Friday, October 9, 2015

Emergency Contacts

There were 3 in the space of 5 days, and then another in mid-September.
The notices come across the newsfeed of expat forums, where an active group of the white-guy old-timers will troll the Cambodian newspapers and republish the headlines.  

Some will either have their girls translate for them, or use Google translate to publish the stories in "Khmeringlish".   After someone posts, the lurkers respond with messages of horror, sadness or just plain curmudgeonly bad taste.

Here's the run-down of last month's roster (partial list)

September 28:  The body of a murdered foreign man stuffed into a suitcase has been found in a river near in the village of Anlong Chhlak near the Ha Tien VietNam border this morning.

September 27: The body of well known German expat Tanja Wethekam, 60, was apparently driven to Mekong Hospital and dumped there by four foreigners in a car.

September 23:  A 62 year old Australian man, Gerald Nailor, was found dead in his room at the Cozyna Hotel on the riverside in Phnom Penh yesterday

September 15: Australian national Peter Condon was found dead in Phnom Penh in his hostel room. The police suspects that he died from a drug overdose about 2 to 4 days before his body was discovered.

Tanja Wethekem Facebook photo
Peter's circle touched mine, unfortunately after he passed.    It is not uncommon for my colleague-- a Cambodian staff who answers the general inquiries to the hospital's email address-- to receive plaintive emails asking for help finding people who have been hospitalized.   She does her part with a quick call to medical records and emails them back with a response.

They often mix us up with other places- a similar sounding name or the town named after the King Father.  I once had an American woman call us looking for her boyfriend.  She'd gotten a call from someone in a foreign country who found her number in her boyfriend's phone after he was hospitalized from an accident.   She  was desperate to track him down as she didn't get enough details on the original call and the number wasn't accepting return calls.

She  called our main line, and I observed my Cambodian co-worker's confused facial expression and responses.  He passed the phone to me.   She read me the name of the hospital.  I asked our staff to make a call or two and told her to call me back.  Then I asked her to spell it and typed the name into the search engine.  "It's in Hong Kong", I said. "Not Cambodia.  Lucky for him."

We received another inquiry from a mother looking for information to our email address.  The staff dutifully checked hospital records and responded. I saw a copy of the email, and with a sinking feeling, made the connection with a blip on my Facebook news feed.   The news had been broadcast here already before the family had been notified.   I replied directly and encouraged her to call the Australian Embassy immediately.  

She replied later that day.  Now she knew he was gone.  She was looking for information, any information to assuage the incredulity,    "He was so happy and relaxed there." she wrote.  "We're a close family and talk frequently."  With some trepidation and plenty of warnings and assurances, I sent her the link of the newspaper article that was my tipoff.   We exchanged a few more emails.  She told me her other son was flying to Cambodia to try and learn what happened. I can only assume that they are dealing with grief in their own way.  

There are plenty of expats living on the edge here.  Their stories, in their demise or vulnerabilities, are splattered across the newspaper with gristly photos or nagging questions still unanswered.  An Excellency's daughter that struck and killed an Irishman on his bicycle, a young woman murdered in Kampot, Several men, still unidentified.  So far in 2015, the tally is 86 so far, 90% are male.

Some of these people led secret lives, far from families and surrounded by the cursory and casual relationships that characterize many social relationships here in Phnom Penh.  The tenuous relationships of fringe expats are not the kind of people that you share feelings with. It's a good time camaraderie only, yukking it up or moaning collectively over beers.  
Offerings of food for Pchum Ben

Tragically, or perhaps a just and favorable ending, there are expats who come to Cambodia to die. They are called Deathpats.   They are retired pensioners, perhaps suffering from physical or mental illness or estranged from their families, who know that they can stretch the dollars further here, bask in warm weather, cheap beer and beautiful women.  If they pay the right people, they can be taken care of very well. Then, in the Buddhist tradition, they can be cremated into the dust of the earth.

In these recent days, Cambodians honor their dead with the very important Pchum Ben ceremony. The monks have been chanting daily, people make daily, pre-dawn offerings at the Pagoda as their 7 generations of ancestors walk the earth again. The belief is that the ancestors, especially those without living relatives, come back to seek food.   They are hungry ghosts, with small mouths, desperately seeking the reassurance that they are remembered by the offering, so that they will not have to return to the dark place of Buddhist hell.  

While not my ancestors who are passing under mysterious circumstance in this country, this is a good time to remember those who have passed.  It is a good time to give thanks and recognition for the people who have enriched our life.  Even for Peter Condon, who seemed like a nice chap who made a bad decision on a weekend night.  

Offerings at the Temple

1 comment:

  1. Very well written. I lived in PP back in 2000 and was friends with Tanja, mentioned in the story above. Just learned of her passing, years ago. Very sad. Keep up the good work