Phnom Penh - the trip accelerates
Trip Start Dec 06, 2006
12Trip End Jan 06, 2007
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We walked up the three flights of stairs to DK's apartment and into the aircon bedroom room where a St. Mark's hanging was on the wall - Leslie touched it and kind of whimpered - it all
still felt pretty radical. We hung out for awhile and then while Leslie and David took a nap I walked over to the market for some coffee and to see a lady I met last trip - Khai Sreang, who looks like she's been sick.
That night we went to Linda's house for dinner. Up another three flights of some very dark stairs and on to a balcony where a charcoal fire was going. We met a lot of people and then sat down to a dinner of curry, baguettes, beef/green tomato salad, Angkor beer, cokes. It
was a good time with good-looking people and good food. Actually got to rocking pretty good (except I no rockin' no more). Then off down the street to David's apartment accompanied by a woman named Pak. Once in the apartment we moved another bed into the bedroom and the three of us slept in aircon/fan-cooled splendor.
Awoke in the middle of the night and sat on balcony for awhile. The city still, faint smell of wood and charcoal smoke, jasmine (in pots on the balcony) fragrance, occasional dog barking. In the morning birds singing, more wood/charcoal smoke, dogs barking, motos, children on bikes. Across the way a servant girl sweeps the dust, slowly.
Got out on the streets around market before market opens, except side streets are also markets - fish, meat, vegetables, household goods, etc. By the time I got back around 0900 I was feeling that old dragged out feeling and by the time we got to a restaurant there were waves of abdominal pain.
We continued on though, to the hospital for a wonderful visit with a man named Rithy, A PA (and MPH) who runs the telemed program as well as seeing patients in primary care. The telemed program connects the main hospital with outreach teams and clinics in rural areas. About 10 minutes into the visit I had to lie down on the floor - which, this being Cambodia, was unremarkable. Many parallels Rithy and us: on David's end, Rithy is Khmer who grew up in the US and so is not completely Cambodian. He had some wisdom to share with David.
On Leslie and my end, he has, since 1998 served the poor and has been an innovator. We stayed at Rithy's office for a couple of hours and his uncle took me on his moto to David's apartment - Leslie, David, Rithy, and his uncle went to lunch wehile I dozed the afternoon away.
Song of the day: Beethoven String Quartet, opus 130.
Sunday: we piled into a car - actually there were two cars full of people (and over the next few hours, families on motos trickling in) - for a visit to Sang Van's house. The house is is in a semi-rural area outside of Phnom Penh: stucco, three rooms with two inside bathrooms. No aircon, but the rooms are fairly cool and there are many windows. Outside is a cooking area and a bathroom and shower (no showers inside). There are are at least two mango trees (that, for you mango lovers, produce huge numbers of mangos), coconut palms, sugar palms, papayas, etc. As soon as we arrived we were given young coconuts to drink the milk, jack
fruit, cokes and then someone put on a DVD of Linda's wedding with Sang Van's son. The
volume was high, kind of warm in the house, we're relaxing on a teak platform that Cambodians use instead of chairs, watching the DVD. After awhile I leave to walk out on the dirt lane in front of the house.
The lane runs along side a small river. On Sang Van's side of the road the houses are mostly traditional wood on stilts with a social area underneath for sitting, lying on the platform or hammock, cooking and so on. SV's house is one of the only new stucco ones we saw. Between the road and the river poor people live in small mostly stilted houses on plots maybe 15x15 feet. No electric going to these homes.
So I'm walking up the road to take some photos. A few children gather around (who ever saw such a thing as me). They got closer and closer and there was that wonderful smell of smoky
bodies, sweat, fish. So we're standing outside a house all in a clump and someone hands me a photograph of an Anglo child and on the back is written, "Hi, I'm Tiffany. I'm 5 1/2 years old. I live in Modesto, California in the U.S.A. I hope you like the gift box I sent you." IN CASE ANYONE WAS THINKING YOUR CARE PACKAGES DON'T MATTER.
There is a girl with drops of sweat, like beads, on her nose and upper lip - just there the whole time I was there - just there like her life lived 10 feet from this dusty road sleeping on a cast away bamboo mat on the bamboo floor of this dusty, dirty house that never saw a fan; that
would be a whole lot better house if it had a pig living under it like the neighbor's house; and she's looking at me. Maybe the smell isn't so wonderful to her - like she can even smell it. She's looking at me.
Linda's dad comes out to get me for lunch: whole steamed fish, fried eel or snakefish with ginger, fried ribs, beef salad, soup, something else, rice, water, cokes, beer. After lunch I sleep on the platform with the wedding DVD blaring like a Blue Cheer "wall of sound" - I awake, sweating, but just from the heat, not the fever I've had since yesterday.
Why are we at this house? I'll just lay it out for the more dedicated readers to put together. Sang Van's first husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge early on. She kept most of her children alive through the bad years and escaped to Thailand around 1979. Meanwhile, her second husband, Khuon Voeuth, was in a Khmer Rouge forced marriage that resulted in one daughter. SV and KV met at Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, married, and came to the U.S. with her three boys and a boy she picked up on the way out of Cambodia. Leslie and I sponsored this family in 1981-82 and were very close for a good while. Another part to the story is that I fought in Vietnam. My 13 months of combat does not compare to the years of suffering, but it wasn't nothing. Fast-forward 25 years: SV built this house, where KV's former wife, daughter, and granddaughter now live. This is the house where David lived his first few weeks in Cambodia. So now, here we are ...
Monday: David took us to the hospital where he works: the Sihanouk Hospital of Hope (operated by Hope International). We walk through the crowds of people sitting on benches out front, waiting, hoping to be seen. A woman named Gerlinda takes Leslie and me on a tour through the hospital - urgent/primary care (200+ patients/day), emergency, tuberculosis (by now, hard for me to speak as the tears are just ready), pharmacy, medicine, surgery, library (books dating 1982-2001), and now back to the car and on to HIV/AIDS (lots of cachectic,
jaundiced people) and finish at the AIDS hospice.
Gerlinda is 34, from a poor family in the Philippines. She left home when she was 16 to study medicine in the USSR. I don't remember how long she said it was when the USSR ceased to exist and they told her to go home. She would not (so much for submissive Asian women) and
was able to finish medical school in Russia. She has worked in Russia, Afghanistan, and Cambodia She works for Hope. She works for
Hope. She works for Hope. I know I'm a lot more hopeful thanks to her presence in the world.
Back about 1982 the Dalai Lama reached out to me and took my hands in his and said, "Keep doing this work." Today Leslie says something about the need for people who do the work to be reincarnated. I didn't say anything, but thought, yeah, that's what we're trying to do through
faith/works, through schools, through song, art, prayer, living.
I'll sing your song the best I can. I'll sing mine the best I can. Oh, I wish I could live a 1000 years. The smell of sweat, smoke, bodies, sweat standing on on her nose ... Keep doing this work. Sure, nothing better to do, that's for sure.