Staying Upright (6/24/2013)

Staying Upright (6/24/2013)

I’ve decided that working in Cambodia is like learning to ride a bike- in Cambodia. My California mind (working at least 9 miles over the speed limit at all times) attempts to maintain balance while carefully navigating concern and optimism, frustration and fulfillment without much regard to stop signs and red lights. As our NGO prepares for routine inspection and work sometimes dwindles, I breathe deep and try to quell the restlessness that fills my head, my arms and legs. This is not a boredom combatable with WIFI or a good book. (Just finished Gone Girl, a thriller about the murderous daughter of two psychologists….) It is a restlessness generated by seeing people wrestle with the great challenges of poverty, corruption, and inequality combined with an understanding that my comfortable life back home is inextricably bound to theirs. We are connected by a world of international economics and business- evident in Cambodia’s KFCs, Dairy Queens, and the imported technologies which few Cambodian can hope to afford. A world of politics, privilege, and presumptions, in which Cambodian children must learn English in order to read their own textbooks. A world in which an American college student can expect to be of help in a country where she does not speak the language, and in a world where everyone asks about Obama while few people back home can name the Cambodian Prime Minister of over two decades. A world, which I’m sorry Mr. Friedman, is far from flat. I feel restless as I desire to harness that connection for something productive and kind- a task much easier said than done.

So, in order to maintain balance, I find myself recalling the dozens of little things (and big things disguised as little things) that I saw or encountered or just appreciated that struck me as special or just made me smile outside of the office. These things are obviously not a part of the work I set out to do, but keep me upright and happy, and guide my understanding of Cambodia in unexpected ways. The list below is far from complete, but helps describe why in Cambodia, amidst the many challenges, life can remain so beautiful. Continue reading


My Name Is Brenna, and I… am a Tourist. (6/15/13)

This weekend with Chris’ family in Sihanoukville and Siem Riep, I spread my white wings as the tourist I was destined to be. A beautiful getaway from the dust and heat of Phnom Penh, we escaped (slowly, by bus) to these tourist hotspots, where we white folk are plentiful and the sites- remarkable.

In Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s most popular beach town, the gang and I (Chris’ aunt has adopted me) ingested mountains of seafood. Six pounds of crab in a single sitting. This was done right on the beach, and though it was raining, the ocean was warm and inviting. The day was finished with a pool in a local bar, where I led my team to hopeless defeat. On a more victorious note, I must also mention that I tried both snail and frog for the first time- not bad, but I still prefer the crab.


However, the mix of wealth and poverty, beauty and hardship, continued to shock me. This is the case though out much of Cambodia, but was strikingly obvious in the city as we drove the smaller streets and later throughout the countryside. During the 9 hour van ride to Siem Riep (we had to drive back through Phnom Penh), we passed scattered shacks and tiny towns along the riverside and rice fields where people lived amongst the skinnest cattle I have ever seen.

I hit you guys hard in the last post, though- so gonna keep it light this time.

Siem Riep is undeniably the tourist Mecca, home to the world-famous temples and hoppin’ nightlife. The angelic echoes of Adam Levine and Beyonce sounded through many a restaurant. Though there are hundreds of miraculous temples nearby, we visited as many as our fragile bodies could handle in the heat: 4. The walls of each were covered top to bottom with intricate Buddhist carvings, housed beneath impossibly incredible architecture, complete with infinite staircases- all built by hand. At my favorite temple, Ta Prohm, massive tree roots spilled over the stone walls and crawled across the ruins (portions still left crumbled by the Khmer rouge). Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s pride and joy, was a site not to be missed. Built atop of a man-made lake in only 40 years, this temple certainly deserves its awe-inspiring reputation .

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First Encounter with AIDS: Reflections and Ruminations from the Field (6/12/2013)

I am ignoring my better judgment to sit and write this later. I know that when my mind wanders into a tsunami of thought, emotional thunderclouds silently brewing, I should sit and wait for it all to quiet. But I want to talk, and I cannot stop myself.

I have never felt more useless than I do in this moment, in this place. I do not mean to complain- I do not mind feeling frustrated when I feel I am working towards something good, something helpful. But right now, I see suffering and I sit inches away from suffering people, and can do very little about it. I am trapped by my lack of language and wrapped in the feeling of privilege that I cannot shake, not even for a second. Continue reading

A Prison, a Palace, and Air Conditioned Paradise (6/9/2013)

Chris and I just came back to our host family after spending the weekend with his parents, sister, aunt, and uncle-in-law (one more white person!) who are visiting Cambodia for two weeks. We stayed in with them in a hotel in the city where I relapsed back on air conditioning, wifi, and American chocolate. The Buoys are kind and fluent in Khmer, though I was still lost in most conversation this weekend as they conversed with old friends still in the area, fellow survivors of the Khmer Rouge.

On Saturday we visited S21, the high school Chris’ aunt attended that Pol Pot turned into a prison during the revolution. With empty beds in every room and walls lined with barred windows and barbed wire, this site was even more chilling than the killing fields. Classrooms were homes to VIP prisoners. In another building across from the gallows, cells for regular folk were about a 5 feet long and 4 feet wide, so that I could easily touch both walls with arms outstretched. The scene is haunting. Thousands died here before they could even be exported to the camps. I sat mesmerized later as Chris’ aunt told me the story of how her family survived the revolution, and how she was eventually reunited with Chris’ mother in Austin.

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Hear Khmer, Speak No Khmer, See Big Problem (6/7/13)

Let me first begin with a summary of my laborious work schedule thus far:

Wednesday (first day): Sat in the office for a couple hours, waiting and reading  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (a very good book). WOMEN directors were all out of town. “Come back tomorrow.”

Thursday: Sat in office for a couple hours. Power went out, not much we could do. Began to feel like I’m half in Cambodia and half in my book (which takes place in New York). “Try again tomorrow.”

Friday: Read through some documents. Finished my book. (I hate finishing good books.) Directors  were out of town again. “See you Monday.”

Things should pick up next week.

However, Chris and I did have the opportunity today to accompany a few of our staffers out into the city to do HIV testing. Though no one spoke English, I was fascinated by the process! The testing took place in a small dark room with covered windows in the back of a restaurant. Looked pretty shady. At first I did not understand how anyone would know that testing was taking place there, but then realized that this particular restaurant was a hot spot for prostitution. Continue reading

Day 5: The Steel Horse I Ride (6/5/13)

Our first day of work was postponed as all directors were out for a meeting so Chris and I purchased bikes! Our office is too close for tuk tuks and motos, so now we’re each on our own two wheels- which is both liberating and terrifying. As previously mentioned, Cambodian traffic goes every which way all time. In order to turn left, you must check both ways and pray oncoming traffic doesn’t plow into you. Thus far though, I’ve had no problems maneuvering other travelers. However, I did not take me long after purchasing my bike, to get miserably lost. On the way home from the bike store I was right behind Chris- until I wasn’t, as he quickly disappeared around the turn that I missed. Eventually, I pulled off and tried to ask for directions. Cambodians, even when they understand no English or my broken Khmer, do everything to try to help. When I pulled over, one man lead me to another who spoke a bit of English who kindly offered me a seat in the shade of his food cart. He then talked to Savuth, my host father, on the phone who came and lead me back to the house, over 3 km away… oops. Drenched in sweat and entirely grateful for the kindness of my neighbors, I took a beautiful shower and passed out in bed. Continue reading

Day 4: The Killing Fields (6/4/13)

Today was the last day of orientation with Star Kampuchea- the NGO that the broader NGO (Global Crossroads) connected us with that connected Chris and I with the NGO we will be working with for the duration of our stay (WOMEN). Between the two days, we visited the Russian and Central Markets, Wat Penh Phnom (again), and a bit of a pogoda where we saw beautiful Buddhist statues and were blessed by monks. Even amongst my fellow volunteers, who come from all over the world, I remain the sweatiest person alive. Ever.

Monk blessing visitors

Monk blessing visitors

A Pogoda is a certain kind of temple where monks live.

A Pogoda is a certain kind of temple where monks live.

I could use this many hands.

I could use this many hands.

The most moving part of orientation, however, was visiting the Killing Fields. For those who know little about Cambodia, a brief history lesson. It’s short and incredibly important, so stick with me! Continue reading