Perceptions of the Poor

It’s really difficult to know how it would feel to be a person living in poverty, or how people in poverty perceive the “rich” people they occasionally encounter.  These thoughts regularly occur to me as I cycle or drive my way through remote villages being smiled, stared and even laughed at like the alien that I am to such parts.  I am not rich by any means of the imagination in a western sense.  I have three mortgages, many bills and commitments to keep on top of, a single salary, etc.  Yet, as someone who can travel and is currently on a 12 month break of paid leave, then by global standards I am “rolling in it”.  Which appears to be the perception that some around me have.  Not helped of course, when I arrived back in town with jewelery, bling pens and toys to hand out, all of which were cheap but compared to products available at local markets, they look high quality.  Not helped either, by the fact that I am staying in a riverfront hotel for the grand total of $7 a night – money that most around me could only imagine having.  Nor helped by the common knowledge that in my three months away I traveled to Australia, New Zealand and America.  It all goes to paint a picture of extreme wealth for people who earn anything between “enough rice to eat” and the top-dollar jobs of around $400 per month, with the average person making about $2 per day / $750 per year.

So it’s not surprising that I am encountering some interesting situations with people!  The first example is the cleaner at my hotel.  She works with children underfoot, including a thin and naked toddler and older children who attend school but often help her making beds etc outside school hours (children here only attend public school for half a day – alternating between morning classes one week and afternoon classes the next).  As a long term guest I decided it would be fair to tip her and began leaving 2,000 Riel (50c) on the bed.  My room has one large suitcase and two smaller suitcases, a few smaller bags all holding gear in them, plus a wardrobe storing clothes and make up etc, a toiletry bag hanging from the bathroom rail, shampoos and gels on the bathroom shelf, etc etc and I have not been particularly tidy or organised as yet so things have been strewn about somewhat.

Yesterday the cleaner’s daughter, about 12yo at a guess, was helping her mother.  When I returned to my room at around 10pm the first thing I noticed was that the brush from my compact blush, which I’d left on top of the dresser, was sitting outside it’s case.  Today I have left my room as bare as possible with everything that might be tempting zipped up, in a cupboard or hidden away on shelves or in drawers.  I’ve also left no tip.  I don’t want to report it because at the age of 12 I would also have been tempted to snoop and put a bit of make up on my face, and Mum’s job should not be jeopardised because of this fairly typical adolescent behaviour.  She works hard cleaning 15 rooms and probably doesn’t earn more than a few dollars for her efforts.  I had adolescents in my house in Australia fairly regularly and learned quickly to store things away that I didn’t want curious eyes and hands noticing.  I am also fairly sure that my mother wore make up to work during my teens even though I don’t remember ever seeing it on show in the bathroom!  No doubt the change in my room arrangement and the lack of tip will be enough to show that I’m aware, which should be message-enough.  If not, then I will try to talk to her but we have no common language so that’s a more tricky response.

The second and more entertaining scenario is the toilet construction in Dara’s village home 15km out of town.  My first visit to Shackville was with Win last week, who explained to his mother that while I was in NZ I received some money from people who wanted to help Dara’s grandparents have a toilet at their house.  Later that day I returned with Chom, my “advocate” with the family and I asked him to explain to her again that I had some money for the purpose of building a toilet.  “Helen I don’t want to say that because if I say you have money then they will think that you can give them the money.  I want to say to them that you can help them to build the toilet, but I don’t want to say anything about money to them”.  Okay, that’s fine.  He then said “they want to build it today but we should wait because I think they want the money but we need to buy all of the materials and not give them the money or they will use it for something else”.  We negotiated a time and Chom and I picked up Stepdad from Shackville on Friday morning.  We went straight to the bathroom shop where a white squat toilet (porcelain basin with foot-sized panels on either side) sold for $19.  With Stepdad and I using the toilet as a footstool to keep it from bouncing around on the floor of the tuk tuk, we then continued out to the village where a family member who works in construction was waiting with Dara’s grandparents behind the house on the site of the planned new toilet.

Rainwater cauldrons sitting on the site of the new bathroom, between two houses
Rainwater cauldrons sitting on the site of the new bathroom, between two houses

Conversation in Khmer began with Chom speaking for me.  I stood in the circle unaware of what was being said but fascinated at the heat of the discussion and wondering if the construction worker was angry or excited.  Eventually Chom turned to me and said that they have plans to make the bathroom 3.5m x 2.5m.  I worked this out in my head and said “Oh, that’s about the size of my bedroom in Australia!  Why so big?”.  That’s what Chom wanted to know and had led to the excited discussion.  Okay, so how much is it going to cost?  Chom listed the materials I needed to buy – sand, concrete, bricks, etc, and as I wrote it down the guy told us the quantity he needed of each.  Chom then said to me “Helen I think you will spend about $1,000 for this”.  My expression soured as I explained that I most definitely did not have $1,000 and that we would have to cancel our plans. More excited Khmer discussion ensued and I almost felt nervous about what on earth was happening.  Chom then explained that “I told them this is not possible and so maybe we can make it a smaller size?”.  Okay, how much if we make it smaller?  “How small do you think?”.  Well, I think that my bathroom at home is only about 2m x 1.5m, so that should be big enough for here too?  “Okay I’ll tell them 1.5 x 1.5?”.  Okay.  After further discussion and calculations, we came to an agreement that a small bathroom was do-able.  Chom then turned to me and said “I told them, do not think that she is the bank, because she is not the bank.  She is very friendly and she want to help, but if you treat her like the bank then she cannot help”.  Stern words, Grasshopper!  We then bounced our way back to town on the horrendously dusty, ungraded roads where we went from one supplier to the  next ordering sand, cement and bricks which were transported out that afternoon.

Work began on Saturday and by the time we arrived to check in and make sure everything was happening as planned, the patch had been roped off and bricklaying was about to begin.  Children ran around the edge, grandad was squatted nearby observing silently as he sucked incessantly on a cigarette, teenagers peered out through holes in the banana-leafed walls of the house above and men mixed sand, carted piles of bricks, made a water level out of tubing which they sucked on to pull the water through and various other fascinating activities.  All construction workers flopped around in slip-on sandals and thongs!  Chom explained that I needed to take photographs “to send to the people in New Zealand who are paying for this toilet” and they all nodded in agreement, even posing for me a couple of times!  We are now heading out there on a daily to second-daily basis to monitor progress and Chom has kindly obtained a moto to transport me on to avoid being thrown around like a rag doll in his tuk tuk again!  He is earning his keep as my driver, translator and mentor in how to negotiate with Khmer people who “think that you are the bank”!!

This morning English classes begin at the Children’s Home.  The children have been divided into four groups based on when they attend public school.  I will teach the same lesson to small groups of 4, three times during the day and then a different evening lesson with all of the children together (16-17 including the homeless hospital children), three days per week.  This totals four hours of teaching on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, followed by four days off for lesson planning, socialising, trips away, etc.  The Childrens’ Home children will receive six hours of English per week and the homeless children three hours per week.  The homeless children have gathered various others who are all asking to learn English with me and today Chom is coming to the hospital to explain to them that it’s not possible to teach more than the group I already teach.  Meanwhile, if I can find a venue near the hospital then I might spend an hour in the middle of the day teaching these “extras”, but at this stage we have no venue for this idea.  The experience of many pairs of little eyes looking at me hoping for free English lessons with the native English speaker was not one I’d like to experience again.  Stories about why and how their parents can’t afford to pay for English lessons but they want to learn English came at me in chorus with translation adding to the hum of voices and I thought I might have a nervous breakdown before I could escape the monster crowd of small people!

After this morning’s English class Chom and I are heading out to the village on his friend’s moto to see the latest progress.  When I asked him how I should pay the workers, he replied “Let me work it out because I don’t want to give them the money altogether and then they will get drunk”.  Dealing with young men seems to carry the same theme with it, no matter where in the world you are!

Grandad watching on as the first bricks of the new toilet are laid.  This is going to be the flashest room in the village!
Grandad watching on as the first bricks of the new toilet are laid. This is going to be the flashest room in the village! (Which isn’t saying much).

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