Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jelly Flop

This is a story that brought me to my knees.

The Pchoom Ben holiday arrived last week, bringing with it several days of vacation…and then several more, because once Cambodians get rolling with their vacays, we might as well extend it to a full week off. Why not?! I mean, with only 20-some holidays in a year, we have to get those lazy country-side visits to family in somewhere.

So before hitting the dusty trail on back to my village I decided to hitch up with some of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) on their way to Kep province for a few days of beach-side relaxation. However, there were a few road-blocks along the way to said sandy paradise. While coordinating bus schedules with my travel-mates, I noticed that the bus route stamped on their purchased tickets was not being listed off to me in the options I had to get to Kep. I told the vendor that I wanted to be on the 12:30 bus to Kep, in both Khmer and English to make my point clear, and he kept repeating that there was only a bus at that time that went to Kampot; some of the buses go through Kep on their way to Kampot, which is what I wanted, but the tickets already purchased by my friends were actually on the other route that goes to Kampot a different way, and not Kep at all. He told me that the previous vendor must have been confused because that particular scheduled bus time was eliminated as an option two weeks ago. Of course this was all communicated to me over three or four trips to the counter after shuffling behind other people that were buying tickets for supposedly existing, non-imaginary routes, while the thought was still churning in my head, “Hmm, if the previous vendor was confused, who is to tell me that you too will be confused about the current bus schedule, dear sir?” This also led me to ask for confirmation at least five times that I was buying a ticket for an actual bus, and not swindled into buying a seat on an imaginary vehicle. And of course this was all conducted while it was raining. Every frustrating scenario seems to be accompanied by the rain in Cambodia- it’s the cherry on top of my every struggle- sundae.

So after several calls back and forth to Andrea, Helen and Kurt, relaying to them the mishaps of their vendor, they were able to call up Sorya bus company and switch their tickets: which basically meant that they were told to write in the other bus time on their current tickets- all very official, of course. This gave us some concern to whether or not they would actually be allowed on the bus the next day, but come Saturday morning we all boarded the hour-late transport to Beach-erific Cambodia, and all was well with the world.

Upon arrival to Kep town, we were greeted with the usual tuk-tuk drivers eager to take us to our destined hotels. Since we hadn’t given much thought to where we would be staying, we ended up sitting on a wall by the beach area waiting for an answer from Jane, another volunteer who had visited Kep already, for some ideas of where to hang our hats for the night. One of her first suggestions was a place that was literally 30 yards or so from swarms of tuk-tuk drivers, who would have probably had us pay two dollars to get there. After scoping out the other guest-houses in the vicinities we agreed that her suggestion was indeed the best deal on the block, but were enticed by the idea of another place off the beaten trail that boasted of a pool and hammocks. So it came to be that we used the services of a twenty-something year-old male tuk tuk driver wearing a Mr. Potato Head t-shirt and an all- pink tuk tuk and moto set to reach our tucked-away oasis.

The first day’s weather was slightly unfavorable (read: rainy, big surprise). But once the clouds cleared we all took to our rented bikes to head back to the central area of town with all the best restaurants. Only one problem: most of the bikes had no brakes, and there were quite a few steep hills that ushered us into our haven of gastronomical delights. So with a mixture of fear and fun, we made our way accelerating down the slopes with the hopes that it would be the amounting friction on our tires that would bring us to a halt and not the hood of an incoming car. But, oh!, the wondrous reward of a salad with the reduced chance of the otherwise inevitable diarrhea from raw vegetables! What curious delight is found in the simple combination of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, olive oil
(or as the menu indicated, “Live Oil”), pepper, and the ever-magnanimous FETA. CHEESE. We returned to our abode with filled bellies and the urge to take a dip in the private pool- which we did by lantern light as we were experiencing a temporary black-out. An otherwise wonderful nights-sleep was only interrupted by the sex sounds of the old, neighboring French couple who would pause every fifteen seconds or so to make conversation- hardly a rhythm I could fall asleep to, as I’m used to the consistency of on-going love-making of cats in my village.

The next day, we decided it was more economically efficient for us to stay at the hotel closest to the food in town so we did not have to make the treacherous bike journey to and from our current stay. We took to lounging at the beach and soaked up the relatively filtered sun rays from the cloudy sky. Our evening consisted of pizza and spaghetti, as well as Glee-watching.

Since Monday, my last day with the group before heading back to my village, was the sunniest day we had seen so far in our journey, we decided to forego our pre-determined trip to Kampot and stay one more day in Kep to really enjoy the beachy-keen provincial town. We basked in the rays of the sun (with something like 11 times the UV rays of sun in the U.S.), which resulted in my inevitable sunburn, despite the generous globs of sunscreen I had applied. We mostly talked during this time, playing the game of “Truth or Dare” (minus the “Dare”- so I guess you can say we played “Truth”), until deciding to cool off from the scathing sun by jumping in the refreshing gulf of Thailand. Only then, did disaster strike (cue eerie music). Neither my bout of water aerobics nor my attempt at body surfing (which was mostly floating on my stomach because the waves were not nearly strong enough to move me more than a few feet) disturb what lies beneath the cloudy surface of the water. Nay, it was when I was standing calmly, in a state of pure tranquility and harmony with my surroundings, when I was so maliciously struck by such a sinister creature, with such a cute name…the jellyfish. Andrea would later describe my facial expressions of that of sheer fear and panic during the attack. Probably the scariest thing about the experience was not knowing what was striking me at first due to the initial shock of being stung and not being able to see what was stinging me in the murky water’s shallow depths. It first zapped my right inner thigh and briefly paused before whipping me 6 times on my left inner thigh and leaving a final zinger on my right calf. After Kurt assisted me out of the ocean, as it was hard to walk at that point, he and Helen went back to the hotel to look up what to do in this kind of predicament, and to ask Joanne (our Medical Officer) for her expertise on the matter. The first bit of advice was to go back in the water, the scene of the crime, so that the salt water would cool off the fresh wound. Andrea helped me waddle back to gulf to stand with my back facing the tide so it would splash up against the stung areas. Helen and Kurt soon came back with vinegar and plastic bags and basically told me to spread ‘em.

Now here comes probably one of the most embarrassing scenes I’ve ever made in Cambodia, and that’s saying something. Since we had to douse my injured thighs with the vinegar, but we didn’t want to get our only big beach towel soaked in the pungent stuff, and I also didn’t want to have my whole body covered in sand, I did the most logical-sounding thing at the moment…I got on all fours. I’m pretty sure my frantic dance out of the water drew enough attention as it was, but an even bigger Khmer crowd gathered to watch when I shamelessly dropped to my hands and knees as the two girls used the plastic bags as gloves to rub vinegar on my inner thighs. Not my best moment…but in about two hours, after managing to shuffle back to the hotel and lay down with a vinegar-soaked kroma over the back of my legs, I started to feel a lot better, and was able to begin the healing process of not only the physical pain but also the toll taken on my ego.

Aside from the traumatic event of The Menacing Medusa!, I had a lovely last day down in Kep. The four of us wondered the less-populated parts of town in search for the promise of “The Sandwich Shop”, as indicated on the map, but to no avail, and instead ran into several drunken men pointing us in every direction other than what had been previously told to us. On the way back to our guesthouse and all the actual existing restaurants we grabbed some juice and spiked it with a tiny bottle of vodka. Grape juice plus vodka equals a poor man’s wine. Topped the night off with fancy pants pizza (read: GOAT CHEESE!), and bashing episodes of the Bachelorette. I’d say it was an all- around great trip.

And even the jellyfish-attack gave me something to talk about to my fellow villagers upon returning to Bos Khnaor. I usually relayed the story in the same fashion each time: I’d say “I was in the sea in Kep, and a squid-like animal with long arms (gesture of squiggly arms here) hit my legs (gesture of hitting my inner thighs violently).” Then I do a little jig and scream out a bit. People usually reacted by laughing and then scrunching up their faces in sympathetic pain.

Joanne said it was a good thing that the jellyfish didn’t sting my face…or my genitals. You got a good point there, Joanne.

So here’s what I learned about jellyfish stings, so that all you readers will be informed on the procedure for future encounters should you have the same misfortune befall upon you. I implore you, dear reader, to follow these instructions to ease your wounds, and your wounded pride if you ever find yourself on all fours in front of a gawking crowd as well. And let’s get this out of the way first- you don’t have to pee on it! No urine required! Right, so…

Lauren’s “I Don’t Think You’re Ready for this Jelly” Brief Instruction Manual:

Step 1: Wipe off excessive goo. Beware! Parts of the goo may fling to other parts of your body or on your friends if you are not careful! Use rubber gloves to remove the extra bits. Joanne also recommends the method of using baking soda to calm the effect of the toxins and scrape off the jelly extract with credit card or something similar. (Note: there is one particular jellyfish that you should not remove from your body, as some sources indicate, but since there’s quite a few kinds of jellyfish and only one is like this your chances are better to remove it.)

Step 2: Go back to the scene of the crime. Obviously don’t go back to the same part of the water! Salt water may have the most cooling effect on the stings. Some sources indicate that fresh water will further agitate the toxins, although this is in contestation because Joanne advised that hot fresh water can also help. It’s also important to stay out of direct sunlight.

Step 3: Vinegar, NOT Urine. Take a towel, or a kroma, and soak it in as much vinegar as you can and apply it to your wound. What a difference it makes! Might not smell the greatest, but at least it’s better than piss.

Step 4: Spread Jellyfish Attack Awareness/ Seek Therapy. Show what you looked like during the attack to friends and family, then flash them a look at your battle scars…unless they actually are on your genitals.

So there you have it, folks. Be prepared, swim safe, and don’t let the jelly bring you to your belly. (Or in my case, your knees, because I just couldn’t stand to get my suit sandy.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

...Maybe it's Maybelline

Adapted from a letter to my friend, Laurie, with some revisions and additions:

A few months ago, I witnessed another birth-very different from the last one in that the girl was audibly in pain for five to seven hours of labor, with her eyes rolling back in her head, and this time was actually surrounded by the gaggle of yeays (women of grandmother age/ status) that I had expected in the first birth I witnessed.
So for a while, no other patients are coming in and the mid-wife and I are waiting awkwardly, sitting down on the other examination table. She starts doing paper work and I read my book, then I excuse myself for lunch and she approximates when the baby will actually start coming out. Like clock-work, I arrive back from lunch and the baby’s head is peeking out (tuft of hair). The girl has a yeay at every limb so I position myself next to the mid-wife but out of the “line of fire”, or rather “line of splatter”, and stand in such a way as to take up the smallest room possible: straight back, elbows in, feet together (have I mentioned how awkward I am?) I put my hands together and press my fingertips to my mouth- partly because I don’t know what to do, and partly because I don’t trust my stomach to be strong enough to relive both the beauty and horror of watching another human being so bloodily enter the world. One of the yeays confuses this gesture as one of prayer, and appreciatively joins me to offer her thanks to Buddha. As the midwife makes a jagged cut with the scissors to allow for an easier passage for the baby, and the 23-year-old soon-to-be mother looks more and more like Linda Blair with each increased decibel of her scream, I mutter something not to be mentioned here, clutch a fist to my mouth and avert my eyes upwards as to not upchuck myself. Again, this gesture is mistaken for an action of prayer and the yeay starts praising Buddha again and thanking me for my piety. So there you have it-I’m not weak of stomach, I’m pious!
After much aggrieved pushing, cutting and prodding- the babe emerges, only to defecate in gratitude on its mother. Blue for about half a minute before all the mucus is removed from her mouth and nose, the daughter shrieks and continues to poo- but the tension in the air is broken and we can all breathe again.
Now here’s the scary part- the same pair of gloves is used the entire time.
So the same pair that touches the dusty table, touches the instruments, touches the examination table, wipes the baby’s fecal matter and (gasp!) enters the mother to clean out the after-birth! Besides my initial gasp, I couldn’t really say anything on the matter. The damage was done, and to question her authority, especially in front of a patient, would be a breech in the code of Khmer etiquette- being careful not to “break face” by questioning someone’s expertise, thus embarrassing them in front of others.
It’s such a dilemma! I don’t know how to approach the situation without sounding like I’m accusing her. I could call one of the Khmer medical staff for Peace Corps and ask her opinion on the matter, since she may better know how to deal with the situation and the image has been haunting me for weeks, but now so much time has passed that it would be even more awkward to bring it up out now. I guess the best thing I can do, since learning that this sometimes happens, is to address the problem at the time it is occurring. I might not be there for every birth, but for those I do witness, I can learn to be bolder when a concern such as this arises; and perhaps instead of confronting the midwife with my simple Khmer which may come off as aggressive under such circumstances, I could simply hand the midwife a new pair of gloves every time they should be changed, so as to appear helpful rather than reproving.
Anyway, besides working on gaining a stronger stomach, I mostly talk to pregnant women about eating nutritious foods, taking their pre-natal vitamins, avoiding heavy lifting, alcohol, cigarettes, other medicines, hair dye with ammonia, etc, getting their vaccinations...and to mothers about how to wean their babies and to cook a variety of foods with different vitamins. It took a while to figure out what my role could be in the Health Center, and in some ways I’m still figuring that out.
I remember the first few months were just observing the on-goings at my Health Center because I spoke so little Khmer that I could barely be a help in the Health Education department, besides providing patients with health information in the form of pamphlets; but those who were illiterate were out of luck, and I would just direct them to the other staff members to ask their questions. Those first few months were mostly me sitting around asking questions to my staff and sounding like a caveman. Like, “Why baby have this on head?”- miming to the baby’s scabby dome. And every question would receive different remarks from each of the staff members: “because of poor hygiene”, or “it’s normal”, or “maybe she’s born with it”- to which my response would always be “...maybe it’s Maybelline”, eliciting laughter only from me, and quite possibly making me seem deranged for laughing at people’s ailments. No wonder people call me the girl who “laughs easy”, but living in another country means that sometimes you only have the voices in your head with which you can share pop culture references.
My Khmer has notably improved since the early days, but I feel like lately I’ve plateaued- like I’ve learned survival language and work language and can have surface-level conversations, but have yet to dive deeper. I can have convos, but listening to TV or people talking rapidly to each other is rough. It’s like the show “Psych!” where the clues the guy sees light up. Certain words or phrases click in my head, but sometimes I don’t understand the one word that’s the corner-stone of the whole sentence. Perhaps the year mark will see more improvement?
Just this past week, I had the opportunity to revisit one of the villages that I had gone on outreach in early January. It felt so good to feel more comfortable with the material I was teaching, and to have stronger language skills than before. I had some notes to refer to for the topics I talked about, but I didn’t read the information off like a script; I was able to make eye contact, and observe my audience’s reaction as I was speaking so I could clarify the things that I could tell people thought confusing, or turn to my accompanying Khmer village health volunteer to elaborate with a more precise pronunciation. Last time I had visited this village, I had talked about how to make (and “use”) Oral Rehydration Salts when the mothers listening, or their children, have diarrhea, and reminded the mothers about the 3 food groups (in Cambodia, the Ministry of Health teaches 3 food groups instead of the food pyramid- energy foods, strength- building foods and protective foods). But today I was able to not only present the same information more clearly and field questions afterwards, but also quizzed the mothers and children attending my session about what foods are part of which food groups (something simple, but I’ve learned that many are unsure, even though they may say they already know the 3 groups), did a hand washing demonstration with the children (using glitter to represent germs and how they spread) and explaining when we have to wash our hands and why it is important, as well as a teeth-brushing “demo” (where I had the children stand in the form of a mouth to represent the teeth, one child represented the tongue, and the floor was the gums). I used some string to represent floss, and a laundry brush to represent a toothbrush, explained how often and when they should brush their teeth, and the consequences of not brushing. I then passed out toothbrushes I and other volunteers and Peace Corps staff had collected from hotels to the children and quizzed them on the information they had just learned. If anyone else has other (preferably creative) ideas for how to teach health topics to children and adults, please let me know! I’m still working on expanding the topics I talk about, but have to use methods that keep people’s attentions so they will actually want to listen past my accent to hear what I’m saying.
So in other health-related news, I have recently turned in a grant for renovations at my Health Center, and if I raise just over $1,000 my village will have enough money to purchase the materials to paint the entire exterior and interior of the Health Center, fix some of the ceiling tiles, restore the crumbling corners and start a guppy farm (fish to put in water basins to kill mosquito larvae). The public website on which people can donate to the cause will be up soon and I’ll post it as soon as it is. I also have turned in all the paperwork to work as Health Program mentor for the Phnom Penh-based organization Tiny Toones in August and September, where I will lend my ideas as to how to improve their Health Outreach Program whose message focuses on HIV prevention in the ghettos of Phnom Penh. The link is below if you care to take a gander!

Update: Since writing this letter (turned blog) to my friend, I’ve also had experience helping with a birth. Instead of just observing, I actually got to get my hands dirty...literally....well, not quite literally as I was wearing gloves and that would just be gross. I won’t go in to the gritty details here but I will tell you that this time I was in the “line of splatter” as I so previously called it, with galoshes so I wouldn’t slip in any amniotic fluid and a white coat to protect my clothes, if only it was long enough to cover all of me. The midwife armed me with sanitary napkins and instructed me to push on either side of the baby’s crowing head to help it come out. Luckily, I wasn’t hit by the least bit of fluid, although I was prepared to lean towards either size had I seen it coming.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Special Delivery

Well, within the same day I saw (for the first time in my life) an abortion and a delivery. The abortion was done behind a curtain but I heard stuff that I didn’t really want to here, and being in the room while it was happening made me kind of uncomfortable and nauseous. I think whatever a person’s stance on abortion, you probably don’t want to be in the room while one is being performed. I saw the “results” in a turkey-baster- like object that the midwife left on the table. Needless to say, I was slightly disturbed. I never got the specifics of this woman’s case. I guess I could have asked what her reasons were behind the decision- financial, marital, her age, etc- for the sake of keeping mental records on these activities, but considering what had just happened I thought it rude at the time.

The delivery was an interesting experience as well. I assumed when I was “invited” by the doctors to watch the birth that I would enter a room full of women cheering on their sister, daughter, niece, what have you. But instead, I found myself one of three people in the room- the other two people being the midwife and the soon-to-be mother. So I’m sitting there close-quarters to a seventeen year old girl who is clutching her ankles and choking back her screams as she pushes the unwilling kid out. As the baby starts to crown I do my best attempt at cheerleader, but since I talk like a baby myself in Khmer I just ball up my fists in a “yay!” response and say “la-aw, la-aw” over and over again. The midwife looks over at me like I’m crazy and all she keeps repeating to the girl is “stop crying” and “push harder” and “don’t be lazy”.

Another doctor walks in the room and tries to convince me to move to a better view: extreme close up. I try to convince him that, “no, I’m good thanks, I can see her crowning from here’’, but that doesn’t stop him from insisting that I get a closer looks, and maybe put on some gloves just in case. He doubles up the gloves on my hands, “just in case”, and then motions for me to help the midwife, who is now starting to tug the child out as its shoulders seem to be stuck. Sensing that things were about to get messy fast I start to unbutton my new shirt I happened to be wearing that day so I’d just be wearing my tank top as a smock. Three buttons down, something burst and blood and liquid squirted three feet across the room. Fortunately I was not in the line of fire but the near accident made me grateful I didn’t take the doctor’s advice to be in the position to see, and probably feel, everything coming out. The midwife then plopped the baby on the mother’s stomach as she clamped and cut the cord, and then placed the baby on the table where it cried while the midwife went to work on the

mother again for the (enter the Twilight Zone themes song here) AFTERBIRTH...dun dun dun! I won’t go into details about what that looks like, there are Google images I’m sure if anyone is interested, but it kind of reminded me of Will Smith’s first encounter with the alien ooze in its fallen capsule in Independence Day. The midwife had to go to town to try to pull this creature-like thing out, yanking on the umbilical cord and pressing on the mother’s stomach, and after she finally got the sucker out she turns it around and inside- out so I can see it in all its glory. She then took a few bits of cotton and stuck her hand in there and swabbed her out. Naturally. There was something vaguely familiar about the action that I couldn’t put my finger on, until I remembered the line from the children’s story...”He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a....placenta?” Hmm, close enough.

The midwife was still working on the mother, perhaps sewing her back up a bit since she made a few snips here and there during the delivery, so she asked me to wrap the baby, weigh it and then show the family members waiting outside the room. Great, I think I can do this. But I approach the baby and the scissors are still clamped onto the umbilical cord and surely I can’t wrap the scissors in with the baby. So the midwife comes over and makes adjustments and I fumble to try and use the towel underneath the baby to flap over it and create some sort of bundle. “Like baby Jesus in the Nativity scene” I reminded myself for a reference. Well my bundle was weak and the midwife lost faith in my assumed innate maternal instincts and took over wrapping the babe- first a cloth for a diaper (“oh, that would probably help”) and then folding in the sides of the towel so it frames the babies face and feels taught like the womb it so recently emerged from. I then took the baby and weighed it (“yay, I have experience with this!”) and then brought it to its mother to take a look before I brought it out to the waiting room for the aunts to see.

So the obvious question arises, “Is it a boy or a girl?” “Um, it’s a boy!” I announce. The aunts let out some guttural sounds that I’m pretty sure translate to “what the heck are you talking about?” And the midwife from the other room yells out reassuringly, “No, it’s a girl.” Well, if they knew all along what did they ask me for? I’m pretty sure I was so mesmerized by the sheer length of the umbilical cord that I assumed I saw balls in there somewhere, and with the scissors in the way while I was trying to wrap her...well, I don’t think I’m cut out for announcement of said genitalia.

I then placed the baby on the bed where she could rest while she awaited her mother to join her. Apparently I couldn’t get that right either, as I momentarily forgot that babies are to rest on their sides propped up by pillows instead of plopped on their backs on the hard surface. Strike three in the supposed universal Maternal Instincts department.

Upon relaying this story to my mother (biological mother in America, not to be confused with my Cambodian host mother), and my related fears of possible childbirth horrors in my own (distant) future, my mother responded, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not that bad.” and then after pausing to think about what she had just said she added, “Just stay away from pregnant women who are about to pop, then you’ll forget what you’d be getting into if you decide to have kids in the future.” Ha, great plan, mom- except for the fact that a good half of my patients are preggers and about to blow at a moment’s notice. If there is one thing I learned from this experience- epidurals are your friends! And next time I “assist” in a birth, I’ll come prepared with double-layered gloves on hands, a smock for the splatter, galoshes for the bloody matter, and a stronger stomach for the latter.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Pied Piper Calleth

As I think I’ve finally begun to adjust to a new lifestyle now that I’m in Cambodia- the different foods, limited internet access, and even the homesickness has begun to subside as the reality of two years in another country has actually dawned on me and seems slightly less ominous than it did four months ago- I’m still having some troubles adjusting to the sounds. It seems as though as soon as I get used to the natural audio tracks of my surroundings, some other new ones creep in there too. For example, one morning I woke up and realized that 200 quail-like creatures had taken up residence next door, right behind my bed room. I really don’t know how else to describe them since I’ve never seen such a bird before, but I can describe to you in great detail the screeching, seemingly impossible high-pitched tones these things can belt out. I don’t know what’s upsetting these little guys so much but I can certainly hear their daily distress as they have disdainfully become both my alarm clock (sans snooze button) and my banshee lullaby.

I’ve also discovered that the village of Bos Khnaor has had a pretty high death rate recently as there have been several funerals as of late. While I mourn with the best of them, and appreciated the party favors of a paper fan, hard candy and a red yarn bracelet to ward off evil spirits, the blasting of xylophones and bells for 12 hours a day is enough to make me go through my supplies of pain killers faster than you can say “chu cabahl” (headache).

Other than the occasional self-induced seclusion to heal from headaches, I’ve been IRB-ing like a champ. (IRB, as Peace Corps has ingrained in us, means Intentionally Relationship Building…or a fancy word for schmoozing.) When working at the Health Centers, I’ll chat with the women about their babies, and half of the time end up saying they have a beautiful son when in actuality they have a daughter (or vise versa) since they tend to dress their babes in skirts and WWE shirts regardless of their sex. The women in turn will ask me the typical line of questioning… “Are you a docter?” (I’m not) “Do you know French?” (I don’t) “Do you have a family?” (Well, yeah, I have parents and a sister in the States and a host family in Cambodia) “No, I mean, do you have children?” (No) “Are you married?” (No) and “How old are you?” (22)…to which one woman responded, “Oh, you should have had four children by now.” Wow, and I thought American women worried too much about their biological clocks a-tickin’. I’m toying with the idea of printing off the answers to all these standard questions in Khmer on a t-shirt…..

I’ve also been talking to people in the bustling Bos Khnaor market. I have a few favorite breakfast haunts but my favorite of which is a stall that sells Khmer noodles and porridge across the street from a coffee shop. The customers change fairly frequently and it gives me a chance to at least have my face out in the community in the morning, impress a few folks with my Khmer, plug the Health Center and correct people when they think I’m from France. In my market dwelling I’ve discovered some other treats resembling American snacks such as the coconut infused waffles, made by women crouched over irons on the market floor, and dtuk-a-luk, similar to a smoothie but with some unfamiliar ingredients that I don’t really care to know about. My dtuk-a-luk lady knows me well enough to stop short of adding raw egg or durian, but other than that I let her have full reign. A bit scary sometimes but surprises like the addition of pumpkin harkened memories of fall weather and Halloween from home.

A random wat visit one day resulted in yet another opportunity to bump elbows as I’ve learned that the monks are super chill. I thought it might have been an issue talking to them since I’m a woman but they have been surprisingly welcoming and receptive. There’s even an animal farm stocked with geese a-layin’, pigeons a-cooing, and rabbits a-nuzzlin’. Shaggy sheep dogs scare me to death every time they great me by barking and bee-lining in my direction, but they wouldn’t hurt a fly, and a mocking bird of sorts tries to throw me off with his ventriloquist act of imitating a human sneeze when no one else is around, always managing to make it seem like the culprit is right behind me. I think one of the main draws to the wat on the main road, if I’m going to be honest, are the monkeys. Four red-bottomed primates live in the trees near the wat and the smallest one, whose teeth, much like a puppy’s, are too small to break the skin in the event of a bite, is named Chalowin. He allows friends (aka bringers of snacks) to hold him and even offers up his delousing services as he’ll look to comb your hair scavenge for bugs, yet another tasty snack you’ve surely brought just with him in mind. The sizing up of this guy, and his teeth, before letting him perch on my shoulders and have his way with my hair, was brought on by the anxiety of watching him cling on to his tree and throw himself away from it with all the force he could muster, much like an Olympic swimmer at the start of a race. Even though he’s little, the thought of himself plummeting towards me at full speed initially elicited fear…but over time and bunches of bananas, I think we’ll learn to gain each other’s trust and a friendship will blossom. Something to legitimately fear? One of the monks told me that they used to have snakes in the animal farm as well, but they recently escaped. When I asked if the snakes were big, he replied, “Of course!” Oh…of course…

Wat visits now serve as a sort of de-stressing method, as have been my daily dusk runs. My typical route speeds me towards the other wat nestled back near the banana plantations. On most nights, the view of the purple sky before sunset and the endless green from the surrounding rice paddies leave me breathless. I’ve described the tumbling clouds once before, but it ceases to amaze me how close they seem to straying towards the earth at this particular location. And like the wispy white puffs inside a glass-makers bauble, each stratus and cumulus appears to have been intentionally crafted to show the dimension and life inside the cloud. The pagoda, which in itself is not entirely impressive, accompanied by the dozens of stupas pointing towards the heavens, seems to come close to its lofty goal of piercing the sky to rain down the wisdom of the gods. But most startling is the combined effect of all these elements to calm any restlessness brought on by the day and to reconfirm the things I love about this country. Then, usually, my proverbial thoughts are interrupted by a cow chasing me out of its pagoda territory.

Rest assured that every run ends with kids sashaying beside me, which then bleeds into a dance routine that the children try to copy. As of late, Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” is a favorite to strut down my dirt path home. And like the pied piper calleth, I round up the youngsters to follow in what feels like could break into a musical dance number bursting out in rural Cambodia.

There is a lot of down time as a PCV, and although during my settling- in weeks I was content with reading ‘til my eyeballs bled to pass the time, I needed to try at least some kind of projects to feel productive as a volunteer outside of work hours. I started with little things at first, like teaching my neighbor kids how to high five and pound the rock, which has proven to be rather successful with a few high five enthusiasts leading the pack now. I then spent a few hours cleaning the trash in front of the health center and counted 193 straws alone from what I picked up. The problem with this mini-beautifying project is that it’s very temporary. There are no qualms to littering in Cambodia and a serious behavior change would have to work its way into the community if there is any chance of making the idea of trash clean up sustainable among its members. I’ve taught one ballet class to interested girls, which I think went well, but the most enthused students were only home on vacation and have since returned to Phnom Penh. I’ve taught a few “hip-hop” classes so far as well. It’s hard to judge the level of success of this project considering I’ve kept the interest of a handful of girls but most of those who show up, even after some shameless pleading, revert to watching from the sidelines because of their shyness. My goals are realistic with this project-I’m not aiming for an Antonio Banderas Take the Lead storyline, nor am I exactly serving up the best hip-hop moves, but dancing is a passion of mine and I really wanted to bring that passion to a project. There are few, if any, outlets for creative expression offered up in the villages, and I thought it would be a nice change to add some swagger to the otherwise monotonous dance moves at parties.

If I’m not spending my work time at the health center, I bike from house to house throughout the trails and talk to whoever will have me for a moment about what the health center offers. I give a spiel about what particular circumstances would call for a visit to the health center, and clear up any misconceptions they might have. It’s been a great excuse to meet a bunch of my neighbors as well, as I started with houses on my running route and worked my way from there, and the information I jot down about families could end up being useful if I decide to apply for grants for my village in the future.

I’m currently moving towards starting an English/American Culture Club at the high school, and have made some connections with the director and staff of teachers through my many visits in attempts to understand the very confusing scheduling of classes. I spoke with the tenth graders about it already and hope to have the first meeting next week.

No matter how unproductive my day has seemed I can usually pull myself out of a funk by talking to some of my favorite villagers. My one-year-old neighbor baby, Bunya, who I joke is my sungsah (boyfriend) always warms my heart. He was scared of me when I first moved here, but now he shows affection by looking for my reaction when he does something funny, sharing his snacks and even kissing me on the cheek sometimes, usually followed by him hitting my face as well, but I’ll allow it because it started so sweetly. My ming (aunt) who lives across the street often gives me treats and jokes around with me, and I even cuddled with her after a long day in Kampong Cham. The yeay (grandmother) across the street loves to watch me dance, even if I’m being silly. My coffee lady always greets me with a smile and sits and talks with me when I stay at her shop on days when it’s not so crowded. My breakfast ming’s daughter has become quite fond of me and visits my house on occasion to drop off friendship bracelets she has made or to ask me questions from her English classes. My teacher-friend Bunya jokes around with me and makes me feel less foreign of a foreigner. My staff member (or, my favorite word in khmer because it sounds like a chicken clucking, my “bokalek”) has taken me in like one of his own children and has invited me to his daughter’s birthday party and has picked me up from Kampong Cham when I couldn’t find a ride back, has blown me away with his generosity and willingness to take me under his wing. And my mother and sister and I get in laughing fits sometimes about our cultural and language misunderstandings, feeding off of each other’s chuckles until we have to take a collective sigh to start breathing normally again. I like those moments best. These are “my people” in Cambodia. It feels good to have people.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Well, at least you're pretty..."

A lot has happened since I wrote my last blog and I’m going to do my best to pull out the best of my anecdotes from my daily life in Cambodia. As I have quickly learned here, and will probably reiterate again and again over the next two years, every day is an adventure: not necessarily a bed of roses or a pleasure cruise every moment, but even a struggle bus of day or the oh-so-familiar run in with a cultural or language barrier is something that makes every day note-worthy on some level or another.

Alright, so where should I start? Well, traveling back to the days of yore at my training village Tbong Kmoum (it feels so long ago!), our families celebrated our time with them by throwing a good bye party for us, which of course meant that we ate a ton of food, danced around a table and between songs tried to keep ourselves from suffering from heat stroke and hearing loss from the speakers that were physically moving from the vibrations of the unnecessarily blaring music that we have learned as a Cambodian tendency. The good thing about parties, besides being able to dance (although I hold back from getting too crazy in front of the village elders) is that women are allowed to publically drink. My grandpa kept filling my glass every time I was half empty and banged glasses with me at every sip. After a few hours of dancing in the blankets of sweats we accumulated from the unbearable heat, we all gradually snuck out and had our own volunteer-oriented goodbye party of sorts, seeing as in just a week we would be going to our permanent sites far away from most of our friends.

I didn’t think I would cry leaving Tbong Kmoum, seeing as I would still be stationed in the same province for the next two years and was good friends with the volunteer who would be living there as his permanent site. However, when our breakfast Ming (aunt) began to cry as she served our last bowls of bol bol before we left on our van, it broke me down. Then, as we all gathered to put our bags in the van to take us off, I was pulled into the group hug of hysterical women with whom we’ve been interacting for the past two months and their tears were contagious. The scene didn’t last for too long, however, because it was interrupted by swift, dramatic unfurling of events that left most people speechless. One of the volunteer’s sisters did not want him to go and decided to hop in the van with us, and like a cat on the way to the vet, she dug her claws in the upholstery against attempts to pull her out. Eventually, her father, with the help of some other men, pried her out as she protested by punching him in the face and knocking his glasses to the ground, and kicking him where the sun don’t shine. Jaws dropped at the Jerry Springer scene that quickly went from sympathetic to psychotic, and for all intentsive????? Purposes we decided to get the heck out of dodge and waved with nervous laughter as we pulled out.

The rest of the week in Phnom Penh involved meeting with our counterparts at the schools or health centers and then swearing in. It was all really a blur, mostly because we were fed the same information we’ve all heard before, and although it was helpful to have our counterparts to officially hear all that information, it’s not really worth going into here so I won’t bore you with the details. Swear-in was apparently broadcasted nation-wide so it basically made us overnight celebrities. The US Ambassador to Cambodia, Carol Rodley, was present but I’m still a bit bitter about Hun Sen not attending because of a meeting with Obama the exact same day as our swear-in. Anyway, we had speeches. We swore an oath. We were given hats. We became official Peace Corps volunteers. Woot!

After some pretty hard goodbyes to friends living in other provinces, most of the Kampong Cham crew left the next morning. At one of the bus stops, Sam and I decided that eating a spider leg was not enough and that we should go for the full-blown experience. So approaching a stall with a metal basin full of living tarantulas, we asked the stall attendant to buy our own fried arachnid for the tasting. I sampled a leg first to remind myself that with the spices it didn’t taste much different than fried chicken. However, in a mind-over-matter situation, as I was eating the actual body of the spider, the matter won over the mind and I remembered what I was doing and had to spit it out.

Upon returning to Chamkar Leu the first time after site visit, I was greeted with my 5 year old neighbor girl singing Happy Birthday to me and my host mom helping me with my laundry as she realized that I still don’t know what the heck I’m doing.

The Health Center staff has been really welcoming for the most part. I think some of them still didn’t understand that I was actually going to be there for two years. One of the male staff members introduced me to his family already and invited me on a day trip to Kampong Cham where he and his wife helped me shop for most of the settling-in items I needed for my room and I bonded with his 6 year-old daughter in the car. He’s also offered to let me use his internet and make international calls from his house (a God-send because he is one of two people in the entire commune with such amenities!). He’s also been helping me translate some of the words in my English to Khmer medical dictionary, and I’ve been helping correct a few of his English mistakes. I’m a little intimidated to teach English in the Health Center, however, because it’s already become clear that (1) they really want me to help improve their English, (2) they all have very different levels of English, (3) along the same lines, some of them are very proficient and know huge words but then don’t have some basic grammatical structures solidified, and (4) I have no real-life experience teaching adults who are my superiors, as I’ve only taught children and my peers. I’m planning on asking some of the volunteers with more experience on the subject, but still a bit nervous I won’t meet expectations because I can’t magically bestow the fluent English tongue on anyone with whom I come in contact through teaching.

My duties as a Health Education volunteer are still undefined in the Health Center, so I’m just observing for now, mostly until I become more proficient in the language and thus more capable of convincing community members of behavior change regarding their health habits. It’s a bit awkward, though, having the duty of just observing because I feel like I’m hanging around like a creeper and sometimes unintentionally scaring children. And occasionally I’ll be praised or criticized for my Khmer vocabulary, all in one breath: “She knows a lot of Khmer. Oh, she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t know a lot. Well, at least you’re pretty!” I’m not kidding, I’ve heard this at least ten times.

On that level, I think I relate to my favorite patients at the Health Center- the babies! Some of them want so badly to be able to talk so they squawk and make faces and hopes someone understands them and if no one does, they cry. I’ve seen two newborns at the Health Center thus far: one mother had to check the genitalia at least eight hours of delivery to affirm that indeed her child was a female, and the other, a baby boy, melted my heart yesterday. The tiniest little bundle wrapped in a pink, flowered towel with mittens to keep him from scratching his newly exposed skin, gave the largest yawn with his toothless gums and kept his eyes shut tight as he unknowingly waited for his vaccines. After the sneak attack of a shot from the doctor, the baby kicked out and stirred his bobble-head of a neck, and whimpered as if to say, “I didn’t sign up for this pain! I was comfortable where I was!” And then he opened his eyes and remembered that this new place is so much more exciting than where he used to be… and he could get used to this.

Along with being away from anyone who speaks enough English for me to vent to, and not being able to call my folks or friends at home anytime I please because of the time difference, I have been dealing with some “relationship issues”, which is hard enough to explain in my own language let alone Khmer. Not to get into details, let’s just say that I’m thankful for you, dear reader, for keeping up with my experience. Let’s just say when I asked if a particular someone had read my blog (as an example) he gave me a “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give damn” sort of response, and I’ve been trying to recover from the sucker-punch ever since. Anyway, the point of me laying this backdrop is to prelude yet another explanation of the differences of living in the U.S. as compared to Cambodia. When dealing with heartache in the U.S., I usually hit the gym hard and work on a revenge body for the benefit of my own self-esteem and mental health by distracting myself with something else to think about. Maybe I’d even get checked out by a few muscle-y hunks and then watch a comedy with some friends while eating dark chocolate. Instead, while I do still work out every day, (mostly out of boredom and the desperate urge to not feel like such a giant while surrounded by people that are not only shorter than me but who also weigh a good 15 or so kilos less than me and can actually fit into the clothes they sell at the market) I tend to draw unwanted attention as people stare and call out to me running past in baggy clothing because literally no one else in the community works out. I also had to substitute the chocolate routine of the “mend Lauren’s broken heart” pre-determined plan by going on the hunt for a cold Fanta and nail polish instead (which I thought about the tactic of using the “pity me, I’ve just been heart-broken” plea to help me bargain for the price, but considering it was 25 cents anyway, I decided not to open my bleeding heart to a stranger just yet). At least the movie part of my plan worked out: Sex and the City 2 was my movie of choice, in case you wanted to know. Don’t judge me.

So I guess a few final notes before I sign off and see what awaits me in the next few weeks that I can convey to you again. Hmm, I’ve lost five kilos already: 2 of which I attribute to the diet and climate. My family no longer follows behind me on their bikes as I go running, in a half-coach/ half-stalker fashion, which is a bit of a triumph. And I’ve also learned how to ward off the dogs that have chased me up and down my route to the pagoda (usually after I get the adrenaline kicking in my workout routine, I’m in a no-mess kind of mood and I act like I’m going to punch them in the snout. This comes from a dog-lover at heart, but some of these dogs are not canine but monster, through and through.). I’m thinking about starting an aerobic dance class, seeing as it is a popular activity in the cities, I’ve got plenty of experience to teach a stepped-up version of jazzercise and it would be a good way to eventually segway Into hydration or nutrition education, plus I can (in some ways) transcend the language barrier. Um, I chase the chickens around my yard for fun, and sometimes threaten to throw rocks at or hit the roosters if they have the nerve to crow next to me while I’m reading in my hammock. I’ve stopped shaving- no one in my village does it anyway. I started wearing just my bra around my house at night as a sort of bonding experience between my mom, sister and I, since it’s just us girls…and that led to a discussion of how big I am on top too. An elephant lives in my village! I saw it yesterday and will make it one of my goals to find out where it resides. I miss fam and friends, American music played in public spaces (other than anything Pitbull, since he seems to be very popular here), American fooooooooood- mostly my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs, and every cheese under the sun, but I also miss my native tongue and relishing in my own language that rolls off my tongue so effortlessly…and words like “relishing” and “effortlessly” because the Khmer language, at least from what I’ve run across, doesn’t have specifically descriptive words such as these. And thank you again to anyone who has sent me letters thus far! I’m sorry I’ve been taking so long to respond to some of them, but my schedule has started to ease up and I’ll be taking a break from chasing chickens for a while to respond to all of them.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"and wat has a zipline!"

I know I'm posting two blogs in a day right now, but it's only because these last few days have had a lot of activity. I just recently found out my site placement for the next two years. The announcement, at least for my site, was semi-anticlimactic: all of the PCTs were in a room with the staff building up the excitement by drawing a map of Cambodia in chalk on the floor with bamboo flags representing the potential sites. One at a time, a PCT's name was drawn and his or her site was announced. I started crying before my name was even called. Typical. But level with me, if you were the third to last name out of fifty some people to be called, the anticipation would get to you too. Then I when it was revealed..."Youll be living in...Kampong Cham Province!", I thought, "oh, so I'm not going anywhere?" I have already been living in Kampong Cham province for a month and expected a change, however the day of relaxation allotted to me and the other six volunteers assigned to my province in substitution of a traveling day was much appreciated.
After visiting my site I can safely say that I couldn't have asked for a more perfect assignment for me. Bos Khnaor in Chamkar Leu District is absolutely breathtaking and is what I had romanticized Cambodia to look like before I came here. The bike ride with my Mai and a neighbor to the more secluded of the two wats was a snapshot at every turn of the head. Chamkar, which means "plantation", proved its namesake with rows of banana trees, rubber trees and rice paddies. The younger boys in the village fish in the paddies with sticks five times the length of their own bodies to catch dinner for their families, with the background of hyperactive clouds tumbling along the horizon and jumping back in the sky as if God in his boredom decided to entertain Himself by twirling them around with his finger. There is also a zipline from the upper level of the pagoda that rests in the mountains. I just kept thinking to myself, "I get to live here for two years. This view will be my solitude. How lucky am I?"

The other wat, on the national road, has four monkeys and a black pig. It's also very beautiful but nothing really compares to that first path to the wat that practically sits among the resting clouds.

As the amenities of my living situation started to unfold themselves I started humming the sweet tune of the Jefferson's theme song..."Moving on Up!..." I thought, no rats! no endless heights of rafters I have no hope of getting clean! no squat toilets! When I had two minutes of a hot shower coming from, get this, a shower head of all things, I started fist pumping and party-boying the air. And as the cherry on top of this epic Khmer cake- I have a wooden floor large enough to dance on. What else could I ask for?

My family is the bomb-my mom is going to teach me how to cook (she's an amazing cook!), the neighbors (who are my younger cousins' ages) come over and play all the time, and my sisters told me that they would miss me already. My mom calls me fat- beautiful and flicks my cheeks and tells me I have a lovely nose, and upon our first encounter she cried and hugged me. My friend Emily's response to the rush of emotion was, "Look, Lauren, she cries, just like you." Like I said, this site is perfect for me. Did I leave Cambodia? I thought Peace Corps volunteers had to suck it up and deal with their sucky situations. I think my only complaint was that Tbong Kmoum does offer better iced coffee, and cheaper-luckily I live so close, right?

It's a bit of a tease though, visiting this new site. I honesly didn't want to leave but I have yet another month of training and stressing over critters before I move into my awesome accomodations. Even the stars shine brighter in Bos Khnaor, I swear it! But we shall be reunited soon, this paradise on Earth and I. Until then, BK, you'll be in only the best of my dreams. With sincere admiration, your anxiously awaiting future volunteer, "Nar-ren".

From "I'm in a glass case of emotion!" to "Hakuna Matata"

Sorry it’s been so long since I last checked in- training seems to be more stressful and time consuming than I had originally anticipated. Everyday from Monday to Saturday we have language lesson for 4 hours and technical Health training for another 4 hours. Sometimes during our weekly check-ins with our groups I end up crying in front of everyone and then break into nervous laughter because I hate crying in public. All the while, a group of Khmer villagers are staring and wondering why the heck I’m having an outburst of emotion and am not saying “hello” back to them. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion here and I’m riding it in all of it’s momentous, undulating glory. “Father Mike”, one of the training program directors, said in one of our many interviews, “You seem to be a person who is more open with their feelings.” To which I responded, “Yes, I have a lot emotions…and I don’t have a very good poker face.” And then, to my surprise, he preceded to compliment me on being honest with my different feelings and encouraging others to realize their own feelings and deal with their own emotional rollercoasters. When he asked the inevitable, “And how does that make you feel?” I responded that the ever-constant mood swings are just evidence that I’m living, and the highs and lows I hit every day are more intense than I would have experienced in the States, but in the long run will probably help me to grow more as a person and see depths of myself that I otherwise would not have seen. After all that cheesiness crammed into our five minute convo I thought, ‘This guy and I should work for Hallmark’, and held back my tears. Just kidding. But it is true that I have been teetering between the honeymoon and rejection phases of cultural adjustment, and I’ll give you some hints as to why:

My daily life here consists of constant reminders that make me realize, “oh, yeah…I’m in Cambodia”. So to begin the “You know you’re in Cambodia when…” list, and to orient you on my typical schedule…

-I wake up to roosters around 5:00 AM every morning. No need for an alarm. Who needs them when you have cocks outside yelling, “I’m a Freaking ROOOOOSTER!”.

-I use a squat toilets. Nice to meet you, left hand.

-Women follow me around the market and tell me how beautiful and fat I am all in one breathe. “Why thank you….I think?” I can start to understand the fat comment though-considering I could not fit into any of the t-shirts in the Kampong Cham market and resorted to buying men’s large undershirts in a variety of colors instead.

-I also have some grandmothers that think I’m hilarious when I try to speak Khmer, and endearingly punch me in the shoulder every morning.

-While learning a language in which the same word (“svai”) can mean either purple, mango or syphilis, things can get a little complicated at times. New words get jumbled around in my head sometimes, too, so when I first met my host mother I told her I had “chicken number of family members in the U.S.” instead of “4 family members”. I also told someone I wanted to drink blood water instead of lemon water. No wonder they think I’m some kind of alien!

-Transportation can get creative at times. I have seen people riding elephants on the national roads, and when I was coming back from PCV visit when (I went to Battambang to visit a current volunteer who has already been living here for a year), our bus broke down and we were passed up by an elephant. My group called one of our teachers and asked what we should do. The first question our teacher asked us was, “Is the bus driver still there?” Apparently, sometimes, if the bus gets in an accident, the bus driver just bounces. Luckily, ours was still there, and in three hours they had our bus fixed (all the while, we were sweating our balls off in the bus-sans air conditioning- because it was raining), but the driver had taken no extra precautions- say, for example, calling the company to send another bus just in case? Motos rush by with stuff to sell packed 10 feet high, and 10 feet wide at that. Entire families cram themselves on a moto and zig-zag through traffic to get to their destinations. Talk about “highway to the danger zone”!

-I’ve had several marriage proposals thus far. I once talked to my host brother’s Khmer friend who was in America and spoke some English and after the ten minute convo I was informed that he was falling in love with me. To which I responded, “Atay akun, mien sung sah”: “No thanks, I have a boyfriend.” Also, at a family reunion, my brother told me, “Nar-en (how some people here say my name)- here is a soldier. This man is a police officer. Sung sah?” As if the profession of the man is what’s stopping me from wanting to immediately enter an engagement.

-People, mainly children, say hello to us where ever we go. It’s like we are all Big Bird roaming around- we’re huge in comparison, kind of dress funny and can only talk like babies or cavemen at this point in our language training.

-my Gramps generally spends all days making brooms with his hands and feet with a cigarette in his mouth. He’s pretty much my favorite person in Cambodia right now because he cracks me up. He is so comically expressive with his face that I end up mirroring his expressions and really get into whatever he’s saying to me, even if it’s just, “You should drink tea. It makes you less sleepy.” Or “I really like my big lighter. I can smoke more.” Or my favorite, “Eat more rice.” Me-“But Grandpa, I’m full. I’ve had enough rice.” Gramps- “No, eat more rice.” Me-“Ok”. End scene. Yup, that’s pretty much the level I’m at. Gramps speaks so rapidly with me and wildly mimes along, and when I say “Ja Ja Ja”, as if I understand, he smiles and nods, and when he realizes I have no frickin clue, he shakes his head and walks away…then comes back and repeats the process. I love this man.

-One of my favorite moments shared with Gramps was when he showed me the priceless wedding pics of his son and daughter-and-law. Most professional pictures in Cambodia are glamour shots- caked on makeup and superimposed images of couples with beach behind them or a Persian rug at their feet. These particular images also had lovey-dovey quotes, in English of all languages, such as, “Love is a fantastical jourmey. I will love you long time forever, sweet clarity. I hope never lost you.” Perfect.

-My host Ma buys sla from the other villagers and then sells it to larger towns. What is “sla”, you might ask? Well since it’s not “polite” to smoke, older women chew on sla- which is a nut that’s retrieved from the tops of trees by kids shimming up them with their kromas, peeled, sliced into tiny circular pieces, dried in the sun for days on end, and dipped in a red-colored flavoring, and then dried for more days. It numbs the mouth, from what I’ve experienced by taste-testing the raw form, and has a somewhat addictive quality. So let me give you the low-down on my interaction with my Ma. I come home from language class, she tells me to get a shower and then five seconds into my water-pail-attempt-to-clean-myself I hear, “Nar-en, N’yuuuuuuuum Baiiiiiiiiiii!!!!”. Translation, “ ‘Lauren’, EAT RICE!!!!” And then I come down wet and her reaction is like, ‘oh, you were taking a shower.’ And then she puts interesting things on my plate throughout the meal because I’m a foreigner and am incapable of feeding myself.

-The food has been a bit of an adjustment. Surprisingly, crickets taste like carmel corn with legs, tarantulas taste like spice like carmel corn with legs, tarantulas taste like spicy crispy chicken, and fertilized baby duck eggs taste like chicken in a fried twinkie exterior…if you don’t think about it. And coagulated blood doesn’t really have a taste. Some delicacies I’ve learned I can’t stomach include: bacon-encrusted balls of pig fat, chicken intestines, and fish paste, which Khmer people falsely advertise as “cheese” sometimes.

-The kids are adorable. I’ve already explained how they say “hello” everywhere we go, but my favorite is when I was dancing at our trainee party and this group of kids that live next door were mirroring every move I made. So I taught them how to disco, two step and walk like an Egyptian, among other things.

-A note about parties…I’ve been to two Khmer parties thus far. The first was a house warming party. All guests give a gift of money, about 3 to 5 dollars to the hosting family, and then rounds of food come to the table- including courses of fish head soup, baby ducks and beef and onion dishes. The women style their hair like 80s prom and wear badazalled satin dresses. After eating, we all danced around the table, struggling to calm ourselves to slowly waltz with lotus hands to the disproportionately upbeat music. During the dance, a drunk old man came up to me and faked a punch to my forehead. I laughed nervously and then he elbowed me hard in the ribs. That’s when I took a cue to bounce, and I returned to a house with no electricity because it was blown out by the loud speakers at the party, which played well past the average villagers bedtime.

-The other party I went to was for the Chinese holiday “sign cabahl dtuk”, or Pray Head Water, a flood festival ceremony that involves sacrifices of fake money and jewelry at the wat. I also saw my family fold colored paper and write names on each piece in preparation for the ceremony, which they explained to me are costumes for the returning souls of their relatives, which also were burned in sacrifice. My fam turned on the electricity of their alter and Buddha was rubbin’ his belly in his surrounding light show.

-In terms of animals I run into, beisides the roosters and chickens, there’s also a pig who chills at the wat to cry sanctuary and avoid being slaughtered. She likes to come up to gathered groups of people and then crap where they used to be standing. There is also a family-owned owl that I just met, as well as the ever-present Huntsman spiders, mice and geckos- 3 of which feast nightly by my room’s light, and I encourage them as they chase their prey. Evidence of me going crazy? Perhaps.

So there are highs and lows, but no matter what the frustration I have learned to reference back to the wonderful advice my new Khmer friend Sam Om has told me…”Lauren, Hakunnah Matata.” And then I sing the travel commercial’s song for “Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder”, which sounds similar to the theme song of Reading Rainbow, and I add sarcastic lyrics to remind me to continue to have a sense of humor.

Please continue to send letters- they’re the highlight of my seminar days. I love and miss you all, my fellow American friends! I’ll try to keep it classy in Kampuchea for the remainder of my stay.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Kroma, Kroma, Kroma- chameleon

Yesterday, Cambodia's Sunday, the girls went to the market to pick out our sarongs, sampots and kromas from the market. Sampots are traditional Khmer skirts that we will be wearing to work, sarongs are to wear when walking to the showers, and kromas are multi-purposeful: worn around our shoulders when walking to the showers and used to wipe sweat off of our faces. The markets are extremely hot because they are composed of independent stalls selling pretty much everything under ths sun, all in one building that serves as a free sauna as you navigate through the claustrophobic routes. If you ever thought shopping in the U.S. was stressful, think again. Still, in all the hustle and bustle of bardering to lower the price by 50 cents (which goes quite a long way) and dealing with the heat, opportunites arose to use the little Khmer that we had learned and the Khmer women were visibly appreciative that we were making an attempt to communicate in their language. That's one of the things that I instantly loved about Cambodia- if you try to say anything in Khmer, no matter how much you butcher it (which is so easy to do as some of the consonents require lip muscles that English speakers aren't used to using, and there are subtleties in the pronunciations of words) someone is most likely going to gladly help you try to say what you mean to say. Today was refreshing because instead of getting frustrated with my mispronuciations of words that my LCF (Language and Cross-Cultural Facilitator) had me repeat over and over again, I would break into laughing fits. I'm not sure if that's the best way to deal with the situation at hand, but hey, it's making me a heck of a lot more zen, and sane, so I'm happy with it. Just try saying "pbi...pbi...pbi" over and over again without laughing-just try.
We meet our host families in the villages tomorrow- all I know about mine is that there are 3 members of the family: a married couple in their 60's and a 30-something-year-old man who rents a room from them, but is considered part of their family. The patriarch of the family is part deaf, which adds to the challenge of communicating with him, but I think it's God's way of testing my patience (touche, God) so it will be an interesting attempt at exchanging dialogue to say the least.
Hmm, a few more notes before I tuck myself in to rest up for roughing it in the village, sans computer for the next few weeks....Cambodian children are adorable. Period. They'll wave and yell "hello" or "anglais" as we pass and laugh when we respond to them. I took a picture of a group of kids near one the statues in the city (Kampong Cham currently) and showed them all the digital image on my screen and they were delighted and asked me to take more. So, now I know, if I'm having a rough day, I'll look for children to cheer me up.
I finally video-chatted and talked to Grant on the phone today which relieved a lot of stress. Missing him makes this process that much harder, but his encouraging words were really what I needed right now, especially as I'm about to disconnect from most international connections for quite some time.
Well, blog-readers-family and friends- I love you all, and miss you! It's only been a week or so but it's felt much longer, for better or for worse. Please pray for me, and I'll update the next chance I have!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Squats, snacks and basic Khmer language facts

Yet again, it's been a very long day so I'll try to be brief in my explanation of the activities so I can get my much needed rest. I'm not going to go into the logistics of all the information we received in the Peace Corps office in Phnom Penh today before heading out of the city (14 stations of surveys and policy signatures and safety information), but it all ended in Khmer snacks so all was well at the end of the sessions. What kind of Khmer snacks you may ask? Most Khmer snacks I've come across so far in the office as well in markets are fruits such as small bananas and dragonfruit, as well as "nom" which is a soft, geletin-textured dough that comes in many varieties such as with pumpkin chunks, wrapped around beef and rice, or with peanut sprinkles on the outside and coconut on the inside.
Ok, so keeping this blog in all honesty, part of what makes these days so exhausting are the blisters on my feet and the crazy humidity. We were on the buses for a few hours but had to drink water with our malaria pills, which led to the discomfort of having to pee and not having a place to do it for quite some time. When we were able to relieve ourselves, we used squat toilets at a cafe rest stop where we used a scoop of water from a bucket to flush the "toilet". And yes, mom, I am using hand sanitizer.
When all of us got back from the line for the bathrooms we were greeted by middle school aged girls who came up to us speaking English quite well and asking us to buy their fruit so they could pay to stay in their English classes. Two girls, Soom (pronounced So-um) and Menling, came up to me with bags of guava, bananas and pineapple, and....pause for dramatic effect...tarantulas crawling on them! I was visibly freaked out and Soom reassurred me that she had cut their fangs herself. "No bite", she told me, and she grabbed a spider off her chest to show me its underside as the remains of its fangs were tucked under its body. After some more encouragement she managed to put a live one in my hand, and then another one, and eventually convinced me to eat one of my new fuzzy friends' fried cousin. At the count of three, I gulped down a crunchy, and surprisingly sweet-seasoned leg with the two girls. In all the bustle, I ended up buying 3 bags of the fruits from the girls for just 3 U.S. dollars (not too bad an asking price considering their cause, but I bought my dinner tonight for just $2 to give you an idea of how much things cost).
Upon arriving to our site for the next few days, along the Mekong river, finally taking a welcomed break from our vagabond lifestyle of the past 5 days, we met all of our staff from the province that will be helping us learn Khmer throughout our training. I spent the remainder of the night with PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) Garrett, Angela and Trevor, and a LCF (Language and Cross-cultural Facilitator) Rath, pronounced "Rot", learning and practicing basic vocabulary. By the end of the night I was able to order my meal and ask for the check, as well as other useful phrases for greetings and in dealing with food (my favorite, of course). A funny moment occurred at the dinner table as both Garrett and Rath tried to teach each other the word "malaria" in their prospective languages, but both thought the other was teaching and they both ended up pronouncing the word slowly, with each syllable, over and over again before realizing they were both trying to be students in the situation.
Alright, bed time now, seriously. I would write a few Khmer phrases here but that might take a little to long. One phrase I learned tonight though sounds a lot like a phrase in English so I think anyone could learn it's actual pronounciation. "aw-som nigh man" sounds a lot like "awesome night, man" without the "t", but it actually means "really funny". Don't even get me started on how to pronounce rice, "bai", because that took each of us about 20 minutes and I still don't think we have it down yet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

After Hong Kong...

I got a pretty good night's sleep in Hong Kong to fight off the jet lag, but it didn't defend me enough against the draining first day in Phnom Penh. The humidity hits hard and fast and when we got off the plane we were given fans and bottles of water to keep ourselves cool and to rehydrate ourselves. We were only allowed to pack enough to last us through Sunday (today being Thursday) when we would be reunited with our luggage, so we all found ourselves rummaging through our large suitcases to find our essentials to stuff in our backpacks to enable us to live like nomads for a few days. Our group was then swiftly taken by bus to the Peace Corps office in the city, where we were fed and introduced to the staff. I actually really enjoyed the food thus far- it's mostly curry dishes or ginger-flavored pork, beef, fish or chicken (still with the bones), but fairly spicy with bold flavors, and ALWAYS with rice. I think I could get used to that.
After our instructions on our medical and safety (I'll be getting about 5 shots tomorrow to fight off Hep A, Rabies, Meningitis, Typhod and some Japanese virus that's similar to elephantitis), we were allowed to explore the city. My group leader was a K2, meaning she was from the first Peace Corps group to visit Cambodia, and is leaving in just a few days as she's already completed her stay. There are also some K3s that we met today as well who still have a year left. I wasn't expecting the overlap of the groups but am glad that we have some sort of reference to turn to while we are about to figure out our own positions. As K4s, Peace Corps has told us that we are also legacies: the Health Education program in which about 20 of us are involved are the first to be approved for the position by the Cambodian government. We will be the first to our posts in Cambodia (the specifics of which I'm still unsure).
From what I've seen of the city so far, Phnom Penh is both beautiful and crazy. So far I've seen babies on motorcycles, gasoline sold in 2 Liter bottles, and on-coming traffic that decides to go the opposite way on one-way streets. But the beauty is found in the ornate golden temples to Buddha found around every corner, the king and queen's palace and the over-abundance of color and energy that captivates the hyper-sensitive vister's eye.
I think we have all had moments today, even when squeling while we landed in the country, where we have asked ourselves and one another, "What have we got ourselves into"? But even with swollen, blistered feet and jet-lag- induced insomnia, we were able to answer that, in some way, this experience will inevitably have a lasting impression on our lives. In seeing the K2 Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and K3s interact and exchange dialogue with the locals with ease, we had a glimpse of our future. I can't wait to finally start learning Khmer! (pronounced Khmai, as I learned today)...and to interact with my host family, forming relationships with my new community of 2 years!
P.S. Dad, there is beer in Cambodia. Imports and domestics, and I plan to try a few :)

Monday, July 19, 2010


Ok, so since I'm such a last minute person, I spent my last night in Ohio packing and transfering music files and such to my computer to take to Cambodia, so I literally got no sleep that night. As I'm writing this I've realized that I've been up for at least 36 hours and running solely the anxiety of finally meeting all the people I'll be working with for the next two years and then leaving the country. To my surprise, the group was much larger than I thought with about 60 volunteers- a very young crowd of mostly the 22 to 26 year-old-range. Everyone seems pretty nice from what I can tell, but we were all so exhausted after 8 hours of registration and orientation classes that the energy and personality with which we so eagerly greeted one another since we found one another at the airport (we are a pretty recognizable breed: from our overpacking, to the hiking packs and Teva sandals, Peace Corps volunteers can be spotted a mile away) quickly faded after the hours of group activities that were meant to establish our expectations of ourselves, Peace Corps and our living situations.
Ironically enough, our hotel is near Chinatown so we had to walk a few blocks to find something to eat for dinner other than Asian food. San Fran was a cool 53 degrees and felt more like fall than summer, which was a bit of a blessing to get a taste of the varying seasons and weather before we ship off to a strictly Dry Season- Wet Season humid climate such as Cambodia's.
I'm leaving for Hong Kong tomorrow and then to Phnom Penh the next day to start the 9-week training. I was told that the first few days I will have internet access but after that it will be much more difficult to stay in contact via the web with anyone until early September. I didn't cry at all today, but I think it was because I got all my tears out the day before, after saying goodbye to Grant, seeing one of my best friend's wedding dresses as she's getting married next August, and hanging out with my family and Threshold friends for a final time.
I know I'm going to miss a lot of American foods and people, but I really am excited to start this journey and see where it takes me. I'm hitting the hay now- I've been up way, waaaay too long. Night, world!