CAMBODIA JOURNAL - 1999 (Part 3)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Wednesday, November 10, 1999: The Cambodian hotel telephone systems leave much to be desired—like working! As soon as I returned to the hotel, I began trying to call Setan Lee on his cell phone. I then tried to reach Pitou Lao, thinking perhaps he could reach Setan. But I couldn’t successfully get a line out of the hotel to even reach Pitou.

I needed to make contact with somebody tonight because my flight to Battambang is scheduled to depart at 7:00 a.m., and I need to leave the hotel no later than 6:00 a.m. to catch the flight. I really expected Setan to contact me and arrange for someone to transport me to the airport. After all, I’m his guest in Cambodia! But he has made absolutely no contact with me since I arrived. I know he’s busy with a training conference, which begins next Tuesday, but it’s beginning to seem ridiculous that I traveled halfway around the world and am in the same city where Setan is, but he has never once tried to contact me at the hotel.

Finally things began to narrow down, and I purchased with US cash dollars a nonrefundable airline ticket from Phnom Penh to Battambang for tomorrow morning. But I decided to give Setan the benefit of the doubt and figured his schedule must be so very exacting that he hasn’t been able to call. The last instruction I had was that he will meet me in Battambang tomorrow. But it all does seem quite strange. Now I needed to figure out how I’ll get to the airport in the morning. So before I went to bed, I had the desk clerk schedule a taxi to pick me up at the hotel at 6:00 a.m.

I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. so I’ll have time to pack and check out of my room.

Thursday, November 11

As I walked to the front desk in the morning, there was a call waiting for me. Pitou was worried about me and had been unable to get a telephone line through to the hotel last night. He informed me that he secured a car and driver, and he and Sally would be at the hotel in a matter of minutes to take me to the airport and see that I got off to Battambang all right. I told him that would be wonderful. I hung up the desk phone and instructed the clerk to cancel my taxi. Pitou and Sally were so gracious, and I departed on time on my President Airlines flight to Battambang. To answer Pitou’s query as to whether Setan ever got in touch with me, I answered no.

I made the trip to Battambang in an ancient twin-engine prop plane. We flew low and slow, but that gave me a good opportunity to view the rice fields, Cambodian jungles, and waterways from the air.

Cambodia 1999 (part 3) a.jpg

The touchdown and taxi to the small air terminal was uneventful. I walked down the rickety metal ladder from the plane, across the tarmac, and into the terminal to wait for my luggage. Once inside, I looked through the windows separating the baggage room from the waiting room, and I spotted a man holding a sign with “Dr. Jackson” written on it. I figured I would at last meet up with Setan Lee.

When I collected my luggage, I proceeded to shake the hand of the man holding the sign. “Hi. I’m Jim Jackson. At last I meet the elusive Mr. Setan Lee.”

“Uh no” came the staccato reply. “I’m Setan’s uncle. He’s still in Phnom Penh and won’t be able to get here until sometime tomorrow or Saturday.”

“What?” I demanded as my voice not only intensified but jumped a number of decibels in volume. “He said he couldn’t meet with me until today in Battambang, and now I’m here and he’s still in Phnom Penh? How can I talk to him immediately?”

Setan’s uncle just happened to have a cell phone with him, and within seconds he had Setan on the line.

“Setan,” I shouted, “you’ll need to explain real fast just what is going on. I have flown halfway around the world and burned up two weeks of my life being jerked around by you. Talk fast before I stop listening. Just what’s your problem?”

I thought I would take the nondirective pastoral-counseling approach and let him know that he’s okay and I’m okay, and there really aren’t any absolutes, and any choice of behavior is fully acceptable in this world, where we don’t use words like accountability or responsibility or consideration.

“Well, Dr. Jackson, I think we’ve just experienced a little bit of miscommunication.”

“Miscommunication, nothing,” I replied.

He had just crossed the threshold where tolerance begat Scotch-Irish wrath. I started at the very beginning and went right down the list to where I canceled the other trips to reschedule his, and how the e-mail I sent him back on November 5 detailed everything explicitly, and how my purchased tickets had me arriving in Cambodia Monday, November 8.

Then I stepped things up a notch, “But since Dr. Singleton in Denver said you just couldn’t meet with me until November 11 in Battambang, I got busy and located a couple I’d never even met before to pick me up at the Phnom Penh Airport and host me for three days while I waited for my supposed host to conveniently arrange his schedule to meet with me. Then I had to ask my surrogate host to contact you and confirm that I should purchase tickets to Battambang for our meeting today, only to find after I paid the money and arrived in Battambang, that my real host just didn’t find it convenient to show up but decided to stay in Phnom Penh until who knows when. No, Setan, we don’t have a bit of a communication problem. We have an entirely different kind of problem.”

His reply was, “Well, it’s your fault because you were trying to call the wrong phone number.”

“I’ve been in your town since Monday,” I replied, “and you knew where I was staying, and you never even tried to make contact with me. And it’s my fault because I was trying to call a wrong number?”

I continued, “Don’t come here. I’ll see you at the airport tomorrow morning. And since I’m here, I’ll do the honorable thing and perform the Needs Assessment Study on the Battambang Provincial Hospital if you will inform your uncle to take me there.”

When Setan’s uncle and I got into the car, I joked with him and apologized that he ended up in the middle of a distasteful and unnecessary situation. I passed a piece of paper to him and asked him to write down his name so I could remember it.

He took the paper and wrote Dr. Sim Yutheasa. When he passed it back to me, I recognized the name from the original Request for Assistance form in our office, which Dr. Jim Singleton filled out eighteen months ago.

“You’re Dr. Yutheasa? You’re Setan’s uncle?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You’re just the man I’ve been needing to meet. Setan never said who you were or that you were the doctor I came all this way to see. If I had known how to get ahold of you, I would never have needed to rely on Setan. Are you ready to take me to your hospital?”

The whole pile of lemons that had been dumped on us was suddenly transformed into a large pitcher of lemonade. The rest of the day went just beautifully. I spent most of the day at the Battambang Provincial Hospital, where I met the hospital director and all the department heads and toured every hallway, surgery room, and patient ward. We hadn’t had just a bit of a communication problem with Setan; we had experienced a major faux pas. But God miraculously helped to iron it out so that good could be accomplished.

Dr. Yutheasa helped me get checked into a very clean, modern hotel in Battambang. The Teo Hotel was built in just the past few years and is the place where most of the city’s international guests stay. I tried not to show any signs of shock or disbelief when they told me the price for staying at their hotel would be ten US dollars per night. The price of their meals was nearly as reasonable.

As quickly as I could deposit my luggage in my room and hang out my shirts and pants to unwrinkle, I climbed back into Dr. Yutheasa’s van, and we made our way out toward the rural countryside. A lot of the Battambang Province people have abandoned their ox carts, buffalo-drawn carts, and pony carts in favor of the motorcycle. Most of the motorcycles are made in Thailand and come into Cambodia illegally through Vietnam. Not much is done to correct the problem because the government leaders benefit from the game.

Cambodia 1999 (part 3) b.jpg

A motorcycle, even if it is well used, represents a huge investment for the Cambodian people. In the city I asked one of the young men at the hotel restaurant how much he’s paid. He told me that because he can also speak English and some French, he is paid pretty well. He has to be at work at five o’clock each morning, and he serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He gets off work at 10:00 p.m. but has been able to negotiate one hour off per day to attend English school. So he puts in sixteen hours a day on the job. The other restaurant workers have to work seventeen hours per day. For that labor he receives eighteen US dollars per month—not per day or per week, but eighteen dollars per month! And his rent is ten dollars per month.

Of course, the rural people who raise and sell rice or ducks or chickens make a whole lot less than that. So when I saw a family of five riding on a motorcycle, I knew that family made a tremendous investment in that piece of machinery.

The road we took out of Battambang followed the top of a water-retention dike built for the rice fields. Nothing has been done to maintain the Cambodian roads. Travel was very slow as we picked our way through or around the ruts and craters. Eventually we arrived at our destination. Dr. Yutheasa told me the story behind the name Battambang. Somewhere in the province, a mythical warrior lost a baton or battam, which is a fighting stick. The bang part of the name means “lost.” So Battambang means “lost baton.” I personally surmise that the warrior lost his stick in one of the cavernous ruts in a Cambodian road.

Cambodia 1999 (part 3) c.jpg

Next Week: Trusting God to give me insights and wisdom.