Sleep Below the Line

What $2 accommodation looks like

What $2 accommodation looks like

When people talk about extreme poverty and living on US$1.25 a day, that figure has to cover food, drink, transport, accommodation, medication, education, and all living expenses. My beloved Live Below the Line somewhat covers the food and drink element, but doesn’t even attempt to tackle the other facets. That’s no indictment on the campaign; its purpose is not to push Australians into poverty, but to give participants a small insight into some of the challenges faced by the 1.2 billion people worldwide living in extreme poverty.

Over the past year, I must have dished out the above taglines hundreds of times. But telling people about the unfathomable realities of extreme poverty doesn’t make the issue any easier to understand.

Since arriving in Cambodia a week ago, I still can’t claim to understand extreme poverty in any tangible way. But much like the $2-a-day food challenge I take every year, each day brings with it new insights and reflections on this deep and complicated global issue.

Aircrafts aren’t particularly luxury vessels when it comes to comfort, but in this case provide an interesting contrast. One minute I was flying through the skies on arguably humankind’s most advanced piece of technology. The next minute I was lying in a $2-a-head dorm, where the only thing separating me from dengue fever was a thin mosquito net. Meanwhile, a rock-hard pillow and a potentially bed-bug laden mattress were the only things between me and a decent sleep.

It may sound a tad snobbish for me to complain about budget accommodation when most tourists would do anything to find a cheap bed in a major city. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say the four nights in which my tour group stayed in this guest house were rough. The first two nights were particularly difficult as I faced a level humidity I’ve haven’t slept with in years.

What I found most confronting, however, was the minimal level of security. I’m aware that petty theft is an issue regardless of what country you are backpacking in, but sleeping in this shared dorm with no doors or locks made me feel uneasy. The “security room” didn’t offer me any comfort either; the ease in which I was able to retrieve my bag from the room was farcical. Personally, the liberal attitudes of the employees – who didn’t need to see my ticket, ID or any sort of booking confirmation – worked in my favour. But hypothetically anybody could have walked into that room, pointed at my bag, and earned themselves a free laptop, stack of US dollars, camera, and passport.

I make these observations not so much to whinge about my hotel or to generalise about Cambodian people, but to draw parallels between my temporary experience and those who spend their lives surviving on a small budget. For people living in extreme poverty, compromise is the name of the game. If you need medication, you might have to go a day without food. If you want clean water, you might have to walk an extra mile. And if you want to save money on accommodation, you may have to give up some security and comfort.

Much like Living Below the Line, the thing that makes Sleeping Below the Line bearable is the fact that only one variable has changed. Even thousands of kilometres away from home, I had access to free internet, chocolate pancakes, paracetamol, and on-demand transport (coming in the form of tuk tuks). This realisation sunk in a few days later, when my group slept in homestays in a rural Mekong River village. Here we lost another two variables in cooling and light, two things I didn’t even realise were necessities until they were gone.

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A typical rural Cambodian home

By the fourth night in our shoddy hostel, I had become used to massacring mosquitoes every time I entered the bathroom and chasing Zs on my sweaty mattress. But I wonder what it must be like for those who have known this kind of living their whole life. Is horrible accommodation always horrible or is it all relative? Do people adjust to discomfort and embrace it, or do they long for a proper bed each night? Do people living in poverty simply get used to it after a while?

I don’t have any of the answers to these questions yet, and I’m not sure if I will find them. What I do know for certain about is that poverty is not easy. I don’t need to diet on $2 for five days or sleep in the world’s cheapest dorm to learn that. I see it and hear it in small depressing doses: when my minibus passes by a half-clothed child on the side of the road fishing through the grass for food scraps; or when five-year-old kids incessantly plead my friends and I to buy dirt-cheap jewellery for money we know won’t end up in their hands.

That would be depressing note to end on, but thankfully that’s not where the story finishes. Already my volunteer group has met representatives from NGOs who are making a real difference in Cambodia. We’ve met people who’ve dedicated their lives to digging up landmines, protecting the country’s environment, providing welfare and jobs for people with disabilities, and raising children up to be community leaders. These are the people who will reduce the number of Cambodians living and sleeping below the line, and that’s something to be excited about.

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