Harry – a Texan who sounds as though he traded in his twang for an Australian drawl – celebrated his birthday on 14 May. Being the owner of the “Sundance Inn and Saloon” he generously shouted his friends, regulars, strays and assorted others an evening of food, drinks and music on the house.
Sauntering in at about 20:00, the place was already rocking, with a live band tuning up. I minced up to the bar and asked for a gin and tonic – the tropical tipple of choice to ward off the dreaded malaria. The young Cambodian bartender pulled out a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and started to free-pour into a tumbler. I watched open-mouthed as the gin kept running. Then she dropped in a slice of lime, added a few ice-cubes and topped it up with a touch of tonic. The drink was massive, enough to starve off the mossies for the rest of the wet season. The general measure of spirits in the Kingdom of Wonder – as Cambodia is known – is a carefully calculated thimble-full. This saloon-pouring approach was enough to make me think Butch Cassidy might stroll in at any minute. But nobody would have noticed as the place was already awash with interesting types.
So, with drink in hand, I mixed-and-mingled. A few people knew each other, most didn’t. But, frankly, it didn’t matter anyway as everyone was just into having a good time. During the course of the evening I met – among various others – a yoga teacher from Morocco, a singer/tourist from New Zealand and a Swiss organizer from one of the multitude of NGOs that line Street 240.
And the food just kept coming: succulent chicken pieces, sliced eggplant, veggie wraps, marinated meat. The kitchen worked overtime; as quickly as it was consumed, it was replaced.
After a spectacular evening of charming company, fab food and bourgeois booze I made my slightly-inebriated way home. Once there I slid into bed and slept well. Really, I deserved a hangover the next morning. But when that didn’t happen it added to my evaluation that it had been a “perfect” event. Or, as Skip noted, “It was quite the tribal-blow-out with some interesting moments.”
The Sundance Inn and Saloon is going to become my regular. And I’ve already pencilled 14 May 2014 into my iCalendar.
Sauntering into an art exhibit opening in a new country is always an experience that I approach without any brush strokes. No expectations; no preconceived notions.
The Tamarind Restaurant on Street 240 – better known as NGO Road – was art-deco-ed out for the event.
And Chhim Sothy – the Cambodian artist with the solo exhibit – apparently has a bit of a following, judging by the locals who turned up. Off to a good start.
As is my MO (modus operandi for those fortunate enough to have escaped Latin) I minced in to check it out. Hummmm, engaging, but nothing that grabbed me by the throat. Perhaps because I’ve seen similar abstract paintings elsewhere: Sydney, Saskatoon, Singapore. But then, I’m not an art critic. Rather, just an arty chick who critiques.
After about my third sangria – which helped wash down the irresistible tapas-to-drool-for that just kept coming – I extracted myself from the usual chit-chat and wandered up to the second floor.
Ah, alone in an artistic space. And there it was – the painting I’d been looking for. One glance and it screamed “Cambodia” at me. The kramar – a scarf that also serves as a head-wrap, a brow-mopper, a baby sling and a host of other uses; the figure picking across the garbage dump with a bag to collect the recycle-ables. For me the painting had all the signs and symptoms of global suffering and universal hope.
Back on the ground floor, I nudged my friend Tony to introduce me to the artist. When I waxed eloquently about “My Family” – as the painting was titled – Chhim Sothy asked if I wanted to buy it. Yes, but – alas – it wouldn’t fit into the one suitcase, the carry-on and the diaper bag that hold all my worldly possessions. So the photo will have to suffice.
We chatted and Chhim Sothy gave me a copy of his press release. From that I learned he was born in Kandal province in 1969. Then he moved to Phnom Penh and studied traditional Khmer painting at the Royal University of Fine Arts. From what I can gather, he has had a varied career of bureaucracy and freelance that spans exhibits in nine countries and various awards.
Alas, Chhim Sothy doesn’t have a web site or an email address. But you can contact him on (855) 12-83-22-28 or at No 1 Eo, Street 109, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. So when you are in Phnom Penh, do be sure to go around and check out his work.
The acrid smoke from the fire at the dump stung my eyes, burned my nostrils and cloyed at the back of my throat. Nick the tuk-tuk driver had asked a couple of questions in Khmer and then wandered off. A scrawny totally wasted middle-aged man leaned over the edge of the tuk-tuk and nattered at me. A teenage girl rushed up and shooed him away. The sun beat down on the plastic roof that offered little protection. The flies buzzed. A group of women of various ages gathered under a rickety roof and sat on a table, trying to avoid the heat of the day. They waved and smiled; I returned their greetings.
“May I help you?” asked Lay Vichika. Momentarily stunned, I smiled and invited her to join me in the tuk-tuk. Who would have thought I’d meet a woman who lived at the garbage dump who spoke English? Now 29, she attended the NGO school for five years as a child and she had picked up the lingo.
We started talking with Nick chiming in from time to time if Lay Vichika didn’t understand a word or phrase. What is life like at the dump? Lay Vichika sighed, “Not so easy, not so hard. But we really don’t have any choice. Another problem is that we don’t know when they are going to kick us out.” The major dump was moved from this site to an area near the Killing Fields, but some inhabitants chose to remain where they were because at least they had a tin-and-wood shack to live in.
“Yes, I’m worried. I think about it every day. We have no where to go.”
Her job? To collect plastic bottles and cardboard to sell to the recycle operation. At 17:00 Lay Vichika takes her cart and walks into Phnom Penh to start work. “It is cooler then,” she explains. “It is too hot during the day.” Once there she goes through the trash-cans in her patch, collecting what she can until 23:00. Then she heads home. She works seven days a week and averages about $2.25 a day, or 37 cents an hour.
Lay Vichika has tried to get other jobs, but without success. The minimum wage at the garment factories, for example, is $61 a month and the workers there are trying to get an increase. Her husband picks up construction work when he can – carrying concrete or lumber – and makes about $2.50 a day. “I would like to get a job working with children,” she continues. “I would enjoy looking after them, teaching them.”
“It is hard to do the recycle work with children, so I sent my daughter to live with other people, but I still have my baby.” The two-year old with chubby cheeks smiles up at me.
What kind of future does Lay Vichika wish for her children? “I want them to go to school. To study so they can get good jobs. I don’t want them to have to live like I do.”
The 24 shacks are scattered along a pounded clay road that will turn to quicksand during the rainy season. A rickety ladder leads up to the living quarters because of the floods during the rainy season. Underneath, the malnourished chickens scratch through the garbage in search of food.
The shacks are dank and cramped with an air of hopeless dejection. The few family possessions are crammed into boxes, spread out around the walls. The woman who lives in this particular shanty stuck some pictures from a magazine on the walls in an attempt to add a personal touch. A dirty, limp hammock hangs across the room.
I hand Lay Vichika a bag of clothes and things some friends returning to Australia left. I thank her profusely for her help and slip her a bit of cash. I dig in my handbag and give the rest of the people assembled Canadian flag pins. They smile shyly.
The plan is that I will write the article, get the photos printed and then return. Lay Vichika gave me her mobile number so I can let her know when I’ll be coming. Yes, even the poorest of the poor in Cambodia have mobiles. “That is because it is so cheap to send a text,” offers Nick.
I’m left, once again, being confronted with how people cope with such deplorable living conditions. But as Lay Vichika accurately assesses the situation, “We really don’t have any choice.”
Back at my apartment I’ve written the first draft of the article. I can still feel the smoke in my lungs. My mobile beeps, “Thank you Mom. I’m very happy to know you. I hope to see you soon. I shared the things with the other people. I love you. From Vichika.”
In the last year or so the idea of upgrading my www.j-hanson.com website came to the forefront from time to time. However, I was always managed to push it to the background as it was all just too much work. Then I switched from my old Mac to my new MacBook Air.
The Nurse – who was in Phnom Penh at the time – did her IT best, but there was no way to transfer the iWeb files to a new computer. What? How could it not be possible? Being held hostage by Mac and iWeb made me reconsider the website upgrade. Those in the know told me that Word Press was the way to go. A few assured me that it was so idiot-proof and that even I could figure it out, but the jury is still out on that one.
Web Site Development
So I got in touch with my friend Andrés in Buenos Aires and he and his partner Carolina agreed to design a new site for me. Inshallah, all of a sudden this started getting easier as they are both talented and competent. As anyone who is familiar with my technological ignorance knows, I just don’t get it, which makes me more of a liability than an asset. But they worked around me and got the site operational.
Over the years, a number of people have suggested I should have a blog. But – like the website – it seemed overwhelming. Then all of a sudden there it was with the new website. And it came at such a good time. The diary I’ve kept since August 1981 when I went to live in Nigeria has run its course. I was writing baby Spanish that would not be of interest to anyone ever so it really wasn’t fair to take up space at the Flinders Archives. So now the game plan is to make the ‘blog’ a sort of diary with entries every week to ten days.
And at long last – gracias a mis amigos who are still talking with me – the site is ready to go. I’m really looking forward to getting into it and making it work. So come along on my adventures from Phnom Penh and beyond.
After six demanding weeks in southern Africa – with passport stamps from South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe – it was time to head for the relative peace and tranquillity of South East Asia.
So I retrieved my suitcase in J’Burg and flew to Phnom Penh on 28 January 2013. Why Cambodia? The people are friendly; the food is fresh; the weather is hot and humid. Further, it is cheap and an easy place to live, as I had discovered my first trip here in 2006.
My $342 a month pension from Canada, for example, covers the rent, electricity and a bottle of single malt. And it is more than most people here make in a month. The street – and the poverty that goes with it – is very close and I’ve gotten to know the people who live at the garbage dump. Consequently, I never forget – not even a nanosecond – how fortunate I am. White, educated, and good passports translates as absolutely nothing to whine about.
More on the Kingdom
Cambodia is sandwiched between Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west. The country continues to struggles to recover from the ravages waged by Pol Pot and his henchmen from 1976 to 1979. During this short time, they exterminated about 25 percent of the population. Educated people were on the hit list and the country has yet to develop an intelligencia. The Killing Fields and the torturous Toul Sueng Museum are now major tourist attractions. The skulls and long bones on disaply are a touch overwhelming.
Phnom Penh, the capital city, is a rather faded, dusty, run-down city with its own version of charm and contradictions. The French designed wide side-walks for elegant promenades; the rich Khmer – as the people here are called – park their 4X4s on them. What pedestrians? Tuk-tuks and scooter taxis are everywhere, and to walk to the end of the block screams “abject poverty.” So if I want to go to a restaurant down the street for lunch I have to walk the gauntlet of tuk-tuk and moto drivers who all vie for my attention.
The infrastructure is just sort of there. The electrical wiring – true to form in most of South East Asia – is an amazing maze of wires that seem to go everywhere and anywhere. But it works and that is all that counts. Cambodia is one of the few countries where you can waltz in on a business visa and buy an extension for a year. No need to go anywhere near an embassy as any travel agency can arrange it.
The Nurse – as we call her because she is one – and her partner Andrew –came to my 60th at Victoria Falls and arrived in Phnom Penh via Bangkok a few days after I did. It was wonderful to have company as I settled into my new home. We wandered around and acted like tourists for the month they were here.
Within a week I found a small apartment – think large hotel room – in a serviced building that would do. I gave the place a good scrubbing before I unpacked. The housekeepers now come in twice a week and my standards have taken a serious hit on the cleanliness scale. The lease ends on 4 May and I will move on.
I’ve been writing travel pieces and teaching a few English classes. As is my MO, I’m beginning to develop a network of contacts. Other plans in the works are to start writing Internet articles about local businesses and to crack into editing documents and websites written by the locals. When I lived in the Middle Kingdom in 1986-87 I swore the Chinese wrote the worst English in the world. Now that I live in Cambodia, however, I stand corrected.
Stay on the page as there are more episodes to follow now that I have a blog. More on that in the next post.
When I showed the Nurse – as we call her because that’s her vocation – the email from Scott she immediately squealed, “You have to go.”
Scott is my kindred sprit from Sydney. We are uncannily alike in so many ways that it is scary: think of a mirror reflection of me. Interestingly enough, we arrived at the same space from diametrically opposed directions. Fortunately, we do have out differences as otherwise our “sameness” might be illegal.
A man of few words, Scott does things simply because he can. Or doesn’t, even though he could, depending on the situation. He wrote that he had organized a surprise for my birthday. Peter — whom he knows from his Sandhurst days — owns the River Lodge on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls and I was to go there. And he ended his message with “Transport has been arranged for 11:00. No arguments please.”
What to wear, what to wear? I travel with a carry-on and have this idiosyncratic “rule” that if you don’t wear every item of clothing at least once you didn’t get it right. Yes, yes I know I’m becoming increasingly eccentric and/or neurotic, but you have to give me a break as I had just turned 60 that morning. So I proceeded to cobble together a Carmen-inspired outfit to go with the necklace I bought myself as a 60th present in Cape Town.
The driver appeared, the passport was stamped and another driver waited for me on the Zambian side. He carried on after the sign to the River Lodge and then turned left down a buffalo trail that had grass growing between the tire tracks. A helicopter ride perhaps? Scott owns a Bell and knows I enjoy choppers.
The Zambezi River appeared before us. As I stepped out of the van Peter greeted me and said we would go to the lodge by boat. I clamoured onto the waiting jetty – being graceful in such situations has never been my forte – and noticed a man with his back to me. He slowly turned around and there stood my 60th birthday present: Scott.
We meandered back to the lodge, getting close to some hippos in the river and watching four elephants – two standing and two laying – under a tree. Very African safari stuff. Peter said the animals in the area know the sound of his outboard motor and aren’t scared, which is why he can get so close.
As I walked towards the lodge, a blond woman came towards me with her arms held out and said “And I’m Monique James.” Surprise number two as I’d introduced Scott and Monique to each other years ago. And I got to meet Sarah, a delightful woman Scott has known forever, who had come along.
Lunch was served in the gazebo. I will leave it to your imagination to droll about how good it was. Peter whacked the cork off the third bottle of champagne with the bottom of a wine glass. It cracked the glass perfectly so that it broke cleanly with the cork still embedded. The force of the bubbles kept anything from going back into the bottle. Scott sniffed and said it really should have been properly executed with a sword. I asked Peter if he had practiced on bottles of Baby Duck before moving on to Verve. He shot he a look that answered the question.
A birthday cake – complete with candles — appeared. I kept blowing and they kept relighting. Scott had brought them with him to make me puff for my wish.
After lunch we piled into the lodge van and headed to the helicopter field for a 30-minute flight over Victoria Falls. The first attempt had to be aborted as it started to rain. Walking away Scott and I looked at each other as the pilot’s rocking-landing had been so bad even I noticed.
On the second go we flew over the falls — breath taking panoramic view — and then followed a gorge. I was a touch twitchy as we were close to the rocks. Even the slightest ding in a propeller and it would have been a fast drop into the white water below. Scott critiqued the ride and said it was the “weightlessness” drops that had worried him.
High tea was waiting when we returned to the lodge. Monique decided to nap, Sarah had a pedicure and Scott wanted to fish so I went to the dock with him. After one cast a boat arrived so there wasn’t even enough time for a one-that-got-away story to develop.
We moved to the lounge in Scott’s stilted tree-house that overlooked the Zambezi. It was literally on top of the water, but the pet hippo who hangs around the lodge didn’t make an appearance. It was a delightful time. The four years since I’d left Sydney had slid away the moment I saw Scott on the boat and we had picked up where we left off. I draw on his strength and energy. He thinks I have some sort of spark embedded.
In the evening, Trudy from the lodge joined us for dinner in the gazebo. We regaled each other with stories and opinions not often found at a dinner party. She was a touch wide-eyed and confessed that her assumptions had been challenged. On the walk back to the lodge to escape the mosquitoes I stage-whispered to Scott that it was a good thing we hadn’t included accounts of our truly outrageous antics as it might have hospitalized her.
At 21:15 Peter arrived to whisk me away to the border. I was on a day-pass and had to cross before it closed at 22:00. Scott knows he is a central person in my life, and I wanted to remind him of that as we walked towards the van. He came back with “It will have to wait until the next unexpected catch-up. And no, I won’t be giving you any notice for that one either.”
My surprise sixtieth can only be described as spectacular. And, frankly, Scott is the only person on the planet I know who would do it simply because he could: flights, accommodation, meals, a helicopter trip and a birthday cake with trick candles. Magic.
My only regret is that I returned Scott’s sweater just before the van pulled away. He laughed and said, “Now that you’re going to be in Cambodia it is easier to see you as I’m in and out of Asia regularly. The plan was to collect the jumper for your 61st.” That constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Bastard!