The bright lights and glittering merchandise in airport duty free stores once drew me in as intended, tempting me to purchase things I might never consider necessary, desirable or affordable at other times. These days as I walk the sparkling hallways of various airports on my already-extravagant travels, I have no desire to so much as stop for a look, aware that my money is valuable to much more significant matters. Almost three weeks out of Cambodia now, the “life changing experience” I have talked so much of is highlighted as a living reality as I readjust back into the world of plenty for a while. The luck I was born into has never been so conspicuous as it is now. That I have the choice to travel, an assumed right to decent health care, a first class education which makes “the world my oyster” and so many other freedoms that most people in the world dare not even dream of, makes me pinch myself on a regular basis.
This is exacerbated by the contact I maintain with Cambodia. One of my staff wrote to tell me that her father was diagnosed with cancer and is dying a painful death with no access to any of the cancer therapies available in my world which can improve survival and quality of life. There is no money to ensure adequate pain relief so she is arranging an advance in her $450 monthly salary to help cover the $750 bill which has crippled them only weeks into his diagnosis. Chom’s 3yo son fell and fractured his arm. Due to costs, the recommended follow up x-ray had to be declined. At the same time he crashed his tuk tuk and has a $60 repair bill which he cannot pay. So as I flit around the world, the constant paralysis of my Cambodian friends and colleagues continues unabated.
One of my expat colleagues says that third world citizens don’t want money so much as they want resources. I get what she means as I recognise the difference between having contacts who can affect your life outcomes, compared with having no such contacts. This is epitomised by the value which has been placed on my newfound status as an English teacher, purely because I’m a native English speaker. The ability to speak English increases opportunities for Cambodian children exponentially, which in turn has made it a valuable commodity with costs attached to lessons most Cambodians cannot afford.
Last weekend I cycled in the Multiple Sclerosis “Sydney to the Gong” ride, from an outer Sydney suburb to Wollongong, 58km south along the coast. It was a beautiful ride, through a shady national park and along the coastline surrounded by beautiful seaside homes. Many thoughts roamed through my mind as I passed through this affluent country watching children at surf lifesaving and surfboard lessons, pampered pooches running on the white sand, paddleboards and yachts out on the glistening blue sea, watched over by hillside swimming pools in beautiful private gardens. Days prior on Halloween, we were visited in my family’s beautiful Alexandria home which borders Redfern, mainly by groups of indigenous children from the neighbouring poorer area knocking for their trick or treat experience. Their young mothers all seemed curious when our gate opened, by what might be inside our property and it appeared to be a treat for them as much as for the children, to interact with and get a glimpse of “how the other half live”, causing us to consider the fact that our good fortunes are not shared by all Australians, in fact not even all of our neighbours.
Last week I posted a book to Win in Cambodia which I know he will enjoy, as well as assisting him in his quest to find decent English speaking books to read, which are both hard to come by and also very expensive in Cambodia. Albert Facey was in his 80s when he wrote A Fortunate Life, his autobiography set mainly in Western Australia in the early half of last century. It is one of the most beautifully written and quintessentially Australian books I’ve ever read, by a modest, decent man.
Last week was also the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of Australia’s most iconic books, The Lucky Country by Donald Horne. No book title has entered popular vernacular as rapidly as those three words entered the Australian lingo courtesy of Horne in the 1960s – persisting to this day as a reflection on what it means to be Australian. This is ironic because Australians adopted the phrase en masse, courtesy of it’s use by politicians and public figures, as a positive reflection of themselves. This was quite the opposite of Horne’s meaning, which was to suggest that we happened to have fallen on our feet by sheer good luck – something I have always believed to be the case, without ever reading The Lucky Country which is now on my to-read list. Horne was reportedly exasperated by this popular distortion, attributing it to the “empty mindedness of a mob of assorted public wafflers” (http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780143180029/lucky-country/39485/extract). The article I read about the 50th anniversary of this book led me to read more on Professor Horne, who was quite a pioneer in Australian academics and social commentary. He remained highly critical (as he was in The Lucky Country) of the lack of vision from Australian leaders, who he described as second rate people using other people’s ideas, lacking curiosity and less concerned with achievement or hard work than with lifestyle. He claimed that Australia did not deserve the luck it happened across.
I look forward to reading The Lucky Country. Just as soon as I get through the tome I’m currently ploughing through about Cambodia’s history. What I know without assistance from either book, is that had Australia stumbled into such misery and disaster as Cambodia, thanks in large part to it’s geographical location and political vulnerabilities, we would be in no better place now than Cambodia currently finds itself. As a microcosm of this comparison, I also remain acutely aware that it is pure and undeserved luck which sees me living quite the opposite experience of my peers in Cambodia.
While I am on this subject, I’ve also added this to my to-read list:
The Locust Effect : Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros