Well, I finally made it to Phnom Penh! The holdall was over 25 kg so I stuffed my copies of BNF into the side pockets and when queried about the XS weight I removed the books and the stewardess accepted the bag – so win-win negotiation really works! Thanks for the training, VSO!
And here I am. The first impression is of the roads and the heat…
Half the traffic is moped, motorbike, cycle, tuk tuk or cyclo travelling in both directions on both sides of the dual carriageway, and the rest is a variety of cars, vans and trucks with all kinds of crazy loads. Many bikes have three or four riders and we saw five people on one; another had two people a ladder and all their tools; a third bike was pulling a trailer with three double beds piled on! Every so often policemen pull people over for some infringement or other and after some discrete transaction they drive on. Few junctions have traffic lights – mostly everything crosses at the same time including pedestrians so it’s an amazing mêlée and it works wonderfully well most of the time but no wonder traffic accidents are the biggest hazard to VSO volunteers. I saw my first accident today where a rider and his lady pillion were knocked off by another motorbike in the middle of a junction, all her shopping was strewn over the road, she sat on the central reservation while the two riders argued about whose fault it was, then one rode off, the other picked up his bike and the lady gathered her shopping together and they went on their way. No police involvement, no insurance, no exchange of names or money – nobody really hurt, it’s what happens here. Fortunately the roads are so busy everything is moving relatively slowly weaving in and out and dodging pedestrians.
And the heat! The night-time isn’t a lot better though there are fans in the rooms and I don’t need to use the sheet but the mosquito net hangs over the bed and hampers the breeze from the fan. I’m drinking water all the time and hardly ever need the loo. This is the place for every man with prostate trouble!
Saturday I visited a clinic on the outskirts of the city where poor families live on the rubbish dump in shanty huts and live off recycling plastic and other materials. Value Life Clinic is doing a fantastic job with these pregnant Khmai women. There would be around 30 women and children waiting when we arrived by tuk tuk. First the staff had a briefing session and prayer time while the patients chatted happily outdoors. It is run by two midwives from Sydney and Namibia, ably assisted by local girls who are trainees and who will study midwifery if they show the right commitment and ability. A portable ultrasound the size of a laptop had been donated and I was pleased to have a role in helping Emily improve her scanning skills. These Khmai mothers are all so small and so are their babies. One 3 month old baby was brought by a ‘neighbour’ as his mother is working 12 hours a day in the garment factory and he doesn’t seem well fed or stimulated and his posture and behaviour are perhaps abnormal. The concerned neighbour had been breastfeeding him along with her own 3 month baby. She agreed to continue and was given US $5 a week and some baby clothes in payment.
I’ve had some lump-in-throat moments too. I had one walking the Tryweryn with the dog the day we went to London. The sun was shining, the weather mild and we jumped on the pebble bar at low water and he paddled and swam as usual hoping I would throw sticks. It was partly the last walk with the dog but also the beauty of the place we have grown to love and consider home and I began to feel the hiraeth my friends talk about. In Psar Pencil when I first ventured to shop in this new language, the song playing over the speakers as I entered was ‘The First Time Ever I saw Your Face’ – not Matt Cardle but the memory of that moving performance on X Factor that had brought tears to my eyes did so again. This evening I walked to the park near the Mekong River – there were thousands of people enjoying the cooler part of the day, doing Zuma exercises in front of the Vietnam memorial, watching the fountains with synchronised lights and music, selling and buying food from the little pavement stalls, people sitting around like me watching and listening to it all, and the kids – playing on the climbing frames, slides, swings and bouncy things, and I missed my grandson Jonah, he would love this park…
One thing about the river here is that the Tonlé Sap flows into the Mekong most of the year but in the rainy season it flows in the opposite direction filling the lake and vastly increasing it’s size – just like the River Dee in Bala between the lake and Afon Tryweryn. That makes me feel better!
After the walk in the park I had a cultural and culinary disaster! I called at Psar (that’s bazaar or market in Khmai) Pencil on the way home to buy something for supper and chose a stir fry pork meat with prepared veg and then ice cream for dessert but I gave the money to the cashier with my left hand. She was most offended and she showed me how dirty the notes were and the little tears along the edges – passing dirty money with the left hand is the ultimate insult at the check out. I was so embarrassed that I forgot how to say thank you and goodbye and merely mumbled something before escaping to my VSO residence next door. I stir fried my pork and vegetables and looked forward to the consolation of ice cream. It turned out the veg was all ginger and very spicy with only water to relieve it. I ate it all thinking the ice cream would cool my mouth after. It was cool but turned out to be mousse…
And I lost my camera chip reader this morning. I eventually found it in my motorbike helmet – of course, I should have looked in the obvious place first. Then I lost my toothbrush which I need now to get rid of this pepper pig flavour but I can’t find it. It’s not in the shared bathroom because I never leave anything there – although I found my shampoo which I hadn’t missed but would have lost by the morning. So where’s the toothbrush? And where’s the money gone – not the money I spent but the change I got, I wanted to check how much I had left, and I had it a second ago. Ah, there it is under my camera and iPod. I think I need to listen to some relaxing music, but where’s the headphones? Aagh! This living out of a holdall is doing my head in, it’s hard to be organised even though I have a spare bed in my room to spread everything out on. I hope it improves when I get my own place.
Now how much money have I got left? Four grubby dollar notes given me with both hands by the checkout girl and 14,600 Real – that’s worth another $3.15. So who would want a second-hand toothbrush (would that be a second-mouth toothbrush?) – surely not my neighbours who locked me out of the shared bathroom? I can afford to buy another. What’s Khmai for ‘I would like a new blue toothbrush please?’ and will the boyfriend of the checkout girl be waiting outside for me? How will I get rid of this pork and ginger, this spicy hot flavour, this Peppa Pig?