People From The Sky

Good enough

It’s okay to be imperfect.  On the other hand, we should not allow perceived success or praise for perceived success affect our ego.  Someone cycling Road X is no better or worse than someone walking Road Z.

In the field of humanitarian work it’s easy to find people willing to shower you with praise.  This sits uneasily with me as I’m well aware that I am living the life I want to live, because it suits me.  I don’t believe there is a humanitarian anywhere with entirely selfless motivations.  Living as a nurse in a place like Cambodia is really not so different to living as a nurse in Australia.  The challenges are different and there are difficulties that don’t exist in the wealthy world, but ultimately I’m using the same skill set to do similar work, only for a different population and with different resources.

Yet it could be easy to believe the praise.  Which I guess is why it is not so difficult to find people working in the so-called humanitarian world, who are driven by ego and power.  Thankfully my current assignment has no such characters among the expatriate team.  My first assignment was a mixed bag, as I made firm friends but I also struggled enormously with one or two conceited narcissists.  Some of my Khmer friends with a long history working in international NGOs such as MSF confirm that it can be extremely difficult to work with “the people from the sky” (they fly in, dominate with an air of aggrandized importance then fly out again).

It’s very true, that you find all sorts in all places.  It’s also true that there are different motivations towards pursuits which are seen generally as altruistic.  The best example I have is a French doctor some years ago who, in criticising MSF for not approving an extra day off, declared “They should be grateful to have me!  I don’t have to be here!  I am not a local staff who has no choice!  I am a Ewe-Manit-Eerian!  So are you!  We are both ewe-manit-eerians, ‘Elen!”.  Never had I wanted the ground to swallow me up so badly!  Being ewe-manit-eerian is a running joke within my current team who appreciate the farce of over-inflated ego.

The definition of what makes a humanitarian is also an interesting question.  MSF focuses on emergency relief so that many of our expatriates have experienced war zones, famines, disease outbreaks and natural disasters.  Some of these field workers, after multiple assignments, move into the ranks of management based in first world cities such as Paris, Tokyo and New York.  One recent such visitor from London suggested that “you should not stay too long in one place, because it becomes something other than a humanitarian action if you end up staying for your own reasons”.

With a deep love of Cambodia, I’ve ruminated on this statement greatly.  It is dangerous to be poor in this world – you will be forced to live in varying degrees of peril.  If you are incapacitated there will be almost no assistance outside of your own unqualified and un-resourced family or village.  If you die prematurely, it will likely be as an invisible non-statistic who was never counted anyway.  The billions of dollars going towards medical research in first world institutions across the globe generally don’t benefit anyone but those living in the wealthy world, so that preventable illness, injury and death is a common theme in the poor world.  I have loved realising the experience of making small differences to lives which ultimately, to the powers that be in their own higher society and levels of government but also to most of us in the world, hold little to no value.  Stay or go, like all of us with a choice, I’ll choose what suits me most.  Whether here or elsewhere, my main hope is to avoid becoming one of the “People from the Sky”.

Meanwhile, The Excruciating Fundraiser has surpassed it’s goal and our friend can have surgery with a safe and more comfortable recovery than would otherwise have been possible.  We took the family swimming today at a local resort with a small water park.  It was their first time at a swimming pool and a very happy day was had.  On the way home we crossed a bridge over the mud brown river, where a bunch of children were playing on a black tyre in the muddy water lapping at the doors and floors of their little wood and tin shacks. The contrast with where we were coming from was stark.

This 4 minute video, which I think I’ve shared before, explains why this stark contrast exists.

The Richest 300 People

Pimp My Tuk Tuk

may you always do for others

Many hours of many days during my first 2 years in Cambodia were spent adventuring with my good friend, a tuk tuk driver who I blog-named Chom.  He is currently living in Japan to earn $60 per day as a farm worker (10 hours per day, 7 days per week).  This is big money to him and should ensure that his family will be more comfortable than they ever would have been had he stayed in Cambodia for the three years that he plans to be away.  His children were 6yo and 1yo when he left at the end of last year.  He often told me that tuk tuk drivers are considered lowly on the social spectrum here.  Nevertheless only this year did I comprehend the fact that tuk tuk drivers are often very poor.  They usually don’t have enough education to be competitive in the private, government or NGO employment market (where salaries reflect a local “middle class” of US$300+ per month depending on the role and qualifications required).

Under Medecins Sans Frontieres local regulations which state we should not travel by motorbike, I’m reliant on tuk tuks to get around.  I hate negotiating prices and so I tend to find a regular driver and stick with him.  This means I get to know and usually befriend my drivers.  In Cambodia everyone’s story is so far flung from anything we are accustomed to in Australia and the wealthy world, that all of “my” drivers have something foreign and interesting to share.  My housemate, colleague and good friend Theresa, who started a few short weeks after me earlier this year, is a kindred spirit and we have many discussions about the tuk tuk drivers we encounter.  Yesterday none of our regulars were around and very unusually, we had to walk towards the corner of our street to hail a tuk tuk.  We didn’t make it to the corner.

A few metres out of our gate, a driver passing on the crossroad spotted us, making a quick half-u-turn into our street to approach us hopefully.  In our rudimentary Khmer we negotiated a price and hopped on.  It’s become an impulse for me to assess the state of the tuk tuk I am in.  This tuk tuk had old, worn out upholstery.  One of the arm rests was completely missing so that the only thing separating the loose seat cushion and the road below, was thin air.  The carriage’s suspension was distorted so that I seemed to be sitting on a slant.  We got about halfway to our destination when his moto stopped at an intersection and no matter how many kick starts he gave, it refused to restart.  He called out to a passing driver and swapped us into another tuk tuk.  As we drove away I looked back to see him pushing the vehicle into a driveway and turning it around.  With any luck the downhill slope helped his bike to un-flood.  It can’t be a fun work day when that’s your lot.

Two years ago I was stranded in Skun en route to Kampong Cham.  Pushing my case along the main road, voices from a passing tuk tuk shouted “hello” before pulling over.  Full of people and luggage, they were amazingly traveling from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham to visit their grandmother and offered to take me.  They squeezed me in Khmer-style and saved my skin.  I promised that I would always use Dad (the tuk tuk driver who I’ll call Sam,) whenever I was in Phnom Penh, and so Sam has become my regular guy in the city.  A quiet and unassuming guy with better English comprehension than we realise because he only uses it when we give him no choice, we recently went halves in the cost of replacing his torn tuk tuk upholstery.  Since then, with our regular custom, he has pimped his own tuk tuk somewhat, adding a plastic wire guard to reduce the chances of bag-snatchers and we now travel with Cambodian flags flying from the back seat.  Our conversations with Sam are always fun, particularly by telephone when we recite what we have to say before calling, always hopeful that his reply will be a simple “yes” or “no” because the minute any detailed information has to be shared, we’re lost!  He knows our regular routines – the family I visit on the outskirts of town every few weeks; the other family Theresa and I visit together near our office; Theresa’s weekly swim lessons; our occasional social hot spots; our various strange little ways.  It’s so much easier having someone who knows where we want to go and who we don’t have to negotiate with.

Around the same time that I was befriending Chom in Kampong Cham over three years ago now, I met Rav in Siem Reap who I have also become very fond of, along with his friend Seth and their wives and young families.  He impressed me when Kim and I were in need of assistance to communicate together the day I bought Kim’s wife a sewing machine.  Rav not only translated for us, but he drove us to the market, negotiated a decent price for the machine we wanted, guided me over the busy street, and was generally very kind and helpful.

Theresa and I currently have a Rav-Seth project underway with a group of Khmer graphic designers building a website to promote their tuk tuk services.  Siem Reap is a very touristic place with a focus on the temples of Angkor Wat stealing from the other attractions of the province.  Hundreds of tuk tuks vie against each other and low season means many days are spent with no income.  We are working on promoting attractions off-the-beaten-track for tourists interested in a more authentic experience of Siem Reap.  Plans are still underway but may include overnight stays in Seth’s floating village, where he grew up on a small boat which he says “sometimes had a roof but sometimes the roof would break and we didn’t always have enough money to make a new roof.  I like sleeping under the stars but it is too hot under the sun and so bad under the rain”.  Rav is from an equally impoverished background and we have been discussing the fact that sometimes tourists don’t want to see the temples and stay in fancy hotels; the chance to interact with locals, experience local knowledge and connections can be marketable assets which are as yet, untapped.  We hope that a website can increase their access to customers in what is an extremely challenging market.  If this website is successful then we plan to replicate the project for another tuk tuk in another resort town who we know and have been trying to help.

Meanwhile you could say that, as with anything, poverty is always relative.  It’s impossible to help everyone and important to remember this when you live in a place such as Cambodia where at every turn you see another level of poverty.  Waiting at the intersection yesterday, in the ricketty tuk tuk which wouldn’t kick start, an elderly man rested on his decrepit cyclo which Theresa suggested for emphasis, “was built by the Russians”.  A few hours later, waiting for friends near the corner I wondered at the story of the many small children working the busy streets to collect recyclable rubbish or sell fruit from plates atop their little heads.

Rav’s family often say to me that they feel lucky to know me, because of the little things I’ve been able to do at no sacrifice to myself, for them.  A conversation with his sister yesterday went along these lines: “you help us so much”, no I only help you a very little “no, it is little for you but it is big for us”.  Rav recently said “there are 15 million people in Cambodia, so it is amazing that I could be the one who met you”.  I reminded him that he met me because he was helping Kim, so any gratitude he has for his so-called good fortune ought to be for his own willingness to help someone in need.

Do good and good will come

 

Bongs and Tycoons

There are so many cultural quirks in Cambodia that you could write a book on them, if you were confident enough in your knowledge.  One of my favourites, perhaps because of the similarity with Central Australian indigenous custom, is the practice of referring to people according to an assumed kinship status.  Here I am often referred to as “Bong”, meaning “older sibling”.  These people to me, are “P’un”, or younger sibling.  It is a polite reference, favoured over using a person’s name; if you know their name then you can add it after the title, eg I can be Bong Helen.  If you’re in a restaurant and you want the attention of the wait staff, you call to them as Bong or P’un, depending on their age against yours.  If you’re unsure, then you default to Bong.  Other designations include Uncle and Teacher, depending on the relationship, eg a man old enough to be your father or someone deserving of respect due to their wisdom.  Something about this practice seems to give you an immediate affinity with the person you are interacting with.

In my last blog I mentioned the video clip a friend in Kampong Cham sent me, of a young boy being interviewed on camera about his struggles trying to earn an income for his family after his mother was injured in a moto accident.  My friend had contact with a local Khmer “tycoon” who had seen the video and offered to help the family if someone could locate them.  Fortuitously, unbeknownst to my friend when he asked me to help, the young boy’s usual trolley-hauling route seemed to be very close to my workplace in Phnom Penh.  On Monday my colleague/housemate came in a tuk tuk with me and within ten minutes we had located the boy’s mother.

Some transcript from the 12 minute video which is only available through Facebook so I can’t share it here:
Boy: I want to start up business to feed my mother.  I don’t want her home alone.  I want her take a break and not in difficult situation.  I also want to take care my siblings so my mother not in trouble.
Mother: Since I broke my leg I am very difficult.  I jobless and no money.  Sometimes I beg money for my children and pay electric, water.  I really suffer.  No matter my leg hurt, I have to try for my children.
Boy: Talks about selling shellfish, fried bananas and fried potatoes while the cameras show him preparing the food and pouring it into a shallow tray on a barrow which he then pulls through the streets amongst traffic, including at night.  My mother wake at 2am to cook until 6am.  When she feed my sister I go to sell.  At the day I push clams and call customers, anybody buy clams or not brother?  After sell and get money I give to Mum for buying food.  My Mum think about children more than herself.  Sometime she not eat in order to get enough food for us.  Father leaves us for a long time so we don’t have father.
Their story continues and Mum talks about lending money from her neighbour to get to hospital, her concerns for her malnourished baby, not wanting her son to become a beggar, her experiences with a violent husband and deciding to finally divorce.  I really suffer when my son asked me, “Mom, when we go to eat pizza?”  I responded “It is very expensive, I can’t afford it son”.  I pity my son so much.

On locating Mum last Monday, we told her via telephone translation with Win, that we’d like to take the family to eat pizza, and a date was set for Saturday.  Today we ate pizza together.  Samantha joined us for translation with her sister, her daughter and her niece, so with the family and my housemate and I, we made up a table of ten at The Pizza Company.  Mum came with her three youngest children, the oldest son who is 16yo and did not appear in the video, was in school today.  Upon arrival the children (sons 13yo and 7yo and 15mo baby sister) were initially shy.  When we told them we’d seen them on the television screen they relaxed and soon enough we were bombarded with smiling, playful, happy children who beamed thank yous at us from the motorbike of five people as they drove away, pizza digesting in stomachs and boxed leftover pizza hanging from the crook of a small boy’s elbow.

During lunch we learned a few things.  All three brothers are engaged in school at an NGO involved with vulnerable children.  They like school and they like their teachers.  They are not learning English but they wanted us to know they can say “what is your name” and “my name is”, which we practiced together.  As lunch drew to an end the two boys put their hands together in sampeah gesture and said clearly “thank you”!  Mum broke her ankle in a moto accident two years ago, whilst pregnant with her now-1yo daughter.  She walked on the broken bone for over 1.5 years before finally seeing a doctor.  To be poor in a country where the health care system is user-pays, keeping a significant portion of the already-impoverished population in debt, unregulated, under resourced and of variable quality, means that when you have a health problem, you avoid seeking health care until often it is too late.  She has since had an internal fixation of the bone, but it was probably performed far too late after a lot more damage had likely been done.  She walks with a limp and does not sleep well at night due to ongoing pain.  Doctors have told her she should not walk on it but her only income generation comes from pulling her cart of food for sale through the streets.  Her next appointment with the orthopaedic surgeon at a hospital for the poor, is later this week and we have arranged for Samantha to attend with her so that my MD housemate/colleague can get some more detail and find out if she’s receiving quality care.

We arrived home just before a tropical downpour, at the same time as my telephone rang.  The nephew of my Kampong Cham friend’s so-called “tycoon” introduced himself in perfect English and asked me if I knew how he could contact the family?  Yes I did!  I gave him the family’s telephone number and we spoke for a while about today’s pizza outing.  When he heard me speak a few words of Khmer he broke into Khmer, immediately referring to me as Bong!  We said farewell before he called me back to say that tomorrow he will visit the family with the money from his aunt.  This wont solve the problem of this mother’s badly injured ankle or her poverty.  But it will relieve some of her stress.  And for today at least, she and her children know that they matter in this world.

002

A first they thought would never happen: eating pizza

003

Hijinx in the restaurant car park with baby sister

Miracles, Swallows and Amazons

Just over two years ago, during a boat cruise on Lake Windermere in north-west England, a small island in the lake captured my imagination when the guide described it as the place which had inspired Arthur Ransome’s children’s adventure series, Swallows and Amazons.  Tonight at a hotel in Siem Reap I turned on the television and correctly guessed the film as Swallows and Amazons, based on the English accents and unmistakable scenery.

Yesterday I woke with abdominal cramps and diarrhoea and had to call in sick.  Bed bound with frequent rushes to the toilet, by mid-morning something had taken its hold on me and I wasn’t sure whether to sit on or put my head inside the toilet bowl.  Either option was only a 50% solution.  Shivering cold and feeling like I might faint at any moment, I dragged myself into the main part of our apartment to let a Khmer colleague, working in the kitchen, know that things were not going well for me.  She followed me to my bed and as I flopped face down she said “Oh you have a lot of rain”.  Peering through one half-opened eye at her, I asked “rain?” and she motioned towards my head.  Sweat was raining off me!  She then suggested she should call the doctor.  Unable to imagine how anyone would get me off my bed let alone out of the apartment and into a tuk tuk to hospital, I replied “I have to stay here”.

I asked for a vomit bowl and she returned hastily, rubbing my back as I heaved spasms of clear water into the bowl.  The force of heaving caused a panicked rush to the toilet, with my colleague leading the way, holding the vomit bowl at my chin before passing it to me and leaving me to my devices.  Flopping back on my bed, she returned with a small pot of tiger balm which she proceeded to rub all over my abdomen.  Amazingly, it did help the nausea and drooping consciousness.

Within about half an hour whatever it was had expelled itself from my system so I must have looked fraudulent, propped up on pillows sipping water, when my housemate rushed through the door, stethoscope and thermometer in hand, on her emergency rescue mission!

Plans to travel to Siem Reap for a long weekend were not easily cancelled so I monitored myself all afternoon and determined by mid-evening that I would be safe to travel.  After a quick tuk tuk ride to the bus station I was horizontal on the cushioned floor of my own roomette on the Night Bus.  Eight hours of mostly-sleep later, we were pulling into Siem Reap.

International Children’s Day is a public holiday in Cambodia and I’d promised a lunch time swim at the hotel for Rav and Seth’s families.  Four very excited small boys arrived with two babies and four parents in tow.  The boutique hotel likely didn’t know what had hit them but we all need to be taken out of our comfort zones from time to time and a splashingly fun time was had as staff looked on wide-eyed at the commotion.  Tonight Seth, whose English is entirely self-taught, wrote:
Hello Helen how are for today now you get for dinner , and my family thank you also and very very happy swim and for lunch time, this is my first time for my family to swim pool thank you so much for today
It’s hard to imagine living in a resort town such as Siem Reap which must have hundreds of swimming pools at it’s hundreds of luxury and middle-range hotels and hostels, and never having been in a swimming pool.

The two hours-or-so of lunchtime excitement saw me nana napping this afternoon when my telephone woke me.  A Khmer friend in Kampong Cham who never calls, had also sent a private message on Messenger.  I clicked on the 12 minute video he shared to me, watching a small boy speak in Khmer to the camera with English subtitles, describing his dream to go to school and help his mother and younger siblings. Instead, he is forced to spend days and nights selling ripped banana sugar, ripped potato sugar and dry freshwater clams from a hand pulled cart in the streets, in order that the family can keep a roof over their heads.  At the end of the video I learned that he lives and works within a five minute walk of my workplace.  Not knowing this, the Kampong Cham friend had contact with what he called “a tycoon” in Kampong Cham who watched and was moved by the video, wanting to help the family.  My friend called me in hope I might be able to help locate the family.  As it turns out, I probably can!

So on International Children’s Day I reflect on my own childhood summers, spending hours everyday in New Zealand’s public swimming pools or crystal clear rivers and beaches.  Unaware of my childhood fortunes, I transitioned into an equally oblivious adulthood of visiting or living in places that most people may never even know exist but which I can frequently recognise on the privileged television channels I get to watch.  In comparison, two families splashed today in a pretty blue swimming pool for the first time in all of their lives.  Meanwhile a distressed family in Phnom Penh may be about to have a new lease on life thanks to an uncanny series of connections.

Abacus 03

Making Sense of Another World

A first impression of Phnom Penh for any newcomer will likely relate to the traffic.  Sitting at intersections beside trailers piled disproportionately high, their loads towering ludicrously into the sky, you may have fleeting images of death-by-crushing.  Ladders stand tall on seats of motos between the back of the driver and the front of the first passenger, who often has a paint pot hanging from the crook of an elbow and a third passenger behind.  Other ladders balance horizontally along the length of their moto.  Motos and moto-pulled trailers carry long rods of steel protruding into the surrounding traffic space, causing images of death-by-impalement.  None of these near-death visions are helped by the way that everyone weaves around each other, edging into crossroads slowly but persistently so that you are eventually in the middle of an intersection with traffic purring towards you from all directions.  It takes some experience to learn that it’s probably going to be okay and you’re probably going to make it across the intersection without incident.  At major junctions children, elderly women and disabled men wait at the centre barrier for lights to turn red before venturing out into the crowded vehicles to beg for a morsel, knocking on car windows or waiting hesitantly at tuk tuk steps.  Often they have chains of jasmine for sale or dusters made from chicken feathers fixed to a stick of wood, offering to dust car windows.  Many have nothing to sell, only mumbled words of begging.  Blind people busk along congested sidewalks, amputees sit at the same corners where naked and malnourished children play with loose bricks or dirt while scavenging parents rest beside their parked, hand-pulled wooden barrows on what must be a long, hot and dirty work day.

It’s all very interesting.  At the same time there is a harshness and injustice to it which many of us might only fleetingly consider before making our way again towards our comfortable lives.

Local elections are imminent and both major parties have been parading through the streets with megaphones blaring from tuk tuk roofs, crowds piled into trucks, pick ups, tuk tuks and trailers, party flags flying jubilantly.  According to Cambodia Daily, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who makes regular televised monologues of many hours long in parliament, said two days ago he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent his overthrow.  Smashing teeth, slitting throats, burning homes, references to war (far from trivial in a place still traumatised by years of violent war), imprisoning journalists and bloggers, are all a part of the rhetoric being reported, little of which appears to make news beyond Cambodia’s borders.

Yesterday I had a particularly grueling lesson in my ever-emerging comprehension of the “lot” of tuk tuk drivers.  During my 2015 year-long holiday I met a tuk tuk driver who I will call “TTM” (Tuk Tuk Madame), in a seaside resort town who showed me some sights and transported me around for a few days. During this interaction I learned that until recently TTM had worked at a shoe factory in Phnom Penh where he had to rent a room and buy food-for-one as well as budgeting to feed his wife and family separately.  The micro-salary was essential to his family’s survival but it came at some cost including the sacrifice which so many Cambodians make, of living away from a young family.  Sometime before I met him, he had resigned from the factory job and bought a tuk tuk and moto to generate income from home.  Reliant solely on paying customers, I knew even in 2015 that it was a hard gig.

Caz and I visited his town in March for a few days and since then we have had more contact, as I’ve returned again for a long weekend and he occasionally says hello on Messenger.  Last night it came as no surprise when he said hello out of the blue, until he shared a crying emoji.  I asked why he was sad and he slowly but determinedly told me in very broken, misspelled, almost indecipherable written English.  Slightly horrified and slightly cautious, I rang Samantha who agreed to call him and find out the detail for me.  A number of conversations later, by Messenger with him and telephone with Samantha, I had the full story, my caution demolished and my horror bolstered.

The purchase of his moto and tuk tuk had been made via a loan from a well-known, prevalent micro-finance company.  This particular company feature in my mind because when we were looking for ATMs in Siem Reap recently I was moved by Seth’s reference to them as “the PLC Bank”, highlighting the minimal cause he has had to ever notice financial institutions.  The ubiquity of such inexperience is highlighted by TTM’s need to use a micro-finance company, with extremely high interest rates, over a bank, because without a bank account there is no choice.  It is not viable if you earn a tiny amount of money, to have a bank account, as the fees can exceed your income.  In 2013 the World Bank reported that less than 4% of the Cambodian population had a bank account.  This makes people immediately susceptible to exploitation.

According to Investopedia the intention of micro-finance is to give low income people an opportunity for self sufficiency, most often associated with low-interest lending but some offer additional services such as bank accounts and information to increase financial literacy.  As with so many well-intentioned activities in unregulated nations such as Cambodia, micro-financing has been corrupted into an exploitative enterprise, offering loans to the very poor who have no other available options, at excessively high interest rates.

TTM took a loan of $2,000 to purchase his moto and tuk tuk, thinking that by being close to home (with less expenses), and in a resort town (with the chance of paying customers), he could pay the loan off over the contracted 20 months and be in a better financial situation than he was, working at a shoe factory.  With Samantha’s final phone call this morning I learned that he has been committed to $100 in principal repayments and $35 in interest repayments, every month since his venture began (ie 35% interest rate).  In a place where the monthly average income is about $90, this is a massive commitment which he has struggled to maintain.  He took an extra $500 loan last year to help relieve the repayment stress, but he remains $800 in debt.  When Samantha called me to explain she said “last month and this month is wet season and not so many tourist, and also is election season, so he cannot find customer so he cannot find money to pay back the loan”.  I asked her what election season had to do with it?  She replied “because when it is close for election Cambodian people are afraid of the war again, and we will not go anywhere and we will not spend any money because we might need it if the war happen.  If you ask all Cambodian people, maybe 80% of us think like this”.

With no customers, TTM has had no way of repaying the lending institution, who sent him a letter informing him that the tuk tuk would be repossessed in two weeks unless his repayments were honoured.  He photographed the letter and his repayment information and sent them to me this morning.  I forwarded them to Samantha for translation and she confirmed the loan, remaining balance, principal and interest amounts.  With the threat of losing the family’s only income-generating asset, TTM was desperate and I was his only connection to anything resembling possible assistance.  I did assist him a little and he has some time now, to try and earn enough to pay the rest of the loan.

Recently Caz and Rav both informed me that the hotels who have their own tuk tuk drivers, often in some sort of hotel uniform or numbered tuk tuk, charge these drivers a commission in order to be connected to their hotel.  Fees differ per hotel, but are usually between $400 and $1000 as a one-off payment.  Keen to earn a regular income, drivers will take loans to pay this fee in order to have a guaranteed income with exclusive access to a niche customer market.  Once connected, drivers are guaranteed a small daily stipend (smaller than most fares), regardless of whether they transport customers or not.  If you book into a hotel advertising a “free tuk tuk”, your driver is the one paying the price for your saving.

I hope that anyone thinking of visiting Cambodia who comes across this blog, can know one thing.  The fun and smiling, or humble and quiet character who calls “tuk tuk Madame” or “tuk tuk Sir” at you, is one of this country’s poor.  He probably has no education and he may well be struggling with debt.  His tuk tuk might be rented, reducing his revenue further.  Look at his moto, the upholstery of the seat you’re sitting on, the condition of the roof and floor of the carriage you’re riding in.  Ask him about his life.  While you need to pay a fair market price for the sake of the micro-economy you have entered, you also should not negotiate him down to an unlivable tariff and if there’s anything you can do to help him, maybe you would both benefit from the experience.  When you touch a tuk tuk in Cambodia, you are touching the essence of this nation’s austerity.

The Frangipanis Above Me: Part 2

Giving is the essence of Abundance

It’s a five hour bus ride from Kampong Cham to Siem Reap.  I was the only Barang on the bus which is a reasonably unusual experience, especially on a route to the very touristic town of Siem Reap.  Seat 29 was my allocation but someone had already taken it.  One of the many young men surrounding me asked as I stood in the aisle, “excuse me madame, what is your number?”.  I showed him my ticket and a reshuffle ensued on my behalf, despite my protestations that I could take one of the vacant seats near the back.  A short way along, the young man in the aisle diagonally opposite me began taking selfies.  When he positioned himself to get a selfie with me firmly in the background, I gave his telephone a smirk.  A few moments later, admiring his shots, he spotted my photo bomb and turned to smile at me.  From then on I was included in his crowd of friends.  When he turned to offer his mates some bread, the first overture was made to me; when he offered everyone a piece of fruit, it came via me first.  It’s hard to imagine such geniality being extended to an old girl from a twenty-something young man in my world, but it’s considered normal here in Cambodia, I suspect as a consequence of the communal living experience.  They were en route to a friend’s wedding together and there was a very definite feel of celebration in the air.

Rav was at the station to pick me up just after lunch.  In the afternoon we sat for a drink together, joined by an apologetic Seth, who should not have told me his problems, etc.  To cut a long story short, Rav has a decent tuk tuk with a decent moto meaning he can attract better paying passengers.  Both of these vehicles were given to Rav by grateful and generous customers in the past year or two.  Nevertheless he also struggles with many tuk tuks competing in a tight market of tourists.  Many days pass with no income and on a good day he can hope for $15 to $20 for a full day’s work.  Prior to his good luck, he also had a worn out moto, attached to a rented tuk tuk.  Seth, despite his good English, cannot attract the same passengers or income because his tuk tuk is run down and his moto is so archaic that it cannot travel as far as Angkor Thom, the walled city of temples.  He is restricted to taking people around town or as far as the airport.  He has four children and their living conditions are much more dire than Rav’s, mostly because of his severely limited income.  This was difficult to imagine because I’ve been to Rav’s little room where he and his wife share a bed with their two children inside four walls.  During our discussion I scored an invite to Seth’s home and he picked me up this morning.

Last week his 6yo son was playing near the front of their so-called home, a series of home made shacks put together on his brother in law’s land, when he was attacked by wasps.  Looking up into the palm trees, the little boy spotted a nest and decided that throwing stones at it would be fun.  Multiple stings later his mother rushed him to hospital with an anaphylactic reaction. I saw the tree, wasp nest and shacks that they call home, this morning and again, it unraveled me.  This young, strong, healthy, well dressed guy who interacts so competently with tourists from across the globe, lives like this?

Bitumen turns to muddy streets which turn to muddy lanes leading to a muddy little driveway where I walked up a muddy single lane path along the side of the palm leafed shack in the front, belonging to his brother in law.  Brother-in-law has agreed to Seth, his wife and their four sons, living on a raised platform behind the shack, rent-free.  They’ve been here five years but will have to find alternative accommodation next year when the in-laws plan to build a home and will not have room for so many extras.  The family eat, sleep, shower and live on a square of wooden slats about 3m x 2m, about 1m above the muddy ground below.  Their allocated section of platform is between Seth’s parents’ share of the platform further inside the enclosure, and the open air entranceway.  All of it is covered with tin and tarpaulin, beside an ice-making factory over a brick wall which growls constantly from 3am to 9pm daily.  I side-stepped around the back to view the little open air toilet between their platform and the ice maker’s boundary fence.

It became a no-brainer and I explained that while it is not possible to help everyone, I wanted to help Seth.  However, I needed him to have a plan so that I can attract donations because noone donates if you ask for “free money”.  His plan was expressed immediately – he needs a decent motorbike so that he can take customers to Angkor Thom.  I then explained that I don’t have enough money to buy a motorbike but I do have access to a loan from the bank, so rather than wait for donations, I would take this money and buy him a motorbike.  Rav, in his ever-modest style, replied “congratulations”.  I’d asked him earlier how he would feel if I helped Seth, and was told without hestitation that “the more people who you help, the better it will be for everyone including me.  I don’t get jealous, and if my friends can have customers then when I have money problems, there are more people I can ask to help me”.

We traveled back to town over the jarring muddy roads, Rav shouting out to Seth “wow your road is very bad!  My heart fell out to the ground!”.  We stopped at a number of different motorbike shops over the course of about an hour.  With no interest in motorbikes and their various dimensions or features and aware that my presence would require everything to be translated, plus risk an automatic rise in assumed price, I left the boys to shop while I waited, a dissolving lump of lard on the synthetic tuk tuk seats.  Eventually we came across a shop with a motorbike in our price range and of an acceptable quality to pull a tuk tuk for long distances.  The next chore was for me to find enough ATMs to withdraw the money I needed, which was complicated by one machine only dispensing riel currency; three machines not recognising my card and another machine wanting to charge an excessive withdrawal fee.  Finally I had enough $ in my possession and we made our way back to the motorbike shop.  Seth invited me in to pay but I declined, passing the money to him without even thinking about it, and asking him to check it.  He stopped to count it slowly in front of me.  During lunch Rav laughingly announced that Seth took a photograph of the motorbike money when he took it to the shop counter.  Seth added “because I never touched so much money in my life”, before pulling his phone out to show me the fanned-out crisp $100 notes sitting on the shop counter.  More unraveling of my world perceptions courtesy of these composed young people who have not had a fraction of the advantages that I take for granted.

With Rav riding Seth’s new wheels beside the tuk tuk, we lurched our way back to the shacks where I was invited to lunch by an overjoyed family filled with thank yous.  We ate on the platform where all of this family’s life plays out.  Rice with fish soup cooked on an open fire in the mud.  A conversation ensued between Seth and his wife about whether I would be okay to eat this food, but Rav assured them that “she is not like the tourist, she lives with the Cambodian people, it’s okay”.  He also translated at another point in the mostly-Khmer conversation, “you came from Australia and brought some Australian lucky with you for all of us”.  During the conversation I mentioned that I like Bowng Dea Drey Broarmar, a fish-pancake served with fresh vegetables and rice, which it turns out is Mrs Seth’s speciality.  Tomorrow night we’re sharing another meal together on the infamous platform so she can share her culinary skills with me again.

After lunch Seth drove me home to my hotel.  This afternoon I lay for hours on my back in the hotel pool, looking up at the cloudy sky through blooming frangipani flowers hanging from branches peering over the fresh blue water.  I get to sleep under a solid roof tonight, unaware if it is even raining outside my sound proof walls.  I handle $100 bills with an air of irritation because they need to be changed to smaller currency.  And when I look to the sky, where so many see wasp nests, I get to view flower blossoms.

Seth Family Blog

Seth and family on the platform they call home. The children to the right are trespassing on grandma and grandpa’s territory. Seth and his wife share the small square they are sitting on with their children, as a bedroom, dining room, bathroom and lounge.

Seth Family Blog 02

Taken from Seth’s section of the enclosure, looking inside at his parents’ section and out of the open entranceway at the mud track below.

The Definition of Success

In 2013 Angelina Jolie won a humanitarian award at the Governor’s Awards, which celebrate lifetime achievement in film, and form a part of the Academy Awards in Hollywood.  Her heartfelt, at times tearful, utterly inspiring speech, started out acknowledging various people including friends and family.  She then went on to honour her mother, who had been her biggest support, encouraging her artistic ambition and spurring her to live a life of meaning and use to others.  A video of the full speech is here .

<My mother> gave me love and confidence, and above all, she was very clear that nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others.  I didn’t know what that meant for a long time.  I came into this business young and worried about my own experiences and my own pain.  It was only when I began to travel and look and live beyond my home, that I understand my responsibilities to others.

When I met survivors of war and famine and rape, I learned what life is like for most people in this world, and how fortunate I was, to have food to eat, a roof over my head, a safe place to live, and the joy of having my family safe and healthy.  And I realised how sheltered I had been. And I was determined never to be that way again.

We are all, everyone in this room, so fortunate.

I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I had, to have this path in life, and why across the world, there is a woman just like me, with the same abilities and the same desires, same work ethic and love for her family, who would most likely make better films and better speeches.  Only she sits in a refugee camp.  And she has no voice.  She worries about what her children will eat, how to keep them safe, and if they’ll ever be allowed to return home.

I don’t know why this is my life?  And that’s hers?  I don’t understand that.  But I will do as my mother asked, and I will do the best I can with this life, to be of use.  To stand here today means that I did as she asked, and if she were alive, she’d be very proud.  Thank you.

My own mother would have been foolhardy to encourage me into a life of art, although I do remember the occasional ludicrous suggestion such as joining a marching team and getting involved in local theatre!  Otherwise, Angelina’s words about her mother’s love and encouragement reflect my own experience, for which I am eternally grateful.

More than that, Angelina’s words echo my own daily thoughts around how and why I – over so many others equally and more deserving – was born to such incredible good fortune.  Not a day goes by now, when I don’t have at least one jolt of astonishment at my pure luck of birth.  It also amazes me daily, that despite my education, world travels and easy access to information through all forms of modern media, I had led such a sheltered existence as to remain steadfastly unaware of my windfall in life.

Since 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, a total of over 64,000 landmine victims have been recorded in Cambodia.  There continue to be approximately one casualty every couple of days in the country, reflecting the inordinate number of mines planted in the country and the great difficulties of landmine identification and clearance in a resource-stricken, systemically chaotic nation.  Surviving victims live almost exclusively in extreme poverty, with even more limited means of income than their able-bodied peers.

I knowingly met my first landmine victim during a holiday with my own mother, visiting from New Zealand, and the mother of a good friend, visiting from France, in January 2014.  We were sitting at a bar enjoying an alcoholic beverage one afternoon when he appeared before us, a small basket hanging at his chest via a rope around his neck, filled with books for sale.  One arm amputated below the elbow, the other missing part of his hand and one leg amputated below the knee, standing upright on an old fashioned flesh-coloured, leg-shaped, rubber prosthetic.  Not used to such sights, his appearance came as a shock to us.  We did not want to purchase any books and he departed, placing an A4 page on our table with his story typed out in English.  We read it and I put it in my bag.  Injured by a landmine as a teenager in the Cambodian army, his only income is from selling books to tourists, he tries to feed and send his children to school but it depends on sales.

For hours I thought about how life would be if there was no way to earn an income, if my limbs and hands were deformed or missing, if I were impoverished and every day I had to bravely approach wealthy people who look shocked at my physical appearance and who have no perception of my reliance on their generosity.  The inequality and indignity seemed inexcusable and so from our hotel room that night I sent him an email offering to help in some way.  He replied with gratitude and about a month later we met.  I bought his wife a sewing machine and I send them US$50 each month – a perfectly affordable contribution from my first world income and yet significantly valuable to the life of a disabled man and his extremely grateful family.

When I visited them again last year, the sewing machine was in a corner of their tiny room, smaller than my own bedroom but which serves as bedroom, living room and kitchen to four people.  On the wall above it was a poster in English reading “donated by Madame Helen from Australi”, next to a framed photograph of Mum and I sitting together in a cafe in New Zealand!  Across from our framed photograph, on the opposite wall is a photograph of Cambodia’s much revered King Norodom Sihanouk (now deceased) and his wife Queen Monineath!!

Since leaving Cambodia I have sensed a fear in my friend, that he may lose me to the unknown world where I come from.  He maintains irregular contact with me on Facebook, apparently when he can afford to visit an internet cafe and find someone to help him with an English message.  I regularly assure him of my ongoing assistance.  Our communication this week is a good example:
Hello Madam how are you and your family ? I’m good thank you, Today, I a,m, never without tourists broken today any where to pay more rent, I do not deWhen tourists visit Cambodia, Thank madam Good luc to you and you family and good health from my family !!
Hello Kosal. I am sorry to hear about the tourists not coming to Cambodia. I always remember that you need my help and I will send some money soon. Probably next week $50. Every month I send you $50 but I have to wait until my pay day. I promise I will never forget. Stay strong!  I hope the tourists will return to Cambodia soon!

I feel acutely aware of the power I wield over someone who simply lucked out around the same time that I lucked in.  Not only is it my responsibility to maintain the help I have offered, but helping offers me a sense of reward that my good fortune in and of itself, does not.  The fact that we cannot help everyone in need does not mean that we should not help anyone when it is within our means to do so.

Success in Life