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Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Don't read this

I consider that death is the greatest taboo of humanity. We never mention it. No one ever dies we simply 'pass away'. Most religions cater to our fear of death by telling us that death is not the end. While the Buddha told us that everything that exists is impermanent and has no soul, Buddhists still cling to the notion of rebirth.

I intensely dislike euphemisms. When I was editing at Tzu Chi an article mentioned someone's 'passing away'. I took it up with the head of publishing. 'We are Buddhists. The Buddha taught that everything that exists is impermanent. Why are we afraid to say that this person died?'

The publisher agreed with my argument from a Buddhist perspective but she wouldn't change it. 'It is very strong in our Chinese culture. We have difficulty with the word "death".'

Am I different or is it a male thing? Do other men fear death because I feel I don't.

As a young man I dated a colleague whose sister was studying psychology. One night she gave a few of us a psychology test based on Freudian symbolism. It was a narrative and you had to say what you would do in various situations. 'You are going down a narrow laneway. At the end there is a high brick wall, what do you do?'

Without hesitating I responded, 'Climb over it.'

Apparently the wall represented death and according to my girlfriend's sister not many people responded as I did.

In my lifetime I have faced death on three occasions, the first at the age of 17. What I mean by this is that I reached a point where I thought, 'This is it. I am about to die.' Obviously death rejected me each time. The point is that on each occasion I was 100% calm about the situation.

I don't say this to make out that I have any special quality. I have my fears. I would fear living if it meant living in severe pain. Death would be my preference.

So, what about you? Anyone game to comment on this one?


Wednesday, December 12, 2007



'...at the bottom of the cliff there was another pile of garbage. And we decided that one big pile is better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up we decided to throw ours down.'

from Alice's Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie
©1966, 1967 (Renewed) by Appleseed Music Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Fly-tipping is an English expression that, to my knowledge, has not yet reached Australia. Wikipedia defines it as: '...illegally dumping waste somewhere other than an authorized landfill. It is the illegal deposit of any waste onto land, i.e., waste dumped or tipped on a site with no licence to accept waste.'

I first heard the expression when a photo on one of my flickr pages (see link on sidebar) was invited to be placed in a group for photos of fly-tipping. Returning to Cambodia, I felt the streets of Phnom Penh were a wonderful resource for photos for the group. I took a few shots and offered them to the group. A group administrator replied: 'This is not exactly flytipping. This is a market. This kind of rubbish is regularly collected and it is piled up in that agreed expectation. Yes it looks untidy but there's a civil contract here between those who pile up the rubbish and those who collect it. Not flytippng! '

I would like to clarify the situation regarding litter in Cambodia as I see it. I'm not sure what the legal situation is but if there are laws against littering or the dumping of rubbish they do not appear to be enforced. It seems to me that in the minds of most Cambodians, any public place is a suitable place to dispose of one's waste. Bins are a rarity. Who needs them? The street is the appropriate place to drop your rubbish. Don't carry it anywhere. Leave it right where you are.

This is not a market area. This is a tourist area. This is what the streets of Phnom Penh look like. Someone starts the pile and others add to it. I took the photo in the early afternoon. The pile will probably continue to grow until it's collected, perhaps during the night.

When I first visited Phnom Penh I thought that no one ever swept the footpaths. I was wrong. One morning I had reason to walk the streets early in the morning and saw many storekeepers sweeping in front of their shops. It didn't make a lot of difference. Within a few hours the paths were as littered as they were the day before.

In Kompong Chhnang it is no different. When I first visited I soon made a few friends. I had bought some food that came in a wrapper. After I'd been carrying the wrapper for a few blocks looking for a bin, one of my friends took it from me and dropped it on the ground. Another group of friends took me climbing a local mountain and they packed lunch. All the wrappings were left behind on the mountain.

Yes, there is some sort of garbage collection from the streets of Phnom Penh and from the market area of Kompong Chhnang but I never see either place looking particularly clean or tidy. There is no home garbage collection here in Kompong Chhnang. People either bury or burn it, or dump it in the street.

I try to dispose of my waste responsibly. It does take a little effort and care. Organic matter I bury in an area I've designated as a future garden. I had considered making a compost bin but figured it would take too long for me to fill it by myself. I also have a dog that eats some of my food scraps. The future garden is below my side verandah and convenient for disposal of water from washing so anything I plant should grow. Any plastic materials that can be recycled I leave outside my gate. There are scavengers who collect it to sell. It doesn't stay for long. Other plastics, such as bags, I bury which I assume is more environmentally friendly than burning. Please tell me if I'm wrong. As much as possible I try to reuse bags and discourage the market vendors from giving me fresh ones. When shopping I try not to buy goods with excessive packaging but even in Cambodia that is difficult.

When I talk to people about littering they ask why it matters. I point out that rubbish heaps encourage rodents and cockroaches that spread diseases. However, I must say that I see more cockroaches in homes in Brisbane than in Cambodia despite Brisbane's cleanliness and pesticide use.

Will the situation ever change? I really don't know. I try not to lecture people too much preferring to practise 'be the change you want to see'.

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Monday, December 10, 2007


Buying a job

I go to daily Khmer lessons with a young woman who is capable and intelligent. While chatting, Esther mentioned a particular organization that for the sake of this blog we shall call XYZ. Esther said she would love to work for XYZ but she didn't know if she had the right qualifications and if she did she couldn't afford to pay the bribe that would be required by the interviewer.

I was shocked. I am aware that paying a bribe to get a job is commonplace here in Cambodia and also Vietnam. In fact, while I was in Vietnam I watched a movie that told of the challenges a young woman faced when she was refused a job that she had qualified for because she either couldn't or wouldn't pay a bribe to the interviewer. In this didactic movie the young woman set up her own business, faced the challenges—yes the interviewer comes back later in the story and attempts to sabotage her efforts—and eventually succeeds. The fact that such a movie was made, perhaps by a government film studio, shows that this practice is endemic in Vietnam. This is also the case in Cambodia.

But XYZ is a huge international NGO. If I mentioned its name, you would more than likely be quite familiar with it. I expressed to Esther my shock that such an organization would allow such practices to take place. I went on to say, that if she applied for a job with that organization and was refused a job that she would otherwise have got because she couldn't or wouldn't pay a bribe then I would be prepared to take the matter to the head of the organization in Cambodia and if that didn't result in the interviewer being sacked that I would take it to the international media and that it would be very embarrassing for XYZ.

Esther then backed down and said she had to admit she had no knowledge of this practice within XYZ. This was simply her expectation. I assured her that the international reputation of XYZ was far too important for them to allow such practices to take place and that if they advertised a job she was interested in and qualified for she should apply in confidence that she would be able to win the job without having to pay a bribe.

The point I want to make is that it is the expectation of this practice that makes potential job applicants give up before they even start. Why apply if you are not going to get the job anyway?

How it works, so I'm told, is that the usual interview process takes place and the best person for the job is selected. They are offered the job on condition of payment of the bribe which is an amount equal to one or two months salary. If the best applicant can't or won't pay the bribe, the offer is made to the second best and so on down the line. Perhaps it is the sixth best applicant who finally comes up with the money. Can you imagine what this does to the efficiency and effectiveness of government and other agencies where this is practised?

I go back to my point that many potential applicants give up before they even start. Why apply if you can't afford to buy the job? There is a similar belief when it comes to applying for a scholarship. 'Why bother?' said a very intelligent student of mine. 'All the scholarships will go to students who have family working in the education department.' This may or may not be true. The point is that it is believed and young people who have much potential give up and waste their lives doing something way below their ability.

Until countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam rid themselves of such practices they will never reach their full potential.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Thoughts on getting older

I recently turned 60 which came as a bit of a shock to me as I still like to think I act more like a 30 year old. I remember back in the sixties there was a slogan: Never trust anyone over 30. This sounded pretty good to me until one day Bob Dylan turned 30. He is much older than I am but at the time I thought, 'Well if we can't trust Dylan, who can we trust?' Of course the whole thing had to go right out the window once I turned 30 myself.

I thought I'd accepted the Buddha's teaching that all that exists is impermanent and subject to change. Yeah, I've been changing all these sixty years but there is a part of me that still wants to be thirty. Am I attached to that? Perhaps.

Eventually I came to terms with the possibility that some time in the next 20 years or so this being known as 'John Shield' whom I identify as my self will cease to exist. Obviously I don't know when this will happen but the one certainty is that it will. And there is nothing I can do about it!

Well, there is nothing I can do about dying. But I can do something about living until that day comes. I can choose to live life to the full. Why waste a day? Hopefully I can regularly remind myself to never miss an opportunity and to make the most of those that are offered to me. I'm not sure this will make any huge differences to my life. Simply I look forward to continuing to live, ie really live, as long as I can, to continue to experience life and to not seeing these years as ones when I slow down in wait for the imminent arrival of death.

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