Some Days

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, it’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 – 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. “Do you have any money for breakfast?” He shows his wallet, just 1,000 riel (25 cents). He asks if we have any work for him. He’s a friend, he’s a driver, he’s a translator and general fixer. But today, we don’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 NGO’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. That’s life for a disabled Cambodian with a university degree. As we say good-bye, he suggests we stay in touch through email. He didn’t have money for his phone, so the company cut him off.

There’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 didn’t work either, so they returned to the village, where they now live on the edge of a mean old woman’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 there’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. It’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 I’m told it will take up to 48 further hours for the package to be delivered.

I’m frustrated. But then I read a front-page story in The Cambodia Daily about the World Food Programme’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 – 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 – 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.

5 thoughts on “Some Days

  1. I’m sorry about all the bad news. It’s so overwhelming to hear about all the poverty. Is there anything a person with a very moderate income can do to help?

  2. I know those days, although not this one in particular. Thank you for writing about it — I hoped the act of writing helped. So sorry about Jerry’s grandfather, all that loss, and the inevitable sense of futility that must be running through you.

    Better soup is coming.

  3. I’m offering you both a pot of green chile stew or Posole when you get to New Mexico! That might take the edge off all of the traveling you’ve done by the time you get here. Maybe you can find some tasty fish soup for tonight!

  4. Thanks, everyone, for your kind words and concern. It means a lot to hear it. Our dear friend Andy arrived last night from Oregon (after a 30-hour delay!) and the world is looking brighter. Joanna, that posole or stew sounds absolutely delightful! I’ll make you chicken soup in return.

    Magda, thanks for your query. There are numerous organizations that desperately need money. I would be happy to chat with you about specific options, based on your interests and desires (kids groups, women’s groups, disabled groups, health groups, schools, libraries, you name it). In Cambodia, even a few dollars will go far. Please drop me a line at I’ll try to get back to you as quickly as I can, but this is turning into an awfully hectic week/month.

    Thanks again, everyone!

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