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Self-obsessed travel update #6: Life is Elsewhere

(Note: Title from Milan Kundera. Written between the end of February and now.)

This is not a comfortable place and the discomfort is much more widely felt than I realized. It struck me only very recently, after 3 months here, how so few people can remain sober after work. The number of bars run and catering to foreigners here is staggering even if you disregard most of the tourist establishments on the waterfront. On the waterfront the bars have patios where you can watch the people and traffic flow and beyond that the river. They are places for watching.

But there is also a whole other genre of watering hole. High walls, often with razor wire (like most houses in downtown Phnom Penh) small, heavy metal doors, small signs. Often if you don't know they are there, you wont find them. These are places that actually ask not to be put in the Lonely Planet. Inside, lush gardens, often a small pool in the centre, and knee-high wooden platforms covered with cushions and pillows, surrounded by tall plants offering a fair measure of privacy. Some of the trunks have fans attached. Quiet, tranquil music. The outside city creeps in minimally, mainly in the form of the staff's complexion and skin colour, their identity otherwise censored behind their deliberately slang-ridden English, their uniforms and, occasionally, a strange, forced laugh, high pitched with no clear trigger, filling in the gaps of silence. The first time I heard it I seriously wondered about the mental stability of the source. By now I have heard it enough times to suspect that it is something they are explicitly taught.

There are several charity-run restaurants in Phnom Penh who train street kids in the restaurant business, teach them English and various other skills. Many of them end up working at just this kind of bar, living what to many here is the "Cambodian Dream." I wonder if somewhere they are told about the Western aversion to silence, and the love of social assertiveness and a fake smile. Something was apparently lost in the translation.

Until now, I had seen this network of bars, restaurants, spas etc. as a kind of Apartheid parallel world. There is a definite element of that but it misses the real point. It is not greed or racism that brings a lot of people here. While there is a growing colonial demographic of business owners, diplomats, consultants, professionals etc. enjoying the first world incomes and the third world cost of living and human life here, the demographic in these little Edens rarely includes them. These are place where people a lot like me end up: the naive and idealistic old young. Not kids any more, starting careers, wanting to see how things work, wanting to "make a difference," looking for glimmers of light. They are here on work terms from a few months to a year, maybe two, working for NGOs, the United Nations, or some such place, with a lofty mission and a (frequently misplaced) good reputation. And they learn a lot of potentially soul-crushing lessons about themselves and the workings of the world here. The inferno of the living is inescapable in places like Cambodia, even in Phnom Penh the most affluent area in the country, even in the air-conditioned offices. Perhaps it is more inescapable here because the contrasts are more obvious, and anything you see here, you know, is many times worse in the provinces.

As much you keep yourself collected in the face of things you come across every day, the vast expanses and varied forms of suffering and human corruption (often including your own) that you did not even know existed before, gather up, and most of us have not yet acquired either the spiritual fortitude, or the faculties of denial and escape to deal with them. We are still experimenting with a variety of techniques with different magnitudes and time courses of effectiveness.

There are the competitive sessions of story sharing where you try to outdo each other with horror stories transformed into jokes. This works well with the less visually gruesome things, like when J was telling us about the widely known price tags for the various jobs in the government department where he is consulting, all the way up to the ministry. Along with the price tag each position also has a fairly well known "income potential." It also worked well with my experience working at a rural outreach camp along with the US army, which ended up being a "hearts and minds" mission that concentrated its resources on one of the best-off -which is to say least impoverished but impoverished still- sub-populations in the country, the Cham muslims, whose hearts and minds are also being bid on by Saudi Arabian "aid" organizations. With a little sarcasm these things can be made more digestible. But it didn't work when C had to spend the day dealing with a 14 year old girl who had her face melted off by an acid attack. None of us know what to do with that kind of thing yet. But extremes like that are relatively rare, and in fact are not the most insidious and soul crushing. It's the slow stuff, the little creeping things, you have to worry about.

One of the hardest things to deal with is the ineffectiveness, futility and corruption that the organization you are committed to working with is at best resigned to and, at worst, actively contributing to. For this the sharing game can cover you until the first "Happy Hour" drinks kick in. Then the conversation turns to favorite restaurants, spas, gossip and occasionally, at certain narrow regions of the blood alcohol scale, politics. There are still occasional references to the day's experiences but these are almost immediately followed by new drink orders. These ARE safe-houses of a sort, but the precious safety they offer is not, as I had first thought, primarily physical, cultural and material (as far as petty crime goes, you lose a lot more money to the over-priced menus than to pick-pockets and purse-snatchers). They offer refuge from the self and the day's experience. It is imperative that they have as few reminders of the outside as possible, and the owners know this well and accommodate. These are negative spaces, places significant for what they are not. I spent Tuesday night at Happy Hour (my second time since I have been here) with a couple of my roommates whose times are up and who'll be leaving soon. I got there a bit earlier than planned and being a little twitchy and restless sent one the message (trying to be witty with the name of the bar) "I am Elsewhere."

My experience of Happy Hour (usually 3-4 hours long) has been largely vicarious. For one thing my freedom to come and go as I please has meant that while I witness a lot of difficult situations like everyone else, I can control my level of participation in any project that I work with. If I don't approve of the karmic fallout and feel that I am being ineffective, I am more or less free to walk away. So I have a lot less stress than many others, which is also why I can be more open about it, write about it etc. I also have more time and energy to think about and deal with these problem directly. The past few weeks however I have been spending on a full-out surgical rotation, the kind my medical school loves, which, despite being highly educational in many ways, has forced my attention to focus on a narrow band to the neglect of most context, and has really limited by writing time. I still have to tell you about the outreach camps run by the US Army, for example.

Later that happy hour night, back home, drunk but on the way to sobriety, with full bellies, C and I got into a conversation. Finished work for a couple of days now, heading home and reflecting on her time here, she talked about how strange it was being here, the almost complete lack of personal contact with Cambodians despite working along side each other at the same office. Regardless of relative positions, there is always an inescapable power difference. We still persist in two separate bubbles, side by side but breathing a different air. I had lived with C for 2 months by then and this subject had never come up before. I mentioned this to another room-mate of 2 months and almost the same things came up.

Meas Nee, a Cambodian teacher and activist who lived through the genocide, has written one of the few (the only one that I have been able to get my hands on) accounts of reconstruction and development from the perspective of Cambodian villagers (being one himself). In "Towards Restoring Life in Cambodian Villages" he writes:

    "Even though we all say that we want to empower the people to be self-reliant, sometimes the work in the village begins with a Westerner coming in with the Cambodian team. This is not a wise things to do. White skinned people are seen as rich and naturally the villagers hope they can get something. In one village where I work the returnees encourage the village people to ask the Westerners for help as Westerners in the border camps gave many handouts. The returnees said, 'This should be given free, not as a loan or as food for work. They are rich. They have the power to help.' If a Cambodian goes into a village with a Westerner the people will believe that the Westerner is the boss. This may be something that remains with our people from French colonial times." (p. 52)

Except that even now usually the Westerner IS the boss and there is still colonialism in full swing. That was written over 10 years ago when remnants of the Khmer Rouge still wreaked havoc on the lives of the villages in some corners of the country but its description of the gap between the skin colours is still valid, and in many ways has been reinforced by recurrent experiences along the same lines. White people come in with a ready made plan; they implement it; it fails because its relation to grounded reality is tenuous at best; lots of money gets wasted. The only good that can come of this is for a villager is to either skim some of the money off the wasteful project, if their position allows, or to get handouts from the project workers.

Last night I had dinner with R, the field director for one of the projects that I am working with. Having spent the past week in the village where I will be working for my last couple of months here, she was giving me a run down of her most recent discoveries, which ranged from the humorously surprising (the Cambodian program manager for our project was a set assistant during the Tomb Raider shoot, and at one point freaked out the security by pretending to shoot her), to the pleasantly-surprising-and-guilt-inducing (he is also fully trained as a surgical assistant, and sterilization technician, which we had no idea about, and so we have been severely under-employing him as essentially a driver and translator) to the completely unsurprising but useful (who in the health system is on the take -and how much- and who is doing good work; the two lists frequently intersect). And then she described the scenes from her week working at the Referral Hospital there. The same hospital that will likely not be getting electricity when electricity comes to town in a couple of months. The hotels and restaurants will get it, but no-one has any intention of paying for the hospital's electricity. Certainly not the government, certainly not the North American University who each year subsidizes about a dozen summer students to the tune of $3000 each.

To make sure the students use their time "wisely" as opposed to just wandering around observing and learning about a world vastly different from their own, they (usually with no research background or proper supervision) are required to do research projects, planned and "Ethics Approved" before their arrival. For the past 4 years not a single one has been published or even translated into Khmer, and despite some good measurements of the breath and depth of various forms of misery (woman dying in childbirth, fatal neonatal tetanus etc.) and the villagers attitudes towards it (apparently they don't like it), there has been no increase in the services available in the area, and in fact, there appear to be slightly less services running now than 4 years ago). And then R told me about the dead baby left in the yard covered with ants.

Now I too am required to do such a research project. I did not get the $5000 because I am not a student at the said university, but my own university was also concerned about me spending too much of my time without structure. So I read the old reports and came up with a problem which seemed to need investigating. Even the local Health Department agreed with me. But it soon became apparent that however much I improved on the precision of the previous measures of misery, it would do little to alleviate any suffering.

It brings me back to the prayer for the rooster, which Josh tells me is not so old. The Serenity Prayer, as it is called, was actually written in the 30s-40s by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. With God, Jesus and Amen removed it goes like this:

    "Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; the courage to change that which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other."

Which doesn't make clear what one is supposed to do while one is awaiting the granting. A more proactive approach at reaching that serenity through the cultivation of sensitivity, vigilance and equanimity is advocated by the Zen tradition, mythologies from many parts of the world and Italo Calvino's Marco Polo:

    Lips clenched on the pipe's amber stem, his beard flattened against his amethyst chocker, his big toes nervously arched in his silk slippers, Kublai Khan listened to Marco Polo's tales without raising an eyebrow. These were the evenings when a shadow of hypochondria weighed on his heart.

    "Your cities do not exist. Perhaps they have never existed. It is sure they will never exist again. Why do you amuse yourself with consolatory fables? I know well that my empire is rotting like a corpse in a swamp, whose contagion infects the crows that peck it as well as the bamboo that grows, fertilized by its humors. Why do you not speak to me of this? Why do you lie to the emperor of the Tartars, foreigner?"

    Polo knew it was best to fall in with the sovereign's dark mood. "Yes, the empire is sick, and what is worse, it is trying to become accustomed to its sores. This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply. If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance."

    -Italo Calvino ''Invisible Cities''

Maybe one of these days I can write about the faint lights in the distance.


Depressingly well written... :/