Monday, June 2, 2008

Monday - Cambodia's middle class and the poorest people in PP: A day of extreme contrasts

Today was a day of contrasts- I began my new job in the morning at the international school. I teach 2nd grade children but they range in age up to 12 years old. There are 10-15 in my class – a perfect number. Only 3 girls though. They seem like good children although clearly have their naughty moments! I now have my grade 2 science book and English book to get started on as homework.

Following on from International Children’s Day the school had Heritage Day –eg. What makes the children proud of where they come from. Part of this day, as a special treat for the children a magician was coming to the school. At the weekend I had read a very funny article in the Phnom Penh Post about Solo, Cambodian’s premier magician. He abstains from sex and alcohol to improve his magic the article said. What asked how he prepared for shows he replied “When I used to perform regularly, I got up at midnight to meditate and I didn’t eat wildlife, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or have sex because all these things weaken your magical powers. After I got married, I stopped learning a lot of new magic because I couldn’t stop myself from doing all of these things. Today, before every show I rehearse the whole routine five times in front of the mirror. Nowadays, I learn new tricks from catalogues and DVDs I buy in Singapore. I am now learning a new big trick. When I’ve mastered it, I will perform on Cambodian Television Network and Bayon TV.” This man has performed for the King of Cambodia.

People’s answers in interviews are quite odd and frank here. When asked why he changed his name to Solo his answer was just simply that “I thought if I had a name like Solo it would be easier to become famous”!

For the exciting full article see:

Here is the "amazing" Solo and his car finding bird.

It made me realise just exactly how small Phnom Penh is when the children’s magician was none other than the famous sex deprived Solo. The magic show was basic and involved 2 dogs (poodles) in sparkly coats (red and pink), a dove (that apparently flys into the car after the trick?!) and various bits of rope (not necessarily used all together.... Anyway, the children liked it but I was left wondering how much the not eating of meat/no sex affected the show and whether it was really worth it.

In the afternoon I went to the CCH orphanage. Steung Meanchy is Phnom Penh’s municipal garbage dump. All the children at CCH have been rescued from this site – They are all orphans and had no adult looking after them on the dump. Today, I planned to go and see the dump for the first time. One of the older children, srey Pov, took me and Penny to the land fill site. We travelled from the orphanage to the dump by tuk tuk for about 10 minutes. The drive took us though many back streets of one roomed wooden shacks then all of a sudden we were at the edge of the dump – A vast expanse of plastic bags and rubbish lay before us.
Srey Pov, took us onto the rubbish and we began to talk over the mound of plastic towards the rubbish pickers. Clouds of black smoke filled the air from the fires. The dump certainly is a 100-acre mountain of smoking, decaying, gloopy waste.

I spent some time talking to Srey Pov to find out what her life was like at the dump before CCH. It is difficult to talk about these things when there are usually 30+ orphans wanting attention. She moved to Phnom Penh with her parents and 2 brothers from the provinces. She spent sometime on the streets of Phnom Penh before going to the dump. She lived there from the age of 5 to 10. Her mother and father died of AIDs and I think that she went to CCH when she was 12/13 years old.

I learnt that at the dump the rubbish pickers can earn 100 riel (about 5p) for 1kg of plastic or 100 riel for 2 cans. On a good day the rubbish pickers can make $3. This is more than they would make in the province which is why many come. The people were also collecting mounds of food mainly rice they had found in the rubbish. Covered in flies, foul smelling – I was so relieved to hear that they were only collecting it as pig food not to eat for themselves. I hope this is true and it doesn’t turn out to be someone’s evening meal tonight.

Srey Pov used to scour the dump every day for plastic, cans and glass. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to have no escape from that place. The land moves as you walk on it – as the rubbish turns to black sludge, you move with it. We were lucky it had not rained for 5 days or so. Being there in the wet must be a nightmare. People silently picked rubbish around us. Srey Pov talked to some of them to get the answers to some of the questions I had for them and her. Some people were surrounding the new dump trucks coming in to the site. Others were going through the day’s findings sorting it into piles to sell. One of the recyclers told us that once she buys the rubbish she sells it in Phnom Penh and the glass, cans and plastic then go to Vietnam. As we stood talking I looked down and aw I was practically standing on a dead rat no smaller than a cat. Its legs stuck in the air flies all over it. Truly hideous. We walked past one of the houses actually on the dump itself. An open shack, no walls, just a hammock (for the baby). Flies everywhere.

We walked further into the dump – more of the same spread for what seemed like miles. A vast area. Small steams of disgusting “water” ran around the edges of the mountains of the rubbish. A man walked across the site with a rice bag full of rubbish. Liquid was oozing out of it as the rubbish was rotting inside so badly. The people here have no idea that the fumes and the needles they are exposed to every minute of their day and night are deadly. The CCH children try to educate the people by performing role plays and educational songs on Sundays to the people at the sump and other deprived areas.

The dump is definitely a living hell. However, without sounding too much like a “do gooder” CCH is an amazing place giving hope to children like Srey Pov who is about to leave to go to Japan for 3 months to train as a hairdresser. She will come back before going again, the next time for a whole year. Eventually she would like to be a doctor. She has learnt English in 2 years. An awe inspiring young woman.

Photos to be provided – A disposable camera was used to save theft.

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