I've enjoyed sharing my thoughts and photos here, but there are some technical reasons for moving, which don't really merit mention. So, while it's always a little difficult to change, even on the internet, it's inevitable. But this is a good change, at least from my perspective.
Please, head over to the new blog, and I'd love it if you'd share your thoughts on change, layouts, and web presence while you're there.
Two months. One year. Five weeks. Six months. Two rainy seasons. I occasionally feel like my life is measured in milestones, in the amount of time that has passed between one thing and another.
Volunteers want to know various things about my life, all of them measured in time. Unfailingly, someone in each group we host asks, "How long did it take you to get used to driving here?" The question used to irritate me because I'd answered it so many times, but now I just smile and explain: I started driving because I had to. Not much room for an adjustment process when you're handed the keys and told to go for it.
Cambodians want to know how long I've lived here. When I say, "Three years," they reply, "Oh, you can speak Khmer very clearly." Sometimes we have this exchange entirely in English.
People ask me about the last time I was in the US, and "how long before you'll go back?" I never know how to answer that one; the process of scheduling a visit can be tricky, balancing work and family visits, trying to leave and return when we're not so busy here.
A friend asked me yesterday, "How long did it take before you felt content in Cambodia?" I appreciated the nuance of the question. It's not "at home" or "comfortable" or "settled," things which I feel intermittently in varying degrees. Instead, it's contentment, something that I can (and do) feel now. For the most part, I have made a home here, I feel comfortable, and I am settled. Even after all of that, I still choose contentment, choose not to long for other places, things I can't or don't have.
At this point, the only question I can't answer is the one I'm asked most often: "How long will you stay in Cambodia?"
These days, I'm tempted to reply, "However long it takes."
We'll start with Laos. The bridge above is from Pakse, the biggest city in Southern Laos, located approximately 90 minutes from the Cambodian border, and less than 100 km from the Thai border. We were astonished to find that it's much bigger than Cambodian provincial cities, despite Laos' smaller overall population. We didn't spend much time in Pakse, other than eating one night at one of the nicer hotels, and then staying another night on our way back to Cambodia at the end of our trip. Instead, we spent most of our time finding and enjoying waterfalls.
These photos are both from Khone Phapheng falls, on the Mekong river near the Cambodian border. We swam in the pool created by the water in the second picture. It was very cold, although the three naked kids who were also swimming there (and are not pictured) seemed to be enjoying it. We traveled to Laos during Laos (and Khmer) New Year, so at each of the places we visited, there were a lot of other people picnicking, swimming, or cooling off. April is the hottest time of year in Cambodia/Laos, so sitting near enough to the falls to enjoy some of the spray is a nice way to spend an afternoon. At Khone Phapheng, there was a fairly large market area, where we were even able to pick up a latte for the ride back to our guesthouse.
We arrived at Tad Lo, in what is called the Bolaven Plateau, at the height of Laos New Year, so the place was packed with people traipsing through the market area (and gambling on the street), swimming in the falls, and even perched at the top of the falls, eating. In the background, Laos music was blaring from the restaurant closest to the falls. There was also truly bad karaoke, fueled by Beerlao and lao lao and we wisely chose not to take part. The Tad Lo falls aren't very tall, so the attraction seems to be the various pools of water, as the falls start farther upriver, and finally end in the picture above. From there, the river is much calmer, and as we trekked over a bridge, through the market, and back to our guesthouse just as the sun was setting, we could see many of the residents preparing to bathe.
We had one truly bad meal in Laos (the rest were just slow to arrive), and it was in Tad Lo, at a restaurant recommended to us by the owner of our guesthouse. Unsurprisingly, the place was run by his aunt. I'm still not sure what they put in the coconut shakes (I suspect canned coconut milk, not fresh), but they were seriously greasy, which is unusual in this part of the world. Fortunately, the nephew ran his guesthouse much better, and although we 'roughed it' (as much as I'm willing to rough anything, that is), the only drawback from our stay in Tad Lo were clothes that smelled a bit like the wood fire our neighbors were using. The highlight was definitely the three Lao teens who decided they needed their photo taken with me. I've intermittently wondered where those photos ended up, and who those guys claim is in the picture with them.
After Tad Lo, we weren't intending to find any more waterfalls, but Tad Suong was on our route back to Pakse so we pulled off and trekked with a lot of other people to see this giant waterfall. We parked at the top of the falls, and then made our way to the head of the falls (above), which is also a huge picnic ground. Here's a tip: if you're planning to hang out with the rest of the Lao people at Tad Suong, you can buy a case of Beerlao and simply put it in the river to stay cool while you relax. In the dry season, you can walk around at the top of the falls, almost to the edge. The figures in orange at the edge of the photo are the monks, who have set up a small temple near the falls.
It didn't take long to realize that we could make our way to the bottom of the falls as well, so we hiked down what felt like two hundred stairs (carved out of the mountain) to get to this view. The falls were breathtaking, and I can only imagine what they look like now that it's the rainy season and there's more water. After months of dry, dusty Cambodian weather, spending time near the cool rivers of Laos and the green landscape was refreshing. We didn't venture into the water at Tad Suong, although we watched quite a few daring Lao youth dive in from rocks close to the falls. The rest of the swimmers hung back in calmer water, striking poses for their girlfriends or families to photograph. We all clambered for a foothold on the slippery riverbank as there were far too many people trying to go up and down the stairs, which ended on a cliff overlooking the pool.
Along with the tourists, it seems that photography is a brisk business at Tad Suong, with lots of enterprising photographers attempting to persuade us to pay them to take our photo. What was most entertaining was watching these guys try to keep their lenses dry when the breeze kicked up the spray from the falls.
Waterfalls, believe it or not, were actually a secondary pursuit. Our initial goal in visiting Laos was to see the 4,000 Islands (or Si Phan Don), which range in size from Don Khong, where we stayed for three nights, to really large rocks jutting out of the water. All of the islands are located in the Mekong river, which we traversed by boat quite a bit during our stay. At their southernmost point, Si Phan Don actually border Cambodia, and we spent a morning making our way to the south side of Don Khon island, where we took small boats to see Irrawady dolphins. We actually spotted the fins of at least a couple members of this endangered species, although snapping a picture was fairly difficult. We also traveled back to Don Dhet (just north of Don Khon) to go kayaking, and then spent a pleasant hour or two swimming in the Mekong. Sadly, the dolphins didn't join us.
We stayed a few nights at a "resort" along the Mekong, maybe 30 kilometers north of the border. Although they had great food, the main attraction was staying on the river, which lulled us to sleep at night. As we learned (or re-learned), sometimes "resort" doesn't mean what you think it means. In this case, it meant: "nice rooms, but keep an eye out for stray water buffalo."
One of our favorite adventures was the day we tried to find the market. According to the "concierge" at the "resort" there was a small market about 7 km away, where we could purchase a soccer ball, etc. to play on the grounds. We set off in the truck to find this market, and... ended up driving to Pakse (an hour and a half). However, before we trekked all the way to Pakse, we cruised some local Lao villages, where we tried out our (oh-so-limited) Lao language talents, tried to persuade people that they could speak a little Khmer, and then exercised our Thai. We also crossed a rickety wooden bridge (pictured above), which was probably ill-advised, but provided a little extra heart-pounding suspense and adrenaline. Even more so when, after crossing, we discovered there was no way back to the main highway and were forced to turn around and cross it again.
The worst part? The market that the resort staff sent us to was actually the dock for all the small boats over to Don Dhet island, which we found the next day when we went to go see the dolphins. It was packed with people, including other tourists, and there were lots of soccer balls for sale. We bought sunglasses instead.
All in all, it was a really great trip, with lots of time spent outdoors. The drive through Cambodia was also really beautiful, as it took us through Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, places I'd not previously visited. Of course, no border crossing in Southeast Asia would be complete without a little corruption, so our return featured some fast talking and negotiation, and then the obligatory rejection of romantic overtures by Kate.
Once we returned, many WR staff asked me if I prefer Laos to Cambodia (a totally loaded question). The answer: I had a lot of fun in Laos, but I prefer to live in Cambodia.
I have recently come to the conclusion that there's a little control freak inside of each of us. Some people are better at hiding it, at living in a way that fools the rest of us into thinking they are incredibly laid back and easygoing, unfazed by the difficulties of life. I've also concluded that there is one great equalizer, something that exposes even the most well-concealed inner control freak. It's called "the short-term mission trip."
For the past month (and for the next month), World Relief Cambodia is hosting teams of Americans to teach ESL to our staff. We've been doing this for the past four years, and I like to think we're getting better at it every year. However, there is one thing that I just cannot figure out how to improve. I'm at a loss when it comes to dealing with Short Term Mission Freak Out Syndrome, or STMFOS.
Every person has a unique STMFOS trigger. For some, travel is what prompts stress. No matter how many times I say that arriving at the Phnom Penh airport three hours before your departure time is a bit extreme, or rehash plans for transport to and from different mission locations, some folks just aren't reassured. Others need to know that their living quarters are taken care of—that there is a bed, a bathroom (with an American-style toilet), and food and water. I once answered a phone call from a volunteer who was staying three hours away from the city and wanted me to do something about the power outage at his location. It was difficult to explain that I was not in charge of the main power supply for the country of Cambodia.
This is not to say that these anxieties are unjustified. I sometimes think that all of the worry and fear people express over these easily-controlled aspects of the trip is masking some deeper issues. It might be a long-standing belief that cross-cultural differences will result in embarrassing mistakes, fears of failing at completing the "mission" or facing the unknown in another country.
Many churches are sending multiple teams this summer, to different parts of the globe. Those who go often learn to trust in God's daily provision during the journey, amidst other faith-stretching experiences. Those who stay home have the opportunity to be a source of great comfort to people, to cover them in prayer and in love as they go. Perfect love drives out fear, after all. Even fear over what might be served for dinner.
I always have a moment, while visiting our work in rural Cambodian villages, when I think, "I would love to live here."
Then I realize there's no indoor plumbing, little electricity, and no refrigerators, and I amend that to something along the lines of, "I'm so glad to be visiting today."
Yesterday, I wandered around a picturesque village in Kampong Cham province with several of our staff, field testing survey questions. The sky was a clear blue, the trees have turned green after the recent rains, and the dirt road was a rusty red. Small houses stood amidst palm trees, in clearings where the forest had been cut back for people to make their homes.
As we walked, I marveled at life in this small community, the hushed feel of the streets beneath the canopy of green, the stares of children as they passed on their bicycles, even the hum and swish of the cows as they walked past. It seemed to be an ideal place to live, and for a few moments made me wish I could capture something of that peace in my own neighborhood.
Until we spoke with some of the villagers.
The first woman we met answered survey questions about the social networks in the village. "People here don't really trust each other," she told us.
Then we went to survey some children, and tried to speak with a six-year-old in her home. The smell of brewing rice wine drifted up from the distillery underneath the house. It was clear that several of the men working on the wine had sampled their own brew. It was 10 a.m.
When the little girl couldn't answer our questions—which was the point of our field test—we moved on. We found a house with a little boy who was willing to participate and the staff interviewed him while I hung back with the translator and another visitor. We quickly realized that too many white faces were doing more harm than good. This also gave us a good view of the drama that was about to play out when a man stumbled into the yard, obviously drunk, and began to wash his feet with water from the well. He bumbled his way around, lighting a cigarette and eventually shouting "AIDS! AIDS! AIDS!" as well as some other nonsensical words. Finally, an older woman dressed only in her shower sarong came to ask us to please leave; the man wasn't happy that we were doing a survey in his house, and as he was the head of the family, we needed to go. If we stayed longer, she told us, he would grow belligerent and possibly destructive.
It was a startling trip, with so much imperfection juxtaposed with what is a seemingly quiet place. Rural poverty is like that. It's easy to look at these villages and see a pastoral setting that is only in need of modernization. But there's so much more going on beneath the surface. In contrast to the gritty reality of urban poverty and struggle, rural need looks easy, simple, even quaint. It can seem much like a visit to a "historical village" where one can marvel at antique technology and the progress we've made to get to where we are now. As I was reminded today, it's not a sightseeing tour or a trip into the past. People in these villages have real struggles and real temptations, the same as in any major city. The settings may look different, but people and their needs are remarkably consistent.
On Wednesday, I was in Kampong Cham province, where we're preparing to do a baseline survey for some new program activities. It's been a difficult week, with lots to do, and I've been trying to combat my innate feelings of needing to strive and take responsibility for everything with the truth that this is a team effort. Also, the temperatures are still hovering around 38C or 40C (that's around 100F), and it's hard to be reasonable when you're sweating and feeling gross.
On Tuesday, I woke up at 5 a.m. after a mostly sleepless night to drive three hours with our monitoring and evaluation team. We spent the day training staff on survey procedures, and trying to find cool things to drink. In Phnom Penh, it's easy to find restaurants with clean water; in the province, not so much. I had a desperate moment yesterday, staring at a bucket of beautiful ice which I couldn't use without risking illness. Until one of the staff told me to stick my very warm Coke can into the ice bucket, I was seriously considering dealing with the nasty consequences of drinking unclean water, if only to cool off for a few minutes.
It's situations like this that make me uncomfortable.
To be clear, it's not the choice between drinking or not drinking that's uncomfortable. It's that I have to make this choice in front of Cambodian staff. Because while I sat there debating how much I desired to jeopardize my fairly stellar record of good health, seven pair of brown eyes were watching. Yes, it sounds like I'm making myself the center of attention, but it's difficult to inconspicuously ask the waitress if the water and ice at her restaurant are clean. Especially because when I speak Khmer, people tend to look at me. I'm a novelty.
It isn't just the time in the restaurant that made me feel strange. There's one room in our whole, multi-story office in Kampong Cham that has an air conditioner. At 4 p.m. on Tuesday, it felt like a little slice of paradise to sit behind a desk (it's the accountant's office) and cool down. When the provincial leader, who is also a friend, offered to let me use a fold-out bed to sleep in that oasis of cool, instead of bunking with another female Cambodian staff member in a hot guest room upstairs, I wasn't sure how to respond.
Eventually, I said yes, of course, because I'm neither a fool nor a masochist. But I felt weird about my decision.
I feel like I have to constantly check myself in these situations, check my motives. Am I taking advantage of someone because I feel that I'm entitled to something, like better service, or a cheaper rate, or better living conditions? Am I trying to be comfortable at the expense of others' discomfort?
It's very easy to slip into selfishness here, when things that are luxuries in the US come cheaply, or are offered genuinely. It isn't necessarily because it's easy to feel better or more important than the Khmer people. I think it is something of a vicious cycle wherein the thought of what I've given up is enough to motivate a feeling of wanting to recapture part of the life that I left—whether it's having something that my peers have, or finding the comforts of "home" whenever possible. It's not a wrong motive, unless it stands in the way of relationships, or bleeds into entitlement, or whining, or being demanding.
In the midst of these moments of taking what is offered, even when it feels uncomfortable, I'm awed by the generosity of my Cambodian brothers and sisters. Whether it's mainly culture or mainly friendship, their willingness to give and serve is humbling, and inspires me to act that way more when I'm with them, and when I'm not.
And on Tuesday night, exhausted, hot, and preparing for another long day to come, I stopped feeling selfish, and started feeling grateful when I woke up refreshed and energized for what was ahead of me. So now I think that it's mainly a matter of decision-making, of what's right in the moment, and of living a life that balances out being gracious and serving others with caring for myself.
Of course, when I return to Kampong Cham next week, I'll probably have to fight the other Americans who will be with me for that air-conditioned space. I wonder how gracious I will be with them?