Archive for June, 2011

The Winding Down Feeling

I am finding it difficult to believe that I have less than two weeks left in Cambodia.  There is a constant and nagging part of me that is certain I just stepped off my flight into Phnom Penh yesterday.  But as I currently sit in a coffee shop in that same city, I realize how relaxed and comfortable I am  here, and that is confirmation that I have been here much, much longer.  Those first days, I was very nervous for this experience, even getting a tuk-tuk seemed like an impossible task.  Now, I bargain down to the last .50 cents, feel comfortable walking where I need to go, and I am even looking forward to spending a night and day alone here next week before I leave.  Like anywhere, now that I understand Phnom Penh and what to expect here, and even more so in Siem Reap, I find the traffic an annoyance not a fright, the market sellers warm and friendly not pushy, and the atmosphere exciting not overwhelming.  For the first time since this experience began I am confident that I could stay here much longer than three months, and that is how I knew for certain that my time here is winding down.

There is a strange mental dichotomy when an experience comes to an end – there is a sense of wanting to continue while beginning to”check-out” and prepare myself to leave.  First I realize that I could have stayed longer, and then I start to mentally prepare myself to leave by realizing I am ready to go home.  Two completely different feelings and reactions, but both happen at the same time.  It is almost as if I know that if  I had another six more months of commitment I would have found the same joys in those months as I have in the past three, but because it is starting to be time to leave I realize three months has been long enough.  Europe, the ranch, my study abroad, even college all felt the same way.  Like those other experiences, the things happening around me in Cambodia all point to an ending as well.  It is not just me winding down, but the goals I set out to accomplish here are almost completed, and as I look around I realize that my projects are reaching their conclusion and the projects of other volunteers are taking off wonderfully.

In the past few weeks Molly, Ben, I and Christine have worked hard to arrange a new class for my wonderful friend from Ohio State, Elizabeth Mundy, to teach at Self-Help Community Center.  We have visited, given English assessments, done interviews, collected interest information, had meetings with the site director, and finalized a class list.  Then this past Wednesday I was overly excited to take Elizabeth there for the first time.  She met Sambath the director, Isabelle the resident pig, and many of her amazing students.  I saw her immediately feel the same “love at first sight” that I had experienced with the beautiful drive out there and wonderful village the center is located in.  When Ben had first asked me what I felt was important to get done while in Cambodia, I told him finish all the class trips with my students and make sure Elizabeth’s site was arranged when I left.  This week, both of those goals were accomplished, and I am so pleased.  Now, I have a one week bonus of begin able to attend Elizabeth’s first two classes with her and spend more time at Self-Help.  Her beginning this summer might be my ending, but it is also a fullfillment of the initial promise I made to myself when I came here.

Meeting Elizabeth's class.

In addition to Elizabeth’s class starting up, this week also brought incredibly exciting news for EGBOK Mission as a whole.  We found out that 24 of the 25 students we had apply to Paul Dubrule School of Hospitality were accepted to a program.  This includes my students from Angkor Thom Junior High School, and I am unbelievably proud of them and excited for their future.  It is very fitting that as I prepare to walk away, they are preparing for the next step in their lives and a drastic change from the village where I taught them, to the city of Siem Reap will EGBOK Mission will further help them succeed in the future.  I could not ask for more closure to my time here than knowing that all of my moto rides, lesson plans, and time spent preparing the students reaped for them the best reward of acceptance.  There is no greater gift I could have been given than knowing that what I have taught them will positively impact their future in the short term with each moment of practiced English and learning in the classroom and in the long-term as they move forward into careers in the hospitality industry.  I am proud beyond words of the work and effort each of the 24 students expended to reach this goal.

With Molly and some of my students from Angkor Thom visiting Paul Dubrule, the future school for many of them!

This past week we took students to the final interviews at Sala Bai, the other hospitality school affiliated with EGBOK Mission in Siem Reap, attended our first Skal International meeting at the River View Cafe and made some great connections for the future with hoteliers, took our final guest speakers out to Angkor Thom Junior High school, our first student graduating from Paul Dubrule was offered a job (way to go Saona), and I hopefully was sick for the final time of this trip (fingers crossed).  I could go on with the endings, beginnings, new starts, and conclusions that have occurred this past week but I think the point has been made.  As I look toward the next week and a half, I realize all of the students that I have worked with in Siem Reap, from Phenom Penh, and at Angkor Thom have accomplished so much in my three months here.  Soon they will graduate 9th or 12th grade, graduate hospitality school, start hospitality school, start jobs, move to new cities, move to new homes, and I will be sure to stay updated on it all even from as far away as the U.S.

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When It Rains, It Pours.

“You know what they say,’When it rains, it pours.”  I can hear my mom saying those exact words when more than one thing has gone wrong.  So for me, it was always a cliche to use when I felt that bad things were all happening at once, that was until I came to Cambodia, and found that here when it rains, it really does pour every, single time.

It was my third night in Phnom Penh, two months ago, when I awoke to a  loud sound reverberating through our guesthouse room.  I sat straight up in bed wondering if the door was broken down, or what would cause such a disruption at 3:00 AM.  It was the rain.  It beat against the walls, and pounded onto our windows.  It was raining harder and more violently than I had ever heard in my life.  This was not the soothing pitter-patter of raindrops on a window pane.  I am used to the thunder and wind creating the stormy noises at home, that night it was the rain alone that sounded like it could break the stone.  Molly appeared to be sleeping peacefully in her bed, so I tried to slow my heartbeat and go back to sleep.  Eventually the rhythm of the water on glass lulled me back to sleep, but in the morning it was my first question for Molly, “Did you hear the rain last night? It was incredible.”

Some of the most memorable moments I have had during the downpours here are on my way to or from Angkor Thom.  Ratanak is always early on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and invariably I am always late.  Without fail, the routine at Siem Reap Riverside at 1:33pm has become this: me running into the parking lot with plastic bags full of copies, food, and miscellaneous items flying and hair a mess to see Ratanak patiently waiting at an outdoor table ready to go, he stands and I tell him “one minute, I need one minute.”  Then flustered and sweaty I rush up to my room to change my purse for a backpack, skirt for already dirty shorts, and grab my helmet.  As I race back downstairs Khamara yells, “There you are Kitty, he wait for you outside.”  It is now 1:40 pm, and I do not have time to do anything but shake my head yes and slide back on my flip-flops.  We are off.

Ratanak - moto driver, my invaluable help in the classroom, and friend.

The first time it rained on our way to Angkor Thom (by the way the village I teach in is actually called Peak Sneng but I cannot pronounce this properly and no one in Cambodia ever knows what I am saying so I just call it Angkor Thom, which is the name of a temple area so that confuses them just as much), I reveled in the coolness the falling water brought to the forest.  Once we were through the Temples and racing out toward the dirt road, the temperature dropped significantly as the drops of water fell onto the pavement.  Ratanak tried to make me wear his heavy, hot poncho but I flat out refused.  First, I was the one not smart enough to remember a rain jacket during the rainy season, I mean come on they couldn’t have spelled it out any better for me about what to expect May – August.  But also, there was bliss in the rain hitting my skin, and for the first time in a long time the temperature in Cambodia was comfortable.  And I was comfortable in it, as all around me gathered the familiar smell of a summer rain in Ohio.  Here in Cambodia, every rain is like a summer rain at home; quick and forceful, it is almost as if the atmosphere becomes too hot that there is nothing left to do but pour down rain to cool off.  The rain began to fall harder and harder and I pointed my face towards the sky to feel it hit my eyes, nose, and mouth.  Eventually on that first day Ratanak pulled over to throw his poncho at me and make sure I put it on.  He said that as the teacher I needed to stay dry and look nicer than him, he seemed to ignore the outrageous helmet hair I have every day I am there, as that ruins my appearance enough that it is shocking a single student takes me seriously in the front of the classroom.  I begrudgingly pulled the poncho over my head and with that the sky opened up and dumped bucket, after bucket, after bucket of water directly on my helmet.  Ratanak and I fled from the moto to the underside of a wooden house on the side of the road, the family welcomed us with a mango.  I watched as the rain turned the road into dark red soup, and then disappeared as quickly as the downpour began.   Carefully, Ratanak and I made our way through the small ponds of water that had formed in the potholes in the road and to the school; the kids were not impressed by my adventure out in the elements, in fact they all seemed to find it pretty blase.  I would quickly discover, that this type of torrential downpour could happen daily or weekly in Cambodia, and during the rainy season I should always have my poncho.

The other evening I was out running, when I felt a few light raindrops land on my arms.  I looked out over the river and saw the steady fall of water on the surface, creating ripples every few inches apart.  As I continued along the river path, it began to rain harder.  With the first clap of thunder I began to get nervous, and wrapped up my iPod in a plastic bag.  I emerged from under the protection of the many trees planted along the river to cross the white stone bridge (my half-way point), and the sky opened up.  People cleared the streets in groups and sprinted for the shelter of a store front, large tree, or friend’s tuk-tuk.  It began to pour.  Soon my t-shirt was soaked through, my shoes were squeaking with held water, and the pockets of my shorts were collecting small puddles.  It was glorious to go from unbelievably hot and sweating immensely under the Cambodian sun, to drenched and cool.  I ran faster and faster, as the rain fell harder and harder.  I even gave up on trying to avoid puddles as the entire road turned into a stream.  When it rains in the cities here, the streets turn to rivers.  The sidewalks have been purposely built up a few inches above the road to avoid the same flooding, but this thoughtful construction didn’t save me from having to wade ankle deep across a street within a matter of moments.  I ran the two miles to home not being able to see my hands if I stretched my arms out in front of me, the rain was falling in torrents.  It was like a facet had been turned on above all of Siem Reap.  I reached Siem Reap Riverside to find the owner’s son-in-law wrapped in a sarong and showering on the front patio.  He looked at me and said, “I haven’t showered in the rain in a long time.”  I stood in the pouring rain and laughed as he flung soap suds in all directions.  A few minutes later the lightening and thunder began in earnest.  The storm was in full force.  The lightening here flashes bright and low.  Often I catch sight of a bolt that heads directly toward the earth.  The sky seems closer here.  When Molly finally made it home from the student house hours later, she said, “I made the students close the doors and windows because it felt like the lightening was coming into the room.”

After I ran through it I tried to take some pictures of the downpour from our Siem Reap Riverside bedroom window but I couldn't open the window without the rain pouring in, so the picture doesn't accurately capture the rain.

It loves to rain in Siem Reap when the EGBOK Mission volunteers need to visit our newest site Self-Help Community Center.  Molly has been there three times, and it has rained during all three visits.  The past two evening we have spent there giving English Assessment tests and interviewing the students one-on-one, the rain on the tin roof has been deafening.  Molly, Christine, and I stand in the front of the classroom looking out over thirty silent students, and still have to scream above the noise.

Finally there was the storm that literally knocked me down, as in the middle of a night downpour I ran into another biker and cut my foot bad enough to receive five stitches.

I have watched storms from my bedroom window, stared in wonder as the rolled in while I ran, and waited out countless of them in a modestly covered cafe cowering around my laptop and cup of coffee, and yet the rain here is never deafening or defeating but refreshing.  I never find the clouds to hold the same gloom that they do when they preside over a day in Ohio, but as the rain begins to darken the blacktop and send shop owners scurrying to pack up their wares into the interior of stores, I think of how green the fields have become, how much cooler the air suddenly feels, and how the rain is a relief from the sun.  I do not have the same appreciation for the increased number of mosquitoes that have come around since the rain has begun.

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1 Hour and 1 World of a Difference Away

By far the most rewarding part of my experience in Cambodia has been the time I have spent in the classrooms of Angkor Thom Junior High School.  There is nothing quite like standing barefoot in front of twenty students and explaining the different types of hotels when only one or two students had ever been in a hotel before.  The pictures of the downtown New York, London, and Hong Kong hotels have never more distant from my reality than they did the day I first showed them to my students as pouring rain beat down on the tin roof of our classroom and persistently blew in through the door and windows no matter how tightly shut we tried to get them.  But their wide-eyed questions about each hotel and resort picture made me so excited to show them buildings and places they never could have imagined.  These are students that have never been to a city bigger than Siem Reap, which is only 175,000 people – the New York skyline was an image beyond their imagination.  I showed them the Waldorf, the Savoy, the InterContinental in Mexico City, a resort in Barbados, a boutique hotel in Hanoi, and a resort and spa in a castle in the Swiss Alps.  With each picture there were new questions, new observations, and new “ohhhhhs” from the students.  It was one of my favorite classes so far, and as they came to understand what the terms, “eco-resort, resort, downtown hotel, convention hotel, and guestroom,” really meant I could not have imagined a better lesson to be teaching.  For the first time, all of the words we had been studying and learning were images of real places that were out in the world.  It was the moments when the light bulbs went on and the world opened up a little bit more for each of them.  I saw new understanding on their faces as I explained a resort, and it was so satisfying.

In front of Heritage Suties Hotel

Then, last weekend Molly, Christine, and I brought my students to Siem Reap and we toured three hotels here.  The classroom of unbelievable place and pictures was brought to life in a city very near their homes.  It showed them what no picture or description could, what these hotels smelled like, felt like, and how impressive their details, decorations, and size actually was.  For all but one or two students that day was the first time they went to a market, went inside a shopping mall, ordered off a menu at a restaurant, stood in a hotel lobby, stood in a guestroom, saw a swimming pool, and were served juice from a hotel waitstaff.  It was eight hours filled with something new for the students in every moment, and I realized how great of an experience this was not just for the hospitality class but for their lives.

At Terresse des Elephants

They asked questions of each General Manager or Guest Relations Officer we met, peaked in every bathroom, admired every perfectly made bed, and when we finally climbed on the bus to go home they were overwhelmed, exhausted, but still full of questions for me.  The hotel visits showed the students that not only were these beautiful and amazing hotels located all over the world, but they could also be found right here in Cambodia.  There is a  thriving and expanding hospitality industry in Siem Reap, and these students living in a village one hour away were hardly aware of it.  They were going to places and seeing things that were new and foreign, yet located so close to their home.  Never before had the contrast of village and Siem Reap been so apparent.  We had traveled one hour, but the differences were like a trip to a different country. Without EGBOK Mission, they may have never considered the possibility of a 5 Star Hotel like Sokha Angkor operating in their province.

In class last week, the students were still buzzing and talking about the hotel visits when I made an exciting announcement to the students who applied to Paul Dubrule, the night before their exam and interview they would be staying in a hotel in Siem Reap.  Vicchay immediately became unbelievably excited, and began to explain loudly to the other students in Khmer what was going to happen.  It was one thing to see a hotel room and stand in a hotel lobby, but it was quite another to sleep in one.  I carefully explained that we would not be staying in a hotel as nice or Sokha, but that the staff and owners of Siem Reap Riverside were wonderful.  They didn’t care, a hotel stay was a hotel, and Vicchay carefully explained to me that it was an experience he never thought he would have.  I laughed and said, “well in two weeks and a half weeks you will stay in a hotel for two nights in Phnom Penh.”  He stared at me as it dawned on him that in the span of one week he will stay three nights in a hotel room, when three months ago he hardly knew what a guestroom was.  His smile was wide and his eyes were light up as he told me, “My heart is very happy that you came here to teach me hospitality.”

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What May Linger

Occasionally the horrific events that swept across Cambodia under the leadership of the Khmer Rouge have crossed my mind while I have been here, and then there are times that the hurt and atrocity that was rampant throughout Cambodia in the mid and late 1970’s smacks me in the face.

Ben, Molly, Srey Yim and I had just finished having dinner with the students in their house on our first night in Phnom Penh when Veasna began to translate for his mother, Srey Yim.  I thought she would talk about cooking, maybe how she made the lok-lak or perhaps cooking in the orphanage, but instead she talked about Pol Pot.  Veasna patiently listened to her speak every couple of sentences in Khmer and then would relay them to Molly and I in English.  She told us how she had survived by cooking rice for Pol Pot.  He had killed many people she knew and most members of her family had died during the few years he had been in power.  However, on the day Srey Yim actually met Pol Pot he had not been satisfied with the rice he had been served and asked Srey Yim if she was a good cook.  She told him yes.  He then told her she would cook rice for him.  But he would have her killed the day she cooked rice that did not taste good.  She cooked rice for Pol Pot every day just to live until his next meal.  It was through luck and her skill in the kitchen that she was able to survive.  Srey Yim also told us about her family.  After the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese she got married.  However, her husband died two months after Veasna her youngest child was born.  Soon after that their home burned to the ground, and Srey Yim could not afford to build a new home for her family.  Instead, she became a cook in an orphanage, and moved her family there as well.  Her children, Veasna most of all, grew up knowing the orphanage as home.  Her daughters and her daughters’ children still call the orphanage in Phnom Penh home.  She had lost so many people, lost so much, during and after the war that I  newly respected her strength.  Her story is not singular though.  Throughout Cambodia there are stories filled with more pain and loss during the time of the Khmer Rouge.  It was a time when 20% of the Cambodian population was killed, almost everyone has a story of tragedy.

I recently read the most famous of these stories, First They Killed My Father, it is one woman’s memoir about her family’s experience under the Khmer Rouge.  Her words and her story are haunting.  She describes unbelievably long hours working under the hot Cambodian sun, too little food, too much death, and the loss of family members and friends.  Each night as I picked up the book, I dreaded another catastrophe in her life, another event that I could not imagine experiencing.  Bombs, murder, unfairness, torture, land mines, starvation, and rape it was all part of her world as a child; a world that I did not want to imagine for any child.  Her entire story will stay with me for a very long time, and some of her words I have been repeating to myself for days, especially the way she described her will to survive.  She wrote, “My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness.  Sadness makes me want to die inside.  Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life.  Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill.”

I see the faces of five, six, seven year-old children in Cambodia today, and I am compoundedly excited for their happiness, for their ability to have simple things such as flip-flops and be able to attend school.  For it was less than 35 years ago, that children their age would have been taken from school, put to work in the fields, starved, and possibly separated from her or his family to live in a child workers’ camp. During the Democratic Kampuchea or Khmer Rouge’s time in power they eliminated private property, forced all citizens to evacuate the cities, established communal work sites in the villages, closed schools, executed intellectuals and monks, abolished Buddhism and all other religion, made singing, dancing and music illegal, destroyed televisions, radios, motorized vehicles, and eye glasses all in an attempt to create a self-sufficient  agrarian society that was rid of any outside influence or ideal.   You could be killed for espionage, suspected espionage, not working hard enough, having non-Khmer ancestry, stealing an ear of corn, by food poisoning, by starvation, refusing any request by a Khmer Rouge soldier, or for simply wearing glasses.  neighbors couldn’t trust neighbors, friends would no longer confide in one another, and while a classless society was the “goal” of the government, it created a clear divide between those in the government, those who had spent their whole lives in a rural area, and at the bottom those who needed to be reprogrammed as model citizens because they had lived in a city.  As I read Ung Luong’s account, I found the immense lack of trust that developed among the Cambodian people during that time especially affecting.  As she said, ” Like, Keav, I am alone here, even though I eat the same food and sleep in the same hut with eighty girls.  Besides our obligatory discussions about the power of Pol Pot and his army, we live together in silence.  We keep to ourselves because we are all hiding secrets.  My secret is our lives in Phnom Penh.  For another girl, it may be that she has a handicapped brother, has stolen food, possesses a pair of red pants, is nearsighted and used to wear glasses, or has tasted chocolate.  If she is found out, she can be punished.”

My first day in Phnom Penh I walked in front of the Royal Palace, and as I strolled down the wide boulevard and watched children chase birds in the park across the street, tuk-tuk drivers continuously slowed down to ask me, “Where you go lady, S-21? Killing fields?’   I had read the basic background of Cambodia, but these “tourist” sites were unknown to me, and in my jet legged state I didn’t feel ready to see anything called a Killing Field.  I declined all of their offers.  Three weeks ago, when my Dad came to visit we did go to see S-21, also called Tuol Sleng.  S-21 stands for Security Prison 21.   It is a collection of white, barbed wire buildings in the middle of Phnom Penh, and sits rather unnoticed along a quite street in the capital.  Before it was Security Prison 21 during the Khmer Rouge, it was a high school, now it is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a memorial to the almost 20,000 people who were tortured, beaten, hung, and killed there.  If they were not killed during interrogation torture sessions within the concrete walls of those buildings, then they were taken to a field outside Phnom Penh, now the Killing Field, and there they were beaten with pick axes, iron bars, hammers, or other weapon until they died – bullets were too expensive to be used on practically dead, traitors to the Khmer Rouge.   When the Vietnamese arrived at S-21 in 1979, they found few survivors, today there are only seven who were known to walk out of S-21 alive.

As I walked into the first of the buildings and saw nothing in the room but an iron bed with chains and shackles attached to its legs, I didn’t know which urge was strongest the one to cry, run away, or stare in complete disbelief.  I chose for that moment just to stare.  As we silently walked through many rooms with the same sparse, rusted furniture and then an entire building full of tiny cells hardly big enough to fit a human body in and made of wood, brick, and wire  it was an experience similar to visiting Dachau four years ago in Germany.  The same haunting reminders of torture, death, and human cruelty.  I did cry as we looked at the hundreds and hundreds of photographs displayed behind thin glass of the victims of Tuol Sleng.  Their eyes were scared, their faces haunting, and knowing their fate I felt anger and deep sadness well up inside.  These were once old men, young women, and children; they were once someone’s  mother, father, sister, friend, cousin, neighbor, and lover.  I couldn’t help but think that these people still had relatives living, friends who survived, family who missed them – all of this hatred and suffering wasn’t that long ago.

These people lived and died within my father’s lifetime.  The men in Cambodia who were his age, had lived their teenage years through the Khmer Rouge’s social engineering.  Instead of playing Pacman and learning how to drive a car, he would have been doing backbreaking labor and fighting for extra scraps of food.  If someone told you the situation in Cambodia in the late 1970’s, it sounds like something that happened in the 1800’s, but it wasn’t.  For many people here, I am sure in their memories and nightmares it seems like yesterday.  I wonder what may linger in their hearts and minds as they have worked to repair their broken country, tried to trust one another again, and have the courage to tell their children that things would only get better and better here.  It is also why sometimes I look at the small things in Cambodia such as a filled school room, a monk meditating at Wat Damnak, the doctor who stitched up my foot, or the artist who sells me a new painting – and I appreciate how much Cambodia has recovered.  Now, education is greatly valued, their religion is once again part of their lives, and many homes in the city have a television flickering in the evening.  There is still great poverty, there is still hardship, there are still people who starve – but with 50% of the population under 21 (a fact no doubt due to the great loss of life during the Khmer Rouge) there is so much hope for the future.  That is what lingers with me, that after so much pain people have the ability to hope that  their children’s lives will be better, their country is improving, and that ever day could be better than the last.

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