Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Living Life, Khmer Style...

Considering what these last 2 months have been like for me, the time I spent in Cambodia from Aug 27th to Sept 11th seems like years ago.  For those two weeks, Cambodia was home, and what a unique home it was.  Because I was there to obtain an English teaching certification, most of my days were spent in class.  We would leave our hotel at 8:30 in the morning, go to class all day, and get back at 6 in the evening as the sun was going down.  In some ways I'm sad because I was so busy during those two weeks that I don't feel like I fully experienced Cambodia and I hope that someday I can make it back.  Here's a quick day by day rundown to give you an idea of how my days were spent in Cambodia.

  • Saturday Aug 27:  Land in Phnom Penh late at night, get to hotel, get to bed.
  • Sunday Aug 28:  Meet my fellow LanguageCorps classmates who eventually went on to Thailand, Vietnam, China, or stayed in Cambodia after the first two weeks to continue training and eventually teach.  Afternoon tour of some of the city's touristy areas.  Welcome dinner at night.
  • Aug 29-Sept 2:  Class during the day, go out at night, attempt to do homework later at night.
  • Sept 2-Sept 4:  Visit to Siem Reap and the ancient city of Angkor Wat.  This will receive its own blogpost.
  • Sept 5-Sept 8:  More class.
  • Sept 9-Sept 11: Visit Sihanoukville, a beach town in Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand.  Seemed like a cool place, but it rained the whole time we were there (and I was sick) so it probably won't get its own blogpost.
I've been thinking about what I could put in here to explain Cambodia and my only solution is to include an excerpt from an email I sent my family.  What better way than to hear from me while I'm in the moment...

"I have so many stories of what this place is like I can't even begin to explain them all.  For one thing, it's absolutely nothing like Vietnam.  Cambodia makes Vietnam look organized.  Considering the country was pretty much completely decimated by the Khmer Rouge in the 70's, there's still a lot of rebuilding to do.  The food isn't really that great, the water is foul (even the locals don't drink it), the police are corrupt, guns are everywhere (not just the police- and the police aren't really "police" in the sense we understand the word.  They're more like Don Fanucci in the Godfather Part II), there's SO MUCH poverty, there's not much English spoken, the showers are cold, they REALLY don't believe in toilet paper, it has rained a lot, the city smells like garbage, the internet is shoddy, prostitution is a serious problem, and the list goes on.  That being said, the people are extremely friendly, prices are cheap, I have yet to get bitten by a mosquito, it's not too hot (I was expecting suffocating heat.  It's pretty friggin' humid, but not unbearable), and I've never once felt unsafe.  We've been told that if you are smart and respectful, it's almost guaranteed that you won't run into any trouble.  Even though I don't think I could spend a full year here, I'm looking forward to the next 2 weeks and have little doubt that it will be an awesome experience."

And yes, the next two weeks were definitely an awesome experience.  To give you an idea of how much I enjoyed Cambodia, between my stomach issues, jet-lag, pollution, and the common cold, I was sick pretty much from the day I arrived.  Despite this, I had an amazing time and when I think back on my time there I don't really dwell on how I didn't feel 100% healthy.  A lot of this had to do with the Khmer people: the locals were so generous everywhere we went, and it was a pleasure talking and getting to know many of them.

A few days ago I was reading an article on MSN.com about how there exists groups of people who travel to places that are unsafe because they get a high off of putting themselves in harm's way.  The photo attached to the article was of one of these people eating a tarantula in Cambodia.  I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the photo and the message it was sending.  The truth is Cambodia is not a dangerous country.  To the contrary of what message the article was trying to send, it is a beautiful country with wonderful people and the possibility of endless memorable experiences.  Most of all, it is a country worth visiting in an attempt to understand it better.

Cambodia is certainly an interesting and bewildering country.  Those of us in my group came up with a way to describe the way things happened there so that we could understand them easier: "Khmer style".  For example, when someone says "Let's do karaoke tonight!", you assume it will involve going to an establishment with karaoke machines set up, maybe a couch to sit on, etc.  In Cambodia, karaoke involves going to a random family's house where a family member ushers you into an empty room with ceilings about 5'-7" high.  There is a couch and a television, and while you are singing the television is not only showing you what words to sing next, but it is also showing strange images of people sunbathing in Greece while covered in mud.  Some things are just lost in translation.  Hence, karaoke, Khmer style...

One of the few times I felt tall!
I'm going to close this post with some photos from Cambodia, but before we get there I feel compelled to share a story that kind of sums up my time in the Khmer nation.  Despite the perplexity of the following situation, I feel like something similar happened almost every day I was in Cambodia...

Our classes for LanguageCorps were held at Pannasastra University, a popular Cambodian college with campuses throughout the country.  My third day in Cambodia was our first day of class.  Our initial lesson concerned with issues such as what not to do in order to keep from offending locals (don't touch them on the head, don't show them the bottom of your feet, don't point your index finger of one hand into the open palm of your other hand, etc.), what to expect from bathrooms in Cambodia (no toilet paper, sometimes you might have to manually dump water into it to flush it, occasionally it's just a hole in the ground, etc.), and other various cultural differences like the fact that a lot of Southeast Asians aren't shy when it comes to bathroom policy.  If you needed to relieve yourself, you did it...  Even if it was in the middle of the road or the sidewalk just off the street.  Like the popular children's book says, everybody poops.  Big deal.  

During our first class break, I walked to the bathroom and stepped up to a urinal to do my business.  Just as I started, a Buddhist monk with a shaved head and orange robe regalia stepped out of one of the stalls and walked up to me.  He looked down at... ummm... me... and then looked up into my eyes.  The only reason I didn't freak out was because I was thinking about what I had just learned concerning bathroom policy.

He pointed.  "What's that?"

I looked down, looked up at him, and shrugged.  I thought it was pretty obvious.

He continued pointing.  "What's that?"

At that moment I turned and looked at the only other person in the bathroom: a down to earth looking modern Cambodian teenager.  I gave him the most desperate look possible, pleading with my eyes for help.

"He wants to know the English word for what you are doing."

I was immediately relieved.  "OOOHHHH!"  I turned back to the monk.  "Pee.  I'm peeing."

He pointed to the stall.  "What's that?"

"Poop.  You poop in there."

The monk smiled.  He laughed, "Ahhhh!  Pee, poop, pee, poop, hahahaha."

As he walked out of the bathroom and I went to wash my hands I realized I just gave my first English lesson in Southeast Asia.... Khmer Style...

I stole these next three pictures from my awesome Canadian photographer friend Robyn

Notice the family of four on the moto on the right.  Not an unusual sight.

S-21:  The infamous torture prison during the Khmer Rouge genocide.  Only 4 of the 17,000 inmates survived.

Oh, hello

About to eat a tarantula

Enjoying every bit of it.  Note: I will not be sending this photo to MSN.com.

Eating an insect that looked like a large cricket.  Maybe a cockroach?

With my good friend and tuk-tuk driver Pitol

These fish eat the dead skin off of your feet- a very odd sensation

Trying to convince this street hawker that the fish ate one of my toes.  He was skeptical...

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Brief Recent History of Cambodia

Last week I was able to chat on my computer with Bill and Jill (shout out!), two of my best friends from back home in the States who just got married before I left for SE Asia.  It was a good conversation except for the fact that they reprimanded me for not updating my blog and demanded I add a new post at least once a week.  Okay okay, my bad.  I realize I've been here for almost 2 months and have only 2 posts.  I admit, that's pretty bad.  So here is the beginning of my concerted effort to write more frequently (we'll see how that goes).  Now back to Cambodia...

To begin I should probably give a little background on Cambodia, since it is necessary to understand its history in order to understand why it is the way it is today.  I know that before I visited the Khmer (pronounced "kuh-mai") nation,  I associated Cambodia with the little that I learned from the Vietnam and American War.  Basically I knew that fighting had spread from Vietnam into Cambodia, and that Cambodia is currently a very poor nation.  I also had some knowledge of genocide within Cambodia following the war.  What I did not realize was the extent of the violence, and how it still affected the country to this day.

The following is a general outline of Cambodia's history in the last 40 years:  At the beginning of the 1970's, Cambodia was struggling internally from opposing political views and poverty.  Eventually, the Khmer Rouge, lead by Pol Pot, gained large support and control of the nation.  This support came mainly from the easily-swayed poor since the Khmer Rouge presented themselves as a party for peace that benefited those who lived in the countryside.  Pol Pot desired to turn Cambodia into an agrarian society, and proposed to China in 1975 that Cambodia would "be the first nation to create a completely Communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps."

And so, in the early 1970's, the purge began.  Until 1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of approximately 2 million people.  They killed anyone who didn't fit into their idea of what they wanted in their new society: Buddhist monks, Christian clergy, Muslim imams, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, writers, urbanites (because they had little farming ability and were therefore deemed useless), and in some cases even people who wore glasses (a mark of intellectuality).  This purge literally wiped out all of Cambodia's upper class.  This lasted until 1979, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and forced the Khmer Rouge out of power after Pol Pot showed aggression towards Vietnam and even invaded the country at one point.

As you might imagine, these events left and still continue to leave a huge mark on the nation.  An entire generation of intellectual city dwellers was completely wiped out, and it is still apparent today.  While Cambodia has come a long way since the genocide in the 70's, it still is clearly behind other Asian nations that are advancing at a seemingly endless rate.  After visiting Cambodia, there is no doubt that it is still very third world, but it's also apparent that it is progressing rapidly.  There is a new generation of young people all over the country, and it seemed to me that they have a great desire to become educated and leave a positive influence on their nation.

In my next post, I promise that I'll talk more about what I did in Cambodia, and share a lot of my pictures.  However, I didn't think it was appropriate to launch into my Cambodian experiences without paying tribute to Cambodia's recently tragic past.