Friday, May 27, 2011

Are Cambodians Lazy?

We’ve all thought it – so why can’t we just come out and say it?

One of the main frustrations of being a volunteer in a country like Cambodia is, bluntly, getting anything done. As advisors we work with and through our Cambodian colleagues – we advise, and they are the ones who actually do things.

So we push and we prod with our westerner’s energy and enthusiasm. And they gaze at us, somewhere between amusement and bemusement… And then gently ignore our wise advice and carry on as before.

I guarantee that every volunteer has at least once boiled over with the frustration of thwarted ambition and blurted ‘they’re just so bloody lazy!’.

And who can blame us? Wander round my village and the abiding image is of people sleeping. There is a whole culture of hammock life here, from the vigourous swinging of tiny babies to the gentle sway of ancient wrinklies.

This is especially true - and particularly galling - at my hospital. Luckily there’s no shortage of beds, so staff are never far from the next nap. There’s also a handy tamarind tree, which is great for lazing round, out of earshot of groaning patients. If you really can’t sleep, there are always endless games of volleyball to keep you from slipping back to your job.

The first thing I saw in the hospital boardroom was a cleaner asleep on the table. Can you imagine that in a western country? And yesterday I had difficulty working in my office due to the volume of the snores coming from the next room!

Even some Khmer people admit it. The hospital director regularly berates staff for simply not bothering to turn up for work when they are on call. And he’s given up even expecting any staff to work in the afternoons – if you must be ill, make sure it’s mornings only!

So there’s the rant. Any mitigating circumstances?

Well yes. For one, the climate. It’s not just that heat and humidity slows you down (thought it certainly does). It’s also that it changes the day's dynamic – basically, it makes sense to avoid the heat of the day, and compress activity to the early mornings or late afternoons.

And boy are Cambodians early risers! Even before the cocks start crowing there is a buzz of activity outside my house – men chopping wood (or even building houses), women sweeping or cooking. I don’t get up until 6: that makes me the lazy one!

And it’s not just domestic chores which start early. Farmers are trundling off for the grueling work of their rice fields from 5 every morning (that’s every morning, seven days a week). The market next to me is
sold out of bananas before I even rise, and still open when I go to bed. I didn’t even know about the lady selling delicious coconut waffles until recently – because she finishes at 7am.

So not all Cambodians are lazy. But that doesn’t help us volunteers! Perhaps it is more of a problem for us as we tend to work with the worst offenders – health and education. But surely these are some of the most important of all jobs, and the most damaging if they are shirked?

True, but valuing the likes of teachers and health workers needs government leadership. The state here pays such workers around a dollar a day – can we really expect dedicated, hard working staff in return? Given this pitiful income, of course they will take other jobs in the afternoons, to make ends meet. It’s still wrong to dodge your responsibilities, and certainly to take bribes from patients or pupils, or steal equipment – but it’s easy to see why it is tempting.

Furthermore, let’s not tar everyone in schools and hospitals with the indolence brush! Tell me if this sounds lazy: yesterday my translator was up at 4am picking mushrooms and chopping wood. Around 5 he collected water from the pond, then took care of his young boys whilst his wife cooked rice porridge. At 6 he taught English to a group of children in the makeshift classroom under his wooden house. At 7 he popped into his school for a quick meeting with other teachers. And he was still in the hospital before me, as I dragged myself in bleery-eyed for the ridiculously early 7.30am start. Who could blame him if he wants rice and a snooze by 11?

Finally, even when there is a certain laziness – is that always such a bad thing?

I certainly don’t condone skiving off when you should be on call, or ignoring patients in need. But one of the best lessons I’ve learned from my Cambodian friends and colleagues is the value of slowing down a little. There is little of the stress here of western life – no packed diaries, road rage, executive burnout – and isn’t that a good thing?

So as I swing in my hammock and watch the hard-working farmers return from their fields, my answer to the question of whether Cambodians are lazy is as follows: “No – well not everyone… but yes, some… though maybe that’s not always a bad thing… oh I don’t know. Can’t you let me sleep?”.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Climb any mountain

As a student I had the good fortune to read philosophy for a year at Burgundy university, back in the days when the British taxpayer funded such civilized activities (or wasteful luxuries – I guess it’s a philosophical question?).

Dijon should have been ideal for me – a small city with a big student population, beautiful old buildings, and gastronomic delights a-plenty. But something was missing, and it took me fully six months to work out what it was.

The answer: hills! The Burgundy countryside may be picturesquely criss-crossed with famous vineyards, but it’s also flat as a crepe. For a boy raised in the Pennines and studying in the shadow of the Pentlands, the flatlands of eastern France literally lacked a vital dimension.

Imagine then when, years later, I was offered a two year volunteer placement in Cambodia, surely one of the flattest kingdoms on earth! Between the Cardamoms to the west and the Mondolkiri uplands to the east, the country is essentially one big, flat ricebowl.

At least this makes for good cycling, and I was fortunate to buy a decent mountain bike from a former volunteer. Not that there are any mountains here. But glancing at a map of my remote rural area I was delighted (and amazed) to see the alluring contours of two sizable hills, just within riding distance. What was I waiting for?

I usually cycle in the early evening, when the rich, warm sun shows the country at its most beautiful. But I was heading for the hills, so needed an earlier start. As the archetypal Englishman, I set out under the blaze of the mid-day sun (the mad dogs slept in the shade).

To counter the ferocious heat I packed water and money for more drinks, and donned my VSO peaked cap, pro-style Angkor 30k cycle vest, long lightweight sport-shorts, and – of course – double-skinned running socks. As my colleague Pete would say, ‘all the gear and no idea’.

The ride out of my village was stunning. Now the rains have started, the fields are vivid green. Oxen ploughed, and farmers were taking small rice plants from their nurseries and digging them into the fields. This is the true meaning of ‘transplantation’, before us health people misappropriated it!

By the time I reached the village of P’koum the blazing sun was making me parched, and I stopped by one of the ubiquitous orange ice-boxes. It contained no ice, but I savoured a warm coke whilst my hosts further tested my agricultural knowledge (they were not impressed that I only knew ‘market fruit’, not ‘village fruit’ - did you know there was a difference?).

You may assume the inhabitants of a village called Poum T’mai (‘New Village’) lack creativity. Not true! Every house on the road to this picturesque hamlet sported increasingly bizarre scarecrows, often with cowboy hats, paper-painted faces, jeans, and stylish tops. These, explained a wizened old Khmer guy, keep away diseases, dengue in particular. Quaint custom or dangerous hocus-pocus? (You get dengue from a nasty daytime mosquito, and a scarecrow ain’t gonna help you, no matter how dapper his shirt).

Yet all this was a distraction – I wanted mountains! By now they loomed tantalizingly in the distance, but the route still wasn’t clear. Asking locals here for directions is futile: if they point confidently they may have a vague idea; if they sweep their hand over their shoulder they have no clue and just want you to leave happy. They gestured at the hills, and left none the wiser.

Suddenly the road started to climb, and I felt that sublime tensing of the legs - finally I was going uphill! In contrast to the ricefields all around, the hillside was covered in trees (I guess as it’s hard to grow rice on a slope?). The dirt road snaked around the contours of the hills, so the view was limited, but no matter - I just felt great to be back in a three-dimensional landscape.

Elated, I reached my final village, the more imaginatively named Sway Sor (White Mango). The ice box offered coconut, and as usual my mouth ran ahead of my brain and I commented on how warm my can was. To my delight the kind shoplady produced a chunk of ice and crushed it. Less delightfully she then placed it in a chipped, pale-pink toilet scoop, and gestured for me to add the juice. I doubt many people can claim to have drunk coconut from a battered pale-pink toilet scoop in front of an audience of inquisitive peasant-farmers – it will certainly be one of my lasting memories here!

I wasn’t quite finished in the village. My lower arms had developed a worrying glow - pro-style cycling vest it may be, but the sleeves were amateurishly short, and I needed cover. So White Mango’s first clothes auction was soon underway. First on offer was a lovely brown Camel-brand shirt, overpriced at $15. A snappy striped work shirt fitted nicely but at $5 was still way too much. Finally an old lady hobbled up with an old shirt – crumpled and fishy, but undeniably long-sleeved. It came free with red paint stains and mud-clods, all for less than $1 – bargain! And so I set off home, looking rather like a New Village scarecrow, protected at least against the blazing sun.

The relentless attention can take its toll, as can pedaling in the heat, so I soon stopped under the tree in a pagoda. No peace here though – after a few milliseconds I was surrounded by young monks. ‘Where you go?’ ‘How much you bike cost?’ ‘Why you dress in old shirt?’ Time to press on.

There was still time for more experiences before I got home. Firstly, on the outskirts of New Village the biggest snake I’ve ever seen slithered across the track in front of me. It was so darn big it got stuck trying to get through the wooden fence. Of course I had no camera and no witnesses, so it’s safe for me to say it was bloody huge!

And finally, just before I returned to my village, I knew deities other than the sun-god were looking down on me. On a deserted track with nothing but ricefields for miles I saw a moto in the distance. As it neared I realised that the orange structure on his sidecar was not another empty icebox. Rather, the last my drinks money bought a delicious ca’rem (small baguette with white and purple ice cream, topped with condensed milk and peanuts – yum!).

Some things I failed to learn in Burgundy’s top philosophy school, but now understand:

· Learn about agriculture, or you’ll think transplantation is just organs and fruit just oranges

· Cover your arms, or you’ll have to buy a fishy old scarecrow shirt from a rice farmer

· Find your own way, as asking directions is futile!

· Shut your mouth, or you’ll end up drinking coconut juice from a chipped pale-pink toilet scoop

· Rest where you like, but don’t expect to find peace in pagodas

· Say your prayers, and you might just meet an ice-cream man when you most need and least expect him

Oh, and accept that Cambodia’s flat, and live with it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Your move

I have a modest competitive streak, which, together with my black and white view of events and my passive-aggressive tendencies give chess a certain appeal, at least to those trying to keep me away from polite society.

So when I was stranded in the pouring rain with ‘David’ the chirpy Battambang tuk-tuk driver, I was delighted when he pulled out a simply-carved but unmistakably chess-like game.

But Khmer chess, I was soon to learn, is subtly different from the game as I know it.

Thankfully the pieces are the same, if a little hard to distinguish at first. However the pawns line up not on the second and seventh ranks but one further forward, the third and sixth. Interesting! Also, there is no ‘queen on its own colour’ rule – in fact the board was just squares, with no black or white– and my king was positioned to face his queen and vice versa.

So far so similar. Rooks, knights, kings and queens all moved as normal too, as did pawns (though as they started further up the board they lost their initial two steps option).

However bishops – usually twin powerhouses zooming the board or bearing down on the enemy – were restricted to moving one square at a time, diagonally and also forwards and backwards (but not sideways). Perhaps this gives them some power I didn’t appreciate, but to me they were sad, emasculated versions of their usual proud selves – give me a knight any day!

Another difference was castling – this didn’t exist in the khmer version, but to get your king to the safety of a corner he was allowed to move like a knight for his first move – weird, but it kind of has the same result.

And so we got underway, and whilst I struggled to grapple with the unfamiliar shapes and moves, the general strategy of developing pieces whilst safeguarding the king still held.

We soon had an audience of course – what activity I do here doesn’t? – though the most active member was a serious little future grandmaster who busied himself storing all the captured pieces. I liked to think I could give him a few strategic tips. Pushing forward on my queen’s side I engineered a clever exchange to give me a passed pawn – and to put the wind up those Cambodian upstarts!

Ah! One problem – I was still working on the assumption that my pawn could be queened on reaching the eighth rank. Not so fast! A pawn, explained David patiently, is not queened but rather flipped over, at which point it can move one square on any diagonal. So the reward for my strategic brilliance was just another kind of weakly shuffling bishop!

This also meant that it was really hard to press home an advantage, and despite going into the endgame two pawns up –a decisive lead in our game – here we ended in stalemate. Or should I say, and honourable draw.

It was certainly the best mental workout I’ve had for ages, and David seemed to enjoy it too. Maybe it was the effort of making up all those new rules to confuse the foreigner!

Your move.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Cash quiz! Win big!

1. The market lady charges you “3” for a couple of limes. Do you…

a) shrug as this seems a bit dear, and hand over $3

b) realize smugly she means 3 baht, and offer her a few shiny Thai coins

c) multiply the 3 by 100 to make 300 riels, laugh along with her at this preposterous overcharging, and chuck a couple of manky 100 riel notes onto her pile of cabbages

2. Your tuk-tuk driver quotes “just $35” for a couple of days visiting the temples. Do you…

a) enquire if he’ll charge extra for an early start

b) agree on the condition he takes you on the longer ‘grand route’ to get more monks for your money

c) explain you could buy half of Bayon for that and tell him it’s ‘ma-pay ($20) or the highway’

3. You fancy a shave at a street barber [for the sake of this quiz you are all male!]. Do you…

a) accept the $5 quoted and let him get scraping

b) haggle him down to $2.50 including a clean blade

c) say “please don’t shave me”, giggle together that it also means “don’t rip me off”, and hand him the usual $1 once you’re as shiny as a K’mai

4. The rent is due. Do you…

a) settle back whilst the direct debit kicks in

b) wait for the landlord to chase you up, then sternly hold back payment until the exposed electricity wires are fixed

c) pay promptly to the landlady, knowing that the women run the domestic finances here

5. The friend of a colleague’s cousin is getting married. Do you…

a) feel honoured to be asked, and log on to find the wedding list

b) reluctantly accept yet another invite, and grudgingly return the envelope with $10 when you sneak away early

c) evade your colleague so you can avoid the invite, and hope the noise isn’t too near your house

6. You invited a couple of colleagues for a meal in Phnom Penh, and the bill arrives. Do you…

a) toss down your card and wait for the others to follow suit – the waiter can work out the split

b) check the bill and hand out your share in cash, with a bit extra as a tip

c) hand over the full amount in cash, using both hands of course, knowing that as you invited them you should pay

7. You buy a fancy new rice cooker in town, but the cashier hands back your battered note. Do you…

a) argue loudly that there’s nothing wrong with it and storm out of the shop

b) grudgingly accept there’s a tiny tear, find a newer one, and head straight to the bank to return the damaged note

c) smilingly replace it and carefully examine every dollar of your change (refusing at least one on principle), all the while planning how to disguise the torn note during your next purchase

8. Your mate is visiting from the UK and calls to ask how much “200” is for the taxi fare to your village

a) tell him it’s Thai baht and suggest he uses some of the coins he has left from the airport

b) smugly add two 0s to make 20,000 riels, divide by 4000 to make it $5 (and tell him to multiply by 0.6 to make 3 quid if that helps)

c) get the taxi man on the phone and tell him he’s having a laugh, you know it’s only “m’meun” (10,000 riels), it always has been and always will be

9. A monk approaches with his helper, begging for food money. Do you…

a) admire the beautiful orange robe and humble sandals, and whimsically hand over a couple of dollars

b) reluctantly part with the bunch of 100 riel notes you store in your wallet to fend off beggars

c) cross yourself and carefully study your flip-flops until danger passes

10. You spend your time doing a quiz about money rather than making some yourself. Do you…

a) amass a’s in a vain attempt to acquire fake awards, like an absolute Cambodian cash-ass

b) bring on b’s, broadcasting you’re both bullish and full of bull

c) collect c’s, crowning you the Khmer king of cash!