Monday, October 30, 2006

Business licence

It’s been really hot these past couple of weeks and the heat is getting to me. We have been trying to cut down on the use of aircon because it is costly, but I find it almost impossible to sleep in this heat. Saveth tells me the weather in Phnom Penh is changing—November used to be cool he says.

It is former king Sihanouk’s birthday tomorrow, which is a public holiday and yesterday we saw fireworks from our roof terrace. What a nice treat! The big holiday is in a week’s time—the Water Festival, when a million people from the provinces troop down to Phnom Penh to watch the boat race at the river, in front of the Royal Palace. The teams come from different provinces all over Cambodia to race once a year. I want to go but fear the crowds. You can also stay home and watch the race ‘live’ on Cambodian TV. But as it is my first time, I think I will brave the crowds and take photos for everyone.

Time is passing swiftly by and I am afraid I won’t make my November deadline. I will have to pay for a business licence, given by the local sangkat (police). The official in charge of small businesses for my area has been to the house twice. He is very keen for my business. I had asked a trustworthy Cambodian friend to speak to the sangkat about my plans for a business. The official first quoted USD300 for the licence, which is way overpriced (the usual is between USD100-USD200). He claimed it was “fixed price” when my friend tried to negotiate. However, another friend with experience managed to bring the price down to USD230. The sangkat also said that if a Khmer person were to sign the lease for the house on my behalf, the price is only USD180. To be fair to the sangkat, he said I had to pay up only if I wanted to have a sign for the shop. Otherwise, he will allow me to operate for free, without a licence for 6-9 months, in the name of research.

If you are planning to rent a house in Cambodia, make sure your landlord informs the sangkat and signs an agreement with them. Every time a house is rented, the landlord has to contribute money to the sangkat. My Cambodian friend tells me the sangkat gets very little money from the government so this is their way of getting income for their policing activities.

Apart from the business licence fee, I will also have to pay income tax which should be about USD10 a month (I have no idea how they work this out). The other big licence is the one for exporting goods, but as I am not sure how much I will sell, I am not applying for this yet. I am sure there are other “taxes” which I will have to pay for later on.

So the things I need to get done soon are

1. Pay for business licence.
2. Design and make signboard
3. Work with tour agents
4. Advertise

To save money, we made the decision not to have a guard. As a result, I have moved the sewing machines indoors from the car port. The women now sew in a room on the ground floor. It will be more comfortable for them and on Friday I got everyone involved in the move, because I wanted them to feel comfortable with the new arrangement.

However, we hired a live-in housekeeper today who will start tomorrow. She is a widow from a province that Esther recommended to us. She has a daughter working in a garment factory. Her priority was finding a place to stay and we thought why not let her live with us? It’s the first time Alan and I will have had a stranger living with us so this should be interesting.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dengue is Me

Sat Oct 21, 2006

It finally happened. I contracted dengue. Barely four months into my third trip to Cambodia. It was quite an experience going to the hospital and I have to share it with readers who are planning to come here.

My symptoms started on a Wednesday evening, with pins and needles in my hands and ankles and feet. That night I came down with fever. The next day, my temperature was 38.6 degree celcius (101 degree farenheit), then went down to 35.9. Apart from the fever and chills, I did not have any other symptoms. The next day my temperature rose to 39.2 (102.5), which convinced me to see a doctor in Cambodia.

I called up someone who has been here for 11 years, Malaysian missionary Esther Ding, who is the founder of Khmer Life, and also, she says, Villageworks, the one that is now owned by the Singapore Girls’ Brigade (interesting story for another time). Esther told me to see Dr Lily of First Central Clinic on Monivorng Boulevard, just 10min walk from my house.

Dr Lily wasn’t in (I found out later she is from China and is the manager of the centre, which is Chinese run) and I was taken to see another Chinese lady doctor. A nurse approached me with a thermometer and I recoiled. “Is it clean?” I asked, thinking I had to put it in my mouth. Another nurse said don’t worry. In Cambodia, doctors always take temperature from the armpits. The temperature and blood pressure were normal.

The doctor did not speak English and I asked for a translator. It was a Khmer man who as it turned out, spoke worse Mandarin than me! So much for that plan.

The doctor then took out a wooden tongue press from a small metal box and stuck it in my mouth. It all happened so quickly that I did not have time to ask if it was sterilised. She kept asking me to say “ahhh…” and the Khmer man was translating, “doctor ask you to say ‘ah’, say ‘ah’!”, while I was just concentrating trying to push out the press! When I succeeded I immediately went to the sink to rinse my mouth and tongue. Very rude, I know. Meanwhile the doctor had put the press back into the box which contained some other stuff…

It was all very perfunctory, her questions, she only seemed keen for me to do a blood test. That was fine because I wouldn’t have trusted her diagnosis anyway. It turned out I had very low, 1900 (normal is 4000) white blood cells count, and low platelet count, 1850 (normal range is 1500-4000), which the doctor said would only continue to drop. Then I realised the name on the card was not mine! It was some other person called Wang Fuxing. I pointed this out and the doctor insisted it was my card, they just used the previous patient’s name! Anyway, it turned out it was my card, so they said anyway. The doctor decided I would have to stay the night at the hospital for observation. When I refused, we agreed for me to go on a drip, but only after I confirmed what I was getting. She claimed the first time it was antibacterial/virus drugs (fangjun yao), but the bags I saw were sodium chloride and dextrose. Salt and sugar. There might have been some drugs injected into the bags, but I did not see any on the preparation table.

It was fine with me because I had not been eating for the past 3 days, so I could do with the food. There is no treatment for dengue. In Singapore, the doctors give you potassium salt. You just need to have plenty of rest and drink lots of water.
It was traumatic though, because the first nurse, a Khmer woman, had tried to insert the needle and did it wrongly, causing me much pain. Then a Chinese nurse, who said she was more experienced, came along and wanted a go. *I* had a go at her: I’m paying money for this, why didn’t you come the first time round, why send an inexperienced nurse? Anyway, she too failed, muttering that my veins were too fine. Finally it occurred to them to change to a child’s size needle. Despite not being able to see my veins, they had insisted on using the standard adult sized needle. I was thinking how typical this inflexibilty in customer service is—in Singapore and in Cambodia. People just don’t use their brains, but follow SOP (standard operating procedure). The doctor herself finally got the needle in. So my advice is to get the doctor to do it for you the first time round.

It was hilarious being at the hospital, whose clients consisted only of Chinese and Koreans and me. There were no white people at all. When I told my English friend Myriam, she said, get a second opinion from a proper doctor! What was funny was the way people kept streaming in and getting put on drips like it was routine. The woman on the bed next to me had an inflamed throat and was given a drip! At 9pm, these two Chinese men strolled in, chitchatting with the clinic’s administrator, then comfortably settled on the beds, reading newspapers while being hooked up. You get the sense that for these people it’s just like going to the pub. “I’m not feeling too good today, I think I’ll pop down to the clinic (pub) for a drip (beer).” Alan and I were joking about infusing them with beer which is roughly the same colour as the dextrose. One Chinese guy asked the patient in the next bed whether there were any openings in his cardbox box manufacturing factory. Another one had asked for half a pack of dextrose, but fell asleep and when the nurse woke him up, he said, let me finish it and promptly went back to sleep. I wonder if it is the aircon that they like?

I had read in a book, I think it was the one written by a British doctor who had volunteered to work here in her 50s, that Khmers are big believers in drips. Whatever they’ve got, they insist on a drip. You often see people riding pillion on a motobike holding on to their drip bags. (There is also a country where the people like injections, although I forget where.)

In Singapore, it is antibiotics. Doctors insist on prescribing it to you for whatever illness. I am not sure if it is because they think that is what the patients expect, or whether it is their way of making more out of you. I dislike seeing doctors in Singapore for that reason. Taking antibiotics regularly is not without harm. You could get immune to the drug when you really need it, and worse, most antibiotics don’t work with pinpoint accuracy, which means they destroy good bacteria as well.

Anyway, it turns out, the consultation was only USD2 (what it was worth, probably!), blood test, USD7, and the 2 drips, USD25. No wonder they were so keen for me to take the drip—it’s more than 10times the consultation fee! Still, at USD34, it was fairly cheap. Myriam’s foreign doctor charges USD40 for consultation alone, about 6 times the price in Singapore.

The good news is I felt much better after the drips and could eat a bun that night. It’s the day after and I feel well enough to type this.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Crochet Plan

This child stays in one of the cement bag houses. Her sister is checking for nits, a common past-time here. Apparently, Khmer children who have blond hair are malnourished. It's not hair dye but a sign of malnutrition, so I've been told by people who work with children. I have a plan to hire a crochet trainer for the people in the slum village. If I provide the yarn and the needles, the people can crochet products for me which I will sell in the shop. This gives them the opportunity to make more money

Leaf House in Cambodia

Do you live in leaf or concrete house? This is a photo I took when I first visited Neang at her "house" across the Monivorng Bridge. She lives in something better. In her hut, unlike this, only the roof is made of leaves. The floor is made of wooden planks while the walls are bags that used to contain cement. See Cement and cement bag houses

I watched a BBC program yesterday, "Bionic Buildings". The first houses were literally just skins, and made of animal skins, to protect us from the elements. Houses in the developed world have progressed so much. Today's bionic buildings are able to "tan" (change colour according to the weather), have the ability to self-clean (just like the Lotus leaf--dirt and water just slip off...think of the money saved from cleaning buildings), and are able to keep temperature constant just like termite houses in the desert. One day Cambodia will share in this progress. It may be a long time coming, but it will get there. Ultimately, nothing can stop scientific progress. People and events may delay progress but I have a teleological view of history.

Neang's House

Neang and her grandma, who is 78 years old. Her granny looks healthy, although she must have had a very hard life, under Pol Pot and now this. Neang also has two other siblings, both disabled from accidents, who just moved to Vietnam wit live with her aunt. This is the entire house. On the left is a stove and they cook with wood which Neang finds. On the left is a water dispenser for the 30 litres of water she gets a day. Washing has to be done at the river because the precious water is used for cooking and drinking. On the far right, you can see a bit of the Hwa Tai Cream Crackers tin I had thrown away
and which she had asked from me when she saw. It was a lesson for me to keep whatever can be used. What is waste to us is precious to poor people.

The job at BLOOM has allowed Neang to rent a house for USD10 a month near the construction site. I will visit her at her new home soon.

Pompous Villas and Shanty Towns

This is where Neang stays. This commune of about a dozen houses was provided by the construction company for free, if the workers work on the site. Neang worked there before she joined me. She was paid only 6000riels (less than USD1.50) a day to carry the bags of cement and other heavy work. You can see the cement house at the back. Cambodia is full of scenes like this. Pompous villas existing side by side with shanty towns.

Birthday and Goodbye, Judge

I turned 35 a few days ago and I had 20 people over for a BBQ. It started out as an excuse to feed the staff but I also wanted to invite my new friends in Cambodia who have been so kind to me. It was great fun, with a full moon (it was the Mooncake Festival the day before, when Chinese eat mooncakes and drink tea while admiring the moon. The children carry lanterns and light candles anywhere they can). We played Khmer songs and drank beer (boy, can the local men put it away). The staff really enjoyed themselves and some came over early to help. (Bonthuen even wanted a test run the day before!) There was a lot of food for the staff to take home, so mission accomplished!

Sipha took me to Chhbar Ampov (pronounced “Chbar Ampou”) market because it’s a wholesale market. Vendors at Psar (“market”) Olympic and others in Phnom Penh city get their goods there. Now I see why it’s so crowded. We bought corn which just came off a truck from Kampot province in the south. It is the season for corn and everywhere now you can see corn vendors selling boiled or grilled corn for 1000 riels or USD0.25 for one. I paid USD3.50 for 50 raw cobs of corn and squatted together with Sipha to pull off the husks. I really felt like a local, although you can tell I’m not because my thigh muscles are nowhere as strong!

Expats here usually shop for food at supermarkets like Lucky, Pencil and Big A. I think it’s because it is what we are used to—nicely laid out aisles and meat, veg and cheese sections. Alan and I shop at Lucky on Sihanouk, mainly because it is convenient (10mins walk from our house) and you can get stuff like broccoli and frozen spinach. There is also a good selection of wine and cheap, compared with where I come from! (Alcohol in Singapore is very expensive, because of the duty. And so are cigarettes! A pack of Marlboros cost USD1 here and more than 6 times as much back home, if I remember correctly.)

The prices at Chhbar Ampov market were also much cheaper than what I was used to. Beef was USD4 a kilo for the good stuff; cuttlefish less than USD2 a kilo; tiger prawns USD6.50; while chicken was USD3.50. I had to go away because the sellers kill the chickens on the spot and boil them to remove the feathers. Sipha was handling the chickens with her bare hands, assessing their size and quality. And all I could think of was “Bird flu! Bird flu!” I made sure we washed out hands the first opportunity we had. I also bought an ice-box for USD24 (down from USD28), which had “Pepsi” splashed across it. I thought it was a lot of money, but my fridge is not big enough for all the food and drinks. I was thinking someone is making a lot of money out of these ice-boxes because they should be provided free by Pepsi to vendors who carry Pepsi products. I wonder if they are stolen, because I have heard of garment workers who steal thread to sell.

I didn’t have a cake but everyone sang me the birthday song anyway. But the day ended with sad news and me crying. I had called home and at first my father did not want to tell me about my dog. He kept saying “I will tell you another time, today you enjoy yourself.” But I wanted to know. Judge, my dog in Singapore, died the day before. He was old, more than 10 years old and Alan had been telling me, he’s done, worn out. He was having problems peeing and was disoriented. I did not know this, but Alan had offered to put him to sleep about a week ago when Alan was in Singapore awaiting the flight to Cambodia. My father said that Judge was unable to eat or drink for the last five days. I was so upset because he was my dog and I was not there for him. I had not seen him in 3 months and I was thinking I left him for a bunch of people I did not even know. I did not have a clue he was ill because he was the same dog when I left. I was even doing research on how to bring him over.

Judge was a beautiful American cocker spaniel. In fact he was called Judge because he looked like he was wearing a judge’s wig. My mom used to call him “angmoh chabor” (Hokkien for European woman) because of the long blond hair on his head. He was found in Eng Neo Avenue in the posh District 10 area by a lecturer at the university who had tried for a week to find its owner before I decided to take him in. Most likely some bloody idiot had thrown him away. There are Singaporeans who see dogs as fashion accessories, like a designer handbag. For a while Schnauzers were the in-thing. Some of these people get fed up of having a pet after a while, just as they would their handbag, and then dump them. I have never bought a dog and did not plan to start when I moved here. Many locals buy short, longhaired, white dogs that look like a cross between a Westie and a Pekinese for USD50. The locals also eat dogs—but only mongrels. The short fluffy white ones are pets. My father told me to take care of Austin (we changed Socks’ name in deference to Austin Powers), but said no more dogs for him and mom because they just cannot take it anymore. Alan says it can kill old people when the dog dies. I have to keep an eye on Austin because I have been told he could get stolen and eaten when he grows up.

Bye, bye Judge. Puppy Austin is here to remind me of the circle of life.


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