Search This Blog

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Field Notes

I chuckled to myself (as those who hang out with me know that I do fairly often) when I climbed into the front seat of the Landcruiser in the dawn hours with my briefcase in hand to engage in my first international consulting gig.   I was retained to write a booklet highlighting the success stories of a donor’s grantees, who had developed pilot projects to address climate change. This entailed ten days of driving around the back roads of rural Cambodia with a chauffeurand a program officer/ translator.  Here are some of the lessons I learned. 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
One of the tireless grassroots organizers with a local NGO, teaching farmers about new methods. Polin, the program officer, is in the background.
One of the tireless grassroots organizers with a local NGO,
 teaching farmers about new methods.
Polin, the program officer, is in the background.
 Fresh rice smells delicate with a hint of floral and redolent with the promise of sustenance and an economic future.   After coming out of the thresher, the grains are smooth and silky and run through my hand like water.  The farmer smiles with pride and giggles at me as I bend over to stick my head into the 50 pound bag and inhale deeply.

Rural Rice 101. Stand out in rice field bending over, cutting stalks with a scythe. Load stalks on ox cart.  Deliver to homestead. Thresh stalks to separate the straw from the husks.  Dry husks in sun. Use a wooden pounding tool or a machine to remove husks. Store rice for home or for market.
Rural Rice 101.
Stand out in rice field bending over, cutting stalks with a scythe.
Load stalks on ox cart. Deliver to homestead.
Thresh stalks to separate the straw from the husks.
 Dry husks in sun. Use a wooden pounding tool or a machine to remove husks.
Store rice for home or for market.











When a person was “so thin… like a ghost” as a child and lost half of their family to the Khmer Rouge, they  hunch over their lunch and eat it faster than anyone I've ever witnessed.


A bio-digester set up. This device composts manure to create methane gas for cooking and lights.
A bio-digester set up.
This device composts manure to create
methane gas for cooking and lights.

If you say that you believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is your personal savior, that you might get a fancy new water catchment system installed at your house.

A farmer sowing the product of water saving planting he learned through the program.
A farmer sowing the product of water saving planting
he learned through the program.

When the white person shows up to hear what you think, you might wear a nice outfit and read your prepared remarks.  Or crack a joke and flirt a little. Or you might look at her with a blank expression when she asks a question that doesn't translate well.

If you try to make some notes as the car as the driver honks and passes an overloaded minibus, that you will put pen markings all over your skirt.

A trio of really poor children. They begged me to take their picture then asked me for money. Note the plastic "ski boots" used by the girl on the right to slide down a gravel hill.  The girl (?) on the left looks like she took a header on the same hill.
A trio of really poor children. They begged me to take their picture
then asked me for money. Note the plastic "ski boots" used by the girl
 on the right to slide down a gravel hill.
The girl (?) on the left looks like she took a header on the same hill.

That when you buy a piece of clothing that says “Made in Cambodia”,  the girls who made it wear wearing brightly colored matching head scarfs and load, standing close together,  into the back of a cattle truck to return to the village where they live. It can take them an hour each way.

The sight of magenta lotus flowers growing in a wetland on either side of the road in early morning light is a great way to start your day. Especially when just down the road,  its followed by a sculpted deep pink and gold tinged archway that marks the entrance to a temple.

Despite all of our efforts to build community resilience, the forces of greed and opportunity will bear heavy pressure.   I was riding down a swath of cleared land and heavy machinery in Northeast Cambodia.   Old growth palms and trees tossed to the side like toothpicks, amidst Chinese bulldozers driven by Chinese workers.  Cambodia secured a loan from China to build the road to Vietnam, and the loan terms stipulated Chinese contractors.  The red dust billowed out from behind each vehicle and coated the vegetation with powder.   Locals drove their motorbikes with the korma wrapped all around their heads.  Children playing by the side of the road coughed.


Brave bicyclists.
Brave bicyclists.


The scene that the bicyclists were headed into.
The scene that the bicyclists were headed into.
  
You can put four piglets in a long, cylindrical bamboo cage that straps across the back of your motorbike.  Or that you can hang about 15 dead chickens by their feet around the periphery around your back seat.

A typical transportation scene.  Yes, there is a man on top.
A typical transportation scene. Yes, there is a man on top.

 Grasshoppers can bounce off your hair when you have dinner next to a wetland, eating great num ta leng sap (savory Khmer pancakes).

Kampon Phluk on the Tonle Sap lake in dry season.  The lake rises 4 meters in the monsoon season, causing the Tonle Sap river to change direction.
Kampon Phluk on the Tonle Sap lake in dry season.
The lake rises 4 meters in the monsoon season,
causing the Tonle Sap river to change direction.


Houses on the Tonle Sap lake.   I conducted a field interview on a front porch of a house like this.
Houses on the Tonle Sap lake.
I conducted a field interview on a front porch of a house like this.





When a red dragonfly alights on the top of a wooden pole located just across your sightline during community interviews and stays there for a long time, that feel validated in this work.  That maybe you are doing exactly what the Universe intended for you.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Roads in Myanmar

After a long day of fording rivers, jouncing along dirt roads and winding our way into the mountains, we reached the chilly alpine town of Mindat just before nightfall.  A trio of girls and one boy scuttled ahead of the minivan to wait on the ledge of a small stone bridge, watching with interest as we disembarked and our guide walked up to the government office to register our presence with the authorities.    I took a few steps forward to say hello.  
These government signs are all over the country, but most  have a more practiced paint job.
These government signs are all
over the country, but most have
a more practiced paint job.
The lacquered bamboo baskets on their backs were suspended from a single woven band across their foreheads and filled with branches of autumnal foliage.   I held the plant to my lips and questioned its edibility.  Four heads shook side to side.  I used it as a broom and they shook their heads again.  As I was trying to figure out my next move, one girl clasped her hands in the Buddhist prayer gesture and all became clear.   The children, all under ten, had gathered the branches of the plant to sell door to door for the Buddhist  altars in the homes of this large village perched on the top of the serrated forest-covered mountains in the Chin State in Northwest Myanmar.  This is an area closed to the casual visitor; our guide had to secure permits well in advance.

Development aid in action.  This system wasn't functioning, but other taps dispensed water that was cleaner than what came out from the taps in urban hotel rooms.  Gwen's UV light purifier/magic wand said so.
Development aid in action. This system wasn't functioning,
but other taps dispensed water that was cleaner
than what came out from the taps
in urban hotel rooms. Gwen's UV light
water  purifier/magic wand said so.
We were away from the “Big 4” towns (Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon) to  trek in the hills where people have lived for generations, farming the land, trading and living without electricity and running water.  The Chin people are some of the poorest in Myanmar. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that 73% live below the poverty line in a country where the average median income is about $380 a year.   After years of foreign sanctions and an obstinate regime that refused aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008,  the budding emergence of what seems to be a more tolerant military government has generated  evidence of foreign aid reaching communities that were a day’s trek between Mindat and Kampalet.  There were Save the Children educational posters with images of hand washing and reading, a new water system with UNDP and the Danish Aid organization’s logos on the community faucets and UNICEF bookbags carried to school in the mornings. 
The first time the van got stuck.  Nice view stretching out for miles.
The first time the van got stuck.
Nice view stretching out for miles.
I was still struck by the images illustrating both a lack of outside influence and tremendous internal fortitude.  A bamboo school house on stilts with forty students and two teachers just down the road from the transfer station where the hand pumpers filled oil drums that were loaded onto cargo trucks (300 a week) and sold to the refinery. 

   Down a steep and narrow dirt road off just south of the summit of Mount Victoria, everyone wore grimy, faded and well-worn western clothes.  One pantless toddler had the telltale distended belly of kwashiorkor.  His mother ground the corn from the hillside fields in wooden mortar, thumping the five foot high wooden pestle in an up and down crushing motion.  There was little foreigner traffic in this area.

At the summit trailhead.  Our guide Saw is reviewing a hand drawn map with the local people. His fancy pants are a real contrast to the bamboo gathering basket/knife and old rifle used for protection against big cats that the local people are carrying.
At the summit trailhead. Our guide Saw is
reviewing a hand drawn map with the local people.
His fancy pants are a real contrast to the
 bamboo gathering basket/knife and old rifle
 used for protection against big cats that the local people are carrying.
 After the van got stuck on the rough roads for the second time, Gwen and I walked through the upland forests of the Nat Ma Taung National Park, a “sky island” that maintains an ecosystem more typical of the Himalayan forests of the north.  When our guides Saw and Ion caught up to us, the tow rope was tied to the front rear view mirror. Saw laughingly (in a giddy relief kind of way) mentioned the village men had helped pull them out from the front when pushing from the rear wasn’t generating action. 

Bagan landscape... not my photo.
Bagan landscape... not my photo.
The mountains were a welcome relief from the dusty crowded streets of Bagan, were we’d spent the previous day touring the stunning  pagodas and ancient brick chedis. 

The tour buses discharged their large groups of gray haired charges at these sites; Gwen and I followed  at a reasonable distance to glean the interpretive highlights.   I found myself fending off persistent children that approached us to sell postcards in a laminated flip out cascade. Some of the more entrepreneurial had created their own designs.   One small boy recited his desperate, rapid fire English pitch while a more practiced older girl prepped me for the hard sell at her sister’s  gift shop.   Just outside the door of the lacquerware factory shop, I was surrounded by eight youngsters between five and ten years old who were bemused by my intentionally comical obstinacy about purchasing,  but happy for the attention to review the colors of their clothing and share some English adjectives.  Toward the end of the day, we grew tired of temples.
No cameras allowed at the National Museum in Bagan, so I drew "field notes."
No cameras allowed at the
National Museum in Bagan,
 so I drew "field notes."
In the cavernous exhibition halls, gleaming marble floors and towering peaked roof of the National Museum in Bagan,  I sensed the  undercurrent presence of the military’s 40 year regime in the country.  The displays featured large paintings, grimy dioramas and sentinels of Buddha statues that showed the power of Myanmar’s ancient history, the social life of the surrounding early people and royal hairstyles of elaborate braided projectiles that extended far beyond the scalp. 
 The history we saw was just one facet of the story.  What isn’t told is the repeated battering that the people of Myanmar have sustained for over 150 years.  When the British determined it was strategic, they sailed up the Irrawaddy River to claim the royal capital of Mandalay, deposing the seated King to India and later setting fire to centuries of archival records in the royal library.   After a very brief period of independence and democratic rule, a military fueled coup occurred in the year I was born.  The military began their rule with promoting a disastrous foray into socialism that created starvation in a economy that had been the largest exporter of rice in the world.  In various forms since, the generals continued their suppression and truth re-telling by quashing resistance, developing new initiatives to control and building their internal coffers.   Like Bagan’s nearly 3,000 ancient chedis that were systematically rebuilt (not renovated) over the years, the military authorities have created their own truth of Myanmar’s past history and current reality.

Ancient statues inside a chedi in Bagan.
Ancient statues inside a chedi in Bagan.
Whether to call this country Burma or Myanmar is just one facet of the story.   From my research, Burma is a British interpretation of the name of the Bama people, the largest and most powerful ethnic group in the country.

   Without any input from the people, the Generals who led the State Law and Order Restoration Council changed the name to Myanmar in 1989.  Renowned  Yangon author Ma Thanege says that there is an ancient tablet in the Museum of Bagan, datable as 1235 CE, that provided the earliest mention of Myanmar.   Thant Myint U mentions that strong horseman people, after surviving numerous campaigns of empires in both China and Tibet in the 800’s, relocated south to the fertile rice fields near present day Mandalay and called themselves “the Myanma.”    Daw Aun San Suu Ki prefers Burma, but everyone we talked to used Myanmar to describe the language, culture and themselves.  In this country, everything is nuanced with a context that, as foreigners, we can’t understand.

Hotels have to be registered by the government to accommodate foreigners. We completed a form completed for each time we registered.  With over a million tourists expected in 2013, there's a shortage of hotel rooms.   We heard more than one story of tourists sleeping in Pagodas, storage closets and the hotel lobbies in Inle Lake during the balloon festival.
Hotels have to be registered by the
government to accommodate foreigners. We completed a form each time we registered. With over a million tourists
expected in 2013, there's a shortage of hotel rooms.
 We heard more than one story of tourists sleeping in
Pagodas, storage closets and the
hotel lobbies in Inle Lake during the balloon festival.

 What I do know is that my skin color and physical stature (Burmese people are very small) presents an opportunity and an obstacle.  On our last leg of the trip, we climbed from the shores of Inle Lake to the hill town of Taunggyi, which hosts an annual Ta Suang Tine balloon festival.  Our car pulled up and we were promptly charged $6 to sit in the special “Foreigner Booth”, located just in front of the Burmese equivalent of porta-potties.

Thousands of people from across Myanmar attend to see the paper balloons, go shopping at the booths and ride the rides.  The ceremony is similar to many Asian fire festivals that occur in November and reach full force on the night of the full moon, when Gwen and I had arranged to go.   We made our way through the teeming crowds, past the charcoal fires that fueled the woks filled with boiling oil and drunken boys dancing in a line with their hands on their friend’s shoulders, to watch the scene at one of the brightly-colored neon ferris wheels.

The young male carnies move the wheel around through sheer body weight, quickly scaling the wooden scaffolding to the arc, and moving their way to the perimeter to launch the momentum.  The wheel picks up speed and they move to hang from the swinging seats for a few seconds, then reach a perfect  position to land a few feet off the ground and duck out of the way of the falling chairs.  Stunning in its risk and poetry, the action captivated a crowd of young Burmese onlookers.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement on the ground.  A five year old darts out to pick up an a stray coke can, stashing it in his large rice bag of recyclables before disappearing back into the crowd.

We move to the large staging area, watching one version of a ritual that occurs through the evening.  The crowds amassed around the trucks holding the paper balloons and carefully offloading and unfold it.  Men holding towering batons of gas soaked torches appear to climb under the balloon and light the fires that inflate the structures.  Moment by moment, the warm air begins to define the shape; some balloons are decorated with elaborate lights and others with paintings.  As the balloon reaches the full height, the team attaches a basket of fireworks, lights a few charges and sets the inflatable alight. In a perfect process, the fireworks begin to eject their explosions as the balloon soars above the crowd and continues the unusual show high into the sky.  I’m so used to see fireworks come up from the ground that it’s magical to watch them shooting downward from above.

At nearly midnight, while we were on the ground watching, a balloon advertising a construction firm appears to have trouble. The team fastens the firework basket and sets it off anyway.   It halfheartedly drifts across the thronged stadium, scattering crowds in its path as it litters the ground with shooting colored flame throwers, before reaching a now deserted viewing platform.  Gwen has a group of boys who are using her height and her camera lens to see the balloon crash into the side and exploding into a fireball punctuated by rockets and projectile globs of flaming fuel.  The fire trucks race to the scene, which appears to be well-rehearsed, and there is no evidence of surprise in the crowd around us.     It is a singularly spectacular way to end an evening.  We had an early morning flight back to the biggest city that is not the capital. 

My travel companion Gwen standing next to the absolute biggest gong I have ever seen at the Shwegadon Pagoda.  A very special place.
My travel companion Gwen standing next to
the absolute biggest gong I have ever seen.
The Shwegadon Pagoda is a very special place.
The next day, our taxi driver picked us up at the Yangon airport for our final preparations.  We went back to see the magical, sacred Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset, taking care to ascend the steps, barefoot,  to the top as Barack, Hillary and the Secret Service did on their recent visit. 

Over yet another noodle dinner on the street side café across from the hotel, Gwen and I chatted about our “themes” for the trip.   I began to take small steps back into the internet and sift through my thoughts and my notes.

We waited in traffic on departure day.  Our driver passed back the Burmese paper and launched an atypically emotional tirade about the horrifying photos on the front page of the newspaper.  Monks, who were severely burned in a military-led skirmish while protesting a copper mine in Monywa in the northwestern part of the country, led to an angry outburst in heavily accented English.  He criticized the government for their force and their relationship with China, scorned Tony Za, Myanmar’s richest man, about his cronyism with the powers that be and held reluctance about any real change as long as the military was in power.  When I asked him about how he felt for the immediate future, he mentioned Japan’s move to pay off Myanmar’s  significant national debt, the increase in international aid money and the 2015 elections that are a chance to restore democratic process and remove the vestiges of the military’s power.  Then we stopped at the National League for Democracy headquarters for some shopping.

As we reached the airport, I remembered our early morning flight to Bagan on our first day in the country.  In the pre-dawn hours, a boy selling flower garlands approached and gave me a remnant of fragrant yellow flowers and a long white thread.  I thanked him profusely and bustled for the check-in, tucking the flowers into the back of my notebook to press them.   Children work hard in this country; Gwen and I found them waiting on our tables, carrying their infant siblings with fabric strapped across their back, helping their parents at the market,  gathering firewood for their families, scavenging for recyclables and dressed in the traditional longyi on their way to school.   In hindsight, I wished I’d sat down next to the boy selling flowers.  I wished that I learned his name, told him that there was hope for his future and bought all his garlands to distribute at random in the terminal.

Just before leaving Cambodia a couple weeks ago, I completed research on the extent and strategies of development assistance currently being proffered to Myanmar.  In 2013, many countries are doubling and tripling their commitments and I estimated that at least $350 million would be invested between 2013-2015.  Policy pundits fear the “fire hose” affect, which could create a chaos of duplicative projects, increased pressure for housing and office space and a drain on Myanmar’s English-speaking professionals away from their work serving the people.   Foreign investors are lining up to access Myanmar’s ample natural resources of oil, gems and old growth hardwoods.  Tourists are streaming in on large motor coaches that belch next to horse-drawn carriages, oxcarts and sunburned Caucasians teetering on ill-fitting bicycles.   Taxi drivers can speak their mind.

Daw Aun San Suu Ki’s charismatic political presence, continuing the legacy of her father,  represents one facet of change for this country.  But that fact is that the Prime Minister is a former General and the military still retains absolute power in the constitution.  There is still ongoing violence. In the Rahkine state,  thousands of muslim  ethnic minorities are starving, homeless and living in squalid refugee camps in the western part of the country.

The currently inflating balloon could sail up high into the sky or crash to the ground.   The ground crew of the  Burmese people will do their best to stand by as the momentum builds for their flight.  The Burmese people have long suffered, patiently persisted and rebelled through virulent word of mouth and overt protest. They will continue to hope for a better future where human rights are respected, freedoms and expected and a time where no child has to sell garlands at 4:30 am.  As for me, I'll be standing on the ground waving them off on their journey, like the dozens of people we passed on our road travels through Myanmar.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Death, Debate and a Doughnut

When you live less than a block from the Royal Palace, the death of a Royal person really has an impact on daily life.  In the first days of King Father Norodom Sihanouk's  death and the heightened protection of the Palace, the streets were blocked within a large periphery surrounding  the towering cream-colored cement walls. 
The phoenix carrying the King Father's body as it passes by Independence Monument.  Telegraph UK photo
The phoenix carrying the
King Father's body as it passes
by Independence Monument. Telegraph UK photo

  Determined Cambodians on motorbikes found ways around and through, with police officers doing their best enforce with increasing frustration as the initial days passed. Then the cops fiqured out the rope system.  The rope stays up for anyone without a worthy excuse and the rope comes down for residents and bicyclists to pass over.  

This photo taken from a high spot near my office on the day of the King Father's procession.  Khmerization.blogspot.com
This photo taken from a high spot near my
office on the day of the King
Father's procession. Khmerization.blogspot.com
On my way home from work on Tuesday, the log jam of tuk tuks and cars made it impossible to make my way home on the streets.   I lifted my bike up and over the ten inch curb to make my way through the park surrounding the Vietnamese Friendship Monument.   Hordes of white-shirted people were making their way to the royal palace.

Masses of boys and girls, women and men, vendors selling mylar balloons, popcorn, and snacks and lotus flowers.    I was struck by the number of older women walking slowly, wearing the traditional white cotton shirt with discreet lace, ankle length black skirts and a white silk sash draped across their shoulder and down to their waist.  My Khymer colleagues say this is a ballayai (a bad transliteration).  Solina, the young intern in our office, tells me that you get to learn how to drape it when you reach a significant milestone in life.  I also learn that women are the spirit keepers of the Buddhist faith, often after being widowed.  As I reached my neighborhood, I  was compelled to join in. 


The Royal Palace after dark.  LTO blog.
The Royal Palace after
 dark. LTO blog.
 Lines of motorbikes and cars were nestled within the parking lot of the supermarket/restaurant next door.  Part of a human a river gaining flow, I felt carried into the ceremony, buoyed by the sense of ritual and tradition.   For Cambodians, the King Father was the one constant through over 50 years of colonization, war, genocide, more war, a UN transitional team and independent governance.  He was revered for his role as a Royal, yet criticized for his shifting allegiances and life-long philandering.  The ceremony and gatherings have been in progress since his death in China on October 15th.  Thousands turned out for his repatriation procession through the streets of Phnom Penh a few days earlier. Tonight was the Buddhist ceremony to mark the seventh day since he died. 
As I reached the corner of the Palace facing the Tonle Sap River, an older woman reached for my hand and encouraged me to join her and her daughter.  There was no reason for me to disagree, so we wound our way through the crowds together.   It helped that the “Auntie” was tiny and determined, her hand a warm sense of concrete caring in a sea of humanity intent on paying homage.    We were given a bottle of water and sticks of incense and made our way to the closest edge of the offering site.  Crowds were perched on the edge, squatting in a prayer to mélange of carnations, candles, water bottles and incense sticks, some propped up the open bottles and others scattered around like pick-up sticks. Small fires caught from the combination of all the material.  Auntie had her time, squatting in that deep way that Asians do so effortlessly and raising her palms together to her forehead in the traditional Buddhist prayer.  As her daughter and I stood back, I took in the experience.  The smoke from the incense billowed into the sky; thick and rich with poignancy and passage.  When she was done, we moved away and I bid my guides goodbye.  Auntie spoke to her daughter in Khmer, who translated to me, “Have you ever been to Sihnaoukville?”  “Not yet,”   I say, “But I will look for you there when I go.”

cbsnews.com
cbsnews.com
The following night, I attended a taped version of the US Presidential Debate that focused on foreign policy.  While I was waiting for the show to start, a white woman carrying three tote bags plopped down in the seat next to me.

 Lois introduced herself.  Her hair was bedraggled, her face sun-ravaged and wearing a very unusual ensemble of black leather mini-boots, lots of hanging jewelry, a scarf and a soiled white vest.  She ordered a Jim Beam on the rocks.  Her business card was in gold leaf print and read "Political Philanthropy", with four phone numbers reflecting area codes from Cambodia, Thailand and California.  I was wary of getting too far into conversation.  I felt a bit subconscious about hanging out with her.  I'd come with the goal of meeting some local democrats.   I felt an unfortunate moment of anxiety (what will people think?)  when I lost my curiosity about her own, special reality.

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.  The US, when King Father Norodom made his first diplomatic visit to Washington in 1953, he was dismissed.  He later made his way to China where he was greeted with much fanfare and respect, likely paving the way for enhanced relations with North Vietnam and the ensuing, covert US-led “carpet bombing” of eastern Cambodia.  This action resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 people and likely contributed to the continuation of the Vietnam war.  Lois looked like she’s spent more than a few nights arguing about this in a variety of bars.  The debate came on and we settled in to watch the show.  After it was over, there were invitations to fundraisers, a call to vote and everyone left to their own devices.  It was somewhat unsatisfying. The theater and drama seemed trite after the previous night.

Monks gather for seven day prayers.  Cambodia Daily.
Monks gather for seven
day prayers. Cambodia Daily.
On the night before, I’d taken a few minutes after Auntie and her daughter left to walk around on my own.  The legions of monks that had gathered for prayers slowly proceeded down the Sisowath Quay that runs alongside of the river. 

Vendors were selling photos of the waxing Gibbous moon with the King Father’s face on it, validating rumors that locals had seen a lunar sign when the clouds cleared on nights following the King Father’s death.   A grumble of thunder and a flash of lighting were in the distance.  I’m conscious of the crowds that are packed shoulder to shoulder in the area.  There’s an underlying awareness of the power of the crowd converging around the Palace. One action could set off a whole series of other reactions.  Not only does Cambodia have one of the highest rates of - PTSD,  a tragic consequence of panic  ensued at the Water Festival in 2010, where hundreds died in a stampede.

It was time to move on.  I took the long way around and joined more of the crowds on their way back to the main streets.   A woman walked next to me carrying over a dozen donuts, each in a small plastic bag with handles.   In the mere moments after I’d glanced at the bags and thought about why she was selling donuts, she came up behind me. She  presented me with a doughnut, using two hands in the traditional way.  “This is for you.  It’s a gift.”

I made my way to the gate in front of the apartment building and large raindrops splattered the sidewalk.   Moments later, the skies opened in the typical torrential rain of South Asia. In the comfort of my apartment,  I took a moment to savor this perfect donut, golden brown on the outside with a hint of granular sugar, perfectly leavened from the oil frying, stretchy and tender.  It was a gentle reassurance in a tumultuous week of witness, grief, political analysis and eulogizing. Her gesture of kindness and ceremony was far more than just a gift.  It made me realize the power of being in this country as a single person, and of the importance of stepping out to reach across culture and share a human experience. 
Mourners, The King Father and the Moon.  Phnom Penh Post.
Mourners, The King Father and the Moon. Phnom Penh Post.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tuk Tuk, Madam?

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I was on a determined walk to the English language bookstore (!!!) down the street when I realized I’d forgotten to eat lunch. I looked up under the umbrella, looked around and noticed the man, encased in a lightweight yellow plastic bag with sleeves that are the standard raincoat here, come up the street. His foot cart had a row of banana leaf wrapped treats roasting over a small wood fire.
  He stopped in front of me and made a delivery across four lanes of traffic to the security guard across the street, wading through Phnom Penh’s post-rain flooding in his flip flops. When he returned, I motioned him over and eagerly handed over my 1000 reil bill (about 25 cents--there are no coins here) to experiment.  It was reassuringly warm steamy in my palm.  Removing the toothpicks, I gleefully opened the browned, steaming package to reveal a sweet, crunchy toasted sticky rice and banana treat. It was heaven-sent sustenance.    

Life in Phnom Penh is incredibly easy.  Within days after my arrival, I’d made a new friend at my hostel, secured an apartment with all the amenities to live,  gotten oriented on the basic ways around, formed an acquaintance with Bonar, an entrepreneurial, young, moderately good English speaking Tuk Tuk Guy (TTG) and started to pick up a few words of Khmer.  Life feels familiar here, but with subtle changes from a distinct cultural character.  I feel like I’ve gone to visit a close relative in a big city.  Giddy with things to do and places to explore, I’m thrilled to be in the beginning of a new life stage swollen with hopes and potential discoveries.  

Naga is a prominent Buddhist diety, but in Cambodia there are seven heads.
Naga is a prominent Buddhist deity,
but in Cambodia there are seven heads.
While the ways of life—the omnipresent motorbikes, the temples and monks, the evening exercise routines and the street markets—are similar, there are several key differences that  will make my life here much more engaging.   I’m not sure if it’s my work outfit (skirt and blouse), my gray hair, my smile or maybe all three—but Khmer people talk to me all the time. In English!   In the Khmer buffet ($2.50) across the parking lot from my office, I’ve shared two tables with women who started a conversation, provided some advice and congenially hoped they would see me again.  On my walk to work the other morning, wearing my Thai dress in a traditional fabric of the northern region’s famers, a TTG pulled over to talk to me in Thai and ask me where I was from.  The kindness and caring of people here is exceptional.   I've changed too.  With a careful confidence and aura of international acumen, I’m no longer afraid to bumble my way through interactions.  However, the traffic here is a force to be reckoned with. 

www.parishwithoutborders.net
www.parishwithoutborders.net
Cambodians want to keep moving. To do this, they will drive the wrong way on a street, do a U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic, make a turn directly into incoming traffic, attempt to pass a traffic jam by hauling their SUV up and over the curb and talk on their cell phone while the three year old child is perched on the motorbike driver’s lap.

This instills occasional terror, persistent caution, in-credulousness and a wishful omniscience (who is that coming up behind me?)  when I am around town.  Cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks,  bicycles and the occasional pedestrian (the kids walking home from school, chatting with their friends two across and eating ice cream in the middle of traffic jam really add a whole other element) converge in a dance that’s a combination of waltz, slam dancing and pushing your way through the crowded dance floor amidst a throbbing disco beat in the frenzy of activity just after midnight. My newly acquired bicycle has moved me slightly up on the food chain and allowed a whole new appreciation of flow, courage and faith.  On certain trips, it pays to hire wheels. 

This was inside the menu of the guesthouse.
This was inside the menu of the guesthouse.
Last Friday was an epic day and I planned for it.  I hired Bonar for a half day.  He picked me up from the guesthouse where I had a sad goodbye to the resident pug, got the keys, dropped the bags, picked up a USB modem for internet and then off to Ourasey Market, where the prices are cheap and all the locals go.  The market is two floors high, crowded with vendors in small stalls offering everything from motorcycle parts to housewares, produce and bras, fabrics and dried meat.   The place has a legendary reputation (a fire would be catastrophic for all who work there, simply because there are so few exits) but upon entering I was struck by the familiarity of the smells of spices, the brilliant orange and gold decorations for upcoming Pchum Ben festival, and the nonchalance of the vendors.  
Orasey Market (not my photo)

Orasey Market



  Household goods in hand, Bonar met me at our prearranged time and place.  By the late afternoon I was settling into my place and eating a taro samosa that I bought from the man who pulled up into my alley and announced his arrival with a call to the alleyway.  

The view isn't much, but it gets great light and is within blocks of lots of great stuff. A school is across the street, and the riverside is just on the other side of the royal palace.
The view isn't much, but it gets great light
and is within blocks of lots of great stuff.
A school is across the street,
and the riverside is just on the other side of the royal palace.

I am so grateful to have my own quiet space, with a balcony, families below, good walking nearby and close to a couple of supermarkets and work.   The apartment, with gleaming tile to about one and a half meters up the walls, exudes a sense of clean austerity and functionality.   With a three month lease at $200 a month, I’m set. The hallway with which I was instantly enamored.
The hallway with which I was instantly enamored.
 PP has a vibrant network of information sources for expats: a facebook group, a yahoo list serv, classifieds and forums.  I discovered a house sale on Saturday; she advertised a reading lamp and free pillows.  The entry gate, beautiful beveled French doors, teak flooring, the French accents of the residents and highly priced really nice stuff showed a different class of expat than me, but I scored some helpful items and a well-worn Khmer phrase book.  Last year taught me that bringing out the book is the best prop for generating conversations and discussions.  

The slum just behind my office building. If you look closely, you can see a very large dragon fruit tree cascading off the balcony in the upper right.  I couldn't believe it.
The slum just behind my office building.
If you look closely, you can see a very
large dragon fruit tree cascading off the
balcony in the upper right. I couldn't believe it.
While folks in my new office have been on leave or preoccupied with upcoming deadlines, I am starting to dive into projects for my three month commitment with Cord (http://www.cord.org.uk).  Cord builds the capacity of local, grassroots organizations to generate peace. 

While the immediate needs of post-conflict areas are often focused on relief (food and shelter), Cord's work is directed at empowering residents to effective rehabilitation: addressing local problems in a constructive and effective manner by fostering trust among members within groups, among groups themselves and between government and civil society organizations.  Cord trains and coaches on communication, governance and leadership to move communities to development, where they can independently begin to build peace.  In Cord’s vision, a peaceful world is one where each person has dignity, where human rights are respected and where multiple sectors--public, private and non-governmental—are working together.   It's a great team and I'm happy to be helping. 
On the banks of a canal of the river. Plumeria tree, families fishing and a huge mall across the bridge.
Across the Tonle Sap river,
new developments are in process.  
As I embark on my second week in this vibrant city, filled with contrasts.  On  Sunday’s bike ride I passed scores of families on late afternoon outings. The mall has arrived in PP, but McDonald's hasn't shown up yet. I've seen young Khmer boys sporting bouffant-like hairstyles and filthy boys with bare butts holding the burlap bag while their mother shovels sand into it. A monk with an iPad  A one-legged man (likely from a landmine) on crutches and a gleaming white Land cruiser with the UNICEF logo on the side.   For now, this will be my home and I am happy to be soaking up all the amenities of a larger city.   

Lucky the puppy