Stateside

23 09 2013

I’m not writing this post from underneath my mosquito net in Siem Reap. I’m not writing from a bed in a simple room in a guesthouse in Takeo. I’m not writing from an Internet cafe or an expat restaurant in Phnom Penh. At long last, I am writing this post from my apartment in Philadelphia!

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Two weeks ago today, I landed in the States after a 24-hour journey that started in Phnom Penh. When I got off the plane in Detroit, I bypassed the luggage claim area (the joys of bringing home a single, carry-on bag!) and headed to customs, where I was the only person going through. As I passed each station, I had a moment to chat with the staff, all of whom had opinions on the fact that I was coming from Cambodia. “Where’s that again,” one asked. “Weren’t you scared,” asked a couple of others. “You mean you haven’t been back in two years,” one lady exclaimed as she checked my passport. I was only on US soil for a few minutes before the commentary began.

Luckily, I didn’t have to answer too many questions before I saw my parents waiting for me. Smiling, familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in far too long. After a hug, I put my stuff in the car and we headed back to my childhood home, taking the highway through recognizable corn fields and small Michigan towns.

I’ve spent most of the time since I’ve been back relaxing with my family. It took several days for me to get over the jet lag, so the first few days had me heading to bed around 7 or 8 o’clock. While I was home, I got to spend some time with my sister, who served as my shopping assistant as I tried to remember what clothes were considered cool, and I made my first trip down to the house my brother bought. It was great to get together with old friends who still live in the Mitten. Then, from Michigan, it was off to Pittsburgh for more heart-warming reunions. Finally, on Friday, I arrived in Philly, where Tim was waiting for me with big plans for the weekend, including dinner with my much-missed aunt and uncle at a highly-rated restaurant called Stateside, which I thought was fitting considering the circumstances.

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It’s been amazing to be back in the States and to get a taste of what the next few years will look like. I’ve had a wonderful time exploring my new neighborhood. Despite having heard Tim’s stories, I was in disbelief when I saw that three short blocks from our house is Little Cambodia! Much to my surprise, they were selling sao mao, prahok, ansom jayk, and most every other Cambodian dish I could think of. There were shops selling Khmer wedding gear and women walking around in traditional skirts. My mind was, and still is, completely blown by the way my new life and old life have collided.

I am happy to spend the upcoming days and weeks getting settled in a new city, remembering the excitement and energy that comes from new beginnings. I’m also looking forward to cooking some of my favorite dishes, cuddling up with Tim, and – to a lesser degree- job hunting. It will be interesting to see where the next chapter leads.

I don’t anticipate keeping up the blog now that I’m back, but that, too, is unclear. Maybe the time or mood will strike again, but in case it doesn’t, lee-a sen howie, or goodbye!

Katie

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One more sleep

5 09 2013

My last week in Cambodia has been one unlike any other. I’ve spent it tying up the loose ends of my contract work, but luckily that hasn’t been too difficult, leaving plenty of time for fun and relaxation. Throughout the week, I’ve spent countless hours in expat coffee shops, gotten multiple massages, had my hair and nails done, and eaten at several wonderful restaurants. It’s been lovely, and the best part has been the company. I’ve gotten to spend much of this week with some of my colleagues and mentors, which has been a blast.  I am incredibly grateful for the time I got to spend with them.

Relaxed after a week of pampering

Relaxed after a week of pampering

Tonight, my last night in Cambodia, the Country Director hosted a reception for all of the current and incoming volunteers. I really couldn’t ask for a better last night in country, surrounded by the staff and volunteers that have made my service meaningful. Only one more sleep for the trainees before they swear in as volunteers, and only one more sleep for me before I get on that plane to fly home. Unbelievable!

Katie





The End of Training

1 09 2013

Pre-service training is coming to a close, meaning I have less than a week before I fly home. On Friday, I led my last technical session, and now I’m left with only a few small tasks to finish up before I return to the States. I know some people thought I was crazy for sticking around after my service ended, but it’s been a great couple of months and I couldn’t be happier with the decision to stay.

I’ve spent the past two months in Takeo province, preparing the community health volunteers for their first few months of service. Practically, this has meant a lot of lesson planning, facilitating sessions, and organizing community events. I’ve been fortunate to work with an outstanding group of trainees who have continually impressed me throughout the eight weeks of training. As I told them in our last session together, I feel complete confidence and overwhelming optimism about what they will accomplish over the next two years.

A trainee practicing health messages in the community

A trainee practicing health messages in the community

My favorite part of training was seeing the new volunteers in action at our community events. Throughout the duration of training, the new volunteers were expected to put their new skills to the test by conducting community assessments in English and Khmer, teaching formal health lessons to secondary school students, leading infant feeding and weighing sessions, building hand washing stations, and so much more. As a trainer, these were highlights because I had the opportunity to see the volunteers step outside of their comfort zones, use their ever-growing language skills, and start to build meaningful relationships with community members. As a former PCV myself, it was one last taste of village life, which I will certainly miss when I leave.

Throughout these eight weeks, I’ve been staying in a guesthouse in the provincial capital of Takeo. It’s a nice room with A/C and hot water, meaning it’s a clear step up from where I’ve been living the past two years even if it felt a little confining some days. There’s a TV with two or three English channels, although my new-found love of NCIS had me glued to Fox Crime most nights. The technical trainer for the English program roomed next door to me, and we would grab dinner together every night. Some nights that meant going to the lone Western restaurant in town for a pizza and a coffee smoothie. Other days we’d head to our favorite Khmer place with hammocks and beautiful views of the water. Most of the time, however, we’d stay in and cook pasta in a rice cooker or grab cheese and crackers from our mini-fridges.

My home for the past eight weeks

My home for the past eight weeks

Yesterday we moved out of that guesthouse and back to Phnom Penh, where we’ll stay until we fly out. I’ve got a few things to finish up, but most of the week will be spent relaxing, taking advantage of all that the capital has to offer, and preparing – mentally and otherwise – to go home on Friday!

Katie





Transitions

15 08 2013

I have always had a deep appreciation for transitions. There’s something gratifying to me about the way that our literal actions, like packing up boxes or hitting the open road, mirror the deeper emotional changes they accompany. When making the decision to stay in Cambodia after my close of service date, I thought often of the fact that I would not be able to make my transition back to the States, and later to Philly, with Tim. The symbolism of taking this next step alone, and months after my husband, didn’t sit well with me. For two years, we had imagined our flight home together, our first day back in the States together, exploring our new neighborhood together. Although I do not have even an ounce of regret about my decision to stay, I am still a little disappointed that Tim and I will have these experiences separately.

Last night, while I was fast asleep, Tim began his journey from Michigan to Philly. He loaded up the moving truck, said goodbye to his parents, and headed east. He drove 300 miles from suburban Detroit to Pittsburgh, where he was lucky enough to meet up with the warmest, most caring friends we’ve ever been blessed to have. They had a small dinner party complete with treats like blackberry basil tea, eggplant sourdough pizza, and peach shortcake — things I can only dream of! Tomorrow, he’ll be making the rest of the trip and moving all of our things into our new, adorable one bedroom apartment in South Philly.

To commemorate this important transition, here are a few pictures from his trip.

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The moving truck loaded and ready to go

Eating a cookie while driving?

Eating a cookie while driving?

The best of friends

The best of friends

Her too!

Her too!

Katie





To My “BFF Forever”

4 10 2012

Living abroad often means missing out on important life events back in the States. Believe it or not, all of the normal life stages continue to take place, even in my absence: Babies are born, people die, students graduate and couples get married.

…Like my “BFF Forever” Susannah, whose wedding is this weekend!

Susannah and  I have been friends since elementary school, when we were both members of the “Babysitters Club,” a small group of exclusive ten year old girls with zero babysitting experience. A couple of years later, as middle schoolers, we created a magical world in a small wooded area near her house. We painted abstract art together. We played together on a soccer team that didn’t win a single game. We passed boy crazy notes to each other during class. Since we were born on the same day, we also had a joint birthday party, which is where this gem of a photo comes from:

A lot has happened since then. Throughout high school we continued to be best friends, spending countless weekends together, cramming for tests together, and even switching dates for the senior prom with one another! I remember being worried about what would happen when we left to study at different colleges, but there was no need for concern. Despite the fact that we haven’t lived in the same town since high school, Susannah and I have maintained a deep friendship that I consider to be invaluable. She is family.

 

 

So today I want to take a second to send a BIG CONGRATULATIONS more than 8,000 miles away to my best childhood friend. I hope you and Rob have a beautiful day. I wish I could be there to celebrate with you.

Katie

 





Reflections on Cambodia: Year One

17 07 2012

 As we near the one year mark of service in Cambodia, I’ve spent a fair amount of time processing the experience. As the days and months pass, I simultaneously seem to understand more and less about the complexities of this country and its fragile future. Although I could never speak with any authority on what Cambodia truly is, I’ve put together the following list of things Cambodia has become to me. I hope it provides insight into this place and the twelve life-changing months I’ve spent here.

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Cambodia is a friendly smile and a nervous laugh. A “hello,” shouted from the rice paddies. It’s the hushed murmur of “barang” as you pass by, and the demanding “Moak bee na?” from a stranger. Cambodia is a string of small children chasing your bike. And a moto driver who stops to stare.

Cambodia is the smell of urine. Of fermented fish and rotting meat. It’s vomit on a long bus ride or the oniony scent of the country’s most beloved fruit. It’s incense burning near a spirit house.

Cambodia is pork with rice. Soup with rice. Noodles with rice. Cambodia is rice with rice.

Cambodia is the sound of roosters in the mornings and dogs at night. The monks’ rhythmic chanting drifting from the wat. It’s the discordant sounds of a wedding or a funeral. Dishes clinking next door or a baby crying. Cambodia is Pitbull and K*Pop, Karaoke and Prom Manh. It’s that same female voice, shrill and submissive, blaring from the TV. Cambodia is the deafening sound of a monsoon falling on the roof. And it’s a silence, a devastating silence, when voices should be heard.

Cambodia is the one glass eye watching everything you do.

Cambodia is emerald fields and killing fields. Disappearing forests and lakes filled with dirt. It’s a flood that ruins the crops. Cambodia is border wars and broken promises. It’s a billion dollars of aid and discouraging results.

Cambodia is 3,000 NGOs. It’s expats in coffee shops and sexpats in brothels. It’s bodyguards in the most exclusive of night clubs. It’s flocks of tourists, “Tuk tuk, lady,” and markets filled with cheap souvenirs. Cambodia is children begging on the streets. Amputees and orphans. It’s mediocre Western food.

Cambodia is its history. Cambodia is Angkor Wat.

Cambodia is a delicate balance of optimism and fatalism. It’s stories of the Khmer Rouge told in a whisper. It’s cheap beer and men who can’t hold their liquor. Cambodia is rovul taking afternoon naps in hammocks and sipping iced coffee on red plastic stools.

Cambodia is whitening creams and painted nails. Bright colored shirts adorned with lace and beads. It’s flexible fingers stretching backward, feet shuffling as music plays. It’s orange robes or bare bellies. Sampots and collared shirts, or tight tops and miniskirts.

It’s traffic and trafficking. Five on a moto and a truck piled high. It’s tai chi as you cross the street. It’s hanging on for dear life.

Cambodia is bats and spiders, snakes and mice. So many damn mice. It’s monkeys and elephants, lizards and butterflies. It’s plankton that glow in the dark.

It’s protractors and white out. Perfectly straight lines and meticulously taken notes. A sea of blue and white as children parade to school. Cambodia is a head ducked with respect, a face that’s been saved. Cambodia is so many vowels that all sound the same.

It’s squat toilets and no toilet paper. Stilted houses and burning trash. It’s life in a garbage dump, in its most literal sense. Cambodia is open defecation. It’s polluted rivers and a toxic lake.

Cambodia is rice farmers. Factory workers. Small business owners. Cambodia is a yay with a checkered kroma tied on her hairless head. A grandfather speaking French under his breath. It’s a teacher trying to do the right thing. A mother standing up for her community. Cambodia is a seller in the market, giving a discount and a smile. It’s a tour guide, beaming with pride.

Cambodia is exhilarating, inspiring and exhausting.

And, for now, Cambodia is my home.

******

Katie





Serving in the Peace Corps as a Married Couple: Part Two

10 12 2011

Tim and I will, from time to time, be offering insight on what it’s been like to serve in Cambodia as a married couple. If you haven’t seen Part One of this series, check it out here.

When deciding whether to accept our invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, one of our biggest concerns as a couple was what our housing would be like in Cambodia. Before leaving, we had been married for 20 months. Of those twenty months, we had lived with a roommate or host family for 14. So we were more than ready to move into a space of our own. Then, the Peace Corps Washington staff told us that we would be spending the following 27 months with a host family. Oh boy. It was the single biggest issue that we discussed when making our decision, but we ultimately decided that the inconveniences of living with a host family could not possibly outweigh all of the life-changing experiences that coming here could offer.

As you probably all remember, Tim and I got to live together during training. This does not always happen with couples in the Peace Corps, but with the way that our training was organized, we ended up in the same village. During training, Tim and I had a much more traditional homestay. We had one bedroom in a house, and we lived with a mother and her teenage daughter. We ate all of our meals together, watched TV or studied together, and generally interacted with one another for several hours each day.

Despite this, we were still given a lot of independence, and although there are many factors involved, my impression is that much of that independence was given because we were married. So while some other volunteers felt like their families were watching (and, at times, criticizing) their every move, we were free to wash our laundry, clean our room and go for bike rides with no scrutiny. When I got food poisoning at the house, the family insisted I eat some food, but promptly backed down when Tim explained that I was not ready to eat yet. From what I’ve heard from other (single) volunteers, their experiences were much different and their families were much more involved and worried.

In many ways, the fact that we are married helps us fit in with Cambodian expectations. “Good” men and women get married (albeit a little older than we did). Once you are married, you are seen as being responsible, independent and capable in a way that your single counterparts are not. Our training host family both trusted our judgment and knew that we had one another to rely on, relieving them of some of the pressure to take care of us.

Being married also let them see our personalities much more than if we were living in the house alone. It can be very difficult to feel like yourself when you have to speak in a foreign language all day, but Tim and I have the luxury of speaking English together. This means that our family got to see us talk, study and play together in a way that we were unable to do with them because of the language barrier. I think this helped them see us as more complete (and happy) people than what they could see when we had to rely on our Khmer. Furthermore, if one of us was having a bad day or struggling with the language, the other person was there to pick up the slack with the conversation and help smooth things over. I think our family was less likely to be hyper in tune with our individual moods because the other person acted as a sort of buffer in those situations.

As training came to an end, we were eager to learn about our permanent site. Even after 17 months of living with families abroad, I have never been good with homestays, and I was quite nervous about what our housing situation would be at site. Turns out, it is fantastic! Tim and I have the entire upstairs floor of the house and have been given a huge amount of independence.

We have the freedom to cook all of our own meals and have our own bathroom. We come and go as we please. We have plenty of space so we aren’t attached at the hip all day long. We don’t even necessarily see our host family every day, but they are there whenever we have questions or need advice. It’s been an ideal living situation for us so far.

Of course, every couple’s situation is different. Some have nicer or bigger places than us, some don’t. Some have host families that are more involved than ours, some don’t. I have to say though that Peace Corps has been willing to work with all volunteers on issues relating to housing. If a volunteer isn’t comfortable in his/her house, s/he isn’t going to be happy and probably won’t be as effective in the community. I have total faith that the PC Cambodia staff would help us out if we felt like we needed even more independence in our homestay. Luckily, this isn’t an issue for us.

So, it turns out that housing, an issue that was almost a deal breaker for us, has turned out to be one of the highlights of our experience so far. It’s been wonderfully reassuring to feel like we have a home here in Cambodia. We can walk into our second floor apartment, plop down in the hammock and feel completely comfortable. We can eat exactly what food– and what quantity of food– we want. We can have private conversations without feeling like we have an audience. And–this is really exciting!– I can hold Tim’s hand or sit close to him without offending anyone or making others uncomfortable. These little things make the world of difference after a hard day.

Katie