NEWSLETTER ONE April / May 2005
As usual it feels so good to be back in Cambodia and to check the progress of the children. I’ve been here nearly two weeks and still waiting to access the container. It arrived in the port last week but I have to wait for all the documentation to be completed. Hopefully I should hear from the customs clearing agent in a few days.
The adventure started at Melbourne airport where I saw a new service being offered. For $8 I had my luggage tightly wrapped in cling wrap so it would deter anybody from trying to interfere with it. After all the recent publicity about drugs being planted in luggage, I thought this was a good idea.
On the final part of the flight into Phnom Penh, I sat next to a lovely Californian / Khmer girl. who told me the following story:
A 20yr.old friend lived in Phnom Penh. Her family was quite wealthy as they owned a jewelers shop. After the girl was kidnapped, the mother received a ransom note for $25,000. The mother said this amount was too much; she then received a hand cut from the girl. The police were given $6,000 to investigate. They eventually found her decomposed body. Cause of death was drowning. After this the entire family moved to Singapore.
It’s common for children of wealthy families to be escorted to and from school to prevent kidnappings.
Mophay and Proling weren’t expecting me to arrive until the following week, so I planned to surprise them by showing up a few days early. I was worried that they might have returned to their homeland to celebrate Khmer New Year. I walked into the orphanage and before I could tell the children to be quiet, they all started shouting, ‘’Mophay, your Mum is here’’.
They were so excited to see me. It was wonderful to be reunited. Mophay is now 22 and Proling 20 yrs old.
Mophay showed me the motorbike I’d sent money over for. She took me to a favorite Khmer watering hole, a suspended bamboo platform divided into separate rooms. A rush mat was laid on the floor, where the food and drink were placed. Patrons lie back in hammocks and relax or even sleep. I let Mophay order. She knows I prefer to stick to boring but safe vegetables and rice. On this trip I’m avoiding chicken and eggs because there have been cases of the Bird Flue Virus found on the south coast. After the meal, I took her to buy a hat for the moto [a crash helmet]. I was a little nervous riding pillion on her bike as it was New Year. It’s customary to celebrate by throwing water over passing motorists. It causes a lot of accidents as the riders try to avoid the water and often collide with each other.
Later in the day I rang my old friends Sheila and Paul to let them know that I had arrived. They gave me a great welcome. After wishing me a happy new year, they picked me up and drove me to their home for drinks.
A little while later I returned to my hotel to find three frightened young girls waiting in the foyer. Mophay had crashed into another bike. Her helmet was badly scratched, but it had saved her head. The 15yr old with her, looked glassy eyed and in a state of shock. I took them to my room and brought out my never-used-in-all-these-years first aid kit. I felt like Florence flipping Nightingale, first washing, then dabbing on Betadine and finally sticking on band aids to all the cuts and abrasions. I gave them lots of TLC as they seemed to need reassurance. When I visited the orphanage the next day, the 15yr. old had banana skins stuck onto her badly bruised and swollen cheek bone. We spent the morning getting the bike repaired!
Because of Mophay’s handicap, shoes are always a problem for her. When I asked if I could buy her some shoes, she replied that she would prefer spectacles as she had severe headaches when studying. She had her eyes tested and selected tiny blue frames. She looked really cute in her new specs.
The following day I was invited to visit Phnom Kulen which is a popular picnic spot. The locals like to see the waterfalls and take a sacred water bath. After another 5am wake up call, I traveled in a taxi, Khmer style. This meant five of us squashed into the back seat of a Toyota Camry. We spent a pleasant day eating, resting and paddling in the cool mountain water. We had just arrived at the Pagoda, when we were caught in a tropical downpour. I sheltered under a tarpaulin covering a make-shift shrine. There was a massive crack, a flash of light and a burning smell. I thought someone had been struck by lightening. The lightening had somehow fused all the fairy lights around the shrine. I ran to shelter under the overhang of some huge stone boulders. The torrential downpour was causing little rivers to run downhill all around me. After a couple of hours the rain eased enough for me to trek down the mountain and catch a moto to the waiting taxi. It was an interesting day as I was the only foreigner on the mountain. The entrance fee was approx. fifty cents for locals and $20 for tourists!
As soon as business resumed after the New Year celebrations, I phoned the customs clearing agent who was handling all the necessary documentation for me. More paperwork was needed so I decided to travel down to the capital the next day. A couple of waterfront hotels had been recommended to me. The first one was beautiful, decorated in a Japanese style, but too expensive for my budget.
At the second hotel I was taken up the inevitable numerous flights of stairs, [the majority of buildings have no lifts] to a room on the top floor that had the usual cable TV, air-con etc. but was very tiny. I couldn’t believe my luck when told it included a small balcony that overlooked Sisowath Quay and the beautiful Mekong River. After all those steps it was truly my ‘Stairway to Heaven’. I felt like a character from the movie Moulin Rouge, living amongst the roof tops whilst the city flowed beneath me. That evening I sat on the balcony and watched the lights of the traffic flow beneath me. It was a magical experience!
I looked down to see pushbikes with four passengers, motorbikes carrying a family of five plus a pig, heavily laden trucks two storeys high with sleeping boys hiding on top, saffron robed monks walking in a crocodile line, teenagers racing each other, weaving in and out of the traffic, young boys selling newspapers, landmine victims holding out begging bowls and glue sniffing youths. The back drop to all this was the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers with floating homes alongside big fishing vessels. Who needs Reality TV?
I watched people living their lives out beneath me. I saw a lady with two small children sit on the grass with a small white square, a store holder beckoned; the child picked up the square and ran to the store holder. He then stood on the square and gave some money to the child. The square was a set of weighing scales. I noticed one small boy behaving erratically. I assumed he was sniffing glue as he kept holding a bag to his nose.
Everybody was ignoring the breastfeeding lady sitting on the ground at the entrance of my hotel. I decided to brave the clamber down the stairs and more importantly the climb back up. I stood beside the mother and smiled at her. As each tourist passed by, I politely started a conversation with them and asked them if they would donate a dollar to the starving mother and child. Most people obliged and were happy to chat for a while. It became a pavement party with the tourists talking to each other and asking me typical tourist type questions. The moto drivers who hung around the hotel, understood what I was trying to do and they started to help. When they spotted a ‘fresh tourist’ they would whisper to me, Barang coming. I reckoned an hours worth of begging resulted in the equivalent of a months takings. The mother and the moto drivers were very happy with the outcome. It had been a fun, spur of the moment thing to do
At the same location at 7.30 the next evening a 23yr old third year student was shot dead and his motor bike stolen!!!!!!!!!
NEWSLETTER TWO April / May 2005
I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last newsletter. There hasn’t been much to report as customs haven’t released the container yet. I’ve been feeling very down as every little thing seems to be a huge problem. I’ve submitted all the paperwork to the customs clearing agent who is doing her best, but it’s all taking so long. The Bill of Lading is the most important document which clearly state “the place of delivery” is Phnom Penh. The officials claimed the container should be delivered to Sihanoukville so I would have to pay for any additional costs for the trucking to Phnom Penh. This caused a further delay whilst enquiries were made in Singapore? This is just one example of the many problems I’ve had to fight.
At one stage, I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to say “O.K. you win, keep the container. I can’t take anymore; it’s all costing too much money and energy. I’m going home”. It was a case of two steps forward and one back. I was running out of time, patience, visa and money. I’m sorry to sound so negative, but the massive problems of corruption and red tape are a way of life here. It’s the reality of modern Cambodia. It was only the thought of telling all the donors that I had failed in my quest to personally deliver all the donations that kept me in Cambodia. Complete strangers had put their trust in me by giving me very generous gifts to donate to worthwhile causes. So reluctantly I hung on. I hope the next newsletter will bring more positive news. In the meantime I will share some of my everyday experiences in Cambodia.
I had a couple of minor but niggling ailments so Proling offered to take me to the international clinic on the back of Mophay’s bike. After a brief consultation with a Thai doctor, I received some medication. After this, a few of us spent a decadent afternoon eating delicious mangoes in the hotel pool. Dear little Mophay always peeled, washed and sliced a constant supply for my fridge.I returned to Siem Reap to Phnom Penh confident that the shipping business was moving along and I would soon receive the all important phone call.
Mophay and Proling wanted to go to a photographic studio where they spent hours being made up, having their hair styled and finally having photographs taken in a variety of outfits. Try to imagine the heat and humidity of Cambodia, then add on the heat generated by the studio lights. It was like being in a sauna! Both girls were happy with the outcome. They dressed in traditional Khmer outfits, and then progressed to wedding dresses. It was an interesting experience for me and both the girls were thrilled to receive professional photos. I do prefer their natural faces or just a little personal makeup instead of the very thick professional makeup they wore.
Both Mophay and Proling surprised me by saying they wanted to work overseas. After hearing their stories, I was very worried and said I didn’t approve but I needed more information. Proling had received an offer to work in a luxury resort on a Greek island. She supplied me with limited information which made me suspicious why someone would be willing to pay for a passport, visa and airfare. It all sounded too good to be true. After discussing it with friends, we all thought that Proling would get as far as Bangkok and be recruited into the sex trade. I told her of my concerns and to make sure that she understood me, I told her that I thought she would end up as a taxi girl as the job offer didn’t make sense. She has no funds to fall back on if she gets into trouble. I also asked her if she had thought about living in a foreign culture with a different language, food and lifestyle. She is still considering the offer. She has my email address and phone number if she gets into trouble.
Mophay said she wanted to work in a resort in Laos. I explained to her that Laos is an even poorer country than Cambodia, so why would someone pay all her expenses to go there when she has no expertise or experience to offer to an employer. She wasn’t keen to give up the idea, so she asked me if I would be willing to meet the person who had made the offer. A week later I met the would-be employer and everything did seem to be above board. Mophay has been friends with his wife for many years. It was actually Mophay who had asked for the position. I talked to Mophay about leaving her family and friends and about where she would live when she returned. I wanted to make sure she had thought the whole thing through. I felt I couldn’t advise her not to go unless I could suggest an alternative. I think her best option is to apply for a course in a hospitality school and possibly obtain a scholarship. She wants to become a bookkeeper / accountant. Due to her disability she is unable to stand or walk for long periods, so this limits her choice to sitting down jobs. I explained to her that with a formal qualification she could get employment at any of the big hotels. She carefully listened to every word I said and agreed to apply for a place at the hospitality school. The next day I was dismayed when Mophay told me she was no longer working, as her prospective employer didn’t want to train her anymore if she wasn’t going to work in Laos.
It’s a huge responsibility for me. Am I playing God with the lives of these children? Am I giving them the correct advice? I can only advise them as an older person who’s experienced in the ways of the world. I don’t want to seem like I want to stop them from having adventures and exploring the world. I would have no qualms if my own daughter wanted to work overseas as she has qualifications to offer, has family and other resources to fall back on. These girls have none of the above plus they have led very sheltered, conservative lives following their Buddhist beliefs. These are the girls who went shopping for bathers for a seaside holiday [on my previous trip] and came back with long sleeved tee shirts and knee length shorts! I know they are desperate to escape from the poverty cycle and enter the perceived sophistication of the western world. It just isn’t that easy. If Proling goes off on her adventure, I fear that she will never been seen or heard of again.
I have some connections at the school of Tourism and Hospitality in Siem Reap so I took Mophay out to the school. I had a private conversation with the assistant director who gave me an application form for the relevant course and also a scholarship application. Mophay has lived in an orphanage for the last twelve years and has a handicap, so hopefully those two facts will add weight to her scholarship application. I’ll find the fees somehow even if I have to pay for the course myself. One week later I took Mophay to an open day so she could submit her forms and ask any questions. She was given a date and time for a preliminary interview. I know and can guess some of the questions she will be asked so we did a lot of role plays to prepare her for the interview. I’m sorry that I won’t be able to be with her on the day to give her support and encouragement, but I will be sending her lots of emails instead. I’m trying to boost her confidence by telling her how good her English is. Proling has already gone through this process, was given a scholarship, graduated and moved onto a well paying job in a five star hotel.
Goodbye from Siem Reap.
NEWSLETTER THREE April / May 2005
Despite numerous phone calls being exchanged, I still haven’t received The Phone Call. My feelings alternate between depths of despair to a reluctant acceptance of the situation whilst worrying about my rapidly dwindling finances.
Whilst waiting for T.P.C. [The Phone Call], my friend Sheila took me to visit another worthwhile NGO called The Missionaries of Charity. This is the organisation set up by Mother Teresa. Their mission is to accept children on a short term basis, whose parents can’t afford to feed them. The babies and children arrive malnourished, stay for 3-6 months until they regain a healthy weight and then return to their families.
At present the Mission houses seventeen children of which nine are babies aged less than one year. Another seventy children come in each day for meals and lessons.
There are three sets of male twins; One set was found abandoned under a tree in Battambang approx 3-4 months old; Second set are seven months old and available for adoption together. [I’ve never heard of children being available for adoption before in this country]; Third set are two weeks old from Angkor Thom. The mother is too poor to feed them so she is with them fulltime to care for them whilst being fed herself.
The eldest child is a thirteen year old girl who looks about six. She can’t walk or talk. She looked very sad and withdrawn. There is nowhere for this child to go. It would take two full time carers to put her into hospital.
The sisters also supply poor families with dry rations. These are the families that have no home or shelter who usually live beside the river. They earn a meagre living by collecting cans and plastic bottles and anything else they can salvage from the garbage.
The sisters were very happy, friendly and overworked. They stopped work to sit down and chat. They were initially reluctant to allow me to take photos but they realised that I meant no harm and wanted to help if possible. They explained this by saying some unscrupulous foreigners had exploited the situation by selling photos of the children to outside organisations. Obviously the first priority is the safety and welfare of the children and not about lining the pockets of tourists.
I explained about waiting for a container to arrive. They told me about their dealings with customs officials who had the temerity to ask them for a bribe to expedite matters. They were then asked to give up a box containing medical supplies for a month. The sister declined, explaining that this would leave the children short of medicine. This information frightened me. If the officials expected Sisters of Charity, who have absolutely nothing and survive on donations, to submit to their demands, what chance do I have?
This was a very uplifting and joyous experience. I hope to return with boxes of baby clothes. The sisters survive by frequently repeating “God will provide”.
My friend Sareyken [sisters-in-arms as we like to call ourselves, as we share the same ideals] gave me several useful contacts to follow up. One of these was a distant family member who arrived at my hotel with his wife and baby. They were very kind and invited me to their home where they showed me all their wedding photos. The Bride wore twenty different outfits to display to the five hundred guests. A week later there was an additional party for three hundred and fifty guests. As the light began to fail, I felt the mosquitoes attacking, so I had to leave with promises of returning soon.
A couple of days later I returned and Suthayet told me his story. I hope the following facts are correct because of the language difficulties. He and his family lived in Siem Reap until the Khmer Rouge [during the Pol Pot era] moved all the residents out of the town and left them to fend for themselves in the countryside. Imagine town people trying to survive in a strange and hostile rural environment with no means or knowledge of obtaining or growing edible crops. The family survived through the tenacity of the mother. Every time the family were moved into a new area, the mother would grow as many edible plants as possible so she could feed her family. She made clothes and food to sell, to provide a small income.
Suthayet always wanted to be a doctor so he sat the entrance exams for university. He failed because his family were too poor to pay approx. $500 bribe to pass. We are talking about a clever student who had never failed an exam in his life. Now he saw many of his less gifted friends pass the entrance exam merely because they were wealthy.
The family eventually returned home to Siem Reap. In 1989-1990 guerrillas hit Siem Reap. This isn’t clear but I think they were abducting young men into the Khmer Rouge army. Suthayet and his friend escaped their clutches and were on the run for twelve days until they arrived at an AMBRO camp. [United Nations Border Relief Operation.]. During his two year stay, living with seventy thousand people, he studied English and converted to Catholicism.
In 1992, four hundred people applied to become an interpreter for the United Nations. Twenty people were chosen, one of which was Suthayet. He worked for UNTAC [United Nations Transition Authority of Cambodia] for one year.
In 1993, Suthayet passed exams for the International Civil Aviation Organisation in Phnom Penh. Following a week spent in Bangkok undertaking more exams, he resigned from UNTAC.
1994 was spent studying aviation courses. Three months of this was spent in Singapore where he subsisted on $25 a month. Once qualified, he worked as an assistant traffic controller in the capital’s busy airport.
He eventually returned to the family home in Siem Reap where he now works as the chief air traffic controller. He now says he is glad he didn’t become a doctor as the hours are too long and the pay is poor. He is lucky to be a professional and have short working hours [due to the stressful nature of the job]. He doesn’t earn much compared to his western counterparts. Apparently in Laos the controllers earn the princely sum of $25 a month. Because he has a low income and plenty of free time, he is currently studying to become a tour guide, so he can help out his brother in the high season.
Old habits die hard; when visiting the family home I was told Suthayet had planted all the colourful plants and flowers in the garden. Also growing were pineapples, mangoes, coconuts and lots of green vegetables planted by the mother!
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will have good news to report in the next newsletter.
Goodbye for now!