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.

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