Mornings in Kampong Cham town and across Cambodia come alive the moment the first ray of sunlight blazes it’s long sharp streak through the fading night skies. The first market sellers start to appear on their motos piled high with what would, in my world, be truckloads of produce. When I appear a few hours later, the streets are humming and I have never lost the sense of fascination I feel with sights that the locals consider “normal”.
Yesterday I made the maddest dash I’ve ever made, 30km to Paula’s house on the back of a motorbike, to get her signature on what was hopefully the final of many forms needed to make our pending journey possible. En route we pulled over so I could answer my telephone. As a herd of cows sauntered past, motos weaving around and through them honking their horns in warning, I explained to the airline representative that I understood the urgency and was onto it.
A yellow pool of slush and water has settled around the base of their house, with a long wooden plank poised as a bridge from solid ground to the first dry step. After an excitement-filled conversation about meeting at the airport in a few days, signed form in hand, I crossed the bridge towards the moto and stood still to take this photograph. The moment obliged dozens of small red ants to attack me from toes to ankles.
Both Paula’s and Samantha’s families have a minivan booked each, to transport their respective hordes to the airport for what I expect may be an overwhelming send-off . I will be there, foreign, alone and unloved, which is sure to elicit plenty of sympathy from those sending us off! I am mostly looking forward to the excitement of traveling with three Cambodians who never dreamed of going in an aeroplane before. My spare moments are spent trying to anticipate how best to prepare them for their rich world experience, plus practising my poker face. I expect to be the reference point for three of them during turbulence so straight faced and calm will be the only expression I share.
This morning after smothering tiger balm over my itchy feet, I hit the road on my bicycle to do a few chores. When the ATM thought too long about my requested withdrawal before changing it’s mind, I immediately suspected the money which had not been dispensed had probably made it’s way out of my bank account. Walking into the bank on the first of any month – public servant pay day – is to be avoided whenever possible. Unless you’re a foreigner. I was asked to take a seat at the counter, immediately ahead of the crowds in the seated queue behind me. Conversing in English, a phone call was made and moments later I was informed that the withdrawal would be reversed by tomorrow. I cycled over the road to another ATM and made the withdrawal I needed.
Served in my native tongue, ahead of everyone else, without concern for the missing money because I have enough in the bank, in a country where only 3% of the population even have a bank account, I cycled through the market contemplating. My Cambodian days cause constant inner turmoil. My own freedoms and privileges, being treated “like a King”, and then witnessing such extreme hardships in the exact same moment, is the most confronting experience. Even having this exposure to “the other world” gives me a privilege that others, safe in comfort zones, miss out on. I deserve no more than the next person, yet I have immeasurably more than most who share my world and I know this through personal observation, not from statistics, other peoples’ accounts, photographs or videos. Until very recently I had no real clue that this was the case despite “knowing” it in theory.
Inner turmoil is described as “the mind’s way of destroying the perception of what you are”. Only now, in middle age, have I learned that on a global scale I am far more entitled and powerful than I ever had a clue of being. My previously held self perception of being a “global average” has turned on it’s head. The only way to respond to this revelation is to use my power and privilege to the benefit of others. This also seems to have become the only way I feel I can personally benefit any further from my over-entitled life. I seem to have transcended previously held aspirations for material possessions and international travel, in favour of helping others. It doesn’t make me anything but the same selfish person I’ve always been – my aspirations have simply changed.
Any praise for helping others belongs fairly and squarely to those around me, who face their own hardships yet help others, often with great personal sacrifice. Among so many, “Rav”, my friend in Siem Reap, is a fine example of this. A young man with a wife and two small children, he was born just after Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese and grew up in troubled times. He doesn’t speak about himself much but I know life has been a constant challenge. While I was jumping on trampolines, going to swimming club and boarding school, he was simultaneously fishing in rice fields for the family dinner and often going hungry. When I arranged to help “Kim”, the landmine victim who I support with a small amount each month, he brought Rav with him to assist with translation on our first encounter. On that occasion I purchased a sewing machine for Kim’s wife, which led to the placement of a photograph of myself and my mother in a frame on the wall of their tiny home, above the old machine!
As so often happens in this country, upon meeting Rav I immediately warmed to his quiet, unassuming, helpful character and we have remained in touch ever since. Despite it becoming apparent over almost two years, that he lives an impoverished existence himself, he has only ever assisted me in my attempts to support Kim, often saying “at least I have an ability to work but Kim has no hands and no leg, his economic is much worse than mine”. Most recently I learned that he sold his telephone – one of their only assets – to pay a hospital bill after one of his sons became unwell.
Before leaving Cambodia I really wanted to help him in some way. Ways which are small to me, can be significant here and I knew he wanted to send his sons to English school but it was unaffordable. Aware of his pride, I broached the subject vaguely and suggested he talk with his wife about my offer to sponsor this. Some days later they accepted the offer and last week I arranged to visit Siem Reap for the final time this year. Courtesy of the nearby temples of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is an incongruous place. Rich with tourists and the money they bring, and poor with impoverished beggars and low paid workers, attracted by the pull of a possible income. Despite being the richest town in Cambodia, the province of Siem Reap is one of the poorest, showing that the spoils are not distributed. Rav lives in a small bedroom, a kitchen sink with running water on the back wall and a bathroom walled off in a corner. No bigger than my bedroom, this room with one double bed houses six people – Rav and his wife, their two sons and two teenage girls from a remote village whose family are facing starvation.
Siem Reap’s economy supports English schools of a much higher calibre than the dirt-floor basement areas of private homes which make up the majority of English schools in the country. Rav picked me up and we met his wife, two boys and one of the teens, before heading to an English school of my choosing, found on the internet. Unlike most schools which are run by a single Khmer teacher, often as a supplement to their public school employment, the children will be exposed to a combination of salaried native English speakers and Khmer teachers. They will also receive half an hour per day of Chinese language lessons.
The young couple were visibly surprised by the well resourced classrooms, library and play areas. Their small boys ran excitedly between one room and the next, full of wonder at the toys, books and colour. The fees are beyond their budget but well within mine, so I agreed to sponsor them. Rav taught himself English by talking to tourists and was able to complete the enrolment forms independently, in a shakey but legible English – far more astonishing to me than the fancy school! The boys started on Monday and Rav has called me a number of times to express their joint astonishment that their children are attending a school where the other students all come from families who own cars! “Our economic is not changed but my children’s luck is very changed now and I think they can have a good life”.
The oldest teenage girl staying with them, 16yo, has found work at a nearby soup stall. Her 14yo sister wants to stay in school but Rav was told it would cost money to transfer her enrolment from the village government school, to their local school. I asked him to find out about this so I could help if possible. After speaking to the teacher he rang to let me know “the teacher will do it for two boxes of beer”. So I am stocking a village teacher with two boxes of beer! Ironic given that a 28yo man in the same village died yesterday from “stomach bleeding because he drank too much rice wine”.
The school enrolment created a new problem and Rav said he would sell his wife’s sugar cane juicer to get the deposit for a loan so that they could purchase a motorbike. Their only vehicle is his tuk tuk which he needs to transport customers in order to make their only survivable, albeit unreliable income, except the sugar cane juicer when there are enough tourists to warrant setting up a stall. The thought of selling another asset sent my first world brain reeling (yet again) and I asked him to put the idea on hold until I could think about it for a while. That night I started an online crowdfunder and advertised it to friends and family. In only three days we raised enough for them to buy a near-new, excellent condition motorbike! His wife can now transport the children while Rav works. Life just got a whole lot easier for one small family who deserve an ounce of luck, courtesy of people in France, US, England, Australia and New Zealand. I do get a thrill connecting these two worlds – thanks everyone, from an overwhelmed Rav in Siem Reap!
The Eyes came to town yesterday because they were both complaining of red, sore eyes. When they called and described their symptoms to Chom I felt slightly mortified that I had refused to pay for post-operative antibiotics on the grounds that the surgery was falsely advertised as “free of charge to patients”, while costing hundreds of dollars. However, when they turned up yesterday all was not quite as it had been described. We spent a morning at the local Ophthalmology Department to be informed these were normal post-operative symptoms. A prescription for eyedrops and paracetamol was given. We went to the market to pick up the medications and they informed me along the way that they needed new shoes. So a trip to the shoe stall was included in our tripping-about, which Chom suggested may have been the main reason for their “symptoms”! Just when I think I’ve completed my final Cambodian project, something else crops up. But it seems that the remaining project now, is to cram my belongings into a case and meet my travel companions at Phnom Penh Airport for two weeks hanging out in North America.