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!