April 30, 2010

Visak Bochea Holiday

It's easy to forget where you are. I don't mean getting lost and I don't mean to pose yet another existential thought on the world. Today, I remembered that I am in Cambodia. Indeed, every day I am the all-too-conspicuous blond girl struggling through traffic on a Chinese bike four sizes too small. And it's true that every day I find something less than desirable about the blast furnace heat or the redundancy of nightly stir-fry; but, in all of this, I sometimes lose the reality of life in a developing country.

Today was a public holiday, Buddha's birthday. No school and no meals prepared at the volunteer house meant a field trip. My Khmer teacher insisted that I visit Udong mountain, the one-time capital of Cambodia. Four other volunteers and I piled into a tuk tuk and cruised through the 25 kilometer drive. The defiant majesty of the pagodas and stupas atop Udong mountain drew many Khmer visitors on this important holiday. The reconstruction of the massive golden Buddha was the most interesting part for me. Refusing to be brought down by wartime bombings and the ruthless Pol Pot Regime, the golden Buddha shines once more.

Exhausted and desperate for sustenance, my only lunch option was fish on a stick. Not fish sticks, not even the usual gutted, head-chopped-off fish on a stick. This was as though the living fish had swum on to the grill and been frozen in time between two sticks. For a whopping 75 cents, I got to experiment with fish de-boning technique, gut a fried fish with filthy fingers, and then promptly shove bites of fish meat into my mouth with the same fingers used for the previous two activities. I couldn't bring myself to eat much of the head region, and instead I gave it to the little boys who had been standing hopefully next to us for ten minutes.

If that weren't Cambodia enough, my experience trying to play volleyball that evening at the Olympic Stadium surely was. The story begins with several volleyball-desiring volunteers wandering around the stadium grounds looking for the CWF director and interim volleyball coordinator. Apparently “near the entrance” has many shades of meaning. Anyway, there we were, shuffling through football pitches, dodging lap runners, and returning errant balls from many different courts. No volleyball in sight. After a few phone calls to clarify the directions, we ended up outside the stadium in an alley half a block down, wading through ankle deep garbage on top of muddy gravel (thank goodness for running shoes). The volleyball courts on the other side of the fence seemed a world away from our footpath through the slum. Naked, hungry children peered out of windows and people who were no longer children, but still hungry, watched with curious contempt as we hurried down the reeking trail of sludge.

It was like the pictures they show on commercials to inspire people to sponsor children. Especially in Phnom Penh, this extreme is usually covered up and reserved for the back streets where it is out of view. Today, it was in my view, and frankly, I really didn't like it. I was totally disgusted and uncomfortable. I am glad that I can go home to someplace that doesn't look like this.