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Phnom Penh Perspective:

A Week in the Life

by Bronwyn Sloan

February 2006

This month's column is a snapshot of my life, just a collage of many weeks. An explanation of my erratic filing over past months.

Sunday: Karaoke with the Khmer Rouge. Not something I envisaged as a child as I sat with my parents and watched footage of starving Cambodians on the Thai border and heard stories of survivors trickle out of a country that had been closed to the world for nearly four years.

But the war is over. And after years of visiting former Khmer Rouge settlements, I have come to like some of these guys as individuals. We don't talk about the war at times like this. And so I find myself in the strange position of sitting in a room full of visiting former soldiers making the most of Phnom Penh's bright lights, trying not to wince on the high notes as they belt out a rousing chorus without even a glimmer of a sense of irony: 'Keep smiling, knowing you can always count on me, for sure. That's what friends are for…'

They ask me why I am laughing. Is it their singing? I say no, it doesn't matter. Their singing is fine.

Leave the former KR guys crooning as the ABC stout continues to flow. Believe I have done this in the nick of time, as all the karaoke rooms in the joint are heating up, and I walk back from taking a call outside past one guy (who is not former KR) having a heated argument with a frazzled karaoke girl who is explaining to him that yes, she understands that throwing glasses against a wall may be fun, and yes, she is sure he can afford to pay for it, but the problem it that it becomes a workplace health and safety issue and, "sir, it would just be preferable if you didn't". I am thankful that the hat check security downstairs has put all the guns in little drawers with numbers. It's just like Lucky Supermarket, really. No shooting, no shoplifting. Leave your bags at the counter please, sir.

Anyway, I have to go home and get my mother head on. The babysitter will want to go home now and I have to be in fit condition to get my five-year-old daughter to school in the morning.

Monday: Proves hard. Head thumping. Kid doesn't want to get out of bed. Neither do I, but it's a matter of principal. Drag both of us downstairs, wish my Cambodian partner was not busy this morning and I could just stick her into the car and wave goodbye, but instead must find a motorbike taxi, who has taken her to school for the past year, but on this occasion seems to have decided inexplicably that I want to go to Psar Thmei, which is exactly the wrong direction, forcing me to wave my arms at him like some sort of madwoman.

I feel like I used to feel when my mother took me to those government-sponsored horse riding school weekends during the holidays and some deaf, blind, obstreperous old nag called Dobbin let me get on his back and then ignored me and went exactly where he wanted to go.

We finally get there, and I put up with the dubious looks from the school security guard. Tell Dobbin to take me home in Khmer. He looks at me like I am speaking Swahili. I wave riel in front of his nose until we eventually amble back to my door.

And I am just in time for staff to arrive. Well, by staff I mean one guy who helps me by reading the Khmer papers and pick out all the juicy crime stories. And another guy who doesn't work for me but appears and proposes I give him an advance and he will pay me back when and if he does work for me. And some guy who definitely doesn't work for me in full military uniform I assume is the neighbor's landlord who wants to complain about my dog barking.

Ignore man in uniform. I hated his dog first, and his builders ate my last two cats while renovating his house, so I reckon we are pretty much even.

We read the papers and I am briefly amazed yet again that the graphic pictures of people in various states of decomposition that adorn Cambodian broadsheets don't make me gag more often.

Identify a story about a woman who attempted to cut her husband's penis off with scissors because he was lazy as one that might run for one of my clients. Get ready for another whacky translation of down-home provincial police logic, which I love. It reminds me of police back home in Australia. Police around the world are somewhat similar in these situations.

"No charges laid. We just brought them both in and mediated," the cop says through the translator. "No need for lots of paperwork. The guy admitted he deserved it, because she's right—he is a lazy, drunken slob. So then we took the wife aside and we said, 'lady, you say he is next to useless?', and she said yes, so we said, 'well, come on love, use your brain. Sounds like he was only good for one thing, and you tried to cut it off. That wasn't clever. Don't do it again, or he really will be totally useless'. I think she saw the point. They went home together."

I translate this piece of home truth into a form compatible to Western psyche, and file it as a story for a client.

The phone rings once and stops. This is a sign a Cambodian is calling. Sometimes I ask Cambodians why they don't just laminate their phones, use them as ornaments and be done with it. I call back, because otherwise they will continue to ring once and hang up all day. It's my political stringer, who has been dubbed "the Cambodian Columbo" in some circles, after the famous fictional television detective who always flew under the radar and lulled people into a false sense of security before coming up with the goods. Well, most days.

And as usual, he has three extremely good stories straight out of left field fit for both my main clients. He gives me the quotes, I write them up and put them in context. I file six separate stories for both major clients, because they need different copy. Takes my tally to seven stories for the day.

Realize I'm already 10 minutes late for school pickup, because today is a half day but I was so engrossed in work I forgot. My newspaper reader is upstairs pottering with the goldfish and playing with the dog. This is probably a sign there is nothing else of interest in the papers. Or he might just feel like pottering. I don't ask, because I don't have time, and instead leave him there and rush out, pick my daughter up and rush back. Sit down and try and write a column for Tales of Asia.

Two soft patters and a gigantic thump and the computer screen goes blank. Two of our three cats have landed gracefully on the computer table, followed by our one idiot dog, who keeps forgetting she is not a cat and has pulled the cords out in her effort to imitate her heroes and their elegant feline agility.

Notice too late that the USB has been bypassed, almost certainly by some helpful Cambodian pottering in my office. Wish he would stick to the goldfish. Curse the dog, which continues to leap madly at the table, egged on by the cats, one of whom has decided my keyboard is the only bed he will consent to relax on in the entire house.

I throw all mammalian life forms including kid out of my office and shut door behind them. Well, I say office, but really it's just a small room in my house. Kid chooses now to demand I fix her a glass of milk. Remember life with no pets, no staff, no kid. Recollect that at that point I was also rudderless, bored and at times penniless and decide compromise best. In fact, I wouldn't do without them for the world. Tell kid if she demands we go swimming now one more time I will scream. She screams pre-emptively.

"Come on, let's get ice cream at the river," I tell her. What I really mean is 'Mummy needs a beer and a chat with other grown-ups'. The Wat Phnom elephant saunters south by itself along the busy river road, followed at an interval by a man on a moto with a stick, who is in a sort of loose charge of the elephant. An expat speeds north on his never-ending loop about 30 minutes later, jaws grinding. These two events are more accurate ways of telling the time than any sundial. It must be about 6pm. Time to go home.

Tuesday: Woken up by someone from a country where the electricity works and the telephone lines never go down asking for a specific story. Wake up in darkness and heat. Electricity does not work in this capital. Where I live, it doesn't work for at least four hours a day at the moment.

My partner is here for me today and takes kid to school in the car, thank God, but not until after we go through the usual chaos of getting out of bed, finding the toothbrushes, rescuing the hairbrush from the dog, which has ignored all dog toys in favor of destroying this one vital object, promising crying kid I will buy a new hairbrush, apologizing to her for using a comb that hurts, but it's all we have, screaming at the cats to stop stalking the fighting fish, which are circling madly around their glass bowls avoiding the hungry feline eyes watching their every move, arguing with kid about what goes in the kid's lunchbox ("But darling, yesterday that was your favorite food, how can you hate it today?"), all while attempting to start on this story, which has to be done and dusted by a certain time not far away because of time differences in the editor's country that requested it.

Make a phone call when I think my daughter has finally been wrangled out of the door into the car. This is a mistake. Loud barking and muffled growling emanating from child interrupt my serious political interview.

"GET THAT BLOODY DOG OUT OF YOUR MOUTH! I don't care who bit who first," I scream. The kid has come back for some toy she simply must show friends at school and managed to engage in some rough and tumble with the dog in the space of the nanoseconds I have been on the phone. "No, Iodom, sir, not you," I tell the very important man on the other end of the phone. "Excuse me, sir. No, that was in no way a political comment. It's just my daughter biting the dog. Yes, sir…now about the issue at hand…"

Thankfully, he knows me and has met my family at a wedding previously. He is also a dog lover, and I have engaged in equally chaotic interviews with him and his favorite canine, which is equally unruly, in his office. He laughs. I get the quotes. 

Some Australian magazine calls and wants me to just pop out to the middle of nowhere for them for background quotes. I explain that to do this I must write a letter asking for official permission, get the letter translated, sit in a ministry for some hours waiting to see if permission is possible, hire a translator, and then prepare for a 60 kilometer round "pop" on bad roads, and so therefore I need to know their freelance fees.

Am told this is not work but exploratory research, and if the story seems plausible, they will consider hiring me. I wonder why I am even having this conversation again, since Australian media is notorious for this treatment of freelancers in this region, and the last time I even spoke to one and argued the toss I was told I was "just another bloody Cambodian stringer" and to do what I was told or I would never work for that organization again (which I had never worked for before anyway).

I tell them to call me when they came to a decision and resist the urge to suggest they hire a cadet from one of the English language papers who still really believes that crap about "it looks good on your resume" and doesn't have dependants to feed.

Get ready to see the story done badly without any input from Cambodia in a few months time and forget about it. Start work on a short piece for someone who will pay me and doesn't have a slash and burn approach to my contacts, whom I personally value and see as people, not column inches. How unprofessional of me.

Wednesday: Some Europeans have hired me to explain Cambodia to them in six hours or less and help them line up a few interviews. They want to follow some story done previously by another outlet which featured an interview with a 21-year-old sex worker called Srei Mom. They have no photo. They question why someone with my experience may find this simple task so difficult. She has a great story. She is unique, they tell me. I must know her.

I dutifully take them to a park where their Srei Mom was last seen. As predicted, we are greeted by a dozen eager young Srei Moms, none of whom is the one they seek. After much detective work, I track down an 18-year-old girl now called Srei Ny, who indeed used to be Srei Mom, and was 21 last week.

"She changed her name," I tell them, and get that European puzzled look. "I don't know why. Because she thought it was unlucky, because there were too many Srei Moms in one spot, because a fortune teller told her, because she got a new boyfriend. I don't know. She says all of the above. Pick one."

"So," the head European says slowly. "You mean to say that in this country, their name might not be their name, their age may not be their age, and they have no postcodes?"

I nod. He stares at me intently. "How the hell does anyone work in this country?" I can't answer. The translator, meanwhile, has walked out because he thinks they are strange, and he has suddenly decided he is tired.    

Thursday: Take the Europeans on a road trip. The Cambodians all assure them that the road is good, because it has been repaired, and that it will take two hours.

Four hours later, covered in dust and with aching backs, the Europeans signal that they need a break and we stop at a dusty little stall somewhere, where they order water. Sigh. They demand that our new translator ask locals to explain to them why people would tell them the road was good when it looks like a leg of the Paris to Dakar rally.

"Yes, it is good," says the Khmer stall owner, surprised and proud that someone has noticed what a lovely road they have. "You should have seen it before they fixed it. Back then it was awful." And we ask again how long the trip is between point A and point B. "Two hours," he says. I have visions of emergency mental medical evacuation for the head European. The translator also looks concerned for them. "I think their heads break," he says gravely. 

Friday: Today brings the sort of story I most dread. It could be the arrest of someone I know, or worse, a death. Either way, I usually know these people or their friends, because this is a small expatriate community and a small country. I sometimes know their families, or if I don't, I get to know and often to like them very much during the course of the years that stretch ahead in jail, or the months they email or speak with everyone who might be able to explain how and why this strange country took their baby's life away. Life here as a journalist is not always a 300-word piece with quotes. 

Almost every jailed foreigner has a mother whose heart breaks for them, guilty or innocent. And no matter how guilty or innocent, there is an incredible desolation watching a person as a verdict is read, their eyes rolling as they are led away and their families sob quietly or cry out in pain.

This sort of intimacy often gives me an insight into stories here few journalists in few countries enjoy. It also makes it very easy to get dangerously close to a story. It's a fine line. One I could never have trodden straight out of journalism school, and one that still haunts me often even now, after about 20 years in this game and nearly eight years living in Cambodia.

In Phnom Penh bars, where any backpacker can be a journalist and everyone is an expert critic, people have whispered that I have believed too much of one side's propaganda, that I have been tricked by a criminal's sad story, or that I listen to this person or that organization when they should not be listened to. At the end of the day, when a story comes together that could only come together because I listened to everyone's story and everyone's propaganda and assessed it without prejudice, and the story has an angle and an edge no one else even saw, I know I have been professional. And that I am a human being just like everyone I speak with.

But still some stories are particularly difficult to meld. The school siege in Siem Reap happened at a branch of my daughter's school. People I know, children I know were inside that school. And I call people I have known for years for information, because I am a journalist, and they suddenly treat me like a journalist, like an enemy, because they are dealing with their own grief and fear and no one trusts a journalist. I am intruding, because I have to.

Suddenly, I am operating in two separate modes. I am a fellow parent, and I want to be a friend, and I want to know how they are doing and how they are feeling, but also as a journalist, and radio stations, wires and papers are calling from around the world and I am spitting out information as fast as I can and trying to tread that fine line between friendship and exploitation that they know by instinct that I have to do. And it hurts.

And my daughter, who is too young to understand and whose school is off today, keeps changing the channel from CNN to Cartoon Network, and a stringer I occasionally use sees an opportunity and keeps ringing me and tying up my phone to tell me what CNN is saying, which I try to explain that I already know, because I CAN SEE IT, in between screaming at my daughter and her four-year-old friend to leave the remote control alone, and my other stringer has gone to eat noodles, because he can't function without a midday nap and noodles, and the phone keeps ringing with people asking me to go faster, and asking why the initial file says this and now the story seems to be this, and I explain, as patiently as possible, that this is a breaking story which we are covering from Phnom Penh, which is happening in Siem Reap, 300 kilometers north, and that the Khmers don't know what the hell is going on either, because even they were assuming an organized motive, but it seems to be turning out to be a typically badly planned and botched temper tantrum by a bunch of ill-prepared but dangerous fools, which is more frightening than the initial assumptions by the best informed police that these people may have had a political motive to destabilize the tourism industry.

And I point out that everything we have said has been sourced to the highest authorities, who are constantly revising their stories while trying to do their jobs in between constant calls from people like me. I explain that I am not just pulling this information out of my arse, although the highest authorities may possibly be, because they are trained and intelligent men who have lived through a war, suddenly stuck second guessing second-rate Cambodian gangsters minute by minute. And then there are shots, and the siege is over.

And the calls for live crosses to radio stations around the world keep coming while I finish my written wraps for print clients, and I am again in that position where I have to explain, in a way people who do not know this place can understand, why the kidnappers would behave as they did and what might possibly be going through their minds. What goes through that sort of Cambodian mind? I need a PhD to explain that one. I do my best.

The sound of Cartoon Network blaring in the background and kids screaming orders and the cats beating up the dog is suddenly comforting. Mummy needs a little bit more than a beer today, but she doesn't have time. I finally go to sleep instead, cuddled against my daughter. I didn't know the family of the child that died but the senselessness and sadness is still overwhelming. I hope my friends and acquaintances forgive me for today, but I have to wear two hats. I have to ask.

Saturday:  The water meter guy turns up just after 5.30 am. I refuse to let him in, because it is just after 5.30 am. He has picked a day when the power is on, and accordingly rings the doorbell furiously until I am forced to turn the power off downstairs. The doorbell works on electricity. I can't win.

When someone who can translate finally turns up and I explain to jobsworth water meter man that his habit of coming at dawn on Saturdays and Sundays is impolite in my culture, that my daughter is sleeping, that I am happy for him to come at that time during the week but sometimes on weekends I sleep until 9 am. He fixes me with a combative stare.

"Lahoat," he says, raising his fist in the air. "He says he will come at dawn on weekends for all eternity," my translator says needlessly. This is one time when body language says it all. "It's a universal bureaucrat thing," I translate for the translator. Victory lies with the water meter man. It has become a face issue and I cannot win. Make a mental note to ask landlord if he can move the meter to the other side of the road. Until then, I must accept defeat. Again.

The cleaning woman-baby sitter woman arrives and I go out to get some shopping done. Return home to find alleged cleaner-babysitter sitting in the middle of a much larger mess than the one I left, happily watching karaoke while my daughter feeds my prized dragon fish play dough. Lose my temper, briefly but forcefully.

Collect thoughts and sit down to attempt the Tales of Asia column again. Search for my notes, which I find the dog has eaten. Search for offending dog. Find her eating the cats' food. Search for cats. Find them eating the dog's food. It's like living in Topsy Turvy Land. Take a deep breath and go back to cleaner and explain, using an extra month's wages as bait, that I can no longer afford her services and sorry I yelled, but this is the end of our mutual road. She looks pleased and leaves.

"I can clean, Mummy, don't worry," my daughter says. I say of course you can and go back to work. Doorbell rings. It's some woman who says she's a new neighbor and wants to complain my television is too loud at night. I stare at her.

It's coming up to a holiday, so in the past fortnight I have had playgroup of screaming four and five-year-olds and dysfunctional animals in the yard, a constant stream of people coming in and out of work, a crazed water meter man who glues himself to my doorbell at ungodly hours and swears to do so for all eternity, impromptu parties of police friends and all their mates, who drop by to empty my fridge at 3 am and sing, and a nasty late night run-in with a Cambodian woman I believe is this new neighbor's very own landlady, whom I caught bribing my former security guard to let her come in and intimidate my staff in the hope they would leave and I might employ her relatives instead, and which ended with me chasing her down the street screaming.

"You want to complain about my television? That's all? That's your only problem?"

She says yes, and asks if there is there something wrong with me. I realize I am still staring. I can't believe that all that this woman has registered of the insanity which is my home and office is that the television is on too loud. I close the gate in her face before I say something I might regret.

Walk back inside to a ringing telephone, as per usual, and feel my stomach knot as I spy the two dragon fish floating belly-up in the tank. Trace a trail of water from a discarded mop by the tank to a pile of chairs leading to a high cupboard where I keep the cleaning fluids. Retrace steps, a now note a bottle of glass cleaner in close proximity to the tank. Grit my teeth.

"Darling, did you Windex the dragon fish?". And my daughter gives me a huge grin. "I told you I could clean, Mummy."

Sunday: Finally write this column. It's a first draught. I hope it is ok because it is so late it will have to be, and after all it is just a collage of a typical week.

My partner has suddenly appeared from nowhere, and he wants to drive to Battambang to see a fortune teller he saw once before and liked, just to check the future is still ok.

I feel like I have been dealing with Martians all week. Foreigner Martians. Local Martians. But Sunday is fairly safe. No one important in Cambodia answers their phones on a Sunday. The only calls I might get are from overseas people asking if I am free next week to help them understand insanity. I can finally have a day with my favorite Martians.

"If you speak with the crazy people, it means you must be crazy too," my partner says in that infuriatingly practical way Cambodians tend to put things.

Maybe I am. But it's my job, and I need a break, and Battambang is beautiful at this time of year. It would be nice to sit and listen to the future for a change. The present is just too exhausting.

Specific comments regarding this column should be directed to Bronwyn Sloan.

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