Small Hands, Big Heart.
The One Where I Biked to Vietnam and Rang in Another Khmer New Year

So much has happened in the last few months. But since I forgot to write about my April vacay.. I figured that would be an okay place to start

I spent the first three days in April riding my bike through Cambodia and across the border into Vietnam. I began the 330km sojourn from my site in central Cambodia, making my way south to Phnom Penh, and headed South East to the understated provinces of Prey Veng and Svay Rieng. Having the opportunity to venture to PV and SR was one of my biggest incentives for doing another big bike trip-and I was so happy to see this pocket of the country I had yet to travel through! I was so impressed with the stretches of land that were saturated with rice paddies and palm trees and of course, the friendly locals. I also had the pleasure of visiting another PCV living in Svay Rieng town before crossing over into Vietnam.

Riding the Neok Leoung Ferry

 

Beautiful open road

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City was a complete chaotic nightmare, but thankfully enough time has passed that I can laugh at the absurdities that ensued. Having my bike was without question the biggest inconvenience imaginable, and the fact that I survived getting lost in that city for 3 ½ hours seems unfathomable at this point ha! None of the signs were in English, no one SPOKE English, and there were four times as many motos as there are in Cambodia.  Anyways, after I finally got settled, I spent my first night in the city trolling the streets, visiting a night market, listening to some jazz music at a local bar, and taking some pictures of city hall.

This is not a picture I took, but I wanted to provide a glimpse of the lunacy of trying to ride a bike through THIS.

City Hall

The following morning I headed North (on a bus…had to give my ass a break :] ) to a beach town called Mui Ne. The coast was stunning, lined with a picturesque balance of beach fronts and red sanded cliffs. On the opposite side of the main highway were the vast red sand dunes that are one of the main tourist attractions of the beach. I spent a few days  sauntering back and forth between the ocean and the town, checking out boutiques that I couldn’t afford even a postcard in, eating the most DELICIOUS seafood I have had in all of Asia, playing soccer on a turf field (that’s right…ASTRO TURF), and listening to live acoustic music.

Side note-This was my first time traveling alone, and while I only had a week on my own before planning to meet some friends also heading to Nam, I have to say, I had an absolute KILLER time hanging out with myself.

ANYWAYS! After my days at the coast, I headed back to HCMC to meet other PCV’s and really sink my teeth into the capital city. We spent the next few days delving into the historical drudgery of the Vietnam War, visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum. While the travel books and online guides warn you of the propaganda you are about to be enthralled in, I admit to being quite shaken by the whole experience. Not only did I realize how uneducated I was regarding the whole era, but I began to understand the true devastation and disturbing reality of the war. It was unsettling to say the least. Thankfully my boyfriend was a history major and assisted in filling in the blanks and providing some clarity for me :]

Cu Chi Tunnels. Could you fit in there?

TRAPS! These were originally created to catch tigers, and were later used to capture and kill American soldiers

Um, we’re sorry.

Billy and I out in Saigon!

I returned in Cambodia overwhelmed with excitement to speak a language I knew, see the people I love, and celebrate my second Khmer New Year with my friends and family at site. In true Cambodian fashion, the four day celebration was copious with the best of the best Khmer food, late night dance parties at the wats, water games, karaoke, and lots of hammock time

My fam playing some cards

Visiting Wat Bonouk

With Kimheng’s fam bam

Following the NY, I headed west to my training host family for my first visit since moving out of their beautiful home almost 2 years ago.

The One Where I Got Angry

It’s been a really long time since I’ve had anything to say, primarily because work has been pretty monotonous lately, but also because I didn’t feel I had anything positive to write about. The last three months of this journey have been without question the most difficult to date. I attribute this to quite a few factors, however, all of them are carefully positioned beneath the umbrella of one thing; my attitude.

Since the third grade, my dad has been steadfast in reminding me that “attitude is everything,” and his voice has been louder than ever lately.

It wasn’t until last week when I was filling out a tri-annual report on my service to date that I realized how severely the day to day happenings of living in a developing country were affecting me. This whole platform of self-awareness I used to stand on was shattered beneath my feet as I began writing about the concerns I was having at site. My stream of consciousness ran away from me and my fingers relentlessly unleashed this truth that I was about to share with our entire staff, while before I had only spoken to a few individuals about it.

It all sounds pretty melodramatic, I know.

The thing is, for the first couple months, I was completely unaware of how quickly my positivity was unraveling. Every day presented a different challenge, or rather, a different opportunity to exude patience, compassion, and cultural competence, and to be honest, every day for those three months, instead of managing my actions and emotions in a productive manner, I simply folded.  I lashed out (mostly internally, ya know, for fear of losing face and all), but there were even days where I found myself scowling at the men who heckle me every time I go out for a run, or cursing the truck drivers who, on the daily, threaten the lives of my students with their reckless driving on highway 6. I was angry more than I ever knew I was capable of being. Angry at the corruption, livid by the poverty and malnourishment, IRATE at the obscene disregard for traffic safety, frustrated with my co teacher’s/student’s inability to be consistent in simply SHOWING UP for class. And the fact was, I knew the issues I was seeing and experiences I was having weren’t exclusive to my life and my village; these were truths of most volunteers serving in Cambodia. Like most Peace Corps countries, it’s just not an easy place to live sometimes.

I recently joined PC Cambodia’s diversity committee with the intention of contributing my understanding of how things work here to better support fellow volunteers and staff in raising awareness and heightening the level of sensitivity throughout the program. During our preliminary meeting a few months back, we had a round table discussion regarding diversity concerns we have encountered during our service thus far. Without disclosing the specifics of a colleague’s story, I will say that I was astonished to learn of the trials this individual faces on a daily basis.

Being African American in a country that deems white skin as the pinnacle of beauty, coupled with a general knowledge that when it comes to appearances, Cambodians will tell you exactly what they think, you can imagine the type of scrutiny and judgment this person faces in their community.  The gravity of these criticisms is one that I will never be able to truly empathize with however, being let in to her world even for a moment, listening to the negative affects these outright aversions to her skin color were having on her self-image was distressing. This woman, noted from another volunteer as, “The type of person who just makes you feel ALIVE when you’re around them,” was having her spirit dismantled simply because of her race.

I was so angry for her.

(I will also mention, this PCV is a soldier who hasn’t allowed the ongoing verbal beat-down of her external beauty detour her work ethic or contribution as a volunteer. Her strength and persistence is one that is admired throughout our group, and her resilience only betrays the intense courage and tenacity of her character.)

I share this because I am on my way out of it. I share this because I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by friends, both Cambodian and American, who have helped me balance the successes with the failures, the great days with the shitty days, and resolving concerns as they arise while coping with problems beyond my control.  I speak candidly about the last three months because adversity (and rising above it) is often what generates deeper value in our lives.

I appreciate the perspective… the attitude adjustment that this window of time has lent me. I am grateful for the bold reminder that a job of this caliber and an experience of this capacity require a fierce dedication to re-commit every day, and an unwavering perseverance to live with integrity and humility.  This Cambodian life has evolved beyond the novelties that once dazzled me. It has become a distinct part of who I am in giving me the opportunity to begin maturing my understanding of humanity, and sharpen the focus on my personal values.

The One With all the Thanks

Thanksgiving in Cambodia, round two.

Misfortune revealed its ugly mug last week when for the first time since arriving in the Bode, I got sick (like the, ‘oh crap, I need to get medical attention STAT’ kind of sick), thus interrupting my second week back at school and forcing me to head into Phnom Penh for a slew of doctor’s appointments, blood tests, etc. I spent a good portion of my days in PP in my hotel room, stirring from the insatiable craving to get home and set my everyday life back in motion, while simultaneously cursing this nasty infection that had invaded my once normally functioning and healthy kidney.

For the record…I AM OKAY!

Having plunged head first into this negativity crevasse, I did what I would normally do if ever I was overwhelmed with frustrations, whether it be it back in San Diego or cooped up in my bedroom at site; I took some time and flipped through the pages of my gratitude book to remind myself simply that this Cambodian life is pretty rad. Here a just a few of the THOUSANDS of things I have come to love and be grateful for during my Peace Corps experience

 

For this, I am thankful…

*When the sun rises over Wat Psieng (and the rare occasion for which I find myself awake to marvel at this beauty)

*WATER BUFFALO!

*The mouth-watering deliciousness that IS cafe duk dok go, duk ga (ice coffee)

*My host mother’s weathered, wrinkled, scarred, hands. They are the most beautiful hands I’ve ever seen.

*When Khmer women wear pajamas, toe socks, and high heels…at the same time

*The ocean of rice paddies that encircle my village with the most vibrant, eye catching greenery I’ve ever seen

*My mosquito net. While providing me protection from contracting any mosquito-born illnesses in the wee hours of the night, it simultaneously serves as the princess-like canopy I never had as a little girl.

*My counterpart Kimheng when she giggles, dances, talks about women’s empowerment,  makes house visits to students who are sick, and basically just being an inspiring best friend.

*The look on Vannak’s face (my 12th grade student last year) when he won the provincial-wide Spelling Bee

*The absence of any hills, mountains, or even the slightest incline in my village, making it ALMOST feasible to bike, run, or ‘dair layng’ with relative ease in this swelter shelter of a country

*CAMBODIAN WEDDINGS. CAMBODIAN WEDDINGS. CAMBODIAN WEDDINGS.

*My LCF’s patience when teaching me Khmer

*Meeting Sarah Bartel. Puuuube.

*My rockin’ Hello Kitty cell phone

*Watching my students do push-ups during p.e. (it’s kind of like the worm)

*Having been present to witness the reunion of my father and his childhood friend Kinnal

*My 9th grade co-teacher Mr. Mop, for while we may have differing philosophies on teaching, student relations, lesson planning, and well…pretty much everything, the dude can make a MEAN paper airplane.

*Luanda, my amazingly reliable trek bike who has taken me LITERALLY across this country, surviving her fair share of flat tires, broken chains, and janky brakes. She’s more dependable

 than most busses I’ve ridden here.

*Coconut juice at my disposal any every hour of the day

*Channel V-for keeping me updated on what’s new and good and kicking ass in the music scene.

*Sreynoch, my younger sister, for emulating an unwavering generosity and kind spirit on the day to day despite her demands in school and at home.

*Trolling the city late at night in Phnom Penh when the streets are quiet and still and the only sound present is the subtle hum of my bike gears

*The cheeky noises (errr, screeches) Khmer women make when they are; 1)excited 2) surprised 3)frazzled

*The predictability of the rain during monsoon season

*Those moments where I feel entirely helpless, unproductive, belittled, frustrated, or confused for ultimately keeping me humble and reminding me to recommit myself every.single.day.

*My Bong Channty. I have never met a woman who means it more when she smiles.

*Being in the midst of a Buddhist culture and the consistent equanimity it produces

*The two little boys who live at the end of my road who always run the last 10 feet of my jog with me

*The vicious dogs who chase me, subsequently making me run that much harder

*Cool afternoon breezes that provide temporary relief from the mid-day sun

*The resourcefulness of men who can fix anything from a cracked cellphone to a flat tire with the simple flick of a lighter flame (don’t ask me how they do it, it’s sorcery I tell you!)

*HAMMOCK TIME

*This whole “what’s mine if yours” communal sharing-type mentality. Hey Molly and Kate-fair warning, this philosophy WILL be carried home with me next year, so start preparing yourselves for some serious closet/bookshelf/CD case invasions ;]

*Nom Bon Choak (Khmer noodles with fish sauce, cabbages, and onions)- the tastiest, most fabulously filling breakfast ever

*The toothless grin of Sirii, my host niece

*The way students stand up and ‘Sompeah’ me each morning I walk into the classroom

*My fan. I am so thankful for my fan.

*That moment…DAILY…when I come home from school and can take off my sampot

*25 cent manicures and pedicures that have my nails look BANGING (even when the rest of me appears filthy and sweaty and seemingly unkempt)

*The week of January 10th-Januray 16th where I woke up cold EVERY SINGLE MORNING.

*Having my mother and sister love me enough to fly across the Pacific to visit me in Cambodia (…still bursting at the seams with gratitude guys)

Taking a few days to recharge and get healthy was nothing to be torn up about and if anything, was a simple reminder that slowing down (even in a place that seems to move at a glacial pace most of the time) is sometimes necessary.

Happy Thanksgiving xo

      I love the little moments when compassion, humanity, and MUSIC transcend cultural differences and language barriers. On my way home from Kampong Thom town yesterday morning, what was seemingly just your typical 50km touri ride (ya know, the 20+ people/handful of babies/rice sacks/maybe a live chicken or two packed snuggly into a van whose maximum capacity shouldn’t normally exceed a mere 12 people-type) turned into one of these moments.

       I was admittedly drowning out the sounds of the crying babies and the ear-piercing volume of Khmer videos with the kind of music I refer to as “for the quiet times,” trying to evoke a more peaceful, serene drive home. The woman sitting next to me (well who am I kidding, I was pretty much sitting on her lap) asked me what I was listening to. I simply replied “music from America” and proceeded to press my forehead against the window, making mental notes about what the rest of my day should look like. She inquired further, “Is it pretty?” In my head I’m thinking…”well duh, it’s India Arie, it’s life changing” but instead, I replied, “It’s most beautiful” and offered her one of my two ear phones to have a listen for herself

       We sat silent and still, letting her music penetrate and push pause on this once chaotic moment, and allow equanimity to take hold and suspend us for the next 4 minutes and 58 seconds. When the song was over, this woman proceeded to ask me what the name of the song was. Realizing that I didn’t know how to say “Strength, Courage, & Wisdom” in Khmer, I hesitantly responded by telling her the name of the song was “Strong, Brave, and Clever.” She looked quizzically at me and asked to hear it one more time.

       As we listened to the song (round two), this woman went on to tell me that the reason she had gone to Kampong Thom was to retrieve medicine for her leg. She lifted up her pant leg to reveal the scarred, discolored, swollen, result of having been bitten by a snake the week prior. She then went on to tell me how difficult things are now for her. One week after being bitten by a snake, her older brother, Ruun, had drowned after falling into a sitting pond of water near Wat P’sieng while fishing at dusk. Ruun was by himself and was unable to swim. The woman remained stoic in sharing this information, but stressed repeatedly how difficult things were for her right now.

       I told her that when I need to be brave, I listen to this song, and encouraged her to hear it again, regardless of whether or not she understood the other words. She grabbed my arm and tucked hers beneath, and again, we listened.

We listened 6 more times :]

      I got off the touri, wished the woman good health and happiness, and told her I hope she finds ‘strong’ ‘brave’ and ‘clever.’ She smiled for the first time since I jumped on the touri and said ‘thank you.’

Lady Arie has done it again

The One Where the Floods Came…

        Just when I was under the impression that monsoon season was starting to wind down (and in turn, bring on the ‘cool’ season) I returned home after my week working in Takeo to find Baray essentially under water. I stepped off the bus into a pool of sitting rainwater, shuffled about to retrieve my luggage, and gazed around to see some of the most chaotic and unsettling living situations I had ever seen in my village. The homes that lined the highway each had at least 2-3 feet of water surrounding them; the shops were closed because the interiors were also receiving an inordinate amount of water; the market had been completely abandoned with the exception of a few men moving out large crates of spirit houses and incense. The movement was startling, people were clearly trying to salvage what they could by moving their belongings to the side of the road.

         I was shocked. I had spoken with my sister quite a few times throughout my week in Takeo, and aside of the routine “where are you now?” and “have you eaten rice yet?” inquiries, my bong continually asked about the amount of rainfall Takeo was getting. I hadn’t given it a second thought, being that Takeo was not receiving an extravagant amount of rain, so when I did finally return home, the reasoning behind her inquisitive nature finally registered. I couldn’t help but wonder why she hadn’t mentioned the severity of what was happening at home, only to remember that, in true Khmer fashion, the likelihood of her sharing the devastation the flood was bringing was minute.

        I nervously made my way east towards my house (just over 1 km away) with the help of a few students and moto drivers who assisted me with my bags. Thankfully, my house only had about a foot and a half of standing water, and from what I could see right away, no real damage had occurred (it also helps that my house sits on 3 meter-high stilts). I got upstairs to find everything in my room had been enveloped with every waterproof resource available, including; my raincoat for my book shelf, about 15 plastic bags for my desk, and even a handful of Ziploc bags individually hung over my pictures/drawings. My ma later explained to me that the roof had given in right over my door the night before, and damaged a few personal items, but it all seemed pretty trivial. I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with gratitude that my family had taken such measures to protect my things.

          It stormed relentlessly for the next three days. I remembered when I first learned that I would be moving to Cambodia, in my mind’s eye, these were the types of storms that I thought would epitomize the term “monsoon season.” Trees were crashing, the flood was rising rapidly, the livestock that would normally be grazing through the rice paddy farms were taking over the roads. I mean, Baray was literally annihilated with rain for a straight 72 hours, and the ramifications of mother nature’s fury were menacing to the tranquil atmosphere Baray usually attains.

Here are some snapshots of from my village

The local police station

One of the monks at Wat P’sieng

My ming and I on our way home from Wat Baray

       Thankfully after the third day of the storm, light clouds scattered throughout the sky, offering seemingly harmless rain showers, and people began picking up where they left off to reassemble what was left of their homes, stalls, and livestock. It was also Pchum Ben’s day, one of Cambodia’s most significant holidays wherein people pay respects to their ancestors by visiting the pagodas, provide offerings of money and food to the monks, and even throw rice balls at ghosts in order to protect their families from any bad fortune. Last year, this holiday marked my welcome into my new home and was my firsthand introduction to some of the beautiful traditions within Buddhism. This year however, it marked a natural disaster that still has yet to offer any hope for what’s to come. Even today as I recount these happenings, IT JUST WON‘T STOP RAINING.

    The second day following the big storm, my family asked me if I wanted to “Dah Layng Dtuk” which literally translates to ‘stroll the water.’ We walked about 100 meters past my house, my ma insisting that I document each house and in its current state along the way, and climbed aboard a small canoe. (I later learned that Baray had 100 small boats brought in from a resort in Kampong Thmar and Kampong Thom town as resources for families who had no other way to get out of their homes). Anyway, we climbed on our boat and made our way through the village. Rather than babble on about what that looked like, I wanted to share with you all a video I took from the boat ride. You can see the devastation of the flood to the homes on either side of what is now a still sitting canal of water. I also wanted to note that in the last 30 seconds of the video when my family and I pull out into an open clearing, sitting beneath what is now a decent sized lake is an enormous number of destroyed rice paddy farms. It was an astounding afternoon.

Here is the link to watch the video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1ALzTC_Fbo

      I had been in contact with my safety and security officer during the week, providing updates regarding my whereabouts, current water-height in and around my house, accessibility to transportation, etc. Originally Peace Corps had given me the option to evacuate, but after serious consideration, I really just wanted to be with my family (especially after having spent such a large majority of my summer away from them). My house was in good shape, they all seemed in positive spirits, and it was Pchum Ben’s Day. I really couldn’t justify leaving. In addition, the next week all Cambodia PCVs were required to attend a training in Phnom Penh and attend the swearing-in ceremony of the K5 volunteers. I felt that I really needed to suck the marrow out of being at site for as long as I could.

Baray high school

Baray’s Health Center

     This entry has simply been a testimony as to what I have observed/experienced over the last two weeks, and Kampong Thom is only one of the 15 affected provinces. Cambodia, on the whole, is going through the worst flood-related suffering since 2000. Over 175 lives have been lost (over half of those being children), thousands of families have had to evacuate their homes, schools and health centers have been closed, bridges washed away, and farms destroyed. Prime Minister Hun Sen has noted that the situation is under control, and that while they are not appealing for aid, they are welcoming any assistance.

      My school, which was supposed to begin on the first of the month, will tentatively reopen on Tuesday, the 11th, but that remains to be seen. There is still at least 3 feet of water engulfing the campus grounds, making it impossible to even enter the front gate. As for now, I will stay cooped up with my family, indulge myself in a slew of new books and movies, hoping for the best while waiting for the worst to pass.

“Just keep swimming.. Just keep swimming”

(My blog is fritzing out an won’t let me put this above the picture with the women exiting the Wat, but I felt it was worth leaving on here)

:::Cultural sidenote/observation:::  

     There have been numerous moments in the last week and a half that have been especially jaw-dropping, gut churning, and truly eye-opening. One of my favorite instances through it all was watching the women of my village honor their faith and devotion to their families/traditions by still managing to get to the Wats. Witnessing these women hike up their sampots above their knees (THIS IS SO ‘OT SOPHEA’) and trudge through the flooded roads to ensure their timely arrival at the wat was awe-inspiring. Nothing…NOTHING stood in the way of their attendance. It was magnificent, and reaffirmed my adoration for the Cambodian women in Baray

The One Where my Work Actually Mirrored my Job Title

Not that I don’t like teaching, but I have to admit, I have spent the last month and a half doing work that I am really most passionate about, and honestly, it has reignited the fire under my ass to do some kickass work this upcoming year.

It was a busy, but oh so fulfiling second half of the summer

The day after returning from Indonesia, three other Youth Development volunteers and I coordinated a leadership camp for 60 university students residing at the Harpswell Foundation, a scholarship program in Phnom Penh for some of the brightest, most driven and successful young women in Cambodia. Peace Corps has recently initiated a partnership with the program to promote opportunities for the student’s of PCV’s living in more rural provinces who may not have otherwise considered furthering their education. The camp was a four-day workshop, wherein we each conducted sessions on varying topics such as creating personal mission statements, goal planning, presenting tools for effective communication, and tips on successful resume/CV building. We stayed with the students at their dorm for the duration of the camp, eating meals with them, watching movies in the evening, and going for walks during our free time.

The workshop was a major success, and with the hopes of not sounding too cheesy (even though you all know how much I love the queso), it was such an empowering experience for both the camp participants AND us PCV’s. These girls never ceased to blow our minds, whether it was their ability to speak IMPECCABLE English, their enthusiasm to participate in all the games and activities, their attitudes towards success and what they hope to accomplish in their future, or even their unwavering support for one another. One of my fellow PCV’s Lindsay made an excellent point-if you were to round up all the highest achieving young women in America and have them live in the same quarters, attending the same university, and essentially spend every waking moment with one another, there would undoubtedly be conflict and an air of competition. But these girls made it look easy. They constantly encouraged one another, affirming how important each individual role is to the program’s harmonious atmosphere. It was inspiring to say the least.

Just to give you an idea of the absolute GEMS we were working with, here is Lina’s, one of the workshop participants, personal mission statements;

“My mission is to be a warm sister. I will be a shadow, umbrella, and light when they are under the sun, under the rain, and when they walk in the darkness”

Simply beautiful.

Harpswell Ice-breaker

The girls discussing conflict/resolution tactics

Workshops participants proudly displaying their certificates

The week following the workshop, I stayed in Phnom Penh to work alongside my program manger (also the PC Youth Development coordinator) as part of a technical exchange to complete Peace Corps Cambodia’s Youth Development Manual. PC has a ton of resources that provide information on how to effectively work with youth, but we recognized the need for a tool that pertained specifically towards engaging youth in Cambodia. It was quite the task, seeing that I had absolutely ZERO materials development experience, and unfortunately due to differing time conflicts, while there were four contributors to the manual, I was the only one available to do the final editing. After five days of staring at a computer screen (I have the utmost respect for people who do this for a living. My eyes went cross-eyed everyday by 4pm), the final product was completed!. Major kudos to PCV’s Lindsay, Jenn, and Angela who put provided their expertise and shared their insight on promoting YD in Cambodia

On September 7th and 8th, my program manager invited myself and two other PCV’s to speak on behalf of Peace Corps at the Cambodian National Forum for Volunteerism in Phnom Penh. Along with presenting the PC goals and mission statement, we each provided our own personal experiences serving in a big city (Angela lives in the concentrated beach town Sihanoukville), a provincial town (Hannah resides in Kampong Chnnang, a small city but with a number of resources), and a more rural village (Yay Baray!). It was a brief introduction of Peace Corps, however, following all the presentations, we broke off into smaller discussion groups and shared our views more thoroughly regarding the importance of civic and social responsibilities of youth in Cambodia.

National Cambodia Forum on Volunteerism

The Volunteer Panel

Presenting for the masses!

Angela, Hannah and I working the PC booth

And lastly! Before the summer came to an end, I headed down to Takeo for a week to work as a resource volunteer for the new trainees. They have been working their asses off to learn Khmer, understand Cambodian culture, and really sink their teeth into what PC life is like here. It was a blast visiting them all and remembering what an exciting time this really is. And the best part of it all?! I got to talk about the two things I love most about my Peace Corps experience; Youth development in Cambodia and Khmer weddings!!! Lindsay and I presented the YD manual and broke down more specifically what a YD-ers role will be during their service. Then, we got to dress up in our wedding outfits and teach the K5’s how to dance Khmer style, and of course sprinkly a little American sass to the moves

The new group has their swearing-in ceremony in a couple days, and all PCV’s in country are invited to attend the event. It’ll be a busy few days, but I’m excited to celebrate their accomplishment of training and then get back to site for school to start.

The One Where Malaysia Blew My Mind and Indonesia Kicked My Butt

I realize that ¾ of my blog entries begin with, “This entry is so overdue! But here we go anyway!” So uhhh, ya! This is nothing like that I swear, nah, I didn’t get back from Indonesia over a month ago…:]

For this blog, I just went ahead and regurgitated the notes I took along our journey, highlighting some of the great, the horrifying, and absolutely hysterical moments from our trip to Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysia

When we flew into Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital, upon stepping out of our cab, my initial thought was, “Sweet baby Jesus, I could totally live here.” The city is stunning. All the streets had such character and all the buildings had such distinctly differing architectural influences. Everyone speaks English! The food was incredible! People stay out past 9pm! After our first day trolling the streets, drinking coffee at a local park, riding public transit, and going to our third mall, I was bummed we had only arranged for three days in this fantastic city.

The GREAT

1)Going for a run, getting lost, and having to make my way home is usually my first order of business when I travel somewhere new. With the exception of the rolling hills that take over the city, KL has officially been my favorite place to do this in the past year. Maybe it was the stark resemblance between KL and San Francisco that evoked some of the most serene and euphoric nostalgia, or maybe it was seeing other people out exercising as well (therefore eliminating the notion that I am just a crazy white lady running through the streets). Whatever it was, I had never been so pleased to have to linger at stoplight corners waiting for the ‘Walk’ sign to give me the go ahead

2)Being in a primarily Muslim-based city during the celebration of Ramadan. Watching the city light up and the markets start bustling at 6:30 pm, saturated with people who have been fasting for the duration of the day was fascinating. People spoke so openly about their faith, and being able to witness such a communal appreciation for tradition in a pretty diverse city was really special.

3)GOING TO SEPHORA. It didn’t even matter that I can no longer afford even nail polish remover at that place. It did however make me miss my sisters. WHAT UP MOLLY AND KATE!

4)Public transit. I forgot how much I love the monorail. We rode it aimlessly for an hour on our first day.

5)Sushi. Did you know that when you haven’t had it for a year, even BAD sushi is GOOD sushi? Sarah and I were so desperate for this tasty treat and walked aroundfor an hour and a ½ looking for one restaurant in particular, as recommended by our Lonely Planet. When we couldn’t find it, we found ourselves settling on ‘The Sushi King.’ It was in a food court at one of the malls we’d been to earlier that day, and had a conveyor belt (just to further indicate what we were dealing with). While we unanimously agreed we would never dream of consuming this at home, it reeeeally really hit the spot after our year-long sushi hiatus.

6) Our day of “Reagan-ing” (This is a 30 Rock reference wherein Alec Baldwin’s character, Jack Donaghy maintains an entire 24 hours of flawless…well, EVERYTHING.) For whatever reason, when Sarah and I were around, all the lights turned green, every stranger offered a smile, the National Mosque reopened after being closed all day for mediation, and every bargain (whether it was with a cab driver or a market lady) went in our favor. It was surreal, but we “Reagan-ed” the crap out of our second day in KL

The HORRIFYING

1) As I’m sure most rational people would consider common sense, deciding that Indian food was a good choice for a midnight snack was a horrific idea. Sarah and I, not being in our rational state of mind, didn’t give it a second thought. The next day was a little rough.

The HYSTERICAL

1) Seeing Sarah Bartel at a Coach store. (Necessary Flashback; I first met Sarah one year ago, and can recall her adoration for coach products as I witnessed her succumb to a gravitational pull into the coach store at the SFO airport. I remember thinking…“Is this girl seriously joining PC!?!”) And now, one year later, she couldn’t have proven my incredulous prejudgment more wrong. She is undoubtedly the most badass lady around (not to mention the best dressed one at that).

2)We forgot to leave the airport. I’m not kidding, we were so dazzled by all the stores and restaurants and interesting looking people, when we arrived in KL, we “hung out” at the airport for three hours. THREE HOURS. We weren’t waiting for anything, we had no real agenda, but we got so caught up in what was happening around us that we forgot we still needed to get to the city, find a hotel, and uhhh, start our vacation? Ha.

3)Free perfume samples: When you’re too cheap to check bags yet still have to adhere to airport liquid regulations…FEAR NOT! That’s what the Body Shop’s free samples are good for! Going 20 hours without a shower posed plenty of unfortunate problems for Sarah and I, so we simply relied on delicious (and free) scents like ‘Exotic Bloom’ and ‘Luscious Lavender’ to make one another’s company tolerable.

4) We missed out flight. GAAAA! We woke up the morning of our trip from KL to Medan, the capital of Sumatra, an hour late, having never changed our cell phones to the local time in Malaysia. At the realization of this, we hauled some serious ass out of our hotel, into the nearest cab, and managed to arrive at one of the two airports with MINUTES to spare. We scrambled around check-in looking frantically for our airline only to find out we were at the wrong airport. So in true Jane and Sarah fashion, we laughed until our guts hurt, bought a coffee, and meandered over to the correct airport.

Our first night in Kuala Lumpur!

Visiting the National Mosque

INDONESIA

Indonesia is drenched with provinces worth traveling to, and next time I will be sure to get down to Bali, Jakarta, and Borneo, however this trip was devoted solely to the crater lakes, orangutans, and volcanoes of Sumatra.

The GREAT

1) The music. It was just…just so GOOD. And it was so HAPPY. Everywhere we went there were small groups of both men and women hanging out, playing acoustic guitar, and wailing their brains out. It was always so raw, and fun and HONEST. I hate to say it, but I wish there was more of this in Cambodia (not that I don’t love a good dose of Khmer karaoke and cell phones that blare the latest K-Pop hit, but a few simple guitar cords can really go a long way).

2) Kayaking across and swimming in the largest crater lake in the world, Lake Toba. As you can see from my previous post, there was plenty about this trip that was both horrifying, and of course HYSTERICAL, but the greatness of this experience easily trumps the other two. It’s vastness was truly grand, and I had never visited a place so worthy of being overrun by tourism, and yet it was one of the most untouched, isolated, and peaceful places I’ve seen. Like I said, allow the pictures to simply speak for themselves. BREATHTAKING.

3) Trekking through a Sumatran Jungle and being surrounded, in the wild, by Orangutans. Thankfully we hired a man to guide us on this little sojourn, because between Sarah’s paranoia and my gung-ho attitude about…well, everything, we needed the balance that he offered, as well as someone who was familiar with monkey calls :] Absolutely stunning seeing these guys in their natural habitat

4) FOOD. It was mouth watering. All the currys, spicy veggies, the traditional Sumatran spagetti. I don’t think we consumed a meal that didn’t have us itching for more.

5)BEER. Bintang beer is undoubtedly the most delicious beer I’ve had a in year. It was the only beer available, it was typically served in tall bottles, and it was FANTASTIC.

6)Actually “vacationing.” I hadn’t realized until we arrived in Tuk-Tuk (Lake Toba) that we had spent the last 8 days being so mobile. I mean.. we were TRAVELING obviously, but had very little time to simply sit down and relax. I wouldn’t have traded any of it for the world, but I will admit that sitting by the lake for 4 days, reading, listening to music, playing endless games of scrabble, and finally devoting some time to writing felt really, really good. I used to believe I didn’t handle idle time very well, however, those 4 days of doing absolutely nothing proved me wrong.

The HORRIFYING

1) Traveling man-free. Something I will never…NEVER do again in a developing country. As a foreigner, especially a female foreigner living in Cambodia, there is a fair amount of staring, some heckling, and even an occasional cultural faux pas wherein a man may disrespect my personal space by touching/grabbing me. However, being that I can speak enough Khmer to assert myself when needs be, the men have a tendency to fall back and recognize that this kind of behavior is completely unacceptable.

(sorry for the rant…mmm back to why I will never travel with just another woman)

From the minute we stepped off the plane in Medan, Sarah and I were harassed endlessly. As I said before, as women we are not exempt from this in Cambodia, however, the level to which the men took it in Sumatra was unlike anything I had ever seen.. and it was utterly HORRIFYING. We were followed everywhere we went to a point where it was frightening, whether it was walking to restaurants, local markets, and even to our hotel. People gawked incessantly, as if they had never seen a white person before. They grabbed us aggressively, cut us off with their motos on the sidewalks (so we found ourselves walking in the streets), and were unruly in their attempt to get a word out of us. If we asked kindly to stop, they’d mock us, call us “stupid white girls” and laugh violently. Forgive me for generalizing, but not a single city or small village we went to was there a group of men who DIDN’T display this kind of behavior.

It was quite unsettling, and at certain points, really interfered with our ability to enjoy all the wonderful places we were seeing

2) Our “Poseidon adventure“. We had to take a 30 minute ferry ride across Lake Toba to another town to get to an ATM. Upon disembarking, the sky was blanketed with dark, rolling clouds that offered none other than one of the GNARLIEST (yes, I just said gnarliest) storms I’d seen in weeks. The sky was on fire, and lightening was literally shooting down from every direction, mercilessly striking the lake.

Three quarters of our boat was made out of metal. Metal deck, metal chairs, metal railings. We flipped out! We were probably 4km from either shoreline, so we ran into the boat below the deck and stood between two wooden planks, squeezing each other‘s hands until our knuckles were white, and trying to listen to our Ipods as a distraction. We began fantasizing about how long it would take people to realize we were gone, how pathetic of a way to go it REALLY WAS, and how we couldn’t help but admit that at this point, the score was Indonesia - 324798, Sarah and Jane - 0. Obviously we made it, but that 30 minutes may have well been 3 hours with how panic stricken we were.

3) Either Starbucks is lying to you, or they simply export all of their tastiest coffee beans. I couldn’t find a good up of coffee to save my life.

The HYSTERICAL

1) Please refer to my previous post.

2) Hiking the “volcano” in Berastagi. I don’t know how they managed it, but the trail up that mountain was uphill both ways. BOTH WAYS!!! Anyway, when we finally made it to the top, there was nothing but a flat slab of concrete and a view of the jungle that was completely obstructed by some unimpressive shrubbery. We hiked 4 hours for THIS?! It was unbelievable. All I wanted was see some lava and maybe a little smoke show, but all we had was a very anti-climactic, non-triumphant arrival at the peak. We trudged down the mountain…shoulders hung, tail between our legs.

3) We ate at Mcdonalds four times. Gross, I know. I can’t even remember the last time I ate there in the states, but for whatever reason, we just couldn’t stay away. Our bodies hated us.

4)Springing for the Marriot. So after having a rough week and a half of being constantly belittled by the locals, NOT seeing any lava, and staying in guesthouses that, according to Sarah, “resembled the kind of places where the SAW movies take place,” we made it our business to treat ourselves to a little luxury (this isn’t entirely true.. Sarah had to do some serious schmoozing to get me to even CONSIDER forking over that kind of cash for one night, but holy lskjfsakj… I was so happy she did). We ordered room service. We took baths! I ran on a treadmill. We watched MTV in English. We slept with COMFORTERS. Man oh man, it was definitely high maintenance of us, but I’m glad we did it.

LAKE TOBA! YOWZA!

…so much McDonalds

The Orangutan Sanctuary

Playing soccer with some local kiddies

View from the top the the volcano in Berastagi

When we arrived back in Cambodia the following morning, I couldn’t help but relish in being bombarded by all the tuk-tuk and moto drivers. I missed Cambodia! I missed speaking Khmer! I missed all the sights and smells that have become home to me! We rode back to our guesthouse and shared some laughs about all the wonderful and hilarious experiences we just had. On the whole, it was a summer

The One With The Double Rainbow

(This article was originally written for our PCV Cambodia Newsletter that comes out every few months, but Sarah and I both deemed it blog worthy as well) 

 The following is the account of two women’s wild Indonesian adventure. If you are seeking an opportunity to experience a Sumatra that most tourists would either willingly or unwillingly circumvent, than look no further than a trip with Halim, the sole proprietor of Sumatran Savages.

Is it your first time kayaking? “OT BAN YAHAAA!!!” our guide’s casual approach and complete disregard for one’s skill level will make you feel as though you belonged on a body of water, whether it be a placid, peaceful lake, or the raging, unruly rapids similar to those of the Colorado. All you need for this adventure is to exhibit a non-issue with personal space, a tolerance for a continuous testing of patience, and a collection of vibrant mechanisms for maintaining both your physical and mental stability.

   

DAY ONE

As first time visitors to the Island of Sumatra, we began this excursion by being welcomed as family into the home of Halim and his wife Nova. We were presented an array of delicious foods and a brief, yet inspiring tutorial concerning Islamic tradition during the celebration of Ramadhan. The memorable feast and warmth of the company we were in was a hugely appreciated, yet sadly erroneous introduction to the following few days.

DAY TWO

Upon waking from a peaceful slumber, we began the six hour car ride from Medan, the capital of Sumatra, to Lake Toba, the largest crater-lake in the world, stopping along the way to witness the vast glory of the lake and the surrounding mountains. This car ride presented a beautiful cross section into the country which we were about to traverse over the next three days. We slept in a beautiful purple guesthouse, covered in bougainvilleas that sat right on the shoreline of the lake. It was only after we managed to extricate ourselves from Halim’s company that we could freely commiserate our feelings regarding the road trip.

A brief overview of Halim:

Introduced as a down to earth family man, this Muslim convert of German decent with a distinct zest for living, immediately turned into a circa 1970’s hippie with a penchant for exploration, both geological and pharmaceutical. There was no silence that went unbroken by a random tangent spanning from his 20 year old lover’s exquisite legs and potentially fatal psychiatric illness to the precise calculation of every rock strata, wind speed and water depth of our environs (not forgetting to include his feelings of all these things after having consumed one or six doses of the locally grown “magic” mushrooms.) His humor, at first endearing and gut-wrenching took a sharp left turn down a plunging crevasse of certifiable lunacy. Being in his presence invigorates the senses while requiring asound foundation of patience and a well practiced ability to zone the f$ck out.

  

A View of Lake Toba

 

DAY THREE (Day one of Kayaking)

We awoke at 8am to pack our boats, where we were at the mercy of 40 locals, who quickly disembarked their touris to take pictures (via cellphone) and gawk at the foreigners.

Four hours of paddling.

Easy.

BEAUTIFUL.

We arrived in the remote village of Binagarre, and were greeted enthusiastically by the community. Upon arrival (having been previously told that we would be camping), we asked Halim where we would be setting up our tents. He responded, “Uhhh, YAAAA. Do you have a problem sleeping on a boat?” We answered no, however, without any boat in sight, we queried, “Where is the boat?” We were answered, “Uhhhh, I have no idea, YAAAAA.”

When invited into the home of one of our hosts and presented with a bowl of noodles, Halim proceeded to open his “beauty box” (a waterproof tackle box that he fancies as a caboodle), and threw everything in it into our respective bowls. This included dried onions, steel cut oats, chunks of bread, and packaged curried beef. When Sarah asked, “Do you think maybe this could be offensive?” he simply replied, “UHHH YAAA, no. This shit is just a bunch of noodles and chemicals.” And so we proceeded to eat

Alongside the shoreline

As the night wound down and people began retreating to their homes, we boarded the Floating Fuselage and adorned ourselves with all reachable textiles in order to withstand the piercing winds that mercilessly invaded the boat’s deck. Joining Halim for a beer that night (and by a beer, we mean he had six tall bottles and a fifth of Vodka), he told stories and remained comfortable and content in his khaki shorts, shawl, and headlamp. While slumbering on wooden planks later that night, Sarah heard Jane subtly remark at approximately five minute intervals, “JESUS CHRIST,” not having a will to respond, but knowing Jane has echoed her sentiments. 

Our sleeping quarters…

DAY FOUR (Day two of Kayaking)
At 7:30am, we were awakened abruptly by eager boat passengers and given five minutes to get off the boat. Unfortunately (yet not surprisingly), Halim had forgotten to retrieve his camera from the Floating Fuselage, postponing our five hour open water paddling for another hour and a half. After having been on the water for two and a half hours, Halim, a man who has revisited this journey on numerous occasions, looks around and says to Jane, “YAAAA, this is pretty fucking boring ehh!?!?” Continuing on our sojourn, Sarah remarks, “I can’t figure out why I am not having any fun!?!” However, she quickly recounted Mark Twain’s adage, “Fun is something you are not obliged to do.” And so, being 9km away from either shoreline, it became readily apparent that there was no fun to be had. So for another two and a half hours of paddling against seemingly gale force winds, the bed and shower we were promised lighted the necessary fire under our lake soaked assed to get us to our next destination. We arrived at beautiful Batuk style houses, alternated taking bucket showers, and devoured authentic Sumatran spaghetti.

The open water crossing

Traditional Batuk-style homes

Day Five (Day Three of Kayaking)
“GOOOD MORNING YAAAA!!!!!!. UHHH LADIES, I THINK IT IS TIME TO DRINK A BEER!!!” Halim seemed disillusioned by our ineptitude for drinking a tall beer before 8am. We packed our belongings, took a trip to the local Batuk museum, played indigenous instruments, partook in a leisurely morning in a peaceful village surrounded by enchanting landscape and friendly open people. This was a place well worth the 18km to get there. Once we finally packed our boats and set out for our final day we were renewed by the promise that this day would be much easier than the last. This was not to be the case. As the raging winds and furious waters quickly beset those emotions into the normally optimistic and hopeful. We kayaked for two hours on glass like water, surprised that our apparent soreness did not in any way hinder our speed, and eventually came upon a delightful Indonesian restaurant for our midday repast. Halim, having consumed three big beers on his kayak, and ordering a fourth at lunch, passed out hastily on a grass mat on the floor of the restaurant. Well known to all three of us that the winds pick up drastically around 1pm, we finally decided it would be best to wake Halim up and finish the trip. It was 2:30pm.

We took off from shore, the waves only betraying that the winds would grow stronger, and as such, our paddling would have to keep pace with Mother Nature’s hideous winds. It was only an amount of time before we were masticated by a murderous rage. Jane was anthropomorphizing the water, calling it a slew of curses including, but not limited to, “b!&ch”, “a$$ho!e” “m*$%herf%$ker”, and even went so far as to curse the innocent quips of Mark Twain. Sarah was not in any way exempt from these delusional outbursts of exclamation. Including among her self-flagellating motivational thoughts writ large by verbalization, “It’s just a lake B!@tch…HANDLE IT.”

…..Sarah “handling it”

We all found ourselves grouped together once again, with Tuk-Tuk, our destination looming in sight. It was there we were promised a bed and a hot shower, with due eventuality. With his usual annoying mitigation Halim decreed it necessary to, “TAKE IT EASY, YAAAA??” for what he assumed to be the last 45 minutes of the lake. Sarah, having lost any and all inhibition, replied, “It’s not going to take 45 min. KEEP PADDLING.” If we had taken Halim’s suggestion of “TAKING IT EASY YAAA?”, Jane’s boat, having already been filled completely with water, would have turned drastically to the left, leaving her stranded in the middle of the lake. If her oars were left unattended for more than five seconds, Sarah’s boat would have also veered entirely to the left, and (not wearing her spray skirt upon Halim‘s direction), would have been entirely engulfed by waves, leaving her haplessly floating at the bottom of the briny deep with her pube shirt Jane.

Halim, hung-over and unable to recognize the feelings of urgency imparted of getting to shore, was intimidated by our speed, and unimpressed by our willingness to get to land. Once we arrived to Tuk-Tuk, we disembarked our kayaks having to scale a stone wall that was 6 feet above water. Halim said, “UHH YAAA, THIS IS PRETTY DIFFICULT YOU KNOW!? THE LAKE USED TO BE HIGHER.” After literally “spidermaning” up this wall and finding oourselves on dry land, all we really wanted was to simply sit down for 5 seconds and do a whirling high-five. Halim would not have it, knowing that only a few more flights of stairs offered the promise of a few more beers.

We retreated to our rooms, took the hottest showers we could possibly imagine, ate pizza, and went to bed, completely and intentionally circumventing the company of Halim for the rest of the night. To our delight, as we passed Halim’s room, his open window and shining light allowed us a glimpse into how his night had unfolded; face down, awash in the soporific effects of mushrooms and vokda.

The stunning Romlan Guesthouse

Around 5am the following morning Halim made his wakefulness known by yammering on the phone, knocking on doors, and consuming ALL of what remained of our provisions. He left as seamlessly as he arrived, and suddenly, we were free. After taking the most perfect, well-deserved showers ever, we vacated to our balcony to find a double rainbow, drenched in a sun shower, illuminating the lake before us.

(look closely.. there’s two alright ;]) 

  

 Should this trip strike a chord of interest, consider the following essentials..
-Sunscreen
-Water
-An insatiable will to live
-Hat.

Other titles considered for this entry;
-The Devil does not wear a life vest
-Eat Shit and Die
-The unbearable pursuit of a German in a Kayak
-Is there a bathroom?

The beautiful children of Binagarre Village

 

The One Where The Withdrawl Set In

So in light of seeing our one year mark come and go last week, I started considering some of the things I miss about good ol America. These last 365 days have been extremely rewarding, and there have been a NUMBER of things I have learned to live comfortably without, but I can’t lie, it’ll be nice to revisit the following in just one.short.year :]

*Strawberries

*Driving

*Live music

*Mountains

*Playing soccer …competitively

*Subway, Mr pickles, Java Beach…or just any place that makes a decent sandwich

*Snowboarding. Snow. Cold weather

*Popcorn

*Big, soft, comfy sofas and chairs

*Cereal

*Stella, IPA, Blue Moon, and pretty much any beer that ISN’T Angkor

*BEING TAN

*Skating

*My bed. Having a comforter. Having a MATTRESS

*Wearing hoodies

*Sushi.Sushi.SUSHI

*Washing Machines

*Carpets and rugs

*Coffee that isn’t served with a ratio of ¾ milk and ice to ¼ actual coffee

*Diet Dr Pepper

*Good wine

*California Burritos

…any kind of burritos

*In & out

*Anonymity

*Saying “bless you” when someone sneezes

       …among a SLEW of other manners

*Chivalry

*Fixed prices

*Hot showers

*Big dogs

….Friendly dogs

……..Dogs I actually want to pet rather than have the insatiable urge to strike in the face

*Diversity

*Food with a little crunch.. Or any texture other than soft/mushy

*Not being scared that any time I have a stomach ache that I could very likely have a parasite

*Expressing emotions other than “happy happy”

*Staying up past 9 without being questioned about my health

*Fro Yo

*ADRENALINE RUSHES

*Cheeeeeese

Does it say something about me that apretty high number of the items on my list are food?! ;]

*Quick sidenote.. There are a handful of things on this list that I can get in country, but living on a volunteer’s budget doesn’t always allow for that to happen. AAAAND so… we cope accordingly bahaha.

So tomorrow morning at 8:30, I am hopping a plane to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia for a few days, and then continuing on to Sumatra, Indonesia with the lovely Sarah Bartel. We are SO ECSTATIC about the adventures that await us.. tucked away in the more southern nooks of Southeast Asia. WEEW!!! Updates to come soon :]

The One Where the Campbells Came to Cambo

It’s been an insane month and a half

During the second week of June, I was fortunate enough to have my mother and sister come visit me in Cambodia, and it was nothing short of spectacular. It had been 11 months since I had last seen them, and the reunification was more beautiful that I could have ever hoped for! We spent their first three days in country trolling the streets of Phnom Penh just drinking in the sights and smells (both good and bad), visiting markets, touring the genocide museum, riding tuk tuks, and of course, recuperating from the inevitable jet lag. I feel confident sharing that both my mom and molly experienced a serious case of culture shock, but managed it graciously and sensitively.

Phnom Penh

 

After acclimating to heat, the time change, and the drastic differences in social constructs (or as much as three days would allow for such adjusting hahaha), we traveled to my home in Baray, Kampong Thom where I was able to show my family what everyday life is like for me in Peace Corps. Upon arriving, my two families came together in quite the storybook fashion. My host parents and siblings all greeted my family with a traditional “Joom Reap Sua,” and then quickly resorted to all sorts of hugging/handshakes, laughter, awkward (yet endearing) hand gestures, and were told (in true Khmer fashion), to go lay in a hammock and eat some fruit. The initial exhaustion that came from being the back and forth translator quickly subsided once we all sat down for our first meal together and could simply enjoy the company of one another. My mom and sister had done some serious shopping prior to coming, and presented my Cambodian family with a slew of gifts to show their appreciation for taking such good care of me. It was incredible to see such gratitude exude from my sisters and brother as they excitedly shuffled through their new sunglasses, pens, jackets, shoes, and purses. Just a small token of cross-cultural love from one family to another.

We spent the following three days doing typical village-life things, from visiting my school and meeting my colleagues, going to the market and drinking that good ol artery-clogging ice coffee (so delicious nonetheless), doing laundry by hand and showering by bucket, to house-hopping to various friend’s homes and eating our weight’s worth in rice, fish soup, fried veggies, and a variety of meats. We were pretty much pushing maximum capacity with all the food we were consuming, and were uncomfortably full for the three days we were at my home. On our final night in Baray, my host family went above and beyond by throwing a party for their visitors. Now, this is no small feat for the typical rural Khmer family, and they were so honored to host my American family that they arranged for a long night of eating fantastic, traditional dishes, providing karaoke (speakers, tv‘s and all), and of course, DANCING in a circle around a table. It was perfect, from the food, to the entertainment, to the company of my most favorite people, both Khmer and American

I now have to take a moment to give major kudos to both my mom and Molly. In sharing our itinerary with some of my other PC friends, there was a unanimous opinion that three days at my site would jus be too long, too arduous. On the contrary… my mom and sister made it look pretty damn easy. Aside from actually using toilette paper, they seemed to integrate almost immediately! They ate all the food, slept on mattresses on the floor beneath mosquito nets, did the laundry/shower bit without any complaints, and even managed to shit in a hole like it was no big thing :]. My mom, bless her heart, even had the lovely pleasure of being woken up by a bird crapping on her face one morning, only later that day to find a baby peeing in her lap. And what did she do?! SHE LAUGHED ABOUT IT, saying, “What the hell? It’ll make for a good story later.“ Her go-with-the-flow mentality reminded me of why I respect her so much, as well as reinforced why there are more days than not that this lifestyle hardly seems like a challenge. I almost feel indebted to both of their efforts to make the most out of this piece of their trip. SUCH TROOPERS.

*Arrving in Baray.. Marveling over the astounding effort my Host Family put in to making them feel comfortable and at home

What would a trip to Cambo be without a visit to the world renowned Angkor Wat?! We traveled the three hours north to Siem Reap (probably my favorite city in country), and played tourist for a solid three days. I was pretty pumped myself, seeing as I had never actually toured the temple itself, only literally RAN AROUND it. The three of us rented bikes and just had the best time gallivanting around the small town, touring the temples, being camera happy, getting caught in some gnarly rainstorms, and indulging in delicious foods. Aside from appreciating being exposed to my everyday life at site, both my mom and Molly agreed that Siem Reap was their favorite part of Cambodia. As much as it thrived culturally, its compact structure and easy access to pretty much…everything, made it most enjoyable.

After our third day in Siem Reap, we hopped on a plane to Bangkok Thailand! Aaaand I was then introduced to a little culture shock of my own. Freeways!? Public Transit?! Crosswalks?! STREETLIGHTS THAT AREN’T MERE SUGGESTIONS?!?! It was bananas. There were 7-11’s, Subways, bougsie hotels, pizza huts, and malls on every damn corner. We didn’t arrive til about 9:30 at night, but seeing as it was my first night in a big city in about a year, I deemed it necessary to stay out and meander the town. I didn’t come across anything that really blew my mind (aside from what was already noted above), but was able to enjoy the enthrallment of standing beneath tall buildings, seeing real cabs with functioning meters cruise by, and stumble upon a night market that was BUSTLING past 8 or 9 at night.

From Bangkok, we took an overnight bus to the second most northwestern province, Chiang Mai, where we got out of the big city scene and really delved into more adventurous fun-tivities :]. We stayed at a quaint little guesthouse with some of the most hospitable and accommodating women I have met on this side of the world, went to museums, trekked through the jungle, zip-lined through rainforests, climbed a waterfall, and even rode elephants. It was BREATHTAKING. Here’s a few shots from our visit to Chiang Mai

We returned to Bangkok a few days later with enough time to visit the Royal Palace, take a river cruise, and eat enough Subway to hold me over for the next year :]

The Royal Palace in Bangkok

Elephant riding in Chiang Mai

Ziplining through the jungle

We flew back to Cambodia the following afternoon just in time to celebrate my GOLDEN BIRTHDAY with my dearest friends. I can’t lie.. It felt really, really good coming back to this little pocket in southeast Asia and be able to speak the language and feel surrounded by the anomalies that have become home to me. I missed that Cambodian charm after a mere 6 days of being away. 

Following the birthday bash in Phnom Penh and saying goodbye to my family, I returned to Kampong Thom for a couple days to do my laundry, repack, and turn right back around for the 4th of July celebration at the U.S. Embassy in the capital. Myself and four other PCV’s were invited to sing the American National Anthem for both the formal event on the Friday prior, as well as the casual party on the following Sunday. We got to hang out, drink American beer, and celebrate our roles as volunteers in the Bode. SO MUCH FUN, great music, and really awesome people all around.

*The American/Cambodian National Anthem singers

 

After the 4th of July parties, I traveled south to the province of Takeo to spend time with my dear friend Ryan before he wrapped up his service and went home to America. It was so moving being part of all his going away festivities and seeing the beautiful impact he had on the lives of his family, students, counterparts, and friends. I just considered myself lucky to have been a part of it.

The next week I ended up making my way over to Takeo town for th.e Training of Trainers Conference coordinated by Peace Corps to prepare the new Language/Cross-Cultural facilitators for what to expect in the next couple months. In just a matter of days, roughly 60 new trainees will be arriving in country to begin this crazy Cambodia experience for themselves! So anyway, myself and a few other PCV’s were invited to help with the facilitation of the conference, offer helpful methods to effectively teach Americans the Khmer language, and share our own personal experiences about coming to live in Cambodia for the first time. It ended up being a great week! The LCF”s were all so friendly and open to all sorts of helpful suggestions on how to make the newcomers feel at ease upon arrival and throughout their training experience.

AND SO! My next couple weeks are packed with meetings for upcoming projects, developing a manual for working with youth in Cambodia, and of course, heading to the capital to greet the K5’s. I will then head down to Malaysia and Indonesia with my bestie Sarah for a full two weeks of kayaking, volcano trekking, hanging out at the Orangutan Sancutary, and hopefully drinking some of that authentic Sumatra coffee.

Insane in the best way imaginable, however, this week is the first week I have been somewhat stationary in the last 5 weeks, so I figured this would be the most appropriate time to recap on my summer thus far!