When I look out my window

When I look out the window of my hotel room at 6:30 every morning I see Cambodia before my bleary eyes.  This morning I was once again invited into the bedroom of the nation.  A woman was lying outside on the ground in front of a door I assumed was the entrance to her house.  It was probably too warm last night to sleep indoors and this was the best spot for her and her family to get some rest. I slept fine in my air conditioned room 30 feet above her.  Beside her was a naked infant who may have been in distress.  She was massaging his tummy.  A little girl with bare feet was fidgeting on mother’s other side.  Next to this small group of people was a man apparently rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and running his fingers through his hair. He was shaking his lethargy.  Another woman appeared from inside the house carrying what I perceived to be some items of food.  She stepped over the people blocking the doorway and proceeded to the small fire a few feet away.

Just outside the door a middle aged woman (she could have been any age for that matter) had just started a fire under a pot precariously perched on a metal stand.  She needed to adjust one side to gain some stability.  She fed the fire with a few pieces of wood. The path to a small bundle of wood was blocked with boards of lumber, building blocks, corrugated roof panels, pots, pans and 2 blocks of Styrofoam.  In my neck of the woods every item strewn about the yard would be considered trash and carted to the dump.

The dwelling had an exterior concrete staircase to the second floor. Every step of the lower level was covered with pots, pans, boxes, bricks, strands of wire and a few terra cotta pots.  Amidst this debris on the third step sat what appeared to be an old woman rocking back and forth.  The stairs had no railing. Perhaps one would be installed today.  The building inspector I am sure would not approve of its current condition.

A man filled a pail with reddish sand like material from a pile heaped against the wall near the entrance to the house. He had to gingerly step over the woman and her 2 children to get into the house.

Next to the pile of sand stood a rack of clothes with an assortment of blouses and or shirts, pants of varying length and sizes, coats and other items I could identify.  Another woman also seemed to be feeding another fire presumably for breakfast.  She must have been the neighbour. If so she lives awfully close to that other family.  The metal panels on the roof of her house were held down with a few building blocks, styrofoam boxes, a few water bottles, an inverted plastic pail and some other large heavy items I could not identify.  Pieces of lumber served as a platform for her to stand on to prepare her meals .  Next to her 3 women could be seen squatting around a medium sized galvanized tub filled with water plucking three chickens.  They are picking off the last remaining feathers.  Perhaps they are preparing supper.

As I observe this scene a young woman smartly dressed appeared on a shiny scooter. She navigated her way around the debris to avoid the pot holes and eased her way out of the laneway.  She must be the breadwinner of the family or the neighbourhood.  On average Cambodians earn $500.00 a year I was recently told.

Watching this scene below made me feel like a voyeur, seeing things I really had no right to see.  It was like viewing  pornography, all the while riddled with guilt and  looking over my shoulder hoping a loved one won’t catch me in the act.  These Khmer people are going about their own very personal and private business in a very public way and the fact I can surreptitiously observe their lives and certain intimacies make them appear so vulnerable to me.  They are constantly on public display. Something tells me Cambodians deserve more dignity, more privacy, more compassion and a great deal more sympathy.

Brian Maan

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