There is nothing serendipitous about the pair of old fools who turned up here yesterday on their big macho motorbikes, drank beer, became progressively louder, harrassed the waitress who is probably a third their age, and asked for directions to the nearest chicken farm. An old American guy who almost immediately stripped his shirt off, strutting around like a peacock confronting us with his hairy back and chest. His even louder, obese Australian mate remained clothed but is just as offensive. Their motos pulled in at the doorway of the hotel yesterday, and my heart sank before they’d even removed their helmets, so there’s something very visible about their Sex Tourist status. The night before a lovely young English guy was here, traveling Cambodia on a very similar motorbike and had none of the peackock strutting of these two creepy fools. I am off to Phnom Penh today and hope they’ll have moved on to another base for their chicken farm activities by the time I return. I especially don’t want them to be here when Paula joins me for a few nights to organise her visa. Sadly I have no say in the matter or they’d have never gotten through the door yesterday afternoon!
Time with the Eye Family yesterday was interesting. Two days earlier I’d given Sophia, the family’s only breadwinner, the equivalent of US$20 to cover her loss of salary while in hospital with Simona (her blind sister) and Mary-Lu (Simona’s oldest daughter, 5yo, who was hospitalised with a fever). Yesterday we took Mary-Lu and Sophia to the Ophthalmology Department and along the way she told Chom that Simona had taken all the money from her. “Why she did that to her sister?! Her sister look after all the family! She should not do that! I will talk to her!”. Okay, but don’t be mean! Our standard joke is that he’s mean to people – he’s not at all but he does “get” things that go over my head due to the language barrier. I often hear in his tone that he’s being strong with someone and will accuse him of being mean which makes us both laugh because I have no idea what is actually being said.
Upon discharge we went with them to the roadside where Chom spoke to Simona about “not making trouble or I will tell Helen she shouldn’t help you anymore”. Without knowing what she was saying I could see that Simona was giving him a very powerful response, defending herself. On what was a day of revelations about this family, I realised that Sophia being the only income earner, automatically has the most power and that Simona, a strong young woman, works to keep some of the power in other ways. Chom said “she really strong!”. A blind widow with two children to raise in this environment has no choice. He walked away to get his motorbike and call a tuk tuk, and in his absence I could sense via the tone and the few words I did understand, that the siblings were having words with each other.
There’s a square in Kampong Cham where mini vans that have travelled to town from villages, park and wait for their villagers to return from nearby Central Market. Makeshift restaurant stalls with plastic chairs and tables line the edge of the square and every morning literally dozens of mini vans park up and slowly fill with people and produce, often piled high on roofs and tied in ingenious ways as it hangs comically out of open back doors. The family followed Chom’s moto with me pillion behind him, to this square, and we saw them onto their village’s mini van and paid the $2.50 for three of them to travel home together, before heading off to see Toilet Two.
Another revelation yesterday, which I’d had a few casual thoughts about previously, related to Mary-Lu’s behaviour. Her younger sister has “normal” (looking, at least) eyes, and normal behaviour. Mary-Lu on the other hand, is a strange child (Chom says “she is crazy”). I’ve vaguely thought it’s probably to do with her wonky eyes. Yesterday as we sat on the verandah of the Ophthalmology Department I showed her a picture on my hand-held fan. To view it she tilted her head and moved her “good eye” up close to the picture. It slapped me in the face that she actually has very poor eyesight! Getting them all seen by a specialist is a high priority and I feel slightly panicked that I’m organising this for them so close to my departure from Cambodia.
An Ophthalmology nurse took one look at Mary-Lu, said that she needs to go to a service in Phnom Penh, and wrote the name and telephone number of the service for us. Next week I will travel with the two adult sisters and the two child sisters, to Phnom Penh. Later in the afternoon I was Googling the service to ensure we’d been given correct advice. During my online search I clicked on a link to the Childrens’ Surgical Center in Phnom Penh, where I’ve been a few times now (with Dara for his leg and one of the Phter Koma kids who needed ear surgery). I then happened to click on a link to one of the NGOs they partner with, SEE International. This is an American non-profit who coordinate international expeditions with first-world eye specialists to third world countries. Amazingly, having already arranged to take the family to Phnom Penh next week, SEE International’s expedition calendar shows that from this Friday, for two weeks, they will be in Phnom Penh, for the first and only time this year! This seems almost as miraculous as having lunch in Provence with the wife of a colo-rectal surgeon and managing to save Paula from her misery!
The family likely have some sort of genetic vision problem and so I’ve told the women I want them all (minus Joe and his wife – who are parents of the adult sisters) to come with me to Phnom Penh next week. Traveling to the city is a big and scarey thing to these poor and illiterate villagers who may never have been to Phnom Penh before (I must ask). They (with Joe’s permission) have agreed to go with me.
After taking Simona to the local Ophthalmology Department some months ago, I was happy with the service she received. The doctor who assessed her seemed competent. But we received no information on exactly what her condition is, just that he could see that she had no sutures in her eye (which she had claimed) and that he could see what caused her blindness. The lack of information was probably partly due to the language barrier (he did speak English) but also it is normal practice here, that doctors don’t make too many explanations to their patients. I assume this practice has evolved from a circumstance of educated doctors dealing with a population with very limited literacy and numeracy. It is commonly and rightly assumed that patients won’t understand detailed explanations, and lack of information sharing has become “the norm”.
Next week with western doctors, I hope to receive some explanations as to why she is blind with a vision impaired daughter, in a family where three out of six people have strabismus. I don’t dare hope for anything beyond that, but have a feeling that things could improve for this family thanks to the latest miraculous coincidence of timing.