Finger Wagging

Siem Reap, not quite ready to release me from her grasp is bequeathing the gift of one more night. I extended my stay and very quickly discovered myself free to attend a performance. But not just any performance. It’s Beatocello.

There is a hospital next to the hotel. For days I have wheeled past the men, women and children — lots of children, queuing on the sidewalks in front. They stand under overhanging tree branches quietly watching life on the street pass by. Every day they wait. It’s my new friend Boran, that finally clues me in. “It is a free hospital,” he tells me. Surely his English must be confused. “Free?”

Throughout town, poked into grass, posted on buildings, light posts and storefronts, even in the hotel lobby, are signs for Beatocello. Held every Saturday night, it’s gratis performance that includes J.S. Bach cello works and remarkably enlightening commentary. Beatocello is Dr. Beat Richner, founder and director of the Kantha Bopha hospitals. And yes, treatment for allCambodians is completely free of charge.

Dr. Richner began working in Cambodia with a small pediatric hospital in the 1970’s. When the Khmer Rouge invaded he was driven out and forced to retreat to his homeland, Switzerland. Years later, at the request of King Norodom Sihanouk, Dr. Richner once again left behind the comforts of Zurich and returned to Cambodia. In 1992 Kantha Bopha I officially opened its doors. The hospital was a tremendous success and in 1996 Kantha Bopha II was christened, followed by the Siem Reap, Jayavarman VII in 1998.

Humble beginnings employing 16 foreigners and 68 Cambodians has now grown into a revered operation supporting 2,100 Cambodians and only 2 permanent foreigners. The impact has been astounding. Against the odds of governmental corruption and a fractured healthcare system, the Kantha Bopha[1] hospitals have treated over 9 Million outpatients, 900,000 inpatients and performed 90,000 surgical operations. Over 550,000 children that would have otherwise died, did not.

This is indeed remarkable but it has come at a price. That price has been Dr. Richner’s life. Of the hospitals’ funding, 90% is derived from private donation. And this is why Beatocello plays. Every Saturday. Over 600 performances. For twenty years, Dr. Beat Richner has been sustaining the financial burden of these institutions. He is the primary reason people donate.

He’s frustrated. He’s angry. And he’s tired.

Beatocello’s performance is moving and his style direct. The good doctor has no qualms about prodding his bow into the BIG white global healthcare elephant stomping through the operating room. He stabs at the debilitating issues of international bureaucracy, inappropriate fund distribution and grossly ineffective methodology. But this was not at the heart of Dr. Richner’s impassioned plea. The most critical dilemma focuses on the rights of poor people to quality medical treatment.

Several years ago I began exploring global issues, mostly because I was painfully ignorant.  I’d spent a great deal of time working in Northwest Europe but didn’t comprehend what was taking place in the poorer countries of the world. The more questions I raised, the more answers I received. The more answers I received, the more disturbed I became. Years later I’m still sorting through the quagmire of information. There are however, some glaring certainties[2].

  • In 2010 there were approximately 8.8 Million cases of tuberculosis.
    • An estimated 1.1 Million died.
  • In 2010 there were approximately 216 Million malaria cases.
    • An estimated 655,000 died.
  • There are 3-5 Million cholera cases every year
    • 100,000 – 120,000 result in death.
  • An estimated 500,000 require hospitalization for Dengue Fever every year.
    • 12,500 die. Mostly children.
  • Worldwide recorded cases of SARS were slightly over 8,000.
    • Less than 1,000 have died.

Which issue ignited a global media frenzy?

Every year 7.6 Million children under the age of five die; 19,178 children, every day.

What constitutes a crisis? What is preventing the international community from garnering the necessary awareness to solve these problems? Why haven’t we experienced worldwide rallying to stop this senseless loss of life? I still have more questions than answers.

My passport is issued by a country that in less than two years, has generated $1,317,000,000 for a presidential race[2]. The 2012 Congressional elections have amassed $1,853,106,280.

Admittedly, I find the finer nuances of politics confusing. But there is nothing perplexing about how $3.1 Billion could be spent. I’ll give you a hint — in the twenty years Kantha Bopha has been healing the Cambodian population, operating costs have totaled $400 Million (with only 5% paying administrative costs).

Twenty years; $400 Million. One election season; $3.1 Billion.

There are obvious systemic flaws if chaotic campaign financing is not only conceivable but legally permissible. It would be easy to wag a finger and say, “Bad, bad, politicians.” But we as individuals are ultimately responsible. We are responsible for electing the governmental officials that make decisions on our behalf. We are also responsible for policing them when they step out of line.

Fixing these problems involves the removal of root causes, of which there are many. One of the most basic is the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution that recognizes corporations with the same legal rights as living, breathing human beings. The most immediately prevalent issue however, is the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission  which essentially provides corporations with a green light to procure politicians. A corporation can legally now spend limitless amounts of cash toward funding the candidates that best support its idealistic value of maximizing profitability.

The rules that govern our lives are not static. If we shake the planet loud enough we can affect change. Until then, we get what we get. As I’ve come to understand, democracy, much like life, is not a passive process. I’m not saying that fixing the United States’ political problems will mend global healthcare. But until the political lunacy that is gobbling up billions of dollars and bombarding our psyches with polluted promises of prosperity stop, nothing will improve. This much is certain. The planet will continue to hemorrhage cash. Beatocello will continue to play. And over 19,000 children will continue die — every day.

Live. Learn. Most importantly: Lend your voice.

We have an opportunity to be part of the solution. Each one of us as individuals has personal power and a choice.

~ by Christine Fowle

[1] Source: Kantha Bopha Website
[2] Source: World Health Organization.
[3] Source: FEC.
[1] Source: World Health Organization.

Lady Tuk Tuk

An understanding developed a few years ago. It involves how I spend money. Awareness began cultivating, that one powerful method of expressing my values is by aligning my purchases with the principles I hold dear. Spending meaningfully is one way of making a statement. Yes, I am only one individual and perhaps the conglomerates whose lean production costs are capitalizing on overseas labor don’t miss my patronage. But the social entrepreneurs taking risks to start businesses representative of their own convictions, value my support on a very personal level.

This being said, I have been officially reduced to the auspicious title of Lady Tuk Tuk.

Two nights ago, based on a desire to spend my Riel in significant ways, I strolled past a looong row of drivers along the narrow street, all competing for my off-season business by shouting the afore mentioned “Hey lady, tuk tuk?!” Wrong move. “I’m no lady,” reverberated through my head but didn’t quite convey the reversal of respect I was hoping to command and therefore kept the thought precisely where it belonged. Instead, a young man uttering nary a word, caught my eye. He was a young twenty-something wearing a baseball cap and when I approached, he smiled a smile that lit up his entire face and I just knew — he’s my guy.

“You want tuk tuk or motorbike?” he asked and I noticed the bike was unhooked from the cab and I’m all about the cool night breeze whooshing through my hair! “Motorbike,” definitely the motorbike. His name is Boran and his temperament is every bit as genuine as his smile. I also find that he makes for very good company.

After two days of climbing Angkor’s holy rocks I’ve self-prescribed some extended temple rest and decide that open road therapy is the sweet cure I’m looking for. So, I employ my newest friend and we head for the hills. Breaking through the city limits, cruising with our gorgeous traveling companions flora and fauna, it’s a rural daydream leaving nothing but dust! The highlight is undoubtedly our trip to the butterfly sanctuary — from caterpillars to pupas into winged beauties, the fluttering works of art are precisely what the doctor ordered; we even spy two butterflies mating!

Inhaling the scenery in reverse, Boran returns me to town where digging into the Siem Reap soil also unearths a bountiful bouquet of happy. A myriad of projects cultivating empowerment, education and community are sprouting up on either side of the river, providing numerous opportunities to support this city in lasting ways. Planted along busy streets and quiet roads are shops, eateries, galleries and hotels offering charming collections of meaningful methods to help grow local prosperity and travel with a purpose.

Along with Sala Baï, a small handful of neighborhood restaurants are also serving as training grounds for fresh, young pupils looking to make their mark on the world. Traditional and experimental artists occupying studios and alleys include painters, photographers, weavers, carvers and silver smiths — amateurs to master craftsman, from remote villages and developing cities. Landmine victims are peddling books by pedaling with their arms and clothing stores are assisting women living with HIV/AIDS. Boutiques offer sustainable handbags, Fair Trade souvenirs and jewelry crafted from recycled materials; there is no shortage of shops focused on projects supporting orphans, education, the disabled and disadvantaged.

Time, energy and financial means are finite resources and therefore not only valuable but cherished, and expenditures I make return the favor. In addition to receiving the benefit from the product invested in, I’m also granted the gift of satisfaction. At home and abroad, knowing my dollars, Rupiah, Riel and Rupee are feeding sustainable systems provides a small slice of inner peace. Even if Lady Tuk Tuk does at times, go a little out of her way to pay it forward, its well worth the effort. The rewards are priceless.

~ by Christine Fowle

Gone Fishing...

Twenty-five years of working in the hospitality industry has firmly planted its roots in the very essence of my being. Service excellence renders me giddy and authenticity is perched high on a pedestal and vehemently exalted. My current home, Le Meridien Angkor, feeds into this passion, making both coming and going a supreme delight.

It is only in the staff that the gift lies to transform a hotel from a pretty box housing a lot of nice stuff into an exquisite locale in which you feel recognized and cared for. And this pretty box is filled with young men and women that exude genuine kindness and graciously bestow it upon each and every guest that passes through their doors. It’s during one such interaction that a lovely girl in the restaurant shares a bit of information with me. She is a student at Sala Baï and with a little research I discover a very special school with an extraordinary mission.

What I love about Sala Baï is not only the school’s tourism based educational focus; it is the methodology behind their execution. The program is exclusively designed to provide hotel and restaurant skills to youths from underprivileged families within Cambodia with a household income of less than $300 USD per year. One hundred students are accepted annually to participate in the eleven-month curriculum, with majors including Housekeeping, Front Office, Restaurant Service and Cooking. The scholarships include supplies, accommodation, food, bicycles, uniforms and medical coverage with absolutely no cost incurred by the students or their families. Because of this, the competition for admission is steep and involves a meticulous selection process including family visits, examinations and personal interviews.

Phort, one of Sala Baï’s young scholars provides me with a tour of the facility and also lives in the dormitory with Ek, the sweet girl that sparked my initial interest. The hotel consists of three deluxe rooms and a suite; the restaurant, open for breakfast and lunch, is run entirely by the students, who also receive instruction in both French and English. Phort seems impressed with my limited French vocabulary and neglect to tell her that after living in the country nearly three years I’ve only achieved the narrow linguistic accomplishment of interpreting restaurant menus.

In passing I’m introduced to Emmanuelle Dethomas, the school’s Communication Officer who has signed on for two years with the project. Emmanuelle describes the background the students and explains that a portion of the integration process often involves an introduction to electricity and running water before training even begins. She also shares that the school boasts a job placement rate of 100% and that along with several other hotels, Le Meridien Angkor provides internships to approximately five students per semester and in many cases continues the relationship after graduation.

In addition to local hotels and restaurants, the school is also supported by international partnerships, private donations, as well as, hotel room and restaurant sales; they even have a cookbook! My guide was superb and I absolutely LOVE what they are doing here. Not only are these young ladies and gentlemen being taught how to fish, they are learning how to prepare and then serve it up in grand style. Nicely done Sala Baï!