The water festival was cancelled this year because of the floods. Over 400 have now died. Some of the metalled roads are in a parlous state, the surface washed away by the rain. The holiday continued despite all this and so the office was closed for 3 days and there was no reason for me to stay in Phnom Penh. I headed for Svae Sisophon, my old stomping ground, to see some friends. I’ve written about Capitol buses before. Just another seven hours of the same thing. I have kept my daily diary for my own sake and for my closest friend but here’s an edited extract from one day last week…
“Fitful night but feels as if I slept. Lots of dreams, main character was Dolores Umbridge. Not pleasant.
“Awoke with the dawn and had one of those ‘What am I doing here?’ sessions. Prayed a lot and then tried to open the Prego but email playing up again. Poor bandwidth here I fear.
“Went walkabout down to the river and stood watching the water, talking to a monk and a local guy, but as usual, limited language skills all round. No sign of any disaster last night where the crowds had been, no sign of floating candles either, just hens pecking the rubbish and a few sleepy dogs. [Last night the narrow road to the river was packed with people, motodops and cars in both directions with a serious bottleneck where some vehicles parked. Last year Water Festival in PP over 300 people died on a footbridge for similar reasons.] Called Vicky VSO and met for omelette. Talked over issues in education and health, and the real purpose and method for this kind of work. Just good to talk English and I was encouraged. So back to hotel and after eventually getting emails in and out, I got into the work. Reviewed Cambodian Health Information System for Mongkul Borei Hospital and made notes of all the deficiencies and discrepancies in the data. Wrote a teaching plan for the day 25 Nov and began to make a Power Point presentation. I feel better now I have an outline and have got underway. Worked through to 4pm, no lunch, eating at Mono’s street stall tonight, always lots of meat.
“As planned, met Vicky at the food stall but Mono came late. Has been to Poipet (55km on the moto) to get supplies and had to cancel his dental appointment because no time. We chatted for ages and then at 5pm off on his moto down to the river (3 of us on the bike of course). True to his word, prompted by our complaints that the water festival is not much good if you can’t have a boat race, he had arranged to hire a boat-use-machine, meaning a long streamlined fisherman’s boat with an inboard motor and propeller shaft reaching out over the stern. It was very wobbly as we boarded, glad I brought my dry bag for the camera and phone. I can’t believe Mono came despite he can’t swim and was clearly nervous. No buoyancy aids here though we tried to stuff a plastic bottle up his shirt.
“Dusk as we departed and motored with the current quite quickly past the place where we launched the floating candles the night before. Sunset reflections on the smooth broad river. Loads of small fish jumping. Kids calling from the houses on stilts among the trees along the water margin. Several swimming but only at the edge. Floating water bottles mark the nets set by fishermen in the bays and shallows. After maybe 20 mins we turn to head for home and there is a loud explosion. The engine dies. The driver tries to restart it and after several attempts and a number of further explosions, which we realize is backfiring, he admits defeat and we take to paddling back against the current amid gales of laughter. Laughter from the people on the bank as our serene tour had come to an ignominious end and laughter in the boat as we all made our own padding contributions – me with a flip-flop in each hand. I put my valuables into the dry bag at this point and since the water was so warm (albeit rather dirty), I felt no fear of capsize. Poor Mono was paddling from the stem and we wobbled precariously at times. Funny that I should be trying to preserve my camera and Mono was trying to preserve his life…
“It was dark as we passed the pagoda on the return journey and the floating candles were starting for a second night. Young boys were already in the water with their plastic bottles tied alongside. I realized they are not just flotation aids but double as a receptacle for paper money which they retrieve from the floating offerings and stash in an empty bottle, screwing on the cap to keep the cash safe.
“The boat driver’s wife laughed as we paddled ashore in the darkness. She was squatting on the bank holding her baby close. We had contributed 25,000 Rial to the family resources that evening – about 6 dollars. Mono had been discussing how difficult is business with little profit margin and we encouraged him to start organizing water trips and he can make the food. Split the profit 50:50 with the boat man. We gave him 5,000 for organizing the trip. He did it as a friend and is embarrassed to accept the meager $1.25 donation. We also had to press him to take the money for the meal and coke we had at the stall after. We dined and drank for $1.25 each. He doesn’t seem to charge enough but his view is: charge little and have lots of customers. He does too. His overheads are small here on the pavement. Just a battered motorbike and sidecar for a kitchen and food counter, folding tables and stacking chairs stored in the compound of a house nearby, a tarpaulin for the rainy season, two energy-saving light bulbs with strips of sticky tape attached to catch the mosquitos. He has the usual orange cool box and takes a delivery of ice each day. There he stores his perishables and chills the drinks in the evening. Napkins, sauces, utensils, everything needed for the working restaurant, every need of the customer catered for.
“We talked briefly of the book I gave him. He had been reading. He likes the story of the salt and light and tells it to us in his own words. As we part he says you are like the light shining in the darkness. I am touched and encouraged. It’s been a happy and productive day. It’s gone 8.30 and time for a shower. I have very dusty feet. I hope it’s the dust of my Rabbi…”