Zheli

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Malcolm Gladwell proposed that it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a skill. Not that I can ever pretend to be on Bill Gates’ level, but if I apply Gladwell’s theory, I’ve am officially an expert at living abroad.

For the last 10, 224 hours, I’ve lived and breathed abroad-ness.

I’ve memorized my passport number, learned how to cross traffic-lawless roads, how to bargain with the best of them, how to buy bus, train, and plane tickets in nothing but sign language, how to find the best dumplings in the city, and how to make sure students will never forget the alphabet as long as they live.

I’ve learned how to be alone and enjoy it. How to be vulnerable. How to be confident even when I’m not. How to rock a fanny pack. How to be me. And, what I didn’t realize before I left on this wild ride 494 days ago was that it would be possible to feel so much love from perfect strangers.

Strangers never stay strangers for long.

This week, I went indoor rock climbing in Phnom Penh, and my friend teased me about how I was going to work it into my blog. Well, it was a seamless fit. A group of us in our 20’s and 30’s took over the Kids’ City Clip & Climb, and I quickly discovered that I loved climbing up the wall, but with no one standing behind me to tether me down, I was nervous to let go and come down. I just had to trust that the rope would hold.

You see where this is going.

I’ve been on this emotional high for the last 14 months, always going up and finding my next adventure, and now I’m lowering down. And I’m nervous about reintegrating into mainstream American life. Into Cape Cod. Into my relationships back home.

Why is it always the way that just when you get good at something, it has to end. Like college, just when you become a senior and run that ship, they boot you out. Robert Frost, you crafty bastard, how did you know so well that nothing gold can stay?

As I wrote in the dedication of this blog, “zai nali” means “where” in Mandarin, and I was using this year to find out where I wanted to be. But I’m calling this final post “zheli” because I’ve found where I want to be and it’s simply “here,” wherever here is at that given moment, day, month, year.

Sorry I’m not sorry for any cliches that appear in this post (or any along the way). It’s hard to end this blog without them. A sincere thank you to those who have read faithfully over the last year, it has been my sincere pleasure to share my adventures, at least once a week, with you. It’s kept me accountable to my own self-reflection.

If you enjoyed reading, I’m just going to use this opportunity to put in a shameless plug that I am currently looking for full-time employment. Give me a shout if you know of anyone hiring.

So. I’m going home (Kaohsiung), before I go home (Cape Cod), before I go home (Georgetown).

To everyone I’ve met along the way, I’m carrying you with me. You are always within reach.

With no belay, but a full heart, I’m climbing on and signing off.

Thanks Rachel Platten for capturing in song what I cannot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJqSITP_lVE

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Dirt, Sweat, and Cheers

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You can’t come all the way to Cambodia and not go to Angkor.

I am now clearly versed in the difference between coating and extrusion. #ricefortification

I am now clearly versed in the difference between coating and extrusion. #ricefortification

So after a bittersweet ending to my internship last Friday, I set out to cross this one off the bucket list. It was much harder to leave WFP than expected because it was the first internship I’ve had where I felt like I really made a big impact and my work was truly appreciated, like I wasn’t just a replaceable puzzle piece cycling through the system. If I hadn’t been gone from home so long already, I would have definitely considered staying.

Alas, with only a few days left in the country, Angkor awaited. Hoping to save a few bucks, I got up extra early Sunday morning and slogged me and my me-sized backpack in the 90 degree heat all the way down to the riverfront (about an hour walk on foot from my house), only to realize on arrival that the bus company had moved locations to the other side of the city and had failed to update their website. Bugger.

This then required taking a hurried tuk-tuk ride for double the price it would have cost me if I’d just coughed up the money from the start. Apparently God hates the penny-pincher. I would have been more bitter about it but my tuk-tuk driver and I had a great conversation about his brother who lives in Lowell, MA. Always love being reminded how small the world is.

And apparently, the cheapskate message really needed to be hammered home this morning because I’d chosen the least expensive bus which came with perks like being seated directly behind the driver with no ability to extend your legs at all and having the broken air conditioner drip on you continuously for 7 hours. The driver would periodically take his hand off the wheel to reach behind him and wipe the AC. This was only slightly less terrifying than the bus driver a few weeks back who insisted on watching horse YouTube videos and driving simultaneously.

Living it up at Angkor Wat

Living it up at Angkor Wat

Once in Siem Reap, I decided to go for broke and sign up for the 10 hour all-day temple tour instead of breaking it up over two or three days.  Plus, joining a tour group allowed me to meet other like-minded single world travelers and avoid biking aimlessly through the temples by myself.

The Happy Family

The Happy Family

Named by our guide as “Chhiya’s Happy Family,” our group consisted of people from the Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong, the U.S., Mexico, the UK, and Malaysia. When I hopped in the van, I was seated next to the Malaysian man who looked like his breakfast hadn’t sat too well with him. But, once I prodded a little and realized it was because he was not confident in his English, we had a grand time chatting away in Mandarin. These are the kind of moments that initially prompted me to apply for Fulbright.

I know they say that “Blood is thicker than water,” but I beg to differ. Sweat is a pretty good solidifier, and with each passing hour in the direct 100 degree-plus sun, my bond with the fellow group members strengthened, if only over the repeated cursing of the oppressive heat (literally the hottest day I’ve had this whole year).

Monk's blessing for a good year and safe travels

Monk’s blessing for a good year and safe travels

We got off to a great start when one member of the group got bite in the leg by an aggressive monkey who was apparently camera shy. To rabies shot or not to rabies shot, that is the question…

Pretty clear who wears the pants in this relationship

Pretty clear who wears the pants in this relationship

Through the course of the day we made our way through Angkor Wat (the largest religious structure in the world), Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple), and Bayon (smiling Buddha faces).

Sunset is a big deal at Angkor, so our guide got us to the top of the mountain with ample (read: too much) time to secure a seat for the main event. As soon as the clouds began rolling in and we saw that we had at least another 90 minutes to go, the Happy Family collectively decided to buck the system and leave early, skipping down the mountain past the hundreds of tourists who had lined up by this point, like “So long suckers, we’ll drink an extra cold one for you.”

Beaming at Bayon

Beaming at Bayon

Eskimo kisses with Buddha

Eskimo kisses with Buddha

Defeated by the day and still reveling in the majesty of what I’d seen, I collapsed into bed before 9 p.m. Before my return the next morning, I fit in a quick yoga class in which, for the first time in my life, I was the only female participant. Props to the Scottish men of Siem Reap breaking those gender norms. With well wishes they sent me off to my second 7 hour bus in 3 days.

Objects in person are smaller than they might appear.

Objects in person are larger than they might otherwise appear

It was the most awesome self-induced torture I’ve experienced since that time I decided to climb Huangshan in the pouring rain, and I am so blessed I was able to make the trip.

Seeing the Forest For the Trees: Meaning-making in Kirirom

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Every morning between 4 and 5 a.m., a symphony of cacophony outside my window rouses me, like me own personal Cambodian alarm clock: stray dogs barking, cats in heat fighting, motodop engines revving, hammering, more hammering, a guy who always insists on sawing metal at half past, and the shouts of small humans welcoming the day (i.e. what I can only assume to be “Mom, where’s my breakfast?” in Khmer).

Since I have to be up early for work anyway, I’ve gotten quite used to the noise pollution of the city. But, it is still particularly jarring on Sunday mornings for those of us who grew up under the WASPy notion that Sunday is a day of rest.

Without fail, my neighbors begin construction at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings. The Sunday before last, however, the usual banging was accompanied by a very loud, very powerful grinding that shook our entire three-storey house, since the neighbors’ construction is literally attached to our building.

This was too much for my housemate who was still reasonably soused from the night before. Not bothering to get dressed, he catapulted out of bed and ran next door in his boxers to confront the neighbors. Given that he speaks only English and they only Khmer, his rant was more of a failed flailing pantomime.

Lying in bed, all I could hear him yelling was, “There is a law against this, I’m sure. We are Catholics, man! We need to rest; we are Catholics here, man.”

Which was good for a chuckle because:
1) This is Cambodia; laws are almost leprechauns, so I’m sure you can do construction whenever you damn well please. And,

2) Not my housemate, nor I, nor even the gay Filipino couple that lives upstairs are Catholic. And, if we were, we would probably be up already preparing for Sunday Mass.

After 30 minutes of back and forth, he thought that they had all mutually agreed to halt construction from 7 to 9 a.m., but at 7:45, the grinding, more powerful than before, started again and the hungover three amigos (housemate + Filipinos) hung their heads, donned dark glasses, and slinked out of the house for some hair of the dog.

I decided it was time to get out of what my friend has so adequately described as the “Pig Penh:” despite its charms, and there are many, the hot, crowded, loud, smelly, dirty din of the city leaves you wanting a breath of fresh air every few weeks.

So, to Kirirom National Park we went.

Waterfall wonder

Waterfall wonder

Drawn by the promise of pine trees, we drove west to Kampong Speu, asking the driver to drop us in the woods. This proved harder to communicate than initially expected because just walking in the woods with no destination is a highly foreign concept.

“The van will drive you to the pagoda, and then the resort, and then the waterfall, okay?” No, not okay. Imagine the looks we got when we insisted that all we wanted was to traipse around in the mud and the rain for a few hours looking at trees. I’m pretty sure the Cambodians were like, “These barangs (foreigners) be crazy, yo.”

Crazy and so happy.

"The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself." - Ben Franklin

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” – Ben Franklin

We saw more greenery than I’ve seen in months, went swimming in waterfalls, and ogled at the beauty of nature’s force.

And what's behind door #3? The biggest waterfall I've ever seen in my life

And what’s behind door #3? The biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life

Opting to support local ecotourism, we stayed in Chambok village, taking meals communally with new friends, and being continually reminded by locals of my old-maid status. If you are not engaged by 19, get out of town. Single at 23? All hope is lost.

Homestay sleeping arrangement with clutch mosquito net

Home-stay sleeping arrangement with clutch mosquito net

That night we slept in a home-stay owned by a single mother with three children. Her rustic home has no electricity or running water. Abandoned by her husband and owning no land of her own, she supports her family on the meager income she makes from her small market stall and the home-stay revenue. With such a hard life, there is much she could wallow in. But she doesn’t. She was a bright spot amongst the trees, smiling more than almost anyone I’ve ever met.

And the same was true for her children, especially her 2-year-old son, who, given his spindly build and constant energy, we affectionately termed “Monkey Boy.” Unmarred by the knowledge of what he doesn’t have, Monkey Boy’s smile could not be wiped from his face. Rather, only widened by the purchased of a doughnut.

Don't mess with a boy and his donut

Don’t mess with a boy and his doughnut

Now the nutritionist in me didn’t necessarily approve of this obviously underweight toddler consuming empty- calorie fried food, but in Monkey Boy’s doughnut-mesmerized eyes I saw the forest for the trees.

I can complain all I want about the fact that I only slept 6 hours instead of 8, that my mattress here is older than I am, and my computer is out of date, but I am safe, have clean water and food, and that’s enough. That’s more than enough. His face reminded me yet again that privilege is a blessing, not a condition for happiness. It’s not the world around you that defines your happiness; it’s you.

At this point, a new German friend we met on the trip also chimed in with his similar experience in Bhutan. “They don’t have much, but the people are happy,” he said. And it’s true; Bhutan monitors its’ Gross National Happiness. If only America could get on board and step back to see what really matters. I have lots of friends from college already making 6 figures, but I’m not sure any of them could smile as hard and deep as this little boy.

All this talk of Monkey Boy and the pristine natural surrounding had us hoping that we might actually see some real monkeys on the trail. However, in an ironic twist of fate, the only monkey we ended up seeing was on our table. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, and as we were peeking through the offerings, the owner handed my friend a spoonful of stew to taste.

Mid-bite, the woman revealed that the meat was spider-monkey, causing my friend to swallow hard, wide-eyed. “Seriously?”

Completely. We swore it had to be pork and that there had to have been some mistranslation, but when those brave enough to try the dish started finding small bones in the meat, we conceded. As Ben Bradlee said, “You never monkey with the truth.”

Stay Hungry, Cambodia

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Driving down the only paved road on the way from Kampong Cham province to Phnom Penh city, we pulled up alongside a truck, filled to the brim with small, wriggling animals.

“Aw look, cute little…bunnies?,” we cooed.
“Look closer,” coughed our driver, giddily grinning to himself.

To our utter horror, further inspection revealed that these were, in fact, not rabbits but rats. Large, meaty rice paddy rats being carted off in droves to the Vietnamese border.

Images of hundreds of rats flooding out of trucks and carpeting the horizon instantly came to mind. “For what in God’s name does Vietnam want Cambodian rats for?,” I asked naively.

I regretted it as soon as the words left my mouth.

“Why, for dinner, of course.”

It always intrigues me how different Asian countries try to distinguish themselves from one another, especially when it comes to food culture. The Taiwanese might reference the dog-eating habits of mainland China with cries of, “How barbaric! How vile!” When it comes to the Vietnamese, Cambodians seem to feel similarly: “Those Vietnamese, they’ll eat anything. I mean anything!”  But, for a country that eats tarantulas and grubs on the reg, I’m tempted to chide, “You know what they say about people who live in glass houses…”

After containing his laughter at the sight of our disgust, our driver confessed that during the Khmer Rouge, he too had eaten rat, quickly interjecting that he had given up the habit when the threat of starvation no longer loomed.

Yet, while food insecurity has waned significantly since the 1980’s, little improvement has been made to Cambodia’s nutrition knowledge. As an American, I take for granted the fact that I started learning nutrition information as early as first and second grade. Food pyramid posters (now MyPlate) were plastered on every cafeteria surface, and I knew the five food groups before I knew how to multiply.

Conditioned to categorize food in this way, I was surprised to learn that Cambodia only recognizes 3 food groups. Roughly, it’s a protective group (vitamin and mineral rich foods), an energy group (carbs and fats), and a building group (proteins). I was even more surprised to learn that Cambodia does not have standardized national nutrition guidelines. Which means that even the most educated of Cambodians often feel left in the dark when it comes to knowing what to eat and in what proportion.

This is of particular concern for the most nutritionally vulnerable Cambodians – the rural poor. For example, research finds that mothers believe packaged snacks are safer for children. Safe must mean healthy, and therefore, children should eat snacks, right? However, in reality, these packaged carb-rich puffs are nutritionally empty and potentially detrimental to long-term health and child development.

But, the rural poor are not the only ones caught in this knowledge gap. Over the past two weeks, I have been on the road conducting nutrition education training for UN national staff, who are personally thirsty for this information. “Do I need food from every group at every meal?” “What is the best source of iron?” “What should my children be eating? What if he/she doesn’t like vegetables?” “What did you eat for breakfast? What should I?” And on and on.

Lessons learned from the field: people make nutrition out to be much more complicated than it actually is. Always a firm believer in the K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple Stupid) methodology, I really think good diet boils down to 2 key turns of phrase:

  1. Eat the Rainbow.
  2. á la Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

And, for Asia I would only add, dear lord, do away with the MSG. Please, do it for the children. No amount of flavor boost is worth ingesting heaping tablespoons of neurotoxin.

MSG and I are on particularly bad terms right now since the guesthouse we were staying at in Kampong Cham served meals with enough MSG in them to choke a horse.

I would say this was the worst of its problems except that when I went to turn down my bed and go to sleep I discovered the sheets were infested with black hairs of all shapes and sizes. Well, that’s certainly not mine. Nice try Travel Gods, but I’m not about to get bed bugs for the third time this year.

In perfect contrast, the accommodation in Siem Reap province was excessively clean, even down to the lines of the architecture and the furniture styling. The only gross thing about it was the environmental footprint.

Having apparently adopted a “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” mentality, the hotel was throwing all of its garbage into a huge pile right over the wall that surrounded the pristine courtyard, letting it spill into a small river and neighboring rice field. As it was fairly hidden, we only noticed the pile as we drove away for the last time. Driving back, we were left stewing about the carelessness fueling global environmental disrespect and our unintended role in it.

My trip to the provinces also solidified for me how much Phnom Penh is like a walled courtyard positioned within Cambodia. And within that courtyard, the expat population is even more contained. If I had not been in Taiwan before coming here and had the benefit of true cultural immersion, I think I would be more disturbed that there is little to no mixing between the local Khmer and expat populations.

But, on a merely self-serving level, I have really enjoyed getting to be part of this city’s foreign community. Oddly akin to a college campus, the community hosts lots of events and includes a constant stream of new people from all over the world.

This week alone I’ve been to a free documentary screening, a Nerd Night social hour (like Ted Talks by local expats), and a Trivia Night where my team came in dead last, saved total embarrassment only by the fact that I knew Michael Jordan’s jersey number, the first 4 digits of π, and how to identify Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.”

These are the things I will miss.

What I will not miss: the odd Airbnb encounters that for some strange reason seem to always take place in my kitchen. At 6:30 a.m. on Monday, two Japanese teenagers wearing hiking backpacks strolled right into the kitchen as I was standing by the stove in my pajamas. They spoke no English, but what I gathered from their charade was that they’d seen the listing online, had been let in the gate by the Cambodian landlord, and wanted to “check out” the place before booking it.

With no appetite for these shenanigans so early in the morning, I quickly passed them along to my still-sleeping housemate, the resident Aribnb magistrate, and went back to making my 3-ingredient pancakes. Now there’s something I can always stomach.

Salt in the Wound, Pepper in the Eye

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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?”

Radio silence.

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.

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.

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!

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.

Emaciated Cows & Other Oxymorons

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For more than a month now, I’ve been reading statistics.

Cambodia ranks 136th out of 186 on the Human Development Index, 43rd out of 78 on the Global Hunger Index. Of the 15 million Cambodians, almost 33% are undernourished, 32% are stunted (short for age, result of chronic malnutrition), and 10% are wasted (underweight for age, result of acute malnutrition). Yet, this still didn’t fully register with me until I was driving through the provinces last week for field visits and I saw the cows.

Emaciated cows. An oxymoron for the record books; to be filed directly next to: jumbo shrimp.

Every cow I made eye contact with literally looked like it was going to heave its last breath, keel over, and then rot because there was not enough meat on it’s bones be a useful meal. And, yet, there they were, struggling to trudge through the rice paddies.

It was like the cow version of those girls you’d see at the university gym, the ones who’d be there every time you went, no matter what time of day. The ones where every bone in their body was visible and the harsh angles of elbows and knees jutting through skin looked downright painful.

And I kept thinking. These are just the cows. Just a microcosm.

Which is strange, because Cambodia actually has a food surplus and makes more than enough food it feed its people. It’s the “inadequate budgetary allocations, limited institutional capacity to operationalise national policies, and inadequate coordination mechanisms” that derail the path of food from farm to table.

Which led me to another oxymoron: democratic dictatorship.
All modesty aside, that’s pretty much what’s going on here. As I mentioned in my last post, the Prime Minister has been in power for 30 years. His family, with up to seven degrees of separation, runs every sector of the country, including the breweries.

Chen Paulla dreams of being a teacher. "I want to help move forward the place I am from"

Chen Paulla dreams of being a teacher. “I want to help move forward the place I am from”

But when the Government can’t even get it together to run full day school sessions for primary school students (school only goes until 11), I have a hard time seeing its commitments to human development as anything but hot air.

Hair highlights: not a fashion statement but the body's cry for help

Hair highlights: not a fashion statement but the body’s cry for help

On Tuesday and Thursday, I got to travel to Kampong Chhnang province to observe the School Meal Programme. In the field, the statistics jumped off the page and came to life. 11 year olds the size of six year olds peaked out from behind doors. What I thought were streaks of blonde hair highlighted by the sun were actually indicators of severe vitamin deficiency.

School meals consist of rice, split peas, canned fish, oil, and salt served 5 days a week.

School meals consist of rice, split peas, canned fish, oil, and salt served 5 days a week.

You would think, or at least I did, that a school meal programme would aim to solve nutrient deficiencies and child malnutrition. Almost paradoxically, however, the primary aim of the school meal programme is school retention, with nutrition as a more distant afterthought. Food incentivizes education.

Grade 5 boys. Best friends. And the only ones not camera shy.

Grade 5 boys. Best friends. And the only ones not camera shy.

The field visit also brought to light a personal revelation regarding my own relationship to food. I have a limit to how self-sacrificing I can be when it comes to food hygiene.

Exhibit A: My colleagues and I were trying to find a place to eat lunch among limited options that included one road side restaurant with a few pop up tables and some carts selling grilled frogs on sticks. We opted for the former.

As I went to pull out my chair to sit down, a small black cat darted out from beneath the table dragging a huge rat the size of its body in its mouth. This would have been bad enough except the cat then decided it needed to disembowel the rat in the middle of the restaurant floor, only looking up periodically to show its dripping, bloodied face, Vampire Diaries style.

While the restaurant staff and other patrons looked completely unphased, I was turning all shades of green in the corner. Even my colleague who just spent the last three years in Delhi, one of the least hygienic places on earth, said it was pushing his limits. We each ate one scoop of white rice and left. I think I’m going to start advocating the cat-rat routine as a profitable weight loss technique back in the States. Rat disembowelment, guaranteed to eliminate your appetite for at least 6-8 hours! Get at me Jenny Craig.

Dog four ways.

Dog four ways.

I’d like to say my food forays significantly improved as the week went on, but I ended the week at a North Korean restaurant. For a country whose population is almost 50% malnourished, the fact that North Korea is showcasing anything culinary seems slightly paradoxical to me as well. Regardless, we decided to bypass the stewed dog and instead opt for the pea pancakes and the “pumpkin thrashed with egg,” a cooking method which seemed appropriately harsh given its origin.

The North Korean government has two restaurants in Phnom Penh, and North Korean women are sent to “intern” for 3 years. Word on the street is that these women are not allowed to leave the restaurant / apartment complex. They also have to perform a nightly show at the restaurant.

Nothing like an accordion disco to get the night rolling

Nothing like an accordion disco to get the night rolling

So at 8 pm on Saturday, my new friends and I and 15 or so older Korean men drunk on Soju watched as the waitresses played accordion, electric guitar, and some sort of electric harp. Some botched Bollywood-style dancing, disco lights, and a riveting operatic rendition of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” were also involved. image (3)

Then just when you think your night can’t get any weirder, you end up at the ultimate oxymoron, a kids’ entertainment microbrewery. Spark City was like Chuck E. Cheese meets Jordan’s Furniture meets Mohegan Sun meets beer garden.

Just a very small snippet of the elaborate Spark City Microbrewery extravaganza.

Just a very small snippet of the elaborate Spark City Microbrewery extravaganza.

The walls were plastered with fake Italian storefront facades, the stage was swarming with Cambodian dance performers doing more outfit changes than Beyonce, and children were running around with balloon animals until midnight. “Let It Go” was sung to a fully choreographed ribbon dance and followed immediately by a beer chugging contest that required contestants to use straws.

It was a seriously funny, properly ridiculous, terribly good time with a small crowd of people I hope to see more of real soon.

12 Months Deep

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I like to commemorate big moments in my life with big events. Like last year, when there was a huge gas explosion the day I arrived in Kaohsiung.

Thus, right on cue, in honor of my 1 year abroad anniversary this past week, I got diagnosed with my first ever intestinal parasite. After my stomach swelled and started making strange animal noises, I decided it was time to revisit the clinic. I now worship a new god called Cipro. A true miracle worker if I’ve ever seen one, thank you modern medicine.

But, the moral of this story: if your body is having trouble with basic functions like eating and excreting, this is not just a sign of “adjusting” to your new environment. And, papaya smoothies; definitely a no-go, unless you are looking for a gift that keeps on giving. And not in the good way.

Apparently this wasn’t enough to ring in the anniversary, however, because Cambodia’s rainy season reared its ugly head and blessed me with record rainfall. I quote today’s newspaper: “The storm that swept through Phnom Penh on Saturday evening resulted in the city’s highest rainfall on record.” Highest rainfall. Ever.

Lucky for me, I got to experience the storm up close and personal as I was riding in a tuk tuk for the storm’s early hours. Being soaked, cold, and sitting in 90 minutes of rush hour tuk tuk traffic is about as enjoyable as eating durian. Something you  experience once and then feel no need to experience ever again.

Even luckier for me, I live a stone’s throw from what the locals affectionately call, I kid you not, “Shit River.” The record rainfall brought Shit River to full swell, and I watched it lap aggressively at the edge of the road, praying it would not work up the courage to flood my entire street.

This was actually a very real possibility as many of my colleagues had to wade through thigh deep polluted water on their way home. My supervisor said she was riding her bike through waist-deep water as trash swarmed around her, and another friend said his motorbike swallowed too much rain water and the ignition cut out mid-drive.

The Government’s response to the rain, like many of the country’s other concerns, has been diplomatic at best. They released a statement that the rain would “prompt discussion of possible drainage issues.”

But, I have to say, the Cambodians are some of the most resilient and optimistic people I’ve ever encountered. Referencing the floods, a man in my office joked, “Developed countries are not as lucky as us. Here, every house in Cambodia has a swimming pool!”

This resilience also really hit home for me this weekend when I went to the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields. It makes me upset when I think about the fact between 1st-12th grade I had upwards of 4 years of American history, but never once was I taught about the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Under Pol Pot’s regime, more than 3 million Cambodians were killed, and just wearing glasses was justification enough for your death. I had no idea before this week that the Khmer Rouge trials to prosecute those responsible only began in 2007 and are still underway today. Some of the key leaders aren’t even able to participate because they are so old they have dementia. This means they lived the majority of their lives normally, suffering few repercussions from their actions.

The skeletons in Cambodia's closet

The skeletons in Cambodia’s closet

The Killing Fields have been left largely undisturbed which makes for an absolutely chilling experience. You walk along the path and see bones and teeth and pieces of clothing peeking out through the dirt. There is a 17 storey high memorial stupa in the center of the field filled to the top with human remains, mostly skulls categorized by the method used to induce death.

"Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root."

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”

The hardest thing for me to stomach though was a tree that was used to kill babies and children. Khmer Rouge cadres would pick babies up by their feet, smash their heads into this tree, and throw them into mass graves directly adjacent to the tree. When the Killing Fields were discovered, pieces of blood, hair, and brain were still found clinging to the bark.The Khmer Rouge supposedly killed babies to ensure there would be no one left to seek revenge for family members after their untimely deaths.

It is mind-blowing to me that so many people who experienced the horrors of the Khmer Rouge are still alive. And even more mind-blowing that the Cambodian people have been able to come so far in the wake of such tragedy. Since the same Prime Minister has been in power for 30 years and the Government is known to be very corrupt, it is hard to get a real grasp on what role NGOs and international organizations have actually played in this recovery effort.

All I know is that my experience with the UN and the Royal Government of Cambodia so far has been about “building capacity” and “engaging,” terms which are almost as vague as the “e-commerce” business my housemate makes his money from.

The other day he stopped me in the kitchen to ask what dildos and vibrators I thought would be best for the female expat market here in Cambodia. The week before he was hawking Kindles on the corner. I guess as “e-commerce” is to Cambodia, “consultant” is to Washington. D.C. AKA: nobody has an clue what the hell you actually do.

I’ll resist, but you should know that this blog could quickly devolve into “The Strange Birds and Ballin’ Backpackers I’ve Met Through AirBnB.” In this week’s episode we meet Diana: a 65 year old organic farmer from Wisconsin, who is essentially homeless and has been traveling non-stop since 2010. But, fortunately, she was counterbalanced by a new German friend who’s working on the Khmer Rouge trials. You win some, you lose some, but you always get a good story.

Our tour guide. Featured temple built in 1191.

Our tour guide. Featured temple built in 1191.

I went hiking on Sunday with this new German friend, and met a bunch of Beantowners, proving yet again that Red Sox Nation really knows no bounds. Who would’ve thought a couple from Jamaica Plains, a guy from Sudbury, and a girl from Sandwich would be driving through the Cambodian suburbs in a pimped out retro orange and green minivan, exploring temples, and finding scorpions?

Not all temples are created equal. Wetting the palate for Angkor Wat!

Not all temples are created equal. Whetting the palate for Angkor Wat!

Everyday I’m reminded that the world is a small, strange, and wonderful place. Thanks for a great last year, Asia; I’m 12 months deep and still going strong.