Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Happy Pchum Ben!

Today is Pchum Ben, the big Cambodian holiday. On this day it is believed that the gates to Heaven and Hell are opened and ancestral spirits walk the earth. In reverence for the dead and in a symbolic gesture of care, everyone goes to their local pagoda (Buddhist temple) and offers vast quantities of food to the monks in an attempt to feed the spirits. Fun fact: apparently sticky rice is favored because people believe that it will stick to the mouths of the ghosts better than anything else. The monks diligently perform various ceremonial duties throughout the day.

I went to two different pagodas here in Phnom Penh to check out the fuss and try to capture the very festive feel of the holiday for ya'll. I must admit I am pretty disappointed with the video. The relationship between my camera and I is getting more and more strained as it continues to take craptastic photos (probably also to do with the person behind the lens but then again it's always easier to blame the technology). However, it is definitely worth the watch; the audio gives a great taste of the frenetic music that, with the incense smoke, wafted through town all day long.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Articles About My New Corner

Apparently Atlanta has pricked up it's ears at the call of Cambodia. Within the last few days there were two articles featured in different departments of CNN's news empire regarding my new residence. Both very enlightening, I recommend the video at the bottom of the first article as it gives a good and accurate feel of Phnom Penh in addition to more information. The latter is basically fluff, but is still relevant to the current goings on of the country, including the many changes that are taking place. Enjoy!
1. Cambodia: A Place for Pioneer Investors
2. Cambodia: No Longer a One-Temple Pony

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Riding Solo

The holiday of Pchum Ben begins now. Much like Mongolian Tsagaan Saar, the actual celebration is rather short though it consumes a whole week. Work is closed, the city all but shuts down and my students have gone home to spend this time with their families. In an effort to save money I elected to spend the week in Phnom Penh, which has proved a wise choice because Siem Riep, the seat of Angkhor Wat, is flooded and the beach hostels are crawling with bedbugs. However, not everyone saw my choice as a wise one.

The head dormitory manager came to talk to me about being here alone, making the 30-mintue commute from the other dorm apparently pressed by the urgency of the situation. I sat in the dorm office as both managers stared at me in disbelief and held their press conference-intervention. 'Won't you be scary being alone?!' one of the managers asked. 'No one has done this before' the other informed me with concern. They could not fathom how I would survive by myself in the dorm. By this time I guess I'm used to people thinking I won't make it. Mongolians were convinced the foreigners would all die in the winter. Some of my friends were surprised I didn't bail out of the Peace Corps early. I just smiled sweetly and told them I'd be fine.

Though it was hard at first, I've grown used to solitary pursuits and now I sometimes look forward to time by myself. It was probably the Mongolian winters that made me accept isolation, particularly long, dark evenings when I first moved to Hovd. I would tramp up the slummy stairs to my cold apartment every evening where the walls fairly vibrated with the desolate solitude that awaited me there. It was not fun. But with the help of Six Feet Under, a crush of novels and Facebook I survived and even managed to develop a comfort in my own skin.

My days in Cambodia have not been lonely. I am surrounded by people every waking moment. But I have to make extra effort to see other expats and the weekends can be particularly tough. I have yet to  fall into the rhythm that is expat weekends in Phnom Penh, though I know it includes brunch and a club with pools called Elsewhere. Last Friday, determined to see the night, I took myself on a dinner date. I parked myself at an outdoor cafe and relished a divine salad Niçoise with a glass of Australian red. But by the end of the night I had grown melancholy, stewing in my own company had made matters worse. I dragged myself back to the dorm and when I returned the girls were full of bubbles and ideas and chatter; I let their conversation bring me back to life and happiness. We laughed at the geckos on the ceiling that one girl called 'little crocodiles' and it was not without irony that I realized the people I was attempting to seek solitude from were the ones who brought me the most joy that night.

Last night I tried something different. Since Friday had been quiet and early, lulled by rain, Mad Men and Sam's G-Chat company, I decided that I would do something fun Saturday. Darn it. Armed with my Kindle I headed to a local hostel that also has a great little restaurant with a sunset vista. I planted myself at the bar and before I knew it was playing card games with a gaggle of about 10 travelers. Showing up at a hostel was a risk that felt a little predatory but it worked out in the end; the evening's odyssey included a sidewalk cafe run by Italian gangsters, people riding on top of tuk-tuks, two night clubs, another hostel's bar, greasy hamburgers of unknown origins and a 3:30 bedtime. Though I am a little worse for wear today the evening was rejuvenating. I made friends and had fun just because I wanted to. And that felt good.

Going to a hostel, though perhaps odd, seemed to make sense. Travelers understand being alone because that is the nature of the beast. Where you are from and what you have seen makes you different. Hostels become little epicenters where people from unique journeys come to be together,  oases to sleep, eat, water and stave off the solidude that seeps into long bus rides and transient friendships. Once you begin traveling it is impossible to escape that no one else has seen what you've seen; you become more alone in your experiences and that feeling is hard to shake.

I must admit I am nervous about this week with no schedule or work. However, a list of things to do, open coffee shops and a gym with a sauna, free English newspapers and fishy foot massage tank will help me combat feelings of uselessness. I hope. I will do my best; I won't be scary.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Autumn Skies

It's my first gray day in Cambodia. Perhaps it's because normal life is starting to set in and harden around the edges, but the cloudy sky breathes a special sort of thoughtfulness. It has been sunny since I arrived, not a trace of coolness in the strata. But today I find myself reaching for my knit, short-sleeve sweater, pulling it around my shoulders and finding even that inadequate. Fall has taken hold of life in America, at least where all of my friends are. And as my favorite season, I sorely miss it. The crisp air and tangy apple cider, the novelty of an extra comforter and slow mornings watching leaves float away are things close to my heart. So the clouds today are sort of a brief vacation. I can get away from the perpetual sunshine and make believe myself in autumn's ocher glow even for just a little while. It is indeed a sweet spot of weather for me, but having such a sudden onset of subdued skies is lending exhaustion, too. Perhaps it's because of the sleep deprivation resulting from frequent nighttime concerts courtesy of various neighbors or the fact that my day ends at 10pm and sometimes later when I finish teaching, but today I'm heavy with the need for sleep. A week-long vacation starts on Saturday but, as Frost says from a similarly subdued landscape, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Open Letter to my Neighbors

Dear People Next Door,

I am sorry for your loss. I really am. However, I was rather angered this morning at 4:30am when the Buddhist chanting started at a volume that can be clearly heard on Saturn. It roused me before the sun and I was rather puzzled and infuriated at the tinkling of Cassio music that preceded the broadcast. After the chanting commenced, it looked like today would start just as well as yesterday, when my roommate decided to hold a phone conversation at rock concert volume at 5:20am after which, lurching out of bed, I thwacked my ladybits on the corner of my desk at a very painful velocity.

But later, wrapped in a blanket at the top of the stairs, after having abandoned sleep for good, I learned that you are in mourning. The monk's early prayer was to soothe the man on the threshold of death and after his passing he did not stop the chanting or music for hours. This is a rather strange coincidence as the Skype conversation I was having last night was cut short abruptly when my friend was called away to attend her grandfather's memorial service. I went to sleep during a funeral involving someone very close to my heart though painfully far away and woke to much more immediate grief but for a man I've never met. And looking down at you from the balcony this morning I can clearly see that grief is the same all over the world. Take away the quite sterility of funeral homes and a few plastic trays of grocery store danishes, add colorful tents and a garçon's attire of black and white on all attendees and the scene here isn't as different as one last night. The exhausted looks on your faces as you slump against the party tables speak of nothing but of bitter sadness.

Your music it is plaguing both my eardrums and my life, however I do admire the way you play it all day. I can't even hear myself think over the volume so it seems like rather a good distraction to sad thoughts. It is something to push the grief into the back corners. The vacant place at the table will be ready to creep back into your every waking thoughts when all the family has left, but for now it's muted under the deafening noise. The rhythms are also a rather happy send-off for your husband and father, fitting. The ornate, hand-painted coffin is also impressive. The size of a small ship, it is a really beautiful way to set sail into the next life. However, the pregnant woman staring at it blankly as it was carried down the alley by a truck blasting 'Party Rock Anthem' broke my heart a little.

So I will conclude. I hope your family is able to carry on in spite of the loss of it's patriarch. A loss like that is truly heartbreaking. But if you or anyone else in your family is to die, please have the decency to do it during the daytime hours. I and everyone between here and Los Angeles would appreciate that very much.

Condolences and Warm Wishes,

Sunday, September 18, 2011

All Creatures Great and Small

I have found myself locked in a battle of wills of late. Ants have begun to devour my stuff, my life and my sanity. They first crept onto my desk, dangerously close to my pillow and when I moved my cotton swabs that they seemed to be developing an affection for (why, ants, why?!) they discovered my beloved backpack in which I tote my worldly belongings every time I move. Apparently they like it there and no amount of sweeping, pleading or glaring can cease their industrious pillaging of my stuff. It's amazing how man vs. ant can get to a rather obsessive, pathological level. I imagine them as ranks of foot soldiers and generals, manned out of their war room, hell bent on inflecting misery upon all until the end of time. Having dropped a crumb of muffin into my keyboard during the writing of this post, I am now obsessively fretting about ants destroying my laptop. It happened to a friend of mine. Really. Until now I never really understood my Dad's passion for spraying ants in their nests on the side of our house. My mom, my sister and I would all stand at the window and watch him, mildly confused at his display of schadenfreude. Never mind the fact that we benefited from his diligence. But now I know.

In Mongolia all animals were simply fated to die. The winters were long and bugs generally scarce. But Cambodia is different. It's like the jungle is taking it's revenge on mankind for hacking the trees to pieces and erecting a toxic city in their stead. I swear the jungle will take back over one day. The ants are just holding its place.

The ants are not the only wildlife very happily coexisting with people here. I am engaged in a one-sided love-affair with the geckos that plaster the walls and ceilings of seemingly every building in Cambodia. They scuttle comically across vertical surfaces, their sticky little fingers gripping the concrete and I wonder what they are thinking. I don't think I'll ever tire of watching them and the girls also smile at the 'little crocodiles'. At the gym the only work-out buddies I have are sparrows that jerk their heads inquisitively as I sweat and pant; they freely come and go in the exercise room. The windows are open against the heat and it would be futile to try and keep the birds from hopping all over the weights. I've never been a nature person but the larger critters that frolic around Phnom Penh are endearing, unlike the six-legged villains munching away at God-knows-what.

Further inspection of my backpack informed me that the culprit ant attracter was an old gag gift. Some Russian friends came back from a visit home and presented me with a lollipop in the shape of a rooster. (I'll leave you to your own thoughts there, friends.) Thinking it was funny I threw it in my bag on the way home and forgot about it. That is until I found the beak completely depleted by tiny bites and the face red with a swarm of ants. Who felt really dumb? This kid. So after cleaning up the mess and chucking my fowl friend, I retreated to a coffeehouse, far from the maddening swarms. Please let them not be back in their ranks, marching away, upon my return.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Overrun and Won Over

A constant source of joy for me here is the youth around me. Where I work at A New Day Cambodia the office space is completely integrated with the rest of the housing and class space for the 97 youngsters and teens we serve. There is little respite from the noises of children and no task is ever too important for a pair of sweaty hands to refrain from wrapping themselves around my eyes or poking me in the ribs, jolting me from the deepest of concentrated trances. I love being surrounded by these little people and am happy to let little bits of them mark my day. It is rare for me to cross the street without a tiny hand tucked into my own; the first and last workday sounds are high pitched yells of joyful greeting or good night well-wishing. When I go home I make to-do lists around notebook pages filled with little doodles of astronauts, flowers and castles. This weekend, though I have time off, I was looking forward to cheering the ANDC team on at their soccer game and surprised myself by being a little sad when I heard it has been postponed. Though it might sound overly material and graphically expose my bleeding heart, it gives me no small sense of satisfaction to labor every day for these kids who would otherwise be illiterate garbage scavengers. Interviewing children for the newsletter, reporting to TOMS Shoes about the newest shipment and cataloging Tetanus vaccinations are indeed labors of joy. I have grown to love these children and am happy be surrounded by their warmth. When I am tasked with jobs in the computer room I go when the children are at lunch so the sounds of clanking spoons and silly chatter filters through the windows and I am propelled by sounds borne of growth and nourishment. A joyous noise.

Last week, filled with vindication, I narked out a teacher I found hitting a child with an electrical cord. Admittedly sometimes my own inner Miss. Hannigan threatens to rear her head from time to time. On occasion I have to suppress urges to throttle whatever ankle-biter lies in close circumference when they are particularly rowdy. But that is rare. Mostly I am content to relish the constant dramas, successes and failures of the blossoming and complex little people who fill my life.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Happy Full Moon Festival!

A little belated but happy Full Moon Festival! Night before last the residents had a beautiful ceremony in reverence to the swollen, white moon. Apparently it only happens once a year, not sure why not with every full moon, so I was very lucky to catch it. It started with some nice words as everyone clasped fragrant incense between their hands in prayer. The girls planted their smoky sticks in a bowl of rice and padded off to watch a horror film on tv, waiting for the incense to burned to nubs. After a sitting a spell there was lots of cakes and fruit for all. The whole thing was underscored by continuous giggling, heckling and camera-photo taking, which was one of the most fun parts. Apparently a Chinese ceremony, the residents were dedicated to conducting it with poise but confessed that they only did it because they wanted to eat cake. Above is my favorite picture from the evening. A laughing students next to the full moon alter. The moon is high overhead but the scene is brightened by the candles and her smile.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Margaritaville

I encountered a hefty number of life choices recently. It took a few sleepless nights, plenty of advice from friends and family and lots of soul searching but finally everything resolved itself. In this process, my father sent me a kind and helpful e-mail that urged me not to discount the idea of  staying in Phnom Penh a bit longer than planned. My contract here runs into January and after that I plan to move on. His suggestion took me aback and I started to think about how tempting an idea that really is. I then realized that if I stayed here in Cambodia I might never leave. I could very happily remain here in a perpetual Margaritaville purgatory for a very, very long time.

At the risk of sounding snotty or like Jimmy Buffett's autobiography, I want to expound for a moment on the amazing quality of life here in Phnom Penh. Take this weekend for example. Saturday morning I had a leisurely brunch at a boutique hotel with friends, luxuriating in the tranquil, relaxing environment. My friend's personal tuk tuk driver then picked us up and took us to the main market here in town. We wandered around, poking at the goods and drinking baby coconut water strait from the fruit. My friend bought a huge bag of fresh groceries for less than $4. Later I met up with a different group of people for a Mekong river boat ride in celebration of a few birthdays. I enjoyed two hours of cruise for $3, chatting away with Peace Corps Cambodia Volunteers and the American ambassador's son who apparently does not drink anything below Johnny Walker Black Label. Later we rocked out at a karaoke venue where our group had three dedicated attendants just for us. Right now I've installed myself at a Western style coffee shop and am sipping on an expertly brewed cappuccino as the rain spatters itself against the floor to ceiling windows. Later I'll head uptown to play some pickup Ultimate Frisbee with the local expat league. Great life?  I think so.

The expat lifestyle is a tough one to turn down, especially for someone in their mid-twenties fleeing an awful job market in the US. Westerners make plush salaries and have few expenditures in developing countries. Goods and services are up to American standard and I can't think of much that is not available on the shelves here. But life is especially easy for expats in Cambodia; it's developed just enough to be familiar but not so much that there is either fierce job competition or a loss of edginess or exoticism. And though I know I live a vastly different life than the locals, a situation that comes with it's own moral dilemmas, having a life dedicated  to service somehow makes it more okay although it does feel a little wrong at times. I landed a substitute teaching position recently and if I were a little more opportunistic and a little less ambitious it would be easy to work that up to a more permanent position, get an apartment in a trendy area, extend my gym membership and stay a good long while. But as much as this plush setup is tempting for the long haul, I feel distant corners beckoning and I know I will heed the call of relentless ambition.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Hell And Back

In Cambodia I am rapidly learning to adjust to the myriad opposites I am confronted with. Mongolia was awash with juxtapositions but indeed different ones than I face here. Mongolia's recent  history was a vastly different one and compounded with culture and climate, the countries have shown themselves to be remarkably dissimilar. But oddly the presence of death is somehow the thing that has struck me most and highlighted the marked differences between my experiences in these two countries thus far.

Yesterday the new students arrived at our dormitory and I got the day off of work to attend the ceremony which was held at the Foundation's other, larger dorm. The introduction and formal agreement signing was jam packed. All the families had come in from the countryside; quite a feat as almost all the girls come from farming families in far outlying provinces. Plump mothers beamed from their plastic chairs and fathers kept were kept in hot pursuit of munchkins attempting to make a fast break for freedom. We arrived early so I strolled around the impressive room, the Hall of Great Women. Housed at the top of the dorm, the space is a facility for seminars and the like in addition to a nod at great women in history. The walls are hung with large, gold framed portraits and it was fascinating to read the little blurbs posted under each woman. As I explored I couldn't help but glance at the same point in space that Mother Theresa and Benazir Bhutto were gazing into pensively. Tony Morrison smiled warmly, countered by Frida Kahlo's stern unibrow and I felt Golda Meir's stony stare at my back. Suddenly my walk came to a halt when I encountered a blank, black portrait. I assumed it would say something like "you could be here next!" but instead it simply read "for the great women who could not be here." The eyes of the young girls in the photos at S-21 came back to stare at me. I thought about the death and destruction a mere generation before and was taken aback by deep sadness. But as quickly as I had been overtaken I was awakened from the melancholy by a riot of laughter. I peered down the balcony and found a large circle of my girls sitting on a colorful mat on the ground cooking, munching and talking. Retreating down to chat with them I found a holiday mood, they chopped baguettes, snacked on bananas and took turns string massive vats of curry over charcoal fires. All smiles, they beckoned me eagerly to sit amongst them and share their joy, their exhilaration that their new 'younger sisters' had come. So I did.

In Mongolia I hardened quickly to the death of animals. On my morning runs it was not uncommon to see more than one frozen carcass, I learned to step unblinkingly over inside-out bloodied sheep skin when the library staff was jonesing for fresh meat and the town market was a whole world of animal slaughter in a league of it's own. But here it's different. On a daily basis I am reminded of dead people. Dinner conversations frequently turn to the legal work my girls are doing on Khmer Rouge research and who lost what family members to the bloodbath. But though genocide is omnipresent, the country is trying to grow again.

To me one girl really embodies the Cambodian journey back from Hell. Today I saw a picture of a new student. A radiant girl, she has beautiful, long hair, a disarming personality and an easy way with people. But the girl I saw in the picture, a photo taken not 10 years ago, was much altered. She lived in the garbage dump, wore tattered clothes and instead of the books and smile she carries today she welded a sharp, metal rod and a woven, plastic trash bag. Through the intervention of wealthy souls who dabble in non-profit work, her life has turned around. She was born in a smoldering heap of trash but now is going to be a pharmacist.

There is no coming back from animal slaughter; there is only Spring and the birth of new calves and lambs to look forward to. But in human rebirth there is something distinctly and universally beautiful. It has been amazing share part of my life with a people who are living in Spring.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Gimme Dat Sammitch!

After checking out the Phnom Penh expat Ultimate Frisbee scene, loving it and running myself ragged for a couple of hours, I picked up a sandwich on the street corner near my new pad. I've had one before but this time wanted to document it's hefty glory for you. Sadly the video quality isn't the best in the world but never the less behold, the great Cambodian street sammitch:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Not Your Average Joe

 I have discovered Cambodian coffee with a fury; I feel an addiction coming on. Until this point I had sipped coffee here politely in cafes, clinking the ice cubes in my simi-strong brew that arrives in a tall, sweaty glass. But little did I know that that stuff is not Cambodian coffee. Flagging after a long day dealing with visas and work yesterday, I decided to delve into the world of street coffee to discover it is as thick and grungy as it sounds. On my way back to the dorm from work, I squawked at my tuk tuk driver a request to pull over when a beverage pushcart came into view. As stops are par for the course here, he pulled over and patiently waited as I timidly strolled over to a Cambodian lady in a massive straw sunhat. "One coffee?" I entreated, not sure if she'd understand. She squinted at me hard, nodded and set about mixing the drink. She dumped enough sugar to bake a cake with into a plastic cup then cracked open a re-purposed water bottle with something black lurking inside. She then commenced to pour into my cup a mixture that looks closest to what I imagine a cocktail of tar, diesel petrol and Kahlua to look like. It reluctantly sloped into my cup which was filled not even half way with the stuff. My barista then shoveled chipped ice into the vacant space, slapped a top on and demand 1,000 Cambodian Riel. I happily gave her the equivalent to 25 cents and made off with my brew. Upon returning to the tuk tuk I plunged my orange straw into the bosom of the lid and took my first sip. The taste was electric. It was the most shockingly wonderful thing to ever pass through  a straw. It was thick and rich and I had to remind myself that there was in fact no alcohol in it, so intense was the bite. A few sips gave me a physical jolt so I savored the cold drink the whole ride home, nursing it slowly least an excess send me into heart failure or a diabetic coma. I watched the shack and stalls go by as we dodged speeding motos, dogs and children. Drinking my newfound beverage of choice I remembered a whole different world. It reminded me of a Turkish proverb painted above a coffee shop register in Chattanooga, Tenneessee. Coffee, the Turkish and evidently Chattanoogans say, should be
Black as Hell,
Strong as Death,
Sweet as Love.
Given my experience here thus far this is an apt saying; an appropriate mixture. The death that screamed so loudly in S-21 and the love that I feel every day from the young people who fill my life are certainly defining elements in my time here thus far. I wouldn't say Hell has anything to do with being here though the dregs of my coffee are certainly very, very black and it was Hell to see the bottom of my cup.