It is estimated that 95% of Cambodians are Buddhist. Apart from the fact that people politely acknowledge Christmas as meaningful to westerners, there is a complete absence of Christmas here. I may have seen two Christmas trees, which appeared about a week ago, outside some tourist hotels along the riverside. Apart from that it’s been business as usual, making it easy to forget that elsewhere family and friends are celebrating lavishly with tinselled Christmas trees, gifts, excited children and excessive food and drink.
Yesterday as I was leaving work a few of my staff wished me a “Happy Merry Christmas”. I asked would I see them tomorrow at work and one answered that he was having a day off “for Christmas”. Oh, are you Christian? He heard my “Christian” as “Christmas” and replied yes, to an uproar of laughter – apparently that’s an “of course not!”.
Last night a party of about fifteen people, mostly colleagues, met at my house, where two German friends had spent days preparing a Christmas feast. Around half of us were of European persuasion and about half of us Cambodian. Music blared from a sound system that had been set up specifically for the occasion, a dance floor was cleared which we made good use of, wine and beer were served, After an hour or so of socialising upstairs, we were summonsed downstairs where a banquet table of delicious German fare awaited us. Dinner was followed by a lot of frivolity on the dance floor upstairs and many laughs.
After this interlude, Christmas Day was business as usual. This afternoon I had to meet with some colleagues at the laboratory over sputum specimen containers. The usual stock is unavailable and an inferior quality container is being used instead, which does not seal properly, leading to potentially infectious sputum leaking and creating havoc in more ways than one. Our meeting took around an hour as we tried to come up with a solution. In the first world, the solution would be to obtain the better quality stock, which would not be a difficult chore. Here it is not a difficult chore but an impossible one, as shipments only arrive a few times each year.
Something I discovered when I worked in East Timor last year, is that when something seems unsolvable to a “first world brain”, it is usually solvable with a little bit of time, imagination, teamwork and flexibility. I for one, am used to considering those things that are necessary for the basic functioning of a health service to be available without any effort or thought involved. So it’s quite an experience to suddenly have to turn off my first world brain and get into a different mode of thinking altogether.
After a group of us sat in a circle engaging in a lot of discussion and debate, some of it almost heated and interspersed with many sighs and frowns, my colleagues found a plastic box and some metal framework that fits into the box, determining that if the containers are placed into metal racks in this box, and the box is transported in an upright position, then the leakage should be avoided. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s the only one we could all agree on so we’re trialling it until the next stock arrives, in a month or more from now.
I then had to find a way of transporting this box from the hospital to the office, where our Logistics team need to make changes to the shape of the metal racks, so that the sputum containers can fit into them. We do have drivers, but it seemed a menial thing to require a car for when the office is so close. The next thing I knew, a nurse appeared with some oxygen tubing and two of them tied the box to the back of my bike in another display of teamwork! I then cycled off, my bag bulging out of the basket at my handlebars, and a big red plastic box tied to the carrier behind me. I have spent two months now, laughing at the way Cambodians can transport all manner of things, and vehicles are so overladen, with motorbikes transporting whole market stalls or ox drawn carts bursting at the seams, etc. So cycling along with my bike slightly crammed seemed like a very Cambodian experience.
And that is how I’ll remember Christmas in Cambodia.