming town with a turquoise river dividing the medi-eval hillside village from the more modern but also historic town area across the river.  Excavated Roman ruins have been unearthed and turned into an outdoor museum on the site of their original foundations.  The restaurant lined, tree shaded market square turns into a farmer’s market every Tuesday, with produce ranging from fish, cheese, vegetables, pasta, marinades, fruit, to clothes and homewares.  The hilltop village is a maze of cobbled lanes, archaic but well maintained and inhabited stone houses, clock tower, church, and towering above it all, the castle ruins.  There are restaurants and cafes with views across the town and valley below.

I spent days exploring the town, historic hillside village and shops.  I wished I’d hired a bicycle earlier in the week so that I could have spent more than one day cycling through nearby villages dotted between fields of lavendar and grapes.  At the Tuesday market I joined Karen’s cooking class for a guided tour of Patricia Well’s favourite stalls and produce.  On the Friday this small and exclusive group of gastronomers had their final assignment – a farewell lunch at the hillside homestead of their teacher.  I was invited to join them and found myself at a 16th century restored and renovated farmhouse on huge grounds housing an olive grove, vineyards, landscaped flower garden on the hillside overlooking the valley below for as far as the eye can see, a swimming pool and various other luxurious features of a humble, stylish, very French homestead.  Sitting in dappled sunlight under an archway draped in grapevine overlooking the valley below, we had our conversation about Cambodia which ultimately led to Paula winging her way to Seattle for first world surgery.

From Vaison la Romaine, Karen and I traveled by taxi again to Avignon and said our farewells.  I had about five days in Avignon, where more cobbled town squares are lined with al fresco bars, cafes and restaurants, all a walk away from more ancient alleys and churches and regal buildings.  Avignon city is flanked by fully intact high stone ramparts dating from the middle ages, with large gateways opening at regular intervals into the city streets.  During a period of unrest in Rome, the papacy resided in Avignon and the Palais des Papes is a large and imposing remnant of this time, situated inside the northern edge of the walled area.  Beside the Palace sits the cathedral topped with a golden statue looking down into the cobbled plaza below.  Another famous ancient construction is Pont St Benezet, an arched stone walkway reaching out into the Rhone and ending abruptly in the middle of the river.

A tour of the area around Avignon took me to some of the most picturesque villages and countryside I have ever seen, such as Roussillon.  Named for the red ochre from which it’s buildings and walls are built, this hillside town is coloured a range of hues that change as the sun moves.  A steep valley divides the terracotta building-lined escarpment from the motorway opposite, providing astonishing views of the village of Gordes.  These and other striking villages are dotted between valleys of lavendar, grapevines and sunflower fields.  Olive groves, apple orchards and many other horticultural ventures are scattered in amongst it all.  Not to mention the valley floor monastery we first sighted from the hilltops above before winding our way down into the purple fields of lavendar surrounding Senanque Abbey.

I hope this explains how difficult leaving France was.  Thankfully Paula awaited me in Cambodia, where preparations for the trip to America anxiously anticipated my return.

Seattle

Only recently, while writing this blog, did I realise how stressful it was, getting Paula to Seattle.  The preparations from within Cambodia were logistically extremely difficult as I needed Paula to be present for certain functions.  This required her to travel long distances from her village, in a very frail state.  She fainted twice inside the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, collapsed in the photography shop as we attempted – with success – to get her passport photograph taken, lay inside her hotel room weak and brittle, sometimes for days on end while her mother and I undertook various tasks such as filing paperwork, obtaining signatures etc.  Days before our flight I made a mad dash to her village on the back of Chom’s moto, to get one final signature for medical clearance, showing that until the last minute it was still questionable if we would make the flight.

We did make the flight.  And amazingly, Paula survived the flight.  To tend to her wounds in private she needed a window seat without passengers too close by.  Luckily on the Phnom Penh to Incheon leg of the journey, she had this.  An eleven hour stopover in Seoul required us getting her out of the airport, into a hotel car and via a multi-lane motorway to a nearby suburban hotel where we tried to eat and sleep.  When she fainted in the airport under the watchful eyes of airline staff I became nervous that we would not be allowed onto our next flight but thankfully it was not an issue.

Twenty seven hours after we left Phnom Penh, and about 35 hours after Paula left her village in an overcrowded mini bus filled with extended family, friends and neighbours, not to mention the camp bed Paula lay on the whole way, we landed in Seattle.  I was astounded that she remained conscious and felt a sigh of relief when Sean rang our hospital room not long after arrival, to say “she’s out of your hands now and in ours, you can rest”.  It was not a restful time in Seattle however and I don’t feel I really relaxed again until I made it home to Australia.  There were some special experiences in Seattle though, including a number of dinners with Sean and Cate, who was at lunch with me in Provence, at their lovely home.  Seattle is a beautiful city and the Cham community rallying around us like a human blanket was something I will always treasure.  I want to return to Seattle, which I visited ten years ago with Mum, and experience it on my own terms.

From Seattle I returned with Samantha, the nurse who came with us to translate, to Cambodia for a week, then via Kuala Lumpur to Sydney.  Changing gates in Kuala Lumpur, I walked up an elevator and straight into an Islamic prayer meeting of dozens of immigration staff about to change shifts, which took me by surprise!

A few unremarkable days in Sydney and almost two unremarkable months in Alice Springs later, the biggest pull right now, seems to be getting myself back to those French villages in Provence.  Given the state of my bank accounts right now, the chance would be a fine thing.  But it’s great to have something to dream about, alongside great memories of a most amazing year.

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Global Fortunes

Your Past

For almost four of the seven years between 2007 – 2013 I was a long term foster Mum to three separate children over four separate periods.  It started with a 12yo boy called Mathew at the end of 2006, through a series of often shocking events which I could never have predicted in my wildest imagination.  Whenever people tell me “you should write a book”, my brain trails off to Mathew’s story.  He placed himself into my care through sheer persistence, after both of his parents had died and he’d been left, in effect, homeless, through a disturbingly incompetent welfare system.  At the age of 12 he recognised me (way before I recognised myself), as someone capable of taking care of him.  Over some weeks or even months it slowly dawned upon me, that the school bus arriving daily, seemed to be under the impression that my office and my house were places where Mathew’s “significant adult” could be found!  It was a difficult and complicated time, which would take a book to describe with any justice.

Our peculiar relationship has impacted me significantly and resulted in a bond between two most unlikely people from vastly different generations and backgrounds.  He’s one of the people I love most in this world, which is strange in itself given how troubled he is and the sometimes appalling situations I’ve unexpectedly found myself in, due to his various and evolving circumstances over the years.  Fathers and families of girlfriends, police, magistrates, initiation elders from remote communities, psychologists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, drunken aunties, sick and dying grandparents, are just a few examples of the people I’d never have otherwise had to deal with, representing someone else’s child.

Having this boy land on me and stubbornly encroach upon what I thought was a life of freedom and satisfaction, took me completely outside of my comfort zone.  He enlightened me to the fact that helping others is a very mindful and healthy endeavour and that actually, my happy and easy life was nowhere near as fulfilling as I’d believed.  He also taught me that when you do something outside the “norm”, you will be judged.  And that the criticism of others is nothing to do with you, everything to do with the critic’s own internal issues, and never something you should try to engage with or change.  With no history of Mathew in my life I don’t believe I would ever have engaged in Cambodian life the way that I did.  My life would be completely different and far less personally rewarding.  This is due to Mathew, so I owe thanks to a struggling Australian orphan who has never left our shores, for experiences I had in a country which he barely knows exists!

Nine years on, at 21 years old, he continues to treat me as someone with a supportive role in his young and problematic life.  He was one of my first visitors when I arrived home last month and has been around, on and off, ever since.  He regularly challenges me to think on my feet through all sorts of unexpected situations, from girlfriend woes, to trying to influence his behaviour as a young father, to much more complicated and difficult-to-interpret circumstances around his involvement with the justice system as both a victim and an offender, and various cultural matters which are beyond my comprehension.

The other two children who called this home are John, who lived with me for exactly two years from the age of six, and Mathew’s second cousin Sara, who was 13 when she spent four months here in 2008.  This was at Sara’s initiation, having known me as Mathew’s carer.  Unlike Mathew, her placement was arranged via formal channels first.  John and Sara’s stories are both also deserving of a chapter or two in that book.  Both have contacted me since I returned home.  Sara, now 20, suggested during a visit this week, that she and her “husband” could move in with me, leading to a grown up conversation around why this was not going to work for me, or ultimately for them!

Back at work, I am reminded almost daily of why I love my job here.  As a public health nurse I work with people from marginalised communities often living nomadic lifestyles who don’t access health services.  A lot of my time is spent looking for people and convincing them to come with me for reasons that are not easily appreciated by the general public, let alone a public with very different perceptions of health, illness and medicine.  In a drunken tirade one evening in 2012 when I refused to drive her somewhere, Mathew’s aunty once shouted at me “YOU not my SISTA!  Everybody say, YOU lookin’ round for MAN!”.  It was meant to stab me in the heart but all it did was provoke hilarity.  It remains a team catch phrase at work whenever I have to leave the building.  Some time later she called me to apologise, saying she should never have spoken to her sister like that and clueless as to the fame she now holds among my friends and colleagues.

Between these various visitors, I somehow manage to maintain a semi-normal life as well, with neighbours, colleagues and friends.  Finding a balance between this privileged life and the life I loved so much in Cambodia, is the challenge.  While it’s a different challenge, it’s also a similar one, to living as a western privileged Australian in a town like Alice Springs, where so many are struggling in a world that is not theirs, which has been superimposed onto their land and their culture.  Now, spending $1 feels different than it once did, as I remain acutely aware of the small amounts of money it takes to dramatically improve peoples’ lives elsewhere.  Cambodia is very much a part of my every day existence but I still call Australia home.

Paula remains in Seattle.  She has been discharged from all medical care.  She is ready to go home but the Cham community have asked Karen, responsible for their travel costs, to delay their flight home by another two months.  She and her mother are staying on to holiday with their newfound Cham friends.  They won’t go home until February, four months since our arrival when all that has happened since was still an unknown.  In a recent email from the Cham Imam who met us at the airport on our arrival, he said The first day from airport in my car going to the hospital watching to the Downtown city in her bad condition, <Paula> said: I am ready to die because I got everything in this life.  She was sitting in the front seat on that journey and I could hear her but could not understand her words.  Another recent email from a member of the hospital staff included this, about Paula and her mother: They are both very thankful for all the help and support they’ve received and are receiving, and both of them have high spirits.  Every conversation with them is full of laughter and love, and we feel very blessed to be spending time with them and the Cham community members.  The nurses on the unit all want to visit with them whenever they leave the hospital and before they leave the US.  Many new friendships have been made!  Thank you to everyone who has touched the lives of these two incredible women!

I do wonder how they will feel, returning to their life of poverty and all it entails, after this dramatic and life saving experience in the wealthy world.  Today the Imam and his family took them an hour from the city to a waterfall in the mountains, to experience snow for the first time.  It’s mind boggling to imagine how a girl who was about to die, who had only ever experienced a life of poverty on the Mekong Delta, must be feeling at this particular time!  I still hope I might make it to Cambodia for their homecoming, so that Grandad can kill that cow and eat beef with us in celebration of his grandaughter’s new life.  Only now I have an unrealistic vision of bringing John, Sara and Mathew (among others) with me, to show them that despite all evidence within the square box that is Australia, they are in fact, not on the lowest rung of the global fortunes ladder.

Cham Snow

Cham friends in the snow today!

Speaking of Charity

Charity-begins-at-home

The English word charity has a long and ambiguous history, depending on the source you refer to.  It stems from the 4th century when St Jerome translated the Christian bible from Greek to Latin.  He used “caritas” in place of “agape” which is referenced over 300 times in the Greek version and is said to mean “the highest form of love”.  There are Jewish, Islamic and other translations, all with similar meaning, about caring for or giving to, the poor.  The different cultural / religious connotations are interesting to note.  Christian implications of charity are said to include the virtue of wealth and the free will of the virtuous to give, or not.  Jewish charity, known as tzedakah, stresses an obligation of the wealthy to give, the right of the poor to receive, equal social status of both and an ultimate intention of wealth redistribution.  The Islamic equivalents are zakat (compulsory giving) and sadaqah (voluntary giving).  Buddha taught that all giving should be free from attachment to either the gift or the recipient, and that generosity leads to freedom.  All religious interpretations have humanitarian and spiritual implications.

The phrase “charity begins at home” also has a long and evolving history and is today, said to be one of the most frequently misused expressions in the English language.  The phrase was probably first coined by Sir Thomas Browne, in a literary work called Religio Medici, published in the 1600s.  The literal interpretation of his meaning is that being caring towards ourselves and those around us, sets the scene for being generous on a wider scale.  As with so many phrases and philosophies, it has become misconstrued, with many using it today as a warning against being too generous, particularly to people in far away places!  The inference seems to have become, that charity actually ends at home.

Yet in an unintentional way, charity actually does travel full circle and end up back at home.  An awesome example of this is the case of Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman, a young Boston couple who have given away 40% of their pre-tax earnings every year since 2008.  They are putting into practice what various studies have shown – that high levels of giving actually enrich our lives.  One study concluded that donating to charity has a similar correlation with happiness, as a doubling of household income.  So giving to benefit others actually benefits the giver.

Not unlike the sense I often have here in Central Australia, living amongst a marginalised indigenous society, my first few months in Cambodia, surrounded by extreme and often shocking poverty, perturbed me.  Living in comfort alongside hunger and destitution challenged my sense of justice and equality.  Also my sense of self, as I came to a realisation of my excessively entitled life.  I slowly resolved this inner dilemma by learning to connect with people from vastly different worlds, and offering help where I was able to.  Not only did this alleviate a small amount of the suffering I witnessed, but it was personally fulfilling to see the difference I was able to make in others’ lives.  I feel honoured to have made this discovery and to have had the adventures of a lifetime along the way.  This all stemmed from my having the time to help a few people out in ways that most fortunate people never experience.

I’d already had many unusual adventures here in Central Australia, which were a prelude to what lay ahead for me in Cambodia.  I wondered how I would feel returning home.  It has been surprisingly easy, helped by returning to my furnished home, familiar workplace, welcomed by neighbours, colleagues and friends such that it felt as though I’d merely been away for a long weekend.  However, I feel like a different person courtesy of the soul searching about both myself and the world, visited upon me during my two years away.  This morning alone, I watched “news” of Justin Beiber posting selfies of his bare chest on Twitter, heard that Australians are the “world champions in taking Ecstasy”, seen morning TV presenters ziplining through treetops, riding rollercoasters and jumping out of aeroplanes, and watched snippets of the weekend’s live concerts across the country.  Taylor Swift in Sydney, Ed Sheeran in Brisbane, Sam Smith in Perth, with some tickets selling for up to $500pp.

Where once these “news” items would have interested and entertained me while seeming fairly normal, it all now seems incredibly self-indulgent.  That is not to say that I would not love to see Sam Smith in concert or enjoy various other luxuries, because I would and I do.  I’m going to have to buy some “rich world” shoes because I can’t get around in thongs at work or social functions any longer!  I’ve just spent an amount on my hairstyle which I know could feed a family for months.  The list of luxuries I am slowly surrendering to as I settle back into Australian life goes on.  But our rich world indulgences should be interspersed with charity towards those in need, both because we can and because it is a very healthy endeavour for us to engage in.

Thankfully I’m not alone in my epiphany about the rewards of giving.  There are many movements today, involved in encouraging and supporting people who wish to give.  One of my favourites is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  They use their money to do the most good for the most people and they often talk about what I know and try to impart in this blog: the fact that with so many people in the world existing on almost nothing, those of us in the “rich world” do not need to make big sacrifices in order to have a big impact on lives of the extremely poor.  To quote Bill Gates, people living in rich nations are in a unique position to make a real difference to the lives of the most impoverished people on the planet. Not only does our money go much further in the developing world than it does at home, but we also now have access to the technology and understanding to allow us to target our resources effectively.

If you are someone who argues that you shouldn’t give to charity because you can’t trust where your money will go, think again.  There are many organisations such as GiveWell and GivingWhatWeCan, devoted to evaluating and promoting the most effective charities.  Most reputable charities have their own websites and implement economic transparency so that donors know where their money will be spent.  Your money does not have to disappear into a black hole, and if you do a little bit of research, all available online, it probably won’t.

Strikingly inconsistent with the difference we can make in the “poor world”, it is estimated that last year Australians spent over $520 million on unwanted gifts.  It’s hard not to imagine the good that could come from such wasted money.  There are so many organisations offering a charitable alternative to this waste.  Check out Care Australia’s Gifts that will never go unloved or Plan International’s Breakfast at school for a year as two examples.  Even Mahboba’s Promise, an Australian-Afghani charity, are marketing Christmas Gifts That Will Change The World.  My own Go Fund Me is also still open, currently with only $100 not yet given away, at Help A Cambodian Family.

[A quick update on Paula for those wondering.  She remains in the USA with her mother, staying at a hotel covered by my friend Karen and under the watchful friendship of the local Cham community who embraced us all so readily.  Last week she was discharged from the care of the surgeon who cured her and recent photographs show a strong, healthy and beautiful, transformed young woman.  She remains in the care of a plastic surgeon and her healing wound now looks quite superficial.  She will probably return home in the next month to six weeks].

We in the “rich world” have inherited phenomenal advantages.  We are an entitled global minority.  By giving small amounts of time, attention or money to effective causes we can make a serious difference to some of the world’s poorest and most distressed people.  Charity does begin at home.  It also ends at home, but not in the commonly misinterpreted meaning of the proverb.  For the most selfish reasons charitable acts towards the needy, no matter where they might be, are a highly desirable venture.  Do it for Christmas!

Sharing makes us free

Universal Values and the Attention of Terror

We are all global citizens.

This morning the southern hemisphere woke to news of another terror attack in Paris.  Multiple attacks have taken place across the city.  A state of emergency has been declared and the country’s borders have closed.  A hundred people are currently being held hostage at a concert hall, fifteen are already dead at this one site, and over 100 are known to have died elsewhere.  It is horrific.

When these things happen in the wealthy world, headlines are made, news segments become all-day programs with constant updates, live footage, specialist analysis and political announcements from various leaders.  It makes for gripping news, as it should, and we are all horrified by the violence, fear and loss of life.  In fact, we can be so horrified that some of us are traumatised.  Before I turned on this morning’s news, I read an email from a friend in England saying that the family’s summer holiday in Spain was great, but marred slightly by the terror attacks in Tunisia just across the sea.

In the rich world we have resources and systems in place which protect us as much as is humanly possible.  I was in Paris a number of times earlier this year and the security presence at train stations and attractions such as the Eiffel Tower was very strong with armed police, armed soldiers and others heavily visible across the city.

It is the poor world, where most terror deaths occur, who have no such protections.  The 2014 Global Terrorism Index Report states that 82% of all terrorist attacks occurred in just five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria).  90% of all terrorist attacks take place in countries with gross human rights violations.  I’m not even sure that attacks such as that instigated on protestors in Phnom Penh last year, fit the criteria required to be labelled as “terrorism”.  Yet innocent civilians were terrorised, so if they don’t fit whatever official criteria is required, to me such events, which command very little worldwide attention, certainly seem to be acts of terrorism.  I feel the same about the aerial attack on Kunduz Hospital in Afghanistan last month, by America, as with the hundreds of innocent civilians killed by American drones in places like Pakistan amid a policy of secrecy and justifications.

Unlike the Parisian victims, most victims of terror die without attention from western media outlets.  So when I hear President Barack Obama talk about “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share“, I stand by his words but not by his actions, as a man who has been labelled “The Lethal President” for his targeted killing program.  One of many examples of innocent victims of this program is Pakistani grandmother Momina Bibi whose family spoke in Congress of their loss in 2013.

I stand by the people of Paris but I equally stand by the invisible and ignored victims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria and elsewhere, who deserve just as much spotlight as Paris is receiving at this time.
Terrorismhttp://www.visionofhumanity.org/#page/news/586

Keeping Up With The Chamericans

Paula was discharged from hospital late last week.  She remains in the US to be near the care she needs and because the surgeons don’t want to send her home to a place without running water until her wound, which may need further surgical intervention, is healed.  But she is healing and becoming stronger by the day.  She has normal physiology again and is absorbing nutrients for the first time in five years, which in turn means she is walking around and starting to “be” normal again.  I receive regular emails from one of the Cham people who sees her daily and will edit/paste this morning’s communication between us as the only way to articulate Paula’s experience.  When I returned to Cambodia a few weeks ago Chom asked me “what day did Paula arrive in America?”.  October 4th.  “That is her birthday then because it is the first day of her new life”.  I sponsor Paula’s brothers to English school and have promised Paula that I will sponsor her once she gets home ($4pp per month).  Chom is the intermediary for this and some other people I’m trying to maintain support for.  He has been sending messages about our little sponsorship program to keep me updated on everyone.

Yesterday I returned to my permanent position here in Alice Springs.  Things have changed yet everything has stayed the same.  Feeling as though I’d just taken a long weekend, I was happy to be back.  As happy as I can be if I cannot be in Cambodia, that is!  I had a small house re-warming on Saturday night and with a projector shining onto the wall of the shed, showed a few of my Cambodian photographs. I sent a message to Paula, who is easy to keep contact with while she remains in the USA with English speaking friends who have internet and email.  I told her that I’d shared her story with my friends who were all amazed.  The reply below radiates Paula’s elation.

Hello Helen,

Paula and her mom are doing well. They are very excited that I brought them to stay at my friends house, specifically Paula. I told them about your party, and they were more excited. She asked. ” what did Helen’s friends think about my story and the people in Cambodia”?

She said, When she goes back home, I will learn to speak English. She wants to express her feelings to you. She has a lot of things to say.

She wants to thank all the Drs who saved her life, Cate, Karen and specially you. She hope someday in the future, when she go back home, she wants to go help people with you. For the past month she learned a lot from you, the nurses in the US who help took care of her, and all the people who came to visit her.

All these people that she met change her life. She will work hard to find money and someday she wants to go Australia to visit you.

She asked me, next Friday can I bring her again,  and show her around the city. I said if you well enough, and I have time I will. She still cannot believe it that she and her mother are in the US.

She said, “I feel like this is a dream to me”. “if it is a dream I don’t want to wake up”.

I’m very emotional about her.

Yesterday, on our way back to the hotel, I stopped by at Safeway store to get a few things for them.  She asked me “please. …., I want to go in too”. I cannot believe it. You should see her face, how excited she was. It seems like a big deal for her. I forgot about a girl who was came from a small village in Cambodia. Since she is in US, she has not seen the outside. This is the first time in her life she actually in the American store. I have tears came out of my eyes. You should write a book about her story.  I am serious! You are going to make a lot of money. If you do, you can help a lot of people.

I should let you go now, have a great day at work.

Talk to you soon.

My reply, which vaguely expresses the elation that I feel for having been a part of this story:

Hi

It is very early here and I have to get ready for work.

But I read your email and it is so amazing to hear all of this about Paula.

I don’t know what to say.  I will be thinking about it all day, probably all week!

Thanks so much for looking after them SO well and for keeping in touch with me.  I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it.

Please tell Paula that my friends were really fascinated to hear the story about how her life has been saved and also to hear about Cambodia, how beautiful it is but how much suffering the people endure.  It is difficult from a country like Australia (and USA, as you know), for people who have never seen these things, to imagine it.  Just like Paula could never have imagined a shop like Safeway until she saw it.

THANK YOU!

Give Paula and her Mum a huge big hug from me.  I will be thinking about everything you told me and am so happy now.

Helen

My Version of Someone Else’s Story

I’ve avoided speaking much at all about this case because when I did initially mention it online, an internet troll accused me of siding with a criminal.  I have also been very aware of the victim’s family and did not want to add to their anguish in any way, nor the anguish that I saw in Gene’s family members as they grappled with the accusations against him.  With tonight’s 4 Corners program, that seems to have changed somewhat.

The way I became a foster carer at the end of 2006 was perhaps a little unusual, although given the cataclysmic circumstances that merely being in need of foster care must often originate from, perhaps not as unusual as I believed at the time.  Matthew was 9 years old when I met him in a town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs.  He was a cute and cheeky kid.  Within two years his mother had been fatally wounded during a domestic assault perpetrated by her partner.  Less than a year after that, his father also died a violent death.  His older sister was 13yo at the time and after witnessing her father’s murder she moved to her 18yo boyfriend’s home, where she was also subjected to multiple episodes of domestic violence.

I soon became aware of the term “double orphans”.  The organisation charged with their care failed these double orphans miserably, in fact their negligence was surely criminal although few consequences were ever faced, except by two innocent children.  Mathew was placed with his sister, at her boyfriend’s family home in another, equally dysfunctional, town camp.  He (and she) should not have been there.  Unlike his sister he also did not want to be there and was regularly rejected by the family, whose children he fought with.  Effectively homeless at the age of 12yo, he turned up on my doorstep almost daily.  A protracted battle with bureaucracies and incompetent bureaucrats began and dominated my life for a number of years.

In brief, during the murder trial of their father, his older sister was summonsed as a witness and I found myself in the court room with her.  Her stepmother, probably disabled from alcoholism, saw me in the court and asked me to act as her support person also.  I reluctantly agreed.  She gave no evidence at all despite persistent questioning.  When court adjourned for lunch mid-questioning, the two accused who sat behind a partition divider, stood and were suddenly visible from the witness stand.  One of them made a threatening gesture to the witness.  When I tried to report it, I was stonewalled by their jail guard as well as a senior lawyer.  I told Stepmum that I could not stay after lunch as I had to return to work.  She, due back in court that afternoon, disappeared.  The following day the senior lawyer who I reported the intimidation to, amidst his rebuttals that I must have imagined it, rang me to ask what I had done with his witness!  I did not see her again for a number of years and she clearly did not contribute further (if at all) to the murder case.

Meanwhile, I found myself the primary carer of a young homeless boy while his social worker repeatedly told me to take him back to his sister.  He refused to believe me over many months as I insisted that Mathew’s sister should not be in this particular home, let alone her younger brother.  He also seemed disinterested in how or why Mathew found his way to me on an almost daily basis, it raised no red flags at all apparently.  The family of his sister’s boyfriend received carer money for Mathew, whilst encouraging him to stay with me instead.  Every fortnight he visited them and came home with $50 cash, which I saw as “bribery money” taken from the extra kitty they were receiving courtesy of the social worker’s negligence.  It was only many months later, when I finally comprehended that having the title “social worker” did not make a person competent in their role, that I reported the situation to his line manager.  Mathew was immediately placed in my official care that afternoon.

Around this time a cousin of the children appeared, telling me that the social worker had asked them to “tell Helen to back off because she is harrassing me”.  When they argued with him that he was not doing his job and they supported me, he informed them that “she has had other children in her care who have ended up living on the streets, is that really someone you want caring for him?”.  This seemed outlandish but when I asked if I could report it to his manager, they encouraged me to do so fiercely, saying that they wanted the opportunity to report him.  His manager visited me the following day to discuss the accusation, which he had, of course, vehemently denied.  I did not pursue it.  A very short time later, he made a phone call to my employer to report that I “had a client” living in my house.  Thankfully my employer knew the full story and refused to engage with him.  Again I reported him to his manager, and within days he appeared to no longer be employed at the organisation.

After about seven months playing foster mum, Mathew was finally placed back into the care of family in a remote community and he left my care.  We remain in touch and he is as troubled and in-trouble as I always predicted his formative years were guaranteeing for his early adult years.  I live in hope that, given his enormous potential, he may work something out for a peaceful and decent life.  It’s touch and go right now and he has limited decent role models, so my hopes are faint..

During my time knowing Mathew, I came to know many other indigenous people, all somehow connected to him.  The stories during 2006 to 2013 have been numerous, humorous, sad, bad, hilarious and nefarious.  Unimaginably funny, tragic, shocking and frustrating events seemed often, to monopolise my time and energy.  Perhaps the most extreme is the story of Mathew’s cousin Gene.  Their mothers were sisters and they call each other “brother”.  I first met Gene when he was about 14yo and visiting town from their very remote, interstate community.  He knew me as “Mathew’s mother” and on many occasions he stayed in my home with Mathew.  A quiet and withdrawn young man, I saw him very many times over about seven years.  His mother is a very colourful character who lives nomadically across a vast expanse of northern Australia and while I only ever saw Gene in “my” environment, I can confidently say that his upbringing was less than ideal.

In July or August of 2012, Gene knocked on my door one night.  He was alone and sober.  Guessing he was hungry I invited him in and fed him.  In reply to questioning it became apparent that he wanted to stay at my home and so I organised the outdoor bedroom for him on condition that in the morning he would have to leave with me when I was ready for work.  He agreed to this and in the morning, en route to work, I dropped him in town.  That night he appeared again.  For a number of weeks this became our daily routine and it was fine by me as long as he remained sober and left the house with me the next morning.  On one evening I let him in before noticing that he was more chatty than usual.  When I asked “are you drunk” he shook his head.  When I asked “are you stoned” he nodded.  I explained he could not stay, made him a toasted sandwich, and dropped him at his chosen location in the dry riverbed a little way from town.  As I drove away I felt torn by the injustice that I, a privileged westerner, could leave a stoned young man in a riverbed with homeless families, because I had the right to feel safe in my comfortable home.

One Saturday morning during this time, Gene walked with me into town.  He didn’t often have much to say but on this particular day he told me a story that while he was in Broome some time prior, one night he saw a dead body on the side of the road and rang the police.  I don’t remember the exact story now.  It seemed odd and when I asked how the person died, he mentioned seeing a car drive away from the scene.  A week or two later, Gene knocked on the door one night and instead of wanting to stay, announced that he was leaving town and had come to collect his bag from the back room.  We said goodbye and I have never seen him since except via video link a year or so later.

Within a week of Gene leaving town, Mathew’s sister rang me to say Gene had been arrested and taken to Perth on murder charges!  The story seemed to match that of the dead body he had spoken about to me.  In shock, I attended the local police station where my story about a wrongly charged murder accused raised a few eyebrows.  Nevertheless, a detective was called down and took my statement.  There was little else I could do.  Various other dramas were unfolding on a daily basis and Gene in prison was just another crazy situation that I had to accept.  On a weekday morning some weeks or months later, I must have had my programmed extra day off, I was in my red and black polka dot pyjamas, vacuuming the house.  A knock on the door revealed two men and a woman dressed in blue t-shirts and jeans, looking like Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They introduced themselves as Murder Squad and wanted to speak with me about Gene.  They also wanted to know where Mathew was, who Gene had also spoken about the incident to.

At the police station later that day I learned Gene had been interviewed in his remote community and revealed evidence which proved he had committed an unsolved murder of a young man in Broome in 2010.  The evidence was, according to the detective, infallible.  Gene had committed a violent murder!  He had suffered nightmares and this appeared to explain the strange circumstances, of him turning up on my doorstep every night whilst in Alice Springs.  It assured him a quiet and safe place to rest with his demons.  Or so it seemed?

Around this time I was contracted with Medecins Sans Frontieres and took two years leave from work, leaving town for training in Sydney before making my way to Cambodia.  In Cambodia I had to travel to Phnom Penh to give evidence via video link in a Perth court about what I knew of Gene, particularly his ability to comprehend English.  I was asked some unusual and surprising questions, such as how did I communicate with Gene when he was in my home (by the prosecution) and was I a qualified linguist (by the defence).  It was confusing at the time but I came to learn that there was a defence argument that Gene had been questioned in his community without a translator present, giving rise to the suggestion that his confession was inadmissible.  Gene was in the room during this hearing but we did not communicate.  The trial was due to continue at a later stage but I was never required to return for further questioning.  I believe he was later found guilty of manslaughter, after the murder charges were dropped.

Arriving back in town a few days ago, I walked past a location where I have often seen Gene visiting family and had a fleeting thought that now I am home, I could write him a letter, and what I would say, and who would read it to him.  Amazingly, tonight he featured briefly on ABC’s 4 Corners program.  The mother of his alleged victim is convinced that Gene, who is thought to suffer from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, is innocent of the crime he was found guilty of committing.  The evidence, which she has been privy to, includes his inability to locate the scene of the crime, and some doubts that appear to have arisen relating to the way he was questioned and the confession he finally gave after nine  hours of questioning.  More on the case can be read here:
Expert Casts Doubt on Gene Gibson Murder Confession

It is a tragedy on so many levels and to my mind, highlights the failure in Australia to protect young people from the consequences of growing up in chaotic and detrimental circumstances.  There are so many reasons to protect young people, which are not just about the individual youth but also about society as a whole.  I want my community to be fair and just for everyone, not just those who happen to have been born “lucky”, into functional and healthy environments.

For more on the background story:
WA Police Stood Aside Over Arrest

Hello From The Other Side

Twickenham Stadium in London is the home of Rugby England. In the early hours of this morning (Australian time), 82,000 spectators watched from the stands at Twickenham as New Zealand’s All Blacks thrashed Australia’s Wallabies, 34 points to 17 in the Rugby World Cup. According to my research, the cheapest tickets to this game sold for around AU$700, and some for as much as AU$56,000. For a single ticket. At a live game of rugby.

Isn’t that astounding?

For my still-in-Cambodian-mode-brain, it is anyway.

One of the star All Blacks is 30 year old Sonny Bill Williams, a dual New Zealand – Samoan citizen who, interestingly, converted to Islam in 2008.  As the All Blacks celebrated their win with a lap of honour, a 14yo fan broke onto the pitch from the stands, apparently seeking autographs. Security immediately tackled him to the ground in front of Sonny Bill Williams, who admonished the security guard and dragged the boy back to his feet. Incredibly, he then draped his ribboned gold medal around the boy’s neck before walking him back to his mother in the stands! Williams has been quoted as saying “I kind of felt sorry for him. It will be a night that he remembers, hopefully”, “For a kid to have that will and take that risk, you deserve a medal. Enjoy bro” and “Better (for the medal) to be hanging around his neck than mine”.

Williams is becoming known for his off-field generosity, most recently offering his semi-final Rugby World tickets to Syrian refugees last week.  After the semi-final when his team won against South Africa’s Springbok team, he hugged and consoled a devastated opponent. Media reports are lauding him for his kindness and compassion with statements such as “Sonny Bill does it again”. One Twitter fan said “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Sonny Bill Williams. Then, always be Sonny Bill Williams”.  I concur!  His behaviour represents the epitome of good sportsmanship.  In 2011 he gave NZ$100,000 to the Christchurch earthquake appeal.  In 2012 he shaved his head in a fundraiser for Leukaemia and Blood Cancer NZ’s Shave for a Cure.

Sonny Bill showing his heart to Syrian refugees last week, and a young fan on Saturday 31 October.

Sonny Bill showing his heart to Syrian refugees last week, and a young fan on Saturday 31 October. Courtesy http://www.foxsports.com.au

Perhaps what makes him so “real” is the fact that as a young man he made a lot of widely publicised mistakes.  He has said that the things he did wrong in the past have helped mould him into the man he is today.  We could all learn a lesson there.  If Williams can be so generous to the people and causes he knows about, imagine the kindness and generosity he is capable of, if he were to connect with the poorer world where the need for his compassion and heart is greatest.  With Samoan connections he probably already gives to at least one third world country.  I hold great hopes for his future as a philanthropist!

Anyway, I’m back at home in Australia and things are so far going well.  After two years away it’s fun catching up with friends and neighbours, sorting out my long-suffering garden, and of course getting into some serious unpacking.  That is the biggest challenge.  Before pulling into the driveway at home I was full of plans to downsize entirely and have a huge garage sale, all proceeds to go to Cause Cambodia.

That plan is slowly dissolving into a threatened dream as I slowly realise how captive I am to western trappings!  I remain fully aware of the fact that most of the world can carry their bed around with them, and all of their belongings to boot, held against their body with a krama scarfe for the Cambodians I know.  Most Cambodians have no, or very little furniture.  I on the other hand have a house filled with untold seats and surfaces of all kinds.  I arrived in town lugging two large suitcases, one small suitcase and my rather sizeable handbag.  Greeting me were no less than seven boxes which had been posted, mainly by myself, to myself, from various locations around the globe in the past six months or so, as I took advantage of first world postal systems in Europe and America to offload things I felt I couldn’t discard.  Determined to learn how to travel light, I am never letting myself travel so extravagantly ever again, especially as many of the things I thought I “needed”, didn’t leave the safety of their suitcase.

Since arriving home, things which are not necessary for my survival and which I have not even missed in two years away, have started to creep inside the house, from the shed where they’ve been in storage for years.  How quickly we revert to old habits, regardless of all good intentions to change!  This coming from someone who once considered herself a minimalist.  I said this to a friend yesterday, who reminded me that I actually was a minimalist until I bought my own home in 2007.  Prior to that I once moved house in my pyjamas one Saturday morning, with everything I owned sitting on top of my bed which I wheeled down the road to the next rented room.  Things have changed somewhat since then and I feel ensnared by my not-so-minimalist existence.  But I hope that my aspirations towards minimalism and continuing to help Cambodia and East Timor, will help me to creep those sneaky belongings back out to the shed in preparation for a downsizing sale.

My hope for the world, is that more people aspire towards the heart of Sonny Bill Williams.  In that vain, the lessons of my last two years away will be wasted if I don’t remain connected to what I now consider to be “the real world”, where food in your stomach each and everyday is a priority endeavour.  Today I connected with Cambodia via Chom who was bringing his family home from their grandmother’s village.  They paid someone $2 to push the tuk tuk up a very long and steep incline which saved them from taking a very rough and slippery route home.  As I unpacked no less than four pink dresses all rather similar to each other, into my wardrobe, I wondered at why I need all these unnecessary clothes when people in the parallel universe of rural Cambodia have to push a tuk tuk uphill to earn their day’s food?  There seems no point whatsoever to me, to be a “have” and to keep it for myself, in boxes I don’t need to look at between one year and the next, or suitcases I cart around filled with unnecessary dead weight.

In short, I think noone got it more right than Nelson Mandela, when you thread three of his best quotes together into one sentiment:

abject poverty demeans us all and makes the freedom of us all less meaningful; while poverty persists there is no true freedom; the purpose of freedom is to create it for others.