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.