Thursday, 10 July 2014

Fugitive faces

Cambodia and The Lake Clinic

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, can I have your attention please? We have reached the office where we will all get our VISAs to Cambodia’

‘Scam!’ crooned someone from the front seats on the bus bound for Siem Reap, Cambodia.

‘It's not a scam!’ the man beseeched us. ‘Scam! Scam! Scam!’ The shouts ricocheted around the bus, each one a whip crack to our disparaged guide. With a final hangdog sigh, he sat down and our bus moved off, gangway untrammeled.

Our ‘guide’ was not savy enough to know that scores of forums, books and blogs all take pains to explain the routine: a representative of the bus company will try to get the passengers to pay for an unneeded, expensive VISA well before the actual border. It’s a bare-faced pretense that helped the epithet ‘Scambodia’ do the rounds, and we were all hip to the jive.

I left my bike in Bangkok for this fleeting side trip to Cambodia. From Siem Reap my plan was to visit a floating medical clinic on the Tonle Sap Lake and the temples at Ankor Wat before hightailing it back into Thailand and riding into Burma, chasing the clock as my Indian VISA marches on, and assailed by monsoon rains.

At the border I looked out from the vantage point of my bus seat to the bumpy terrain of tops of heads cut by trains of rickshaws and hand-pedalled carts with raggedy kids gripped to the sides, and chickens under free arms; a TV camera crew filmed the melee. An estimated 200,000 illegal workers from Cambodia were fleeing the country in the wake of the Thai military coup, fearing arrest.

Siem Reap, the launching point for tours of the world’s largest temple complex at Ankor Wat, is a vast muddle of tourists, haranguing tuk tuk drivers (slash drug dealers) and well-primped transexual masseuses, a pair of which grabbed me by the arms. ‘Massage! Massage!’ I slipped the grip of one, ducked, side stepped, tugged my arm away from the other but her grip was more determined than I imagined and the effect was to drag her brutally down the street which made a cluster of backpackers giggle wickedly.

There are several sureties that come with visiting any of the world’s most popular tourist attractions and Ankor Wat was no different to the Pyramids, Petra or Machu Picchu. Someone will usually try to convince you that a more authentic experience means arriving on the back of a large mammal. The British will get miffed because for those of other nations, forming an orderly queue is not such a venerable pastime. There are always people too skinflint to pay for their own tour guide who glide around the margins of tour groups, their deceit half-cloaked by the unfurled maps and newspapers they feign to study. And someone will perform an indecent act with one of the religious statues to the glee of their friends - this may include high fiving Buddha, picking an imaginary bugga from the trunk of Ganesha, or riding bareback on the Virgin Mary.


‘Dr Fabes!’ John stood up, festooned in a billowing Hawaiian shirt, a crop of silver hair tinged red; his voice spiced with the subtle twang of his Rhode Island roots.

John is a self-proclaimed ‘problem-solver’, and with obvious and abundant talent for it – he founded the Paediatric Hospital in Siem Reap and once managed psychiatric wards amongst a fleet of other varied endevours. He is also the man in charge of the Lake Clinic which serves the people who live in floating houses on the lake and river systems of the Tonle Sap.

Years before John had been drifting on a boat down the Tonle Sap, in tranquil admiration for the beauty of it: the swatches of water hyacinth amidst the glimmering water, the house-boats in gentle sway. But he took a closer look: at the houses, eight bodies a piece; at the murky margins of the image in his camera viewfinder; and there they were – scores of people washing, drinking and defecating in the same frame. It was that moment that he vowed to help, take up the slack, and the first spark that would later emerge as the Lake Clinic was cast into the black.

My journey to see the project for myself began at the staging post of Kampong Khleang, a village set on the banks of the river. I was encompassed by a host of stilted houses, but not for another six months would the wind-rushed wavelets of the lake water slap against their floor boards – now the lake drains into the Mekong, though when the direction of flow switches, as happens twice a year, the water will back up, filling the lake anew and swelling it’s area five-fold.

A clutter of long boats rocked near the bank as men loaded petrol and watermelons onto the out-going vessels and buckets of fish were claimed from the incoming ones. Nine of us packed into the boat and we set off, growling through the muddy water and sending a spray like erupting lava out behind us. Soon a thin layer of land on each side of us was all that divided the lake from the sky.

After three hours we turned into a river, past a slew of fishermen, the air rank with fish, and pulled up in front of a low-slung blue hut: The Lake Clinic, one of four floating clinics on the Tonle Sap, the water too low this time of year for the pontoons beneath to be of use. We debarked as clumps of green water hyacinth drifted by as easily as swans. Three hours on a boat helped explain why the people here might need the clinic, but it opened up a question too: why do so many people live in such isolation?

Life is cheap on the Tonle Sap. The path to a rickety floating home, far from cities and roads, might start with some small event, explained John, a sick child perhaps the first domino to fall. To cover medical costs the family might sell their cow: domino two tumbles. No cow to plough the fields? Then you sell your land, and so on, until deep in debt they drag what they have left to the lake and set out on a life of subsistence and for many, struggle. Some of the old timers have a different tale – after the war, fresh from the forced labour camps, they returned to their old homes only to discover new occupants. Often these intruders would have some document from the Khmer Rouge which supported their claim to ownership, some others may have a six-chambered and rather more persuasive argument.

The setting is sumptuous, a backcountry Venice and the very essence of serenity. Somewhere a radio speiled, a hammer concussed, the voices of gabbing neighbours carried. Thick armed men brandishing long wooden poles propelled their boats through the water. Wood smoke corkscrewed through the purple haze that lingered after the sunset.

Next morning the waiting room was soon well stocked with wriggling children and their wet coughs, women in loose patterned clothes, a few men: sun-wizened and blinking. They brought with them the scent of wood smoke, which hung from their clothes.

Many patients came with ailments that were bound to their lifestyle and habits on the lake – a fish smoker with a cough, babies with diarrhea, and spindly boys with skin and eye infections. There was the usual gamut of patients that might rock up to any family practice, bright looking teenagers with acne and arthritic older ladies, though I didn’t count any patient much over 60. Every third patient would respond to ‘what’s wrong?’ by pointing to their upper abdomen. Gastritis, driven by diet and perhaps by parasites, is rife.

But there are others, too. A small grubby boy, sunken-eyed, body lost inside a Man United top, hopped onto the chair; aside him his mum, her face a road map of wrinkles etched into caramel-coloured skin. She looked forlorn, uneasy and very poor. The boy was weighed and it was roundly agreed - 15kg is far from the ideal in light of his nine years. ‘Skinny, dirty…’ said the doctor to me, and I wondered whether she trailed off with thoughts of the relative futility of a few vitamin pills when there were forces at work were well beyond our ability to set right. They left with a prescription, hand in hand, incanting blessings in Khmer.

For the men, a visit to the Lake Clinic means time off fishing, and so I quickly started to steal myself as we examined the ones who did show up, their ailments so often long-standing and severe. One man complained of a lump in his neck. A long term smoker with a new raspy edge to his voice and a tennis ball sized lump would cause even the most green medical student alarm, but with no possibility of imaging the tumour, let alone treating cancer, it would have to remain the realm of gloomy guesswork. He didn’t seem disappointed when it was explained there was little that could be done, just stone-faced, but then perhaps he’d never courted much hope, only the relative privilege of life away from poverty and the lake begets those kinds of expectations. Or perhaps he was considering next the traditional healer, the revered traders and tappers of hope. All too often, the doctor tells me, the aftermath of the widespread local treatments reveal themselves - patients with small circular burns made by traditional healers, sometimes infected. Another common practice is to spit into wounds – and suddenly the inexorable bloom of tuberculosis began to make sense.

The Tonle Sap is the source of so much for the people that bob and drift on its waters: it’s their culture, their sustenance, their profit and their world. But the lake is a two-faced mistress and its gifts are not always as desirable, within the ripples gather disease, and the isolation it foists on the people who live here breeds an unrelenting cycle of poverty. The Lake Clinic helps with a fraction of these burdens, a true lifeline for a few and a boon to many.

Andrea, a Swiss doc






Western Thailand

I looked over my worn out Brooks saddle like an adolescent appraises a groin rash. I was reticent to deal with it – my old saddle, Bernard, had been a long and constant companion; moulded to me, dented by sit bones, splayed and bum-ready. So for months I’d just shot the thing an occasional doleful glance before shoving it again to the dregs of my to-do list, beyond the motivational wastelands of ‘sew pants’ and ‘find old to do list’ – a job that features on almost every one of my to-do lists. Bangkok though was the logical place for swapsies, and my arse stealed itself for a thrashing the likes of which it hadn’t seen since Kent.

The west of Thailand was laced by myriad small roads which coursed through chartreuse rice paddies as evenly hued as golf greens. In Bangkok I watched what seemed to be every single person in a frenzy of technology where only selfies were worthy interruptions to facebook - I didn’t anticipate the same in rural Thailand. An effete old man approached me though as I peered at my map; he was shabbily ragged, unshaven, grizzled. He towed a battered cart behind him past toward the ramshackle hut he called home.

‘No GPS then?’ he enquired

‘What?!’

‘You don’t have a GPS?’

‘Um, no’

‘No Iphone either?’ He was mildly startled now. I shook my head.

‘But you must have a satellite phone?’

A few days after leaving the city behind the mountains peeked up over the horizon, as sudden as a bend in a race track. Chieng, a young tall Chinese biker on his first national exodus, rode with me for a day. He had a hunger for the road I envied a little now that it seems more ordinary; his face filled with joy as he told me of a free coffee he was given at a police station, pausing then to let me absorb the shock of it, and I smiled at the simple things that mean so much when you’ve pedaled 150 km and run countless laps in your own head. His mum calls him every day on his cell phone to persuade him to return home. ‘I want to cycle around the world too’ he said, dreamily. ‘Chinese parents…’ he lamented ‘they don’t understand’.

I climbed over the Tanontongchai Range to a market where women from the hilltribes in loose green robes sold me the best lychees I have ever tasted, as fat as satsumas, and then I finally arrived at Mae Sot. Since the 70’s the border between Thailand and Burma has seen a mass of refugees who are now settled in camps near the town. I had planned to visit one of these camps and to give a presentation to the students, but the Thai army took over command the day I planned to visit, evicting foreigners, ordering searches on the pretext of ‘drugs’ (which likely meant ‘uncertified people’). This was worrying to say the least, especially set against the backdrop of military rule in Thailand with no government to answer to.

Instead I paid a visit to SMRU, medics treating migrant workers and refugees along the border, (story to come in a later blog post) and also gave a presentation to some refugees who had been taken by an NGO into higher education in the border town. In my presentation I often share my perception of people the world over as munificent and good-natured - I want to counter the all too common belief that the world is a terrifying place replete with boogie men. Sometimes though, I feel like I’ve been conned. Bicycle travel doesn’t offer the warts and all vision of the world I had hoped for. Most days I am treated to a roadside of mad grins and shining eyes, I’m gifted food and sometimes a bed, I’m treated almost always with nothing but deference. It breeds a kind of naive and unchecked optimism: I have to remind myself I’m only a surface traveler, usually immune to the violence and mistreatment the malignant forces around the globe dole out to their own people beyond the ken of the passers-by. I spoke to these Burmese students of how lovely Planet Earth is, forgetting then that the very fact that they live in a foreign land was because the military junta at home has persecuted and abused their own people for decades. Afterwards, I felt a bit of a dick.



Burmese Daze

I sprawled my map over the bed – Burma looked up at me, daringly. The border crossing I would use had been open only seven months, and crossing the country into India had been the mission of only a half dozen or so intrepid bikers since the rules were relaxed. Rarely had the prospect of a new frontier felt so thrilling.

I rolled under the golden arch which declared ‘The Republic of the Union of Myanmar’ thinking about how debatable those terms are: Republic, Union, and even Myanmar.

I rode on, the inside of every passing truck was thick with bodies, their eyes ablaze amid the shadows of their neighbours, full of astonishment as they peeked at me. Bare-chested men, red-mouthed from chewing betel net, wearing lungis riding up to their naval, and with dragon tattoos from shoulder blade to small of back, nodded hello from the shade of teak leaf-roofed huts. I didn’t mind the steep hills, the mashed up tarmac, the tails of stench that trailed from trucks chocker with chickens. The scenery, the smiles, the exoticism - all more than a fair trade.

That night I found a hostel in a town of dust and nervous dogs. The plywood paneled room was only just big enough for the bed, and I lay down, watching mosquitoes dance on the ceiling, listening to the sounds of this new land.

Burma proved not to be as behind the times as I had expected, ATMs and Internet exist outside the capital despite what Lonely Planet says; change is afoot, and guidebooks are out of date as they are published. I stopped for food - the girl who served me instructed her friend to ready her camera phone and then she jumped into the frame with me, hand draped over my shoulder. A few minutes after fiddling with the device, she showed me her handiwork – on the screen the image of us was now surrounded by a pink, heart shaped frame, like a wedding photo.

A motorbike raged past, it’s driver had swiveled 180 degrees to assure himself the best possible gawk at me whilst his un-chauffeured machine rallied off on a tangent to the direction of the road, eventually satisfied he turned back to the road to find himself almost upon the forest, and he jerked to the left, turned to me again, grinned insanely, wordlessly saying ‘hey, check that out!’ and disappeared.

A mother and then daughter walked past, the first demure and expressionless, the younger smiling widely. I thought about what might be behind that grin. I’m a novelty here, and perhaps it’s just that, but change is upon Burma, perhaps not the upheaval many desire, but change nonetheless. Tourists are a clear stigmata of that fact, and maybe not always smile-worthy in themselves, but because they remind of future promise. Or perhaps I just looked idiotic, as I often do, and Occam’s razor prevails.

I cycled past sudden outcrops of rock, and gold pagodas which studded every hill. Burmese roads offered a conveyor belt of arresting sights - a cow in a rickshaw, drunk soldiers, beautiful flower sellers with heart-fluttering smiles, a mad man in conversation with himself, bands of monks in their burgundy cowls claiming free food from eateries and teams of local people, not workmen, repairing the roads - the forced labour human rights groups so oppose. 




A mum and her son. Burmese put Thanaka on their faces - a cosmetic paste made from ground bark


One night I stayed in a hotel and locked my bike in the downstairs restaurant for the night, the next day though it had been propped up unlocked on the street on the opposite side of the road, anyone could have wheeled off my entire life, luckily theft is rare here. It is illegal for local people to host foreigners in Burma, but I didn’t resort to hotels every night and sought refuge once in a tin roofed derelict building, listening nervously to voices that sliced the night, playing hide and seek against the world.

On many buildings were adverts, on huge plastic drapes, for Grand Royal and High Class whiskey, with their taglines: ‘enjoy life!’ and ‘taste of life!’, which given the state of the people I saw drinking the stuff is ironic indeed. I got to Yangon via a back road that journeyed past tumbledown shacks steeped in a swamp and reachable by four-strong bridges of bamboo poles. I’m staying with Al and Jess – a pair of brilliant teachers who work at the International School. So far I have scored a permit for travel north, presented to the lively school kids and gave an interview for national TV.

Burma must be amongst the most electrifying places I have traveled, and I can’t help remember Ethiopia, a country about which I felt a similar buzz. But with these destinations comes an uncomfortable truth – the exoticism of Burma lies in the same ‘apartness’ I saw in Ethiopia, and it's this separation that has dealt such a blow to the people who live here. The world is becoming ever more interconnected and cooperative, and good - the less apart we are the better - but the result is that we slide towards an ever more homogenised planet.

My plan is a blur of pedal strokes to Bagan, and then if the soldiers at the road block let me pass, an adventure through the wilds of Chin state, eventually arriving in the border town of Tamu, hopefully before an expired VISA, and then I'll cross into India.




Producer, Anchor, man with hair on his face, and Herb The Chicken

‘Dig beneath exotic surfaces to find something even truer and more troubling, go beyond the postcard vistas and tourist shots to a sense of how places can not only surround you, but transform you’ 
- Pico Iyer, Tropical Classical.

Thank yous aplenty this month – shouts out to Al and Jess, the SMRU crew: Steph and Anne, Francois, Mellie, the Bangkok crew: Elena and Mim, The Cambodia crew: John Morgan, Ian Fergusson and Jess, Tobi and Andrea, the teachers and pupils at Horizons School and Moses and all those at MITV.