A Change of Guard

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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Dispatches From Cambodia (#4): An Emotional Journey Down a Road Less Travelled

Left: On a Cambodian Road Less Traveled
Above: Piseth, Chianni, and Pam

The Province
October 26, 2011

Pam Stevens radio personality from Vancouver is travelling through South-East Asia. She is currently volunteering at Ankor Hospital in Cambodia. The country is winding down it’s rainy season which has been exceptionally wet this year. Flooding has been responsible for many deaths this year. There is also the increased threat of a new drug resistant malaria. This could effect people world-wide if it is not controlled in Cambodia as it is ground zero for finding a weapon against it. The city of Siem Reap, where Pam is, has flooded five times in as many weeks and much of the countryside has been underwater that whole time .

Pam has set out to find a mother whose child was treated at the hospital for meningitis that would have likely been fatal. It cost the mother $100 to treat her son and Pam figured at their wages of $2 per day its 3 months salary in Cambodia or the equivalent of $10,000 to us . Here are her stories:

Our car snakes it’s way along the road avoiding potholes the size of a turtle pool. I begin to understand why drivers were quoting prices much higher that usual – we are taking the road less traveled.

On a Cambodian Road Less Traveled

The road diverged from highway __ only 15 minutes or so from Battambang. I’ve just enjoyed a backpacker’s weekend away from the hospital in Siem Reap where I managed to blow off some steam doing everything from sipping cocktails bought by a retiring Interpol officer to doing the Cambodian version of glamour shots all with stellar results but now it’s time to get real again.

I’m on a mission to find Channi. We first met at Angkor Hospital for Children where her five year-old son Piseth was treated for a very serious case of meningitis. Whether it was because of the floods that had inundated the land or the fact that she didn’t have any other option to make a very important trip NOW – Channi had to borrow $100 from her neighbour to get her child to AHC for the medication that would save his life. This fact was explained to me in the inpatient department of the hospital as her son was recovering and days after I’d spent that same amount on something so shallow as the thrill of shooting a weapon normally reserved for someone serving in the military or on the wrong side of the law.

My thrill was fleeting but Channi’s debt was long lasting. The fields she and her husband would normally work in order to earn their $2 or so dollars a day were under water. The chance her two older daughters would come out of school to help pay off what the family owed was very, very real. Hence, my being on a mission.

It took some time to get permission from the hospital to give her some money. In that window Piseth had been released to recover at home in Khnach Romeas, which we were slowly approaching. We would meet at the local pagoda. Not just a training ground for monks, but a refuge for young boys without a family to take care of them. Their smiles were quick, especially when the cameras came out. Add some bubbles and you had a recipe for pure joy.

After a time Channi and her husband arrive with Piseth between them on the seat of the scooter. Unheard of in Canada, adding two more children would be the norm in Cambodia. Our driver explains that we’re invited to the family home so off we go on what I discover is REALLY the road less travelled. A twist here, a turn there, a barking dog or two and now we’re there. Your face tries not to betray how you feel about this being a “house”. There is no floor besides the dirt under our feet and only three walls but it’s home to a family of five. Piseth’s older sisters watch the action curiously but with the quiet resignation of girls edging into teendom.

A phone call is placed to Chinda back at the hospital explains why I’m there. The foreigner is there on her own, your story has touched her heart and she has a gift to give you. While another volunteer distracts Piseth with his present of some new toy cars I find myself with the opportunity to approach Channi. I have no words so instead press my hands into a sampeah to express honour, then take her hands and tuck my $100 bill into it. She looks down and with a sharp gasp initiates the same motion. Her hands together in front of her, her head slightly bowed. When she finally looks up at me we’re both crying, holding hands and as far as I’m concerned, alone in the world. She bows again, I do the same and we embrace. It’s the hug of a mother. A woman who understands what it is to be responsible for others and who sees that suddenly, it will be easier.

We brush away our tears as the others catch wind of what’s going on. The hospital’s camera comes out and pictures are snapped. More hugs are exchanged and we decide to distract ourselves with a walk to see the river and the fields that provide for this village. As we approach a bridge where locals are fishing I hear a cry of “Barang!”, apparently foreigners really are an oddity out here, enough to illicit the call. Stares and smiles come from the men fishing for dinner, a few more hugs come from Channi.

By the time we return to our car and exchange phone numbers, Piseth has grown jealous of the attention heaped on the westerner. Just as he can’t understand how close he came to leaving this world, he can’t understand his mother’s actions and he cries out in frustration. The adults all laugh but still grasp the seriousness of the moment. This is good-bye between two souls who didn’t know each other two weeks ago but will be forever entwined by a simple gesture.

Ghandi implored: BE the change you want to see in the world. For the rest of the ride home, my heart is at peace.

I’m still accepting donations for the $1200 hospital bed , you can donate either through paypal@shoehead@shaw.ca or message me at pam-stevens@shaw.ca I have collected $600 so far.

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