Monthly Archives: August 2013

Cambodian Thinkable Education

Kampong Klein—about 40 miles from Siem Reap—is a floating village.  The homes are on stilts so that they are not flooded when the wet season comes and the river swells.  Kampong Klein village. During the wet season most homes are only accessible by boat.  Even though we entered the school we visited from dry land we could see the water lapping against the shore through the slats between the floorboards as we ate lunch cross-legged on the floor.  Women collect water from the main floor of their home by dropping a bucket connected to a rope.  Children swim in the water around their home like some children play on the grass of their front yards.  To get gas we pulled our boat up to a house boat—a true house boat—and handed the woman inside an empty soda bottle that she filled with gas, which we poured into our engine.  Almost everyone has one job—fishing.  Closer to Siem Reap the residents of floating villages can also farm in the dry season, but not in Kampong Klein.  Floating pig pen.Fish and shrimp make up most people's livelihood.  Some people also raise pigs in floating pens that rise and fall with every wave, but that is rare.  

Some houses in Kampong Klein and the other nearby floating villages are rather nice homes.  Just because a family lives in a floating village does not mean they are living in abject poverty.  But there are things we who live on dry land take for granted.  Kids from Kampong Klein have a thirty minute boat ride to get to school.  That's just to the edge of the water.  Two young girls rowing to school on a wooden boat with big smiles.Then they have to walk to school.  And that's only if they have a motor on their boat—most kids row themselves.  These are not kids who take their education for granted.  

These are also kids whose family can afford to send their kids to school.  These are the kids who live in brightly painted homes with tin roofs and satellite dishes.  Many kids in the floating villages do not have access to a boat to go to school—so they don't go to school.  But it's not just access to a boat that hampers poor children's education.  The Cambodian school system is a bribery system.  Students often have to bribe the teacher each morning in order to be taught at all.  They have to bribe the teacher to have a test graded.  Teachers sometimes sell the answer key to their own final exams to their students.  Students who don't bribe their teachers will simply get bad grades as a result.  I can't entirely fault the teachers for engaging in this practice though.  Most teachers make only $50 (USD) a month, which is simply not a living wage.  This is a systemic problem.  Teachers have to bribe their principals and principals have to bribe the local Education Ministry office.  Students learn how to bribe as they learn how to read.  

Kampong Klein, however, offers a free school for the poor kids of the village, which is only possible because of Bridge of Life School.  This school is why we were in Kampong Klein this weekend.  Kids bowing in thanks to their teacher.The school is a Khmer language school so we were not there to teach.  We were there to observe and we gave the kids toothbrushes and a lesson—through a translator—on oral hygiene.  We listened to the kids learning to count and they sang an alphabet song.  The song we heard was only the consonants—Khmer has 33 consonants—and it was much longer then our English alphabet song.  When the lesson was over the teacher released the students row by row.  When dismissed each student bowed and thanked the teacher.  After all the students were dismissed many approached the teacher to thank him personally.  These are not kids who take their education for granted.   





Confessions of a Female Traveler

In my last post I wrote about how jealous I was of Andrew Forsthoefel who walked from Philadelphia to the Pacific with a sign that read, “Walking to Listen.”  I wrote about how I was jealous of the people he met and the unique way he experienced the US.  But honestly, while I was listening to his story I knew I would never do what he did.  Never.  I would never head out on my own with a tent on the side of the road as my plan for sleeping.  I would reluctantly sleep under a bridge if it were my only option—not as part of my plan.  I would be less likely to accept the offer of a couch in a stranger’s home.  I would probably avoid many of the people he talked to–like the men he met on the railroad tracks about seven miles into his journey.  He himself says there was no one in hearing distance.  Then he followed them into the woods to where they had built small shelters.  It worked out.  He wasn’t murdered or raped.  He had authentic interactions with the men who gave him some of their food before he continued on.  There was no reason not to trust the men he met.  Still I would not have felt safe.  I would not have approached them.  I would have turned around and taken a longer route.  I don’t think all men would feel safe enough to act as he did. But I’m sure most women would not.  

This is not to condemn either women or men.  I have travelled alone before.  I spent about three weeks totally alone in China and Hong Kong.  And I had a couple of scary moments.  Me at the Great WallWell, maybe more than a couple.  Not specific incidences, but twice I couldn’t find a room for the night.  I was terrified of not having a bed behind a door with a lock.  I started mentally exploring my options.  Can I find a KTV (private karaoke) and rent a room for the full night?  It would be expensive, but at least I’d be off the streets.  Are KTVs even open 24 hours?  Should I return to the train station and get an overnight train to somewhere?  If there are no trains would staying in the station be safe?  I probably wouldn’t sleep, but I’d be inside.  Can I buy my way into a Chinese only hotel?  How much would that cost?  Is my Chinese good enough to pull it off?  I should say that during my year in China I almost never felt unsafe.  I felt safer than in the US.  The first time I couldn’t find a bed I ended up getting a really cheap room at a really expensive price right near the train station.  It was a Chinese only hotel and the woman asked me not to leave the room.  She brought some dinner to the room.  The second time I ended up at a five star hotel that I certainly couldn’t afford—most comfortable bed of my trip though.  

It feels like a betrayal of my gender, but I am glad there are two male Pathfinders.  Their presence doesn’t make me safe.  Nor would their absence make me unsafe.  But their presence makes me breathe a little easier.  It lets me enjoy this trip a little more without divided attention.  It lets me focus on the mission at hand.  

At the end of his radio piece, Andrew Forsthoefel lists three lessons learned.  Number two is “don’t be afraid.”  This is not a lesson I think I can learn.  To not be afraid is foolish—at least it is for me. Living with being afraid is a lesson think I can learn—at least I hope I can.


A Story about Jealousy

I went for a walk alone a few days ago.  I didn’t have an particular destination in mind.  I wondered for a while with just my own thoughts and the sounds of Siem Reap—honking horns, bike bells, sizzling street meat, Cambodian pop.  Every few yards a tuk tuk driver offered me a ride—“tuk tuk, madam, tuk tuk.”  Each offer I answered with, “no thank you” without stopping.  For the first few blocks a woman matched my pace behind me.  She’s one of many women who walk the streets pulling a large wooden cart.  Young boy fishing with a stick in brown water.In one hand they hold, what I can only describe as, a squeaky toy, which they squeeze every few yards to announce their presence.  I can’t figure out what they are collecting.  Trash maybe.  Or bottles and cans.  Though I know differently I couldn’t help thinking she was squeaking at me—like I’m in her way or something—so I slipped into a drink shop to buy some water.  

When I got to the river I decided to walk with someone else’s thoughts so I plugged in This American Life.  The last episode on my ipod was called “Hit the Road,” which seemed appropriate.  The first of three stories of the episode is told by a young man, Andrew Forsthoefel, who one day left his house in Philadelphia without a plan except to walk to New Orleans and listen as he walked.  He carried a sign that read, “Walking to Listen.”  He tells the story of his walk, which he continued all the way to the Pacific Ocean—experiences he had, lessons he learned.  He includes recordings of conversations he had with people he met.  

As I listened I was utterly jealous of his journey.  He saw the US as Americans rarely do—not just by foot, but by listening and talking.  He experienced the US through stories.  Even as I was jealous of him, I finally realized just what people mean when they say they are jealous of me as I travel with Pathfinders.  It’s certainly not the squat toilets, the never-ending malaria pills, or the unidentifiable meat.  But it’s also not the temples, tuk tuk rides, or fresh lemon shakes either—at least not totally.  I think what they mean is they are jealous of the people I’ll meet—have met.  

They are jealous of playing patty cake with the kids before English class and of playing volleyball with adult students after.  Perrin spiking a volleyball at a pickup game.They are jealous of discussing politics over beers and of becoming regulars at the food stall across the street.  They are jealous of the eating fresh coconuts with Tour's family.  They are jealous of the amazing moment of connection I experienced on Saturday. 

Conor and I had the opportunity to meet the chief of the pagoda where we teach English.  There was three other people present—a mother, father, and daughter who was about seven years old.  The chief does not speak much English, just a word and phrase here and there, but he encouraged the young girl to speak with us in English.  She was shy, but eventually asked, “How are you?”  She and Conor had a short exchange.  After the chief gave her a blessing tying a red bracelet around her wrist.  She said, in English, “Thank you.”  Immediately she put her hand over her mouth, realizing her mistake, and then said, “aw khun, aw khun.”  It was okay.  The chief laughed then we all laughed.  

The red bracelet is a way of bringing people closer together.  When a monk ties one on your wrist he is blessing you and wishing you courage.  Tour chopping into a green coconut while a young boy watches. When the chief tied similar bracelets on Conor and my wrists he wished us long lives.  The bracelets are one way of bringing people together.  Laughter is another way.

Jealousy tears people apart.  I don’t want to make people jealous, so I will not keep the stories to myself.  I will share them.  And I hope others will share them.  In telling these stories I will also be telling my story.  I hope you will share your stories with me.  I hope you will help me bring people closer together.  


Touring Genocide

Instead of finding a restaurant for lunch one day, we were lucky enough to be invited by Tour, our liaison to Siem Reap, to have lunch with his family at his mother’s home.  The food was the best we’ve had in Cambodia—naturally.  We sat on a platform under their house, which stood on stilts, around a mat laid out for meals.  While we ate, Tour’s sister-in-law breastfed her daughter, gave her a bath, and dressed her in fresh clothes.  After, Tour’s mother sang to her granddaughter, making her—and all of us—laugh with delight.  Some things are universal.  Laughter transcended the language barrier—naturally.  For dessert, Tour’s brother climbed the coconut tree that towered over their house to harvest fresh coconuts for us.  While we drank fresh coconut water, Tour told us about how, two years ago, when he finally had enough money for supplies, he built this house for his family with the help of the whole neighborhood.  He agreed when we commented that his mother must be proud of his good job in the city.  

Tour’s mother is a beautiful woman with long black hair she kept in a bun.  Stupa at the killing fields with the bones of victims inside and a sign asking for respect on the outside. Her face is lined with deep wrinkles.  The wrinkles reflect the hard life she has lived, but only add to her beauty.  Tour told us she is 65-years-old, which means she was 27 in 1975 when genocide seized the country.  I do not know her story.  I have no idea how she survived the atrocity that left two million—one-quarter of the population—of her neighbors dead.  Without the details of her story, I do know she survived something horrific.  Every time I see a person older than 45, my first thought is about what trauma she or he must be living with.  The entire country is living with the wounds and scars the genocide made—naturally.

Yet a tourist industry has erupted around the death sites.  When we asked our tuk tuk driver in Phnom Phen to take us to Choeung Ek—the most famous of the killing fields—a grin erupted on his face.  He was excited to take us.  It was a good fare.  While eating lunch after touring Choeung Ek, he told us about S-21—where he proposed to take us next.  S-21 was a high school, occupied and converted into an extermination prison by the Khmer Rouge.  It is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  Our driver told us about S-21 matter-of-factly and with a smile on his face.  Another good fare if we decided to go.  I’m not trying to criticize this man for making a living.  And these are, after all, the places tourists want to see when they visit Phnom Phen.  I wanted to see these places too.  And I’m glad I did.  As difficult as it was to give witness.  

Tree at killing fields that is covered with colorful prayer bracelets. Children were killed by being beaten against this tree. But the dual function of the sites—as both artifacts of atrocity and popular tourist destinations—is unnerving.  Of course, many tourist sites around the world have this same contradiction.  I've visited the D-Day beaches.  I've walked around American Civil War battle fields.  I’ve been to the Golan Heights, Tiananmen Square, Lhasa, the Tower of London, prison islands in New Caledonia, and Tombstone, Arizona.  All places that remain witnesses to violence.  All places I visited largely because of their violent histories.  What is so unnerving about these particular Cambodian death sites?  I guess it is the realization that, if I were oblivious to this country’s history, I could remain ignorant even as I share meals with local acquaintances and their families.  The trauma wounds are not visible to a visitor even as I know they are still fresh in the country’s collective memory.  Many Cambodians live with haunting memories worse than most people's worst nightmares.

Experts on trauma—collective and personal—will tell you that telling the story of the trauma is a necessary element to healing.  Witnesses hearing such stories must acknowledge the injustice of what has occurred.  The millions of tourists who visit these sites might serve that function.  But how many vacationing tourists become witnesses, but passive witnesses?  Doesn't the world need more intentional witnesses? 

Has anyone had a similar experience as a tourist—either at historically violent tourist sites or of obliviousness?  Does the thought of death tourism unnerve anybody else like it unnerves me?

Mooing Geckos

Here there is a gecko (or possibly a frog—it's not yet totally clear) that sounds like a miniature cow.  Or one of those tin cans that moos when you turn it over.  The mooing is so loud I have trouble believing that a creature so small is producing it.  The frog (or possibly gecko) here makes a sound like a crying kitten.  Piset told us that the story goes that the frogs are crying to God, “Why don't you drop food with the rain?”  But Piset can't remember the rest of the story.  I wonder what God's answer is.  

several stalls of bananas in a rowAt the outdoor market we saw pigs feet for sale and—a few stalls down—pigs heads.  We saw whole plucked chickens for sale and live ones too.  We saw fried crickets and live eels.  The sellers sit on their table among their produce.  If they sell fish their cutting board is in front of them.  If they sell vegetables their scale is to one side.  We saw a boy about two years old peeing into a bag behind his mothers table.  One whole corner of the market was just bananas.  There are green beans that are delicious, but as long as my arm.  Some vegetables are familiar, most are strangely shaped or colored.  Some are completely alien.  I've eaten Morning Glory now—not the seed, the plant.  Some parts of the market smell like incense.  Some parts smell like street meat.  Some parts smell like sewage.  There are baguettes and rolls that smell like Europe.  I call them “colonial bread.”dead chickens for sale on a table with live chickens underneath

It is monsoon season here and when the afternoon rains come they come in sheets.  We got caught in a downpour just after we arrived.  After just a few minutes there is no point in hiding from the rain so we embraced it and moseyed home.  The roads in our neighborhood are always muddy.  We cannot walk straight along the road because we have to avoid the puddles.  

Happy Hour sign reading that reads we don't serve rat, cat, dog, monkey, or worms. One evening we went to a night market that was set up straddling a major street.  There were hundreds of people selling food, drinks, clothes, and perfumes.  And hundreds more buying them.  There were carnival games, bumper cars, and a ferris wheel.  We almost ate chocolate banana pancakes—another legacy of French colonialism no doubt—before our dinner.  Our mothers would not approve.  


First Hours

The air smells different.  That is how I know I’m in a new country.  I can’t explain the smell—Cambodia smells like Cambodia.  It smells a little like Asian food and a little like sweat.  The smell is a bigger surprise even than the wall of humidity I met when stepping off the plane.  We stepped into Cambodia—new passport stamp in hand—after midnight, so the smell is really the only real impression I have yet.  And a few hours in, I’ve already gotten used to it.  I don’t smell Cambodia anymore.  

The fist thing I saw—in contrast to smelled—when exiting the airport was a closed Dairy Queen.  The second was a closed Burger King.  American royalty is alive and well in Cambodia.  Fast food in Cambodia does have one thing on the United States—KFC Cambodia delivers!  But that does not matter to me.  I try not to eat fast food when at home, certainly not when traveling.  Though, from experience, McDonald is a consistent source of familiar bathroom facilities within seas of squat toilets.  

It’s a strange thing to have one’s first impressions of a city come from driving through it in the middle of the night.  All the businesses are locked up tight.  There are few people out and you wonder what purpose those who are out have.  We passed a few open bars filled with people.  We passed a few mopeds with more people than recommended riding on the back.  We passed a few groups of westerners heading toward the bars.  We passed lots of tuk tuks—like autorickshaws—with their drivers sleeping in the back.  Tomorrow we will pass many more people—and there will be many more impressions.  

I only have access to the internet tonight because the hostel where we had reserved a room had given our room away.  The second hostel they sent us to was all locked up.  So we are at a hotel—spending more than we planned on a bed.  But we have a bed and that is what matters.  First adventure/crisis settled.