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.