Notes From A Tuk Tuk

Thongs on Tuk Tuk

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eye Is For Ice

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

Rakhine State

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

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

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

Chicken coop 02

Hoping to avoid further chicken thefts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

My Cambodian Kaleidoscope

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

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

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

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

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


85 books delivered

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

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

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


When I lived in Kampong Cham during the two years between 2013 to 2015 there was one swimming pool in this town, about 5 metres long and knee-deep, belonging to a local hotel.  In the past two years two swimming pools have appeared here.  “The Chinese” built a large town pool complex with four different swimming pools including a large diving pool, a large lap pool and two smaller pools.  The $1 entrance fee makes it inaccessible to most locals meaning that it is often empty of customers.  Which is great for the likes of me who wants to swim away from the crowds.

The crystal blue waters always remind me of my childhood, swimming at pool complexes in New Zealand.  On days when there are other customers, almost all of them wear an orange life jacket hired from the entrance desk.  The sight of so many orange life jackets on bodies in a town pool strips me of my NZ memories entirely as it’s so foreign to my experience.  Locals who can afford the entrance fee are also likely to be educated and therefore informed of the high rates of drowning in Cambodia, which I guess feeds the assumed need of a life jacket in a place where swimming lessons are extremely rare due to a lack of trainers in such a micro economy.  On busy days I have seen young men sitting poolside watching swimmers and occasionally directing people away from rule breaking behaviour, who appear to be hired as lifeguards.  On quiet days such as today and yesterday the guards are missing, I guess it’s not financially feasible to employ them for only a few customers?

Swimming Pool

Around the same time as this western style swimming pool appeared, someone built an undercover pontoon structure in the river.  It seems like a rectangular wooden terrace enclosing a strip of river water, covered with a tin roof and accessed from shore via a wooden platform bridge.   With many decades of only ever swimming in blue pool, ocean or river waters and the parasite phobia I have developed since coming to Cambodia, this is not a pool I ever plan on swimming at so I don’t know the entrance fee but imagine it to be cheaper than the Chinese town pool.

Kampong Cham - Piscine !! Cambodia - October 2017 (213).JPG

Yesterday I brought the Phter Koma children, who have moved to another organisation, swimming and then for lunch.  Last time I saw them we also swam together.  I arranged with their carer to meet up at “the new town pool”.  Arriving a few minutes late, I was nevertheless earlier than the children.  Some time later they still hadn’t arrived and I called the carer, who said they were due to arrive any moment.  Some time later he called me to say the children were at the pool but they couldn’t see me?  We soon worked out that while I was waiting at the Chinese pool, they had interpreted “town pool” as the riverside pontoon!  They soon joined me, donning their life jackets before a raucous time ensued in the crystal blue deep waters.

This mismatch of assumptions reflected our different perspectives.  A town pool to me, is a crystal blue chlorinated complex with lifeguards.  That concept is very foreign to Cambodians who only ever swim in the river which feeds their homes and soaks their rice fields.  Of course the undercover pontoon would be the place they interpret me as meaning when I said “town pool”.  Equally, of course this was never going to be the place I meant!

At work last week I told a staff member that we only needed her to work for two hours on Friday, from 10am to 12pm so she could use her annual leave for the rest of the day.  Without the translator present, she mistrusted her interpretation of what I was saying, double and triple checking with me.  I repeated slowly, using signs to depict my meaning, that she should arrive at work at 10am and then at 12pm, she could go home.  Many laughs were had during the conversation as we knew we weren’t entirely on the same page.  Sure enough, at 10am the following day she arrived at work and I felt confident that we’d managed to understand each other.  About an hour into the afternoon I approached the nursing staff and there she was, still at work!

Mix-ups like this are a part of everyday life here as I, with my western privilege and monolingual interpretations of the world, try to navigate a foreign world which makes limited sense a lot of the time, with people forced to communicate with me in what is a foreign language to them.  Miscommunications are common, often time consuming and also often amusing.  This includes my experience of frequent miscommunications with the French as well as Khmer people I work with.  Through our Khmer translator, I often hear the words “there is not a direct translation for that”.  The way language informs cultural perspectives means that bilingual and multilingual people are far more adept at cultural awareness, as understanding another language also gives an insight into the world view of people speaking the language.

Communicating in writing can be even more challenging.  This week I had this conversation with Sokum’s husband on WhatsApp about her return to hospital with complications following her heart surgery.
Her surgery body need to clean.
Yes, the wound, is it ok?
<Photographs of an infected wound with opening areas along the suture line>
It looks infected, did they give medicine?  Very important not to touch it with your hands, did they put something over it to protect it?
They give medicine to my wife before clean wound everyday.
For pain?  But maybe she needs antibiotics to take everyday for maybe 2 weeks?
Did a doctor look?
The doctor go to Korean now.  After they were clean it ready send to doctor.
Do they put something on it like this <photograph from internet of gauze dressing>
Yes, they use like this after cleaning.  <Photograph of her chest with a thick dressing>
An infected wound in this setting is a very worrisome situation with such low standards of infection control.  This will all be adding to their expenses as she rents a room in Phnom Penh to be near the clinic and they travel daily to have the wound dressed.

After living for almost three of the past four years in Cambodia and still speaking only very broken Khmer, unable to string more than a couple of full sentences together, I have a deep respect for Sokum’s husband’s ability to get his message across, even though I am not as fully informed of the situation as I had hoped.  He may sound simple in his use of written English to mono-linguists who have never had to communicate in another language or culture but he is in fact, highly skilled.  Noone understands this better than the European contingent, who jump between their native tongue and their second, sometimes third and fourth languages, as a mainstream behaviour.  Many Khmer people do the same and of course, Australia’s indigenous people are highly adept multi-linguists.

Dara’s parents are working in Phnom Penh again, on another construction site and this week I visited them after work.  My regular Phnom Penh tuk tuk driver probably knows more English than he admits to, forcing all of our communications except when totally desperate, in Khmer.  I like being forced to use my limited Khmer with him and we always seem to make sense of each other.  Unlike my other regular tuk tuk drivers, this means he doesn’t double as a translator.  When we traveled to Dara’s parents’ work location Tuk Tuk called them to get a pin point on exactly where we should go and they instructed him to wait at a particular corner beside a massive construction site.  The workers traveling home in all manner of styles were fascinating to me.  Tuk Tuk was far more interested in watching my reactions as I photographed vehicles heaving with workmen and women being transported home after a hard day of physical work at various heights above the city.

Communicating with Mum and Dad is almost easier than with people who speak English, because we know 100% that we are guessing each other’s meaning.  They are living in a communal building with other construction workers along a narrow, muddy, bumpy dirt track about 2km from their work site.  They earn $5 per day (Mum) and $5.50 per day (Dad, who has a team supervisory role).  Their tiny room in a corridor of other tiny rooms is furnished with a mosquito net hanging over a bed-sized bamboo mat on the floor, a tiny toilet with a shower hose on the wall and a small bench holding a rice cooker.  Most of their meals are plain rice with a little fermented fish for taste.  We sat on the floor of their room together as neighbours lined up at the door, staring in at the foreigner and speaking English words at me as I spoke Khmer words  back.  When I asked Mum and Dad about their salary they seemed to be saying that they earned $5 and $5.50 per month.  Only when Dad wrote it down and added x 30, did I realise they were saying that they get paid their daily wage, monthly.

Yesterday afternoon Dan traveled to Dara’s village without me to collect grandma with Dara and his tiny sister, bringing them to town so that we could share dinner together at the Night Market.  It never ceases to amaze me how much fun you can have with people, especially children who are so communicative, despite having no shared language.  I am also always aware that the way I experience something, such as eating fried rice at the Night Market, or swimming in crystal clear swimming pools, or interpreting health care, is completely different to the way my companions are experiencing it.  The same goes for my experience on board a river cruise boat earlier this week.  Friends were on an expensive cruise from Ho Chi Minh to Kampong Cham and when they anchored in Phnom Penh I was invited on board to join them for drinks and a meal.  It was a fabulous experience in plush surroundings.  Yet all I could think of, was the Cham people on their little wooden boats less than 500 metres on the opposite shore from us, hungry, on leaking boats with no roofs, surviving from one meal to the next.  At times these contrasts are confronting but I am constantly grateful for my good fortune which in fact, can only be genuinely enjoyed and appreciated when it is shared with those less fortunate.

Boat Baby Update

He lives in a home with walls constructed of bamboo, elevated on wooden stumps ten ladder steps from the ground.  I have cycled or tuk tuked along this track which runs parallel with the Mekong countless times over the past four years.  The track passes through many impoverished communities, an interweave of Buddhist and Islamic villages living side by side for at least 50km.  About twenty metres from the road, a large expanse of open flat delta leads to the front steps of his shack.  With Wet Season in full swing, this land is currently a muddy swamp.

Yesterday was nine weeks to the day since Boat Baby arrived on the floor of that wooden boat.  Dan pulled the tuk tuk in at the roadside and pointed the house out to me.  Looking across the quagmire between us, BB’s mother waved from the front door as his grandmother bounded down the ladder and immersed herself in the mud, striding deftly through the swamp towards us.  I registered the depth by the mud marking  her legs.  Dan asked me, is it okay for you to go there?  I replied I don’t like it but I’ll do it, should I take my shoes off?  No, keep them on.  He informed grandmother of my reply.  She took a firm hold of my elbow and guided me to the bottom of the ladder.  With my thongs jamming in the mud I removed them and now there was mud to the top of my ankles and on my left hand, holding the rubber strips as daintily as I could.  Parasite OCD kicked in and I concentrated on shaking it because BB was waiting to meet me.

Grandmother bounded back up the ladder and returned a moment later with a plastic pot of water.  I swished my feet around in the brown water at the edge of the ladder to soften the mud, then she poured clean water over them and I stepped onto the dry first rung.  Up ten ladder steps, a red hammock was swinging between two wooden foundation poles, tiny Boat Baby snoozing as he rocked.  Mum picked him up and handed him to me.  Tiny, but fat and perfect.

Only about ten minutes ride from The Eyes family, I was shocked to hear that Mum, who is about 20yo, does not work because she also has vision problems!  She has had three operations on her eyes so far, all at the nearest District Referral Hospital, who operate at no cost and offer transportation fees.  My limited knowledge of the way the health system works here confirmed that this family fit the criteria of poor enough to  warrant financial assistance when they engage with hospitals.  This is not a guarantee however and when they registered at the maternity ward the day Boat Baby was born, they were not deemed poor enough and charged $40 for an overnight stay – money that they did not have.

Boat Baby’s father, who was on the boat with us the day  of his birth, moved to Phnom Penh a month ago to wait tables at a restaurant, to earn money for the family.  He has been unable to return home at all – a bus ride costs $7 one way.

This area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War.  Agent Orange was sprayed across the region by US forces to kill the foliage, making the bombing campaign more efficient.  Could it be that the common vision problems apparent through my own small anecdotal experience of this one small village, are connected to the use of Agent Orange less than 50 years ago?  Local doctors apparently claim that babies in this area are 50 times more likely to be born with disabilities than in other parts of the country.  Little or no research has been undertaken.  Research is another example of privilege preserved for wealthy nations.

We said our farewells, Grandma holding my hand tightly as if to let me know of her hope for a connection between her family and this mysteriously lucky foreign woman who can travel far and wide and wants for nothing.

The Only Thing is Kindness

Kindness is a free currency from a well that will never dry up,”
“The most efficient way for you to act with young people is to be a calming force
”                                                       ~ Lady Gaga

The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) is the official non-partisan organisation of cities with populations of  30,000 or more.  There are 1,408 such cities in America today.  Each city is represented in the Conference by its chief elected official, the mayor.

Last year, at the US Conference of Mayors, Lady Gaga spoke with the Dalai Lama to an audience.  Her words were full of kindness as the only thing.

We need to shift the perspective.  The solution is that we need to build a kinder and braver world.  Get rid of those labels.  These different factions; Gay – Straight – Rich – Poor – Mentally Ill – Not Mentally Ill – Gun Owner – Not Gun Owner.  None of this can matter anymore.  We are unified in our humanity and the only thing that we all know, we all appreciate in one another, is kindness.  So this has to come before all things.  And you must operate relentlessly this way.  With everything you have.

Lady Gaga on Kindness as our Solution

Join the movement and commit a random act of kindness everyday.


Heart Strings 02

Heart Strings 02

The congested, hot, overstocked and fascinating Phsar (Market) Tuol Tom Poung, or Russian Market as it’s known in English, takes up a full block of the Phnom Penh neighbourhood I live in.  From the top floor of my apartment building we can see the rooftops of the Russian Market – a patchwork of multi-coloured, rusty tin roofs pressed up against each other to form one massive block-sized square of roofs.  One street along the northern edge of the market turns into a fresh food bazaar every evening.  Vendors set up on their paid plots of verge or stroll around with produce in trays balanced on their heads, a stool crooked in their elbow for a quick seat if they happen across a customer.  The crush of stalls narrows the bitumen thoroughfare to maybe 2 metres wide along which crowds of motos, pedestrians, cyclists, beggars, tourists and locals wend past each other.

Boxes of fresh green vegetables are positioned in a tight square around their seller, beside which a canvas is laid to present many dozens of pairs of shoes, beside which another canvas acts as a death bed for fresh fish laid out to die in the open air, occasionally making a last ditch jump off the edge of the canvas, onto the bitumen.  Large tin bowls filled with water hold live crabs crawling around on each other, beside mobile restaurants frying pancakes, dumplings and various other fast foods.

It’s not unusual to see a moto with one child perched up against the handlebars and two perched behind the adult driver.  Mum will pull in at an open air vegetable stall, lean across to choose her vegetables, pay for them, hang them from the handlebars and slowly drive off while all three kids stare blandly as though it’s all very ordinary and boring.  The disabilities on show here can be distressing and I always wonder about one young girl in a wheelchair who is sometimes pushed through the streets and at other times, left alone on a corner to beg.  She is not the only one apparently being managed by external parties for the purposes of organised begging.

Interspersed with these very local experiences are many western style cafes, bars and restaurants catering to the foreign and wealthy Khmer populations residing in or passing through the area.  Fashionable, understated boutique eateries are a theme of Tuol Tom Poung and after six months living here I still haven’t tried every establishment.  Good food, charming ambience and specialty menus all come at extremely reasonable prices if you are earning a decent salary, which makes them inaccessible to a large proportion of the people passing them by everyday.

Tonight I walked down the street to find dinner and stock up on a few groceries.  The side streets intersecting with main roads around Tuol Tom Poung have a village feel in the middle of this busy city.  Neighbours perch on chairs at front gates nattering, people play cards on the floor of a wide front room opening out onto the street, children kick a ball in the middle of the street, the barbecue meat patty guy fries up on his open fire at his front gate.  Moto dups approach pedestrians from behind to offer “moto, Madame?”.  Tuk tuks on every corner chat on their phones, listen to music or convene in one cab to have a drink together, all ignoring me as if I’ve become a regular who they know not to hawk business from.  Popular franchise Brown Cafe opened down the road within the past month and suddenly that corner is crammed with parked cars jutting out onto the busy road, adding even further to the traffic congestion of the main street.

Our own street is a charming little village in it’s own right, especially on cool evenings like tonight.  Our corner tuk tuk guys always stop us to have a chat in broken Khmer about where we’ve been or where we’re going.  The local shop keeper sits in his wooden recliner at the doorway of his little wooden hut watching the world go by.  Families appear from behind tall steel gates to socialise in the street together.  Mobile restaurants pull their carts through the street and stop as neighbours come out to order dinner, cooked and packed on the roadside before the vendor moves on to find their next customer.  Our apartment security guy, his shirt tucked up around his chest to cool off, wanders away from the street party and back into the property as we approach, to make his presence known.

Observing all of these sights tonight was an especially happy time because while I was at the grocery store Sokum’s husband called me.  “Helen?  I have happy news.  Now she already surgery and the doctors said it is success”.  It’s early days and even with the most successful operation she will be on medication for the rest of her life, among other considerations.  But surgery was a success and the road to recovery has begun.