October 10, 2016

Egg-Venture: HILLtribe Driving

Our weekend adventures in Northern Thailand are rarely dull, especially the Egg-ventures.

Egg the cat causes quite a stir when he walks on his leash with us in national parks and near Buddhist temples. As if a couple of foreigners weren’t being weird enough already, here they come with a cat on a leash.

Egg missed out on Saturday’s adventure because we couldn’t find him when it was time to leave, but he got quite an adventure on Sunday.

Our goal was fairly simple, Chiang Rai beach, which is a sandy spot at the edge of the Maekok River just outside of the city center. We had been there before. However, we saw some intriguing signs for a forest park and waterfall, so we decided to pass on the beach and explore a little deeper. The winding roads led us up into the hilly backcountry inhabited by Thais and members of various Hilltribes. These areas are rural and quite poor. The shoulderless roads are made of concrete, no more than about 12 feet wide, with about a 12 inch drop on either side into a drainage ditch to keep the rain under control. The densely forested hills require the already treacherous roads to be set at incredibly steep grades (30% maybe) with blind corners.

Ever the queasy stomach, I was hoping we would give up on the waterfall search after struggling up a steep hill, but we kept going, edging over the crest onto an even steeper downhill. To our right, thick bamboo and forest grew on the hill’s angle, while to our left, an ominous forest slope continued downward to the bottom of the valley. Egg was asleep in his cat carrier, a.k.a. “safety box” while I struggled to manage my nausea and the tight grip of my engaged seatbelt. About halfway down the hill, we stopped, realizing that the further we went, the further we’d have to claw our way back up in our 220,000 km manual transmission Isuzu truck. The emergency brake wasn’t even enough to keep us still on that gradient, so Alan found a tiny cut out of jungle that looked big enough to get turned around. He got us backed into the cut out, but the back wheels couldn’t get enough traction on the slippery forest floor to push the heavy front end. The intense whirr of spinning tires is always a stressful sound, and it reminded me instantly of long winters in Nebraska, getting stuck spinning on ice at the corner of 84th and Leighton. Or sliding through an intersection on Highway 2. Or a Sisyphean climb and slide to the bottom of the hill on Yaqui drive in Flagstaff.

The difference this time was that it was about 95 degrees and we were several miles from civilization in a country where neither of really speak the language (especially not the Hilltribe languages) on the steepest slope I’ve ever been on in a vehicle, with our cat now awake and worried.

I’ve seen Alan do some of the most amazing driving, especially in bad weather, tough roads, in traffic, and with a manual, but this was no easy task. But after a few unsuccessful tries to get the truck going, I could see he was worried.

Maybe I could help us get more traction. Some rocks perhaps. I got out of the truck. With no rocks in sight, I carefully unearthed a fallen bamboo branch and lodged it in front of the left rear tire. Trucks are rear-wheel drive apparently. Things you should know about your car before driving it...

With a surprisingly loud crack, the truck smashed the bamboo and rolled forward, but with so little road to work with in front of the truck due to the steep drop on the other side, the truck rolled back to its perpendicular predicament before it could make any useful progress. Stuck. Half on the concrete, half in the jungle mud.

While we were stopped there, a man on an old and rickety motorbike chugged by, with a load of freshly-cut green onion strapped to the back of his bike. He seemed unmoved by the farang in the truck. Putt putt putt up the hill with his onions.

Although I often have nightmares about having to drive backwards, I suggested to Alan that rather than fight with gravity in a manual trying to get turned around at this ridiculous point in the road, why not just do the hill in reverse?

Had I been alone in the car or if I were the one who had to get out of the situation, I might have just either (a) kept going on the hill and try to turn around at some point when the ground flattened out and hope that my first gear would be enough to get up the hill, or (b) thrown in the towel and taken up residence with the local hilltribe.

Alan though, a tough native Utah guy with lots of experience driving in the mountains, took the challenge. Egg and I clutched each other, eyes closed as Alan used incredible coordination to get us moving backward on a narrow road with little margin for error on either side. Despite the precarious road, we had to get speed to keep the engine from stalling. Each time we slowed too much, the kunk kunk kunk of the engine jerked the entire vehicle and Alan pressed hard on the brake to keep us from losing ground. Letting up the brake and flooring the gas as the he carefully let out the clutch, the diesel engine roared. Due to the incline, the view out the back of the truck was pretty much only sky, so Alan had to rely on side mirrors and expert coordination of which way to turn the wheel, lest we careen off the road into the jungly cliffs. Knowing that my anxiety would not be helpful, I held Egg tightly and thought about making it safely, trying to ignore Alan’s flip-flop wearing feet, just hoping they’d do the right thing at the right time. The idyllic lush green forest and late afternoon sunshine betrayed the very stressful situation we faced just to get us back to the crest of the hill, where a mercifully reasonable place to turn around awaited us. It took five laborious minutes of stalling and restarting to get about 300 meters.

Amazingly, we made it. Driving forward again seemed like a hard-won privilege, and we were all shaken up. Egg buried his face in my hands and clung to my lap. I think he wished he had taken Saturday’s adventure trip instead.

In the backcountry of Northern Thailand, adventure awaits on every concrete road, around every corner, and (midway) down every hill. I feel really lucky that, at least for now, I get to experience an adventurer’s life in such a beautiful place with my two favorite boys.

August 12, 2016

Once again living the (evolving) dream

When I set out to be a language teacher living abroad, I had some pretty grand ideas about what it would be like--exotic locations, strange fruits, some fame (though not much fortune). Throughout my master’s program, I developed what I thought were some impressive academic credentials in methodology, assessment, curriculum design, and even sociolinguistics. The professors told us that one day we’d probably be asked to give some workshops to train other teachers, local teachers.

Last night, pausing to savor the cool evening air, I stood barefoot on a bamboo bridge in the middle of Lake Phayao. The lake water lapped between the bamboo, gently wetting my feet with lukewarm water. The sun had set behind green hills far in the distance, casting a periwinkle glow in the sky and on the water. The bridge from the shore to the mid-lake island temple was lit by small white lights, a beautifully festive scene all around. Lilypads dotted the water nearer to the shore and light Thai music floated on the air from a nearby exercise court. I had to stop and try to absorb the incredible atmosphere that seemed to be straight out of my grand ideas of what teaching abroad would be like. I was, once again, living the dream.

I managed to ignore my preoccupation that I’d either contract a horrible parasite through some imperceptible opening in my foot, or that I’d flat out step on a nail on the delightfully ramshackle bridge. I had taken off my nearly brand new athletic shoes to prevent them from getting soaked by the murky lake water. The trade off of nail stepping for preserving new shoes seems pretty silly, but feeling the bamboo creak under my bare feet added to my experience, so the risk was tolerable.
The view from the bridge
Teachers from Phayao and Phrae

On the tiny island, subtle lights illuminated a tree covered in strips of orange cloth, each symbolizing the wish of someone who had tied it on. Some people knelt to pray nearby, while others reached for their selfie sticks to snap some photos overlooking the lake. The sound of a delicate gong divided moments between people’s prayers and others’ selfies. Children dropped coins into an old canoe filled with water and floating flower candles. High school students wandered onto the island clad in their uniforms with the unattractive shoes. Women in sparkling sandals had made the trip across the bridge unscathed. Men, ever protective of new sneakers, appeared from the bridge like me, barefoot and carrying their footwear.

Lacing my shoes back up after returning to dry land, I contemplated the choices I had made to get myself to this very interesting place in time. I also wondered where I could get some ice cream, or maybe some more of that sour mango with sugar and chili (strange fruit is everywhere here).

Although the bridge event in itself was worth the trip to Phayao, in the past three days, I can say that I got to live another one of my dreams. A doctoral candidate where I teach asked me to be a teacher trainer as part of her dissertation research. My task was to deliver a 12.5-hour workshop on pragmatics over the course of three days. I traveled with her to Phayao, Thailand to give the workshop at the university there. I instructed the teachers about some nuances of English use regarding speech acts such as compliments, refusals, and criticisms. We watched movie clips and did activities to practice what they were learning. It was intensely academic and a bit of a stretch for me, as I have been out of school for a few years. However, it was also very intellectually stimulating and invigorating for me. Teaching other teachers means that I can potentially impact hundreds of students' education. I hope that something I mentioned at the workshop helps a student somewhere down the line.

The teacher-trainer lifestyle has seemed very appealing for a long time because it includes the pleasant parts of teaching (e.g., motivated students and reward of students’ progress) without the drain (e.g., grading). Maybe it's worth investigating how I can do more cool stuff like this!

Teacher by day, bridge-goer by night. Seems like a good lifestyle to me.

July 17, 2016

Getting Healthy

I guess I haven't written in a while.

After indulging in too much curry and too much alcohol six weeks ago on Koh Lanta, I decided that it was time to make a few changes.

Alan and I gave up alcohol for Ramadan, which was surprisingly easy, and we saved a lot of money. A lot of calories, too.

I gave up coffee, which was actually quite hard. I substitute green tea, but it's not the same as a ritual. I loved making a french press of coffee first thing in the morning. And getting a pick-me-up iced Americano mid-morning. However, I think the caffeine was contributing to my general levels of stress, and I often felt a crash in the afternoon. It's harder to wake up without coffee, but the day, in general, goes more smoothly. I think it's worth it.

Alan challenged me to start running. His exact challenge was to start by running for three consecutive minutes and add one minute each day until you reach 20 minutes. Challenge accepted, met, and exceeded. In fact, today I ran for 34 minutes, which IF YOU'VE EVER KNOWN ME AT ALL you know is something I would never have done in the past. I have always hated running, and I literally had panic attacks about running-related gym classes or volleyball training from elementary school until high school (and beyond, kind of).

Now, I actually *look forward* to lacing up my shoes and sweating it out on the hills behind campus. I never thought I'd say that. I'm not fast, but I don't give up. My mantra is "you can go slowly, just don't stop," and it works. The best part about the running is that I get to feel a huge sense of accomplishment when I reach my goal every day. I feel a lot stronger mentally, knowing that I can persevere through times when I would have normally given up. Life metaphor much?

So, a lighter, less-caffeinated, jogger-ish person has emerged from my once-jittery shell. I've lost about 10 pounds and my resting heart rate has gone from 90 beats per minute to 50. Actually 46, which kind of freaked out the doctor. He said I have an "athlete's heart." Nice.

My stress level is more manageable with these lifestyle changes, and I feel like they are sustainable. Drink less alcohol and caffeine, do more cardio. Now, if I could just find time and energy to learn Thai...

June 7, 2016

Bread, Finally.

I’m sitting in a French-style café called Faim de Loup (hunger of the wolf, I guess) on Koh Lanta (Lanta Island). It’s a large island off the coast of Southern Thailand. It’s considered the laid-back island by comparison to other islands that prioritize partying. I’m not much of a partier, so this seemed like the right choice for an anniversary trip with my husband. The café serves freshly baked bread, croissants, cinnamon rolls, and baguettes. I feel like I’m getting a really special treat after my rice-based diet of the past year. Living in a somewhat un-touristy area of Thailand like Chiang Rai means that you don’t get much (good) bread. Vacationing in a tourist area offers a lot more variation in food, and wow did that ham and cheese sandwich go down easily!

From where I sit, I can see a line of motorbikes and motor-scooters. If you’ve never seen a motor-scooter like the ones that are absolutely everywhere in Thailand, it’s a fairly small machine that has a motor, two wheels, and a seat big enough for two (sometimes three) adults. The Thai motorbikes and scooters are often very gendered. The guys bikes, which I guess are motorcycles, are big, usually black or a very loud color, and have very angular shapes which seem to imitate muscles. The girl bikes, on the other hand are a little childish looking for my taste. They are often pink or pastel and decorated with cartoon characters and have weird slogans like “jeans lover” on them. The speedometer is often huge and in the center of the handlebars. The gauge goes up to 180 kilometer per hour, but I’ve never gone more than 80, and I don’t like going much over 40 on these rickety machines. Alan and I own one in Chiang Rai, a 135 cc Yamaha boy bike, so we are very used to riding motorbikes. The scooter we rented here is girly and only 115 cc, so it feels tiny and toy-ish by comparison. Especially on the steep island roads, it feels like we’ll never get to the top. We do of course.

Back at the café, I’m nearly finished with my “Americano” coffee. In less touristy places, I have to be very specific about my order. Americano, no sugar, no brown sugar, and please add a little milk. Thais love to make coffee super sweet using sugars, syrups, and even sweetened condensed milk. The result is a desert-like drink. Of course it’s delicious, but my teeth and waistline can’t handle it. However, in places frequented by westerners, like this café, my Americano automatically came out unsweetened and with a little carafe of milk to add as I please. It’s a luxury to be catered to in this way.

I’m nursing a shoulder sunburn, which has be sitting in the shade of the café, wearing a sports bra (and regular shirt, of course!) that doesn’t interfere with the burn. I’ve got bare feet under the table, because many businesses in Thailand ask you to leave your shoes at the door. It helps keep them cleaner, I suppose.
The bathroom at this café is good, though today the sink isn’t working--par for the course in Thailand. If the basic requirements for a restaurant bathroom in the US were: toilet paper, toilet seat, working sink, soap, and a hand dryer; in Thailand, you can pretty much count on having maybe two of those. If more of those requirements are met, you’ve found yourself a good bathroom. If I could change one thing about Thailand that I thought would make it a safer place, I would add soap to every bathroom. In a land where diarrhea is super common among locals and tourists, at least a thorough hand wash (especially by food prep workers) might prevent some transmission.

Bathrooms not withstanding, vacationing on a tropical Thai island is a pretty cool experience. Having a breakfast in Thailand that consists of unsweetened coffee and fresh bread—what a treat!

April 30, 2016

The Dream, Chiang Rai, and Store Credit

Today, headed North on the so-called superhighway that runs from Bangkok to Burma, I remembered that I'm living the dream. My dream. Living abroad (and doing it like a boss). When I'm buried in paperwork and grading, I sometimes forget to zoom out and see the bigger picture.

I might have only been going to the big grocery store for weekly errands, but I was casually commanding a rumbling diesel-fueled manual pick-up truck through weekend traffic, dodging errant motorbikes and speed-hungry lorries (semi-trucks for my fellow Americans), all while singing along to tunes on my iPad. Pretty badass.

The drug and human-trafficking checkpoint no longer seems so foreign, though I'm still a little relieved every time I don't get pulled over. Not that they should or have any reason to, just that I've seen enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad to know that not all justice systems are created equally. All that to say, I have to pass a checkpoint on my way to the grocery store. Then, I turn down a narrow country road lined with palm trees and rice paddies, before parking in an otherwise unnotable lot.

Alan and I spent the morning, hangovers and all, in the fancy customer room at the Isuzu dealership while our truck was serviced. Alan took a nap in a recliner (seriously) and I graded papers at a nearby table while a giant TV blared Thai soaps and talk shows. We took a mid-morning break to get some food.

Our lunch was about as Thai as it gets. A roadside noodle shop selling mysterious pork bits in a salty broth with glass noodles and green onions. Cars roared past, kicking up dust as we sucked down our noodles. For about 2 bucks, we both filled our bellies.

We spent a few more hours waiting for our truck, settled the bill, and rolled off the lot a little safer and a lot cleaner than we had come in. I learned it is possible to get through a car tune-up with knowledge of about 10 Thai words and a lot of patience.

The past few weeks have been like living inside my parents' Traeger smoker. If the traeger had roaches and lizards. And maybe if it were a few degrees hotter. Kidding.

The smoke problem in Chaing Rai seems indicative of the general attitude toward rules here. It is illegal to burn your fields, and there are signs all over the place, but yet, one can look out and see fields on fire. No one is being held accountable. Thus, the air is a nasty gray soup, most days completely obscuring the normally beautiful views of the foothills of Chiang Rai. April's outstanding heatwave hasn't done much to improve the situation. Apparently we are breaking heat records that were set 65 years ago.

You don't have to tell me that it's hot. I wear these beautiful, if absolutely suffocating, wool pencil skirts to work every day. Luckily, our offices and classrooms are air-conditioned, but by the time I trek across campus to my classroom, my face and hair look like I've just been at the gym.

We don't have any air-conditioning at our apartment. It's not that bad with a couple of fans going, but yeah, it's not that great either. Egg likes to lay belly-up under the fan. I don't blame him.

I actually bought what I thought was an air-conditioner the other week, but neither Alan nor I felt that the evaporation cooler did anything to help our hot house, so I tried to take it back to the store.

One person spoke English. I speak just enough Thai to really get myself into trouble. Imagine dealing with a customer service person and having about 20-30 words in common between the two of you. Imagine that the customer service person doesn't want to accept the return, but it cost you more than you wanted to spend anyway. I patiently negotiated for about 30 minutes before finally getting store credit. They wanted nothing to do with the cooler that I had used for an hour before deciding I didn't like it. On one hand, I get it. On the other hand, I think that making sure the customer is satisfied is really important, and that a few returns won't have that big of an impact on profit, but that losing customers and customer networks might. Anyway, in the end, I was somewhat ok with the outcome and left the store feeling pretty defeated and hot.

So, living the dream also includes dealing with strange things and frighteningly familiar things, like customer service counters.

There are only a few weeks left in the semester, so I'm very much looking forward to our short but sweet vacation time in early June. We are thinking islands. Talk about living the dream!

April 15, 2016

Visiting Southern Thailand for the Songkran Holiday

In Thailand, they celebrate the new year in April. It's the hottest time of the year, and people splash each other with water to celebrate.

Alan and I decided to take a new AirAsia route from Chiang Rai to Hat Yai, Thailand. It is the only direct flight out of Chiang Rai, other than Bangkok.

Hat Yai is a huge city in the deep South of Thailand, not far from the Malaysian border. Where we live is just a short drive from the Northern border with Myanmar, so basically, it's as far as we could go and not have to deal with getting visas.

Alan chose the flight, and I was in charge of the accommodation, so I chose a small, German-managed beach resort in Songkhla, about an hour from Hat Yai. The beach always helps me relax.

The scene here is serene and tropical. The flower blooms are absolutely technicolor bold, and many buildings and fences are painted to match. My favorite are these big bushes with super-bright magenta flowers. The sea air is warm and clear, which is even more enjoyable because we've been living in crop-burning smoke for the past month. The water is turquoise blue and clear as can be. There are millions of beautiful seashells and lots of tumbled sea glass. The water is the temperature of a warm bath. There is a reason that Thai beaches are famous.

Interestingly, we are way off of the beaten path (still) for foreign tourists. The beaches are empty save for the occasional fishing boat. Most foreign tourists don't come this far south. Most Thai adults don't do the beach the same way that Western people do. Westerners put on their bikinis and sunscreen and lay out in the sun or go swimming, maybe stopping for a drink now and then. In my observation, the Thai way to have a beach holiday involves lots of beach-side picnicking. If you swim, you wear gym clothes for modesty.

The past two days, Alan and I have borrowed bicycles from the resort to ride down the beach road. It was a highlight of my trip for sure. Our purpose was to get to the grocery store in town to buy a few big bottles of drinking water, but the journey was wonderful. We cruised the road with blue-green sea to one side, and lush tropical plants to the other. It was downright hot and the sun was relentless, but occasionally we would get festively splashed by Songkran celebrators.

We picked up green mango salad for lunch both days, a light and cheap option for hot days.

A few people wanted to take selfies with us. We usually oblige, despite how weird it is. It makes me feel like a celebrity, sort of.

We're headed into Hat Yai City today for our last vacation day. I'll miss the tranquility of this resort, and the easy vibe that beach towns usually have. It has helped me unwind and slow down. I guess I can't stay forever.

February 23, 2016

Going Back to Phnom Penh after Six Years.

Six years ago, I flew to Phnom Penh on a one-way ticket with plans to teach as a volunteer until I figured life out. I had just finished my undergraduate degree, and the US economy had just experienced the great recession.

On the flight from Seoul to Phnom Penh in 2010, I sat between a middle-aged Cambodian woman and a 50-something government agent from America. The man's job was to conduct stings on child sex operations in Cambodia. He was supposed to solicit sex with a child from the brothel owner, and once inside the brothel, signal a raid to get all the kids out safely. Or something totally scary like that. I had known that child exploitation is a problem in Cambodia, but to be confronted with it on the flight in was unsettling to say the least. The woman on my other side was somehow connected to the Cambodian Institute of Technology, a university in Phnom Penh. She was flying in to help hand out diplomas to graduates. Possibly due to my charm and intellect, though more likely for my blond hair, she insisted that I come to help her with the ceremony. She was somewhat transparent about the fact that having an American present would add a sense of ethos to the university. She gave me her phone number.

A few days later, on one of my very first excursions in Phnom Penh, I somehow found my way across town to the Institute de Technologie du Cambodge (remnants of a former French occupation linger in Phnom Penh). I dutifully sat through a multi-hour ceremony conducted in Khmer, and then did my best to graciously hand out the diplomas and pose for photos.

This weekend, I returned to Phnom Penh for the first time since 2010. Oddly enough, I found myself sitting in the very same room at the ITC, listening to a presentation about English teaching. Alan and I were attending a language teacher conference. The conference was held in the aging buildings of the ITC, and the experience of being back in that particular room was profound for me. I had returned to the source of something that has been so important in my adult life. 

My stint in Cambodia six years ago has lingered in my mind as one of my biggest perceived failures. A failure because I didn’t thrive in the exotic environment. I was too hot, dirty and miserable for most of my time there. I was counting the days until I could leave. I left with a sense of giving up, of defeat.

Coming back to Cambodia with a lot more life experience, including a year in the middle of Turkey, and an ongoing experience in rural-ish Thailand, I was able to see just how difficult the context was in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh is damn hot during the dry season. It is super dusty. The air quality is quite bad—enough to give me a headache almost immediately. There are people and cars and motorbikes and goods everywhere, all jammed together in tiny spaces. It's too hot to sleep. Floors are wet. There is a hair in every dish you order. Windows have bars on them. The traffic is incessant and disturbing. There are barely any sidewalks in the city. Getting around means bargaining with hired drivers who want to squeeze every last dollar out of you. Back then, it was so far from what I was used to. It was so uncomfortable.

Desk graffiti at the ITC
Now, in comparison to living in Turkey and Thailand, I understand Cambodia a lot better. I can accept the sidewalk situation and the air quality. I have a much stronger support system now because Alan is with me. More important, I realize that I was incredibly brave (though also possibly reckless and stupid) to jump into life in Cambodia. Over the weekend, I felt a strong sense of self-confidence re-seeing places I had been so long ago. I took my husband and one of our friends from graduate school who was also attending the conference to a concert that I knew about because of a local paper that I sometimes check. I recommended foods to try. I enjoyed telling people about my previous experiences as a teacher in Phnom Penh.

Revisiting the ITC reminded me of the Cambodia that I knew six years ago. Aging buildings showing their wear-and-tear. Ancient-looking desks. Concrete walls with angled slats to let in the "breeze." The whir of ceiling fans overhead. Palm trees and lush vegetation growing in the courtyard. Bathrooms that make “holding it” seem like the better idea.

Dust and air pollution still plague the city that I remember, and in my opinion, the air quality is actually far worse than six years ago. The tuk tuk ride from the airport to our guesthouse was a gritty introduction to the city due to the swirling dirt clouds and heavy traffic. The din of karaoke bars, engines, and streetside construction also hangs heavily in the hot air.

What’s bothering me a little is that I liked the new and improved Phnom Penh. The influx of western comforts and additional attention to the desires of tourists (cafes, fresh coffee, and better lighting at night), have made the city more accessible. I can’t help but wonder if I would have liked the place more if it had been this way six years ago--if I wouldn't have failed.

I know that on some level, I chose Cambodia in 2010 because it is a developing country, in every sense of the word, and a place where I literally knew no one. That last part was a big criteria, because I wanted to be unique. Cambodia, in all its mystique, was dirty, corrupt, and probably dangerous (and still is). From the perspective of a privileged American 20-something, living in a developing country is perhaps a rite of passage, an entrance to an elite group, something that your peers will admire you for. Ultimately though, the characteristics that gave Phnom Penh its exotic appeal are the same that made it such a difficult place for me to live six years ago.

After five months of struggling through life in Phnom Penh, I packed up and returned to my hometown where I spent the next year living with my parents and struggling with part-time work at a licorice store (yes, really) and at a Home Depot (yes, unfortunately). Decidedly NOT the outcome I had hoped for with that one-way ticket.

Coming back to Cambodia was important to me. Phnom Penh challenged six years ago with its oppressive heat, chaos, and pollution. But this city also gave me my first taste of teaching English—the very thing that would become my career and my passion in life.

Phnom Penh has matured since 2010. There are now many high-rise buildings in the skyline, and so many under construction. So many things look new and cleaner. There are better street signs. However, some things never change. The traffic is still incomprehensible and seemingly lawless. Cars and motorbikes jostle for position in intersections, and it seems like an accident is possible at every second. We even got into a tuk-tuk fender bender on the way to the conference before our presentation.

The Riverside view
The Riverside area of Phnom Penh still feels like a breath of fresh-ish air, overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and a smaller river. Monks in their bright orange robes walk the broad sidewalks in sharp contrast to the grey-blue skies. Boats of all sizes cruise by, disappearing in the smoggy distance.

When I was here six years ago, I lived in an area of town quite far from the Riverside. Most nights, we stayed near our house, treating ourselves to brownie sundaes at the few Western cafes in the neighborhood. Every few weeks, we would go downtown, to the swanky Riverside area to get drinks and go dancing. 

On this trip, I booked a guesthouse very near to the Riverside area so that Alan and I could explore and enjoy the foreigner-friendliest area of town in the evenings.

Tuk tuk ride to the conference venue
After our presentationat the conference, I felt a great sense of relief. The stressful project was over. The husband-wife research team could disband and just be husband and wife again. Phnom Penh could now be a place where I found inspiration for a career in teaching, and another place on the globe that Alan and I have experienced together.

I went back to Cambodia a better version of myself, and I feel that Cambodia greeted me with its own new and improved self.

I hope that my sense of failure about Cambodia will continue to fade. Seeing the Phnom Penh again, I realize that six years ago I was up against the most formidable of opponents--myself. In Nebraska or In Cambodia, it's the same Jena. The search for meaning in life isn't found at the end of a one-way ticket.

On my second trip to Phnom Penh, with my husband by my side and hundreds of like-minded teachers talking about how to serve our students better, I think I've found what I was looking for.