Monday, December 27, 2010

Cambodia blog 8: Daily Life

Daily Life
December 27th, 2010
For Mum. Merry Christmas! :-)

I have been in Cambodia long enough that life has begun to fall into a pattern. There are many variations, of course, every day there are new problems and challenges to solve around NFC, and different adventures to be had around Phenom Pehn. But my life has formed enough routine that I can write about it with some degree of truth.

My day usually starts at 6 or 6:30 with an hour of scrambling around my room and eating something cold out of the refrigerator. Elegant to the extreme I assure you ;-)  Then I catch a motobike (I use the same smiley driver every morning) to take a half hour ride across the city to NFC. I start by assistant teaching elementary english, a class of about 10 students between the ages of 12 and 17. The teacher I help out is very good, and a nice guy all around. His name is Long Ang. We went to his wedding just last week! My older kids are a great bunch. They have an impressive vocabulary but using it is still difficult for them to use it. Long Ang recently took a break from NFC to plan the wedding and I got to plan the lessons and teach the class myself for a week. We started working on creative writing, and the kids came up with some really great stuff! I will post a story or two sometime later.

The other volunteers and I usually go for lunch between 12-2. We have several places we like to go around the orphanage, from a local noodle joint to a bakery to (yes I admit it) KFC. It's a nice break, though we usually spend the time discussing NFC and trying to resolve problems that have come up with the kids or the staff or funding.

After lunch I have two hours  between lunch and my next class which I spend  planning lessons or working on random projects or just taking a nap in the library. At four o’clock my second class rolls around. This one I teach on my own. The beginning English class used to have students ranging in age from 5-14, which made it simply impossible to teach in a way that benefited all the students. So we split up the class by age, I teach the 10-14 year olds and Niamh (Irish volunteer and friend) assistant teaches the younger ones with NFC’s rather incompetent English teacher. I love having a class of my own! I have five kids for around 40 minutes, which is really not enough time to get a lot done but I manage to cram in phonics work, creative writing, an active game and reading into the brief time I have. It is my favorite part of every day! The kids are great, work hard, and are eager to learn and do well. It is still a challenge, I have one boy with some fairly serious learning disabilities and one boy with a lot of behavioral problems, but it is one I love with all my heart.

By around 5:30 I am headed home on the back of motobike, following a sunset across the traffic-ridden city. I pass by a major temple, Wat Phenom, on my way home in time to see the resident elephant patiently being photographed by tourists and hear the chatter monkeys.

So this is my life!  It is a beautiful thing. I am so grateful to be here every day.

I will add pictures when I have faster internet. It is incredibly slow right now!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Siem Reap!

Cambodia Blog 7: Siem Reap
December 16th

My apologies for the prolonged absence. I am scrambling to catch up on blogs, and really incredibly busy most of the time. But really before I can write about anything else I need to get Siem Reap out of the way!

Wandering the temples of Angkor is like shooting adventure directly into the veins. Prowling through the crumbling moss covered ruins you explore a different world. It is easy to let the chatter of tourists fade beneath the layers of frog-songs, bird cries, the wind dancing with ancient trees. It is easy to imagine yourself the person to push away the jungle and walk through a trapdoor to another time, were kings ruled with the sun from on high and giants and gods live in the stones.

Angkor Wat is the most famous of all the temples, a sprawling overwhelming mass of palaces and temples. But Bayon, famous for the enigmatic eternally staring,  eternally smiling faces carved from it’s wall. Something incredibly peaceful rests in their faces, and a bit of this peace is granted to each visitor who climbs the temple to rest with the giants among the treetops. While we wandered though the catacombs and faces of Bayon it began to rain, a warm, constant rain that blurred the world to the same shade of the stone of the temple. I perched in an alcove and watched the rain wash peace into the world.

The next place we went was the temple Ta Prohm which has made itself famous by the images of tree roots draped around and through crumbling ruins. Tim (a volunteer from Germany and friend) marveled that it looked post apocalyptic, but for me in this world where everything is broken it was as if something had been fixed. The boundaries between natural and created wonders have been erased by time, and so the temple sits seamlessly with the landscape.

Really there is no words that can describe the stunning visuals of Siem Reap and the temples. Pictures can barely capture hints of what it is like to see them in person, but I have done my best to bring a bit of it back with the lens. There are more photos on my face book account here:

A baby monkey near Angkor Wat. They spent nearly 30 minutes posing for us!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cambodia part six: Multi-orphanage party!

Cambodia Blog 6
December 4th 2010
Multi-Orphanage Party!

Any day that involves a zombie breakdance battle is a good day in my opinion. Today marked an event we have been getting ready for for a while, a big party for the children at NFC and several other orphanages and schools. We got more than 200 people in for an afternoon of games, an evening of dance performances, food and a dance party! Watching the children throughout the event has made me incredibly happy. They scampered around with new friends, playing musical chairs and soccer and alternately blowing up balloons and going on search and destroy missions for them. It was great fun trying to play ‘Simon says’ in a language I don’t speak, and being cheered on by my students while playing musical chairs.

But the best part was the dance performance. The older NFC kids and some children from another school did a number of dances and songs for everyone. The dances ranged from an ultra traditional, elegant and subdued blessing dance, a coconut dance, and of course the break dancing! Most of the dancers are in the class I assistant teach in the mornings. Seeing them on stage, having fun and performing confidently in front of over a hundred onlookers made me incredibly proud. A number of them really struggle in class, and watching them excel is the most incredible thing I can imagine. I must find some way to bring the confidence they have on stage into the classroom. If I can do that, if I can unlock a belief in themselves I know they possess, I will have succeeded.

The best moment: during the evening dance party the elfin seven year old Syna gathers flowers leftover from the performance, and runs into the midst of the dancing to throw them into the air. It rains white petals on all of us. She shrieks with glee, and runs to me, throwing her tiny arms around my waist. Today is the happiest I have ever seen her.

Tomorrow I leave to spend four days  in Seim Reap with my friends Niamh and Tim! Expect blogs and incredible photos later this week. I will try to get photos of the party up later, but right now I need to pack. I am so excited! Even living abroad I get insatiably itchy feet, and this is the first adventure outside Phenom Pehn sense I got here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Cambodia Blog 5

Today is Thanksgiving, a day which can be easily ignored in Cambodia. My one nod to the event was to wish an ironic ‘happy thanksgiving’ to my European friends, who are bemusedly confused by the idea of having a holiday to celebrate peaceful union with a race of people we later murdered. However, devoid of the usual trappings of large dead feathered beasts and cranberry sauce, this day feels a lot more meaningful than usual.

Today is also marked by a day of mourning for the 350 killed in Cambodia’s worse disaster sense the war 20 years ago. A tragedy I could have easily been in the middle of, had my friends and I been feeling just a bit less lazy that night. I am still not sure what caused it, but after a stampede on a bridge countless have been trampled, drowned, or electrocuted. For the first time in my life I have had to write my parents to assure them I am alive. The day after was a strange blend of shock, sorrow and beauty as I relished each delicious breath and looked at the people around me and wondered who they had lost. Today the flags hung low and monks across the city prayed for the souls of the dead. And I am grateful for each minute I am granted on this beautiful earth.

I suppose I believe in souls. And I also believe there is nothing I can ever do to deserve such luck as I have had. Today at lunch two children younger than my sister materialized from the street and watched us hungrily. I never give money to children because it usually ends up in the hands of some thug making them beg, but I gave them what was left of my lunch. They delightedly poured it into a dirty plastic bag, and scampered off, before returning for any other scraps we had leftover. I look into their eyes and I know how easily that could be me. By some insane, unfair stroke of luck I was born here. In the richest country in the world, to a family that loves me beyond all reason, and has made sure I have never seen hunger or fear.  I could have been born to the struggling, the broken, the destitute, and lived begging scraps like a stray dog, like these children. The world is incredibly unjust, and for some reason I have benefited from this. All I can do I fight for greater justice in our broken world, and be grateful every day I am granted the strength to do so.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cambodia part four: Ghosts

Cambodia Blog Four: The Emergence of Ghosts
Sunday November 21st

Saturday was another explosion of beauty and joy. Perhaps it is the contrast that brings the ghosts into such sharp detail in my memory. The one surreal moment in a day too good to believe. I will cease my enigmas and explain:

On Saturday we met five of the children after their swimming lesson to take them to the water festival. (More on this festival in a later blog. This one, however, is about the children.) They were infectiously happy, delighted to be out and excited to see the boat races which continue constantly down the river throughout the three day festival. We walked down to riverfront, each with a child clinging to one hand. Winding our way through a river of people, techo music competing from loudspeakers, venders with brightly colored animal balloons and pinwheels and absurd hats, we eventually came to a restaurant whose rooftop patio overlooked the river. We ordered ice cream and took pictures and watched the boats race two at a time down the river, guessing which one would cross the finish line first.  Then we all meandered back past the palace to a huge playground, absolutely overrun with children! The kids dashed off, laughing and climbing and running. To see them so happy is the most beautiful thing in the world.

And here enter the ghosts. The children had been playing hard for quite some time, and came back to the bench were the adults had camped out to drink water and drape themselves across our laps. We had been attracting odd looks all day, our little cluster of white people of various nationalities each with our small brown child. But while we sat resting we attracted our first audience. A few dirty children simply stopped what they were doing and stood and stared, and suddenly the few have become a cluster of almost two dozen filthy staring children, so many they completely blocked out the view of the playground. I got chills looking at them, barefoot with ragged hair and clothes in various stages of falling apart. They were what our well groomed, educated, sweet NFC kids could have been. Have been. I was watching the reflection of an alternate life, without one stroke of luck. I think our kids felt this too. The normally vivacious ten year old Ting Tong shrank against me, and stayed mute to their questions. This reflection is still too close to his reality. His left cheek is marked with a huge X shaped scar. He is missing hair from scars dotted across his scalp. The more I get to know then children the more scars I find.

While I tried to come away with our brush with the ghosts happy that the children have escaped this fate, I am always drawn into a maelstrom of grief and rage when I think about what they have suffered. Most of the ‘orphans’ in Cambodia still have a living parent. They are refuges from abuse, from starvation, from prostitution. They are haunted.

I cannot save them. I cannot punish those that hurt them. I can only tighten my arm around Ting Tong when he was confronted with street children.

I can only love them. It is not enough, but it will have to be.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cambodia part three: Love

Cambodia Blog 3
November 18th, 2010

Today I am bursting love. It was a wonderful day, beautiful in every aspect. It was naive, but I did not expect to love the children this much. I can’t even imagine loving them more, but I know that somehow, as time goes on,  I will.

How to describe today? It was one of those odd compiling of coincidence and ruttein that make perfection. It was a day of stories, of games and sunshine, of laughter, exploration, a day with people I love deeply. It was the best.

I arrived early today, and so read to many of the younger children before their lessons. Gathering up into a clump of kids and books and reading together is the highlight of every day for me. They are all eager, for the practice, or the challenge, but mostly for the attention. The younger ones suffer for being motherless, and so affection is precious. If I accomplish one this throughout my months here, I want to see the kids fetching books from the library on their own and reading them for the joy of it.

Then this afternoon, by some strange collision of scheduling I don’t understand the younger kids did not have Khemer school outside the orphanage today while most of the older ones did, so with just two students in the class I normally assistant teach the afternoon quickly turned into a game day! We played scrabble, and memory games and connect four and puzzles and younger children wandered through to join the fun, and of course I took the opportunity to pull out more books!

Add to this an afternoon break spent exploring with the other volunteers (Tim, Anja and Niamh) by motobike to find Cambodian food, a quest which proved quite successful! This was followed a foray into a gas station for ice cream to be surprised by the presence of a giant blow up Santa Clause and 30 cent Santa hats, which we amused the locals by buying and wearing while we ate our ice cream. And then a sunny afternoon romping outside with joyful children, playing beach ball and shaking fruit from the trees and posing with the very popular santa hats. Perfection.

An incomprehensibly beautiful day.
For this I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cambodia part two: Party!

Cambodia Blog 2
Party time!
November 10th 2010

For me this is the perfect day: I work hard, I do something worth doing, and I party hard with awesome people. This perfect trio was my today! I am exhausted and covered in dirt, sweat and bugspray an inch thick, but I feel wonderful!

So today around 30 Norwegians came to visit, the reason for the flurry of activity the past few days (getting up lights on the stage, electrical wiring, cleaning, etc). The kids performed a dance, we all ate dinner together, and then the orphans turned on the charm. I have never seen anyone go for the heartstrings more viciously! Most of the kids grabbed a Norwegian by the hand and showed them around the complex, sitting on their laps and chattering at them, and then they dragged them all onto the dance floor for a rousing party!

I have been to several dance parties, and I can say this was the strangest, and also one of the most fun! No grinding! Freaking Americans don’t know the difference between dancing and bedroom activities!) It was an amusing sight, retired Norwegians bobbing and dancing and clapping to the music amidst crowds of delighted Asian children and groups of young adults from Cambodia, Ireland, Germany and America. We danced to music from the horrors of American pop like ‘Low’ to traditional Cambodian songs were the other female volunteers and I got to show off the Cambodian dance moves the staff taught us that afternoon! If you bug me about it when I come home, you too can dance like a Cambodian ;-)

Now, for your edification and amusement I present to you: an extraordinarily fat monkey.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cambodia part 1

Cambodia Blog 1: The Rain
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Sunday November 7th 2010

The sound of the rain is fantastic.
The ordinary city noises; cars and street venders and the distant thud of music from a loudspeaker are lost in roar of rain against mettle sheeting. And this city, slowly disappearing in cascades of water is home. Odd to think out, perched on someone else’s chair on someone else’s back porch and feeling so foreign.

The rain is letting up. Down the street two kids stamp and play in puddles in the road. A man balances on a moterbike while somehow holding aloft an umbrella. I had meant to go exploring this afternoon, wander through the two temples within walking distance, but now the streets are covered with a foot of water, and still the rain falls, though softer now. I am trying not to be frustrated. To breath deeply, the water heavy with water. There is a different sense of time here, far more relaxed than in the west were we guard our minutes as jealously as our dollars. Food at restaurants arrives slower, conversations take longer, smiles linger. To stay sane I will have to bridge the gap.

I met the kids today! They are beautiful, it’s the only way to describe them. Quirky and friendly and almost as excited to meet me as I was to meet them. Chris showed me around, classrooms, dorm rooms covered with paintings and origami, and the dirt courtyard filled with playing children, dogs, the smell of food and the occasion notes of music as children practiced.

My first job as a volunteer: photographing the newly formed “leadership club”. My job for the next few days: helping to set up a stage for a performance to kids are doing on Wednesday.

No pictures as of yet, I haven't had a lot of time for photography so far.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Brunei part two -- a Borneo Safari

Brunei Blog Part two:
A Borneo Safari

My last night in Brunei was a spectacular one. We took a river tour, loaded on a water taxi and sped down the river into the dusk. The Proboscis Monkeys  (so named for their massive noses) where at first just rustles in the trees, flashes of brown in the green. As we waited, frozen and barely daring to breath they started to emerge, swinging into the trees above our heads. The seemed unconcerned with us, swinging and climbing and munching continuously. (They can eat up to 20 kg of leaves a day! Thus their bulging potbellies.)

We also spotted a Monitor Lizard hanging in a tree before rushing off down the river as the sky rusted into shades of red and pink. The reflection of the sky in the river surrounding us with color as we waited for the last of the color to wash from the sky. When it was dark we went searching for crocodiles, which our boat driver did expertly by shining a spotlight at the banks of the river and looking for the red reflections of crocodile eyes. We found several babies, which eyed us toothily, and were no more than a foot long.

But the best part of the evening for me were the bats! I have always loved bats, and a favorite of mine are the flying foxes. These ruddy, beautiful beasts are truly incredible, boating a 7 foot wingspan. We found them clambering awkwardly about on a tree, munching on fruit. When they flew they were suddenly graceful, soaring across the night as we soared down the river and home.

Images are available on facebook, but not  Multiply yet, as. uploading hasn’t been working lately. I am finishing this Blog from Cambodia where I am temporarily camping out in the living room of Chris, who works at the orphanage. A Cambodia blog will be up tomorrow!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Brunei part one -- The Paradox

It is surreal to stand among shacks patched together by plywood and scrap mettle looking at a gold plated mosque. I could comprehend one of the two realities in front of me -- but not both. The ‘Venice of the East’ is a shanty town, a cluttered jumble of patchwork houses perching on stilts above a marsh of slick mud, rubbish, and a seemingly infinite number of crabs. We walked along the boardwalk that threads through the shacks, marveling at the contrast of the houses built with nailed together pieces of corrugated mettle and the beautiful potted flowers set outside.

Following this path we reached the Mosque, a blinding white structure, shining gold painting. You step out of the slum into the tiled courtyard, crossing a reflecting pool in an odd reflection of the walkway through the water village. The Mosque is beautiful, in a built to impress sort of way. But the white walkways and fountains were stained with money and the memory of how it could have been used better.  I can’t suppress my anger, but really this sharp contrast is a reminder of the economic injustice in the name of God that is endemic world over. From the gold plated mosques of Brunei to the extravagant mega church of Lynchburg, money is spent on decorating for God that could have been used to house the homeless.

This is the beautiful and bittersweet part of traveling. It exposes us to truths we are hidden from most of the time. Growth is often uncomfortable.

On a more cheerful note: A monkey tried to steel pineapple from me today!

Tomorrow we are heading into Malaysia for a day trip! I will be sure to share this with you -- hopefully on happier topics!

For more photos from today:

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hong Kong!

October 28th 2010
9:00 AM 
Bandar Seri Begwan, Brunei

Hong Kong is a city which doesn’t seem like it should be able to exist. Maybe we are jaded in America, but we have grown used to the idea that  a metropolis it will be dirty and crime infested, the kind of place Batman and his many nemeses lurk. Hong Kong is paradoxical: a huge city filled with night life and chaos and fun without the rubbish and grime.

My hotel was on a bustling neon shopping street, lined with expensive clothing stores, pharmacies and shops which seemed to indiscriminately sell a mix of candy and dried squid. I walked along this road, absorbing the energy and taking pictures of bright signs that splashed reds and purples and yellows across the streets. After some wandering I found a night market, a discombobulated mix of touristy statues, paintings and silks crammed in next to locals hunting through piles of socks and boxers.

That night I  could barely sleep -- intoxicated with excitement inherent in the city and the joy of starting my adventure. So I left my hotel before 7 in the morning, startled to find the streets far more deserted than they had been at midnight. I walked through the city, suddenly turned monochrome by gray skies the same color of the concrete buildings. I sat by the river while I waited for the city to wake up, surrounded by the odd quiet of the river noise -- boats and water lapping against the pier as the street noise behind me swelled. While I was sitting an ancient Chinese man named Lee started a conversation with me, discussing everything from my future plans (he suggested I should become Commissioner of Refugees for the UN!) to American politics. Another way Hong Kong defies conventions of big cities -- the people here are genuinely friendly.

I really hope I will be able to return here while I am in Asia. Hong Kong, even with just 20 hours experience of it, has definitely marked it’s place in my list of favorite cities!

To see more photos of Hong Kong:

To see photos of New York City:

Tomorrow I will post a blog about Brunei, where I am now!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Day One: Setting off!

Day One: The Adventure begins!
October 24th, 4:30
Amtrak train en route to New York City

Hard to believe it has begun. Maybe I should say impossible -- I get flashes of the enormity of the journey that lies ahead, moments mixed with giddy joy and disbelief. Flashing by flame-colored forests feels like freedom, even cramped on my seat on the train. Now more than ever in my life I feel the disintegration of boarders. I have never held much patriotism, or believe that imaginary lines drawn between people separates us in any meaningful way. Countries, like God and love must be believed in to exist. But unlike the other two, I think they are not worth the effort to believe into existence. I am on the verge of an adventure spanning oceans and continents,  languages, nations,  but the purpose of this adventure is to be with the people. To recognize, to experience, to love the humanity in my brothers and sisters half a world away.

So much of my life has been spent defying distance. My sister, who I loved from across a planet long before I met her, my boyfriend, who I loved from across a country for years, the suffering in Darfur who I have tried my best to love and to champion in a small way from my small town. Now I have the gift of physically bridging that gap, of conquering distance to teach and to learn from 59 Cambodian orphans.

Sunday -- Taking the Amtrak to NYC. I spend the night in New York with family.
Monday -- Board plane to Hong Kong
Tuesday -- Spend the night in Hong Kong, explore during 20 hour layover
Wednesday -- Arrive in Brunei
Stay until Wednesday November 10th, then depart for Brunei

The map of the journey!

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I spent this summer in Egypt on a state department scholarship to learn Arabic! In between studying I got some fun photographs.