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
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
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
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.