Balancing two boxes of mangoes on her head, a complete stranger greeted me gregariously as we came face-to-face around the same corner this morning. The only word I understood was “American” but I recognised a sales pitch and turned her down as graciously as possible. Lifting my parasol to dodge the roofs of tuk tuks and the heads of moto drivers, I passed a blind man playing a traditional string instrument alongside a small boy beating a drum as they strolled slowly along the roadside, busking. Another small boy, pulling on a checked kramar scarfe wrapped around the man’s waist, was guiding him along the busy street. I replied to his “hello” without stopping, simultaneously conscious that offering money to children who should be in school only adds to the problem of begging, and that I seemed indifferent to their wretched plight. The footpaths are crowded with food stalls, parked motos and displayed goods so that throughout Phnom Penh pedestrians are forced to walk on the road, sharing space with the neverending purr of moving wheels and engines. Ahead of me the yellow umbrella of a monk appeared to float behind his orange robe and sandaled feet. Battered bananas sizzled in hot oil beside one vendor’s moto-sidecar shop; a barrow filled to overflowing with green coconuts was being pulled by a vendor across the street and another barrow filled with cardboard, plastic bottles and cans was being pulled towards me. Above us white balls of cloud gathered, pushing a close blanket of stifling dank air around me so that by the time I reached the clinic my clothes were sodden with my own sweat.
Every day my mind wanders to an 18yo boy lying on a hard wooden bed base underneath his family’s bamboo elevated home on an island in the Mekong. I met him when one of the nurses I worked with in 2014 asked Caz and I to visit him for a western opinion. He has a tumour on his thigh so large and grotesque, that it seemed a medieval spectacle when the sheet was pulled back for us to examine it. When we left his home we both hoped we had been able to disguise our shock. A nurse visits him daily for $2.50 to dress the wound resulting from the diagnostic biopsy which his family went into debt to pay for and which is slowly turning his whole leg black. He will die soon, with almost no medical intervention. You need money to pay for oncology services, which his family are simply unable to consider. We offered what we could, thanks to donations from a friend in England. It is little but perhaps enough to reduce the family’s financial stress as they lose their son in the prime of his life. He refuses to eat, believing that food is causing the tumour to grow. Our attempts to suggest otherwise seemed futile and I can’t blame him for believing as he does. With any luck the tumour will remain numb, as it has so far, so he can die without pain. It is hard to imagine speaking of someone’s 18yo son in this way, but at the same time I have learned that such lack of health care is far more commonplace on a global scale, than the entitlements that we in the “other world” assume as our moral right.
Australia’s current affairs series The Project recently hosted Bill Shorten, our Leader of the Opposition in parliament. He talked about housing (un)affordability in Australia as a video camera drove past a nice but ordinary home. I envisaged the tree-lined street this house is on, inhabited by ordinary working people living their Australian lives which we all assume as unremarkable. As I watched, I reflected on the streets of Phnom Penh and the way they constantly highlight to me, that so-called “ordinary” Australian (and NZ, American and European) life is actually a remarkable and privileged phenomenon. An ordinary Australian home is a deluxe manor in comparison to where most people in the world live and an ordinary Australian life is sumptuous and stress-free compared to most lives.
It is difficult to describe the difference as a multitude of factors cause the vast disparity between those of us from high income countries, and the great majority of the world’s population. Housing, access to health care, education, food, transportation, employment, income and perhaps most significant but least apparent, our levels of freedom. No matter what I do as an individual, I belong to a nation with a robust economy. During my modest, small town New Zealand upbringing, one of the expressions my mother used regularly was “the world is your oyster“. Even from our little three bedroom suburban home, this was a fact. For most of the world it is a whimsical fantasy which any fair and loving mother would not tease her child with.
Another favourite of Mum’s was “we don’t know how lucky we are“. I was in my forties before I came to appreciate the truth of this expression. At the same time I realised that so many of us go through life never appreciating our unique fortune in place and time. As a consequence we miss out on many opportunities to help those in our world who are not born to inherent privilege. My ultimate fortune came from learning that the value of life has little to do with accumulating self-centred and material achievements, and everything to do with making myself useful to those most in need.