May 31, 2010


What's the one thing on a girl's mind after five months of Cambodia and two days of stomach flu? You guessed it: a haircut. And what better place to get a haircut than the ever-fashionable Tokyo. Takeshi took me to his stylist, Saito Junko, for a major hair-renovation. Five months of pony-tailed, sunburned, chlorinated torture left my hair begging for mercy, or at least a hefty chop-off.

Though I would have liked to experiment with Japanese hair-straightening, Takeshi's stylist wisely cautioned against the chemical process in favor of embracing my natural wave. She suggested the trendy bob-style that many young women are sporting in Japan. Her charming smile and knowledge of hair textures easily swayed my opinion.

With Takeshi's expert translation and the international women's code about the importance of hair, I emerged from the chair refreshed and ready for Tokyo. My transformation from Cambodian minimalist to Japanese beauty starts here.

The Cambodian Adventure Lady goes to Japan

It's over. My Cambodian adventure ended with the epic one-two punch of Angkor Wat and severe stomach problem. I completed the tourist circuit by strolling across the bridge into the massive Angkor Wat complex. Of all the touristy sites in Cambodia, none get the build up of Angkor Wat. Guidebooks, tourism websites, and even my students proclaimed this wonder of the ancient world to be the best thing about Cambodia.

Somehow, the green scaffolding-covered towers of Angkor Wat didn't meet my otherworldly expectations. The complex is indeed daunting in it's size, and considering the google of man hours it must have taken to build this place, it is certainly worth admiring. Following the hundreds of tour groups through the hallways and up the stairs took away some of the mystery I was hoping for. Ducking and dodging out of the frame of other people's pictures, I tried to take some of my own. The best part of Angkor Wat was ascending the steep stairs to the top part of the temple. Leaving behind less fit tourists, Takeshi and I were able to enjoy the awesomeness of the temple from above. We stared over the lush jungles, we peered over the edges to see the ruins beneath us, and we pondered the beauty of this temple in its prime. Reconstruction, we agreed, was going to do a lot of good here. I guess I'm not much for broken ruins...

Speaking of broken ruins, somewhere between the intense heat of Siem Reap, the extra-sketchy vendor food at Angkor Wat, and a huge dinner, my body acquired a sickness that can be best described as “Cambodia is gonna miss you, Jena.” Losing my dinner from both ends on my last night in Cambodia seemed somehow fitting. Guts escaping with exhausting ferocity, I did my best to stay alive—at least long enough to get to Japan.

And I did. Just ignore your guts, I told myself as we spent the last few hours in Cambodia eating some of my favorites (pork and rice, Lucky Burger, ice cream). The occasional stomach rumble could not deter me as we took off from Siem Reap International Airport. The red eye flight from Bangkok to Tokyo was pleasant enough, but I began to feel the effects of my lapse in food judgment as soon as we touched down in Tokyo. By the time we met up with Takeshi's friends, loaded up the Nissan and made the two-hour trek into Tokyo city, I was not okay. My stomach was churning something fierce, and the lack of sleep the past two nights had me in a dense fog. I struggled to maintain consciousness as we greeted his mother, prayed together and set up our small apartment. Everyone could tell that I was feeling pretty miserable, so they told me to take a rest while they went out.

An hour into my comatose rest, the now familiar you-are-about-to-puke feeling sent me stumbling through the Japanese apartment, searching for the toilet. I slid the door closed behind me and prayed that everything that was about to come out would not soil the carpet, walls or other beautiful surfaces of this cute bathroom. I did have to sacrifice one small rug, as no trash can was within arms distance, but I think the washing machine will take care of it. A few rounds of gut-emptying later, my body gave up and decided to just sleep it off. Takeshi and his mom brought me all the essentials: re-hydration fluids, rice porridge, and cold towels.

It's not exactly what I had pictured from my arrival in Japan, but I guess if you start at the bottom, there's only one way to go...

May 26, 2010

Ends, Beginnings, and Angkor Thom

Yes, CWF Semester 15 has come and gone, and I have packed and moved out of the volunteer house. No more stir-fry, no more 6 AM class; but also, no more Khmer lessons, and no more volunteer coordinator to fix all problems. The fanfare of the student parties and the anxiety about a major change of routine gave way to excitement about a visitor from home, my boyfriend. He arrived in Phnom Penh after the CWF party, just in time to meet nearly everyone of importance and get a taste of my ex-pat life. The next day was one of the most surreal of my life. My boyfriend and I tuk tuked around Phnom Penh eating pork and rice, dodging the unruly traffic, and remembering how to act around each other.

Phnom Penh's chapter now closed, I found myself today on a cheap, rented bicycle pedaling around the temples of Angkor with my boyfriend, an advanced traveler. Angkor Wat is considered one of the wonders of the ancient world, and it is one of the largest religious structures ever built. The ancient Khmers, one of the largest and most advanced societies of the time, built this grand temple (and many others) deep in the jungles of present-day Cambodia. Left in varying stages of ruin until stumbled upon by a western explorer a few hundred years ago, these temples have become the lifeblood of the Cambodian tourism industry. The majesty of Angkor Wat is the pride of Cambodia, and the biggest money maker.

Meanwhile, back on my bike, I was trying to figure out how to justify not wanting to look inside any more temple ruins. My attitude toward ancient temple ruins goes something like this: they sorta all look the same to me, can I skip it and just get another cold drink? It seems that many of my friends (boyfriend included) have a strange invincibility when it comes to traveling. They can sleep whenever, wherever and for as long or short as they need to, they can eat and drink anything without getting sick, and they can walk, hike, bike, and explore for entire days without tiring. For me, the prospect of climbing around on uneven stones baking in 103 degree heat, full-sun is simply exhausting, unappealing even. After exploring the daunting awesomeness of the Bayon inside the walled city of Angkor Thom, and after strolling the elephant terrace, I was keen to go back to air conditioning, or at least ready for lunch. But, respecting the hefty entrance fee to the temple (and stuck on the far end of a loop of road), I staggered through a few more temples with patience and blood sugar waning, before slumping into a restaurant for a break. Welcome to Cambodia, boyfriend—here's your girlfriend with no make up and she's exhausted and irritable. You can't abandon ship because she's got the money. What are you going to do next?

After lunch, we continued biking along the Grand Circuit, a stretch of road that loops around to connect the temples. It turns out that the maps aren't drawn to scale, and that what we thought was going to be about an hour's ride, was more like three and a half...

A few gallons of water, one small argument, and an ice cream later, we were back at our hotel, worn thin (or at least a little less invincible) from a challenging day.

Student Party

Today is the day labeled “Student Party” on all the CWF calendars. An ambiguous event that some students adore and some teachers dread. I had low expectations for the student parties this morning at six and seven. I brought some pandan (that's a common sweet flavor in Asia) snack cakes, some juice and even some crackers for the less sweet-toothed students. Expecting the fizzle-out party of last semester, I was delighted when some of my Advanced Discussion students showed up happy and ready to teach me some games. It was fun to let them lead and to see their personalities in a different setting. At the end, the female students presented me with a lovely card, shoulder bag and a blinged-out pencil case. I felt funny receiving such nice presents from my most experimental class, but they gave it to me with such pride and gratitude that I nearly cried!

The morning level 4's, whittled down to four men about my age, showed up with a few bottles of Coke, some rice cakes and even cups and straws. It was so cute. They asked me a lot of questions about America, my boyfriend, and they even gave me a lot of advice about what to do and see in Siem Reap. I felt more like their friend instead of their teacher. That's a good feeling at the student party.

I also said goodbye to my Khmer teacher, the person who has been there for me since I arrived in Cambodia. We have grown into our roles as big sister and little sister. I've been teaching her how to use Facebook with the hope that we can stay in touch. She has given me faith in the future of Cambodia, and she has shown me an honest friendship (which is saying a lot in this country). Under cover of giggles, we saw the tears in each others' eyes this morning as we said our well-wishes, hoping that this wasn't our last iced coffee with sweet milk together.

Despite the solar-heated water (reminiscent of the NE Family YMCA) I tried to savor my final swim at the Sport Club. Sun blazing, rich blue sky, and the sound of power saws and jackhammers across the street—yes, this will be one of my finer memories. Barely afloat thanks to a week of overindulgence in last-chance foods and student party buffet, I cranked out 1000 meters and bid farewell to the delightfully upper middle class oasis I have grown so fond of.

My evening level 4 class, the one with 15 students who come every single day, treated me to Lucky Burger and Karaoke—at the same time. We sat in the tiny VIP room with burgers in one hand and microphones in the other. Between songs, we ate a burger each, then moved on to the mountain of fried chicken and french fries. Greasy as the whole situation was, I enjoyed the company of my students, and I was flattered that they wanted to do something this nice (and expensive) for me. There were times in the semester when I forgot who (and why) I was teaching, but tonight I was able to deeply appreciate my students.

May 20, 2010


If there is one piece of clothing that symbolizes Cambodia, it is the krama. This utilitarian piece of checkered cloth can be worn as a head wrap, a skirt, a changing robe, a swimsuit, and even as a water bottle carrier (I pioneered the last one in Kratie Province). While climbing Bokor, I wrapped my head tightly in my purple-checked krama to keep the sweat out of my eyes and the bugs out of my hair. The history of the krama long predates the Khmer Rouge, but the infamy of the red-checked krama lives on. This krama was a symbol of the regime, worn by all members.

This morning, I asked my Khmer teacher about the appropriate price of a krama. Without naming a price, she told me that her aunt owned a krama shop in the Russian Market. Cha-ching! I'm a sucker for a good deal, and there is no deal better than the family discount (and I'll throw in another one, free for you!).

In an event known hereafter as Kramapalooza, I scored nearly a dozen krama for under five bucks. What does one do with such a legion of head wrap? Besides completely filling my suitcase, I now have Christmas and birthdays covered for all my closest friends. Head wrap, anyone?

Khmer Fried Chicken?

If you've ever wondered if KFC exists in Cambodia, the answer is yes. And, on Wednesdays, they offer all-you-can-eat lunch for just five dollars. One might imagine a buffet of chicken and the usual trimmings, but Khmer style all-you-can-eat is different. They should call it something more like, “Our waitresses will put pieces of chicken on your plate until they think you are full, then you will have to shamefully continue to ask for chicken.” We kept signaling the waitress to bring more food, but her inefficient serve-one-person-one-piece-at-a-time style left us wanting more. Lots more. More coleslaw, please. More fries, please. More cola...

By now, we've grown accustomed tot he Khmer way of doing things. Be persistent and patient and you'll get what you want. It may take the better part of two hours, but eventually, you'll eat enough chicken for several families. Yes, by the end, we were greased-up, lard-filled, walking heart attacks. Mystified by the strange version of an American classic (the all-you-can-eat, not the Original Recipe), and convinced that this was our reward for so many nights of “minimal chicken” (a self-explanatory dish we are often left with in the evening), we tuk-tuked away from KFC with fat smiles.

May 17, 2010

Adventures in Kampot

Of all the places to stump my inner writer, Kampot Cambodia—home to some of the most charming, most creepy, and most historic sites in Cambodia—has done just that. It's Sunday night and my last week with CWF starts tomorrow. My brain is in a fog even thicker than that on top of Bokor Hill.

Sifting back through the pictures from the weekend, the picturesque town of Kampot seems a world away. For a person grown numb to the dingy smog of Phnom Penh, the clarity of Kampot was striking. Blazing blue skies reflected onto shimmering water lined with brightly colored buildings and houses. The quaint little town on the riverfront--made famous by some of the best pepper corns in the world—waits beneath the jungle hills for its comeback as a swanky spot for the rich.

Cambodia in the 1920's was a swingin' place, and no place was more swingin' than the casino and hotel atop the misty Bokor Hill. Designed for the high life, this grandiose building was built on the peak of the hill, overlooking Kampot, Kep and the sea. All the amenities of the town were built to cater to the visitors. A watertower, hospital, restaurant, and even a catholic church were available for use in this home-away-from-home.

Fast forward to 2010. Bokor still stands a testament to the fine construction, but what remains on the hill looks less like puttin-on-the-ritz and more like a scene from a thrilling horror movie. Due to wartime abandonment, the casino had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s. The Khmer Rouge used the orange lichen-covered casino as a stronghold against opposition forces until the early 1990s. The bullet holes in the walls are a frightening reminder of the reality of Cambodia's recent history. With such a foreboding exterior, I imagined the inside to be more similar to Tuol Sleng museum. To my delight, inside the casino was creepy, but not reminiscent of war. The gutted rooms stood quietly as I explored, climbing floor by floor, checking views out the window and wondering how it would've looked in the 20s. I understood the appeal of the place when I saw the balcony view of the sea and the town below.

At such an elevation in Cambodia, the misty low clouds brush the hill, leaving a eerie gray cast to the surrounding buildings. The old hospital, now a ranger station, lurks to the west of the casino, and to the east, the steeple of Catholic church rises out of the mist.

But it's never just the destination, is it? The journey to Bokor is the part that made it an adventure. In a effort to revamp tourism in Kampot, a multi-million dollar hotel is being built on Bokor. The problem is that the road to Bokor is mostly impassible. To cart up enough tourists to fill the rooms, a multi-lane, multi-season road is being built. Unfortunately, this construction altogether foiled my plan to hire a taxi because no cars are allowed to use the road. The only other option is to hire a guide and climb through the hillside jungle. Although I had sworn off Cambodian jungle trekking after Mondulkiri, my desire to see Bokor forced me to take the available option. Two hours straight uphill through a jungle.

With the finesse and precision of a blue whale, I lugged, pulled and swore my way through the thick forest. It was a true adventure to sort out how to scale the fallen trees and the mossy rocks amidst low branches, bugs and slippery mud. My khaki pants were literally soaked in sweat within the first thirty minutes of climbing, and it only got steeper from there. We had to climb to a certain point in the forest where a truck would meet us on the partially completed road. This truck, meant to haul non-human cargo, hauled us bump to bump up the rest of the way. We agreed that the truck ride was not only more painful, but also more difficult than the hiking.

Coming down was an exercise in Cambodian law and patience. We hiked part of the way, at which point we were told to stop at the hill overlooking the road and stay out of view until our truck came to pick us up. We needed to stay hidden because the road is officially closed to the public for safety reasons. Normal Cambodian systems dictate that safety measures can be given up for the right price (the fine for no helmet is $1.25), but in this case the amount of money being spent on the road was much greater than the fees we had paid to enter the park (illegally, perhaps). Therefore, it was somewhat important that we stay hidden to avoid fines (and/or the big guns that we see everywhere). So we waited. And waited. And waited. What was supposed to be a 30-minute wait turned into nearly two hours as we sat in the sun wondering if we would be on an episode of Locked Up Abroad. As usual, all was apparently well, or at least paid for, as we made it back safely and with no prisons in sight.

The adventure at Bokor was one of the best so far. Lots of physical challenge, some scary old buildings, and a flirt with Cambodian law.

May 13, 2010

Appreciating Cambodia

After a few days of self-pity and heat exhaustion, today I finally feel that all is again right with my strange Cambodian world. I realized today at Orussei market how far I've come since January. As I became one with the traffic, moving organically between vehicles of all sizes and speeds, I felt composed and confident. The aromas that have at times inspired nausea were suddenly fragrant and mouth-watering. I was on an olfactory tour through fresh barbecue, tangy lime and even the incomparable durian fruit. The claustrophobic bustle inside the three-floor market felt less overwhelming and more like an exciting shopping possibility. Tough I was still totally disoriented when I left the labyrinth of second-hand goods, I navigated back to the place I wanted to be.

Around the market, the soft curve of the French-colonial buildings was charming again. The bright clothes hung over the dingy balconies seemed homey and normal. I appreciated Cambodia again for the first time in a long time.

May 12, 2010


I thought by now I would have acclimated to the open-oven-door heat in Cambodia. But no. Much to my dismay, Phnom Penh has been sideswiped by a heatwave that has even the Cambodians begging for relief. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees and heat indexes approaching 115, the only place you can semi-comfortably be is inside under a fan.

Feeling even more elephantine than usual, I have begun taking a mini nap in the morning to supplement my obligatory afternoon sleep. Of course this means that I don't sleep much at night, but who does when it's still 95 degrees in your bedroom, with the fan. I'll take the sleep where I can get it, thank you. Everyone in the house is feeling the drag of extreme heat. Some people are feeling ill, others delirious, and for me, well, I'm mostly just irritable and whiny. But that's not terribly out of character.

On the upside, we do have a good excuse for ice cream, cold drinks, and incredible laziness.

May 9, 2010

Quest for Karaoke

I never understood the fascination with karaoke—certainly Japan's finest gift to the world. In Cambodia, however, karaoke is a way of life. Entire TV channels are devoted to broadcasting people trying their hand at Khmer stand-bys. No expense is spared to create the mega karaoke complexes complete with disco, spa and hotel. It's an obsession here.

I went to karaoke for the first time last night, and if I had more Saturday nights in Phnom Penh, I know exactly how I would spend them. Inside the grandest of Khmer karaoke bars—Rock—my crew and I found ourselves on cozy couches in a disco-balled, air-conditioned room totally worth the hefty hourly charge. David, Francine and I were chaperoned by Soriya and Ally (two CWF staff) and our tuk tuk driver. Besides being our lifelines in Cambodia, the CWF staff are a fun bunch who like to show us a good time. I was glad we got to spend some time together before we all part ways.

We spent hours alternating Khmer and English songs, trading microphones and sharing the international thrill of watching the lyrics light up on the screen. Somewhere between “Centerfold” and “My Heart Will Go On”, I decided that karaoke might be the single most important innovation of all time. If I was nervous about singing in front of people, I totally forgot to show it—in fact, I wanted them to watch and listen. A wise Japanese man once told me that this would happen. You won't be nervous, he said, you'll think you are a superstar and want to do karaoke all the time. It's true, and I hope Tokyo is ready for me!

May 7, 2010


After 60 minutes of swapping computers, exchanging headphones, and trading internet cafes, I finally sat in front of a computer with internet connectivity and a working microphone. All I wanted to do was talk to my mother via Skype. We haven't had many opportunities to Skype since I've been in Cambodia, and I was so frustrated that not one, but two internet cafes could not even string together a working Skype connection.

Nerves frazzled, patience gone, I found myself wiping off tears in the internet cafe while my mother waited on the other end of Skype. While we waited for my composure to return, I felt angry that Cambodia could take this away from me. There are many things that I will sacrifice to live abroad, but communication with my mother is not one of them. My once-a-month phone call to my mother has been consistently corrupted by faulty headphones and rat-gnawed Ethernet cords. And now that I had a connection, I couldn't even speak because of the lump of self-pity in my throat. I'm not really this broken, am I? I thought as I struggled for air in between sobs.

I really hate when I finally get the chance to talk to my mother and all I can do is moan about how many roaches I see in the laundry room or how dreadful the heat rash on my shins is becoming. Surely I could find some redeeming quality to describe to my mother who waited so patiently for me to find a working computer.

In three weeks' time, Cambodia will be just another one of those places I've been, just another blurb on my CV. And while I am counting the days until I get on the plane to Tokyo (and modernity), there are pieces of Cambodia that I am desperate to hang on to: kicking lazily through a sunny work-out at the pool, enjoying the sunset with my students on the balcony, and sharing a dream or a laugh with my Khmer teacher over iced coffee.

My goal for the last two weeks of teaching is to stay healthy, to enjoy the company of the people I've met here, and to belt out at least cheesy love song at Karaoke.

May 4, 2010

Finding Invictus

Over the past three weeks I have been using the movie Invictus to guide discussions for my Advanced Discussion class. My intention was to teach via film, song and poetry. I wanted three weeks of lessons with a coherent theme and an end result of film review, poem review, and greater understanding of social change.

In hindsight, I'm not sure what my students learned from the film. I showed the film in short segments, stopping incrementally to check for understanding and to clarify difficult passages. In theory, this is a good way to use film in the ESL classroom. In practice, however, sporadic attendance made it difficult to maintain continuity of the plot and therefore meaningful discussion. To complete our film discussions, today we read the “Invictus” poem in class. At such an early hour of the day, I'm not sure anyone is ready for a poem about human struggle against circumstance, but I don't like to let details like time ruin my plans. We fought our way through the Victorian vocabulary, slowly piecing together a semblance of meaning. Given the difficulty of the poem, I was proud of my students for persevering and humoring my discussion questions.

Ironically, it is my Khmer teacher who seems to best understand the meaning of this poem. Though she hasn't seen the movie or read the words of William Henley, she is determined to command her own fate against the traditional Khmer values that keep women in the home. We talked again today about our Kitchen proverb. By the end of the hour, we had a web on the board detailing the program she wants to create for people in the province. I was deeply impressed by her vision to change the people's mindset that women should remain uneducated and stay only at home. We brainstormed a new version of the proverb. I suggested, A woman's place is in the classroom. She suggested in the office. Then, in the absence of another suggestion from me, she said, “a woman's place is in society.”

This statement illuminates the most fundamental struggle of women. Before women in male-dominated cultures can even think about school or work, they must either be allowed to integrate, or just force their way into a society built by men for men.

It feels a little predestined that I, a Women's Studies student, was paired randomly with a young Khmer woman who dreams of social change in her country.

May 2, 2010


There's nothing like lunching at the Russian Market. The uneven and damp concrete floors guide you through a maze of vendors offering foods you've never seen (or maybe foods you would rather not see). Today I plopped down in front of a tame-looking noodle stand, hoping for a light bowl of noodles and broth. Instead, I watched as the vendor artfully layered basil and other greens, a handful of thick, white noodles, some seasoning, and fish paste. Ah yes, a mostly vegetarian option for once, I though, feeling meat-weary. But to my dismay, she scooped up three unappetizingly dark sausages, whipped out a pair of scissors and chopped up the meat into my bowl. She splashed on a few spoons of oil and handed me my fate.

Gulp. I stared down at the noodles that seemed to be alive, slurping and slipping past one another as I folded the ingredients with chopsticks. I tried not to look at or think about the sausage that was surely made of some garbage-feeding animal's innards. I pinched some noodles, now dripping with sauce, into my mouth. A thorough chew-inspection proved the noodles harmless, though a little wormy. Looming in the cover of lukewarm noodle-worms, tangled pseudo-meat chunks mocked my attempt to eat local. I could just eat around the sausage, you know, leave it in the bowl. But no, in a dramatic moment of epicure, I knew it was now or never. Just eat it. Bursting through the tough skin, a savory collection of delicious moist meats aptly rewarded my bravery. Delicious. Adventuresome. Best of all, just one dollar.

May 1, 2010

A fresh start for May

No one ever won a prize for not taking a sick day, my roommate said as she touched my clammy shoulder. I felt tears well up, mostly in relief that I could just go back to bed. It's not my nature to admit when I'm sick. But sitting there, my teaching outfit half-on, my fever raging, I decided that she was right. I wasn't doing anyone a favor by showing up to teach like this.

After sleeping almost non-stop from noon on Thursday to six o'clock Saturday morning, I have arrived back in my body. My back aches from the long horizontal period and I think I've run out of things to dream about. My dreams ran the usual gambit: my family, high school volleyball, being underwater, ex-boyfriends and other people I haven't seem in years; plus a new dream where I am hugging David Keyzer, but I can't remember if he is alive or not.

In between dreams, I laid awake—well, semi-conscious—thinking about Nebraska. It was like watching a slide show of my own life. The pictures of endless plain, the orange carpet of the UNK library, and my favorite table at Barista's were too much for me, consumed with fever in a 90 degree room. Mentally changing the subject, I thought back to Kratie Province. My slide show became gold, orange and red with surreal sunsets, and I remembered lying on my back on the porch of someone's house, sweating, half-asleep, listening only to the sound of birds.

After two fuzzy days of Royal-D rehydration powder, Tylenol and watching internal slide shows, I'm back to my usual what-do-I-need-to-do-next self. Cambodia is a big adventure and my body needed a big rest. I've got another three weeks with CWF, and now I am ready for the final stretch.