Thursday, April 28, 2011

O Brother

When me and my big brother squabbled as kids we poked and jibed and wound each other up. Sometimes one would overstep the mark (me) and patience would finally snap (his). Occasionally one would get a bloody nose (me) and one would have a indignant tantrum to make up for it (me again).

But even as kids we understood it was all a bit silly, not worth fighting for. In fact most of the time I doubt we could remember what started it (though clearly it was always him). At some level we knew we didn’t really hate each other, that the bonds between us were way stronger than any passing dispute.

The squabbles on the Thai - Cambodian border, now uncomfortably near my home, may seem similarly petty, at least to an outside observer. I live just on the Cambodian side, so I’m still in the smaller simpling’s corner, puffing out my little chest and bigging up my Khmer Rouge battle-hardiness, even though everyone says my Thai brother is way stronger and better equipped than me (like having an airforce for example).

A Cambodian friend suggested Thailand is like a big bully who is better at everything than its little upstart sibling (richer, more developed, longer coastline, more Tesco supermarkets, more kickboxing medals, you name it).

But not quite everything. The one thing it doesn’t have is a proper big temple. Which then becomes the only thing it really wants! Thus, despite its embarrassment of riches, the giant to the west will never be happy until it has the one thing it can’t have – Angkor Wat. Far-fetched? Maybe, though it was part of Thailand as recently at 1904. And why else would there be a large scale model of it in the royal palace – in Bangkok?

Religion - or places of worship at least - certainly has some part in this. The recent skirmishes are ostensibly about ownership of buddhist temples which line the northern border.

That’s right, buddhist. You know the one, the gentle fat bloke who said killing anything was wrong and that we should all live in peace and harmony to achieve nirvana. I doubt he’d be impressed by his followers on both sides killing each other to own places built to worship him.

Which suggests it’s not just about temples – they’ve been there for hundreds of years, and are not going anywhere fast. Unless, that is, we adopt my translator’s whimsical but rather astute solution: let’s demolish all the temples on the border and divide the bricks evenly. Unthinkable - but think about it: are these stones really worth the lives of the dozen soldiers already killed this week, not to mention scores of wounded and hundreds of families forced from their homes? Don’t you think the peace-loving Buddha would approve?

Sadly, at the time of writing the conflict continues, with more people killed and injured every day. Recent fighting has spread west from the disputed temple at Preah Vihear to other temples much nearer to my home.

At first I wasn’t too concerned. There were flair-ups earlier and in previous years, and they seemed to be contained and to die down.

But despite my cool fa├žade, I’m now a bit nervous. Yesterday I realized that the unusual thunder in the night was actually rocket-propelled grenades. And the more I listened to the rumours – about poisen gas, air-raids, Vietnnamese troops, you name it – the more I was unsettled. I doubt much of it is true, but it’s all people talk about all day, and the tension of being near conflict is real.

I have no idea how people manage to live their whole lives in real warzones. Painful as it is to admit it, even this relatively minor and distant fighting has at some level broken the spell of this charming, peaceful place, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite as contented here again.

Most of the time it’s ok though. There’s nothing really to see - a few richer families are leaving, and others are digging bunkers - but mainly life goes on as always.

The main battle here is against the rising heat and humidity. The village has no mains power, and the aging generators rarely worked this week: so no computer to see the latest fighting, but more pressingly no fans or fridges.

Perhaps we should just blame the heat - and the powercuts - on our sneeky Thai brethren. After all, they poison our food, flood our land, inflate our gas prices, steal our women… I know, because I heard it from the men over rice-wine last night.

And perhaps that’s what this is really about: politics. Specifically the most cynical, despicable stoking of nationalist sentiment among largely uneducated populations, aided by state-controlled media, to win votes and cling to power at forthcoming elections. Is that what the fighting’s for?

Whether it's nationalism or religion fuelling this conflict, one thing is clear: the border, the land, the temples, none of them is worth the blood of one soldier, the land of one farmer, the school of one child.

So as I settle down to another less than restful night, I’m hoping those with the power to do so stop this stupid, destructive, pointless conflict.

Let me get back to fighting the heat and the creepy crawlies. Let us resume our battle with the real enemies of illness, illiteracy, poverty. And let us all return to living with and loving each other as brothers.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What’s love got to do with it?

I never thought I would write an article about food. But now I think about it every day!

I don’t want to lecture or sound like someone who knows it all. I just want to share my thoughts with you, and perhaps it will trigger something in you that will affect you for life.

When my sister gave up meat I remember making fun of her. When she was grumpy I said it was because she needed bratwurst! Now I feel ashamed of what I said, especially when I hear similarly ill-informed comments made by my family and even some of my friends.

Today I celebrate having been veggie for a year. This is largely thanks to Oly, who quit eating meat and fish as a rebellious teenager, and who finally helped me to do what I always wanted but didn’t know how.

So why have I chosen to quit eating meat and fish? You know why: for love!

Firstly, I love animals. I love the calm cows, the pink pigs, the fast chickens, the beautiful creatures who live in the Mekong and the sea. And I don’t kill things I love (or get someone else to kill them for me). And I try really hard not to cause pain to those I love and not causing pain is the biggest issue for me. Do those pig screams when they are slaughtered not make you feel something? We live in a Buddhist country, so we should be familiar with respect for animals, and I wish even more people would put such precious beliefs into practice (including the restaurant which just opened in front of my house, where they tether a young cow to a stake each morning, later to kill and roast him on a spit by the road – it breaks my heart every day).

Secondly, I love my life, and I feel far healthier as a veggie. As a health worker I am now very aware of the growing body of evidence connecting diet to health. Human beings don’t need to eat meat or fish. I am very happy to be avoiding meat, with its links to heart disease and cancers of the bowel and stomach. Interestingly, even the most recent issue of Medinews from MEDICAM Cambodia reported that meat and fish are linked to bowel disease. I am also pleased to have a lower risk of food poisoning and worms, improved digestion, and better breath! And I am delighted to be eating more healthy food, tasty tofu and nuts. I am now much more food-aware, and enjoy buying, sometimes cooking and eating delicious dishes. I live with a Cambodian family, and I’m thrilled to say that they started to cook and eat veggie food with me, with mouthwatering results!

Thirdly, I love the planet, and I am convinced that stopping meat-eating is the single most important thing most of us can do to reduce climate change. I understand that a veggie diet is hugely more energy efficient, a meaty one much more wasteful. I want my children to have children to have children to have children. If we don’t dramatically cut demand for meat we will destroy our future.

Over Christmas I was reading a moving and gripping book by Jonathan Safran Foer called Eating Animals. It is brilliantly written and full of great stories – but it is not fiction. If you are brave and honest enough to read it, it may well change your views and your life.

For example, do you think it is wrong to eat dogs? Foer explores this difficult issue, asking how it could be morally different from killing chickens or cows. He exposes the terrible cruelty which is inevitable in producing meat, but which most of us (me included) try to pretend doesn’t happen. And he concludes, like me, that for many many reasons the right thing to do is to go veggie.

Maybe I can compare giving up eating meat to giving up smoking. It is very hard at the beginning. The temptation to lapse back to the bad old habits, to give in to peer pressure. Sometimes people seemed almost scared to see me do the right thing in case it left them exposed. Often people want to find a reason to justify their habits, rather than having to change.

Here in Cambodia it’s actually quite easy to go veggie. There are good supplies of delicious fruit and veg, cereals and nuts, even in most rural areas. If you want to eat eggs they are everywhere, and you can often find milk or soya products like various tofu if you want.

And you won’t be alone! I have never met as many vegetarians as here in the VSO community in Cambodia. I love to go out to eat in lots of meat-free restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Riep. My friend from home also posts me trashy women’s mags and it’s reassuring to read that so many celebrities are role modeling by being veggie.

But as I say, I don’t want to preach, and I don’t have all the answers. For example, I love animals, most of all the gorgeous kittens I adopted. But cats, unlike us, can’t live happily without flesh. Yet if I feed them meat or fish, I will be part of killing another creature. It makes me sad and uncomfortable, but I don’t know what else I can do. This is an ongoing dilemma for me.

Fortunately, we humans don’t have that problem – we can choose what we do. And all of us make a choice, every day, even if we try to ignore it – either we eat meat, or we go veggie. For our love of other creatures, of ourselves, of our planet, it’s clear to me that I made the right choice. Why don’t you join me?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sharing our roads - follow the Cambodians?

Happy Khmer New Year! No ropey resolutions or blighting of Burns. In their place, bathing buddas and bolting back to your birthplace.

The water blessings I can handle - even if it's just ritual soaking of passers-by. The exodus from cities to the countryside may seem a more useful demonstration of devotion, but it is sadly also more of a problem.

Phnom Penh is the centre of the chaos as its residents return to their roots. And whilst new year is particularly bad, the chaos now just highlights underlying problems in the city's tenuous transport infrastructure.

Here’s the deal. You have a potentially beautiful city – maybe not the Paris of the east, but the riverfront view is reletively unimpeded, and narrow streets of pleasantly crumbing colonial mansions still lead to impressive tree-lined boulevards.

Then you ruin it by failing to provide any public transport. That’s right, nothing. Ot. No trains, trams or local busses here, or indeed in the entire country - can you imagine? This is not a uniquely impoverished place - in fact it is getting rapidly, visibly richer - yet can there be any capital city with such a poor travel networks? A few roads and no system, so unregulated traffic randomly clogs the streets of this potentially fine metropolis.

The problem is obvious – there is no planning, and no rules. In fact there is no law – or rather, it’s the law of the jungle, that most base, uncivilized of approaches, ‘might is right’.

To start at the bottom, Cambodians think you’re crazy if you choose to go by foot – walking is only for those too poor to travel any other way. Pedestrians have no rights, forced to choose between perilous roads, deathtrap gutters or car and moto-clogged sidewalks. Only tossers of the highest order park cars on pavements; sadly, Phnom Penh has multitudes of major culprits. Oh for some traffic wardens!

Cyclists fare little better. “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” said H. G. Wells. There is some celebrating to be done here – the flat roads are perfect for cycling and there are still plenty around. But sadly the bike also remains a sign of poverty and weakness; there are no cycle lanes, no recognition of the economic or environmental magic of the bicycle. Even the wizened cyclo drivers seem downtrodden these days, though their size and solidity moves them slightly up the hierarchy.

Motos are traffic’s middle class - across Asia motorbikes are the transport of choice. Zipping around on efficient Honda Dream ‘plastic ponies’ makes a lot of sense. Swerving at speed, cutting corners, jumping lights, riding on the wrong side, or even on the pavement - less so. Doing so wearing just shorts and flipflops, your entire family, kitchen sink and farmyard on the back, all whilst texting with one hand and holding your helmet with the other - not sensible at all.

And then come the real bullies – cars, tankers, coaches, the bigger the better. Driving skills are minimal, as tests are not passed but ’bought’ for a $20 bribe. There’s pushing in, pulling out, everything from the discourteous to the downright dangerous. Depressingly, driving a Lexus has become the pinnacle of ambition. To our shame, rather than challenge this, international NGOs actively fuel the trade with fleets of four-by-fours. (Note: one organisation bucks the trend by providing a flotilla of rickety city bikes – good on you VSO!).

Pleasingly there is one exception to the might is right principle. At the very top of the power pyramid, undisputed kings of the roads surrounding the city, are… cows! I love it – they just amble across at their leisure and undaunted by even the meanest of motors. It’s a small but sweet victory.

In fact, now I’ve had my moment of road rage, I can sense a few more positives on Cambodia’s roads. Perhaps it’s not as chaotic as it initially seems. There may be no rules, but there are ‘conventions’ - it’s just that they are different, less rigid than other cities.

In particular, Cambodians’ easygoing, adaptable and gentle approach to life is very much reflected on their roads. Traffic generally flows at a sedate pace. The odd idiot drives fast, but even your average Lexus-lout takes it easy in town. There is little urgency in Cambodian life, and happily this is usually reflected in the driving.

And Cambodian adaptability translates into a fluidity of moment on the roads. Everyone keeps moving all the time, limiting opportunities to fume in gridlock. Even traffic lights are less stressful here, with a great countdown system so you know exactly when you’ll move - definitely a lesson for other cities.

The gentleness is also important – in traffic as in life people avoid conflict. This is also pragmatic: accidents are costly, more so if police are involved. Few have insurance, so you go out of your way to avoid crashes. (There are still plenty, but due to incompetence not inhumanity).

I was recently knocked off my bike in Phnom Penh by a moto cutting the corner on the wrong side of the road. We were both fine and there was only minor damage, so we just picked up, dusted down, and set off. What a welcome contrast to many western cities where pleasant people become angry monsters on ignition of car engines, and crashes lead to fury and stress, not to mention months of wrangling and paperwork.

In fact, now I’ve got the western road rage out of my system, maybe we could even make some Khmer new year's resolutions - not only to keep in touch with our familites more, but even to learn from the Cambodian approach to sharing our roads?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Crossing the Mekong

The chocolaty Mekong oozes its way through Cambodia towards Phnom Penh, supporting riverside communities and picturesque boats. It is impressive, photogenic, even beautiful. But would you really want to bathe in it?

Daring VSO volunteers Katja, John and Adrian defied tradition, intuition (and medical wisdom) to successfully swim nearly a kilometre across the mighty, murky river.

Surprisingly, they weren’t alone in this questionable weekend pursuit. No less than 164 brave souls stripped off and plunged into the muddy depths as part of this year’s Mekong River Swim.

From the relative safety of the wobbly wooden Mekong Flower support boat, Ella and Oly were watching, wondering, and waving the VSO flag. Whatever nasties coated the swimmers, all that was on the spectators’ lips was one question: Why?

The event was too late to be an April fool. Hardy adventurers that they are, it seems the challenge of traversing one of the world’s great rivers was reason enough.

In fairness, the swim was also promoted by VolCom, as part of its ‘events’ role to bring together the volunteer community. Katja’s bright red VSO t-shirt also provided positive publicity, as well as a useful marker for the hovering rescue boats.

It was also a fun social event, mainly for the Phnom Penh ex-pat community, but with a sprinkling of local support too. And it was for a good cause – proceeds this year will help rebuild a school in Ofunato, Japan, destroyed by the recent tsunami. It is an interesting turn of events that funds are being raised in still-developing Cambodia to help one of the world’s richest countries. (There has been no confirmation of the rumour that next year proceeds will help Britain’s cash-strapped health service).

Happily all three brave volunteers made it across intact. Hopefully the chosen crossing point from Prek Leap Agricultural College was far enough upstream to avoid the worst of the city’s unregulated drainage – certainly at the time of writing their consumption of Mekong water has not been definitively linked with any subsequent hospitalizations.

Whilst the swimmers gagged and gurgled, conversation among the spectators turned to the future of the Mekong. It’s a challenge, as communities in no less than 5 countries depend on the river, as it flows from China, through Thailand and Laos into Cambodia, and finally out into the South China Sea from Vietnam.

Of particular concern are plans to build more dams upstream, which will change the river forever. Admittedly the developments could provide significant, lucrative and (crucially) clean and renewable hydro-electric power.

However, critics complain plans are being pushed through without consultation or assessment of the environmental impact. Ordinary river-dwellers are unlikely to see the benefits (reserved for government officials and foreign economies), yet will be greatly affected, being forced to change crop irrigation and their present fish-based diet.

Fortunately the organizers must be confident of the river’s future, in the short-term at least: the 16th annual Mekong River Swim is scheduled for early April 2012. Fancy a swim?