Most evenings I sit in a particular spot beside the Mekong River watching the evening cruisers go by on their variously populated motorbikes as I sip a glass of white wine. That’s a $2 luxury I can afford to spend on myself among the billions of other luxuries I take for granted in this lucky life. With the Wet Season underway many evenings now involve sitting inside an open doorway listening to the rain pounding on the tin verandah roof. Another luxury as I wonder exactly how many thousands of people don’t have proper shelter from the downpours.
A blind amputee walks by each evening, led by his small daughter whose shoulders he holds from behind. By Australian standards she looks about six years old. But that’s probably the result of stunting due to chronic malnutrition and she is more than likely at least ten. They don’t stop to ask for money because it’s a tourist spot and tourists don’t have a reputation for giving away their hard earned dollars to beggars, especially non-English-speaking beggars. Foreigners tend to be from cultures where suspicion leads us to prefer to give, if we give at all, to organisations over individuals who may squander it. This is not without merit, but it’s also easier when you see someone regularly, to get an idea of their situation. This guy is sober and clearly doing what he can for his impoverished family. There are very few options for a blind amputee here beyond starvation or begging. I keep an eye out for them and most nights offer something. Chom or one of his staff will call out to me if I am not looking and I sometimes have to chase them down the street.
Yesterday afternoon the child of one of my previous staff members came to see me. He was in my English class last year, although not a resident at Phter Koma. His mother knew I’d started teaching English at Phter Koma and told me that her son was desperate to learn English but that she had no way of affording private classes for him. I thought about it for a while because I know from my time in Central Australia how these things can get out of hand. The vision of myself standing before hundreds of keen eyed students kept me strong and I said “no” on an almost daily basis to requests for new students to join our classes. But something about this particular staff member’s story, alongside the homeless girls, stirred me more than most. So I agreed to let her son attend. He came in the tuk tuk with the homeless hospital children, Chom, Bea and I. He was a quiet, interested and keen little student with an even keener smile and he had a great rapport with the other children.
The children at Phter Koma are now receiving English lessons via some young temporary French volunteers and a few of the older, more interested students are also enrolled in private English classes. The homeless hospital girls have moved to Thailand to be with their parents who are working in a washing machine production factory somewhere. This young boy doesn’t have the so-called “advantage” of the Phter Koma kids, who have an, albeit tight, institutional budget supporting them. So I told his mother the other day that if they found out the cost of English class and if it was affordable, I would sponsor him.
As I headed out to the riverside for my nightly ritual yesterday, he was sitting on his bike across the road, waiting. Chom was around and so I called upon his translation <ahem> “skills” – a whole lot of talk, almost the same amount of uproarious laughter, and about three sentences in English for every 30 sentences worth of Khmer dialogue. I get the gist, but I get no more! If only I hadn’t spent a year with a trained translator, I might not feel quite so detached from Chom’s highly entertaining but mostly mysterious translations! An hour per day at English class from Monday to Saturday will cost $6. Per week? No, per month. You can make the biggest difference to a life with – by western standards – the smallest amounts of money. I looked at the boy and nodded my head. He turned his gaze to Chom who translated that I will sponsor him to English school. His little face ignited.
We discussed logistics because my biggest obstacle soon, will be the tyranny of distance. Getting money from the rich world to the poor world is an administrative nightmare. Less than 5% of Cambodians have operational bank accounts, which is the first hurdle. Chom has one, but relying on him to dispense money to fellow Khmers could open a minefield of potential issues. He’s a resourceful, clever and trustworthy person but having him look after my affairs could place him at risk of obligations or accusations from others. I need to protect him by minimising my expectations of him, even though he’s happy to help.
Then there’s the inordinate amount of bank fees which come with each transaction and the loss of currency due to exchange rate differences. Chom says I should not pay more than three months of school fees at a time, as “many problems can happen and you might lose your money”. Sending $18 every three months could incur more than $50 or more in fees and currency exchange costs, making this small amount far less affordable than it sounds.
We gave our eager student the first month’s fee of $6 so that he could enrol immediately. He backed his way out of the door, bowing and beaming all the way. Within ten minutes he reappeared to show me the activity book he’d purchased, on instruction from his new teacher. Did he need more money for the book? No. So the monthly cost includes resources! We will go to the school in a few days to sort out the following few months’ worth of fees.
A couple of hours later I went to the Night Market on my bike for chicken fried rice. $1.50 later I was riding home when I spotted the blind guy and his daughter. I called out, crossed the road to say hi and offered my measly donation to their raggedy lives. It occurred to me as I told them I’d see them tomorrow, that I can probably put a big positive dent in their lives at next to no personal sacrifice, similar to the independent sponsorship I’ve had in place for the landmine victim in Siem Reap for the past 18 months. Chom doesn’t know it yet, but his next job is to interrogate this family on my behalf.
With only two months left in Cambodia, I have to come to terms with my pending departure. I will probably have to stay away for about twelve months this time as I settle back into life as an employee with no leave owing. I’ve already booked my ticket at the $165 work Christmas party amidst thoughts of how wrong it seems and how much better the money could be spent. Departing Cambodia is one thing. Readjusting to absurd self indulgence will be a more chronic and challenging dilemma.