Archive for April, 2011

To Get From Here to There

On Friday, Molly and I woke-up to the usual noise of Phnom Penh, and our bags packed full.  Three trips up and down the steps and our tuk-tuk was piled high with backpacks, suitcases, and random plastic bags.  There was hardly anywhere for us to sit except on top of, around, and under our many things.  It must have been quite a sight as our driver navigated the streets to the bus stop.  It was like a circus clown car as Ben and Srey Nhem, the cook from Palm Tree Orphanage who was going to Siem Reap with us to visit her son Veasna, helped us pile the stuff on the sidewalk to wait.

The bus was an hour late, and at first it was a relief to sit in the cramped seat, soon my legs would suggest otherwise and be aching to stand.  As the scenery changed from city, to outskirts, to rural I caught a moving glimpse of Cambodian life beyond the noise and convenience of the city.  It was an unbelievably different view out of the bus window as we honked and bounced our way past traditional Khmer homes on stilts made of stick and straw.  Barefoot children rocked slowly in hammocks strung under the houses, and old women relaxed on the stairs leading to the first level.  Occasionally men and young boys were at work in the rice fields or herding cows and water buffalo along the roadside.  It is said that almost 80% of the forest in Cambodia has been cut down, and logging is now illegal, but the expanse of open space will never recover.  From the window I see few trees and the view appears to go on for many miles without any obstruction but the homes along the roadside.  There is little shade from the harsh sun that I can see, and I would life would be hot and tiring.  It would be a very different life than that in Phnom Penh.

Six hours later, I would wake from a traveling daze to find myself in a completely different city, with a completely different atmosphere, but the same process of loading a tuk-tuk to the brim with bags.  In our defense, we were transporting twelve lap tops, folders, dictionaries, paperwork, projectors, and other things for EGBOK in addition to our personal things.  The whole ride to our guest house I cautiously watched the suitcases jostle around and slide from side to side, just hoping that nothing was lost on the uneven pavement.

That afternoon we took Srey Nhem to the Old Market, and she selected the meat, vegetables, spices, and rice that was needed to prepare the traditional Khmer dish beef lok-lak.  I had already tried the spiced beef dish with rice and a tangy chili/ lime chili sauce earlier in my trip, but homemade is always better than at a restaurant and I was extremely excited to eat her food with the students.  The food section of the market was a combination of smells, sights, and funny conversations over what to buy and how much it cost.  The first thing that I noticed as we started down the aisles of food, was the smell.  It was pungent, and to someone unfamiliar overwhelming.  I struggled to eat the mangosteens Ben had bought.  However, the back-and-forth about price and amount, even in a language I did not know, between Srey Nhem and the sellers was worth it.  She selected and chose the vegetables and meat in a manner that suggested she would take no less than what she wanted.  It was fun following along with her take charge attitude leading our small shopping group.

Dinner that night was at the EGBOK student house, an awesome house in a great location in Siem Reap.  Six of EGBOK’s ten students studying at hospitality school in Siem Reap currently live in the house, and thanks so some hard work and great furniture purchases by Molly and Ben in the past week, it is now setup with a classroom and volunteer room.  It is a great space to use as the “home base” for EGBOK Mision in Siem Reap.  As we walked in the sounds and smells of cooking wafted out of the kitchen.  The sudents and Srey Yim sat on the floor surrounded by plates of salad and onion waiting to be topped with the cooked beef.  A giant mound of rice overflowed another bowl, and watermelon and other fruits were being cut and arranged for desert.  The scents were unlike those of home, as the spices of Khmer cooking are both similar and different to those of other Southeast Asian countries.  Fried rice, beef, and the chili/ lime sauce were all cooked on a single hot plate.  It was incredible to watch food for fifteen be completed on a single stove, and I couldn’t wait to help make it disappear.

As we dished out the delicious food, I sat on the floor surrounded by new people and a new culture and thought for a moment, “How did I get here?”  Isn’t it funny how we end up going through the moments and days of our lives without notice, until a situation or experience strikes us enough to wonder exactly how it came about?  This was one of those moment, so different from my past experiences.  I was over my initial culture shock and loneliness of a new place, but the difference between this meal and a meal at home were many.  I have never been to a place like Cambodia, I have never had a volunteer experience that was this immersed and long-termed.  The months between October, when I confirmed to Ben that I wanted to commit for three months, and April when my plane took off were a wonderful Cincinnati blur… and my time in Phnom Penh had been a rollercoaster of tuk-tuk, motorbike, and foot.  And anyways I think my path to Cambodia, EGBOK Mission, and that meal on a tiled floor started long before a bus ride to Siem Reap, October, or even Elizabeth’s email last summer telling me I should consider the trip… I am not sure when it began, but possibly every time I chose to return to Girl’s Club in high school, take another class in the International Studies department, or agree to drive across the country for my spring break and volunteer I was simply taking steps towards now.

My thoughts returned to the conversation about student placements and their classes; already I was so glad that somehow, I had ended up with three months to get to know them.

On another note, getting from Here to There in Siem Reap:

Once in Siem Reap, Molly and I gave a lot of consideration to the logistics of our own daily transportation, and the clear conclusion was that we needed bicycles.  So on our second day here we made a trip to the bike stores, as I said in Cambodia all shops that sell the same product are in the same place in the city so it wasn’t hard to locate the row of stores selling bikes.  Bikes were everywhere, from front to back of the store – and where bikes were not all of the tools and parts for bikes were.  Tires, chains, wrenches, and screw drivers all cluttered the shelves and floor. It made buying the bikes a whole other matter from finding them. Step 1: both selected bikes we liked from the rows and rows of used bikes; step 2: we waited as the whole family change and filled the tires, adjusted the frame to fit the new tires, screwed on bells and baskets, and gave the brakes a few test pumps.  step 3: ride away excited about our new mode of transportation.  Step 4: Minor disappointment, we are in Cambodia and despite all of this changing, tightening, and appearance of perfecting we both had flat tires by the end of day one.

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This Little American Went to Market

In fact, in the past few days this little American has been to many markets, many times in the past few days.  There have bee expeditions to buy school supplies, picture dictionaries, liquid hand soap (story to follow), clothes, trash cans, water jugs, beef, shelves, hangers, rugs, mats, rice, etc., etc., etc… And while the weaving in and out, from stall to stall while feeling completely out of sorts in the maze of odds and ends can be exhausting, it has been unbelievably fun.

My sampling of all the markets in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap actually began on my 2nd day in Cambodia, as Molly took me to Central Market in Phnom Penh to look around and have my first taste of iced coffee.  A few days later, and Ben had all three of us tramping among watches, clothing, household cleaners, and posters of Korean pop stars in Orussey Market to find picture dictionaries for my class in Angor Thom.  It is a market that is frequented by the locals, and Ben and Molly both said they had never seen another Westerner while shopping there.  When we finally found the school supply section, I can honestly say I did not anticipate what I saw.  There were multiple vendors occupying a corner of the huge market, all hidden among the stacks and stacks of text books and notebooks they had for sale.  A hodgepodge of English dictionaries, Khmer textbooks, and hilarious folders with phrases such as, “You my heart are the only flame for me,” Orussey seemed to have it all, except 25 Oxford Khmer – English picture dictionaries, of those the vendor only had eight.  But as I quickly learned, eight at the market means many more at home, and if the buyer has a half hour to wait while the other books are mysteriously collected from the house, then 25 are yours to take home.

Orussey was all business, quickly make your way to the school section – wait – wait – wait – wait – because it is Cambodia wait longer with the old Khmer woman who doesn’t speak any English while you wonder if your picture dictionaries are coming or not – and then wait some more while the woman offers you her own seat because you must be looking antsy and tired- then finally leave to run another errand.  However, on our last day in Phnom Penh Molly and I mad an all leisure excursion to Russian Market.  While I can think of more peaceful and less confusing places to spend an afternoon (the Red’s game perhaps unless Voquez is pitching…), I cannot think of a single trip to the mall where I learned so much.  First, I learned that Cambodians like to sell all of the same thing, only a bit different.  Here they would say, “same same, but different.” Oh and not only does a vendor like to sell all of the same thing, china bowls for instance, each vendor that sells china bowls is in the same section of the market.  It is a phenomenon I noticed around Phnom Penh as well, ten stores all in a row selling Chinese New Year baskets for instance.  It is confusing and yet convenient at the same time.  Confusing because why? Convenient because if I really wanted a Chinese New Year basket I would know exactly what street to purchase it on.

A phenomenon I am not so clear on, is women wearing matching pajama sets all day long, but more on that later.  For now, Russian Market.  As we slid in between two stalls selling t-shirts stacked as high as my neck, I was instantly consumed in rows of stalls that all looked the same – selling t-shirts stacked as high as my neck.  A few turns and everywhere I looked shoes, another turn and I was surrounded by wooden, elephant knick-knacks for the home decorator in us all.  We avoided the aisles (I do not know another word to describe them) of food, but experiencing the smell, sights, and sounds of the food section was an experience not far off.  Instead we stuck to souvenirs, home goods, woven baskets, small furniture items, and artwork.

Jewelry was one of our last stops, and by the time we arrived at the counters filled with rings, necklaces, and earrings, I was too dazed to follow the simple explanation behind the rise in the price of silver.  As we made our way back to the waiting tuk-tuk, I had made only one purchase, but felt more than completely satisfied with the experience, which had not cost a single cent.

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The Many Sites of EGBOK

I hardly know where to begin.  The past two days have  been a whirlwind, and there are so many things that I have seen, heard, and felt that my mind beings to race when I consider the task of describing even one of the experiences.  Do I begin with the visits to the orphanages, all of the strange and interesting things I have seen around Phnom Penh, or mine and Molly’s recent excursion to the Russian Market?

I think the children should come first, as they were the high points and most rewarding part of my past two days.  Earlier in the week we had visited Palm Tree Orphanage, but the experience was very different as most of the children were still home for Khmer New Year, and while it was great to see the EGBOK students who had returned to Palm Tree to celebrate the holiday, it was a very different environment than on a normal afternoon.  However, Molly and I were able to tour the facility and meet some of the staff and a few of the children who were back early.  It is the most urban of all the orphanages, and has around 100 children.  All in all, I am excited to return to Palm Tree on a normal day, and hopefully take some pictures and have a better idea of the children and feel of the orphanage.

Yesterday Molly, Ben, and I began our journey so Samrong.  The orphanage is located a half hour from Phnom Penh, but it is like a different world.  Leaving the jammed intersections of Phnom Penh, our leery tuk-tuk driver left the pavement for a dirt road.  The rain the night before had left behind giant puddles of water, but his motorbike handled them all, and I was sort of glad for the water as it had quieted the dust.  The city homes had given way to traditional Khmer houses; each is built on stilts of either straw, wood, or cement depending on the wealth of the owner (cement is the most expensive building material) to keep the home from damage during the floods of the rainy season.  Grouped in small clusters the houses often had hammocks hanging on the lower level and a tired Cambodian asleep out of the sun.  The dirt road offered nothing else besides rice fields and very skinny white cows grazing.  As we pulled in though the few younger children who were scattered around waiting to eat their afternoon rice, yelled, “Hello Ben,” and began their frantic waves at our tuk-tuk.  Ben was not only known here, but adored by each child during our visit.  When we arrived at Samrong most the children were still working in the rice field next to the orphanage, did I mention that?  Samrong is also a sustainable farm that helps to feed the children at the orphanage; they keep geese, chickens and cows and grow mangoes, tomatoes, rice, and other vegetables that our wonderful tour guide Chakreya mentioned. We had visited Chakreya the day before at her job in the city, but now we were seeing her in a much different environment back at Samrong, however her English and poise as she showed me the bedrooms, classrooms, and where they practice their dancing and music was just as amazing.  We ate sour mangoes prepared by Mama, and visited with the children especially a group of the girls who were either applying to hospitality school or considering it.  Two of them Manita and Srey Van are pictured below!

Then it was off to FLO, down another bumpy dirt road.  The minute we arrived at FLO I could see and feel how different this orphanage was from Samrong.  While still in a location outside of the city, the facilities, layout, and space at FLO was very different.  The classrooms were amazing by Cambodian standards with nice desks and well cared for computers.  They even had internet access in one classroom for the children.  Their gardens were impeccable, and as I later found out, the beauty and niceness of FLO was due in part to being well funded, and in part to having a staff that was dedicated and capable.  However, what ultimately captivated me about FLO was not the buildings or setup, but as we went to peek in the girls’ dormitory one of the smallest girls grabbed my hand and asked me my name.  She had sparkling earrings in and a wonderful smile that stretched across her entire face as she asked.  Immediately, she had captured my heart in that single moment.  I took off my shoes, and let some of the girls show me which bed was theirs, and answered the “what is your name?” question again and again.  They were so anxious for the attention, any attention.  It had been the same at Samrong as the smaller children had gathered around the picnic table we sat at talking with the older girls.  I could see at both orphanages how important the volunteers were for the practice of their English skills, and for the hand holding they so desperately wanted.

Finally, there was a visit to NPIC today.  And while the younger children were adorable, the older girls at NPIC: National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia, had me from the moment they looked threw the window and shrieked over the flowers we had brought for them.  Carrying three orangish red flowers Ben, Mollly, and I arrived to check in on seven of the EGBOK students living outside of Phnom Penh at NPIC.  They were shy at first, but as Ben began going over the list of rules and checking that they had toothpaste, deodorant, had been cutting their nails, etc. – they became goofy and playful showing him their baskets of hygiene products and posing for him to see that they were following the EGBOK rules.  Each girl had a very different personality, and from Kunthea who had her towel wrapped around her head the entire visit, to Navy who hardly spoke but even volunteered to help show us the their classroom kitchen, every girl made me want to visit again ASAP.  I completely enjoyed their teenage girl atmosphere, and I think they were enjoying their first experience away from the orphanage.

Each visit was so different and unique to that specific place, and it was interesting to see how EGBOK Mission is capable of involving itself in many different atmospheres and helping students at different levels and potential here in Cambodia.  I cannot wait to meet the students that are placed at hospitality schools in Siem Reap, and most importantly my own students at the Junior High School in Angkor Thom.

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A Slice of Hospitality

I have to begin by saying that I just returned from eating pizza and grabbing some frozen yogurt for desert.  Can you guess what country I am in?  Still in Cambodia, and it is the perfect example of how much smaller and more connected the world has become.  That I can travel half-way around the world, and still go out for a meal that could be confused for a night in the United States.  And let me tell you, Pizza Kitchen was packed tonight so the middle class Khmer are literally eating it up!

And so were the children from Palm Tree Orphanage that we took with us to celebrate Ben’s birthday.  I wish I remembered to take a photograph of us at dinner, but I was enjoying the conversations about evaporation and Korean pop stars.  Probably a bigger regret is not having Ben on video as all of the children sang Happy Birthday to him.

Speaking of Ben… When I first began talking with Ben and considering the possibility of volunteering with EGBOK Mission, I had a difficult time piecing together what I had to offer from my background and past experiences to the objective of the organization.  Why? Because EGBOK Mission is centered around providing education and vocational training to young adults from different sites across Cambodia so that they are able to develop the knowledge, language skills, and training to work in the hospitality industry, and I had no background in hospitality.  I knew I liked restaurants with good food and great service, I knew I enjoyed the way hotels tuck in the sheets tightly and turn them down for you, and I knew that there was a whole lot more to learning an industry that includes restaurants, hotels, event planning, transportation, cruises, and everything in between.  What I am getting at, is that it took me awhile to realize that believing in the work EGBOK does, and agreeing that its approach to helping young adults in Cambodia can be effective, were the most important factors in my decision to volunteer.  I feel that the idea of providing them with the foundation and education necessary to pursue a sustainable career and future is what is needed in a developing country like Cambodia.  Each of the EBGOK students will eventually have employment, which can turn into a career and more importantly a way to provide for themselves and families.

I was able to see the start of this path today, as we visited one of the EBGOK students from Samrong orphanage at her training hotel training program.  Her confidence was high, she liked her job despite its hectic nature, and most importantly she had been offered a full-time position with a salary.  It was amazing to sit in the beautiful and intimate hotel she worked at, and discuss the fruition of EGBOK Mission’s objective, a job, her job.

Oh, and I just remembered I had started with post talking about pizza, and speaking of pizza… I do have a slice of hospitality experience in my background, a few months at a certain ranch, in the middle of Wyoming as a housekeeper/ anything that needs to be done girl comes to my mind.  And yes, our sheets were always tucked in tight.

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Walking

I think that is how I will remember my first days in Phnom Penh with Molly. In the past two days that is what we have done, and it was the perfect way to become more comfortable in this city, country, and culture.  In any city it is on foot, versus a tourbus, taxi, or even public transportation, that the feeling and vibe of a city can be felt.  Its true heartbeat is on its streets, and here the streets are not electric like the fast pace of London, but simple consumed – consumed by people, parked vehicles, street food (occasionally whole restaurants occupying the sidewalks), bicycles, government owned Lexus, broken bottles, sleeping security guards, fruit vendors, tuk-tuks, trash, motorbikes, those who are strolling along on what little sidewalk is still available, those who are strolling along in the street.  And this is Phnom Penh as a complete ghost town, compared to the normal push, shove, and crowds of this city it is empty.  For a first-timer like me, I could not think of a better way to ease some anxiety than for over half of the city population to leave at one time for Khmer New Year.  *Side note here: While New Year was officially on April 14th, the entire country celebrates for many days before and after that day.  The more Molly explained it, the more I understood that there was no way to be sure when the markets would be reopened, stores would operate again, and the city streets would once again

And each street is so different.  As Molly navigated from one block to the next, I followed along side like a lost puppy, which isn’t a far cry from what I was.  I took in an entire street of tin topped lean-too structures with dirty children and ragged adults cooking rice dishes in giant silver bowls and selling trinkets from their street side openings, but then in the turn of one corner I was stunned by the French Colonial architecture of an entire row of houses that were amazing in their beauty and incredible in their contrast to the previous block.  Another fifteen minutes and we were on an expansive boulevard with clear sidewalks and newer residential homes, and finally another change as we strolled into the area of expatriates and their apartments and embassies, among quiet back-streets only blocks from the hectic intersection at Independence Monument.  Phnom Penh successfully bashed each of my expectations into the ground with each side of it showed, and the more we walked the more curious I became.   The city in its stark contrast of beauty and degradation began to formulate questions of Cambodian wealth, poverty, development, gap between rich and poor, opportunity, neglect, and so forth in my mind.  Questions that I do yet have answers to.

On first day of walking Molly and I visited Sorya shopping plaza and as we entered the air-conditioned and well-stocked supermarket there, Lucky, I was transported back to the United States for a brief moment, until I noticed the labels and couldn’t read many of them.  After Lucky we walked until I couldn’t imagine taking another step, and then we had great pat thai before I dropped my tired body into bed.

On day two, we visited Wat Phnom.  It is a Buddhist temple located in the heart of Phnom Penh.  The story behind Wat Phnom is this: a woman found a Buddha statue inside of a koki tree floating in the river, she then constructed a small shrine to the Buddha and people would make blessings before her shrine.  There of course is another story that is far less romantic, involving a King and a large amount of money, but I would rather believe that the beautiful temple I visited yesterday came from the humble beginnings of an old Khmer woman.

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Happy Khmer New Year

The events of April 14, 2011:

The Khmer New Year coincided to the day with my first day in Phnom Penh.  In the past 24 hours I have learned so much about the holiday, its celebration, and the traditions and culture of Cambodia that are a part of their New Year.  First, Phnom Penh was unusually empty yesterday, and will continue to have less and less people over the next two days as Cambodians flood the toll roads out of the city to their families’ home villages.  There they visit the pagoda and give worship to their ancestors and the Buddha.  Visiting the pagoda is not just an activity for the 14th itself, but for the days before and after the actual New Year, and often families will spend many days out of the month of April in their home villages and most of their time on those days at the pagoda for worship and services.  I was lucky enough to happen upon a family paying homage to their family members as I wondered along the city.  They offered flowers, fruit, and incense inside of the pagoda, as men provided music through the beat of many drums and other percussion instruments.

For me, the rush out of Phnom Penh was great, as I was able to walk through the city and explore yesterday afternoon without the typical chaos that ensues here.  Although the roads were insane, drivers going in many different direction and ignoring every road sign from stop lights to crosswalks, and even occasionally the correct direction for the flow of traffic.  Crossing the street here is by far the most dangerous activity for visitors.  I didn’t do much on my first day here except sleep and explore the few blocks around my guest house.  I walked along the river, and then visited the FCC for a drink, dinner, and Diet Coke.  The FCC stands for Foreign Correspondence Club, and when it opened in 1993 it was a retreat for the journalists, diplomats, and other expats living among the ensuing chaos of the Phnom Penh daily life.  As I sat at a table overlooking the river, the FCC still provides the same sense of calm and seclusion from the busy streets below.  A refuge, in a much different way, but still just what I needed to calm me down and relax my nerves on my night alone in the new city.

 While I was enjoying a chicken panini, aka comfort food after 24 hours of travel, a night alone, and a day spent alone in a huge unfamiliar city, a bruised and battered Australian came hobbling up the stairs of the FCC.  As the day began to fade, and I finally had the guts to ask him how he got his injuries (fell off a motorbike) everyone in the FCC began to talk about the New Year Fireworks that were going to be set off all across Phnom Penh that night, and the best places to watch them.  David, I,and two others headed down the stairs, found an eager tuk-tuk driver named Hahn, who drove around the city to find us the perfect location to see the fireworks from Wat Phnom.  Hahn told us they would be the best ones.  I had no idea what to expect.

But the show we saw, was incredible.  Every single burst and boom was like a finale in the United States.  Hahn, had found us the perfect place to watch as the fireworks exploded above a brightly colored neon sign, and the fireworks soared above the trees to burst directly above our heads.  It was not only one of the best fireworks displays I have ever seem, but the closest I have ever been to fireworks of this size (I have to exclude the displays put on by my Uncle Frank every year in his backyard, as I was closer then, but also slightly more nervous about the outcome).  The cherry on top of this amazing display was Hahn sitting on the ground next to me.  His smile stretched across his entire face, and his eyes were alight behind his thick glasses.  He had his head tilted towards the sky and would point and exclaim, “two more” or “look, look three more” as he pointed towards the soaring specks of light before they turned to brilliant reds, greens, and blues in the night sky.  He turned to me after the last firework ash had fallen on the top of our heads and said, “Happy New Year Katie.”  His joy at the sight and sound of the fireworks was tangible, and as I fell into bed that night I realized how the simple things of my day had been the most important, a few fireworks, a familiar food on a menu, a Diet Coke, and the discovery that the fan in my room actually provided enough cool air to keep me comfortable as I drifted off to sleep.

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How I Named My Blog

I meant to write this first, but in the rush to run last minute errands, pack, say temporary goodbyes – it fell by the wayside.  And as the owner of the guest house suggest my activity for today should be to see the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, tasks I am just not up to on Day 1 in Cambodia I decided to relax and wander around later on today instead.

I came across a Cambodian phrase while doing my initial research on the country that translates to, “drop by drop the container is filled.”  I wrote it down immediately, and brought that scrap of paper with me across the Pacific Ocean and through 24 hours of travel.  I liked it for many reasons, first because it states so well the way I look at volunteer efforts and nonprofit work.  One volunteer alone can only make a small impact, be a single drop, just as a single donation is only a small part of what is needed to make an organization possible.  However, if enough drops are caught, the bucket begins to fill with water.  From what I have read, Cambodia is a big bucket to fill, and it will take not just individual volunteers and a couple of willing nonprofits to fix it, but many.  EGBOK, itself it only a single drop.  It does not address the infrastructural problems of the country or any of the many other needs here.  However, with each person that arrives here nervous and unsure of what to expect, their small drops are adding to EGBOK’s initial one.  And other organizations are working to do the same, hopefully the bucket is looking a little bit more full as time passes here.

I also like the proverb because it breaks down the end result to show an importance in the individual drops.  “Drop by drop,” each drop is meaningful and adds something.  I hope that it proves true for my trip here, that my drop while small is significant.

With this quote in the back of my mind, I entered my last week at home without having created my blog.  Then on Tyler and mine’s farewell Tuesday date night he said to me, “three months in the long run is only a drop in the bucket.”  I knew then and there that was the name of my blog.

My time here seems long right now as the rising sun is giving me my first glimpses of the Royal Palace across the street and I woke up confused by the heat and my loneliness in a strange room, but it is just a drop in the bucket.  Just one drop, but with the opportunity to make it a good one.

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