For thirteen days in Cambodia I was very busy. I visited the MSF project I will be working on from February, a similar public health program as I currently work on here in Australia but with many more issues to contend with. No doubt I will blog on that as and when I become involved. My old translator picked me up on the back of his moto and took me out for dinner one night in Phnom Penh, after which we picked up his tiny son from English school. I visited a number of other colleagues, some of whom I will be lucky enough to work with again next year; some of whom remain unemployed since the previous MSF project closed; and some of whom are working elsewhere. All of whom treated me with generosity and hospitality that I know involved effort and sacrifice.
As usual, I grappled with my own existential issues constantly as I lived in nice hotels, ate good food, sipped wine, and had no discomfort (with the exception of humidity-and-afro-wings), whilst surrounded by fellow humans who have nothing like the luck I happened to be born into. Phnom Penh, where I will be based at least some of the time, is busy, noisy, crowded, disorganised, with roads that turn into lakes. Sitting in the back of a tuk tuk ploughing through deep brown puddles and afraid we might tip over, we passed children walking knee-high through the same muddy quagmires.
I told a Cambodian friend that I once found the traffic sights in his country very funny, for example, the people who sit on roofs of vans and trucks, or travel in/on overcrowded vehicles, but that I have realised it is not really funny because it means they are poor? He replied “yes it is not so funny because they have no choice, it is the only way that they can travel”.
It’s easy to claim that indigenous people “have it lucky” compared to places like Cambodia, where hunger and destitution are inescapable. Khmer people are on Khmer land, dominated by Khmer language and culture. Being a visibly and culturally different minority in a place where the dominant population rule over you, own the land, own the systems, language and culture, can make for a highly diminishing existence, irrespective of the wealth of the nation you live in.
Yesterday morning Mathew’s sister and her two young children came with me to visit Matthew at our local jail. As they talked together in language I reminisced about the time we spent together ten years ago. In the space of eight months both of their parents were killed in violent situations. Matthew was 11yo and his sister, witness to her father’s stabbing, was 13. That was, for me, only the beginning of what followed. For the first time in my life I was exposed to issues around family and community obligations that don’t exist in my culture, chaos and overcrowding that are rare to my experience and understanding of the world. Foreign child rearing practices, family disruption and an incompetent departmental response to orphaned children all became new and unfamiliar territories that I unexpectedly had to navigate, sometimes without even knowing so. I was suddenly exposed to the effects of drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault, attended criminal court proceedings, stood up to inept social workers, spoke out to prosecutors and magistrates, and most significantly, became an unintended foster parent to a child who foisted himself upon me when the system failed him dismally.
It is no surprise to me at all, that these two siblings, who were so forsaken, yet resilient and independent, now have struggles as young adults that someone with my privilege in life can only imagine. There-but-for-the-grace-of-fortune-go-I could be my life’s motto, whether I think of Cambodia, East Timor, Central Australia, or many other places and situations.
My flight home out of Phnom Penh departed at 5pm. That morning Samantha and Chom, two of my best friends in Cambodia, joined me in the luxurious foyer of my hotel where we sat on red cushions underneath ceiling fans surrounded by green gardens, marble floors, tropical timber ceilings and a pool beside the open air restaurant. They were visibly dazzled by the lavish setting and shocked by the menu prices (about $7pp, per meal). Samantha brought her two children. She expected 3yo “Adam”, severely incapacitated by his terminal genetic neurological condition, to be irritable and unhappy away from home. Instead he lay silently for hours, settled and comfortable. The hotel staff spoke to us at length with a lot of questions about and interest in Adam. When I went to pay for lunch they gave me a 10% discount. Upon asking why, I was informed “because you look after Khmer people, you are our special guest”. Again Cambodia, with the generosity and kindness!