My Cambodian Kaleidoscope

My second bicycle ride in Kampong Cham in 2013 was with another Australian nurse and a German doctor.  Four years ago perhaps even to the day, it was the end of the rainy season and the Mekong waters had receded.  Planting on the floodplains was well underway, with lush green crops contrasted against deep blue skies. We cycled dusty country lanes, visiting golden Buddhist temple grounds, photographing village life and farm scenes, and enjoying the calls of “Haaallooo” from excited children, on a 50km circular trip.  We observed that some of these villages were Islamic, noticing the mosques and colourful attire.  I have since cycled these tracks many times, been thrown from the tuk tuk and (per Chom), “landed in the banana flowers” on our most dramatic tuk tuk ride of many, delivered a baby on a wooden motorised canoe traveling over flooded cornfields, met Paula and her family, and so many other momentous experiences.  I continue to feel wowed by this little patch of the world but four years ago I could never have predicted that the scenery so impressing me was actually a blank canvas upon which a million human brush strokes were about to paint colourful details into my life.

When we took Paula to the US for surgery an Imam in the American Cham community picked us up at the airport and drove us to the hospital.  Some time later he informed me that, referencing the city skyscape on our horizon, Paula said to him in Cham from the front passenger seat “It will be okay if I die after having this experience”.  When the local Cham community descended upon us in droves, killing my western hopes of solitary independence, even in America Cambodia showed her power to rip my notions of world order apart.  The Imam explained that he had grown up in a village a few short kilometres from Paula’s home.  Upon questioning, I was as astounded as him, to realise that I knew his home village!  I was even able to produce a photograph of myself standing beside his neighbour, an elderly man who had approached and stood with me as I waited for my friends at a turn off near his village oneday.

Last week the Imam contacted me with this message:
I am planning to ask my uncle from Phnom Penh to go to my village, would you have time to go visit my village?  He bringing my books to give to students in my village.  Could you please go with them?  This is his family and I already paid for everything for them.  This is his daughter and she speak English very well.  Please let me know if you interested.  About safety don’t worry because almost all villagers are our relatives.
Familiar enough now, to know that any invitation from the Cham community makes my world bigger and better, I jumped at the opportunity and so plans were put in place.  When I asked if I should put a scarf on my head when I go into the school he replied  No you don’t have to do so because we know and understand the culture. Just dress what ever you like.  Just show them that we are different but we still can make friends.

Early on Thursday morning a car pulled in at my riverside hotel in Kampong Cham.  I climbed in to the back seat with greetings of Salaam Ali Kim to Imam’s aunt and uncle.  We made our slow journey out of town as they said they had been told I spoke good Khmer, soon learning they had been told wrong!  In three months the track has transformed from floodwaters to slush to mud to impacted dirt.  Our low suspension scraped along the rough surface more than once during the journey as they asked about the state of roads in Australia and I tried to give a rudimentary reply without any of the vocabulary I needed.  As we passed the waters, now reverting to cornfields again, where Boat Baby was born almost three months ago and then Boat Baby’s semi-flooded house, I wished I had the vocabulary to tell that story.  We passed the turn-off to The Eyes who are coming to town tomorrow for their appointment on Monday with SEE International.  Through familiar villages, past temples, mosques, hay stacks, fields, markets and over familiar bridges.  Almost an hour later yet only 20km from town we arrived in their village, immediately greeting family members walking along the track from the car windows, before continuing a short way.  At just after 7 o’clock in the morning, we drove into the tiny school perched on a little hilltop on the edge of the track.  Immediately children appeared from nowhere in their vibrant outfits of hijabs and flowing skirts, skull caps and tunics, obviously rehearsed in forming orderly rows for school assemblies in the dust.  My heart immediately melted at the extreme cuteness.

Teachers coordinated the growing rows of children.  One teacher approached me to introduce himself, explaining that he teaches English to the children once a week on Sundays.  Villagers milled around facing the children and I was ushered into a small classroom where 85 books were awaiting distribution, a small yellow envelope to be given with each book.  A short photo opportunity was taken with the teachers, uncle, aunt and I, before we were given a pile of books and envelopes each, proceeding out to the waiting rows of students.  Encouraged and reassured by a teacher approaching each child ahead of me, some of the children were too timid to speak, others uttered oor kun (Khmer thank you) and some knew the words “sank you”.  Soon enough all books were distributed and I was asked to give a short speech, so I spoke in single sentences for the young man translating, who is home from university studies in Saudi Arabia, of the joy of knowing Cham people and giving books to children and having cycled through this village many times, and how special it was to come here again for this occasion.

85 books delivered

With formalities over, we formed a procession and walked through the village to what I guess was one of the teachers’ homes, where breakfast of beef noodle soup was served.  To me alone!  When I suggested I shouldn’t eat alone (thinking, especially not about two hours since breakfast and with this many eyes upon me!), Uncle took a small bowl and joined me.  Bottles of water were presented, a child was sent away and returned with a packet of paper napkins, and atop a shaky bamboo ladder leading into a traditional wooden home, with dozens of witnesses, I ate a delicious but second bowl of breakfast on the shining wooden floor.  As I photographed the open fire atop bamboo floorboards responsible for creating this feast, one of the women asked me was this unusual to me?  I motioned that in Australia we don’t cook on open fires, we use ovens with doors, eliciting a lot of exclamations and laughter.

With breakfast eaten, we proceeded back onto the dust track to visit a number of other homes including the homes that my Imam friend grew up in and lived in until his move to America around 10 years ago.  We sat around vibrant bamboo mats on a number of different floors, mutually curious about each other’s lives, and the Imam’s cousin translating at his father’s instruction, did I have children, did I have a husband, what about parents and siblings, when was I returning home, etc.  At around 9am Uncle told me through his son, that he hoped I could visit again oneday, but for now, it was time to go home.  With babies kissing my hand and waving bye-bye, more posing for group photographs and happy farewells, I climbed into the back seat before being instructed to get in the front.  This time the family were traveling with us, so three adult children sat alongside their mother in the back!  The ceremonious occasion had ended and an hour later I lay down in my hotel room, exhausted enough to sleep for three hours!

This tiny part of the world doesn’t warrant a mention on the map which reads as though it may be uninhabited.  Yet this small area perhaps spanning a 60km radius across the Mekong river delta, has magnified my own world into a kaleidoscope of peculiar human experience and friendship.

Little Houses in Rice Fields

Coinciding this year with Easter, Cambodians are celebrating Khmer New Year, one of the most important celebrations on the local calendar.  Festivities commemorate the end of harvest, giving farmers a chance to frolic and relax before the Wet Season begins.  Contributions are given at pagodas before the ensuing paltry months when the monks take a break from their daily routine of parading the streets underneath yellow umbrellas, stopping at every vendor to exchange alms for blessings.  Many businesses close for Khmer New Year, as families living away from each other reunite to celebrate.  Despite the usual commotion of trade and economic activity coming to a near-halt for the weekend, the streets come alive with a party atmosphere every afternoon.  Vehicles even more overcrowded than usual cause traffic jams as hordes converge at parks, temples and riversides.  Young people hurl water and white powder at each other and at passers-by.  Street performers entertain, pick-up trucks boom music from loudspeakers as their passengers use the trayback as a dance floor, the same music booms from the few open restaurants and bars.

With four days off I wanted to visit various people in the villages which are too far away for me to pop in regularly as I once did.  Three expat colleagues decided to come along for the ride.  I contacted Dan, who found and booked a hotel that was open for the weekend and we made our way on Friday morning, to Kampong Cham.  Dan met us at the bus station, delivering us to the hotel before heading home for his own family celebration.  We did not see another tuk tuk at all during the remainder of that day.  With no bicycle hire or other transport available, we found a restaurant near the hotel and seat-danced our way through a late lunch.  After a rest in our rooms we strolled to the Bamboo Bridge to gate crash the street party.

On Saturday we sauntered along the abandoned riverfront, noticing a solitary tuk tuk parked in the distance upstream where usually there are galores of “Madaming” tuk tuks.  Dan called to ask when we needed him.  Midway through our conversation he announced “Oh I can see you walking, I am coming now”, as the lonely tuk tuk u-turned and crawled toward us.  We drove the short distance to Central Market for a $1.75 Khmer breakfast.  The others then climbed on board for a day playing tourist through the villages to Wat Maha Leap (one of Cambodia’s few remaining wooden temples), 20km downstream of town.  After waving them off, I hit the smattering of open stalls at Central Market to find clothes for the children I planned to visit.  Skinny Tuk Tuk was with his family until mid morning but had agreed to pick me up and drive me in the opposite direction for said visiting.  When we met I asked if he’d ever been with me, to John and Sarah’s house, on a remote dusty lane about 15km from town?  “No but I know that place, on the left, beside my father in law’s rice field”!  A small hut on a small track amongst rice fields in a very small world!

We made an interrupted trip.  First via a rice vendor where one by one, two 50kg hessian sacks of rice were heaved onto a shirtless man’s shoulders and piled onto the floorboards of the tuk tuk, making an elevated footrest between the front and rear-facing seats.  Second stop was at Skinny’s little home on the outskirts of town.  Upon questioning he explained that when they married, his wife had three cows which they sold to get the cash to build this little hut on his parents’ land.  Perched on a raised mound to avoid wet season flooding, the concrete floor merges with concrete walls ending at about shoulder height.  Panels of red corrugated tin sit on this concrete shelf, forming the remaining walls to the roof, made of the same tin.  Square holes have been cut in the tin to form glass-free windows which can be covered over with the excess tin when they need to be closed.  A single electrical wire affixed at intervals to the wall climbs to the ceiling where a light bulb hangs down above the centre of the room.  This modest little home is clean and obviously loved.

His wife greeted me on the dirt path to usher me inside.  As a plastic chair was brought into the room for me his father, lying on a wooden platform bed dressed only in a pair of black silk pyjama pants, sat up abruptly.  We held a conversation together in Khmer and English, guessing what each other was saying and smiling in mutual amusement at the experience.  Five year old son was sitting on the concrete floor beside grandad’s bed and two year old was swinging asleep in a hammock tied between the foot of the bed and a hook on the wall.  After a brief visit, the children were swept up and seated alongside their mother opposite me in the tuk tuk, staring at me in unblinking astonishment.  When I started bouncing exaggeratedly with every pothole their serious faces broke into giggles.

About 10km along the track towards John and Sarah we pulled into an elevated wooden home where I was once more invited in, this time to meet the in-laws.  Wife and children were spending a few hours here while Skinny and I went visiting.  A young brother in law sat beside a hammock suspended between two supporting poles, swinging his baby daughter to sleep; toddlers pottered on the bamboo strip floor, peering out over the homemade bamboo baby gate at the doorway.  I was instructed to sit under the ceiling fan and Mother-in-law sat on the floor beside me for more Khmer-English conversation.  Bottled water was presented to me and I was asked if I needed the toilet or a shower!

Soon enough Skinny suggested we leave and so we bounced our way down the dirt lane towards John and Sarah’s self-built wooden hut.  John was crouched at the back wheel of a motorbike, repairing a puncture at his front door while his customers sat on the homemade wooden table where all visitors convene.  Care taking a villager’s cow for a small fee, she was standing beside John chewing on hay, her long triangular ears moving forward as though listening to our conversation as she watched us through long, pretty eyelashes.  Chickens and a tiny dog with puppies pottered underneath the table.  Skinny heaved the first sack of rice out of the tuk tuk and hauled it into the dirt floored hut, landing it on the raised wooden platform acting as a low mezzanine level where the family sleep and live.

Last time I visited I asked if the children had enough clothes and was told no.  In my bag were a few outfits for each of the three children.  Once Dad’s customers drove away I presented the clothes.  The children’s eyes lit up and 8yo son could not wipe the grin from his face.  He and his 6yo sister ran inside the house and pulled the wooden shutter across the square space in the wall to close the window.  Moments later they reappeared in a new outfit each, which to my relief fit perfectly – new clothes that don’t fit might as well be second hand.  Dad dressed 20 month old and Skinny translated for me that these were not from me, but from family in Australia who want to help.  We posed together for a photograph, Dad instructing the children to put their hands together in a gesture of thanks.  A beautiful keepsake photograph which I’ve since shared with the donor, whose generosity offers me these joyous moments.

We talked about our plan to purchase a cow with money I received from other family for Christmas and agreed that when I visit next month, the purchase can happen.  This has taken a while as I initially thought I could use Cows For Cambodia but they are based in Siem Reap and the transport costs were prohibitive.

As we were sitting in this serenely beautiful place which always evokes my favourite childhood books, Little House on the Prairie, a row of villagers sauntered past us up the track towards Dara’s village, a few km away.  Soon enough we said our farewells and began the drive towards Dara’s home.  The row of three women and two small boys had entered and were traversing a rice field.  As we drove near, one of the women waved us down and Skinny pulled over.  She shouted something which included Dara’s name and Skinny asked me, can we take them home because they live near Dara?  Sure, jump in!  Two of the women and the two boys climbed on board, all feet meeting on the rice sack.  The oldest lady stopped on the track, apparently refusing to get on until I insistently waved her in.  Later Skinny explained that he had joked to them that it would cost them 10,000 riel ($2.50) and she was too afraid to take it as a joke until he reassured her!  They chatted to me in Khmer the whole way, I have absolutely no idea what we were talking about until they jumped off at the corner near Dara’s home, thanking me and calling out that they’ll see me next time!

Hugs and laughter greeted me at Dara’s house and we were ushered up the ladder into the house.  Dad hoisted the rice sack onto his back and climbed into the house looking like he’s done this a million times.  Lots of conversation went on about where I work now, about Dad trying to work in Siem Reap but his employer refused to pay him daily, meaning the family had no income except once a month on pay day.  Dad came home again because they cannot afford to survive without a daily income.  Sixteen year old daughter tried working as a cleaner for a wealthy family south of Phnom Penh but has returned home.  The incessant search for an income to keep the family afloat is most evident in this robust but struggling family.  The children are on holiday, Dara was upset because Mum wouldn’t let him join the New Year party which we could hear booming in the distance.  He soon cheered up when I pulled out some clothes which he took to the corner of the room to try on.  I hadn’t guessed him well and the shorts and shirts were too big, but a pair of ripped-knee jeans fit.  Someone found a pair of scissors and Dad cut the sealed button hole for him before he sat next to me and continued sulking at Mum and Dad while sneaking me the occasional smile.

I promised to visit again next month and we headed back towards town.  Unaware that I was in town with friends, Skinny had other ideas for me.  We stopped at his in-laws’ home again and this time the plan appeared to be that I would stay for a family party.  A pot of steamed rice, a plate of honey-marinaded chicken and a plate of noodles were placed in the centre of the floor and Skinny joined me for the most delicious homemade lunch!  They then asked me if I wanted to lie down for a snooze, when I declined, did I want to have a shower?  Meanwhile dozens of people arrived, men with ice and beer, women with plates of food, snails and beef and freshwater shellfish were all on offer and when I said no, then surely I wanted a beer?  What a thrill it would have been to join a village family for New Year celebrations, but I had to spoil the fun and get a lift back to town, promising to join them next time.

Back in town the others were full of adventure and fun thanks to Dan’s trip to the Wooden Temple with them.  Feeling semi-responsible for their enjoyment, it was fun hearing that they’d enjoyed a day in “my” rural Cambodia as much as they had.  We joined the throngs at the Bamboo Bridge again for more street partying that night, sitting above the revelers traveling to and from Koh Paen Island as we sipped G&T or coconuts in their shells.

Rock ‘n Roll

On my first full day back in town Chom was taking a day off work to travel the 60km to his wife’s village, to pick her up and bring her home.  He works up to 18 hours a day, six days a week now, in two jobs (tuk tuk driving and managing the hotel I am staying at), so she has been staying with her mother and grandfather.  Their second child is due in a few weeks and she should be near town and health services.  Her mother’s home is a typical elevated wooden style set beside a beautiful shady, treelined dirt track running parallel to the Mekong.  The drive there involves crossing the busy bridge over the Mekong, then turning into the riverside villages onto ungraded, weather damaged rural dirt lanes.  You can also travel on the southern side of the Mekong which is bitumenised for a longer time, for two thirds of the journey, then take a ferry to the other side.  We took this route on our way home as he thought it would be less uncomfortable for his very pregnant wife.  The journey along either route by tuk tuk takes between 2.5 to 3 hours, which gives a vague idea of how rough it is.

At 7am our first stop was a rice warehouse for 50kg of rice to deliver to the blind widow and her frail parents.  They live in a village hidden behind acres of corn fields off the beaten track, probably 20km from town.  We last visited them in March, at which time her lame father, who has an extremely debilitated gait, explained that his legs have been deformed and crippled since he was very young.  He developed a fever, from which his disability emerged.  That is all he knows about why his legs are so maimed.  My guess is Polio.  He told us then, that he has been trying to get a hand-pedalled wheelchair, via the relevant people in the village, for “a long time”.  They (perhaps the local health centre?) always agree but it has never been forthcoming.  Yesterday we arrived to the sight of Dad and his brother sitting in the doorway of their elevated, banana leaf and bamboo shack.  When he realised who we were, he climbed down the ladder to greet us while calling out to everyone excitedly. We were directed to climb the ladder into the house, Chom with 50kg of rice on his back and me following behind, kicking our shoes off at the bottom step.

During our visit I asked again about the wheelchair and Dad repeated that “they” continue to be agreeable without acting.  I told Chom how easy it was for me to get a chair like this for another person and suggested maybe we could do it ourselves for him?  Chom was surprised and questioned me somewhat before turning to translate my offer.  As he did so, the old man’s face lit up and he beamed at me.  Immediately his brother launched into a monologue aimed at me, which Chom translated as “it is really nice that even though you are from another part of the world, they had good luck to meet you and we can be friends and work together.  They are really lucky that they meet you”.  He then explained that the old man goes to the pagoda every week and it is very difficult to get there, sometimes he crawls on his bum, other times he goes on the back of someone’s bicycle, but his legs get mangled in the wheels.  We arranged a time and day to meet in town next week so that we can get the ball rolling.  This morning Chom and I went to Handicap International who confirmed they can supply a chair and gave us some more detail about arranging this.  Chom then called the family to explain the logistics involved and it’s all going ahead.  Project Number One underway!  I can also tick off my to-do list, that this week I “just stopped” to help an elderly person in some small way.

After about half an hour sitting on the bamboo strip floorboards looking below us to the chickens wandering on the dirt floor under the house, we headed off towards our destination.  About half an hour into this leg of our journey we turned at a fork in the road and found ourselves in an Islamic village where a lot of interesting activity kept me entertained.  Grass being manually chopped with small knives, motorbike loads of grass hiding all but the driver’s head, so that it seems a human head is being transported by a mobile bundle of grass.  Herds of free range goats wandering across the road, mosques instead of pagodas, and all of a sudden a black motorbike with three grown men departing the front yard of a house and stopping almost still across the middle of the single lane track and staring at us, wide-eyed!

In what seemed like slow motion Chom swerved to the side in an attempt to avoid them, crashed into their front wheel and the tuk tuk wheels veered into a sandy embankment.  Unable to keep up with the swerving, the tuk tuk rolled, and I was flung out of the side.  As my head hit the ceiling, then the side bars, before I was launched out of the cab, I was thinking “my life is supposed to flash before my eyes but it’s not, so I must be going to survive this”.  We were traveling at around 20km/hr, after all!  I landed on the sandy mound lining the side of the road and the tuk tuk followed, landing neatly on it’s side squarely around me so that I was inside an enclosed patch of sand, invisible to the world outside the four walls of my temporary cage.  A lump on my forehead, a lump on the back of my head, a swollen and painful little finger seemed to be the only pain and after a moment, surrounded by dead silence on what had been a busy road in an active village, I called out to Chom “are you okay?”.  I heard a “Yes!” from somewhere outside my cage.

A woman in green walked onto the embankment and leaned under the roof of the tuk tuk which had stopped short on the trunk of a banana plant, to peer in on me.  She walked away saying something which sounded like reassurances that the Barang was okay.  I grabbed the trunk of the banana plant, pulled myself up, leaning down to avoid hitting my head on the tuk tuk cage enclosing me, and awkwardly climbed through the overturned tuk tuk, jumping through the other side onto the track.  A crowd of villagers was growing along the opposite side of the road, staring silently at me as though anticipating a reaction.  Chom was standing on the side of the track in stunned silence but when I appeared he began an animated discussion with the other driver.  They re-enacted events on foot, apparently arguing.  When I asked was the other driver blaming him, he replied “no!  I am blaming him!  What was he doing staying there like that!”.  Some of them pulled the tuk tuk upright and pushed it over to the roadside and Chom started assessing the damage.

Shaking myself off, rubbing the dirt from my clothes and noticing some mud which smelled suspiciously like cow pooh on one sleeve, the crowd continued to stare at me.  I made eye contact with a young Islamic guy in a flat white scalp-hugging kulfi, smiled at him and he looked taken aback.  This, combined with what felt like a village full of people staring at me in apparent astonishment that a Barang had just been thrown from a tuk tuk on their land, I began laughing.  This set the crowd off and we stood around laughing uncontrollably while Chom and the other driver beat each other up verbally.  .

Satisfied that it was only minor damage, Chom said “let’s go” so I climbed into the tuk tuk, waved at my new friends, and we disappeared from each other’s lives as the laughter faded out, replaced by some worrying moans and groans from Chom’s old motorbike until he managed to get up to a normal speed.  Clearly shaken, he was very quiet for the first twenty minutes or so, as I sat quietly behind him trying to look serious.  Soon enough he looked at me in the rear vision and we started laughing.  He shouted out to me “Helen!  Now I am not handsome!  Look at me!  I put this shirt for my wife but now I am dirty!”.  Not handsome?  That set me off again!  Then he shouted out “Please don’t tell anyone!  Because I am shy!”.  “I won’t” I replied, thinking slyly except for the blog I’m writing about it.  Then he called out “I wanted to ask if you were okay but you asked me first!  You said the words first and I was so shocked because when I looked inside my tuk tuk, you were not there!  I thought oh my god, where did she go?  Then I found you, and you were lying inside the banana leaves and flowers!”.  We have not stopped laughing since, and he keeps telling me “you said the words I wanted to say but you were not there!”  Sworn to secrecy, I had to hug his wife smothered in dirt, smelling like cow pooh, with a straight face!  She did a double take at me and he apparently told her there had been a small accident “but I will not tell her that you were lying on the ground, she will be very upset if I say this”.

She and her mother had cooked fried beef and ginger with vegetable soup and rice which we ate at a wooden bed base on the dirt floor underneath the house, joined by free range chickens and roosters pecking at our feet.  What a contrast between this delicious meal and the last delicious home cooked meal I’d had, on the hillside at Patricia Wells’ luxurious property in Provence a fortnight ago!  Lunch was followed by a snooze in a hammock under an elevated hayshed on the riverbank before Microphone’s bicycle was tied into the tuk tuk and we climbed aboard and headed home.  As we approached the ferry terminal, very near to the scene of our accident, Chom decided to turn off and take the ferry over to the other side, where we had, albeit pothole-ridden, bitumen almost the whole way home.

The route home passes Paua’s village, so we stopped in on her and I managed to chat with the family about the possible American mercy mission we are hoping will happen for her.  Various logistics were discussed with Chom as translator.  The family are thrilled and when I explained that it might not happen because there are many possible obstacles, her mother said “even if it does not happen, we really appreciate that this doctor knows about her and wants to help her”.  I took photographs of her wounds, and of their home and village life, which I’ve since sent to America.  Project Number Two underway!

Between our projects, the accident, the motorbike engine seeming to fail, the bike kangaroo hopping as we ran out of petrol (thankfully only about a kilometre from the next bamboo stall selling fuel out of coca cola bottles) and then the usual unexpected help and friendliness that people offer along the way, it was an adventurous, entertaining and productive day.  No wonder I slept like a baby last night!

Elevated hayshed on the Mekong embankment
Elevated hayshed on the Mekong embankment
Getting the tuk tuk from the ferry below, to the road above. An easy task thanks to the eagerness of complete strangers.

One Finished Toilet

To everyone who contributed to the construction of a toilet for Dara’s family at their rural village home.

Yesterday afternoon Chom picked me up on his moto and we went to check out the completed work.  We went via Shackville where we spotted Dara and another little boy so we stopped for a quick chat with them before making our way out of town onto the dirt tracks of rural Kampong Cham.  Next stop was the crippled guy a couple of villages before Dara’s grandparents, where we stopped to talk, cuddled the baby and played peek-a-boo with her 4yo sister while tiny fluffy chickens pecked about at our feet in the dirt.  The older boy was at school, he goes to Dara’s school but a different class.  They have another son who now lives with an uncle in Kratie Province.

I still have seven big boxes under my bed and atop the wardrobe with various leftovers from last year, which I continue to find recipients for.  So I gave them a toy car, skipping rope, some stickers, hair clips, colour-in book and crayons.  We sat for a while under their breezy tin-roof/dirt-floor “verandah”.  Dad now has a tyre pumping machine which serves passers-by for a small fee.  Handicap International supplied this to him as a way of earning an income.  We pay 500 riel for this service when we are out on our bikes and need a pump-up.  That is 12c, the same amount that Kim’s wife in Siem Reap earns for each dress she sews.  I guess even in Cambodia, there is a gender imbalance in efforts for earnings?

Chom had quite a long and humourous conversation with the young couple.  As he is not a trained translator, I rarely get a full translation from Chom and often call upon Win when I need something to be translated well.  So in between this laughter filled conversation, I got an occasional explanation.  The gist of which, was Chom asking how a man who cannot walk properly, could get such a pretty wife?  I was so shocked, but the husband was just as amused as Chom, who later said that he agreed and often asks the same thing of his wife.  Political correctness has clearly not made it’s way into the Cambodian psyche yet, as I can attest to courtesy of the frequent statements that I am “very big”!  Chom also then said “You should give me some of your chickens because I stopped my moto over there and that is why you met Helen, so you should pay me”, finishing off with “But I am just kidding, he knows I don’t want his chickens.  If I take chickens to my house, the big mouse will eat them”!

After about half an hour there, we carried on the extra few kilometers to “Toilet Village”.  Grandma was there, washing Dara’s two year old sister who was running around naked and shining wet with just a pair of thongs on her feet.  His older sisters and some other older children appeared and again, I handed out some sticker books to the boys, stickers and a skipping rope to the girls, and lipsticks to the older girls.  As you can see from the photos, something as simple as a sticker book creates a lot of interest, and the toilet looks magnificent up against the shabby walls of their ricketty house.  Grandad, who is 68, has traveled to Phnom Penh where he is doing construction work in a team with his son to earn some money.  Perhaps the assistance he gave the toilet team showed him he was still capable of hard physical labour?  We spent perhaps half an hour with the family here, enough time for Chom to step in a big fresh cow pat in his thongs, eliciting much hilarity in between the concentrated study of the sticker book!

The half hour trip home, through rural Kampong Cham, was as fascinating and refreshing as ever.  Living in town as a foreigner it’s easy to forget that a few short kilometers away exists a magical, parallel universe.   Subsistence farmers tend to rice fields, often assisted by white oxen or curly-horned water buffalo.  Free range chickens and ducks peck about at the roadside or rush in a panic across the path of oncoming traffic.  Ponds of water lillies and other water vegetables are tended by people fully clothed and waist-deep.  Each village is connected to a beautifully decorated Buddhist temple, some in better condition than others, always on large grounds inside ornate gateways.  These serve as religious centres and social service providers, from feeding the elderly and taking in boys from poor families who otherwise have no chance at education, to coordinating weddings, funerals and other important ceremonies.  Busy villagers lead cattle, ride horse drawn carts, wash at big round concrete rain water cauldrons in front yards, and ride bicycles and motos laden with passengers, produce, animals or equipment to dizzying heights and laughable widths.  Others play with children in dusty front yards, sleep in hammocks slung between posts under houses or trees in yards, sit in doorways at the top of wooden stairs and wave excitedly at the foreigner cruising past, sometimes offering calls in English.

Back in town we stopped at Shackville and Dara climbed in front of Chom, leaning over the handlebars to watch the world go by as we drove to a riverside restaurant for dinner together.  He is in town now for surgery on his protruding bone which has become too long and needs to be shaved back so that he can wear his prosthesis comfortably.  Until he stops growing this will remain a continuing issue as amputated bones in children do not stop growing.  In recent months he has been walking with an exaggerated limp, complaining of pain and refusing to wear his prosthesis.  His mother postpones intervention for as long as possible because he will need regular operations to shorten the bone for the next 12 or more years.  The bone protrudes through a break in the skin, which an orthopaedic specialist in Sydney has assured me is not a problem except for the effect it has on his mobility, so it should not be treated too frequently, nor as a matter of urgency.  He also explained that fat can be taken from the patient’s buttock and implanted onto the end of the bone to provide a cushioning between the bone and skin.  I’m unsure how they are going to find any fat on Dara’s malnourished little buttocks!

Meanwhile, his family no longer have to wander out into the fields to find somewhere to urinate or defecate.  The hugs and love I get from his grandmother everytime she sees me attest to the importance of this to her and her family.  Many homes we pass en route to theirs do not have toilets, although many also do.  Lack of a private toilet not only exposes people to indignity and disease, but also dangerous animals (snakes are the main concern here), harrassment and even rape / attack.  To have provided one family group with the dignity and safety they deserve in a world where 2.5 billion, or 1 of every 3 people, don’t have access to a toilet, is a job well done.  Whenever grandma hugs me, I imagine the hug passing itself on to those of you in New Zealand, Australia and Cambodia who contributed.  From one family in Cambodia to all of you – oor kun chiran!

Shining wet 2yo perched on the covered, ventilated septic tank next to the new toilet
Shining wet 2yo perched on the covered, ventilated septic tank next to the new toilet
New toilet alongside the family home
New toilet alongside the family home
Squat toilet and water tank for flushing and washing
Squat toilet and water tank for flushing and washing
Excitement over a sticker book from England
Excitement over a sticker book from England

Toilet Village to Tuk Tuk City

The more global citizens there are, and the more active and effective they are, the more progress the world will make. We hope you will show your support by signing up, because we believe that people can and must work together more to make the world a more equitable place. In fact, we’re betting on it.  ~ Bill & Melinda Gates

I love being around Khmer people, they are fun loving, gentle and full of good humour.  The other night I was at a riverside restaurant eating offal and fermented seafood like a local, with the locals.  When I say “like a local”, that’s if you ignore the concentrated straight-face trying to disguise my nausea at the smells, tastes and textures I was being exposed to! The restaurant was very close to Chom’s village.  Many laughs were had and I had a great time, but being near his home I did miss Chom, although the crowd I was with don’t know him.  The day before he had sent me this text as he left town for a brief trip to Phnom Penh without his wife, his son or his older adoptive sister (me)!  His message reflects my feelings exactly: “I leaving now.  My fell I very miss you.  I will be back tomorrow in the evening.   See you”.  I have my mother to thank for the friendship.  She came to visit a year ago and oneday arrived home full of stories about the wonderful driver she had spent the morning with.  Little did I know she was about to introduce me to one of the all-time best gems in my life.  Kind of appropriate I guess, that one gem introduced me to another.  Thanks Mum!

Before heading to Phnom Penh for a few days from this afternoon, Chom picked me up on his moto and we headed out to “Toilet Village” hoping to find a finished construction.  Alas they’re still working, probably held up by the huge boulders which had to be removed from the pit by hand.  They were tiling the room today and the pit is yet to be covered by a concrete lid and cemented over.  It is otherwise all but finished.  We’ll head back on Sunday with the intention of seeing the finished product and maybe, as suggested by Mum, I can do a ceremonial “first pee” down the squat pan!

The country lanes taking us about 15km out of town are full of interesting sights which I try to memorise whenever I am on them.  Roosters strut along the roadside, hens and their flock of chicks run at high speed to get out of our way, bicycles are overloaded with produce in their baskets and on their carriers, children ride bicycles, zebu cattle plough fields, laze in front yards or are led along dusty lanes.  Children shout out “HELLO” excitedly when they see the Barang.  An old lady carrying a pile of firewood on her head.  A man bathing in his underpants at a water tank, throwing water over himself with a plastic pot and waving at me, smiling white teeth through his shining wet skin.  Cows bathing in a small lake amidst water lillies and someone waist-deep in the same lake collecting lotus pods.  So many sights that it is almost impossible to remember them all.  We stopped to talk to the young crippled man again, at his tiny wooden hut and admired the vegetable garden that provides his family with a small income.  Amazingly, when we stopped to see them the other day, he was out in the fields collecting firewood with his young son.  Disability does not stop you from physical labour in this country.

As we arrived at Toilet House, Dara came running, along with dozens of other children all playing around the building site.  He scored the (fake) gold medal which I received as a participant of Sydney’s Spring Cycle Challenge in November.  As I gave it to him, the words on his t-shirt in the middle of a remote Cambodian village really tickled my fancy, particularly because they pretty much express the attitude this little 6yo amputee exudes.  I doubt whoever bought it has any idea what it says, so it’s just an uncanny coincidence!

I'll be famous oneday but for now I'm stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons!
I’ll be famous oneday but for now I’m stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons!

Yesterday I visited a local organisation who provide services to a village community known to be very poor after they were relocated from the riverside area in favour of turning it into a tourist haven.  Tiny children from 3yo to 5yo in little blue and white school uniforms sang a song to the visiting Australian donors.  They attend kindergarten here by day, while their parents work in the nearby factory which chugs a constant thick cloud of black smoke into the air between Phnom Srey (Woman’s Mountain) and Phnom Pros (Man’s Mountain) a few kilometres south of town.  A microcosm of the world as it is, with factory mogul no doubt getting rich at the expense of a poor and exploited labour force, while well meaning philanthropic community members try to inject some fairness into the situation.


Arriving in Phnom Penh this afternoon, here to sort out my visa, the usual flurry of Tuk Tuk Madames harrassed me off the bus.  I bought my return bus ticket and then walked away from the central area to find a less ruthless driver to negotiate with.  A few corners away I negotiated a $3 ride.  A Khmer conversation with his tuk tuk mates on the same corner seemed to elicit a bit of excitement and I had no idea why until moments later, when he pulled over to check the address with me.  I’d accidentally said Street 192 and my ride was already up!  I explained that I needed Street 292 and he smilingly took me the extra kilometers without argument.  It seemed that a $3 profit was all he wanted, no matter what distance I needed to go!

The city doesn’t thrill me the way that the rural countryside does, yet there are plenty of amazing things to see here.  Tomorrow lunch and visa arrangements with Bernie, who knows what to do and where to go on the visa issue, are my only commitment.  On Saturday I hope to visit the riverside Cham community with the NGO she volunteers with.

Today Bill & Melinda Gates published their annual letter, which you can read here:  Their “Big Bet”, 15 years after the inception of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, is “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history.  And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s”.  They are challenging all of us to get involved and be a part of the new global citizenship revolution.  As they say in Cambodia, “Da-dow” (let’s go!).