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Self-obsessed travel update #2: Foreigners drying meditating & flying kites with incompetent oppressors

I have been avoiding writing this for the past week since there is a lot to cover but it gradually dawned on me that the longer I waited the worse things would get so here we are.

Hello. I hope you are all well.

I. The Foreigners & I, a Foreigner

I am sitting at a breezy outdoor internet cafe by a pool. One of the many "expat" hangouts in Phnom Penh, and one of the handful places where it is safe to take out a laptop, use it, put-it in your bag, and go home. Or so I am told. There is a lot of paranoia here, even (perhaps especially) among the long term expat NGO workers. Yesterday mentioning to various people that I was considering getting a cell-phone (it's impossible to function here without one) and whether they had any advice about the company, brand etc. I was warned by all three that I should definitely go with a Khmer person otherwise I would get totally ripped off. I decided to try anyway. I picked a bunch of random shops on a stretch and got very consistent (and sensible prices) from all of them without any bargaining.

(The following story is reported via the broken telephone system, but having heard it several times this version seems the most internally consistent) About a couple of months ago, an NGO worker, attractive young woman, left the Heart of Darkness (a famous, massive and shady night club, well known as a hang out for armed-body-guarded wealthy khmers with a taste for white women, and other forms of shadiness from all social strata) drunk, alone, and very late and got on a motobike with a driver she did not know. She was soon overtaken by two other motos with three and two passengers respectively. They forced the moto to stop, beat and chased off the driver. She was violently raped by several men who were never found, and the general sense is that had they been found they would likely have not been charged.

"Statistically" (by which I am referring to my intuitions based on the frequency of expats I run into and the population of PP), given the massive number of expats here, such events are not frequent. Phnom Penh is not any more dangerous than an average Canadian or Australian city, and is definitely far safer than the average American city. And yet this story comes up at every white gathering of more than 5 people that I have been party to and a significant part of any conversation (and we are talking about people who have been living here for months) involves safety. So, my impression of the NGO expat community so far is of a community with a subtle sense of constant siege, seeking refuge in offices and safe houses. There is a city within the city here, with a separate economy heavily reliant on imported goods (though the labour seems well-compensated and local, inhumane work hours being another issue). I, of course, have been party to this system for much of my short time here, something which makes me feel very uneasy and probably makes me redirect a lot of my frustration at myself to the other white people around me. That said, I think there is something inherently nauseating about the UNICEF SUVs parked outside the $200-$2000 per night Hotel Le Royal in a county where (1) the government pays a nurse $20 per month and (2) you can live in North American 3/4-star level accommodation for under $20 a night (I was paying $10 at my last hotel and now I am renting a room with a bunch of Australians in it - they are everywhere - for $100 per month including power, cleaning, water and full housekeeping.)

The NGO (non-governmental organizations, some foreign run, some local) expats seems to come in two broad types. The first are the volunteers or semi-volunteers who have other lives and spend some time working here as a purification ritual, these people at least reliably mean well. Then there are the career NGO workers who are just like any other group of career people. Trash-talking their "competitor NGOs" (which does not mean one that is pushing for a contrary cause, but all the ones that are working for precisely the same cause and hence compete for the same funding pool. I saw this shamefully illustrated between two human rights NGOs over lunch a few days ago.) Much of the conversation outside the trash talking was spent on people's favorite spas and massage parlours. There is a 4-handed massage that is apparently to die for. At one point one of them accidentally let it slip how much she was getting paid. She caught herself, stared blankly for the moment, remembering (I think) how ridiculous the number is by the standards here, then she tried to deny it, and when that failed she actually tried to tell us "young people" that we would understand why that much money was necessary once we switched out of our "college life-styles". I think she was younger than I am for one. Then she changed the subject which was easy because most of the table where her coworker/accomplices. The worst part of this is that this NGO seems to run a prison medical outreach program which I am very interested in. The program is run by a Khmer doctor though if that means anything. I'll let you know how this turns out.

I am not going to backtrack too much about Hong Kong, except to note that the city does have an underground soul and that I got to see a little bit of it thanks to Kylie who I met through my friend Leslie. Kylie can take you to the kind of place that has no sign, lots of stairs, cheap drinks and a bathroom you can spend several hours in just looking around (and that's sober).

Hong Kong did give me a chance to start, complete and release my third and fourth short films, Hong Kong Dryer 1 and 2. I will just send you the following quotes from one of the reviews. Unfortunately due to it's controversial nature it is unlikely to be widely released in the west.

    " The long-awaited sequel to his "Suturing Pig Feet" and "Pediatric Urology Lecture #2: Hypospadias," Mashari's new films "Hong Kong Dryer" 1 and 2 depart, at least on the surface, from the medical theme to explore the difficulties surrounding the drying of clothing in the seedy guesthouses of Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district. Each filmed in a single continuous shot, the short features consist of different combinations of shirts, underwear and socks hanging from clothes hangers attached to the screen of the rotating ceiling-mounted fan, engaged in a slow dance of lonely betrayal, to the humming tune of the spinning blades. Filmed only a few dozen meters away from the location of Wang Kar Wai's 1994 cult classic "Chunking Express" the work takes a hard-hitting look at the tourist laundry service in the guest houses, which does not include drying (a fact deliberately unmentioned at the initiation of the transaction) leaving the traveler, expecting clean ironed clothes that can be packed right away before an imminent departure, with a plastic bag full of soggy, mold-scented clothing that has been sitting in the heat for the better part of a day (all the more time since many travelers, being considerate, try not to rush the staff and give them as much as time as possible). The bag invariably accompanied by a bill for HK$20 (about US$3-4) and a malicious, knowing, smile, offered free with the laundry service. "

As many of you know, I spent my first 10 days in Cambodia taking a Vipassana meditation course. It was a very complicated experience with definite elements of trauma. I have written a detailed account of it which I have yet to type. If you are interested in reading it for some reason let me know.

I started doing clinical work last week. I was planning on spending 2-3 weeks at Calmette hospital, the "top" private hospital in PP. Khmer doctors speaking and charting in French, Khmer patients speaking Khmer, I speaking neither Khmer or French - though I could read the charts well enough, and could interact well with the occasional distressed expat who had just come to need medical help in PP and was realizing that "Top Hospital" is a relative term. To my own surprise, the tourists were in fact the most desperate and needy demographic that I encountered.

Calmette also takes non-paying patients that the government pays for, which it can afford to do, it seems, because by the time they get to Calmette all you can do for most of them is give them oxygen, intravenous brine, a couple of not-too-expensive drugs, and watch them die, which given the absence support services for rich or poor alike (families are responsible for food, moving, toileting etc.) is rather cheap.

This is also why the tourists are so far up the creek. The insurance companies rarely cover injuries incurred while riding motos, and for what they do cover, they seem to be far slower than you might expect. So in come tourists, not able to bend legs or get in or out of bad and in pain. They are put in the cleanest, fanciest private room (which IS quite clean and fancy with fridge and TV and plenty or room for the absent extended family). The call bell, which does not work, is located on the wall at the foot of the bed, well out of reach. You are responsible for your own foraging, feeding etc. all of which you took for granted only hours before. So there I am taking white people to the toilet and actually, briefly, feeling the most useful I did all week.

I was expecting to see horrible conditions and people dying of stupid, usually non-fatal things, but I wasn't expecting it at Calmette. In some sense the hospital itself is not even the big problem. Most of the people I see get a lot of what is medically possible done for them, but most get here far too late because the roads to the villages are so poor and no one bothers to take anyone to the hospital until they are obviously dying, the hospital, circularly, seen as a place where most people die and thus to be avoided until the very last possible moment, which only serves to provide further evidence or the premise that far too many of the people who come in do not leave by the same door.

Diagnostic technology is limited here, though the basic blood work and CT scan are available. But then they are often not needed. Diagnosis is often quite easy here. You rarely need a history for these patients since by the time you see them they have all the "classic" symptoms, complications, triads, pentads and study-mnemonics satisfied. By the second day I could diagnose malaria almost without touching the patient (and definitely without any meaningful conversation) and not for any astuteness on my part.

It turned out that I could only work at Calmette for one week at a time. The sophistication of the bureaucracy in a place where the physician bathroom has no soap (it doesn't even have a theoretical place where the soup would go, not even a few holes on the wall where a dispenser or soap dish might once have been mounted to the wall) is amazing. So I am on research work this week and trying to track down medical NGOs.

This past weekend I went to a human rights fair that was organized by various NGOs. There were several speakers and boots set-up by the different groups. It was good to see that the majority of the attendants and organizers were Khmer an not foreigners. It was not good to see that almost all of them were the NGO workers themselves. Then there were two plain clothes both very visible spooks, walking around and writing down what each group had written on its signs. The same event last year produced two arrests, because one of the NGOs dared to put-up a blank banner and invited people to write on it. The story goes that at some point someone wrote something a little too sensitive (I don't know what) at which point the group quickly took down the banner and tried to smuggle it out, unsuccessfully. This time people were being much more cautious. At one point some one tried to fly a kite with "Freedom of Expression" written on it. They were quickly stopped by the spooks. Two weeks earlier the riot police, in good third-world tradition possibly the best equipped institution in the country, had closed down a larger kite flying event reasoning that the kites would interfere with airplane traffic (when I was told about the police showing up I made a joke about airplanes only to realize later that that was actually the official explanation). Perhaps the bright side of this is that while the instincts for oppression are definitely there their implementation, at least for the moment, if fraught with incompetence, corruption and stupidity. There was absolutely no reason for them to stop the kites and a more competent oppressor might have used the event to show how open and accepting they could in fact be.

Well I'll leave you with that. I would apologize for the length but it wouldn't be sincere.