The many sides of PP

Trip Start Oct 01, 2005
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15
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Trip End Mar 27, 2007


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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Saturday, December 16, 2006

Motor scooters artfully weaving in and out of the multi-directional flow of traffic; dark, muscled cylo drivers wearing tattered shorts and sandals transporting passengers and their packages; moto drivers hounding pedestrians for a fare; roadside restaurants and beverage stands with red plastic miniature sized chairs and tables; food vendors cooking hot noodles and vegetables from tiny pushcarts; crowded open-air markets selling fruit, flowers, fish, vegetables, poultry - dead and alive; solitary peddlers carrying their wares in baskets balanced on their heads; regal colonial era buildings, serving as residences, offices or homes of VIPs; pagodas offering calm, sheltered in cool compounds where orange robed monks and university students reside; people lazing in hammocks, avoiding the mid day heat; makeshift roadside "gas stations" with "high premium" fuels in empty Pepsi or liquor bottles; oil logged machine and motorcycle repair shops, salvaging, welding, hammering - resuscitating the lives of the never dying motos of Cambodia; and a wide, wide assortment of flourishing commerce, where everything - literally everything can be purchased for the right price. Welcome to a glimpse of the streets of Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh's "personality" is complex, chaotic - has many, many layers. Sometimes it seems fragile, trying to recuperate from its tragic past attempting to rediscover and reinvent itself. The population is faced with the challenges of lawlessness, rampant corruption, nepotism and many questionable clandestine activities, masked behind a facade of normalcy and the paradox of the one party (and of course democratic) rule of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). The city also exudes a powerful sense of opportunity, a buzz generated by the optimism and vigor of the sizable young generation passionately embracing change - consumerism, educational opportunities and of course hip hop, cellphones, trendy bars, Hollywood action films, fancy clothes, cars and motorcycles. Yet ever present is the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" - a gap which according to many is only becoming wider.

The city is a magnet for an eclectic mix of foreigners - travelers on whirlwind SE Asia tours; ex-pats working at NGOs or teaching English; budget travelers staying in the backpacker "ghetto" section of Bang Koek (most of them probably completely unaware of the seedy but interesting slum only a few hundred meters away, home to brothels, petty gangsters, $25/month rooms, etc.); drug addicts; sex tourists frequenting hostess bars and "massage" parlors; foreign and local entrepreneurs taking advantage of burgeoning business opportunities, etc.... note that none of the above categories are mutually exclusive.

For many Cambodians from the provinces (term used by Cambodians for every place outside Phnom Penh) the city represents opportunity. Its "official" population, since the city was evacuated under the Khmer Rouge, has grown from 50,000 to 1 million people. Some speculate that undocumented residents account for an additional 200-300,000. People continue arriving in mass, searching for ways to earn money. Many sleep in hammocks on the streets, their bundles of belonging close by. They settle for whatever work they can find. But the city is not their ally, decisively favoring the rich, affluent and powerful, not the simple and impoverished.

Thousands of men, women and children, with few alternative options end up working in Steung Mean Cheay - the enormous garbage dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. I am visiting a NGO - Pour un sourire d'enfant(PSE) - that works to provide these children with an escape. A way out - access to education, health care, housing, even professional training and development. But I go to the garbage dump prior to visiting PSE.

The powerful stench of rotting garbage is strong. Smoke fills the air burning my eyes, making them water. The mid-day heat is thick, a veil of haze. Barely discernible shapes move all around me. I hesitate. I knew what I would find here would be disturbing but the reality of the sight is horrid, heartbreaking and otherworldly. A living nightmare. People dressed in shredded clothes, heads wrapped in checkered scarves, wading through a swamp of garbage. Three small children approach me. They say hello and start rambling in Khmer. They do not beg. They do not ask for anything except a little attention. I stop, kneeling down close to them, my Khmer phrase book in hand. One wears large rubber boots, the other sandals and the third is barefoot. Their clothes are dark with filth. Their legs and arms, covered in infected scratches and cuts. But under the thick layer of dirt and wild, matted air are the bright shining eyes and genuine smiles of children. Pointing to their stomachs, making eating motions I offer them a meal. On one of the nearby ridges of garbage are food stands serving the thousands of workers. I buy each of the children a plate. Handing the food vendor a dollar, she give me change of 1,000 riel ($0.25). This action deserves mention. It is significant, as I am surrounded by the poorest of the poor in the middle of a garbage dump, yet the woman does not rip me off. Pride, honesty and integrity prevail.

With short metal sticks in hand, people forage, searching for plastic, metal, aluminum which is then separated and sold in bulk. A day's work might earn $1-$2 dollars. Entire families live on the outskirts of Steung Mean Chey, renting rooms from greedy landlords. Some days, the workers only eat the remains of food found in the swamp of waste. As in most developing nations, Cambodians do not discard items which can be salvaged, so there are no old bicycles, chairs, tables, refrigerators but instead only items which truly are at the end of their usable life - plastic bags, cans, broken glass, hospital waste, rotting vegetables, animal parts, etc. A bulldozer moves freshly dumped piles of garbage into the ocean of refuse. The choice pickings are here. Children scurry dangerously close to the blade and the deadly metal treads of the rapidly moving machine. I wonder how many have been crushed in the quicksand like muck in an attempt to fill their sacks?

With the help of Phearum my moto driver/translator - who although from Phnom Penh has never been here - we sit with three women, resting under their makeshift shelter of wooden poles and cloth. The youngest, with a very pretty although sad face has her hand over her mouth, fighting to control a fit of coughing. She lives in the nearby slum with her 2 children who are lucky enough to attend school. Next to her sits Yomon. She has been working at the dump for 5 years. She has no teeth. Her skin, although dark and wrinkled, seems silky. Amazingly her eyes shine, alive and flled with emotion. Yomon is 85 years old. She flashes a toothless smile, and laughing says that she will retire when she is 86 - on her birthday. I squeeze her hand, telling her (through my moto driver) that she is a wonderful and beautiful woman. She laughs even louder, joined by the other two. I am obviously part of the joke.

We leave the dump passing through the slums where the majority of the workers live. I hear the very distinguishable sounds of a school yard - a unique cacophony of laughter, screaming, crying - total playground anarchy. To my left is a small school. In the dusty yard, several flowering bushes near by, are young uniformed children completely cracking up at the sight of me. Their small faces stare through the gates. We wave, we say hello. They are some of the relatively lucky ones. Their parents working close by, the children spend their days safe and sheltered, at least temporarily, from the horrors of dump life - a short 500 meters away. Perhaps they are a generation that will have other opportunities.
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