Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Cambodian Water Festival Story

Water Festival is a three day holiday at the beginning of November. Usually, Cambodian hold boat races very similar to the dragonboat races we have in other countries. This year I decided to stay home for the holiday since I had just gotten back from China. My host family had big plans to go visit the “Cambodian Cultural Village” which is just outside of Siem Reap city.

Recently, my host father had bought a new used car. It was a Toyota Camry (typical for Cambodia) and he did not know how to drive. Over the past month he’s learned how to drive and taught my host brother how to drive too. I still remember the first time he took the car out for a test drive and the car never made it back that day. Turns out, my dad drove it into a water filled ditch. For our trip to the cultural village my teenage host brother drove. It was 5 of us in the car including my host mom who kept telling him to turn down the radio. The rest of my host family, aunts, uncles, cousins, went in a big SUV that they apparently have on lease.

Things were going well. We left the house around 2pm and wanted to arrive around 3pm. This is pretty good timing for Cambodia. Half-way to the village we had to stop in Pouk market to buy roast chicken for the picnic dinner later. In order to save time, our car picked up my host grandfather and drove him to the dentist in Pouk. I think they expected the visit to take a few minutes, but it took almost an hour. All of us sat in the open waiting room reading dentist chair catalogues and watching a Chinese soap opera that was dubbed in khmer.

When we finally got to the “Cambodian Cultural Village” none of the adults wanted to go in. They were all outraged that the “village” raised the price from 4 dollars to 5 dollars because of the holiday (this is the price for Cambodians). Then my host mom kept saying how we arrived too late and there’s not enough time to see everything. We spent about another 30 min in the parking lot discussing this matter. Then we all got in the car and made a pit stop at a Wat. Everyone in my car was just confused at this point and not sure why we were stopping here, but I took some pictures of my little cousins and we all waited for something to happen. Somehow there was a signal for everyone to get back in the cars and so we did.

The next stop was Road 60, a carnival type place outside of Siem Reap City. It was built as a joint venture between Cambodians and a Korean company so you’ll see a lot of Cambodians and bus loads of Korean tourists. I’ve been here many a time, but this was definitely the lamest trip yet. We got there and sat down to eat dinner. This was a pretty good dinner. Lots of roasted meat and rice which I enjoy. Typically, after you eat we go ride on the “roller coasters” which consists of a rusty ferris wheel and a big wheel thing that goes back and forth, similar to those pirate ship rides in America. This time we went shopping. Road 60 is a long road that has vendors on both sides. People will drive through on their motos and just stop on the side if they see something they want to buy. I ended up following a bunch of teenagers around and all they bought were stuffed animals to give as birthday presents for an upcoming bday party we were all invited to. The kids had been talking about the ferris wheel for days because it’s the scariest ride they will ever be on (and the logistics of riding a large rusted wheel in Cambodia is pretty scary), but the teenagers would have none of it. By the time they had finished buying stuffed animals it was time to get back in the cars and go home.

When we finally arrived home I was exhausted from doing nothing and all I wanted was to go to bed. My host sister really wanted me to stay up until midnight to go to the Wat. I’m really glad I didn’t because the next day I asked her, “ Was the Wat fun last night?” She replied, “No, I was too tired.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

In between China and crashing into an ox cart I spent a wonderful weekend at this nice hotel called the sofitel because Kurt's grandparents were in town! I was pretty nervous about it even in China, but it was a wonderful weekend in the end. To start off, I biked there and the weather was pretty nice for the ride. It felt really good to not be trapped in some plane, train, bus or taxi. Felt good to flex my muscles again. I showed up at the hotel and asked where I could park my bike, but the security guard, good naturedly, told me I had gone in the EXIT and that I had to leave the driveway and go about 50 meters down the road to the Entrance. I was shocked. Never before I had I experienced such enforcement of rules in Cambodia. This is a country where driving down the road on the wrong side of the highway is perfectly acceptable. This is the country where you can dry your rice on both sides of the road, turning it into a single lane, and not even feel bad about yourself. This is the country where you ride your moto and hold your helmet instead of wearing it and no one thinks that's strange or oddly flaunting the law. So, I begrudgingly turned around, got plenty of oil on the back of my right leg which happens all the time, and went searching for the entrance.

Once I made it in the IN part of the driveway things went smoothly. I took a shower in the nicest shower I've seen in a long long time. The shower was actually enclosed in glass versus being completely open and always getting the toilet paper wet. And then I met Kurt's grandparents. And everything was good. Normally, I get really nervous meeting people that are older than me, whether they're 5 years older or 20 years, but I felt really at ease and I really enjoyed meeting them. Also, the breakfast buffet and the bacon helped my nerves a lot. The sofitel also had a huge pool and it smelled really nice all the time. Also, a PS2. Yes, I still kick ass at Capcom vs. Marvel.

One day, Kurt and I went with his grandparents to see Banteay Srei. I was so so grateful that his grandparents paid to have us driven there. Originally, I had planned on biking there, but it was a lot harder to find and a lot farther away than I thought. Also, while beautiful, the temple itself is fairly small and so I don't think it's worth a bike ride unless you do a picnic lunch or something after.

Oh, and it was halloween that weekend too! I was a werepanda, half panda half human. Kurt was a rice farmer. Then halfway through the night it just got too hot to wear my panda hat so I put it on my belt and became a panda hunter and kurt was just kurt.

It's always interesting to stay in such a nice place because my house 30 km away is a totally different world. I had the same feeling when I walked into the US Embassy a few months ago. There are all these small recreations of the western affluent world in Cambodia and really it doesn't seem fair, but at the same time luxury is something I've, personally, wanted my entire life. If you polled most rural Cambodians, I bet a lot of them would tell you that they want the giant 3 or 4 story house. They want a car. They want a job that pays a lot of money. They want the new tv. They want all these things too and they probably want it more than middle class Americans or the people that already have them. They want it more because they can't have it. To them it's always a dream.

That's the way it was growing up. Having an apartment of my own in Manhattan. Being able to take taxi cabs instead of the subway. Having nice clothes, a respectable high paying job. It's all part of a dream that a lot of people have and that's not a bad thing. It's just ironic that the people that have this dream and that eventually attain it might be the ones least concerned with helping others. You spend your whole life struggling and trying to reach something. To get there you have to devote 100% of yourself and once you get there you try as hard as you can to forget how much you had to struggle in the past. It's a new life now. It's hard to keep in mind how many people probably had to be self-less in order to help you make it. Parents, friends, anonymous scholarship donors, not so anonymous scholarship donors, library volunteers, free tutoring, free music lessons after school, art programs. I worked hard to make it to college and graduate and I have the potential to have a luxurious life style, but I didn't do it alone. It took a lot of people that wanted to help others to help me make it here even if they didn't realize they were helping me. It seems odd to me now, how badly I wanted something that I don't really need. And yea, honestly, part of me still wants it. Especially food wise. I would still love to just be able to walk into any restaurant and order anything I want off the menu. But, I think I'm more willing to be flexible now. It's not an all or nothing. As long as I can keep others in mind and actively work toward helping them then I think, once in a while, I can indulge in something for me.

Sort of reminds me of something I studied for a small bit in college. I think for a class, Maine Social Research, we read an article about a woman on welfare and the article was attached with comments. The comments were just filled with people saying how this woman on welfare shouldn't own a dog. Pretty much blaming her continued poverty on the dog. But, I would ask others how long could you live a sparse lifestyle with ONLY the things you need for survival? People blame the poor for owning tvs or buying a new couch, but it's hard to live life when all you do is work, eat, and sleep. What's the point of living if you can't even have a dog? We're people, not robots.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The crash 11022011

Before I get to a post about my wonderful weekend, I want to post about what happened to me yesterday afternoon. Yesterday, I left Siem Reap City on my bike around 3pm and things progressed as usual. I even stopped by Travis’ site to pick up his passport. There were no rain clouds in sight. It was just me, the asphalt, and the sky. The road was almost completely empty and I was really picking up the pace when I noticed that somehow my brake wire was out of place and my back brake was not working. No big deal. I stop, move the wire back in place, and keep going thinking that a major accident was just avoided. Wrong. About ten minutes later and only 5km away from site I look up and BAM I crash straight on into some inanimate object. I crash so hard that the object and I keep going a few feet before we both stop and then I fall really hard on my right side.

Apparently, I had not been watching the road well enough and I crashed into a parked ox cart. This thing is pretty big. It’s made to hook up to two cows or oxen and it already had a pile of hay on it size of me. At first I just lay their sort of dazed and then my right leg started hurting a lot. I picked myself up and just cursed my own stupidity. For a few seconds I thought I could just get back up on my bike and keep going. I’m a pretty small person with a very small and light bike. I didn’t even think I dented the cart which is made from heavy wood. Apparently, I broke it in two separate locations. One from the force of direct impact and the other from inadvertently pushing the cart a few feet when it’s ‘brake’ was still in place. I also slowly realized that my right thigh was pretty swollen and I would never make it the 5k back to site. At that time I was just really alone and sort of just stood their crying and in pain. The farmer came back and obviously he was angry, but he was actually the one that called someone to come pick me up. I learned later that my host dad had passed me on the highway, but at that point I was sitting on the ground and he thought I was just trying to fix my bike or take a break. He didn’t want to stop because he was a man and I was a female and somehow that’s inappropriate. It was sort of crazy how even though it was hard for me to walk only women could help me and no males ever even came close to touching me the entire time.

The entire time this was happening I was thinking two things. The first was that my leg really really hurts but it’s not broken. The second was I want to settle things now with the cart. It’s broken and it’s going to be hard for him to get it home. He needs it to work everyday.  It was totally my fault. The first things I said to the farmer was  “Í’m Sorry. How much will it cost to fix it?” I might have been the one crying hysterically and in pain, but in the long run he might be the one that suffers. Instead of talking about it he calls someone he knows to come get me (though I later heard he might have been afraid of a fine since he had the "larger vehicle" illegally parked on the road). The moto man shows up and he says “Oh! Helen!” I’m still not sure who it was but he takes my bags and I get on the moto and we go straight to the health center. I get off the moto limping, but someone got there before me. It was an old grandma and she was bleeding from somewhere. She had just been in a moto accident and was clearly very hurt. Watching her try to walk up to the Health Center just really made me realize how lucky I am. Even in a moment where I feel so broken and vulnerable, I can still see that I am the privileged and lucky one. Even when I’m in Cambodia, hurt and confused there are still people all around me that are worse off.  People, literally, standing in front of me. And at that moment I felt bad. I felt so bad that I was taking attention away from this woman that clearly needed more help than me.

I see a lot of people come here, to Cambodia, and they get a lot of attention. It’s wonderful when your class looks up to you and adores you even though you may be a subpar english teacher. It’s wonderful when you can give away new bookbags and toys and everyone loves you. But do they ever feel bad that all this glitz and glamor is taking away from what really matters? They’re covering everything up with temporary smiles when the real problems are standing right in front of them.

Anyway, the breakfast lady escorted me  home with some pills (antibiotics for my bruises) and passed me off to my host mother who washed my legs for me. They were covered in motor oil from my bike. My aunt showed me a giant scar on her belly to tell me that she got over something much worse than what I have now. My grandmother sat with me to give me a pep talk about how I have to keep struggling to finish my two years here.  Then I got the opportunity to call my 24/7 on call personal nurse named Joanne. Who was wonderful as always.  After that I called my awesome boyfriend who is always there for me. In the middle of that call, I got visited by my Khmer tutor’s wife, her 4 year old son, and another girl. They brought me desert. At night my host mom iced my leg until I fell asleep. This morning the 8th grader I live with bought me breakfast and set it up in my room for me. I used my medical knowledge to clean and bandage up some scratches with antibiotic cream. My host mom heated leaves over a candle and pressed them to my bruise to keep it from swelling. She even made this delicious lemongrass chicken soup that I love.

I am just so lucky. Lucky it wasn’t worse. Lucky people care for me. Lucky I went to school. Lucky I have resources. Lucky that the worst of times are still not that bad. The same accident could have happened to someone else and maybe they would have gotten an infection. Or no one had a moto to go pick them up. Or they had to go to work the next day and their leg may never heal. My life is cushioned so that when I fall, I land on a soft mattress. When others fall, it’s a different story.

When I started this blog I said that it’s about my life. Over the course of this past year I’ve come to realize more and more how much of our lives is taken up with realizing and observing things. Then we process these observations.  We start thinking about them and, in this case, you start thinking about things that are wrong or could be improved. Maybe we start complaining. Me writing this blog talking about all the problems in the world is a method of complaint. A complaint is a method of making a problem known. It’s the first step in reaching a solution, but I think that, more and more these days, no one is moving onto step two. Everyone is suddenly waking up and realizing all the problems in the world, but will we ever reach any solutions? Complaining is easy, but, sometimes, fixing things is so damn hard.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Back from China! 10/27/2011

So, I went to training in Takeo in mid Septembe and right after that I went to Kep. Kep is a province in the south with a nice beach. I stayed there for a while because my province was flooded for a long time. Then I went straight to Phnom Penh for a few events. The first major event was a pool party!!! I had forgotten how much fun it is to play in a pool. Then we had a CHE meeting to talk about the future of our program. It was actually really productive and hopefully a stepping stone to really improving the health education program here in Cambodia. The next morning we had an all volunteer training session and in the afternoon the new k5 volunteers officially swore in. The minute it ended I swooped in on the snacks and had myself a free pre-dinner.  Some pictures were taken, though right now I’m not sure whose camera they’re on. (I’m going to teach english class in about an hour and it just took me three tries to get the right “they’re”) After swear in was the swear in party. Unfortunately, I had to catch a 6am bus the next morning. Fortunately, my messed up sleep cycle somehow made me more alert when I finally did get back to site.

I spent about a week back at site and then I had to run off again! This time to CHINA.  Yes, I am traveling a lot. Oddly enough a lot of it was for work and this is only my second time out of the country. The first time was a measly 3 days in Thailand. I went to Thailand in July. In September my Health Center director asked me when I was going to go to Thailand...

My two weeks in China was awesome. The first week was spent in beijing and it was exhausting. Eileen and I spent pretty much everyday walking about 8-10 hours a day. Beijing just has so much to see and so much shopping to do. We went to the Forbidden Palace, the Temple of Heaven, lots of different shopping places, saw a movie in a REAL movie theatre, ate lots of food (including at least 3 stops at Nathan’s), and on our last day we went to the Great Wall of China. And yes, it was great.

Growing up, I’ve seen a ton of pictures of the wall and people on the wall. It always just seemed like a large pile of stones to me. But, in real life, it’s epic. A super long stone wall on TOP of a mountain range. When was the last time your ancestors built a wall on TOP of a mountain range? We went on the one smogless day in Beijing and it was beautiful. Blue skies, perfect fall weather, trees changing color, an endless sea of mountains. The climb was a bit strenuous for someone used to completely flat land, but I did manage to pass a 2 year old, a woman with stiletto heel boots, a monk, an old grandma, and perhaps some other small children. If you use a stepmaster you’re golden.

At the top of one of the forts, Eileen and I sat down to a nice PB&J picnic lunch. PB&J never tasted so good. If you ever go I recommend that you pack food and expect to use up all your energy trekking up and along the wall. Then you can take the easy way down via gondola ride or a toboggan. The toboggan, though life-risking, would have been epic. If it were not for a pink hoodie wearing scaredy cat that kept stopping every time she hit a curve. There were, literally, people with blow horns yelling at her to keep going and don’t stop.

After Beijing we headed to Shanghai by bullet train, sort of. We were trying to save money so we took the second fastest train in China which got us there in about 7 hours. The bullet train takes 5. I think if you look up the distance you will be impressed, but right now I am without the internet. The train was quite comfy and along the way I got to be interrogated by two chinese ladies. The ladies were heading somewhere I can no longer remember and they were very curious about Eileen and I. At first they thought I was a dark southerner that was Eileen’s translator. This is partly because of my awesome authentic Chinese accent. Most people did mistake me for Chinese, which is a welcome change from always being Japanese in Cambodia. The ladies and I talked, not always willingly, for the entire train ride. Oddly enough, I’ve had the exact same conversation many times in Cambodia. We went through the usual; how old are you, do you have a husband, what do you do, how much money do you make, what did you study, what is better America or China, the old white skin versus tan debate, is stuff more expensive in China or america, are you Chinese?,  is this brand of makeup good (that’s a new one), etc. Near the end they ended up giving me lots of free food which I greatly appreciated.

Shanghai and Beijing were very different from each other. We took the subway and public bus in both places, so we got to wander around a lot and see a lot of different places and people that aren’t on the tourist map. That’s a euphemism to say that, sometimes, we got lost. But, the general feeling I got from Beijing was that it was trying to be perfect in many ways. The temples, attractions were all beautiful and perfectly kept. The people were all well dressed. The subways were clean. Even the not touristy places were sort of touristy. However, underneath it all you could sort of tell that it was all an act. People dressed well and spoke clearly but when it came to your stop on the subway you are ready to kill everyone else so you can get out in time. Beijing just seemed a little too unreal.

You get to Shanghai and things are a little grittier. You get to feel the rhythm of the city. People dress like they live there, not like they’re supermodels. Honestly, I even think the food tastes better there, maybe a little more dirt helps the seasonings. Or maybe my uncle’s wallet also helped. People got on and off the train like civilized individuals. I couldn’t listen in on conversations anymore because so many accents and dialects were mixed in. You could tell when the guy next to you just got off the train from the countryside. People brought their kids and baby carriages onto public transportation, something that I would never do in Beijing. Shanghai is a beautiful city. The lights and architecture. But other than that it’s not filled with attractions like Beijing. It’s a place where you have to do a little more digging.

So, Eileen and I went to the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum and had a blast. It would have been even more awesome if we were actually 10 years old instead of just acting like it. We tried to look for a propoganda poster museum but it was closed cause they lost power for some reason. We went to the top of the Radisson hotel to get a beautiful, and free, panoramic view of the city.

Halfway through the week we hopped on a train to Hangzhou which is about 3 hrs away on the slow train. Hangzhou was a bit more difficult to navigate upon arrival since no nice subway system exists, yet. But we managed to get to the place we were staying at and the 2 day trip was so worth it. Hangzhou is famous for its dragon well tea and its giant West Lake. The area is beautiful. It even smells beautiful. Walking along the lake, drinking some tea. Climbing up a mountain, which ironically was infested with dengue mosquitoes, to get a gorgeous view. It was a really nice nature retreat and the couple whose apartment we stayed in were super nice and I definitely want to go back to see more of the town.

We spent our last two days back in Shanghai. Our second to last day we saw an acrobatics show and it was amazing. It wasn’t flashy or full of lights. No animals were used. It was just pure skill. Half the time I was worried that someone would die. Ok, so this one act involved a seasaw and a platform. Basically, two guys would jump off the platform and land on one end of the seasaw. Then the other end would flip up and fling a small asian girl really really high up in the air. The amazing part is that the girl somehow is caught on the top of say three people already standing on top of each other. and she lands perfectly...almost. So the really awesome part of this show is that people make mistakes. And when the performers make a mistake they do it again until they get it right. Originally, the girl was going be flipped onto a human ladder of I can’t even remember how many people. Something goes wrong and she plummets to the ground, but, thankfully, she has professional spotters on the ground and they break her fall. But for about 3 seconds she was just falling and no one knew what would happen. After the spotters got her back on her feet she went straight back around and did the same trick again. This time executing it perfectly. The entire show there were no nets. I only saw them use safety wires a handful of times when the girls were being flipped so high no spotter could ever hope to catch her.

It’s fascinating how lack of perfection is really what makes this show good. It makes it all the more real, more human. There seems to be so much more at risk. Other shows I’ve seen in America need to set things on fire, force elephants to stand on one leg (which must be painful), or have all kinds of smoke and mirrors. This show simply shows you that there is inherent risk. There aren’t five million invisible hi-tech safe guards behind the scenes. Part of me even wonders if they make mistakes on purpose once in a while.

One of the last segments of the show was a giant metal globe. It’s lower half can fit about 3 motorcycles in a triangle formation comfortably. They fit about  8 motorcycles going around in ridiculous highspeed circles.  Then there was the ribbon dance? It’s not a gymnastics ribbon dance. It’s one where there’s a long piece of cloth attached to the ceiling and two performers can wrap themselves in it so they can do tricks in the air. It’s much more eloquent and beautiful than I can explain.

My last day in Shanghai I ate raw fish. It was awesome. My uncle and aunt took Eileen and I out to a japanese restaurant. I haven’t touched japanese food in about a year because I really don’t want to risk eating raw fish in Cambodia. Normally,  I eat cooked food and I get sick. The food was delicious. I was so stuffed by the end I only really needed to eat one meal that day, but I ended up getting pizza in the airport. Also, free airplane meal! I love airplane meals. Mostly because you never know what you’re going to get and also it’s very cutely and neatly organized. Part of why I also love bento boxes. Food in well-organized compartments just makes me want to eat!!!

Now I’m back at site and trying to get back into the swing of things. Teaching and getting projects off the ground. Halloween weekend I’ll be heading into Siem Reap though to meet Kurt’s grandparents! I’ll be biking in at 6am tomorrow. Hopefully, arrive by 7:30am, but I haven’t biked in a while and 30k is a long way on a painful bike seat.