Thursday, February 24, 2011

02/21/2011 the heat and the kids

Well hot season has started. I'm not sure i'm ready to call it dry season though. In the mornings it feels pretty humid still, but no one can deny that the dust and sand is out of control. It pretty much hasn't rained in the last 3 months, probably more but I didn't keep track. Instead of sinking into the mud I sink into the sand. No longer do I need to avoid puddles and splashes from passing trucks, but I do need to hold my breath and close my eyes to avoid being suffocated and blinded. The ants have gone insane too. I'm not entirely sure why because it's not like any rains are driving them nuts. Maybe overpopulation...Anyway they're all over my room. There was a time where I wouldn't mind this because usually they got what they wanted and would leave. But now it's war and I'm probably gonna lose. Now, they just want to live here. There's no food in my room. I have strict rules. Any food is in a ziploc bag which has been a time tested repulsant of ants. I've cleaned and even flooded them with hand sanitizer. I think sometimes the ants get drunk off the ethanol or at least knocked out. But its all just temporary. Today I stepped on a fire ant hill. That was painful. I literally was only on it for a second, but they are vicious and I didn't have any water around. So I pretty much just jumped around and threw off my shoes. Then jumped around some more. It's funny because I was with a 12 year old and a 6 year old and they were both unfazed by the ants.

Progress report on my biking skills: there is clear improvement. I am not bad at biking standing up now though I still only do it when I'm alone. I'm scared of falling and knocking other people over. I can bike over 30k and my butt doesn't hurt like crazy anymore. After biking a while, my arms are more tired than my legs. I think using a super huge city bike for 2 months and all that practice using a squat toilet has really improved my leg strength. Even doing the laundry isn't such a workout now. I puposefully use laundry time to practice my squat instead of sitting on a small seat.

I've started playing volleyball with  some kids this past week. The first time it was almost all girls and most of them had never learned how to play before. I did some basic drills with bumps, but for some reason everyone wanted to set. Except, they didn't know how to do it. So I tried to teach them, but the concept of fingertips was hard to get across. In Kmai the word for hand and arm are the same.

Today I played with almost all boys. Deja vu. The girls/boys dynamics in sports is definitely the same way it is in America. Girls are easily intimidated and don't assert themselves when boys are around. Boys are exclusionary even though, skills wise, they are equal to the girls. Boys can hit hard and hit far, but they have no idea how to direct their hits. Girls learn technique faster because they can't rely on hitting hard to muddle through, but as a consequence they look worse playing the game since their hits are timid. These are purely my observations of these two groups playing, but it's exactly the same thing I experienced in high school. The frustrating thing is that these girls are good, but will probably never get to be better. Since they aren't amazing off the bat they get excluded. Being excluded means no practice time. No practice time means they will always be stuck at the playing level that they're currently at. This is exactly how it worked in my high school. The only way girls get better is if they can challenge the boys and kick their asses or if they get individual playing time.

Case in point, As I was playing with the boys today a tenth grade girl I knew came over. I invited her a few times to play but she declined. She kept telling me she didn't know how to play which in Cambodian can also mean she just doesn't like to play. Instead she joined the younger kids that I brought with me who also felt excluded. When the boys left for class I got my volleyball back and I taught her to bump. She already knew how to set pretty well. We played for maybe half an hour and she was late for class because she didn't want to stop. Out of all the kids I'd played with she definitely had the best control of the ball. She could direct it properly and knew how much force was needed. It was, by far, the best practice I'd had with the kids in my village. But without me spending extra time with her she would have just been stuck watching on the sidelines.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Some Things I do:

Today my kmai tutor asked me to explain what a blind date was. To do that I had to go back and explain what dating was. This was interesting since it doesn't really happen here too often. Neither does going out to eat dinner or going for a coffee with the opposite sex. Sometimes I had to refrain from saying that in America it doesn't happen very often either, but I didn't want to confuse him.

I color. As in coloring books. Some volunteers/tourists from another NGo gave me some coloring books before I left. They said it was for the kids in the HC and I've tried to follow their wishes. So I started with the coloring books and pencils they gave me and I gave them to kids that looked bored. This did not turn out how I expected. First, kids that are under 5 years of age cannot successfully use something as long as a colored pencil, so I bought crayons. Secondly, parents/and some kids think that there is some skill necessary to color. Sometimes parents think their kids are doing it wrong and they do it instead. But really, I think it's because the mom's never get to do anything and they want to color too. Slowly, this project became "Helen Teaches how to Color!" Sometimes I get the elderly to do it. Now, they are insecure about coloring. Some tentatively pick up a crayon and then put it down. Some color a little and then walk away. Some go nuts. Now I've found that I have to very firmly give someone a coloring sheet. Then I need to walk away for a while. Usually the kids get it by then and some moms are getting into it. And its a small insider victory for me because girls and guys color the same stuff whether its Thomas the train or Sleeping Beauty. I'm working on getting some health related stuff but I might have to draw them myself. Those of you that have seen me draw know that it's a disaster waiting to happen.

I've been imaginarily practicing William Tell overture on my imaginary flute because I think my tongue is becoming lazy. I can't really speak properly anymore and I needed to give my tongue some exercise.

A good day 02/10/2011

Today has been a really crazy, good day so far. I'll start from the beginning. This morning I woke up around 6. This is the time my family gets up. We're pretty lazy for a kmai family. In training, My family woke up every morning at 4:30am. Anyway, I get up and do the usual to get ready for my kmai lesson and work. I look at my watch and somehow it's only 6:30. I actually have enough time to go to the market today! So I mosey on over to the market and buy a whole bunch of bananas which costs about 25 cents here. Then I go over to my waffle lady. Now waffles in Cambodia are not the same as they are in America. First off, they're made from rice flour. Plus they tast totally different, but they look the same and they're hot off the griddle. I'm usually the first one in line so I get the first two of the day. I go back home and make a banana and peanut butter waffle sandwich. SO delicious. I eat it as I walk to the temple for my kmai lesson, which is abnomally productive.

I go to work and people are cleaning and things are getting done. All because the US Ambassador to Cambodia decided to visit my site today! I found out a day and a half ago. Around 8:30 Am two giant white vans roll up in front of my health center. The Ambassador, her name is Carol, steps out and we chit chat. I give her a tour of the HC and describe the services. Answer some questions and what not. Act like I give tours everyday. Some kids are furiously coloring, the toddler that tried to eat my crayons runs into the Ambassador. Carol, because only on a blog am I on a first name basis with any politician, asks a woman how old her baby is. The woman quickly replies 7 months and then goes on a long spiel about how her baby has 'romuh' on his hand. It's a word I haven't found a satisfying translation to yet. It sometimes means an itch, but not always. Somewhere between a skin affliction/rash/itchyness. We eventually get to move on, but that baby had the saddest baby face I've ever seen. Usually, babies look pretty nonchalant even when they're suffering. But this one knew it was dealing with something extremely unpleasant while two strangers stared at him. The whole visit is over in an hour and it was a really fun hour. I like things that are pleasant and shake up my day. Especially if it's an opportunity to speak in a language I know fluently.

After that I go to this big meeting at the Commune Office. All the village health volunteers are there and we chit chat. I get an awesome sandwich out of it. In the middle of eating my sandwich the meeting starts again. Did I mention that because of the Ambassador I missed the first half? Trust me, that was a blessing. Anyway, the reason we have the meeting is because a new NGO is starting to work in my town and I get along very well with the Project Manager, who speaks excellent English and is the first Cambodian I've met that told me he wanted to go to Africa. Not only does he want to go to Africa, but he wants to help the people there. In the meanwhile, he settles for helping Cambodians in Cambodia. Anyway, he tells me to go sit in the front. A few minutes later I realize that he means in the front with all the important people facing the audience. So I between the Chief of Police and the Chief of my Commune. He's next to the Chief of another Commune and my Health Center Director. It's me and a bunch of middle aged/elderly Cambodian men. About 20 min into the meeting he asks me to talk to the group...I have no idea what to say and I thankfully did not have to say it in kmai. Usually, I do an OK job of speeches in kmai, but usually I practice before hand. Luckily, the project manager agreed to translate for me so I just said a short speech right there on the spot.The rest of the meeting isn't bad. The guy even said once that (I'm paraphrasing) " If we don't use the funds then Sudan will get it! Do you know where Sudan is?" I cracked up inside. By the time it ended it was 11 and time to go home.

I get home and a few minutes later the Peace Corps car rolls up just before lunch. I get 4 packages. One from PC, one from my fam, one from lawrence, and one from Amazon. The one from Amazon was a gift from a friend and was insane because I did not believe that Amazon could deliver to Cambodia. The shipping cost more than the gift but only by a few dollars. The one from PC was standard, some meds, some forms, a resource book I asked for, and 3 CHRISTMAS CARDS!!! I was so excited. At least one was postmarked December took 2 months to get to me, but it finally made it. Thanks Nandini and Ian! The third is from my fam.  Package from Lawrence is full of awesomeness. Thank you so much! A letter is coming your way. I've already written it. The package from my fam was full of stuff I asked for. Including my makeup. Yea, its strange that even in Cambodia I need to worry about looks. It also included ear plugs. I'm convinced that in 10 years, Cambodia will have the highest rate of deaf youth/middle aged people in the world. I'm pretty sure no one here knows that loud music or sounds will make you go deaf. There's also no sense of privacy in Cambodia. Everyone knows everyones business, medical or otherwise. Also, you can play your music or sing karaoke as loud as you want and no one will complain. Cars and motos beep their horns to make sure you get out of the way before they almost mow you down.Anyway, even though I knew what to expect I still get great joy from opening it because i never know how my instructions will take physical shape. Thank you to everyone that sent me something and also for everyone that keeps in touch whether by calling or through the internet. It is awesome to have friends and family and I never want to be without either! Did I mention that for lunch we had pork instead of fish? Awesome!

philosophical blah blah blah 02/06/2011

The reason people can forget malnourished babies and grandmothers can laugh while holding a child with arms skinnier than twigs is because it's so utterly normal and common place here. When I saw that baby I saw a baby that was going to die. But everyone else sees something they can't change. Something that is so commonplace that it's become a way of life. Accepted just as easily as they accept the poverty that causes it all.

Peace Corps has a rule. That's a phrase I know very well in two languages and I'm sure I could figure out how to say it in a few more if I really needed it. This rule or suggestion, sometimes I forget which is which states that I'm supposed to stay out of politics in this country. I shouldn't be caught on record talking about any of it. Whether it's American politics or otherwise. As long as I serve the Peace Corps and I'm in Cambodia I should not comment on politics in any strongly opinionated way. I agree with this policy. Here, politics are integral in life. Everyone has connections and you never know when a poorly placed word ruins your reputation and the reputation of your agency. They always tell the story of how a postcard got PC kicked out of Nigeria or something like that, which is why I'm always careful of what I say here. Though it is definitely a concious struggle.

Blogs can be filled with observations, simple commentary, and other trivial things. But, if that's the focus of your blog then it's not trivial. People read the blog to see pictures of oddly shaped marshmallows or weird things I've found in Cambodia. But, this blog never had such a focus. It was and is about my life in Cambodia. Many people might say that because I work in health education that politics has nothing to do with me. But the reason I educate, the needs I address are caused by poverty, and the only way to change poverty here and anywhere is through politics. Policy change and enforcement. It's amazing how many people refuse to see that. Poor literacy rates are caused by poverty, but what is poverty caused by? How can we relieve it? Should we increase volunteer rates? I can tell you now that even if you put a million health education volunteers in Cambodia, or Africa, or the slums of NYC there still won't be lasting change. Not if the only thing those volunteers are doing is educating about health.

When you get hurt, you need a bandaid or maybe even stitches. But those don't heal you. They are necessary treatments, but in the end the body heals itself. Volunteers, NGOs, Foundations are all bandaids. Necessary, but in the end not enough. Things need to change on a fundamental level for real change.

I never came here thinking that I could change the world. I value the connection between people. That I will create change on an individual basis and who knows how far that ripple effect will reach. But, I think the only concrete reason for why I came is still to understand people. To learn about a culture and interact with people under extremely difficult circumstances. The Peace Corps has three goals. The first is to provide needed services. The second is to share American culture. The third is to share Cambodian culture with americans. All three of these goals require understanding of people. People that serve in the Peace Corps gain a set of skills that very few people can say they have. We have an understanding of the people in Cambodia. The ability to understand is vastly underestimated just like the ability to listen.

I promise my next entry will be funny.