As if I needed any help being lamer in middle school, my mom signed me up for a self-defense course run by the local police department. The majority of the course consisted of officers teaching you to stand in “ready” position, hands out, and scream “STAY AWAY!” at the top of your lungs, under some false pretense that a 10 year old using her big girl voice would actually deter potential attackers.
The only concrete move I remember from the course was called “Pepper in the Eye,” in which you pinch all your fingers together into a small point and attempt to poke out the eyes of your assailant by thrusting your hands back and forth very quickly. I think I was drawn to this move because it was the only one I felt that I could execute properly, whereas with the more complex ones, like the head-butt, I felt more at risk of injuring myself than my intended target.
Thankfully, I’ve never been put in a position where I needed to channel my inner Miss Congeniality and S.I.N.G. for my own safety. But these past few weeks in Phnom Penh, assaults have been on the upswing and kept me on my toes.
A few blocks from my house, a female American school principal was gang raped as she tried to unlock her gate. A UN worker was held at knife point for his computer in a popular expat restaurant strip. In a strange act of random violence, a man ran into a public park and struck an NGO worker in the head with an axe before running away. And, a friend of mine was recently followed home on her bike and mugged. The same thieves came back the next night with her stolen keys and took two motorbikes from the landlord.
All of this was already too close for comfort.
Then my boss didn’t show up for work last Thursday.
Mid-morning, I get a text: “I’ve been attacked. I’m in the hospital for observation.” To which I respond, “Oh my gosh, are you okay? What happened? Do you need help?”
Dude, rule #1 of communicating serious information: it is not okay to drop a bomb and then cut off all communication. People can get ideas, you know.
Luckily, he was okay. Kind of. Apparently, he had been sitting in a bar with friends, looking around, when he accidentally made eye contact with this Korean mob boss who is in Cambodia to avoid tax evasion charges in his homeland. The Korean guy approached, said “What are you looking at?,” and before my supervisor could finish his sentence, the Korean punched him in the face and knocked him out cold.
2 minutes unconscious, a concussion, 10 stitches in his head, a fractured jaw, and a cracked rib later, he was lying in the hospital, texting me. He was already set to go on a month long mandatory contract break, but this was the final straw. So he decided he was leaving early and wasn’t coming back to Phnom Penh.
This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that our department consisted of only him and me. So in less than 24 hours I went from being unpaid intern to interim Director of Communications for the Cambodia operation. Um, excuse me, come again?
This transition was communicated to me in the following manner:
My boss: “I’m writing a handover note.”
Me: “A handover of what?”
Him: “The department.”
Me: “Okay, to who? Who will I be reporting to?”
Him: “To you.”
I 99% thought he joking until the official emails and the requests for executive briefs started rolling in. Ok, I guess we are doing this. Building skills and taking names!
As part of my role, I was sent out to represent our office at an NGO fair at the local international school Friday morning. We brought computers and had an interactive Prezi the kids and teachers could come up and click around.
Around 8:30 a.m., this 8-year-old saunters up to the screen and says, “Is this Prezi? I have an account. What version of Windows are you running? This looks like Vista. That’s outdated. I run Windows 8. I used to live in Slovenia. Do you even know where that is?”
I stood there, still half asleep, trying to comprehend the precociousness of this small boy, especially in comparison to the fact that I just came from a year of teaching 8 year olds who couldn’t write the alphabet. But before I could formulate a coherent response, he’d already moved on to questioning the sustainable practices of the plastic bag recycling NGO at the next table. If this is the future of our world, I’ve already become obsolete.
When the moto and the tuk tuk just aren’t cutting it, take your elephant to the open road. #KampotCambodia
Needing a break from the hustle and bustle of the office, I found a few days to escape to the sleepy southern towns of Kampot and Kep with my French friends during their last days in country. Kampot is famous for its pepper plantations, so we visited one, tasting the difference between green, red, black, and white peppercorns. As pepper is no good without it’s trusty companion, we also walked through 5km of villages to explore salt flats, which unfortunately were not in production.
Kampot peppercorns are hand-sorted to ensure the best quality.
Kep is crab kingdom, so after perusing the crab market and visiting the famous giant crab statue, we tucked in to some tasty green pepper fried crab. Other trip highlights were a pre-Angkorian period cave temple, the bumpiest tuk tuk ride to date, and the first views of the ocean since I left Taiwan. With everything from meal service to travel time being exceedingly slow, relaxation was a mandate.
Keeping it crabby in Kep!
But dare I get too comfortable in this weekend haze, the universe made sure I stayed vigilant. On my first night back in Phnom Penh, I was lying in bed when I heard a noise that sounded like someone attempting to open my door. Once, twice, three times. On the third time, I saw a ruffling under the window curtain that, to my 4 a.m. eyes, appeared to be a man’s arm trying to reach through my window. By this point, I was huddled in a ball in my bed, basically peeing myself, contemplating what bedroom item would make the best weapon, and attempting to call my housemate to come rescue me. He was not picking up.
After 45 minutes paralyzed in this position and about as many attempted phone calls later, the sun finally started to rise, and I realized that there was, not a man, but a feral cat in my room.
The cat must have pushed my door open when I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night and then gotten locked in when I returned. What I thought was the man’s arm was, in reality, the cat’s attempt to run vertically up the wall like Spiderman and scale the grates of my window. Obviously, when this escape tactic failed because the window is sealed, the cat slid down the window underneath the curtain, scaring the crap out of me and only further disorienting itself.
Sometimes, a little disorientation can be fun though. Yesterday night, I went Dining in the Dark with a couple of friends. The restaurant simulates what it is like to be blind, and as such, you sit in a completely dark room and have no idea what you are eating. A blind server from a local nonprofit for the disabled acts as your guide, leading you to your table, helping you find your utensils, and bringing you your surprise three-course meal.
Removing sight changes the whole dynamic of dinner: you can no longer rely on facial expressions or body language when conversing, and your plate instantly becomes a treasure trove of new discovery. I think the restaurant purposefully uses a lot of different shapes, textures, and bold flavors in the food to heighten your remaining senses. Pepper central.
One minute you are at the left end of plate trying to decide if what you just ate was crab or tuna, the next your fingers stumble upon some avocado and bacon-wrapped…chicken? or was that pork? And when you finally make it to the end, that springy dessert, is it jello or flan? Both wrong: strawberry panna cotta. Definitely a lesson in empathy and an exciting way to spice up my Saturday night.