Tuesday, January 20, 2009

early morning

Today we met in the lobby at 8am and went out of the busy city to visit an HIV/AIDS clinic and small school for children. On our way there, I noticed how resourceful the people of Cambodia are. They use things in their daily lives that many of us would consider garbage. The clinic and school was located on a small dirt road. Our bus driver had to get out to move rocks so that our bus could travel on the road.

When we arrived at the school, we met the man in charge of the clinic and he showed us around the complex. There was a big building full of girls who were learning a trade so that they would be less likely to be trafficked in the larger cities. Then we went over and visited a classroom where the children were learning English. The children were so cute! We gave them all fake tattoos and talked to them and it was really fun. To see how happy they were with such a small gift was really heart-warming. After about 20 minutes with the children, we visited some of the HIV/AIDS patients at the complex. There was a little girl, a little oder then a month who had lost her mother and has HIV. She was very weak when she first arrived there but she looks so much better now. Her smile was beautiful and she did the wai for all of us ,it was really cute. There were also a few older Cambodians who were so weak when they first arrived. After resting and getting medicine, they seemed so much happier and had hope for the future.

One of the most difficult things to see at the clinic was a small boy who was 13 but looked like he was 8. He was there, with HIV because his mother remarried and the new husband didn't want him so they sent him there. She still comes to visit him every month but it is just sad that some parents can just give up their children like that. Even though the situation was grim for a lot of the people there, they were happy to be in a community where everyone helped everyone and took care of each other. The children were always smiling, reading and playing.

At the end of the trip, they sang 3 songs for us. It was really difficult to leave them. On our way out, everyone came outside to say goodbye to us. It was hard driving away with them waving knowing what I know now. I hope I get to see them again and that I can help them out in the future.

Random thoughts from SE Asia

I have not been able to post to the blog yet, but I have been keeping a journal so I have lots of thoughts saved that I can post later. I wanted to note a few things about Thailand first. I was fortunate enough to do some traveling before the class met in Bangkok, visiting a rural area which I think gave me a very different view of the country. I was immediately struck by how much the Thais eat on the street. They have all sorts of carts out on the main road with makeshift restaurants and all types of food. One common food that shocked me was the meat on a stick. They have all sorts of hot-dog type meats, ranging from the American style ones to bright pink hot dogs! They also put chicken and other meats on sticks, sort of like a kabob. In the morning, we ate these pancake type treats, filled with coconut milk, which were delicious! I wish I knew what they were called in Thai though! I have much more to talk about Thailand about but for lack of time, I wanted to mention some things about Cambodia. The people here are also amazing. They have been through so much and deal with many hardships, but still have a glow and smiles on their faces. I was struck by how much fear they are still living in. Talking to a few Cambodians, I realized that they are afraid to say certain things, for fear that the Khmer Rouge will come back into power. They also have told us that many of the young people do not believe that a genocide happened, or do not believe that it was truly as horrible as it was. The Khmer Rouge period is skipped over in their history books. I am very interested in how people are dealing today with their past and how the society can move forward.
On a lighter note, I also talked with some monks that surprised me. I saw they they carried cell phones, had email accounts, and spoke very openly about their lives and thoughts.
Unfortunately, I am out of time at this point, I will continue my blog later. I need to figure out how to make my name on the posts, but for now this is Christine R blogging.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

The days we have spent on this trip so far have been varied and rich, but two days ago in Siem Reap we had an extraordinary experience at Angkor Wat. It is typical for tourists to arrive at the religious site at sunrise, but there are far fewer people in the morning than later at the height of the day and the heat. Our guide picked us up from our hotel at 5 am and we drove in the darkness toward Angkor Wat.

We filed down a long stone walkway only lit by the few flashlights we had with us. Our guide told us to stop and sit, facing east, and though we could not see anything but hundreds of stars in the sky, we knew that in the blackness before us loomed Angkor Wat. Arriving as early as we did, we still had an hour in the morning dark. We watched flashlights bob past us as other tourists arrived and picked their way across the fields. Finally the sun slowly started to tint the horizon. It was almost imperceptable at first, but the shape of the magnificent temple began to appear, written on the skyline in a deep inky blue.

There was a Cambodian man sitting near us, perhaps a guide for another group, who began to talk with us about his life. He was sitting to one side of our long line of students, looking out at the sunrise, and only a few of us at the end could hear him at first. But once it was realized what he was sharing and the significance of his story, the rest crowded around. As the sky brightened and Angkor Wat's incredible silouhette stood before us, the man told of the years leading toward the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. He explained how the Lon Nol period had been so painful and the government's association with the United States so devastating at a time when the country was being ripped by US bombs. When the Khmer Rouge took power in '75 the man said people were genuinely happy, thinking the war was over and the country would be restored to its peaceful ways.

The story of this man's life from 1975 to 1979 was heart wrenching. The Khmer Rouge loaded his family and him into a truck that drove down a road alongside many other trucks loaded in the same way. Miraculously, the truck got a flat tire. The convoy continued without this one solitary truck, stuck along the side of the road and waiting for assistance to arrive. Somehow, just this one deviation from the route allowed the man and his family to avoid being killed that day. He said all others heading down the road were being led to that end.

He, like so many others, was made to work in the fields. He was asked if he knew how to make sugar palm juice and he lied and said he did, opportunistically buying time in a way that must have been common during those years. Out of necessity and the type of fear that catalyzes the mind, he learned how, and therefore provided a service that kept him alive in the coming years. He told of the horror he witnessed befalling men and families around him. We were riveted, and watched the light rise on his face more than on the distant temple.

There was a similarity I felt in the mountainous presence of Angkor Wat and the man's story being told in the morning darkness. The story too seemed to stand alone in emptiness, mysterious, unbelievable, impossible to understand. We come as tourists to the temple to acknowledge greatness, and so did we listen to the story to bear witness to the man's suffering and the country's tragedy. But in the end the history and the mistery stand alone.

All about Cambodia

We arrived to a beautiful warm and humid Cambodia and spent our first few nights in the small town of Siem Reap....definitely one of those "roll with the punches" kinds of cities....meaning we stayed in a small little 'resort' where i had the pleasure of showering with bugs and salamanders :) But compared to those that had a cold-only option on their showers, I think we made out pretty well. The people here are amazing, beautiful, poor and happy. We have encountered many locals that don't speak any english but some how we manage to get by. We had a tour guide by the name of Kachel (whom we all absolutely adored) for our two days in Siem Reap and were sad today when we had to leave him behind as we headed to Battanbang. Speaking of the trip to Battanbang, let me just tell you about our lovely little bus ride. I hopped on the bus only to see all but one seat taken and 3 more people (myself included) still in need of a seat. My first thought was "oh my gosh they screwed up! There's not enough seats for everyone!"Little did I realize that oh yes there were indeed enough seats for everyone because two of them were fold downs attached to the aisle seats :) Yes, that is correct. I was lucky enough to grab the last actual seat but Kelly and Sarah were unfortunately not so lucky. So after folding down what was to be their seats for the next 5, yes 5, hours we headed out on our drive to Battanbang. This part makes me chuckle a bit because while I didn't have any real notions about what Cambodia would be like, whenever I thought of our time here I could not for the life of me get this image of us on a bus driving down some bumpy, dirt road out of my head - who would have guessed I was such a pyschic! The road we were driving on was so bumpy that at some point we hit a huge pot hole and the four of us in the very back row actually flew out of our seats! Granted it was only for a few seconds, but still. Eventually I sighted pavement, I never thought I would be so happy to see pavement but when you have been sitting on a small, barely air conditioned bus in the middle of a dirt plain after having driven down a gravel road - you would be happy to! So we approach the pavement and I think to myself "fabulous, we will have a smooth ride the rest of the way and my pillow will actually stop sliding out from under my head from the bumps"- end of thought. Well as it turned out we did end up on the pavement, for about 5 minutes. Apparently some one decided to lay about 100 yards of pavement then stop so after about 100 yards of bumpless gloriousness we returned to our all too familiar turbulence. At some point you really did have to chalk it all up to the experience. The drive did provide an incredible insight to the reality of how many Cambodians live in the country - very poor but managing to move forward. We arrived aroun 7 pm in the evening and went out to dinner. This is the first time I think we have had access to "realiable" internet since we got to Cambodia. Tomorrow we visit an HIV/AIDS orphanage for kids then go to a community center for kids in the afternoon - it is the start to official business here. We are also excited to catch the inaguration this evening!

Schooled by Pushpa

January 18-21: On Jan 18th we all pakced up and took a bus to Bangkok International Airport to catch our flight to Cambodia. It was a bit of a hassle in the beginning but we all managed to get through and make our way to the plane. It was such a short ride and it was a little less than an hour that we were on the plane. Flying into Siem Reap was interesting because from the air, I could already see how different Cambodia was from Thailand. I didn't see any big buildings or busy streets, but hundreds of farm houses and feilds of rice.

Getting through customs was a bit more difficult because we all had to get our visas and wait for them to be inspected and then stamped again and then finally go through customs and then we finally met our guides!

The hotel was beautiful! It was pretty big and was all wood, like little cabins in the jungle. We had a little down time but soon we were off to visit a temple to see the sun set. We hiked up a hill and made our way to the temple. There were so many people there, it was amazing! We climbed the steep stairs all the way to the top and could look out for miles around us and see fields and the jungle! As soon as the sun began to set, it was truly an amazing sight. Sunsets in Asia are really beautiful and the sky was so full of color! On our way down, we heard this loud ringing and it sounded like people were doing construction, but it was actually these insects that live in the trees, it was weird.

On our way down, we passed this women who was begging for money and holding her sick child. It is really hard to not see something like that in Cambodia. I had only seen that a few times in Thailand but now I see it every where here, it makes me really sad and I also get this feeling of guilt. I feel like the United States has been able to hide these types of things from me. I knew I would see poverty and things like women begging but I didn't know it would be so intense. I am glad that I have seen it, and I am greatful for the live that I have been given in the U.S. I really don't know what I would do if I were in their shoes.

So later on in the night we all went out to dinner for traditional Khmer food. It was really good and we were able to choose what we wanted and put it in the middle to be boiled and then make a soup with it. Everything was going great until Professor Pushpa told us that we would be meeting later on in the night to discuss some serious problems. I asked her what they were and she looked me dead in the eye and told me that it was about me getting yelled at by the ploice in the temple for climbing around on the temple. My hear dropped and all I could do was just stare at her. She said it was serious and that she would have to talk to me about what I had done. The only thing I could think of and say at the time was that they told me it was ok but not to do it again. We kept our eyes on each other but then all of a sudden she starts laughing~! She told me she was joking but I really had thought that I was going to get into serious trouble. My friends, Ashley and Steph have been trying to get me with a joke the whole time on this trip. I am just really surprised that Pushpa was the one who got me and not them.

The next day we went to all of the other temples. The one that I had the most fun in was the one where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed. Huge trees were growing out of the top of the temples and Ashley and I were pretending to raid the tomb. It was awesome and amazing to see all of these temples at Angkor Wat. However, there were also so many children there trying to see little things for a dollar. They didn't stop until you finally walked into a car, an area they could not go, or purchased something. Most of the time I felt so bad for these kids I would buy something from them. The younger ones seem to be the ones who get most of the tourist to buy things because they are so cute. However, most of the kids selling things are girls, not boys and the boys are more likely to go to school then the girls. It was just really sad so see children playing and being innocent for several minutes, then see them trying to make a sale so their family could eat. It was really difficult for me to see.

I asked a few of the guys who were selling books their ages and the 4 or 5 that I spoke with were between 23 and 25. A few of them were going to night school at the University to study tourism so they could be a tour guide. Most of them were really excited about it and liked to talk to the tourist to work on their English. When I asked them about the history of their country, all they could tell me about was the Angkor Empire which is very special and important to the Khmer people. I asked them about Cambodia in the 70s and 80s and they couldn't tell me anything that had happened. I thought was strange but to be expected since Cambodian schools don't even go over the genocide in their classes.

That was our last day in Siem Reap and after a night out with some of the people from my group, we packed up and made our way on a bus toBattambang. I can't tell you about the ride there because I was asleep the whole time but it was different from Siem Reap. Not as developed and there was more poverty here. Tomorrow we are going t an HIV/AIDS clinic and school and that is going to be so hard. Most of the people there are children and no one ever likes to see kids suffer or be sad. We are going to start serious interviews tomorrow, and I am looking forward to that. The trip will definitley be more emotional for the next week.

Fish, Parrots and James Bond the Monk

Well we just finished our first evening in Battambang after what was quite a long, *bumpy* van ride! Dinner was great, though I must say I was rather intimidated by this "fish" thing everyone was eating... first of all, it had a head, tail, bones... waaaayyy too much fun for me. But more importantly, I cannot figure out what this so-called "fish" is that seems to be on the menu everywhere... for all I know, it could be piranha. Hence I'm on a strictly rice and noodle regimen.

Speaking of dinner, the restaurant happened to have a very, very disturbingly caged green parrot planted right next to our table. Feeling bad for it, Faith and I decided to go play with it... and next thing we knew we were having a conversation with a Khmer-speaking parrot!! We couldn't understand most of what it said, but it kept saying "akun" (thank you) back to us when we said it, and when we laughed it actually said "ha ha ha" - very amusing! Still, we felt awful for the poor guy in his rickety little cage - not sure if parrots can literally "cry," but if so, that's definitely what it was doing when it wasn't speaking Khmer... :(

In other news, as I'm sure you'll read elsewhere, we visited the Angkor Wat temple complex yesterday and did some serious tomb raiding! We also visited a Buddhist pagoda with a monk who went by the name James Bond. Actually, quite a few mentioned being disturbed by his seeming lack of piety, but quite frankly I more or less expected that, as it seems to be quite a common cultural practice here to send sons off to be monks for some period of time, not to mention those who simply become monks for lack of better economic opportunities (which seems to have been the case with James Bond). Expecting them all to be terribly serious, pious individuals would be like expecting every American kid who gets confirmed to be saintly as well. And while I by no means support treating these sorts of monks as saints or sages, I honestly feel a certain appreciation for the way most of the Buddhist monks I've encountered (here with the Mahayana or otherwise) seem to interact so comfortably and amicably with us lay people, and to interact as human beings and equals rather than with that sort of holier-than-thou sense of separation that can be so apparent in many religious institutions. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure that sort of sense of separation happens to a certain extent in Buddhism as well (and depending on the school of course), and vice versa for other religious traditions, but on the whole I'm quite moved by Buddhism's active encouragement of "clergy-commoner" interactions.

...In any case, though, the inauguration is about to start, so I better run... more later!


Just got out of the bus in Battambang and, wow, was that an experience in itself. I thought Michigan pot holes were bad...these roads barely have enough space to get two cars through, with construction dirt piled up on either side and rocks the size of softballs scattered about like an derranged obstacle course. Sometimes we had to cross over these mounds to make way for giant trucks and on several occasions I thought we for sure were going straight into the ditch. But on the way from Siem Reap, Adam and I managed to observe a lot about Cambodian country life. Sadly, most of these houses are in terrible condition and the size of most American bedrooms and propped up by stilts to avoid flood damage. I felt that I have more in my luggage than most had in their entire house and this is really when feelings of guilt started to play in. These people perform back-breaking labor daily, working from the break of dawn until sunset only for a few dollars a day if that. Most Americans, instead, have comfy cubicles and often check their email most of the day than doing the job but make much more money. It's hard when you're constantly surrounded by luxury to understand the almighty power of the US greenback, but when you travel to countries like Cambodia, things are blatently put into perspective. We also saw up to five people riding into town on the family moped, one having an IV attached while riding to the hospital...can you imagine? We are so lucky to have ambulances and hospitals within range unlike these people. I have so much respect for the Cambodian people and their resilance and kindness.