Friday, January 16, 2004
A trip to Cambodia: discovering the country and its connections to Carlisle
I was jolted awake before the 4:15 a.m. alarm. "What kind of a nut would go to Cambodia?" As I prepared for my departure, I tried to figure out what had possessed me to agree to this trip. Was it all those missionary magazines I used to pour over when I was young or was it Sam, the bubbly Cambodian orphan who had wriggled her way into our hearts when we helped to care for her last year? I decided most of the blame rested with Dr. Nancy Hendrie, our kids' pediatrician years ago here in Carlisle, who encouraged me to visit the orphanage, English school and farming projects which she had founded in Cambodia. Knowing she possessed both the experience of 39 trips to Cambodia and a willingness to lead a tour that combined social action with sight-seeing, it seemed an opportunity too good to refuse.
The idea for our trip took hold at a First Religious Society social action meeting in the spring of 2003 but the outbreak of SARS put plans on hold until the fall. While we welcomed anyone in the Carlisle community, the November time-frame and expense narrowed the group to FRS members including myself, Mosquito photographer Ellen Huber and Carlisle resident Emily Saylor, who had time before her college start in January. The church community supported us emotionally and armed us with suitcases full of clothing donations. We didn't travel light; two bags apiece packed to the maximum 70 pounds each and our own possessions in our carry-ons.
The trip to Asia, a first for the three of us, included a six-hour flight to Los Angeles, 20-hour flight to Singapore, a seven-hour layover which allowed us a shower and nap at the airport transit hotel, and then a three-hour flight to Phnom Penh. We arrived on November 7 at a spanking new airport which nonetheless lacked escalators, my first clue we were in a Third World country. Our load was quickly lightened by Dr. Hendrie's able assistant, Chan Kim Leng, better known as Elephant, who had come to America and spoken at our church in the summer of 2002.
It was a short but adventurous ride to our hotel. The city felt relatively small and the rules of the road non-existent. Imagine heading into the Concord rotary, turning left or right, and driving on either side of the road, depending on what is most convenient. We discovered that this random approach made pedestrian crossings challenging at best. The mode of transportation was largely "motos," small motorcycles, and "cyclos," pedicabs, but there were also a lot of Toyotas, generally smaller, older cars and some trucks. Whatever the method, the speed was relatively slow and the load was maximized; we saw motos with up to six people and others heaped with produce, baskets and even farm animals. Our favorite was a fully packed van with a wobbly stack of 20 bikes loosely tied to the roof and two brave riders perched on top of them. We traveled on paved roads from the airport and saw a few stoplights but learned that many side streets are dirt and badly rutted. The main highway to Vietnam had only recently been paved.
A devastating past
Events of the last 30 years have left the people and country devastated. During the brutal Pol Pot regime, from 1975-79, 1.7 million people were brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge who evacuated the cities, executed anyone with an education, forced everyone, even young children, into hard labor, and starved them. The Vietnamese eventually forced out the ultra-leftist group but life during their regime was also extremely difficult and they remain a hated minority in the country. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the country stabilized under the rule of a constitutional monarchy. However, all those years of deprivation have left the people, culture and infrastructure impoverished and the nation struggling to get on its feet.
Corruption still seems to penetrate Cambodian institutions and perhaps that shouldn't be surprising as former Khmer Rouge leaders still hold powerful positions, salaries are horribly low and jobs are scarce. The average per capita income is less than $300 per year. In addition, land mines, an ugly reverberation from Cambodia's past, have left one in 275 people amputees and continue to kill or maim 40-50 people a month.
A weak educational system
Cambodia is working to improve its educational system but problems exist. Only about 65% of the adult population is literate, so there is a limited pool of adults to lay the groundwork for an educated populace. Since teachers are paid only $20 per month, students might be punished if they don't bring additional money for their teacher. The public schools in Cambodia are now free, but many children must work so they cannot attend. Of those who attend, many do not finish elementary school.
After seeing the conditions there, Hendrie, along with nurse practitioner and former Carlisle resident Judy Jones, founded The Sharing Foundation (TSF) in 1998 with the mission "to help meet the physical, emotional, educational and medical needs of orphaned and seriously disadvantaged children in Cambodia." In December 2000, the foundation opened an orphanage in the village of Roteang, and since that time it has initiated various projects in the village to help some of its poorest families.
At the Roteang Village School, at their request, it was The TSF that covered the dirt floors with cement, put room dividers into the two long buildings to create individual classrooms and did the painting. Rote learning is the norm in the public school and children are in classes of 50-60 during the 8-11 a.m. or 1-5 p.m. session. During the late afternoon, TSF provides sections of fewer than 25 students with free one-hour English classes, and Dr. Hendrie started a library in a small room with a table and chairs. After our delivery of a large number of donated books, there were almost two shelves of books for the 350 students in the English program. We observed the classes and talked with the kids who wanted to converse in English and hear about America. A number of children, not in the program, peered into the classrooms, eager to learn. While Khmer is the common language, knowing English will open doors to jobs in the slowly growing service and tourist sectors. Through the open windows we watched children swarming over the swing set donated by TSF, a scruffy soccer team playing on the dusty field, the cows grazing and villagers working in the fields.
An agrarian economy
Cambodia has a largely agrarian economy; 85% of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood. There are many beautiful green rice paddies and lots of bananas, coconuts and unusual fruits, like Emily's favorite, the durian, which has such a bad odor that it's banned in hotels. Because of the country's past, determining true land ownership is difficult — part of the reason that Dr. Hendrie ended up in Roteang Village, about 45 minutes southeast of Phnom Penh, where there was a piece of land with clear title for the orphanage. Through the generosity of the Ruettgers family in Carlisle, TSF also rents 10 acres and oversees a working farm so that 46 incredibly poor families, including 153 kids, can live and eat. One member of each family on the farm must work and earns $2 per day. As in most of Cambodia, all of the planting, weeding and harvesting is done by hand. Workers suspend two very large watering cans from a rod over their shoulders to water the crops each day. At harvest time, families will be given what they can use, and the rest will be sold with proceeds available for home improvement projects.
In Roteang, as in most of the countryside, all of the homes are built on stilts. Those in the village have wooden sides, with roofs of thatch, aluminum or tile and seem relatively stable. Those at the farm are very close together, very small, and since many roofs are made of thatch, they need to be repaired or replaced regularly. In the spring, the Ruettgers family will provide water collection systems so those families will be able to collect rainwater from new tin roofs in covered urns with filters.
All of the laundry, at homes and at the orphanages, is done by hand! We felt fortunate to have a small laundry where we could drop a few days' worth of clothes and pick up clean, pressed clothes for $1. And, based on the results, I think that might have been done by hand too.
Value of the dollar
The dollar seems to go a long way in Cambodia and indicative of the value of the local economy, the dollar is the common currency. The local riel, valued at 4,000 to $1, is only used for anything less than $1. There are no ATMs and the only place we could use a credit card was at the hotel.
Most of our food shopping was done at a nice little grocery store near the hotel which sold everything we needed: yogurt (3/$1), water (20 cents), cookies, crackers, beer, wine, toiletries, etc. We found nice gifts at the Russian market, a tin-roofed rabbit warren of vendors that sold everything from motorcycle parts to clothing to pottery. There, I purchased silk scarves and pillowcases for $2, a beautiful wooden box for $4 and silk ties for $4. If I acted like I didn't want something, the prices got lower! Another fun place to shop was the central market, which had a large domed roof, lots of jewelry vendors, cloth and silk items as well as regular clothing, like t-shirts and hats for $2. That market also had food vendors and we all photographed Elephant eating a cricket - he was used to eating them during Pol Pot times. We also shopped at some wonderful handcraft shops with a purpose. We made at least three trips to the Tabitha shop, founded by a woman from Canada, which helps women become self-sufficient by weaving and sewing. Although home-based, once a week the women work together at the shop. Two stores sold beautiful crafts made by the handicapped, frequently land-mine victims: N.C.D.P., which had a wide variety of gifts and the Japanese Craft Shop, which had sturdy and creative wooden toys.
The "department store" seemed like a poorly stocked K-Mart with lots of cheap imports. It was the only place that sold toys, cheap plastic items and stuffed animals, as the concept of play seems to be foreign in a country where kids are frequently part of the labor force.
It's difficult to think of Cambodia without visualizing the many children and their poor living conditions. The median age is 19 years old and only 3% of the population is over 65. Everywhere you go there seem to be many children, frequently poorly clad, in need of a bath, begging or selling trinkets, sometimes with eyes reddened with infection from filthy conditions. It wasn't unusual to see a child of six or seven taking care of a younger child. What's remarkable is how easily a smile would
emerge from their beautiful faces.
During our 12-day stay, we visited two government-run orphanages, a poor private orphanage and two group homes run by Maryknoll, a Catholic missionary group. We also spent a good deal of time at the Roteang Orphanage, overseen by Dr. Hendrie and funded by TSF. What we learned was that tuberculosis and AIDS are rampant. With no free medical care, no welfare system, a lack of understanding about AIDS and a society prejudiced against those who are "different," many children cannot be cared for by their parents and are abandoned. In addition, there is a horrible problem with young girls being sold, some as young as pre-school age, to pedophiles or into prostitution.
The government provides little support for the young and vulnerable. We visited one state-run orphanage in Phnom Penh, the Nutrition Center, where the government provides only $50 per child per year. Thanks to Luciano Pavarotti, there are two new buildings, bright and clean, but another non-profit had withdrawn supplemental funding for the nannies, women hired to care for the children, so they hadn't been paid in two months and were starting to quit. Nannies' salaries might range from $20 to $40 per month and sometimes they're charged for the food they eat in their 24-hour day. While the kids at the Nutrition Center, many of whom were severely disabled, seemed generally clean and happy, we also saw a room with up to nine kids and no supervision. For comparison, at Roteang, the nannies are paid $60 a month with four days off, the ratio of nannies to children is 1:1 or 2, depending on the needs of the children, and they are safe, well-fed and receive medical care.
Our most depressing visit was to a poor, privately run orphanage. The young children seemed lifeless, the screens had gaping holes, a young child covered with scabs crawled outside unmonitored, there were no toys and there was nothing but rice for the kids to eat. There, our gift of clothing and cookies seemed pitifully insufficient.
The picture was more cheerful at one of the state-run orphanages where TSF had put on roofing, paid for fuel and found a donor for their kitchen building. There, we were greeted as honored guests by school-age children dressed in costumes who entertained us with traditional Cambodian music and dance. Perhaps the most remarkable moment was when we laid out our used clothing contributions and watched as they politely selected one or a few pieces for themselves. There was no grabbing, no arguing and no complaints, just smiles and gratitude. And it was such fun to see them immediately don their new clothes. This orphanage receives some funding from a French non-profit but the director still lacked money for two nannies' salaries. Someone had long ago collected money for playground equipment but only iron frames arrived and now stood bare without the component swings, slides, etc. I was glad we brought some Frisbees and balsa wood airplanes although they seemed so few for the many children there. On our way out, we watched as the young girls hung their already washed costumes out on the line to dry.
We spent one morning with an energetic Maryknoll lay missioner, John Tucker, whose program focuses on the poor victims of HIV/AIDS. The Sharing Foundation funds antiretroviral medicine for 22 orphans and the medicine is purchased and delivered twice a day under the watchful eye of "Poppa John." After seeing some of those kids in the Nutrition Center, he took us to two Maryknoll group homes in multi-level, modest stucco houses in a residential neighborhood. There I was struck by the dirt, rutted roads, high fencing, loving staff, happy kids and a couple of new arrivals who were extremely malnourished. One preschooler was the size of an infant with the face of an old lady and she failed to engage with anything. While we enjoyed watching the happy, busy kids, John reminded us that many would not be alive today without the AIDS medicine. He introduced us to two of his co-workers, a retired nurse from the D.C. area who tired of just being a grandmother and a young teacher from Framingham who started the preschool program.
Our most fun visits were at Roteang Orphanage, where we had a routine of handing out cookies, blowing bubbles and singing some kids' songs with the 58 orphans, ranging from infant to age 5. While at first they were very skeptical and even afraid of us, over time they seemed to expect our performance and learn how to get our attention. Many of the cases there, as everywhere, were heart-rending, but even in our short stay we saw how a new arrival who was 7 months old but weighed only about 7 pounds, started to gain weight and began to interact with the world. About half of the kids in Roteang have cerebral palsy, AIDS or other medical issues which will prevent them from ever leaving the orphanage. Since the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which now oversees adoptions, has halted Cambodian adoptions except for families approved before 2001, it is unclear if and when any of the other orphans can ever be placed with American families.
While in Cambodia, we had the good fortune to intersect with Dr. Graham and Suzanne Gumley, former Carlisle residents, who lived in Cambodia from 1997-2003 and were in Phnom Penh for a visit. Suzanne seemed happy to give us a tour of the Sihanouk Hospital which she and Graham, a former Lahey Clinic orthopedic surgeon, crafted into a functioning hospital. Sihanouk remains the only free medical hospital for adults in Cambodia. We approached the hospital entrance to find hundreds of people waiting to be seen. Some had appointments for follow-up care, some were emergencies and would be seen promptly but the balance would have to wait and see if they would be chosen via the lottery. That Tuesday, there were an estimated 125 people vying for the 15 slots to see a doctor; on a Monday, we were told, there are likely to be 300 in the lottery. Everyone must bring a relative or friend to help care for them and bring them food from outside vendors. We saw the somewhat cramped emergency room, x-ray rooms, high-tech lab, 11 medical, 13 surgical beds and library (complete with a set of encyclopedias from the Carlisle swap shop). Suzanne said they work to get equipment and books donated, but drugs are expensive and salaries are a challenge to fund. She also talked about the extensive skills-training program because the local medical school provides no practical experience. She too sent her thanks to the Ruettgers family for their generosity.
Each day, our travel group felt fortunate to return to the comfort of our hotel. The Sunway far exceeded our expectations with its cool marble entry, clean, spacious rooms and extraordinary breakfast buffet for a special rate of $55 per night. Located near Wat (temple) Phnom and across from the site of the new U.S. Embassy, we had the view of some greenery, palm trees and even a glimpse of the Tonle Sap River. At five stories, the hotel seemed like a modern skyscraper in a city where most buildings were only two to three stories and in poor condition.
Our arrival in Cambodia coincided with the three-day boat races, when 23,000 racers, along with countless spectators who wanted to cheer on their
village team, descended on Phnom Penh. In colorful wooden boats, teams of 30 or 53 paddlers, depending on the size of the boat, competed two at a time in the two-kilometer race, while spectators lined the riverfront. The dense crowds moved patiently through the streets as vendors sold juice in plastic bags with straws, trinkets and various foodstuffs with no refrigeration. November is one of the cooler months but on most days the temperature was in the 90s. The boat festival, held each year when the flow of the Tonle Sap River reverses direction, is mimicked each summer up in Lowell by the immigrant population..
We also visited the sights of Phnom Penh: the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, Wat Phnom, Toul Sleng (holocaust) Museum, School of Fine Arts, National Museum and attended a Buddhist meditation. Most tourists to Cambodia spend only one or two days in Phnom Penh and more time in Siem Reap. We flew there for one day to see the amazing remains of a vast empire built between the 9
We dined well in Phnom Penh in a wide variety of places. Generally, $10 bought us a good meal and a drink. The FCC, Foreign Correspondents Club, was one of my favorites. I'm not sure if it was the stucco construction, ceiling paddle fans or the number of expats, largely media types, that gave it that Hemingwayish feel. We also went to a cozy Thai-Cambodian place where we sat on beautiful floor cushions, a German place with hearty, tasty portions and the Elephant Bar in the beautiful Royal Hotel that was visited by Jackie Kennedy in the 60s and where journalists holed up during the Khmer Rouge takeover. We saw no evidence of any recognizable restaurant chain!
Cambodia is still a difficult place to travel. Our group was in agreement that the trip was wonderful because Dr. Hendrie knew where to take us and we had her driver, Elephant, to navigate everything for us. We can't imagine the trip without them. Nancy outlined our options and introduced us to everyone. Elephant navigated those crazy streets, found parking when it looked like there was none, ensured our safety, arranged for our travel to Siem Reap, acted as translator, negotiated with sellers and never seemed to grow impatient with us.
While the Cambodian government seems to be making some effort to attract the tourist dollar, they have a huge job ahead to lift their nation out of poverty. The children are beautiful, the people sweet and the need for humanitarian service overwhelming. Dr. Hendrie and Elephant provided us with a unique and everlasting memory of Cambodian culture, the extraordinary needs of the people and the inspirational volunteers who are working so hard to improve conditions.
Dr. Hendrie travels to Cambodia every three months and anyone interested in joining her for a week can contact her at email@example.com or 1-978-369-1120. The only fee is to carry a bag of donations, provided by her.
For more information on:
The Sharing Foundation
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