Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 7 Phenom Penh & Volunteer Work

Bus to PP. These places are set up for lazy tourists like us. We asked the guesthouse in Siem Reap to get us tix to PP. They did, the bus came and picked us up and off we went. Easy Peasy. Another unremarkable bus trip. Ear plugs of course to take the edge off the ‘entertainment’. Flat, dry, brown fields with the occasional small lake and rice paddies.

We arrived at a depot – another tourist convenience right on the quay near all the tourist hotels, restaurants and pastry shops! Immediately upon debarking we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver saying “Killing fields. Killing fields?” We put that particular site on hold and asked him to take us to the Silver River Hotel.

The SH had been recommended by some Canadians we met in Siem Reap. It has the most comfortable bed we’ve slept in since we left Kamloops St. About 10:00 on our first night there our room started vibrating to the beat from a disco two blocks away! We called the front desk and moved to the other side of the hall toward the front of the hotel.

The next day we met Sowathey (so-wa-TAY). She’s the marketing person from CMAC, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. Ian contacted them to do some volunteer photography. He thought it was an NGO. It turns out that it is a national, public institution that employs 2000+ people to do landmine clearance and humanitarian development.

Sowathey picked us up in her Lexus SUV and took us to a riverside place for coffee. She had set up a three-day junket that entailed a five-hour trip back to Battambang! Battambang is the province close to the Thai border and is the most landmine-contaminated area of Cambodia. The plan was to set off at 7:00a.m. the next day.

Ten o’clock the next morning we were still waiting in the lobby! The driver had to get petrol authorization etc etc.. Finally we were off on a very hair-raising drive. A two lane road, no central markings, no shoulder markings, sometimes no shoulders, bicycles, motorcycles, tractors, bullock carts, tuk-tuks, motorcycles hauling all manner of wheeled thing, cattle on the loose, dogs, huge trucks, chickens, some cars and lots of suv’s. There are no traffic rules as we know them so people drive either way on both sides of the road, enter traffic whenever the spirit moves them, stop on the road to chat to another driver.

At one point Ian asked the driver to stop so he could take a picture. He stepped about 3 metres off the road and then someone said “Don't go any further. We don't know if it's safe.” 

When we got to B’bang we went immediately to the mechanical maintenance and repair place. CMAC has some big equipment – de-miners, brush cutters, diggers, trucks etc – that need to be maintained. Ian clicked away and I tried to look useful. 

We were put up at the swankiest hotel in B’bang, owned by the governor. We had a bed big enough to sleep a small village.

Seven o’clock the next day we set off for the field.  After about an hour of hell on wheels we pulled onto a quiet dirt road and I gave a sigh of relief. Too soon.

The dirt road skirted the top of a lake. It had rained recently and the huge potholes were filled with water. Other parts of the road were washboard-like. It was a very slow, rough ride. I was sitting in the middle of the back seat and I hit the roof a few times.

First stop – mine risk education session with some villagers, all in Khmer, of course.  I thought the teacher was very good. He engaged the people, had them participating and laughing. He was holding a poster showing several types of landmines and UXO’s (that’s unexploded ordnance). “Some of them are long, some short, some small, some big but they’ll all hurt you.” The older women called out and there was a lot of tittering from the young women. 

Then interviews with landmine victims, Mr. Chann and Mr. Chor. They spoke about being unable to use the land. I thought of that line ‘Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.’ The land is unsafe to cultivate.

It took Ian awhile to set up for Mr. Chann – in the shade, good background etc. Finally he started the interview. After he started I noticed that he'd set up right beside a small mesh enclosure that was cheep-cheep-cheeping away. There were about 30 tiny chicks or ducklings penned up. I groaned to myself thinking we'd have to start all over. (Doing everything in 2 or 3 languages with many opinions and suggestions is tiring.)The cheeps didn't register on the recording at all.

Ian took a lot of pix after the video shoot. At one point he said “I'll just shoot Mr. Chann's mother.” I thought “I hope she's not his wife!” A good thing about a language barrier.

Next up was Mr. Chor a farmer who lost his lower leg to a landmine when he was in his twenties, gathering wood in the forest. He has the most peaceful, happy face. 

It took awhile to get the right shirt for him to wear. Ian was shooting against a weathered wooden barn and Mr. Chor was wearing a weathered grey shirt. Finally his son donated his shirt to the production.

The afternoon was spent at a minefield. Actually it was a cleared minefield that the de-mining platoon set up as a demo for Ian to shoot. The best part for me was seeing Casey and Jenny, MDD's. That's Mine Detection Dog. They are Alsatians that have been bred for mine detection.

Actually, the dogs were the second best part. The best part was that I got to blow up an anti-tank mine! Grrrr!!

The platoon had found and excavated the mine the week before. They 'planted' it 300 metres from the platoon station and fed a wire from the mine to the detonator at the station. The platoon leader made a fuss about honoring me and asking me to blow it up. Very weird. I didn't know what to expect despite many Hollywood movies. Even at 300 metres it was very loud and reverberated in my belly. Huge plumes of black smoke shot about 20 metres into the air.

The de-miners cheered and the platoon leader thanked me. He said “You did a very good thing today. You saved many people's lives.”  I thought that was gracious because they did all the work, that day and everyday.
I forgot to mention lunch that day. The inevitable sour fish soup and rice and then an added treat – chicken innards, gag. We both passed on the innards.

On the life-and-death car ride back to Phnom Penh Ian said in passing that it would be good to get more shots of landmine victims – people with visible disabilities. (It seems almost everyone in the landmine affected areas is a victim in one way or another.) In a flash, Sowathey made a few phone calls and we were off to a rehabilitation centre. We had about 30 minutes to spare before we had to go interview Sowathey's boss!

A lot of the people who work at the centre are amputees. They make prostheses and wheelchairs.

We saw one young woman who was having a special leg prosthesis made so she could wear high heels at her wedding next year! That was an eye opener for Sowathey who is also getting married soon. She said “I never thought about disability and fashion before.” That lead to some discussion about the psychology of disability, blah, blah, blah.

We were 'fractured' when we got back to the Silver River that night. I was so fractured I needed a 3 hour massage the next day!! It was actually a body scrub (black sesame seed and orange), an oil massage and a facial. I also felt a strong retail urge and bought a beautiful silk blouse for home. It's too beautiful for the hot, steamy tropics.

The next day, Sunday, we were off on another volunteer job. Ian was shooting stills for the Cambodia Save the Children. This time we really did leave at 7a.m.

Ian shot a meeting of the women's collective, the children's club and then some income-generating projects. We were in Takeo province, 2 hours south of PP. There are no landmines in Takeo, or so they say. It seems more prosperous,

There are huge cultivated rice fields and lots of livestock. (I thought of a line Pat's songwriter friend Kate could probably use '...the dykes between the paddies').

The StC projects are coordinated by committees located in the local pagodas. Of course there is a monk or two on each committee. We stopped to pick up a couple of monks to ease our way into the people's homes. (We had a StC person with us, of course, but she isn't 'local' enough.)

Both monks had long, delicate fingernails – Diana-Ross-long (now that dates me!!). I couldn't stop looking at them! I asked one of the monks “You study the dhamma?' He said “Everyday.” Then he added with a tired sigh and a sweet laugh “Every night.” Maybe he's not long for the sangha!

Our last day in PP was spent having lunch with Sowathey at the Metro. Our dishes – Peking duck pancakes, seafood fettucine and salade Nicoise. With Australian wine of course. There are a lot of upscale places in PP.

The saddest for last – the killing fields. A quiet park-like memorial to the many people who were tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge. Cheong Ek is the name of the place and the memorial.

The rags of the victims still litter the grave sites.
It is a focal point for the ghosts of Cambodia but I felt their presence everywhere we went. I thought about them every time I saw a Khmer over the age of 50.

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