This post is set to be a little less dramatic than my last, but it's about time I rolled up my computer sleeves and let you out there know what we're up to in sunny Cambodia...
Or, not so sunny... believe it or not, both Mr P and I have worn cardigans in the past few days! We're just edging through the beginnings of rainy season here, and perhaps slightly prematurely congratulating ourselves on not being overwhelmed by the speed or quantity of the downpours. It looks like we'll get through this! With plastic ponchos now the regular inhabitants of whatever handbag I'm using (Pink for me, Orange for him) we're ready at a moments notice to don the plastics and protect the hairdo's from absolute ruin. Wet season here is unlike anything I've experienced before... for several reasons. Let's set some context in place:
Drains and sewerage are still relatively new in a lot of areas here. In Siem Reap itself there are sewers alongside a fair few roads, but not like any you'd see in the UK. 'Drain covers' here consist on a big piece of concrete or metal resting on top of two smaller lengths of concrete, which are either side of the access point to the sewer - which is effectively a big hole. These covers are often used as a depositing place for the rubbish from nearby houses for the Rubbish collectors (who sometimes come and sometimes don't, but do always charge for their services, rendered or not). This then means if not purposefully stuffed into the sewers to avoid charges, rubbish can inadvertently fall or be washed into the sewers. There are no grills covering the sewers and no 'Dyna-Rod' companies ready at the flash of an orange van to come and unblock any nasties - so any blockages cause problems... fast.
There aren't any drainage systems as such - while the sewers are there to receive waste water, and do take some of the rainwater too - the roads are flat, there are no gutters to collect water at the side of the road, so the usual course of water is to end up in whatever potholes may be adorning the surface of the road rather than run away from the road keeping them clear for traffic... which as a side note then causes a lot of people to go wherever the heck they like on the road to avoid puddles.
People love to live on the side of the road. Here, living roadside means living as close to your customers as you can get. With nearly every house also being a shop frontage for a pharmacy, laundry, phone shop, clothes shop, corner shop, bits and bobs shop, hairdressers or bike repair shop everyone wants to live as close to the road as possible. With no real street names, and nobody really knowing the ones that do exist, live somewhere off the beaten track and you'll get no customers. Even if you have an income working in a regular job, most people have a business from home as well to supplement it, so people live as close to the roads as they can. Come rainy season, as water almost piles up on the roads and with no quick drainage, barriers are put in place to cope with the wash of water rolling into homes with each passing bicycle or moto. The Cambodian ingenuity is evident at this point with little ridges or steps made in the concrete floors of people's homes where people can afford to have more than a mud floor, which slow and divert these unwanted tides, and for the rest you'll often see someone stood on their stoop sweeping the water away.
What we have seen in the relatively short space of time that we've been here is the quick building of new larger sewers going alongside roads around the edge of central Siem Reap. When people get making something here, it happens, and it happens fast. While certain developments, and getting official documents can drag it's feet for months - get something that needs manual labour and you will see a fast-moving project. Driving alongside these new sewers both in progress and once completed is a reality check in so many ways. As they're being made deep deep channels are dug to accommodate walls of concrete that will reach 3m base to top, reinforced with iron gables, and bridged multiple times for residents of premises just behind these new systems to reach their abodes. The people making them? For some reason it still surprises me as I cycle past to see the number of women working on these projects. Ever friendly, most workers will stop to smile or wave as you cycle by, clearly bemused by the white girl in flip flops cycling down the dirt roads instead of off in the direction of Pub Street ('Wave at Whitey/Beep at the Barang' should definitely be a national sport here!). The work ethic here seems to be, 'If you want work and you can do it, it's yours'. So teens, women, and children all work harder than I think I ever have physically. Health and safety doesn't really exist - barriers blocking roads are ignored - evident by the fact that recently Mr P and I cycled around the edge of a JCB style digger to go to a meeting, timing our cycling so that we didn't get clonked on the head by the scoop. Yes, we actually were that close that we could've leant on it as we skirted round the edge, and yes, my heart did skip a beat for a moment as it swung back towards my beloved's bonce.
Back to the sewers... Open sewers here are just that - open. They are great big structures, and a massive advance for the people living next to or near them, but they are open. Signs alongside them boast 'Having water system improves health of the people' and it's exciting to see people's lives improved, but there is still such a long way to go. On hot days, the stench is something else. With the open sewers even more so than the closed ones along the busiest of roads, everyday rubbish is thrown in rather than collected, or burnt. If you dare to look you can see all sorts of things you'll probably wish you couldn't recognise. They're littered with plastic and have plants growing up in them as testament to the more 'earthy' deposits in there. They do the job though for the most part, and as people are taught not to throw rubbish in, which blocks drainage, the sewage passes through and away from the area. When it rains though... when it rains. Here there are occasional showers, there are light spatterings and then there are moments when the heavens open. If you've used this phrase in the UK, you really have no idea how heavy it can get. The proof is the sewers... Structures 3m deep and usually only 1m full can be suddenly full to the brim, if not overflowing within 30 mins of a heavy downpour beginning. When cycling in the rain (there are times you can't just wait it out) it's best not to think what your toes will be covered in by the time you get home, as your feet pump up and down, round and round through water a foot or more deep, churning up goodness knows what, and simply wash it off as soon as you can, reminding yourself all the while of the vaccines you had before you came out here, and how blessed you are that this is anything other than normal.