Monday, October 15, 2007

Baby is on board

I am in the middle of writing about my various ex-pat angsts and thought, given that it is going to take me a while to get it all down (!), that I may as well post an article I wrote shortly after I arrived here, which was published in the Telegraph about 14 months ago. This way you have something to read and I can reflect on whether I have got any more used to this life since I wrote this!

Baby is on board
When my husband James announced he had been offered a four-year contract with Oxfam in Cambodia I should have been thrilled. He had spent the past year commuting three hours a day only to be stuck behind a desk in London too far away from the action to do his job properly. He was struggling to make ends meet so that I could enjoy domestic bliss with our 16-month old daughter Jemima and realise my dream of becoming a writer. This was the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to make a difference in a country in desperate need, not to mention the exotic travel and guaranteed sunshine. What was I waiting for? Why, having talked about this for years, was I suddenly so terrified to leave our family and friends? On becoming a mother, my adventurous spirit appears to have got lost deep within my comfort zone – somewhere between our vegetable patch and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. While friends who had grown up overseas reminisced about carefree childhoods, mango trees and bilingual barefooted bliss, I imagined every possible worse scenario.

Jemima would get malaria. The trauma of having no less than ten vaccinations would give her a life-long pathological terror of the doctor’s surgery. The humidity and mosquitoes would make her life a misery. How could she ever play outside? If she didn’t get skin cancer she would certainly be bitten by a poisonous snake, get knocked down by crazy drivers or tread on a landmine. She hates rice!

Jemima didn’t see what the fuss was about. Bubble wrap and parcel tape make great toys. She actually enjoyed her weekly visits to the travel clinic, appearing to thrive on the potent cocktail of viruses swimming around her body. She performed only one silent act of protest. Exhausted after a miserable week of flu, packing and emotional farewells, we woke up late on our last morning to find our daughter was already up and busy. She had decorated herself, the cream curtains, the white doors and the beige carpet with permanent black marker. Was she leaving her scent? We still have no tenants for the house.

Four months have passed since we said goodbye on that freezing day in January and stepped off the plane into the blinding sunshine of steamy Phnom Penh. My friends were right. My daughter is having the time of her life. From the moment she wakes (at dawn with the rest of Phnom Penh and their dogs, cats, and security guards’ morning ablutions) her boundless energy astonishes me. She does not seem to notice the stifling humidity, unlike her increasingly irritable mother. In fact, everything I struggle with here either doesn’t bother her, or worse, positively excites her. Take the cockroach party in the bath on our first night (you could have made a Disney film about them). I screamed; she pushed me aside in her attempt to clamber into the tub.

While I fear for our lives every time we try to dodge the four lanes of meandering traffic (here they drive in both directions up both sides of the street and pavement), Jemima squeals with delight at the motorbikes carrying five children sandwiched between dad at the front and a breastfeeding mum at the back. I feel embarrassingly expat as we travel around in the touristy Tuk Tuk - a sort of carriage towed by a motorbike - Jemima waves, like the Queen, to delighted onlookers.

Does she even notice the poverty? Although we live simply by western standards, in a modest bungalow, without a car, our lives here hardly resemble those of ordinary Cambodians. We can ignore or embrace the real Cambodia as we choose. Some days we help at the orphanage or feed the children at our gates, others we visit the pool, the International playgroup, or stay home under the mango trees.

I wonder when it will dawn on her that she lives a privileged life in a poor and traumatized country, where thousands of children her age live on the streets, vulnerable to unspeakable abuse. She plays with these children, still blissfully unaware of their misfortune (or my desire to bring them all home with us!) When she will start to ask where are their mothers are, or their clothes for that matter? Or why the AIDS orphans she sees every week are older than her but cannot yet walk or talk?

There is one passion Jemima and I both share. Her name is Srey Mach, nanny/cook/cleaner extraordinaire. My refusal to employ household staff (it stank of the worst elements of colonialism) lasted for one long sweaty week of battling with ants, rotting food, ants, dust, ants… I gave in and everybody wins. We can offer someone employment and help with studies and I have more time for Jemima and my work. We get to eat Cambodian fare - Jemima does eat rice after all, though only with hot curry - and the opportunity to practice our spoken Khmer. We also employed Srey Mach’s brother as a night-guard because James travels a lot. Visnar is half my size and sleeps like a log. I hope we never need him! Most importantly, they help us recreate a sense of family that I thought we had lost when we left England.

While to me this all feels like a strange fitful dream that will end any minute, it is Jemima’s home and she is happy. Let’s face it, life here is a lot more interesting than Hampshire, however much I long for some good old English grey sky.

1 comment:

Tara said...

Ah - water birth at home is not something we can hope for out here in the 'tropics'!

This article is genious - I have been there. We think we are doing an amazing thing and at the same time we worry endlessly about whether it really is the right thing for them. Only time will tell - and I imagine the important thing really is that they know how loved they are - surely that is all kids need anywhere in the world.