Friday, June 29, 2012


Being in a rural village in Cambodia means you can live in your own little world. I never watch tv anymore and I don’t have a radio. Newspapers and magazines aren’t sold in my village and most people can’t read them anyway. My only source of news comes from the internet and that only happens if I truly try to seek it out. It would be easy for me to remove myself from all the politics happening in America and from this perspective I can tell you that everyone in America seems a bit crazy to me right now.

Seeing American politics from Cambodia brings to mind a number of things. On the one hand I think Americans tend to argue over the most arbitrary things. I’m in Cambodia dealing with child malnutrition and maternal mortality, but those seem to be forgotten in America even though almost half the kids in the Bronx rely on food stamps. Instead, our media and our politicians are creating hot issues for us to obsess over.

On the other hand, elections in Cambodia...let’s just say I can’t comment.

I read two articles, one recently and the other a few months ago, about how flip floppy American politics is. There seems to be no politician or American who isn’t a flip flopper if you actually look at the history of the current political hot topics.

One of the articles was about the history of the birth control movement and the backers of the movement over time. At one time many religious organizations were the ones promoting birth control options. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the link.

I think the New Yorker article highlights one of the great ironies of the American mindset. “Maverick” “Rogue” Two words that have been thrown about with great pride in America since the days of the founders. These are the words that the Republican party used to gather a great number of FOLLOWERS. Once a “Maverick” has groupies are they now the “Mainstream”? As usual, our brain is doing a lot of the behind the scenes work before any individual decision comes to our conscious mind. I think that once we realize that we can take a step back and really look at the issue instead of going with our gut.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The strangest thing...

A lot of people ask me questions like "What's the strangest thing that's ever happened to you?" My answer is usually " I don't know." I've touched upon this before, how strangeness is really relative. The nature of stangeness means it can never be commonplace and yet it occurs often enough in my life that I no longer take the time to remember those moments of strangeness that happen on a daily basis. It's a paradoxical feeling of knowing that what is happening is odd and I don't understand it, but simultaneously it's expected to happen and not important enough to talk about.

I only realize this paradox in certain instances when I experience of do something that is strange and I think to write it down. This is such a moment. Just a few minutes ago I was wearing my head lamp (it's noon), cleaning my swiss army knife with hand sanitizer and proceeding to cut off parts of my foot. Let me backtrack a bit in case this seems alarming to you. A few days ago I was in Phnom Penh for routine medical checkup. We all get a thorough physical right before we finish our service. I've had a wart (looks like a callus) on my foot for years (I always thought it was from walking so much in nyc), but turns out it's caused by a virus that's infected my foot. I know at least 5 other volunteers with the same issue. To remove these warts you freeze them with liquid nitrogen, wait for a blister to form, then cut off the top layer of the blister. Normally, a medical professional does this procedure which occurs over a 3 day period. Unfortunately, I had to return to site and the PCMO felt confident that I could cut the blisters off myself.

So, after lunch today I proceeded to attempt this with my available resources. One thing I've learned in Cambodia is that I really dislike afflicting pain upon myself. One day not to long ago I was ordered to test myself for malaria. I had to poke myself about 8 times before I drew blood. It really takes a lot of conviction to stab yourself. Anyway, removing the blisters seemed straightforward enough except my swiss army knife is about the size of my pinky and has never been sharpened. Eventually, I started using the mini scissors which were much sharper, but there's a reason doctors use scalpels. Scissors, apparently, tend to make many small cuts and if you're not precise (I am not) you end up cutting in different places. Cutting the blister itself really doesn't hurt until the raw skin underneath is exposed to air. Then it really really stings. This entire time my leg is falling asleep because I have to be curled in a very awkward position on my only chair (made to fit a 5 year old) in order to see the bottom of my foot. All the while, I'm squirting hand san onto toilet paper (which I don't use for the toilet) in order to clean my instruments. Eventually I get to the part where I have to swab things with this giant q-tip of iodine. So now I have on my head lamp in the middle of the day, I'm sitting in a child's chair curled into an odd sitting position, in my left hand are tiny tweezers from my knife, my right hand is holding a giant q-tip dripping brown liquid and a swis army knife with tiny knife and scissors deployed. Next to me is a pile of toilet paper and a bottle of hand sanitizer. Not to mention I'm in Cambodia. If that isn't weird then I don't know what is, but for a while I didn't even notice how odd it all was.

In the future, if you ask me what the strangest thing is then expect an, "I don't know" because I really probably don't even remember the weirdest thing that's happened.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tuk Tuk drivers

Tuk Tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. They are so common that I think most volunteers forget to write about them because we have to deal with them all the time. A typical walk down a city street consists of every tuk tuk driver yelling at you to ride their tuk tuk. There are so many drivers that any given block will have at least 3 or 5 guys (they are all male) yelling at you. Sometimes its a simple "Tuk Tuk!" or a "Lady! Lady!". If they mistake me for being Khmer they'll yell "Hey Miss!" in Khmer. Hearing this for 2 years really wears on you, but I wouldn't mind so much if it was just yelling. I'm from NYC and I have perfected the ability to ignore things around me.

Unfortunately, tuk tuk and moto drivers are also very aggressive. If a tuk tuk or moto is passing by sometimes they'll drive straight into you, pausing maybe 2 inches from hitting you, and then yell "Tuk Tuk!". I've had times where I'm trying to cross the street and the guy stops in front of me and forces me to walk around him.

The worst part is when you're getting off a bus or a taxi. Before you even get out the guys are chasing the bus or car down the street. They follow the vehicle until it comes to a stop and they knock on the windows yelling "Where are you going? Take my tuk tuk!" Once I saw the moto guys in my village reach into the trunk of a car (it was too full to be closed) before the car even stopped and try to take people's luggage so they would have to take their moto. When you get off the bus/car you are literally mobbed by men. All of them asking the same questions " Where are you going? Take my tuk tuk? Where do you want to go? Do you have a hotel room? See angkor wat?" If you try to ignore them they just follow you around like a really annoying large puppy. If you say, "No I don't want a tuk tuk" they still follow you around, not believing that you wouldn't take their tuk tuk. Part of this aggressiveness might be caused by sheer boredom. These drivers spend all day sitting in their tuk tuk just shooting the shit with other guys that are just as bored. The only excitement they get all day is chasing down buses.

I'm actually really curious as to how a tuk tuk driver lives. Lets say that you actually want to take a tuk tuk. Fees here are always bargained and depend mostly on distance unless you have a large number of people. I've gotten so sick of bargaining that I always do the "walk away." I say a price and if they don't agree I walk away and most of the time I get the price I want. Sometimes they follow me a few blocks to keep bargaining. I learned this after months of trying to reason with people. Tuk tuk drivers use every excuse known to man to overcharge you. They've been saying " gas prices are so expensive now" for the last 2 years. On the one hand, I can't trust them. If I ask them to go a place which I know is not far at all they'll say "3 dollars" and then complain how far it is. Normally, I wouldn't pay more than a dollar to go somewhere in Siem Reap. On the other hand, they never seem to work and I wonder how they support themselves. However, if a driver gets one passenger a day to go to the airport (about 5 dollars) then in a month they make 150 which is more than most people in my village. Tourists often pay a dollar per person when they take a tuk tuk anywhere. So, one ride alone would be 1 or 2 bucks. It seems like it would be easy enough to make a living without doing any work except excessive yelling. One day taking a tourist around Angkor Wat can range from 10 to 30 dollars depending on the tourist. I've seen tuk tuk drivers so used to being ignored that even through I tried to flag him down after he yelled "Tuk Tuk?"  he kept going. His yelling had become a mere reflex.

I'd really like to read the study of the life of a tuk tuk driver. It might convince some people to make changes and prevent massive mobs of men from attacking people getting out of vehicles.