Sadly I’m returning to Australia after four very fast months in Cambodia. The last few days have been busy tidying up loose ends. Yesterday I had a final child health meeting in a Phnom Penh neighbourhood of busy alleyways encircling a very large pagoda. Tuk tuk rooftop scraped past truck walls, moto handlebars knocked my arm rest, pedestrians stepped into doorways as we mounted the crowded sidewalk to make way in the single-vehicle-width alley for a third vehicle to squeeze by. How we ever got in and back out of there without at least running over a set of toes, claws or paws eludes me, but we did.
Post-meeting, Job Number 2 was to get the hole in the back leg of my trousers mended. Tuk tuk understood and two corners away he spotted a shopfront sewing machine, pulled over and directed me out of the tuk tuk with wave of the hand. A very effeminate young man with a beautiful smile looked at my trousers, laughed nervously and said “Sorry Madame, I think I don’t know how”. That seems to be code for “You might not like my work so I won’t risk it”. Tuk tuk laughed as I returned, trousers in hand, shaking my head.
Slow surveillance of the hundreds of street-side businesses as we traveled to our destination soon found another sewing machine, this time at a home business offering street food on plastic stools at a tin table on the sidewalk while you watch your tailoring in motion. A serious man sat at a very old foot-pedaled machine behind a glass cabinet displaying meatballs and salad. I squeezed between the table, cabinet and a couple of motos to reach him. As he realised I was headed his way he looked progressively more startled. Sometimes launching into Khmer is unnecessary. Standing before a tailor holding a pair of trousers with a hole in them is one such time, so as his stress levels increased my own dwindled. He took the trousers, prodded the hole, turned the leg inside out to investigate further, then made a zig-zag motion with his finger over the hole, to ask my permission for a rough-shod job. I nodded enthusiastically.
He re-threaded his machine with dark cotton, as I looked around the front room of his house. Three women were perched on stools behind the meatball cabinet, chatting and laughing. Three small children were splayed across the tiled floor, also chatting and laughing. The mandatory hammock was slung in a corner of the room as the only furniture except a television against one wall. The whole house front was open to the street courtesy of heavy metal security doors slid all the way open. What would be a sidewalk in Australia was restaurant and motorbike park. With the cotton organised he looked around the floor of the room, spotted a remnant of an old hem among the cuttings strewn on the tiles that seemed about the right colour, grabbed it, cut it to size, and sewed it across the hole in my trousers. It took all of 60 seconds from start to finish. Fifty cents later, my trousers and I were ready for the next stop: my final visit to the beautician for one last refurbishment.
It’s been a wistful few days saying not-goodbye and not-farewell, but see-you-soon to people. But at 39C in 70% humidity with hours of power cuts everyday (which courtesy of staying in an area where some powerful names also live exempts me from the experience), I am ready for an Australian winter re-boot. There are many worthwhile stories that I haven’t yet told, and cannot do justice to right now. Tomorrow the wife of the disabled man who works washing dishes at night for $2.50 an event will find out that she can buy the motorbike she needs to get to work and home again, safely.
On Monday the small girl whose hands are bent in place at the middle knuckle as a sequelae of TB meningitis will receive some small balls to roll around in her hands to work her hand and arm muscles.
Last time I saw her one year old neighbour whose mother is in jail and father ran away after selling someone else’s moto to pay a debt, we weighed her at a busy child health clinic. Amidst the chaos after she was weighed, I was shocked to see her being put back into a “dress” made of patches of cloth loosely pieced together with large hand stitches of what looked like string, reminiscent of something out of Dickensian London. Her carer, an unrelated elderly woman living on a wall-less bamboo platform approximately 2m x 2m on the riverbank, spent her days begging in the community to get enough food for her small charge. We managed to find an organisation able to support the child’s nutrition but I couldn’t let her continue getting around in that rag dress, so on Monday she will receive two new little outfits.
I would be lying if I denied thinking about the hundreds of millions of dollars pledged to reconstruct the burned bricks and mortar of Notre Dame de Paris in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. If only human life, human potential and human dignity held the same sway.