Saturday, June 22, 2013

Owning A Dog

Owning a dog in Cambodia shouldn’t be any different from owning one in any Western country, or so you might think.

In most Western countries, dogs are considered an extension of the family and are sometimes treated just as well as the children. The basic difference in Cambodia is, at least in my experience, that a dog is just a dog here, although owning one has become somewhat of a status symbol among the emerging middle and upper middle class. They do treat them as pets but nowhere near like a member of the family. The most striking difference appears to me that dogs here don’t get any real training. People just let them out to do their business unsupervised. In other words, no one cleans up after them. Parks, the few there are, look accordingly. Especially the smaller dogs, but not only the, seem to be real vicious.  They attack just about any other dog. This is the result of being kept in a rather small confine the whole day.

The dog population is huge judging from the many stray dogs running around everywhere, scavenging food from wherever they can find it. These dogs often end up with the dog catcher who will sell them to Vietnam or ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese here for food. There people consider it a normal staple, even a delicacy.

But in the more tony neighborhoods people seem to take pride in owning a pure-bred or a woolly smaller breed, which more often than not is just another mongrel in my book. Then, of course, you have the people that go for a real guard-dog. The German shepherd and the Rottweiler are the breeds of choice. I got the feeling that most people in those gated communities own a dog as an alarm system, never mind that you have the so-called guards who patrol the neighborhood at certain intervals. In my ‘borei’ this has not prevented burglars from entering one house getting away with a $10,000 loot, and struck the same house three times with varying success, but still up to a $1,000 each time. The irony was that these people had two dogs – one a lap dog and one a pretty aggressive larger mongrel. The burglar climbed the surrounding wall and then onto the second floor veranda and entered a daughter’s room via the open window. So much for guarding the house and protecting your property.

What bothered me most was that dogs, practically all of them, bark when someone passes by their house. The houses all have front yard with a fence. Since there are so many dogs in the neighborhood you really have a concert going at times – not really a nice interlude in the middle of the night. It got better when the aggressive dog that was also giving to howling at night was gone when the owners obviously got too many complaints.

Well, we have a house on a rather large lot in the countryside near Kompong Som. It is pretty isolated so my wife used to feel a little uncomfortable at night. Never mind that we have a caretaker there, not to forget myself. When her discomfort got too big we decided we needed a dog ourselves – a guard dog, of course. My choice fell on a Rottweiler. They are powerfully muscled dogs and look absolutely fearsome. But they are excellent guard dogs and very protective of their pack; the pack being us. I chose this breed with a little trepidation knowing that these animals have a reputation for being aggressive. But then it all depends on how you raise and train the puppy.

We found one expat breeder who was going to have his bitch mated in a couple a months. When he notified us we thought about it again and decided to forgo getting a dog. We wouldn’t have the time to train it properly, traveling overseas quite a bit.

One time, there were some strange sounds at night and my wife got frightened. She then said we do need to get a dog. As it happens just then I saw an ad for Rottweiler puppies. This was also an expat who had his bitch mated. You just can’t help but fall in love with little puppies.  Here is ours.

 Unfortunately, he didn’t stay with us very long. We kept him in our house in Phnom Penh. Like everywhere else people keep their trash outside for the garbage company to pick it up. This is a great feeding ground for rats, as you can imagine. There were plenty around, and they weren’t really shy either. What we didn’t know was that their urine contains bacteria called leptospirosis. We were right in the middle of the rainy season. So naturally the puppy licked up water from the front yard. This was obviously contaminated and he infected himself. We and the vet didn’t recognize this immediately, we had him treated for stomach flu. These bacteria attack the liver and eventually it will stop working. So after only three weeks our little puppy died.

We thought we really didn’t want another dog now. But after a few weeks we changed our minds and went looking for another one. Finding a Rottweiler puppy in Cambodia isn’t that easy. We contacted a local breeder who said she had very nice German Shepherd and Rottweiler cross-breed. We checked them out. The place didn’t look too inviting and the puppies looked really unkempt and uncared for. Still we bought one who looked closest to a Rottweiler, although you never know how they turn out once they are six months or a year old.

After washing and brushing him here is what he looked like:

 We keep him with us all the time for the time being, that is, we take him to Kompong Som when we go there and keep him in Phnom Penh when we are there. We didn’t bother housebreaking him either. He stays outside night and day. We just cleaned up after him. Eventually we started taking him out for walks – I guess he was about 3 months old then. Keeping to a certain routine our puppy got used to his walks at certain times of the day and this is how he got housebroken, meaning he doesn’t do his business in our front yard  any more, except for the occasional pee after a long night. He had become a very nice companion for the entire family – a very quiet dog. He didn’t bark at all. Of course, that would come later on, as we were to find out. When we take him for walk we take a plastic bag and clean up after him.

We have this small park in our neighborhood; it is full of dog piles. When people saw us picking up our dog’s pile they looked on with big eyes. They had obviously never seen such a thing. Although there supposedly was a campaign to that effect, no one seems to have heard of it. They handle this like they handle trash in general, which they simply drop wherever they are. So why bother with a dog’s pile?

He is now 8 months and, of course, he picked up this nasty habit of barking at passers-by, much to my dismay. He also does that early in the morning when other dogs return home from their morning walk (as mentioned, most people just let their dogs wander about by themselves). This noise woke me up so I put up a small wooden fence to the backyard where he stays at night. This way he couldn’t see the people or the dogs. The barking in the morning stopped. We are still working on the daytime barking. Of course, one mustn’t forget that this is in a dog’s nature. It’s his natural instinct  to protect his territory, and after all that’s what we bought him for.

The house in Kompong Som is walled in so he will only bark at people whom he doesn’t know coming through the gate.  So far, however, we still have to protect him, though, especially from other very aggressive and mean dogs that are likely to fight viciously with everything that comes close. After all, he is still a puppy; and there is always the risk of a rabies infection from those stray dogs.

These larger breeds grow very quickly but it takes them longer to develop all their natural instincts and drives. His sex drive seems to be fully developed already, though. He chases after all the females in heat and goes crazy. Here he is 7 months old:

For those who want to know: we paid $500 for the pure-bred Rottweiler, and $200 for mix. When the first puppy got sick we took him to Agrovet, a vet clinic run by two Frenchmen, and a Spanish vet. We also had his second shots administered there. Price tag: $60 for the shots, $80 for the first treatment against the infection with an overnight stay; $120 for the second treatment with an overnight stay, and the cost for the cremation after he died. Nothing but the best for a pure-bred dog.

With the second puppy we went to a Khmer vet (there are plenty around). Cost for a shot: $5; another shot for multiple kinds of protection: $15.00; and a third shot including a can of anti-itching spray: $10. The dog is healthy and strong.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

It Was to Be Expected

Election campaigns are never clean. The American advocacy groups and political action committees are masters of bending the truth, lying outright, throwing mud at the opponent, and trying to bury him/her along the way. These committees are especially formed for election campaigns in the U. S. Many Western countries have adopted the same methods, including Britain, Germany, and to some extent France (as far as I know).

The committees dig up dirt wherever they can to use it against the respective opponent. No party is immune from this. Some of it is really beyond the pale. Back in the 2004 campaign one such group maintained that the Democratic candidate then, John Kerry (the current Secretary of State), had not commanded a gun boat heroically in the Vietnam War when there was clear evidence to the contrary. They accused of him of lying about his war record. Or more recently, many will remember the birth certificate affair that has been hounding Barack Obama to this day. Some fools still claim he is not a U. S. born citizen. These are just two of the more egregious examples of campaigning in the U.S.

Of course, no one can expect that election campaigns would be better or cleaner in countries like Cambodia, which is practically run like a personal property of and by the party in power. With the overwhelming majority this party holds in the Assembly it is virtually a one-party state. Funcinpec with its one seat in the Assembly and a coalition partner with the ruling CPP looks more like a freeloader than an active and decisive political force. They might even disappear from the scene after this election, not that anyone would miss them.

Then we have the newly formed CNRP – Cambodian National Rescue Party. What I think of them I wrote in a previous post. Not that it would matter greatly in the current constellation, but nevertheless some CPP lawmaker thought up a fine way of getting rid of them in the Assembly altogether. He maintained that since the deputies who were elected as members of the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party and had now switched over to this new CNRP they have no right to keep their seats in the assembly as the CNRP did not take part in the previous election and hence cannot be represented in the Assembly. Strictly speaking, this might be true, at least for the members that were elected by proportionate vote. The ones that were elected directly can switch parties whenever they like, I think; they can become an independent member, although probably without the right to speak, but still with the right to vote. The idea gained steam and was promptly adopted. So all SRP and HRP members all of sudden found themselves without seat and salary, much to their chagrin. In a way it is a complete farce, not worthy of a democracy. I don’t think they did themselves a favor, but then we Westerners think differently. Needless to say, this was heavily criticized in the West, prompting the government to rebuke the U. S. State Department for meddling in its internal affairs.

Apart from that little ‘ruse’ to thwart the opposition’s work, the CPP singled out Kem Sokha to weaken his already fragile position even more. After many years a woman came forward to claim she lived with Kem Sokha and they had adopted two children. After a while he stopped paying her support. This cast a real bad light on Kem Sokha but this is surely no rarity in Cambodia where mistresses are practically the norm with middle-aged men with the means to afford one. Most certainly, this affair coming to light at this point in time was just a coincidence, right? This rather common story was played up in the CPP-oriented media in order to stoke outrage in people for such ‘amoral behavior’.

The prime minister weighed in by calling on Kem Sokha to solve the matter swiftly. He then went on to explain that he once helped a high-ranking opposition member from going to jail who had tried to pay for sex with a 15-year old virgin. He did not mention who it was so the public was left to infer and speculate.

Together with that Tuol Sleng fiasco the leading candidate did not cut such a great figure. Again, the prime minister publicly called on him to apologize or the masses would come out and demonstrate against him. He didn’t, and promptly there was a sizable demonstration at the Tuol Sleng site.

This all goes under the motto ‘Throw enough mud and some of it will stick’. In other countries the candidates themselves refrain from hurling insults at their opponents. Those action committees will do the job for them. But here the prime minister, not one to stay above the fray to begin with when it comes to choosing words, stooped to get involved personally by ridiculing Kem Sokha. That’s not very statesman-like, now is it? Isn’t that a role he apparently likes to play so much?

Of course, Kem Sokha is an amateur in the political arena; his populist pronouncements like the promise of a $25 pension for all retired people sounds so ridiculous that only the most naïve people would believe this. Unfortunately, the majority of the people fall into that category.

But the CPP must somehow intrinsically fear that this new party despite its many weaknesses and shortcomings might gain broader support among the population to break their two-thirds majority that they resort to these kinds of tactics. Or perhaps, they think it is all good fun and a sport for them?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

To Lend or Not To Lend Money

Many Cambodians perceive foreigners as having money -  money to spend and money to lend. This manifests itself in the facts that the tourist gets his money taken by inflated tuk-tuk prices, at the Russian Market, also known as Tuol Tumpung Market, or elsewhere. Some expatriates get fleeced by bar-girls, or drink it away. In general, I would think it is a huge misconception.

However, if you have lived here for while and acquired either friends or possibly even a family (family being the greater family with once and twice removed folks as well) you will sooner or later be approached for a loan. So, you guessed it, I was the target for several  supplications to help out with people’s finances.

The first instance happened when I still lived stateside. One day my wife got a call from her uncle. That was some big expense for them, being poor folks, so it must be urgent. Of course, it was. They were in danger of losing their modest house. The bank threatened to take it away from them if they didn’t come up with the balance of their ‘home loan’ within a few days. It was some micro-finance  establishment. The balance was all of $2,500. If you don’t have any money this is a lot. They had obviously failed to make their monthly payments for some time. Who could turn these poor people away? So I agreed to lend them the money. They promised to pay it back as soon as their son who lived in Canada would be in a position to send them more every month.

Once we had relocated to Cambodia permanently they came to live with us for a while. As it happens many a time, we had a falling out and they moved back into their little house in Siem Reap. I drew a up a loan agreement, but being the ever-generous person, I did not include a term for the loan. It is interest-free to boot. Needless to say after that falling out, we never heard back from them and I guess I can kiss my money good-by. I also learned that they had used the original loan from the bank to extend micro-loans themselves but grossly miscalculated the risks and promptly lost those funds to ‘non-performing’ loans.

Another time, also still in the U. S., we got a call from a niece once removed. They asked for $5,000 which they needed to buy a car. They had $5,000 of their own. They wanted to use the car as a taxi. At that time you could hire just about any car with driver for $10 to $20 a day. On one of my visits I found out that they had bought the car already and gotten that $5,000 from a private person. They paid $200 a month in interest, which would translate into 100% interest. I could understand that they wanted to change that. As these people were not really in an emergency I advised them to go to a bank, e. g. ACLEDA, which makes car loans up to 40% of the value of the car. My friend even knew the loan officer and opened the door for them. When we asked them later what had happened they said they hadn’t dared to go to the bank. Also, since I had thought the business was a little shaky, I later learned that it was really going bad and they wanted to sell that car again. I would never have seen that money again.

The uncle’s son (divorced) in Canada was next to hit me up. He had been to Cambodia the year before and met a traditional Khmer dancer and wanted to get married. The problem was his business in Canada wasn’t going that great. He had made a big mistake with his divorce as the distribution of property left the wife with two houses, he got the business. The wife sold the houses at a good price and moved to Cambodia where she built a number of condos and rented them successfully. He, however, saw his sweat shop in Canada competing with imports from Cambodia, which sort of pulled the rug out from under him. In the end he didn’t have the funds to travel to Cambodia and hold that expensive wedding ceremony. He asked for $5,000 (this seems to be amount people think they can get easily). Remembering his uncle and his promise based on his son’s income I politely declined mentioning other capital intensive business. The wedding was a great success but he lost money – from what I heard from his father about $5,000. He had borrowed $10,000 from other people. They are still waiting for their money. The irony in this story was that once he got back to Canada he seemed to forget about his new wife because he didn’t contact her for months. He promised to send for her but needed money for the attorneys to prepare all the papers, etc. In the end, the wife lost patience and divorced him. The whole thing was done Cambodian style with no official paperwork, just the wedding ceremony. Am I glad I didn’t loan that $5,000.

Next up was one of my wife’s nephews. She has quite a lot of nephews and nieces. He had borrowed $300 before for a new car engine, which he indeed paid back more or less promptly. Now he also  had wedding plans; never mind that he was still in college and made a living as a part-time tuk-tuk driver. He did own a car, a tuk-tuk , and a bicycle, all of which he rented. The timing was essential as he had a competitor whose parents had also been in touch with the bride’s parents.  To me it looked more like a wedding out of hurt pride than of love. Anyway, he needed  $3,000 to pay for the preparations of the ceremony. Of course, he hoped that he would get that money back from the table money people give at weddings. As additional collateral he offered the next harvest of cassava, which he said was a dead-sure thing moneywise. Prices were at a very good level and he stood to make about $10,000 from that harvest.

I have a thing about Khmer reliability when it comes to paying money back. I suggested he wait with his wedding until he has finished his studies and found a job. But as anyone can imagine, that fell on deaf ears. I said I am not going to pay for his wedding this way. He needed to find another solution, e. g. sell his car. This is what he did in the end. It didn’t get him the needed $3,000 but only $2,500. The party was also a great success; unfortunately, he too lost money. At least his father-in-law was of some means, so not to worry.

Another time, I was to shell out $10,000 for some small hotel that someone we know wanted to build in Kratie. He had bought the land and now needed to run everything through the authorities. That’s what he needed the money for. He has a gentleman from the U. S. who is backing him in this. He will fund the whole thing; the catch, though, is that this gentleman still needs to sell his house in the U. S. The proceeds were to go into this project. The Khmer guy promised to pay me back after one month – the time it would take to sell the house. He sure doesn’t know the U. S. housing market. Needless to say, I again politely declined.

Of course, it is quite common that employees ask for an advance if there is some unforeseen circumstance. I usually reject those too; because his family will go hungry the next month. If it is one thing the average people here (and probably elsewhere too) don’t have the slightest clue of, it is that they don’t know how to manage money. Many people in the West, especially in the U.S., overspend, max out their credit cards, or take out second mortgages to fund extravagant purchases, but at least there is a developed consumer oriented financial industry, which is virtually non-existent here. So people better not spend the money they don’t have. It usually doesn’t end well.