Battle of the Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goodbye, Prague

Thank you, Prague!

The fairytales of my childhood must surely have all originated in Prague.  Here I found castles, bridges, legends, cathedrals, majestic gardens, narrow streets, kings, maidens, famous literature, synagogues, broad boulevards, murder, romance, towers, art history, archways over cobblestoned alleyways, medi evil city walls, Jewish pogroms and heretics burned at the stake.  From Medi-evil intrigue to present day high street retail, there is literally nothing missing from this tiny, charming, stylish city.  Not to mention the beef goulash and apple strudel!  My days here have been spent wandering aimlessly, joining guided tours of historical areas, gaping skyward at spires and statues, hearing the Prague Musical Orchestra perform Vivaldi, Bach and Pachelbel in beautiful Municipal House, visiting cathedrals, synagogues and museums, getting lost in the maize of cobblestoned alleys of Old Town, climbing the hills and wandering the gardens of the Castle, and eating / drinking at establishments which have existed since the 1200s.

My hosts were particularly vague on communication when I booked in with them.  The night before my early morning departure they informed me that they would be absent for the first four days of my stay and a family member would meet me at the apartment to let me in.  The fifth floor apartment in this sprawling 100 year old building seems like it could be from the set of Roman Polanski’s World War 2 film The Pianist.  Adrien Brody plays a pianist in this autobiographical story of a well known Jewish-Polish musician who manages to survive life in Warsaw during Nazi occupation by a combination of good luck and good friends.

During my four days alone here, I wondered where the secret button might be that would open one of the ceiling-to-floor bookshelves and reveal the secret room where Jews hid during Nazi occupation of Prague.  Chandeliers hang from high white ceilings, white washed wooden panelled doors lead from one room to the next, each with at least two doorways interconnecting every room in the apartment.  Furniture straight out of 1940s, large sprawling rooms and wooden floors, all above a cobblestoned maize of streets below the narrow balconies looking out towards the Vltava River.  On Monday it didn’t stop raining so I didn’t leave the apartment, soaking in this romantic atmosphere.  I even watched The Pianist, to compare their period movie set with my own.  Very similar indeed!

When the owners arrived home two nights ago I found out why they had been so vague with me.  They are well known media identities.  Not that I’d ever heard of or seen either of them before, but I am not well versed in the Czech Jet Set.  An agent sent them to London for a movie premiere, hence their unexpected absence.  They are both young enough to be my children and they both seem very down to earth despite the chiselled good looks and youthful confidence, such that I haven’t felt at all intimidated or out of place with them.  Her father is a musician and another guest in the past few days is a family friend whose father played in a band with the Beatles.  Funny that one of the Spanish friends I met in Cambodia and am joining in Spain in a few weeks’ time is also “local-famous”.  Again, I’d never heard of / seen my friend when I met her in Mondulkiri with Kim a year ago.  But in Spain she apparently has a hard time walking down the street.  It should be interesting hanging with her in Spain, after our time in Cambodia where she was completely anonymous (which is why she chose to live there for almost two years).

Returning to London tomorrow for a few days, my old nursing student friend and I are then meeting up on the south coast to drive to France.  Her mother, who I’ve also known for >25 years and have traveled with a number of times including to New York as well as Cambodia, now lives in Dordogne.  After five days in Dordogne I will travel overland to Toulouse to join my fellow Phter Koma Board Director at her home for a few days.  Then I travel to Spain to join the Spanish friends I met during a holiday in Cambodia last year with fellow-MSFer, Kim.

A road trip to Europe!  When Kate suggested this to me last week, while I sat in my 1940s-style Prague apartment, I literally kicked myself multiple times to check I wasn’t dreaming!  Such exotic experiences belong to other people, not to me!  The way that one trip has slotted in to the next, time-wise, is uncanny.  Serendipity definitely happens in life at times.

On the same day that I was kicking myself over this exciting turn of events, I heard from my doctor friend in Cambodia.  He had an exciting day too – on the very same day two different people had given him a book to read, the first in English and the second in French.  He could hardly believe his good fortune.  His words on this were “One day, two present.  All the present are the reading book.  Unbelievable!”.  How different our versions of serendipity are.  Good fortune has played a very strong role in my life to date, beginning with where I happened to have been born.  After surviving Pol Pot’s terror and now living in a country where good fortune is only possible to those with connections within a corrupt system, his luck seems to have far more substance to it than mine, despite the apparent lower earthly value.