My right eyeball became acutely aware that it was aligned with, and traveling at a speed of knots towards, a steel rod hanging perilously from the back of a truck on Cambodia’s National Highway 7. As my face came within arm’s length of the pole pointing menacingly at it, our taxi veered left into a narrow space between the truck to our right and the median strip to our left. If only I could speak Khmer, I’d have compared the danger of our road trip with the safety of flying in an aeroplane, to Paula’s mother. She has made and continues to make, untold sacrifices for this one of her eight children who has been rubbing shoulders with the afterlife for 4+ years now. One of the biggest perceived risks she is now prepared to take, is embarking on an international flight. Aeroplane travel is not something she ever imagined she would experience and she would prefer if it were possible to drive from Cambodia to America!
Yesterday morning my final visa preparation chore was a dash to Handicap International who have been such a great and helpful organisation, to plea for the loan of a wheelchair. An elderly stroke victim and a number of amputees were mobilising on the physio bars as babies were held by waiting parents to be seen in the busy rehabilitation area. Relieved to be recognised by the right people, a finger pointed to the nearest appropriate looking chair, then a dismissive wave when I tried to offer identification or guarantee with a call to “bring it back tomorrow!”. Once again Paula refused to eat pre-travel. On arrival at the hotel, she insisted on walking the 10 metres from car to hotel reception, causing another faint. She spent the afternoon resting and eating but again this morning, due to the early Embassy appointment, she refused breakfast.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh is an attractive cream-and-black modern building garrisoned by high steel sharp-tipped picket-style fencing. Massive satellite dishes furnish the roof and lawn inside the fence where Stars and Stripes fly in obscurity behind the high security structures. Uniformed guards monitor the perimeter path on foot and by moto. The block-sized fortress sits in the shadow of Wat Phnom, an ancient Buddhist temple atop a small hill north of the city centre. The city’s only two skyscrapers tower over it from the other side. The grand century-old Raffles Hotel le Royal is located a short stroll across a lush strip of parkland. This small area of the city could fool you into thinking you’re in a wealthy country. Until you see the hand-pulled scavenging trolleys piled with recyclables making their measly living, or the cyclos pushed by men with faces so wizened that they could be 100 years old. Only a privileged few in this place, get to enjoy their dotage. At both ends of the spectrum, age does not preclude you from having to earn your daily rice. In the countryside the peers of these labourers are in rice fields or husking mountains of corn.
In a rush of confusion upon registering at the security window, I was, as suspected, denied entry and suddenly found myself waving reassuringly as my three anxious companions disappeared through the heavy iron door. I crossed the road to say hello to Samantha’s family who had accompanied her en-masse to her very exciting visa interview. Her young son, almost two years old, was limp in his grandmother’s arms as she sat on the pavement. His cerebral palsy has led to severe malnutrition caused by frequent vomiting. His hands are clenched permanently and his little arms and legs are wasted away. Despite her own heartache, Samantha is excited at the prospect of a trip to America and told me last night with tears in her eyes that “first I will worry about Paula, then I will focus on my son”.
It was three hours before we laid eyes on each other again. My tuk tuk friend drove me to a pharmacy where I located some Vaseline for Paula to use on the acid-scorched skin around her abdominal wounds. We then drove to an Islamic restaurant to get some Halal food so that she would have something to eat as soon as she exited the Embassy. As I noticed the massive mosque complex in this neighbourhood for the first time, two Buddhist monks in bright orange robes under yellow umbrellas strolled underneath the crescent-moon-and-star-topped minarets towering towards the clouds. After posting a picture of this symbolic scene on Facebook I learned that the temple, funded by a Dubai-based businessman, opened earlier this year and is the biggest mosque in Cambodia. Stopping at the gate so I could photograph it, an Islamic man approached my driver to tell me I was welcome to go inside. With nothing to cover my head, I declined the invitation until another time.
I later read that Al-Serkal Mosque was inaugurated by Prime Minister Hun Sen, during which he spoke of Cambodia’s religious tolerance. From my observations living in a Cham populated area, I would have to agree with him. Which by no means makes me a supporter of his other political views. Paula lives directly opposite her village mosque, a large and beautiful temple. It is common when visiting her, to see men and women arriving for or leaving from prayer, dressed in full Islamic regalia, including women in niqab with only their eyes visible. This doesn’t stop them from offering waves as they shout “hello” in English, or from slowing or stopping to watch the unusual visitors with curiosity.
Returning to the Embassy with takeaway containers of rice and beef, we parked over the road to wait. We sat diagonally across from each other in the tuk tuk, our legs resting on the seat opposite as a footstool. The topics of wealth and poverty monopolise conversations in this country of extreme contrasts. Even more so this morning in this prime location where the power of a wealthy minority imposes visibly over the toiling and disempowered majority.
At almost three hours to the minute since they disappeared out of sight, Tuk Tuk suggested I might want to climb Wat Phnom? Just as he spoke the words, Samantha, Paula and her mother exited the main building and made their way towards the roadside security exit. Tuk Tuk drove around the block to park up beside them while I crossed the road to greet them. Upon sighting me Samantha broke into a wide grin and threw her thumbs into the air. Visas approved! The excitement of the moment was overshadowed by Paula’s visible exhaustion. Mum helped her into the tuk tuk while I showed Tuk Tuk how to fold the wheelchair which he hoisted onto the floorboards between the seats. Samantha and I climbed in behind the wheelchair and we high tailed it to the hotel to get Paula horizontal asap.
Inside the Embassy everything had gone smoothly until Paula had to stand up to be fingerprinted. She immediately fainted and a doctor was called. He wanted to postpone her interview until another day but meeting with serious resolve from three determined women, he agreed to allow her to persevere. There was no doubt of the authenticity of the visa request and everything was approved promptly. This afternoon she has been resting in bed and eating French Fries, which she has ordered as a takeaway breakfast for the morning taxi ride home! We are all in a permanent state of exhausted elation. All that is needed now, is to get a blood transfusion sorted out for Paula pre-flight, and put our travel arrangements in place, which is being done from New York. My October departure from Cambodia has been known for years. What wasn’t known until today, was that I’d be returning home to Australia via a mercy dash to the US West Coast.
Various other updates to follow, but I needed to post this amazing news.