"I can not believe how quickly it suddenly appears to have gone. I know that every week has seemed painstakingly long when I'm going through it, but once I get past them they always feel like they have flown by. Looking at all those impossible weeks and exhausting days, it's almost as if I've climbed an emotional mountain and found an inner valley of peace on the other side. Finally, time is moving as it should." - Jennifer Otele, Class of 2006
January 9: I have now been in Phnom Penh for a week, and I can honestly say that it feels like an emotional month. I was completely exhausted by the time I got here, after almost two full days of flying and layovers around the world. Once I finally got some sleep, there was the shock that I was actually here. After preparing for something for so long it was surreal to be in my plans at last. A friend of Janet's a CRS, Kathy, took me under her universally friendly wings and showed me the ropes of our little neighbor hood - bought me a moto helmet (which, trust me, is a necessity after you see the way traffic moves here), helped me find a more economically friendly guest house and made sure I was never lonely at meal times. Now, I am fully settled in a colorful little guesthouse about a block and a half from the CRS office as well as into the office itself. My "boss'' arrived yesterday, so at last, today, I am going to dive into the work that brought me here. I cannot fully explain the spectrums of confusion, excitement, sadness, hope, despair and awe I have felt all in one week. I'm sure you all know what I'm talking about though.
Phnom Penh is an amazing city, full of people from every region of the world. There are different colors, accents and food choices to be found in any corner you look. I live in the central region of the capital city, right next door to the national monument and not far from the central market and US embassy. There are a lot of French people here, but I suppose that makes sense as it used to be a French colony. Most of the people I have met here, and all of the Khmers, are very kind and helpful. The only one's who have been cold to me are a few French people who seem to think I am very young and naive (which, I am at least one of those) and one American guy who thinks he knows everything, including the absolute and concrete truth of cultural relativism. I have had more that one argument with him about what I'm doing here, its morality, and the influence of western culture. He is convinced that development agencies are the puppets of domineering governments far away, here to ruin the native culture and substitute it with a consuming one. My discussions with him have (and I hate to give him the credit) honestly tested me, but after that, have reaffirmed my commitment to this project and the universal dignity due to each person on this earth, regardless of location.
Despite the charm and diversity of Phnom Penh, it does have a dark past. The reign of the Khmer Rouge devastated Cambodia during the second half of the 70's, and the effects of their time in power are still evident. I visited the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh on Sunday, as well as the school the Khmer Rouge used as a prison/interrogation center that is now a museum dedicated to documenting and preserving that part of their history. It is very surreal to see places like this, as today they do not look so extraordinary. It is simply the knowledge of what happened there that hangs heavy in the air, in spite of the sun, breeze and long, soft grass that now covers the area.
There are of course signs telling you how many were found in each shallow hole in the ground, or what horrific acts took place at this tree. Children are all over the fields. They have learned that tourists, especially in this area, are susceptible to the sad faces of children and will give their money willingly when asked. (I did. :) )I also have some pictures with them that are worth every penny.) The museum is different. There are pictures that where taken by the Vietnamese when they invaded Phnom Penh on the walls of each room. They show that room as it was found, corpses still on the beds, their bodies decimated by their captors.
Having seen some of these places makes it easier to understand why there are so many family and relational problems here. The people who were children during the time of the Khmer Rouge are now trying to raise their own children, but they have never seen what a normal, healthy family looks like. They have only seen death, fighting, stealing and secrecy. I am glad to be here working with groups trying to right this, using programs to teach people about healthy marriages, fidelity, health care and farming; all taught to Khmer people by Khmers who were trained at workshops.
Such an amazing week! But as I said and as you can imagine, it has been a month in every other way but real time. I am very excited to be settled in and adjusted to the time difference and weather; even more so to begin working. I expect the next weeks will hold just as many challenges, but also more insights and amazing experiences as well.
February 1: "I'm going to die", I thought to myself. "This is it; I'm going to die in this pickup here in Cambodia. Well, someone is going to die. This many vehicles, that little space!!"
Motorbikes and tuktuks crawled and weaved around the car, loaded down with anywhere from one tiny man to one tiny man and his whole family- wife, daughter, infant son and their dinner all piled on to one moped. I took a picture.
"Driving, it's not like this in your country?" laughed my driver, gesturing out the window at the jam-packed intersection, a lone officer trying to direct traffic in the middle. Some how, it seemed to be working. Slowly, but still working.
"No," I murmured, mesmerized. I could see carts displaying whole fried pigs and geese hanging from their shriveled red feet waiting to be purchased in celebration of the Chinese New Year. People peered back at me from the street. A little boy started to giggle and squirm, looking at me and then looking away. I waved.
One block and ten minutes later, we pulled into a parking spot right in front of a crowded market. Outdoor booths were laid out in a row and offered treats for the holiday in the form of cakes- white cakes, white cakes with red dots topping four peaks, big yellow cakes, small yellow cakes; cakes for as long as your stomach could wish. I opened my door and stepped out, almost knocking over a motorbike. "Must be more careful," I chided myself silently. Americans like space, but Khmers don't seem to mind the lack there of!
"This way, Jenn" called Mr. Him Seila, the Deputy Chief Operation Officer (as his card puts it) of Thaneakea Phum (Cambodia) LTD, or TPC for short. TPC is a branch of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Cambodia and offers small loans to business owners and farmers in the hopes of jump starting their business. They so far have been very successful. The program no longer needs funding from CRS- the interest returns are enough to keep them rolling and growing. I was there to interview some of their success stories, a few of which were working in the market we had just arrived at. I hurried after Seila, not wanting to get lost in the mayhem.
A note about Asian markets if you have not been to one: Most catering to the preferences of a tourist are spacious and full of nice things, like fake Rolexes, photo-copied Lonely Planets, and knock off's of designer clothing. Local markets, the "real" ones, if I may, are, well, chaos. They are a blinding array of smells, people, stalls, guts, flowers and fruit. But this is all in hindsight. For now, assume the only markets that exist are the spacious ones full of foreigners sporting fanny packs; you're only hardship finding what exit you left your expectant tuktuk driver at or that the guy who sold you a bootlegged copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ripped you off. Now you are ready to follow me into this market.
I walked close to Seila as he weaved in and out of busy people on our way to visit our first client, a woman who sold fruit. I immediately noticed that I was the only person there who didn't know how to walk properly. Somehow, every one else was moving cleanly and quickly past each other, rounding corners and gliding to their next destination laden with prior purchases. I, on the other hand, had transformed into an ogre somewhere between the car and the cakes. My hips were suddenly the size of a hula-hoop; my hands hanging awkwardly from broad-like-a-wrestler shoulders; my shoe size rivaling that of Ronald McDonald. I bumped into every possible person and or object, shuffling my feet and trying to protect my purse with my huge mitts. Women who obviously enjoy food more than I do navigated the narrow channels with ease, glaring at me, the ogre of the market, as they passed.
Finally, we reached the stand.
Seila and the woman exchanged familiar hellos and I was briefly introduced. I asked if I could take a picture of her in her booth, and she agreed with a smile and a nod.
Now to get my camera out. My ogre elbows knocked a few shoulders before I finally extracted the device with my sausage-like fingers. Getting it all turned on and holding it out in front of me, I counted down on my left hand in the air from three. Funny enough though, the woman watched me start the count down, smiled and then looked away immediately. I ended up with a picture of her cheek as she negotiated with another customer. Oh well, next time. I nodded my thanks.
As Seila and the woman continued to talk, I surveyed her little stand. She had indeed turned a small loan (less than $100 USD) into a profitable place in 4 years. The program calls for a full return in eight months, but after that you are free to take out another loan for more money if you need it. I looked at the impressive, healthy collection of fruit, including a few barrels of apples. Being from the Pacific Northwest of the US, I know how to appreciate a good apple. I reached down, cocking my head to the side in amusement. The stickers on the shiny gala apples said none other than "Washington," my home state. Picking one up, I tried to take a picture of the sticker, but the apple reflected the flash and refused to let me. Washington apples, here in Cambodia. Ah, the wonders of globalization...
Next we wondered down to another clients stand. She sold plastic goods- little card holders, plastic baggies and other miscellaneous necessities. Again, I tried to take a picture- I asked and everything (they know when I'm going to take one) ... but she closed her eyes. So far, either my picture-taking skills needed refining or these women really didn't get that I wanted a picture of their smiling, triumphant faces. I nodded my thanks.
We were done visiting clients, but Seila decided to show me around a bit. I think he could tell I'd never been to a market like this one before. Perhaps it was the size of my eyes that tipped him off, or how appalled I was when a passer-by's bag dripped something from of an unknown origin on my leg.
"Stay close," he instructed, smiling knowingly. I kept my camera at the ready and nodded my huge head."Uh-hu," grunted the ogre version of me.
We passed by huge barrels of dried shrimp- literal mountains of the pink sea-creatures peaking out of bins to create ranges to either side of me. There were stalls selling yellow and white blocks of tofu, unwrapped, stacked on top of each other. Fresh flowers, toiletry necessities, and strange burritos on trays were available at every corner.
"What are these burrito-things?" I questioned Seila. My before incessant pestering had reduced to the constant clicking of my camera. Dead shrimp held their pose better than most at this market. But on the wrapped and tied baton-sized unknowns, I needed an answer. I had spent some time in Thailand and fell in love with the coconut and sticky rice snacks my host mom gave me. These things were wrapped in the same leaves, all be it bigger. Was I lucky enough to find ogre-sized portions of my favorite Thai sweeties?
"Those are rice and... something."
"Sticky rice?" I pressed.
"No. Rice and banana maybe."
Yummmmmm, I thought. That might be even better!
On further inspection though, the innards of these want-to-be Mexican tubes did not look like fruit. One of the stands had cut one in half, the insides on display for the curious customer. It looked like... meat.
"Oh yes," Seila answered at my inquiry. "Pork and beans."
Not coconut. I shrugged, not wanting to show my disappointment. "Cool."
We kept walking; more like, he walked and I dodged, still getting hit on all fronts by skilled Khmer women. How did their hips fit through there!
Suddenly a familiar and rather unsettling smell hit my nose. Raw meat. I could hear the flies in the near distance. This point of the market is almost the center, possibly the worst point ever for piles of raw meat. The heat was at its most intense here, and the space at a minimum. Turning the corner, I saw them: the butcher's stands.
Piles of mystery meat covered counters. On ice was a strange looking piece of purple stuff. A new exotic Asian fruit, or liver? I asked myself. In front of me loomed a site the godfather would be proud of- at least 20 pig heads. The rest of the pig must have been sold somewhere else in the market. I thought of the rice and pork burritos, glad I had used scientific reasoning (um, luck?) to deduce it was not banana inside before tearing into one. The heads were still fresh and the stump of a neck on each still was wet with red blood. The stall itself was raised to waist level, and the tiny woman on top of it crouching on all fours took a break from her meat cleaving long enough to look up and o.k. a photo. Again, she too didn't break long enough to smile for the camera, returning to her work and ignoring me as the flash lit up her booth. I sighed at the image displayed on the screen of my camera. Oh well. I nodded my thanks.
The smell of the blood and fish reeking up and down the isle started to get to me. I turned my ogre body and tried not to bump into any remains. My mind wandered involuntarily again, this time to the bag that had dripped on me earlier. Then to salmonella. My stomach was still weak from a bought with the flu a few days earlier, and I was relieved to follow Seila out of that department into safer territory. Or so I thought. (A piece of information for the reader- at the time of this visit, bird flu was a huge threat to mankind... supposedly. Everyone was scared; no one knew what to do about it.)
Our next stop on the journey was to the live meats department. Namely poultry. Chickens were tied in rows and then columns to form huge squares on the ground, cut by the occasional white goose. I took another badly timed picture as locals looked at me with a question on their faces that I could only guess was "What is so interesting about dinner?" I tried to answer just as silently back, bird flu? Hello? This is craziness!
I ran up to Seila, who was almost to the exit. "What about bird flu!?" I gasped, confounded by the nonchalant nature of everyone surrounding the little germ disseminators. "Aren't you worried?"
"No," he replied flatly. "Cambodia does not allow birds from other countries in, and we do not have the flu. So, we are safe." He seemed very confident.
I decided for my peace of mind to be equally confident, and lifted my ogre head to take in the last few minutes of the market. The cakes were back, as were the fake dollar bills, cardboard cell phones and red hanging decorations, all here this weekend only for the holiday. The sun peaked inside, calling me to come out so it could relieve me of the extra hundred pounds I picked up in the shadows.
Before I left I tried one last time to get a good picture. There was a woman working at her booth, a perfect photo-op made by the forest of the dangling, red, Chinese novelties around her face. She did look at the camera for me, but her expression looked like that of a dear caught in head lights. Perhaps that's what I would look like too if I were a Khmer woman working in a market when a giant American asked to take my picture. I nodded my thanks.
February 19: The last two weeks have been incredible, as in "un-credible", as in unreal, and also as in amazing. Where to begin?
The week of Feb. 6th I left for Svay Rieng, a province on the Vietnamese border. I was supposed to leave on Saturday, but because of yet another tummy bug, I did not leave until Monday. The roads out there are not the best, and I was crammed into a shared taxi with 7 other people, making the total occupants of that little 90's Camry 8 people. Wow. Two hours later, I arrived at the CRS office in Svay Rieng town and promptly set off to do interviews with farmers who have benefited from working with CRS or their partners. The people I met were fantastic. I did four different interviews over that Monday through Wednesday with farmers and their families. All reported increased income and a better standard of living, being able to send their children to school, being able to afford medicine, and being able to spend more time with their families thanks to working on a productive farm (vs. having to drive a mototaxi or work construction near the border). Some had new fish hatcheries; others new fruit tree nurseries; another a new veterinary medicine supply counter.
The people who work at the Svay Rieng office were some of the nicest and down to earth people I've met in my time here and we were always joking around and laughing. I loved Svay Rieng for its relaxed and personable feel. Cities get so caught up in being a city that they forget to slow down and smile. People smiled in Svay Rieng. I was even pet by an old woman! She gently grabbed my arm and smiled at me lovingly while stroking the hair on my arm. I (thanks papa) have a lot of hair on my arms for a woman, I guess, and in Cambodia, hairiness is good luck. So she pet me for a minute and then asked why I wasn't married. Hmm... that's when I left. Aside from the should-be-married stuff, Cambodia is a good place for a hairy, white girl who likes to eat. Hair is good luck, white skin is beautiful, and some extra weight is a sign of wealth. I could get on here just fine.
I returned to Phnom Penh later that week, still suffering from cramps and other uncomfortable stomach aliments. After a trip to the doctor and a dose of antibiotics, I was back to normal and on the road again, this time to a province near the other border- the one next to Thailand- to do interviews with the health staff in Battambong. We left at 6 am on a Saturday, usually something I would HATE to do, but this was a most enjoyable trip BECAUSE of the early hour. A sun rise over rice fields in the country side, even in the dry season, is an incredible sight and I am so glad I was able to see it in all of its pink and orange glory.
That Sunday I was able to visit temples in the area around Battambong and was given a tour by a guy named "Mr. Okay." I was in the middle of reading Mr. Nice at the time, so I found it incredibly amusing that my moto driver was named Okay. On Monday I went into the office and met the staff there. Again, people were so incredibly kind. The project manager there, an ex-pat from the states named Lori, took me under her wing and made sure to point out all the good restaurants and an amazing bakery. We spent a lot of time talking while I was there and I feel like I have a mom in Battambong, should I ever need her.
The interviews I did, though, could not have been made easier no matter how wonderful the staff. I interviewed people with AIDS, people who work with those who are suffering from AIDS, village health volunteers who educate and assist rural communities, the health center staff, and members of the village health committee. Their stories are inspiring, heartbreaking, filled with promise and also with a sense of hopelessness all at the same time. It was the most exhausting three days I have ever experienced and I honestly do not know how to describe the way it was, the way I felt, or anything else about it. Every time I try it does not sound authentic at all; it never says exactly what I mean. I can say that I will never take plumbing, safe city water, vaccinations, vitamins, or health care in general for granted. These interviews have made me question the nature of humanity. Some people, like the village health volunteers, who have nothing will give their time and energy purely out of compassion. Other people who have some will steal, cheat, swindle or deny other people out of rights all of us should have during their darkest days. Worst of all, people who have much, will look the other way during all of this and pretend that is does not happen, does not matter, or does not concern them. I wonder if there is a human nature in regards to compassion, and if there is, what exactly is the nature of that nature? My week in Battambong was difficult, rewarding, and confusing at best, and at worst it was disheartening, discouraging and isolating.
As if this wasn't enough to be feeling at the time, and perhaps because of that feeling, these last two weeks have also been the two where I have felt most separated from home. I have missed my family, my boyfriend, my friends, my house, car, school, shower, grocery store and job. It is so bittersweet to miss things you love. In missing them, you know how much you love them and your thankfulness for them grows every day for new reasons. But the missing, the missing just sucks. There are things that were important to me that have become even more firmly rooted to the life I want, and other things that I realize do not matter at all. I am a family person- I do not think I will ever be able to live so far away from them again.
On a strange note, one thing that has emerged as not-so-important to me is meat. After seeing how useful an animal can be to a farm without eating it, the money wasted by farming meat instead of vegetables, rice or grains, the way animals are treated during transportation to their most-certain demise, and the unhealthy living conditions they endure leading to diseases we could ingest has turned me off to meat. I never, EVER, would have thought I would be saying that I am a vegetarian, but it seems Asia has turned me into one anyways. I can't help it! It just looks so unappetizing these days. So I am giving in and joining the ranks of meatless Americans. (But I'm sure come Thanksgiving I'll be eating some turkey- family is family and vegetarian or not, I'm not giving up tradition. Don't worry mom.)
So as I'm sure you can see, this has been a crazy, up and down two week stretch. I'm not sure what to say about it, honestly, and I procrastinated in writing this reflection for that reason. Currently I'm back in Phnom Penh writing up all the interviews I made and putting them into story form. Hopefully I'll be going to do final interviews with three other project groups within the city in the next week or two. I CANNOT BELIEVE I ONLY HAVE THREE WEEKS LEFT! It is insane how a journey that seems to be endless, dragging your heart in the mud behind you, can also seem to be shooting past you at the same time. The people I have met, their kindness, and the beauty of this culture have made me come to love this place, while at the same time, the hardships and struggles that happen every day make me want to rush home at soon as possible. I am grateful for both feelings; the light and the dark. One never knows one without the other, after all. The cliché expression about how these experiences help you to grow as a person is cliché for a reason - my heart and soul have grown this week. I know it because it always wears you out when you're growing, or even hurts, and I have felt both of those things; the way I look at my surroundings is different.
That is honestly my best attempt to explain what my last two weeks have been like. I know it doesn't sound the way it really was- there are always moments of lightheartedness and fun. I work out; I read in cafés where a welcome breeze blows over the balcony; I meet friends for cheap, fine-dining style meals and laugh about Cheney shooting his friend in the face. It's not all heavy... but I suppose in a reflection, one should write about the monumental stuff, so that's what I tried to do.
I wish you all could just know what I mean... maybe that's the hardest part, knowing that what I "know", no matter how hard I try to convey it, is only really mine. Experience is a tricky thing. Thank you for at least reading about mine.
February 28: I've been an office brat the last two weeks, which honestly isn't really a complaint compared to the two weeks before them out in the field. I've been working on writing up stories and have done a few more local interviews.
Last week I went to the local Youth For Peace office, a partner NGO of CRS', to interview a group of young students in the peace building program. The idea is to teach these youth how to problem solve and think critically and avoid overreacting or falling into dangerous patterns of thought, such as racism or extreme nationalism. I WAS TERRIFIED. Teenagers? Ugh. I was also sick, again, with a nasty head cold. Snot dripped from my nose; LITERALLY dripped. Once I got there though, and began talking to them in my raspy voice, I realized that these kids weren't intimidating at all. They were some of the nicest, social teens I'd ever met. We talked openly about subjects I thought would be a danger to ask, like what did you think about the Thai embassy being burned to the ground two years ago? People are only just starting to speak openly about the deep-rooted prejudices towards the Thais and Vietnamese in a calm and rational way, so to talk to a group of young Khmers about it was really, really cool- despite my runny face.
Today I went to interview two women who borrow from CRS' micro-finance program, called TPC. The first woman made silk garments and the second raised pigs. The interviews were SO frustrating!! I tried to rephrase my questions and to smile encouragingly, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not get thorough answers from them. Everything was "good" and they were "happy"- that's it. In the car on the way back, one of the TPC employees who came with me (but did not do most of the translating) told me that because of the education level in the villages, many people really just do not know how to reflect deeply on the questions I'm asking. He said that the translator was simply telling me the new information that was given after each question and that the rest of the khmer I'd heard was stuff they'd already said before. This, which was meant to reassure me, made me so angry! "But I want to know exactly what is being said! What if something is different in that context? What if they keep repeating the same thing because it's that important? And if I never know how many times they repeat it, I'd never know that it was that important to them" I protested. I felt so jipped. My notes were so bland- I don't care what they repeat over and over- I want to know what it is just the same. It's not up to a translator to decide what gets to me! The story turned out fine though, and I guess that's what counts.
Tomorrow I go to the Maryknoll, CRS' HIV/AIDS partner, office. There I will be doing at least one interview, for our annual summary, and possibly also interviewing people who are in their "Bridges of Hope" program. Bridges gets people who have successfully taken anti-retroviral medication back into the working world by training them in things like quilt making and other stationary professions. It should be an empowering day, as all of these people have been sick and are now healthy again thanks to treatment.
Other than that... two weeks to go. Wow. I can not believe how quickly it suddenly appears to have gone. I know that every week has seemed painstakingly long when I'm going through it, but once I get past them they always feel like they have flown by. Looking at all those impossible weeks and exhausting days, it's almost as if I've climbed an emotional mountain and found an inner valley of peace on the other side. Finally, time is moving as it should.