Celebrating the Highlights of 2012

31 12 2012

This year was the first full calendar year that I’ve spent outside of the US, so it comes as no surprise that there is much to celebrate about 2012.

January: In a Phnom Penh deli with AM

January: In a Phnom Penh deli with AM

A Special Visitor

The year started off with a visit from one of my dearest friends from home: Anne Marie. We spent a week or so hitting the major Cambodian cities, but the best part of all was definitely just spending time with her. It was a great start to what ended up being an equally great year.

April: Hanging out on Halong Bay

April: Hanging out on Halong Bay

Trip to Vietnam

During Khmer New Year in April, Tim and I headed off to Vietnam for three weeks of vacation. We made our way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, stopping along the way to see the hills of Dalat, the beaches of Nha Trang, the colonial architecture of Hoi An, and the caves of Dong Hoi.

September: Tim's hospitality students at a hotel in Siem Reap

July: Tim begins working on his hospitality project with this great group of young people

Hospitality Training Begins

With the support of a local NGO and all of you, Tim began managing an intensive hospitality training program for disadvantaged youth in the community. It was the perfect opportunity to combine Tim’s interest in cooking, available NGO resources and a expressed need in the community.

July: The current group of volunteers welcomes the newbies at the airport

July: The current group of volunteers welcomes the newbies at the airport

Welcoming the K6s

A milestone for those of us who had reached the one year mark, welcoming the new group of volunteers to Cambodia reminded us all of how much we had learned and how far we had come since arriving the year before.

August: Teaching project volunteers about childhood nutrition

August: Teaching project volunteers about childhood nutrition

Understanding and Embracing my Role

In August, my project work took off, helping me to see the results of all the hard work I had put in during the first year of service. In the course of a month, I took the girls from my health club to Camp GLOW in Siem Reap, I helped organize and lead a training that would kick off a childhood nutrition program, I started teaching “the monsters” and I got to share some of what I learned with the new volunteers at their training.

October: Visiting the beach town of Sihanoukville

October: Visiting the beach town of Sihanoukville

Hitting the Beach

For our second Pchum Ben, Tim and I decided to take a quick trip down south to visit the relaxed towns of Kampot and Sihanoukville.

October: back to school

October: Back to school

A Second School Year

Immediately following our trip down south, Tim’s second academic year at site began, giving him the opportunity to once again work in the public schools with his choice of counterparts. He was especially excited this year because he knew what to expect and had already developed deep friendships with several teachers at the school.

November: Seeing my parents for the first time in 16 months

November: Seeing my parents for the first time in 16 months

My Parents’ Trip

In November, my parents came to visit and we spent ten days hitting all of the tourist activities in Siem Reap, including the alligator farm, the silk farm, Apsara dancing, the floating villages, the Angkor National Museum, the ceramics center and, of course, the temples.


December: Ringing in the new year in style

The End of 2012

Here we are at the end of the year! Tim and I are celebrating all of the triumphs (and challenges) of 2012 in style in Siem Reap.

Thanks for all of the support and love this year. Wishing everyone a great 2013!


Christmastime in Kampong Kdey

26 12 2012

I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas week here in Cambodia. Tim and I stayed at site and had an all-star cast of volunteers over to our house for a few days before the 25th. Per usual, we gave them a tour of our town, took them to the bridge and watched bad TV. Unsurprisingly, Tim also cooked up a storm – making sure our bellies never felt empty.

Neysa opening a package from home

Neysa opening a package from home

Peter got a lot of gifts from home too

Taking a trip to the bridge

Taking a trip to the bridge

Even though some of the volunteers had to return to site, Meghan was able to stay with us for the culmination of the holiday festivities: a two day wedding celebration. We attended four ceremonies over the course of the two days, including our first hair cutting ceremony, during which all of the guests symbolically cut the bride and groom’s hair to represent a fresh start and a new life. For the final reception, we even got all dolled up Khmer-style with loads of hairspray and fake lashes.

One of my favorite parts of Khmer weddings is when all of the kids light sparklers

One of my favorite parts of Khmer weddings is when all of the kids light sparklers

Meghan dancing up a storm!

Meghan dancing up a storm!

Tim gettin' down

Tim gettin’ down

Me and a coworker from the health center

Me and a coworker from the health center

It was certainly a Christmas to remember. Only two more work days until we take a small break for New Year’s!


Housewarming Party

18 12 2012

Earlier this week, Tim and I were invited to a housewarming party. It was my first time attending one of these events so I was excited to see what it would entail. I was particularly excited because this party was at the largest house in all of Kampong Kdey, which just so happens to belong to my supervisor, the director of the local health center.

The new house, a yellowish green, sits on the national highway, towering over any other houses in the vicinity. It is a deep, three-story house with an additional covered rooftop level. It is made of concrete and has beautifully carved doors. There is an intricate wooden carving of Angkor Wat, perhaps 12 feet long and 3 or 4 feet tall, hanging in the entryway. His house is the only place in town I’ve ever seen that has air conditioning. The house also has amenities like a fridge, a garage, multiple balconies, and a bizarre little pool for soaking your feet (I think?). Inside, the furniture is impressive: heavy wooden benches, tables and beds, all with an unrivaled level of detail and design. This was certainly the nicest Khmer house I had ever been in.

The new house

The new house

The housewarming party was like all the other parties we have attended here. There were several courses of food, starting with a tangy beef salad before moving on to finer dishes like quail, prawns and fish. White rice and fried rice were both served, as were rolls and a dessert with a gelatin-like texture. There was enough seating to fit at least 150 or 200 people at a time, but people came in shifts throughout the whole day. Usually at this kind of party there are at least 500 guests. In this case, I would guess closer to 1,000. The director brought in entertainers to tell jokes and sing karaoke for the duration of the party, and there was a small area for guests to dance. I also noted that many of the guests did not come from Kampong Kdey. It’s gotten pretty easy to spot the “city folk,” and they came to this party in droves.

At parties in Cambodia – weddings, funerals, birthday parties for children, housewarmings – it is also expected that guests leave money for the host. Depending on the relationship to the host, it generally falls between $7.50 – $20 per person. I have to admit that I felt kind of awkward at the party in the first place. The house seemed excessive for a family of five, especially in a place where so many make do with a small wooden or thatch house for their entire extended family. When it came time to leave our money, my discomfort grew even more. Even knowing that the hosts rarely make much money off of the party (it mostly just covers the cost of the event), it felt a little uncomfortable that all of these people, including the director’s patients and subordinates, should give up their hard earned money to one of the wealthiest families in town. These gifts aren’t really optional either. Even if you don’t attend, you’re expected to send some cash.

Our house, for comparison purposes

Our house, for comparison purposes

I talked with some friends about the party the following day. Most everyone seemed really interested in how big and beautiful the house was. I thought I sensed a slight air of disgust or jealousy or something, but that was probably just my own feelings getting in the way. A few people told me that they thought the director was going to let patients stay in the extra rooms of the house, but the consensus seemed to be that he, instead, was renting the rooms out to business people who come into town for short-term trips. Apparently, he’s planning to charge these professionals — often people who work in the banks or microfinance institutes– ten dollars per night. Regardless of how people feel about the director or his house, it certainly was the not-to-be-missed event this month. It set the bar high for any future housewarmings, and I don’t think the buzz is going to die down anytime soon.




The Christmas Spirit

16 12 2012

It’s easy to forget that Christmas is just around the corner. Between the unrelenting heat and the distinct lack of peppermint mochas, there aren’t many clues that the holidays are upon us. Instead of Christmas carols, we hear wedding music all around, and not a single shop in town is offering a gift wrapping option. (Although, I can see it now: “Would you like a bow on that bottle of cooking oil?” “Should we add a holiday greeting card to that kilo of rice?”)

Our plans to celebrate this year are not too different from the last. We will live in denial about Christmas until exactly one week before the big day, at which point I will finally allow the festivities to begin. I believe Tim is scheming to create another faux tree, complete with the same Coca Cola ornaments he made last year. I will play the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas on repeat for hours. We’ll watch A Christmas Story and A Muppet Christmas Carol, among other holiday-themed movies. Tim will plan the Christmas menu for days.

Christmas 2011

This year, like last, we’re having some Peace Corps friends over to celebrate with us. We’ll share a few special meals together, make sure everyone has something to open under the tree, and swap stories of holiday traditions. The major difference this year is that we’ll also be attending our friend’s wedding, which is planned for Christmas Day.

Celebrating Christmas in a tropical, Buddhist country takes a hearty dose of imagination. This Christmas Day will certainly not resemble any Christmas I’ve had in the States. There won’t be a candlelit service or a bowl full of Chex Mix, but it feels like we’re starting to make our own Christmas traditions – even from Cambodia.


The impending darkness

9 12 2012

As the weather changes at home to include some cold weather and snow, things are changing here as well. The weather is getting to be the coldest it gets all year, leaving students and teachers alike complaining about “the cold.” For me, December weather is great for a few reasons – better sleep, less sweat, and less stinky clothes. It marks the end of the muddy market and the beginning of the blowing dust. Better for the bottom of your pant leg, less great for your eyes.

With winter approaching, I can only imagine Michiganders are stockpiling hot cocoa, snow shovels and rock salt in anticipation of the changing season. For most Michiganians (let’s see how many of these I can use), the coming solstice marks the last few days until Christmas as well as an end to the hopes of a 50+ degree day. In Cambodia, however, the buzz around December 21st sounds markedly different. Many people over the past few weeks have been talking about the “three days of darkness.” I first heard of this about a month ago from a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap who told me the sky would be dark around the 21st, 22nd, or 23rd of December. Due to a distinct lack of astronomy words in my Khmer vocabulary, I assumed he meant there would be a solar eclipse and he wasn’t sure of the day. Instead, he really meant that the sun wouldn’t rise for three days. No amount of context clues could have possibly led me to that conclusion.

Apparently, the story has been on the news here and everyone I talk to about it cites the “science” behind it, although they insist it’s too complicated to explain. Even my uber-intellectual math teacher friend insists something will happen. My no-nonsense English co-teacher isn’t hearing it though. No one can quite explain what’s going to happen or why, but they ensure me it will be dark. All of this is said without a touch of concern: “Yep, so the sun won’t come up.” As farmers, I would like to think that the idea of ZERO sun for three days would concern them.

black sky

I’m told it will look something like this.

Some may call it defeatism, fatalism, inaction, etc etc, but I can’t help but find this classic Khmer reaction endearing (most of the time). Things are going to happen, we don’t have control over them, and that’s it.

Me: So the sun won’t come up for three days?

Teacher: Right.

Me: The giant ball of fire in the sky that has lit our world for 5 billion years is just going to take a few days off for the first time ever?

Teacher: Right.

None of the Internet doomsday talk is happening here. The sun will go out. It will come back in three days. Typical weekend.

-Tim, Michiganite

A Linguistic Shift

2 12 2012

Not too long ago, something changed for me, linguistically-speaking. Previously, when someone asked how long I had been in Cambodia, I’d say “more than a year.” Recently, however, my wording evolved. When people ask me now, I reply with the barely distinguishable, “a year and a half” (or, more often than not, the Khmer equivalent for that).

Although this tiny shift may seem insignificant to many, it got me thinking. You see, “a year and a half” is also my reply when people ask me how long I spent in Latin America, meaning that the time I’ve been nervously awaiting has finally arrived. In the upcoming weeks and months, the scale is going to tip and I will have been in Cambodia longer than I was in Latin America.


I loved Nicaragua's volcanos

I loved Nicaragua’s volcanoes…

...its cultural festivities...

…its cultural festivities…


…and the street food!

The tipping of the scale is something I’ve feared since arriving. I can remember riding my bike through the rice paddies in training, speaking to myself out loud in Spanish in a desperate attempt to reserve territory in my brain for the language, even as Khmer started to conquer more and more brain space. I remember clinging to mental images, smells, songs – anything to remind me of my time in Latin America. Spanish was the first language I studied. My first solo trip abroad was to Latin America. I did so much learning and growing in the region. Latin America had a special place in mi corazón. And when I arrived in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to it.

It played out in my head like a bad romantic comedy, where I had to choose between my high school sweetheart and the new guy who showed up, inevitably driving a motorcycle (or is it a moped in this case?). Would my love for Latin America grow as I realized that Cambodia’s novelty was enough to grab my attention – but not to hold it? Or would Cambodia win, leaving me to realize how silly I was to ever like Latin America in the first place? Was our history enough to keep us together? Would I even remember my Spanish at the end of all this? Quién sabía?

Well, it might be too early to say for sure, but I think I might have overreacted. (Shocking, isn’t it?) Yes, I love Latin America. It invigorates and inspires me in a way that no other region has. But I also love Cambodia now. It balances and grounds me. Yes, I speak Khmer every day, but I can also speak Spanish (although, admittedly, I do have to stop and think more than I’d like). There are things about each place that I find beautiful, amazing and unique. In my book, the two are equals.

The scenes from Chile, Nicaragua and Argentina have certainly faded with time. Living in this reality can make it hard to imagine any other – including my previous life in Latin America, but also the life I had in the States for 23 years. And, truth be told, my year and a half here has been spent consecutively and in a single country; whereas my time in Latin America was strewn between three countries and across four years. It makes sense that Cambodia is at the center of my thoughts. It makes sense that I have moments each and every day where I give thanks for being here above anywhere else in the world. It makes sense that Latin America has been put on the back burner for now.

Latin America will always be there waiting for me with los brazos abiertos, but until then my heart is here. ខ្ញុំស្រលាញ់កម្ពុជា!