Posts Tagged 'Cambodia'

Killings and a foot massage

Friday was play and rest time. We started with a visit to the Killing Fields which left us gasping. Some images from that tour are hard to chase out of your head, such as soldiers slamming babies against a tree with survivors recounting the tree covered with brain matter and blood. The audio tour with stories from survivors left most of us visitors in awed silence. I knew about these stories from my previous visit and a book that Tessa read in high school; an account by a woman of her experiences with the march out of Phnom Penh and everything that followed when she was 9. I could not finish that book. And now, we couldn’t finish the planned visit to the Toul Sleng high school that became the infamous S21 prison and torture/death chamber for many. I had been there in 2009 and was not all that keen to see it again. Axel had not seen it and he too, after the Killing Fields, felt he had enough.

When we watched the news that night about ISIS, we recognized that the same story is repeating itself over there. It is hard to admit but humans seem to be able to repeat such crimes against humanity over and over. The trigger may well be an explosive mixture of bleak (if any) employment and education opportunities for male teenagers and young men, a surfeit of testosterone and weapons, and a dose of ideological fanaticism that offers simple answers and promises to complex problems.

We spent the rest of Friday by the pool in a luxury environment that stood in stark contrast to the hardships that the Khmer suffered under Pot Pol and his cronies. And as if not luxurious enough, I was offered a half hour foot/leg massage by two ladies with flowers in their long black hair. For 10 dollars it was a steal.

We had our last dinner in the place that served the ramen noodles, which we completed with 6 tiny ice cream cones before packing up. On Saturday morning we left for Bangkok which is a megalopolis compared to small town Phnom Pennh.

Mission completed

I had proposed an agenda for the wheelchair stakeholder meeting that was based on a generic design we used in Manila and Mongolia last year. When I tried to explain what we would be doing I could tell it tickled their curiosity. But I could also sense that they really couldn’t imagine how I could pull this off with people working across hierarchical boundaries in an intimate atmosphere, or how I could get people to draw their visions and work with colored markers and modeling clay.

People everywhere use the words ‘thinking out of the box,’ liberally but few understand how you get that to happen. Even with my colors, music and markers, I rarely see action-out-of-the-box. The straightjacket is this: where else to find people who are willing to fund the bad habits that we, the international development community, have cultivated over the last 40 years, like payments to high level people to show up at openings and closings, the generous per diems and transportation costs that M. keeps doling out. For this she makes nearly daily trips to the ATM across the hotel which spits out countless one hundred dollar bills.

I was pleased about the dynamics and energy that was generated and the relationships that got started or reinforced. I always like to show people what is possible if you drop the U-shape or theatre setting and the powerpoints, and all things that emphasize hierarchy and status differences. We had a good number of people with disabilities getting their voices heard but unfortunately not as many government officials as we had hoped to hear them. The international agencies that provide or manufacture wheelchairs and/or services where well represented, as well as two UN agencies and Australia, all actively involved in improving wheelchair services. And of course the US government, though not represented, paid for the whole series of activities we did here: two weeks of training to provide wheelchair services to people who cannot sit upright by themselves, a two-day stakeholder meeting and a two-day meeting for managers of rehab centers. I am happy to be an American taxpayer spending our money on these kinds of things.

We have now completed our assignment. The rehab centers managers have their certificates, the stakeholders have their vision and the students in the intermediate level wheelchair training have their certificates and will soon have wheelchairs to work with.  My two team mates are flying out tonight and tomorrow morning early to return to their respective homes in Washington DC and Mindanao. I will have a day of rest in Phnom Penh with Axel who is returning from Batambang this evening on an express mini-bus, a scary thought. I have booked a Khmer massage at 9 PM tonight and expect a good night sleep. On Saturday we will depart for Bangkok where my next assignment starts the moment I land.

To the sea

We spent the weekend partially on the road, a hair-rising trip, and partially relaxing at a lovely lodge near Kaeb (Kep or Kip) Beach on the southern coast of Cambodia very close to the Vietnam border. It was Chinese New Year Weekend and so we saw accidents – these happen here, people say with shrug. I suppose you can say that as long as the victims aren’t related to you. We saw one nasty accident on the way out and one on our return.

Because of the Chinese New Year long weekend all the busses were booked, forcing us to take a pricey but comfortable taxi. “Special price,” meant 10 dollars more than usual.

Three hours after our departure from Phnom Penh we arrived at a lovely little lodge with an infinity pool presided over by a life size Buddha. As it was lunchtime we headed out to the famous crab market with its many restaurants serving up the seafood that was sold right next door, not just crabs.

Our innkeepers had told us their guests rated the restaurant named ‘The Democrat’ very highly and so that is where we sat down for lunch. We were seated by the water front on a rickety pier next to an older American couple (volunteer teachers) who asked us promptly whether we were democrats (they were) and gave us a thumbs up when we replied with a yes. The bamboo walls were decorated with pictures of democratic US presidents. They were quite up to date with Obama’s iconic Change poster gracing the walls.

I spent the afternoon agonizing about how to relax before a busy week. I can’t simply turn a switch, despite Axel’s attempts to find my reset button. I have found during our summer holidays in Maine that it takes me a week to unwind, hence our decision to take two weeks in a row.

On Sunday we visited a green pepper farm and were instructed by a Spanish volunteer how peppers are grown, harvested and processed. It is a very labor intensive process that explained the high cost of green pepper when we buy it in our local store.  The Kampot Pepper is actually an ‘appellation controlee,’ something you don’t see very often in developing countries. I am sure the French had something to do with this. The pepper farm also was full of fruit trees with many kinds I have only eaten but never seen on a tree: rambutan, jackfruit, durrian, mangosteen aside from the more familiar mangos and papayas.

The trip home was less comfortable and 20 dollars cheaper, another hair-rising ride. Whatever state of relaxation I had reached by our departure was gone when we arrived back at the hotel in Phnom Penh.

As I headed into a busy week Axel got ready for another venture and took the bus to Batambang in the northwest, close to the Thai border, a 7 hour bus ride away.


We finished the week of preparatory interviews so I could understand the lay of the wheelchair land here. The puzzle pieces are falling into place. We have been looking through each individual or organization’s window and then crossed these views with those of others, looking through a different window and findings some sort of rationale behind the different views. As I find over and over again, everyone is right. The task is not to convert but to integrate.

Axel arrived in Phnom Penh after a 6 hour bus ride from the north. He had come in 2nd in a trivia night and won a glass of garlic infused vodka. His seat mate in the bus offered him a mint.

While he was making his way to PP we completed the intermediate level wheelchair provision training, with final presentations, a distribution of posters and equipment that the trainers are not taking home. This included four electric knives (to cut foam) which all blew their fuses within minutes of use because they came from America and could handle only 110 volts. Being inoperable at the moment did not affect these knives being the most coveted items. We had to do a lottery and then each of us offered one of the four grand prizes to the lucky winners under loud cheers. They say they can fix the knives and make them useful again. I hope.

The official closing was delayed because we were waiting for the excellencies, the name given to senior government officials. After having been told they were on their way, we learned later that they would not come. And so the lead trainer from the Philippines and my colleague M installed themselves as minor excellencies on the dais, a gold stain cloth-covered table with a plastic orchid and lily arrangement on top. It was all very formal with an official program and led by a master of ceremonies, even though it was all ‘entre nous.’

We returned home to the hotel, me to find Axel and have a lemongrass martini with him by the pool, the others to change, before heading for a closing dinner cruise on the rivers intersect here at Phnom Penh.

And now it is weekend and I am preparing for both a relaxing weekend and a preparation for the intense week to come. I am not sure how I am going to do that.

Double duty

I have  completed 3 of the 5 days of preparing for our alignment meeting, plus three evenings for running my ‘night’ jobs as one colleague calls them: being the lead facilitator on a French language virtual leadership course for teams from Ivory Coast, Madagascar, DRC, Senegal and a few other countries, and putting the finishing touches on session designs for the TB-medicines conference that starts on March 1 in Bangkok.

The day job has been relatively light with lots of time spent in tuk-tuks in traffic. I am wearing my mouth mask, as do so many others here, to protect my lungs from the fumes. We interview stakeholders in the provision of wheelchairs. It is one great puzzle to entangle and the notion of a stakeholder meeting is unclear. People are polite. When I ask what they want out of the meeting they say: ‘that you meet your objectives!” I can hear them think ‘dear’ at the end of the sentence. I am sometimes embarrassed to be part of a long line of donor representatives, which I am for all intents and purposes, selling their wares. There was a kind of a stakeholder meeting in December; some attended, some did not; some saw the report, some did not, and no individual or organizational names are attached to the action plan items. Who is responsible I cannot discern. This too was a workshop/meeting organized by externals. These are the only ones that would pay for such a gathering. I would like this meeting to be different, with a focus on energy, passion for the task, collective inspiration and accountability, rather than purely intellectual, focused on producing more plans that don’t make your heart beat faster.

The antidote to cynical thoughts is watching the young kids with cerebral palsy being fitted in their tiny wheelchairs. The ear to ear grins, the sense of liberation that they show brings tears to my eyes. For the first time in their lives, these kids will be able to interact with the world in a seated position. It is hard to imagine what that means: it means better nutrition, better muscle tone, and the learning of social skills. The lives of these kids and their families will never quite be the same, and better for it. Our alignment meeting is to make sure that these kids are followed as they grow, get bigger wheelchairs, get PT. But right now there is no guarantee that this will actually happen. In 6 months they need to be fitted again, but by whom, and where, is the question.

In the meantime Axel is touristing in the north, seeing the Ankor Watt complex, having massages, resting, worrying about snow in Manchester, and eating food that taste good but sometimes upsets the stomach. He will bus down to Phnom Penh on Friday and arrive, hopefully, in time for our dinner cruise on the Mekong to celebrate the end of the level 2 fitting of wheelchair course with the participants.

On Saturday we are taking a break and drive to Kep on the coast for a relaxing 24 hours. After that it is show time.

Endless journey

Even though we escaped ‘the weather’ in Boston, we didn’t entirely escape later. In Japan Delta decided to wait for the very delayed connecting flight from Detroit. As a result we left Narita 3 hours later than scheduled. By the time we approached Bangkok the weather was so bad and the air so choppy that the captain decided to cancel our last meal on the plane.

We arrived tired and hungry at the enormous Suvamabhumi International airport amidst thousands of holiday makers, mostly from China and Japan at 2 AM in the morning.  It took us a while to figure out that our hotel, although of the same chain, was not the one at the airport but rather 45 minutes away. The seemingly endless lines at the public taxi stand, with taxis trickling in at a snail’s pace, pushed us to return to the terminal and rent a limo, something we had at first thumbed our noses at because it was three times the cost of a public taxi. The Thai currency is the Baht. Like any other unknown local currency which relates unfavorably to the dollar, it presents itself with intimidating zero’s. In the end our ‘expensive’ limo-taxi ride was less than half the price we paid for the same distance from our home to Logan airport.

By the time we had made up for our missed meal through the hotel’s night menu service, it was 4:30 AM. This was only 3 hours away from our wake up call to return to the airport for the last leg of our journey to Cambodia. Once again, we joined a cast of thousands: pale Japanese and tanned Northern Europeans snaked their way through this and that line to get to their respective planes. As a mantra I kept repeating Mark Twain’s words: if you are patient you can wait much faster.

By the gates we said our goodbyes for the week: Axel boarded the Siem Reap flight and I boarded the Phnom Penh flight. I arrived at the lovely Plantation Hotel, sipped from a fresh coconut while waiting for my room and then fell into a deep sleep from which it took me at least 30 minutes to recover.  I had, after all, missed 3 nights.

A little groggy I joined my colleagues for dinner in a shopping mall where all of Phnom Penh seemed to hang out for Sunday fun. There we met one of our counterparts who had been so kind to sacrifice his Sunday evening to give us the lay of the wheelchair land in Cambodia. I had a hard time keeping up with the long list of acronyms and the cast of characters that make up a complex web of interactions, agendas, needs, priorities and habits. It was a French restaurant with a buffet that was essentially French with some light Italian and Cambodian influences.

I had booked a massage, the last slot at 9 PM, to help me resume my sleep without difficulty. Our informant had offered to drop us off at the hotel after our meal. I soon regretted that we had accepted his offer as he had forgotten where he had parked his car in the large mall garage. For about 15 minutes we searched for a car that we would not recognize even if we stood in front of it – with a color shared that is rather ubiquitous here. Although I arrived a little at the hotel I got my full hour of expert massage after which I sank into a long and deep sleep.

In transit (beginning)

Room-less I scout around the hotel lobby for a plug so that I don’t have to use up precious battery time for the long trip home that starts in an hour. I checked out of my room at noon time after doing all my reports and emptying my mailbox so that I can start with a clean electronic desk when I get home.

Prateek came to pick me up for a last Cambodian curry lunch and a last tour of Phnom Penh which included a visit to the mall to replace the socks that got lost in the free laundry at the 12 dollar a night hotel. This mall is the hotspot for Cambodian teenagers; they hang out, date, go roller skating and eat American fast food on top of a noisy six-story building. If you make it past the throbbing crowds of teenagers you actually have a very nice view of the city and its river.

To balance the new with the old we also visit the hill that has given the city its name, with its temples, shrines and statues and countless places that can hold bills, incense sticks and other offerings that keep this place and its visitors in good shape. There are monkeys on the hill that escape into the city and walk across the various cables that crisscross above the streets as if they are in the jungle. I have never seen urban monkeys. Only the tourists pay attention to them.

At the airport I buy one of the many books I now want to read about this country, a biography of the bad guy (Brother Number One) by David Chandler. I had not expected the variety of books about the dark period at the well-stocked airport bookstore. Many of them are first person stories but these are not what I am interested in. I select the biography because I am curious about the personal history and how it intersected with what was happening on the world scene. I read about one fifth of the book on the short hop to Bangkok.

Emirates is at the uninteresting concourse where I have a long wait, sans lounge access, seeing both AF and KLM depart long before my flight, going straight where I want to go. But first I have to go to Dubai, my 6th visit in 3 months. I am already tired, feeling sweaty and grimy as if at the end of various long transits but I have only just started my long journey home. I keep my fingers crossed for an empty flight – why would anyone want to go to Dubai in the middle of the night?

April 2019
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