A number of people have suggested that I have, indeed, become too grumpy of late: not that I’ve seen anyone I know for the last six months, but apparently they can tell from the general tenor of my emails and this blog.

So, in an effort to seem more cheerful, here are some things I’ve seen recently, as I walk Harley the Wonder Dog around my neighbourhood, that have made me smile.

There aren’t very many of them: it’s an entirely crappy neighbourhood, called Chittaranjan Park, which used to be the sonorously-named East Pakistan Displaced Persons Colony. Despite it being fairly Indian middle class, it’s an armpit of a place: I have to keep my bedroom door shut to keep the rats out; the streets are ankle-deep in dogshit, the drivers are insane, and its all watched over by a cadre of super-miserable harridans who scream at you when your dog takes a leak against a flower pot.

But, in an effort to glean a pearl of pleasure from the shite-oyster that is life in Delhi, I present you with:

Eyebrow dog:

Eyebrow Dog

I don’t know what he’s actually called, or if he has a name at all. But, despite being comedy dog, he is practically the only beast who doesn’t try to take chunks out of Harley when he passes. So he makes me laugh, and he’s mellow. That’s as good as it gets.

And this is a shitty iPhone closeup. Those eyebrows are real…

EyebrowClose

Milk Bar Krishna

Milk Stall

There’s no point getting into my thoughts on Hinduism. But I do admire the way people here integrate their religious beliefs into their daily lives. I’ve been party to any number of ceremonies in the office, or in the electrical junction room, where people chant, and wave incense and seem to take it entirely seriously. And they’ve always welcomed me, despite everything. So I liked this little religious figure, sitting on a disused cold milk shop, for no other reason.

Dog Shit

Dogshit

I just thought this was a curiously straightforward message, in a land known for its sesquidpedalian circumlocutions. Needless to say, I am the only person within 2,500 miles who actually carries plastic bags with which to enrobe the alimentary evacuations of my diminutive canine confederate. Because I’ll be damned if anyone can accuse me of making this country shittier than it already is.

And there’s the grumpiness again….

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Hello, wage slaves! This is me calling, from sunny Kashmir.

Actually, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to rub it in. But it struck me quite forcibly last Monday morning. I was driving through the mountains; we’d just gone over the Khardung La pass, which is (not) the highest motorable pass in the world, at 17,650 feet. The skies were a wonderfully succulent cornflower blue, the snows a gleaming white. The mountainsides fell away to distant valleys and vast churning rivers: the Shayok, the Indus, the Nubra.

I looked at my watch, and saw that it was noon. Or 0730hrs in London, when scores of people whom I know and like would be forcing their way on to crowded Tube carriages, negotiating the hell that is the London Underground, on their way to jobs that they do simply to pay the bills. And here I was, on a Monday morning, driving through a huge and fascinating paradise, along ancient trade routes, past unclimbed mountains and uncharted valleys, all in the name of work.

DMon1

(Oh, and it’s cheap here. Since I’ve been in Ladakh, I’ve only been to the cashpoint once, and have only spent £100. In two months. Back in London, it seemed like just leaving my house caused money to fly out of my wallet.)

Anyway, we were on our way to the Nubra Valley, up near the border with Pakistan and China, and a stone’s throw from the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest armed battleground. We got to the camp, which is ringed by 18,000 foot mountains, crested with snow, in the lee of an ancient monastery perched precariously on a crag looking out over the valley.

We were there to organise and host a lunch for one of the most remarkable men in the world: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He comes to Ladakh most years to teach and meet fervent Buddhists, and he had agreed to come and have lunch with us.

I won’t go into the work that went into hosting HH: it was quite a lot, but didn’t involve getting on an urban mass transit system at any stage. But he came, and was incredibly nice and warm, wise, generous and full of a genuinely benign radiance.

We had locked Harley, the Hammer of the Dogs, in a distant tent, but somehow he managed to escape and get past the perimeter of soldiers with machine guns hiding (asleep) in the bushes, and before we knew it he was bounding around under the Dalai Lama’s feet. I dragged him away, mortified, but HH put up his hand and stopped me. “Let him come,” he said, and Harley was allowed to frolic around his divine ankles and disport himself freely.

HBless1

Afterwards, His Holiness blessed Harley (His Harliness, now) and was generally a fantastically good man. I’m not very often star-struck by famous people (ie, never) but the Dalai Lama is different, up there with Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi (before she was corrupted by power and became a vicious Islamophobic stooge) in being a genuinely wonderful man and a wholesome force for good in the world.

DLBlessH

After the lunch, I was standing around with His Harliness and a group of very senior Ladakhi rinpoches, when one of them decided to feed the dog, by grabbing handfuls of cream cake and offering them to the little beast. Normally, this wouldn’t be allowed, but who am I to argue with one of the most powerful figures in Tibetan Buddhism?

After Harley started to visibly and cheerfully bulge around the midsection, the venerable rinpoche looked around him, and, seeing nowhere to clean his cream-covered hands, leant down and wiped them on Harley’s back.

I was, I must admit, somewhat taken aback. It was a bit like watching the Pope blowing his nose on the curtains. Harley didn’t, of course, mind in the slightest, except that he couldn’t reach around and get all the liberal crusting of chunks of cake and cream off himself.

So, all in all, it was a fairly good day in the office.

As it were.

 

Dog eat dog

April 7, 2015

I was sad to miss an interesting little rally held in central Phnom Penh last weekend, because it concerned a subject which I find quite interesting: pet meat. I was also saddened that I missed it, because it was very nearly violently broken up by the police, and I quite fancy a little bit of a rumble with the filth, when I’ve got right on my side.

Eating dogs and cats is common in Cambodia, even if it doesn’t appear in many tourist guides. I’ve never bothered, mainly because the sort of restaurants that serve dog meat are so foul as to require immediate giant doses of worm medicine, once the food poisoning finally wears off.

A few years ago Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema even encouraged the eating of dog, and said banning dog meat would hurt the city. “Come on, dog meat is so delicious,” he said. “The Vietnamese and Koreans love to eat dog meat.” Dog meat should be sold openly in the markets, he said, because poor people eat dog meat. “They don’t have [nice] wine, but poor people can enjoy their dog meat with palm juice wine,” Kep said.

Yummy?

Yummy?

My landlord has had three dogs stolen since we’ve been here, all taken for the pot. He seems pretty blasé about it. His latest response is to own a dog that just looks incredibly unappetizing. This one has been unmolested for more than a year. But we have to take a lot of care when we walk Harley the Wonder Dog, as plenty of casual passers-by see 12 kilos of tasty protein strolling by on the end of a leash, and not the apogee of canine evolution that we do.

Harley, Hammer of the Dogs

Harley, Hammer of the Dogs

But the “Say No To Dog Meat” rally on Sunday, which seems to have been organized mainly by expats, was banned on the spot by the authorities, despite the event being initially sanctioned by the local council. Some 25 owners, with about 30 dogs, gathered at Neak Banh Teuk Park, intending to walk their dogs to another nearby park for a speech, and to circulate a petition for a law banning the trade of dogs and cats for consumption.

But instead, several van-loads of angry policeman turned up and started remonstrating with the walkers, shouting at them and telling them they would be arrested and their dogs kicked to death if they didn’t disperse.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the municipality could not permit people marching with animals. “We understand [if] they walk to campaign against trafficking or eating animals such as dog, but we don’t allow a walk like that,” Dimanche told a local paper. “It’s not normal.”

Now, I can understand that the authorities might be concerned if the march had involved thousands of woefully underpaid and underfed garment workers asking for better pay and conditions. But 25 expats with fluffy dogs? What’s the worst that could happen? And they were all, to a man, apparently carrying plastic bags to scoop up any dogshit that might have been unloaded upon Phnom Penh’s pristine streets.

As I say, I’m fairly neutral on the subject of eating dogs. I’d prefer not to do it much myself, but surely, if we eat everything else on god’s green earth, what’s wrong with chowing down on a little chow? Pigs are thought to be smarter than dogs, but I bet many of the Phnom Penh Puppy Posse had a bacon sandwich that morning.

I’d obviously be furious, and inconsolable, if someone stole and ate the Mighty Harley. Probably about as much as I would be if someone stole and ate my brother. But other people’s dogs? Maybe not so much. A western paper recently asked a diner at a dog restaurant in Vietnam if it made any difference to him that his meal could be someone’s pet. “No,” he said. “It’s not my pet, so I don’t really care.”

No, what gets me is the hypocrisy of the authorities in getting out the jackboots to hassle 25 dog owners on a Sunday afternoon.

First they came for the Socialists…

‘Tis the season

December 18, 2014

It’s that wonderful time of year in Cambodia when the temperature drops below insanity-creating levels, and it feels like you live in a sensible city. Some website tells me it was only 28 degrees here today, which is, to be honest, a bargain. Last night, I slept under a sheet. This is something that is not possible for 50 weeks out of the year.

But, for anyone who has read this blog for a while, they’ll sadly recognise this as happening at precisely the same time as last year. Seasons: ho, hum.

But it is wonderful, to walk the awful dog while not sweating to death. That’s something we have to look forward to, even at six am, next April and May (and June and July).

I’ve just finished reading Sebastian Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia, and, despite him being a friend of mine, I’m happy to say that it is a wonderful book. If you want a brilliantly well-told account of why Cambodia is how it is, now, then you need to read Strangio’s book. This is the best book that’s been written on Cambodia in the last 15 years. I’ve toyed with the idea of a decent book on modern Cambodia: Strangio has beaten me to it.

And, finally, in what is a fairly random collection of thoughts, the big story in the country this week is the discovery that at least 106 people in Battambang have been infected with HIV, after being treated (stuck with needles) by an unlicensed doctor.

In a statement headlined “HIV cases in Battambang”, the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, Unicef, the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention say they are investigating “an outbreak.”

The “doctor” went on the run after the story broke, but, not being an important business figure, was quickly tracked down and arrested.

Blame is also being directed towards a system that enables people to get away with working as unlicensed doctors.

“From now on, I will stop believing in all doctors. They do not pay attention to the patients; they think about only themselves,” a local figure told a newspaper.

Early reports point to the reuse of needles as being the source of the infection.

This is especially unfair on the people who have contracted the disease: one of the few areas where Cambodia has done well is bringing down the AIDS transmission rate. Of course, it would be a lot lower if people stopped treating bar girls as sex toys, but this rash of case involves people aged between three years old and 82 years old.

Despite this, Prime Minister Hun Sen, quoted in a local newspaper, said he was “99 per cent” sure that the results are wrong. “Right now, 99 percent, I don’t believe its AIDS,” he said. “They might have a virus, but it’s not AIDS . . . Can an 80-year-old person get AIDS? And can young people who do not know anything get AIDS?”

That’s a good question.

Wardrobe malfunction

November 19, 2014

I bought some new clothes the other day. Well, actually, Blossom bought me some new clothes. And it wasn’t half bad.

Back in the UK, I used to dress quite nicely, I thought. Decent leather shoes, French cuffs and cufflinks on my Jermyn Street shirts, flamboyant silk squares peeping out of my jacket pocket, and so on. But since moving to Cambodia, things have gone a little, er, downhill.

For a start, it is far too hot to wear a jacket, so my handmade linen suits sit hopelessly in the wardrobe. It is also too hot to wear cufflinks.

Secondly, this country is filthy. For much of the year, it is incredibly dusty, chokingly turbid. I used to think that travelling on the Tube in London was bad for leaving a ring of grime around your collar: Cambodia trumps that. I can’t go to the shop on the corner without coming back without a patina of sandy orange dust caked into my pores. Most public surfaces are caked in crap: you pretty quickly learn to wash your hands if you touch any surface in this country, unless you want to die of leprosy.

So at the end of the day, my once lovely shirts are stained and unappetising. We have a washing machine, brand new, but it doesn’t seem to use hot water, so shirts and trousers come out looking only marginally better than when they went in. Which isn’t great. Weird grey stripes seem to flourish on sleeves, and collars – well, the less said the better. And then added to this is the recent addition to our household of the Brindled Beast of Chaos, or Harley, who delights in swinging off sleeves and taking random high-speed chunks out of passing trouser legs. Then there’s our former maid, who liked to wash clothes in bleach, and the fact that the country seems to be full of random sticking-out nails. Oh, and you can wear flip-flops to the office? Hell, yeah! Anyway, it all makes for an eventually pitiful wardrobe.

But, as I say, Blossom prevailed upon me to buy some new clothes. And it was great. I hadn’t found anything to wear in the shops here: not being the size of an anorexic 12-year-old, sadly. I’d had a few shirts made here, from tailors who really weren’t all that inspiring, with sleeves that came down to my knees and wonky collars. But Blossom took me to a shop called Ambre, which was fantastic.

Housed in a beautiful old colonial villa, it’s run by Cambodia’s best-known fashion designer, a woman called Romyda Keth. Most of the shop is women’s clothes: dramatic gowns and blouses and that kind of stuff, but there is a men’s section, and I could have bought practically everything. Of course, none of the stuff on the racks would have fitted anyone larger than Peter Dinklage, as far as I could see, but they offered to make anything I liked in my size, Normal Human, for no extra cost. It was the last time I can remember enjoying shopping.

So I had a fitting, and two days later picked up a couple of shirts and a couple of pairs of trousers, which fitted perfectly, all for the same cost as a single one of my shirts from London. And they are all things of extreme beauty, beautifully cut and stitched, in vivid colours and wildly stylish. So now I’m getting back to a reasonable level of sartorial elegance, I think. Or will be, if I ever actually unpack them, Because they’re almost too beautiful to wear. Ah, more problems.

Life’s a Peach

April 7, 2014

Sadly, very little of note has happened here recently, which is why this blog has been a bit moribund of late. What once was exotic has become the quotidian, I suppose, and trying to mine my life for metaphorical blog gold has become increasingly difficult. But still we strive…

We have a new member of staff chez nous. She is called Pich, pronounced ‘peach’, and she’s an absolute treasure. We got in touch with an employment agency who asked us precisely what we wanted. “To work on the days I’m in the office; clean, cook, and love the dog,” we told them. Three days later, they turned up with Pich.

The timing could have been better: I have just changed jobs a bit, and now no longer have to go to the office. I’m typing this in a café, hiding out while I leave Pich to hose down the house and pacify Harley. But she is a godsend. She works 9-5, three days a week. She cooks dinner for us, plays with the beast, who loves her immoderately, cleans everything, sews up my Harley-rent shirts, cuts up mangos and papayas, runs errands and does everything we can think of, smilingly and happily. She works 24 hours a week, or 96 hours a month. For $100 a month. I feel tremendously guilty about this – I earn 20 times her salary, and I do sod all. But she seems fine about it. I wonder if there will come a time when I get used to dirt-cheap slave labour. I hope not.

On the Harley front, he continues to grow at an astounding rate: he’s practically Godzilla-sized right now, stalking through the streets knocking down tall buildings with his huge snout. I think the verb ‘monstering’ was invented for him, as that’s what he does to everything that gets in his way.

The enormous Harley

The enormous Harley

 

We had a scare the other day though; Pich called in a panic to say that Harley was in a bad way, and I got home to discover his head was swollen up like a basketball, and he was having trouble breathing. The vet seemed to think he had tried to eat a bee or a little scorpion and had paid the histamine price. We got him back that evening, all recovered.

That should have been that, but his head swelled up again later that night, so we had to find the emergency vet, and he had to spend the night in doggie hospital. It’s curious how badly this affected Blossom and I; neither of us was particularly cheerful when the boy was away, and the relief when we reclaimed him the next morning was palpable. Thank god we don’t have any children.

In other news, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, or JICA, has spent many millions of dollars and a great deal of time trying to upgrade Phnom Penh’s sewage system, by digging up the roads and installing new pipes across the city. This would be great, except they provide the money, but not the expertise, so the results are decidedly mixed.

There is a sewer opening just outside our flat. But now, instead of sucking down floodwaters, it pumps sewage up into the street, where it sits, stagnant and mephitic, full of unspeakable things, rotting in the dank sunshine. Our cadre of tuk-tuk drivers sits amidst this foul shin-deep brew, without even the benefit of a decent breeze to shift the stench. No one seems prepared to do anything about it, and with the rainy season just around the corner, it’s only going to get worse. First-world problems, eh?

Aussie rules?

February 24, 2014

A recent proposal from Australia to the Cambodia government has people here in Phnom Penh agog, as well as most Australians of even the slightest liberal viewpoint.

A proposal from the Australian Foreign Minister that Cambodia resettle refugees seeking asylum in Australia has been greeted with hilarity here.

Speaking to the press on Saturday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong revealed that his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, had made the request in talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, a proposal that the government was taking “very seriously”, he said.

Now, it’s easy to mock the proposal: most economic migrants would find Cambodia’s nonexistent welfare system, health care and education a bit of a black mark. An average daily wage of $1 is probably not what they were looking for when they got on the boats to go to Oz.

But genuine political refugees are unlikely to be particularly safe here. In 2009, Cambodia sent 20 Uighur refugees back to China after they were smuggled into the country by a Christian group. The 20 Uighurs said they were fleeing persecution after a crackdown that followed riots in western China.

The deportation, in the face of protests by the United States, the United Nations and human rights groups, came two days before China signed 14 trade deals with Cambodia, worth approximately $1.2 billion.

Before being deported, several of the asylum seekers told the office of the UNHCR that they feared long jail terms or even the death penalty. At least two of them have since been sentenced to life in China’s lovely prison system. Information on the others is unavailable.

Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian Greens party senator and immigration spokeswoman says “Sending refugees to Cambodia is neither a sustainable or reasonable response to the fact that people seek safety from war and terror by coming to Australia.”

Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak told a local paper that Cambodia had a “horrible” refugee rights record. “We don’t have the financial capacity but we also don’t have the political will [for] refugees who need protection, especially when most refugees are of a political nature,” he said.

Meanwhile, people have been asking me about the progress of Harley the puppy. Well, firstly, we’ve decided he has oppositional defiant disorder, which is described as “an ongoing pattern of anger-guided disobedience, hostility, and defiant behaviour toward authority figures that goes beyond the bounds of normal puppy behaviour.” Yep, that’s Harley.

He’s also become enormous. Here is a picture of him considering whether to eat an entire, real, horse.  Honestly.

HarlsHorse

Harley contemplating his horse d’oevres.

And here is a picture of him trying to stop me taking his picture.

Harls-34

So Harley is fine, but an enormous pain in the arse.

But we love him immoderately.

The desolation of Harley

January 16, 2014

No curtain left untattered; no sandal left un-gnawed; no plant left un-denuded to standing puppy-height; no cushion left unchewed; no takeaway menu left unshredded; no cardboard box unmolested; no socks unholed; no doormat un-nibbled; no shirt left unripped; no table leg un-chomped; no picture frame unbitten; no trouser-leg unsullied; no rucksack untrashed; no electrical cable left un-nipped; no lampshade untasted; no newspaper unrippped and no bedsheets un-destroyed.

But isn’t he magnificent?

Harls

I kill when I wish! I am strong, strong, strong! My armour is like tenfold shields! My teeth like swords! My claws, spears! The shock of my tail, a thunderbolt! My wings, a hurricane! And my breath, death!

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

Dogged persistence

December 31, 2013

 

Dog1

Well, Harley’s home, and he’s completely adorable. And completely insane.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of dogs in my life. But not that many puppies. The last one I had to deal with in any protracted sense was a 10-week-old Jack Russell called Bonsai, whom I drove from a remote Scottish island all the way down to Dorset, howling in a cardboard box on the passenger seat for 13 hours. I think we were both pretty relieved when that journey was over.

But how quickly memory fades. I had completely forgotten what a pain a puppy can be. But with the arrival of Harley, I’ve been reminded, forcefully. Harley likes to chew things. And Harley doesn’t take well to being baulked when it comes to chewing. It doesn’t matter what it is: trouser legs, socks, fingers, the walls, earlobes, newspapers, curtains, lamps, electrical cables, cardboard boxes; all is grist, as it were, to his mill. The dog is relentlessness personified.

Dog2

Now I hesitate to call a dog stupid, especially one that’s owned by me. But it is true to say that Harley’s mind is a little … underdeveloped. He is only eight weeks old. And he is your basic tabula rasa. It’s a delight to see a thought cross his little mind: he’ll be walking in one direction, when he’ll think of something and spasm up into the air to turn around to act on that thought immediately. Even if it involves him running headfirst into a wall.

Another problem that we hadn’t fully anticipated was that until he finishes his shots, in about six weeks, he can’t be let outside. Rabies, distemper, parvovirus: all of them could kill the little beast, and coupled with his habit of putting everything in his mouth in this, a profoundly unclean city, he is in no small amount of danger. So for the time being, we can’t have someone come in to walk him at lunchtime; instead, Blossom has taken him to work today in his cage, and deposited him underneath the stairs. I’ve been dreading a phone call from Blossom at her wits end, but apparently it hasn’t been too bad, apart from him crapping repeatedly in his cage, and filthy children wanting to play with him. (Blossom hates filthy children.)

And I’ve just got back from the pet store. Dog food is $18 for a kilo-and-a-half! That’s apparently enough to last him 11 days. That’s almost more expensive than the food I eat. But Blossom says pizza crusts aren’t nourishing enough for him. The mind boggles.

Dog3

Anyway, that’s enough dog stuff for now. Have a brilliantly happy New Year, everyone.