The Eyes Have It

Walking through Boeung Keng Kang Market in Phnom Penh this evening, the broken concrete floors were wet with vegetable juice mixed with animal blood from hanging meat, and sticky water splashed out of bowls housing flapping fish.  Stalls were closing up and some had hosed down, adding to the puddles filling the cracks and potholes.  Looking up for a moment, my thonged right foot promptly stepped in a fluid-filled, foot-sized crater.  “Don’t think about it”, I told my OCD-alarmed brain, managing to keep the parasite panic at bay.

With her arm hooked through mine as we strolled through the narrow market aisles choosing takeaway dinner for the family back a the hotel, Sophia was on the telephone to someone.  I didn’t know exactly what she was saying, but it was an excited conversation to do with being at Boeung Keng Kang Market in Phnom Penh, buying food, staying in a hotel.  At check-in an hour earlier, I led them to their room and showed Selena how to flush the toilet, how to turn on the shower water and make it hotter, colder or change it from the shower hose to the tap.  We then had a lesson on the television remote control which took up a solid five minutes.  The Khmer staff member translated for me that they should not take anything from the mini bar in the fridge because it is expensive (by Khmer standards, so $1 per can of soft drink which costs 40c at the local supermarket).  Selena was beaming from one ear to the other throughout this conversation and I didn’t know whether to be pleased for her, or sad that a flushing toilet and a television remote control could cause such euphoria.  Simona, her blind sister, was in the room with us and sitting on the bed looking just as delighted about life.  The only reason I knew to give them a lesson in flushing toilets and running water, was that last week Paula’s mother had found herself stuck in a dry shower cubicle, unable to turn the water on!  It hadn’t occurred to my first world brain that running tap water would be an unfamiliar luxury requiring a training session.  This week I knew better.

In the tuk tuk returning to the city from the outskirts where we’d spent all afternoon at a hospital Ophthalmology department, four year old Maia began pointing towards the river and shouting excitedly.  Initially I assumed she was pointing at the boats on the water upstream, but in fact she had spotted an aeroplane in the sky, descending into Pochentong International Airport.  I realised this was the first time she’d ever seen a plane and she was clearly astonished!  Her 5yo sister Mary-Lu also spent our cross-city journey pointing excitedly at revolving billboards, massive television screens and flashing lights.  Tuk Tuk shouted “what are they doing up there?”, pointing to a rooftop where plain and uniformed police were stealthily leading a handcuffed prisoner towards a doorway, their guns poised and ready to shoot.  Sadly the lights turned green so I’ll never know what happened on that balcony somewhere above Preah Monivong.

On the bus to Phnom Penh this morning, Sophia animatedly told me something I did not understand as I sat down beside her.  Realising the bus was half empty I soon moved to a seat across the aisle from her.  When I noticed her wearing a wet tissue on her face it still didn’t dawn on me and over half an hour into the journey she finally managed to indicate with sign language across the aisle to me, that she was ready to vomit!  Horrified, I looked around for something she could hurl into and there was nothing.  I fished in my bag for tissues and located a couple but they were of no use.  She lay back and closed her eyes.  Simona was in the seat behind her, similarly postured.  Arriving at Skun they wanted to eat which I thought may stave off the nausea.  We sat together with plates of rice, meat and vegetables before boarding the bus for the next half of our journey.  Phnom Penh’s sole skyscraper had come into sight when 5yo Mary-Lu shouted my name and I turned to witness 4yo Maia vomiting an impressive quantity of mushy rice onto the floor at Selena’s feet.

Tuk Tuk was waiting for us at the bus station and we made our way to the Ophthalmology Department.  “Next time we should not try to go anywhere when it is 11 o’clock” he shouted at me as we sat in congested lunchtime traffic for about an hour.  Finally we reached the trench being dug across the riverside quay that had caused the bottleneck trapping us for so long.  “Oh no, we will have to push”, Tuk Tuk shouted as we approached a raised pile of mud covering the already-completed excavations on one side of the road.   Upon instruction I made eye contact with the motos purring at our rear before jumping onto the busy road and grabbing a pole in the cab, pushing it with all my strength as Tuk Tuk jumped off his bike and ran.  He shouted at me to get in quick so I jumped aboard again and on we carried, towards the hospital.

During a long wait at the hospital Maia managed to locate even more volumes of rice buried deep in her digestive tract which she hurled out into the gutter at the hospital entrance.  We revitalised her as well as ourselves at a dim little cafe serving meat and vegetables out of huge metal pots onto plastic plates alongside the typical spoonful of rice.  Then we sat outside the outpatient room waiting to be seen.  Finally someone registered the two women and 5yo Mary-Lu.  We sat in the queue with our paperwork and a Khmer doctor proceeded to assess their eyes, one by one.

Perhaps an hour later all assessments were complete.  Mary-Lu will be properly assessed tomorrow morning before any decision on possible treatment is made.  Simona is blinded by cataract in one eye and traumatic injury in the other.  She could have surgery to remove the cataract which will allow the doctor to then view any additional problems which are currently obscured by the cataract.  It should also increase her vision somewhat.  She is reticent but with no central vision at all, she has nothing to lose.  Sophia, hoping to have her strabismus corrected so that both eyes are aligned properly, will have corrective surgery tomorrow.  The family will be hospitalised together.  I will be in blissful poolside solitude for an afternoon/evening.

Part of Sophia’s elation this evening relates to the fact that soon she will no longer attract attention with her eye deformity.  It will also make her much more marriageable.  I hope that the same will be the case for Mary Lu and that Simona may find herself able to see at least a little if she agrees to the surgery on offer.

It was a big day.  Tomorrow should be even bigger, but thankfully it won’t be as reliant on me as today was.  Which means Chom’s phone won’t ring as often as it did today, with requests for translations!  The women have instructed me via Chom that the air conditioning on the bus made them nauseous.  So we will travel back to Kampong Cham by mini van.  Overlaoded, air-con-free, hot, stuffy, people-and-produce-packed minivan.  That’ll be my next Cambodian experience.  Another I had hoped to avoid!

5 thoughts on “The Eyes Have It

  1. Huge day, but with potentially life-changing results! How many other tragic stories there must be in Cambodia, just because they haven’t been led to the right people. I hope all goes well for the girls on this adventure of their lives.


  2. A fascinating post. Who’d have thought Phnom Penh could be the Bright Lights, home of sophistication and wonders. Reminds me of a friend of mine (Australian) who had some Vietnamese students to stay. He showed them their bedroom, made sure everything was ok, and left them for the night. In the morning they complained of how cold it had been and asked how long it took to get used to sleeping this way. Turned out they hadn’t grasped the concept of blankets – they’d been sleeping under just the coverlet.


    1. I’ll never see “little ole Phnom Penh” the same way again. Things that excite me (crazy vehicle contraptions, overloading etc) were of no interest, instead the billboards etc that I take no notice of. Regarding the cold – Paula and her mother complained of the cold last week, we turned the air con off and they were happy. So yesterday I made sure the air con was turned off and we made no mention of it’s existence. The TV remote control was enough to contend with and I knew a fan would suffice. One of the women got off the bed and slept on the floor last night instead! It’s such an interesting thing to try and imagine another person’s perception of the exact same experience.


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