Just another normal adventure in a rental car

Here is a little personal reflection I wrote up about traveling to Battambang and MRO’s need for a new car. We are currently fundraising for one on the GlobalGiving platform and are participating in #GivingTuesday, an opportunity to raise additional funds for this car. If you read this on Tuesday, December 1, 2020, please consider donating. If you are reading this after December 1, 2020. Have no fear, you can still donate.

There is a term for motorcycles and cars that are barely functional here in Cambodia.  We call them “Frankensteins”.  They are held together with shottie welding, duck tape, and prayers.  I remember one time, I took my friend’s motorcycle to get it’s air filter replaced only to find out my friend’s motorcycle didn’t even have an air filter.  The space where an air filter would be instead had a surgical face mask zip-tied in place.  Stuff like this is common in Cambodia and rental cars are no different.

Visiting one of the families affected by the flooding.

Recently, the MRO team was assisting families affected by the terrible flooding in northern Cambodia’s Battambang province.  Since all three MRO cars were already in use, a Social Worker and myself took a rental car for the eight-hour journey on bumpy Cambodian roads and through flooded streets.  (The Government actually shut down the stretch of highway we traveled on the following day due to the overwhelming flooding).

Being in a rental car for eight hours gave me a lot of time to reflect on how risky domestic travel can be in Cambodia.  This minivan was a perfect example of a Cambodian Frankenstein.  The front passenger seat had been removed and replaced with another rear passenger two-seater.  Allowing the driver to add an additional passenger.  My own seat had also been replaced at some point, but the original seat belt was still in place.  This meant instead of being a true safety device, this seat belt was a death trap – the sash part cut across my collar bone, nearly choking me, and instead of across my waist, the lap belt went across the side of my kidneys.  Since it was made for a different seat and sat further back than my seat (which was soldered in place) the safety release wasn’t operating properly.  I was essentially trapped in my death trap and ended up doing what most Khmer people do remove my seat belt for the majority of our eight-hour ride through flooded streets.

Using a back seat as a front seat.

Traffic accidents are a major issue in Cambodia, in a 2010 World Health Organization report states that every day three people in Cambodia die from road accidents and an additional 100 people are injured.  As more cars and trucks have been imported into this country over the past decade these numbers continue to rise.  The annual cost of traffic accidents is $116 million USD, more than 3% of the nation’s GDP.  Traffic accidents account for more than 50% of hospital admissions.  Traffic accidents kill more people than malaria, dengue, or small explosives (UXO land mines).  The two major causes of traffic accidents are speeding and driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.  The saying here is “It’s not if you get in an accident, but when.”

Personally, I’m part of this statistic, in November 2019, I was in a non-work-related, motorcycle accident that resulting in breaking my tibia and fibula.  I spent a night in a Cambodian hospital before being medically evacuated to Thailand for surgery.  One year later, I’m healed, but very aware of how close anyone in Cambodia is to be a statistic of a traffic-related accident.

It’s hard for one to truly articulate how bumpy Cambodia roads can be.  Imagine using a country gravel road as a two-way highway, add some massive potholes, the size that could easily be as big as a small car, add motorcycles, cars, and bikes, joining traffic the right way (or wrong way) with no warning, and fasters cars and trucks overtaking one another.  That is a pretty good idea of the chaos that is Cambodian travel.  With 50% of the roads hard-surfaced, all-weather, and in good conduction.  Most roads are crushed stone, secondary roads are just unimproved dirt, and little more than motorcycle or cow tracks.  If you are in a rental car of unknown maintenance, it can be a very uncomfortable ride, and depending on the shocks and the tread of the tires an unsafe one during flooding.

Driving via flooded highways.

On top of the physical safety aspect of local travel.  Due to COVID-19, MRO needs to also be aware of exposure and spreading of the disease.  Taking a rental car or riding a bus increases the risk of exposure.  With Cambodia’s borders being closed to tourists (accounting for roughly 28% of national GPD) and factories being closed or working at a limited capacity (about 31% of GDP), many people are eager for work and the opportunity to provide an income for themselves and their families.  Renting a car and driver opens MRO up to more chances of exposure to the COVID-19 virus.  As we don’t know the health of the driver, nor who they have transported within in the last two weeks.  At MRO, we keep logs of everyone who uses our cars for contact tracing.  Who was in the car, where did they travel to, etc.  On top of that, the need to provide financially for families during pandemic times will force those who are sick to continue to work when they should be at home resting.  Our driver to Battambang was sniffling and coughing for the entire eight-hour drive.  I ended up putting on my personal masks for the entire ride as the only way to protect myself from the driver’s illness while trapped in a small box for eight-hours.  Thankfully, neither myself nor the MRO Social Worker became ill, but the “what ifs” weighed heavy on my heart.

What if we had gotten ill?

What if we had had an at-risk child with us?

What if we had exposed at-risk communities to this illness?

Another thing to consider is the overall sanitation of the rental cars.  When you own a work car, you can take it to be fumigated with a surface disinfectant that kills the COVID-19 virus, or we can manually clean the cars and wipe down all the touched surfaces of the car.  In a rental, none of these options are available to us.  Mystery stains are a part of life in Cambodia but can be increasingly alarming during a pandemic outbreak.

Furthermore, we need to consider the financial costs of taking rental cars.  This trip cost us $70 (one way).  If MRO completes 178 annual missions at the cost of this trip, our rental costs are $24,920.  At this rate, MRO could have saved for a new $50,000 car in just two years.  About half the cost of the new car we are trying to buy.  (It should be noted that not all missions cost this much, some can be completed within a day and thus would only cost $70).  In the last two and a half years, MRO has spent over $30,000 in rental car costs.

The team that came together to support these 64 families affected by flooding.

Here is just how one trip to a province in Cambodia to provide care for 64 at-risk families highlight’s MRO’s massive need for a brand new car.  I hope these observations, help you to reflect on the possibility of supporting MRO in its goal of purchasing a new car for the safety of orphans and vulnerable children, but also for the safety of our staff and their families as well.  If you are interested in joining us in making this goal a reality soon, please donate here: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/help-khmer-social-workers-care-for-foster-children/ and tell your friends.

Using the GlobalGiving platform, MRO is participating in #GivingTuesday, which was created in 2012 as a “global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.” GlobalGiving is celebrating #GivingTuesday with a $1 Million Incentive Fund, that will distribute proportionally based on final fundraising totals. Every project that activates donors will earn something, and the projects that bring in the most dollars will win the largest portion of the Incentive Fund.

Reading this update AFTER #GivingTuesday? That is okay. GlobalGiving is offering a 200% match on all new monthly donations set up between December 14 – December 18, 2020. New monthly donations that start during this Monthly Donor Drive will be matched at 200% up to $200 per donor, per project. They must remain active for three months after the initial donation to qualify for the match.

Have questions? Want to get more involved? Please let me know. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading this article and considering donating.

Much love from MRO.

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