July 4, 2009

Notes from a Small Kingdom 7


Its been a long time between letters, either I've been too sick to think them up, my computer has been too sick to type on, my email has been inaccessible, or the 'net has been too sick to carry messages. My Australian isp shut down my account, killing off my website and my decade old email address. Soon after, my hard drive failed, leaving me lots of messing around to get repairs in Phnom Penh, rebuild and retrieve data.

Back in April we had Khmer (Chinese) New Year and a week of holidays. Visitors dropped in from France and I took a break, ducking back into Phnom Penh office to interview job applicants in the middle. We spent the first 5 days at a 'pool resort hotel' just out of the semi deserted capital. There are a few of these places catering to day-trippers from town as well as guests. This one is nicely laid out with bungalows scattered in tropical gardens around 2 pools and - being French run - the food is good and the value excellent.

On the last morning we all woke early and with nothing pressing but breakfast were all still lazing in bed pretending to sleep at 7am. I heard a few loud cracks and my first thought was fireworks (at this time? idiots) but it developed into a very loud cracking which I thought was a very close thunderclap. However it seemed to be getting closer, lightning doesn't do that so I started to look up, but my rising head was met by the falling ceiling as the roof came down. After a short blank and settling of debris I looked through some gaps in the wreckage and worked out that a huge tree had demolished the bungalow. Having calmed the screaming and checked that there were no serious injuries, I dug myself out and then lifted the wreckage off the others. By the time stunned bystanders arrived we were standing in the garden forlornly pondering the state of our room and baggage.

We picked up a few scratches and bruises, a small discount on our bill, and a lingering suspicion of tall trees. It proved to be the tree itself that caused it all, but I find now that thunderstorms make me edgy, where previously I enjoyed them. We have had a lot of storms up here since April so that's a lot of edgy. In fact, with last year's monsoon so late and this year's very early, in 10 months I've had two 'wets'.

After a shower and feed, and a few hours cleaning luggage, we took a bus to Sihanoukville and the beach. When we arrived it was buzzing, people on NY holidays filled the place, but by Monday the town had emptied; we sat in a great restaurant on the beach overlooking the bay with fresh barbecue and live music .. and only three of us in the place. Its how rich people must feel when they live in castles I guess, only warmer.

My visitors went home and so did I, back to an office in flux as the manager had resigned and a new British-Kenyan-Indian technical advisor joined us. We found a new Program Manager in Alex, a Filipino with long experience in Cambodia. I was on the selection panel and had worried that there may be no suitable applicants, but it turned out that we had a choice of possibles. This hasn't been the case with some of the other jobs we've tried to fill.

An old pal from Melbourne (and the Oxfam India trip) passed through Ratanakiri and stayed for a couple of days .. my first house guest! He was on a birding trip for 4 months in half a dozen countries, and managed his target of spotting his 1000th species somewhere in China. I have been suffering from the isolation as the email and Skype get worse, and it is great to be able to sit and chat for hours on end. The worst thing about this lifestyle is the inability to have a gab with a mate regularly. In my Red Cross training I saw how valuable 'debriefing' is after incidents, but its also a normal part of daily life, getting stuff off your chest .. another thing you don't notice happens until its not there.

My landlord decided to do some home improvements, not during any of the seven weeks I've spent away but late into the evenings on a normal working week when I came home desperate for rest and got a building site instead. The house is made mainly of unlined timber frame clad in planks, and for some reason he decided to plank the inside of the main bedroom. In addition to having my house full of people without warning, the obvious disruption and the massive damage the builders did to everything that got in their way, I was also appalled at the poor work they were doing. In this part of the world, any small cavity is an obvious home for all kinds of squatters (my last boss had endless dead-rat-rotting-in-the-wall fun while another Aussie is currently looking for a new home as she can no longer stand sharing with the 300 bats in the walls and ceilings) and here they were creating a multi story apartment complex for vermin, full of big inviting gaps and holes. Their two favourite tricks were cutting the planks 3-5cm too short and splitting them in two while hammering in nails, while the second grade wood was full of holes to begin with.

In Cambodia there are many large spotted geckos, (with the interesting latin name Gekko gecko, and in khmer named tokay to differentiate from the smaller tokung) which often live in the upper parts of buildings. Asians are terrified of them, mainly I think due to a fearsome reputation for biting and never letting go (the only way to get one off in one piece is to immerse it in water). They are really very timid but have a disconcerting habit of falling near people, especially when disputes over territory arise between geckos. I was having a peaceful 'cook at the table' hotpot dinner in a Ban Lung restaurant when one dropped into the vegies; the local with me screamed the place down. I had been living fairly peacefully with three in the house, but with the onset of the monsoon and their breeding season I was surrounded by a nightly chorus of their very strident series of calls. With the walls lined, they were no longer constrained to the small gaps behind pillars and tended to camp inside the wall two feet from my head, where the all night calling and scratching about gave me no hope of sleep. After weeks of this I managed to trap them outside and plug all the larger gaps with cardboard. Being territorial they are not amused, and there has been the odd scuffle in the lounge and toilet.

The water tank poised atop my bathroom has filled a couple of times (either because it rained a heck of a lot or because someone put the pump in the well on and forgot it) and as they've made no provision for an overflow, it floods into my kitchen and what are aptly described 'wet areas'. It gets exciting when you later absently turn a light on, as you get nice cascades of sparks and lots of noise. Usually a guest does this. I've showered and … whatever in the dark for weeks now. I think one flood happened while I was away and the water sat for a time; when I got back the food cupboard wouldn't open and a lot of food was mouldy or stale. Each trip I lug a large sports bag full of supermarket treasures back from Phnom Penh an eke it over the months, I don't like having to throw it out! A stick of French sausage with a camembert-like coating of mould was stored in my fridge, and the mould infested everything, I had to grit my teeth and dump a lot of ham and cheese.

I had another surprise visit from my French connection, and was persuaded to join her on the trip to Phnom Penh by promising myself a visit to the doctor to try and sort the stomach out. I had been feeling off colour and over a couple of days noticed bunches of "bites" around my wrists and ankles, but during the journey down my whole body turned a blotchy red, a sign of bleeding capillaries and a classical symptom of Dengue Fever (and HIV incidentally). Oh well, I was going to the doc anyway. I stayed in Phnom Penh for 12 days, when the blood tests finally yielded a positive result for Dengue, then got a minibus back home, there to collapse for another couple of weeks. Now I am gradually building strength for full days at work but a 'sick headache' lingers and my concentration is still pretty dodgy.

An Australian Youth Ambassador volunteer in town got malaria that week, took the tablets OK but after five days had a soaring fever; turns out she had dengue as well, and she ended up evac'd to a hospital in Bangkok.

Last month I was reading Lincoln Hall's account of being left for dead on Everest, and in the middle of the book I found myself watching a new National Geographic series about Everest .. and here were a bunch of the people I was reading about, there in technicolour. This week I started reading Frederick Forsyth's The Afghan which includes in its narrative a pretty good potted history of the war on terror into which his characters are woven. Twice I have found myself reading an account of a particular raid in Afghanistan or Sierra Leone, and within 24 hours turning on the TV and seeing actual footage of the incident (along with another view of the event), in a program called Situation Critical. I don't know if this is a comment on the wonders of technology and a shrinking world, or on the weirdness of life.

On the subject of TV - since getting beaten up I've got a bit post-traumatic, and so try and avoid some sights, and its amazing how many TV programs have torture scenes in them - you really notice once you start changing channels to avoid them. The Thais (who provide much of our cable) have an interesting take on this: if there is any cigarette being smoked, bare 'part' on display or any weapon pointed at anyone (even a cocked finger!) it is pixelated out … but their nightly news is peppered with lingering shots of blood draining from limp corpses at accident and murder scenes. I guess the libel defence works - if its true its OK.

As I write they are spraying tar to underseal the road in front of the office, yes, you read right .. the first 100 metres of legendary Highway 78 is in the first stage of getting a black top! They are into year 3 of the project though, the town is still a mess and there is an open culvert blocking our front gate. They first dug this one Sunday, with all our vehicles parked inside; it took some messing about with planks to get them out and three weeks to get any back in (via a half block of footpath).

I'll go and rest my headache .. keep well,


About Geckos: http://www.rikitikitavi-kampot.com/TokayGecko.html

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