I don’t desire at tne moment to give too much by way of analyses of work, culture and politics here in Cambodia. Although I have lots of thoughts developing away somewhere about this fascinating and unique country, I’m not ready to pull them together yet. So it’s all pretty lightweight stuff really.. things that have made me happy and things that make me less happy.
Well you must want to hear about the good bits first. The best bit of my day was getting a food parcel from Beth. OK it’s a bit pathetic – getting a food parcel from your daughter when you’re not even a prisoner of conscience or in a Victorian debtor’s prison, or anything worth writing home about – she does have the advantage of having been a volunteer (albeit in a much less salubrious environment than me) and so she knows the value of certain kinds of food in the food parcel. Was there cheese? Only a selection of different mini-cheeses. Was there chocolate? Only a variety of choccy biccies and one enormous bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (OK it wasn’t quite a bar by the time it had been a week in the post and a week sitting in PP’s Post Office Central waiting to be put in the PO Box for VSO). The whole bundle was wrapped up with two recent issues of the Guardian Weekend Review. Amateur psychologists may be interested to know I have not eaten everything in one massive pigporker foodfest, but intend to ration the treats out one a day for the next week or so.
Somewhere in the middle sits my recent decision to see a bit more of the country. Some other volunteers have booked a long weekend trip to Kep (apparently the favoured seaside retreat of the French when they were in colonial charge of Cambodge as they called it) which is being developed as a tourist centre. I decided late in the day to join them, even though it’s only for a couple of days and night (I am not taking the full weekend as I am doing some work for the VSO office here). I also decided it’s about time I got off my butt and went out to visit some schools, instead of sitting in an office advising people about what they should be doing in those schools. In my defence there was talk early on of my being given a chance to tour one of two provinces to get a flavour of challenges and successes, but it never happened so I have decided to sort it out for myself. So, subject to VSO office approval, I am heading off on Wednesday next week to Koh Kong (find it on the map!) – which is pretty poor and pretty remote – where a local VSO education adviser will hopefully show me round and introduce me to a few schools. I’m saying that is #in the middle# since, although I think this will be great when I get there, I realise this evening that I have signed up for about 25 hours of Cambodian bus travel.
However any amount of travel on the bus must be better than travel by VSO cycle in Phonm Penh. I am generally pretty easy going about most things, but there comes a time when something stirs deep inside – I’m sure PGWodehouse has somewhere perfectly caught my character – that moment when, mild mannered as I am, I suddenly realise that I have had enough. In this case I was moved enough to have a (really rather mild) rant on e.mail (as the office was closed by the time I got up as much of a lather as I am likely to get) about the condition of the VSO bikes.
This started off with a narrative of the process by which I selected the four bikes I have had so far, as the least unacceptable of the bikes offered me by the laid back ‘guards’ who are responsible for the bike pool. Incorporated into this narrative was a further description of the failings of each of these four bikes. In two cases this was to do with brakes – including a brake cable snapping when I pulled the lever too severely to avoid hitting a motorbike – I did hit the motorbike, as the back brake did not work after the cable snapped, but only at a very slow speed. In the other two cases, including the bike I now have as the least bad of those left, the handlebars do not quite make a right angle with the front wheel and the nut is rusted seized and cannot be released without use of garage technology. I took the said bike to a garage today and he sent me away… not worth his while. I worked myself up a bit more (as you do on e.mail), becoming more annoyed with each sentence. I am a man of advanced years, with a stiff neck which prevents me turning round fully to check what is behind me, cycling in some of the most dangerous traffic, with some of the most reckless drivers, I have ever encountered and unable to communicate in Khmer with garage mechanics about what I want done. VSO offers me a variety of bikes, none of which match up to a basic MOT standard (steering and brakes). I finished by offering the view that were a serious accident to occur involving a volunteer on a substandard bike, the publicity in the UK would not do VSO a lot of good. I don’t feel very pleased with myself now, especially as the person I wrote to is not responsible for bikes (although she is responsible for pastoral support of volunteers and is a very nice person) … but it did feel quite good at the time and I hope that somehow my rant will lead to a better bike for me and a better system for maintaining bikes in the future. Don’t hold your breath though.