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.
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.
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.