When Minnie picked me up at Dili Airport in October 2012 and drove me to their home near the centre of the East Timorese capital I was agape the whole way, at the sights of overcrowded vehicles, casual road rules, animals in traffic, etc. I kept pointing things out to her in case she hadn’t noticed, as she appeared not to see, or at least wasn’t reacting to, these startling spectacles. Perhaps I don’t react anymore either, after over 8 months in Cambodia. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sights, sounds and impressions that surround me every single day.
Amidst the purring engines of motorbikes and the odd motorcar, horse hoofs clip-clop along, usually pulling a wooden carriage filled to the brim with various produce, from boxes of beer to stacks of hay. Trucks pile so steep that they often have a visible and unsafe-looking angle and almost always humans sitting on top of the comically-high load. Motorbikes carry volumes that would only fit in a small truck where I come from, with the driver’s arms, legs and head often the only parts visible amidst the boxes, vegetables, animals etc being transported. Chickens, pigs and cattle all find themselves on the road with chaotic traffic – boxes of chickens and cane baskets of pigs on the back of motorbikes; cattle standing inside caged trailers pulled by motos or being shepherded along busy highways by children – none of these are unusual sights.
Driving through Cambodia, we pass through regular crowded markets positioned on dusty highways where buses pull over to drop off or pick up passengers, giving vendors an opportunity to board and sell their wares to hungry passengers. Some people make their living selling lotus fruit pods and some of these sellers seem to be primary school age, such as this photograph taken from Pinterest courtesy Google. The poverty this livelihood epitomises always leaves me feeling hollow inside.
Today I was in the print shop having some copies of a book made and had to wait while the printer chugged colour copies of a sticker being produced to fit around the circumference of a small white bottle. The sign read incorrectly “Milk. Make beauty and soft face and withe”. I decided to attempt a staged correction, starting with the correct spelling of “white”. But there was no use because it was a scanned picture so it couldn’t be altered. The customer being served was a middle aged man dressed in loose black raggedy clothing and mismatched thongs on his feet. Probably from a rural village where he might manage to eke out some sort of an existence selling his milk product to young girls hoping for a soft, white and beautiful face.
On Monday Bea and I picked up the homeless girls for English class and made our usual trek towards the meeting point where Chom turns up in his tuk tuk for us, when the girls started chattering to us excitedly in Khmer, then waved towards a young boy dressed in blue who ran in the opposite direction. He soon reappeared with a young girl, neither of whom I had seen before, and it became apparent that they intended joining us for English class. We waited for Chom to translate for us and had to explain that we couldn’t bring them today but that I would look for them oneday if they could tell me where I might find them.
Today, translator in tow, I found one of the homeless girls under their tree with her grandparents. Her grandfather advised me that I should not bring these other children to class “because if you try to help them, the parents may blame you for doing something wrong”. I understood and appreciated his desire to protect me but had promised the children I would be in touch. He told me where I would find them and we located them sitting on a tropical verandah at the top of some steps. Inside I could see a skeletal frame lying underneath a blanket on a wooden bed base. A woman appeared and via translations introduced herself as their mother. I explained that I had met the children on Monday but could not bring them with me as I did not know them, or if they had parental permission to come with me. She explained in return that they are visitors to town, hoping to receive medical care for her husband who is very ill, pointing to the blanket-clad bones. “We are very poor and the children cannot go to school now because we are here”. I said that if she gave permission then I was happy to bring them to English class. Both children speak impeccable English, introducing themselves, telling me where they come from and answering “do you speak English?” with the reply ” yes, a little”. I said I would find some activities for them to do and return after lunch with them. When I did so, the 14yo girl said to me in English “I would like to ask you, does English class cost money?” Her mother then appeared and asked the same thing via my translator. They all seemed relieved when I said no. The homeless girls had told them it was $5 per month to attend my lesson! Perhaps their way of trying to protect me? Who knows. Anyway, they are included while they are here in town and I reassured them with “ot luey” (no money), which aroused a wide beaming smile from the 10yo boy. Clearly $5 per month was going to be prohibitive.
Another day I was cycling near the river when I heard the cry of a small child. I initially ignored this as I was busy taking a photograph in the opposite direction. But when I turned to cycle home, I happened to glance towards the noise and was hit with the sight of a very small boy seated on the edge of a shabby verandah made from mismatched wood in a village of shacks which sits almost directly outside of my bedroom window. His right leg below the knee was amputated. I reeled in shock. On my way back to work that afternoon I took some small toy cars that had been sent to me from Australia and delivered them to him via a woman who appeared to know him. After an unsuccessful communication together she laughingly said something about English and Khmer then took the cars from my bicycle on the side of the road, down the hill into the shack where he was lying on a hammock. He turned to look at me, then a man came out of the shack and shouted at me. I thought he was angry until I realised he was telling me that the boy was missing his leg and I nodded in understanding, before cycling off.
A few days later, unable to get this tiny amputee out of my mind, I returned with my translator to the shack. Another woman was there and introduced herself as the amputee boy’s mother. He had told her that a “barang” (foreigner) had given him the cars and she imitated him hopping with his back bent over, rolling a car along the ground. I asked if she knew about the NGO Handicap International in town who could arrange for him to have a prosthesis? He has a prosthesis but his bone is growing out of the stump and he needs an operation so that he can wear the prosthesis again, but she has no money to take him to Phnom Penh for the operation. She works in the construction industry (with the group of labourers who I am so fascinated by) and earns 17,000 riel per day (US$4.25) which is enough to feed the family and nothing more. We had a prolonged conversation where I asked many questions which she happily answered. I had assumed he was a landmine victim but he got his leg mangled in a moto accident. It is possible that the injury did not actually need an amputation, but I know of other situations where amputation was the cheaper option and therefore the only option. He needs to go to Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh for the operation, which will be free but she has no money to afford the cost of getting and staying there while this happens. Kantha Bopha Hospital was founded and continues to be privately funded through the efforts of Dr Beat Richner, a Swiss Paediatrician. More can be read about this hospital and Dr Richner at this link http://www.beat-richner.ch/. Another decent foundation worth donating to for anyone looking for a meaningful cause.
She will arrange the appointment sometime this week and I will meet her again next week to find out the details, at which time we will work out how much it will cost for her to be away from work, feed her family, stay in Phnom Penh, etc. The amount will be miniscule to my financial situation yet is beyond her means. As we cycled away she said something and Win translated “But I don’t even know you”. I guess it seems like a weird thing to her, but for me, living almost next door to a 5yo in such need and doing nothing to help when it is well within my means, is far weirder and totally unacceptable.
When I commented the other day to my translator that I could not fathom why the Cambodian government would not want their populace to prosper and what was wrong with them, he replied “It is the Communist ideology. A prosperous population might dissent”. Wow.
This made me wonder at the year-old Australian government who are dismantling our social structures at a rapid pace. They are accused of being far-right-wing. Are they so far right-wing that they have met the far left on a 360 cycle? It seems so at times, with the far-right and their authoritarian resolve that diversity is bad seeming to match the communist philosophy.
On some rounds at the hospital this week I heard of two separate incidents of theft from patients. A number of rooms were burgled one night when the doors had to be removed from some outdoor-facing rooms for a building maintenance reason. Another group of patients were woken to some arms coming through their broken window, which has been broken for many months and apparently unable to be repaired despite safety fears for the patients. What happens when a hospital window is broken in Australia? Working as a nurse in Australia for almost twenty years, I have no clue except that “they get repaired”. But after eight months working in Cambodia, I am well aware of the logistical issues in an environment where there is not enough money for basic repairs let alone proper medical care. Which is why as one example of many, an 84yo man will die an uncomfortable, breathless demise in the next day or two, on the wooden slats of a bed against a grubby concrete wall with some very rudimentary treatments that are unlikely to improve his comfort level.
It seems I may never get used to the sensations of Cambodia. I also don’t envisage in my future, living with HIV and facing unaffordable treatment charges, or dying from AIDS or other avoidable illnesses in stark, under-resourced facilities. I don’t expect to ever find the need to sling a hammock between trees as my only accommodation option. Or to contemplate moving away from a young family for years at a time in order to try and retrieve some sort of acceptable living standard for our future. I don’t expect to suffer silently without a voice in intolerable conditions with no way of climbing out of the abyss. But these are the realities I observe as an unaffected spectator to the Cambodian reality. When I go home and say I lived under a communist regime for a year, it will have been as a sheltered “barang” who sleeps under a comfortable roof with a full stomach every night. So while I am here, and perhaps beyond, I want to do everything in my power to help make the abyss a little shallower than it is for a tiny few of the many people I have the privilege to meet and know.