January 29, 2010

On my first week at CWF

The world looks pretty good from here. Fiona (my current roommate) and I just indulged in the best brownie sundaes at Cafe Yejj. I'm feeling quite pleased with the afternoon so far.

I taught classes every day this week, and aside from my apprehension about feeling out lesson plans amidst more experienced teachers, I think the week was a success. My intuitive lesson plan about death and dying, though a bit grim, provided the students a window into how the West handles the funeral process; and in return, I got to learn about the Cambodian rituals. The best part of my plan was making the card for Delma. Students were able to use the vocabulary we learned in their messages, and they were able to tell Delma how much they appreciated her work at CWF. It was very encouraging to see how much the students cared for their teacher, and how eager they were to learn new material.

Because CWF focuses on conversational English, I am trying to figure out how best to introduce vocabulary as a part of conversation. The obvious solution is to get students speaking for as much of the class time as possible. Some students would be happy to just chat for the entire hour, but other students are less willing to speak. The challenge is getting the chatty students to focus on the new vocabulary and to encourage the quiet students to practice speaking. None of this is ground-breaking discovery, but as a fledgling teacher, it's all new to me.

CWF tests incoming students and ranks them in classes from level 1 (very beginning) to 8 (fluent). Students may also choose Advanced Communication or Advanced Discussion if they are looking to continue practicing. My classes are level 4 and 5, which puts their abilities at medium, with lots of variation among the students. Most of my level 5's are business people in accounting and finance, so their existing vocabulary is very tailored around money, banking, and work. My 4's are an endearing bunch, one older woman who works for an NGO, and three university students. The hard part about this group is figuring out concepts that will challenge them but not be too hard (my stereotype lesson was overly ambitious). Today's lesson, Driving in America, went over well. We even had a mock driving lesson and a through discussion of American laws regarding seat belts and child safety seats.

I can tell that teaching isn't going to be as easy as I thought, but I'm up for the challenge because I'm already feeling the rewards. One of my students even friended me on Facebook.

January 27, 2010

Intimidation at the Embassy

Ever been to an American Embassy abroad? It's like a maximum security prison—Or maybe more like the drug smuggler room at the airport. Before I could even enter the premises, the guard demanded my passport. Upon passing his eye-ball inspection, I was let into a fortified room with metal detectors and an airport-style bag x-ray. Intimidation. I had to leave behind my cell phone and camera, which seemed normal, but then, after crossing a 50-foot outdoor corridor to another secure room, I had to metal detect once more. Certain that I was nonmetallic, the guards also went through my bag by hand. My metal business card holder really boggled the guards in the second room. When I revealed the stacks of cards inside, however, they both nodded in approval (I think they were impressed).

Passing into an energetic lobby, I found Counter 7, the American Citizen Inquiry. Four days a week, from 1-3 PM, Americans may inquire here. A sheet of bulletproof glass between us, I struggled to communicate with the Khmer officer. My reason for visiting was simply to make a personal contact at the embassy, as I don't trust the online system to help me much if I really need help. Ten minutes later, I ended up at the counter to my right, speaking to an American (woohoo!) officer. He seemed surprised at my request, but happily gave me his business card and a trip registry form.

With the goal of my trip satisfied, I made my way out of the fortress, hoping that I would never have to return (if I do, something's gone a-rye, and I don't need any of that). My illusions of hanging out at the embassy and going to swanky embassy parties with royalty have been thoroughly dashed. I will have to look elsewhere for my social status boosters (I'm sure the Sport Club will oblige).

By the way, I've found the perfect writing nook. On our sun deck at the house, we have a little stone table with a superior view of our clothes lines (I see London, I see France...), fresher air, and the sweet sounds of stray pups and children playing in the street. Now, if only I had a coffee maker. The instant coffee (Gasp! Sputter!) we've got downstairs is not the kind of coffee worthy of my snobbish blog.

The Phnom Penh Sport Club

Just across the street from CWF school, there is a sporty hideaway for those who can afford it. The Phnom Penh Sport Club was made as a status symbol for wealthy Cambodians and as a pastime for health-minded westerners with too much time on their hands. As many of the current volunteers have done, I joined the Club today. Even at my discounted rate (CWF volunteers get a discount, I guess), $40 per month seems extravagant in Phnom Penh. An investment in—who else?—moi.

The small fortune spent on membership provides a suitable gym, two pools, sauna, and table tennis. Oh, and massages—quality massages. Anyway, the gym is very usable. A healthy gaggle of treadmills faces out the picture windows to the pool, and a lacking circuit and free weight section take up most of the floor space. Khmer dance music bumps beats perfect for a very sweaty workout. The older and unvacuumed carpet in the stretching area leaves a little to be desired, but quality ping pong tables are ready for action all around the gym. After a thorough workout, I decided to revisit my youth and take a swim in the lap pool. If you didn't know me then, I was once an avid swimmer (especially in high school, tapering off in college). Whilst the three other pool-goers did some grandma-style paddles, I busted out some of my old strokes and flipturns to really impress the two people on the treadmills. Did I mention that the gym was nearly deserted? This is an exclusive place; only the best can get in. Needless to say, I made the cut. I'll be picking up my official membership card tomorrow, thanks.

Without sunscreen, I decided that 25 minutes in the pool at midday was about all I should do. A quick pop in the steam room and I was a new woman. There is no substitute for a good workout, and at this convenient oasis, why not spend my hours of downtime staying fit and maintaining my ego?

January 26, 2010

Trials and Transportation

It's a true wonder that anyone gets where they are going around here. Tuk tuks and motos are the transportation of choice for Khmers and Boritay (foreigners) alike, but these drivers, who have seemingly one job to do—that is, get you where you want to go—don't have any idea where things are. If you submit to the cat-calling pack of drivers, they ask your destination, you tell them, and they nod enthusiastically as though they know it. If you are smart, you will ask about a price, then halve whatever they say and see if you can get away with it. After the somewhat uncomfortable haggling process, many times, you whiz off in the wrong direction. After being here all of two weeks, even I know enough to know when it's the wrong direction—come on drivers. If you are bold, you might yell at the driver to stop and try to correct him right away. If you are like me, you might wait a few blocks to see if he has chosen an alternate route, then stop the show to redirect things.

Okay, these drivers are at a distinct disadvantage when hauling westerners. One, they don't speak English as a native language (or at all, really). Two, the drivers probably are not frequenting the places that westerners want to visit. I'm thinking the NGO-run cafes and fancy restaurants. Three, it seems that the Khmer people don't use maps. That means, even if you are a well-prepared westerner with your handy map of the city, you could point to destinations and street names all day and it would not help your driver at all. I am confident in my map-using skills, but if someone randomly asked me to take them somewhere in my hometown, I couldn't guarantee that I would know where it was straight off. However, I am not a taxi driver for a living—knowing the city is an important job skill.

So how do you get where you are going? If you walk, be prepared to be addressed by every driver on the street. Hello, madame. Where you go? You want motobike, tuk tuk? I take you. Madame? Madame? It gets old quickly. You can smile and say “otay, akun” or “no thanks,” but there's no harm in completely ignoring them (except that you feel like a bad person). If you take a moto or a tuk tuk, do your best to watch for street signs and local landmarks (good luck, street signs are well-hidden), and don't be afraid to shout directions or stop your driver. Luckily, sometimes, drivers will consult other drivers mid-journey to ask where a particular destination is. On occasion, this proves fruitful, but other times, the other driver will confidently send you in the wrong direction. By the way, no discount is given for a tuk tuk who lost his way. In fact, the driver may demand extra money for the roundabout journey. Try to explain that it isn't your fault he did not know how to get there, and he will certainly pretend not to speak English. I haven't decided yet with whom the direction-knowing responsibility really lies. The luxuries of having my own car (and Mapquest) at home are simply too great.

Even if you know where you are going, getting there is the really scary part. Sitting in the carriage of a tuk tuk, bouncy as it is—they haven't a set of shocks in town—feels relatively safe compared to clinging to the rear handle of a moto to keep from hitting the pavement. I'm a chicken about this stuff anyway, but in Phnom Penh traffic, at much higher than necessary speeds, I'm practically paralyzed with fear. And rightly so, as the possibility of serious injury is huge, and the prospect of dying in a traffic accident looms heavily over every decision to ride a moto. Sitting here now, I'm horrified that I've even ridden on motos—it just seems such a stupid thing to do. When in Cambodia, do as the Cambodians do (and have the same life expectancy as a Khmer).

I bought a helmet—a step up from many a rider, and I'm trying to keep my karma healthy (always tip the driver!).

January 25, 2010

New house, new helmet, and a water park

It was a big day! My first official day in the CWF volunteer house began at 5 AM after a muggy night of little sleep. The tuk tuk leaves at 6:10 for school, and I know that I need an hour before I can even think about getting in front of students.

I was called on to fill in for another volunteer whom I had befriended in the short time we knew each other. Her mother suddenly became ill, and of course she wanted to be near. Her mother passed away shortly afterwards. Despite the circumstances, I was ready to fill in, and my first lessons went swimmingly this morning. I used the unfortunate situation to teach students about expressing sympathy, and tomorrow, we plan to write cards for their previous teacher. Although I was unsure about bringing up death on the first day of class, the students were actually very keen to discuss the funeral process with me. In the second class, we had a particularly satisfying diagram drawn on the white board by the end of the hour.

So inspired was I that I went to the Russian Market to buy a motobike helmet for all of my future motobike endeavors. Pink and sassy in my new helmet, I felt ready to take on the world, or at least ride more safely on the back of Nouna's moto. Nouna took me to Phnom Penh's very own water park this afternoon--even though she can't swim. The entrance fee of $3/person afforded us a dip in partially chlorinated lazy rivers, mini pools, and lap pool. What a relief from the unrelenting heat of Phnom Penh's concrete.

Refreshed and hungry, Nouna and I set off for some real Khmer food. I couldn't tell you what it was called or even what it was, but it looked like an omlet, tasted like nothing I've ever had before, and included shrimp. My hands were a sopping mess, and I was pleased. It's always a treat to go out with Nouna. her generousity and sense of humor make even the most mundane activities (traffic jams) enjoyable.

January 24, 2010

And all the good things, too.

Since my last entry on Sihanoukville was discouraging, let me share the best things about this seaside village. Otres Beach, for starters, is much more inviting for someone like me. The beach on which most tourists end up is called Ochheuteal, and not only am I unable to pronounce it, but I really would rather not be on it. In contrast to the overcrowded and overworked sands of Ochheauteal, Otres beach greets visitors with a manageable number of seaside restaurant/accommodations, fewer (and more mature) beachgoers, and delightful views of distant islands. In addition, I think certain members of my family would delight in the fishing boat rentals!

Although I sought out this beach to avoid the harassment of the manicure/pedicure ladies and bracelet sellers, I had no more than stepped into the sands of Otres when a pack swarmed me. Having nothing else to do, I was soon being painted, scrubbed and de-haired (they used a string to pull out my leg hair, which they insisted was “so many”). Thirty minutes later, my bedazzled finger and toenails shone brightly as I handed over the money, satisfied that I had just had the most unsanitary mani/pedi ever. Oh, this is the good things blog...skip ahead to lunch. I was drawn in by a cute sign on Cantina del Mar, a quaint shack that seemed more Cancun than Cambodia. The fish tacos seemed an obvious choice, and since the pirate guy (head scarf and all) sitting at the next table ordered them, I thought I'd give it a try. My instincts proved spot-on. The most delicious fish tacos ever eaten by anyone, anywhere. Sorry OSO Burrito—Put your restaurant on a tropical beach and we will have a rematch.

On a side note, although riding motos is exhilarating and great for getting a view, the potential danger and the horrors of descending steep, unpaved sections of road to Otres is best left to taxi or tuk tuk. I should know. It's an absolute miracle that I made it in one piece. Indeed, the Cambodians seem to have no standards for road maintenance, an unfortunate choice for a country of motorcycles and dumb tourists who think they should save a buck to ride one.

The ensuing sunburn after my fine day on Otres made today challenging. Wanting to avoid direct sunlight and walking on my burnt feet, I decided to be a responsible tourist and head into town to visit Rajana and the Starfish Bakery, two NGO's working to give sustainable employment skills to people who would otherwise be on the street. Rajana is a little Cambodian-made handicrafts boutique with branches in a few Cambodian cities, but the Starfish bakery (hello, big slice of carrot cake) is located only in Sihanoukville. It was hog heaven for me as baked goods have been lost from my diet for almost two weeks now. The big peanut butter cookie called to me, so I adopted it and a pot of tea for my little garden table. This place is even better than Barista's (blasphemy!) because it supports NGO work and it's in a garden with chaise lounges. The only thing to improve the place is to have servers as attractive as those in Barista's Daily Grind, Kearney, Nebraska, USA (I miss you!).

Bored with my first book, I found another Barista's-rivaling place for book-swapping. The little garden terrace and a new novel written by a controversial Chinese author entertained me for the next several hours. These garden terrace things are the way to go. Talk about functional, beautiful and environmentally friendly, this type of shelter shades customers from the sun, creates fabulous atmosphere, and emits oxygen. I dig it.

I took my last opportunity to gaze at the ocean for a late lunch. Oily spring rolls, coconut drink, and a good book helped me appreciate the breathtaking views. There is certainly something magical about the sea. Even for a girl who grew up landlocked in the middle of the Great Plains, the ocean is something special. With the ocean, being able to see as far as the curvature of the Earth allows can be intimidating: How small I am (but how stellar my vision)! Similar to the Big Sky effect of the plains, the sea gives a certain feeling of absolute freedom and possibility. The clich├ęs about the ocean breezes, lamping waves and healing powerful of walking barefoot in the sand are all true and applicable here. As the embroidery of my towel reads, “Sand, Sea, Sihanoukville.”

January 23, 2010

Dinner Disaster

Eating alone is one thing. Eating alone in the middle of converging social problems, that's another. Choosing among the endless mediocre beachfront Bar and Grills for dinner, I finally slumped into the cushy beach seat under a sign saying “Khmer and Italian Food.” I ordered a pizza (the waiter told me that it would be a few minutes before the electricity came back...um, don't forget: it's Cambodia.) and a bottle of soda. I opened my Bill Bryson text and returned to my linguistic-nerd bliss. The Khmer waiters took turns disturbing my reading. I almost never turn down a chat with a foreigner, but when the extent of the conversation is, “We not want customer sit alone. You very beautiful...” I'd prefer to just keep to my book.

I can handle awkward waiter convo, but once my food came, the trouble started. Pathetic amputee beggars came to my table, “Madame, Madame.” I did as everyone else does, nothing. Beggars with no legs scoot up and down the beach all day, so tourists become adapt at ignoring. You try not to look, but it's sad and awful. Speaking of awful, every few minutes a disgusting, older western man strolls by with a young Khmer woman. Some sit in reclining chairs, grinding perversely, ignorant of the surrounding public. Stomach-turning, really. My greasy pizza wasn't going down so well. A little Khmer boy, probably 5 years old, with a plastic bag full of aluminum can and bottles on his arm strode up right next to me, pointing at my half-full bottle. First I smiled and said no, but he didn't leave, so I tried to show him that I was still drinking. He stood there, dirty-faced, eyes fixated on mine. He stabbed my soul with his jaded little eyes. I focused on my pizza as he stood, staring at me, hating me. I thought, yep, I don't wanna be here anymore.

A group of the bracelet sellers approached the table next to mine. The children who sell bracelets are endearing, have good English, and are strategic salespeople. However, my sociology background (and some common sense) tells me not to support child labor. These kids should be in school or at home being kids--not hawking friendship bracelets to tourists like me. At the same time, if they can't sell anything, will they be in trouble at home? Do they have money for food? Too many unknowns. The table next to me was as rude as I had been all day, but the girls came to my table, without talking to me, hooked their bracelet string to the lamp in front of me and started knotting the strings, hoping to make a sale. The oldest one, probably fourteen, sat down next to me and started asking about my boyfriend. I declined her many bracelet offers, and she gave up, enjoying the comfy chair. Her younger counterparts braided away, chatting in Khmer. Catching a glimpse of the underbelly of Cambodia's tourist industry, I shuttered to think that this was only the public side of affairs. What's happening in my hotel that prompted the sign above my pillow reading: you are forbidden to take advantage of children sexually, all forms of child prostitution is forbidden and illegal in our guesthouse.? That's ugly.

The little boy wanting my bottle left, perturbed. Just then, a beach cat with half a tail, probably infested with who-knows-what, jumped onto my lap mid-bite. I love cats, but not this one.

The yucko cat did me in. I was beyond panic. I felt hot and dizzy and angry and upset with the world for putting me here on this beautiful beach by myself in the middle of something so awful. Without a second thought, I pushed the cat off, downed the rest of my soda, grabbed my purse and hurried to the bar. I threw some dollars at the Italian guy, offered, “Grazi!” and wished I could could just discretely teleport out of Sihanoukville, out of damn Cambodia. Alone, panicked and on display for the rest of the diners, I'm not sure how discrete I was. My hotel was at the other end of the beach and I couldn't get there fast enough. My flip flops struggled against the wet sand, and my long skirt impeded my legs from running. I wanted to scream as a stray dog started chasing me, barking. I turned around to face it, and luckily it cowered away (I might have actually barked, too, I don't know).

Conquering the rough stone sidewalk off the beach, I rushed into the hotel, grabbed my key and locked the door behind me. What the hell was that!?

Safely in my room, door double-bolted, I reflect on the Sihanoukville experience. The daytime was wonderful. Even though it rained, I had a lovely day, and I even composed a nice blog about how Sihanoukville is a descent place to vacation. Perhaps it is nice, but I won't be going to dinner alone again.

Many tourists seem to find an escape from the maddening parts of Sihanoukville by smoking dope or binge drinking (or indulging in the prostitution scene). Obviously, those are not choices I will make, so I'll have to figure out how to survive the next two days. Mid-dinner panic is too unpredictable and it is a waste of food.

For now, I'm gonna pop another piece of Iranian Dental Association Approved gum. Yum-o! Tastes like Iran! A few Korean music videos and I'll be ready to go to sleep. Tomorrow, I'm hoping for sun.

Getting to Sihanoukville

Give me a desk and computer, and I will write!

Today, I made the four-hour trek to Sihanoukville. The bus ride was a reminder of the country I was a little apprehensive to visit. My eyes were glued to the impoverished roadside villages. From the burnt orange earth rose ramshackle homes atop spindly posts. Tiny children scurried about in school uniform. Old women swept dust from the porches. Errant cows and motorcycles grazed side-by-side in worn-down fields. Posters for dish soap, cell phones and shampoo decorated the outsides of buildings, and the constant aromas of rotting fruit came through the bus's intake. Cars, Buses, and motos on the highway challenged Cambodian traffic rules and the laws of physics by using the two-lane highway as a four lane interstate, sounding the horn and passing like Formula 1 drivers. After the first two hours of watching, horrified, out the windshield, I grew accustomed to nearly flattening motos and playing chicken with cement trucks.

Sihanoukville, at first glance, was like a woman with a bad reputation. Beautiful, but sleazy. Getting off the bus and into the major crowd of tuk tuks was horrible. I didn't really care how much they charged as long as I could get out. My guest house, the GST 3, was a bumpy 10 minutes ride closer to the beach. Flustered, I found my room, and immediately set off for lunch. I followed my nose to the ocean, about twenty yards from the hotel, and I was greeted by my choice of several beach side (literally, on the sand) restaurants. The Tom Yum Goon soup was to die for! I had a fruity smoothie to rinse, and a refreshing view of overcast sky and clear ocean. Eating alone can be profoundly depressing. Then again, it's Cambodia, you're never really alone. Children and young women came by my table every few minutes to offer me pedicures, bracelets and newspapers. Annoying? Yes.

Mid-beachwalk, when the gray skies finally dumped, I found myself chatting with an Aussie over chocolate milkshakes. It seems that Australians are very comfortable vacationing Cambodia. It's like the US and Mexico—kinda.

Speaking of comfortable with Cambodia, this place could be anywhere. Everyone speaks English, the food is multinational, and there seems to be a foreigner for every one or two Khmer. The odd part is that it's all so foreign to me. I'm not used to traveling alone. Making decisions is difficult. I don't think I'm particularly extroverted, but I do like company. I like to have someone to experience things with, or someone to say, “hey, remember that time we were on the bus to Sihanoukville....?”

Okay, in past study abroad experiences, I've learned about the U-shaped emotional status. The initial euphoria of arriving in a new place and the adrenaline of all things new eventually gives way to feeling out of place, alone and homesick. After the bottom-out blues, once you start to acclimatize, get a routine, and find your feet in the new place, the emotional status rises, forming the other side of the U. Unfortunately, when you get to the other side, it's time to go home. So that's the general feeling (it may be a load of crap), but day-to-day can be as rocky as the road to my guest house in Sihanoukville. Hold on to your tuk tuk!!

January 19, 2010

Another would-be post makes it through!

On your right, the beautiful Riverside view of the Mekong, and to your left, an empty lot with rubbish mountains. Phnom Penh is a city of inconsistencies. The view from Pizza World, a restaurant atop a sparkling highrise, is blocked by the crumbling shamble of a once high-rise apartment complex. And just above the rancid smells of the central market, an extreme skating rink provides brave Khmer teens the space to speed around on rollerblades over ramps and a drop-in half-pipe.

Today, I toured the touristy part of Phnom Penh with Nouna, my Khmer friend. Nevermind the threat of pickpocketing and the certainty of being overcharged by 200% at the market, the risks of riding a motobike in Phnom Penh are surely the greatest enemy of foreigners. With protection from the pavement flying under me, I white-knuckled the handlebar on the back of the bike as Nouna skilfully wove through traffic.

At Wat Phnom, the city temple, only foreigners are charged an entrance fee. At the royal palace, foreigners are charged 25,000 riel or roughly $6.25, while Khmer nationals get in for 1000 riel, or 25 cents. Given the ridiculous disparity in GDP, I suppose the difference is warranted, but it still feels like a rip-off. Nouna and I spent the afternoon wandering the temples and palace buildings, talking about her dreams to become a lawyer and the way the Cambodian government deals with education. We finally indulged in a late lunch at a local soup place. Several women attended the make-your-own-soup station with mystery veggies, noodles and lukewarm curry broth. In my extreme hunger, I ignored the sickening combination of body temperature soup and smacking noises around me. The soup was difficult for me taste-wise, but I managed to put down more than half the bowl before giving up. The drink, fresh sugar cane juice was delicious though.

I mentioned something about needing a swimsuit, and before I could say no, I was in a tiny, damp bathroom stall at the central market, doing my best stork imitation to try on a swimsuit. The threat of communicable disease felt too high, so I grabbed the biggest suit, pretended that I had tried it on and rushed back to pay my $4 and get the heck out of there. I'll be strutting the beaches of Sihanoukville in a conservative (perhaps matronly) daisy print one-piece with a delightful ruffle skirt. The best thing is that my winter fat reserves will be hidden by daisies (and that I only paid $4).

This is soooo not easy.

Ready to Write

I may have called it a failed post before, but what the heck...here it is.

Every boat trip needs a soundtrack. It was Imogen's (she's a current volunteer) birthday, and CWF staff and volunteers rented a party boat for the evening. Luckily, Cambodia has no shortage of music. Morning, noon, and night music blasts from TVs and radios all over the city. My favorite songs include the Khmer version of that Spanish-language pop-hit of late “I know you want me, you know I want cha...” I found the original version tacky, yet irresistible. The Khmer version, in my humble and biased opinion, is not only tacky and irresistible, but also educational. Listeners can learn to count in Khmer (Muay, Pii, Bey, Buan!!), enjoy the synchronized male dancers, and get a hearty chuckle at the Khmenglish (?) in the chorus.

As though cutting a rug to the tune of knock-off R&B hits wasn't enough for one weekend, Cambodia continues to amaze, confound, and intimidate me. Although the Mai tai from the night before was haunting me, I woke up early to visit the market with my Khmer teacher. She took me and her younger cousin to the Olympic Market to shop for a few things. The Olympic, unlike the Russian, is housed in a two story warehouse. Imagine a department store with no a/c in the middle of summer. Now picture wall to wall vendor displays. The eyes are bombarded with creepy mannequins, uncompromising stacks of clothing, and more glitzy shoes than all the strip joints in town. Between claustrophobia and dander, breathing is difficult at best. The Khmer like colorful clothing—and I don't blame them. The trouble is that they are a petite crowd, with very little variation in height or size. As much trouble as I have communicating (in any language) with my Khmer teacher, no more than 10 minutes at the market and we both understood that Khmer clothing just wasn't going to fit me. However, it didn't stop me from buying a cute school bag and teaching-appropriate smock-type shirt.

The CWF volunteers and I went for lunch at a Dim Sum style restaurant. Authentic Chinese food served on a turntable—that's heaven for sure. Later, I accompanied Fiona to the Province outside Phnom Penh to hear about the hell in which some of the women are living. One of Fiona's Khmer acquaintances wants to start improving conditions for the elderly and widowed women in his community, but he has no NGO experience. Enter Fiona, fledgling NGO-ista. Listening to the Khmer women (or the translation thereof) broke my heart. Many of them are facing problems as basic as not having enough food. Without proper nutrition, of course these women, elderly and otherwise can't take care of their children because they are too weak and dizzy. I've never gone hungry against my will, and I can't imagine what these women are going through. Many NGOs focus on helping the children, but if we help the mothers, the mothers can take better care of the children. Something to think about.

Hokey-Pokey Post about Homesickness

Today, I am homesick. My failed blog attempts of the past few days (saved only as drafts...) suffered from daydream syndrome. I want to write about my adventures on boats, the ultimate chaos at the big markets, and my afternoon at the Royal Palace with Nouna, but I have other things on my mind today.

I'm really missing my life at UNK. Knowing what I'm supposed to do and say, being understood when I talk, and having some semblance of routine were things I took for granted last year. What I wouldn't give for a coffee date at Barista's or a morning shift at the WC!

Until today, I was not particularly homesick because I had no extra energy. Between dodging the traffic, handling sensory overload, and managing general disorientation, I couldn't even think about what I missed. Now, feeling ambitious/pretentious, I think I've become more acclimated to my smogged-out corner of Phnom Penh. I'm craving the open skies and clear air of Kearney.

But don't misunderstand me. Homesick doesn't mean I want to go home. On the contrary. I just arrived and I'm struggling to find my feet. Homesick means that I am away--living part of my dream--in a part of the world opposite my homeland. If I weren't homesick, what would that say about my home? The place I come from is worth missing.

Okay, enough with the whining. I'm off to live the life of a newly-graduated woman on a volunteer trip in Cambodia! Wish me luck!

January 16, 2010

Making Friends: Cambodia Edition

Today I took a big risk. Treading over sand, broken glass, and who-knows-what on the streets between CWF school and my guest house, I said “no” to everyone on a motorcycle except one. Instead of the usual scruffy man, a young Khmer woman on a nice motorbike pulled up next to me. Where you go? She asked. I was nearly home, so pointed down the street. Undeterred, she told me that she wanted to make friends with me and that she would take me for free. Her nice bike and light skin alerted me that she was perhaps rich. I wondered why she wanted to make friends with me (you know, because she hadn't really been exposed to my awesome personality and hilarious sense of humor yet...). In a fraction of a second, a dozen scenarios screamed in my head. Who was she? Why did she want to be my “friend”? Was she working for a pimp? Was I, Jena Lynch, champion of women's rights, going to be sold into a horrible life of slavery? Was she part of some scheme to steal my money (Dang, babytop is in my bag!!)? Or, was this something more innocent? Did she want to practice English? Was she as lonely as I? Was this a star-crossed meeting to change my life forever? I had to find out.

I got on the bike, felt no horrible gut reaction, and we sped down the block to my guest house. Famished from a morning that didn't go my way, I asked if she wanted to have lunch with me. Her face lit up and she told me that she would take me to her house for lunch. Okay, I thought. This is either good, or the next step in the plan to sell me. As we cruised across town, she tried to make conversation with me, but between not being able to lip read and the deafening horns sounding on the street, I could hear almost nothing. We pulled up to her house, gated as all Khmer houses are, and entered. Her brother, sister and mother were standing in the front room (also serving as garage). I did my best Cambodian greetings, and then watched as some type of magic happened.

Suddenly, a table full of authentic (seriously) Cambodian food appeared, and a small family gathered around the table. Nouna, the woman who picked me up, sat next to me; her older brother sat on the other side, and her mother watched over the operation, directing everyone in Khmer to adjust my food and make sure every bite was delicious. And it was! The mystery fish thing—the brother told me it was a mixture of fish eggs, chicken, bacon, and something else—was served with a red chili and lime (how can you go wrong?). A big bowl of rice and an exotic chunky tilapia and veggie soup accompanied the fare. Nouna also flagged down the coconut guy rolling past the gate and bought me (sic: she bought it) a coconut to drink. As I ate the food that this family had graciously offered me, the mother (in Khmer via translation from older brother) showered me with compliments: how beautiful I am, how talented and wonderful, etc. All true by the way! Even my frizzed-out hair and sloppy, stinky clothing have a certain appeal.

Sometime during the next hour, it was decided that these people were my Khmer family. I was calling Nouna my sister and the mother, M'dai (Khmer for mother). The brother was a different story because the mom was trying to hook us up (awkward in any language). Actually, he seemed like a descent suitor by all Khmer standards. His job brought him good work building infrastructure (with someone he had to call “his majesty”--prime minister's assistant, I think) in the province, and he was well-dressed and had nice teeth. I pretty much gave up my speculations about the mafia or sex trade by the time the mother asked to take a picture of me for her cell phone wallpaper. Although simple, the Khmer house felt warm and comfortable (except the stairs—what a horror story!). The mother offered me to stay in their house while I live in Cambodia . It's amazing how generous the Khmer are. I wished I had something to offer in return.

Nouna, a law major from the Royal University, is also dabbling in social action. Out back, she owns a line of shacks that she rents to families for $20/month. Yeah, take a deep breath on that. These shacks were the size of a bathroom, and not much cleaner. But as usual, the people were bright and curious as they offered me compliments and adoration.

In a show of generosity and social status, the family drove me home in their car, a sporty Carolla. It's high style in Phnom Penh, and I appreciated the change of pace from edge-of-death motos and tuk tuks that feel like an unpopular ride at the county fair. I have plans for lunch, the palace, and a swim on Monday!

Every single day is an adventure, and every day is an opportunity to learn!

First Look at Phnom Penh, by Jena Lynch

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January 13, 2010

Blisters, Karma, and Wyclef Jean

The blisters and bug bites on my feet are proof that I walked home from school today. Nursing the wounds and munching the hottest ever wasabi peas (with a thorough handwashing between), I watch Khmer TV in my air-con room. Walking is an art in Phnom Penh. The sidewalks are usually too crowed—ironically, with parked cars and motos—so instead, you walk against traffic in hopes that you will see your assailant before you are roadkill. I tried to walk to school, but I only made it to the big roundabout intersection, eyed the swarming ant farm of traffic and hailed a moto to take me the rest of the way. On the way home, I avoided that intersection and had a relatively pleasant walk to the guest house to change shoes. Then, I walked to a western-style cafe called Jars of Clay. The air-con space was perfect for a light lunch (smoothie, croissant) and a heavy-duty study session. No one ever said that learning Khmer consonants was easy.

An entire pot of tea later, I was ready to venture into the touristy part of town to stop at the post office and stroll the touristy main-drag. Okay, “stroll” is a stretch. I shuffled through a mob of tuk tuk and moto drivers for five blocks. That's the downfall of the tourist area. Drivers know that they can make money off of westerners, and westerners congregate in this part of town.

Bewildered, sweating and wishing I had different shoes, I gave in to a tuk tuk driver with particularly good English. On the drive home, a sign announcing “Asian Driving School” made me laugh. I had to stop at the ATM (scariest thing I've done yet) near the Russian Market. I never like to have a lot of bills in my wallet, and for a few minutes, I had enough money for the average Khmer to live on for a year dangling from my shoulder.

Money safely tucked away at the guest house, I'm starting to accept Phnom Penh as my place of residence for the next several months.

The director of CWF sent me an e-mail today that helped remind me of my purpose here. At the end of the list of things that he would like me to help with before my semester starts, he wrote, “Thank you for doing something to help Cambodia.” It's pretty simple, but it made me feel like I was really contributing.

By the way, the TV in my guest house gets CNN, and I was watching the coverage of the massive earthquake in Haiti this morning. Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, will need incredible international support, and I encourage everyone to donate even a small amount to help.

Check out Wyclef Jean's website Yele.org to make a donation.

I think it's a karma thing--never miss an opportunity to improve it.

January 12, 2010

Gotta get lost before you know where you're going!

Survival mode.

For a typically anxious person like me, survival mode is at once painful and therapeutic. Right now, Phnom Penh for me means disorientation, last-minute plans, and the consequential lateness of the former. I got lost today, on the way to the volunteer house. These volunteers are currently teaching. My cohorts will arrive sometime in February. I knew the house was really close by, but my map was lacking a crucial piece of information that led me to walk right past my first turn, dooming the rest. Okay, I thought, lets ask.

The asking led me even further from my destination and I grabbed a tuk tuk to just get me where I needed to be. I hadn't allowed time for getting lost (mistake) and I was supposed to meet the volunteers five minutes ago. I called the volunteer coordinator to have her give the tuk directions, but the house was yet illusive. The tuk must have asked 20 people for directions, and we were still just circling the neighborhood. The consensus among Phnom Penhers in the area seemed to be that this street could be in any direction. Eventually, after another phone call, I got there. Embarrassed and late, I apologized profusely, tucked my tail between my legs, and joined the volunteers.

Hot, but determined, I completed the three minute walk back to my place a few hours later. Gotta hit that first right turn!

January 10, 2010

First Impressions of Phnom Penh

My very first impression of Cambodia was the smell. A thick, warm, and delightful smell! Even in the airport, the very foreign air made me feel adventurous. I wasn't expecting anyone to pick me up at the airport, but after waiting for my mystery tuk tuk for 15 minutes, a blond woman asked me if I was “Jenna.” Relieved, I said, “Yes! Are you my person?” She said no, but she knew who my person was and sent me to her directly. I think my somewhat frantic and pathetic e-mails to the director of Conversations with Foreigners (CWF) paid off. The director sent Ally, a tiny Cambodian woman who works for the school to pick me up. We found our tuk tuk driver, piled in my overweight suitcase, and sped off into the dark city (Phnom Penh has only a smattering of street lights). Ally and I briefly discussed weather, dancing, and school as I examined the city from inside the carriage pulled by a motorcycle. The buildings looked old, and the little piles of trash on the corner let me know I wasn't in Nebraska anymore. Stray dogs mingled with fruit stands and women in ambiguous parlors. I noticed men in uniform stationed about every two blocks. Police officers? A braid of thick wires was strung between the wooden telephone poles lining the street. It was surreal to finally be in the place I had being talking, reading and writing about for so many months.


Okay, I've been in Phnom Penh for 12 hours, officially. I've had enough time to bumble my way through Cambodian breakfast—indeed a hearty soup of a little beef, some mystery veggies, rice noodles, and broth. Don't forget the bean sprout, lime and chili garnish. I was thrilled, actually. The iced coffee was the best, though. I can't figure out what they did to it, but a good coffee is an omen for a good morning. About 90 seconds of Khmer-English and Riel-Dollar confusion later, I had paid probably $2 for the whole meal, plus tip.

After that, I tried to buy some toiletries. The little stall next to my Guesthouse has a fair supply of usual products in strangely sized containers. I got a Thai version of Pantene shampoo in a miniature size, and a large bottle of Japanese soap that promises to whiten skin. Selecting my items was easy enough, but figuring out how much they cost was anything but. Keep in mind that Cambodians use two currencies, the Riel for small amounts and the US dollar for larger purchases. At first, I thought she said 3000 riel, which is not even one dollar. Then she clarified 8500 Riel (two dollars), so I shuffled the dirty bills out. No, she said, that's for the soap, 3500 more for shampoo. It sounds pretty easy when I write it out, but I gave up and handed her a $10, hoping for honest change. I think I spent less than $5. In many countries, however, the art of bargaining is the only way to protect yourself from being overcharged (by the way, I have no problem paying the price they ask for—but most foreigners insist that we must bargain—that's another blog entirely). At this point, I'm having enough trouble figuring out what language anyone is speaking, and if it isn't English (or even if it is) I'm pretty much useless.

Getting a cell phone was a very efficient fiasco. The moto ride to the Russian market was incredible—colors, smells, traffic everywhere. My moto driver didn't want to speak any English, but he got me to the right place and helped me wheel-n-deal at the cell phone stand. Okay, wheel-n-deal is not exactly what happened. I pointed to a phone that looked functional, but not attractive enough to be coveted. Eighty bucks. Since I really knew neither how much I should expect to pay (though I heard rumors between $70-$125), nor if it was appropriate to bargain in this situation, I figured it was a solid investment. They copied my passport, talked amongst themselves, and soon I was the proud owner of a used Nokia.

I'm non-confrontational anyway, let alone when I don't speak the language or understand the culture. Another day, I'll blog about how haggling irks me. For now, I'll listen contently to the wonderful water feature in my room and try to learn my Khmer numbers.

So, this water feature...my very foreign bathroom has a toilet that runs non-stop. With great dismay, last night, after 36 hours of travel, I tried to finagle the darn thing to stop wasting water and to stop making noises that would certainly cause incontinence. I managed to do three things: 1. spray toilet tank water all over the bathroom, 2. get that water on my face, and 3. not fix the problem. The staff seemed to disregard my request for repair, so I guess my room is equipped with a water feature—one of those sound-therapy deals. Actually, if a running toilet is the worst thing in my room, I think I'm doing pretty well.

January 6, 2010

Bed 22:31

Tomorrow my last day in the US (for a while), and I'm wondering how I would spend it if it were really up to me. First, I'm getting up at the crack of dawn to run a few errands for my mother. Then, I have a last-chance coffee date with some best friends from high school with whom I've recently reconnected. After coffee, I'm stuck at home and on-call for a date with the plumber. Such is the life.

I get to stare down my big fat suitcase, disorganized carry-on, and general anxiety issues all day tomorrow. Get me on the plane already!

A hearty thank you to all of my well-wishers of late. I appreciate your support and reassurance as I begin my quest for world domination!

January 4, 2010

Seeking a Spiritual Something

I had my last cup of coffee with Takeshi this morning. As we hugged goodbye, I made a teary scene worthy of a low-budget film. I knew it was coming; it was the next step in getting to Phnom Penh. The downside of leaving home is saying goodbye to people that are a daily support system.

On the way to another goodbye in Omaha, I stopped at the Wayfarer's chapel, just off I-80. Though she knows that I am not much of a church person, my mom recommended I stop there, as it is a traveler's chapel. Ok, I thought, I can use all the help/luck/miracle I can get. I took the exit and turned onto the snow-packed country road. The dooming walls of snow on either side of the road made me extra anxious about the rolling (and I mean ROLLing) hills. I found it ironic that I was taking a pretty serious risk to get to this place of salvation. Alone in my little Mitsubishi, I hoped that I would just make it to the place, enjoy, and get safely back to the interstate. The driveway was nearly vertical and totally iced over. I made it to what seemed like the apex, and just like the original Grinch stealing Christmas, my sled was stuck, spinning wheels just before reaching safety. I pressed the accelerator, but I began to slide backwards down the curved driveway. I had visions of becoming lodged and buried in the snow just yards from my destination.
After successfully navigating down the driveway backwards, I somehow worked a magic that only Great Plains drivers possess to wriggle and wrench a car out of any snow predicament. I had summited Everest. Well, not Everest, but that damn hill anyway.

Perched on a pew in the airy, glass-walled chapel on a hill overlooking the crisp white landscape, I watched the other people in the pews. They looked to the altar--for what, I don't know. Perhaps guidance, comfort, or inspiration.

I sat with my journal, hands folded, brain ready for a divine illumination. Everyone else seemed to have a beautiful and clear reason for their visit. Unsure of my motives for attending, I looked on, awaking a stroke of genius or an epiphany of spiritual awakening, but I felt little more than reverence for those who have found a spiritual well-being.

Perhaps, I thought, I have been missing out on something.