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





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





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.

Katie

 

 





Water Festival in Bangkok

19 04 2013

The last stop of our trip was Bangkok, which mostly served as a way to break up the travel from southern Thailand back to Cambodia. However, the timing of our overnight in the capital made it one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. You see, earlier this week both Thailand and Cambodia celebrated the new year. In Thailand, they refer to the holiday as Water Festival (or Songkran), whereas in Cambodia it is simply called Khmer New Year. In both countries, the holiday officially lasts for three days, with celebrations spilling over for most of the month of April. It is the most anticipated time of the year, much like Christmas for many Americans.

In Cambodia, the new year is marked with relaxed afternoons spent with family in the countryside, drinking beer with buddies, and playing traditional games at the wat. The overall feeling during these three days is happy, but relaxed. In Thailand, however,  the vibe is anything but relaxed. Water Festival is an all-on party, where the tradition is to soak anybody and everybody with water and cover them in a floury paste.

Celebrating Water Festival in Silom (not my picture)

Celebrating Water Festival in Silom (not my picture)

We had been told that Bangkok would be empty during this time because most people would return to their families’ homes in the countryside. Bangkok, we were told, is not known for its songrkan festivities. So we booked a room in the same guesthouse we had stayed in two weeks earlier and prepared ourselves for a quiet day of catching up on emails, reading, and wandering around the neighborhood where we were staying, Silom. Much to our surprise, we found out that Silom is one of the two main centers for Water Festival activities. When we left our guesthouse in search of a late lunch, we were greeted with huge crowds of people, many of them children or college age, armed with buckets of water, super soakers, hoses, coolers of ice, and flour paste. We walked a few blocks to the restaurant, and by the time we arrived we were soaked.

Fallen prey to the festival antics

Fallen prey to the festival antics

The part went well into the night

The party went well into the night

After shivering in the air conditioned restaurant for a half an hour, eating our last Thai meal, we decided to brave the crowds and head back to the guesthouse. As soon as we stepped outside though, it was obvious that the party was just getting started. The crowds we had seen 30 minutes earlier had multiplied in size, making it nearly impossible to move anywhere. The streets were packed, the sidewalks were packed, the Skytrain entrance was packed. We could barely move, leaving us vulnerable once again to the ice cold buckets of water being playfully tossed by nearly everyone around us.

It took us hours to get back to the guesthouse, which was about an 8 minute walk on a normal day. There were moments of pure joy and amazement as we watched what seemed like hundreds of thousands of people all celebrating together, strangers laughing together as they covered each other’s faces in paste. There were also moments of frustration and panic, as we were caught in a massive mob, physically unable to move, cold and cramped. Overall, though,  it was a truly unforgettable experience, accidentally getting caught in the middle of it all, just thinking we were going out to grab a bite to eat. It was a great way to end our Thailand vacation. Now, we’re back in Cambodia ready to get back to life as usual.

Katie





Koh Lanta

17 04 2013

After Chiang Mai, we hopped on a plane and headed to Phuket, Thailand’s best-known international resort town, for a quick overnight. Then, we boarded a boat for our final destination: Koh Lanta, a small island located three hours from the pier.

The boat we took to get to the island was filled with a strange combination of people. There were the usual suspects of course: bikini-clad tourists, foul smelling backpackers with dreads, twenty-somethings searching for themselves. However, there were others too, including young European parents with their small children, nearly a dozen Thai monks dressed in orange robes, local Muslim men and women trying to convince you to take a certain taxi or stay in a particular hotel. It was an unusual combination of travelers indeed, and a decent representation of what we would find on the island.

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We got to Lanta in the late afternoon, the sky overcast and threatening to rain. The island was surrounding by beautiful, rocky cliffs jutting out of the ocean, but Lanta itself was covered in dense, green vegetation. On the way to our bungalow, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the female tuk tuk drivers wearing hijabs who were transporting shirtless surfer types to bars with signs advertising shroom shakes or inviting you to “smoke here.”

Our bungalow was nice enough, the main draw being that it was located directly on the beach. As we found out, the adjacent restaurant featured overpriced, bland versions of Thai dishes that were typical of the island. There were a couple of cafes nearby that served up delicious muesli and homemade yogurt, but this was clearly not the place to get authentic tom yam or green curry.

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We spent three nights on the island, sunbathing and swimming whenever the weather would allow. In a given day it might have rained on two or three occasions, but there were always patches of sunshine that were perfect for relaxing. The beach had beautiful golden sand, with coral and rocks that were exposed during low tide.

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The only day that we strayed far from our bungalow was the second, when we decided to explore the island on bike. We made our way up and down the hilly terrain, stopping to admire the different beaches and viewpoints along the way. We eventually found ourselves in “Old Town,” which had a strip of restaurants aimed at tourists, decorated with Chinese lanterns. As we rode back, we got drenched in a downpour, but by the time we arrived at our bungalow the sun was shining again, inviting us out for another swim.

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We left Lanta happy to have made the trek to Thailand’s southern beaches. While in the south, we also stopped briefly in the town of Krabi, where we refueled on street food at an expansive marketplace before going on a great half-day kayaking tour through mangroves, karsts, and abandoned caves. Our vacation was almost over, but we were still looking forward to returning to Bangkok for Thailand’s biggest holiday: Water Festival.

Katie





Chiang Mai

15 04 2013

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second biggest city, with a decidedly laid-back college feeling to it. It has a huge old city in the center of town that still has some of the old gates and walls from ancient times.  Much of the old city now is populated by guesthouses, moto rental shops, and restaurants for tourists. Between the cool coffeehouses, though, are some pretty interesting pagodas. There seemed to be more than a dozen wats within the old city walls, all of which had slightly different styles and historical significance. We rented bikes and saw eight or ten of them, thoughtfully comparing them to each other and to Cambodia’s. We thoughtfully discussed the pronounced Chinese influence in Chiang Mai’s pagodas vis a vis Cambodia’s pagodas, then hurried off to lunch.

After a couple taste bud-awakening days in Bangkok, we were slightly disappointed by the food in Chiang Mai. Having a guesthouse in the main tourist area certainly didn’t help, but a near-constant flow of fresh smoothies kept appeased us between less than spectacular pad thai and curries. The Saturday walking street offered enormous crowds, great Chinese dumplings, and greasy crepes.

One of our favorite temples

One of our favorite temples

Chiang Mai is known as a jumping off point for elephant trekking in the north of Thailand, and Katie and I had to choose between cooking classes and elephant riding. Knowing we can ride elephants in Cambodia, we decided to stay focused and make this vacation about food. We went out to an organic farm outside the city for an all day cooking class. We each made five dishes including, marinated chicken in pandanus leaves, papaya salad, tom yum kung, chicken coconut soup, pad thai, yellow curry, green curry, chicken cashew stir fry, pumpkin pandan custard and mango sticky rice. We had a blast cooking and eating for six hours, comparing different recipes and spices.

Making pad thai

Making pad thai

Our last day, we headed up to Chiang Mai’s most well-known attraction: Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The temple is situated on a small mountain overlooking the city. The winding road up the mountain in the back of a pickup truck was enough to give us wobbly legs as we started up the temple steps. The wat complex was impressive with a smoggy view of the city below.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Overall, Chiang Mai was a relaxed place to hang out and ride bikes for a few days. We were able to meet up with some other PC Cambodia volunteers and compare traveling stories. After a few days, though, we were ready to hop on a plane and hit the beach.
-Tim





Beginning in Bangkok

8 04 2013

Tim and I kicked off our Thailand vacation with three days in the country’s capital city. Coming from rural Cambodia, we knew we’d be in for a shock visiting one of the biggest, most international cities in all of Southeast Asia. After all, the metropolitan Bangkok area is home to over 14 million people, which is nearly equivalent to the entire population of Cambodia. However, overwhelmed as we might have been, we loved every minute we spent in Bangkok.

We took a bus from Siem Reap into Bangkok on Tuesday, arriving in the late afternoon. Our bus dropped us off only steps from the city’s Skytrain, an elevated public train system that serves some of the busiest parts of the city. We bought a pair of tickets and hopped on a train heading to Sala Daeng, a stop located just a few blocks from our guesthouse. Riding the Skytrain was amazing. I would recommend that any tourist take it. Not only is it a fast, convenient way to cross neighborhoods, it also provides a gorgeous view of the city that you couldn’t otherwise see. Not to mention the train cars are in great shape and blast much-needed air conditioning throughout the heat of the day.

The view of the city from Lumphini Park

The view of the city from Lumphini Park

The neighborhood we stayed in was a business area, the streets bustling with people on their way to or from the office. On the street were countless food stalls, selling anything from fresh orange juice to curries, pad thai, fried eggs on rice and more, all for under a dollar or two. The number and intensity of the wafting smells was almost paralyzing, with absolutely everything looking and smelling delicious. Clothes vendors filled in any gaps left from the food stalls, and I swooned over the cute sundresses, colorful leggings and practical tops.

One of my favorite things about this area was that it wasn’t particularly touristy, but it was easy to navigate as a tourist anyway. The food was on display so we could see it even if there weren’t English menus. The city was well signed and easy to walk around in. We were never far from public transport either. In fact, the city’s transit system is truly remarkable. In addition to the Skytrain, there’s an underground metro, a network of city buses, and a boat system that runs up and down the river. If one of those doesn’t work, there’s always tuk tuks, taxis or motodops.

Riding a boat up the river

Riding a boat up the river

During our short time in Bangkok, we did a lot of exploring. On our first full day, we took a three-hour food tour led by a friendly and knowledgeable Thai woman, Dao. We visited several small, locally owned restaurants to sample main dishes such as duck, yellow curry, flaked and fried catfish, and green curry with roti. We went to the pastry shop to taste pandan rolls and finished the trip with coconut ice cream. It was the perfect introduction to the city.

Noodle soup in Chinatown

We spent the rest of our time in Bangkok exploring tourist sites and popular shopping centers. I didn’t care much for the main tourists sites, like the Royal Palace and Wat Pho, because of the huge crowds of tourists being herded through lines like cattle. Since Cambodia doesn’t see the same number of tourists as Thailand, you are often free to explore sites at your own pace and usually at no- or low-cost. Because of this, I was a bit turned off from some of Bangkok’s main attractions. Overall though, I loved Bangkok and would happily relocate if given the opportunity. The food, the energy, and the pace of life were a welcomed break from the crawling, sweltering days of Kampong Kdey.

Temple of Dawn

Tim and I are now in the northern city of Chiang Mai. We’ve got one more day here before heading down to the beach for our third stop of the trip.

Katie