Needing a bus ticket to Kampong Cham, I asked the hotel receptionist in Phnom Penh to organise one for me. Soon enough, via an agency, my ticket arrived by motorbike courier. Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, 2-15pm, Seat 15. With no record of which bus company, I asked “Is this Capitol Bus?” and she replied hesitantly. My lack of Khmer combined with her uncertain English, I called Win who rang the ticket agency for me before calling back.
They said your ticket is for Battambang.
It can’t be, it says Kampong Cham on the ticket?
They said the 2-15pm bus is for Battambang, the Kampong Cham bus goes at 2pm.
Okay, I’m pretty sure that they simply wrote the wrong time on my ticket so I’ll turn up at Capitol in time for 2pm.
A few minutes later he called again.
The bus company rang me. You are booked at 2pm for Kampong Cham, in Seat 19.
Okay, wrong time and wrong seat number is more reassuring than wrong bus!
On arrival at the chaotic bus station, the first “Tuk tuk madame?” guy (I’m disembarking a tuk-tuk, what do you think?!), pointed me in the direction of the Kampong Cham bus. I walked in that direction and approached the counter, reaching over freight boxes piled high across the floor to present my ticket.
Oh you have to go that way, to Capitol Restaurant.
Wheeling one big case beside me and a smaller one behind, laptop leaning on one case, plastic bag filled with toiletries precariously atop the other, a pack on my back and ticket between my fingers, I clattered across the potholed pavement, squeezing around people and produce, to the corner restaurant.
Tuk tuk madame?
No, bus to Kampong Cham.
It’s that way!, pointing whence I’d just come.
No, I have to go this way.
No that bus is Kampong Cham!
But they told me to come this way, I insisted, going against his equally insistent advice.
At the restaurant counter they transferred my agency ticket to a Capitol ticket and sent me back towards the Kampong Cham bus. As I walked past Mister Tuk Tuk Madame he called out to me:
I told you that way but you went this way! You should listen to me! I have good advice for you!
But I had to get my ticket changed!
Ah! Okay! Followed by big smiles.
The bus trip quickly removed all remnants of the Western World from my consciousness. Months into the Dry Season, everything is caked in a layer of brown dust. Leaves on trees, waterlogged green lotus pods, rooftops, even the white hides of oxen all give the impression of being cinammon coloured. For most of the trip the air was a thick cloud of brown and upon arrival in Kampong Cham I looked like a huge walking cinnamon stick! Greeted excitedly by Chom and his small son who I’d been texting along the way to keep them informed of my estimated arrival time, my cases were barely recognisable as they were dragged out from the hold looking as though they’d rusted along the way. There was no time to shower so I turned up at my old workpace in the state I was in, for the New Year party which happened to be in progress. My dirt-soaked appearance didn’t seem to perturb anyone as a can of beer and three plates of food were presented to me amidst hugs and enthusiastic chatter.
Just over an hour later, which was enough time to see and catch up briefly with most people, I realised that I couldn’t remain upright any longer and had to bow out. One of the nurses offered to act as chauffeur. In the front yard of the office, with my old boss watching on, I broke the golden MSF expat rule “no riding on motorbikes”, climbed aboard, and pillion passengered my way through the streets, wind evaporating my many sweats, feeling very “rebel without a cause” and of course, far more Cambodian than I’ve been allowed to act until now!
Win met me for breakfast this morning, joined briefly by Chom. Filled on rice and chicken, I swung a leg over yet another moto and cruised pillion across to Shackville with Win as my chauffeur-translator. In ten weeks noone has seen any sign of Dara but this morning his parents both appeared, Mum in tears, saying Dara is with her parents but he will want to come to town when he learns I am back. I explained that in NZ I received money from family and friends who wanted to help them get a toilet for their village. They want to build it immediately so the plan is to help them purchase all materials this Friday. Following Chom’s advice to keep a tight reign on this money, which is a huge lump sum to poor Cambodians and could easily be redirected to other causes, I’m remaining involved and will take photographs of the project in progress. It should prove an interesting observation for my First World brain!
Dara’s amputated bone has apparently grown quite long and he is no longer able to wear his prosthesis but they have no money to take him to the hospital because “our money is all used for food”. Win explained to them that I can help with this as well, which is also thanks to various peoples’ generosity while I was home. The family bicycle which I had repaired for them at the grand total of $10 continues to go well, used to transport Dara and his sisters to school as well as for daily market trips by grandparents and others. I asked where is the blind lady with two infant daughters, whose husband works with you? Her husband drowned in the river “over there” (metres away) and she has returned to her village to grow rice. I could hardly believe my ears! Where is her village? A long way away, we don’t know where. I’m so shocked and saddened by this. Those beautiful little girls have lost their father; his earning capacity of $4 per day has plummeted to a family income of enough rice to eat (if the harvest yields for them); and I am likely never going to see them again. On our way to dinner on New Years Eve, Karen and I went out of our way to purchase a My Little Pony for each of them at a specific corner store in Greenwich Village. Some other small girls will no doubt appear and score these sooner or later.
From there we cruised over to the hospital where Drug Resistant TB “outpatient day” is in progress and I was able to see a number of our most complicated cases who I had been very involved with. It all flooded back to me as I greeted at least ten of my previous patients who remain under the TB Program’s care. A few examples who I am sure I’ve spoken about before:
- severe treatment side effects have led to an 80yo man stopping his treatment and he has gone home to die. TB is a curable disease but there are times when this fact becomes a fiction;
- the HIV-co-infected widow separated from her 10yo son while his mother remains infectious with DRTB was there. She smiled happily at me from underneath her mask as I promised to cycle out to her home sometime soon to visit;
- just out of her clinic appointment, the malnourished 25yo mother with two open abdominal wounds walked slowly out to the waiting area and waved out to me. Despite her malabsorption which makes gaining weight almost impossible and compromises the efficacy of her anti-TB drugs, threatening her chances of a cure, she appears to be improving. She is now 8kg heavier than when I met her seven months ago – a whopping 28.5kg from her initial 20.8kg! Efforts are being made to consider surgical intervention which could see her return to a normal quality of life. She has to gain another 10kg+ before this becomes an option, assuming the surgeons think there is anything they can do. Her sister and brother-in-law left for Thailand last week “because we have to spend 10,000 riel ($2.50) everyday on gauze for my wounds and they need to earn money”. When will they come home again? “We are not sure, maybe in a few years”;
- the malnourished 57yo woman who we sent home assuming she would die pulled up on a moto, sitting upright between the driver and her husband. She climbed unassisted off the moto and with minimal assistance walked up the ramp to the waiting area! Her abdominal wound, caused by TB disease, is apparently much improved but remains an open wound affecting her absorption meaning weight gain remains a slow and challenging issue;
- the elderly man living with his wife and their psychiatrically unwell son still has gynaecomastia (breast growth) due to one of the drugs he is on and remains incapacitated by drug-induced arthralgia. Nevertheless he remains compliant and is progressing through his two years of treatment.
A quick visit to the office to deliver gifts. Jewelery for the women and pens for the men, all from New York which might as well be on another planet after the re-introduction I just had to the way so many people exist. Toys or NY-logo clothes for various children. My case was 3/4 full before I even started to put anything of my own into it! But somehow it all arrived safely and I now have a 3/4 empty suitcase at my disposal, albeit saturated in dust! Win dropped me off and I ordered a chicken salad for lunch which was followed by the appearance of a coconut milkshake from the waitress asking me “please can you try this and let us know if it is good?”. Of course!
With fundraising money and medicines to distribute yet, an English lesson schedule and lesson plans to prepare, charity status application to make via Global Development Group in Australia, staff meeting to chair on the weekend, a website page to edit, toilet construction to fund, patient homes to visit and of course, part-time food tasting, my “holiday” has a purpose attached to it now, for the ensuing few months. I wouldn’t have it any other way!