February 28, 2010

Cambodia's answer to Michael Phelps

Thinking back to my initial assessment of the Phnom Penh Sport Club as a major status symbol for the foreign, wealthy and beautiful, today I had an interesting experience at the pool. Saturday evening must be a good time to show off your gym membership because the pool was very crowded with Cambodians. After asking permission, I slipped into the fast lane with the older Khmer gentlemen. A few hundred yards later, the old men were gone, and I stopped to chat with some of the new volunteers who had accompanied me. Surveying the patrons, we gawked a moment at the chiseled, tanned Khmer man in a black Speedo and Cambodia swim cap (I do miss swim team). He dove into the fast lane and swam with an expert stroke—an absolute oddity in Cambodia. I took it upon myself to judge if he was fast or not, so I ducked back into the lane to see if I could catch up to him—A few years ago, I would've had no problem, but in my current three-years-off-season, my pace isn't what it should be! I was exhausted after several lengths at that pace, and I stopped at the wall. In true swimmer fashion, he did a flip turn right in my face. That was my cue to try to keep up.

When he stopped to rest, I started a conversation. Turns out that he was on the Cambodian national swim team (hence the cap, but who knew Cambodia had a swim team?), and now he is a coach at the international school. He also teaches swimming lessons at the Sport Club and is training for the triathlon in Siem Riep. In our caps and goggles, we had a nice chat. Swimmers are universally agreeable--it's some by-product of inhaling chlorine gas all day.

It's amazing who you can meet at the Sport Club!

Bike Blunders

Another day unscathed! It's a good feeling to walk up to the house at night having survived the day in Phnom Penh. Although I was nearly road kill on street 155 this afternoon, it was a very pleasant day.

So the road kill part—yeah, I was on my bike, returning from a 3-hour teaching training. Minding my own business, slowing at the corner to wait for my chance to cross 155, a small thoroughfare. I did the usual coast out a feet into the street, and then, out of nowhere a silver Lexus rolls up two feet from my left side and begins turning right. By turning right, I mean turning right into me. It was a slow motion scene of me expecting the car to stop, the car not stopping, and a bit of life-flashing-before-the eyes. I have no idea how the car didn't hit me, or how I escaped the certain doom of the other 15 obstacles on the street, but safely on the other side, I heard the hush of everyone on the street. My roommate, who had been about 25 yards behind me recounted the scene of Khmer women gasping and the entire street coming to a standstill for a brief moment: That car almost hit a barang on a kang! Apparently I caused quite a scene—And it was well-deserved. Although there seem to be no rules for Cambodian driving, there are general expectations, and that car was not abiding by the code. Cars are top dog on the road, but unsure foreigners on difficult bikes always have the right of way!

February 26, 2010

Oh the things you can learn in Khmer class!

I knew it was going to be a good morning. My peanut butter and jelly toasts went down well, and my roommate raved about my blog (which had entertained her during last night's insomnia). Self-esteem roaring, I went to a group Khmer lesson. With 20 people in a room built for 8, we were crowded, but undeterred. The teacher, Rotha, animated himself in front of the class, making jokes and showing his knowledge of the world as we each introduced ourselves. He asked me if I lived in “Big Apple” or Colorado, which impressed me. His comments to the Brits about Gordon Brown were hysterical, and the he had the whole room in stitches.

Then we began the Khmer lesson. He spoke quickly and scribbled on the white board as he reviewed some basic greeting words. I've been taking one-on-one lessons for nearly six weeks, so it was no problem for me to understand. I enjoyed the review of things I already have in my bag of tricks. Near the end of the lesson,you can imagine my delight when he asked something much more difficult, “How do Khmer call, 'What is your name?'” Oh, oh, oh!! Me, me me!! Without thinking, I broke the silence with “Da niat chmua aboi?” and he turned to me, totally shocked, and said, “Wow! Number one student! Can you say again for the class please? You say it so well!” Suddenly the center of attention, I called upon my most eloquent Khmer mouth gymnastics, and they repeated.

During the lesson, I also learned a lot of things. In Khmer, the word “yes” is “baht” for men, and “jaa” for women. If a man says, “jaa,” according to the Khmer teacher, people will think he is gay (by the way, that's the first time I've heard a Khmer use the word 'gay'). Interestingly, the King uses the word “jaa,” but for other reasons. The king is heterosexual, however, as part of Khmer tradition, he honors the first ruler of Cambodia—a woman—by using her language. How's that for a women's studies topic? Our Khmer teacher told us that women are the most powerful and respected people in Cambodia, and they are represented by the thumb. Thus, a thumbs-up is a positive symbol. In contrast, the son is represented by the pinky finger; hence a pinky-down gesture is one of the most negative. My sociology and women's studies background goes crazy for this stuff. Looking at this society from a Western perspective, I would absolutely say that women are second-class citizens who are mistreated and disrespected daily. However, my lack of knowledge about the foundations of Khmer culture seriously limits my ability to access the gender roles. I have a lot to learn!

After the lesson, more than one of the other volunteers complimented me on my fine command of the Khmer language. No matter how long you've studied, that's a great compliment to any language learner.

Between the blog and the Khmer lesson, consider my ego stroked.

February 25, 2010

New Kids on the Block

I'm going to sleep well tonight. Today was the official first day of CWF orientation for semester 15-- the February-May group. For me, it was a day I have been longing for since I arrived. With the group of nearly 20 assembled at our breakfast table, a fresh energy radiated from the new faces. The glow of pale skin and the sugar rush of morning doughnuts and sticky rice could have contributed to the radiation, but I prefer to think that the exuberant souls who chose the hottest, driest three months to live in Cambodia have something special. We are a diverse bunch with several Americans, a sprinkling of Canadians, a few Brits, some Australians, a Singaporean, a German, a Spaniard, and a Slovakian. I share a room with a young Canadian who does things like run a creative writing center, stay at yoga ashrams for 3 months, and come to Cambodia with literally only a normal sized backpack. She's way cool.

Back to breakfast--after a crash course in eating the rambutan, an exotic fruit that reminds me of a big grape, we set off in a caravan of tuk tuks, ready to take on the city. Our first stop was the CWF school to take individual pictures to hang at the school. They made me go first, and as I can never say no to a prop, I decided to sit on a nearby motorbike for my portrait. I'm not usually a trend-setter, but as the resident expert, my opinions and actions are easier to imitate.

Several overstimulating hours of tuk tuking, sight-seeing, and cell phone-buying later, we arrived back at the house for lunch. Twenty servings of rice and mystery Khmer dish, please. The heat and dust from the morning were wearing on my energy and my patience. I've learned to give my body some form of midday rest (or face the health consequence), so my roommate and I each took a few minutes of shut eye until the next orientation activity.

The energy change is a godsend. I was in a bad place mentally the past few weeks, and I was very worried about surviving the next three months. Now, however, with the support of this group, I know I can do it.

By the way, food tastes better when people say positive things about it. Suddenly, the meals that used to be somewhat disappointing for me are tasty and satisfying—though I'm still waiting for the dessert course...

February 23, 2010

Switching roles: from newbie to old hat in one fell swoop

Today marked a decidedly new chapter in my Cambodia chronicle. No longer was I the new kid on the block—on the contrary—Today I was the tour guide, the question and answer gal, the been-there-done-that person. Two new volunteers arrived midday, just after my swim at the Sport Club. Feeling a little cocky pedaling in on a bicycle, I introduced myself and excused my disheveled post-pool appearance. Both were twenty-something American women with delightful personalities. Over lunch I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment as I answered their questions about Phnom Penh, CWF and the house. We took a neighborhood tour to the Russian Market to avert jet-lag napping.

After the intense heat of the market, we took a well-deserved break in the air-conditioned upstairs of Cafe Yejj. I was uncontrollably happy to finally be among my own volunteers, the people with whom I will share a very intense three months. I chatted enthusiastically about travels, school, and boyfriends for a few hours, despite my sore vocal chords. Our next stop was my secret spot—the 7 Mart Cafe with free wifi. I thought of Fiona's wisdom as I told them, you've got to have some comfort things to keep you sane—mine are brownies and daily internet access. For the first time in six weeks, I felt very confident and I found myself quite happy to be in Cambodia.

Now a nagging cough reminds me of me of my grandpa's wise remedy: grandma's frozen chocolate chip cookies do the trick every time. No cookies in the world could compare to my grandma's, but until the next time I can raid her freezer, these little chocolate-filled cakes will have to tide me over.

Lost Post from Sunday

I'm nearly alone in the house tonight. The same house that normally harbors the energy of 14. It's strange and lonely to have eaten my dinner in silence for the first time in a month. I'm in the cusp between semesters, dangling between the excitement of those returning home and the thrill of my new adventure. Since I can't talk to anyone anyway (laryngitis can shove it!) I'm using this long weekend to regroup.

As Fiona predicted, I'm asking a lot of the big questions to myself. Who am I? Where am I? What am I? Perhaps interesting for a conversation over coffee, I'm not terribly worried about these yet. I'm more concerned with questions like how can I spend 3 days at the house and not go nuts? When the heck will my voice come back? Will I fit in with the new volunteers? Am I blogging too often?

I'm also thinking about my real purpose here. I don't foresee an extended career of teaching English in Cambodia, so I've got to focus on what I can do for these students in the next three months. When I began teaching in late January, most of the other teachers had already given up on lesson planning and found a natural rhythm with students—or, they resorted to field trips and the media room. I felt a lot of pressure to make my lessons really fun, to disguise the learning part. I tried to be really creative and use lots of mini games to engage students. However, the feedback I got last week made me rethink my method.

Students at CWF are mostly university students or young professionals who are looking to English as a way to get a better job. At $40 for 10 weeks, these Cambodians are investing a hefty sum, though not the $120+ that similar schools charge. These are not restless children who were forced to come to school. These are adults who are motivated to improve their lives. They don't mind doing the grunt work that learning a language takes.

Based on that, of course I want to have a fun classroom atmosphere, but I want to focus on giving them a real learning environment. I've learned that Cambodian education is inconsistent at best, and that students at CWF have very little understanding of learning strategy and classroom behavior (at least the strategies and behaviors that western cultures take for granted). The best gift I give them is to do everything I can to help them learn the course material and give them a learning strategies for the future. The typical language classroom includes an introduction of new vocabulary, drills, controlled practice, and review.

My responsibility as a conversation teacher is to speak slowly and clearly enough for students to understand, but also to challenge them in real time. In a real conversation, many times there is no pen or whiteboard to write the word or draw a picture. In real time, we use gestures or description to get our point across. Sometimes, I have found that even if the student knows the correct word, the pronunciation limits my ability to understand. The Khmer-accented English is one of the most difficult I've come across. Similarly, listening to English must be very difficult for Khmer-trained ears. The sounds and emphasis are just back to front different. For instance, when we were talking about food, one student was raving about “spAHgehdEE” and I just couldn't make sense of it. Eventually, we got “spaghetti” and the world was small again.

I have a lot to learn.

February 20, 2010

It was I who bought the last six lemons!

Somewhere between the three hours of Skyping and the motorbike adventures in Kandal province yesterday, I have totally lost my voice. Due to perhaps overuse, or something more sinister (I also have a fever, body aches and total exhaustion), I can no longer vibrate my vocal chords in comprehensible ways.

Sweating in my room, forcing down a cup of hot honey and lemon water, I sit voiceless, but full of things to say. Part of me curses the day I decided that Cambodia was the only place I wanted to go. It's a hot, developing country with minimal sanitation. What the hell was I thinking? On the other hand, I knew those things coming in, and yes, they are obnoxious, but the are not insurmountable. The universe has a magical way of taking care of travelers. Take yesterday for example.

In the morning, I treated my classes to American breakfast foods for our end of the semester party. You bet they loved the Fruit Loops and granola bars. On a high from the loving compliments and well-wishes from my students, I was able to ignore the tickle in my throat and the heaviness in my body. After the sugar and warm-fuzzies wore off, so did some of my patience with Cambodia. On Skype, I found myself recounting all the miseries of Cambodia to my mother. I felt a little stupid admitting that perhaps Cambodia was too much for me, the invincible Jena. I told my mother that there are certain things here that I don't want to get used to (being really sick every other week, heavy corruption, and lung-darkening smog).

I also spoke to my boyfriend, an ex-pat in his own right; and I spoke to someone who comes with many an ex- prefix. He's an ex-boyfriend, ex-ex-pat, and one-time best friend. He was one of David's closest friends as well, which is the reason that we were Skyping. Over the past five years, my relationships with these friends have been put away, like the precious things kept in a hutch. I didn't neglect these friends purposefully, but I did neglect them. For the record, discussing this kind of thing over Skype with waning energy is not something I recommend. I didn't know what to say. We have plans to talk again soon.

Skype drama aside, I also had plans with Nouna, my Cambodian friend. She told me we were going somewhere for lunch, but as usual, she could've said anything and I wouldn't have known where or what it was. Helmets on, sun shining, we cruised down Monivong, past the Royal Palace, along the River, then we kept going! We crossed the Japanese friendship bridge, and drove down the dusty roads out of the city. My lingering doubts about the legitimacy of such a strange friendship began to surface as we drove into more desolate areas, but my happiness to escape Phnom Penh was too great. We finally stopped, sweat-soaked and thirsty at a river-front Khmer restaurant. The Khmers really have it figured out—At this place, we climbed into shaded hammocks over-looking the Mekong. Our beef salad and fried fish entrees were excellent, and the cat nap afterward was worth the drive.

By this time, my voice was almost gone, but I was enjoying myself too thoroughly to end the day. Nouna still had ideas for things we could do. Kandal Province, she yelled from the front seat of the motorbike, lifting the shield of her helmet. We drove back over the bridge, through the entirety of rush hour Phnom Penh city, and out the other side to Kandal. Not more than a ten minutes' drive from our destination, we heard the ominous thunk of a flat tire. We pushed the bike through traffic, across the street to a homely little shop with a mechanic and his family waiting to help. Since talking was out of the picture by this time, we both watched intently as he methodically removed the tire and the tire bladder. He then took the patching goo and stuck the tire in a vice, heated by actual flames. In less than 20 minutes and for a price of 2000 riel--$0.50--we were back on the road.

The Chinese church in Kandal was beautiful, but I had little energy left to enjoy. We agreed it was time to go home. My body was starting to rebel against me for taking this kind of adventure on a weak immune system. My throat dry and my glands the size of lycee, I barely managed to hang on to the moto as we sped back to town. I would have felt more distraught if the scenes were not so magnificent. With the Asian red sun melting into the darkness, the squiggles of Khmer script on the old sign would've made the perfect post card. It feels so satisfying to go on mini-adventures, to experience normal things in a very strange context. The bad things are balanced out by the good.

February 17, 2010

Sihanoukville, by Jena Lynch

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Feeling a little too stiff after a long bus ride?

Khmer Massage. Three dollars to the hour. Dim room with three beds and a fan, tiny pajama pants to borrow, and a young Khmer woman ready to inflict all sorts of pain. First she pushes, then she prods, pokes and jabs your whole body, then she momentarily cuts off circulation to your legs (as a yogi, this sounds good in theory) before continuing to use her rolling pin arms to flatten your quadraceps. No part of her body goes unused in this gymnastic show of massage talent. Before you know it, she's got you twisted up and her knees are digging into your hamstrings, her fingers into your feet and her body weight is stretching your hip flexors. Once you've turned onto your stomach, the real fun begins. Her sharp heels seek out any tenderness with her standing body weight and the painful sensation fires nerves all over. Pain centers located, rubbed, smashed and thoroughly worked on, She begins your career as a contortionist by elongating your spine, pop-pop-popping your joints and practically tossing your Raggedy-Anne body around the room.

At the end, loose, exhausted and soaked in sweat, you open your eyes and she's there giggling at you, waiting for the $3 you agreed on.

Chinese New Year Holiday in Sihanoukville

It occurred to me on the bus ride home from Sihanoukville as I opened the curtain just enough to peek out. Perhaps this is a country best viewed from here, from the safety of this tiny viewhole—where I can see the magnificent jungle hills, Khmer houses and dusty roads. Where the people are nameless and inconsequential, just like watching National Geographic. But the lives of those outside the Mekong Express bus are part of my experience. I get to deal with them in the market, I get to feel sorry for them as they struggle to make enough money for food, I get to be on the bus rolling by--I get to keep going. I take the bus to escape reality for a while, but for these people, there is no escape. What we see is part of their lives. The fatally-flawed Cambodian education system offers no hope of advancement; therefore, alternate sources of income are a necessity. Cue the convoy of standing-room-only truckloads of garment factory workers.

I happily report that this trip to Sihanoukville was 3000 times better than the one I took by myself. I went with Fiona, Phavy (a Khmer-American friend), and an ex-pat couple who work in Phnom Penh. It was a sophisticated group of intelligent people among the usual suspects in “Snooky Ville”—yes, backpackers and creepy Western men. Welcome to the Jungle, and indeed, at 6 AM Guns and Roses was was still blaring out of the beach bar speakers as the last of the partiers wondered off or passed out in the sand. Between that and the oft-used helipad in the backyard of our hotel, we didn't need alarm clocks. We explored the nicer beaches of Sihanoukville, stopping once at Otres and twice at Sokha (This Sokha guy owns so much of Cambodia I think they are considering a name change). Anyway, Otres was pleasant as usual, but Sokha, on the other hand, was reminiscent of 1950's Southern United States. The beach is divided into two sections: the Khmer side and the foreigner side. Guards police and enforce this invisible border with whistles for the Khmers who dare enter the white side. Judging by the not one, but two jellyfish stings endured by our small group near the demarcation zone, I also hypothesize that the border is patrolled even in the surf. Hired jellies to keep things separate. Sokha resort is the finest in Sihanoukville, and you had better be ready to drop close to $200 a night for a room there (to compare: my room was $5/night). Indeed, the hefty pricetag rules out most Khmers, but the elite of the country do have bucks to spend here, and they are allowed access to whichever side of the beach they prefer.

Fascinating and overwhelming for the sociologist in me, Sihanoukville is a case study in social inequality and the stomach-turning effects of tourism on a developing nation. The prostitution, tourist rip-offs, counterfeit bills, and general seediness of the place leave me with a bad taste. Perhaps I'm still recovering from my $3 haircut that really looks like a $3 haircut, but Sihanoukville is still not one of my must-see places in Cambodia.

Just for the record, the lattes at the New Sea View Villa might be the one thing worth trying in Sihanoukville. Best I've had since Barista's. My advice, skip the more expensive bus (it's the same awful, long drive whether you pay $6 return or $14) and splurge on lots of coffee and dessert.

February 11, 2010

I'm only human after all...

My soul is still smoldering from yesterday's news. I spent the night awake, listening to Ben Folds, letting tears and sweat soak my pillow. I also watched helplessly as my roommate battled that latest stomach bug to plague the house. Five of our remaining 12 in the house were too sick to teach. I suspect the sub-standard hygiene practices have something to do with it. The heat has been unrelenting the past week, and many of us are feeling the crunch of the last few days in the semester. By the way, a cholera epidemic has been declared in Cambodia (Yikes!). That mostly applies to the provinces, I think. I hope. I don't think we have cholera at the house, but if you ever played the Oregon Trail computer game, you well know that cholera can delay your trip several days!

Bless them, my classes this morning were patient with my broken-hearted Valentine's Day vocabulary lesson. I handed out word searches and candy—a winning combination. My second class even wrote some Valentine poems with rhymes. I was a proud mother hen. My little writers.

I grabbed breakfast at a swanky new cafe atop 7 Mart in the Russian Market. The three old guys at CWF were lovely dining company. Eggs on toast and a big coffee for $3. It's hard to beat. I bleached the bathroom and took care of Fiona for the rest of the morning. A short swim, and back to the school.

For the afternoon class I've been covering the past few days, there is usually just one student, and she's really keen to discuss social issues. Tonight I planned a discussion of the proposed burqa ban in France. The CWF director, however, had other plans. He combined several of the sick teachers' classes into mine, creating a giant group of students from diverse levels. I called upon every ounce of quick thinking to produce some semblance of a lesson for these diligent students. We discussed the most effective learning techniques for foreign languages. It wasn't half bad, and the students even asked me if they could visit my class tomorrow because I had so much energy. I also get the feeling that my English is much easier for them to understand compared to the Oz and Kiwi accents some teachers have.

On the bike ride home from school, I felt very satisfied. The stray dogs and children seemed happier, the ruts in the road smoother, and the traffic more manageable. My outflow of raw emotion yesterday brought me back into my body. I had felt so disconnected since I arrived, but I feel more like myself now than I have the whole trip. There are certain moments when time stands still, and it seems to be our chance to catch up to ourselves, to remember how to appreciate what we have at this moment. I've lost a dear friend. My heart is broken, but I'm able to be human for the first time in a while.

February 10, 2010

The not so bomb-diggity news from home

When you are abroad, life at home keeps rolling. Today I got the news that one of my closest high school friends died yesterday. I wasn't aware that he had been quite ill for a few weeks and that he was due to have surgery for a birth defect. In the midst of a sweltering internet cafe, full-on traffic, and a hideous Skype connection, I realized that I'm still alive and he isn't. Life is moving forward here and at home.

My friend was a fixture of many Lincoln locations and he was always conversing with someone interesting. I liked him because he was intelligent, off the wall and most of all, honest. I'll never forget our antics in northeast Lincoln. Joining chess club, grilling, Chinese fire-drills, making UFOs, newspaper hats (that were later found by a Lincoln Journal Star writer), kite flying, and generally kooky things that nobody else did. He introduced me to better music like Ben Folds and Tori Amos. We went to a Ben Folds concert, just the two of us, and it was one of the best nights of my life—despite the laryngitis. With Ben Folds atop a piano and David at my side, it was perfection. He made me want to be my wacky self. He didn't put up with any bullshit.

I remember when he visited me at the pool a few years after high school, during my overnight shift. He complimented me on my newly attained grown-up demeanor and worldliness. We planned to get back in touch, but living in different cities and going our own ways made our conversations infrequent.

The last time I saw him was late October 2009 in the CoHo, one of the places where he was a fixture. I was there randomly after another event with several high school friends with whom I had also fell out of touch (pattern?). His rich baritone voice and irreverent comments were the same as ever, and I found myself missing the good old days in his Nissan with plans to commit minor felonies.

He was one in six billion (he'd correct me on that figure), and I know that he is missed. Even though our friendship faded towards the end, his impact on my life was unmistakable, and I won't soon forget him.

When you die, I hear you can still read blogs. Apparently the blogosphere and heaven have similar altitude. Anyway, I hope it's true. This one's for you, David. You're the bomb-diggity, and when I see our bus-home in the Pacific Northwest, I'll attach it to a hot air balloon and light it on fire in your honor.

February 8, 2010

Learning for a reason

Teaching is hard. All you teachers out there nod your heads in agreement because I am right. There's nothing quite like the desperation of watching your lesson plan tank as you stand in front of a white board, unsure of what to do next. Do you abandon ship and let class out early? Do you persevere, despite the looks of horrified confusion on the students' faces? Do you casually mumble something and then spend the rest of class explaining/apologizing about the naughty words in English?

Luckily, in a low-pressure school like CWF, most class periods are a breeze (indeed the only breeze in Cambodia). Today, for instance, I used a high-energy game to review the past two weeks' material. The students were excited, bursting out with laughter, and speaking English! I was pleased. The CWF students are motivated by business and education opportunities and I am so proud of them for doing something to advance themselves. Cambodia is a sink hole unless you get a leg up. Cambodians who can get a university education and significant English language training have a much higher chance to break the cycle.

I'm like a chimney with all this venting

This post has almost nothing to do with Cambodia, but everything to do with my identity as a young person. At the ripe old age of 22, I haven't jumped into the bar scene. I don't like being drunk (especially when I don't speak the local language!), I don't like how people act (or are expected to act) when they are drunk, and I find the whole situation very uncomfortable.

Why is is that when I say I'm not drinking alcohol, I'm suddenly strange, prudent or antisocial?

Why is it that something must be wrong with me if I decide that I want my antibiotics to work properly (I'd rather not pee out the meds that are preventing major illness)?

Why is it that some people think that just because I'm a tall blonde, I need to “work the room” from the moment I enter?

Frankly, I'm not en pointe in a sweaty, smoky bar full of tipsy ex-pats. I don't like to exploit my looks in return for drinks and phone numbers. It's not a fair trade, and I'm just not that interested. It became frighteningly clear to me last night that I value people who can think of something else to talk about besides drunken misadventures, and people who have taken the reigns of their own lives (not just taken three months off to drink and be ignorant).

I did meet some fine people last night, over a plate of Cambodian nachos (don't ask). People who endure the same struggles to find compatible conversation partners; people who keep their heads on and care about the work they do. In acknowledging the incredible challenge they too face in social life in Phnom Penh, they gave me hope of sanity.

In my culture, alcohol is a powerful social medium. It signifies adulthood—perhaps even social status depending on the type of booze. Overt drunkenness is frowned upon, but getting drunk is also part of the social scene. I don't condemn alcohol or people who drink, because I enjoy the occasional glass of wine. My criticism is to the normalization of the bar scene as the paramount means of socializing for young people.

Have I gone astray?

What ever happened to late night coffee-housing or game night? Scrabble, Apples to Apples?

February 6, 2010

Easy Saturday

I'm perched on a plastic chair at the end of my bed, using my mattress as a desk of sorts. Fiona is doing the same, as we reflect on how our blogs are never what we imagine, but somehow they turn out right. I am thinking about the day—a hot, but easy Saturday. I didn't have to leave my pillow until 8 o'clock this morning, a welcome change from my usual 5:15 wake up alarm.

Fiona and I tuk tuked to Orussei market to pick up our investments at the tailor. I've now assembled something of a uniform for life in Phnom Penh. I challenged the tailor to make me some over-the-knee cargo/safari shorts, and he has delivered. Two pair, one in a thick, navy cotton (with anchor buttons!) and the other in a rugged avocado fabric. A little less feminine than my clothes at home, but functional, durable and modest enough for this city. The tailor also supplied me three button-up shirts. Complete with sleeves, a longer than usual length, and lovely fabric, I think these shirts will be ideal to scribble on a white board for several hours each day. Made-to-measure and cheaper than I could buy them in the market (shirts $3 each and shorts $9 a pop), I'm satisfied with my pre-semester purchases.

Post-tailor, another volunteer and I rode bicycles to the Sport Club swimming pool. Being underwater is decidedly the best way to spend the hottest hours of the day. The best thing about being in the house so early is that I can pick up on tips and tricks the others have figured out over the course of the semester. For example, my swimming buddy introduced me to the “hard beauty cloth” on sale at the mini-mart to help scrub away the dust and grime of Phnom Penh; and the hole-in-the-wall (that's all they've got here) noodle shop just down the street.

Tonight I'm feeling more like a part of the group. I am so pleased that some of the volunteers have asked me to accompany them on various missions—I've been needing that friendship element in my life. The group here is diverse, but they are a great bunch with big hearts.

February 3, 2010

Wishing for a return ticket

Today I envy those who will be escaping Phnom Penh in the next two weeks. My body has finally rebelled against the food, heat, and exertion of Cambodian life. I've been sick (diarrhea, dizzy, feverish) but somewhat functioning since Sunday, and today, mid-Khmer lesson, I nearly fainted. Last night, I thought I was going to sweat myself to death—my breath was dragon-hot, my skin clammy—I had disturbing images of myself going to a Khmer hospital...that made things worse.

I made it to the school on time this morning, sat down for the majority of my teaching, and fought through 30 minutes of Khmer lesson before I gave in. I had no desire to pass out at the school because I outweigh all the students by 30 kilos. Who could carry me?

Srey Leak, my teacher, helped me get downstairs to Pheap's office. I immediately burst into tears in front of the CWF staff, told Pheep I needed the doctor, and in five minutes I was slumped onto Pheap's moto.

Dizzy as I was, the clinic made it so much worse as the American doctor told me at least three horror stories about Cambodian medicine. Some guy had dysentery but the doctors didn't diagnose it, some lady died after a bad transfusion, and something else about dehydration. I had tears again. The seal has been broken. I have cried in Cambodia! The doctor checked my temperature, blood pressure, all the usual suspects. Mostly normal, but the length of time I had been suffering was worrisome, so he prescribed a bag full of antibiotics and rehydration power, and he even gave me a stool kit, in case I don't feel better soon. Pheap helped me with the $40 bill (I never carry more than $25 around here) and took me home.

The miserable feeling in my body was evident on my face as I walked in. Several volunteers came over and rubbed my shaking, sweating body and offered advice of what to do next. Drink a green coconut, lie down, eat some rice. I drank some rehydration fluid and struggled with the antibiotics as Fiona comforted me. I was crying again, but because everyone was being so nice. I was a little embarrassed, but everyone in the house had been exactly where I was: stuck on the toilet, sweating, panicky, homesick, and wondering why I chose to put myself here.

Four months left. How do people do this? How will I do this?

February 1, 2010

Kampong Cham Province: Part 2

Nutella and banana pancakes at a riverside cafe started my second day in Kampong Cham off with a happy, happy feeling that only Nutella in provincial Cambodia can supply. The tuk tuk trek to the mountains was about 15 minutes bumping around, knocking my back into metal bars. We climbed up the steps to the “male mountain” temple to feed a pack of monkeys. Cute at first sight, these little guys will steal your heart, then nab your bag of peanuts if you aren't careful.

The next temple, on the “female mountain” required a 217 stair climb. At 10:30 AM, Cambodia begins to swelter. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. That's what I had to keep telling myself as I forced my legs to keep working. At the top, out of breath, legs made of spaghetti, I was able to see the Mekong Valley, lush and green. The stunning contrast of the rich green fields and the gold and white temple architecture caught my eye and my camera. The pictures never do the scene justice. In the temple, I prayed for safe travel for me and my volunteer friends, with whom I was now much closer.

I've heard pieces of the story of the male and female mountains from many sources. Here's what I make of it: long ago, the Khmer people were deciding who was stronger, men or women. It was a matter of dowry that needed to be settled in the only appropriate way, who can climb the mountain faster. Everyone assumed the men would dominate the competition, but the women—always with the trickery—managed to fool the men. To get a head start, they hung something over the men's tents to fool them into thinking it was night time. Thus, the women were able to finish the task first. Now, the mountains are known as the male and female mountains, the female much larger. Moral: men are easily fooled into sleeping extra long.

We descended (careful not to tumble 217 stone steps) for another meal: more roundtable Khmer feeding frenzy. I wished for a slower-paced meal, but if you eat too slowly, there won't be anything left, so get your chopsticks ready. The most frustrating part of the trip was trying to pay for the meal. Some of the volunteers are very adamant that they only pay for exactly what they ate and what they drank. Others, like me, would rather just split the ticket evenly and if I pay $0.10 for part of someone's drink—good for them. It's just not a big deal. Anyway, a hurricane of confusion engulfed the table, with English and Khmer, dollars and riel, addition and subtraction, calculations and guesstimates. It was too much for me. I put in $5 (20,000 riel), which was about 3000 riel too much, and sat back to watch. With full stomachs, we boarded a bumpy--and this time hot bus--back to hustling, bustling Phnom Penh. My guts nearly exploded. Yikes.

By the way, I got my 3000 riel back from lunch. What a frighteningly accurate system...

Kampong Cham Province: Part 1

Tonight I have traded my top floor writer's niche for my bed, and my cup of tea for a bottle of diluted Gatorade. I am exhausted, my stomach is unsure of itself, and my head is still spinning from a whirlwind weekend!

I spent a lovely weekend in Kampong Cham province—the hometown of our volunteer coordinator, Sopheap. Better known as “Pheap,” She invited the volunteers to join her for a temple opening ceremony and a trip to the mountains outside of town. Since most of the volunteers will be leaving Phnom Penh in the next two or three weeks, there was only a sparse showing for the bus at 6:45 AM Saturday morning.

We arrived, frostbitten and hungry, in Kampong Cham around lunchtime. Normally a bit of air-con is a blessing in Cambodia, but our bus had the temperature set at blustery winter day, and my vent—as many things on Cambodian buses are—was broken...open. Even with half a lotus shell (Khmer MacGyver) wedged in the vent, I spent the bus ride huddled under a spare t-shirt, shivering. The group dispersed into hotel stayers, and the more adventurous/broke bunch staying at Pheap's family's home. Her house seems typical Cambodian, or slightly better than average. Standing tall on stilt legs, the upstairs had slat bamboo floor that threatened to break at the next false move. The bedrooms of Pheap's family and a minimalistic living room were upstairs, and downstairs, also in typical fashion, a squat-toilet WC (not Writing Center) and kitchen completed the house.

For lunch, we plowed through several Khmer dishes at a local restaurant. We ate family style, scooping and passing as we chopsticked noodles, rice, soup, meat and veggies into our mouths. After lunch, we set off for the bamboo bridge to the island with the new temple. The bridge itself seems to be a miracle of engineering. Thousands of bamboo rods have been woven, strung and otherwise held together to create a 10-foot wide bridge that stretches the better part of a kilometer. Treading lightly on the far right side of a bridge that is only wide enough for a Lexus SUV (when cars pass, stand still and suck in), we enjoyed the thrill of creaking bamboo and the rapid rattling caused by motos speeding along the slats. By the end of the bridge, we were well aware of the midday sun. We got charged the “foreigner tax”---again--before we could continue on of the most difficult 2 km walks I've ever taken. Bedraggled in my flip-flops, feet covered in orange dust, I tried to avoid the rocks and passing traffic on the dirt path to town. All the volunteers were red-faced and shiny with sweat. Our lunch was rumbling in our bellies, and the sun just wouldn't quit. We hadn't signed up for this...

Not a moment too soon, we opted to hitch a ride on a passing horse-drawn cart. The cart of big western people attracted everyone's attention as we rolled by, our horse looking chipper, mane flowing. The normally quiet town was flooded with people for the event, and it was difficult to stay together. I had a hard time understanding much about the symbolism in the ceremony, but the next thing I new we were crashing a temple fund raiser. Pheep knew someone who knew someone, so we sat at a table and started eating, again. The coconut sticky rice was my favorite, but I wasn't confident in my body functions to eat very much more. After donating some dollars and riel, we decided to maneuver through the crowds once more. Finagling our way around the temple grounds, we found a scene reminiscent of a county fair, complete with pop-a-balloon-win-something boards. Ken, an older volunteer with a wicked sense of humor, grabbed a dart and chucked it with horrible aim, actually puncturing a nearby can of beer.

Spraying alcohol is not a way to make friends, so we ducked into the tobacco fields for a walk to the Mekong. This walk, much like the first, began with good intentions, but ended in hot, dusty misery. It became entirely clear to us why Khmers ride motos everywhere.

Having learnt our lesson, we hired a team of motos to take us back out of town and across the bridge. My driver found the ride particularly enjoyable as he joked in Khmer and laughed as we rattled, rolled, and swerved ominously toward the edge of the bridge. I arrived without a scratch, but with giant sweat marks down my back. A quick hammock nap at Pheap's and we we off to eat Khmer hot pot. Hot pot is basically a do-it-yourself bowl of soup. Very communal, very tastey.

Exhausted, (but clean—we took showers at a hotel!!) we went back to Pheap's house. Our mats and mosquito nets were a welcome sight after the grueling day. The bathroom is already locked, brush your teeth here, Pheap said, pointing to a bucket of water on the stairs. We did. Pee by the flowers if you need to, Pheap said. We did. The bamboo slats were a little too much for my side-sleeping habit, but I managed to find just the right way to sleep. Middle of the night emergency pee? You bet. Not bad for a girl who wouldn't leave the house without make-up a few weeks ago...