Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas Stockings: In praise of socks...


It hasn’t taken long to establish that my main role isn’t to help the poor people access better healthcare. Rather, I provide much-needed entertainment to my fellow villagers in this remote and previously humourless part of the country.

What I didn’t expect is that I am also a figure of ridicule amongst the volunteer community.

Why is this? After all, I constrain my obsessive-compulsive traits to alphabetizing of the fiction section of the volunteer library in Phnom Penh. I cover the tracks of my pitiful attachment to Oldham Athletic. I frequently resist the urge to don my fluorescent-yellow safety jacket.

But there is one area where I will not compromise – and where I thus meet the derision and mirth of my colleagues. I refuse to renounce the wearing of socks.

Socks! In this heat! Am I crazy? Allow me to explain.

First of all, let’s blow the fashion myth. Who says socks and sandals are a style no-no? I accept the allure of beautiful heels in stilettos, but what’s the attraction of hairy ankles in flipflops? In contrast, I'd say I cut rather a dashing figure as I stride through downtown Thmar Puok in my North-Face open-tops and matching light-green 100% cotton ankle-socks. I would go so far as to say they look even better than my wellies, though function outweighed form during the wet season.

Secondly, socks aren’t only fashionable, they keep you beautiful. Most Cambodians live in the countryside, which is dusty in dry season and a mud-fest when it rains. Perhaps because of this, personal cleanliness is highly prized. Girls spend hours painting toes, and my favourite taxi driver has grown his thumbnail into an impressive ten centimetre reminder that he no longer works the ricefields. Add to this the Bhuddist notion that the head is the holiest part of the body and your soles the most profane, and you have a strong reason to keep your feet as polished as possible. And who, my non-sock-wearing muckers, do you think has the cleanest feet in all Cambodia?

And the clincher: What’s the biggest threat to volunteers in this country? Crazy drivers? Maybe. Landmines? Probably not anymore. Diarrhea? Worms? Perhaps if you’re brave enough to eat the meat. Malaria? Getting warmer. From what I can tell it’s actually Dengue Fever. Two further cases recently meant that the majority of the volunteer community in my province have now had the disease, whose effects range from the unpleasant to the deadly. And what can you do to avoid it? Mosquito nets won’t help as it’s carried by the daytime mozzies. A few locals still put scarecrows outside their homes to protect them from the evil disease-bringing ghosts, but - with apologies to my cultural sensitivity training - this is superstitious claptrap (not to mention a dangerous distraction).

All you can do is spray and cover up well. And where do those mozzies go for most? Answer: your ankles. Conclusion: spray and cover your ankles. Wear socks, avoid Dengue. Hard to refute.

So my friends, it is time to rise up against the nastiness of naked ankles, the fug of festering feet, and the dangers of Dengue. Join me in my festive campaign – together let us celebrate and communicate the benefits of sporting the unfairly maligned, unquestionably sensible and surprisingly comfortable sock.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The 12 Days of...








On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me

A partridge in a pear tree
Two turtle doves
Three French hens
Four calling birds
FIVE GOLD RINGS
Six geese a laying
Seven swans a swimming
Eight maids a milking
Nine ladies dancing
Ten lords a leaping
Eleven pipers piping
Twelve drummers drumming



On the first day of Buddhmas my songsaa gave to me

A coconut in a palm tree
Two turtles stuffed
Three French men
Four calling phones
FIVE COLD DRINKS
Six mines delaying
Seven dolphins swimming
Eight coconuts milking
Nine Apsara dancing
Ten prices leaping
Eleven cyclos cycling
Twelve drummers waking you at some ridiculous time in the morning for another bloody wedding



On the first day of International Transparency Fortnight the regime gave to me

A Khmer Riche with flatscreen tv
Two more terms in office
Three French exiles
Four by-fours procured
FIVE INFORMAL PAYMENTS
Sex tourists laying
Seven coffers brimming
Eight ministries milking
Nine beergirls dancing
Ten druglords reaping
Eleven gaspipes piping
Twelve Hummers humming

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being... A Volunteer



It’s not what I imagined.

Offering two years of my life to work in a developing country is a leap into the unknown. Admittedly I volunteered previously in Rwanda, and spent time in relatively poor places – India, Morocco, Uruguay, Kenya, er Glasgow.

But this is different – I’m living and working long term, where even crustily bearded travelers fear to tramp. It’s my toughest challenge yet.

Arriving in my dusty, wild-west village in the extreme north of Cambodia exactly a year ago, I admit my heart sank. No view of the majestic Mekong for me. No dolphins, elephants, tigers – not even any hills.

In fact the list of negatives was lengthy - no busses or tarmac road, no mains water or electric, no newspapers, telly or world service radio, no pubs or restaurants, no cheese or tofu (and certainly no chocolate or wine).

No home comforts either – I entered my bare house with no idea where to buy furniture or cooking utensils, no fridge, flushing toilet or hot water, no idea how to ask for anything. No other westerner for 50 kilometres. Nobody to help me.

And after a year, you know what I now think? Now I know I have a seriously easy life!

Here in my village I’ve come to realise that my house is way posher than everyone else’s. Not only have I two bedrooms and a balcony, I have a kitchen and bathroom all to myself (the village’s person to toilet ratio must approach 10:1, if they have one at all).

As the hot season intensified I cracked, ditched my perfectly good coldbox and bought a fridge – a fridge! Maybe not so clever without reliable electricity. I didn’t realise it was the first ever fridge here, draining both the village generator and my modest allowance. But boy, an ice cold water on a hot Cambodian afternoon – worth every riel, and every stare.

I soon braved the 300 kilometre round trip to bring a mini oven on the back of my wobbly moto. Emboldened, I went further and bought my most incongruous luxury. I’m gazing lovingly at it right now – my beautiful, ludicrously extravagant Apple desktop. Once you go Mac you never go back. But in rural Cambodia? Truly, I have an embarrassment of riches.

All of this in what I now recognize as a truly beautiful green and red landscape. Living with super-friendly people. In complete safety. Every morning I’m greeted by gentle sun and smiling children as I stroll to work across the temple lake. No cars. No pollution. None of that silly western stress you get all excited about.

And that’s all without leaving the village! But leave I do, thanks to my generous income (if I stay here and eat rice I can easily save from my $10 daily allowance) and munificent holiday calendar (a whopping 26 public holidays – wouldn’t you like to celebrate Meak Bochea and Visak Bochea days?; and why wouldn’t you mark the birthday of the king - and his mum, and his dad?).

At this point I basically become a tourist. I’ve witnessed the wonders of Angkor a dozen times already. I spent last Christmas on a Thai island, Khmer new year in southern Laos, and the latest festival exploring northern Vietnam. Other weekends I party in Phnom Penh’s swanky Club 182 or sip tea in Siem Reap’s Hotel de la Paix. It’s a hard life being a volunteer!

Of course it’s not quite so easy. Cambodia may be mocked as ‘volunteering lite’, but there are cultural challenges lurking everywhere – I recently listed unseen hierarchies, inbuilt fatalism, unfathomable body language, infuriating passivity, unspoken judgments…

And it’s easy to overlook the sacrifices volunteers give to be here. Several put careers at risk or gentle retirements on hold to come and help. All of us compromise our health and safety, not least by risking some pretty nasty illnesses. Avoid meat and you might evade worms, but everyone here gets some kind of unpleasant gastro condition. And we all get bitten, if not by snakes or scorpions then certainly by mosquitoes, with their pincer of nighttime malaria or daytime dengue fever.

So it’s not all easy. And we all need a break, to relax and recharge the batteries.

But as I sip my Singapore Sling and lazily enjoy my Kundera novel in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club I can’t help wondering guiltily just how exactly this is helping the poor people of Cambodia. I call it the unbearable lightness of being a volunteer.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It makes you think

The tragic crush at this year's water festival made Cambodia headline news across the world. Just days ago at the time of writing, the terrible events are still too raw to understand.

For volunteers, being in a developing country when a disaster strikes is desperately sad, but can also give us focus. Surely such an event, and how people respond to it, tells us something important about the country we're trying to help - and how we should go about helping?

The scene of the crush is on my morning running route in Phnom Penh, and a couple of days later it was still lined with people. I paused to stand among the crowd, trying to gauge the atmosphere. The thought of hundreds of innocent young people so horribly crushed moved me to tears. But from the crowd there was no weeping or wailing. I just couldn't work out what people were thinking - I've worked here for over a year, yet I felt as foreign as ever.

I looked across at the bars and restaurants lining the riverfront. It's easy to forget this is a relatively poor country. Some even call this 'VSO Lite' - a far easier option than the hardship of sharing your skills in a really poor country or a properly rural placement. Material luxuries are easy to find. Houses for volunteers are large and comfortable. Tourists outnumber aid workers in places like Angkor. Isolation is minimal - even from my village, one of the most remote placements, I can (just about) make it to the capital in a day.

But it's not as simple as that! Despite the increasingly glossy surface, there are still very real challenges here for volunteers.

To start with, the Khmer language can be perplexing, with its hieroglyphic alphabet of 33 consonants and no less than 21 vowels. And this is just one aspect of what can seem huge cultural barriers to change - unseen hierarchies, inbuilt fatalism, unfathomable body language, infuriating passivity, unspoken judgments.

I personally found it far easier to volunteer in a very poor but openly ambitious country in Africa than in this part of Asia, where the poverty may be less extreme but the barriers to overcoming it appear even more complicated.

Returning to the crowd viewing the scene of the tragedy, my emotions turned to anger that such a outrage had not been prevented. This was a disaster waiting to happen, in a country which has an institutionalised disregard for safety. If even a tragedy like this doesn't spur people to demand change, how will things ever get better here? Yet there wasn't the slightest hint of rage from the crowd, who seemed more concerned with appeasing the imagined ghosts of the departed than holding to account the real failures of the authorities.

My time at the riverfront left me none the wiser about the tragic events a few days before or how to respond to them. But it did help me to reflect that perhaps the biggest obstacle to me improving lives is the one I experienced there - a culture and way of thinking here which is totally different from anything I have previously experienced.

Will any good will come of the tragic recent events in Cambodia? I truly hope so. In the meantime, as a volunteer it certainly forced me to reflect hard on why I'm here - and on the very real challenges I face if I am to help make this a better place.



Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Favourite Run

I am reliably informed that Runner's World has a regular column entitled ‘My Favourite Run’.

I don’t know for sure, as until recently I regarded running as a good walk spoiled (even more so than golf). Frankly, I’m about as likely to read the above publication as subscribe to Volleyball Asia or Cock-Fighting Cambodia.

Until now. Don’t get me wrong, football will always be the best game in the world - the beautiful game, and the only truly global sport. Apart from running I suppose, in that most people run at some point - but neither lazy loping nor serious scuttling really count as sport, do they?

My Damascene conversion happened on the unholy road from the provincial town of Sisophon to my village of Thmar Puok. The rainy season was in its final throwing-down as we passed the High School. Kids were literally swimming after the ball on the only ‘football pitch’ in town.

Clearly I had to find another way to exercise away my occasional cakes and ale. In Cambodia football is for swimmers, badminton for schoolgirls and cycling for bone-shaking fetishists. Reluctantly, I resolved to run.

Back in mid-February I had a great motivation to do some light training – the pleasure of completing the Phnom Penh 5k with my beautiful valentine. I guess the organisers didn’t have much choice of date, but starting at 2pm in the heart of hot season seemed designed to test the strongest of relationships.

A further challenge was the requirement to run the whole course alongside your partner. And to cross the line together holding hands, gazing into each others eyes, and looking very much in love. Katja and I share modest competitive streaks, and luckily our 5th place out of 50 couples made the podium, as a prize was the minimum demanded by my valentine. The reward was a romantic meal in the city’s Country Club and big brownie-points for boyfriend. Surely this had to be my favorite run?

But now the challenge doubles – in just a few days time it’s the Angkor 10km run. One of the amazing perks of volunteering in such a beautiful place as Cambodia is to run in a World Heritage Site, past - in fact through - ancient, awe-inspiring temples. The route starts at the iconic Angkor Wat, winds past the enigmatically smiling Bayon heads, and explores the remarkable Khmer city of Angkor Thom. Wouldn’t this be anyone’s favourite run?

Yet in athletics - I am reliably informed - there is always room for an underdog. Now that I have overcome my aversion to 5.30am starts, faced off the snarling dogs (I think there’s still sleep in their eyes too), and learned to laugh off the howling derision of my fellow villagers – well, now I think I might just be learning to love running here. And when I watched the sun rise over the misty green rice fields this morning, even my hardened heart melted and I had to admit – this might be my favourite run of all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Health & Safety Nightmare?



It’s nothing short of hilarious for the crowds lining Phnom Penh’s riverfront for the annual water festival.

Amongst the beautifully painted dragon boats, the proud crews carrying the hopes of their village, and the throngs of expectant spectators on the bank, a strange phenomenon appears: a boat full of westerners! What’s more, they have little idea how to row, and look utterly ridiculous – as if the bright orange t-shirts aren’t enough, the fools have donned luminous life-jackets - what a joke!

Safety has a similarly low priority just getting to the riverfront. Jumping on a motorbike taxi is quick and easy, but us volunteers are more careful, not least because of our organisation's strict safety rules. Drivers do sometimes wear helmets - but only to avoid giving the police an excuse to fine them. The rest of the family perch perilously behind them with bare heads (and arms, and feet). In a country where life is cheap and the humidity intense, do you really think people worry about donning a hot and heavy safety helmet?

The journey from the provincial town to my village is similarly risky. There is no bus service, and driving a moto up the bumpy mud road is scary even for a hardened Cambodian. So we wait a few hours to cram into a ‘shared taxi’. This ordinary Toyota Camrey car carries an extraordinary load - in addition to ricebags in the boot and boxes on the roof, there are 6 people in the back and 4 in the front! The driver twists forward from his shared seat to control the wheel. It’s a tough job, which may be why he calms his nerves with a little rice wine. In these circumstances, do you honestly think anyone thinks about safety belts?

And if it’s dangerous for motor vehicles, spare a thought for the ordinary pedestrian. Clearly no one else has! There are a few pavements in cities like Phnom Penh, and they have a variety of purposes: a great place for your food stall, or space to tie up your hammock. Parking of motos takes precedence though, complete with wire or string to ensure no pesky pedestrians get in the way. And of course if you have a Lexus then you can park it anywhere, and where better then a nice spot of sidewalk? All of which pushes ordinary people in the path of oncoming traffic, or into the gutter. Now what is the point in man-hole covers again?

So basically health and safety is non-existent in Cambodia.

Some visitors actually celebrate this. After all, aren’t westerners far too controlled and regulated? Cambodia is the last ‘free’ country, away from the interfering reach of authorities. If there are a few guns and drugs, a bit of child abuse and general anarchy on the roads, maybe this is the price we pay to be truly free?

Well, back to our boat. The 2010 water festival in Cambodia will not be remembered for the bright dragon boats, the proud crews or the joy of the winning team.

Tragically, it will be mourned for the deaths of hundreds of Cambodians, apparently crushed on a bridge to the new Diamond Island City area of Phnom Penh.

No doubt over the coming weeks there will be much soul-searching in Cambodia about how such a terrible thing can happen. Hopefully people will be brave enough to tell the truth – that if you have such a blatant disregard for the well-being of your fellow people then there is a tragedy waiting to happen. It should not have taken the deaths of so many innocent people to make the authorities here take health and safety seriously. Hopefully at least now they will – we’ll see.

As the hilarity turns to sadness, perhaps people here may wonder if the fools in the helmets and life jackets weren’t so stupid after all?


Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Birds


Collecting my new binoculars from the shop in Denby Dale, I casually mentioned the purchase was for a trip to Cambodia.

Knowing that the manager of the shop (a proper 'twitcher', unlike me) can be a little forward with his opinions, I dreaded the inevitable question about which bird book I'd be taking. Before the full title had passed my lips, he retorted “throw it in the bin!”.

I tried to explain that I was travelling light and that my 'pocket' guide was a compromise between quality and weight – I was backtracking in the face of the expert. So off I went to Cambodia with my excellent (and very lightweight) Zeiss binoculars, and my small but 'rubbish' bird book. I'll prove him wrong I thought...

My kind of birding is as a background interest to whatever else I'm doing at the time. It can be an interesting hobby – a typical male 'tick box' activity, plus the randomness to keep us birders on our toes. The great thing about going to the other side of the world is that an entirely new set of boxes present themselves, and you have no idea what you might see!

Urban, rural, plains, hills, tropical rainforest, coast, wetlands, rivers, a huge lake (the Tonle Sap), plantations, and huge expanses of rice paddy fields like the Norfolk Broads with rice - my three weeks in Cambodia had a fantastic mix. All these places I wanted to see anyway, but they also provided a wide variety of habitats – and therefore birds.

For me
birding is part and parcel of the whole purpose of the holiday – to help restore and relax. It was sometimes difficult to have long enough to identify spots when zooming around the country on buses, taxis and tuk tuks. However, the slower pace of walking, cycling and the classic long boat trip between Battambang and Siem Reap - and even simply sitting by the pool in Phnom Penh or on Oly's balcony with a cold beer - provided ideal opportunities for a little 'spotting'.

This relaxed approach worked a treat on two particularoccasions. Firstly, when I walked the perimeter wall of the huge Angkor Thom. Because the wall is 8 metres high (and 13km long) I was effectively up in the forest canopy, with a huge moat to my left throughout. That day, in solitude, I had the pleasure of seeing Greater Racket Tailed Drongo, Black Crested Bulbul, and most dazzling, Golden Oriole. The second occasion, on my last day in Oly's village Thmar Puok, was on a cycle around the beautiful surrounding countryside. That day I was lucky to come across not one, but a whole family of Green Bee-eaters. The above photo can't fully show their dazzling the lime green chests, one of the most stunning colours I have ever seen.

One advantage of taking this hobby around the world is that bird families are often recognisable in different countries. For example, Flycatchers are present in Cambodia as in the UK, and because each family exhibits common characteristics in terms of size, shape and even behaviour, it helps with identification. The black beady eye and the return flight to the same perch after, you guessed it, catching a fly, helped me identify an Asian Brown Flycatcher (again, sat on a balcony sipping a cool beer – are you starting to see the attraction?).

I went to Cambodia with no expectations about what I may or may not see, as the nature of birding dictates, however as is usually the case when travelling to somewhere that contrasts so much with home, I wasn't at all disappointed.

The guy at the binoculars shop was right about the book though...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A rubbish blog



Cambodia is a beautiful country. The streets of every village are lined with houses on stilts, smiling people, busy cycles and motos. But they are also strewn with litter.

Take the example of eating in a Cambodian food shack. It’s not the most pleasurable experience at the best of times, with questionable hygiene, ubiquitous stinky fish-sauce, mindnumbing telly soaps and soulless red plastic chairs. But perhaps the worst part is that everyone just chucks their garbage on the floor – paper towels, beer cans, bones. And of course this means dogs, cats and worse constantly prowl for castoffs. Altogether, only for those with strong stomachs.

In Kratie I witnessed people throwing their rubbish into the Mekong river. With so many Cambodians living by the water, it must be tempting to toss away garbage, which is conveniently swept away. It’s hard to explain why this is a bad thing, as any downstream consequences are far out of sight and mind. Perhaps we will only learn when we suffer from other polluters upstream. For example, Kratie’s famous Irrawaddy dolphins may all be dead in a decade, allegedly due to chemicals from non-organic farming practices further up in fast-industrialising China.

The worst offender is the malevolent plastic bag. Buy anything here – an onion from the chatty market lady, a drink from the toothless old coffeeman, a packet of noodles which is already double wrapped – and it is automatically presented to you in polythene. And just as unthinkingly as they are given, the evil wrappings are tossed on the ground, where they are left to rot.

Which of course is the problem. Back in the days when all waste was organic, it probably wasn’t so bad to drop the odd paper bag or banana skin, as they would quickly decompose. But the plastic doesn’t rot, it just piles up higher and higher. Education and habits have simply failed to keep pace with developments in product wrappings.

But hang on a minute! What, actually, is the problem with litter?

For a start, isn’t rubbish a health hazard? Piles of rotting garbage must attract rats and their associated diseases. But I’m not so sure – the rotting stuff doesn’t seem to be the problem, rather the stuff which doesn’t rot. I’ve also heard that discarded bags and bottles store small pools of water, ideal breading grounds for malevolent mosquitoes. But again I’m unconvinced: certainly in my village, there are pools of water everywhere, due mainly to the lack of proper drainage – the water trapped in plastic wrappings is a drop in the ocean.

How about health hazards to children or animals? But again it doesn’t seem a particularly powerful argument. The odd child may suffocate on a plastic bag, but it simply doesn’t feature as a major hazard in comparison with the many dangers for kids trying to survive in a developing country. And animals – well frankly, forget about karma and caring buddhist nature-lovers, nobody I’ve met here really cares about animals – at best they are ignored, at worst tortured or eaten. If the odd bird chokes on a piece of discarded plastic, who cares?

What about the danger to drainage systems from discarded plastic bags? Well, I’m sure it’s true that part of the threat from these environmental enemies is that they block drains and cause terrible flooding. But again it doesn’t quite hold, in my village at least – the recent floods (the worst in living memory) can’t really be blamed on plastic blocking the sewers, because there isn’t basic drainage here to be blocked!

Surely, as least, everyone will agree that litter is unpleasant and unsightly? But actually I’m not even sure about that. It certainly spoils much of the beautiful Cambodian landscape for me, but many local people just don’t seem to notice it. Worryingly, even I seem to be getting used to it. Even if I do find it aesthetically damaging, this just my subjective view, which others could easily disagree with. Basically, if Cambodians don’t mind, what does it matter if I do? – it’s their country. Is the tourist dollar the only incentive to keep a country beatiful? Is aesthetics really the only vaguely compelling reason we have not to litter our landscape?

There is hope. For one, Cambodian culture places a strong value on the beautiful (‘sa-aat’). When passing a football pitch in my local town I recently saw a group of young volunteers cleaning up the usual debris. And when I helped organise a further clean up, the only explanation required was that we wanted to help make it ‘sa-aat’. Many Cambodians keep their own houses and possessions spotlessly clean already, and temples are also litter-free – so it can be done.

Also, there is already a strong recycling culture here, albeit economically rather than environmentally driven. The honk of the plastic bottle recycling cart is often heard in Cambodian towns, and bicycles laden high with flattened cardboard boxes are a familiar sight. For my own part, I hope that the new vegetable garden at my hospital will include a composting area to encourage reuse of organic waste.

So whilst some say that beautiful Cambodia will always be blighted by litter, I hope soon we will see that’s a load of rubbish.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Good morning Vietnam!



Hanoi is celebrating 1,000 years as the capital of Vietnam. My knowledge of the country was essentially limited to the ‘Nam of action movies. But it seems that that the American war of the 70s was just one in a long line of irritations to be swept aside - long before then the Chinese had occupied for centuries, the French colonized, and even the Japanese arrived for a while during the second world war.

The Ho Chi Min museum offers an interesting take on this – Uncle Ho (‘Bringer of Light’) seems more of a popular nationalist than an ideological communist, influenced as much by western art and literature as bolshevik rhetoric. The guards gave us a taste of commie customer service by unsmilingly evicting us at 11am for workers’ playtime, so we indulged in a capitalist icecream whilst admiring the beautifully brutal architecture and enjoying the blaring revolutionary songs.

Hanoi itself is bright and bustling, but blighted by traffic. The old town will be lovely once pedestrianised, but at present it’s hard to appreciate whilst dodging speeding motos and thuggish taxis. Hoan Kiem Lake is a more pleasant walk, complete with popcorn sellers, plastacine modelers, calligraphy writers and dice players. It even boasts an Arthurian legend of a sword emerging from the depths. Sadly the lady of this lake is a big fat turtle.

Escaping to the coast, we dipped our toes in the South China Sea at Hanlong Bay. The scenery is stunning – sailing in a wooden junk between thousands of small, green dome-shaped islands (limestone ‘karsts’) is truly breathtaking. Sleeping alongside the ship’s rat population is less romantic. And I'm not impressed with the skipper’s opinion that rodents on a boat prove its buoyancy.

The overnight train journey to the far north provided a better night's sleep, and we awoke on the cold and misty border with China. Driving up and up we arrived at the old French hill-station of Sapa. This Alpine landscape is home for many traditionally garbed ethnic groups, who skillfully cultivate rice on intricate terraces even at nearly 3,000m, and cleverly sell colourful handicrafts to visitors – be warned, the only Christmas prezzies I'm giving this year are ethnic hats.

Cool, clean and canine-free – Vietnam was a welcome break from Cambodia. Katja even managed to pick up some basic language, though it is 'tonal', so something which sounds essentially the same can have a completely different meaning depending on how your voice goes up or down. Perhaps it seems less immediately foreign because it’s possible to read straight away, the Vietnamese alphabet being similar to the western one. I missed the Cambodian bowing and relaxed approach, but loved the food and drink. Fresh beer (bier hoi) was a great find, and coffee is everywhere – did you know that Vietnam produces more coffee than any other country in the world after Brazil? ‘Pho’ (noodle soup) makes a great breakfast, especially if you avoid the stinky fish sauce, the rice is light and nutty, and deep fried tofu from a street stall is lick-smackingly good. All this with not a dog in sight – on the streets at least, though I suspect there were a few on the menu…

Back in Hanoi, the Temple of Literature was another haven of peace, and had a display of superb photographs to celebrate the city’s millennium – beautiful, telling images which for me captured the essence of the city even more than a thousand years of the temple’s words.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Compare and Contrast


It would be a mistake to overlook this former francophone colony in favour of its bigger, better-known, English-speaking neighbours. The countryside is breathtaking, vivid green against deep red earth. And the people who tirelessly work it must be among the kindest and most gentle you could hope to meet.

But naturally you associate this place with bad things - the terrible genocide, and the resulting poverty. No doubt, like me, you agonise at how such dreadful things could be done in such a peaceful (and still deeply religious) country.

Cambodia, where I am presently volunteering, is a truly complex place. Yet these descriptions are as much about my previous posting in Rwanda - the similarities are pretty striking aren’t they?

But whilst both share a sub-tropical climate and blossom beautifully in rainy season, landlocked Rwanda is characterised by its thousand hills whereas largely flat Cambodia has a scenic coastline and is defined by the great Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.

And linguistically, whilst both countries are moving from their colonial French to all-pervasive English, this is happening very differently: Cambodians choose English and French is gently disappearing, whereas Rwanda very pointedly dumped French, a knee in the highly sensitive linguistic groin of the backers of the former genocidal regime.

And so to genocide. Both countries suffered horribly at the hands of their own people, whilst the international community failed to intervene.

In Rwanda nearly a million Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) were slaughtered in just 100 days. This wasn’t long ago (1994), but they seem to be dealing with it: the trials are largely complete, and nobody can forget - every highway has a purple memorial, every news item a story, every year are poignant and very public commemorations.

Cambodia couldn’t be more different – its genocide (horrific, but arguably not strictly genocide as it did not aim to eliminate a race) lasted an excruciating four years (1975-1979), yet you could easily ignore what happened here. There are few monuments, little discussion, and delayed justice – the first conviction was this year, over 30 years later.

Both countries have elected but authoritarian presidents – the leader of Cambodia’s main opposition recently fled the country, whilst in the run-up to recent elections a leading Rwandese opposition figure was found in the town where I worked – beheaded. But there are important differences: not least that whereas Paul Kagame led the army which liberated Rwanda, Hun Sen was actually part of the Khmer Rouge.

Kagame is intelligent and ambitious – he has secured Rwanda’s borders and now plans to give every child a laptop and lay fibreoptic cables to transform a land of subsistence farmers into Africa’s technological hub. Corruption is minimal. There are more women in parliament than in your country. There are no stray dogs or even plastic bags.

Hun Sen is also smart, his country is peaceful, and the economy is developing - but corruption is rampant, and his ‘Khmer Riche’ clique luxuriate in 4x4s and gaudy palaces whilst public services are woefully underfunded and most people remain subsistence farmers. Gender divisions remain. And there are wild dogs and plastic bags everywhere.

So what is it like to volunteer in these similar yet contrasting countries?

There is certainly a need – I work in healthcare, which in both countries is basic, with facilities destroyed and a whole generation of professionals killed or exiled by the genocides.

The economies and education systems were also smashed, and poor, uneducated people are more likely to get ill and less likely to afford healthcare. And despite many people suffering from post-traumatic stress, mental healthcare is sadly lacking.

There are also more subtle legacies – patients (and colleagues) remain scared to voice disapproval, and whilst all may appear calm, bitterness and resentment may lurk undetected by outsiders. I even wonder if the cultural life seems more subdued than neighbouring countries – less dancing, blander food, fewer arts.

But I repeat, it would be a mistake to overlook either of these beautiful, beguiling countries. Volunteers are playing a vital part in helping them to recover from their terrible recent pasts. I look forward to learning and writing much more about them.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

That was the week that was


Monday: As the one white guy in my village I provoke curiosity and / or hysterics; by tomorrow there will be eight barraings. It’s an unprecedented number – what will the neighbours say? I don’t care: an evening of music and beer on my balcony is a lovely way to start the week: who said they don’t like Mondays?

Tuesday: I don’t like Tuesdays. At least, not finding a viper curled behind my water filter. In true heroic style I run screaming to my landlord. He’s cool: using a broom handle he delicately teases the snake’s head into an upright position. His mate then fires his caltapult, hitting it in the face with a big rock. And then smashes its head with a hammer. All before breakfast. The day improves: we move and cement the new hospital playground, and then our lovely colleagues from the next province help with our first health education workshop for carers (usually relatives, who do much of the personal care you might expect nurses to provide). The highlight is a blunt but effective way to promote hygiene and sanitation: all together now for the Shit Song...

Wednesday: A bumpy journey down the worst road in Cambodia followed by a late night enjoying rare internet access is not the best preparation for chairing the toughest meeting of my time here: all the provincial hospital directors look at me to help them improve referrals to the big hospital. And to explain why no one from the big hospital turned up (a long story). And then I find that my nocternal emails didn’t go down well: my impassioned plea not to exclude poor people in my area from funds to pay for treatment, and for infection control equipment and training in my hospital, was well intentioned but clearly ruffled feathers. Apologetic phone calls are made over lunch, interrupted only as I’m chased for not paying the bill. At least I have a comfortable lift back up the bumpy road to Thmar Puok with colleagues from a partner organisation. I usually despise NGOs’ huge white gas-guzzlers (“we need a four-by-four... to help the poor”), but now the suspension and aircon are blissful. There’s still time for adventure: on arrival we watch a lone student midwife deliver a baby. When the placenta doesn’t appear, she disappears on a motorbike. Shortly later an older lady appears and takes over, thankfully with rather more confidence. Only later, as she removes her long gloves and leaves the delivery room do I recognise her – she’s the finance manager.

Thursday: My guests are great company, but it’s the first time I have hosted Cambodians, and I could have done better. Taking ages to cook coconut curry was useless – they needed to eat, so made their own noodles. To drink they wanted juice, but what kind of person chills it when temperatures are barely in the 30s? And to sleep, having mattresses raised onto beds - well, why would you do that? Unphased, we had several welcoming meetings in the morning. Then came an unexpected highlight: now patients have moved into the beautiful new children’s unit, we have an empty ward, which I was determined to clean before it is refilled. Good job – as soon as we move out the beds it is apparent just how filthy it is. The debris is pretty foul, and the range of fungal growths on the back of the doors quite astonishing. But the staff work so well together, scrubbing and buffing the ward and having a great laugh too. For once I’m even thankful for our intermittent power supply, as an enthusiastic trainee cleans the plug sockets – using a high-pressure hose. In fact it’s possibly the best day I’ve had here so far; an uplifting end to an eventful week.

Friday: thank god!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Silver Belle

Last weekend in Phnom Penh I had no less than 3 dance experiences to remember.

Most impressive by far was a performance at the beautifully restored Chinese House by the river.

It was particularly pleasing to see the hall packed with Cambodians, encouraged by the mere $1 entrance – even though this meant the usual performance etiquette regarding chatter and mobiles was largely ignored!

Not that many of the audience were distracted - for our bargain entry fee we were treated to an impressive, pulsating performance.

This was the best dancing, or indeed show of any kind, that I’ve seen in a long while. Silver Belle trained in both traditional Cambodian and contemporary western dance, and her performance beautifully combines very different traditions.

In fact her first performance was more of a fusion of the ancient Apsara dance with the modern Cambodian obsession with Khmer (kick) boxing – a lively way to start an evening!

Other performances included powerful storytelling and gentle humour – my favourite was of a monkey (brilliantly played) who spots and follows a beautiful lady, the twist being that he’s actually only interested in her colourful umbrella.

It was so refreshing to see original, creative choriography taking the best of Cambodian traditions but playing with it, adding modern moves and creative contrasts. A most enjoyable and uplifting evening.

The other two dance experiences were less distinctively Cambodian, but were still hugely entertaining.

Bopping to the heavy beats of the Riverside Lounge mainly involved American rap and hip hop, with the only nod to Khmer ways being the ear-splitting volume and random mixing.

The dancing in Snowie’s bar was more sophisticated and surprisingly fun. In this cosy undiscovered gem of a bar with sweeping views back across the river to Phnom Penh, our friend Sarah introduced us to the larger than life Robyn, who brings a energetic blend of swing and Lindy Hop dancing.

Silver Belle standard we weren’t, but I did have expert guidance and a beautiful partner; I swung Katja round to some golden oldies, cooled by the breeze off the river. And best of all, in swing it’s the man who leads – for a few precious hours I had my dancing shoes on and I wore the trousers!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Today the world came to my village!


I live in a small, remote corner of Cambodia – few people visit.

In fairness it’s hard to get here – the grandly named National Route 56 is, according to National Geographic, “the worst road in Cambodia”. And if you do make it, it’s nice enough as rural Khmer settlements go, but I can’t pretend there’s too much to detain you.

But today was different – today, the world came to my village!

The occasion was the grand opening of the new children’s ward at the hospital. And I have to say, it’s beautiful. Thanks to the generosity of the American people – specifically the United States Army, Corps of Engineers, Pacific Command – my dusty little village now boasts a state of the art paediatric clinic.

The world was led by the Ambassador of the United States, Carol Rodley, along with the Health Minister and a slew of local and national dignitaries. Thundering into the compound in a cloud of four-by-fours they were greeted by crowds of flag-waving schoolchildren and all the staff (I’ve never seen so many), all in pristine uniforms (I’ve hardly seen any before!).

What’s more, in the hours prior to the visit the staff had transformed the hospital grounds – grass cut, litter collected, banners planted, even a new access road laid over the previous mud and puddles. This was a huge improvement, though I had to wonder if the Ambassador, like the Queen of England, thinks that everything smells of paint.

Monks blessed the building, cameras were pointed and we all stood seriously for the national anthem. The speeches were mercifully brief, stressing the desire of America to be known in this part of the world for its friendship and generosity. It may take more than a little children’s ward to erase the awful recent history here, but I think it’s a good start.

The building itself is lovely - according to the architect it is ‘Cambodia plus’, far better than the usual standard, with real paint not whitewash, solidly-made beds and proper mosquito nets on all windows. It would have been even better if there was a sink in every room and solar panels (which surely should be standard?). And I’m not sure why there are heavy locks on all the doors, given that it is a 24 hour facility.

But I’m certainly not complaining. It’s a huge improvement on the previous cramped and crumbling building – it is very necessary.

However, it is not in itself sufficient. We still need to make the ward welcoming (‘child-friendly’), and I and other volunteers will help staff provide decorations and play facilities. More generally, the onus is now on hospital staff to use this gift to transform the healthcare offered to children in this poor and remote corner of the country.

I’m looking forward to helping them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Phnom Penh, the old and the new

When I need a break from my rural backwater – and as long as I feel up to the 10 hour shared taxi plus moto plus bumpy bus journey – it is usually to Phnom Penh that I head.

I’m not sure why – it’s quicker to get to Bangkok, which is bigger and more developed, with far more cultural delights and distractions.

But I like Phnom Penh. Perhaps it is the contrasts: the stately cyclo-rickshaws rubbing shins with the Lexus louts, the simple noodle-shacks outside the bourgeois bistros, and at this time of year the blazing heat followed by the almighty downpour.

Not all the contrasts are welcome: the gap between rich and poor is as great as in any city I have visited. The urban underclass of homeless beggars, dragging amputees and child bottle-pickers contrast shamefully with the pretentious palaces, gruesome gas-guzzlers and charmless champagne of the Khmer Riche (and the increasing number of wealthy ex-pats and tourists).

One of the most notable contrasts is between traditional Phnom Penh and the new metropolis.

The oldest and grandest buildings in the city are around the Royal Palace. Metres from the bustling riverfront, the high white walls enclose an oasis of calm and tradition. So traditional, in fact, that many visitors are caught out by the strict dress code – but fortunately the ticket booth happily sell unnecessary but only slightly overpriced shirts to cover the parts of you which might offend royalty.

Outside, the meticulously manicured gardens are remarkable not only for the beautiful purple and yellow flowers but also for the great green leaves covered with graffiti love letters and for the ornate topiary with an emphasis on teapots.

The walls not only serve to keep out the hoi-poloi but are also adorned with historical friezes. The obligatory museum, whilst mercifully free of crown jewels, does include helpful mannequins modelling the lucky colour for each day, alongside maps and poems glorifying the Khmer empire (now long gone - I assume they wore the wrong shades). The highlight is undeniably the dozen beautiful buildings, complete with ornate gates, golden tiles and swirling finishes.

What a contrast with the new Cambodian architecture just a few hundred metres along the riverfront. Like most intensely ugly things, the brash NagaWorld complex looks better by night, when the coloured fountains distract from the dull box of a building.

This is nothing, however, compared with the newest pretender, the monumentally mundane architecture of the new Diamond Island City. Whilst the prosaic towers are at best an opportunity missed to create something memorable (or even interesting), there is a least an impressively large golden dragon at the entrance and the amusement of a super-kitch pleasure garden, complete with mermaid sculptures and frog fountains.

But there is hope: also just opened near the riverfront is the new Metahouse cinema and art gallery, housed in a cool white villa with groovy gallery and outdoor screening space upstairs. And to complete the link, the latest showings include celebrations of Cambodia’s ancient traditional and buildings, bringing together the best of the old and the new.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Who let the dogs out?


Strange that my first encounter with death here was not in the hospital but in my own home - though maybe the deceased being the family dog makes this seem less important than someone passing away on the ward. Especially as I don’t even like dogs – not here anyway.

It’s not just crapping on the street I’m worried about. If only that were the only problem.

Rather, I’m confined to the house after 7pm because as soon as it’s dark the dogs take over. Not only do they bark menacingly, but they also chase and sometimes bite anyone in the street. I’ve seen the after-effects in our children’s ward and don’t intend adding to the hospital’s occasionally kept statistics.

And you can forget jogging in the early morning either, for the same reasons. A nice lie-in instead? No way! - the dogs will ruin that too, thanks to their daily 05.30 duet with the cockerels.

I can’t help feeling a little nostalgia for my time in Rwanda, where there are almost no dogs (if you’ve seen the film ‘Shooting Dogs’ you’ll never forget why – the liberating army shot them on sight after the 1994 genocide as they had developed a taste for human flesh).

My anti-dog feelings were not helped by the fact that the only one I did like, my family’s pet Mee, was savagely ripped to pieces by a pack of hounds last week.

She didn’t normally sleep in my bit of the house, and I jumped out of my skin when I saw her dark shape huddled in the corner one evening. There was no electricity so it wasn’t until the morning that I discovered the extent of her injuries.

So why is this allowed to happen?

I’m told that semi-wild dogs are still tolerated due to a religious superstition that they scare away ghosts. This may be true (true that people believe it, not that there are ghosts of course). But I don’t think they are that revered – canine roadkill disappears remarkably quickly and I bet often ends up on a bed of rice in a roadside food shack.

More pragmatically they may deter ‘gangsters’, the petty thieves who acquire bogeyman status here. I guess we need something in the absence of the strong arm of the law, which is only ever seen collecting traffic ‘fines’.

Or, dare I suggest that training dogs is part of developing and civilizing a country, a stage we just haven’t reached yet here?

It would be understandable: security, food and shelter before Barbara Woodhouse; employment, health and education before Crufts. I suspect that chasing pooch with a poop-scoop comes as low in the hierarchy of needs as a litter and pollution-free environment: vital for the interfering white man, not for the average Cambodian.

So back to poor Mee. I guess I’ll just have to find another uncritical friend on whom to practice my fumbling Khmer, to welcome me home with an friendly growl, or just to ease me awake with the occasional howl.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I’m Not Here For Your Entertainment



If my main role is to provide entertainment to the locals, I’m doing great.

As soon as I cycle out of my village, the children’s smiles and hello-what-is-your-names are matched by an equal number of old women who gasp, point, and laugh themselves silly. And they haven’t seen me in lycra yet.

A giant, balding white guy walking in the midday sun, wellies and socks not barefoot, may also be a little conspicuous here. (Don’t recognise the description? - well I’m fairly brown now, and still have a little hair – but I’m certainly tall!). Being wifeless, childless, godless and meatless probably doesn’t help me to subtly blend in either.

So I vowed that if I am here for their entertainment, it is going to be on my own terms.

In the hospital, thanks to the United States Army, Pacific Command, Corps of Engineers, we are getting a lovely new children’s unit. And it looks great – unlike the rest of the wards it is properly designed, solidly built and appropriately equipped.

But for a sick child I’ve no doubt it will still be seriously scary. The coldly clinical white rooms are a vast improvement on the dirty, crumbling old ward, but ironically may be even more forbidding for a kid who is already scared of their unknown illness.

In short, it needs to be child-friendly. A little entertainment is called for!

Once the inside is ready we’ll have walls and doors painted by local kids, and even some toys thanks the generosity of another colleague, Mary. But even before that we can get started with the outside – specifically the playground.

There is some play equipment already, but it ranges from the modestly corroded to the blood-curdlingly dangerous – sharpened bolts protrude from the climbing frame and halfway down the slide a rusted lip transforms it into a child-grater.

But Thmar Puok Welding Co. had it fixed in no time. The hospital dug out some old tyres and tree trunks, expertly cut by Thmar Puok Woodcutting Co. And VSO chipped in with paint, brushes and fruit (the success of any event here being directly proportional to the quality of the snacks).

All of which provided great fun for kids from Thmar Puok Primary School, who spent a hilarious morning painting their flip-flops, shirts, hands and even at times parts of the play equipment. It really is amazing what a lick of paint can do! - in just a couple of hours more than 30 school uniforms were completely ruined.

But it was worth it – the next day I heard a new noise from my office in the cleaner’s cupboard at the back of the hospital – the sound of children laughing (and not at me for a change). Hopefully this is a small step towards making the new ward just a little more child-friendly. And if nothing else, it sure was good entertainment.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Let's be CLEAR


You will have noticed EAR across ASEAN nations, including in NGOs here in the KoC. VSO is affected: during my ICT at the VSOC PO my VA heard an STV talking to the CD about…

Hang on! You haven’t a clue what I’m on about?

No problem, those letters mean… well come to think of it I don’t know what they all actually stand for. I suppose I just use them because everyone else does – no harm done using the odd unnecessary acronym eh?

Well yes, actually!

An acronym, as I understand it, is basically a short word formed from the initial letters of a longer name – and this can be quite useful. Long and often technical terms can be shortened, making them easier to remember and quicker to say and write. In my work, for example, we talk and write about HIV/AIDS without having to spell it out every time, and we can be confident everyone understands what we are saying.

When we’re sure that an acronym is widely understood, it’s fine to use it. I think I am usually ok saying I’m from the UK, worked in the NHS, and now volunteer with VSO – which I might even describe as an NGO.

But there’s a real danger that we go way beyond this sensible and measured use of acronyms, to the point that they are no longer useful or timesaving.

By over-using acronyms we risk failing to be understood - or worse being misunderstood. We are likely to create more work than we save as people struggle to translate what we are saying. There is a real possibility that we will confuse, alienate and infuriate the people we want to work with.

Answer this: as role-models here (or wherever you are), what kind of example do we set if we make simple words unnecessarily complicated? How exactly does this encourage transparency and inclusiveness? What kind of legacy does this leave?

One of the things I’ve noticed as a manager, and as a sometime student of languages and philosophy, is that stupid, lazy or dishonest people are high users of jargon, acronyms and complex language.

On the other hand, smart, rigourous and frank colleagues speak clearly, concisely and almost never use jargon or acronyms. Which category would you like to be in?

Have a look at your language in the next thing you write, or listen to the words you use when next talking about work. Did you use clear, concise language at all times? Or did you resort to using acronyms? – and if so, did they make things more or less clear?

I hope you are now enthused to join my Campaign to Limit Excessive Acronym Reliance.

Just please don’t complicate things by calling it CLEAR.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A New Flagpole!



Whilst maternal mortality is important, and the trial of Comrade Duch stirs memories locally, what is really important in my hospital this week is... a new flagpole!

With all the important issues even within the hospital - an outbreak of Dengue, drug shortages, poor facilities - I confess that I was slightly bemused that erecting a new flagpole, and spending the day celebrating it, was the top priority.

But maybe that just shows how little I still understand about Khmer culture. Cambodian people take their ceremonies very seriously, and something as mundane to me as a new wall or restored pole are major events here.

And perhaps that’s fair enough – it’s good to mark even small improvements, and the staff don’t get much to celebrate. At a stretch I can even believe that seemingly cosmetic improvements could not only improve staff morale and pride in their workplace, but might encourage people to access services here. Who knows, maybe having a shiny new flagpole is a major factor in influencing women with pre-eclampsia to come here for early treatment?

Friday had be chosen as the day to raise the new pole – apparently Fridays are good for new projects, just as Mondays are lucky for important meetings and Tuesdays are to be avoided for most things. I’m not sure if this is a Buddhist thing or a local tradition – I suspect Friday may also be chosen as it’s a handy day to start the weekend early by sitting round and getting pissed all afternoon.

Anyway, from the early hours there was growing excitement around the half-erected pole, with paint lovingly applied, rivets tightened and the flag tenderly folded and re-folded.

Then the climax. Of course I nearly missed it – I had retreated to my office for an hour or so, and whilst everyone else instinctively knew when the time had come, I was oblivious (how did everyone else know?).

So up it went, everyone with a hand on the pole for added luck. But panyaha! (problem).

Half way up it slowly dawned that the pole wouldn’t clear the electricity cable. Given that power is off more often than on it would have been a cruel irony to electrocute the entire hospital staff, but in a rare moment of health and safety we paused and awaited a solution.

Cambodians are great at fixing stuff, and within seconds the ambulance driver arrived with his great long stick and managed to create enough clearance for the flagpole to be raised – hurrah!

So that was it. Or so I foolishly thought, but actually that was just the start.

A pigs head had been cut off, such was the happiness of this day, so we all had to set about eating it. Sensing my nausia, the kind director ordered for some eggs to be brought for the poor queezy white man – phew! I cracked them open, wishing only for some mayo and a sprinking of paprika to make my day.

Horror! These were the ‘wrong kind of eggs’ – the poor cook had assumed that as this was a special occasion I would require special eggs – the ones with a half-grown chicken foetus inside. I know I should not have shown my disgust, but well – it was bloody revolting! Luckily the chap next to me was only too pleased to help out.

I couldn't avoid the drinking though - Bayon beer flowed, and as the honoured foreigner I was even given a cup, which was regularly chinked, as far as you can chink a plastic cup (at which point you have to chink everyone else and then drink). The cupless locals made cunning adaptations to their cans to allow ice to be inserted.

A top tip: always keep your glass completely full with cubes – this keeps beer cold, increases the ratio of water to cheap lager that you actually have to drink, and most importantly deters kind-intentioned friends from topping you up with ice (using their unwashed hands). So maybe I am getting to grips with the culture a little after all.

By noon the party was going strong, and despite attempts at evasion I was getting heady, so made a break for home. I figured I could have lunch, a quick nap, and at least get some work done in the afternoon. Another miscalculation – it was only then when the party really got started, with the addition of Khmer music DVDs on full blast, and the presence of the electrician from the next village – clearly a reason to party even harder (and the one time when there was no power cut).

So the patients moaned quietly, we sang loudly, and a pretty new flag fluttered proudly over the hospital. Cheers!