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.