April 5, 2013

Reverse Hospitality

“Maliss! We go now?” is how I’m greeted when I pick up the phone at my tiny desk after half a ring. Because it sits directly in front of me and shares the tiled platform with my netbook of equal size, I can respond to the phone’s ring with the efficiency of a Mad Men secretary.

“Sorry!” I explain, “Now we wait maybe thirty minutes. Many students on ship get off first.” Sreyna’s cabin is two doors down the third deck hall but I can practically feel her eagerness to disembark the ship and explore Ho Chi Minh City – even through the thick creaking walls of this ten year old cruise ship. By now, we’ve spent five days on the MV Explorer, the ship Semester at Sea students call their home and university campus as it sails around the world.

“We” are the “Cambodia Team”, made up of 2 EGBOK Mission students and myself. Panha comes from an orphanage in Phnom Penh and now studies Restaurant through EGBOK Mission in Siem Reap. Sreyna studies the same program and comes from a community center in a village just a moto’s (extremely bumpy and therefore painful) ride passed the temples of Angkor Wat. I am a former staff member of EGBOK Mission. In 2007, I spent half of my sophomore year at WWU as a Semester at Sea student. Without the experience, I could not have pointed to Cambodia on a map, let alone have the confidence to volunteer at a rural orphanage with an English teaching position after graduating from university.

Together, we have been asked to sail on the ship as it travels between Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City. For the eight day trip, our goal is to provide as much information and insight into the crazy country of Cambodia as we can. In return, Sreyna and Panha get to be exposed to life outside of their country for the first time in their 23 year old lives.

As I hang up the phone it takes me three clumsy attempts to return the receiver to its proper fitting. I am distracted by my recollections from just five days before, on the morning I picked the two EGBOK Mission students up in a tuk tuk and headed to the Siem Reap airport. Everything about that morning could be described as sleepy – the tuk tuk driver yawned the entire 20 minute drive, the streetside vendors and market stalls had yet to open, and we nearly ran over a yawning mutt that had decided the middle of the road was a good place for a long, relaxed, down-dog style stretch.

I am a strong believer that I live an incredibly lucky life and have nothing more to ask for. However, there are a few things that I will always feel extremely passionate about as they make a perfect life just a teensy bit better. I refer to these as The Best Things Ever:

  • Sleeping puppies
  • Rear window windshield wipers
  • When you are eating at a restaurant and return to your table from the restroom at the exact time your food is being served
  • Walking directly on the tarmac when exiting or boarding an airplane because the weather is so idyllic

So I was beyond excited to have the two students not only get to enjoy their first plane flight, but to get to experience one of The Best Things Ever. I didn't take the effort to discuss my list with them; they were pretty overwhelmed already. I just had to keep the excitement to myself.

“Is Reverse Hospitality a thing?” I caught myself wondering once we were settled in our Row 7 seats. Panha craned his neck to watch with full attention as the flight attendant mimicked blowing the life jacket’s whistle. His temples throbbed with the rhythm of his gum chewing and I could tell he was wishing the lady wearing the unnecessarily giant hair clip sitting in front of him would have opted to wear her hair down this morning.

For the two hours preceding our flight’s departure, Panha and Sreyna felt like movie stars. First our tuk tuk driver, then the money exchange lady, followed by the half dozen Cambodian airport staff who took their sweet time rummaging through our bags at the security screening – all wanted to know where the two were headed, who the foreigner was traveling with them, and how long they would be gone. But in addition to their inquiries about the trip’s itinerary, each of these friendly people went out of their way to wish the students good luck on their trip, comment on how lucky they were, and to stay safe and learn a lot. Even our male flight attendant, who wasn’t even Cambodian, greeted the students and wished them well on their first plane flight as he helped us juggle our bags into the overhead bins.

Who knew locals could be so excited and intrigued to see their countrymen leave? These were the same feelings of warmth and friendliness that would have us craving for our Cambodia return eight days later after surviving the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh during Tet Holiday.

Sreyna, who traded seats with Panha so she could enjoy the window view, pulled out her brand new crisp Glee hard-bound notebook. “I am on plane and I leaving Cambodia.” She carefully wrote in English. As a fellow journal-er who occasionally gets harassed for my habit, I am excited for Sreyna. A never-been-opened journal with clean and perfect pages and a spine so new it’s actually audible when first opened is a contender for The Best Things Ever list.

She didn't write much else in the next hour. Between taking long glances out both windows and quick views around the cabin, she seemed semi-anxious while her fellow traveler had already fallen asleep with the safety instructions card in his grip. It’s a proven fact that he helped reiterate: Cambodians really can sleep anywhere.

The next week is full of ‘firsts’ for the students. Besides the drastic things like living in a small cabin on a ship, experiencing seasickness, and getting to enjoy a night at a 5 star hotel in the business district of Hong Kong (generously donated by Hyatt), the less significant things were just as memorable (for both them and me). Of course, some experiences were enjoyed more than others.

  • Temperatures in Hong Kong ranged from 15-20˚C. This was by far the coldest climate they had ever been in; I was asked by Panha to show him how to turn off all air and fans in both his hotel room and ship cabin. This made his small environment clammy and suffocatingly hot – just the way Cambodians are used to.
  • Cinnamon gum. My previous Cambodia visits taught me you can buy any flavor of gum (jackfruit!) except my favorite. I felt proud for remembering to come prepared this trip as I pulled out my Orbit pack on the plane and offered it to my two seatmates . Their underwhelming expressions after a few chews killed me. They admitted it was new to them, but they weren't about to jump on the cinnamon gum bandwagon with me.
  • Airport chaos. Immigration checkpoints, customs officers, security scanners, luggage weight requirements - lots to take in when your legs are being sniffed by a security dog and an airport staff member is asking (in his extremely thick Malay accent) to see “passport page one”. Did I mention the dog (a normal, American-sized Golden Lab) is far larger than any Cambodian mutt? Once settled on our connecting flight, it took some explaining to talk Panha through why the dog was allowed in the airport and what it was doing sniffing his legs.
  • No rice. In Cambodia, you don’t just eat rice with all three meals, you eat rice for all three meals. On the ship, voyagers eat pasta and potatoes for all three meals. After two days of adjusting, Panha and Sreyna enjoyed the carb overload. They were also encouraged to try peanut butter for the first time. This led to a long discussion (led by yours truly) about how ingenious Cambodians are with the creative ways to smother and cook the common fruit. *Fun fact: throughout a typical semester long voyage, 2,030lbs of peanut butter are consumed on the MV Explorer. So that explains my weight gain sophomore year.

For those who have experience as a staff member or student on Semester at Sea, you may remember how busy each evening on the ship is. Or you may not, due to each evening consisting of so many group events, lectures, performances, intramural games, trivia contests, talent shows, and pre-port briefings. There’s so much happening after classes have wrapped up that it makes your head spin. While you're seasick. Not a good combo.

So it was during these evenings when Sreyna and Panha were in their element. After presenting their practiced Powerpoint presentations to the 400 seat lecture hall, the Semester at Sea students were beyond enthusiastic to ask them about everything from how they joined EGBOK Mission to what the best temples in the Angkor Wat complex are.

As a Semester at Sea alum, I have incredible memories of spending time on the back of the sixth deck. Normally, anywhere else where the wind is so violent it makes unattended chairs dance around and hair wip into your mouth as you munch your salad isn’t a place where you’d go out of your way to hang out. Except if the view is of one white never-ending streak trailing the ship’s rear and nothing else but ocean. So whenever I had a minute to spare I’d choose to eat, chat, and study while attempting to avoid all distractions. This year, I was able to experience some great conversations at this same memorable spot.

EGBOK Mission students + Semester at Sea students + MV Explorer’s 6th deck = Global exposure for Khmer Pajamas.

Let me back up.

Cambodians wear matching pajama tops and bottoms as everyday (sometimes even special occasion) wardrobe selections. The village bike mechanic, coffee lady, and children outside of their school uniforms can all be found sporting cotton sets decorated with roses, Hello Kitty, or the equally popular Ben Ten cartoon character. They are extremely unflattering and pointlessly thick and therefore hot.  Visitors to Cambodia quickly notice the trend and usually comment on it. I wouldn’t call my travel experience in SE Asia extensive, but I’ve been to enough countries to know the pajama craze is clearly Khmer. It makes for a great gift if there is a Cambodian woman you’re shopping for - but the prices are surprisingly high. When I bought a flowery set for a departing volunteer to take home with her so she could wear them every night in Ohio, I was astonished to learn their cost.

Khmer pajamas were the spotlight of one evening’s conversation on the 6th deck since naturally, Sreyna packed her purple pair. These are a classic pair – they are multi colored and patterned. Sporting cartoon monkey heads that wear red cat eye glasses, the purple fabric also commits my favorite thing about Cambodian clothing: misspellings. Sreyna’s pair has the name “Paul Prank” in thick colorful letters thrown throughout the design. Not sure if Paul Frank has ever been to Cambodia, but I’m sure he’d be delighted to know a version of his name and famed monkey logo have made it to the market stalls throughout the country. Maybe someone should tell Klavin Cline, too.

Needless to say, Sreyna’s clothing selection to the nightly 10pm Snack Time was a hit. She was a little caught off guard at why so many students would inquire and compliment her usual attire. “Yes! Every day!” was her reply when someone asked her while standing in line for brownies if they were her regular clothes or special for the trip.

Back in our cabins, minutes before disembarking the ship to explore Vietnam, my phone rings again. “Hello Maliss my name is Panha”. Even though I’ve spent the last six days with him and get his hourly calls to check in on our schedule, Panha still greets the phone call’s recipient like he’s about to offer a lower interest rate or carpet installation quote.
     “Yes, Panha. Are you ready to see Vietnam?”
     “Yes. Maliss? Maybe we find potatoes and peanut butter there?”
I encourage him to enjoy the ship’s lunchtime meal before disembarking. Because as he’d soon find out, he’d be repeatedly mistaken as Vietnamese and would struggle to order spring rolls at a market stall, let alone obscure Western food.

This was the theme of the trip for the EGBOK Mission students: getting to share their interests and culture while gaining experience as guests and being removed from their comfort zone. Although the ship quickly became home to them, the three of us were pleased to be welcomed home once back in Siem Reap. They were proud to finally be identified as a local again. I was proud that we had survived seasickness, the nervousness that accompanies public speaking, the hectic streets of Ho Chi Minh, and all those Khmer pajama inquiries.

November 9, 2011

Molly's Top Ten

You know it's been too long since your last blog entry when you can’t remember your login or password. Some would take this as a sign to give up early and cease to write one last entry. But I can’t. Partly because I’d feel extremely lazy for doing so and partly because I feel that I owe it to Cambodia, this amazing country I’ve been entranced by for the past seven months.

So in its honor, I’m here to tell you about the top ten things I’ll miss the most about Cambodia. I cannot include the fascinating and inspiring people, organizations, or EGBOK Mission students I’ve gotten to know because my plane takes off in three hours and I could dedicate an entirely separate blog just to them.

Here goes; a brief synopsis of my most favorite things Cambodian:

1. Iced coffee. The drink should actually be renamed Sweetened Condensed Milk with Coffee Flavor since it’s sometimes literally one part sweetened condensed milk to one part Vietnamese coffee. I’m not making this a food blog, but I can’t leave out the necessities (i.e. anything with sugar).

2. Khmer dance/exercise class. Aerobics is fun, but aerobics with 5 EGBOK Mission students to blaring Khmer techno remixes for two hours in the evenings can’t even begin to compete with a class at LA Fitness. Plus, it costs a quarter per person.

3. Ponchos. The rain’s a pain, but at least you get to wear really fun colored, extremely unflattering 35 cent ponchos.

4. Fried bananas. Back to food. While you’re ordering your iced coffee, you can pick up a fried banana from the roadside stall that offers a few varieties: my favorite is the mashed-up banana rolled into a ball, breaded with coconut and sticky rice, then fried and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Yours for just twelve cents.

5. Gong Sabai (“Happy Bike” in Khmer). In Siem Reap volunteers bicycle everywhere. In America, I bicycle in spin class. Differences include the cute basket Cambodia bicycles have, the cheery bell that begs to be constantly rung, and the fact that I’m actually going somewhere when I pedal.

6. Asian t-shirts. Imagine picking up a dictionary, choosing four or five words at random, and designing a $2 t-shirt with the words in oversized bright letters. I gave up trying to decipher their meanings months ago. My favorite reads, “Happy happy April Fool’s Day! I love practical jobs!”

7. Taro sticky rolls. Back to food again. This time we’re talking sugar AND butter and the most doughy, taro-covered pastry in the world. Not exaggerating on that, either – I had a student try to see if the bakery lady would unveil her husband’s recipe and she wasn't even willing to go in the back and ask him for permission. Let’s just say I already know where my first stop will be on my next Siem Reap return.

8. Markets. Photos can’t do justice. Flailing eels, pajamas, school uniforms, spools of fabric, moto parts…you just have to experience it. Worst place to be in an earthquake. Whenever I’m in the Cambodian markets, I tell myself that when I get home I will never take emergency exits or fire safety procedures for granted.

9. Tuk Tuks. They’re rather slow, uncomfortable, and sometimes overpriced. But for the most part, tuk tuk drivers are helpful and happy to transport as many plants, shelves, and bags of rice that will fit.

10. This list hasn’t been compiled in order of ranking - maybe I should have clarified that earlier. However, I’ve saved the best for last. My most favorite thing? The countryside. Maybe it’s because I spent six months last year living in the middle of it, maybe it’s because I have memories of getting lost in small village dirt roads on my bicycle, or maybe it’s because of the phenomenon that no matter what you try to do, no photo editing program can improve the rice fields’ color and photo quality – it’s just already too beautiful. 

September 16, 2011

"Lady, do you want to swim with me now?"

When I’m in Cambodia, I’m from Seattle. This is because Puyallup may have the 7th largest fair in North America, but most people who ask where I’m from in the States have no idea where “Pu – ALL – up?” is. When I mention my hometown I normally received a raised eyebrow or two and then quickly change my answer to Tacoma. Even then, that doesn’t always do the trick. So until Puyallup gets its act together and does something besides welcome Weird Al, Chicago, and Adam Lambert to the grandstand once a year, Seattle it is.

Regardless of which of these three western Washington cities I call home, one thing they have in common is the rain. The cold, windy rainfall is not something I’ve been missing, thanks to the Cambodian rainy season. I love it here. You can ride your bike in shorts and a tank top in the middle of an afternoon downpour. You have to wear sunglasses sometimes, since the sun is shining while it rains. Sandals are the best option, since they don’t take time to dry and you wear them everyday anyway. The splashing water that hits the pedaling calves and shins is bathwater warm. Heaven.

So when I returned to drenched Siem Reap after a week in bone-dry Phnom Penh, my first evening was spent standing curbside with my backpack amide a half dozen tuk-tuk drivers who were doing the normal Khmer tuk-tuk driver thing: watching the world go by and occasionally pointing out a ridiculously dressed foreigner, talking about what they had for lunch, or (my favorite) pulling up their shirt to expose their brown bellies to alleviate the heat. But this wasn’t a quick “I’m waiting for my tuk-tuk driver to come get me so I’ll wait along the side of the road” stint like normal. Instead it was, “There are literally 8 tuk-tuk drivers standing with me and none of them are capable of getting their moto’s engines through the overflowing river that’s imposed itself along downtown’s busiest intersection.” The one intersection, of course, that requires crossing in order for me to get to my guesthouse.

It’s here, while waiting for my tuk-tuk to come, that the comparison surfaces. It’s in the following days that the similarities concrete themselves in my mind so that I find myself mentioning to a fellow volunteer that I feel like it should be Christmas.

The rain in Cambodia is the same as snow in Puyallup, Tacoma, or Seattle. Children play in the streets – instead of sleds, toddlers float downstream in buckets. Older boys harass each other by wrestling in the 2.5 foot deep water, and bicyclists have to dismount in order to trudge through the murky flow. Coconuts bobble on the surface like buoys and occasionally a flip flop will slip off from underfoot and is quickly located by scrambling the streets’ surface with both hands before it drifts too far.

The main similarity, and the one I first noticed, was the way traffic stops, people stand along the street, and as a community, just watch the wackos on motos attempt to get through the half mile flooded area. It doesn’t matter where you were planning on going, or how important your task was – when there’s an overflowing river and motos have to be pushed through the tides, it’s easiest to just stop, sit on your moto, and watch the world (try to) go by. The motos that attempt to gain distance seem to compete with one another to see how far they can progress before a certain engine part (I’m no mechanic) gets too drenched to keep the engine alive. Then the march of man and moto begin when he hops off slowly, covertly glancing around to see how many bystanders witnessed his defeat.

I am reminded of the glorious snow days in school, and how on some winter evenings I’d accompany my father to the road in front of our house. If the snow had already fallen and the roads were coated, we’d stroll a ways in each direction, testing the road’s iciness to predict tomorrow’s chance of school cancellation. He’d listen to me coax him into talking about how sure he was the weather was so bad that school would certainly be canceled the next day. We’d stand and stare at the occasional car that passed, assessing its movement and commenting on how snow-ready its make and model was (I mentioned I was in the company of my father, right?).

Although the temperature and weather conditions are a bit dissimilar, when I trek in the knee deep water to the EGBOK Mission office with other volunteers, we make these (slightly) comparable observations, “Uh oh. Looks like he’ll have to take his entire family of 5 off the moto and make them walk!” Or, “Did you realize the crocodile farm is right next door to us? Can we assume that the crocodile’s caretakers will leash them up or something?” My favorite is the questions that’s swept through town; every tuk tuk driver, hotel bellboy, and coffee shop waiter isn’t content until they ask, “Lady, can you swim? You swim with me?” And instead of listing the dozen reasons why I’d never consider it (the leaking sewage, for one), I just smile and say, “Not today. But thanks anyway.”

Walking in it every day with the brown water splashing up to my mid-thigh isn’t the most ideal daily routine. But, it’s rainy season in Cambodia. And in 3 months when I’m standing outside the road in Puyallup with my father anticipating the evening’s snowfall, I’ll remember these similarities. But for now, I’ll keep trudging with my bicycle in tow, listening to the teenage boys screaming like girls as they splash one another and playfully attempt to aim their splashes in my direction.  There’s higher ground somewhere, and I hope it’s close by.

August 22, 2011

A City Visit

The reason I am in Cambodia this year is because of my experience teaching at a small, rural, picturesque orphanage located on Highway 51 in Kampong Speu province. It’s littered with undersized children who keep themselves plenty busy by hunting for beetles, swimming in the eerie brown pond amongst frogs and fish, and thrashing low-flying bat-like birds with bamboo branches just for the pleasure of making the kill and seeing how small the birds’ brains are.  The older students take no part in these activities, though, as their responsibilities consist of studying, cleaning, and cooking.

It was my six months with these older students that had me interested in returning.

They’re village kids. They frequent the city once or twice a year for a day at a time and the word ‘store’ isn’t in their vocabulary, ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is. Bicycle Man, Coffee Lady, Fruit Girl, and Copy Lady are the local village market go-tos for the necessities. The older students are pros at maneuvering through the rickety, thatched-roof market between stalls of flailing fish, fresh cut cow parts, and fruits and vegetables of every imaginable color. They aren’t shy when it comes to negotiating on prices nor do they hide their astonishment when they get quoted a ridiculous rate for a bundle of bananas.

For now, their home is the orphanage and the thought of leaving is as daunting as running out of rice.

And this is where EGBOK Mission comes in. From the students who have taken the 3 month Introduction to Hospitality course (over 150 students to date) taught by EGBOK Mission volunteers, dozens of them have decided to pursue their studies within the hospitality realm (around 50 students so far). These students apply, prepare, interview, and hope to be accepted into one of the hospitality training schools in Cambodia. It sounds like the normal college entrance procedure that we’re used to, but it’s not. This is Cambodia, after all.

Leaving home is difficult for anyone who moves away. For some of the students who are about to begin their academic journey in Siem Reap, this means moving nearly halfway across the country. EGBOK Mission has prepared the housing, provides the living necessities, and supports all of the students who make this move.
For the students coming from the rural orphanages, it’ll take them days, weeks – maybe months to get used to living in a house that’s in a neighborhood of paved streets, domesticated dogs, and stop signs. For the students coming from the much bigger city of Phnom Penh, it’ll take them the same amount of time to get acquainted to this quieter, more foreigner-filled town. Regardless of what site they come from, few students will be used to the academic workload they’re about to begin. The training schools that will be preparing them for jobs in the Front Office, Restaurant, Cooking, Tourism, and Bakery & Pastry fields consist of much more strenuous and lengthened coursework than the typical Khmer government school half-day schedule. They’ll be taught by Khmer, French, and Australian teachers who become role models to the students because of how dedicated they are in helping each student understand a concept, perfect their pronunciation, and show true interest in the career opportunities that emerge from their year-long training.

For the students coming from the rural sites, their exposure to the cities (both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) has been greatly increased because of the EGBOK Mission course, which includes hotel visits in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, a day-long cooking class, and tourism trips to the museums, markets, and attractions that foreigners come to visit.

 In one of the most recent trips to Phnom Penh, the particular group of students I had taught English to for 6 months last year ventured with their EGBOK Mission volunteer teacher into the capital to tour hotels and restaurants. From the small boutique chain of Boddhi Tree Guesthouses to the larger, more upscale Sofitel, the students were in shock the entire day. The staff of the hotels were patient in answering the students’ questions about room rates, nationality of guests, and employment procedures. At Boddhi Tree, our guide was Chakreya. Chakreya was the very first EGBOK Mission student I met back in April when I came with other volunteers to visit her at her first place of employment. I remember at the time she was comfortable, chatty, and excited to be working at Boddhi Tree. Four months later, and I’m standing in front of her with a group of 17 students who come from a similarly rural site as her. She shows them each of the rooms, explains how the shower works, describes check-in procedures, and probes the students to assess what their interests are. All in all, she seems to be helping run the show at Boddhi Tree, and the students walked away amazed at her wealth of knowledge.

As the day’s itinerary sped along, the group was welcomed into Rumdeng Restaurant’s kitchen to see the different elements and learn about cooking temperatures. They were shown about the importance of using coasters under water glasses (a very foreign concept) and talked with the staff about their positions as waiters and waitresses. Everything from the bright art hanging on the walls to the cash register was new to them.

When the day was finished the students were looking forward to getting back to their village. As the sprinkles started to let loose from the black clouds, all 17 climbed into the van and happily took their seats, chatting about the size of the oven, cleanliness of the swimming pool, and diversity of guests from their long day. Will all 17 of them make a decision based on this trip that studying hospitality is right for them? No. Maybe 2 of them? Who knows. And that’s not the goal. The goal is to provide them with the exposure, brief experience, and a basic introduction to this idea that there are more rewarding and enjoyable career options available to them than becoming the Coffee Lady or Bicycle Man – if they are truly interested, hard working, and passionate about using their hospitality skills to help them achieve independence as young adults.

The new school year starts in two weeks. Nearly 30 EGBOK Mission students will be studying in Siem Reap, which means before their arrival the volunteers will scope out the local markets for the best deals on backpacks, socks, belts, rice cookers, pillows, shampoo, and dozens of other necessities that are provided to the students. We don’t have a Target here, but it’s Cambodia, and that means whatever you need CAN be found at the market. It’s just behind the flailing fish, in a stall next to the cow parts, or hidden in a market’s far corner past the pajamas, fake iPhones, and 20 kilo bags of MSG. 

July 9, 2011

Cambodian Time

"So what have you been up to? Keepin' busy?"

Sometimes when I get asked these innocent questions by family and friends on Skype conversations, I occasionally go blank.  It's like I'm reliving my spelling bee days of 2nd grade and have been asked to spell my favorite bonus word: perseverance. I could easily spell the word at the kitchen table a dozen times this morning, but the fact that I have twenty five pairs of eyes watching me causes my stress level to rise. Needless to say, conversing on Skype is much different and about ten thousand times more pleasurable than a spelling bee, but I get the same clueless feeling when I'm asked about the work that we're doing every day. It's not that EGBOK Mission volunteers are indolent - I can promise you that I have never worked with a group of such dedicated, enthusiastic, organized, and motivated people in my life. My challenge of recalling all the tasks, projects, and expansion that are being worked on spurs from the realization that there really is a monstrous amount of work that's being done here, and when you've lived in it for 91 days (or 2+ years if you're the EGBOK Mission founder, Ben Justus) it takes some effort to zoom out and see how each of the volunteer's daily accomplishments slowly add up. 

At this point there are 6 EGBOK Mission volunteers in Cambodia working with Ben to help continue, expand, improve, and run the day-to-day happenings that fall in the lap of an NGO that deals with 10 students who are about to graduate from hospitality school, 25 students who are about to move across the country to attend hospitality school, and 7 sites throughout Cambodia. Easy? I think not.

The 6 of us come from varied backgrounds, degrees, and experiences; some of us have volunteered in Cambodia before, others have never had the thrill of riding in a tuk-tuk or sipping on a 35 cent iced coffee before this month. With all of our combined degrees, we make for a varied resume - Economics, Finance, English, Social Work, Hospitality, Geography, and Health. Regardless of what and how much we've studied or our volunteer duration, all of us spend every day working with one another on the random tasks at hand. Personally, this is the reason I felt comfortable committing to six months with EGBOK Mission; every day is different and this crazy thing called Cambodian Time makes things scoot along inexplicably fast.

The thing I enjoy the most, besides working with my co-volunteers, is that there is no such thing as an average day as an EGBOK Mission volunteer. I have spent mornings on the computer, afternoons at the copy shop, and evenings at the student house. I have spent mornings sitting roadside along one of downtown Siem Reap's streets getting keys made - or, I should say, waiting for keys to get made. I have spent endless hours pacing the small, scorching hot copy shop as EGBOK Mission students' resumes gradually glide through the printer at an alarmingly sluggish speed. While I wait, I try to converse with the copy attendant, but every time I attempt this casual dialogue I remember my very first chat with him about why he no longer teaches computer classes at the high school - he got tired of talking.

The mindboggling and ironic thing is that for as fast as the overall duration in Cambodia goes, most of the necessary daily tasks take approximately three times as long as we're used to. Need ten copies? Plan for 15 minutes. Need 25 color prints? Plan to bring your lunch.

In one week, EGBOK Mission has gone from occupying 2 rooms to 4 rooms in the guesthouse where we live. Now, because our rooms stretch down the hall of the second floor, my dorm room days have reappeared. Unlike the dorms, where we'd rely on each door's whiteboard to inform the others of our whereabouts, EGBOK Mission volunteers rely on a quick call. Given the array of places we go, ways to get there, and the people we meet, some of our phone conversations produce surprised, confused, or Only In Cambodia reactions, "You're where? Why do you need to show her the coffee shop? OOOHHH. Copy shop. Got it." Or "I don't remember what aisle the crackers are in - get the shrimp-flavored banana chips instead." Or my favorite, "Gotta call you back. Cockroach on my bed."

At any one moment, the 6 of us could be organizing class lesson plans, documenting finances, meeting with hospitality school staff to discuss next year's EGBOK Mission students, meeting with a hotel's General Manager to educate them about EGBOK Mission, visiting the student house and helping the Front Office students perfect their guest relation skills by acting dramatically like an unhappy hotel guest, or visiting a student during their internship (or, as of this week, their JOB!). The later is my favorite task to accomplish - checking in at a hotel or restaurant to briefly visit one of the EGBOK Mission students in uniform. Whether behind the bar or behind the front desk, they are always happy to be visited. They are more than willing to pose for the camera as they pour a glass of wine or use the espresso machine to making my coffee.

For the sake of the students, during these visits I am reminded of my junior high choir concerts and every other experience that involves parents visiting their child in a public venue for an important event - it's good to have your parents there to see you perform, but as a student you are secretly crossing your fingers in hopes they won't embarrass you too much. Same idea during the student internship and job visits; as volunteers we let them know we're excited for them, we place our order, and then we proudly chat about them as we grab a table that's not too close, but within easy view of these successful EGBOK Mission scholars.

The days are long (especially when the neighbors are chain-sawing down a coconut tree at 6am), jam-packed, and exhausting. The heat, language barrier, and Cambodian pace of accomplishing things can be frustrating. But it's exciting. It's fun. It's unlike any position I could ever imagine having at home. I'm lucky to be with the other volunteers, and so thankful to spend the next 107 days continuing to work with them as we rapidly plough ahead into the whirlwind of Cambodian Time. 

May 29, 2011

A Photo Shoot

It’s time to prepare resumes.

Normally at home, this is one of those tasks that receives a few seconds worth of unpleasant audible groans before you just sit down at the computer and crank it out. You check for typos, confirm your references still like you, print it on some nice paper, and hand it in. Simple, right?

Now imagine the Cambodian version of this same task.

First, to use a computer you’d head to your local internet cafĂ© or gaming hole-in-the wall where you pay 50 cents an hour to sit in a hot, dirty room and work on an ancient, slow computer. Khmer renditions of Michael Buble and Celine Dion obnoxiously blare through the establishment’s cheap speakers as you quickly begin to realize the ‘s’, ‘i’, and ‘p’ keys do not work, and because you are Khmer, your name has at least two of these letters. 

That is, unless you are a lucky EGBOK Mission student. Thanks to our donated laptops, we’ve put them to good use this past week in helping us prepare the students’ resumes. Graduation is quickly approaching and the first group of EGBOK Mission students in Siem Reap can almost call themselves alum from either Paul Dubrule or Sala Bai Hospitality Training Schools. In the past year, 10 EGBOK Mission students have completed their coursework in either Restaurant, Front Office & Housekeeping, or Bakery & Pastry programs. They have interned at a total of 14 hotels in Siem Reap and have learned everything from how to work the espresso machine to handle online bookings to make delicious Tiramisu. Some have been selected to serve at large functions held at the Angkor Wat temples and others have already been asked to consider employment at their place of internship. Within this past year, they have all moved from their home orphanages in the bustling, crowed city of Phnom Penh to the tourist- and job-friendly smaller city of Siem Reap. They live in the EGBOK Mission house and cook for themselves, pay the utilities, deal with the landlord, begin to understand the importance of saving money, and try to remember to water the plants before Ben or I get on their case.

The students come home from school or their internships everyday and take a few minutes to lounge in the entry-way’s comfy chairs, listen to music, or visit with one of us. It’s not rare for them to doze off as the others are discussing who will take out the garbage or when their next exams are. Many of the students begin their days at 5 or 6am, so ten hours later they’re severely missing out on the wonderful 2-hour Cambodian lunch time siesta they’ve grown up with.

But by later in the evening, they’ve obtained their second wind and are excited to study. Katie and I teach 3 classes a week at the house, and thanks to the donated laptops we can introduce PowerPoint and Word, get them comfortable typing, and assist them with resumes. They couldn’t be more eager to learn on the computers and often times we end class later than planned because they just can’t seem to get enough.

As graduation nears and I’m beginning to help them apply to jobs for their first time, it’s a learning experience for me, too. Photos have to be submitted with each resume, and apparently it’s not customary to smile in them. This makes for an interesting few days at the photo store, as I stand behind the photographer and beg the students to show some teeth, reminding them that employers want to hire happy people. In a three day period I visited the photo store four times – just enough for the staff to recognize me every time I came in with a group of students.

All of the boys enjoyed their photo shoot because it meant they got to put on a tie and jacket. There were a dozen different ties to choose from, two identical jackets, and a few white button- up shirts. Perfectly clean? No. But you can’t see the collar’s sweat stains in the photos, and that’s what matters.

The first group of boys I took loved this outing. We were guided up the shop’s stairs to a large room with half a dozen staff busy editing wedding photos on computers. In one corner of the room was a blue screen and a single stool in front. Even before the photographer appeared, the boys began choosing which tie had more ‘style’ and sorting through the shirts – completely reminiscent of playing dress up as a girl. One by one, they helped each other tie the tie, straighten the jacket, and pat their hair down before taking a seat on the stool. The photographer, who was approximately half my size and looked like he’d just finished splatter painting, would work his magic and literally tilt each boys head, chin, and shoulders to be all aligned perfectly.  A couple of snaps later and they were through with their camera time. But the make-believe would just begin, as they’d stand up, slowly begin to untie their tie, and carefully remove the jacket.

“I am just returning!” each one would say.

“From where?” I’d play along.

“My day at Sofitel Hotel – very long day! Many guests.”

“What do you do there?” I’d push their imaginations.

The reply would range from Guest Relation’s Officer to General Manager. Then they’d be bothered to hurry up by the next student in line who was waiting for the jacket.

I came so often that the price for each student’s 8 prints decreased from $3 to 75 cents by the third day.
The photos turned out well and everyone is sporting a big smile. When I showed them the prints the next day, they couldn’t wait to see them and talk about how handsome they were.

For Cambodia, this was an extremely easy and smooth process. Other important things, like tracking down birth certificates or obtaining National ID cards, are the types of tasks that linger on the to-do list not because of procrastination, but because this is Cambodia.

It’s not rare for twenty year olds to not know the correct spelling of their names. Maybe when they were younger, they felt like adding a few letters to their family or given name, so now they don’t remember what’s on their birth certificate. And speaking of birth certificate, some students don’t have a clue where theirs is, which adds to the conundrum. Or, they went a step further and actually scribbled over their original name on their birth certificate and penciled in a new one. Makes sense, I guess.

 It’s hard - actually, impossible, for these ‘Cambodia-isms’ to not bother me. There are a lot of them. How can you not know your age? How is it not unordinary for 19 year olds to still be in grade 8? Why is “I have no money to give to teacher” a valid excuse for not regularly attending government school? These are complex questions with answers I will never fully understand.

But I do know this: In the past year, EGBOK Mission has succeeded in helping students who were either far behind or eager to find an option besides government school. They chose to come to study in Siem Reap because their futures look brighter with hospitality training. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all of the resume editing, job hunting, and exam dates racing toward us. The students are aware of the gravity the next few weeks has on their futures, but as I was reminded today while clothes shopping for interviews with them, “Right now we go only step by step.”

May 10, 2011

This is Cambodia, after all...

The more I look, the more grossed out I get. I’m so perplexed by it, though. But by about the third time I take a peek, the nauseousness hits me and I’m positive it’s from this bizarre phenomenon rather than the carsickness. It’s an Asian thing, and after living in Cambodia for a total of seven months I’ve seen a lot of it, but this time it’s the length that I can’t get over.

I’m talking about the long, extremely unattractive hairs that sprout from facial moles.

Thought you were going to read a pleasant little update about the latest happenings in Cambodia? I’ll get there in a minute.

 Our bus driver, whom  I’m sitting directly behind, has a medium, black colored mole on his bottom right cheek so when he turns his head to the right I not only see the mole, but also the half dozen long hairs that he has so delicately grown springing from its center. When I say long, I mean it. His are at least six inches, which actually doesn’t even rival that of many moto and tuk tuk drivers, market vendors, and dvd salesmen I have had the pleasure of interacting with. Two things always happen when I see this strange occurrence. First, I suddenly lose my appetite, and second, I always ask myself if the lucky owner ever braids, straightens, or gets creative with his scraggly, wiry collection. This image stays in my head for about .03 seconds before my gag reflex forcefully distracts me and I move on to thinking about how hot it is. I guess that’s one good thing about living in 90 degree heat. Distraction when you need it.

Speaking of heat, it’s hot on this empty 20 passenger bus, but I see that the AC is on high so I suck it up and try not to think about how hot it will be when there are twenty-one more bodies on board in fifteen minutes.

Katie and I (and our finely groomed driver) are on our way to pick up the Angkor Thom junior high students to take them on their first class trip to the city. By moto, this journey out to the countryside takes a good forty minutes; today we’re commuting out there on this small bus to load up the students and bring them to Siem Reap’s National Museum – a bumpier version of the same ride at twice the length.

Once we arrive to the junior high and the students load, we repeat the rough journey. Most of the students are excited to take a seat; others are too thrilled to relax. They choose to stay standing through the entire ride despite their skulls being wounded from the violent bouncing – their balance is impressive, I think to myself. Helmets would be nice.

It doesn’t take long for two things to quickly happen. First, one of the boys suggests a group sing-a-long. This takes me back to my sixth grade choir concerts where we’d load the school bus and head to the ‘performance’ of the year – the local Lion’s Club quarterly meeting. A big deal. On the fifteen minute ride my classmates would prompt one of these same sing-a-longs and I remember always thinking ‘really?’. We’re on our way to sing, why do we need to give ourselves headaches by shouting in this acoustically unfriendly bus?
Today the student who initiated the singing suggests No Doubt’s ‘Say That You Love Me’. He asks Katie and me to join him and I lie and say I don’t know the song. Instead of this cop-out working, it just makes the young choir director initiate a new song – Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’.  Are you sure these are village kids?

The next occurrence is less pleasant and reinforces the fact that these are village kids. Because of their infrequent car and bus rides, their carsickness hits fast. There are a few girls who do their best to hide their discomfort, but after about thirty minutes into the ride someone has communicated to the driver the need to exit the vehicle. Immediately.

Two minutes later she’s back on the bus. I hand her a water and she’s given up hiding her malaise. All I can do is tell her we’re almost off of this bumpy road before I’m interrupted by her peer sitting in front. “Teacha, please help!” I ungracefully walk to Yen and see that as her friends are barely managing to hold their stomachs, she’s reading the English-Khmer picture dictionary given to her on the first day of EGBOK Mission class last week. She’s opened to the seafood section, and wants to hear my pronunciation of ‘salmon steak’. After lots of practice, she’s moved on to ‘filet of sole’ (“Why no ‘t’ sound?”) and  ‘shrimp’. I envy her skill of reading while in motion. I also envy her skill of acting like everything is completely normal as the half dozen students surrounding her were wishing they hadn’t had lunch.

Once at the museum, the students’ energy seemed to perk up. It was clear they were not used to air conditioned or tourist-filled rooms. As we walked from room to room, I was repeatedly blown away – these students were actually taking notes.  I’ve never seen someone open their notebook so briskly and uncap their pen with such fervor in my life.

Walls upon walls of information (in Khmer and English) about Angkor rulers, temple architecture, and Buddha statues. Rooms filled with traditional artwork, maps of the world, and timelines dozens of meters long.  The students were interested in it all – Katie and I gave up sticking together as a group early on as we saw some students were documenting the information like their life depended on it. The students who meandered ahead became just as mesmerized with the short video clips about the origin of Kampuchea that in the end it didn’t matter how spread out we’d become because everyone finished together.

We just went from a rural village, to Justin Bieber, to a history museum in one of southeast Asia’s tourist capitals. And now some $2 pho for lunch - with piles and piles of added MSG. This is Cambodia, after all, and there are some things I just won’t get used to.

April 28, 2011

Site Visit: Angkor Thom Junior High

The sharp piercing squeaks of the moto’s brakes warn me to grip tighter. The small metal bar on the back of the seat is my saving grace; my wrist is starting to strain from the awkward angle as my fingers grasp tighter and tighter each time I hear the cue. The left footstand is half broken, so it’s downward angle forces my left thigh to work harder than it’s used to in order to prevent the weight of my leg from breaking this 4 inch piece of metal.

As usual in Cambodia, I feel I am in the middle of nowhere as Ratanak, my friendly moto driver, quickly maneuvers us between the rugged potholes, logging trucks, and stray animals that occasionally obstruct our journey. Actually, it’s the trucks and animals that are occasional – the potholes line this 7 mile dirt road so thoroughly that every few seconds Ratanak must grip his brake as he steers around or ploughs through the next hole. I have no idea how fast we’re headed down this village road since the moto’s speedometer is stuck at 0, and after straining my gaze over his shoulder several times in the hopes of catching a glimpse of our speed, I decide that maybe it’s best not to know. Just hold on, try to ignore the burning sun, and enjoy the scenery.

The latter is by far the easiest to do, as our commute today has taken us through some of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. As the tour buses of Koreans (all sporting super stylish matching hats – I want one) unloaded and became swarmed with Khmer children trying to sell them bracelets, postcards, and trinkets, Ratanak pulled the throttle to pass them with just enough aggressiveness that it seemed to underline our mission – we had ground to cover, and we weren’t going to be stalled by any Teva-sandaled tourists who were distracted with their heads buried behind their temple maps. We were on our way out to Angkor Thom, a small, poor rural village a good 40 minutes past these sightseers. 

Every so often, Ratanak turns his head sideways to attempt a conversation with me. Because I spoke to him before we left town using the half dozen Khmer phrases and questions I know, this man thinks I’m fluent. With the wind, engine noise, and me constantly focusing on not falling off the back of the moto, I fail to hear what he’s shouting at me. I can’t really tell if it’s in Khmer or English, so I alternate my polite responses between “oh, really?”, “yes, beautiful!”, “interesting!” and a few Khmer responses that probably make no sense at all. My Khmer needs some work.

Angkor Thom Junior High is made up of village students, students from a local orphanage, and students who live in the boarding section of the campus. Thanks to Life & Hope Association, this junior high is able to provide the students with better teachers, longer class times, and an array of life skill and supplemental education programs. Today was Katie and my first visit out to this bright, welcoming small campus where Katie will begin teaching the three month EGBOK Mission hospitality curriculum next week.

Once we pulled off the dirt road and into the school’s driveway, we were welcomed by some of the students who were eager to learn our names and ages. They were most likely overwhelmed by our whiteness and large size; we were overwhelmed by our aching bottoms and the inviting sensation of being able to stand and walk without the constant bouncing of the past hour.

During our visit, we met Katie’s students under their thatched-roof eating area. The 20 kids sat lining a long, narrow table and quietly watched Katie as she discussed the rules and class schedule. As I sat to the side at a different table, I had a perfect view of these new EGBOK Mission scholars. I couldn’t help but to remember my first few classes teaching English last year and how quiet my students were - rarely raising their hands, seldom daring to translate in Khmer for their classmates, and all the while making me nervous. What am I doing wrong? Is this too challenging? Are they just bored? Do they really want to be here? And this uncertainty lasted for approximately 1.5 classes. After that, the frightened students became more comfortable with my eccentric teaching style (compared to what they were used to) and class participation was rarely an issue  (when a vocab word is ‘gargle’, there’s really only one way to make sure every student knows what it means).

So as I looked at each of these junior high schoolers listening to Katie, I saw their potential and have no doubt they will do well in this program. They already have the motivation (these students were selected based on their desire and English skills) and in no time I know they’ll be talking their heads off and asking questions before, during, and after each class. When Katie mentions the class field trip to Phnom Penh in June, one of the girls directly across from me literally drops her jaw as her eyebrows instantly rise and both hands meet her cheeks. She might be too shy to say it now, but I don’t need to know Khmer fluently to be absolutely positive - she is pumped.

April 20, 2011

Student Profile: Chakreya

It’s late morning on a typical Monday in Phnom Penh. The sun has made its entrance and will stubbornly linger overhead until late afternoon. Ben, Katie, and I are on our way to visit Chakreya, an EGBOK Mission student who has just completed her six month internship at the Boddhi Tree Aram Guesthouse. As we pass sidewalk stalls selling mangoes, water, and rice, I wonder where exactly this guesthouse is hidden. Once the sidewalks clear, this quiet side street becomes a small, residential area littered with well kept French colonial style houses. It is in front of one of these refreshingly clean white buildings where we are greeted by a beautiful young girl who is standing nearly in the middle of the small street. She is busy soaking the sidewalk flora with a large white hose; she is drenched herself, but with sweat or water? The temperature is pushing 90 so it’s likely to be both. She happily greets us and invites us inside, so Ben, Katie, and I make our way into the crisp clean lobby and briefly wait for her to finish her watering duties.

I quickly learn a lot. Chakreya is from Children’s Orphanage Samrong, which is about 45 minutes from Phnom Penh. She has many siblings at Samrong, and she still lives there so commuting is a pain, but at this point it’s her only option. As Ben checks in with her about her family, how she likes her internship, her schedule, and the hotel guests, I am only able to pay attention to half of her replies. Not because I have difficulty understanding - her English is wonderful. In fact, that’s the problem; I am distracted by her ease in speaking to us and her calm demeanor.  She has no problem conversing with Ben and letting us know what is new.  As the three of us relax on the couch, she is standing confidently in front of us and her naturally comfortable mannerisms remind me of my peers who never once dreaded a class presentation; the type of people who didn’t have to practice their speeches in front of their bedroom mirror because they had this gift of not getting nervous in front of others. Chakreya has this skill, and it makes this already welcoming hotel lobby all the more genial. I could stay right here for the next six months. The busy streets of Phnom Penh and its noisy motos, shouting children, and barking dogs feel far, far away.

I am blown away by the ease of Chakreya’s polite responses to our questions. She tells us about her duties at the front desk and with housekeeping, where most travelers are coming from, and that she has a JOB! After her 6 month internship, she has been hired on as staff! Besides the regular paycheck, this means she can help her sister save money for a moto. She tells us she is also interested in studying Hotel Administration as she walks us down the street to a second Boddhi Tree guesthouse. As we reach the top of the stairs and enter the immaculate white porch, I can almost hear the comfy green and white striped wicker chairs calling my name. They are inviting me to grab a book, a mango shake, and my favorite pair of fake Ray Bans and spend an entire day in this welcoming, relaxed hideaway.

Chakreya has done very well. Her English is not forced or strained, and as we thank her for allowing us to stop by, Ben lets her know how much she’s improved. She enthusiastically nods and agrees – speaking with guests daily allows her to continue practicing and expanding her English skills.  Chakreya works very hard six days a week from 6am-3pm. Once she’s off work and back at Samrong, her responsibilities shift from greeting foreigners at the front desk to assisting the other children in the rice fields. It’s ploughing season after all, which means there’s rice to be prepared and every farmhand is needed. 

Chakreya was the first EGBOK Mission student I met. I come to find in the following days after meeting several other EGBOK Mission students that her dedication, willingness to improve, and overall vivaciousness represent her peers exceptionally well.

As we visit her again at Samrong on Tuesday, we are welcomed by her big, familiar smile. She is excited to show us the orphanage grounds and introduce us to the children, guiding us from tomato garden to classroom to chicken coop to dormitory. I am happy to see where she is coming from, and I couldn’t be more excited to see just where she will head. 

April 15, 2011

Khmer New Year in the Village - A Return to APCA

Two and a half minutes. Not as long as I was expecting; I was imagining that it would be more like ten leisurely minutes chatting with the older kids until the younger ones came out of their shells.

But two and a half minutes after my arrival at APCA, it felt like I was returning home. Because in the middle of that second minute, after my bags were starting to be hauled up the two flights of stairs by the courteous boys who never once complained about their massive weight, someone said it. The magic word that is apparently forever linked to Molly. The word? ‘Bingo’. As in the game that you see advertised at the Elks hall every Tuesday night at 7. Cambodian children can play this game forever – although they aren't aware of the fancy blotters, generous prizes, or loud microphones. Instead, each kid is responsible for their own homemade card made out of extra cardstock and rocks from the driveway are used as place holders. Prizes include Halloween-themed stickers, tattoos, and spider rings thanks to the Target post-Halloween 90% sale, and if I have to raise my voice to declare each number, I get to holler one of my favorite phrases, “Gomewat, gay-reeun!” This actually means, “Quiet! Study!” but I use it anyway because the only other phrase I can think of off- hand is “Gome kong” and telling them to not be angry wouldn't make as much sense.

So about five minutes after I arrived at APCA, we played Bingo for an hour. Some children still prefer to call the game Mango because it’s more fun to say “There was a man who had a dog, and Mango was his name-o! M-A-N-G-O…”. Once finished, I brought out the two photobooks I had made of the children. The books were a hit and the kids enjoyed pointing to the past volunteers and asking me when they will come back to APCA. I am as eager for their returns as the kids.

In nine months, the kids haven’t changed as much as I thought. Most haven’t grown much at all. There are five new additions and they are terrified of me. I’ve come in the middle of the most popular holiday of the year: Khmer New Year. This is the three day holiday that magically turns into a month vacation. All four of my evenings at APCA were spent dancing away to the Khmer version of 'Poker Face' and every famous Pitbull song under the sun. Most of the kids still remembered the line dances I taught them, so I familiarized them with ‘Ski Bumpin’, (my new favorite) and after watching the Michael Jackson dvd they wanted to learn a new dance of his. Sorry kids, I’m no Liv Warren.

Ever heard of the company Oriental Trading? I don’t know what I would do without them. They have arts and crafts for every holiday, age level, and skill level. Without turning this into an advertisement for OT, I’ll just keep it short by saying the 23 pounds of crafts I purchased from them was a great investment. The kids were used to organized, stress-free craft time biweekly with Diana, and although my patience isn’t quite at her level, she did a great job at training them the basic manners they lacked before she arrived. Even after nine months, most kids know it will drive me crazy if they approach me with outstretched hands and say, “Me. One.” Diana – your manners lessons worked! Now they are comfortable with a quick, “Can I please have one?” and sometimes they even remember to say thank you!

Before each evening’s dancing, we played traditional Khmer games. In one, I was blindfolded with a well-worn scarf (did someone say lice?), spun around 18,000 times, and told to identify any of the 50 children who were surrounding me in a circle. How hard could this be, right? It turns out, every boy has the exact same hair cut (did someone else say lice?), every girl the same slender shoulders, and none with jewelry or watches to give me any clues. On top of that, they are all amazing at keeping their mouths shut as I’m gently probing their face, head, hands, and shoulders to give me some idea who the unlucky child is. After guessing about five children incorrectly and being spun around another 7,429 times, I correctly guess (after about three minutes) the boy whose face and hands I am palpating is Meuk. Poor kid.

I spent one day visiting the different pagodas in the nearby villages with the APCA orphanage director. Last year at APCA I became very familiar with the feeling of being the only white person some of these villagers have ever seen. All you can do is smile, try to guess at what is going on, and act like wherever/whatever you are doing is the most natural thing ever. At one pagoda we divided a bowl of rice into 7 large basins that were already filled to the brim by other villagers who provide this food to the monks. The monks only eat breakfast and lunch every day and aren’t allowed to eat after noon, which is why I admire them so much. Sure, they can chant Sanskrit and Bali blessings for hours at a time in small, scrunched, scorching hot, incense-filled huts with dozens of people watching them -  who can’t? They can sit for hours at a time in the same cross legged position without any pillows or blankets under them; something that I would find difficult, but somehow more manageable than not eating past noon. EVERY DAY. Not even any snacking. No dessert!

The APCA children are always full of information on topics I have never paused to consider. For example, did you know there are three types of coughs? The first type of cough belongs to babies. The second type is reserved for old women. The third and most special cough is for the Playboys. For those who are unaware, Playboys are the Cambodian high schoolers who are also known as Sexy Boys. They bleach their hair red or yellow and do their best to imitate the Korean pop singers’ wardrobe. For those who aren’t aware of what that looks like, let me tell you this: YOU ARE MISSING OUT! Please watch this amazing music video and then you’ll be all caught up: SHINee

Back to the coughs of the Playboys/Sexy Boys. This is the type of cough an interested young man will quickly fake before he swiftly nods his head in acknowledgement of a Freshy Girl. A Freshy Girl is not as frequently referred to as a Sexy Girl, but she is the same thing. This means she wears high heels with her school uniform and adorns her ponytail with as many miniature stuffed animal hair do-dads she can possibly fit. If I had seen these girls when I was in first grade, I would have exploded with excitement. Also, I should clarify that Playboys are different than Lazy Boys. Lazy Boys drive their motos very fast and do not study or do homework. Playboys have been known to crack open a book once in awhile – and the APCA boys assure me they are neither, as they study very hard and never dye their hair. Their love for Korean pop culture certainly rivals that of the Playboys, though.

There, now you learned something new today.

I wanted to inquire about the laughs of the ‘taw gum-law’ (old man virgins) but didn’t want to interrupt our Freshy Girl conversation. ‘Taw gum-law’ is my version of every traveler’s incorrect and embarrassing use of a foreign word or phrase. Last year I spent six months calling 8-15 year old boys ‘old man virgins’ while thinking I was just calling them old grandpas.

Besides the children, most of my favorite things about APCA haven’t changed at all. The microfinance bank in the market where we taught at is still doing well and has expanded its staff. I stopped to chat with some of our old students there and got caught up with the latest Justin Bieber news, American Idol results, and Eminem albums. So glad I can travel 7,500 miles to keep up to date.

The coffee lady is still at the village market and Gong Sabai is doing well. Her basket isn’t as sturdy as it used to be, and her bell is missing, but she still rides like a charm. Sleeping under a mosquito net is still a pain, and the sinks have been removed from the entire building for a reason I cannot find. Still, I couldn’t be happier to spend 4 days with the kids during their vacation and on this special holiday. I am incredibly lucky to get to visit them and return to Cambodia. I look forward to more line dancing, Bingo-ing, and late night grammar chats in the coming months.

Next week, my fellow volunteer Katie and I will be heading up to Siem Reap to start working with EGBOK Mission. I am very much looking forward to getting to know the wonderful EGBOK students and seeing how well they’re doing.

April 4, 2011

Returning to The Kingdom

"Really?" is the reply I often get when I tell people I'm heading back to Cambodia. Some try to hide their bewilderment, others ask if I really liked it that much. Those who aren't fans of my decision kindly remind me of the leeches, orphanage food, and painfully hot climate I wasn't hesitant to leave behind last July. I had spent six amazingly challenging, exciting, and rewarding months in the beautiful Cambodian countryside teaching English at an orphanage of 70 kids.

Because of my positive experience last year and my love for traveling, when the opportunity to work with EGBOK Mission arose, it took me about a day to make my decision - I'll be returning for six months! Same country, same length, but much different work.

Teaching the high school students, I quickly realized how uncertain everything is regarding their futures. They've been told to not give up on Khmer government school, because a diploma is worth something (false). They've seen their peers drop out of school to work in the garment factories (where they'll make more than their teachers) and they know how valuable English skills are, as the tourism industry in Cambodia is rapidly expanding.

EGBOK (Everything's Gonna Be OK) Mission's aim is to allow the students who are interested in pursuing a career in the hospitality industry an opportunity to attend the universities and programs that will appropriately and successfully prepare them for a career in their chosen field.

In Siem Reap (a real city!) I'll be with other EGBOK Mission volunteers helping implement the English and hospitality curriculum to high school aged students. I'll also be helping students gain the professional skills needed to apply, interview, and ultimately gain acceptance into one of the hospitality schools. The batch of EGBOK Mission students who have nearly finished their studies will be applying for jobs upon completion of their programs. I look forward to assisting in this life-changing leap from engaged, hard working student to competent, respected employee and coworker. Egbok stresses the importance of finding the right career path for each individual student, making for a more rewarding and satisfying profession.

My overweight bags are packed, including the spf 50 lip balm. I've splurged on a $15 mango corer. This time I'll be lounging in an aisle seat, since last year's 16 hour window seat journey still gives me nightmares. Having gone through the experience of being told I'm too fat for much of the clothing in the Cambodian markets, my space bags are filled with a surplus of Target tees. My Khmer language skills have drastically gone down hill. In fact, my favorite phrase 'jung da morng nay', which means 'really?' (in a flirtatious tone) only gets spoken on rare occasion here at home. A shame, really, since it's fun to say and can be easily thrown into any conversation.

I'm ready.