I land in Cambodia with great excitement in my heart, and not a little trepidation.
It’s a balmy evening, the very air is heavy with unknown scents, and there are trees all around the airport, bursting into leafing. It seems that nature has conspired to make this a land of fulfillment and fruition. Was it just my fancy that I felt as if I had stepped into the Garden of Eden? The mind plays strange tricks on the body, and my fevered imagination conjured visions of vast fields, green and verdant, and forests thick with foliage, and trodden paths winding dark and mysterious where footsteps fall, soft and stealthy, and for a moment I felt my heart would surely burst with emotion.
Phnom Penh came as a distinct shock. A small airport, long lines that snaked forward slowly, and keen-eyed Visa officers. I stepped out into the warm night, and one thing that struck me was the relative silence. When you land in New Delhi the clamor hits you like a wave, the din is deafening and you wonder, oh heavens, will this never cease? But here, the peace was balm to your wounded soul, and the tortured mind found solace in the music of silence, and the occasional shrill cries of roadside vendors seemed like the chirp and cheep of birds twittering in an azure sky.
India is a land of great diversity, contradictions and disparity. Cambodia, on the other hand, is uniformly rural, barring few parts of the capital where tall buildings stand cheek by jowl with straggling hutments clinging to their back. Phnom Penh is where the well off congregate. Mighty officials, and their might is undisputed, have their offices here, and so do all foreigners, and the place is teeming with well meaning individuals and organizations, all trying to bring development to a ravaged country.
If I were to use ravaged for Cambodia it would not be an exaggeration. Down the ages, it has received more than its share of troubles. First there was the dictator, who killed dissenters in public, whose brutality was a byword in a harsh and hard world. And then came the Khmer Rouge, under whose rule more than a million died in the long march to the Laos border. The killing fields of Cambodia bear testimony to an inhuman and barbaric regime which wiped out the intelligentsia, only permitting laborers, farmers and artisans to live. How does a country survive without industry? In India wherever you go, there is some activity going on. There are fruits sellers and teashops and secondhand books-sellers and beauty parlors, every kind of business is going on, even in slums and villages. The very air is bustling with activity. There is noise and dirt and pollution no doubt, and conmen and crooks out to fleece the gullible, but there is a very real sense of commercial activity, which translates into food on the table and schooling for children and money for buying essential goods, even to pay for health. In Cambodia, the deserted and quiet dust tracks, the very stillness of life, spoke another story. It was as if life had passed it by, and somehow the country has got left behind in the inevitable march towards progress. My heart bled. I was perilously close to tears.
Charlie Samnang is Operation ASHA’s Senior Program Manager. He has an M.D. degree and 12 years of experience in public health. Charlie and I went to Pema’s house to meet her. Pema lives in a one room hutment. When we reached, she was sitting on the floor. She put her arms around me and hugged me. Her elderly mother watched fondly, her face creased with smiles and wrinkles, while an innocent babe played in her arms. Pema has extra pulmonary TB, ie large cervical lymph nodes, nodules in the neck, and has been on treatment in our program. Pema is one of the several thousand TB patients in Cambodia, a country where 400 out of every 100,000 people have the full-blown disease. This number puts Cambodia on the WHO’s list of the 22 countries with the highest rates of TB. Cambodia’s TB problems are compounded by poverty, with over 30 percent of all Cambodians living below the poverty line, according to the latest World Bank estimate. Pema is deeply grateful to the Operation ASHA counselor who not only visits her daily and supervises the medication, she has also convinced the family members to get themselves tested for TB.
One day I took a ferry across the river. The ticket cost 500 riel, about 10 pennies. I remember crowds swarming in the ferry, carrying parcels, fish, ferrying bicycles and motor bikes, and there was even a car. I got quite a few curious looks, and some smiled. Some urchins scrambled into the boat just for the ride. The ferry moved ponderously, majestic in its slow and deliberate motion, somehow it gave me the impression of a galleon, a ship in full sail. The Mekong was a vast expanse of water; its placid unruffled surface now rippled as the ferry plunged forward and ploughed its way through. I watched, mesmerized by the strangeness of the universe and drunk with the beauty of the far off huts visible on the surface of the water. In the prow of the boat, his back towards the teeming humanity, stood a Buddhist monk. He stood absolutely still. His orange grabs were faded and old. He was painfully thin. I had an absurd impulse to walk over to him and ask him for his blessing. When the ferry landed on the other side, there was a mad rush to get off the boat. I got off with the others. The monk was the last one to get off. He seemed to be in no hurry. I scrambled up the bank and looked back. He was still waiting patiently.
So this is the other side of Phnom Penh. There is but one road, just a dust track, which runs for about half a mile, then peters off. Somewhere a gramophone is blaring a raucous tune. This is not a tourist’s area but every now and then the occasional visitor drops in. See, no more roads, says my guide as I walk further. I get the impression of vast tracts of land, uninhabited, where human footsteps have not trod, areas that are raw and untouched and throbbing with a primeval force. A few steps back and I am back into civilization, women smile shyly and sell me souvenirs, and urchins mob me to get their picture taken and marvel at the mystery of a tablet.
But sometimes in the silence of the night, I feel as if I am back in Cambodia. I am sitting on the floor, with my arms around Pema, and her little boy is playing. The Mekong flows on, now calm, now a torrent of wildness that is frightening in its intensity and disturbs the senses. Vendors by the roadside offer me fried snails and tiny roasted bananas, the size of my finger. And there on the boat is a monk, with eyes of compassion and hands raised to bless, his face that of a mystic, absorbed in the ineffable. My heart overflows, I long to escape the bondage of the body and become one with the universe, so the trees and the river and the monk all fuse and blend in a swirl of emotions that engulf my shuddering soul.
-Written by Dr. Shelly Batra, President, OpASHA