Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Should I be happy?

In my village…

Should I be happy that the kid with Down’s syndrome is not abused and joins other children’s games, even though these involve shouting waddisyouname at the village foreigner, who is now the most abused member of the village?

Should I be happy the music stopped, even though it just allows a clearer soundtrack of the howling hounds, crowing cockerels, pining pigs and hacking humans?

Should I be happy that “the worst national road in Cambodia” which links my village with the nearest town will be upgraded “in 2 years”, even though nobody can agree when the “2 years” starts (and it was “2 years” 2 years ago)?

Should I be happy to discover that the old tyre by the shack opposite is not rubbish but actually signifies it's a cycle repair shop, even though for the last year I’ve pushed my bike miles in the blazing heat to the only shop with a proper sign?

Should I be happy that I can leave my front door open without fear of thieves, even though it’s probably because I've nothing worth nicking?

Should I be happy that I have been accepted into the community, even if I know by being borderline assaulted by ‘friendly’ neck sniffing, hand-squeezing, ear-nibbling and buttock-fondling in a maelstrom of mandatory man-love?

In my hospital…

Should I be happy kids love the new playground we built by the children’s ward, even though I know by the volume of sweetie-wrappers strewn by the swings?

Should I be happy some staff came to the hospital this afternoon, even though they were so drunk they slept in the hammock whilst watching boxing on tv?

Should I be happy the toilets in the new children’s ward are so clean, even though it’s because they are always locked?

Should I be happy my nursing colleague Alison has a great new job in Phnom Penh, even though she’ll no longer be here in Thmar Puok to work with me?

Should I be happy contraception is clearly being used, even if the bins aren’t…?

Should I be happy villagers are combatting dengue fever, even if their efforts consist of building stuffed scarecrows to scare the evil sprits?

In my life...

Should I be happy the police agree I’ve been a model citizen for two years, even though to prove it I’ll have to break the anti-corruption law by bribing them for a certificate?

Should I be happy I have a gorgeous girlfriend right here in Cambodia, even though I only see her a couple of times a month as she lives more than a day’s journey away on the border with Laos?

Should I be happy I can now access the balance of my Travelex cash passport card on line, even though it shows me the thieving bastards are slyly deducting $4 a month from me for ‘inactivity’ in a country where they forgot to tell me none of the banks accept their crappy card?

Should I be happy I’ve got a sensible, secure, well-paid job back in the UK, even though I want to stay a crazy, footloose volunteer for ever?

In conclusion…

Should I be happy?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Nation, Religion, King

Three words are emblazoned on the top of every official document, the defining words for Cambodia: Nation, Religion, King. How different from Britain!

Cambodians seem clear about their national identity. Sandwiched between the giants of Vietnam and Thailand (both with more people and land than the UK), and overshadowed by the might of China, Cambodia appears small, poor and under-populated. But the Khmers have a long and proud history, and won’t let anyone forget it!

Yet healthy national identity can spill into ugly nationalism. Pol Pot established the khmer rouge in Vietnam, but then demonized and murdered anyone linked to that country. Vietnam then ‘liberated’ Cambodia, but many feel outstayed their welcome during the 1980s. Many ethnic Khmers live in the Mekong delta, even though it has been Vietnamese for years, and border disputes drove the main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, into exile in France. Similarly, trade with Thailand is crucial, prices in my village are quoted in baat, and many poor Cambodians cross the border to work. Most of my neighbours lived in Thai refugee camps, and retain close links. And yet, with elections looming, Cambodian troops are facing off with Thai soldiers not far from my village.

For Brits, nation is a particularly challenging concept, as many of us can’t decide where we’re from. Glancing at my passport I see a European Union standard, which later blurts ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Is that British? Here in Cambodia I can’t say I’m British – I don’t think the word even exists in Khmer. I’m generally referred to as a barraing, which actually means French. I spent nearly all my adult life in Scotland. But I say I’m English – it’s easier in Khmer, probably more accurate, and occasionally draws comparisons with David Beckham, for which I’d happily sell both my soul and my visa.

Perhaps our confused nationality makes us suspicious of nationalism. Wrap yourself in the union jack and you’re clearly a fascist nutcase. It’s hard for me to accept that other countries have a normal, healthy relationship with their flag. In Cambodia there is bunting everywhere, proudly boasting the state symbol, the world’s largest religious monument: Angkor Wat. (Do you know any other country with any building, particularly a religious monument, on its national flag?).

And so to Religion which, like nation, holds a key place in Cambodian identity. Nearly everyone here calls themselves buddhist. There are a few muslims, despite the genocidal attempts of the Khmer Rouge, and a small number of christian converts overseeing a scattering of empty wooden churches.

Buddhism here seems to be more of a loose framework than an active belief system. Co-operation and non-violence provide a basic ethical framework, but it’s kind of flexible. The sanctity of life, for example, is a key cornerstone of buddhism. So how does that fit with the unimaginable killing and cruelty which Cambodians inflicted on fellow countrymen here within our lifetime? Even now soldiers are easily sacrificed in a petty border scuffle (ironically over a buddhist temple), and Cambodia’s unregulated roads and inadequate hospitals produce daily carnage - not to mention a convenient blind eye to the fact that buddhists are not meant to kill animals. Perhaps life is cheap in all poor countries?

But whilst religion as a moral guide is loosely interpreted here, it does play an important role in defining holidays, celebrating rites of passage, educating some young boys and providing a form of social safety net. Yet can it really be the best use of scarce resources to build sparkling temples and feed chanting monks, even whilst ordinary folk live in wooden shacks and barely afford rice?

For British people there is again an interesting comparison. Christianity in my home country is similarly light-touch, celebrated more in the breach than the observance. No surprise that the 2011 Social Attitudes Survey confirmed that for the first time a majority (51%) of Britons are not religious. We still have Sundays off, not for church but because we all need a day of rest. We celebrate the birth of Santa at Christmas and pray for chocolate at Easter. The Queen is head of the established Church of England, Defender of the Faith.

And so to monarchy, the third of the trinity. Vietnam, Laos and China to the east and north, ditched their hereditary emperors years ago, but Cambodia is still officially a monarchy. Thankfully the approach is very different to Thailand to the west, which has one of the last remaining god-kings and where lèse-majesté laws promise long bookings in the Bangkok Hilton.

Here in Cambodia the royal family have clung on despite their chequered history, including striking a deal with the Khmer Rouge whilst thousands of subjects died in the killing fields. They have settled into a relatively harmless, ceremonial role: the King pops out from his pretty palace now and then to sign off laws, whilst strongman prime minister Hun Sen wields all the power.

It’s a nice, rather British compromise. It hard to justify a system where ordinary people can’t be elected as head of their state, but does it matter? The British monarch, like her Cambodian cousin, has no real power, and the royals are slowly withering, despite the popularity of Will and Kate’s wedding day off.

Nation, Religion, King – would it be out of place at the top of an official UK document? We'd take it with a pinch of salt and a sprinkling of healthy scepticism. In Cambodia too the concepts are nicely diluted, strong beer but with plenty of ice. How else would I feel so comfortable here - despite being an internationalist, atheist, republican?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Life In The Day

06.00 Most people hate being woken by their alarm, but I love it – it’s proof of an unusually good sleep. More often I’ve already been awake a hour or so, thanks to crowing cocks, howling hounds, chugging tractors or percussive pagodas.

06.15 The bread man motos past my house announcing his delicious fresh baguettes. Always when I’m in the shower.

06.30 Breakfast on my balcony as the sun rises. It doesn’t get much better than this. It’s cool, and I have a grandstand view as the village comes to life. Women cycle their goods to market, immaculately-uniformed kids drift to school, monks glide along in line to beg for food.

07.15 I must have the best commute in the world. The village wise-man opposite breaks from telling fortunes or chalking Sanskrit on his wooden walls, to greet me with a friendly ''good morning doctor!". I’ve given up trying to correct him, but one day my cover may be blown. Then it’s an idyllic stroll past stilted houses and over the temple island, admiring the lilies as they come to life in the gentle sunshine.

07.30 My volunteer assistant Sokpha will already be at the hospital. It feels early, but he has already chopped wood, taught English, eaten rice and got all the latest news before I even arrive.

08.00 Hospital meeting. The timing is approximate. I now know the starting time is when the Director arrives. But I’ve no idea when this will be – other staff just seem to sense it. At the meeting, daily figures are mumbled and flip-flops examined. Staff are bereted for not being at work, not accounting for drugs, not caring for the politician’s daughter. And I find out exactly how much of my ‘personal’ life has been observed and commented on – invariably all of it.

09.00 Ward rounds. I like to speak to staff and patients, and observe what is going on in the hospital. I was delighted to hear patients and carers value my input – though I suspect they are reassured as much by my presence as a white man as for my knowledge of hospital management techniques.

10.00 Office. If we have electricity we’re in business. If we also have an internet connection we prioritise Facebook, er I mean important work emails. Actually the first thing to check these days is an update on the skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian soldiers – the border is only 15kms away.

11.00. Before I know it Sokpha is off to eat rice, and I’ll follow shortly. Everything stops at 11.00 – you wouldn’t stand between a bear and its cub, and don’t even think of asking a Cambodian to work at rice-eating time.

11.30. Stroll home over temple island, and straight to the market for the day’s Khmer practice and hopefully purchases of pumpkin, onions, carrots and leafy greens. Plus, at this time of year heaps of ripe mangos – bliss!

12.15 Quick cooling shower, then I cook my favourite lunch – noodles with the veg I bought, plus cashews and a dash of enlivening chili. Followed by a nice cuppa tea and a biscuit, and maybe even a little snooze in my hammock – everyone should do this after lunch, everyone!

13.15 Wake and quickly prepare for the afternoon. Chat with landlord / cleaning lady / passing dog about the rice harvest / where I’m going / why I’m still not married.

14.00 Meet back at the hospital, and hope some staff appear. There may be meetings to attend, visitors to greet, staff to be encouraged. Or if it’s a quieter day I can sneak to the office to make phone calls, write documents or catch up on emails. Present projects include improving quality in the paediatric and obstetric wards following the hospital assessment, focusing on infection control, overseeing the building of the new surgical unit, and trying to establish a hospital vegetable garden as a sustainable way of improving patient nutrition.

16.00 If I need to speak to anyone in the late afternoon they won’t be mopping patient brows, but may still be on the ward (as that’s where the tvs are - bought to allow the playing of health education DVDs - aye right!). More likely staff will be practicing communication skills under the tamarind tree. Or role-modeling healthy active lifestyles on the volleyball court.

17.00 The day is ending already and Sokpha is away to his family. Unless I’ve been persuaded to play football or it’s the day of my Khmer lesson, I’ll stay a little later. However, either the electricity or any internet cuts by 6pm. This is good, as it’s getting late, and a lone foreigner after dark is fair game for the village hounds. It’s time to go home.

18.30 Another cooling shower, then cooking. Present favourites are pumpkin curry in coconut, with brown rice and a squeeze of lime; or corn fritters, with cucumber and either rice or couscous – chennang nah! (=mmmm!).

20.00 Therapy. I’ll want to speak to Katja, so far away in Stung Treng, which depending on the day’s events may be a quick chat or a lengthy session. And if my colleague Alison isn’t on one of her visits up here then we may compare notes by phone – did we share any skills / change any lives today? She is a master at reminding me that this is a marathon not a sprint, and that even small steps should be celebrated.

21.00 All the athletics metaphors remind me I need an early night if I’m going to run the next morning. I may sneak in a little reading or DVD from the wonderful library at VSO's Programme Office – there’s not much of a village social life, so these are a life saver! And I have been known to write the odd thing too…

22.00 Good night! I crawl in under my mozzie net, snuggle with Gwendaline the (stuffed) Gecko, and pray that the thumping wedding music will soon subside…

Where did the day go?

Friday, March 11, 2011

In praise of… the BBC

Britain once led the world (albeit by raping and pillaging jonny foreigner), but things have changed. Our only empire now is a virtual, media one. Brittainia now rules, at best, the airwaves.

These days the only place the sun never sets is the Beckham’s Los Angeles villa. Fortunately, Britain’s place in the world still goes beyond a couple of beautiful if slightly aging entertainers. One grand old institution of which the country should be rightly proud is the British Broadcasting Corporation - the brilliant, believeable, consistent BBC.

When I arrived in my rural Cambodian village I knew there would be no newspapers, television or internet café. Unphased, I banked on hearing the incomparable World Service on my neat Roberts radio, purchased specifically for the task.

I was disappointed - in my remote (and clearly strategically unimportant) village, getting even the faintest reception involves holding the ariel in a style and with a stillness only a meditating monk could sustain.

This was a blow: in a previous placement the World Service was a trusty companion, and I crave my daily news fix. I may even have tuned in to Test Match Special to witness the rare moment of England retaining the Ashes (though I gather the crucial winning moments were interrupted for that most British of broadcasts, The Shipping Forecast!).

I confess I even tried tuning to Voice of America, and was secretly relieved I couldn’t get that either.

Fortunately the BBC is not just on radios anymore! Whenever I get to an internet connection, my priority is to download radio podcasts. There are telly ones too, but strangely they haven't sorted the licensing for overseas access. This is my only criticism of the beeb - in such hard economic times, surely this is a colossal missed revenue stream.

But this must not detract from the podcasts - what an absolute joy! The quality of these programmes is unsurpassed, and (rightly or wrongly, and in a very un-English way) make me just a little proud to be British.

My menu starts with highlights from the Today programme, which I trust to deliver stories accurately, prioritise news sensibly, and rough-up politicians enjoyably. Kirsty Young’s dulcet tones alone attract me to Desert Island Discs, but I also love the choice of music, the range of interviewees, and the fascinating insights she uncovers. Perhaps I also feel a kinship with the guests, castaway as I am in this small remote village. Thinking Aloud you may not know – it’s new to me, themed around recent research, and even convinced me there may be a use for academics after all.

But the jewel in the crown is From Our Own Correspondent. What an absolute gem! Usually news journalists, here BBC correspondents across the world are allowed more time - about 3 minutes rather than the usual sub-minute news item. They also enjoy greater range, talking about anything, not just news - some of the most engaging pieces are simple insights into life in other countries. Crucially, personal perspectives are positively encouraged, and many are deeply moving. Journalists have a bad name, so I urge you to witness that the BBC’s foreign correspondents are highly talented writers and broadcasters.

Perhaps the greatest compliment is that when disaster struck - in this case, when I first heard rumours of a tragic bridge stampede in Phnom Penh - my instinct was to turn to the BBC. Interestingly this was on the web, probably the main media for news now, and is great. Basically, I trusted them more than anyone to tell me what was going on. Some regard the BBC as a state-controlled mouthpiece, but I believe they have as much integrity and objectivity as any broadcaster, and I always go to them first.

I accept that Britain left various legacies throughout the world, not always positive. But one thing for which we can continue to be extremely proud is the incomparable BBC.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Beautiful Game?

How many countries can you name where football is not the national sport?

Ok, this is the best I could come up with. In the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent cricket may shade it. Canadians and some easten Europeans do handbags at (ice) hockey. Aussies and Americans have odd-shaped balls.

(A friendly note to our errant Atlantic cousins – proper games like sorker don’t require body armour, don’t score in the hundreds, and don’t flatter themselves with a ‘World Series’ when no-one else plays it).

And that’s about it - did I miss anyone? So throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and Central and South America football reigns supreme.

But hang on! Sadly there is one more place which seems to have escaped from the universal appreciation of the beautiful game. And, just my luck, it’s right here, in wonderful, perplexing, unfathomable Cambodia.

In almost every way I love Cambodia. The people are amazing (especially considering what they’ve had to go through recently), the countryside is often stunning, the temples unrivalled. But for some reason this is one of the very few places I’ve been where football is yet to take off. The one thing I miss more than anything here is a decent game of five-a-side of a Sunday evening, followed by world-righting with the lads over a cool pint of Star.

It doesn’t help that our Asian neighbours are mad about footy. The Chinese go bonkers for the Premiership. The Thais and Vietnamese can’t get enough of it, not only for gambling. The Japanese and Koreans also caught the bug after their 2002 World Cup.

So why not Cambodia?

One reason might be - I hardly dare to say it - that ‘it’s only a game’. Perhaps the average Khmer has had more important things to ponder than one-twos and sliding tackles? But actually Cambodians love to play - it’s just that, inexplicably, volleyball, kick-boxing, cockfighting and flip-flop pétanque all seem to be more appreciated than the beautiful game.

Another reason might be the facilities. Football is the only true world sport partly as it is so simple and intuitive - all you need is a round thing and you’re off. But actually you do need something else: a flat piece of land. Surely no problem in Cambodia, the Holland of the east? Well it is actually – the clay soil here dries in uneven clumps and it’s actually very hard to find a properly level bit of ground. Not such an issue for volleyball, fighting cocks etc.

But finally, after over a year here, I’ve found a few guys who like a kick-around after work. Not that they make it easy…

The first test is to know when there’s a game on – and where. The fixture list is efficiently communicated by bush telegraph. In other words everyone else knows, but I don’t have a clue where or when, and it’s just chance if I either spot a game or someone calls me.

Then there’s the pitch. The school fields are particularly awful – if you fall you roll in piles of litter, remains of old foundations bash your toes, deep and sudden dips threaten your ankles, and if you’re not careful you’ll hit your head - there are several trees in the middle of the pitch. Plus, come rainy season a sub takes on a whole different meaning. The front yard of the governor’s building is slightly better, though if you sky your shot the ball hits the pond – and I’ve a nasty feeling it is a Khmer Rouge mass grave. See what I mean about having more important things to deal with?

Another challenge is the playing style. It can be seriously frustrating, as once players get the ball they look to dribble not pass, like we did as kids - to be harsh, it’s greedy and undisciplined. And rather than the delicate balance of fair play and controlled aggression I’m used to, here I get a free-for-all accompanied by whoops and girly squeals. Don’t try that in Glasgow. On the good side these guys are agile, skillful and manage to run about for hours in the ridiculous heat. And it took me a while to notice they usually play barefoot - respect.

And there are still moments of magic. The wonderful thing about football is that at its best it transcends all cultures. The young lad with Ronaldo felt-tipped onto his plain white t-shirt is pretty handy, and when we exchange a one-two and he squares back for me to slot home it’s like old times – we don’t need to be able to speak each others’ languages, we’ve let the ball do the talking.

Perhaps even here, in this strange land so far from home, football is the beautiful game.