That cohesive group spirit I sensed while the villagers participated in the ceremony was only to be temporary and very soon it became every individual for himself. Over the past years, I have written extensively as to what happens when the few of us hand out a finite amount of items to an infinite number of people. As in the past, this year we were once again overwhelmed. Even though Donald”s women stepped in to help us control the crowds, no matter what we tried, their overpowering desire for the merchandise defeated our attempts at organization. To Donald, Eddie and I, it was business as usual and we were pleased that in our own way, we were able to help them out. However, not everyone agreed with us; not everyone was supportive.
TRUTH COMES IN VARIOUS VERSIONS
As the village people were crossing the road and coming across the fields, an American woman and her driver saw the crowd and stopped to see what was going on. As the monks were gearing up, she saw Eddie standing on the edge of the crowd taking photos and approached him. Affable Eddie gave her a brief synopsis, explained the absence of the plane which she had seen earlier that year, gave her a short history of our relationship with the people and explained the presence of the monks. When we began to hand out the supplies, she refused his request to help us out, as she just wanted to watch. I saw her standing on the sidelines when a young man, Joseph from Dresden, approached me. He too was driving down the road, saw the crowd and wanted to know what was going on. When I asked him if he would like to help, unlike the woman, he was happy to be included. I showed him the box of soap, which contained 100 bars, unfortunately four pieces wrapped together in cellophane. No problem he replied, he had a knife and could separate them before handing them out. Hundreds of grasping eyes focused on us as I hurried to give him the basic instructions. We do have our rules, honed after years of dealing with this impossible situation. The soap was to be given only to the women, he nodded not realizing this was a gray area, as many young village girls looked womanly. I had to let him figure this out for himself. I warned him about double dipping, but since this is a Seinfeld term and he was German, I am not sure he caught my drift. Good luck I called out as I saw him disappear into the center of a newly formed crowd. Donald relinquished control of the bags of shoes to his favorite women, who instinctively understanding divide and conquer, staged themselves in various parts of the field. We have no idea who received the shoes but they all went somewhere and the women returned to take charge of the cooking oil, a truly coveted item. Joseph, Donald, and I handed out most of the clothing, trying to give it to those who looked the neediest, but then again, who wears their best clothing to a giveaway party? In attempting to unload Eddie”s car, someone placed the carton of soap powder on the ground. Seeing this, I knew we had a problem but by the time I turned around, the one hundred bags of soap powder had already disappeared, including the box it came in. As we have done in the past, we hand the children large plastic bags and by showing them what to do, we get them to pick up all the garbage. The word “garbage” should be one of the few English words they know but I am sure they are perplexed and it is certainly too hard to explain in pantomime why we stuff the over flowing garbage bags in Eddie”s trunk and take it with us.
When it was over, when the last tee-shirt, pants, shoes, soap, soap powder, and bottles of cooking oil along with a five dollar bill to the fruit lady was given out, Donald positioned a plastic chair on the blue tarp and opened his “clinic”. Once again, the young women came with their babies and the old ladies came around, pointing to their feet, their eyes, their backs, and once again Donald did what he could to ameliorate their situation.
As for me, the festivities were over. Time for a break, drenched in sweat and caked with dust, I sat down on the blue tarp, feeling the hard, dried out ground beneath me. I grabbed another water bottle and noticed the original woman had left replaced by another, heading on a trajectory that pointed to me. In her mid forties, she seemed familiar until I realized it was not who she was but her clothing that was recognizable. Donald and I had seen her pants and top in the clothing bundles we sorted through in the market. Either she had been “in country” so long that her original clothes had worn out or she was supporting the local economy, attempting to blend into the countryside. Her walk was studied and determined and after navigating the drainage ditch and still moving forward with purpose, I supposed she wanted to talk. Hello and welcome, I called out, thinking this was a friendly enough greeting. I took another bottle of water out of my bag, offered it to my new guest, while pointing to the blue tarp, which certainly should have been interpreted as an invitation to sit down. She stopped at the edge of the tarp, giving the inclination that people on a mission do not necessarily want to sit. She betrayed no emotion but yet I could feel her shadow looming over me and it felt angry. Yet nice of her to block out the blinding sun. Trying another approach, I introduced myself and asked for her name and where she was from. Brushing these queries aside as irrelevant small talk, this nameless woman out of nowhere began to berate me, accusing us of turning the people into animals. What? Yes, you heard me correctly, animals, did you not see how they rushed at you and grabbed.
MY ANSWER: Yes, I know it always happens that way and is expected but did you see the children put their hands together in the traditional Khmer manner and say “aw kohn”, thank you, after they received something.
HER RESPONSE: No, I was too far away.
Realizing this woman did not come to discuss but to lecture, I asked her how she would have handled the situation.
HER RESPONSE: Quite simply, in order to preserve their dignity, I would have lined them up and given something to each one, one at a time.
MY QUESTION: Where were you when the mothers had sat the children down according to size with the smallest ones in the front but when we approached this arrangement disintegrated.
HER RESPONSE: That makes no difference, there must be order, and you should have made them stand in line, both the young people and the older ones too.
MY RESPONSE: Lady, I had to call her that as she had not yet provided her name, you want to inject rationality into this paddy field; you suggest I reason with them. The only way we could have forced these people to stay in line was to have held a gun to their heads and even that I am not sure would have worked. By the way lady, you are no longer in the West, this is the East and it has never developed a tradition of standing in line.
HER RESPONSE: I am not here to discuss cultural anthropology and violence is certainly not the answer. Besides, there must be social justice, the people must be treated with respect and by giving them things, denigrates them and turns them into beggars.
MY RESPONSE: We only handed out the clothing and soap and turned over the distribution of the other items to the women. Believing they knew who was more deserving, instead of degrading them, we empowered them to use their own judgment. Lady, I do not know who you are or what you are doing here, but this is how it is:
The people in the village of Pom Prei are rice farmers who have not had the benefits of an education. They endure an inadequate diet, and live without running water, electricity, refrigeration, transportation, communication, sanitation, doctors, dentists, medicine, and grocery stores. Their houses basically consist of one room on stilts which means there are no kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, dens, or bedrooms and there is no furniture, which means no chairs, no tables, no sofas and no beds. If they are lucky, they have a roof over their heads that does not leak in the rainy season and their supply of rice lasts from one harvest to the other. As for clothing, it is handed down from the older to the younger and is worn until it ends up as rags. As for shoes, they are shared within the family. Under these circumstances, you call them beggars and expect them to stand in line, waiting their turn, keeping their fingers crossed that we will not run out before they receive something. As for medical assistance, the doctors in the government run clinics take the medicine, often given by donor countries, and instead of distributing it free to the people, they sell it in their own clinics, leaving these people with nothing as they drive around in new SUV”s. If anyone gets sick, they usually die. But while we are here, Donald can patch them up and send the sick children to Angkor Children”s Hospital. Over the years, my friends have given me money to spend on this village. This year, Jeanne, my friend from California made a nice contribution. I have received contributions from my friends Elise and Mary Anne and the book club I once belonged to also provided money. As for the rest, Donald and I have been providing for this village since 2002. We come from a place where we have everything and helping this village allows us to feel good about ourselves along with attempting to ameliorate some of their deprivation.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?
HER RESPONSE: This is my first time in Asia and I recently arrived in Siem Reap. I am in the process of setting up an NGO. I have already acquired an office, a SUV, and a driver. I am an inner city community organizer……..
WHO KNOWS WHAT IS TRUE?
I know there is no agreement on the manner by which to dispense aid and I know philosophers, scholars, and men of religion have yet to agree on a single definition by which to define reality and its good friend, truth. Even physicists studying quantum mechanics have gotten into the act when studying quarks and other subatomic particles, which led Neils Bohr, one of the greatest of them all to state, “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.” In our postmodern times, truth has been disconnected from its traditional moorings, once considered objective has now been declared subjective. No matter what, my verbal exchange with this woman proved the point. We had arrived at a cross road, each with a different view of reality. She got there on the idealist track. She discredited all history and experience that preceded her and considered herself the main attraction in her own arrival. With a mind over dosed on hubris, she refused to allow her lack of knowledge or experience to prevent her from opining and criticizing.
My position was simple: I showed up as a realist with boots on the ground notched with nine years experience in dealing with the people and conditions of Pom Prei. We deal in what actually exists not as we want it to be and not as we think it should be. As you can imagine, my conversation with this woman coursed downhill without any hesitation on my part. She had already spent her donor”s money, had nothing yet to show for her effort but I am sure she felt confident about her mission as she drove off in her expensive SUV.
Later, marshaling all those disorderly facts that were part of our conversation, I thought about our village people. Buddhism, the main religion, also has opinions on reality beginning in the 6th BC. However, I could not imagine the villagers sitting around discussing how the world and life is nothing but an illusion, that reality is unreal, and all aspects of existence transitory. I know the business of giving aid is surrounded by different opinions, but who can tell me that the people of Pom Prei were not better off when we left than when we arrived? After all, those 576 items, transitory or not, went somewhere.
It was time to return to Siem Reap, but looking around, what had happened to Tuit? I had only caught a glimpse of Tuit that morning and I wondered if he would be willing to leave his family and return to school. When we were preparing to depart, I looked around and could not find him. Then opening up the back door of the car to put in my stuff, I found him sitting there in what by now had become his accustomed seat, in the back next to me.
RETURNING TO SIEM REAP
Donald, Eddie and I along with Tuit were going to lunch at the Soup Dragon, one of our favorite restaurants for lunch where they offer a wide variety of Khmer and Western food. Along with several other restaurants in Siem Reap, they donate a part of their sales to Angkor Children”s Hospital. We invited Cinnamon and her friend to join us and I was happy when Joseph, who had been so helpful, agreed to meet us there. If we were an NGO, this would have been a tax deduction but nevertheless, it was our pleasure to treat all of them to a meal. Observing the coarse manner in which Cinnamon and her friend held their silverware, we once again marveled at how properly Tuit held his fork and spoon. The three of them ordered beef lak-lak, a traditional Khmer dish of sliced meat served over rice. Donald and Eddie ordered the pizza and I enjoyed a bowl of traditional Khmer sour soup.
Over bottles of cold Angkor beer, the best way to remove the taste of countryside dust and grit, we found out Joseph was a water engineer and had come to Cambodia with the hope of helping out the people. Speaking to government officials, he volunteered to work without pay if they could provide food and a place to stay. Then he was shocked to find out that the only way he could work in Cambodia was if he paid them first. He was short of money and knew he would have to go home soon. But he was so caught up in what he had done that morning that he wanted to give us money for next year. His power of persuasion exceeded my ability to dissuade him but next year, we will spend twenty dollars in his name.
TO BE CONTINUED