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!


Saying Goodbye

20 06 2013

This week is our last one at site, meaning it has been filled with countless goodbyes. I’ve been on my bike every day, riding out to the villages to say farewell to my project volunteers, my students, and the friends I’ve made during this wonderful two-year journey. There have also been several special events that have helped us say goodbye to our community, moments that I’m sure will stick with us long after we step foot on US soil again.

Our farewell tour kicked off at the school. The local high school had a ceremony to celebrate Tim and all the hard work he’s put in as an English teacher and teacher trainer.

Tim and his coteacher

Tim and his co-teacher

Then, we rented a van and took a big group of friends to a nearby national park, where we spent the day hiking, picnicking, and swimming near an impressive 50-foot waterfall.

Me and Vary at the base of the waterfall

Next, the staff at the health center organized a party where I ate countless bowls of curry and grilled chicken.


This weekend, I’ll be saying goodbye to some friends in Siem Reap before heading back to site for a special dinner with our host family. Then, on Tuesday, we’ll pack up a taxi and say goodbye to Kampong Kdey.


Finishing Up Projects

2 06 2013

June is a month of transition for us, as we will need to finish all of our project work, pack up our things, and say goodbye. We leave our site later this month, and will formally close out our service in Phnom Penh on July 3rd. The transition has already begun for me and Tim. We’ve both finished up most of our major project activities and will now switch our focus to writing completion reports and filling out paperwork.

Last week, Tim’s hospitality students traveled to Siem Reap. Some of the students visited employers, utilizing both their newly-typed resumes and their newly-developed knowledge of the hospitality industry to meet professional contacts, promote their skills, and, in one case, land a job. The other students took the admissions exam for an NGO hospitality school in Siem Reap. This was the culminating event of the project, after nearly a year of studying English and hospitality skills. They will travel to Siem Reap one more time for interviews.

Tim treated the students to frozen yogurt after the exam

Tim treated the students to frozen yogurt after the exam

One of Tim’s hospitality students has also been selected to receive a visa to the United States so Tim has been busy helping him navigate the bureaucracy and fill out his paperwork. Last week, he met with his student’s family to explain the realities of emigrating to the States, touching on finances, mental health, cultural barriers and more. The family seemed to have a realistic idea of the challenges ahead, and, ultimately, decided that it was best to continue with the visa process. If all goes according to plan, this young man will move early next year to Philadelphia, where we will be able to help connect him with social service organizations, other Cambodian immigrants, and more general support.

This week, we also hosted two Canadian couchsurfers. Tim and I really enjoy hosting others, particularly here in rural Cambodia where we can offer a way for tourists to get off the beaten path and learn about the parts of Cambodia that can’t be seen in the tourist centers. We don’t host very often because we want to respect the fact that we share a house with our host family, but when a well-timed invitation comes from people we’d be excited to meet, we accept. The Canadians stayed with us for two days, and it was fun to show them around, introduce them to new foods, and put them in touch with some English-speaking Cambodians. They got the true Cambodia experience, with monsoon rains, no electricity, a bat in the house, and mice squeaking in every direction. They were completely flexible and good-natured about it all though, so thankful to experience something different.

Our new couchsurfing friends

Our new couchsurfing friends

The night after the couchsurfers left, there was a big party at the pagoda, put on by the NGO I work with on the domestic violence project. Several months ago, right as we made the plan for the project, the NGO started to form youth groups in the surrounding villages, including the three target villages for the project. The first thing they did was train these groups to put on role plays about domestic violence. So last night was a big party, where all of the youth groups presented their role plays for the community. There were hundreds and hundreds of people in attendance, and I was excited that such a big audience had shown up to hear the very important message that domestic violence is never okay. It was great to see volunteers from my project working with the youth group members, some of whom had studied about domestic violence with me in my health club. It felt like all of the projects were working together in synergy, reinforcing the same messages in a number of different ways.

The opening act at the party: traditional Apsara dancing

The opening act at the party: traditional Apsara dancing

We’ve finally made it to the weekend, and it’s the first free one we’ve had in quite some time. I’m excited to lay around, eat tacos, watch bad TV, and just relax. Next week will be the very last of all of our project activities, meaning that we’ll no longer be able to deny how close to the end we really are.


Warm Fuzzy Feelings

30 04 2013

Time has been racing by since we got back from vacation. It’s impossible to believe that we’ll be leaving our site in less than two short months. Exacerbating our warped perception of time is the fact that our schedules have been packed recently, with no real indication that things will slow down before we leave.

Last week was the first full work week since Khmer New Year. My week was a varied one, a reflection of what my life at site has become. It included weighing sessions, meetings with my girls’ club, preparations for Camp GLOW, planning sessions for the domestic violence project, English classes, and a refresher training for village health volunteers. Tim was back at school, teaching a full schedule for the first time in about six weeks. In addition to work activities, we spent a lot of time catching up with our host family and friends, who we hadn’t seen in some time. We had been feeling like vacation marked the beginning of the end, so it was encouraging to kick off the last stage of our service with such productive and fun activities.

Our host dad playing with his grandson this week

Our host dad playing with his grandson this week

On Saturday, we went to Battambang to celebrate the marriage of our very first Khmer teacher. Sothearith introduced us to Cambodia’s language and culture during training in Takeo nearly two years ago. He has proven to be one of the most effective teachers and friendliest guys we’ve encountered in our time here. We were excited to be able to join in his wedding celebrations, especially because we had been hoping to get back to Battambang one more time before heading home. In addition to the wedding festivities, we were able to sneak in a show at the circus (the second time, for me) and a quick swim in a brand new rooftop pool. Clearly, when I describe my busy schedule, I’m using a loose definition.

These kids are AMAZING!

These kids are AMAZING!

Overall, it was a really fun weekend, that had us regularly reminding ourselves how good our lives are here. There’s been an awful lot of warm fuzzy feelings about Cambodia lately, not to mention dozens of new thoughts I’d like to share as our time winds down. Let’s hope I can find the time and energy to do so, even as my schedule continues to gain momentum in the upcoming weeks.




Happy Chinese New Year!

11 02 2013

This weekend marked Chinese New Year, which is celebrated by some in Cambodia, although it’s not an official holiday. Usually Cambodians with Chinese ancestry will throw a small party both to ring in the new year and to pray for their deceased relatives. In the process, they offer gifts for the ancestors through burning items such as fake money, fake gold pieces, cloth, and other symbols of necessary goods for the afterlife.


Burning money

We spent the day with my coteacher’s family for the second year in a row. Chanthou and his wife, Kunthea, are always so welcoming and Saturday was no different. We had a great time talking with Kunthea’s father who loves to tell us stories from the 1940s and 50s. They are always well thought out stories blending history with mysticism. For example, when the Khmer militia was fighting Thai forces in our area, he saw many forest people who were born without elbows and knees. It’s great to learn about a time other than the Khmer Rouge and it’s great Khmer language practice for us to listen intently to stories that seamlessly mesh Khmer history and politics with mermaids and dragons.

The great storyteller

The great storyteller

With Chinese New Year over, we only have one more New Year to celebrate before ending our Peace Corps service. Our sixth and final new year in Cambodia will be Khmer New Year in April. With three weeks off from school, parties at the wat, and a huge migration of people from the cities to their hometowns, Khmer New Year is the biggest and most important holiday in Cambodia.  (More on that later.)


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 Index: Wedding Season

8 02 2012

Last December, Tim and I wrote some quick reviews of our first Cambodian wedding, but now is your opportunity to learn more about this special ceremony. As regular readers know, every 4-8 weeks I contribute a brief article about my life in Cambodia to my hometown newspaper. In the latest installment, I provide a  look at the traditions and rituals included in wedding celebrations. Check it out below. Or, to read the other installments, click on the tag “index.”

Cambodia, like Michigan and most of the Northern Hemisphere, is in its cold season. However, while many Michiganders are fighting off the cold weather with warm sweaters and hot chocolate, Cambodians are taking advantage of the brief reprieve from the heat and scheduling their weddings.

Indeed, we are smack in the middle of wedding season here. All around the country, tents are being raised, elaborate, brightly colored dresses are being hemmed, and discordant wedding music is being blasted from wooden carts piled high with speakers.

Although weddings in the United States have become increasingly customized based on the personalities and beliefs of the couple, Cambodian weddings are steeped with traditions and rituals that can be recognized in virtually every ceremony.

Before a ceremony ever occurs, however, both families must agree to the marriage. In fact, it isn’t entirely rare for families to arrange the union on behalf of their children. Courtship, as it exists in the United States, is virtually nonexistent in rural Cambodia, and even couples who do choose to marry on their own have often never spent time with one another outside of a public setting. In fact, almost all rural Cambodian couples share their first kiss on their wedding day.

After the families agree to the marriage, they negotiate the bride price. In the town where my husband and I have been living and working, the groom and his family usually pay between $2,500 and $3,000 to the bride’s family. Once the bride price is settled, the invitations go out, hand delivered to each family who is invited to the joyous occasion.

On the first day of the wedding celebration, family and friends close to the couple gather at the groom’s house with offerings of fruit and meat. The small crowd then walks, in a gender-segregated single file line, to the bride’s house, where a small ceremony and a light meal of rice porridge take place.

This is generally one of the first opportunities for the couple to model their festive wedding outfits. Many brides have at least five different, glamorous outfits for the occasion. Similarly to many brides in the US, Cambodian women will spend hours pinning their hair into a perfect up-do and generously applying make-up. In Cambodia, a culture that idolizes creamy white skin, most brides also slather on several layers of whitening cream before applying their nearly-white foundation.

The bride will soon flaunt another equally stunning outfit for the haircutting ceremony, during which guests take turns symbolically cutting the hair of the bride and groom. As they pretend to snip the locks of the new couple, family and friends wish them happiness, prosperity and longevity.

In a similar ceremony, blessing strings are tied around the wrists of the bride and groom, as more well wishes are bestowed upon the young couple.

Throughout the various events, Buddhist monks generally chant prayers for the family, and musicians play traditional Cambodian instruments, including the tro, a two- or three-stringed vertical fiddle.

After several days of ritualistic, highly structured ceremonies, the wedding culminates in a large, joyful reception, not much different from many receptions in the United States. Very frequently, 500 people or more gather in a large tent or restaurant to partake in some of the most delicious food the country has to offer. For men, the beer flows freely, but it is not considered polite for women to drink, even at the most important parties, such as a wedding reception.

Shortly after the guests finish eating, contemporary Khmer music blares, loud enough for the entire village to hear, signaling the beginning of the dance party. And what started as a quiet negotiation between two families turns into a raucous party that lasts well into the night.


Khmer Wedding Food

9 12 2011

As promised, today we bring another list of Khmer wedding bests. It’s hard to top the awkward moments, but I’ll try my best to bring you the wedding’s best food:

3) Banana bread. The final dessert  of the two day event was both locally made and amazing. This probably rates higher more because of the idea of regular delicious baked goods than the actual taste of the bread.

Banana bread in special wedding boxes

2) Snake. The wedding party on the first night had two different types of snake. The first was chopped fine and mixed with onions and more cardamom per bite than an entire cup of Turkish coffee. It was chewy and gristly, but loaded with flavor. I was surprised to taste anything like cardamom, since I’d never seen or tasted it in Khmer food before.

The two snake dishes

The second type of snake came whole. It was fried, and heavily salted. As I ripped mine open, I was lucky(?) enough to find a mass of eggs inside. There was little meat, but the skin was somehow both chewy and crunchy. The eggs were by far the best part – little gelatinous balls of salty goodness.

Tastes like chicken. Really.

1) The best food of the Khmer wedding, and perhaps the best Khmer food we’ve had so far in country was….quail! I had thus far never tasted quail, and this was an excellent first start. It was juicy without being greasy and went great with pepper sauce. It was even more exciting to eat at the time because in a somewhat startling English-Khmer misunderstanding, my co-teachers insisted we were eating a Kiwi (a small bird native to New Zealand). That sounded very exotic to us until we got home and read up on it. Turns out that the kiwi is on the verge of extinction. We frantically did some research and found out that it was not kiwi, but quail. Either way it was delicious.

Mystery Bird

There you have it folks; the three best foods from the wedding. It was great to taste so many different Khmer foods all at once, especially since we cook for ourselves in our homestay. But Katie will talk more about that tomorrow…


Our First Khmer Wedding

8 12 2011

Tim’s co-teacher Chanthou got married this week, and we were invited to both days of the wedding festivities. There is truly too much to say about Khmer weddings– it would never fit in only one blog entry– so today we will just include some of the highlights.

The happy couple!

Specifically, we’d like to recognize the three most awkward moments of the occasion– you know, those moments that have you physically uncomfortable because of how agonizingly awkward they are. I have to tell you, this was a tough decision. We felt that there were many worthy moments, but we’ve narrowed it down to the top three for your pleasure.

(Before going on, let’s not take this too seriously. Virtually all cultures have wedding rituals that would seem nothing short of bizarre to outsiders. I could have just as easily compiled a list of awkward moments at US weddings. The removing of the garter, anyone?)

Okay, let’s begin with the second runner-up.

3.) The bride and groom stoically sompea-ing (bowing) to the audience as they were being covered in silly string. It doesn’t sound like much, I know, but how on Earth do you take yourself seriously when being sprayed with silly string? The juxtaposition of one of mankind’s most playful inventions against the solemn (grave, even) expressions on the wedding party’s faces was just too much for me.  High awkwardness rating.

Next up…

2.) The father being fed a banana by the wedding singer. Painfully awkward to watch. I’ll let the photo speak for itself.

And, (drum roll, please!), the winner of most awkward moment is….

1.) The bride and groom’s first kiss!

As I’ve mentioned, Cambodian courtship is drastically different from in the US. For example, a couple getting married in our town has (generally) never kissed before. This was the case for Tim’s co-teacher and his new wife, and let’s just say it was blindingly obvious that this was their first time.

In fact, it reminded me of a little clip that I recently came across on the interwebs. If you haven’t seen this clip of Ellen talking about TLC’s new show “Virgin Diaries,” I implore you to do so now. You will not regret it… plus, it will help you better relate to the discomfort that Tim and I felt last night watching the nervous couple share their first kiss.

“Less chewing!”

Okay, all jokes aside, Tim and I had a great time at the wedding. Chanthou and Kunthea seem to be sincerely happy, and we wish them the best of luck. We felt very lucky to get to participate in the celebrations, especially with so many friends who made sure we had a good time. It was a very special occasion and one that I’m sure we will remember for a long time. Congratulations to the new couple!!

Tune in tomorrow for our awards for the top three best dishes at the event. And, in the meantime, check out more pictures of the wedding on Facebook.


Party at the Dragon Bridge

28 11 2011

Last week, the Angkor-era Dragon Bridge in our town was the center of a three-day celebration that much resembled a small fair. The streets were filled with people playing games, admiring the lighted boats in the water, sampling chicken kabobs from food stands, and watching Khmer movies projected on big screens. Periodically, a single firework would explode in the sky. Apparently, the celebration was to help raise funds for the wat that’s being built outside of town.

Here’s a short video of the traditional music and dancing that took place:

Click here for more pictures of the event: Dragon Bridge Party Pictures