Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey made this phrase famous in a film of the same name some years ago. The concept involves the recipient of a favour, instead of paying the favour back, paying it forward to three new recipients. Each recipient is then asked to pay it forward, to three more recipients. The favour should be something significant, which the recipient couldn’t easily do for themself.
Courtesy of my own poor planning, when I visited Mum in New Zealand at Easter I found myself landing at her nearest international airport, more than two hours’ drive from home, at midnight. An aunt and uncle living near Mum offered an unexpected solution. Uncle drove to the city that afternoon, had a rest at his daughter’s home, then lay in wait for me as I exited the airport. We drove straight home, arriving sometime after 2am. In discussions about how best to thank him for his extreme generosity, I was told he did not need anything and to “pay it forward when you go to Cambodia”.
My uncle has a little boat with an outboard motor which he takes out onto the Pacific Ocean off the New Zealand coast almost daily. Fitted out in his wetsuit, flippers, mask and snorkel, he jumps into the sea with a long spear-ended rod, regularly bringing home freshly speared fish as well as crayfish from pots he lays on the seabed. He often rubs shoulders with dolphins, he has had close encounters with Orca, and generally gets to experience another world that most of us can only imagine or watch on nature documentaries. Against all advice from his humourously cynical daughter who warned me I might be swallowed up by smelly seaweed, I squeezed myself into a wetsuit one morning and joined him. The sea was ice cold and I had to consciously talk myself out of the loud gasps for air accompanying each inhalation. Buoyed by the salt water and my wetsuit, I knew it was too cold for any shark attack, so I put aside my phobias and had an amazing swim in the open ocean, something I would never normally be brave enough to attempt. A few hours later I arrived home high on adventure.
Clearly the only way to pay it forward from my uncle will be to contribute to the repair of a fishing boat for someone living on the Mekong, in a world many spheres from the prosperous clear waters of New Zealand. From it’s origins high on the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River travels over 4,000 kilometres through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, into southern Vietnam where it flows into the South China Sea. Along this route 40 million people depend on the river for their food security. Perhaps one of the most visible examples of climate-dependent human survival, the river is nourished by seasonal monsoons which have created the world’s biggest inland fishery, breeding over 800 different species of fish, and irrigating soils ripe for rice fields. Catches are now diminishing and rice supplies becoming unpredictable due to worryingly low water levels. Unseasonably hot and dry weather combined with the building of multiple dams as far away as China, but also as close to home as within Cambodia itself, are to blame. Many millions of the world’s poorest people are susceptible and defenseless against these environmental changes. This year I have heard many harrowing personal accounts from friends in Cambodia about wells drying up in rural villages where people cannot afford alternative water sources, the elderly and very young falling ill and dying from heat stroke and dehydration. The malnutrition that affected me so during my time nursing in Cambodia can only be occurring on a wider scale.
Very commonly these handmade wooden boats are the family’s only home, workplace and food supplier. They anchor where they can at night. It is difficult to know how many are purely subsistence fishers and how many eek out an income from market sales, but either way survival is harsh. Stories of boats springing leaks are prevalent and often people must go into debt to repair them. It is not uncommon to hear of holes being wedged with paper or cloth and it’s surprising how well these temporary measures seem to work.
Disability seems prevalent in these communities, with the lame and infirm often existing unseen, under the little arched roof of the family boat. Life on the water is a high risk existence, the cause of such high rates of disability in the first place. Disabled people and their families are much more likely to find themselves financially drained as disability means one less person to earn an income while the ongoing need for health care often leads to catastrophic hardship. The resulting poverty places everyone at high risk of ongoing health problems related to malnutrition, infectious disease and injury. In 2007 UNICEF estimated that everyday, 20 Cambodian children develop permanent disability from accident and injury. It is not difficult to see the hazards that accompany an impoverished life.
Finding a fisher person on the Mekong to pay it forward to when I next visit Cambodia should only be difficult in as much as having to choose one out of so many in need.
During my two year absence from Alice Springs, a friend and her husband took care of my affairs. They received my mail, let me know about bills awaiting payment, communicated with tenants when the agent was unavailable and occasionally fixed things to save me paying for tradies. My little old car sat in the shed over this time, storing my artwork and other valuables. On arrival home it had no battery, four flat tyres and very little appeal. At the same time my friends needed a car for their daughter who is learning to drive. By way of payment for all they’d done, I gave them my car, relieved to have it off my hands. After replacing the battery and tyres, a mechanic quoted them $3,000 for various repairs needed before it could be registered. They bought another car and sold mine at a loss. One night last week I got an excited phone call after they decided to pay it forward, giving me the cash they’d received for my car “so you can build another toilet in Cambodia”!
At almost the same time as another friend informed me that his adult children have surrendered their bi-annual birthday and Christmas presents in favour of Dad sending me money each month “for Cambodia”, I got a message from a friend in Cambodia about an elderly man with Tuberculosis, living alone on a bamboo platform and ostracised by other villagers because he has TB. This is another blog post in waiting but the timing of messages between two friends who don’t know each other seemed almost celestial in regards to finding my third pay it forward recipient!