An earlier blog post already talked of my first reunion with Paula and her family. The following Monday her mother had traveled home from Malaysia, where both of Paula’s parents are working as street vendors. I was invited back for a celebratory lunch. Dan drove his tuk tuk with myself and a local nursing friend as his passengers. We drove past Paula’s village, to the next town, to visit Sophia first, as discussed in “Joe”.
On return to Paula’s village a horde of family were waiting for us at the front of their home, where Paula sells “donuts” from underneath a little tin roof on a dirt mound built to avoid the rising river. Directly across from the school, she has a ready market of students coming and going and the sights are truly astonishing to my western eyes, with girls exiting the mosque in full burqa dress, boys in long gowns and skull caps of all colours. Her mother almost squeezed me to death as I was still climbing out of the tuk tuk! I asked for the toilet and was directed to the little room underneath the neighbour’s home, as Paula’s family do not have such luxuries. After squatting on the white bowl, I flushed with the plastic pot sitting in the concrete tub of water before unlatching the wooden door and joining my hosts again.
Ushered upstairs into the big open wooden room, family and neighbours wandered in and out as a flurry of activity took place in a back corner of the room. They had already killed the cow in celebration, the day of Paula’s arrival home. I was instead honoured with a range of home cooked dishes, beef curry, banh chao (savoury pancakes served with masses of green leafy vegetables which you use to wrap around the pancake), baked chicken, baked fish, rice, coconut cake, bottled water, canned soft drink. Grandad arrived with his twinkling eyes and sat on the bamboo mat with us to eat. The women, teenagers and children, claiming to have already eaten, sat in a semi-circle around us, taking selfies with their phones, posing with me and without me, asking if I liked the food, watching for my reactions as I tasted each dish, laughing with delight at my approval. When prayer time arrived the boys put on their skull caps and long straight robes, posed happily for me to photograph them, and disappeared for ten minutes to the mosque.
We stayed about four hours, enjoying each other’s company despite the lack of shared language. Dan and Simon (my nurse friend) shared the job as translators, and many laughs were had. Paula’s mother walked with Simon and I up the road to the lady who has (probable – at my guess) Multiple Sclerosis, who remains lying on a thin mattress in the same place where we met her last year. We sat with her for perhaps half an hour and chatted about things. She does not have a wheelchair because she cannot sit upright for more than a few moments before it becomes painful. She is dangerously thin. There is no health care available to her. When she needs the toilet family carry her there. They feed her and turn her. Her skin is in impeccable condition for one so malnourished and immobile.
Paula, who lived much like this neighbour of hers, for five years, is now healthy and happy. It’s hard to know what else to say about that, it was the most amazing miracle of her life, but also of mine and many others who were involved in making it happen. Meanwhile I continue to meet others in similarly dire straits who are no less deserving. I will always “belong” to this small, impoverished Islamic village on the edge of the Mekong River, thanks to the story that we share. I love visiting, sitting with, and sharing time with these beautiful people.