A regular Cambodian sensation is that of being a ball of molten lava on legs. Thankfully this is the time of year when on most days, at somewhere between 4pm and 6pm, the rolling cumulo-nimbus clouds burst open and a cataclysm of water plummets from the sky, cooling everything down almost immediately. Construction workers have been busy for weeks now, building a barrier wall on the embankment to protect the esplanade from rising waters. Simultaneously over the past week or so, water levels have steadily subsided. I wonder if the building endeavours were unnecessary, for this season at least, and if so, I also wonder what this means for the crops and consequent food security of the population. The workers have a variety of responses to the rainfall, depending on it’s strength, which range from running for cover (especially when crackling thunder and lightning accompany downpours), to stripping down and continuing on half-naked in the slush.
Visibility becomes similar to that you’d expect standing under a raging waterfall and my usual view becomes a thick white wall metres from the door. The deluge initially drowns out the hum of motorbikes, but traffic quickly disappears altogether and the streets become deserted. Only the occasional moto drives by, usually with three or four per moto. Twelve year olds drive their passengers confidently, ignored by everyone else as a normal sight. Floral pyjamas are camouflaged by the patched and dyed plastic bags sewn onto each other into hooded “coats”, purchased for 4,000 riel (US$1) at local markets. These last as long as any supermarket plastic bag is intended to survive with a human body moving around inside it. Young men are predisposed to speed at the best of times, but on an empty road with rain pelting onto them, their momentum is doubled. A few nights ago one such driver bombed along the dark unlit esplanade and drove head-on into a parked car. We heard it happen but our only sighting was a moment later when the apparition of a mud-soaked pair of jeans sped past, escaping the scene! Unlike their male counterparts, on the same wet and muddy roads young women slow down to a near-halt. Variations of these ever-fascinating commuters include each passenger hugging the guy in front of them; bare-chested guys leaning back to let the rain soak them; driver in a cape, the back of which can stretch across as many as three adult passengers huddled behind; toddlers standing at the handlebars with the driver’s hands covering their eyes from the rain.
Bicycles also carry two to four bodies, some standing, sometimes one seat fits two bottoms (in fact a couple of days ago there were three seated bums on a single bike seat). Sometimes the driver sits on the carrier over the back wheel, arms stretched around his passenger(s) perched on the seat in front of him, to reach the handlebars. Sometimes passengers on carriers sit backwards to see the world from another angle. There are never enough pedals or footholds, so legs hang loosely just above the road or feet sit atop each other, so that two pairs of legs rotate bicycle pedals. Basically anything goes and as a Portuguese friend suggested, the number of bodies is only relevant to us foreigners in our state of constant amusement, because to the locals, making it fit is all that matters.
The journey out to little Dara’s village is full of fascinating sights. Overloaded wooden carts pulled by Brahman cows, chickens rushing across the road, radiant green rice fields being ploughed, cows bathing in ponds of floating water lillies, all kinds of temporary and less-temporary houses, babies being washed at rainwater tubs in front yards. Chom and I travel out there regularly and when Toilet One was being built back in January, even more so. On one particular occasion Chom stopped to take a wee in a field in a random location. Waiting for him, I spotted a chook hiding untold tiny chickens under her wings in the hope I wouldn’t notice them. Hunched down on the roadside photographing the sight, I heard someone call “hello” in English. As I turned to reply, a man with a severe limp was walking towards me from across the dirt track. Shy but welcoming, he waited for Chom to reappear and invited us into his ramshackle wooden hut where we met a pregnant wife, son and daughter. The next time we visited we met a brand new baby girl who had been born in the dirt floored shack days prior. Sometime later it transpired that they knew we were building a toilet for someone in the nearby village and let me know that they also have no toilet.
Many visits later, this week Toilet Number Two is underway. On Friday we contacted Dara’s uncle who built Toilet One and Chom announced he was “free! Free!” to build another. We met him on a shady rural lane just behind the village pagoda where monks were chanting incessantly at the funeral of their abbott. I watched a front yard operation of hundreds of cucumbers being dried on bamboo trellises in preparation for pickling while negotiations took place. Moments later we’d agreed on a price ($200 for five days’ labour of three men). From there we headed to the supply store and a short time later a truckload of provisions was making it’s way up the rural lanes and offloaded in the front yard. The next day work began.
On our way to check on Toilet Two, this morning we visited the sisters at hospital just as they were being discharged home. That deserves it’s own blog post but we took them to the Ophthalmology Department who almost immediately referred us to a service in Phnom Penh. Paula is coming to town tomorrow, but we still don’t have her mother’s passport. She may stay for a night or three to avoid another trip to town, while we (hopefully) have the passport sent once it is ready. As soon as all passports are available we can immediately make the online visa applications to the US Embassy. Meanwhile the Phter Koma kids are waiting for their English lessons to recommence with me at the helm for as long as I can commit (currently an unknown duration).
More on each project as they progress. Time is beginning to feel very precious and these will have to be my final Cambodian projects for now.