This afternoon I was invited to visit one of our cleaners in her village a little way out of town. With 75% humidity and 35C temperatures I decided to be lazy and booked Chom’s tuk tuk for the journey instead of cycling the c.20km round-trip.
Just before Chom picked me up I was out on my bike and I stopped along the roadside to say hello to the homeless lady with her baby. She was trying to tell me something which I didn’t understand so I returned with Chom to translate. As we drove towards her tree a moto-sidecar pulled up before us for no apparent reason. I’ve always just assumed these sidecars sell food and so I wondered why he parked next to a homeless woman with no money, but figured he must have decided on that particular bit of shade to take a rest. We parked next to him and began conversing with her but Chom stopped speaking when a moto pulled up alongside us.
A brief conversation ensued with the moto driver and Chom said “Oh, she is selling her hair”. I then realised that the sidecar was not a food shop, but a mobile hairdresser with the equivalent of a salon trolley of paraphernalia in his sidecar cabinet. The second moto driver was the cutter. Confused, I repeated “selling her hair?” and he said “Yes, to get money”. How short will they cut her hair? “Maybe like yours”. The cutter knelt behind her on the pavement and released the band holding her hair back, which fell in a thick cascade down to her shoulders. As the cutter began sectioning her hair Chom informed me that she would make around $35 and her hair would be used to make “I don’t know the word in English but you know for weddings?”. Hair extensions. In shock I suggested we leave and return to speak with her later.
As usual the visit to rural Cambodia was filled with fascinating sights, not least of all the 20+ buffalo being herded along the road towards a muddy damn where they bathed as their shepherds, ranging from young boys to older women and everything in between, sat on the banks above them. My friend the cleaner is a strikingly beautiful woman about two years younger than me. We have been communicating in broken Khmer (me) and English (her) for a year now, and despite the absence of a common language we always manage to make each other laugh. It came as quite a shock for me to see her humble abode. She is yet another shack dweller with almost no assets to her name! If you met her in the street you would think this attractive, dignified, confident and happy woman had a very prosperous existence. I’ve spent a year assuming so!
She saw the tuk tuk arrive and was at the gate to greet us. Clothes were drying along the fence line. We walked down a muddy slope to the front of the house which is a ground level wooden shelter with dirt floors, patches of which are dried mud moulded into shoe, foot and other odd shapes. Slabs of tin are strategically placed around each other to make a loose roof. Under the outdoor shelter area a typical bamboo base tripling as table, chair and bed depending on the need at any specific time sits along the wall in much the same position as my home in Australia has an expensive day bed. Sitting at the front door on this base, it was very hot under the tin roof and when she noticed me fanning myself she ran inside and moved a wooden board across the so-called window (a hole in the wooden wall), which she then clipped a three-bladed contraption to and the three blades began rotating. It was not like any fan I’d ever seen before but it did a kind of a job at circulating some air!
After a time sitting with her 10yo daughter who learns English six days a week, looking through her exercise book and hearing her read to me, we went for a walk and she showed me her rice field. We then walked through the village, accumulating children like the Pied Piper as we went. A seven year old boy joined us whose father has died and mother lives in another district, who my friend is raising. He and all of the children were beyond cute and it was hilariously uplifting to watch our crowd of followers grow like a snowball as we walked along, all wanting to join in on the Barang Bandwagon! One of them asked if I was a man or a woman which shocked me until she motioned to my short hair – rural children are not used to seeing females with short hair so I looked confusing! We strolled through the dirt tracks of the village, lined the whole way with verdant rice fields where workers carried over-sized loads on their shoulders, a baby buffalo pranced away from it’s cowbell-adorned herd before being driven back onto the track by a tiny but skilled arm-waving shepherd of no more than about eight years old.
Chom had disappeared quickly to run some tourists between a couple of temples and so we sat down under a tree to wait for him, with many villagers passing us by on motos and bicycles loaded with all manner of stuff from boxes of beer to bales of hay, many of them calling out to my friend in amusement at her keeping company with the Barang or shouting “hello” to me. The buffalo who were being shepherded towards the dam when I arrived, sauntered back home past us as we waited, allowing for plenty of photo opportunities. I met my friend’s husband on this return saunter and learned that this is a communal village routine each afternoon. Learning that they own a buffalo, I recognised that some of the moulded dry mud at their front door was actually buffalo hoof shaped. It also explained the hay scattered about their front yard.
Chom finally reappeared to pick me up and we said our farewells. We made our way back to town past many more typically Cambodian sights. Families packed onto motos for their evening cruise. Travelers sitting amongst luggage strapped to the roof of overloaded minivans. Three cows on a lead attached to the hand of a motorbike driver clopping their way along the side of the busy highway. Sidecar shops playing their tunes or broadcasting their recorded announcements. Trucks loaded to the clouds with piles of wood and charcoal, and so many other sights I haven’t remembered. Once in town we made our way to the “homeless pavement” but the lady wasn’t there. She had told Chom that in the rain she sleeps undercover at a nearby location, so we putted around the bend and immediately found her sitting on a bench, the baby playing at her feet. She had been to the Pagoda and received some food from the monks, still had milk left for the baby and said she was safe to sleep there tonight.
A young man appeared and stood near us, apparently listening to the conversation but clearly not an English speaker. Chom told me that if I need to speak with her I must call him and he will come “as your bodyguard because some of these people they don’t care, they will steal from you and it can be dangerous. If anyone is near her when you see her, do not stay for too long. Also make sure you do not give her money because if you do then these people will find out and they will steal it from her. Only buy her food or help her without money”. Her hair was not shockingly short, perhaps cut in a way such that a section has been kept long which she can wear up in a bun, masking that most of her hair is actually short. This calmed my horror on that score. As Philip Coggan suggested to my previous post, I will see if there is an NGO who might be able to assist her in some way. Chom suggested one NGO but they aim to return people to their homelands, and she made it clear that she intends to stay in town, as she is trying to escape her husband who Chom translated to me “is crazy”. Domestic violence Cambodian style – stay and face the consequences or leave and face the equally dire consequences?