This Week’s First World Problem

Near one of my work locations a 3 year old girl sits in grandad’s tuk tuk with him everyday for the six hours that grandma spends at work as a cleaner.  It is a busy road and I have always joked that I think this is the road where I will die.  Phnom Penh’s footpaths are crowded with parked vehicles and shop stalls so pedestrians become a part of the mix in the traffic chaos.  Standing aside to let bigger vehicles pass by and brushing up against moto drivers is normal.

I always stop at the parked tuk tuk to say hello to my little friend as I walk  past.  The other day with my phone and some cash in a small clutch purse, I said farewell to her at the tuk tuk.  She has taken to kissing me goodbye on the cheek.  As we said goodbye I laughingly turned away from her as a moto driver no more than about 20yo came towards me on the wrong side of the road. This was not unusual until he brushed his hand along my arm.  With barely enough time to wonder why he was touching me, he gently took the wallet from my hand and accelerated across the road.

Opportunistic muggings are the most common type of robbery in Cambodia, with teams on motorbikes working together to snatch and grab items.  One of our cleaners recently came off her motorbike when a team of young men pulled her bag, sending her crashing to the ground.  She broke a leg, a bone in her shoulder and lost a tooth.  This is not an uncommon outcome of bag snatching.  So I consider myself beyond lucky to have experienced such a gentle robbery.

Not knowing any of the right words to shout, I stood speechlessly pointing at him in the distance, collected my thoughts in time to read his license plate number and ran to work for English speaking help.  When two colleagues and I returned to ask for grandad’s tuk tuk service to the police station, my little friend was furrow-browed and worried.  I imagine it was not the first time she’s seen the seedier side of life, nor will it be the last, despite her own family being perfectly respectable.  A side effect of being born into poverty, is that you’re not protected from the outside world the way we are when we live in comfort.

Grandad drove us to the nearest police station.  A house converted to an office, with a few people in the yard who told us they were not responsible for robberies and we should go to a second station to make our report.  The second station referred us to a third.  I was surprised to learn that I pass by these police stations regularly and had never noticed them.  Their blue signage is in Khmer and there are almost no police vehicles in Phnom Penh, certainly not at the stations, despite a presence of heavily armed military police, particularly near the Prime Minister’s home and office buildings.  Still lunchtime, a lone bare-chested staff member sat on a plastic chair in the austere concrete floored garage, watching television.  My colleagues informed him of why we were there and he pointed to a telephone number on the wall.

A short telephone conversation ensued and within about five minutes the responsible person arrived on a private moto, in khaki clothes.  He found the right forms and completed them in Khmer based on what my colleagues and then the tuk tuk driver, visibly uncomfortable inside a police station, informed him on my behalf.  The plate number I had memorised was incomplete so he did not write it down at all.  There were no computers in any of the stations we visited which were furnished with old wooden desks, hammocks slung between posts and layers of dust.  I got a clear impression that no investigation would be carried out.  The form was signed with my thumb in red ink.  At least a copy is available for insurance purposes, perhaps the only real use of reporting it to the police?

Friends have nearly all since told me that often thieves and police work together, with police taking a cut of any spoils in exchange for impunity.  The police know who their local thieves are and everyone has suggested that my mugger had probably followed me for a while, getting to know my routine so that he could know when to pounce.  This seems likely given that he happened past me just as I was walking away from my little tuk tuk friend after lunch – a daily routine.  It also probably suggests he is local to the area which doesn’t help me as I walk the streets now, and I need to stop obsessing with finding him vigilante-style!

Reading what I can about the police in Cambodia, I have learned that, as with all government staff, police are some of the country’s lowest paid workers.  The salary of government staff, be it doctors, teachers, administration or cleaners, is not enough to live on, meaning that people are forced to supplement their incomes.  Positions are sold to the best candidates, and the money trickles up through the ranks systematically.  The benefit of government work is that once you have a position, it is lifelong and includes a small pension beyond retirement, which is unavailable to most.  For doctors this means that all medical care is user-pays, with fees for every test, investigation and treatment openly displayed on hospital walls.  For nurses it means that patients wanting any intervention, prescribed or otherwise, will have better luck if some small amount of cash exchanges hands.  Most doctors and nurses also have their own private practices or pharmacy dispensaries, where they work afternoons unless allocated “on duty” at their government job.  In the police force, supplemental income is available through fees for writing reports or, as everyone openly states, collaborating with petty criminals.  There was no mention of paying this guy any fee for writing my report.

Today my Facebook wall includes stories from a friend who is visiting Copenhagen from Australia; another in Oslo from London; another on Lake Titicaca from Australia; my cousin who was recently in Cambodia from Australia; a friend who traveled via Cambodia for a few days en route to Myanmar; another friend who has been at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne; and the list of travels and fun seems endless.  All of them are hard working, ordinary people.

Those hard working, ordinary people from the rich world enjoying everything that life has to offer, are not any different from my hard working, ordinary friends and colleagues in Cambodia.  The single difference is that one group were born in a strong economy with functioning institutions, while the other group exist in a micro, trickle-up economy.  When survival is your main focus, being forced to work inside a corrupt system victimises people as much as being a customer of corruption.  A friend once told me “I don’t like it when the People From The Sky accuse my country of corruption and point to me like it is my fault.  I am not the corruption.  I am the victim of the corruption and if I can fix it then why can’t the People From The Sky, who know so much, fix it?”.  His frustration was palpable and I could not agree more with the sentiment.

To quote Michael Wunsch in his January 2017 article, The Significance of First World Problems, privileges of those of us in the rich world include well-paying jobs, functioning institutions, access to education, freedom of speech and seven types of chocolate ice cream in stores.  Part of being someone with these privileges must surely include fighting to keep them for ourselves; and fighting for those who don’t have the same privileges.

These thoughts remind me of the Australian government’s collusion with the Cambodian regime in 2014, when a $55 million agreement was negotiated in secret for the relocation of refugees detained on Nauru, to Cambodia.  (The Cambodia Agreement).  A monumental failure for everyone but the Cambodian authorities, three or four refugees have so far made their way to Cambodia under the agreement.  Only one remains here which comes as no surprise given the nation’s incapacity to look after their own, let alone vulnerable people from elsewhere.  Are our two governments so different?  One is perhaps doing what the other would do if they could find a way to break down our established and functioning systems, enough?

Advertisements

An Epidemic The World Needs

Einstein on Empathy~ quoted in Born to Love

As an expat living in Phnom Penh it is perfectly easy to ignore the poverty that the people surrounding you are immersed in.  Two nights ago I walked through a crowded Night Market making my way towards colleagues at a Sky Bar above the market.  A detached bystander weaving through the throngs, I declined the advances of a few beggars and sellers.  With a jolt of surprise at the mass of squirming fish in shallow metal bowls, drowning on a sea of bitumen, I took a sharp turn into a dark alleyway.  Did the man saying “Hello” to me from a plastic chair near the entrance even know there was a bar upstairs?  Was he guarding the entrance to ensure only a select few with the right profile were entering or was he merely sitting in his usual spot watching the world go by?

At the top of the stairs I approached the bar and ordered a $5 glass of wine.  That’s more than most traders working into the night two storeys below us could hope to make in a day.  But they were out of sight now.  From the open air verandah you look out across the single-storey, multi-coloured, rusted tin sheets crammed ruggedly together to form a patchwork roof over the block-sized marketplace, to scattered high rise apartment blocks beyond.  Looking across poverty to prosperity; across the foreign to the familiar.

The open air bar was crammed with people all enjoying our affluence, who had all entered via the Night Market below.  Every one of us knew we were two storeys above a mass of bustling traders existing in a micro-economy but it seemed no obstacle to our indulgence.  My national colleagues’ reference to “People From The Sky” seemed a pertinent phrase from this elevated position.  [Some of my Khmer friends talk about “the people from the sky”, who fly in, dominate with an air of superiority for their chosen amount of time, then fly out again].

A housemate once told me when I was studying indigenous health and planning to move to Alice Springs to work, that “you are enjoying indigenous health now but once you work with them you’ll soon change your mind”.  His comments proved to be very wrong, but they reflected an attitude I have encountered for more than 20 years now, that indigenous people deserve their disadvantage through their own individual choices.  So it comes as no surprise to learn that in Cambodia, some who prosper also malign the impoverished as deserving of their plight and undeserving of support or empathy.  This belief evades recognition that systems and institutions will favour some while excluding and even repressing others, based on factors that are often beyond an individual’s control.  Perhaps the issue is too abstract when black-and-white thinking is a much easier way for us to comprehend the world’s complexities.

Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and Maia Szalavitz, a journalist, describe this phenomenon well in their book Born For Love.  Expressly, from the book’s introduction, “There’s been a recent explosion of scientific research ….. that show how empathy and the caring it enables are an essential part of human health …..  Empathy remains both intensely important and widely misunderstood ….. Though Americans especially like to proclaim independence, our health, creativity, productivity, and humanity emerge from our interdependence ….. The <ability to empathise> helped us become one of the most successful species on earth.  We survive because <we can empathise> …..  This book is about why we need an empathy epidemic.  Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work – like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity.  Failure to empathise is a key part of most social problems – crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few ….. By understanding and increasing just this one capacity of the human brain, an enormous amount of social change can be fostered.  Failure to understand and cultivate empathy, however, could lead to a society in which no one would want to live – a cold, violent, chaotic and terrifying war of all against all.  This destructive type of culture has appeared repeatedly in various times and places in human history and still reigns in some parts of the world.  And it’s a culture that we could be inadvertently developing throughout America if we do not address current trends in child rearing, education, economic inequality, and our core values“.

My personal theory is that the evolution of financial comfort triggers a risk of losing our ability to understand the complex reasons for poverty and disadvantage, as they become remote and therefore less important, to our personal experience.  We have also twisted our definition of what success actually means, with an exaggerated fixation on financial factors.  This is often accompanied by a focus on highly superficial concerns such as the suburb where you live, the type of car you drive, how many countries you’ve traveled to, or which university you studied at.  The quote above from Born To Love brings us back to the reality, that success is actually determined by our ability to relate to and care for each other.  As a society, we seem to have forgotten this!

It’s Not About Angels

Recently I discovered Birdy, an English folk musician with the most unique and dreamy voice.  Assisted by Birdy, the dulcet harmonies of Ed Sheeran, a good book and good friends, I enjoyed a week off with neighbours from Australia at Siem Reap and Battambang.  I must have listened to Birdy’s Not About Angels a thousand times in the past week and I am still listening to it obsessively.

My Siem Reap highlight was the opportunity to bring Rav with his two sons and their two cousins, to swim and play with my friends’ son, 10yo Dylan, at our hotel.  Dylan is having a very adult holiday with his parents and I, so the chance to hang out with other boys was welcomed.  Rav’s sons have been in English school for two years now, so there was a tiny bit of shared language, but it doesn’t matter where children are concerned as play is always a common language, especially when water is involved.

Kids 001 cropped

A swim, some food, and an Australian toy to play with – fun in any language.

It was my third time making the boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang, across the top end of the immense inland lake known as the Tonlé Sap and up the winding, narrow Sangker River.  Only able to travel on the Sangker during the wet season when there is enough water, when Caz and I did this trip in February we had to disembark the wooden boat when it could finally no longer be pushed off the sand bed another time.  Along with dozens of other mostly foreign passengers we climbed the river bank and packed into the back of two pick up trucks for a 1+ hour journey through alluvial crops across the floodplains.

Last week the river was high enough that the same blue painted wooden boat could pass through floating villages from the mouth of the river, and as the river narrowed, past riverside villages.  Many if not most homes in this area are made from nothing but scraps of any material the residents have been able to scavenge so that those not living on their small canoe-sized boats are under tarpaulins attached to shabby frames of wood and bamboo.  These are the poorest of the poor.

As the boat burns it’s way across the Tonlé Sap, it’s impossible not to be awestruck at the magnitude of this inland sea.  Sun rays strike the water’s surface turning the lake into an immense sparkling diamond, barely another boat in sight despite the thousands out there.  At the mouth of the Sangker the boat pushes through dense growth of bright green sponge-leafed water hyacinth before reaching the first of many villages floating in the waters that fall and rise with the seasons.

Our boat picks up speed, generating a ripple of waves towards the embankment where I notice a gaggle of children in charge of a small boat bobbing up and down in the undulating swell.  One holds onto the nose of the see-sawing boat, another jumps off the edge into a soaring wave as his friends wave excitedly at the tourists gliding past.  Just behind them a man emerges from the water onto dry land, a cane basket filled with fish positioned on one shoulder.  I realise that the man at the bow of our boat is not another passenger, but working with the driver, waving him around fishing nets buoyed by plastic water bottles and checking for traffic at each bend in the river.  Occasionally a head and some shoulders emerge from beside a moored fishing boat.  A tiny boy lurches from a swing rope fastened to a tree branch, out across the water and back again, afraid to let go despite goading from his friends waiting their turn at the river’s edge.

Farmers plough land which we assume was probably submerged recently and new crops peek demurely from under alluvial soils.  Men swim and fish, sometimes at the same time.  At a wooden pier a woman in a yellow sarong washes a naked toddler who waves excitedly at our boat, taught by older groups of children who shout frantically as they dive into the water, showing off their moves to the foreigners.  I lose count of how many quite tiny children deftly manouever the boats in their charge.  Willow trees droop over short but steep waterfronts and I realise the impression of hundreds of sleeping birds hanging from their branches, are actually plastic bags, snared as they floated past during the recent torrents.  An old lady crouches on the edge of a tiny boat washing herself in the brown water from under the modesty of her sarong.  Three canoe sized wooden boats are pinned to each other by a single bamboo platform across their surface, forming a ferry upon which people sit on their motorbikes, being transported from one side of the river to the other.

A few days later at the bus station a small girl in a red pinafore dress smiles bashfully at Dylan as we decide that despite being significantly smaller than him, she is probably a similar age.  A station employee brings three plastic chairs for the three adults to sit on.  Dylan stays standing, smiling back at Red Pinafore who stands up and walks away.  A few moments later she reappears from around a corner with a fourth chair, presenting it to Dylan quickly before running to the safety of her mother for more sheepish ogling at the foreign boy she would like to have as a friend!

In Battambang we had a night out with Phare Ponleu Selpak, a youth circus of extraordinary talent who entertained us with their comedic acrobats which are as good as any international standard troupe I’ve seen, only on a smaller stage with a smaller budget.  Meaning “Brightness of the Arts”, Phare Ponleu Selpak began in 1986 at a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border with nine children as a way to help them express the trauma of war.  In Battambang since 1994, the association now provides education, arts training and social support to over 1,000 disadvantaged youth.  Any visit to Battambang should include a visit to this circus, for your own sake as well as to support a very worthwhile cause.

Ciet 007

The Cambodian tradition of teamwork in action at Phare Ponleu Selpak

As Birdy croons at me that it’s Not About Angels, I think of little Dara in Kampong Cham telling his mother that he saw angels at the Night Market with me in 2015.  As this was translated to me I struggled to imagine what he was talking about, until I remembered that we had seen an Apsara performance.  Apsaras are celestial spirits in Buddhist and Hindu mythology, featuring strongly in stone carvings at ancient temples across Cambodia (most famously on the walls of Angkor Wat).  I have since had the privilege to learn a little about Khmer classical dance and that while used as a general term to describe this dance style, Apsara dancers are only one character in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  During the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979, 90% of Cambodia’s classical artists were killed.  From 1979 the tradition was resurrected, beginning in the Thai-border refugee camps with the few surviving dancers.  Once more a proud tradition, you can see dance performances at various places around Cambodia including but not restricted to, the very talented village youth at Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham, where I took the below photographs.

Boat Baby Update

He lives in a home with walls constructed of bamboo, elevated on wooden stumps ten ladder steps from the ground.  I have cycled or tuk tuked along this track which runs parallel with the Mekong countless times over the past four years.  The track passes through many impoverished communities, an interweave of Buddhist and Islamic villages living side by side for at least 50km.  About twenty metres from the road, a large expanse of open flat delta leads to the front steps of his shack.  With Wet Season in full swing, this land is currently a muddy swamp.

Yesterday was nine weeks to the day since Boat Baby arrived on the floor of that wooden boat.  Dan pulled the tuk tuk in at the roadside and pointed the house out to me.  Looking across the quagmire between us, BB’s mother waved from the front door as his grandmother bounded down the ladder and immersed herself in the mud, striding deftly through the swamp towards us.  I registered the depth by the mud marking  her legs.  Dan asked me, is it okay for you to go there?  I replied I don’t like it but I’ll do it, should I take my shoes off?  No, keep them on.  He informed grandmother of my reply.  She took a firm hold of my elbow and guided me to the bottom of the ladder.  With my thongs jamming in the mud I removed them and now there was mud to the top of my ankles and on my left hand, holding the rubber strips as daintily as I could.  Parasite OCD kicked in and I concentrated on shaking it because BB was waiting to meet me.

Grandmother bounded back up the ladder and returned a moment later with a plastic pot of water.  I swished my feet around in the brown water at the edge of the ladder to soften the mud, then she poured clean water over them and I stepped onto the dry first rung.  Up ten ladder steps, a red hammock was swinging between two wooden foundation poles, tiny Boat Baby snoozing as he rocked.  Mum picked him up and handed him to me.  Tiny, but fat and perfect.

Only about ten minutes ride from The Eyes family, I was shocked to hear that Mum, who is about 20yo, does not work because she also has vision problems!  She has had three operations on her eyes so far, all at the nearest District Referral Hospital, who operate at no cost and offer transportation fees.  My limited knowledge of the way the health system works here confirmed that this family fit the criteria of poor enough to  warrant financial assistance when they engage with hospitals.  This is not a guarantee however and when they registered at the maternity ward the day Boat Baby was born, they were not deemed poor enough and charged $40 for an overnight stay – money that they did not have.

Boat Baby’s father, who was on the boat with us the day  of his birth, moved to Phnom Penh a month ago to wait tables at a restaurant, to earn money for the family.  He has been unable to return home at all – a bus ride costs $7 one way.

This area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War.  Agent Orange was sprayed across the region by US forces to kill the foliage, making the bombing campaign more efficient.  Could it be that the common vision problems apparent through my own small anecdotal experience of this one small village, are connected to the use of Agent Orange less than 50 years ago?  Local doctors apparently claim that babies in this area are 50 times more likely to be born with disabilities than in other parts of the country.  Little or no research has been undertaken.  Research is another example of privilege preserved for wealthy nations.

We said our farewells, Grandma holding my hand tightly as if to let me know of her hope for a connection between her family and this mysteriously lucky foreign woman who can travel far and wide and wants for nothing.

People From The Sky

Good enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Richest 300 People

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.

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