The Excruciating Fundraiser

My heart sinks in Australia whenever I get a cold call at home, or accosted in the streets by charities looking for donations.  Ditto when friends write saying they have a cause and would I donate?  It is not possible to help everyone and the phenomenon of donor fatigue is something I experience on a regular basis, particularly from Australia, where I can quickly feel disconnected from the need that I see here in Cambodia.  From within Cambodia it is quite the opposite, you could almost say I’m plagued by donor impulse here!  But I identify well with donor fatigue and I understand what my friends are experiencing when they see yet another appeal coming from my general vicinity.  This is what makes me loathe what I call The Excruciating Fundraiser.

On that note, I hope anyone reading this understands that my sharing this story is not to make you feel obliged, pressured or judged in any way.  Read it as a story of interest.  And if you are inclined to donate, then do; if not, no problem.  If you are inclined to share it with others then do; if not, no problem.  It really is interesting to know this story though, and if you click on the link you can watch a very touching video that was filmed before the family received the help that has since seen some improvement in their situation.

This project involves a single mother of 4 who broke her ankle >2 years ago now.  I talked about her in Bongs and Tycoons.  She walked on the bone for over a year because she couldn’t afford to seek medical care. This obviously did further damage. She finally sought care at a South Korean charity hospital, but has to pay to get there and for any medicines and tests – it’s just the doctor’s consultation that is free.  The surgery is much cheaper than it otherwise would be, but has (and will) still cost her. These small things have put strain on her financially and at one point, for an extended period her 13yo son was out of school in order to walk the streets pushing a cart selling clams and banana fritters.  Since getting to know this family my perception of the many similar street vendors in Phnom Penh has changed.  Where once they were mysterious, appealing and sometimes funny, now they are all these things while I also contemplate on what led to them purchasing a steel cart to wander the streets through traffic as a way to earn money.  Even more so when the seller is elderly, very young or visibly disabled, which is often the case.  No doubt every one of them has a story worth sharing.

In May this year Mum was climbing the rickety ladder from the door of her elevated wooden shack to the ground (about 2 metres high) when she slipped through the gaps to the ground, breaking the steel fixer pin holding her bone together! So now she is walking around with a broken pin in her bone.  When I visit her, I physically tremble climbing up and down this ladder with it’s rotting rungs.

We got involved when a friend shared the video with me and asked if I could find her because a wealthy businesswoman wanted to offer her some money. I met her and took the family out for a meal (pizza – if you watch the video or read the earlier post you’ll know why). Then I met her again with the businesswoman’s daughter and nephew, who gave her an extremely generous donation which is going towards the expenses of her ongoing medical consultations. She has to have repeat surgery in September and meanwhile needs to travel to consultations weekly, pay for medicines, tests and transport etc.

The doctors have told her the only hope for a reasonable recovery is if she rests her leg.  With no back up welfare system here, she has no choice but to work – except for the fact that she has since had this help, meaning that at the moment she can rest (but she has a 2yo daughter, so can’t stay off her leg the whole time). So we are trying to help by raising enough money to get her into a ground level home that is not dangerous (her elevated shack is very dangerous, the ceiling leaks during rainfall, some of the ladder rungs are rotting, the floor slopes and feels soft underfoot in places), plus have a carer for the baby during school hours when her sons cannot help her, plus replace the income she cannot earn.

We will need a minimum of $4,000 to make this possible for her, for about six months post-surgery. So far we’re only a quarter of the way there.

See the link created by my MSF colleague / housemate and watch the video if you are interested in just one of the many stories that surround me, provoking my constant battle with Donor Impulse.

The Excruciating Fundraiser

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.

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A first they thought would never happen: eating pizza

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Hijinx in the restaurant car park with baby sister

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 Frangipinis Above Me: Part 1

A friend was telling me the other day about her experience on a medical mission in Haiti.  In 2010 a catastrophic earthquake killed at least 100,000 people, maimed many more and destroyed existing infrastructure and services.  Many countries responded with humanitarian aid.  By the time my friend’s mission began, some years later, she witnessed examples of what unsustainable humanitarian aid can leave behind.  Lives can be saved at the expense of abandoning people with chronic needs when well resourced, short term services withdraw.  My friend saw people with conditions which would be treatable with appropriate ongoing medical intervention but which, in a place so destroyed, left victims behind to exist with harrowing illnesses and deformities and no treatment or assistance.  She wondered aloud at the ethics of providing assistance which is not sustainable.  In turn, it made me wonder at the ethics of the appeal that acute disasters seem to hold (at least from media attention and donor interest angles), over chronic adversity which is no less damaging to it’s victims.

When Caz was in Cambodia she claimed that “Helen adopts tuk tuk drivers”.  It is beginning to feel as though she was right!  I hate negotiating prices and I like having some sort of rapport with the person driving me around, so I tend to find someone I like and stick with them.  This inevitably results in my having “a tuk tuk in every port”, so to speak.  I have bonded with drivers in a number of different places, been introduced to families, eaten at peoples’ homes and referred to as “bong srey” (older sister) and “mak” (mother) many times.

The thing that bonded me to “Rav”, my guy in Siem Reap, was his willingness to help when Kim asked him to translate for us.  He was kind, enthusiastic and humble, giving nothing away about himself such that I figured he was probably living a comfortable life.  It was only after we’d spent some significant time together, that I slowly learned he was just as poor as Kim, who he was helping so earnestly.  It was one of my Cambodian unraveling experiences, where I began to comprehend that poverty does not have a face, and that the people who are most helping the poor, are the poor themselves.

When I was last in Siem Reap there were four of us with occasional competing interests meaning that we needed two tuk tuks.  My friends were at the temples with Rav when I arrived so he arranged his good friend “Seth” to meet me at the bus station and bring me to the hotel.  Soon enough I had another tuk tuk adoptee.  A young father of four, he lives with his parents at his brother in law’s home “in a very small space”.  Rav had obviously told him about me, as he already knew about the school sponsorship of Rav’s sons, the crowdfund I did for Rav’s motorbike and the help I’d given Kim until recently.

Last week Seth sent me a distraught message with a photograph of his son in a hospital bed, saying “the dogs in my street have better life than my sons”.  I couldn’t understand much of it and he apologised that he could not explain “because my English so bad”.  Win was nearby so I asked him to call and the story came back that his 6yo son had been attacked by a swarm of wasps.  The hospital treated his son without charge so I still did not really understand how I could be of help, only that he seemed to think that in some way, I could be.

With the Kings Birthday weekend upon us, I had things to do in Kampong Cham.  Siem Reap is always a relaxing place to visit thanks to my favourite hotel in Cambodia being here.  So I said I might come to Siem Reap at the weekend, from Kampong Cham.  Such snap decisions are just another example of the freedoms in my life.

Last Christmas some extended family in Australia pooled their present money together and sent it to me instead of buying each other presents.  I’ve mentioned this before, and my plan to buy a cow with the gift, for John (remote villager with a probably-Polio-deformed leg) and his wife Sarah.  On Saturday I arrived in Kampong Cham in time for lunch before Dan picked me up for some jaunts through the countryside.  We started with a visit to the “house that Caz built”, where the family are very happy and have asked for a framed photograph of me to put on their wall!  Not a project I am feeling terribly inspired by!  For the first time in their lives they have a toilet and electricity; and after years of living on the edge, Simona (blind widowed mother of two young daughters) can safely move around without threat of her house structure breaking underneath her.

Village 1 House 02

Dan, Project Manager, standing on the steps of the finished product. New toilet just visible to the right and back of the home.

We then made our way back into town and via the bus station for my ticket to Siem Reap, then continued out towards Dara’s village.  Passing the Little House in Rice Fields, Dan called out to the excited children that we would stop in on our way back from Dara’s home, a short way further along.  At Dara’s home I was met with a bunch of about 15 wide-eyed village children looking dumb struck at me.  Luckily I’d thought to bring a bunch of 3D bookmarks from Australia which have been sitting in wait of just such a moment and even luckier, there appeared to be enough for everyone.  Much excitement was generated when the children realised that by moving the bookmark slightly, they could make the kangaroos in the photograph jump!  Dara’s mother said that he was having problems getting to school, about 1km away, as his friends don’t always want to take him on the carrier of their bike.  I agreed to donating a bicycle to him and the next morning before catching the bus, Dan and I made our way to a second hand bicycle dealer.  Before I’d left Kampong Cham, Dara and his parents had arrived in town to pick up his new wheels.

Bicycle 06 cropped

Two wheels going home on two wheels with three humans, a pretty ordinary sight really!

Leaving Dara’s home, we made our way back down the dusty track, past many little houses in soaking rice fields, towards John and Sarah’s home, as I studied every cow we passed.  Once more, Sarah was not home.  She is employed as a construction worker now, in Kampong Cham.  She leaves home before 7am and returns to the family after 6pm, with no days off.  It is hard to imagine this tiny pretty woman working on a construction site, but it’s a common phenomenon across Cambodia.  His disability precludes John from being able to make such a contribution to the family’s income so he stays home with the children.  I came with colouring books and a set of pencils, whose approval rating soared immediately.

I also came with cow money.  We discussed our business deal with Dan as translator and everyone understands that Collins, named after the family who donated the money, is my cow, but her progeny will belong to John and Sarah, whose idea this novel business plan came from.  Once Collins has had a baby, John and Sarah will identify someone in or near their village who is as needy as them, who can take over the care of Collins and earn ownership of her next baby.  I’m unsure how many times I can expect Collins to procreate on this plan, perhaps twice might be the limit, we will have to see.  The following day Dan forwarded me photographs of Collins and her transport home.  The seller wanted US$740 for her, but agreed to negotiate down to $700 including transport, in Dan’s exact words, “to help the poor family”.  The photograph of the seller, standing on a dusty track in her wrap around skirt and matching blouse, didn’t exactly suggest signs of a non-poor-family, but she did have US$700 in her hand, more than most around here have ever touched.

On the way home we stopped in to visit the Phter Koma children at their new digs.  I guess we sat for maybe an hour, under a tree as the sun drew slowly towards the horizon.  The children are doing well in school, settled with their new abode and carers, and all very keen that I take them “skiing” (skating) or swimming next time, so we’ll arrange that.  They always understand when all I can offer is a quick visit and never seem anything but happy to see me.  Some of them are approaching adulthood, at 17 and 18 years old; the younger ones are changing before my eyes, having growth spurts and their little faces transforming out of the cherubic stage.

The final colouring books and pencils caused a stir with the children of the cleaner at my hotel, who live next door to the hotel and who I have known for about three years now.  Their father is in prison as a subject of the infamous “government crackdown” on drugs, I don’t know the story behind that.  Their mother, as a consequence, is working two jobs; cleaning by day and waiting on restaurant tables until 10pm each night.  Her 12yo daughter plays second mother to the four younger children.  I spent an evening being asked whose colouring was “good or not?” as little heads concentrated on doing the best job possible.  It seems they go to bed hungry so when I was ready for some Me Time, I ordered three takeaway fried rices which were scooped up hastily with pencils and all small people suddenly vanished from my exhausting but very happy day.

Colouring for blog 02

Sharing the Love Bug

Perched on the toilet in an open air bamboo treehouse on a hillside above the seaside village of Kep last week, a short wall separated the smells and sounds of my dysenteric squirts from a sleeping Caz.  I’m poolside at our Phnom Penh hotel now while she sleeps off her third bout of squirts in as many weeks, in another shared room upstairs.  We were in Kampong Cham for the last four nights, where we decided to have a room each for the first time since the holiday began over three weeks ago.  Thanks to our joint bouts of diarrhoea, there is little decorum left between us and tonight it seems will be her turn to relinquish her dignity yet again.  I remain hopeful that perhaps I’m immune to the latest invading bug.

A couple of my family/friends added (very generously) to the house fund, but Caz and her networks have been instrumental in funding the majority (US$3,000).  We knew by the weekend that we had enough for the build to proceed, so we got Dan to take us out to “Eye Village” to let them know, find a builder and talk logistics.  I’m not sure how they knew we were coming but Dan informed us we were invited to lunch, so he must have forewarned them that good news was on it’s way.  The family’s usual over-enthusiasm greeted us, which I interpret as a sign of their desperation.  Meeting people from “the other world” when you live in such despair, would naturally arouse an excitement, but being the object of their adulation sits very uncomfortably with me.  I am merely their equal, I want for them to see themselves as such, and I feel for them that they are so convinced of their lowly status in life thanks to never knowing anything but destitution.

We entered the “big house”, where a baked whole chook (head, feet and all) sat on a tray alongside a chicken stew, a pot of rice, a bowl of pepper with lime juice and a bowl of fermented fish sauce.  Sitting on the bamboo slat floor around the tray of food, we were instructed to eat, eat, eat!  This delayed the news we had to share, but with lunch polished off I started the conversation.  I explained that my friends and family were already giving me a lot of money to help other people, so Caz had approached her family and friends, who had donated enough for the family to have their small, decaying second home replaced.

Outside we scrutinised the termite-ridden supporting poles of the big house.  In November just before he died, Joe expressed concern to me that his house could fall down because of these gorged supports.  Next door we checked out the smaller (so-called) home.  Simona has lived here since it was put together at the time of her marriage six years ago, but it is very unsafe.  She would not let us climb the ladder up to the inside, intimating that the whole house could fall apart with our weight (admittedly neither of us are Cambodian Sized!).  She then walked away, returning a short time later with a young man who was introduced as the husband of their cousin, and a builder.  Caz talked to him about costs and the plan was formulated.  The “big house”, now 30yo, will get new support poles; the “shack” will be replaced with a small, sturdy bamboo house; a toilet built for both homes to share; electricity will be connected to both houses.  The builder walked us a short way up the dirt lane, to a small house he built last year.  Bamboo and wood with a tin roof, this house is probably identical to the one he will build for Simona and her daughters.

We continued walking through the village.  Along the way Caz stopped to add various instructions based on the house models we were passing – guttering like this, a water tank like that.  We were led up the stairs into Joe’s sister’s home where a large crowd of family joined us on the bamboo floor.  Not understanding much of what was being said, I felt we were semi-oblivious, but that the gathering was the extended family’s way of meeting and thanking us.  It was a happy, almost party atmosphere.

Dan, employed as Project Manager, met with us today before we left Kampong Cham.  Plans were confirmed and money exchanged hands before he dropped us to the bus.  He planned to travel to the village to speak with the builder.  As we arrived in Phnom Penh Caz received a message from him “I hope you are already in PP.  The start of our project will be tomorrow”.  We feel we are missing out on the excitement, but we’ll likely be able to return to Kampong Cham in the next few weeks and see the finished product.  With any luck, before her Cambodian holiday ends at the end of next month, Caz will have photographs to share with her donors (and me with mine!).

Quick Cambodia Visit: Kim

So many things happened in my recent whirlwind 13 day visit to Cambodia, only 2 months before I return there to live and work.  There was no time to write about it while I was there and I barely know where to start now.  I’ll post a series of chapters covering most of what happened.

Kim sat across the table from me, under the whir of a ceiling fan suspended from the overhead timber beams of a tropical verandah skirting the edges of a restaurant in Siem Reap.  He ordered a Coca Cola on my tab as Rav sat down, refusing a drink but agreeing to translate.  I wasn’t going to use Rav for this conversation because I thought it could compromise their friendship.  Fully aware of the problem, Kim brought Rav along.  Rav has always translated for us, so that appeared to be Kim’s permission, although it may also have been his attempt to manipulate me away from having the expected and difficult conversation.  I told Rav “I need to talk to Kim because he told me he had no money for rent but then I found out his rent was already paid by someone”.  Rav turned to Kim and spoke.  Kim replied and Rav translated “He want to send his daughter to English school”.  Yes, I am sure but I am not here to talk about that, I am here to talk about the lie that he told me because I cannot help if he tells me lies and he said he needed money for rent when he didn’t”.  Rav translated this.  Kim looked at the table without replying.

He let me say my piece, which included understanding that he needs more than the small assistance I had reliably sent for 2.5 years, but when he lies I cannot trust him anymore and cannot help if I don’t trust him.  Sitting in silence, he offered no explanation or apology.  Rob, the other Australian involved in assisting Kim, was also in Siem Reap and I asked after him.  Kim replied that Rob had visited their home while Kim was out and left his number with his wife.  He gave me the number but later when I called, it was the wrong number.  I located Rob via PM on Facebook and he joined me under cover of another restaurant verandah during a tropical downpour.  We shared a drink and compared stories.  Rob has known Kim almost five years and knows his tricks.  He was not surprised that Kim denied having seen him, before producing photographs taken days earlier of them lunching together!

Kim’s life is unimaginably difficult.  Someone who has been so severely disabled since his youth and has relied on manipulating charity out of others in a place where he has no power or respect from many fellow humans, must have his reasons for trusting lies over honesty, to get what he needs.  Rob continues to support him, using strategies he can employ whilst living in the vicinity, such as paying the rent and keeping his wife fully informed so that she knows their budget.  I am not in the same position and also not prepared to engage further.   The final nail came for me when Rob told a story about paying Kim’s rent for a month, just before Kim contacted a friend of Rob’s in Australia to say he needed money for rent!  Dedicated to seeking charity through manipulating people with lies, Kim appears to have accepted that the relationship with me is over.

I don’t regret having helped Kim.  He was the first Cambodian person I engaged with in this way and he taught me many things.  That donors can be exploited is a very common theme in my world, and often one which justifies not helping when we can, because perhaps we’ll be fleeced.  In all of my extreme privilege, I will never be fleeced in the ways that Kim has been throughout his most unfortunate life.  As Mum said to me when his behaviour first came to light, “you do have to wonder what  your priorities would be if you were him – telling the truth or ensuring your family had enough to eat?”.  There is no end to the complexity of human nature, and even more so when we are forced into lives of depravity.