Chinese New Year is a fairly big celebration in Cambodia. The streets come alive with (illegal) fireworks which have frightened me out of my skin a number of times today. The funniest of which was as I was cycling down the street after this morning’s English class and a young boy stood in the road, pointing his hands at me in imitation of two guns. Watching him and wondering what he was up to, I nearly fell off my bike as some of the loudest crackers I ever heard blew up on the road right beside me at the same time as laughter seemed to erupt from around the neighbourhood.
Tonight there seemed to be more sex tourists in my face than I am used to. Old fat white men with young thin Cambodian women. I wouldn’t mind if there were no children involved but tonight at a popular riverside restaurant, a very young girl of about 10yo was floating around her mother who was sitting with a particularly sleazy “boyfriend” who looked like he should be in a nursing home. Creepy to say the least.
Last Friday, one of our first stops en route to Kratie was a sand bank where a ferry transfers people between either side of the Mekong, on the border between Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces. Microphone and his mother traveled on this ferry to their family’s village home. Upon arrival at the informal “terminal” (for want of a better word), I received a missed call from the number of the blind woman whose husband drowned in the Mekong while I was away at the end of last year. I asked Chom to call her back. He had just driven for three hours after next to no sleep the night prior and was cranky at me for no apparent reason, other than he didn’t want to translate for me. He’s not a good translator at the best of times (translation skills and language skills are two different things – he has great language skills but limited translation skills, with translation something he openly admits he does not enjoy). So I understood the crankiness and handed him my phone to call her anyway. A reasonably long conversation ensued, followed by a much shorter translation that “it was very windy. The wall of her house fell down and she fell out of her house. She asked can you help. I told her you are going to Kratie now and you will call her back on Sunday”.
On Monday I held him to this promise and we called her back. The wall of her house fell down and she fell out of the house. She thought I might be able to help her. She is not badly hurt but she has no food and her daughter fell out of the house too. Last week she met some people from the hospital who visited her village and she asked them if they knew the Barang who once gave her some rice? They asked her was the Barang a little bit fat? Yes. Oh that must be Helen!! We arranged to visit her sometime soon, which will depend somewhat on Chom’s availabililty as it is particularly busy right now with tourists. He knows the general vicinity of her village and with her phone number we can easily navigate our way there.
I was already interested in her situation when today I visited my old team at the hospital to say hi. One of my nurses, I’ll call him Mark, told me he was at a village last week where he met a blind woman who described me and wanted to know if he would call me for her. He told her that “she rotates, sometimes she is in Kampong Cham but she goes to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and other places and now she is in Kratie”. He didn’t want to call me in case it wasn’t appropriate. She actually has my number and hence called me herself the very next day.
The story from Mark elaborated on what I already knew. She is very poor. Her house is very small, made from bamboo, and it cannot stay still in the wind. One wall fell down on a windy day and she fell out of the house because she could not see. She has nothing to feed her children because her husband drowned. He drowned in the river but he could swim and they cannot find his motorbike so maybe it was a robbery? Noone will know “because she is very poor and she did not complain to the police. But if he drowned they would find his moto, and his moto is missing so it must be a robbery because he would swim if it was not a robbery”.
So that’s how I’ll remember the first day of the Chinese Year of the Sheep. Assaulted by anklebiters with fireworks, and learning yet more horrific details of what it’s like to be disabled and impoverished in the Third World. Something tells me that Andrew is about to buy a blind Cambodian widowed mother a new wall for her bamboo shack!