Wednesday, 4 June 2008

It's Here That We Belong

Almost a week on and I'm still getting my bearings, though slowly but surely, after returning from Cambodia, a country that has been through rough times only too recently.

We departed from Singapore on the 21st to the sendings-off of friends and family, and touched down in Phnom Penh after a 2 hour flight. The city setting and the swanky hotel certainly didn't hold clues as to the really rural living conditions we were to endure the next 5 days in Battambong village.

Personally, I went without significant expectations, other than a vague and basic mental image of what I'd envision a village to be like. So I wasn't particularly as stunned as the others when we finally reached the house we were to live in and checked it out for the first time.

It was somewhat amusing to observe the various ways of expressing oneself in such dire times. Most people had their different looks of disbelief. Ben just went straight outside for a smoke.

We were to make the 2nd storey area our commode for the next 5 days and 4 nights. There were 22 of us and the room was too small, so most of the guys took the outer area which was basically just a balcony-like roof, except that that roof had another roof over it. Whenever it rained, that roof area would just totally drench out. In all, no beds, just plain wooden flooring, which we were to eventually cover up with our towels and sleeping bags to make the most of an uncomfortable sleeping area as we could.

Every night would then eventually become a battle with the bugs and mosquitoes.

We headed to the school to get wind of our workstation that would become part of the clockwork and regularity of our lives for the next few days. We couldn't get the name of the school right til the end, so we called the school Cockup for the most part because someone told us that he or she thought it sounded something like Khokkap. But we later learnt that the name of the school is really Kok Khmom. By then, we had our fair share of laughs from coming up with the lamest references to Cockup School.

The guys and I sawed, hacked, drilled and hammered the days away, bringing to light our obvious lack of carpentry skills as we ended up making artistic parallelograms instead of rectangular shelves. The girls conducted English lessons for the Cambodian kids. It wasn't easy teaching them though as, with their English proficiency aside, their personal beliefs of the world were quite different. In one particular lesson, we had to explain to them why it was bad to breed mosquitoes, and had to reference the effect of the sun's rays on tropical countries. That proved to be a challenge because they believed the sun was unique to Cambodia or something like that.

Day in and out, we'd end off work at 4pm because the school has no electricity and sundown would approach fast, so we'd head back to the house to wash up and get ready for dinner. Electricity and water comes on only after a certain time, and the toilets were really just crapholes with water pots and containers to collect water to be scooped and bathed with.

Time slows to an almost screeching halt when village life is concerned. To say that the life of a villager is simple is an understatement for the fact that 'simple' just doesn't quite capture the essence of how we as city kids would perceive the slowness of life there to be. It was insanely uncomplicated and mundane. People sit around all day converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, and the lack of activity simply doesn't bother them. By the 2nd or 3rd day, when the realisation of how slow time was passing hit, we were pushing the limits of sanity by engaging in extremely inane games and conversations and telling Chuck Norris and Yo Mama jokes just to pass the time.

An example of a desperate conversation would be as follows:

Jose: So yeah that's how the story goes.
Ben: Okay cool.
Jose: Has this conversation ended?
Ben: I think so.
Jose: Shit. So let's start another one.
Ben: Alright.

Guessing the time was a challenge in itself, as we could have done a truckload of stuff in the morning but when we check the time, it would only be like 9am. At night, after dinner is done at about 7pm, we would be struggling to pass the time til a respectable 12am before we'd go to sleep. We were exhausting the marginal utilities of our card games and our shoot, shag or marry and truth or dare conversations. Cambodians sleep at 8pm. We were probably a 5-day nightmare for the quiet village neighbourhood.

On our first night we were silly enough not to put up mosquito nets. Even the villagers do it, so it was practically mozzie rape that night. And I guess we were unfortunate enough to be situated near a funeral procession as they started playing really loud funeral music at 4am. Luckily though, that was the last day and so we weren't awakened at such ungodly hours anymore. And we were told that such processions last about 3 days. If the family was rich enough, it might've lasted for a week.

The days start early anyway to the sound of honking vehicles. Cambodian traffic, even in the village, is all about give and take with minimal traffic rules. So a lot of honking is done to communicate intent. In Singapore, most honking is really just another form of verbal abuse. Here, it is almost like making courtesy calls.

We did have our stay in Battambong shortened by one day though. It was really sweet reprieve. I guess for the most part, I made it through largely by knowing it'll end within 6 days. If I was told it was gonna be a 2 month stay, I would've adjusted my expectations accordingly. I think it's kinda like how we get through life without knowing it. Life as a burden is easier to bear knowing it'll end someday.

One morning - I think it was Sunday - I awoke to the sun shining directly in my face. Though the sun was high in the sky, I knew it was early as it always is in Battambong. So I took awhile and thought about quite a number of things. First and foremost, the economic disparity between many things were clearly put in perspective here during this trip. Richard and I took a walk around the slums in Phnom Penh on the first night, and it was extremely decadent. People were running a market place along roads without streetlamps, and the roads were strewn with decaying fruits and other stuff. And next to that was the huge-ass swanky hotel we were living in with water and electricity we could afford to leave on while away from it. The hotel was indecently decent next to the poor living conditions of the people that surrounded it.

While in the village, I saw in its people such common traits we share - the need for a family, love, fun and activities, amongst other things I can't quite accurately capture in words right now. But the way they live is so different and in conditions so much less desirable, but only because that's how I, as a city-slicker, think it is. Do they know how different it could be? And would they actually be happier if they were given the chance to change their economic predicament? They might even think I'm the crazy one to want to return to my own hectic life if they knew how it's like.

And even if a stand is taken to rid the country of its poverty, or any other developing country like it for that matter, it would take a colossal effort that all the lip service paid on TV and in school lessons about social responsibility, even as an ideal, can hardly suffice. I guess what we did there might have been quite inadequate, but it did plant these seeds in my head having seen it and lived it to desire making a difference in a more significant way if I could in future.

The trip didn't particularly make me appreciate home anymore than I already do because I don't take my own life and living for granted. There was a lot of whining going on and, while I don't agree with most of the whining, I guess it's only natural for most of us to complain. Many people make the same pointless 'on hindsight' comment: "looking back on it, it wasn't so bad." If we all know we're gonna say something like this in the end, why not prevent it and enjoy the ride while it lasts? The whole thing would only be as bad as we'd allow it to be ourselves.

I've always embraced the idea of being away from oneself, and the things that define who you are, like your own home, your own existing friends and the things you usually do, in order to gain very radical new perspectives for yourself and, for the first time, I was able to actually do it and I wasn't disappointed with how it turned out. This trip has really rekindled my joy of meeting new people and gaining new experiences. You could talk about many different things in the comfort of the same people you meet everyday but it wouldn't be the same as just talking about one thing to different people. It's all about getting new perspectives and it can be extremely refreshing.

It is also a privilege to be able to make friends from school away from the context of school. It almost feels like when I was younger all over again in a way. I've always believed that the best kind of friends are made away from anything with strings attached, like when we were in secondary school and the pressure of grades or a salary (when it comes to corporate colleagues in future) aren't in the picture.

By the 2nd day back in Phnom Penh, I was getting tired of what little we could do in the city even though living conditions were back to bearable. I guess I'm really just glad to be back home. It's a trip that has taught me more than I could ask for.

Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else get your way.

Audio Candy:
Beyoncé Knowles - One Night Only

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