Monthly Archives: September 2012

Village People

The best snacks were for sale in front of the bus station. Before we were even outside Phnom Penh city limits, I had eaten half of Aya’s shared bag of green, unripe fruit sprinkled with chili-sugar-salt. The mangoes are my favorite. Aya had also bought roasted pumpkin seeds, and as we crunched through them I told her about how the seasons are changing back home, and friends were talking about apple-eating and cider-drinking and pumpkin-picking, cool weather and cozy blankets, and these pumpkin seeds were the closest I’d have to fall this year.

Two hours later, we arrived in Kompong Chhnang province capital, but it wasn’t the end our journey. We had to take a tuk-tuk 60 kilometers down a long red-dirt road to the village where my NGO sponsors a youth club. On the way, we passed green fields of rice, and palm trees with perfect poufs of fronds, so tall and straight they looked like they had been purchased in the tropical décor section at a party-supply store.

An hour into the ride, the day’s ran began to fall in big, rinsing drops. We zipped down the carriage’s heavy canvas sides. The tuk-tuk bumped hard and we rolled to a stop. The driver said he hit a hole in the road and broken a tire; he had to unhitch his moto from the tuk-tuk and walk it down the road in search of a repair shop.

Houses were few and far between, and commerce even more scarce, but my colleagues assured me there were small moto repair shops closer than the province capital and we wouldn’t be spending the night huddled in a moto-less tuk-tuk by an irrigation ditch.

Some time after the rain had stopped, the driver returned with his wheel repaired, and we arrived at our host house just as it was beginning to get dark. This village’s houses were more spread out than the last one I visited, and aside from one close neighbor, I couldn’t see any other homes.

The house was much sparer than the one at my last homestay. The walls were plain board, with sections of woven palm fronds and a plain tin roof. Below the house, raised platforms were used for cooking, eating and gathering. Inside, magazine glamour photos were tacked to the wall, but aside from that there were few material possessions. The owners slept on bamboo mats on a wooden platform, and we slept on bamboo mats on the floor. The steps to the house were slippery beneath my feet.

This village had no evening electricity, and no bathhouses. For light, our host family had a couple of fluorescent bulbs gator-clipped to a car battery; they charged cell phones on the same battery. For bathing and cooking, they collected rainwater in a large ceramic vessel, and bathers wrapped in a sarong dumped buckets of water over themselves. For toileting, the youth club president escorted me, flashlight and hoe in hand, to the mud field where the water buffalo were tied for the night. My colleague called after me to be aware of snakes. The youth club president hacked a hole in the mud, which immediately filled with groundwater from the day’s rain, and waited several meters away to make sure I got back to the house safely.

In the morning, I visited the market with Ratha so we could purchase youth club-meeting snacks from local vendors, and as we approached I saw that it was the center of the village’s activity. Residents were buying food and exchanging the day’s news. Fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and wriggling fish were on display, vendors fried bananas and potatoes, and women squatted behind trays of small cakes. Storefronts sold household items, nonperishable foods, moto parts and gas.

And this time, there was a snake snack for sale.

Back at our host’s home, the youth club’s workshop had already started. The NGO team came here to lead a workshop on self-development: listening skills and speaking skills. It was clear that the youth were excited to be together and meeting with their advisors from Phnom Penh.

In the afternoon, I interviewed some members of the youth club, learned how challenging life in this village is, and how it was representative of so many villages in Cambodia. For most, farming rice is an inevitability, not an economic choice. It pays little, and because there isn’t much modern farming technology available, like irrigation systems, crop yield is almost entirely dependent on weather conditions.

One member of the youth group, a guy who’s 30 and married with a young son, farms with the rest of his family. He only completed first grade, because when he was a child during the years the Vietnamese army was fighting the Khmer Rouge, that was the only education available at the local school. A 20-year-old girl said she completed sixth grade, but when she was 17, because she didn’t begin school until she was 10. It struck me that she was wearing glasses—something I hadn’t seen much, especially in rural communities—and she mentioned that they were new, given to her through a joint effort from several organizations, and she was now able to read clearly. Another guy, 24, was in the process of finishing high school, but since it was 20 km away he was living at a pagoda with the monks. I don’t know if there are any options like this available for girls whose commute to school is too long for a daily trip.

The day’s work ended, and the water buffalo returned home from the rice paddies. We had spicy chicken in addition to our fish and rice for dinner. The flavor was delicious, but like all meat in Cambodia, no part of the animal was wasted: that meant the entire bird has been chopped up, feet and all. Each bite was mostly bone, which a bit of meat and some skin and tendon. I’m not good at eating chicken this way, crunching a bite and then not-so-discreetly depositing the bones back into my hand and tossing them to the dogs waiting beneath our platform.

Aya and I left in the morning so we could travel to Siem Reap for a different youth workshop. We caught a Cambodian shared taxi—a 12-seat van that had at least 15 people already in it—for a ride back to Kompong Chhnang province center. When we arrived I thought we’d transfer to the same kind of large coach bus we took out of the city, but instead we transfer to another 12-seat van, jammed with 18 other passengers.

The back of the van was packed with at least 10 huge bags of charcoal. A dead duck was tied to the back door. I wondered if it was decoration or dinner. Halfway to Phnom Penh, we stopped at a roadside stand, and everybody climbed out. Why? The driver had to wash the van.

My last two questions of the morning:

Q: Why did we have to wash the van? It wasn’t particularly dirty—the windows weren’t caked with mud; the driver could see out—it looked like any other local vehicle that had been driving on a dirt road.
A: Because in the city we could get pulled over for having a dirty vehicle.

Q: Why did we pack 18 people into a van with only enough seats for 12?
A: Because it was “the Cambodian way”: people would rather travel cheaply than safely.

We made it back to Phnom Penh just fine—we didn’t get pulled over, the duck didn’t fall off the back door until the first stop (at which point the driver just tied it right back on), and we had enough time to stop by the office for a shower before heading to the next bus station to travel to Siem Reap.


Banana quarters

I’ve been seeing the carts around town, but only in passing from a tuk-tuk. There’s a profusion of street meat available in Phnom Penh, and look at the shapes here—it’s easy to see Jimmy Dean-style sausage links and patties. But the other morning the cart was parked right on the street where I was walking and I got a good look at the contents: bananas!

If you’ve ever been camping (we’ll count one weekend at Girl Scout camp in third grade, since that’s about the extent of my experience), or at a bonfire, you know bananas and fire are a great pair. The outside of the fruit caramelizes, and the inside becomes creamy and smoky.

I bought a skewer and the vendor charged me 1000 riels. The big number sounds like a lot, but there’s 4000 riels to the dollar. I realized I spent a quarter on my bananas, the same amount I paid for a banana at the fruit truck on my way to work every morning in New York.

I always made sure I had a quarter for the banana in my pocket before I got off the subway, and some time ago, at some bar, when I was counting out money for drinks and jabbering away to my pal Melissa about making sure I had 25¢ left for the morning, banana quarters became our inside joke.

And just like that, I was back in New York, walking up Lexington Avenue, and my friends on the other side of the world didn’t seem so far away.

Little Cambodia on the Prairie

I was stuck in Chhlong, waiting.

I had been on a local bus for six hours with my co-workers from the NGO, a guy, Ratha, and a girl, Aya, both in their 20s, whom I’d met for the first time the day before. The bus caromed all over the road, which was barely two lanes, passing motos, cars, tuk-tuks, bicycles, and trucks by veering into oncoming traffic. The driver took advantage of winning by being the largest thing on the road and alerted other drivers in both directions that he was coming by beeping the horn approximately every 7.2 seconds.

We got off the bus, dragged three large boxes out of under-bus storage, and ate lunch at a roadside stand. I was wary of the boxes. On the bus, Aya said they contained a snake. She made a wide gesture with her hands and said the snake was to share with the youth club. She said we’d cut it up. I was terrified: Was it alive? Was I going to witness some kind of traditional ritual? Maybe it was sushi-style BBQ eel? All I could see in the boxes were piles of fruit, mangosteens and longans. I imagined them covering a snake ready to pop out like a jack-in-the-box.

Ratha ended a phone call and turned to us. “There’s a flood,” he said. “There’s no way to get to our village.”

Three and a half hours and one downpour later, an SUV pulled up and we piled in. Ratha said we’d take the car farther into the province, cross the water by boat, and a truck on the other side would drive us to the village.

As we drove I looked for the water. I imagined a river, ordinarily creek-calm, swollen with rainwater. I pictured us crossing in a small motorboat and feeling the pull of the current. The SUV pulled to a stop and Ratha and Aya gathered their bags. I didn’t see the river: maybe we had to climb down a bank?

“Here we are,” Ratha said.

And then I saw: we weren’t crossing a river by boat, we were crossing a flooded dirt road by ox cart.

And thus began my journey to another era.






We held on tight as the cart bumped and the oxen splashed. The road was rough and pocked, and the cart wheels dipped unevenly as the driver urged the oxen on. We passed carts going in the opposite direction; one was carrying a man and his moto.

Our truck was waiting on the other side, and we continued our ride on the dirt road. It was nearly 7 pm and completely dark by the time we pulled up to our host house. The only light came from the few scattered fluorescent bulbs hanging around. The village has no running water, and electricity is only available from 6-9 pm.

Our host family greeted us and ushered us to a table for dinner. I could see that the house, like many in the country in Cambodia, was on stilts, and we were eating underneath. The family’s dog, part pet and part guard, sat in the dirt at our feet, waiting for bones. The flock of chickens ran by. After dinner I made my way to the bathhouse, splashed around by flashlight, and climbed the stairs into the house. With the country darkness, and the smell of the woodburning stove breezing in, I slept soundly for the first time since arriving in SE Asia.

I woke in the morning to the family’s rooster crowing. By daylight, I took in the village, tropical green and flowering in the rainy season. We were staying in the biggest house, which looked like a rustic cabin on stilts. Next door was a bigger, multi-purpose building; the landlord rents part of the space to the youth club for meetings and activities. Behind the house was the new, paint-still-drying bathhouse: Through a recent initiative and funding, some of the homes in this village were building bathhouses with a squat toilet and a water reserve (from rain and well water) for bathing.

We met with the youth club that my NGO helped found, fund and support, and with the help of Aya as translator, I interviewed some of the members. In Cambodia, there’s a huge population of young people (ages 15-30), and many NGOs are working to empower and build capacity with this group. The kids told me about how the Kratie province youth club has been focused on environmental issues, including initiating trash clean-up projects and advocating for local forests and farm lands, which are facing land grabbers and deforestation. All of them said the youth club’s projects had made a big and positive impact on the village.

With the youth clubbers, we unpacked the boxes and prepared refreshment bags for the following day’s community forum. We sorted mangosteens, sliced apples, purchased cookies from a village store and finally stored the stuffed and finished bags.

It was a slow day. We walked the village, and I met children who’d never seen a foreigner. They giggled when I bowed in greeting and made a game of getting me to bow again. I saw a white water buffalo bathing and watched dogs and cats and chickens scramble under the tables and over the dirt together. I ate the best bananas I’ve ever had; they were green when ripe and tasted like conventional bananas but creamier and more banana-y. The banana tree was growing in the yard of our house. After lunch, I took a nap in a hammock. When the electricity was on that evening, Aya and I watched what looked like “Cambodian Idol” with the landlady.






I basked in my Little House on the Prairie fantasies, but I spent a lot of the time thinking about how this life impacts the residents of this village—and so many like it all over Cambodia. As I made my first trip to what many call “the real Cambodia,” I saw the country that exists outside Phnom Penh. Decentralization and destabilization are common, and part of the reason why there isn’t power or running water. While it’s clear that there are systems in place for daily living, and people are surviving and thriving in many ways, there are so many elements that gave me pause. Was it good for people, dogs, cats, and chickens to all share the same living, cooking, eating, and toileting space? Can people wash their hands well enough or often enough to successfully prevent the spread of disease? How can education, health care and dental care become more accessible? My colleagues told me there’s only a primary school in this village, and it’s difficult and expensive to get to the nearest secondary school. And how does all of this stack up in an increasingly connected world?

Starting early the next morning was the main event of this trip, the community forum. Held in the primary school’s yard, about 200 people from the village came. The village chief and two of his deputies talked, and Ratha facilitated a Q&A. The focus was the shared idea of good governance: What is it? How does it affect us? Who can participate? Who has rights? They highlighted transparency, accountability, consistency, efficiency, balance. They talked about what to do with people who are illegally cutting down trees, and how they can protect the village’s natural resources.

After the community forum was over, and we were getting ready to return to Phnom Penh, I remembered what Aya said about the snake in the box. I had seen everything in our boxes, and there had been no snakes; we had conducted no rituals. So, I asked. I made slithering gestures, I hissed. I asked if she remembered our conversation from the bus. She gave me a strange look. Snake? Snake? No, there was no snake.

It was the snack.

Try it: snake, snack, snake, snack. Have you ever noticed how similar those vowel sounds are? We laughed: relief for me. I made Aya and Ratha promise that we were not having snakes for snacks at any upcoming meetings.

And then we climbed into the truck to drive back to Chhlong. The flood had receded, but the dirt road was muddy and bumpy, full of enormous pits. There was still standing water, and I thought the truck might get stuck, but it didn’t. The ox carts were out again, but they were pulling hay and produce, not people and motos. In Chhlong we boarded an express 12-passenger van heading to Phnom Penh, and as we drove through darkening towns and saw light coming from bare fluorescent bulbs and TVs, I understood: it was evening, and the power was on for a few hours.

Hello, Phnom Penh / Goodbye, Phnom Penh

Four of us AJWS volunteers arrived in Phnom Penh on Friday evening. We spent the weekend learning our way around the city, apartment/guest house hunting, buying SIM cards, and discovering the pleasure of coffee with sweetened condensed milk.

Monday morning, we reported to our NGOs for work. “Welcome!” my NGO director said. “Tomorrow two staff members are traveling to Kratie province for a community forum and a visit with the youth club. We’d like you to go along to learn about our work and interview people.”

My bag is packed. I’m ready to go. We’re traveling to the village by bus, but this view from the back of a tuk-tuk shows you a little street life in Phnom Penh. I’ll see more when I return.

Orientation: The Ride

AJWS did its best to prepare us for culture shock, culture differences, work cultures, social cultures, and how not to embarrass yourself when eating with a spoon and fork. Some of the most memorable moments:

NGO site visit
Perhaps the most powerful afternoon at orientation came when we visited a refugee camp. The residents are primarily ethnic Burmese people from the Shan state, escaping a military government in Burma and not recognized by the Thai government. The issues in Burma are more complex than I’ll go into here, and absolutely worth learning more about. The people living here are safer than they are in Burma, and can apply for permanent residence in Thailand; for now, though, many are working in construction and earning about half of what their Thai counterparts bring home.

One of AJWS’s partner NGOs works with this community and provides education, community development and organization, youth empowerment, and more. And in addition to language skills—Burmese, Thai, and English—children learn about the Shan culture so they’re connected to their heritage.

It’s hard to write about something like this: I can tell you what I saw, but it’s nearly impossible to describe without coloring the experience in a way that feels unfair. And adjectives like sobering or moving leave too much out. I can’t tell you about the experience of someone living there, because I don’t know what it is. I also can’t share any pictures as they asked that we not take photos. Our group walked through, greeted residents, met with one of the youth leaders from the NGO, and learned about the work they’re doing, which has been quite successful. What I can say is that it was a meaningful experience to see, and it was important to see how the work we may do in an NGO office is carried out in the field. The visit was also a reminder to stay away from making assumptions: just watch, listen, bear witness and let people be heard.

Cultures in translation
Differences, similarities, what to do, what to avoid:

  • Sit back, listen, observe. Build relationships. This will pay off far more than galloping in with big ideas, ready to change everything.
  • Emphasis is on the collective, rather than the individual.
  • Sharing food is important. Meals, including workday lunch, are often communal.
  • Crossing your legs can be perceived as standoffish, so try to keep both legs down. Don’t show the bottoms of your feet to someone, it’s offensive.
  • Streets have a logic of their own—and it may look like no logic. Look both ways, even on one-streets. Then, look again. Keep your head up. Bolt.
  • To eat: use the spoon as the main utensil—the fork helps move the food into the spoon. Ideally, the spoon is in your right hand, but this lefty hasn’t made the switch.

Songthaews: Chiang Mai’s party bus
Not everything at orientation was work. When we left the hotel, we rode in this, a songthaew. It’s a combination of open-air taxi and bus: it picks you up and drops you off at your destination, and you can hail it on the street, but it also runs on a particular route and may take other passengers along with you. Imagine sitting in this with nine friends as you careen along the streets.




Chatting with monks
One evening, a few of us rode a songthaew to a temple to meet up with a group of Cambodian monks studying in Chiang Mai. (Our AJWS country rep knew one of the monks and his brother.) These monks shared the stories of their daily lives, their studies on a range of topics, Buddhist philosophy, talked about life in Thailand and Cambodia, and played with the stray dog who had adopted them as his pack.

Also, they cracked jokes—
Co-volunteer: “How has your perspective changed since you became a monk?”
Monk, gesturing toward his compatriot: “When he started, he was young. Now, he’s very old!”
Laughter and groans from all.

Fruit salad
I’ve tried three new fruits—mangosteen, rambutan, longan—and one was more delicious than the next. If you haven’t seen them, take the 7 seconds to follow these Google image links; each looks like something Hello Kitty would eat.

Cow soy
… is how you remember the name of my new favorite Thai noodle dish, khao soi. I ate it five days in a row and didn’t remember to photograph it once. Google images will help me out here. This bowl has springy egg noodles, spicy-but-not-too-spicy curry (red-curry-esque, but different; that’s not helpful—just find yourself a bowl and dig in), your choice of meat. It’s garnished with fried noodles, pickled greens, cilantro, a squeeze of lime. Slurp, slurp, slurp and be happy. It’s soupy, it’s noodley. It’ll probably splatter a little on your shirt. Don’t worry, it’s worth the mess. Already I’m sad that it took this many years to discover khao soi. Now I’m making up for lost time.

Picture this
This dog and his driver were in the lane next to our songthaew. I can’t decide which is more impressive: his balance or his obedience.

Chopsticks up

I’ve been here 24 hours. So far: no jet lag, inspiring co-volunteers, delicious food. I can almost say thank you in Thai.

The first day of orientation presented a range of exercises, from articulating why we are committed to social justice, human rights and repairing the world, to attempting to write a personal mission statement in seven minutes. Both were challenging.

Even more challenging: the business of being brand new. When was the last time you were in a totally new situation, with a totally new group of people, in a land far far away? That’s why this feels to me like the start of college: the opening of a new chapter, with new friends, in a new place, showing what you hope is the best version of yourself and not the insecure, jet lagged version.

My favorite orientation activity was a short exercise where we talked about what defines our people. Who are our tribes, both the ones we’re born with and the ones we create?

My people are kindhearted, good eaters, and laugh at everything.

A co-volunteer and I were talking about teaching writing, and why good writing makes sure it has a point. When I teach fiction workshops, we talk about why a short story needs to answer the Passover question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

The answer today was this: Because we went to the Sunday night market.

This market lights up your life

The Sunday night market was filled with vendors selling everything from cotton scarves to coconut shell soap dishes to t-shirts, woven skirts and pants, incense, jewelry, and more. It reminded me of a New York street fair—the best ones, with gorgeous handmade jewelry and not so many sock vendors.

And, there was enough food on a stick to give the Iowa State Fair a run for its money. Vendors sold smoothies, meatballs, rotis, cakes, dried fruits and more tasty-looking things I couldn’t readily identify. (Word was fried bugs were available for the curious.) Food-only alleys split away from the main market street. Chopsticks at the ready, we strolled and sampled. We ate pad Thai—real Thailand pad Thai!—that was more complex tasting than noodles past; it was subtly sweet and had a spicy burn that kicked in just when you thought a bite was done. The only thing that tamed the fire was another slurp of noodles.

Real deal pad Thai

At the next stand, the dumplings we ate had thin skins, crisp shredded vegetables, crunchy seared outsides, and were gone before I could take a picture. They were delicious, and they made me miss the four-for-a-dollar dumplings in New York.

And finally, ancient ice cream. Shaped like a stick of butter, and speared by a wooden skewer, it was served in a paper cone to catch drips.

Iowa State Fair, are you paying attention?

I’ve officially consecrated my time in Thailand: I dropped some noodles in my shoe.

Pod person

Hi. My name’s Jennifer, and I live in a pod.

The pod lands in Brooklyn.

Life in the pod.

That’s got a nice ring, doesn’t it?
When I was at the Iowa State Fair this year and businesses wanted to collect my address for direct mail I said, “I can’t give you my address. I live in a pod!”
This didn’t go over so well. Needless to say, I will not be receiving brochures about financing my new Ford truck or adding a swimming pool to my backyard.

(Note to the pod company: Per the terms of agreement, I don’t actually live in the pod. There are three things you can’t put in the pod: live creatures, flammable material, and gold bouillon. Good thing I found alternate living arrangements at my mom’s house, got rid of my sterno, and buried my gold bouillon—X marks the spot.)

Here’s what really happened: I decided, after nearly 10 years in NYC, it was time to go. At first I just meant to relocate to a new city, but in between here and there I’m having an adventure. I packed up my pod, visited my mom and her dog for a few weeks, and then flew halfway around the world to spend three months volunteering in Cambodia.

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where volunteer orientation begins in a couple hours. Since it’s the beginning of September, I feel like I’ve just arrived at college—but orientation in Thailand is a lot more exciting than orientation in the field house.