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.

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The Frangipanis Above Me: Part 2

Giving is the essence of Abundance

It’s a five hour bus ride from Kampong Cham to Siem Reap.  I was the only Barang on the bus which is a reasonably unusual experience, especially on a route to the very touristic town of Siem Reap.  Seat 29 was my allocation but someone had already taken it.  One of the many young men surrounding me asked as I stood in the aisle, “excuse me madame, what is your number?”.  I showed him my ticket and a reshuffle ensued on my behalf, despite my protestations that I could take one of the vacant seats near the back.  A short way along, the young man in the aisle diagonally opposite me began taking selfies.  When he positioned himself to get a selfie with me firmly in the background, I gave his telephone a smirk.  A few moments later, admiring his shots, he spotted my photo bomb and turned to smile at me.  From then on I was included in his crowd of friends.  When he turned to offer his mates some bread, the first overture was made to me; when he offered everyone a piece of fruit, it came via me first.  It’s hard to imagine such geniality being extended to an old girl from a twenty-something young man in my world, but it’s considered normal here in Cambodia, I suspect as a consequence of the communal living experience.  They were en route to a friend’s wedding together and there was a very definite feel of celebration in the air.

Rav was at the station to pick me up just after lunch.  In the afternoon we sat for a drink together, joined by an apologetic Seth, who should not have told me his problems, etc.  To cut a long story short, Rav has a decent tuk tuk with a decent moto meaning he can attract better paying passengers.  Both of these vehicles were given to Rav by grateful and generous customers in the past year or two.  Nevertheless he also struggles with many tuk tuks competing in a tight market of tourists.  Many days pass with no income and on a good day he can hope for $15 to $20 for a full day’s work.  Prior to his good luck, he also had a worn out moto, attached to a rented tuk tuk.  Seth, despite his good English, cannot attract the same passengers or income because his tuk tuk is run down and his moto is so archaic that it cannot travel as far as Angkor Thom, the walled city of temples.  He is restricted to taking people around town or as far as the airport.  He has four children and their living conditions are much more dire than Rav’s, mostly because of his severely limited income.  This was difficult to imagine because I’ve been to Rav’s little room where he and his wife share a bed with their two children inside four walls.  During our discussion I scored an invite to Seth’s home and he picked me up this morning.

Last week his 6yo son was playing near the front of their so-called home, a series of home made shacks put together on his brother in law’s land, when he was attacked by wasps.  Looking up into the palm trees, the little boy spotted a nest and decided that throwing stones at it would be fun.  Multiple stings later his mother rushed him to hospital with an anaphylactic reaction. I saw the tree, wasp nest and shacks that they call home, this morning and again, it unraveled me.  This young, strong, healthy, well dressed guy who interacts so competently with tourists from across the globe, lives like this?

Bitumen turns to muddy streets which turn to muddy lanes leading to a muddy little driveway where I walked up a muddy single lane path along the side of the palm leafed shack in the front, belonging to his brother in law.  Brother-in-law has agreed to Seth, his wife and their four sons, living on a raised platform behind the shack, rent-free.  They’ve been here five years but will have to find alternative accommodation next year when the in-laws plan to build a home and will not have room for so many extras.  The family eat, sleep, shower and live on a square of wooden slats about 3m x 2m, about 1m above the muddy ground below.  Their allocated section of platform is between Seth’s parents’ share of the platform further inside the enclosure, and the open air entranceway.  All of it is covered with tin and tarpaulin, beside an ice-making factory over a brick wall which growls constantly from 3am to 9pm daily.  I side-stepped around the back to view the little open air toilet between their platform and the ice maker’s boundary fence.

It became a no-brainer and I explained that while it is not possible to help everyone, I wanted to help Seth.  However, I needed him to have a plan so that I can attract donations because noone donates if you ask for “free money”.  His plan was expressed immediately – he needs a decent motorbike so that he can take customers to Angkor Thom.  I then explained that I don’t have enough money to buy a motorbike but I do have access to a loan from the bank, so rather than wait for donations, I would take this money and buy him a motorbike.  Rav, in his ever-modest style, replied “congratulations”.  I’d asked him earlier how he would feel if I helped Seth, and was told without hestitation that “the more people who you help, the better it will be for everyone including me.  I don’t get jealous, and if my friends can have customers then when I have money problems, there are more people I can ask to help me”.

We traveled back to town over the jarring muddy roads, Rav shouting out to Seth “wow your road is very bad!  My heart fell out to the ground!”.  We stopped at a number of different motorbike shops over the course of about an hour.  With no interest in motorbikes and their various dimensions or features and aware that my presence would require everything to be translated, plus risk an automatic rise in assumed price, I left the boys to shop while I waited, a dissolving lump of lard on the synthetic tuk tuk seats.  Eventually we came across a shop with a motorbike in our price range and of an acceptable quality to pull a tuk tuk for long distances.  The next chore was for me to find enough ATMs to withdraw the money I needed, which was complicated by one machine only dispensing riel currency; three machines not recognising my card and another machine wanting to charge an excessive withdrawal fee.  Finally I had enough $ in my possession and we made our way back to the motorbike shop.  Seth invited me in to pay but I declined, passing the money to him without even thinking about it, and asking him to check it.  He stopped to count it slowly in front of me.  During lunch Rav laughingly announced that Seth took a photograph of the motorbike money when he took it to the shop counter.  Seth added “because I never touched so much money in my life”, before pulling his phone out to show me the fanned-out crisp $100 notes sitting on the shop counter.  More unraveling of my world perceptions courtesy of these composed young people who have not had a fraction of the advantages that I take for granted.

With Rav riding Seth’s new wheels beside the tuk tuk, we lurched our way back to the shacks where I was invited to lunch by an overjoyed family filled with thank yous.  We ate on the platform where all of this family’s life plays out.  Rice with fish soup cooked on an open fire in the mud.  A conversation ensued between Seth and his wife about whether I would be okay to eat this food, but Rav assured them that “she is not like the tourist, she lives with the Cambodian people, it’s okay”.  He also translated at another point in the mostly-Khmer conversation, “you came from Australia and brought some Australian lucky with you for all of us”.  During the conversation I mentioned that I like Bowng Dea Drey Broarmar, a fish-pancake served with fresh vegetables and rice, which it turns out is Mrs Seth’s speciality.  Tomorrow night we’re sharing another meal together on the infamous platform so she can share her culinary skills with me again.

After lunch Seth drove me home to my hotel.  This afternoon I lay for hours on my back in the hotel pool, looking up at the cloudy sky through blooming frangipani flowers hanging from branches peering over the fresh blue water.  I get to sleep under a solid roof tonight, unaware if it is even raining outside my sound proof walls.  I handle $100 bills with an air of irritation because they need to be changed to smaller currency.  And when I look to the sky, where so many see wasp nests, I get to view flower blossoms.

Seth Family Blog

Seth and family on the platform they call home. The children to the right are trespassing on grandma and grandpa’s territory. Seth and his wife share the small square they are sitting on with their children, as a bedroom, dining room, bathroom and lounge.

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Taken from Seth’s section of the enclosure, looking inside at his parents’ section and out of the open entranceway at the mud track below.

Good Riddance For 2017!

New Zealand’s South Island is a panorama of tiers stretching in a lengthwise direction roughly parallel with the coastline.  Most prominent, at least initially, are rows of alpine summits piercing into blue skies or disappearing into woolly clouds.   Dizzy heights descend into rolling forests and grassy slopes, which in turn meander into a patchwork of green and gold valleys where sheep graze beside vineyards and other plantations.  Snaking across this landscape are braids of emerald rivers flowing from icy altitudes towards the glassy Pacific Ocean which wraps the nation’s coastline for 14,000 kilometres.

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Satellite image of the South Island

Thanks to a destructive earthquake last month in which the seabed rose by more than 1 metre during two minutes of terror, the roads into Mum’s hometown were closed when I arrived last week for Christmas.  Being, as I am, from this abundant life, my perfectly feasible solution was to take a light plane, turning the 2.5 hour drive into a 35 minute flight over fertile, clean, affluent territory.  Most of my week was spent admiring panoramic views.  I kayaked in a crystalline blue bay, waved and shouted out to cruise ship passengers making their way to shore for the day and enjoyed the guarded attention of playful fur seals agile enough to keep themselves at arms’ length while showing us their tricks.  Meals were prepared at home some days and other meals were shared in local restaurants.  Gifts were exchanged.  Extended family visited from near and far.  Today I was chauffeured back to Christchurch by a convoy of generous family in time for tomorrow’s early morning flight home.

This time next month I will be en route to Cambodia.  Every moment that I reap the benefits of my lucky existence, I am aware that within my social circle now, are people who can only dream of having even a smidgen of what I have always taken for granted.

Samantha writes regularly about 3yo “Adam” and the slow, miserable progression of his genetic disease in a land where paediatricians have little to offer him whilst needing to charge money for what services they are able to provide, immersing the family into more debt in their desperate bids to find help for him.  Some doctors and nurses have turned him away in blatant discrimination against his visible disability, claiming “there is no point”.  He continues to beat the odds through repeated bouts of pneumonia and diarrhoea which we have been known to diagnose amongst ourselves, guessing at how to treat his symptoms, sometimes with the help of a local paediatrician in Australia who has generously offered advice from afar.

A child with his condition in “my” world would also be disabled and terminally ill, but unlike Adam, would have options for nutrition, appropriate comfort measures and medical care.  At 3 years old Adam remains the same peak weight he reached at about 12 months old.  With each inspiration the skin on his torso sucks in between his tiny ribs.  His twiggy arms and legs are stubbornly twisted and curled in a gridlock.  He can’t turn his head but his deep dark eyes follow conversations alertly as he lies passively observing the world around him.  He cries every night in apparent anxiety attacks, probably combined with hunger or pain.  Not all of the medications he needs are available in Cambodia, and only available by prescription in Australia, meaning he will never be made as comfortable as he needs and deserves to be.  Every medication Samantha obtains is purchased at retail cost via private pharmacies, helping her family to remain impoverished.

Adam is only one example of what it means to be unwell in a poor country.  The latest stories from Joe’s village are that he probably won’t be alive by the time I arrive in just over a month.  His story is for another blog.  Without the means to obtain medical care due to his immobility, the remoteness of his home and the family’s complete lack of funds and health literacy, guesswork is all that is available.  My guess is that he is dying of Post-Polio Syndrome about six decades after his (probable) Polio infection.  I keep picturing him lying in his hammock at the top of the wooden ladder leading to their front doorway, unaware of why he’s sick.  Lack of personal funds is one aspect of poverty.  Lack of health care is a less visible, much more significant aspect.  Most of us from “my world”, where sickness is less common but health care is accessible, abundantly resourced and subsidised or free, find this impossible to fathom.  Had I not seen it for myself, I could not have imagined it either.

Meanwhile, I get occasional messages from various corners of Cambodia, often with at least some intent related to practising English.  Today I had the following conversation with one of Paula’s brothers:
Hello, how are you?
Hello, I am fine thanks, and you?
Me too.  Where do you live now?
Now I am in Australia but in February I will come to Cambodia and so I will see you soon.
Good riddance then.  We will wait for you in (their village).

With the same intent, I wish a very good riddance for everyone reading this.  May 2017 provide you with enough and may you appreciate every moment of it.

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Love Your Luck

what-if-i-fall

Yesterday I resigned!  After eighteen years of owning a permanent position with the same organisation, I bit the bullet.  I will soon say goodbye to my salary, superannuation, annual leave, long service leave and an accumulated 34 weeks of sick leave.  Those are the benefits I can think of immediately but there are various others, such as 10% extra pay during holidays, the right to complain to and disagree with management without fear or favour, professional development allowance, and so many other first world privileges.  I have owned the same permanent position for sixteen years, in that time taking four years of special leave to work elsewhere including a year in London, a year in Cambodia, and time with other organisations.  Each time I went away, the security of returning to my permanent position was something I gave no thought to.  For most of the time I owned this position, I truly had no idea that it was anything particularly special.  I trained as a nurse and I held a nursing job – big deal?  I have always loved my job and appreciated that this is not necessarily a common experience, even in the privileged world.

Only recently did I spend time in a country where nurses earn $100 per month, not paid reliably, working inside a system that is so horrifically deprived that you could call it almost non-resourced.  Throughout my year working in Cambodia, my first world brain grappled with so many outlandish experiences.  Hospital waste management problems, including seemingly uncleanable dirt throughout patient areas, stockpiles of refuse, rat infestations, sewerage leaks, the smoke from burning medical waste wafting through patient areas.  Patient meals were cooked by homeless domestic staff in the dirt behind the MSF laboratory, on open wood-stoked fires.  Most significantly, patients suffered and died in situations that do not exist in my world.  I had tiny insights into systemic corruption which filters down from the highest echelons to directly affect both patients and staff.   This blog is testament to the struggles I continue to have, coming to terms with the inhumanity that so many face on a daily basis due to the vicious cycle of poverty and corruption.

The biggest impact all of this has had, is to accentuate my own intense privilege.  It is the epiphany of this privilege that has inspired me to leave some of it behind.  Most people my age are committed to all sorts of things which mean they can’t do what I am doing.  Many probably would not want to if they could.  Without the encouragement of my friends working in East Timor who spurred me to join them there in 2012, I likely would never have known either, about this other world, where such big differences can be made with such small effort, and where your own life, world view and source of fulfilment, change so dramatically that things can never be the same again.

A friend in Cambodia, connected to both Wat Opot and Cambodian Childrens Fund, recently wrote this anecdote which resonated with me, prompting this latest rant.

Tonight I had one of the most humbling experiences of my life to date. I really don’t like public speaking, even to small groups – it’s something that I’ve always put up with but avoided where possible…

… and so tonight I found myself talking about my life to a room full of young teenagers. These guys and girls are this years top 15 students from the CCF Leadership program, having made it through several rounds of an intensive training and selection program. 10 of them, after this round, will attend the incredible Global Youth Leadership Summit, hosted by Tony Robbins in California.

The reason I was sitting in on the class was to hear *their* life stories, with the hope that I could use them on social media at some point. After stumbling through my own story, I sat back and listened, and was blown away. Their stories were heart wrenching, some couldn’t contain their tears and raw emotion, and I found myself embarrassed at how privileged my story was in comparison. The incredible power of CCF – and the Leadership program in particular – to change lives never ceases to amaze me. These amazing young people are the future of the country, and it is in good hands.

The point is not that you should go to a remote place and live an alternative existence.  The point is that those of us born into the privileged world, deserve to know, to appreciate, and to share, our good fortune.

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The Definition of Success

In 2013 Angelina Jolie won a humanitarian award at the Governor’s Awards, which celebrate lifetime achievement in film, and form a part of the Academy Awards in Hollywood.  Her heartfelt, at times tearful, utterly inspiring speech, started out acknowledging various people including friends and family.  She then went on to honour her mother, who had been her biggest support, encouraging her artistic ambition and spurring her to live a life of meaning and use to others.  A video of the full speech is here .

<My mother> gave me love and confidence, and above all, she was very clear that nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others.  I didn’t know what that meant for a long time.  I came into this business young and worried about my own experiences and my own pain.  It was only when I began to travel and look and live beyond my home, that I understand my responsibilities to others.

When I met survivors of war and famine and rape, I learned what life is like for most people in this world, and how fortunate I was, to have food to eat, a roof over my head, a safe place to live, and the joy of having my family safe and healthy.  And I realised how sheltered I had been. And I was determined never to be that way again.

We are all, everyone in this room, so fortunate.

I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I had, to have this path in life, and why across the world, there is a woman just like me, with the same abilities and the same desires, same work ethic and love for her family, who would most likely make better films and better speeches.  Only she sits in a refugee camp.  And she has no voice.  She worries about what her children will eat, how to keep them safe, and if they’ll ever be allowed to return home.

I don’t know why this is my life?  And that’s hers?  I don’t understand that.  But I will do as my mother asked, and I will do the best I can with this life, to be of use.  To stand here today means that I did as she asked, and if she were alive, she’d be very proud.  Thank you.

My own mother would have been foolhardy to encourage me into a life of art, although I do remember the occasional ludicrous suggestion such as joining a marching team and getting involved in local theatre!  Otherwise, Angelina’s words about her mother’s love and encouragement reflect my own experience, for which I am eternally grateful.

More than that, Angelina’s words echo my own daily thoughts around how and why I – over so many others equally and more deserving – was born to such incredible good fortune.  Not a day goes by now, when I don’t have at least one jolt of astonishment at my pure luck of birth.  It also amazes me daily, that despite my education, world travels and easy access to information through all forms of modern media, I had led such a sheltered existence as to remain steadfastly unaware of my windfall in life.

Since 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, a total of over 64,000 landmine victims have been recorded in Cambodia.  There continue to be approximately one casualty every couple of days in the country, reflecting the inordinate number of mines planted in the country and the great difficulties of landmine identification and clearance in a resource-stricken, systemically chaotic nation.  Surviving victims live almost exclusively in extreme poverty, with even more limited means of income than their able-bodied peers.

I knowingly met my first landmine victim during a holiday with my own mother, visiting from New Zealand, and the mother of a good friend, visiting from France, in January 2014.  We were sitting at a bar enjoying an alcoholic beverage one afternoon when he appeared before us, a small basket hanging at his chest via a rope around his neck, filled with books for sale.  One arm amputated below the elbow, the other missing part of his hand and one leg amputated below the knee, standing upright on an old fashioned flesh-coloured, leg-shaped, rubber prosthetic.  Not used to such sights, his appearance came as a shock to us.  We did not want to purchase any books and he departed, placing an A4 page on our table with his story typed out in English.  We read it and I put it in my bag.  Injured by a landmine as a teenager in the Cambodian army, his only income is from selling books to tourists, he tries to feed and send his children to school but it depends on sales.

For hours I thought about how life would be if there was no way to earn an income, if my limbs and hands were deformed or missing, if I were impoverished and every day I had to bravely approach wealthy people who look shocked at my physical appearance and who have no perception of my reliance on their generosity.  The inequality and indignity seemed inexcusable and so from our hotel room that night I sent him an email offering to help in some way.  He replied with gratitude and about a month later we met.  I bought his wife a sewing machine and I send them US$50 each month – a perfectly affordable contribution from my first world income and yet significantly valuable to the life of a disabled man and his extremely grateful family.

When I visited them again last year, the sewing machine was in a corner of their tiny room, smaller than my own bedroom but which serves as bedroom, living room and kitchen to four people.  On the wall above it was a poster in English reading “donated by Madame Helen from Australi”, next to a framed photograph of Mum and I sitting together in a cafe in New Zealand!  Across from our framed photograph, on the opposite wall is a photograph of Cambodia’s much revered King Norodom Sihanouk (now deceased) and his wife Queen Monineath!!

Since leaving Cambodia I have sensed a fear in my friend, that he may lose me to the unknown world where I come from.  He maintains irregular contact with me on Facebook, apparently when he can afford to visit an internet cafe and find someone to help him with an English message.  I regularly assure him of my ongoing assistance.  Our communication this week is a good example:
Hello Madam how are you and your family ? I’m good thank you, Today, I a,m, never without tourists broken today any where to pay more rent, I do not deWhen tourists visit Cambodia, Thank madam Good luc to you and you family and good health from my family !!
Hello Kosal. I am sorry to hear about the tourists not coming to Cambodia. I always remember that you need my help and I will send some money soon. Probably next week $50. Every month I send you $50 but I have to wait until my pay day. I promise I will never forget. Stay strong!  I hope the tourists will return to Cambodia soon!

I feel acutely aware of the power I wield over someone who simply lucked out around the same time that I lucked in.  Not only is it my responsibility to maintain the help I have offered, but helping offers me a sense of reward that my good fortune in and of itself, does not.  The fact that we cannot help everyone in need does not mean that we should not help anyone when it is within our means to do so.

Success in Life

Our Fields of Gold

Darwin mentioned the word love 95 times in the Descent of Man.
He mentioned survival of the fittest twice.

Five months ago, days after Paula’s major corrective surgery, Samantha and I left Seattle, bound for Phnom Penh.  A week later I returned home to Australia.  The last time Samantha or I saw her, Paula was lying in a hospital bed, semi-conscious on analgesia, hooked up to infusions, catheters and drains.  Last week, now in normal health, she and her mother returned home to Cambodia.  An agonising week of silence ended when Samantha, waiting in Phnom Penh as I waited in Central Australia and Karen waited in New York, finally sent word:
Hi Helen. I talk to <P> already. She is OK and felt amazing when she arrived home. She said when she saw her dad she felt afraid. And a lot of visitor come to see her everyday. She will come to see me at Phnom Penh some time soon. You know at the airport the people come to pick her up. Some smile, some clap hands, some tear drop. Feeling amazing her life. Her dad come also. They celebrate for welcome home already.

This weekend Paula and her mother traveled to Phnom Penh to visit Samantha.  We connected via a Facebook video call for a long-awaited reunion.  Paula is full-faced, glowing with colour after years of anaemic pallor, fully mobile and healthy.  When I appeared on screen her mother grabbed Samantha’s phone and hugged it, turning my screen black!  We talked about Paula’s plans for the future, her father’s visit home from Malaysia to see his daughter in her new life, my hope to see them in person later this year.  With baby number two on the way and her husband’s contract with an NGO about to end, Samantha, who has the Cambodian equivalent of my qualifications, is unemployed in a suffocating third world economy.  The bitter sweet benefit to this is that she gets to stay at home with her terminally ill two year old, rather than requiring his grandmother to care for him while she lives away from home in order to work for a meagre but desperately needed salary.  None of these ongoing personal challenges has stopped her from being able to care for Paula during the time our team coordinated her TB care, nor share in Paula’s emerging hope and excitement as events unfolded last year.  The two women, 27yo Cham and 33yo Khmer, have bonded through their cultural divide, during the lowest of possible lows and the highest of possible highs.  Both know poverty, illness and their attendant powerlessness intimately.  They live inside this reality as opposed to the likes of me who observes it all from a safe and comfortable distance.

They have both also now experienced life, albeit briefly, in the world as I know it.  My world of well resourced hospitals, schools, institutions and private enterprises, whose first-world-educated staff travel to work on well maintained roads in societies where rules and regulations, whilst imperfect, intend to safeguard the populace rather than subdue or tyrannise.  My world where people dressed in rags, begging or selling home made wares, often missing limbs or blind, are entirely absent rather than a typical street scene you expect to see multiple times per day.  My world where stories such  as the rich and famous hanging at Paris Fashion Week; a drunken groomsman dancing into and smashing a wedding cake; or interviewing a Hollywood property broker famous for his celebrity connections and financial success, are considered “news” worth televising.  My world, where “the world is your oyster” is a phrase with some truth to it for most, not for almost no-one.

Everything about Australia seems different to me now.  Not because much has changed but because I see it all so differently.  A number of friends  have complained about being “broke”, then in the next breath described recent or planned purchases or commitments which most of the world could not dare to dream of but which appear basic to those of us in the wealthy world.  The homeless or impoverished in my town are not without cash, nor food.  Malnourished humans are not a daily vision.  I am not approached by beggars in genuine need of scraps simply to survive another day.  People with qualifications and the desire to work, find work.  Families are not separated due to rare and distant employment opportunities paying meagre salaries.

My newfound knowledge is that the world is not as we believe it to be, and everything relates to our perceptions which develop through repeat exposure.  My own world view formed through decades of repeat exposure to solid, private homes in leafy streets where I have regularly not known, or known very little about, most of my neighbours.  Car ownership is a norm, not an exception.  Electricity, clean treated water and toilets connected to first world sewerage treatment plants are fundamental amenities available to everyone.  There are street lights, paved roads, affordable public transport, bicycle tracks, public libraries, hospitals, schools and many public services, too many to name.  I have received a strong education and have access to affordable first class health care.  Without knowing so until I was exposed to “the other world”, my whole life has been spent walking in fields of gold.

In the world beyond these fields, poor lives are dispensable.  Every week hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable diseases of poverty.  Many others suffer from undiagnosed chronic conditions, hidden away from sight and with limited to no support beyond families and social networks.  Despite a large proportion of these people being children and young adults, with the same potential as any young person in any wealthy country, their suffering and deaths are rarely reported as news and not well documented due to deficient or absent surveillance systems.  Those of us unaware of this reality, are easily able to remain blissfully unaware.  Consequently, we remain indifferent.  As well as providing me the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences, improving the rich world’s awareness of these issues has always been a motivation behind my blog.

During my last week in Cambodia, en route home from Seattle, my own lack of awareness was brought to light when I visited Paula’s village.  I have traveled to this village many times, sometimes by MSF car, once with Mum in Win’s car (before I ever met Paula), sometimes by tuk tuk and three or four times by bicycle.   This time however, I gained more insight than I could have previously imagined, about life as a rural villager in a poor country.  At least three of Paula’s close neighbours are incapacitated by undiagnosed disability and illness.  When I previously visited her, I had assumed she was an exceptional case.  I learned how wrong this was when, known as the person behind getting her to America for a cure she could never have dared hope for, I was asked to visit a number of her neighbours, all probably hoping for a similar miracle.  Blinded by my own shining fields of gold, despite meeting many impoverished people both at hospital and during home visits, and despite many hours of curiosity, staring out of bus windows during my travels in Cambodia, I had never considered the idea that so many live an invisible life of immobility and disability, deprived of any proper care or attention and hidden from sight behind ramshackle walls.  I wrote about the one villager I did meet that day, in my October 23 post “Until We Meet Again“.  I hope to meet the others when I return later this year, if not for any reason other than the opportunity to share their stories here.

A good example of the status and value placed on humans according to their wealth, is a recent news item out of Cambodia, where more than 30% of schools do not have toilets and approximately 80% of the population have no toilet at home.  Last month a Thai princess began a three day tour of Cambodia in one of the most rural and impoverished provinces, Ratanakiri in the north.  To cater for her visit to a particular location, a toilet was built, measuring almost the size of my house, complete with air conditioning, at a cost of US$40,000.  That is 66 times the average annual salary of US$600.  She did not use the toilet, which is now being converted to an office building for local officials.

Some would say that the inferior value placed on the poor is not our problem and that it’s a case of “survival of the fittest”.  This assumes that we in the wealthy world are somehow “better stock” either biologically or culturally.  After observing the way that so many are able to survive, caring for their own as well as others, in undignified and inhumane circumstances, this assumption could not be more wrong.  Endurance, resilience, grace, compassion and resourcefulness are thriving human traits in impoverished communities.   The burden of responsibility and care towards the world’s poor, is shouldered by the poor.  Villagers look out for one another, neighbours are involved in each other’s situations, colleagues and extended families run networks of reciprocal loans and care arrangements in order to allow each other to do what is needed for survival.  All of this is done in the face of challenges of such magnitude that most in my world, including me, could not imagine.  It seems to me, that the wealthier we become, the more likely we are as a society to fall into certain negative attitudes and behavioural patterns.  We become more precious about things which do not matter.  Community spirit and compassion is overridden by self interest and indulgence, as we have more time and resources to focus on ourselves while at the same time becoming more distant from and less exposed to, poverty.  The suffering of others can be easily disregarded, especially when it happens to people in far away places.  Even as “far away” as Timor Leste, 700km from the Australian coast!

We in the wealthy world, whether we believe it or not, whether we have financial struggles or not, do live in fields of gold.  This should inspire a culture of philanthropy, for the benefit of those living in extreme poverty as well as for our own personal and societal benefit.  Prosperity can breed self interest, in turn breeding associated misery.  Watch a single episode of The Real Housewives of New York, an ostentatious parade of enviable wealth and profound unhappiness, if you don’t believe me!  Studies have shown that spending on others feels better than spending on ourselves.  Giving has been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria and connection to others.  A dose of oxytocin causes people to give more generously and feel more empathy towards others.  This effect, known as “helpers high”, is based on a theory that giving produces endorphins in the brain that provide a mild version of a morphine high!  You can learn more about these theories in this 3 minute YouTube video The Science of Giving  Giving can only illuminate our fields of gold and in the poor world, tiny amounts make a big difference.  Some worthwhile causes are listed below.  Do it today and see what happens!

Fields of gold

My own GoFundMe page is back at $0 and there are plenty of people in need of contributions.  Each month I send money to Chom, who receives my list of beneficiaries and provides me with photographic evidence that it has been given as directed.  Help A Cambodian Family

Phter Koma Children’s Home for children with HIV, accommodating and educating 15 impoverished HIV+ children.  Phter Koma Childrens’ Home

Cambodian Childrens Fund

Sunrise Cambodia

Friends of Baguia This is an Australian run charity supporting people in the district of Baguia, a remote and mountainous area of Timor Leste.

Kopernik connect simple, life saving technology with the people who need it most.  Worth reading about!

Trying To Be A Noisy Neighbour

poverty and privilege silent neighbours

Mornings in Kampong Cham town and across Cambodia come alive the moment the first ray of sunlight blazes it’s long sharp streak through the fading night skies.  The first market sellers start to appear on their motos piled high with what would, in my world, be truckloads of produce.  When I appear a few hours later, the streets are humming and I have never lost the sense of fascination I feel with sights that the locals consider “normal”.

Yesterday I made the maddest dash I’ve ever made, 30km to Paula’s house on the back of a motorbike, to get her signature on what was  hopefully the final of many forms needed to make our pending journey possible.  En route we pulled over so I could answer my telephone.  As a herd of cows sauntered past, motos weaving around and through them honking their horns in warning, I explained to the airline representative that I understood the urgency and was onto it.

A yellow pool of slush and water has settled around the base of their house, with a long wooden plank poised as a bridge from solid ground to the first dry step.  After an excitement-filled conversation about meeting at the airport in a few days, signed form in hand, I crossed the bridge towards the moto and stood still to take this photograph.  The moment obliged dozens of small red ants to attack me from toes to ankles.

IMG_7147 blurred

Both Paula’s and Samantha’s families have a minivan booked each, to transport their respective hordes to the airport for what I expect may be an overwhelming send-off .  I will be there, foreign, alone and unloved, which is sure to elicit plenty of sympathy from those sending us off!  I am mostly looking forward to the excitement of traveling with three Cambodians who never dreamed of going in an aeroplane before.  My spare moments are spent trying to anticipate how best to prepare them for their rich world experience, plus practising my poker face.  I expect to be the reference point for three of them during turbulence so straight faced and calm will be the only expression I share.

This morning after smothering tiger balm over my itchy feet, I hit the road on my bicycle to do a few chores.  When the ATM thought too long about my requested withdrawal before changing it’s mind, I immediately suspected the money which had not been dispensed had probably made it’s way out of my bank account.  Walking into the bank on the first of any month – public servant pay day – is to be avoided whenever possible.  Unless you’re a foreigner.   I was asked to take a seat at the counter, immediately ahead of the crowds in the seated queue behind me.  Conversing in English, a phone call was made and moments later I was informed that the withdrawal would be reversed by tomorrow.  I cycled over the road to another ATM and made the withdrawal I needed.

Served in my native tongue, ahead of everyone else, without concern for the missing money because I have enough in the bank, in a country where only 3% of the population even have a bank account, I cycled through the market contemplating.  My Cambodian days cause constant inner turmoil.  My own freedoms and privileges, being treated “like a King”, and then witnessing such extreme hardships in the exact same moment, is the most confronting experience.  Even having this exposure to “the other world” gives me a privilege that others, safe in comfort zones, miss out on.  I deserve no more than the next person, yet I have immeasurably more than most who share my world and I know this through personal observation, not from statistics, other peoples’ accounts, photographs or videos.  Until very recently I had no real clue that this was the case despite “knowing” it in theory.

Inner turmoil is described as “the mind’s way of destroying the perception of what you are”.  Only now, in middle age, have I learned that on a global scale I am far more entitled and powerful than I ever had a clue of being.  My previously held self perception of being a “global average” has turned on it’s head.  The only way to respond to this revelation is to use my power and privilege to the benefit of others.  This also seems to have become the only way I feel I can personally benefit any further from my over-entitled life.  I seem to have transcended previously held aspirations for material possessions and international travel, in favour of helping others.  It doesn’t make me anything but the same selfish person I’ve always been – my aspirations have simply changed.

Any praise for helping others belongs fairly and squarely to those around me, who face their own hardships yet help others, often with great personal sacrifice.  Among so many, “Rav”, my friend in Siem Reap, is a fine example of this.  A young man with a wife and two small children, he was born just after Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese and grew up in troubled times.  He doesn’t speak about himself much but I know life has been a constant challenge.  While I was jumping on trampolines, going to swimming club and boarding school, he was simultaneously fishing in rice fields for the family dinner and often going hungry.  When I arranged to help “Kim”, the landmine victim who I support with a small amount each month, he brought Rav with him to assist with translation on our first encounter.  On that occasion I purchased a sewing machine for Kim’s wife, which led to the placement of a photograph of myself and my mother in a frame on the wall of their tiny home, above the old machine!

As so often happens in this country, upon meeting Rav I immediately warmed to his quiet, unassuming, helpful character and we have remained in touch ever since.  Despite it becoming apparent over almost two years, that he lives an impoverished existence himself, he has only ever assisted me in my attempts to support Kim, often saying “at least I have an ability to work but Kim has no hands and no leg, his economic is much worse than mine”.  Most recently I learned that he sold his telephone – one of their only assets – to pay a hospital bill after one of his sons became unwell.

Before leaving Cambodia I really wanted to help him in some way.  Ways which are small to me, can be significant here and I knew he wanted to send his sons to English school but it was unaffordable.  Aware of his pride, I broached the subject vaguely and suggested he talk with his wife about my offer to sponsor this.  Some days later they accepted the offer and last week I arranged to visit Siem Reap for the final time this year.  Courtesy of the nearby temples of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is an incongruous place.  Rich with tourists and the money they bring, and poor with impoverished beggars and low paid workers, attracted by the pull of a possible income.  Despite being the richest town in Cambodia, the province of Siem Reap is one of the poorest, showing that the spoils are not distributed.  Rav lives in a small bedroom, a kitchen sink with running water on the back wall and a bathroom walled off in a corner.  No bigger than my bedroom, this room with one double bed houses six people – Rav and his wife, their two sons and two teenage girls from a remote village whose family are facing starvation.

Siem Reap’s economy supports English schools of a much higher calibre than the dirt-floor basement areas of private homes which make up the majority of English schools in the country.  Rav picked me up and we met his wife, two boys and one of the teens, before heading to an English school of my choosing, found on the internet.  Unlike most schools which are run by a single Khmer teacher, often as a supplement to their public school employment, the children will be exposed to a combination of salaried native English speakers and Khmer teachers.  They will also receive half an hour per day of Chinese language lessons.

The young couple were visibly surprised by the well resourced classrooms, library and play areas.  Their small boys ran excitedly between one room and the next, full of wonder at the toys, books and colour.  The fees are beyond their budget but well within mine, so I agreed to sponsor them.  Rav taught himself English by talking to tourists and was able to complete the enrolment forms independently, in a shakey but legible English – far more astonishing to me than the fancy school!  The boys started on Monday and Rav has called me a number of times to express their joint astonishment that their children are attending a school where the other students all come from families who own cars!  “Our economic is not changed but my children’s luck is very changed now and I think they can have a good life”.

The oldest teenage girl staying with them, 16yo, has found work at a nearby soup stall.  Her 14yo sister wants to stay in school but Rav was told it would cost money to transfer her enrolment from the village government school, to their local school.  I asked him to find out about this so I could help if possible.  After speaking to the teacher he rang to let me know “the teacher will do it for two boxes of beer”.  So I am stocking a village teacher with two boxes of beer!  Ironic given that a 28yo man in the same village died yesterday from “stomach bleeding because he drank too much rice wine”.

The school enrolment created a new problem and Rav said he would sell his wife’s sugar cane juicer to get the deposit for a loan so that they could purchase a motorbike.  Their only vehicle is his tuk tuk which he needs to transport customers in order to make their only survivable, albeit unreliable income, except the sugar cane juicer when there are enough tourists to warrant setting up a stall.  The thought of selling another asset sent my first world brain reeling (yet again) and I asked him to put the idea on hold until I could think about it for a while.  That night I started an online crowdfunder and advertised it to friends and family.  In only three days we raised enough for them to buy a near-new, excellent condition motorbike!  His wife can now transport the children while Rav works.  Life just got a whole lot easier for one small family who deserve an ounce of luck, courtesy of people in France, US, England, Australia and New Zealand.  I do get a thrill connecting these two worlds – thanks everyone, from an overwhelmed Rav in Siem Reap!

The Eyes came to town yesterday because they were both complaining of red, sore eyes.  When they called and described their symptoms to Chom I felt slightly mortified that I had refused to pay for post-operative antibiotics on the grounds that the surgery was falsely advertised as “free of charge to patients”, while costing hundreds of dollars.  However, when they turned up yesterday all was not quite as it had been described.  We spent a morning at the local Ophthalmology Department to be informed these were normal post-operative symptoms.  A prescription for eyedrops and paracetamol was given.  We went to the market to pick up the medications and they informed me along the way that they needed new shoes.  So a trip to the shoe stall was included in our tripping-about, which Chom suggested may have been the main reason for their “symptoms”!  Just when I think I’ve completed my final Cambodian project, something else crops up.  But it seems that the remaining project now, is to cram my belongings into a case and meet my travel companions at Phnom Penh Airport for two weeks hanging out in North America.