The statues of Choob vary in size from portable ornaments to massive bhuddas which need a crane to lift on to a truck. These latter are usually commissioned by some monastery, pagoda or an official in a government office. The masons work steadily every day hammering and chizelling, producing remarkable pieces with amazing consistency – I cannot imagine how one statue resembles the next in such exact proportion and intricate detail.
Despite the fact that we arrive at 12.30 in the heat of the day (reminiscent of mad dogs and Englishmen, and one hapless moto driver) the masons are hard at work. The larger statues are cut in the open air under roughly erected tarpaulins to provide some shelter from the sun. Fully clad and muffled to the eye balls to avoid injury from the stone chips I have no idea how they tolerate the working conditions. Most of the larger statuary will one day be established on a pedestal somewhere decked with garlands and coloured cloth and attended by faithful ministers and visited by countless worshippers who bring their offerings of food and flowers, and burn incense and joss sticks while offering their prayers. Their carved eyeballs lack the necessary mechanism to process the light or to transmit the images and their stone heads have no capacity to appreciate the scenes enacted before them.
In 1611, exactly 400 years ago, the phrase ‘Having eyes they see not …’ was first printed in English in the King James Version of the Bible. In another place the same book commemorates those who turned from statues to serve the living God.
No sooner had I posted my Sunday afternoon blog, Dr Witchouk the Hospital Director arrived. He had been in the hospital garden helping set fire to the remains of the tree stumps they had been attempting to remove all week. A laborious task with mattocks and burning – neither axes nor chainsaws were in evidence here. A whole week and still there are still half a dozen stumps to remove. New trees are to be planted here.
Dr Witchouk introduced himself. He did not seem at all concerned that he had found me working in his office. He shares it with the other VSO volunteers. He made me a cup of sweet ginger tea and enquired where I was staying in the village. He had prepared a room on the maternity ward for my arrival, en suite with AC and sparsely furnished – I could have managed with that – but it is right next to the labour rooms and the ward office. I could sleep with the noise but as he explained to me, most of the work in Obstetrics happens after hours, naturally there are more hours in the evening and night time than there are during the day. My concern is that I would be awakend every time there is an emergency. I will be on call 24/7 and 7/52, if you understand the shorthand – it means all the time. When I was younger I managed every other night and weekend but that was a killer – and I understood the language and the system and knew the staff and the common conditions. This situation would be impossible for me. So I explain why I chose to live across the road and hope he is not offended, besides I could live in that room some nights if he would like to me do so but I would need a translator and ideally another doctor since the idea is that I should work alongside and observe and then train. We agree to meet with the doctors and midwives on Tuesday morning and work out a plan of action for my stay.
Meanwhile he has a meeting 8am Monday and is teaching in the local University every afternoon this week. That also prevents him operating until Friday. He is a surgeon with an interest in thyroid conditions and as I leave the building to go home I find him outside in the grounds with a group of around 12 patients all with enlarged thyroid glands awaiting surgery from 13 years old to the elderly. All of them are female. It reminds me of the condition I learned as a medical student called Derbyshire neck, a common endemic goitre of the Dales in the times when iodine deficiency was common, and people living near the coasts would get iodine from fish and kelp but those inland suffered. He agrees that nutrional iodine deficiency is a major factor – we have plenty of iodine in supplements in food these days, even salt is iodised, but they have no such scheme here. None of these patients has exophthalmos as far as I can see and I think they must be all euthryoid, but he tells me some are toxic and are already on medication to control the overactive gland. I gather he has been explaining to them, many who have travelled some distance from other towns and provinces, that he is unable to operate until the end of the week. He tells me he may see as many as 25 cases a week. The hospital figures for 2010 show 99 surgical cases of goitre (95% female) so I guess he operates only on a proportion of those he sees.
He explains how he gave up his private clinic in 2003 to work solely in the government hospital having been made Hospital Director in the year 2000. Every doctor working in government hospitals has a private clinic nearby and takes patients from the state hospital to operate on for a fee. Nurses who take patients from the state hospital to a private clinic are rewarded with a cut of the fee. This practice is not found in Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines – the doctors in those countries work either in the government or the private clinics but cannot work in both. It is not allowed in Cambodia either but he tells me the authorities are sleeping, it seems by choice, and I think he’s quoting a proverb. I explain we also have a proverb – about turning a blind eye.
It seems that the carved statues are not alone in having eyes but seeing not …