Angkor wasn’t built in a day

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The temples in the Angkor complex were built over hundreds of years.

During one of my earliest journeys into the world I travelled the length of Egypt by sleeper train, and returned on a Nile felucca. It was the 1980s, but might well have been the 1880s. Picture a scene in which fez-capped porters balance suitcases on their heads whilst donkeys are loaded with great trunks of supplies for the trip, palms swaying in the breeze to the tune emanating from the surrounding whir of human activity.

I learnt much on that trip, but one of my favourite lessons was translated for me by my  African guide on a day when a double booked hotel room was the least of the things that had gone wrong. After discussing the reason for our long wait with the hotel manager, the guide returned and quietly sat down next to me, took a long draw on his fat cigar, and, understanding my western need for an explanation, said:

“My son let me teach you something about Egyptian time. It goes like this:

“If I agree to meet my friend at the coffee house near the market square at noon, and he is not there, it does not mean he is not coming, it means he has been delayed.”

“If by one o’clock, he is not in his usual seat opposite me, it is because he is on his way.

“At two o’clock, I may be sipping coffee alone, but my friend is close.”

“And if he has still not arrived by three o’clock, then it means he will surely be here soon.”

A different time, a different concept of time.

A woman heads into a temple to sell her wears.

A woman heads into a temple to sell her wares.

And so it is here in Cambodia, working for a wonderful NGO with a great sense of compassion, care and hope for the future. Like so many, I arrive full of ideas and energy, driven by a desire to make what difference I can in a relatively small amount of time, over-bearing all with a hastily formulated agenda.

Well close enough. I’m comparatively sensitive to the fact that many have come before me and performed great work, and will still be on the ground every day, long after I have gone.

Working in the office, helping to design and roll-out a communication strategy that is simple enough to be implemented by Buddhist Monks in my absence, yet modern enough to propel the organisation forward, I witness NGO groupies come and go. Sometimes two in a day, other times none for a week, their eyes are wide, ears closed, dialogue intense –  anxious, road-weary souls who’s hearts are in the right place but who’s bodies will soon be in Bangledesh, Laos or Burma, seeking their next outpost on a path to self fulfilment.

So the last month has been a great lesson in finding the flow and going with it, patience, and just chipping away at the rock, bulldozer well and truly in the shed.

A young girl pushes through the mud to make it to school on time.

A young girl pushes through the mud to make it to school on time.

The wonders of improvisation

 

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the great Cambodian skill for improvisation must be some sort of crazy old aunty.

Spend five minutes away from the comfortable western bubble we have inflated for ourselves in Australia and the reminder of how “lucky” our country is hits like the guilt trip that accompanies the consumption of half a packet of Tim Tams.

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A young boy watches as a community builds a new house for a local widow.

It wasn’t that long ago that many of our parents (and some of us) grew up and lived with the notion of “making do” as a reality. Offal was a delicacy, lard on fried bread was a meal, and hand-me-downs didn’t just go down, their journeys sometimes continued on sideways – or even back up.

Yet there’s some real joy to be witnessed in the improvisation that plays out every day in this wonderful country. Clothes always seem to fit, food is always eaten and complaints are seldom heard. The rare argument is usually settled with a simple smile and sompiah, and those that aren’t will only simmer as long as it takes to make tea or share a meal.

If you’re suffering from an ache in your tooth, stomach or head, a placebo will surely fix it – an estimated 90% of drugs carried by the local pharmacies are fake.

Two wheels are enough to transport a double bed, a 300 litre fridge or a family of eight, and if you run out of fuel, any number of helpful locals will appear out of nowhere and fill your tank with your choice of diesel or unleaded from colourful rows of discarded whiskey, Bacardi and Fanta bottles.

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Firewood deliveries on a muddy rural road.

If it doesn’t fit just cut it down to size, whether it be a spiffy pair of shoes, a balding tyre, or a SIM for your mobile phone, and a handsaw will cut your fence, food or fire wood.

When you’re in need of power, just attach another wire to the nearest pole. The pole’s full? That’s ok, just latch on to one of the existing wires. Construction workers double as high trapeze artists, and will be more than willing to attach another outlet for you. Not a suitably qualified, competent and licensed electrician? Neither are they, but how else will families power their TVs so they can watch kick-boxing, and a fluorescent light while they cook their evening meal?

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Just when you thought there wasn’t room for another power line.

Pets can be either cuddled or cooked, and if you run out of space to store your scrap newspaper, coconut husks, and fake drugs, just burn them in the street!

The legacy of Cambodia’s sorry history is an absence of the elderly, wisdom and guidance, but their ability to adapt, cultivate hope, and carry on demands our admiration. Sometimes it seems like we need to find our own joy in a country where the roads are paved, people grow old, and even scruffy street dogs go to heaven.

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Local boys head home after a day at circus school.