At eight a.m. I walked out of the apartment where I am staying into a sudden blast of hot air, smoke and the strong smell of frying pork. It is rush hour. I manage to hail a local tuk tuk driver and ask him to take me to the children’s hospital. He looks at me blankly. I fumble around in my bag to find the scrap of paper with the hospital logo printed on it. Meanwhile the sounds of construction pound around me making my head throb. Everywhere I look new buildings are shooting up and there is no rest from the noise, the dust, and the shouts of the builders. They work all week from 7 in the morning until 6 at night.There is no weekend breaks. Dust flies into my eyes and I feel myself becoming irritated with myself for not being more organised with my travel arrangements. I didn’t sleep well the night before. The temperature in my room all night had been 34c and the humidly was about 80%. The only air conditioning I had was a ceiling fan which is not very efficient. To top it all a gecko (lizard) kept waking me up with its call. The people here are very superstitious about geckos. Old people believe that having a gecko inside the house is lucky. They believe that geckos are relations that have died and been reborn to look after their children but if you hear a gecko cry four times in a row it means something bad will happen in the family, possibly death. Listen to the gecko cry here. Annoying isn’t it
I’m feeling exhausted and the day has barely begun. I feel a headache looming and realise I have no painkillers on me plus I have forgotten my umbrella. I couldn’t be more disorganised if I tried. It is the rainy season and the last thing I need is to be caught out yet again. I have already been caught in two downpours. I never learn.
‘You want Provincial hospital,’ the tuk tuk driver asks.
‘No, I want the children’s hospital,’ I say finally finding the scrap of paper I need which I thrust towards him.
Several other tuk tuk drivers are now descending on me having realised that my driver has no idea where I want to go.
‘Ah, yes. I take you,’ he says on seeing the paper.
I resist the impulse to scratch the mosquito bites that are now irritating me like mad. I am also perspiring profusely and it has only been fifteen minutes since my shower. I feel hot and the insect repellent makes me feel sticky. Dengue fever is rife in Cambodia at the moment and I am constantly advised to cover myself in repellent although I have been bitten so many times that I am beginning to think it is a total waste of time and money. If I don’t go home with dengue fever it will be nothing short of a miracle. But no matter how many bites I have or how hot it becomes there is something about Cambodia that draws me back like a magnet and I know before I even leave that I will return as soon as I can. My tuk tuk driver weaves his way in and out of the morning traffic. Cyclists cut across us and motorbikes carrying whole families shoot past us. The pungent smell of cooking spices assault me and my head seems to throb more.
‘Can we stop at a pharmacy,’ I shout above the traffic noise.
‘Yes, Mam, we do that.’
At the pharmacy I try to explain that I have a headache and need something for the tension in my neck. It is like walking into a Doctor’s dispensary. Whatever you need they have. I am offered high dose codeine for my pain. I refuse, attempting to explain I want something to ease the muscle pain. She offers me Valium and then a stronger dose of Codeine. At least I know which pharmacy to come to if I want to get high later. Again I refuse and I spot some tiger balm and attempt to explain that I want something similar to this to put on my neck. She finally gives me several cool patches to place on my neck. I ask for aspirin and end up with Advil. Still it is better than nothing. I buy a face cleanser and rush back to my tuk tuk driver. It seems in Cambodia any drug is available if you don’t mind taking the risk. I’m not sure the Advil will work but I take it anyway.
We arrive at the hospital and I am stunned to see hundreds of families with crying babies already queuing at the entrance. They stare hopefully at me as I alight from my tuk tuk and walk through the gates. Many of the children are clasping stale pieces of bread or suckling at their mother’s breasts. The security guard tells me they have been there since six am. I follow the guard to the admin office feeling hundreds of eyes on me. We pass a makeshift ward, a play area which has quickly been transformed. Mattresses cover the floor and men and women lay quietly on them. These patients have been moved to make space for a dengue Fever ward. The rainy season has caused a large outbreak of the fever and already Cambodia has reported 4,434 dengue fever cases in the first five months of this year. From January to May 2012, the disease killed 21 children. In adults the fever is uncomfortable but not fatal but in young children, especially those already malnourished the fever can be fatal.
The admin lady tells me she will take me to the CB offices. I have no idea what CB is.
I am struggling to control my annoyance at the organisation of these people. I have been here almost ten days and still they have not decided what is it they want me to do. It is now considered that CBHEP (Capacity Building and Health Education Program) has greater need of me. As time goes on I am beginning to understand that organisation is not the Cambodian people’s best quality. At least it is lovely and cool here though and I am grateful for that.
In the offices of CBHEP an Italian volunteer bombards me with information that I feel my head spin even more.
‘Do not worry if everything seems confusing, there is plenty of time,’ he tells me. ‘In the meantime can you please work on our nutritional programme and update another document on CB?’
I fight back the urge to tell him that in fact there isn’t plenty of time and that ten days have already been wasted. Although I did manage a wonderful trip to Battembang, so their loss was my gain. Instead I return his grin and allow myself to be given another visit of the hospital and assure them the work will be done that afternoon. I leave and walk to The Peace Café which is becoming my favourite place to rest. They offer cooking lessons in Khmer and I begin to wonder if I have time to do this. I check my dollars while drinking my peanut butter yum yum. I cannot recommend this café enough. If you ever visit Siem Reap be sure to look them up. They also hold yoga and meditation classes. The temptation to attend one of these has been overwhelming but there is so much to do here that it is impossible to fit everything in. Do visit here for a drink I can assure you that you will not regret it.
Annoyingly I find that one twenty-dollar bill has a small tear in it. Here in Cambodia no shop or restaurant will accept a note with even a small rip in it. I now have to hope that I can maybe get the guy at the local supermarket to take it. So far he has been very good with me and has offered to change a few torn ones for me. But I’m aware there is a limit to how often I can ask.
I have managed to form a good relationship now with a tuk tuk driver who works outside the apartment where I am staying with my stepson. I call him from my Cambodian mobile and ask if he can take me to a second-hand bookshop and then onto Mekong quilts. Someone had recommended the quilt shop to me when I was in Battembang and I decide I will visit there first and then go home to work on the documents. I’m thrilled I did. What a fabulous place.
My daughter in law phones and tells me she has booked me into the hairdressers for the next day. I am to have my hair straightened. I have always wanted this done in England but it was always far too expensive. The excitement of finally having some work to do coupled with the anticipation of visiting Mekong quilts and having my hair done, quickly wakes me up. In irritation I had felt with the hospital staff quickly passes.
There is no doubt about it. I love this country called Cambodia.