Notes From A Tuk Tuk

Thongs on Tuk Tuk

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heart Strings 02

Heart Strings 02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of the Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far Flung Fishing Friends

When I first met Paula and her family, her father invited me to visit their village with the offer that he would take us out on his fishing boat.  Now that I know them well, he lives in Malaysia in order to earn enough money to continue paying off the family’s debt, incurred throughout the five years of Paula’s illness.  So the offer to go out on his fishing boat remains on hold for now.  When I last visited Kampong Cham, Paula’s brother rang me on the Saturday morning to enquire of my whereabouts.  I was able to say that I planned to visit the next day, but unable to give any detail due to our language barrier.  Dan and I arrived unannounced at about 9am, having left my fellow expatriates at the bottom of 200+ stairs leading up to a temple complex at a nearby hilltop.  A few kilometers later, a newborn baby boy was one of the first to greet me along with various villagers who I am often unsure if I’ve met before, due to the volume of people who always form my welcoming party.  It was a happy visit as always although they were disappointed that I couldn’t stay for a meal and I had to repeatedly insist that my friends were waiting for me at the nearby temple.

Dan makes a quiet and unassuming translator, quite different to Chom’s style of doubling as the paid entertainment!  I am often unsure of exactly what I am being told, usually because the assumptions behind peoples’ stories are laden with histories and perceptions that I don’t fully comprehend.  Paula and her mother talked about their memories of America, that they really wanted to stay but they could not.  Her mother said that “we travel with nothing but you travel with many bags and even your children have bags at the airport”.  A poignant observation of wealth from impoverished eyes.  Her neighbour told me that her husband works as a fisherman on boats off the Thailand coast which is “very dangerous” but he has no choice because they need to eat.  These are just daily conversations, not requests for help or for pity.

Whilst in the village I visited the parents of a young Cham woman who I met in Seattle.  She met her husband when he returned to Cambodia for a visit and she now lives near Seattle with him.  When I met her in Seattle, the conversation was amazing for both of us, as I asked where she was from?  Cambodia.  “Yes, but where in Cambodia?” Oh it’s a place called Kampong Cham.  “I know Kampong Cham, where is your home?”.  When she named Paula’s village I was surprised beyond belief and when I claimed to know this village, she was equally surprised.  Recently I told Paula’s family via Dan, that before I came to Cambodia I had never heard of Cham people, but now I feel very connected to them.

On return to the temple to meet the others, my bag fell off it’s perch behind Dan’s moto and was hit by the tuk tuk wheels underneath my seat, veering us off course so that for a moment I thought we were going to drive over a bluff into the rice fields below the elevated road.  Thankfully a small tear in my case, salvaged from the roadside a short distance behind us by an apologetic Dan, was the only damage done.  We picked the others up at the bottom of the stairs, filled with excitement at the Khmer New Year ceremony they had gate crashed by chance, on the mountain.  They had photographs galore showing hundreds of people dancing and making offerings to dozens of processional monks.

Back in Kampong Cham town we had another delicious and inexpensive market meal before our hired van met us for the drive back to Phnom Penh.  Within 2.5 hours we were arriving at the apartment gate.  That night we headed out for dinner to the historic Foreign Correspondents’ Club, an open air restaurant on the trendy tourist strip river front.  Not far from the Royal Palace, the FCC as it’s known, overlooks from its first  and second floor terraces, the massive new Sokha Hotel on the opposite shore of the Tonle Sab river.  If you had not been to that shore, which most tourists and expatriates have not, you would not know that the Sokha rises above a community of Cham fisher people, who live on small colourful wooden boats which double as their livelihood, allowing them to fish and therefore to eat, as well as to make a small income if they are lucky enough.  You also may not know, that the promontory it sits on is the junction where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers converge.  During the wet season, the Mekong delta floods push the Tonle Sap river flow backwards into the lake which swells to four or five times it’s usual size.  This is the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia, feeding some of the largest freshwater fish in the world.

Cambodia map showing the Tonle Sab and Mekong rivers meeting in Phnom Penh

Tonle Sab flow reverses into the Tonle Sab Lake during the wet season

River catfish in Cambodia, 2002. Photograph courtesy Zeb Hogan, University of Nevada

Sokha Hotel as seen from the city side of Phnom Penh

On May 24 last year I wrote a blog called Pay It Forward in which I talked of my uncle, an open sea fisherman in New Zealand who refused to take anything from me as a thank you, insisting that I “do something for Cambodia” on his behalf.  Maintaining fishing boats in a place like Cambodia is a constant challenge for their owners who need to work the boats everyday and rarely have enough money to keep them maintained.  Determining to offer repair of a fishing boat on behalf of my uncle, Bree who works with the Cham people living on the shores of the Mekong/Tonle Sab confluence, was my obvious contact.  She tells tales of severely disabled children living on these small wooden boats and spending hours everyday on the river while parents fish; of boats sinking with whole families on board; of a vigilant community constantly looking out for each other due to the dangers of their worn out boats.  Yesterday, a year after my promise to my uncle, I finally organised a boat repair on his behalf.

My day started with breakfast at Brown, a trendy coffee shop in a trendy area of town, where I met Bree who had arranged for us to meet up with Ben, the CEO of Kung Future.  We caught a tuk tuk across the river, where we met up with Ny, who had been informed of the boat repair plan and been scouting the community to determine who was most in need.  Somewhere between trendy Phnom Penh and the Mekong/Tonle Sab confluence shoreline, your perception of the world is thrown into turmoil.  When I first visited here with Bree three years ago, there was talk that the Cham people would be forced away from this shore once the hotel was built, to keep them out of sight of tourists.  The fact that the hotel remains largely unoccupied may be the reason that this threat has not been carried out.  Many dozens of empty rooms with running water and ensuite toilets watch down on this active community where dozens of families live without a single toilet.  Among their many useful interventions, Kung Future have supplied water filters so that families can drink the river water safely.  If the community move too far uphill, they are moved back down by police.  When the river waters rise, they are forced to dismantle their huts and pile the materials onto the boats.  Bree talks of visiting the community during the wet season, stepping warily on tiny patches of mud or balancing one foot in front of the other on narrow wooden planks to reach moored boats.

Life in the shadow of a near-empty hotel

Boat repair at the Tonle Sab/Mekong confluence

Bree and Ben thought we might end up visiting a community on the Tonle Sab shore, where many more boats are delapidated.  The Tonle Sab waters are calmer and less rippling than the Mekong, so once your boat becomes dangerously ramshackle it is safer to fish on the Tonle Sab.  However Ny already had a plan for a family living in the shadow of the Sokha Hotel.  On 8 April an early monsoonal storm hit Phnom Penh.  The family consisting of Mum, Dad and six children were on shore in their tarpaulin-covered bamboo hut.  The next morning Dad walked down to the water’s edge and his boat had disappeared, along with all of the paraphernalia they had stored on-board.  The story of retrieving the boat made no sense to me, as Ny tried to describe, with accompanying photographs, the lowering of large water drums which in some way helped to raise the boat off the riverbed and haul it to the surface.  It has been sitting on the shore for a month now.  The family are impoverished but functional, their children have good school attendance, thanks to their fees being covered by Kung Future.  Their parents generate a small income by selling produce from the so-called house, but without the ability to fish they have been forced to live on little else but rice for the past month.  Ny told me their story before walking with me down a packed-mud slope to the boat, filled with gaps in the wooden panels and holes in the strips of glue holding the panels together.

When she was comfortable that I agreed to this being the boat we repair, we went to meet the family.  Dad was sitting under the shade of his tarpaulin roof, on a bamboo floor suspended about 60cm off the ground.  One hand rocked a hammock hiding a sleeping baby and the other hand rested on the edge of a broken foam eskie with smoke wafting out of it’s open top.  When I looked closer, an open fire burned on stones inside this eskie, on top of which a pot of rice boiled!  When I expressed my concern at the peril of a fire in such flammable surroundings, Ny explained that it was okay as long as he did not move away and this was why he was leaning on the edge of the eskie.

Ny introduced me and talked to Dad about my uncle, who fishes in very cold sea water, jumping off his boat with a long spear and swimming around, spearing fish.  Dad listened with a smile, nodding occasionally and I wondered if he thought I was spinning him a tall tale.  We explained that my uncle wants to help a fisherman in Cambodia and that repairing the family’s boat was the choice we’d agreed upon.  This led to a photograph session just as Mum arrived on a clackity motorbike from the market.  Except the two youngest, their children were all at school.  With Mum and Dad as witnesses, I handed my envelope containing the donation to Kung Future.  Ny asked Dad to make a list of the supplies he would need so that they could go shopping together this week.  He can repair the boat himself so there will be no labour costs and he predicts it should take about a week.  I asked if I could return to see the boat once it’s fixed, and Ben announced “we can do better than that!  We will go out on the boat with him!”.

From here we wandered through the community, visiting young families, tiny stunted and malnourished children, elderly women lying down under tarpaulin shades, grandparents pulling potatoes from the ground with infants at their ankles and men working on their wooden boats.  I was a sweltering mess but it was the best morning I’ve had in ages.

Harvesting potatoes

Destined to be back on the water very soon

Standing On The Outside, Looking In

It is much more difficult in Phnom Penh, to find the impetus to write.  My accommodation is a fifth floor apartment overlooking rooftops for as far as the eye can see.  This removes me from community life somewhat although I’m slowly starting to recognise the neighbours beyond our apartment block.  We recently relocated our office to be near the clinic, in another part of town.  Now we drive to and from work in tuk tuks.  This puts us on the bustling city streets for half an hour each morning and evening, with many fascinating sights and sounds.  In work hours I find myself walking the short distance between office and clinic a number of times each day, again putting me on the always-intriguing streets.  Still, a significant amount of my spare time is spent suspended in the sky, disconnected from the community I live in.  This is not a complaint – I love the apartment and am enjoying my expatriate colleagues / housemates.  We arrive home before 6pm, I go for a swim, share a drink and meal, then hit the sack in time for another work day.  Our location and routine diminish the inclination to write.  Perhaps once I get a weekend routine going this might change.

According to The World Bank four million people were lifted out of poverty between 2005 and 2015 due to positive developments in the Cambodian agriculture sector.  Most of these people remain poor and vulnerable with a loss of US70c per day being enough to drag poor families back into poverty.  Defining and measuring these categories is a complicated discipline which I am not equipped to explain here.  My observations on poverty are that it is not always, or solely, about individual income.  Rather, there are many factors at play.  Someone with a home and secure and livable income who lives in a place where access to education or health care is limited, is still affected by poverty.  Nowhere is this more obvious, than in many of Australia’s remote indigenous communities where public facilities such as education and health care are often insufficient and people experience social and economic challenges which affect their well being and contribute to the indigenous health crisis.

An extremely common Cambodian story is that of families separated due to work commitments.  Twice a year the nation celebrates important national holidays which routinely see economic activity grind to a halt much like Christmas or Easter in western nations.  My tuk tuk friend in Siem Reap, who I call Rav here, had not seen his mother for three years despite living a mere 320km away.  His sons are now 5yo and 6yo, significantly different to the tiny boys their grandmother last saw.  Rav is probably “poor”, rather than impoverished.  He pays $40 a month for a small rented room (literally a room with a bathroom and a kitchen bench with running water on one wall).  Driving tourists to the temples makes this rent and the family’s other short term expenses do-able if he is careful, except in low season when the lack of customers turn an already competitive market into a very tight squeeze.  His income doesn’t stretch to taking time off or to the cost of tickets to travel away.  When I saw him in Siem Reap in February Rav was very low, feeling trapped by his economic circumstances and worried about his mother’s ill health.  I have regular donations from a number of friends and family and so I told him that I had some donor money I could contribute to get the family to Phnom Penh to visit his family.  At first he was reluctant but as Khmer New Year drew near, he agreed to my offer and brought his wife and sons to Phnom Penh for a three day visit.

The family met me for lunch oneday.  Rav said that his mother could no longer walk and they did not know what to do for her.  He did not know if her feet were swollen, but both feet were causing a problem.  My suspicion was liver or heart failure, which lead to fluid retention and immobility; or uncontrolled diabetes, which can lead to loss of feeling in the feet due to a build up of sugar in the bloodstream.  I suggested that she should go to hospital but they were reluctant due to hospital fees.  70% of Cambodia’s health care costs are paid for out of pocket by patients, with many thousands of already-poor people going into debt or selling assets to cover the cost of medical needs.  A large portion of the country’s population are considered vulnerable to these “health shocks”.  Paula’s family, who sold their house during her illness and whose father now lives permanently in Malaysia in order to earn enough money to continue paying off their health care debts, are an example of this cycle of poverty connected to medical care.

With their hesitance about hospital I suggested to Rav that I visit his mother.  That night at dusk, after a half hour tuk tuk drive to the edge of town, I arrived at her tiny rented room.  Rav’s two sisters with their partners and children, his mother, and he with his brood were all apparently occupying this tiny space.  Perhaps another reason that Rav doesn’t make regular visits to the family?  Lying on a bamboo mat on the floor, his mother sat up while I found a space to sit beside her.  With Rav’s translation she proceeded to give a very clear description of sciatic pain radiating from her right buttock into her groin and down the back of her right leg, with some lesser pain in the left leg.  Astoundingly I had just been discussing sciatica with a family member who had been given a low dose of Amitryptilline which alleviated their pain almost immediately.  With the assistance of a physician friend I was able to recommend the medication.  Darkness enveloped us and Rav suggested that I needed to go, as though he was concerned about my safety in his overcrowded little laneway.  The assumption of people like Rav, is that they have nothing to offer when in fact, their small acts of caring and of sharing their lives have a big impact.  It is amazing to me, to be so warmly welcomed into the homes and lives of people living so differently from me.

With many thank yous and goodbyes, the tuk tuk wended down the dirt lane and out onto the main boulevards towards home.  Phnom Penh’s outer suburbs at night are an experience unlike the Phnom Penh expat night life where well lit pavements are lively and fun but removed from the grime, congestion and poverty which most expats, despite living in this city, are far removed from.  Elsewhere in the same city, public squares are unlit and dirt-floored, chickens saunter through crowds as their cousins rotate on spits, open fires grill all sorts of meat, you inhale a fluctuating mix of barbecue smoke and exhaust fumes, markets heave with people, motos and the beat of popular music and traffic regularly grinds to a halt.

Traveling through these bustling, dimly lit neighbourhoods I pondered, as always, on the difference between my privileged and egocentric experience of the world, which comes with it’s own set of complicated disadvantages, and the world as it is experienced by most humans.  The more I see my birth entitlements, the more I see that others are no less deserving than me and that my so-called successes were really more a matter-of-course related to my privilege, than indications of real success.

Success in Life 02

Thoughts from Alice Springs

For thirteen days in Cambodia I was very busy.  I visited the MSF project I will be working on from February, a similar public health program as I currently work on here in Australia but with many more issues to contend with.  No doubt I will blog on that as and when I become involved.  My old translator picked me up on the back of his moto and took me out for dinner one night in Phnom Penh, after which we picked up his tiny son from English school.  I visited a number of other colleagues, some of whom I will be lucky enough to work with again next year; some of whom remain unemployed since the previous MSF project closed; and some of whom are working elsewhere.  All of whom treated me with generosity and hospitality that I know involved effort and sacrifice.

As usual, I grappled with my own existential issues constantly as I lived in nice hotels, ate good food, sipped wine, and had no discomfort (with the exception of humidity-and-afro-wings), whilst surrounded by fellow humans who have nothing like the luck I happened to be born into.  Phnom Penh, where I will be based at least some of the time, is busy, noisy, crowded, disorganised, with roads that turn into lakes.  Sitting in the back of a tuk tuk ploughing through deep brown puddles and afraid we might tip over, we passed children walking knee-high through the same muddy quagmires.

I told a Cambodian friend that I once found the traffic sights in his country very funny, for example, the people who sit on roofs of vans and trucks, or travel in/on overcrowded vehicles, but that I have realised it is not really funny because it means they are poor?  He replied “yes it is not so funny because they have no choice, it is the only way that they can travel”.

It’s easy to claim that indigenous people “have it lucky” compared to places like Cambodia, where hunger and destitution are inescapable.  Khmer people are on Khmer land, dominated by Khmer language and culture.  Being a visibly and culturally different minority in a place where the dominant population rule over you, own the land, own the systems, language and culture, can make for a highly diminishing existence, irrespective of the wealth of the nation you live in.

Yesterday morning Mathew’s sister and her two young children came with me to visit Matthew at our local jail.  As they talked together in language I reminisced about the time we spent together ten years ago.  In the space of eight months both of their parents were killed in violent situations.  Matthew was 11yo and his sister, witness to her father’s stabbing, was 13. That was, for me, only the beginning of what followed.  For the first time in my life I was exposed to issues around family and community obligations that don’t exist in my culture, chaos and overcrowding that are rare to my experience and understanding of the world.  Foreign child rearing practices, family disruption and an incompetent departmental response to orphaned children all became new and unfamiliar territories that I unexpectedly had to navigate, sometimes without even knowing so.  I was suddenly exposed to the effects of drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault, attended criminal court proceedings, stood up to inept social workers,  spoke out to prosecutors and magistrates, and most significantly, became an unintended foster parent to a child who foisted himself upon me when the system failed him dismally.

It is no surprise to me at all, that these two siblings, who were so forsaken, yet resilient and independent, now have struggles as young adults that someone with my privilege in life can only imagine.  There-but-for-the-grace-of-fortune-go-I could be my life’s motto, whether I think of Cambodia, East Timor, Central Australia, or many other places and situations.

My flight home out of Phnom Penh departed at 5pm.  That morning Samantha and Chom, two of my best friends in Cambodia, joined me in the luxurious foyer of my hotel where we sat on red cushions underneath ceiling fans surrounded by green gardens, marble floors, tropical timber ceilings and a pool beside the open air restaurant.  They were visibly dazzled by the lavish setting and shocked by the menu prices (about $7pp, per meal).  Samantha brought her two children.  She expected 3yo “Adam”, severely incapacitated by his terminal genetic neurological condition, to be irritable and unhappy away from home.  Instead he lay silently for hours, settled and comfortable.  The hotel staff spoke to us at length with a lot of questions about and interest in Adam.  When I went to pay for lunch they gave me a 10% discount.  Upon asking why, I was informed “because you look after Khmer people, you are our special guest”.  Again Cambodia, with the generosity and kindness!

We Can Survive Another Day

When you get as old as me everyone starts to look young.  Over 50% of the Cambodian population are under the age of 24 years old.  Coming from a country where 40% of the population are over 50 years old, it is no wonder that I spend my life wondering why I’m surrounded by twelve year olds.  These are typical demographic differences between the rich and the poor world.

The American hospital have agreed to cover the costs of Paula’s charity care!  Now we are at the nitty gritty stage – where will she stay during her convalescence, is there a Cham community who we might connect them with, how can we provide a guarantee to the hospital that they won’t be held responsible for any non-treatment expenses.  Once these details are nutted out we will move to the passport/visa stage.  It continues to seem as though she could be looking at an unexpectedly hopeful future.  Although life is dicey in her frail and vulnerable state – yesterday she attended an appointment in town but was dizzy and unwell and had to leave quickly to get home and lie down.  Anything could happen before she reaches the treatment which could save her.

Yesterday morning Chaz and I ate breakfast together.  As we finished off our eggs he said “we can survive another day now”.  I assumed he was referring to our attending another work meeting and muttered something about how we’ll be done by lunchtime.  He realised my confusion and said “In Cambodia this is what we always say to each other.  We ate a meal so now we can survive another day.  Tomorrow we will look for more food”.  Not a phrase my food-overloaded perspective could have understood without his translation!  We attended our final meeting at a city based organisation before he headed home on the midday bus in time for work today.  The tuk tuk dropped him off at the bus before delivering me to my hairdresser.  Only the salon was locked up.  So I popped into the cafe over the road and asked the waiter if said hairdresser (who I haven’t been to in almost a year) was still there.  The answer, “Yes!  But he open at 10 o’clock.  But now is 11 o’clock.  Because last night he was too much party”.  Hmmm…. perhaps not the best day to have my hair done?  I sat in the cafe for a couple of hours hoping he might show, before deciding to try again today.

Last night I arranged to meet up with Dara’s parents who I’ll call Rita and Nathan.  They are now working on a large building site in Phnom Penh.  Dara was recently in town for a hospital appointment about his leg, but has since returned home to his grandparents’ village.  As I walked out of the hotel, at the corner 100 metres away a young guy in a red t-shirt appeared, raised both arms into the sky as though he was surrendering to an army, and shouted “Tuk tuk Madame?”.  While I focussed on ignoring him, he disappeared around the corner.  A few seconds later he reappeared, chugging towards me in his tuk tuk, beaming a bright smile.  We negotiated a deal including to wait for me at my destination and bring me home.  I rang Rita’s number and he spoke to her for directions, before putting out into the harmoniously unharmonised traffic of this city of extreme contradictions.  Wealth mingles with poverty, designer motorbikes burn past hand pulled trash carts, guards walk into the middle of busy roads and blow whistles at oncoming traffic to give right of way to massive SUVs, beggars bow their heads humbly at patrons in expensive restaurants hoping to scrounge enough to buy a morsel with.  This city is a microcosm of everything that is wrong in today’s world.  As many battle to survive, others battle to make a dent in the injustices, while a few powerful individuals appear to have lost their hearts in favour of their egos.

Last week an Italian tourist sat with me at wine o’clock and bored me to tears about the destruction he believes immigrants are wreaking on Europe.  I listened in silence, wondering at the mentality of such thinking as he droned on about having been in the military and where he’s travelled etc.  Chai, the blind amputee, arrived on his nightly rounds and Chom joined us to have a quick talk with him about 2 metres from where Mister Italy was sitting.  I returned to my seat and without so much as drawing a breath, he returned to his monologue about himself.  There is no point arguing with an ego I will never see again, so I sat silently and thought about just how much he had in common with Chai, who sustained his injuries as a soldier at a time when they would have both been in their respective military jobs.  But being poor, foreign and visibly disabled, Chai was immediately beneath Mister Italy to even warrant a mention of interest.  His loss in my view!

As we approached the general vicinity of Rita and Nathan’s abode, a tall construction site came into view and Tuk Tuk Madame (TTM) spoke to them again.  For a surprisingly long period of time.  When he finally handed my phone back he explained that Rita was not able to tell him her location and had taken the phone to Nathan, who had a better idea.  Neither of them were able to give clear directions, which I explained was because they moved to Phnom Penh for work about a month ago, they are not from the city and do not read or write.  Nevertheless, we found ourselves on the right road and a young man who I recognised as Rita’s young brother, waved us down.  I’ll call him Phil.  He was standing beside the pitted bitumen track over the road from a multi-storey construction site with an older man who also seemed to recognise me, I guess because I only ever saw him from underneath his krama as he worked along the riverside in Kampong Cham.

The construction site over the road from us was alive with workers milling in and out under dim lights.  Thankfully, noone appeared to be working on the upper levels of the building framework.  On our side of the road a tall, makeshift fence of corrugated sheets obstructed the view of the corner block.  An opening between two of the iron sheets provided an entranceway through which workers were coming and going, obviously in and out from some sort of living quarters.  Via TTM the men said Rita was “at the bathroom”, so we waited for a while before TTM said “You can go in there if you want, but they said it is very dirty”.  No problem.  I followed them in through the opening, Phil lighting our way with his mobile phone.  A long muddy path was laid with wooden planks acting as bridges over the soggiest patches.  About halfway along Rita appeared, her hair wet, hugging me as she motioned that she had rushed home from work and washed as quickly as she could.

At the end of the path I entered another Shackville, only this temporary city of squalor, obviously housing hundreds, made Kampong Cham’s Shackville look positively swank.  Men and women wrapped in kramars were bathing at an open air communal “bathroom”, consisting of wooden platforms over the mud, large rainwater tubs and hand held plastic pots.  Below is the closest photograph I can find on the internet to show how people bathe at these open air public water supplies.

Cambodian bath

Past the “bathroom”, the “housing” began.  A busy estate of makeshift shacks made from various combinations of tin, plywood, wood and anything else that can provide shelter and privacy, all raised one high step above the muddy ground.  I was guided into an area underneath a large tin-roofed structure similar to, although much longer than, the open-air shed-like frame in the photograph below (sourced from the internet).  Instead of housing park benches, the shelter has been converted into many dozens of cubicles divided by thin walls of plywood, plastic sheeting and tin.  A muddy path runs through the length of the structure, like a tiny street dividing it down the centre.  On either side we passed many doorways opening into cubicles of about 2 metres squared with walls ending about halfway to the tin roof.  About halfway along we climbed into the little cubicle where Rita and Nathan now live.  A television blared in one corner, a rice cooker sat beside it and above us a square plank of wood balanced on the edges of the walls, taking up half of the overhead space just above head-height, used as a storage shelf.  They sleep on the plywood platform floor a step above the dirt.  In the dark I could not see beyond the dimly lit cubicle we sat in, to tell where the electricity was sourced from but I doubt it’s permanent or safe.

tin roof shelter

Nathan joined us for a while before returning to a group of men perched on a wooden log near the door just outside from us.  He reached up to the overhead shelf and pulled out Dara’s hospital appointment card and leg x-rays, pre-and-post his operation, to show me.  Phil and another young man sat in the doorway with their eyes glued to the television, listening in on our conversation occasionally.  A young woman joined us from one of the nearby cubicles, beaming at me and saying something I didn’t understand.  Eventually I rang Chom to get some translations of the conversation and it turned out the young woman was saying “I came to meet you because I never met a foreigner who can speak Khmer”.  Funny that, given that I had no idea what she was saying because I DON’T speak Khmer!

At one point they were talking about their work, climbing a ladder onto the multi-storey building frame and I was horrified at the image of them all those storeys up with no safety equipment to protect them.  I made a stupid joke with my hands, showing someone falling from a height and landing on the ground below.  They laughed but with a certain awkwardness.  Rita showed me her calloused hands and nodded when I asked if she wears her thongs up the ladder.  Later in the night I learned that so far, three people have plummeted to their deaths from this one construction site alone.  Part of my shock included the bad taste of joking about such a thing when I should have known better.  They earn $5 per day for their efforts – 7am until 6pm, seven days a week.  A friend in Kampong Cham tells me that “some offical people” use very bad words “against poor people”, calling them names which are “not even fit for humans”.  It’s difficult to grasp where such mentality comes from but seems to be a common human phenomenon to value human beings based on their status in society.

While he was on the phone I asked Chom to check if Rita wanted to come and eat something with me and her reply “Dov!  Dov!  Dov!” translated as “she really really REALLY want”.  Nathan stayed behind to watch over their cubicle of possessions which are safe during the day when most people are working, but more vulnerable at night to theft.  Phil came with us.  Walking out through the mud tracks, I was surprised to see young children and babies living in this workers’ slum and wondered many things, from how they manage to look so clean in such dire living conditions, to if and how they get their vaccinations.  A public health nurse would have a field day providing basic services to these people!

We reached the street and TTM jumped to attention.  I climbed aboard but Rita and Phil waited in the distance until I waved them over.  Giggling and whispering to each other, it became apparent that going to a restaurant in a tuk tuk was some sort of treat.  I assumed they would lead us to a nearby restaurant but when TTM asked where we were going they said they did not know any restaurants.  They eat rice out of the rice cooker in their cubicle for every meal and do not go out to restaurants.  I wonder if they have anything with their rice?  We did a u-turn and a couple of blocks away found a local corner restaurant to eat at.  TTM asked “It’s okay for you to eat this food?”.  Yes, no problem!  TTM sat on his tuk tuk waiting and we went in.  None of us able to read Khmer, I pointed to the only photographs on the menu and ordered – frog, pork, quail and rice.  Followed by an inward sigh of relief when they said they were out of frog!  We shared a happy, broken-Khmer meal together before dropping them back at Slumville.

The trip home was filled with contemplations and a very enjoyable chat with TTM, about many things including his baby son (“I VERY love him!”), the state of inequality in Cambodia between the super rich minority and super poor majority, his aspirations for a decent future, etc.  I returned to my boutique garden hotel with it’s private pool, ordered a red wine and spent the rest of my evening trying to come to terms with this world of haves and have-nots.  My sleep was disturbed by nightmares of Rita plummeting to her death after I made that stupid-stupid joke.