Monday, April 19, 2010

Happy New Year!

This is the most important week of the year in Cambodia - the start of the khmer new year. So Happy New Year! Good luck for you!

Being Cambodia, this occasion calls for a few days holiday. Preceded of course by some time to prepare. And followed by at least a week to recover.

Just in case you don’t take the hint, next week there are also official holidays for Labour Day and then Royal Ploughing Day. The point, I take it, is that the country pretty much shuts down this month - April is for festival, not work.

Unable to beat them, I decided to stay in my village and join in the celebrations.

Whilst I tried to go into the whole thing with an open mind, I feared it wouldn’t be long before the dreaded super-woofer speakers appeared. What I didn’t bargain on was that the party would be directly under my room – or that it would go on for two days solid. Fortunately (for me, maybe not her) Katja came to spend the week and was on hand to soothe my frayed nerves. And in fairness there was much to enjoy.

On New Year’s Eve we had a lovely wander around Thmar Pouk village. It was really good to see things through new eyes. The same place I might dismiss as a coarse, unsophisticated, dusty and featureless backwater was to her to a charming, simple, green and fascinating microcosm of Cambodian life. And looking at the photographs of our stroll in the soft, late-afternoon sunlight, I have to confess that her description seems much more accurate than mine.

A lie-in on New Year’s Day was out of the question – the thumping beats put paid to that, as did our neighbour’s decision to slaughter their pig (too cruel anytime, but the terrified pig’s cries were horribly human-sounding). So we decided to brave the heat and follow the line of tractors down to the village pagoda. It was a good old celebration, with fun and games enjoyed by all, and young and old dressed up in their special outfits. Black jeans / jackets, cowboy hats and shades, or bright yellow or red tartan shirts are clearly all the rage here just now. I may need to review my wardrobe.

A notice at the front of the wat instructed revellers to refrain from drinking, gambling or throwing powder or water. Just behind the notice was a row of beer stands, and beside was an area reserved for playing dice. Children as well as adults were active in the gaming, though many also ran up to the main wat building to chuck talc at each other. For those who actually wanted to do something within the rules there was praying for the pious and music (to a slow, swaying dance) for the masses.

The kids were having a great time, hurling water-bombs at each other and smearing talcum powder on faces, whilst the older ones drank beer and gently gyrated. When your most important festival is in temperatures of over forty degrees, focusing activities on cooling water / powder or iced beer / minimum activity dancing actually makes a lot of sense.

I also suspect that, as with festivals everywhere, the celebrations were an opportunity to break out of the usual social restrictions – throwing water was a good excuse for boys to chase after their squealing beauty of choice, powder was liberally rubbed onto faces in a country where such contact is usually taboo, and girls were allowed to get drunk when normally this would be seriously frowned upon.

To get some peace and quiet, we decided the next day to visit the pre-Ankorian temples of Banteay Chmar and Banteay Top, just a few kilometres moto ride from the village. Much smaller than Angkor, sadly they were also far more damaged during and after the Khmer Rouge era. However, it was still humbling in its sophistication and artistry, given that it dates back over 800 years. Restoration work is underway, but is at an early stage, and there are still many examples of the power of nature as trees encompass and eventually demolish even the great stone boulders.

Banteay Chmar was great, though it turned out not to be such an inspired getaway spot – usually practically deserted, it was the centre of local festivities and a hotbed of powder smearing – but we took it in good spirits, and the kids were delighted to be able to daub the barraing westerners whilst having a good grope of our funny white skin. The smaller temple site at nearby Banteay Top was, in contrast, almost deserted, and allowed for some quiet reflection of the glories of the ancient Khmer civilisation without some of the more recent, arguably less civilised interferences.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

You know you’ve been in Cambodia for 6 months when…

Half a year already – here’s how you know:

  • • By 6am you’re wide awake; lunchtime is for napping; 8pm is a late night

  • • Your morning coffee is cold, sweet and drunk from a plastic bag; your afternoon fruit shake comes with milk, sugar and raw egg; your evening beer is liberally watered down with ice

  • • Food means rice; eating needs a spoon and fork, polished rigourously before use; afters means picking your teeth with a wooden stick and chucking leftovers on the floor

  • Rats, spiders and dogs are just as delicious as pigs, cows, chickens; if you’re lucky your hard-boiled egg come with a bonus foetus; if you’re really lucky you get to eat juicy maggots

  • You know it’s worth it as the pineapples are awesome, the coconuts delicious, the mangos divine

  • Electricity is a blessing; water, cold from the fridge, is bliss; internet is miraculous

  • You use 2 wheels not 4, you treat stop lights as mere suggestions, you worship roadbuilders

  • People are by nature friendly - you ask strangers where to find the best mangos, you tell strangers where you’re going, you are no longer scared when a stranger smiles at you

  • People are by nature nosey - you stare at cars, you stare at anyone you don’t recognise, you especially stare if any funny white people come through your village

  • You bow not shake, perch happily on hard wooden chairs for hours, and can almost squat with your bum touching the floor

  • Weather is degrees of heat; sweating is like breathing; your blankets and bed-socks are not strictly necessary

  • Commuting is a stroll across the temple island, pausing to eat some chilli-dipped mango, or to ask how your neighbour slept

  • Gheckos are ignored; your kitchen cockroaches have pet names (as does Sammy the scorpion); a snake in the office is an afternoon’s light entertainment

  • Money means tens of thousands of riel; credit cards are pointless; coins seem strange and exotic

  • Showering from a bucket makes sense; peeing in the street is unsurprising; popping a high pressure hose to your bottom is perfectly rational

  • Bribery is normal; police taking money from drivers is just a toll system; free healthcare or education are ideas from another world

  • Stuff chucked on the floor provokes a shrug; piles of burning rubbish are a morning tradition; litter bins and dustmen are a distant dream

  • You get irritated when anyone criticises Cambodia – whilst continuing to moan about all aspects of it whenever you reach the safety of Siem Reap

  • You can write a blog about how you know you’ve been in Cambodia for 6 months without even thinking of spicy street food (that’s Thailand), peasants in pointy hats (that’s Vietnam), picture words which read from the right (that’s China), or indeed noisy, polluted, uncivilized, dangerous cities - guess that’ll be back home then?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Moral Dilemma 2: Do volunteers do any good?

"Sharing Skills, Changing Lives” – that’s what I’m here for, and VSO’s strapline certainly had me hooked. For a liberal do-gooder like me, it’s an attractive prospect: I get to go to a poor country and do something useful for once.

This opportunity came at just the right time for me, when I was looking for meaning and adventure – a mid-life crisis if you must (I quibble more with the ‘mid-life’ than the ‘crisis’!).

It also suited me professionally, as I’d been planning for a while to move on from my rich, popular and stress-free career as a hospital manager in pursuit of, well, something else. Voluntary sector promised similarly passionate colleagues working for a shared cause, hopefully somewhere where our efforts show quick and visible results.

So all looked great. And it got better - VSO had already set up a work placement, the host having specifically requested someone with my particular skills and experience. What’s more I get all sorts of generous support from VSO - development and cultural awareness training, payment of flights and accommodation, language training, health insurance, you name it – plus a great bunch of other volunteers for peer support.

But after nearly 6 months in Cambodia, I still have a nagging, undramatic but rather fundamental doubt – I can’t help asking myself: am I actually doing any good here?

It’s a real dilemma. I’ve worked in the NHS long enough that I reckon I can wander into a hospital and pretty quickly know how well it’s working and what needs to improve. I’m also confident that I can build good relationships with staff and work with them to make real improvements. So I just need to get working, yes?

Asking around volunteers here in Cambodia, some certainly have got stuck into their posts with gusto, busying themselves with training staff, writing plans, raising funds – doing stuff.
And on the face of it many are getting good results – their hosts seem happy that their volunteer has produced something tangible so soon, possibly filling gaping holes in their organisation. And it’s great for the volunteer, as they can quickly feel they are useful, that they are making a contribution.

But is this actually the point? It might feel good in the short term, but isn’t there is a real risk that if we get stuck in early like this we may get some short-term kicks at the expense of creating a longer-term dependency culture? Could this approach even be seen as selfish, giving the volunteers some early satisfaction but not actually contributing anything sustainable to the county? Kind of like getting our quick white rice sugar-rush without the longer-term slow-release energy of the less glamorous husk.

The alternative, paradoxically, may be to hold back, observe, assess, build relationships, learn – but not do.

There is logic here – the whole idea is that the contribution of volunteers is sustainable – once we leave, local people will be able to manage without us, benefitting from the skills we shared and able to improve people’s lives without western do-gooders like me.

But you know, sitting back and doing nothing is really hard! As I talk with the hospital director I’m dying to investigate why, if we referred 20 patients to the bigger hospital down the road last month, their records show only 16 arrived? I’d love to know why staff don’t appear for work in the afternoons. And I’m incensed that some apparently ask for bribes or steal drugs and equipment to sell outside (though maybe they wouldn’t be like this if we could find a way to pay them more than the present $1 a day).

More immediately, as we walk through the slightly shabby buildings at Thmar Pouk I’m positively itching to harangue the ward staff to improve the care and facilities to patients. Why are hands and floors unwashed? Should the fans be turned off whilst patients sweat profusely? Is it appropriate to use drip stands to dry fish?

But much as I’d love to throw what's left of my weight about a bit, my job here isn’t so much to fix these things short term, as much as to help staff here have the knowledge and confidence (call it ‘building management capacity’ if you must) so that they ask the questions and notice the problems, and they initiate solutions. This will then continue long after I’ve left for my lucrative new career running a donkey sanctuary in Darfur or an eco lodge in Equador.

So after 5 and a bit months I’m not sure I’ve done much sharing of skills or changing of lives – yet. However, despite my frustration, I’m going to continue following the advice of the incomparable Rob, a nursing colleague from my management training days, who even at that stage had clearly already seen one too many half-baked NHS-restructurings:

Oly, to begin with it’s best to do the really hard thing: ‘don’t just do something, sit there’.