Monday, February 28, 2011

The Best Teacher

The Best Teacher
Cambodia Blog 16
March 1st, 2011

This is an essay I wrote for a scholarship application about Cambodia and how I ended up here. I thought I would post it here.... it shows how I am feeling about life right now pretty well.

Homeschooling has taught me that the best teacher is the road. I learned history in the ruins of ancient Mayan temples and wandering battlefields in France. I learned biology on my belly behind a hill observing prairie dogs.  I have lived a life that counts the seconds until I can taste the air in a new country, until I can begin to pick words out of a new language, until I can throw myself into the arms of a new culture. I have grown up stretching smiles across the globe, and I have found the similarities gazing back at me more glaring than the differences. Because what travel teachers the attentive student is that we are truly human the world over. I cannot dismiss people from beyond my boarders as ‘different’. I have grown up with the world, and I believe the children I have played with around a language barrier, the children begging in the dirt that have haunted me, are my brothers and sisters. I also know, beyond all doubt, how easily I could be them.

The truth that I am no different from children that are dying of AIDS or starvation, or scraping out lives in dusty streets is an unsettling one. It means I am incredibly, inexplicably, indescribably lucky. To be born in a stable country to a family that loves me and supports me in all I do, to be given the gift of seeing and understanding the world from a young age has granted me a life better than any I could imagine. With this gratitude comes the realization that I can never deserve what has been handed to me from the moment of my birth. Why I was not born to an untouchable beggar in India I will never understand, but I do know that I cannot waste this life. I must show my gratitude for every gift I am given by reaching out to those who have nothing. This is the reason for my life, the burning inside my soul that keeps me going, and I have learned this from the road.

Homeschooling granted me the independence and courage needed to follow my dreams. I have always had freedom, weather it is choosing my studies to suite my interests, or being able to take a week off school for an adventure with my family. I have relied upon myself for adventure and entertainment, be it writing a novel in a month or a building fort in the woods in an afternoon. With all of this, taking a year before University to travel and volunteer on my own was no major leap but simply the logical progression of my life.

So I came to Cambodia. I came to teach English, to travel, to learn, and most of all to justify my existence. I came bitter with the knowledge of an unjust world and afraid of the apathy that so easily decays daily life.  I came unsure of my ability to make a difference, still wary of the distance between me and the world’s problems, afraid of the scale of widespread poverty and suffering. I am writing these words from New Future for Children orphanage in Phnom Penh, and I am writing them full of the knowledge that my life has meaning. I have spent the past four months teaching, befriending and being inspired by 50 amazing children. The children I have come to love have survived horrific abuse or lost their families to disease and poverty. They have suffered beyond sense, beyond my comprehension. Yet I have seen them grow and learn and heal, thanks to the efforts of good people who were willing to spend their lives righting injustice. I am grateful and fiercely proud to be a part of this.

Cambodia has given me the greatest gift I have ever received, that of seeing the change I can make. I have seen withdrawn children light up when they suddenly grasp a new concept, punch the air when remembering a difficult word, and surprise themselves with their own creativity as they write stories.  I am in love with going to work every day to know that I will do something that changes the world, even if it is something so small as a passed test, completed homework, boosted self esteem. Without New Future for Children the love and passion I see every day in the eyes of the kids would be crumbling into street dust. Instead, they are going on be engineers and doctors. Their hope is infectious. Living with young ones who have overcome the worst life has to offer I am inspired, and I am driven to keep others from suffering like they have. I know that I will live my life to continue this work. I will be fighting in other places, with other people slighted by a global economy of indifference. But I will be there, I will be loving and living and breathing my work.

My life is built to heal the invisible gashes created by injustice. Cambodia is a country of hidden wounds. You would not guess, passing through, that thirty years a dictatorship slaughtered one in four Cambodians, that behind the eyes of every smiling face is loss. Cambodia has just 20 psychologists for a population of 14.8 million where one in ten still suffer post traumatic stress. I have watched learned helplessness from decades of grief hold Cambodia captive. It is this inherited anger and depression that breeds the abuse, the poverty that has torn the children of NFC away from their families. I want to break down prisons more dangerous than physical walls -- the debilitating trauma ringing through people who have watched their homes razed and families burned alive. I have set my heart on working with refugees and the innocent who have been traumatized by war. This, for me, would be the ultimate success. This is what I breath for.

In a few months I will return to America, and I will launch myself into books to prepare for this life of adventures. I will study psychology and global studies, armed with a love of learning my mother imprinted in my bones, and a determination and passion for my work that I have learned from my travels. I am hungry for the challenges ahead. I am hungry for life, even as I live in Cambodia with more passion and clarity than ever before. Homeschooling has taught me to follow my own dreams  and allowed me the freedom to explore.  I have been given the greatest gift. I have learned first hand my place in the world.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monument to Horror

  • Cambodia Blog 15

Monument to Horror
February 12th, 2011

Today we finally made the pilgrimage to the Killing Fields -- a few acres of grass and trees made famous by the blood that has soaked the dust when the Khmer Rouge used it as a site to massacre thousands of civilian prisoners. It was a strange experience, something between horror at the indescribable atrocity and anger at the obvious exploitation of the torment the dead went though, all held together by complete incomprehension. When you look at 17 story stack of bones, how do you understand the life lost in each empty skull? You cannot. All there is is darkness.

The Cambodian government obviously used the site to toot their own horn about how hard they are working to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, sickening, considering Former Khmer Rouge leaders are still in government today. So I cannot really write a normal blog about that place. The multiplicity of emotions that ran through me made my impression of it very fragmented, but here are the most vivid of the images that stayed with me:

  • Incomprehensible contrasts. The beauty of the trees and the lake and birdsong as we walk over scraps of clothing left from the dead. The utter silence of tourists in the exhibitions and the laughter and joking of young Khmer people as they stroll through the graves. 
  • Dirty bones and wilted flowers that visitors have piled on top boxes of exhibitions by the graves.
  • The story of the man who found the ‘killing tree’ still covered with blood and brains from where children’s heads were bashed against it. 
  • The absurdity of the chickens scratching in the pits left by mass graves, a strange mockery of the farms surrounding the site. 
  • Momentary shock when, on the way home, I see a shirt the same color as a child’s shorts left in a pile of clothes of the dead. 

The temple stacked with bones. 

Half a skull left on top of an exhibit by a visitor. 

The gorgeous Cambodian countryside surrounding the killing fields. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Cambodia Blog 14
February 12th 2011

Another brilliant week is drawing to a close. It’s weird how quickly time passes here, and even stranger to think I have now spent more than half my time here in Cambodia. My weeks grow more precious by the day.

I have begun to stop resisting the pull back to NFC I feel whenever I leave work, and staying overnight two nights a week. Somehow sharing sleeping space brings my relationship with the kids to a new level. I am a teacher and friend, but for as long we have each other, we are family. In some ways I feel dishonest, painfully conscious of how soon I will leave. But I have to believe the times of real happiness -- talking about ghosts and monsters, or reading bedtime stories as the girls snuggle down into their blankets, are worth it. Every day they amaze me more. Weather it is letting me use their towel, or putting the best bits of prawn-sauce soaked egg on my plate, they always find ways to share with me.

This week I have also begun to feel really satisfied with my teaching. My most challenging and rewarding job at NFC is teaching English to a group of five 10-14 year olds. I plan my own lessons and create my own evaluations, and teach the class alone. It has been difficult at times, the kids are not used to discipline or having to pay attention in class, so for the first month or so it has been a real struggle. But I realized how far we had come when I took the class outside to play a game in the middle of class and no one lost concentration or tried to wander away or even complained about going back to lessons. I have learned so much from them. I can only hope that they have truly learned from me, but I know what I have learned from my time as a teacher I will carry with me my whole life.

So yes, a normal, idyllic, beautiful, ordinary week. :-)
Today we went to the Killing Fields, but that is a story for a different blog. One will be up very soon.
Next week I will be going to Ratanakira province in Cambodia with my friends! We will ride elephants and swim in volcano craters and play in waterfalls. Check back next Sunday for stories!

With Sokha, one of the students in my class, on her 12th Birthday!

Shhhhh... we are hiding! 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hoping for Peace

Cambodia Blog 13
Hoping for Peace
February 7th 2011

By this time you may have heard about the fighting on the border with Thailand. We first heard about it on Friday from a somewhat scarily excited tuktuk driver, but only today does it seem to have caught international news. Here is what I have gleaned from watching the news and snooping on the internet:

  • There is a temple called Preah Vihear that stands on the Thai-Cambodian border. The United Nations declared it part of Cambodia decades ago, but it can only be accessed from Thailand. The Cambodians started to build a road in Thai territory to reach it, and this started the tensions. 
  • Each side blames the other for starting the shooting.
  • Five troops have been killed, and a few taken prisoner.
  • The Cambodian prime minister is calling for the United Nations to step in and resolve the issue.
  • Thai people are protesting in Bangkok, demanding that Cambodian troops be ejected from the area.

These are the facts, as much as I can find out. My analysis is this situation has no danger to me or anyone not in the immediate area. We are all a bit worried about escalation. The Thai and Cambodian people have a long and unpleasant history, and right now Cambodia is in the position of being the bitter, poor, and fiercely nationalist underdog. This is not a good position to be in, especially for a country were saving face is extremely important. However, anyone with half a brain cell can see that antagonizing the much richer and more powerful Thailand is ludicrous. International pressure to maintain peace will be great, ad the two countries are also very dependant on tourist dollars, which will dry up immediately if the regions become even vaguely dangerous. So there are a lot of really compelling reasons that this won’t become a problem, but still we will be watching the story closely. If you are the praying type I hope you will pray that no more lives are lost in this stupid conflict.

Here is a map showing the fighting (marked with red) relative to Phnom Penh were I live (marked in purple), practically as far from it as I can be! :-)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dragons, Weddings and Palaces!

Cambodia Blog 12
Dragons, Weddings and Palaces
Sunday February 6th 2011

I have decided to actually force myself into some discipline and post a blog every Sunday evening (or morning for those back in the states) for the rest of my trip. Feel free to write me angry mail if I miss a week, I need the motivation :-P

This week was a really great one. It was incredibly busy, but filled with really fun things! This week was Chinese new year, a surprisingly big deal here considering the Cambodians have their own new year in April. Still, school was off for the week and the streets were filled with the crash of drums from dragon dancers! We were invited to a see a dragon dance at someone’s house, and it was really fantastic. The coordination of the 12 or so dragon dancers all manipulating one long puppet was stunning. The lions were also great, their blinking eyes, wagging tails and fondness for heads of lettuce made them seem so real!

Later that night we went to the wedding of two of the staff at NFC -- Pown, a caretaker, and Mr Roon, a handyman/administrative assistant type person. The party was held at Pown’s family house, a traditional Khemer farm house hours away from Phnom Penh in the countryside. We drove about half an hour across raised dirt roads over rice fields, during which time the poor beleaguered NFC bus broke twice! It was a great party though, a really happy rollicking affair with lots of food and dancing. Our friends were so happy! The atmosphere was entirely different from the awkward and generally sad arranged marriage we went to last month.

Yesterday I finally made it to the Royal Palace with Kester, a volunteer at NFC from Britain.. The Royal Palace spirals into the air like a giant bird. There is something light and uplifting about Cambodian architecture that is very different from the heavy western esthetic. Towers lift bright colors into the sky while the paintings and ironwork closer to the ground curl into stories and figures of Khmer mythology. Dancers and flying monkeys, magical birds, demons and giant fish building bridges are frozen in the frescos along the walls of the silver pagoda. The detail, and the expressiveness of the characters in this intricate legend was breathtaking.

This week has been beautiful. There seems to be no end to the adventures to be had in this amazing country!
Detail of the aforementioned fresco

A gate

Me with the royal palace and some monks