We woke today to news of the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Columbia’s President has described him as the “greatest Colombian of all time”. This is surely thanks to his ageless and captivating writing, celebrated by millions of ordinary readers and the Nobel Academy alike. His prose has been described as Magical Realism, which combines reality with fantasy such that it becomes difficult to differentiate in the plot, where the two merge.
In some ways I think that the difference between reality and fantasy always merges somewhere in all of our minds. An anonymous blog reader sent me a message about a year ago now, accusing me of living in a fantasy world and lying about some of my experiences. How they possibly knew this I have no clue, but I am happy to appreciate that my reality is never going to match others’. Our memories are formed by repeatedly processing sensory perceptions of an event until it becomes embedded as a memory. With each repeat encoding our imperfect brains misremember small to major details. This is why no group of people will ever remember the same event in the exact same way. It is also, put very simply, how false memories can be formed, as well as very likely being connected to phenomena such as Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD). Ultimately I guess, it is also why we all have differing perspectives on life – because we form and develop opinions and attitudes based on what we learn over time and none of us share the exact same experiences or biological make-up (responsible for the way we process things).
With this in mind, I marvel at the efforts that people in a place like Cambodia will go to, for what seems to people from a place like Australia, as paltry amounts of money. My Cambodian per diem of $390 per month, at almost $100 per week, is by no means small in Cambodian terms, where the average income is approximately $2 per day and I can live well with just myself to support and many of my expenses (eg rent) covered.
My time in Siem Reap has been relaxing and mostly spent behind the rendered brick wall of my paradise-like, balcony-encircled poolside hotel with it’s high timber ceilings, timber floors, tropical gardens and lavish poolside restaurant. Over the wall from me is a large Pagoda where children from poor families are robed as monks, serving the Buddhist clergy in exchange for food and education which would be otherwise unavailable to them. Down the road a short way, hammocks are slung between every tree, housing obviously homeless men, women and children who set up stalls near their beds to sell coconuts, cardboard and various other wares for a tiny price. Tuk tuks transporting wealthy foreigners putter past them many times per day, apparently taking little notice of the poverty playing out before us, perhaps because it is such a foreign concept that we really don’t understand or appreciate it’s significance to the people living it daily.
My tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, Rav, a young man with a wife and small children, has been with me whenever I leave the hotel compound. This afternoon we visited Kim’s young family, after which I decided to sit at an al-fresco restaurant in town for a few hours, to soak in some atmosphere and sip lemon juice while reading my book. Rav knew he had another $5 due for the day (I had paid him half already) and he relaxed in the cab of his tuk tuk patiently waiting for me, for this reason. Coming from a country where the average wage is $35/hour, over two hours for $5 seems somehow …. corrupt?
But corruption is a consistent theme in Cambodia. By no means the only, nor the first, nor the most recent example of the way Cambodians have been and continue to be used and abused by their own leaders, but also leaders of the world employed to improve their lot, is the presence of the multi-national United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). In the 18 months from March 1992 until September 1993, the presence of UNTAC in Cambodia is credited with bringing six thousand foreigners into the previously completely-isolated (and highly traumatised and decimated) country from places as far-flung as Hungary, Uruguay, Canada, the Ivory Coast, Australia, and pretty much everywhere in between. UNTAC civilians, in addition to their regular salaries, received a per diem of $130 per day. The average income in Cambodia at that time, with widespread malnutrition and poverty affecting swathes of the population, was approximately $130 per annum! Not only did UNTAC fail in it’s billion-dollar mission to restore peace and security to a country being held captive by their own self-serving political and symbolic leaders. They also boosted prostitution and are credited with spreading Human Immuno-deficiency Virus through a country previously unaffected by the epidemic, which rose to a prevalence of 2% in 1998, before steadily declining to a prevalence of approximately 0.2% in 2012. (See http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/cambodia_statistics.html#116).
Being born into this circumstance of extreme violation, I guess Rav is used to being on the receiving end of all kinds and levels of corruption, be it specifically due to individuals, or of a more systematic nature. He is one of the luckier young drivers I have met, in that he is very accepting of the inequity surrounding him in this city of extreme disparity. Some drivers I have encountered have been full of anxiety and despair, expressions I have full empathy for given the history and damage that has become a part of the identity of Cambodia. Rav is casually but politely grateful for the comparatively reasonable amounts I am willing to pay him and happy to relax and wait while I “do my thing”. In return, I get to have my very own driver / guide / translator who will chauffeur me around in a manner to which I have become well accustomed during my time of living well in Cambodia. As a general rule, paying more than market value for such things as tuk tuk rides is advised against, as it drives the market value up, disadvantaging the majority of locals who cannot afford to pay more. This happened in an extreme way during UNTAC’s time in Cambodia, when the highly paid international visitors inflated prices to ridiculous levels which were way beyond what the already-struggling general population could afford. It is common for bartering to take place between wealthy foreigners and poor locals, over what are actually small amounts to the customer, but amounts that can make a difference to those serving them, who always seem acutely aware of the disparity. There is a fine line between being generous to someone providing you an otherwise cheap service, and causing harm to the overall economy in an already destitute environment.
If I had a snippet of Garcia Marquez’ skill, I could translate this lifestyle into a story of magical realism, which is certainly a sensation that Cambodia conjures with it’s high pinnacles of affluence and depths of hardship. Alas, the best I can do, is an unremarkable journalistic summary of my personal perceptions.