I am back from being “on retreat” with about 80 other people from World Relief Cambodia, and a team of 10 from College Park Church in Indianapolis. We traveled to Kirirom Resort on the western side of Cambodia to spend a few days relaxing, recharging, and renewing our spirits for the year ahead. The team has been blogging about their trip, so I will direct you to their impressions of Cambodia and the time they spent here (http://joshuaharber.blogspot.com/). They even have video.

There are too many stories to tell at this point, about our time in the provinces before the retreat, my thoughts and emotions at this juncture in my stay—those will come later. It was Thanksgiving on Thursday, as every American knows. I spent it welcoming Cambodian staff to a luxurious (for Cambodia) retreat center, fixing problems, and even eating turkey (ordered for the occasion). The turkey and mashed potatoes were a great reminder of what my friends and family must have been doing on the other side of the world, but it’s still not the same. Perhaps trying to recreate it wasn’t the best idea. In the aftermath, I am homesick.

After my trip to the US, I’ve been pouting a bit. Coming back has been hard, not in the sense that anything is particularly difficult, but in the fact that nothing is happening. In the US, I could talk about different relationships, tell stories, have a conversation about what was going on. For three weeks, I felt like nothing was happening here. I got up, I went to work, I slept. Not a lot to talk about there. So I pulled a pout, refused to talk, and really only hurt myself. I should have learned a long time ago that isolation is only a punishment to me.

I found myself in an interesting place last week, though. While I wanted to remain withdrawn and wallow in my homesickness, I was in a situation with a lot of others, serving and attending to lots of different needs and details. While I desperately wanted some contact with the people I refused to email a week ago, I didn’t have time to connect to the internet. Frustrating, indeed. I don’t quite understand these emotions. I’m not one to live in the “extremes” of temper. So to be so up and down is a strange feeling, and one that makes me uncomfortable. Am I learning to open up to my own feelings (how pop-psychology does that sound)? Is it the Lord doing some work on my heart?

In the midst of putting aside my ambivalence towards being here, I’ve been showing others around. This means that I have to think critically about what I show them, how we travel through the country, and the culture clash that inevitably results. It has been funny to gauge my own reactions against those of the team. I suppose that will happen continuously, as I stay while others come and go. My own opinions will deepen, become more nuanced, and I’ll never again be able to look at Cambodia as any other developing nation. It will always be a place I’ve lived, a place I’ve cared about, a place I’ve struggled to understand.

Here’s where my bi-polarity of feeling is evident. In explaining Cambodia to these visitors, I have remembered why I love it. In growing frustrated with Cambodian culture, especially through my work, I remember what is so easy about the US. It’s a duality I’m learning to live with, and as I do so, I’m not pouting so much. In fact, as I sat in my office today, I realized that I no longer wake up every morning and think “I’m in Cambodia.” My job, my life, and this place are starting to feel like home. I’m not pouting anymore.



I’ll just start this post with a dramatic declaration. My purse was stolen on Friday. I was riding in a tuk tuk (an open-air cart that people hire to drive around town) and my little bag was next to me. I turned around to give the confused driver directions, and a man on a motorbike rode up next to us, grabbed the bag, and took off. We couldn’t follow fast enough (the driver didn’t even notice until it was too late) and just like that, my stuff was gone.

This little incident stirred up a lot of feelings, most of them negative. First, I was angry. What right does someone have to take my belongings. I was upset that I made the mistake of not protecting my bag better (and after living here, I should know to do that). I am sick of being a target because of my skin color and my nationality. For the first time, I’m thinking seriously about what motivates crime. Is it simply greed? Hard circumstances? A lack of options? I suppose I’m a bit indignant—how dare they steal my bag. Though I would feel bad if it happened to anyone, it’s somehow worse that it was me. Is that selfish?

Second, the inconvenience of it all was overwhelming. Instead of spending the afternoon finishing preparations for the arrival of a team from the US, I had to call my bank in America to block my debit card, go to the Cambodian bank to report my card stolen and withdraw cash to last me for the week (usually I can use an ATM), report my cell phone number stolen, go to the phone company to restore it, and purchase a new phone. On Monday, I had to take my passport (thankfully, safe at home) and my US driver’s license so that one of our staff could arrange for me to have a replacement Cambodian license and motorbike registration. I already had a new bike key made up and had to retrieve my spare house key from my cleaner so I could get inside my apartment.

Now, seven days later, something strange has happened. I didn’t have time to dwell on this incident very much after it happened, and in fact almost forgot about the incident (after being upset for a time), except to be very careful. Then, while riding up to a resort for our staff retreat, I got an interesting phone call. My purse had been returned! The money and my phone are gone, but my keys and cards (including my driver’s license) are all inside.

Is it a miracle? In my life, it might be a small one. I’ve never heard of this happening in Cambodia (and neither has anyone else), and barely heard of it in the US. It comes at a time when I have been feeling particularly alone here. At the moment it happened, I struggled not to cry. Times are busy, and so this was another thing that occupied my time and energy. Now, looking back, it seems so small, such a little thing. I’ve spent the last few days with our staff, and a team from the US, touring our work in Cambodia and interacting with the locals. I’ve been distracted from this, absorbed in other issues, and so my recovered purse represents, to me, a small bit of God’s grace in my life. A few minutes next week saved, a bit of stress averted. At the moment, I can’t think of another blessing I’d rather have from the Lord.

Perhaps this whole incident can be interpreted in another light. As I'm learning to live a life of sacrifice, I'm finding new meaning in familiar scripture passages. Like this one: "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys" (Luke 12:33). As much as I love the little pink bag that's been recovered, I think that maybe this little lesson has taught me that someday I'll have to be content without it.



Serious reflection isn't my thing right now, perhaps because I received lots of compliments while I was in the US and now I'm starting to feel "blog pressure" to tell a great story or share something really interesting. Which at this point, I can't. But that's not a good reason not to add to the blog. So, until I start having deep thoughts that I'm willing to share with the Internet (and whomever might be lurking there), you get a photo of me on my bike. Sadly, the pink helmet is not a part of this photo. Don't be concerned, though, the stylish headgear continues to rack up compliments wherever it travels. And after witnessing a particularly brutal accident last week (of which I was not a part), the bubble-gum-colored helmet will remain an important part of my transportation plans.

More introspection/updates soon. I'm headed to the provinces next week with a team from the US. That never fails to inspire...



One week. I’ve been back one week, and it already feels like I never left. Oddly enough, that’s the same feeling I had when I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles. Perhaps, for all my moaning and crying, I am settling in here. I’m going to take that as a good sign.

Despite the familiarity of the week, I’ve been noticing some things about Phnom Penh. My senses have been in overdrive, I think, absorbing all the differences, feeling out the place I’m going to be for awhile. I never took the time before, to consider what God means when he says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s not just that we have great, functioning bodies and incredible intellect, it’s that we can soak up an environment, figure out what a place feels like, and come to know it that way. Put simply, I’ve been grateful this week for my five senses.

It started off when I came back to my apartment. In the past, it’s had this semi-strange smell, and it kind of annoyed me. It was a really stale smell, almost a mildew scent (which I have tried desperately to remove). When I walked in the door last Thursday, though, something had changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but it was a familiar scent, one that I recognized as the way that Cambodia smelled to me the very first time I came here, in 2006. A dusty, wood-fire scent, but tinged with something else I can’t name. I smelled it walking down the street, and driving to work, too. I’ve had other olfactory reminders. About 3 months ago, I was driving down the Russian Blvd. and was overwhelmed with the scent of the magnolia trees that line the road. It immediately made me think of driving down Oak Knoll Dr. in Pasadena, though I have no idea if there are magnolia trees there. In that moment, I nearly closed my eyes and with the feeling of being back in the US (of course, I was driving, so I couldn’t actually close my eyes).

My other senses have been touched by this place, too. For months, the humidity was just about a felt object here, the air so sticky with moisture that I could feel it settle on my skin. I’ve been able to touch the heat rising off of cars, motorbikes and people as we bake in the sun at an intersection. In those moments, the air is almost oppressive; it is a solid mass to push through so I can breathe.

I’m learning to taste the traces of coconut and curry spices in Cambodian foods. I’ve been a little sick this week, and my sore throat is burned by the acrid diesel fuels that are kicked up by big trucks rolling through. On the road, the dust makes me cough, it’s so thick.

My ears are learning to pick up words in a different language, but also other sounds. I’ve been awakened every morning to a saw slicing steel (my neighbors are doing some construction), and I fall asleep to dogs barking and cats shrieking. Just tonight, driving home, I heard a cell phone ringing to the tune of Jingle Bells, and laughed out loud. And on Wednesday, I saw the strangest thing just four blocks from my apartment—a herd (not just one, but a whole herd) of goats, running through the street.

So while my brain processes the strangeness of these different things, it’s also getting used to them. Just as I’ve learned to breathe through my mouth as I drive past a garbage pile or turn up the music to block out the dogs, I’ll get used to all these strange sensations. These are the things that I failed to notice in the US—the scent of my parent’s house, the feel of the California sunshine. I’ll take these things for granted, if I’m not careful, and someday, I’ll be somewhere else, smell something strange, and remember Cambodia.



I’m back in Cambodia. I arrived Thursday around noon after a very long time in the sky. My last flight was rather interesting. I sat next to and in front of a family who was returning to Cambodia after fleeing as refugees at least 15 years ago. Their excitement as they looked out the window at the expanse of their homeland was beautiful. They asked me questions about getting around and what to see. It was ironic that I was the “expert” on their home country. It was also pretty funny that the women wanted to know why I wasn’t yet married and if I would be interested in being set up with one of their cousins. Sorry, but no thanks.

It was hard to leave. I feel like there simply wasn’t enough time with the people I love. Yet, when I asked myself what “enough” meant, I realized that I wanted not just more days, but months and years spent with them. I still want to walk through life with people I care about, a phone call or a few miles away, in community and in country. The places I visited (even the new places) had so much familiarity to them, so much of my “old life” that it was hard to realize that I’d moved on. Cambodia wasn’t just another country, it was another life, a place I existed only sometimes. This all sounds strange and existential, but hopefully it makes a bit of sense.

This is the third time I’ve left the US for a life somewhere else. The first was a bloodbath, a brutal exchange of goodbyes and tears. Yet, there was a lot of excitement, a lot of hope for what was coming up ahead. The second time was more subdued. I was headed back to responsibility, and could foresee another time when I’d be back, with more chances to catch up, to feel a part of life in the States. This time, it’s hard to describe. There’s not much excitement in coming back, or at least, it’s not the same. I know what life is here in Cambodia, and I’ve spent a lot of time contrasting it to life in America. So it was harder to get on the plane, harder to leave, harder to elect to distance myself from what was a good life.

Maybe the contrast isn’t fair. After all, it’s not that I chose to leave a bad situation for a good one. It’s not a good idea to set up my life in Cambodia as the opposite of my life in California. On both sides of the ocean, there are good things and hard things. Maybe the trick is to keep in perspective that the hard things in both places don’t outweigh the good things. Sadly, being in one place means I can’t be in the other; and I really want to be in two places at once. For now, my feet stay in the dusty Cambodian soil, and my thoughts drift between two continents. It isn't contrast, it's compromise.