March 30, 2010

This tummy bug can't stop me!

Lately, I've been feeling lost—to say the least. My old identity as student and writing tutor has been traded in for wandering foreigner, leaving me confused about my niche in the world. To add to my disorientation, for the first time since I can remember, my success is not measured in grades. I have no A's to assure me that I am doing good work. Here, success is much more difficult to gauge. When my envisioned lesson plan leaves me reaching for the ejection seat, I often feel personally responsible, like I've really failed my students. Sure, I've only been a teacher for a short time, but I take such pride in my work that I am constantly evaluating my lessons. In Cambodia, my identity is based on my work at CWF, and I take that commitment very seriously—As always, I want to do my best work.

This morning, I know I was successful. Not even the ominous lower abdominal rumblings could stop me (though for just a moment, I was very concerned). My lesson on peer review with the Advanced Discussion went like a dream. As an English teacher, I was pleased that my students were communicating with the vocabulary I had presented. As a writer, however, I was thrilled to share my enthusiasm for this aspect of the writing process.

In this identity crisis, I am able to see what I really love doing. Whether as a teacher or student, I am fascinated by the writing process, the language acquisition process, and that moment when a new concept makes sense. Painful as it may be sometimes, realizing stuff like this is exactly what I wanted out of Cambodia (good thing because there are no refunds on journeys to find yourself). I can't wait to see what else Cambodia has in store for me!

March 29, 2010

The Tenth Dancer

Last night I saw a tremendous film about Apsara, the traditional Khmer dancers. Until the time of Pol Pot, these dancers were an essential element of Khmer society as a connection between the gods and man. The film I saw was called “The Tenth Dancer” because nine out of ten Apsara dancers were killed during the Pol Pot Regime. Made in the early 1990's, the film documents one of these “tenth” dancers who survived the genocide.

In the time of King Sihanouk, many young girls trained to be Apsara, including the film's central character. The stunning and ornate costumes, jewelry and make-up were an important part of royal ceremony, and the dancers lived in the palace. During Pol Pot, these women's close connection to the king made them targets for the Khmer Rouge.

Reading about Pol Pot is one thing, visiting S-21 and the killing fields another, but harder still is trying to understand Pol Pot in context. Listening to the stories of survivors is infinitely more painful because the numbers don't matter--one million, two million—it's arbitrary if you watched your sister starve to death, then your father and mother. The brutal interviews about Pol Pot's regime haunted the slow precision and beauty of the Apsara dance revival shown in the film.

I want to know more.

March 25, 2010

Out of power, but all is not lost!

Nebraskans are no strangers to power outages. Between thunderstorms and ice blankets, I've survived many an hour sans electricity. However, the four winter days of no power in Kearney were no match for the one night without power in Phnom Penh.

Just as I opened my book, the light flickered, sputtered and went out. The pitch black from outside was suddenly inside. The fans whirred to a halt, leaving me and my book in the muggy darkness. I fumbled for my handy alarm/flashlight combo and went to check the fuses. Other volunteers had also emerged from the darkness, disoriented and concerned. The fuses were in the right place, but no electricity was flowing. We migrated to the roof to check whether it was only our house or whether one of the notorious dry season rolling black-outs was upon us. The dark street was a pretty good indication that it wasn't just us, but the Karaoke bar shone like an ungrateful beacon at the end of the street.

The lack of light was really no problem, given that I was ready for bed anyhow, but the lack of fans was an immediate problem. The infernal heat inside our bedrooms is like a Turkish steam bath, and believe me, no one is sleeping in a Turkish steam bath. Lying there in a pool of my own perspiration listening to the booming karaoke bass, I imagined the kilowatts of energy fueling the amplifiers, neon lights and refrigerators. Yes, the very same kilowatts that could easily fuel the fans of the entire neighborhood and save us from this sweat box. The fan is an essential not to be taken for granted.

I actually fell asleep for a while before my alarm at 5. Still without power, I did the best I could to get ready with a flashlight and a good memory. Forced to forgo my usual toast and tea, I settled on part of an apple and water.

Teaching with low blood sugar, poor sleep quality and gallons of sweat is just not ideal, but I muddled through two classes. Breakfast at the Russian Market with my Khmer teacher and a lazy swim were absolute necessities. Without fans, our house was dehydration waiting to happen.

When the power finally came back on after lunch, it was such mega relief that everyone found a fan and began worshiping. By the way, what wonderful timing for my level 6's discussion of utility services. Must be fate.

March 24, 2010


I miss driving my car in Kearney. I miss singing along with Kings of Leon as I roll down 2nd Avenue. Even now, just the thought of those songs sends me back to a time when I couldn't wait to get out of there. Ironic, isn't it?

Cue the knee buckle, the stomach turn and the overwhelming need to time travel.

March 20, 2010

S-21: Tuol Sleng Musuem

Continuing last week's trend of a confronting and touristy Saturday morning, I visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Located just a few blocks from the volunteer house, this former high school turned torture and execution center is one of the most famous sites in Cambodia. Tuol Sleng High School was renamed S-21 by Pol Pot's “Democratic Kampuchea.” This site was made infamous by the estimated 20,000 people detained in the compound between 1975-1979.

In a moment of confidence, I decided to ride a bike to Tuol Sleng this morning. I figured that my weeks of practice on the side roads between the house, the school and the Sport Club had prepared me to cross Mao Tse Toung Boulevard (yes, that's the real name). Actually, once I cleared the traffic jam at the Russian Market, maneuvering on the busy street was quite easy. Rolling up street 113 towards Tuol Sleng, the residential neighborhood was unassuming, very normal. Even the houses directly across from from the compound were normal—washing hung out, children running about. I parked my bike, paid the entrance fee and followed the swarm of Keen sandal/shoes and large rear-ends into the compound.

Immediately cameras were flickering, shutters flying to capture the horror of Tuol Sleng. I watched as people photographed the sign with the translation of the Khmer Rouge regulations. I wondered about these tourists' poor relatives who were going to be subjected to a slide-show viewing of every captioned sign at Tuol Sleng. My camera safely at home, I read Pol Pot's rules, wondering how “thwart” made a whopping three appearances in the 10 regulations. Although I would have greatly preferred to explore on my lonesome, the sheer number of tourists on a Saturday morning meant that least 25 strangers and I were wondering the long line of rooms in Building A together. In each of the former classrooms, a metal bed frame, bent from the beatings which took place stood silently in the middle of the room. On the wall was a picture taken by the Vietnamese liberators of a prisoner beaten and left to die at the end of the regime. Although most of the blood has been washed clean from the floor, anyone who looks upward will notice the ominous red splatters on the ceiling. Building A amounts to room after room of the same solemn bed, the same gruesome pictures and the same empty feeling.

Building B was the most difficult. Like the Nazi's, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers, documenting and photographing each prisoner before the murder. In Building B, hundreds upon hundreds of these photos are showcased. At first, I looked carefully at each photo, searching the faces for feeling. Did they know what was going to happen, I wondered? I peered in to the glassy-eyed women, and the hard-faced men guessing whether they knew. As I continued down the endless rows of photos, the eyes started looking back. The women and their lopped-off hair stared at me, and the men, faces defiant, looked me in the eye. The room became a sea of eyes watching me. I no longer wondered if they knew. Each face knew something. It was a room full of knowing.

Nearly in a trance, I found myself roaming other floors and other buildings walking down barbed wire lined corridors, peering into empty rooms with shackles and numbers on the wall. Mass detention rooms full of prisoners. The infamous bloody handprint in one cell was particularly frightening, but in the context it was just another remnant of a torture center. Suddenly away from the rest of the tourists, I walked into something even worse than the handprint. I found myself in a long corridor of small wooden cells that looked like vertical coffins with tiny windows. Disoriented in the dim light and thick wood smell, my heart raced. Where is the exit!?

A guest book lay open in one room with multilingual well-wishes from other visitors. I scanned the book, wondering what I could contribute. What could I possibly say? I'm sorry? This place is filled with horrors beyond all imagination? Peace and Love? I didn't write anything.

I left Tuol Sleng like many people do. Confused about humanity and the human experience. If humans are capable of such atrocities, how can we trust anyone? I thought of my students at CWF. The incredible resilience of the human race astounds me. My students are the generation after Pol Pot, and it's up to them to continue rebuilding Cambodia.

March 19, 2010

Living the dream, soul-searching and other cliches

For now, I'm living the dream. At least that's what I told students this morning when we were taking turns asking “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I explained that I am already in Cambodia—my answer to that question. Riding to school in the afternoon on a rickety Chinese bike, I feel like I'm in a movie. The dusty sunset against Phnom Penh's hustle and bustle seems too foreign to be part of my daily routine. Every day I have the same surreal feeling. Am I really here?

At the moment, sitting on the balcony, Khmer karaoke music swirling around, the week has caught up to me. It has been tough on my inner teacher. My Advanced Discussion hasn't gone like I envisioned and my night classes are difficult to manage. Slumped in the tuk tuk this morning, I felt defeated; like I was the worst teacher ever. A few unsuccessful lessons in a row can do that. Blank stares and chirping crickets are not encouraging.

After some intense soul-searching at the gym and several long talks with old friends and my volunteer colleagues, I've diagnosed some of the issues ailing my classes. First, I need to have a clear idea of what I want from students—otherwise, if I don't know, how the heck will they know what I want? I need to plan thoroughly and model the exercises. Second, I need to be an assertive teacher. But most importantly, I need to teach what I know! My two mottoes at the Writing Center were keep it short and simple, and write what you know. I've been doing neither of those here. I am a writer-- I need to use that to my advantage in the classroom. In the morning, I did a current events activity in which students read and listened to a Jena-fied version of a newspaper article about vocational training for inmates. A big success. In another class, I had students imagine their dream jobs and write a paragraph. They enjoyed the activity, it kept my classroom orderly, and many of them volunteered to read and discuss about their jobs afterward (a true miracle).

Contrary to my initial plan of catering to students, I am going to take advantage of my specific skills and education. More writing for me and the students, and definitely more discussion about current events. I miss you, CNN.

As I live the dream, I get to impose some of that of my students--how convenient!

March 16, 2010

Not related to coffee, but just pretentious enough for me

Such is the life abroad that we become caricatures of ourselves. My caricature is the Nordic princess, the Valkyrie, the impossibly tall woman in a land of smaller people. My outer appearance gives me away as a foreigner, as a greenhorn, but also as a very revered speaker of the coveted English language. I've never been so aware of my physical appearance, and yet, I've never done so little to prepare myself for facing the world. The asymmetries of my face that I do my best to conceal at home are in full view here. Stripped of my security make-up, hair and adornments. I am in the raw, and I think it works for me.

When our routines are stuck half-way around the world, our daily habits are also exaggerated. Though I'm only modestly sporty at home, here in Phnom Penh, I might as well be training for the Olympics. My KFC-tanned legs are a testament to the hours I put in at the pool. Having been a competitive swimmer for 10 years, I take for granted my abilities to move my body up and down the lane without stopping. Surprisingly, this skill has been one of my most prized possessions in the past two months. Swimming is a refuge for me, a time I can be alone. It is also a conversation piece, however, that I use to my advantage.

Besides having an eye-catching ability in the pool and retaining my need for punctuality, I have discovered skills I didn't know I had. My animation in front of the classroom still surprises me. I'm not really a shy person, but I usually prefer to error on the side of reserved. Interacting with non-native speakers in a classroom setting has changed my communication. I suppose it was a (excuse the pun) sink or swim alteration, but I now communicate with simpler sentences, removing all superfluities, and instead I use my body, face to express difficult concepts and words.

During the life abroad, we see ourselves in a new context. I'm surprised at the things that dropped away unnoticed (heaps of chocolate, driving my car, watching TV). The parts of my caricature that remain dominant are the parts I truly value, but most interesting to me are the things that are surfacing as weeks pass—new talents, things I miss about home, and my identity outside of Nebraska.

March 14, 2010

Where's Las Vegas when you need it?

Today I'm feeling lucky. Not lucky as in something good is going to happen to me, but more like I feel lucky to be me at this moment. I had a great night out with the group last night, and despite the “memories” of Angkor beer in my bloodstream this morning, I pedaled off to the Sport Club for one of my best swims ever. Walking out of the Sport Club, the Cambodian sun that I often curse for its infinite heat was warm and delightful on my face. I thought, yep, this is where I am supposed to be right now.

The best part is that, in my initial plan, volunteering a CWF was sort of an afterthought. I was so focused on CamTEFL that I did not give CWF the credit that it really deserves. The volunteers are a special lot—it isn't just anybody who devotes three months of his life to teaching, lesson planning, and sweating without pay. The CWF staff are also extraordinary. The entire staff is under age thirty, comes from rural Cambodia, and works long, hard hours for a small salary because they want to help develop their homeland. It's a great project to be a part of.

March 13, 2010

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek

On most tourists' lists of must-see places in Cambodia, The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek rank somewhere near the top. To much to the western world, Cambodia is famous for two things: the Khmer Rouge regime and Angelina Jolie. Oh, and Angkor Wat—but, mostly the first two (Angkor Wat is for people who actually know something about Cambodia).

I finally collected the nerve to become a tourist for the day and visit Choeung Ek with 8 other volunteers. Before I came to Cambodia, I thought that places like the Killing Fields would be some of the first things I would visit, but in my varying degrees of emotional instability, I found myself weary of any further challenges to my psyche. It also helped that I could split the cost of the tuk tuk ride four ways—I'm becoming very frugal these days.

Unlike the mountain top fortress of Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, Austria, the Killing Fields are unassuming. A few small buildings and a large memorial stupa dot the otherwise bare landscape. The Stupa (that's an ornate, tall and thin building) was built as a memorial to the victims of the genocide, and as a place to house the skulls and bones found in the excavations. The stupa has 17 wooden tiers to display the bones because the Khmer Rouge took power on April 17. Inside the stupa, if you look straight up, hundreds of skulls stare back, cracked and dirty.

The actual killing fields are different than I expected. They are simply big dug-out holes in a shady grove. The thousands of bodies have been exhumed from the countless mass graves, leaving narrow walkways between them for tourists. Before the Khmer Rouge, this area was a Chinese cemetery, as evidenced by the remnants of gravestones scattered around the excavated mass graves.

If the Khmer Rouge thought they were hiding the evidence underground, they underestimated the power of nature. The earth here holds no secrets. The flooding rains have been continually bringing up the bones and clothing of those who were murdered here for thirty years. Remnants of skirts, sandals and white button-up shirts have all made there way back to the sunlight. The rope and blindfolds used to keep prisoners afraid and handicapped have also surfaced as evidence of the atrocities. The bones and cloth are stuck there in the dirt, right under the feet of tourists who tread on a living museum. Many keep walking, unmoved by the natural unearthing of crimes against humanity, but I squat down to feel the shirt with buttons that has recently uncovered itself. I wonder if it was a woman's shirt. Who was she? Did she have a child? Was her child smashed to death against a tree in front of her very eyes? Was she stripped naked as a final humiliation before being bludgeoned and buried alive? I stop touching the shirt.

This is the part where I wish I could be more ignorant; the part where I wish things that happened half-way around the world before I was born would stop welling up in my eyes and turning my stomach. The more I learn and think about genocide, the less I understand humanity. I don't understand how anyone can say “yep, I think killing the educated people in our society is a great way to improve our country.” Moreover, I really don't understand why, if you want to kill so many people, do you bother do photograph each victim and keep such thorough documentation of the goings-on of your death machine? Why incriminate yourself? It just doesn't make any sense.

Although I now understand even less about humanity, today was an important visit for me as an educator in Cambodia. My students either lived through the Khmer Rouge or they are the first generation after. Rehabilitating a country that was so mutilated only thirty years ago is no easy process.

Author note: I'm adding this part a day later. It was in the original draft, but I chickened out because I wasn't sure if my reaction was legit. I was actually underwhelmed by the museum elements of the killing fields. I found the ungrammatical translations on signs and the amateur low-budget visitor's film to be a little insulting, considering the significance of this place and the amount of tourism here. I was especially disappointed in the video that was supposed to have a poignant message about the eternal spirit of the Cambodian people. The cheesy effects and poor audio were actually comical. Embarrassed of my own judgments on a genocide memorial, I was afraid to blog about it--that is, until I talked about it with some other volunteers who had similar reactions. We talked about how different this museum was to places like Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and how western ideas of such memorials are actually very different from what is possible in a place like Cambodia. Some deep reflections later, I decided that I wasn't aware of the expectations I brought to the killing fields, and that perhaps the museum holds a certain authenticity in its imperfection.

March 12, 2010

Some semblance of routine in my's about time!

I'm learning the art of lesson planning as I figure out my daily routine. Between my early morning and evening classes, a daily swim, and mandatory nap time, I still have a free hour or so to plan out activities for upcoming classes. The level 4 and 6's have course books that I can use to pretty much spoon-feed new material. The preparation includes sifting through the book exercises and adding some games or Cambodi-fying some of the activities to be more interesting. Sometimes the book is a useful resource, but other times, the material in the book is just crap (and yes, I get to decide)! The Advanced Discussion also has a book; however, my preparation is mostly to educate myself on how to run debates, how to teach presentation, how to present the more advanced forms of discussion. It is actually quite intimidating.

During class, I am bursting with energy. I love being in front of the students, talking, using gestures, and writing on the board. It is so energizing to think on my feet. Even the diabolical heat inside the stuffy rooms can't slow me down. I bring a hanky to soak up the sweat and a bottle of water to hydrate. The students are so much fun that I usually forget about the heat. When they have a questions, students will shout “Teacher!”, or the shortened version: “'Cher! 'Cher!” That always makes me smile. Sometimes I wish I could get away with calling them “student!” because their names are nearly impossible. Never one to be outsmarted by another language, I am trying my best to learn and use all 48 of my students' names. Good luck, me.

The initial high of teaching quickly gives way to hunger and exhaustion as soon as I'm back at the house. Especially in the morning, after two classes and my Khmer class, at 9:00 AM, I'm ready to call it a day. Instead, I grab a quick and sugar-laden breakfast from the bowl on the dining table. Fully sugared, I can usually convince myself to go for a swim because I've already paid good money for my membership. After a swim and shower, I have a few minutes to lesson plan, and before I know it, some strange (and increasingly yummy) curry lunch is in the big pot, and I've got a big bowl of rice at the ready.

Post-lunch is a real treat. Finish up the lesson plans, check Facebook, and crawl under my mosquito net for a nap. It's just too hot to do much else. By three o'clock, I'm usually ready to face the world again. Pour cup of instant coffee (and a lot of milk), grab some fresh fruit and a peanut butter toast and I'm almost human again. Another hour or so and it's time to bike over to the school for another, hotter round of teaching.

After the ride home, around 7:30 PM, I'm “pretty knackered” as my British friends say, and the remnants of dinner go down without complaint. A group debriefing about the day's mishaps (and “haps”?), a final check of the lesson plans, perhaps another check of Facebook (or Blogger!), and I'm ready for a second shower and lights-out!

Believe it or not, it's a full-on day to to be a 20-hour per week CWF volunteer. I'm absolutely exhausted every night. It's a good thing that all of my applications to volunteer elsewhere were rejected. This is plenty!

CWF Semester 15 is Underway!

I have a lot to learn about being a teacher. The first week of semester 15 went very well considering the amount of environmental stress that Cambodia puts on poor ol' me. In the wee hours of the morning, I teach an Advanced Discussion class. This course is designed for students who are fluent in English and who have a desire to keep practicing via more formal types of spoken communication (debate, presentation, media review, etc.) These students, although they still have varied levels of English proficiency, are willing to speak up in class and share their thoughts on almost any topic.

In contrast to the confidence of the Advanced Discussion students, many of my early morning level 4's are still shy about making mistakes. I enjoy teaching level 4 very much because they have accumulated a usable vocabulary bank, but they still look to me for a lot of assistance. As a teacher, I like to be needed. My morning level 4's are very reserved compared to the 4's I teach in the evening—what a rowdy bunch! The evening class is mainly high school students, which means a lot of chit-chatting and giggling. It's great energy, but I find myself having to shout to get (and keep) their attention. Our lesson about farm animal noises went over particularly well because this group can appreciate the silliness of oinking, mooing, and meowing our way through an hour.

My level 6 class is held at 5:00pm, a universally bad time to try to be patient, attentive, or energetic. My students have just come from the university, or from a full day's work, and they are exhausted, hot, and ready for dinner. The first two days of class were like a trip to the Cambodian dentist, but yesterday we got on the subject of child abuse and our class had a great and lengthy discussion about parenting technique. Who knew?

March 11, 2010

My less perfunctory, more deliberate post regarding Women's Day

I let international Women's Day escape me with no real thought. Even though I encouraged others to think, I let myself slide through the day on a bad attitude. Today I came across the Lift insert of our Phnom Penh Post. On the front page, a Khmer woman poses as Rosie the Riveter in a remake of the iconic We Can Do It! Poster. One the first page, a short paragraph explaining Cambodia's lack of a united feminist movement and providing a short explanation of feminist theory stood out on a hot pink background. Throughout the insert, I realized that I take this stuff for granted. Not only having mostly equal opportunities as men, but also being aware of and being vocal about gender equality. Reading the articles, I remembered that gender (in)equality is a new concept for Khmers. Traditional Khmer culture does not support women's education or business endeavors; instead, women are truly expected only to marry and have children. These women should be willing to sacrifice their careers for their families. Even though I acknowledge that being a housewife and caring for children are valuable contributions, in Cambodia, it's the opportunity to choose other life paths that is missing.

As Cambodian society develops at the speed of Korean pop, Lucky Burger and Ford dealerships, women are faced with increasing identity conflict. Khmer girls are expected to adhere to traditional family values, but the cultural shift toward a more liberal society expects girls to be more sexually active. Premarital sex is still a definite taboo in polite (and all) conversation in Cambodia. Similar to what happens in many conservative societies, young Cambodians are becoming sexually active, but they have no sexual education or resources to help them make better choices. Thankfully, the articles included some online resources.

As a whole, I thought the insert was a nice introduction to feminist theory and the current state of affairs for Cambodian women. However, I did find one section particularly disturbing. It was called “5 Cool Things”. The author had selected five items that the modern Cambodian women should have. The first thing was a bank card—to be more financially independent. Okay, that's important, but the author's list of things that could be bought with a bank card (shoes, clothes, etc) was a little superficial. Continuing the superficial trend was the next cool thing, a big handbag. Is there anything cooler than that? ...Moving on to something more culturally relevant, house keys were the next cool thing. So, my assumptions that women had house keys were wrong (yikes!). The caption explained that you can stay out later if you have your own keys (literally “the keys to your house will enable you to experience more exciting places than your kitchen”). I think it was a joking exaggeration by the author, but maybe not. Yes, please get some house keys. After you have permission and the means to leave the house, buy the next cool thing--high heels--with your bank card—style and confidence. Not to mention foot problems. The final cool thing is an ipod. The caption tells readers that going around the city without being bothered by unfamiliar men is “a luxury” (does this make anyone else uncomfortable?). However, once you stick in your earbuds, all those pesky people will magically disappear, leaving you, your bank card, house keys, big bag and high-heels in peace.

The newspaper is a view of the society. From this article, I maintain that Cambodian society is taking on the material items of the western world, but holding on to traditional values that may or may not agree with these possessions. The trouble is that the traditional culture still dominates the mindset. If women are still seen as so incapable that they can't have a house key, or if is acceptable for men to bother women on the street, Cambodia needs to rethink the high heels and ipod.

Here is my revised list of 5 Cool Things:

1.University education—Earning a degree from the university will make you think about new ideas and it will help you get a better job (you might even meet a good husband there!)

2.Reproductive health education--learn how to be responsible for your sex life. Find out how to protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy and STDs/HIV, and take responsibility for your actions.

3.Internet newspapers—Save a tree and read about world events in foreign newspapers. Learn about the world outside Cambodia.

4.Shorter haircuts—everybody has long, straight hair. If you want to stand out, why not mix it up and try a new, shorter style?

5.Ipods—okay, after much internal deliberation, I have decided that this is a cool thing, but not as a self-defense tool. Use your ipod to relax or listen while you exercise.

Friendship vs. Intuition

A few days ago, I was talking with my housemates about gauging my intuition. Particularly when it comes to befriending Khmer people, I feel that my usually strong intuition has no bearings in Cambodia. I vented my frustrations about being unable to sus out the real intentions behind my Khmer friendships. Were people really just that interested me that they would stop me randomly and ask to be my friend?

At orientation, we were lightly warned about befriending Khmer people because of ulterior motives (money, marriage, visa status, sponsorship abroad), but my ever-naive spirit mostly shrugged off these warnings as things that happen to other people. By other people, I meant older western men (nice stereotype, huh?).

Today, however, I was asked to loan a hefty sum of money to help a Khmer friend pay for school. Since the beginning of this friendship, I have wondered if this is the part of the scary movie when I will be sold, or the part where I end up betrothed to someone's brother. My real fear was that simply being friends with me was not good enough, that my American citizenship and/or bankcard were of more value than my being. I was surprised and a little insulted by the request for money. Had our whole friendship been a sham? Were the fun days together just a ploy to make me feel obligated? Of course, I refused to loan her money. It was one of most culturally awkward moments of my life. I try to assume the best of people, but this situation did not feel right. I was trapped there in the ice cream store (this person knows all my weaknesses!), defending my refusal and praying for a distraction, an escape, a way to make all the uncomfortable go away.

I'm still not sure about what happened today. It could have been an honest request for a loan to be paid back within the month, or it could have marked the end of a friendship. I was drained and somewhat ashamed of myself as I opened the house gate. I gave my intuition the brush off, and it was—as usual—spot on (minus the part were I get trafficked or betrothed). An international friendship devoid of unsavory intentions, free of ulterior motives, and based on mutual understanding/curiosity. That's how I like it. Oh, and the ice cream part, that's good, too.

March 8, 2010

International Women's Day--my perfunctory blog entry

Today is International Women's Day. For many, it is a day marked by little more than an article in Marie Claire, or an e-mail invite to blog about the day. For those of us living in Cambodia, it is a public holiday, on which many schools (including mine) let students and teachers have the day off. Banners over the streets in Phnom Penh read: Women are the backbone of our society and economy in both Khmer and English. I am surprised at the level of public observation to this holiday in a place where women are subjugated so openly.

What does International Women's Day mean? It does not mean that just for today, battered women will get a day off from abuse. It does not mean that women are—just for today—equal to men. It might mean that it is ladies night at all the bars in town, but it does not guarantee a safer night for women anywhere. The hope of International Women's Day, for a gender studies person like me, is that people who are not gender studies people will take half a second to think about the imbalances in societies across the globe. But when is International Men's Day? (Don't get me started).

So how does one celebrate such a holiday? Even though I had plans to do otherwise, I have been a stereotypical woman all day—I went to the gym to work on my girlish figure, ate some chocolate, I complained about a lot of things, and I bought a new two-piece swimsuit (I also wondered if it made me look fat). Mission accomplished. Oh, and I cleaned the kitchen this morning because I couldn't sleep.

So, Happy Women's Day. If you want to do something a little more productive than I did, pick up a copy of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues; or donate clothes, money or time to a women's shelter in your community. Better yet, call your mother.

March 6, 2010

Lady! You want take long, hot bus ride? Good price for you!

Bus rides are notorious for being adventures, and our trip home from Kratie was no exception. After a 45-minute delayed start (that's Khmer time), we were shuffled onto a crowded bus with people sitting in the aisles, on the stairs, wherever. One guy even had to brace his foot on the door handle to keep it from flying open. I was perched on the front seat next to the boiling hot window. Instead of an arm rest, to my right was a metal pole (like the poles on city buses—for holding purposes). At first I thought it was a nice addition, but as soon as our bus began the usual bumping and swerving of Khmer-style driving, I found the pole to be a bruising and head-bumping annoyance. Three hours of unrelenting window heat, jostling and jarring later, we arrived at the lunch stop. We had just enough time to shove $1 of rice and stir fry into our unsteady bellies, use the last-chance outhouse, and choose from an assortment of foreign soft drinks (they were out of water!) before being summoned back to the overheating bus by impatient honking.

As I prepared for total dehydration, my rattled body began to hate Cambodia. Without reprieve from the constant motion, the shaking, the heat, I found myself just concentrating on not screaming. I was beyond thirsty, my butt and legs were tingling, my head was pounding and all I could do was sit there and take it. Two hours into my self-pity, a loud thunk from the right side of the bus startled even the unshakable bus driver. We pulled over in middle of nowhere Cambodia, and off-loaded in the hazy afternoon sunlight. The bus crew quickly assessed the situation, deemed it suitable for more driving, and ordered us back on. We drove incredibly slowly the rest of the way to Phnom Penh—roughly two more hours of slower jostling. I've never been so happy to get off a bus in my life.

At least it was an adventure. It always is.

Let's talk about poo!

On day two in Koh Pdao village, Our morning trek around the village to see first-hand the impact of CRDT was very inspiring. We saw the hen houses (talk about free range—these chickens are all over the village) and we spoke with the woman who cares for the chickens about how much better her income is now that CRDT has taught her new techniques. Next we saw the fish ponds that help the village feed its people. CRDT helped dig the ponds and now the villagers raise fish to eat during the rainy season. We also saw the home gardens that many villagers tend. The highlight, however, was the biodigesters built to supply not only fertilizer, but also methane gas-powered lighting and cooking stoves for the village. The biodigester is a simple contraption. Manure from the farm animals is collected and put in a tank where it ferments and releases methane gas. The gas flows up a tube into the house where it is used for cooking and lighting. The methane gas replaces firewood and kerosene lamps, two expensive and environmentally-insensitive resources. CRDT has also implemented outhouses which connect to the biodigester because, as our guide explained, human feces produce more gas than that of animals. What a nice cycle—use the biodigested gas to cook, eat the food, use the outhouse, have more gas to cook. Total sustainability via poo poo—now there's something to get excited about!

Speaking of poo poo, let me describe the facilities on Koh Pdao. If you are lucky, you'll see a wooden shack in back of the house. Courtesy of CRDT, outhouses have been implemented in many village homes. Inside the tiny building a small tub of flush water and a squat toilet await your business. Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer and leave your fears of bugs and small reptiles behind. No lights are available, so if nature calls after dark—grab a flashlight if you've got it, and good luck. By the way, you might not come across a trash can for days, so a plastic bag for all waste products is also a good idea. The most successful squat experience results in dry pants, dry feet and an empty bladder. To achieve such a feat, I find that getting as much of your pants around your knees as possible is the trick. Trial and mostly error. I have learned many a thing about squat toilets out of pure necessity. In this part of the world, that familiar low abdominal growl requires immediate action. Always know the location and status of the nearest toilet.

Dolphins, bugs, and island parties

On our first afternoon in Koh Pdao, after our second (sic) nap of the day, we went on a quest for the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. Only about 70 of these creatures remain in the Mekong, due to improper fishing habits, environmental pollution, and upstream dams. I had low expectations of spotting any, given the dolphin to river ratio, but much to my delight, we saw many of the flat-faced dolphins playing in the currents. We sat quietly in our tiny boats, watching for the mysterious creatures. Cambodian legend reveres these animals: It is said that a beautiful young girl was swallowed whole by a snake. Her father found the snake and cut it open, and when she emerged from its belly, the girl was so ashamed that she put a bowl over her face and threw herself into the Mekong. Perhaps something is lost in translation, but as we learned at the crocodile temple, many a Khmer folktale involve large predatory animals eating daughters, being cut open and bringing shame to she who was eaten. Why the shame? I haven't figured that out yet.

If the dolphin is endangered and rarely seen, the night fly and mosquito are in overpopulation and are the only thing you can see at night on the island. Back at the school, the village had brought out the mega amplifiers to kick out the jams Khmer-style in celebration of our journey from around the world to Koh Pdao. The setting would have been perfect if not for the clouds of bugs. Around the generator-fueled lights, awesome swarms of small winged buzzies hummed along to the music. Unpleasant as it was, even getting constantly pelted with insects couldn't stop a great evening (I won't tell you what happened when I blew my nose the next morning...). I can be a bit of a wall flower at dance events, but this time, I took the advice of ABBA and became my inner dancing queen. I let loose with the kids and volunteers, allowing the exotic music to entrance me. Pheap did her best to teach me the beautiful Khmer classical dance with the intricate hand movements, but I struggled with the coordination of it all. Regardless of my dance (in)abilities, I joined the line of Khmer women and made the circular track to song after song, batting the bugs out of my eyes.

Khmer-style and a durian tangent

Breakfast in Kratie Town was two of the most pleasant hours I've had in Cambodia. I nabbed a bamboo-wrapped roasted sticky rice for a little over 60 cents and crossed the the street to peel out the delicious mixture while overlooking the Mekong. Rice, beans and coconut milk make nearly the ideal breakfast food as the combination is sweet, but not-too-sweet, and appropriately filling. Satisfied and thirsty, I also decided that such a magnificent morning deserved an iced coffee. A little overwhelmed by the market, I enlisted the help of the cheekiest of CWF staff members. Soon, I was holding a tiny plastic bag full of ice, sugar and espresso. Yes, a bag with a straw—that's to-go Khmer style (pronounced “Ka-MY Style”).

It seems (and appropriately so) that everything in Cambodia is Khmer style. The mini-bus ride from Kratie to the boats at Sambo District was certainly Khmer style. Though lacking the roof-riders of traditional Khmer transport, we were packed like Khmers, fitting five large butts where normally three sit—thank goodness for a/c. The roads were true to Khmer style as we bounced, swerved and honked our way through the 45-minute journey. The ever-blasting Khmer radio hypnotized us into a new state of mind where things that seem essential at home suddenly aren't, and where the broken wall clocks reflect the easy pace of life.

Our meals in the village were served, how else, Khmer style. On the floor of the home, two parallel lines of place settings—enough to serve nearly 20. Several vats of rice, a few bowls of fish soups, stir-fry, and fried bananas (mmm!!) were ready to fill our hungry bellies. In the intense heat (upwards of 38 C or 100 F) of Cambodia, one trick is to douse the food with chilies to force your body to cool off. Even though it's a bit torturous going down, a few minutes later, the cooling effect is wonderful. The meals were excellent considering the circumstances, and the rest/nap periods on either side of the meal were much needed. If you have never experienced Cambodian heat, it's something to behold. Every day, it's the hottest summer day you can remember, plus humidity and no air-conditioned retreat. The knees of my cargo pants had white marks from the all the salt I had sweated out. Normally, I would have been very turned off by the intense climate, but the weather is an integral part of life here. The people move at a slower pace, they take life one nap at a time, because it's just too hot. In the words of another volunteer as he shut his eyes for a nap, “Now I know why it takes three months to dig a hole...”

During the absolute hottest part of the day, we visited the island school. I thought of my brother as we crossed the dusty school yard to the classrooms. We added our monstrous shoes to the pile of teeny flip flops before we filed into the sauna-esque classroom. Each volunteer had contributed a few dollars to buy school supplies for the kids, so after the children sang welcome songs, we gathered them outside to present them with a notebook and pencil each. What a great feeling to see so many children smiling and enjoying a new notebook. I was starting to understand the importance of my work at CWF, and the impact that even a small amount of time or money can have on someone's life. I have taken education for granted for so long that I have a hard time unpacking the idea that not all children go to school, and that schools are not the same everywhere. Time to wake up and smell the durian Jena.

Okay, durian tangent—It is only food too strong for wacky food expert Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods. The durian is a soft fleshy Asian fruit renowned for its revolting odor. It took me nearly two months to realize that the durian was the main culprit of the nauseating stench at all markets. Many believe it to be an aphrodisiac, but after having several unfortunate spoonfuls in my dessert in Kratie, the only thing I wanted to do was brush my teeth and avoid ever, ever, ever eating it again.

Volunteers go to Kratie Province

Finally back in Phnom Penh, and after a good night's sleep, I can't wait to start writing about the week. My sweetened-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life cup of tea is at the ready as I review the photographs from Kratie province. The Conversations with Foreigners (CWF) volunteers made our pilgrimage to the Cambodian Rural Development Team's (CRDT) headquarters in Kratie Town and to the island village of Koh Pdao to see the projects that CWF helps fund. Our four-day trip included an orientation to CRDT and an overnight stay in the village to see the projects that CRDT has helped established.

CRDT was established in 2001 by four university students who believed in sustainable and environmentally-conscious ways of improving the lives of rural Cambodians. Now a successful and well-known NGO, CRDT has helped over 3,000 families in Northeastern Cambodia. Like all NGO's, CRDT needs a source of funding, and that's where CWF comes in. The Conversations with Foreigners school was created as a way to fund the projects and to provide a unique and cost-effective place for foreigners to volunteer. Students pay $40 per 10 week session to study with a foreign teacher. After the base costs of payroll and school maintenance are fulfilled, all remaining profit is given directly to CRDT. The students who pay tuition to CWF are typically from provincial areas; so in addition to the cheaper price, the incentive to support their own communities influences many students' decisions to study with CWF.

Like the Sustainable Tourism book on our table says, this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how the majority of Cambodia lives.

For more information about the CRDT follow this link:

March 1, 2010

Slowing down

I'm lying on the chilly blue tiles in my bedroom. The dust bunnies I missed during my not-so-thorough sweep are swirling around the room, enjoying the fan as much as I do. I can smell the now familiar sour scent that comes up from the bathroom drains. That's Cambodia, I explained to Christie a few nights ago. The karaoke bar down the street lends a song to the whole neighborhood at night. The slow bass dictates my heartbeat. I've stopped sweating now that the sun has been replaced with the yellowest moon. It's nice to slow down in the evening--to stand still long enough to realize that the body odor is your own, and that another shower is a definite necessity tonight.

I've traded in my make-up routine for a face free of cosmetics. My jewelry bag is still in my suitcase, unused. The once coiffed and sprayed adornment on my head is now just hair, falling as it pleases. A splash of sunscreen, a spritz of mozzy spray and I'm ready for the world. It's strange to see myself without warpaint and headdress, but I'm starting to recognize the face in the mirror.