Between us, Katja and I volunteered for over 4 years in Cambodia. We wanted to do something, however modest, to help people less fortunate than ourselves to have new, better lives.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Our focus here is on maternal health, and if an expectant mother is diagnosed with a condition such as pre-eclampsia (basically pregnancy-induced high blood pressure) then it’s vital this is recognized and treated quickly. Here, this can mean helping to prevent seizure, such as by giving magnesium sulphate injections and avoiding stimulation. But the only cure is to have the baby. As this is likely to be by caesarian, mothers need to be transferred to a larger hospital for this major operation. And how to get there (still avoiding stimulation of course)? The only way is in the back of our ancient ambulance, feeling every bump and rut in the hellish 50km route. It must be an agony for a poor woman in such a condition - another compelling reason for the road to be improved.
Friday, September 2, 2011
The evening of June 8th 1985 is clear in my mind for two reasons.
As we gathered excitedly round my granny’s telly, Barry McGuigan finally got his shot at a world title against Panama’s Eusebio Pedroza. It was so exhilarating that even my mild-mannered dad and brother were on their feet yelling ‘hit him, hit him, hit him!’.
But I also remember my mother’s entrance: carrying a tray of cocoa (it must have been one of those summers), she was clearly shocked by the atavistic blood-lust of her menfolk. “What a horrid sport!” was her typically polite criticism. She was right, but we told her to shut up anyway – it was just too exciting.
Twenty six years later, and I finally got round to watching another boxing match (in fact two in a matter of weeks). I'll remember these too, but I will also have the same mix of emotions about both of them.
At the most recent, we again huddled round the tv, but this time the drink was beer, the company soldiers, and grandparent’s house was Ta Mok’s.
Sounds like another cosy evening? Well, not if you’re from this country: Ta Mok’s name still strikes fear into the hearts of ordinary Cambodians. Widely known simply as ‘The Butcher’, he was possibly the most brutal of all Khmer Rouge leaders. He orchestrated appalling massacres in the southern zone from 1973, and led horrific ‘purges’ from 1975-1979.
His stronghold was the small northern town of Anlong Veng. I spent a week working at the (former military) hospital there, and had the dubious pleasure to visit his old home. Overlooking a lake, reflecting the Dangrek mountains, the setting could be beautiful – if it wasn’t that hundreds of slave labourers died cutting the trees and damming the river just to give him the lovely view.
The army commander who had taken up residence gently insisted we stay to watch some ‘pradal serey’ - khmer boxing. So we crowded round the battered old telly - it fact it could almost have been my granny’s old set from a quarter of a century earlier!
As for the boxing itself, I was struck by the shifting movements, and the use of elbows as well as feet: that’s got to hurt! And this particular bout was between two women - nice to see equality extends to the right to maul each other for public entertainment.
But I came away with very mixed feelings. It’s hard to relax in a mass murderer's lounge. Watching a boxing match in the home of a notorious killer is certainly one of the most unique memories I will take back with me from Cambodia.
My other recent experience of boxing, in the infamous Thai seaside resort of Pattaya, was also a memorable but ambiguous experience. Having fulfilled the aim of our visit (Katja’s crazy bungee jump!), we celebrated with a night on the notorious Walking Street. In between the sleazy bars we found a ring, with two young boxers about to put on a show which we hoped wouldn’t stray below the belt.
This was the first time I’ve seen boxing in the flesh, and it was alarmingly vivid - they pounded each other with frightening power. It was impressive and repulsive in equal measure, and (probably like the clients of the neighbouring girly bars), I felt both excited and a little ashamed to be there.
Part of me is undeniably drawn to boxing. Whilst I’m not quite sure how Mohammad Ali could liken it to the pursuit of a beautiful women, I can almost see why it has been described as ‘the science of sweet bruising’. I can certainly understand how writer James Lawton concludes that “in its atavistic rages, its often beautiful skill and the implicit courage of the protagonists, boxing takes men and women into areas that are untouched in other areas of legal spectacle”.
As a cinephile, boxing combines the brutality of Raging Bull, the passion of On The Waterfront, and the simple excitement of Rocky. As a health worker I note it is great for fitness (though not for brain injuries). And as a social activist I believe it offers a positive outlet for kids who would otherwise be punching dolphins or grannies.
I even had a go myself recently – no sparring of course, but I put on gloves and had a good go at my mate Pete’s punchbag. Throwing a punch is deceptively hard: there’s a whole art in placing the feet, positioning the legs, rotating the hips. It's almost like golf, in that it's much more about technique, balance and concentration than power. And landing a good blow gave the same exquisite feeling as hitting the sweet spot when striking a football or shuttlecock.
But the main attraction for me is simple. It is that boxing is the most basic of all sports - having a scrap.
Having said all this, another part of me - the larger, more rational part - really abhors boxing. The health arguments are compelling. And socially, there’s something not quite right about a couple of poor lads knocking lumps off each other for the amusement of sneering cigar-smoking bankers at the ringside.
In fact it doesn’t really need much debate: let’s face it, boxing is unpleasant, uncivilized and unsafe.
I guess it will eventually be banned - but not for a long time here in Cambodia. For one, nothing much gets stopped here, however bad it is. But also, it’s a national obsession, and it would take a brave fighter indeed to knock it on its head.
Perhaps the reason why it continues also reflects my mixed feelings about the whole thing. As Lawton concludes: “You can stop many things, for many reasons. But not included among them is a man's instinct to fight - and that equally compelling urge to watch”.