Beggars. Every travellers nightmare, the doorway to an awkward world where no response is appropriate and no emotional resolution comfortable, so rarely are our intellects and our hearts torn in such opposing directions. No matter how succinctly we rationalise a give-or-not-give flowchart in our minds, feelings of guilt, unjust opportunity, empathy and even some outrage are a blanket thrown upon us every time we see the rattling can, the cupped hands or the shabbily scrawled message on the torn off cardboard side of what was once an apple box. They’re the easy outs, the ones that offer no engagement, the ones that slide through the flowchart reasoning without the awkward loop that sends you cycling through questions easier dismissed than pondered. Kids are easy too; never give an option out of education. How easily we begin to categorise human beings into grades of dismissibility lest they insult our sensibilities with their visibility. I don’t usually think of myself as a bad person.
In truth the sad answer is that it’s usually best to do nothing, usually. In many parts of the world begging is an industry, a sizeable one and we’d all prefer to give money to someone offering something, disabled, desperate or otherwise. Even the simplest of services like offering directions, three squares of toilet paper or a rubbish bin in a country that offers few options is enough to garner respect for some initiative and turn begging so elegantly into a service. But of course the lines are routinely blurred, extraordinary circumstance that disrupt your once iron clad rationale. Welcome to Cambodia, a land where dispelling myths that crossed the border in your backpack is a national pastime. Maybe that’s why they smile so much, they’re laughing at our wild misconceptions.In this small country with many faces there’s a story that’s never too far away: land mines. More pointedly it’s the victims of the land mines and for us luckily enough not the land mines themselves. Largely through the seventies, where war was a constant in this region, Cambodia was laden with land mines by multiple groups; the infamous Khmer Rouge was one such group to ensure their bloody legacy would not stop with political change. Approximately 40,000 Cambodians are amputees as a consequence of this scourge and with up to 6,000,000 pieces of ordinance left in the ground there’s enough to go close to eradicating the whole population of this country. Of course there are organisations who find and detonate the mines to attempt to clear the disaster; one such organisation loses 5-10 staff a year despite expert precautions, methods and technology. What hope does a farmer and his or her family have?
Many countries have tragic issues, this is true, but only a few have the combination of these issues alongside a lack of safety net for victims and no resolution in sight; wars can end, land mines endure. 25% of land mine victims in Cambodia are more than six hours from a hospital and 15% are three days away. One third are children. Most of the remaining mines are in rural areas and as a consequence a single victim often throws a whole family into extreme poverty or worse; it’s yet another burden that Cambodia seems to shoulder with stoicism and resolve. While the glimmers of modern commerce are starting just recently to grace the major cities, rural parts of Cambodia are sadly stuck in a time where most peoples imaginings of a struggling poor nation remain stubbornly accurate.How easily the flowchart gets blown to smithereens. With such generosity and welcome we have been greeted in this country where inactive deference to a governments responsibility is not a common consciousness. There’s no turning a blind eye, no rinsing of hands because it’s ‘not my problem’; here in Cambodia it seems every citizen rolls up their sleeves to help or do their part. So refreshing and wholly disarming to minds formed in a society of such blinded eyes. There’s a grand scale national crisis here, just one of many to be honest, and while times they are a changing, the burden still falls to the population here to plug the gaps; as it has for as long as anyone can remember.
So we travel, we see new things, we meet new people and we learn from new ways of life. There’s beggars of the traditional category here, as with any humane place, but there’s a new social category we’ve yet to be introduced to until now. It’s not a beggar but they plead on the street for money. Life has battered them and cut them down, literally, yet they show no signs of defeat. They’re not beggars, they’re land mine victims; victims by definition don’t choose their station and in Cambodia these victims refuse to go submissively to an existing category. I think specifically of the happy dude in Kampot with neither forearm anymore who indeed got our scooters going again after I locked the keyhole and couldn’t get it going again. We didn’t donate to him three sepearte times, a little bit of Cambodian education gave sight to our blind eyes three times.
So we give; we give to every band that plays, every person that donates a smile, directions or even offers help starting our scooter, just fifty cents or a dollar is enough. We travel to experience new ways of life, here we learn to break the bonds of our indoctrination. We think of John Lennon’s well known song: Imagine, where the world drops their weapons, dissolves borders, forgets religion and humans just look after and care for each other. The words tumble over:
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world.
Imagine seeing a portion of your own people suffering and instead of making a newspaper story of them or winning an election by wedging them in the number crunch of opinion poles; just helping them. Imagine if we just rolled up our sleeves and lent them the hand that they very well might not have anymore, like the happy dude in Kampot, ecstatic to get a grand total of a dollar or so from us. John Lennon’s words were never something I thought I’d come close to seeing, the idealistic hippie maybe more humanist visionary after all. Sadly this humanity hasn’t visited Australia in my lifetime and taking a look at politics in our country today it seems like it’s in the same category as ‘the boats’; turned back or stuck in mandatory detention. Imagine if in our country we were able to stop leaving it to aid organisations, charities or government services and everyone just helped each other out a bit; just imagine; as the lyrics say, it isn’t hard to do.
If you’re like us you haven’t heard the song in a while, treat yourself: Imagine