Some days in Cambodia are like the soup. Some days I wake to a thick, rich bowl of rice porridge, lots of flavor, creamy in a buttery sort of way. But some mornings, itâ€™s a thin bowl of rice and water, thoroughly uninspiring and an ominous start to the day.
Like today. Today begins with such a soup (even though the same soup at the same restaurant two days earlier was the thick and creamy type I love). I should have known it was coming, should have felt it in the air â€“ you can sense goodness or badness approaching on a Cambodian breeze. This morning, annoyingly broiling already by 8, a good friend pulls up on his moto. â€œDo you have any money for breakfast?â€ He shows his wallet, just 1,000 riel (25 cents). He asks if we have any work for him. Heâ€™s a friend, heâ€™s a driver, heâ€™s a translator and general fixer. But today, we donâ€™t have anything for him to do. Jerry hands him money for breakfast and lunch.
This is followed by the blaaa soup, and in turn followed by a meeting with another friend, an intelligent smartly dressed man who used to work for an NGO. But he lost that job four years ago when the NGOâ€™s funding ran out. NGOs do that: they leave countries like Cambodia – piles of aid money, massive corruption and little to show – for newer hot spots such as Afghanistan or Iraq. Our friend works now, occasionally, as a freelance translator. He would like to work for another company, but private enterprises shudder to look at a man with a limp leg and two crutches. Thatâ€™s life for a disabled Cambodian with a university degree. As we say good-bye, he suggests we stay in touch through email. He didnâ€™t have money for his phone, so the company cut him off.
Thereâ€™s more. We have two more friends, a woman and her husband, who lost a leg and half his face to a landmine several years ago. He was a soldier, forced to fight. The government abandoned him when he hit the mine. They moved to a rural village a few years ago, cleared their own land, built their own house, grew their own food (on three legs between them). When our friends grew sick with malaria last year, they sold their plot for a small sum and moved to the city for a while. That didnâ€™t work either, so they returned to the village, where they now live on the edge of a mean old womanâ€™s property. They want their own land again, their own farm to work. But things have changed. Land speculation and land-grabbing schemes have taken over the countryside. Since Khmer Rouge times, millions of Cambodians have lived on land without official deeds or titles. And now, the rich are buying up vast tracts of the country, kicking out the poor and raking in the money. Our friends present us with a proposal. Price of a farm field and land title: $3,000. Two cows: $1,200. Ten chickens: $50. Homemade house: $150. Happiness in Cambodia: Priceless. All told, it would cost our friends $4,400 for a new life, though thereâ€™s no guarantee a new life will succeed. We do not have that kind of cash to give. Nonetheless, they ask us for help, hoping some kind donor will come our way.
From there, I hop online, trying to track a package I had sent from Bangkok to New York more than a week ago. Itâ€™s sitting in a NY FedEx facility, God knows why. I call five times, the line drops four of those times, and on the fifth try Iâ€™m told it will take up to 48 further hours for the package to be delivered.
Iâ€™m frustrated. But then I read a front-page story in The Cambodia Daily about the World Food Programmeâ€™s $10 million shortfall in this neck of the woods. Unless the money suddenly appears, more than 700,000 Cambodians will go hungry in the next six months â€“ mostly school children, and patients with AIDS and tuberculosis. And even if the money is pledged, it will take until May to feed the people (administrative stuff). Yes, this is the same WFP for which we food bloggers and you readers so generously raised a heap of money two months ago. But that heap of money is but a tiny drop in the starving bucket of the world.
So you see, some days are like soup. Some days in Cambodia are rich and fulfilling, evocative and enticing â€“ genuine feel-good days. Other days: nothing but a crap bowl of gruel.
Then: Jerry’s digital camera quits. And he finds out his grandfather is dying.