Perched on the toilet in an open air bamboo treehouse on a hillside above the seaside village of Kep last week, a short wall separated the smells and sounds of my dysenteric squirts from a sleeping Caz. I’m poolside at our Phnom Penh hotel now while she sleeps off her third bout of squirts in as many weeks, in another shared room upstairs. We were in Kampong Cham for the last four nights, where we decided to have a room each for the first time since the holiday began over three weeks ago. Thanks to our joint bouts of diarrhoea, there is little decorum left between us and tonight it seems will be her turn to relinquish her dignity yet again. I remain hopeful that perhaps I’m immune to the latest invading bug.
A couple of my family/friends added (very generously) to the house fund, but Caz and her networks have been instrumental in funding the majority (US$3,000). We knew by the weekend that we had enough for the build to proceed, so we got Dan to take us out to “Eye Village” to let them know, find a builder and talk logistics. I’m not sure how they knew we were coming but Dan informed us we were invited to lunch, so he must have forewarned them that good news was on it’s way. The family’s usual over-enthusiasm greeted us, which I interpret as a sign of their desperation. Meeting people from “the other world” when you live in such despair, would naturally arouse an excitement, but being the object of their adulation sits very uncomfortably with me. I am merely their equal, I want for them to see themselves as such, and I feel for them that they are so convinced of their lowly status in life thanks to never knowing anything but destitution.
We entered the “big house”, where a baked whole chook (head, feet and all) sat on a tray alongside a chicken stew, a pot of rice, a bowl of pepper with lime juice and a bowl of fermented fish sauce. Sitting on the bamboo slat floor around the tray of food, we were instructed to eat, eat, eat! This delayed the news we had to share, but with lunch polished off I started the conversation. I explained that my friends and family were already giving me a lot of money to help other people, so Caz had approached her family and friends, who had donated enough for the family to have their small, decaying second home replaced.
Outside we scrutinised the termite-ridden supporting poles of the big house. In November just before he died, Joe expressed concern to me that his house could fall down because of these gorged supports. Next door we checked out the smaller (so-called) home. Simona has lived here since it was put together at the time of her marriage six years ago, but it is very unsafe. She would not let us climb the ladder up to the inside, intimating that the whole house could fall apart with our weight (admittedly neither of us are Cambodian Sized!). She then walked away, returning a short time later with a young man who was introduced as the husband of their cousin, and a builder. Caz talked to him about costs and the plan was formulated. The “big house”, now 30yo, will get new support poles; the “shack” will be replaced with a small, sturdy bamboo house; a toilet built for both homes to share; electricity will be connected to both houses. The builder walked us a short way up the dirt lane, to a small house he built last year. Bamboo and wood with a tin roof, this house is probably identical to the one he will build for Simona and her daughters.
We continued walking through the village. Along the way Caz stopped to add various instructions based on the house models we were passing – guttering like this, a water tank like that. We were led up the stairs into Joe’s sister’s home where a large crowd of family joined us on the bamboo floor. Not understanding much of what was being said, I felt we were semi-oblivious, but that the gathering was the extended family’s way of meeting and thanking us. It was a happy, almost party atmosphere.
Dan, employed as Project Manager, met with us today before we left Kampong Cham. Plans were confirmed and money exchanged hands before he dropped us to the bus. He planned to travel to the village to speak with the builder. As we arrived in Phnom Penh Caz received a message from him “I hope you are already in PP. The start of our project will be tomorrow”. We feel we are missing out on the excitement, but we’ll likely be able to return to Kampong Cham in the next few weeks and see the finished product. With any luck, before her Cambodian holiday ends at the end of next month, Caz will have photographs to share with her donors (and me with mine!).