Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The colonial life

Each time I travel, I’m reminded of how long it takes to really learn a new place and a new people. I’ve found that my personal response is one of layered engagement.

When I first arrived here, I hardly left the flat without friends to guide me. I sought out coffee shops and groceries that felt familiar and safe. Little tasks like getting a SIM card or navigating the market on my own seemed like huge undertakings, and I prepared for them as if heading into battle. Until I felt that I could trust this new place, I sheltered myself. That’s always how it goes at first.

The next stage in this adventure seems to be adapting to what expats here like to call colonial life. It’s incredibly easy in developing countries to live life entirely separate from the culture surrounding you. Money goes a long way here. It buys luxury flats with posh furniture, aircon, wifi, and maid service. It buys $3 coffees in expat-filled cafes. It buys $6 imported cereal and $14 Brooklyn style pizzas and $5 drinks at rooftop bars. But it also buys a comfortable distance from the poverty and a blind eye to the inequality of a system you yourself are now a part of. The colonial life affords expats the comforts of home and the excitement of expatriotism, but with none of the guilt. It’s like permanent tourism on crack, where local life is more novelty than normal.

Until I find a way to truly invest in this culture, through work or volunteering or something, I am living in a colonial world. For me, a day here is fairly simple. I work from home, hunt for jobs, email contacts, and smile at the maids. I explore the neighborhood within walking distance.

My neighborhood is mostly centered around a large semi-covered market. From the first time my friend led me through the narrow lanes, weaving in and out of nooks and alleys, I made it my goal to learn the maze of stalls by heart. I’m proud to say that one month later, I can confidently navigate Russian market. It’s maybe my proudest achievement yet, to dive into the market by the tiny-Buddha stalls, weave around to the scarves and tourist trinkets, past the beautifully decorated opium bowls, past the glittering jewelry in glass cases. Turn by the tailors and wander through the knock-off clothing brands piled well over ten feet high.  There’s the luggage section, the household section, the office supply section. Once while looking for a can of Raid to kill some bees that had taken up residence on our laundry balcony (yes, we have a balcony specifically for the washer), my friend and I discovered an entire section of stalls devoted to selling gallon sized bags of glitter. Bags of glitter towered all the way to the ceiling. I have no idea what Cambodians do with so much glitter, but now I know where to find it: just past the car part section.

My favorite section of all, however, is of course the make-shift cafeteria tucked away in the very center of the market. It took me by surprise the first time I found it; I was walking through narrow lanes only a few feet wide, then suddenly a bustling semi-spacious room appeared lined with counters and stools. Towards the center of the sort-of-food-court is my favorite part of this whole city: the iced coffee man.

Traditional Khmer iced coffee is everywhere and uses sweetened-condensed milk rather than fresh milk as apparently there are very few dairy cows in the country and imported milk is too expensive for most. It was on the Phnom Penh Expat facebook page that I first heard of him: a Cambodian man who had been running an iced coffee stall in the market for over 30 years. Somewhere along the way, the expats awarded him the reputation for best iced coffee in the city. His stall is lined with flags from countries all over the world and hand-written notes of appreciation from expats. I was a little skeptical about this “best iced coffee” nonsense, but one sip and I was a believer. I still have no idea what makes this coffee so good, but a huge part of it has to be the man himself.

I was having a terrible day the first time I found him. I sat down at his counter alone and I knew it was visible on my face that I was a little beaten down that day. He smiled and held up one finger, either to say one order or just one second, who really knows. Then he went about his business making me an iced-deliciousness. He’s a quiet man, probably in his late 50s or early 60s. He smiles with his whole face and his eyes convey some sort of mythical kindness and empathy that transcends language barriers. He left me the can of sweetened milk, somehow knowing I needed it that day. Then after I had finished my drink, he silently set down an extra shot of coffee and a to-go cup. All for a single dollar. Since then, I visit him each time I’m in the market. In fact, I’m drinking his take-away coffee at this very moment.

Another part of colonial life that I particularly enjoy is the prevalence of cheap spas here.  For $8, I can get a 60-minute massage any day of the week. The first massage I had here, however, was certainly a learning experience I would recommend to anyone: the traditional Khmer massage. While visiting Siem Reap and Angkor Wat on a weekend holiday, two friends and I opted for the traditional massage, rather than the familiar western “oil massage.”

The three of us were led to a small dark room with three mats on the floor and handed clothes to change into. We wrapped our pink and purple fisherman pants around us and dawned lime green t-shirts bearing the slogan “keep calm and gangnam style,” and lay down on the mats. Two women and one man entered. It quickly became apparent that the Khmer massage is very similar to a traditional Thai massage and involves a lot of yoga-like poses, as well as a whole lot of strategic slapping. Really it’s more like a cross between being slapped and lightly punched with a cupped hand. Massage, massage, massage, and just as you’re feeling relaxed, BAM- punched in the leg. Massage, massage, BAM BAM BAM- punched all along your spine. Head massage, BAM- punched on your forehead. My traditional massage ended with me being pulled into some sort of pretzel and lying entirely on top of my masseuse. Since then, I’ve switched back to the oil massage, which still includes the occasional slap here and there.

While the colonial life is easy and fun, I’m hoping that my next phase of life here will move beyond the comfortable world of expatriotism. I have a few leads on my next steps and am slowly beginning to learn more about the tangled political history of this country. The value of this experience is not lost on me and though it’s incredibly hard at times to be so entirely out of context, I am learning and that is one of my favorite things to do. There is so much more to learn here, and I am excited for whatever comes next.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Cambodia: First Impressions

The wind is gently blowing my hair, carrying with it the heavy gray clouds of an afternoon rainstorm. From the fifth story balcony where my hammock is stretched, I’m watching the storm slowly block out the sunlight and waiting for the rain. The street below is as loud as ever, with children’s shouts, honking, vendors ringing bells, and the distant and mechanical sounds of construction. As soon as the rain begins to fall on the bright orange, green and blue roofs around me, everyone will rush to find cover. Shopkeepers will hurry to cover their stalls with tarps, motorcyclists will gather under trees, and the industrious few will make use of the water to mop roofs and sidewalks. This is what I’m waiting for.

It’s become a daily routine, to wait for the rain. Today my timing was off, as I had planned to walk to the market until I stepped outside and saw the clouds. My dreams of iced coffee and errands will have to be pushed to tomorrow morning. I’m learning this city, though slowly for now.

When I left the States, I really had no plan other than to stop by London for a week and then appear jobless and hopeful in Phnom Penh. And so after a week visiting friends in London, I did appear, jobless and hopeful in a country I had never really thought too much about.  What surprised me though, was how incredibly familiar and yet totally unexpected Cambodia has been so far. Everything from walking through a market to driving around town on a friend’s motorcycle has been so easy.

I find myself constantly expecting life as a foreigner here to feel similar to my other experiences as a foreigner in India or Egypt. While the smells and sounds and sights are the same, the feeling is something entirely new. After my first day exploring the market alone, I came home to tell my friend how bizarre it was to see girls of all ages walking around, driving around alone, something you would rarely see in Delhi or Cairo. And foreigners here wander peacefully through the streets, without constantly being targeted by shopkeepers. The traffic is entirely manageable, it might actually be worse in Nashville. This city is calm and relaxed in a way my past experiences in other cities never were. Everyone smiles constantly and genuinely. Other than the threat of bags being snatched, Phnom Penh feels safe. It feels easy.

It’s only been one week so I’m sure all these observations will shift and change as layers of cultural complexity are added to them. This weekend, some friends and I are going north to explore Siem Reap and tour the famous Angkor Wat. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this land and continuing to learn bit by bit about this country where I’ve spontaneously landed.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Breaking the silence on a Thursday

So all day I’ve been thinking about how I could best break my blog silence and write a post about the fact that in less than two weeks, I’ll be moving to Cambodia.

On my drive back to Knoxville today, I thought of all the ways I could sum up such a random and unexplained move. I thought of opening with an inspiring story about the day I first realized I was capable of traveling on my own (it was a beautiful day in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas and I found my 19-year-old self staring at hundreds of paper kites that had gotten trapped in a tangle of power lines).

I thought of explaining all the thousands of intimate reasons that had been building over the last year that radically shaped my perception of what is most valuable in life and what should be prioritized. I thought of simply saying that though I had many reasons, at the same time I had none at all and that was the beauty of it.

While I was thinking all of these thoughts and driving peacefully along the interstate, suddenly a huge cloud of thick dark dirt engulfed the road. A tree came crashing down in the lane next to me, nearly hitting my car. I rolled to a stop on the left-hand shoulder, along with a few other cars. A handful of people jumped from their vehicles and ran to the right-hand shoulder, peering down into a densely wooded ditch. It quickly dawned on me that something, someone was in that ditch.

I scrambled from my car and ran to the guardrail next to two other bystanders. About ten feet down the hillside lay a flat-bed semi-truck, the cab twisted and buried in the undergrowth. My heart was racing. I saw a man in a yellow shirt halfway down the hill, on the phone with what I assumed must be 911. Everything I learned years ago in a Wilderness First Responder course came flooding to my mind. My certification had long since expired but weirdly I call out in a strong calm voice, “does anyone here have any sort of medical or emergency training?” Two guys look at me like I was either an angel or insane. Please say yes, someone please say yes. Surely I can’t be the only one who has any training. My training was years ago and was a joke compared to most WFR courses.

No one answers. No one moves. It’s clear that someone needs to check on the driver. Yellow shirt man climbs back up the hill, so without any clear plan, I take off down the hill, wading through poison-ivy-galore to get to the cab. Quickly, a scrawny guy in a blue shirt follows me. As I make my way to the passenger-side of the cab, I see someone disappear around the front of the truck, trying to get to the driver-side. “He’s moving!” mystery man shouts at me. I relay the message to the yellow shirt on the phone. I can see the driver sitting upright in the cab, faintly moving his head. I knock on the window but he doesn’t respond. Then his lips move and I see mystery man emerge by his door, talking to him through the glass.

Behind me, a husband and wife from the farm nearest to the interstate peek through some barbed wire to ask what happened. They heard the crash from their house. I watch as mystery man talks to the driver, who is alert but not quite coherent. He shouts for the driver to unlock his door.

Immediately I start running through the ABCs of emergency care. A: Airway, check. B: Breathing, check. C: Circulation, I guess. After all the driver is moving. D… crap, what was D?? My flip flop slips and I realize I’m standing in a growing pond of gasoline. Beside me, some strange round piece of debris is smoking ominously. E: Environment. I might not be the best judge, but again, my voice shouts out without me, “unless this truck is in danger of catching fire, DO NOT MOVE HIM.” Mystery man grunts his acknowledgement. “Ask him his name, keep him talking.” Who is this strangely calm person inhabiting my body, standing in a pool of gasoline at the bottom of a ditch shouting clear-yet-unqualified emergency advice for a wounded semi-truck driver? Surely not me. Blue shirt is still standing beside me, helplessly.

We can’t get around to the driver-side, so eventually I decide to climb halfway back up and relay messages to the police who just showed up. “Yes, he’s alert, he’s moving, they got the door open.” An ambulance pulls up and I decide to climb back up to the roadway and watch.

About ten more bystanders have gathered by the guard rail, swapping equally pointless stories.
“Did you see it? I didn’t see it. Is he ok? I heard he’s moving.”
“I didn’t see it, I pulled over though!”
“We were going the other way and had to stop! Is he ok?”

I watched as the police, EMTs, and a crowd of good ole boys (ball caps, boots, and some even shirtless) carried the driver up the hill on a backboard and loaded him into the ambulance.  Afterwards the men all shook hands, clapped backs, and congratulated each other on their great work of standing around. One guy turned around and I caught a glimpse of a handgun sticking out of his shorts. Who in the world brings a gun to an accident?!?! Two other guys (one shirtless for no apparent reason) shook hands and concluded the event with a hearty “great to see ya again! See you at the rodeo!”

I quietly slipped past the ambulance and crossed the highway back to my car, shoes still soaked in gasoline. I drove home absentmindedly scratching what I’m sure will be poison ivy. What a Thursday.

So there you have it folks. I’m reviving my blog. Oh yeah, and in two weeks I’m moving to CAMBODIA!!!!!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

When I go

"Spring, spirit dancer, nimble and thin,
I will leap like coyote when I go.
Tireless entrancer, lend me your skin,
I will run like the gray wolf when I go.

I will climb the rise at daybreak, I will kiss the sky at noon,
Raise my yearning voice at midnight to my mother in the moon.
I will make the lay of long defeat and draw the chorus slow;
I'll send this message down the wire and hope that someone wise is listening when I go."

-Dave Carter, When I Go

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fish Soup

Recently, I was grading my students’ responses to a book review I had assigned. In my assignment, I had thrown in a few questions pulled from the study guide at the back of the book, without giving much thought to the answers to the pre-made questions. As I read over the responses, however, I found my students beautifully describing a concept that seemed to impact them as much as their responses impacted me. It was the idea of fish soup.

The book I assigned is called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It is a classic ethnographic tale of two cultures clashing when a Hmong family brings their epileptic daughter to a California hospital for treatment. Throughout the book, language barriers and cultural misunderstandings threaten to overwhelm any chance the toddler has of avoiding seizures and receiving care. Woven simultaneously into the stories of American doctors and the Hmong family, is the history of the entire Hmong culture. Wars and migrations, oppressions, empires, entire centuries slip into chapters about a single doctor’s visit in California.

Early in the book, there is an anecdote about a Hmong student who is asked to give a five-minute report as part of a language class;

“His chosen topic was a recipe for la soupe de poisson: Fish Soup. To prepare Fish Soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook, you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is [Fadiman 1997: 12].”

The book goes on to explain:

“…that Hmong have a phrase hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means ‘to speak of all kinds of things.’ It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point [Fadiman 1997:13].”

Lately, perhaps because of the cold weather that drives me inside to my books and my bed where my thoughts can wander freely, I’ve been stewing my own sort of fish soup.  I’ve been reminded lately of the all the stories of people I’ve encountered in my own journey; people I’ve grown up with, people I’ve met while travelling, people I know only through letters and family stories. So many times in life, we encounter another soul for even a brief moment, yet part of his or her story stays with us over the years. And though in isolation, these moments seem disparate and unrelated, they are stewing together within us our own fish soup.

In a film I watched recently set during the Holocaust, a young German girl runs out into the line of Jews being marched out of the city. She looks desperately for her friend while whispering to each man that passes by, I won’t forget you. I won’t forget you.

At times, I wish I could tell the same to the people whose stories have stuck with me. I won’t forget you. You are part of my fish soup. I would tell it to the woman in a Thai prison who hadn’t seen her daughter in years and in her place gave me a mother’s hug. I would tell it to the hardened and stoic fireman who broke down into tears while telling me of the first time he saw death on the job. I would tell it to the family in Cairo who tried to give my friend and I a ride home after we got lost in the market. I would tell it to the family in Chile that I’ve never met, but who call me their gringa niece and tell me stories of my mother. I would tell it to the children I worked with in India years ago, Shivam, Afshar Ali, Rishi. They are all grown up now, who knows where they are. I would tell it to the boy who sat across from me on a balcony in Bangkok one night when I was 17, who in many ways started it all by telling me everyone had a story to tell, even me. I won’t forget you.

There are so many moments we experience so briefly, so many different chapters in our lives that sometimes, they can seem incredibly disconnected. Where I am now looks nothing like where I was two years ago, or five years ago, or ten. Sometimes I’m not quite sure what to make of all the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, and the places I’ve been. But one thing is certain, they are all connected. We are all connected. And to me, that is a beautiful thing and a thought worth sharing.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Letter to a friend

Be kind, be strong. Take action but do not rush. There is beauty in patience. Be mature, be the bigger person. There is no need for their approval, only your own. Listen to the silence and learn what you want. Fight for it, but don't take anyone down with you if you fall. Stand up and move on down the road without regret. Appreciate the good, but don't be afraid to let it go, as all moments turn to memories and all memories fade with enough sunsets. Breathe and take heart, child. Have faith in people and in yourself. Never stop taking risks. Never stop seeking the good.