Galloping Into the Year of the Horse

As we slither out of the Year of the Snake and prepare to gallop into the Year of the Horse – 31/01/2014 to 18/02/2015 – it is time for an update.

People subjected to my blogs and such might want to skip this year-in-review as it contains old news. According to my friend Bob/bi in New Zealand, “Darling, I never have to wonder what you are up to as you usually send a couple of hundred photos every week.” True masochists – or those desperate for reading material – can follow the hyper links to the articles for more information on any given topic.

In Review

A year ago I enjoyed the most spectacular birthday ever at Victoria Falls.

Vic Falls 3S&J 2On the topic of birthdays, remember to mark 24 January 2023 in your diary as my 70th will be at Kampala. I’ve never been to Uganda , the pearl of Africa, – or Rwanda or Burundi – so turning 70 is a good reason to explore the area. As for the stats, only one person showed up for my 50th in Timbuktu, but that rocketed up to six for the 60th. Let’s aim for 10 or 12 for the 70th.

After the birthday festivities I headed for Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder. Once in Phnom Penh – the capital which is really just a big small town – I did the initial recognizance work. IMG_2937When The Nurse and Andrew showed up a week or so later I already had it sussed. They were here for almost a month and it was great to spend quality time with them.


After six months in two apartments I didn’t like I found one I did. IMG_3357-001 Now that I’m officially a senior, the Canadian Pension Plan pays my rent. They give me $342.26 a month. The rent for the airy, light infused one-bedroom apartment is $300 and the electricity comes in at about $20. That leaves me with enough for a few meals out.

The terrace – complete with a swing – overlooks the back of Wat Boton. IMG_3362-001So I get to sit out there with a glass of wine in the evenings and see what the monks really get up to. Some are very adept at crawling over the fence in their street clothes. Others aren’t so fortunate and hit the ground hard. One in the top room loves to prance around naked and then stand in front of the window. But, really, who cares?


In terms of getting around, I’m in training to be the next Mary Poppins. My second-hand bike has a basket and I can pedal practically anywhere I want in very little time. Worth a watch, here is a one minute 18 second YouTube clip to give you an idea of what the traffic is like in the capital.


Since I arrived in the Kingdom I’ve cobbled together a patchwork of teaching and writing that paid the bills. Next year I want to do a lot more writing and no teaching unless they are willing to pay me hideous rates. Students here cannot grasp the concept of singular and plural. So no matter how many times they are corrected it is still three day, five dollar, twenty person.

I developed some local business ideas – like writing advertorials – but haven’t done anything with them, so it is time to get that properly organized. I’m also checking out online work that I can do from anywhere. IMG_3520Another development is that I’ve become a food writer for The Advisor – a local arts and entertainment newspaper – so I dine out at some of the best places in town.IMG_3529

In summary, by local standards I’m a rich woman as a middle-class salary in the Kingdom is $300 to $500 a month. IMG_2774By Canadian ones, a pauper. But do I sound as though I really concerned about my financial status?


Shortly after I arrived I decided I wanted to meet the ajai, the scavengers who go through the garbage to find plastic, metal, cardboard and glass to sell to the recycle places. I posted the photos from the dump at Stung Meanchy; friends and family donated money; Down in the Dumps (DITD) was born.

IMG_3553In the process I got to know Nick – whom I often say is a combination of being my personal chauffeur, a friend and a little brother – and Vichika, my on-the-ground organizer at the dump. IMG_4422

To date, people have donated $2808USD, which is the local  currency in the Kingdom. photo 10-001We started off with doing basic supply runs – rice, tins of sardines and soy sauce.

Next we moved on to a photo auction at the International Day of the Girl.

Girls's day collageBrad’s11 minute clip is well worth watching because it takes you into the guts of the dump. My only criticism of this otherwise brilliant piece is that there is too much footage of the frumpy red-headed interviewer.IMG_4563 The trip to the zoo was a day the     dumpsters won’t forget, so we decided to make it an annual event.

Recently we graduated to micro-loans and Vichika set up a breakfast business. She gets up at 01:00 to cook rice, pork and scrambled eggs, opens at 06:00, and works until the rice runs out. For the first time ever she is making money and has a bank account. Len has a drinks cart and she is doing well. IMG_4059Theada uses Vichika’s space in the afternoon to sell cookies, cakes and other unhealthy things. Three families are working their way out of poverty and paying back their loans so the next applicants can get one.

When The Nurse came in December she did clinics at the dump. IMG_4685She brought medicine from Australia, bought some things here and put together a mobile backpack medical kit.

And just in time as Dr. Grant and Nurse Jane came to visit in January and they had the essentials. IMG_5184As I say in the piece, I have no hesitation about exploiting the medical skills of my friends. Most tourists get to the sights of Wat Phnom; they get to peer down into people’s infected ears.

I thought the dump was about the lowest of the low, but then I met the tree people. They literally live under a tree over on Street 110. The family consists of Lin – the mother – Tran – the useless sperm donor – and four kids ranging in age from seven months to seven years. TivanAll DITDs can do is give them food, milk, and water from time to time. Photo0012Tivan and Tivin – the oldest boy and girl – are in a residential situation at Friends. During the week they have a safe place to sleep, day care and food. They spend the weekend with their parents and siblings under the tree.

I have also developed a new function in life, being a pillow. DSC_7763Frequently when I pick up a tree kid s/he promptly falls asleep. Sharon – my social worker friend in Canada – says it is because they feel safe and can let down their guard. The other contending theory is that I’m the most boring person on the face of the earth and the little darlings just can’t keep their eyes open. The last time I went to see Tivin at Friends she went into such a deep sleep at 09:30 that we had to almost shake her awake. The caregivers weren’t sure what to think.


The social scene in Phnom Penh is as much as you want it to be.IMG_2314 Openings for art exhibits, restaurants and galleries are happening all the time. One week I went to four, but karked out on the fifth as there is only so much wine and nibbles I can cope with, excessive though I am.

IMG_2813Meta House, just down the street, has more events than one could possibly attend without living on the premises.




In the expat world it is easy to meet people. Consequently my friends range from Princess Soma Norodom – cousin of the King – to Brad Callihoo – the only one-legged Iroquois photographer on the face of the earth – to Lin – DSC_7783who lives under a tree.  Really, does it get much more diverse?

The Sundance Inn and Saloon is my local. No matter what time I wander in, there is someone at the bar to talk to. IMG_3256Or not, if I want to conjugate Spanish verbs. Yes, yes I know I’m eccentric or neurotic or a combination of both, but studying Spanish keeps me amused, and that is what counts.IMG_3257



Plans for the Year of the Horse

To sum it up, write more, teach less, do meaningful dump work, and make some money. A perfect case scenario would be to spend March, April and May – when it is hideously hot here – in Madrid to improve my Spanish. The rest of the year I would stay in the Kingdom, with a side trip to Canada in August to visit with kith and kin.

The Nurse and Andrew are back in mid-February so she can do more clinics. Lucky girl, she gets to go to all the fun places.

Neil and Emma from Australia are coming to visit in April. On 1 March they are having an art exhibition to raise money for DITD that I will have a wonderful time spending.

My friend David bought me a ticket to Sydney for my birthday, so I will be there from 15 to 21 April.

Mostly I sort of live in the moment and from day-to-day so that is about it for plans for the upcoming lunar year.

And for those still reading, auspicious wishes for the Year of the Horse and all the best on galloping into it. If in doubt, hold onto the saddle horn and enjoy the ride.









Svay Ken Opening at Meta House

On Tuesday 21 January there was a wonderful exhibit opening at Meta House. The following is from their invitation. Click on the title to take you to the next page and then scroll down to see the photographs..

Self-taught painter Svay Ken (1933 – 2008) was an artistic visionary and pioneer of Cambodian contemporary art. He spontaneously took up the brush and palette in 1993, as Cambodia was emerging from more than two decades of war and social turmoil – and many years after returning to his old job as a waiter at Phnom Penh’s prestigious Hotel Le Royal, where he had first begun to work in 1955. The show Phnom Penh Painter (until February 09) commemorates the fifth anniversary of his death. It is part of the Our City Festival, organized by Java Arts.









Dr Grant and Nurse Jane

“I’ve never seen an exposed auditory ossicle before,” commented Dr. Grant. For the medically uninitiated like me that translates as the three bones in the middle ear aka the hammer, anvil and stirrup that we learned about in Grade Six health class. A major medical problem at the dump is ears. Many people get infections and they end up with blockages and perforated ear-drums. “And the guy with the eye problems, the drops he was using were for the nose. It is fortunate he didn’t go blind.” IMG_5182

“First of all do no harm,” added Nurse Jane who is the CEO of a hospital on the Gold Coast, “so we have to go back tomorrow and do some follow up. I’m worried about Vichika as she is very sick.”

Such is the debrief of a medical clinic at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump. When the Nurse was here in December she put together a basic medical back-pack. Grant and Jane contributed a stethoscope and various other first aid things so it is now well stocked.                                                                                                     IMG_5212




The following day Grant and Jane headed back to the dump with Nick, the Down in the Dumps tuk-tuk driver and translator. The word went out and more people lined up to see them. They bought the needed drugs for the patients they treated and took Vichika to the hospital. “I can’t believe the scan cost $8. In Australia it would have been about $400 to $500.” noted Grant. IMG_5209IMG_5196

Yo, I have no hesitation about exploiting the skills of my medical friends when they come to visit. Most tourists go to the Royal Palace to see the sites; Grant and Jane got to peer down the channel into infected ears.

After a day at the dump they retreated to Raffles – the most up market hotel in the Kingdom – and then met us at the InterContential for an art exhibit opening. Such are the contradiction of life in the Kingdom, from the dump to the high life all in a given day. IMG_5262

Grant glanced at Nick who was initiating his mother and aunt into the world of five-star openings and enjoying the complimentary wine and nibbles. “Do you think Nick’s life has changed since you parachuted in and took over a year ago, MJ?” Grant asked. Hummmm, maybe. The Nurse mentioned that my bossiness was good for him.IMG_5252

After Grant and Jane flew back to Singapore Nick showed up with $100 they had left to take Mon – a 61 year old woman who’d had a stroke – to the hospital. She was paralyzed on one side.

“Why are you giving it to me? I’m not a medical person so there is no point in me going to the hospital. Besides, I don’t speak Khmer so I would be a liability. Can you pick her up at  the dump and take her to see the doctor? Figure out your tuk-tuk expenses and time and deduct it.” Okay, okay so I am bossy as charged, but I prefer to think of it as delegating.

A few days later Nick reported in. “The medicine they gave her is working. She can now move around and clean her house.”

Thank you Dr. Grand and Nurse Jane. You made a difference. The next time you visit you might get to see the Royal Palace. And I can ask my friend Princess Soma Norodom – just wrote a piece on her for an American magazine – to give you an insider’s tour.

Budget update

Tony Pineda – beat poet, musician, and man-about-town – had his brother, Ernesto, and his sister, Anna Maria, come for a visit. They came to the dump with us. Vanna asked DITD to fix her house as one wall is only a blanket she found in the rubbish. Ernesto and Anna Maria quietly gave me some money to cover the repairs. Nick and Vachika are onto it and the repairs should be finished soon, they are just waiting on some more poles. The dump people were in agreement that her place is one of the worst.                                            IMG_5156


Markus slid some Euro into my Paypal account; the United Church Women gave my mother a cheque; Iris overpaid Lina’s school fees. So DITD currently has $416.46.