March 8, 2009

Part 6 - Dust dust dust

I’ve not been much of a correspondent, what with health and internet problems. My service provider here is so unreliable that many email servers refuse to accept mail from it. And in a spam laden world, no server will send this to you all at once, so I need to send a few copies.

Stomach problems are pretty routine, but some very strange sensations turned out to be a parasite problem. Without easy diagnostic facilities to hand, I used the ‘catch - all’ treatment, which catches all but the type I had, so a second round was needed. Fortunately, the usual case with these wee critters is that they live mostly harmlessly in humans, and do all there tissue burrowing, cyst forming and other nasty stuff to the other hosts in their life cycle, like pigs, cows and fish. I’ve also had a long running respiratory thing which seems to have migrated to my ears, swelling them internally and messing with my hearing and more recently balance. Of course, when I got to see the Australian Embassy doctor in Phnom Penh all was quiet.

My landlords bought a new mattress when I moved in .. after 4 nights there was a clear deep indentation from my body - giving a fair indication of quality! I an pretty tolerant of dodgy beds, but the sagging combines with a poor range of available pillows to put pressure on my ears, so I tend to wake up numb and deaf on one side.

I’ve begun presenting a regular series of small group lectures on management topics to the Team Leaders; I’ve had to dust off some old skills but since everything here has to be dusted off before use noone seems to notice. The nicest bit of feedback I’ve had was from one who said he studied all this at university, but never understood it ‘til now.

Getting them to turn up can be a challenge, and I can get tetchy after waiting a week for two hours of their time and five of six don’t bother showing up .. last week I corralled them in time to start 23 minutes late, and felt the need to run over the ‘ground rules’. Those of you who attend workshops will be aware of this sort of participatory methods gone mad, where you sit as a group and decide what the rules are for your meeting, whether phones must be off or on silent, how many toilet breaks you are allowed, blah blah. Usually this and ‘getting to know you’ takes up the first 20% of any course. I told the guys “you’ve done enough of these to know what to do, turn up on time, kill your phone, don’t chat amongst yourselves, we are 23 minutes late for a 2 hour session, let’s get on”. One of them wanted to debate the rules for phones, can it be on, but on silent, or must… I replied that he could interpret the rules how he liked, just don’t disturb me and everyone else. Well, you could have heard a 10 tonne steamroller drop a kilometre away. Actually, I did. Happens all the time. Not content with looking shocked, he complained to the boss later about my methods. This week all those available turned up 20 minutes early! I’ve warned them if they don’t use my services other provinces will.

Inflation had been rising here, around 25% in the first half of 2008; not quite the 40,000,000% of Zim, but enough to bite. With the drop in oil prices it has stabilised I think. Worse though is last year’s freefall in the Aussie dollar, which cut any money I withdraw by a third, and in 4 months cost me an amount I could have used to fully furnish a house. Timber has been rising severely in price, it used to be really cheap, and I’ve been looking around for something I can afford .. as I write I am wedged against a small coffee table perched atop two wooden stool as a makeshift desk, and I’m tired of it.
Gecko in my lounge
There’s a small industry here making mostly very heavy chunky timber tables and chairs, much of it from illegally logged timber. There was a crackdown a while back and a lot of backyard carpenters were shut down and fined, which puts a bunch of locals out of work but does nothing to stem the forest destruction, it just ensures it is all exported and enriches the elite rather than a bit staying in the country providing heirlooms and livelihoods. It has contributed to a quintupling of the price of pieces once very affordable; cost and taste encourage me to forage in Phnom Penh for light wooden or cane gear instead. Transporting it up in good condition is a problem. I’ve finally got onto a bloke who knows a bloke who seems to know what I want (I gave photos) and has given a reasonable quote. Though .. I requested a table 180 x 100 cm, and my go-between casually mentioned that the carpenter would make it 80 wide as it would look better. ‘80 is very narrow for a dining table’ quoth I. ‘Oh, you want a dining table!’ Well, yes, and desk, guest bed for drunks, whatever, just make what I drew… That’s the point of drawings and measurements and photos isn’t it? Fingers crossed.

A while back I threw a house warming party. I was fairly low key in inviting people and on the night I managed a good racial mix and barely had to toss out a single drunk. I got Sal to cook up some curry and spring rolls but my landlady passed on that it is quite unnecessary - in future if I need a heap of food just tell her and she’ll do it. Her husband said he wanted to give me food but wasn’t sure if I could eat it, I said khmer food is fine. A couple of days later the wife brought up some sweet potato type vegetable, the sort of thing you may well miss out on if you don’t have local people to guide you. Since then someone bobs up occasionally with a plate, especially if I have just come in from Phnom Penh. If I haven’t bolted the door they will just walk in which can be disconcerting (one needn’t wear much in the warmer months, which is most of them) - they do sort of announce themselves, but this is not easily distinguishable from the background racket that is usual around meal times.

Getting ready, I began to practice the ‘Heath Robinson’ art of moto transport, buzzing about town with coolers, mats and bags of ice strapped and balanced about the ‘bike. These little motos are very practical, and tootling along with 4 cartons of beer between your legs is pretty effortless, it’s the loading and unloading that’s tricky. As soon as you need to put your legs down you lose control of the forward cargo, and when its heavy it can get away from you. You lose a bit of turning circle too and need to plan ahead to avoid the necessity of sudden sharp turns. I have a couple of webbing straps (thanks Onsy) which are absolutely great for rear loading; otherwise you need a passenger to hold it on.

The only guest that caused a bit of carnage was a new British volunteer that I didn’t really know who took up the implied invitation ( - if you’re white and there’s a party feel free). That was fine, I didn’t even mind the broken glass, but 2 weeks later she had her own housewarming with lots of little written invitations, and didn’t invite me. Kind of symbolic of my relations with the bulk of the expats in town.

At another party I managed to kick something in the dark - it was right in the middle of the driveway - and pretty much cut my big toe in half, so I had a few weeks of not being very mobile, and feeling queasy for a day every time I dressed the gruesome wound. For a while the end looked like it belonged in the Egypt Room at the British Museum, but now the dead black mummy bit has dropped off and its pretty much ‘good as old’.

I have one of the ‘Rabbit’ ceramic water filters that are commonly given to villagers in Cambodia with the help of Red Cross and groups like HU. We have been working on a water and sanitation proposal with a consultant and we were chatting about how a big well-sinking project in Bangladesh gave many people access to clean water, but altered the soil chemistry leading to arsenic dissolving and contaminating the water, with a few cases of poisoning the result. (Some people just can’t win.) He pointed out that the Rabbit filters leach arsenic too, something the manufacturers admit. Comforting. Still, it was the first permanent cure for malaria, and may attack tumours, so its not all bad.

I have had a couple more trips to Phnom Penh to conduct interviews - recruitment is a major and difficult task, and we have a stack of vacancies. There is a great tendency for people to fail to turn up, both at interviews and, once appointed, at work. Cambodians are the main culprits but an Australian jerked us around pretty badly recently too, really annoying as we missed our other top choice due to the wasted time. One of the interviews we attempted was in Nepal; put their phone system in contact with ours and you are not going to get a conversation worth a dime! We ended up on Yahoo chat!

One trip was hard on our Nissan - going down we hit a bus (not very hard) and coming back a cow hit us. For the return I was given the wheel; having not driven for half a year and not driven a left hand drive for 20 years, I found PP’s traffic and the narrow clogged highway out a fair challenge. After a few hours we turned onto a nice clear road, and just got settled when a cow bolted onto the road - pretty unusual behaviour in these parts where man and beast take a measured approach to most things. I could avoid it OK, but my options were limited when a second one appeared, I didn’t hit it but it hit us, putting a couple of minor dents in the back door. After 9 hours of concentration I was pretty knackered.

As I write the house is back to vibrating in gut churning fashion, another chapter in the epic saga of the new road. They seem to do most of the work on weekends for some reason. If possible, it is making the dust even worse; it is like living 20 yards from the old Stuart Highway. Last night we had an unseasonal thunderstorm which has settled the dust nicely for a while, but my house is already grotty underfoot, having not been mopped throughout in the last 48 hours.

Hope this finds you well,


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