For better or for worse

It’s Fall back in the states but that season doesn’t really have the same effect here. The leaves do not change colors with the seasons and neighbors are not winterizing their homes. Instead, weather predicts tropical downpours most days and the temperatures cool to make air-con usage optional. This is ‘fall’ tropics-style.

I was joking with a friend the other day that I feel like I’m in a relationship with Cambodia. For better or for worse, I’m committed to being here for my full term. Sure, we’ve had some rough patches, like any relationship, and I am learning to appreciate more of what this place has to offer. There have been some scuffles but also some bonding moments.

Please note, this is intended as a humorous simile. When I think of the wedding vows, “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health…”, it fits. With initial annoying qualities that I now find endearing, though the same could be said in reverse, I’ve learned so much about myself by being here in the highs and the lows.  From learning Khmer and traveling in new ways to mystery meals and perplexing health challenges, I have not been in want of adventure. And I would not change being here.

RELATIONSHIP SIMILE DONE.

Here are some photos from this month…

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The BEST [authentic] bowl of ramen I’ve ever had! Mouth watering just thinking about it.
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Maggie and I sending ‘hearts’ to Kate-who was missing out- in between the bumps on our drive up to Bokor Mountain. 
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We made it to Bokor Mountain! But the real highlight which was an abandoned building. The fog and chilly climate made exploring more fun.

 

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Saturday at the rice fields

August 27, 2016:

I traveled with my language school to learn about rice- how it’s planted, grown and the farmers behind the work. Naturally, you have to leave early before the sun is at its strongest, we met at 6:30am to prepare for the trip to Kandal Province. Even though we arrived before 9am, the sun managed to shine, what felt like, its strongest rays on us while we were learning how to plant in the rice fields. 

It was incredible to not only witness work but skills the farmers pass down to the next generation. The labor is not for the faint of heart. For each bend of your back you press the the tall green stalks in the mud with your thumb deep enough into the earth so the plant can securely root itself. This is repeated every 20 centimeters in a grid-like formation until the rice field is full. It usually takes one farmer many many hours to plant what the 30+ of us were able to help accomplish in about an hour. Granted, with all the guidance we were given, I hope we planted the rice correctly so that farmers did not have to replant the next day!

I was unsure of my feelings after… would I find my hidden gift of farming or would I [internally] moan at the repeated back bending under the sun. I am not naive to forget I have some of ‘city’ in me in which labor will become tiring to me and I will dream of a cold shower and a nap under a fan. But after the field was filled with crop and we looked up at what we had worked at, many of the first time, I was satisfied. Not with my work, I’m sure it was shoddy at best but that I was able to learn something I probably would never have learned otherwise in a community that was gracious of my ignorance and welcoming to teach a newbie farmer like myself.

Take-aways:

  1. I did not discover a hidden skill in rice planting
  2. When I next eat rice, which I do most everyday, I may feel the need to bend over to plant an imaginary crop in the mud… one of the strongest memories associated with rice now
  3. I eat produce with appreciation because farming and hard labor are NOT for the faint of heart

Throwback to Kampot

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From the balcony at Les Manguiers, with views of the river, it was near five o’clock when a fleet of fishing boats glided down the river; finished with their work they heading back into town.

People call Kampot a sleepy town. The quiet atmosphere and relaxed ambiance quickly brings your mind to stillness. Stone benches are scattered along the riverside in hopes that a passerby will seize the moment to rest and enjoy the view. The architecture in downtown reminds me of French Colonial era with the pastel pigmented buildings, white stone railings and windows identical and evenly spaced out along the upper floors.

It would be easy to overlook the town because of its quiet persona but do not be deceived, it is full of life right under the surface. The cafes welcome you in with a cup of coffee under the shade of the patio and and keep you with the jazz- like music that blends into the background. When Sarah and I arrived at Les Manguiers it felt like we entered into a version of Swiss Family Robinson with three notable differences: 1) we were in Cambodia 2) we arrived by choice and 3) we did not have to forage for our food. Set along side the river, upstream from the city center, it was remote and peaceful with bicycles to take us into town and kayaks to explore the waterways. It was just short* of magical, a natural gem that gave me respite from the bustling city of Phnom Penh. If you find yourself in Cambodia, may I suggest Kampot.

*I let the realist in me speak for a moment 

 

End of Summer

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Kampot

August is almost over?!

Sarah was just here and it was August 9th. The month was still in the warm-up stage before full throttle.

September is quickly approaching and I feel that the next few months or so have the potential to FLY BY!

*Deep breaths*

It’s all good. There’s no ticking time bomb… just the future. So I can calm down… in Khmer you’d say, naow owy s’ngeeum.

Being faced with the next: next step, next move, next transition…. NEXT can be a bit of a fearful word. No ‘bit’ about it, actually. The planner in me assumes that after the word next a plan- steps to action- follows. But as of late, when I think next, “…” follows.

I have a vision for the future but those steps to action are still in the ruminating stage. So my mantra right now is…

All is well. 

Be still. Be calm. 

Don’t forget to pray. 

When a chicken is running around headless, rational thinking does not usually take precedence. But in states of emergency or anxiety CALMNESS is usually a good start. I am neither in a state of emergency nor am I or overtaken with anxiety. Life changes, transitions and new ventures can open doors of possibility. And with that door being open, for me at least, fear tends to sneak in the doorway uninvited. So my little mantra is a preventative measure- preliminary- to the ‘what’s next’ thoughts that continue.

All is well. Be still. Be calm. Don’t forget to pray.

 

Cheers,

Island life for a day

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Koh Rong Island

Last week I had a super fun visitor, my friend Carly. She made the trek from New York City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a 10 day stretch to see SE Asia…really Cambodia (but I think she’s hooked to return to SE Asia again).

Since the last time I blogged there have been a lot of “future” thoughts filling my mind. The dreaded “what next” questions that get you excited to daydream and on the other hand leave you shaking a bit in your pants because you just don’t know yet. So when Carly came I knew there was, a) a wonderful distraction from those thoughts b) a great excuse to take time off work and c) play ‘tourist’ with her around Cambodia.

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4th of July in Cambodia–we tried to eat steak but realized it was too fancy for us, so we ate pizza instead

 

Having a familiar face see what life is like on the regular was pretty funny. Granted, when my brother, Andrew, and sister-in-law, Dana, visited last month they got a glimpse into my life as well. There was something a little more, lets say ‘intimate’, about Carly’s visit because she was bunking with me and our main form of transportation was on my moto. At the end of her visit I felt like a glorified moto-dope (Moto-dope is a driver that you pay to take you on the back of their mot0… cheaper than a taxi or tuk tuk). There were moments throughout the week that I was reminded that I am becoming more accustomed to life in Phnom Penh and what may not be typical elsewhere.

For example:

  • The “style” of driving: going down the wrong side of the road as a short-cut
  • The things they carry: Whether it’s fitting 5 people on one moto, making it the “family car” or transporting a glass windshield with the 2nd passenger holding the fate of the glass in his grip… never short of extraordinary!
  • Cambodian bidet: a hose next to the toilet. Looks out of place but is very useful when toilet paper is not present. *too much information? Whoops.

I let Carly go off to Siem Reap, as I went there with Andrew and Dana a few weeks prior. When she returned to Phnom Penh we set off to Sihanoukville and Koh Rong, an island off of Sihanoukville. As it’s currently rainy season, you take the chance of crazy storms when you visit the beaches. But, then again, you miss the crowds. We managed to have some nice afternoons mixed with some moderate showers to keep the sun from scorching us. The highlight was probably catching up with some friends on the island and exploring Koh Rong with them. We decided on a half-day boat tour that looked awesome.There was just one catch. I tend to get sea sick even on a row boat. But one of our friends was ready for any nausea or illness we may feel so we got ready for a day at sea.

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We arrived in Sihanoukville- beach time!
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Boat tour in Koh Rong with Carly, Maggy and Ruthie–our two friends who work for Daughters of Cambodia

From snorkeling to exploring a secluded beach, it felt that the only thing missing was finding a treehouse on the hills to live like the Robinson Family. It was a long day on a boat  for me but the pièce de résistance was the last stop on our boat tour. A night swim with bioluminescent plankton! Most commonly found in warm coastal waters, this type of plankton glows blue they are moved so it makes swimming feel quite magical.

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Bioluminescent Plankton in Koh Rong (not my photo)

After our magical night on the island, we travelled back to Phnom Penh. After Carly flew out work picked up and the week flew by at lightning speed. It’s already Sunday now and one of my closest friends here is flying back to California on Wednesday. There are a lot of “hellos” and “goodbyes” lately that have me constantly in a state of reflection and sharing. Sharing about my life here with friends back home then reflecting on the time I have had with new friends in Cambodia. Definitely having a lot of “feels” right now that are good and have their time. So this afternoon is being spent at Cafe Dandra–aka: my room with dim lights, coffee and air con (no music necessary as there is ceremonial chanting happening by my house)– soaking it all in.

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The guest of honor, Neriah, for dinner and a movie at Aeon Mall. I love this lady dearly.

In honor of the upcoming six month marker in Cambodia at the end of July I will close with a quote:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around for a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

 

Outside of home country and home comforts

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LIVING ABROAD. It can sound romantic when you think of the movies or books where characters explore the world in backpacker fashion. 

But there is a difference, some may say a deflation, in the realities settling into a new home that is far from your old comforts: loved ones, familiar foods, destination which Amazon Prime delivers to.

Knowing I am not passing through but trying to make roots that- for me- mean that I am staying. Not to fool myself into living out of my suitcase for a whole year. But to let myself invest in friendships here and become involved in activities that keep me coming back. I have some rhyme and reason to my days now. Monday begins my work week and I put on my business casual clothes (different from the jeans, converse and t-shirt I’m used to when working with teens) and play the classic “stop and go” game at the light with my fellow cars and motos heading to work. I go to lunch with co-workers where I still do not always know how to order…English remains second to Khmer. Tuesdays and Thursdays after work I go to language class. I have serious admiration for those in full time jobs AND school. Because after just 1.5 hours my brain usually feels like a scrambled egg.

It’s these elements that create a home for me; letting patterns and normalities form. Not in hopes of controlling my environment-not possible- rather to signify to myself that this is not transitory. I am here. Living in Cambodia.

Today I was sitting in a meeting offsite which was all in Khmer. And with little to know understanding, besides knowing the general subject matter, I have another one of those “aha” moments. I AM NOT IN AMERICA.

I am the minority: in culture, language and physical appearance. In these ways I am the abnormality rather than the norm. There is a difference, I’ve felt, between traveling and moving. I won’t wake up in another city tomorrow (most likely) and there are not as many “first” experiences in Phnom Penh as I had initially coming. There is a type of settling that’s occurred and it has required more of my courage to let myself invest in the life I am forming here. So without concrete plans after IJM, the adventure remains with the future and what is in store for me beyond tomorrow, next week or next month.

Elephantés

Mid May some friends and I decided to take a trip to the jungle for some much needed time in nature. We bought our bus tickets, booked our lodging and got ready for a weekend in the jungles of the Mondulkiri Province- East of Phnom Penh, near the Vietnam border.

We connected with a friend of mine in Phnom Penh who had connections to a tour guide friend in who led treks to see the elephants. So, naturally, I jumped on this and called Cham, our local guide and human jukebox extraordinaire.

LET ME BACKTRACK TO OUR DRIVE TO MONDULKIRI BECAUSE IT WAS MEMORABLE. We chose to travel by mini-van for the cheap price and short travel time. The company we chose said 5 hours and they meant it!  Our driver was really wanting people to WATCH OUT because that horn was being used so generously that it became like white noise as I was trying to dose off. The four of us were in the back-row playing a comical game of Tetris with our limbs and backpacks. Add to the mix sweat, despite there being air-con, and the thought of making skin-to-skin contact with another human seems unbearable. With the sweet melody of a honking horn, a driver who drives like he’s auditioning for The Fast and Furious* and the occasional bump that sent us in the back-row a little more air-born than the rest of the travelers…It was a EVENTFUL 5 hours, ha.

*A slight exaggeration though in the moment it felt accurate

WE HAVE ARRIVED AT THE NATURE LODGE. All well and giddy to see the elephants the next day! Cham, our trusted guide, picks us up and introduces us to his breadth of knowledge of American music. Like I said earlier, a human jukebox. We meet up with our group and start our trek through jungle, making our way to a waterfront for lunch and, where we hope, to hang with some elephants in the water.We had brought enough bananas for a small army in hopes of meeting a hungry elephant along the path. And less than an hour into our hike we are greeted by a friendly giant!

A note: We had just seen Jungle Book a few nights before and I was HYPED UP at the thought of being the next Mowgli who will befriend an elephant and wander off into the jungle with my new best friend… Happily Ever After

I restrained myself. Tried to play it cool and casually agree to feed my secret best friend a banana. It was awesome! Elephants: just cute enough to maintain my childhood-okay, adulthood- image of them and large enough to keep me from running up to one to give it a big hug.

From what I could gather, the elephants we saw are part of a  local community that consisted of 2 villages who raised these elephants. They do not have saddles and they roam the forests with these people and respond to the local language the villagers speak. They seemed more used to being around people but I was definitely listening to the locals on what was safe and kind treatment of these incredible creatures.

ONCE AT THE WATERFRONT, we swam and just enjoyed the refreshing feel of cool water during the hottest part of the day! After lunch the elephants came back for there own dip in the water and that’s when the fun began. I couldn’t take my eyes off their big feet as they made their own path to the deep end. Walking over the slick and wobbly rocks that I previously fumbled over. It was bewitching to watch, like I had uncovered a secret oasis where I was allowed a closer glimpse of God’s creation. Then we had a water party once each elephant was comfy in their spot in the water. We scrubbed behind their ears, welcomed the water showers from their trunks and I remained IN AWE that this was all actually happening!

The rest of the trip was wonderful. The hiking, visiting a coffee plantation, swimming were all secondary to the overall retreat Modulkiri created to be amongst the trees and greenery. All I have to say is that Jungle Book could have been filmed in Mondulkiri.

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heart mondulkiri