Sunday, August 1, 2010
The process really began at the end of June. The teachers at Angkor Chum High School threw a big "Goodbye Adrian" party which lasted from two in the afternoon until midnight. Almost everyone I worked with showed up, even the deputy district governor. They all said awfully nice about me, and we all ate and drank until we could hold no more in our bellies. Four cases of Black Panther Stout were consumed, along with three cases of Crown Ale. By the end of the night, the geography teacher I worked with on the history project could barely stand. He tried to offer me one final toast, but he stumbled back into his chair as soon as his brain decided that they could not support the weight. I had nearly concocted a plan for my counterpart to wed one of the women teachers sitting next to me, but I could not convince her that it was a good idea. (Something having to do with primary school teachers not marrying high school teachers) The music was loud, but when the car batteries wore down the power went out and everyone decided to go home. I helped put my counterpart to bed, and then I went to bed myself. It was a fun night, but it was not something I could repeat. The following week, all of the teachers and students started leaving Angkor Chum. My co-workers either went back to their homes in different provinces or went elsewhere to help with the 12th grade national exams in July. The students dispersed to their villages or Siem Reap town in order to study over the summer.
And so I said goodbye to Angkor Chum high school.
That just left me and a handful of people I knew in town to spend the rest of June and July with. I busied myself with reading, packing, and making last trips out to see Angkor Wat on the weekends. But the days were long, and I found myself staring off into rice fields more than usual during the long hot afternoons after lunch. I even went out into the fields for a week and learned how to plant transplanted rice in the paddies. This was never something I actively wanted to do, but I happened to be on a walk behind the high school when I ran into a gang of people working in one of the paddies. A woman who happened to know my name called me over and asked me if I knew how to stooung (plant transplanted rice). I said that I did not, and would she teach me? She said she would be delighted to, and told me to take off my sandals before I got down into the paddy.
Some agricultural expert named said that the construction of a paddy is like "the fabrication of an aquarium." Sure enough, the earth ridges kept the water inside the space we were working, and the mud reached well above my ankles. It was also warm and sticky, and made a gurgling noise every time I lifted my foot. Ming (Aunt) showed me how to stooung with my right hand while my left carried a clump of rice shoots. With the roots of the plant lined up against my protruding thumb, I pressed the roots into the mud so that the plant stayed upright. Sometimes a boy with a pointed stick would come along and make holes in the earth and I would stick two or three of the plants in there. Ming yelled at me if I planted the rice plants too close together, but I kept insisting that this was my first time doing this. "I’m from the city! I have never done this kind of work. You must believe me!" Ming would not hear of it. When she finally approved of everything that I was doing, she got on to more practical matters like when on earth was I going to marry a girl from the village and stop this nonsense about wanting to marry within my own culture. The banter went back and forth, and the rest of the workers laughed at our antics. On television this kind of thing happens all the time. There is a program on Thursday nights where a man and woman on the stage, and they argue back and forth while an orchestra or a band provides brief musical interludes. If an old man were playing the long necked lute behind us, the scene would have been complete. It could have been memorialized as an exercise sentence in one of my Khmer books. "Grandfather plays the saa dee-ew while aunt argues with the foreigner."
I came out to help them a couple of afternoons each week, wearing an oversized Vietnamese hat that gave me excellent protection from the sun. The gang noticed this, and every time I took a break they called me a lazy yoo-an (not a nice word for the Vietnamese). We wore dark clothing and hats that covered us from the sun. Their company was delightful, but at the end of the week my back ached and could no longer keep up the work. The host family also disapproved of what I was doing, saying that a teacher would never stoop so low as to go and stooung with the people in the fields.
And so I said goodbye to my career as a rice planter.
In the middle of July, I went down to Kampong Cham town to help prepare the new language and cultural facilitators for the incoming group of new volunteers. It was a full week of meetings about what to expect from the trainees, both good and bad. Most of the sessions involved practice teaching sessions where the new LCF’s prepared lessons, taught them, and had them critiqued quickly in a session afterwards. A few of them had never been around Americans before, and they were understandably nervous. Three months is a long time for anyone to deal with a large group of Americans, but we gave them the best advice we could. After our work was done for the day, the other volunteers and I sat in the cafés along the banks of the Mekong and talked about the good old days. We stayed and passed the time long after the sun went down over the Japanese bridge and the students went home from their private classes. The company was pleasant, and it was a very productive week. It was also good to contribute to the K4 training sessions once before I left.
And so I said goodbye to the training staff in Kampong Cham.
When I returned to site, the only thing left to do was pack up and leave. There was little else I could do. The few remaining friends I had were also leaving soon, and it was better to say goodbye to them while I had the chance and leave after that.
In one day, I packed and walked all over the town saying goodbye to the people of Angkor Chum. It did not feel that terribly sad, but then I did not approach it as a terribly tragic event. I told many of the market ladies that I would come back to visit bearing a beautiful American wife so that they would believe all the excuses I made for not wanting a Khmer one. That kept them laughing as I left. Many of them thanked me for all the work I had done, wished me luck back in America, and asked if I would miss Angkor Chum when I was away in America. Miss Sopuhn asked me if I would miss her and her class of 36 students of 12A, and I said in English that I would. She then smiled and said, "I don’t understand English."
"That’s too bad," I said, "Because I would have brought you to America in my suitcase if you did." Both Sopuhn and her mother laughed, but I realized later that such an act would technically constitute as human trafficking.
And so, I said goodbye to Angkor Chum and the two years of my life that I spent living there. It was not so strange leaving the place because I had done that many times, but I always went back. Now it was different. An odd feeling came over me in a hotel room in Sisophon later that night after I left when I was staring at my bags and contemplating the events of the day. I realized that I had left and I could not go back for a long time. To make matters a little worse, I had a sudden craving for mee cha. Not just any old mee cha, but Si Nooan’s mee cha. The noodles she made were always dripping in grease, and if I told her I was really hungry she would put a fried egg on top. Now I will have to wait years before I can satisfy that craving.
This past week I took some time to visit other volunteers and reminisce about our two years together in Cambodia. I believe I once wrote on this blog that I was immensely proud of the work my colleagues and I were doing in Peace Corps Cambodia, and I am still proud of everything that we have all done. It may have seemed like very little over time, but it is remarkable to look back over it over time.
And so, I say goodbye to Peace Corps Cambodia.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The words “fruit shake” do not have any meaning for Dalis. I have taught her and her class of thirty seven students of 12A for the past two years, but she cannot speak English to save her life. This is my failure. It is her triumph. But I forgive her because her family’s sweets stand supplies me with dtuk au luk on a daily basis, and because her mother has a peculiar sense of humor that makes me laugh. Ming (Aunt), as I refer to her, runs the stand. She operates the blender, which sits behind the glass case of display fruit and the various bottles of ingredients. She knows my usual order for the fruit shake: “Please no sugar, please no duck egg.” When she hands me a glass of thick, pink liquid she tells me “Adrian sum lup bee maong, at?” It means, “This glass of dtuk au luk is so delicious it will make Adrian be unconscious for two hours, yes?”
The joke has a better delivery in Khmer, more of a punch.
Dtuk au luk does not have the same flavor every day. Some days you can taste the carrot, others the Asian pear. They mix it mostly with durian in Stung Treng, and coconut is the chief ingredient in Anlong Veng. Phnom Penh and the surrounding provinces of Kampong Chnnang and Kampong Speu have a mostly apple flavor to their dtuk au luk, and the ones in Sisophon stay true to their name by having watermelon as their chief ingredient.
But the best ones are, of course, the ones that make me unconscious.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
The rains come every day now. Water comes thundering down from the heavens, and I can finally sleep at night without waking up covered in sweat. More standing water also means more mosquitoes, and more mosquitoes means a roaring trade in the guppy business.
In my non-teaching hours at school, I usually find a quiet desk where I can work on something for a few hours without having to move my mouth or arms; thus, relaxing the muscles exhausted by the classroom. However, I look up from my desk every so often and find a crowd of little boys staring at me from an open window. All of them clutch empty plastic water bottles. They find them from the big rubbish bins in front of the teacher's dormitory, and they know I like to use them to transport guppies. It usually takes them a little bit of courage to ask for what they have come to buy. I am a big, scary, pink-white, Khmer speaking foreigner after all (Babies are worse. Since they cannot process complex thought, they take one look at me and start screaming in fright). "Loo-at trei?" one of the boys asks.
"Bat bat...loo-at trei."
The school year is ending, and most of my work is done and over with except for this one project. Every day that I am here, I seem to sell more and more guppies. Most of my afternoons are spent fishing them out with nets from the water containers. Afterwards, I hand to my customers pamphlets with information in Khmer on how to take care of their new pets and how they keep people safe from dengue fever.
Everyone wants to buy the pretty looking male guppies with the big colorful tails, but I try to persuade them that they should buy the dull grey females as well if they want to produce guppy fry of their own. This is followed by the embarrassing question that only a seven-year-old boy would ask. "Why do you need male and female guppies to have baby guppies?"
"Ask you parents."
I was afraid that the project would end in ruin, and in my consternation I started peddling my magic fish in the market when I went for supplies in the morning. I sold them off in the same plastic water bottles, touting their wondrous abilities in controlling disease as I walked among the stalls under the tin roof. My usual money changer and vegetable lady bought bottles of fish, but my tailor did not. This is so even after the good money I paid him to make me some pants!
Since then things have been on the upswing for the business, and I no longer have to peddle the guppies on bicycle anymore. I am on track to selling close to 200 fish this month. Can you imagine it? 200 fish for 100 riel a piece will mean 20,000 riel ($5) in guppy sales! I keep the money in a locked desk at the school in an effort to demonstrate the concept of transparency, and declare to all who ask me about it that the profits from the farm will go towards fish food.
Vannak keeps saying that I have become a rich man selling fish. He likes to poke fun at everything I do, but Vannak should take notes from everything that I am doing because he is going to take over the business when I am gone.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
These stories simply are what they are. They are the ones you would hear as you drifted into Phnom Penh and found yourself in a familiar watering hole swapping yarns with your friends and colleagues about your friends and colleagues. These are some of the best I have collected since I have been here, and I have transformed them into writing in order to explain our world a little better. While writing these stories, it has occurred to me that someone reading these might not think of Peace Corps volunteers in Cambodia in the best light. I would counter this by declaring an affirmation in our humanity. We do an immense amount of good work in this country, and it is my firm belief that this work is both effective and a proper use of US government resources. But while our work is wholly altruistic, it is important that we are not angels. We have failings, some of which are mentioned here, but these should be viewed not as a reflection of what we do but rather part of the colorful world in which we live. Take us as we are, both the good bits and the bad. While based on real events, I have changed the names of the people in these stories to protect their identities.
In Punching A Backpacker
We loathed the group of people known to the world as the "Backpackers." One look at them and you would instantly know why. They wore dreadlocks, beards, ragged clothing, and exposed far too much skin than decency permits in a foreign country where people pride themselves on personal appearance. As a rule, the requirements for one to be a backpacker were simple: one had to own an oversized backpack stuffed with an excess of clothes, and one had to dress incredibly badly. In the tourist cafes and national monuments, they put their feet everywhere as if the world were their personal footrest. They were also constantly drunk or taking drugs of some kind, lost in a man-made fog unaware of the risks that they were taking. Consider the example of one I saw in Siem Reap town the other day: one white male, aged approximately nineteen to twenty one, who was wearing yellow sparkled shoes with purple socks, shorts with holes in them that revealed underwear, no shirt, large sunglasses, and a miniature fedora. As he was walking down Sivatha Street, he held a two liter bottle of Angkor Beer. His friends were dressed in a similar fashion. I cannot imagine what Cambodians must think of these people. How shocking they must look! I feel embarrassed just thinking about them.
It is true that we were also foreigners, but we lived here. We had jobs, spoke the language, and lived in villages scattered across the country. Our collective self was Lawrence, and this was our Arabia. The respect shared among us for the people was not shared by the grungy monsters which teared through the guesthouses in a haze of cigarette smoke and empty beer bottles. Yet, admittedly, the women were attractive. Bare shouldered European women were not a common sight in our lives, and among crowds of them it was impossible to not catch yourself staring at them. Dave said it best when it came to these situations, "There is too much eye candy here." In a way he was right. After a few minutes of staring at them, you felt miserable at your own loneliness and prayed that you could soon go back to your village far away from temptation.
B. had actually punched one in the face. It was terrific story the way she told it. With a beer in hand and exaggerating the way her opponent talked, she kept us laughing and on edge at the same time. The way it happened was that she visiting Laos with her sister during the New Year in April. The custom there is that during the New Year people splash buckets of water on each other in a grand water fight that lasts for days. B. was touring Louang Pahbang, and had been doused by little children all day long as she walked to and from the various Wats around the city. At the end of the day, she and her sister showered and went out to dinner. On the way to a restaurant, she was spotted by a group of drunken backpackers. Enthused by the local custom, they were happily splashing other people as well as themselves. Spotting B., one of the girls came over to douse her. B. raised her arms and started saying that she was tired, had just taken a shower, and was on her way to dinner. The female backpacker laughed at her excuses, and started to raise the bucket of water. That was when B. said, "Listen, bitch, pour that bucket of water on me and I will punch you in the face." The girl, to her misfortune, did not listen to such a stern warning. She dumped the foul smelling Mekong water all over B.'s head and freshly laundered clothes. B. let the water pour over her, closing her mouth and nose. When she wiped the few remaining drops from her eyes, she opened them and struck the girl across the chin with a powerful right cross (At this point in the story, B. would ball up her fist and demonstrate how she gave the drunken girl a big whollop in the teeth. We would beg her to continue). The female backpacker went sprawling into the street. The man friend of the backpacker came over from the group and started yelling at B., but she shut him down right there and then. "Listen, you're both drunk, you're not a part of the culture and your being really disrespectful. So why don't you stuff yourself and go sober up!"
B. would finish the story with triumphant applause from all of us. All the things that she had said to the pair she had run into in Laos were the things we had wished we could have said to the collective group of backpackers. Whether we would have punched somebody over the water is another matter.
B. probably had more balls than all of us.
The Oldest Profession
C. had been with prostitutes. That is what most people said about him anyway. Nobody knew for sure how many times he had gone to them, but the stories about the man were almost limitless. With each repetition new details were added until nobody knew anything about it expect that he was one of those guys.
Not that he was the only one, and not that the ladies were hard to find. Prostitutes were numerous all over the country, lurking in the dark corners of dancing clubs or trolling the streets looking for customers. They wore high heeled shoes, heavy makeup, and skimpy dresses, and they groped prospective customers when they could. If I saw a group of them on the street, I would do everything I could not come within grabbing distance. Travelling foreigners went to them easily enough. A bunch of us were getting drinks at a bar once and watched a woman take home a foreign man every hour on the hour. We cringed, and swore that we would never stoop that low. C. had, though. I imagine he had never truly fathomed the reasons from staying away from the working girls in a country such as this: the legal ones (you could get fired), the sanitary ones (HIV was here, so was a range of other STD's), or the moral ones (whichever ones you claimed to have). Either the man did not think about any of these, or he ignored all of them in the pursuit of a greater desire. The former seems more logical. I cannot envision who can still go to a prostitute having carefully thought about the hazards of it.
No one talked to him about it, so no one knew exactly all the things that he did. Despite all the stories, D. spoke up once or twice about him. "I don't see that much of a problem with it anymore, now that I'm getting older," he said once. "Ugly men need love too." Was C. that ugly? I cannot remember his face that well. He was not particularly handsome, but not unattractive. D. had his own run in with the ladies of the evening, but he was different. We all felt sorry for him. He was feeling lonely one night, and met a girl who told him he was gorgeous and brilliant. He took her home and did not believe her when she asked him for "two hundred dollars American, American." But he would not pay, refusing to believe he had been duped. He left the guesthouse in a hurry and caught the nearest tuk tuk in the street, thinking that he had given the girl the slip. K. can tell the story better than I can, so I will tell it in her voice: "So he's in the tuk tuk, right, and he thinks he's gotten away from this girl who he has just found out is a prostitute. He heads to the office of this NGO he knows, thinking that he can hide out there and kind of just lay low for a while with the internet and the air conditioning. But this girl follows him all the way to the front gate, and she's about to make a scene right then and there. Of course, he does not want this girl to come and follow him into the NGO and destroy his reputation, so he yells at her to go away and gives her all the cash he has in his wallet. Only then does she go away." D. rested his conscience for a day and then told a few people what had happened. Those people told a few people, who told a few, and that is the reason why I can write that story today.
When C. left to go back to the 'States, even more stories came out about his nefarious liaisons. One made us laugh pretty hard. The volunteer that replaced C.'s position met someone who used to hang with him before he went back. The man said to him, "Hey man, you're pretty cool an' all, but I used to go get drunk and f&*k hookers with C." The interesting thing was that other people who knew C. never knew about any of the stuff he did when he would come to Phnom Penh. No one wanted to tell them either. The fine young man that they knew and worked on projects with retained his reputation.
His legacy was forever split between those who knew him, and those who had heard of him through story.
P.P. Fear & Loathing For R.
The health hazards were numerous, almost too many to count. You would get some kind of horrible stomach infection, and spend days lying on the bathroom floor puking out your guts. Crying on the phone to the medical officer to come and save you, you would pass the time miserably wishing you had never been born. If the threat of that was not enough, there were the mosquitoes. The nasty little vampires gave you all sorts of fevers, not to mention the dangerous ones. Twice on the dreaded dengue and you could wind up with a plane ticket home and a note saying, "Don't come back!" You would think that someone in our position would avoid doing the things that increase your risk of getting sick or injured. You would think that, but you would be wrong. Human beings are so surprising like that.
Whatever it was that was going on in R.'s life was anybody's guess. What we did know was that the demon that drove her was terrifying. It made her blind to what she was doing to herself, as well as how it was affecting other people. What it was she was doing was something called "high risk behavior." In the dancing clubs over by the river where people get shot, raped, or beat up, she would go out and pick up men without telling anyone where she was going. She also drank too much, and took any kind of substance that was passed to her without a moment's hesitation. It was the latter that eventually got her fired.
I could tell it was coming. You could see in the way that she came late to meetings, by her expression that read "Could you please repeat the question?" She also let things slip a little too casually. A group of us were out to dinner one night to an Indian restaurant near Yugoslavia Street and Psar Orussey when she began telling us about the kind of weekend she had had. The story became even more fantastic as she went on, and I cannot even tell it without conjuring up her voice. "So...like my friend and I were like at this club. And there were like all these girls around [she mentioned later they had no clothes on] And they were really chill, and were really happy that I spoke Khmer. And we were all doing 'shrooms."
This was just too much for me. "Where did you get 'shrooms?"
"Oh, some guy...?"
The story of how R. got fired was spectacular, even though no one exactly knew what the details were. She had started off at a bar, as usual, and things had progressed in the evening to the point where she had had too much to drink. This was not the first time this had happened. There were rumors that she had been banned from Equinox because she had passed out and thrown up all over the front bar, all over the expensive bottles of Grey Goose and Fine Scotch Whiskey that the French people loved to sip slowly while holding their cigarettes at arm's length. Her friends dutifully followed her throughout the evening, but they were tired of picking up after her, holding her hair as she threw up in hotel toilet bowls, and making sure she slept on her side so she would not asphyxiate in her sleep. On this particular night they resolved to simply put her in a tuk tuk and send her off to her hotel. From the bar, they carried her limp body over to the big plush seat of a tuk tuk and told the concerned looking driver to take her home. When R. awoke, the face of the night guard of the hotel and the driver were peering over her. "Time to go home!" they told her. R. wanted to sleep in the tuk tuk instead. The details at this point of the story are a bit fuzzy, but one knows that R. was belligerent enough with the hotel staff for them to have called the Peace Corps office at something like four in the morning.
One can only guess at what happened next, and what was said at the meetings behind closed doors. I imagine a lot of words like "conduct unbecoming a Peace Corps volunteer" were thrown around, and "if you have a medical issue such as substance abuse this is not the best place for a good recovery." But was America a better place for a recovery from drugs?
In any case, R. found herself floating home on an airplane thousands of feet above the earth. That's the moral of this story, if you can call it one.
K. And The Kampuchea Romance
K. had started dated a Cambodian man, and F. hated her for it. It was pure and simple as that. K. was previously involved with F., and the two of them had hit it off pretty well during the beginning period of their service. F. had hoped that it would last, but when K. told him she was dating a Cambodian man he could hardly contain his anger. It hurt his pride enormously. Here was this tall, muscular, handsome, American man, the pinnacle of masculinity, being rejected for a Cambodian man more used to the hard life of rice farming than the MTV and hot dogs of his newly acquired American girlfriend. They did not speak to each other from then on, nor did they manage to look each other in the eye. F. and K. might as well have been in the 7th grade for that matter. And they carried on this way as if this was perfectly acceptable behavior for two people in their mid twenties.
Despite F.'s feeling's about the whole matter, relationships between Host Country Nationals (I love the way that the government gives names to things) and volunteers were not that uncommon. It simply happened to a few people here and there, and in some countries it happened more than others. In Cambodia, the people who made them work were usually women, which made sense if you thought about it within the context of the culture. A Cambodian man had free reign to do pretty much anything he wanted to, whereas the women were restricted in most of their social movements. The man could go to prostitutes as much as he wanted, drink as much as he wanted, and father as many children as his bank account would permit him to. Having an American girlfriend probably was probably not that big of a deal to him, although not without its awkward moments. One our language teachers during the training period told us a story about meeting a western woman in a dancing club, and what he thought of western kissing (Cultural note, Cambodians do not touch on the mouths when they kiss. They merely sniff each other on the cheek. In general, physical contact between the sexes is very limited) He said to us, "In the club, I am dancing, and a western woman pulls me over from my friend and starts dancing very close to me. I don't know what to do, so I dance close with her! Although it is very dark, I can see that the woman is very beautiful and has big red hair. I like dancing with her, but then she grabs my head and pulls me to her face! Suddenly my mouth is on her mouth, and her tongue is sliding around my own. [We restrained ourselves to keep from laughing when he got to this point] It was awful! I felt so helpless and disgusted, but I wanted to keep dancing with her because she was beautiful. She kissed me again like before she left the club." After hearing that story, I began to have a lot of respect for any Cambodian man willing to embrace the peculiar dating habits of Americans. It must take an awful lot of courage.
An American man who dated a Cambodian girl was quite different. In this situation, all of the customary rules applied. This made it less like the concept of "dating" and more like a "courtship," in which both families were involved in every step of the way. The man also had to have every intention of marrying the girl he was interested in, and precede knowing full well that if the marriage did not work out the girl would be disgraced for the rest of her life. I found the whole process daunting and stayed away from the whole thing, but others went through with it. The one man I knew who made it work proceeded with proper Cambodian customs, with chaperoned dates, astrology predictions, and the whole shebang. Theirs was actually a neat story. They had met each other while working at a school for the deaf, and both knew American Sign Language. While each of them knew rudimentary forms of each other's native languages, they mostly used their hands to communicate with each other. Cute, isn't it? But I never found out what their married life was like.