First day in the field

On the morning of the 5th September, a credit officer, a man who works in the office and speaks both English and Khmer, and I headed out to the field. The credit officer had his own motorbike, and I sat on the back. Despite being early morning the thick heat hung in the air and was steadily increasing. We zoomed up the main streets for about 15 minutes, past restaurants, markets and shops until we came to an abrupt stop by an alleyway that I probably would not have noticed myself. It was so narrow that the bikes could barely pass through. Keeping my eyes steadily on the two walls that we were driving between and I failed to see the whole world that was opening up in front of me. Everywhere there were makeshift houses, mostly made of wood and ordinarily raised above the ground on wooden stilts – sensible considering the frequency of flooding in Phnom Penh’s poorly drained streets. We followed a narrow path that snaked round the houses until we arrived at the entrepreneur we had come to interview. The slums are suffocating; I feel the heat intensify by squalor and the cramped conditions, and mix with the smell of the garbage which lies in huge piles everywhere. I was completely overwhelmed and fascinated and disgusted all at once. The client we had come to interview, and indeed her neighbors, and various small children, and even a few dogs- stared at me with bemusement. Who is this strange English girl sat so precariously on the back of the motorbike? The translator calmly explained that I was there because I was interested in learning about their life and how they had used the loan. She begun to feel a little more comfortable and was all smiles by the end of the interview. We visited three other clients that morning, had a break for lunch and restaurant near the Credit office, and then headed straight back out to the field to visit another four clients. That evening I met a friend (a girl from home who is traveling around South East Asia) for dinner and could not stop talking about my experiences. It’s hard to explain exactly how I felt. A part of me was depressed – actually seeing with my own eyes how people live was a moving experience. But more than anything I feel that I have seen something I had to see – heard a story that that had to be told. Furthermore, I was not just going to the slums to see how awful they were; I was going to visit people whose lives had been better – to a greater or lesser extent – by the small bit of money that had been leant to them. That night, my friend and I had dinner in a rooftop restaurant filled with tourists and ex-pats, which floated serenely above the dusty chaos in the city below. It felt a million miles from the Phnom Penh I had seen that day.

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