It’s 8.00am, breakfast is on its way and I’m nervously sipping on my coffee. Chiva’s Shack (our guest-house) is affiliated with the expat charity group called CHOICE (Charitable Humanitarian Organisation In Cambodia by Expats) and each morning a few of the members can be seen working on laptops or talking. I’ve been wanting to introduce myself and see how I can help for a few days now yet for some reason, haven’t. Today’s the day I tell myself, one of my last free days in Cambodia and I want to help out, somehow. And I mean how intimidating can a charity organization be, right? Finally, after scraping up the last piece of scrambled egg and toast I see the opportune moment, and take it. Within 10 minutes of talking to Robert, a CHOICE member about their soup kitchen I’m on foot and on pacing the two or three blocks from Chiva’s Shack to my first overseas volunteer escapade.
As I stroll through the streets looking for my predisposed hollywood idea of a soup kitchen, a huge room with tables and chairs with a line of volunteers scooping food, I’m met simply with a sign pointing me down a small alleyway. Following the alleyway past the back of restaurants with staff washing dishes and houses with children getting ready to go to school, I am called by a voice aimed clearly at the lost looking white guy: “Hey are you here for the soup kitchen?”. Following the voice I enter a room where I meet Chan, his wife the cook, Mom the assistant cook and Hayley, a young Sydneysider whom I’m later convinced will change the lives of many whilst on her philanthropic sojourn. Chan and his wife run the soup kitchen day-to-day and they happily answer all the questions I have as we all sit around a big pot of soup waiting to start the bagging process.
The kitchen feeds 80 people a day ranging from AIDS sufferers in the AIDS hospital, to the poor and homeless on the street that CHOICE members find on their nightly drives and give food vouchers to. Due to some generous donors that supply the kitchen with the rice – approximately 50kgs will last only 2 or 3 days, the remaining expense is the soup which only costs $20 to feed everyone. What’s left over from the 80 food vouchers in circulation is bagged and taken to the public hospital where people wait up to two days to be seen. Curious as to why people with a voucher wouldn’t show up for their food I was informed that some of those with vouchers are drunks or glue sniffers who often don’t remember the visit from CHOICE the night before. Other times it is due to more bureaucratic reasons as the police regularly horde up homeless and send them outside of the city to what was described to me as detention camps. All this because the government wants to keep a clean image of the city. Introduction to the sad situation that is Phnom Penh’s underprivileged complete, Chan and Hayley leave for the AIDS hospital and I’m left with Mom and Chan’s wife to bag up soup and rice containers.
It takes me at least 20 attempts to get the correct knot for the bags right, all the while the two women were laughing and continually re-showing me until I finally got it. And then lost it again. Fortunately with 80 bags to tie, I eventually became a master and it was time to move out on to the street and set up our tables and chairs ready to hand the food out. It was a simple set up, but it worked. A small table with a large bottle of filtered water and enough spare room to hold 30 food bags stood next to a chair with a stack of clothes on it. Slowly, either by themselves or with their children they came, quietly eager for their first and possibly only meal for the day. The children came running and tried on new clothes that they could take whilst mothers wore such appreciative grins it’s hard to describe. The feeling from helping out those in need is truly heartwarming and before the day is out I knew I’d need to do it again.
At 12.00 we call full time on the street and Chan tells us it is time to bag up the remaining 30 meals and take them to the hospital, which would become one of the most difficult and hopeless moments of my life. I’m in shock as we arrive at the number of people lining up by themselves or with infants waiting for medical attention that may not even arrive today. Four rows of people wrap around the corner of the building, a total distance of which would be at least 200m. I’m in shock and thrown well into the deep end as Chan hands Hayley and I our bags and simply says to give them to those in most need. We walk up to the entrance and see the heartbreaking, hopeless look in some mothers’ eyes as their babies grow sicker. Peoples clothes were tattered and their bodies looked weak, the question which grew in my mind was: Who am I to decide who may eat their one and probably only meal of the day? It is something that someone coming from a privileged country never has to, nor wants to think about, yet here the dilemma is, staring me right in the face. We slowly stumble through the crowd trying to decide where best to give our food. I start by glancing at a woman with a young baby who looked like she could barely move, her eyes and face light up when receiving the bag and she raises her hands in thanks. The rest were slightly easier than the first but the thought of: Is this the best person to give it to plays in my mind. As we begin to run out of food I’m reminded of a quote I’d seen recently from Mother Theresa which was “If you cannot feed 100, feed 1”. A quote which makes so much sense when you hear it, but gets thrown to the emotional wayside when you are in a situation wanting to feed 100.
As I jump back on the motorcycle, silent and emotionally drained I reflect on the day’s events and am angered by the whole situation. How can a medical system get like this? How can there be that many people in need? That, unfortunately is the sad and frustrating reality facing Cambodia and the hundreds of NGO’s working on the problem. Hayley and I go for some lunch upon our return and talk about our backgrounds, travels, corrupt NGO’s and then finally she tells me about one of the other projects that CHOICE runs: A fortnightly village trip to deliver food, medical supplies and clothing to villages who have no land, no clean water and no money. I’m instantly sold on the idea and will post my village trip experience in the coming days.