Village & Garden
Conversation with a Hollander in Cambodia
Southern Coast, Cambodia
He arrived at the coffee shop on a motorbike with a Cambodian boy on the back. He himself looked Cambodian, less the European features. Definitely not an NGO worker. He was wearing a torn black t-shirt and his hands were smeared black with tree sap. He ordered ice-cream for the boy and coffee for himself. One of the boys from the gaggle across the street came to beg and he answered in Khmer, gave a wry grin and nothing more.
“What do they say when they come with their hands like this?” Palms pressed together under the nose, muttering something in Khmer.
“Oh, they are just asking for some riel.” Frans says.
“It's like asking for spare change.” The standard beg in the United States.
“He used to be like that,” Frans casually waves his hand towards the boy, “In a group of five in Phnom Penh…”
He took in the whole lot of them, him and his wife. There was only one rule. They had to go to school. All of them left, except this boy. Frans has been looking after him for four years, until recently. Cambodians have a different idea of the way you raise a child. If they disobey or do something bad, they are beaten. Frans has Western ideas about how you raise a child. You use logic and love. His wife is Cambodian, though. When the boy turned fifteen, he started to hit back. They let him live with friends, but when there are real problems, Frans still helps him. On this day they've just come from the hospital for malaria treatments.
Frans has been in Cambodia for five years. He met his wife on his first trip to Battambang. When he wanted to marry her, there were papers he needed to get. He went to Holland and got them for 55Euros. In Cambodia, what costs the locals a few bucks would cost Frans $3,000. He didn't have $3000. He didn't have enough credit. Someone in his village loaned it to him. In cash. He gives a long look then says, “There are people with money.” They live in the same tiny shacks alongside people without any money.
Many of the people with money are old Khmer Rouge. They have one huge house over there and live in a small house over here. People know who they are. They've been living here for years. Frans shakes his head and sighs before he says, “They are going to have some real problems when they start trying to prosecute people.” He's talking about the Khmer Rouge trials which have been hiccupping towards a beginning for over a decade and finally began this month. Frans notes that people used to talk about that time and their involvement openly. Suddenly, stories change. People know less than they did before or nothing at all. It becomes a slippery business, being honest about the murder of over a million people. While the `Rouge' was in power, everyone lied. Being honest was asking to die. It became a habit.
Now people lie about petty things. Ask ten people where the market is or how far away the bus station is and there will be ten answers. This is standard fare in Cambodia. There is no honesty or loyalty beyond immediate family. Immediate means mother, father, brother, sister. Even this is uncertain, since everyone seems to be related to everyone. My brother is a motorcycle driver. My sister has a guesthouse. My cousin runs a tour service. Let me call him for you. Loyalty is only born or bought. Except for those one is loyal to, life has very little value.
In his village, a woman had a baby and afterwards she got sick. Maybe because a part of the placenta was left, maybe because someone had dirty hands; she was going to die. The family had no money. It would take $35 to have the doctor come. No one in the village offered to pay. But, they knew one foreigner. Sometime later, another woman had a baby. She went into labor and started to give birth at three in the morning. The baby was coming feet first. The legs were already out and kicking. Frans levels his gaze and says, “You don't call an ambulance here. There is no one to come.” They tried to pull the baby out. The baby died. The mother would have died too, because the cost was $45 for treatment. The family didn't have the money to pay and no one was going to pay for her. But she knew a foreigner. Frans shrugs his shoulders. He puts a different value on human life.
He tells his stories with a mix of matter-of-fact distance but also some amazement. He misses some things about the West. He misses the humor and subtlety of westerners. He misses books. He himself is someone not to be judged by his cover. He has been insisting that he lives “just like them” and yet he has never gotten sick. He is covered in the dirt he works in everyday. He is grimy and cheerful. He repeats it again and again. “I have never been sick.” He works on his land here that is plentiful and fertile. At home in Holland, he could never own such a substantial piece of land. He grows trees. Suddenly he bursts out that, yes, OK, he was sick once.
“I went swimming in the river.” This is when the bells start ringing. The river is a receptacle for every type of waste and still the Cambodians wash their bodies and clothes in it. Animals swim in it. It is always muddy and thick and during rainy season, it is swift, but any still patch of water quickly becomes putrid with trash and stink. “I got parasites,” he says. He went to the doctor in Battambang but he was misdiagnosed and medicated three times. When the pain did not go away, he made the trip to Phnom Phen. They performed a sonogram and found parasites in his liver doing their dirty work. “If you get the right medicine, you get well. But the doctor doesn't always know what you have.” This is another unseen consequence of the Khmer Rouge.
People who really know what they're doing are rare in Cambodia. The 'Rouge' went on a killing rampage and the first victims were anyone with education. Cambodia needs proper diagnosis and treatment. There is still a lot of dirty work here. I ask Frans how long he will stay. He waves his hand dismissively and says, “Forever.” He may just be here long enough to see Cambodia healed.
Conversation with Frans Kruining.