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.

Advertisements

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

 

Bongs and Tycoons

There are so many cultural quirks in Cambodia that you could write a book on them, if you were confident enough in your knowledge.  One of my favourites, perhaps because of the similarity with Central Australian indigenous custom, is the practice of referring to people according to an assumed kinship status.  Here I am often referred to as “Bong”, meaning “older sibling”.  These people to me, are “P’un”, or younger sibling.  It is a polite reference, favoured over using a person’s name; if you know their name then you can add it after the title, eg I can be Bong Helen.  If you’re in a restaurant and you want the attention of the wait staff, you call to them as Bong or P’un, depending on their age against yours.  If you’re unsure, then you default to Bong.  Other designations include Uncle and Teacher, depending on the relationship, eg a man old enough to be your father or someone deserving of respect due to their wisdom.  Something about this practice seems to give you an immediate affinity with the person you are interacting with.

In my last blog I mentioned the video clip a friend in Kampong Cham sent me, of a young boy being interviewed on camera about his struggles trying to earn an income for his family after his mother was injured in a moto accident.  My friend had contact with a local Khmer “tycoon” who had seen the video and offered to help the family if someone could locate them.  Fortuitously, unbeknownst to my friend when he asked me to help, the young boy’s usual trolley-hauling route seemed to be very close to my workplace in Phnom Penh.  On Monday my colleague/housemate came in a tuk tuk with me and within ten minutes we had located the boy’s mother.

Some transcript from the 12 minute video which is only available through Facebook so I can’t share it here:
Boy: I want to start up business to feed my mother.  I don’t want her home alone.  I want her take a break and not in difficult situation.  I also want to take care my siblings so my mother not in trouble.
Mother: Since I broke my leg I am very difficult.  I jobless and no money.  Sometimes I beg money for my children and pay electric, water.  I really suffer.  No matter my leg hurt, I have to try for my children.
Boy: Talks about selling shellfish, fried bananas and fried potatoes while the cameras show him preparing the food and pouring it into a shallow tray on a barrow which he then pulls through the streets amongst traffic, including at night.  My mother wake at 2am to cook until 6am.  When she feed my sister I go to sell.  At the day I push clams and call customers, anybody buy clams or not brother?  After sell and get money I give to Mum for buying food.  My Mum think about children more than herself.  Sometime she not eat in order to get enough food for us.  Father leaves us for a long time so we don’t have father.
Their story continues and Mum talks about lending money from her neighbour to get to hospital, her concerns for her malnourished baby, not wanting her son to become a beggar, her experiences with a violent husband and deciding to finally divorce.  I really suffer when my son asked me, “Mom, when we go to eat pizza?”  I responded “It is very expensive, I can’t afford it son”.  I pity my son so much.

On locating Mum last Monday, we told her via telephone translation with Win, that we’d like to take the family to eat pizza, and a date was set for Saturday.  Today we ate pizza together.  Samantha joined us for translation with her sister, her daughter and her niece, so with the family and my housemate and I, we made up a table of ten at The Pizza Company.  Mum came with her three youngest children, the oldest son who is 16yo and did not appear in the video, was in school today.  Upon arrival the children (sons 13yo and 7yo and 15mo baby sister) were initially shy.  When we told them we’d seen them on the television screen they relaxed and soon enough we were bombarded with smiling, playful, happy children who beamed thank yous at us from the motorbike of five people as they drove away, pizza digesting in stomachs and boxed leftover pizza hanging from the crook of a small boy’s elbow.

During lunch we learned a few things.  All three brothers are engaged in school at an NGO involved with vulnerable children.  They like school and they like their teachers.  They are not learning English but they wanted us to know they can say “what is your name” and “my name is”, which we practiced together.  As lunch drew to an end the two boys put their hands together in sampeah gesture and said clearly “thank you”!  Mum broke her ankle in a moto accident two years ago, whilst pregnant with her now-1yo daughter.  She walked on the broken bone for over 1.5 years before finally seeing a doctor.  To be poor in a country where the health care system is user-pays, keeping a significant portion of the already-impoverished population in debt, unregulated, under resourced and of variable quality, means that when you have a health problem, you avoid seeking health care until often it is too late.  She has since had an internal fixation of the bone, but it was probably performed far too late after a lot more damage had likely been done.  She walks with a limp and does not sleep well at night due to ongoing pain.  Doctors have told her she should not walk on it but her only income generation comes from pulling her cart of food for sale through the streets.  Her next appointment with the orthopaedic surgeon at a hospital for the poor, is later this week and we have arranged for Samantha to attend with her so that my MD housemate/colleague can get some more detail and find out if she’s receiving quality care.

We arrived home just before a tropical downpour, at the same time as my telephone rang.  The nephew of my Kampong Cham friend’s so-called “tycoon” introduced himself in perfect English and asked me if I knew how he could contact the family?  Yes I did!  I gave him the family’s telephone number and we spoke for a while about today’s pizza outing.  When he heard me speak a few words of Khmer he broke into Khmer, immediately referring to me as Bong!  We said farewell before he called me back to say that tomorrow he will visit the family with the money from his aunt.  This wont solve the problem of this mother’s badly injured ankle or her poverty.  But it will relieve some of her stress.  And for today at least, she and her children know that they matter in this world.

002

A first they thought would never happen: eating pizza

003

Hijinx in the restaurant car park with baby sister

Miracles, Swallows and Amazons

Just over two years ago, during a boat cruise on Lake Windermere in north-west England, a small island in the lake captured my imagination when the guide described it as the place which had inspired Arthur Ransome’s children’s adventure series, Swallows and Amazons.  Tonight at a hotel in Siem Reap I turned on the television and correctly guessed the film as Swallows and Amazons, based on the English accents and unmistakable scenery.

Yesterday I woke with abdominal cramps and diarrhoea and had to call in sick.  Bed bound with frequent rushes to the toilet, by mid-morning something had taken its hold on me and I wasn’t sure whether to sit on or put my head inside the toilet bowl.  Either option was only a 50% solution.  Shivering cold and feeling like I might faint at any moment, I dragged myself into the main part of our apartment to let a Khmer colleague, working in the kitchen, know that things were not going well for me.  She followed me to my bed and as I flopped face down she said “Oh you have a lot of rain”.  Peering through one half-opened eye at her, I asked “rain?” and she motioned towards my head.  Sweat was raining off me!  She then suggested she should call the doctor.  Unable to imagine how anyone would get me off my bed let alone out of the apartment and into a tuk tuk to hospital, I replied “I have to stay here”.

I asked for a vomit bowl and she returned hastily, rubbing my back as I heaved spasms of clear water into the bowl.  The force of heaving caused a panicked rush to the toilet, with my colleague leading the way, holding the vomit bowl at my chin before passing it to me and leaving me to my devices.  Flopping back on my bed, she returned with a small pot of tiger balm which she proceeded to rub all over my abdomen.  Amazingly, it did help the nausea and drooping consciousness.

Within about half an hour whatever it was had expelled itself from my system so I must have looked fraudulent, propped up on pillows sipping water, when my housemate rushed through the door, stethoscope and thermometer in hand, on her emergency rescue mission!

Plans to travel to Siem Reap for a long weekend were not easily cancelled so I monitored myself all afternoon and determined by mid-evening that I would be safe to travel.  After a quick tuk tuk ride to the bus station I was horizontal on the cushioned floor of my own roomette on the Night Bus.  Eight hours of mostly-sleep later, we were pulling into Siem Reap.

International Children’s Day is a public holiday in Cambodia and I’d promised a lunch time swim at the hotel for Rav and Seth’s families.  Four very excited small boys arrived with two babies and four parents in tow.  The boutique hotel likely didn’t know what had hit them but we all need to be taken out of our comfort zones from time to time and a splashingly fun time was had as staff looked on wide-eyed at the commotion.  Tonight Seth, whose English is entirely self-taught, wrote:
Hello Helen how are for today now you get for dinner , and my family thank you also and very very happy swim and for lunch time, this is my first time for my family to swim pool thank you so much for today
It’s hard to imagine living in a resort town such as Siem Reap which must have hundreds of swimming pools at it’s hundreds of luxury and middle-range hotels and hostels, and never having been in a swimming pool.

The two hours-or-so of lunchtime excitement saw me nana napping this afternoon when my telephone woke me.  A Khmer friend in Kampong Cham who never calls, had also sent a private message on Messenger.  I clicked on the 12 minute video he shared to me, watching a small boy speak in Khmer to the camera with English subtitles, describing his dream to go to school and help his mother and younger siblings. Instead, he is forced to spend days and nights selling ripped banana sugar, ripped potato sugar and dry freshwater clams from a hand pulled cart in the streets, in order that the family can keep a roof over their heads.  At the end of the video I learned that he lives and works within a five minute walk of my workplace.  Not knowing this, the Kampong Cham friend had contact with what he called “a tycoon” in Kampong Cham who watched and was moved by the video, wanting to help the family.  My friend called me in hope I might be able to help locate the family.  As it turns out, I probably can!

So on International Children’s Day I reflect on my own childhood summers, spending hours everyday in New Zealand’s public swimming pools or crystal clear rivers and beaches.  Unaware of my childhood fortunes, I transitioned into an equally oblivious adulthood of visiting or living in places that most people may never even know exist but which I can frequently recognise on the privileged television channels I get to watch.  In comparison, two families splashed today in a pretty blue swimming pool for the first time in all of their lives.  Meanwhile a distressed family in Phnom Penh may be about to have a new lease on life thanks to an uncanny series of connections.

Abacus 03

Making Sense of Another World

A first impression of Phnom Penh for any newcomer will likely relate to the traffic.  Sitting at intersections beside trailers piled disproportionately high, their loads towering ludicrously into the sky, you may have fleeting images of death-by-crushing.  Ladders stand tall on seats of motos between the back of the driver and the front of the first passenger, who often has a paint pot hanging from the crook of an elbow and a third passenger behind.  Other ladders balance horizontally along the length of their moto.  Motos and moto-pulled trailers carry long rods of steel protruding into the surrounding traffic space, causing images of death-by-impalement.  None of these near-death visions are helped by the way that everyone weaves around each other, edging into crossroads slowly but persistently so that you are eventually in the middle of an intersection with traffic purring towards you from all directions.  It takes some experience to learn that it’s probably going to be okay and you’re probably going to make it across the intersection without incident.  At major junctions children, elderly women and disabled men wait at the centre barrier for lights to turn red before venturing out into the crowded vehicles to beg for a morsel, knocking on car windows or waiting hesitantly at tuk tuk steps.  Often they have chains of jasmine for sale or dusters made from chicken feathers fixed to a stick of wood, offering to dust car windows.  Many have nothing to sell, only mumbled words of begging.  Blind people busk along congested sidewalks, amputees sit at the same corners where naked and malnourished children play with loose bricks or dirt while scavenging parents rest beside their parked, hand-pulled wooden barrows on what must be a long, hot and dirty work day.

It’s all very interesting.  At the same time there is a harshness and injustice to it which many of us might only fleetingly consider before making our way again towards our comfortable lives.

Local elections are imminent and both major parties have been parading through the streets with megaphones blaring from tuk tuk roofs, crowds piled into trucks, pick ups, tuk tuks and trailers, party flags flying jubilantly.  According to Cambodia Daily, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who makes regular televised monologues of many hours long in parliament, said two days ago he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent his overthrow.  Smashing teeth, slitting throats, burning homes, references to war (far from trivial in a place still traumatised by years of violent war), imprisoning journalists and bloggers, are all a part of the rhetoric being reported, little of which appears to make news beyond Cambodia’s borders.

Yesterday I had a particularly grueling lesson in my ever-emerging comprehension of the “lot” of tuk tuk drivers.  During my 2015 year-long holiday I met a tuk tuk driver who I will call “TTM” (Tuk Tuk Madame), in a seaside resort town who showed me some sights and transported me around for a few days. During this interaction I learned that until recently TTM had worked at a shoe factory in Phnom Penh where he had to rent a room and buy food-for-one as well as budgeting to feed his wife and family separately.  The micro-salary was essential to his family’s survival but it came at some cost including the sacrifice which so many Cambodians make, of living away from a young family.  Sometime before I met him, he had resigned from the factory job and bought a tuk tuk and moto to generate income from home.  Reliant solely on paying customers, I knew even in 2015 that it was a hard gig.

Caz and I visited his town in March for a few days and since then we have had more contact, as I’ve returned again for a long weekend and he occasionally says hello on Messenger.  Last night it came as no surprise when he said hello out of the blue, until he shared a crying emoji.  I asked why he was sad and he slowly but determinedly told me in very broken, misspelled, almost indecipherable written English.  Slightly horrified and slightly cautious, I rang Samantha who agreed to call him and find out the detail for me.  A number of conversations later, by Messenger with him and telephone with Samantha, I had the full story, my caution demolished and my horror bolstered.

The purchase of his moto and tuk tuk had been made via a loan from a well-known, prevalent micro-finance company.  This particular company feature in my mind because when we were looking for ATMs in Siem Reap recently I was moved by Seth’s reference to them as “the PLC Bank”, highlighting the minimal cause he has had to ever notice financial institutions.  The ubiquity of such inexperience is highlighted by TTM’s need to use a micro-finance company, with extremely high interest rates, over a bank, because without a bank account there is no choice.  It is not viable if you earn a tiny amount of money, to have a bank account, as the fees can exceed your income.  In 2013 the World Bank reported that less than 4% of the Cambodian population had a bank account.  This makes people immediately susceptible to exploitation.

According to Investopedia the intention of micro-finance is to give low income people an opportunity for self sufficiency, most often associated with low-interest lending but some offer additional services such as bank accounts and information to increase financial literacy.  As with so many well-intentioned activities in unregulated nations such as Cambodia, micro-financing has been corrupted into an exploitative enterprise, offering loans to the very poor who have no other available options, at excessively high interest rates.

TTM took a loan of $2,000 to purchase his moto and tuk tuk, thinking that by being close to home (with less expenses), and in a resort town (with the chance of paying customers), he could pay the loan off over the contracted 20 months and be in a better financial situation than he was, working at a shoe factory.  With Samantha’s final phone call this morning I learned that he has been committed to $100 in principal repayments and $35 in interest repayments, every month since his venture began (ie 35% interest rate).  In a place where the monthly average income is about $90, this is a massive commitment which he has struggled to maintain.  He took an extra $500 loan last year to help relieve the repayment stress, but he remains $800 in debt.  When Samantha called me to explain she said “last month and this month is wet season and not so many tourist, and also is election season, so he cannot find customer so he cannot find money to pay back the loan”.  I asked her what election season had to do with it?  She replied “because when it is close for election Cambodian people are afraid of the war again, and we will not go anywhere and we will not spend any money because we might need it if the war happen.  If you ask all Cambodian people, maybe 80% of us think like this”.

With no customers, TTM has had no way of repaying the lending institution, who sent him a letter informing him that the tuk tuk would be repossessed in two weeks unless his repayments were honoured.  He photographed the letter and his repayment information and sent them to me this morning.  I forwarded them to Samantha for translation and she confirmed the loan, remaining balance, principal and interest amounts.  With the threat of losing the family’s only income-generating asset, TTM was desperate and I was his only connection to anything resembling possible assistance.  I did assist him a little and he has some time now, to try and earn enough to pay the rest of the loan.

Recently Caz and Rav both informed me that the hotels who have their own tuk tuk drivers, often in some sort of hotel uniform or numbered tuk tuk, charge these drivers a commission in order to be connected to their hotel.  Fees differ per hotel, but are usually between $400 and $1000 as a one-off payment.  Keen to earn a regular income, drivers will take loans to pay this fee in order to have a guaranteed income with exclusive access to a niche customer market.  Once connected, drivers are guaranteed a small daily stipend (smaller than most fares), regardless of whether they transport customers or not.  If you book into a hotel advertising a “free tuk tuk”, your driver is the one paying the price for your saving.

I hope that anyone thinking of visiting Cambodia who comes across this blog, can know one thing.  The fun and smiling, or humble and quiet character who calls “tuk tuk Madame” or “tuk tuk Sir” at you, is one of this country’s poor.  He probably has no education and he may well be struggling with debt.  His tuk tuk might be rented, reducing his revenue further.  Look at his moto, the upholstery of the seat you’re sitting on, the condition of the roof and floor of the carriage you’re riding in.  Ask him about his life.  While you need to pay a fair market price for the sake of the micro-economy you have entered, you also should not negotiate him down to an unlivable tariff and if there’s anything you can do to help him, maybe you would both benefit from the experience.  When you touch a tuk tuk in Cambodia, you are touching the essence of this nation’s austerity.