Thanksgiving, revised and expanded

It’s Thanksgiving time, and if I’m thankful for any one thing this year, it’s for the gift of relationship. This includes the new friends we’ve made across the world through World Next Door and for the old pals that somehow keep popping up all over the place.

Newer and further away: I’m thankful for the Nkuzi family in Rwanda who fed us and welcomed us and invited us into their grief; who trusted us to tread lightly and accepted our empathy as though it was enough. I’m thankful for all the dinner conversations with Peter and Fredrick and Nepo and Eriane and V for, like, the entire month of April in Rwanda. And I’m thankful for our friends Rachel and Ricardo who offered their home (and their liquor JUST KIDDING SORT OF) several times as a getaway. I am thankful for Katy and Alan, our Americans-in-the-field-with-kids people, who enriched our marriage and gave us a new picture of how we could do this if kids ever would enter the picture for us. I’m thankful for Mamsung who literally cared for our every whimsical need in Cambodia. (If you don’t know about her, click the link. You’ll thank me.) I’m thankful for our host family and 14 brothers and sisters in Nepal, who sang us to dinner and hugged us out every day. I’m thankful for Sarah and Kylie and Carlie and Kara in Nepal, who made us feel like we’d always been a part of their group and that there would be a piece missing when we left.  And for our beloved Cupcake Girls, with offers of Thanksgiving love and hospitality through show invites and dinner invites and all the laughing.

I am thankful for the trust of organizations like Tiny Hands and Cupcake Girls doing tricky work who allow us to tell their stories.

And of course, I’m thankful for the organization we write for: World Next Door (and the 62 people who funded us through World Next Door). WND is seeking out justice all over the world—looking for it, writing about it, exposing it—in the middle of tough injustices and laying everything out for all of us to be a part of through a free magazine. Free, you guys.

If you like what you’ve been reading in this space, please show us by downloading the World Next Door app and pass it on. These are the exact things World Next Door writes and publishes for free each month.

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We Harts You.

Hi buddy-ol-pals,

This is one of those lump-a-bunch-of-news-together kind of updates, with one embarrassing picture of our packing status.

We are only 8 hours from flying out for our next assignment in Nepal. We have been home for about 4 weeks and jam-packed a lot of family and friend visiting, although we didn’t see or talk to everyone we would have liked to visit with. We are in a state of constant disconnect it feels like, and wish we could stop time to catch up and share a meal with more people than there are days home. If you’re wondering, yes, we mean you!

World Next Door just released our 6th magazine issue this month (the 3rd for Jeff and I) and have seen growing success with increasing in downloads and readership each month!  We have also discovered many personal stories of individuals and families getting involved with different organizations, kids getting sponsored, trunk parties hosted, inspired US teens diverting birthday gifts to other teens in faraway places, etc. and have started a new section of the magazine called “Wild-eyed”. This section tells stories of ordinary people who have gotten personally involved in the fight against social injustice after reading an article in the magazine.  It’s how we’ll begin to share the effectiveness of the magazine with those who have invested in our mission of engaging others to action. We continue to be inspired, and we’re more excited than ever to get to Nepal and produce our next magazine with Tiny Hands International, scheduled for publication in December.

While CGI in Cambodia focused primarily on the prevention and re-integration of sex-trafficking, Tiny Hands actually intercepts girls being trafficked from Nepal to India through 26 border stations, and partners with International Justice Mission to build a case and prosecute. Each station has the capacity to rescue up to 130 girls per year if fully staffed. Tiny Hands also has several children’s homes staffed by a local married couple, a prayer initiative, and are in the middle of establishing a Dream Center and a US-accredited School of Injustice. Below are two behind-the-scenes videos about the Tiny Hands border stations and how the interceptions work.  The first video is embedded, the second is a link called “Trafficked” you’ll to click through. I was floored:

Trafficked: https://vimeo.com/45765371

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At the end of our six weeks, we’ll be spending time with a different organization called Nepal Outdoor Adventures, a Nepalese owned and operated trekking company who who are passionate about reaching young people in Nepal for Christ. They have developed a business model to help keep youth workers in their community called, Nepal Outdoor Adventure Treks and Expedition. Every 10 trekkers that use Nepal Outdoor Adventure Treks and Expedition will employ a full-time youth worker in Nepal for a year.  We will be going on a 10-day trek to the Annapurna sanctuary with this organization for an article or two.

The next six weeks will be packed! I sure wish we were packed.

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Now for the goods.

Below are the pictures and links for the iPad version of the Cambodia issue that came out last week, and the online version of the magazine for those who prefer to read the content online. We’ll also list the specific articles Jeff and I wrote for easy access, though I recommend reading the three features by our summer interns- SO good.

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Online content (click the image below to go to the table of contents):

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Our specific articles this month, with most of J’s photography scattered throughout the sections in the iPad version:

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Thanks for following along and for all your support, love and prayers. You guys carry us! Feel free to follow along while we’re in Nepal via:

Twitter.com/brooky

Facebook.com/brkhartman

Instagram.com/brkhartman

And the ol’ blog: www.brkwilson.wordpress.com

The Lottery: Princess puzzles, poverty and a globe-spanning sisterhood

I have three nieces: ages three, four and five. They adore tiny stuffed bunnies and princess puzzles. They sing Call Me Maybe from the backseat of the car in pink booster seats and star-shaped sunglasses. They carry zip-lock bags full of goldfish and kid-sized aluminum canteens of clean water. Their tiny fingers can pinch and zoom on an iPhone to my wonder and awe.

Girls

They are brand new to the planet, relatively speaking, and are totally oblivious to the winnings they hold of the highest lottery never played: they are among the 5% of little girls born into education, healthcare, independence, relative equality and material wealth inside the freedoms of the United States.

Before coming to Cambodia, I watched the documentary Half the Sky. I saw the little faces of three, four and five-year-old girls, the tiny lips and squishy fingers moving in a traditional Cambodian dance rhythm – little painted toes, tiny gold-plated earrings and a miniature strand of fake pearls. These preschool and elementary-aged girls had been rescued from the sex trade and were being cared for by a formerly trafficked woman at a safe house. A giant crack formed right in the middle of my beating heart.  I immediately thought of my nieces. Each one could easily have been born a baby girl in Cambodia.

If you are born a little girl in this world, you arrive with a lottery ticket and low odds. Somewhere in time and space, knit together in the wombs of oppressed women worldwide, these little girls burst forth brand-new and fresh-faced not into pink booster seats and princess puzzles, not into tiny stuffed bunnies or aluminum canteens of fresh water, but into ownership and disease. Into shanties and civil war and violence. Into refugee camps and brothels. Sometimes they are the result of violence perpetrated on their mothers. Sometimes they are born and then disappear. 107 million girls are currently missing in the world right now. Vanished! 107 million.

Even as I sit in Cambodia face to face with these realities, I can’t comprehend them. As a lottery winner, I could easily have lived my entire life squandering the winnings, unaware of what I so narrowly escaped. But I do know, and the aunt in me wants to scoop all the girls from the corners of the earth and kiss their faces, give them nicknames and star-shaped sunglasses. I want to play the game I play with my nieces: “Who loves you? Daddy loves you, yes! And Mommy? Mommy too! And who else loves you? Auntie and Uncle and Grandma and Papa and Mimi? And who else loves you?” On and on we play until she has named every single person who loves her, which takes forever.

I wonder if anyone plays this game with any of these little girls, and I wonder how long the game would last. This girl whose value is based on how many cows a family can get for her dowry, on how much her virginity will generate in dollars, on how light her skin tone is because it determines how many times they can re-sell her to purchase a new TV— it is too much for me. I am overwhelmed, and I know I can’t begin to fix any of it. The problem is too big and too deep.

Hopeless?

The easiest thing to do when I feel hopeless about the state of humanity is bury my head the Target dollar spot, a House Hunters International marathon and a DQ mini blizzard. These are the mind-numbing benefits to my winning lottery ticket.  But what if I could use the winnings to actually make a change in the lives of one of these girls?  What if I didn’t have to bear the burden alone or solve the problem myself? What if others were already working against these injustices, and I could pour into that bucket with lots of others to form an entire network to end—and even prevent—the injustices from occurring in the first place?!

Guess what. No, really. Guess.

I can do each of these things, and there is an organization in Cambodia working against these injustices! The organization is called The Center for Global Impact (CGI), and CGI’s sole purpose is to function as a vessel for each of us with skills, talents and resources to help others worldwide. Right now, as a result of the ideas of skilled and inspired people in central Indiana, CGI is working with girls and women in Cambodia through several vocational and micro enterprise programs to both prevent girls who are at risk from being trafficked, and to reintegrate formerly trafficked girls into the community with self-sustaining sewing and culinary skills. They’ve also started a brand new community-based outreach program in Kien Svay, a small community outside Phnom Penh, working to alleviate the effects of poverty.

As I prepared to leave for Cambodia, balancing my heart between my nieces at home and the kids I’d seen and heard about, I couldn’t wait to see CGI’s work firsthand. Would the issues be right out in front of me, or tucked below the surface? What would the helping look like, and how would I fit in? Would my skills and interests be used? And finally, how in the world would I manage the heat and the spiders?! They eat spiders in Cambodia, you know.

It took about thirty hours of travel to chill me out and a cold shower every 25 minutes to mitigate the heat upon arrival, but I finally settled into my (mostly spider-free) host home and embraced the chance to roll up my pants—literally, it’s rainy season here—and find out what CGI was all about. We had previously talked about my interests (adorable kids) and skills (social work), so I quickly linked up with Kien Svay Kids and a children’s home they partner with called Enzo Tina.

I’d heard that in Cambodia, students are ranked by performance, with the highest raked students promoted, encouraged, and given seats up front, while the lower ranking students are penalized, kept at the back of the classroom, and often-times ignored. Kien Svay Kids is using the primary school as a gateway into the rest of the community by identifying the three lowest performing students in each class, visiting those families, and assessing their needs.

Each morning I met Srey Leak, CGI staff, at the Machem Vorn primary school to speak with the teachers in each class. Usually we were greeted by excited and squirmy students, and the top one or two were selected by the teacher to stand up and perform a song or greeting, which was adorable. But we had come in search of the lowest-ranked students, who  were sitting at the back with embarrassed smiles and very little eye contact.  We walked home with a different struggling student every day at lunchtime to visit with the families and learn what might be keeping each child from being successful.

I realized early on that each situation was infinitely more complicated than it looked from the surface. No two stories of poverty were the same; no two barriers to education would have the same fix; no two kids at risk of exploitation follow the same formula.

We went home with students whose parents were fighting or divorced or used drugs. Our hearts broke with a student whose siblings were killed in a car accident and who was being called “a gentleman’s boy”—the equivalent to being called gay—by other kids in the class. There was a little boy whose parents had each abandoned him, leaving his two grandmothers in a deadlock over whether or not to sell the little boy to ‘His Excellency’, another term for rich man.  There have been orphans and single parent homes and homes with disabilities. We’ve seen families of four living in 10×15 sq foot rooms, and four families of too-many-to-count living in a four-bedroom house. We’ve seen families who simply don’t have the means to pay for afternoon classes or for lunch. We’ve seen kids who live too far away to walk back and forth every day. And we have visited with kids whose families can’t care for them at all and have arranged for their stay at a Children’s home, which most refer to as an orphanage.

The stories not told, however, were those things that happened when the poverty became insurmountable. When the snails didn’t sell, and the fish didn’t bite, and the kids had already dropped out of school, and there was nothing left to eat. In that tight spot, I found the underbelly of poverty. It wasn’t hunger or filth or lack of education—though these things are difficult enough. For some families, there is one last option, one final economic recourse: selling or renting out a child. The underbelly of poverty in this neighborhood was the sex trade.

It’s what happens when there is simply no other solution.

In the middle of this dark realization, however, I met two girls whose stories are living proof that hope exists here. For these two girls and their families, CGI has provided an alternative.

I first met Sreyka (not her real name) when I was visiting a yellow-washed bright and airy local Children’s Home, just a block from the primary school. Kids sang, jumped and played around the compound freely and happily. Sreyka was quiet at first, often looking back and forth to see what others around her were doing, but reciprocated any greeting with a bright and inviting smile—perfect teeth and long bangs that swooped down across her eyes.  We played classic hand-clap games we both knew in different languages and marveled at each other’s chipping nail polish. At 12 years old, her clothing and stature reflect a nine-year-old, but her beauty and culture would soon push her over the cusp of childhood into adolescence.  Although Sreyka’s family lives just two houses down from the children’s home, she stays at the children’s home, sponsored by CGI, for access to two things not available to her at her family home: safety and education.

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Sreyka is the fifth out of six girls, and, based on the secret lives of her mother and older sisters, would have been next in line to be sold for prostitution to meet the basic needs of the family. A few years ago, CGI began building a relationship with the family, and while the oldest daughter remains an active prostitute, CGI was able to draw the next two sisters into the organization’s vocational and rehabilitation program, now known as Imprint Project, to provide skills, value, and an alternative income for the family. One of the sisters graduated the program and now works at a factory; the other sister ran away and returned to the lifestyle of abuse, cash, and pretend value—having been previously abused and having grown up with this as the norm. Sometimes the smokescreen proves more lustrous than the work of recovery.

We met with Sreyka, her mother, and the runaway sister at their family home—a small tin shack with tarp and fabric draped for walls and overhangs, and a short wooden ladder leading to the interior two bedrooms. The kitchen and sitting area were outside, surrounded by piles of dishes, clothes, baby chicks, dog food bins, flip-flops and ceramic water basins, and we sat together with the family on top of the dual purposed bed/table. Although happy to be home with her family and giggling with her sisters, Sreyka mentioned, “At home I could not go to school. I could only cook and clean.”

After years of missing school on and off due to the inability to pay school fees and following closely in the footsteps of her older sisters, Sreyka could have easily become another rescue and rehabilitation story. But CGI, having already invested in the family and community, took notice of Sreyka’s vulnerability and the high risk of her being sold, and they began to provide for her needs through the Kien Svay Kids program.  Now, with her mom’s agreement and admitted desire for Sreyka to do something in her future and to “get more learning”, Sreyka lives at the Children’s home where her meals and clothing and school fees are paid for by CGI, relieving the burden of care from her family while protecting her at the same time. She is working hard to slowly rise from the lowest class ranking as she has difficulty reading and writing, but gets daily lessons and homework help.

I asked Sreyka what she hopes to be when she grows up, and she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. She lives day-by-day, our translator explained, and all she can see are the lives of her family members. “I think I want to do the work of my sister,” Sreyka said, “but I don’t know what my sister does.”

And there, again, came the urge for face kisses and the Who Loves You? game. Left in her family environment, she could easily end up standing in her runaway sister’s exact footsteps. She has the potential right now to be so much more than her sisters, but she has no idea! Fortunately, CGI knows.  And they’ll hold onto that vision for her until she’s able to see a future for herself.

While we interviewed Sreyka, another sweet face kept popping around the corner. It was Sokha, another CGI sponsored girl living at the Children’s Home with the same needs as Sreyka – safety and education – but with an entirely different story.

Sokha, thrilled with the opportunity to go home and see her family, grabbed Sreyka’s hand (it was clear the two were becoming close friends) and we all hopped into a tuk-tuk for the 40 minute ride through the Cambodian countryside, through rice fields and farms, to Sokha’s family home.

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There, we saw the farm her family maintains on the land they rent for $100 per year and the factory where her four siblings work. As her dad cut corn from the stalks for us to eat, her mom began frying some eggs and rice to serve us for lunch. We sat on the floor of the family home and learned about sweet Sokha.

She first came to CGI about ten months ago when her mom approached the Children’s Home in desperation. Sokha’s three cousins, whose mom had died and dad had left, were living there, and Sokha’s mom knew there might be a chance for the same graces to be showered upon her youngest daughter, who was forced to quit school and work on the family farm. The youngest of five kids, the family had simply run out of money for Sokha’s school fees.  Even more concerning was Sokha’s vulnerability. At 14, she was becoming older and more beautiful, and with fair skin in a rural community, her parents began to fear letting her ride her bike to or from school in the country as she would be an easy target for kidnapping, rape, and trafficking.

“It’s dangerous to be born a beautiful girl in Cambodia,” our translator told us, Sokha’s mother nodding in agreement.

Because of the money and fear, Sokha had missed so much school she had to repeat a grade when she first arrived, but is now the top in her 6th grade class. “I want to complete my studies, so I can work in a bank!” Sokha told us, smiling.  “When I was 11 or 12, I saw the girl at the bank, and I noticed her beautiful uniform and hair. I knew she made lots of money, and I knew I wanted to be like her someday.”

Sokha’s mom and dad looked at her proudly and stroked her hair.

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When Sokha’s mom approached the Children’s Home, last fall, they contacted CGI as they had before for other partnerships. The two organizations came to an agreement that the Children’s Home would house Sokha if CGI paid for all the expenses, including food, clothing and school fees.

“It’s safe and easy for her there. She can go to school, and she has enough food,” Sokha’s mom said. “We used to be a poor family, but now we are a normal family.”

Her parents gave us hugs and sent us back to the tuk-tuk with a bag of corn from the farm, and in front of us walked Sokha and Sreyka, hand in hand. I was certain Sokha could rattle off an endless list of those who loved her, and now Sreyka could list Sokha.

As I watched them giggle and run toward the tuk-tuk, I was reminded of my last niece, Rachel, who’s 13. She has a compassionate heart, is artistic and fun, loves glitter shoes and creative baking. I rode back to the Children’s Home with 12-year-old Sreyka and 15-year-old Sokha and thought if Rachel knew about the lives of her peers on the other side of the world, she would want to help. But how? I could hear her asking.

How can kids help kids?

That’s where the CGI Kids movement comes in. CGI Kids in the US exists to encourage and equip kids to use their God-given passions and abilities to make a positive impact in the lives of children around the world. Kids have all the creativity and none of the barriers of “grown up” practicality!

Take Mackenzie and Zachary. When they saw a picture of a dirty water bottle, they asked their dad, “Who would drink that?”  A conversation followed about kids all over the world drinking dirty water, and Mackenzie and Zachary were inspired to do extra chores and set money aside to help provide children with clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. They talked with CGI President Chris Alexander as he was getting ready to leave for Cambodia, and Chris explained that he was going to visit little boys and girls that live on an island with no access to clean water. Two families who live on an island halfway around the world now have a clean water filtration system because two kids from central Indiana wanted to make a difference.

While here in Cambodia, I learned about another group of kids in Fountaintown, IN. They heard a presentation about CGI’s work with kids in Cambodia and went nuts! The kids emptied their wallets and piggy banks raising enough money to fund new school uniforms and school supplies for 200 kids, which were being delivered on the days I was at the primary school.

A couple of other kids set up a lemonade stand in their neighborhood, earned $25, their mom matched it, and they sent $50 in cash on the next trip to Cambodia to meet a need of a kid who was struggling.

One last group of kids in Indiana gathered together at a park with buckets donated from Menards and tomato plants. CGI Kids hosted a gardening workshop for the kids, everyone took their tomato plants home to raise throughout the summer, and as the tomatoes become ripe, they’ll be sold and the money will be collected to help CGI’s culinary training restaurant, The Green Mango.

As I heard story after story about kids here and kids at home, it hit me: CGI Kids is the intersection of pink aluminum canteens and dirty water bottles; of stuffed bunnies and child labor; of Call Me Maybe from a booster seat and the lonely singing of a kid in Kien Svay who works a farm because she has no money for school. CGI Kids is the intersection of Rachel and Sreyka, a meeting point for little ones who won the resource lottery and want to use their grace-given winnings to help those who simply missed the odds.

Some adults and kids and entire families can drop their lives for a few weeks or a few months and fly over to provide the hands-on work of whatever inspires them and with whatever skills they have for the kids of Kien Svay. Others don’t have the flexibility or means to do the direct work, but they can educate the people around them about the invisible lottery that exists, about the vulnerability of kids on the other side of the world, and about the value they can add to a little life by pouring time, energy, skills and resources in to CGI, already forging the way.

I’m not sure how I managed to get a winning ticket, but I am a part of this sisterhood of oppressed women worldwide, and I have to do something to make life better for all of us.

I can’t scoop up all these girls and kiss their faces, I can’t rattle off an endless list of people who love them, but I know that CGI is doing this, providing each one with value and love, and I can pour into CGI my time, skills and money. I can sponsor one of the girls. I can give up a summer to run a kids camp. I can purchase my bags or clothes from byTavi. I can simply tell others about what I’ve seen and learned.  One thing is certain: I can’t just sit on the winnings.

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From the July 2013 Issue of World Next Door Magazine
More articles like this? Want to DO something about this? Visit http://www.worldnextdoor.org/magazine or click here to read the July Cambodia issue online.

An Actual Photojournalist, here.

That moment you get an unexpected call from your host organization to run out and take pictures of a house fire for the homeowner who is 5 hours away working at the Green Mango,

but you’re still in your uniform (pajamas) because your husband is on a personal retreat and you have spent the entire day doing things you would never do with your joint time like reorganize your entire blog,

and you have to quick jump in the shower but the tuk-tuk is already here,

and when you throw on clothes and arrive at the scene, 300 people are already crowded around so you have to push your way through with your giant camera and iPhone, as if your white skin and complete inability to communicate hasn’t already alienated you,

and the quarter-mile alley leading back to the house is ankle deep in mud from the fire hoses,

and of the three houses affected, one is a pile of smoldering rubble, the second a single cement wall, and you never did find the third, but instead found dozens of teenage boys and old men throwing buckets of water on the smoking rubble and another dozen with hoses pulled from surrounding houses,

and you have to move because the house you’re standing next to that didn’t burn is radiating so much heat people start to throw buckets of water on that,

and you realize that in your haste to leave you didn’t bring any water or sunscreen or sunglasses, but the tuk-tuk guy notices and buys himself water, water for his son and a bottle for you,

and you snap all the pictures you can for the woman who is now responsible for the damage of the other houses,

and you wish you could tell everyone you’re not exploiting them but just helping the lady out,

and somewhere in the back of your mind you are recalling your own house fire back in college and how your roommate shredded her soot-condemned couch when she put it out on the curb so no one else could take it,

and you are realizing how odd that was as you watch neighbors lift mattresses up stairs and over alleys and shuffle between houses as though everyone belongs to everyone,

and you have to keep moving because your flip-flops are getting hot from the heat, and you thought regular Cambodia was hot, but that was before you felt  house fire Cambodia,

and when you get home Momsung and all the girls gather around sadly because this is their friend’s home and they want to see the pictures,

and you show them and eat dinner and come inside,

and you grab the phone to call your husband because you’re like, What just happened? but you can’t because he’s on that retreat and none of your blasted phones work,

and so you tell the internets, instead.

Yep. That happened.

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Other strange happenings at the house since Jeff’s been gone: The girls all surrounded me last night at the table to eat dinner with me, and Momsung has been arranging my lunch on a bamboo mat in her room for the 12p pirate soap opera. I think it’s the Cambodian version of Downton Abbey, but with pirates. They must all feel very sad on my behalf since Jeff is gone. Also, today Srey Leak came over to work on the assessment tool we’ve been creating and stayed after to hang out for a while. This has never happened. Momsung joined us, and I learned that Momsung is the owner of the property and has been here for 42 years! She was here during Pol Pot time and shares the land with her brother and sister. I also learned that the dude who sleeps here every night is a security guard Momsung pays $80 per month for.

 

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After Srey Leak left, Momsung took my hand and marched me through the village to by a Sprite from a special vendor. I had no idea we were living with a superstar. She knows everyone, and we bypassed several cold sprite coolers to buy from what I assume to be a friend, and the Sprite was warm. Go figure.

On the way home, I learned that she’d had a husband but he died. I learned it through the handy thumb symbol and the word for husband: propone.  It’s a total girl party around here with J gone, though it’s only been 30 hours and I miss him SO much, and I was totally responsible with thumb thing so I haven’t screwed up any more funerals.

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On Thinking You’re All Smart and Stuff

Alternate title: How (not) to attend your first village funeral.

As the year progresses and we continue to travel to new places, I really try hard to pay attention and improve my cultural IQ by absorbing things around me. I usually feel super accomplished when I master a handful of new cultural nuances. For example, in Cambodia the symbol for marriage is placing two thumbs next to each other out in front.  Two people married.

When we’re walking the streets and people come up to us with a thousand questions in Khmer, if nothing else I can easily answer that Jeff and I are married by holding my two thumbs up together. Everyone then says, “Ohhhhh!” holding their own thumbs up to represent our marriage. (Don’t get me started on the symbols for, “Are you having a baby? No? You just like to eat a lot of rice? Oh.”) Conversely, the symbol for separation or divorce or even just to communicate that Jeff is going to Phnom Penh in an hour and I’m staying here, would be me holding two thumbs up next to each other, then drawing one thumb away in the direction of Phnom Penh. We also learned that a giant tent in the middle of the road means a wedding. Easy. I’m totally upping my Cambodian IQ, here.

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It would make sense, then, if we were walking through the neighborhood and saw a giant tent in the middle of the road plus a group of people preparing a feast, that we might stop, hold our two thumbs together and say, “Wedding?!” with the excitement and joy of effective communication.

We did this. Proudly. (We are clever, you know.)

Imagine our surprise when they all looked at each other with confusion, looked back at our smiling faces, looked back at each other and then said, “No! Died!”

Oh.

Note to self: tents in roads can also mean funerals.

My Big Fat Cambodian Monthly Update

Hey Guys.

If you were sitting around today (middle of the night) thinking, I wish Brooke would post a real long monthly update, this is your special day!

In Rwanda, I was frantically posting every 72 hours because Jeff & I were the only people experiencing most things, it was all brand new, and I felt like it would a) slip through my fingers too quickly to internalize if I didn’t write it all down and b) verify to 62 people who funded us we didn’t run off with a wad of cash to the Cayman Islands.

In Cambodia, there are 7 of us providing content (Anna, Sarah and Hannah and Tara each have blogs), my first feature was due 2 weeks after we got here which occupied most of my time and mental energy, and I feel generally less spazzy this time around. Also, at least 20 of those 62 people told me they felt confident Jeff and I were not rolling around in piles of cash on a remote beach somewhere, so that’s good.

Either way, here are some things I’ve been dying to share but just now getting onto paper/the internets.

Weather
I don’t care what the iPhone says, it’s not 90 degrees here; it’s 90 thousand degrees. Every day is a constant struggle not to rip off my clothes and run around naked OR to stand underneath the cold shower for 11 hours at a time with 30-minute breaks. It’s just really hot. Never have I ever spent so much time organizing clothing into tiers of importance and “saving” certain things for days when I know I’ll be out walking around. I tried to combat this issue by having one of the girls make me some traditional freely flowing lightweight pants the locals seem to love, but ended up with these beauts: yellow polka-dotted pants gone wild.

Housing
We are staying at a compound rented by CGI for the girls in the Imprint program, so although we have our own living space (kind of like a little apartment), we have 7 housemates ranging in age from 17-26 with a combined 20 words of English, and we have a groundskeeper/people-keeper named Mom-sung, who we have renamed Monsoon because of all the swooping in and helping.  Here is a little picture sequence demonstrating the Monsoon-ness, but yesterday took the prize when she tried to physically lift me onto her lap in the van because sunlight was streaming in the window onto my arm. She is the personification of the spiritual gift of hospitality, with a dash of crazy and a sprinkle of obsession.  Monsoon and the girls are sweet, though, and we’ve spent time together watching scary Cambodian soap operas, looking at photos of friends and family on the laptop, and eating dinner together every night. Speaking of food…

Food
We eat well. The girls feed us a variety of greens, veggies and meat, and mealtime constantly smells like fried garlic, which is awesome. Unfortunately, each meal also includes a 14-thousand foot mountain of rice or noodles, sometimes both, with chili and soy sauce. Every morning we are served two French baguettes each, which we protein-ify with peanut butter and a side of Nescafe instant coffee, but we are fighting off the squish with jump ropes and I-candy. Every meal, no matter what the food is, everyone yells, Nyam bai! Nyam bai! which means Eat rice! Eat rice!  Also, three people have put their hands on my belly and gestured a baby, then when we say no, they laugh and shovel pretend food into their mouths and say, Nyam bai? Nyam bai? Eat rice? Eat rice?  *Hangs head* I will not say anything else about that, because I’ve realized (this is profound) that if I continue to present myself in this way, although funny, people will begin to see me in this way. I will say that when our poor intern started puking, Jeff came up and said, in his best Cambodian accent, Throw up rice? Throw up rice?

Jeff has sought out a little more culinary adventure than I have: whole fried frogs and duck fetus. Gag me. He almost had fried tarantula, but lucky for him (me?), the team was sick that day and we opted to stay in. Somewhere inside the world wide webs are the videos of the fried frogs and duck eggs. We also visited this cool picnic area that served toasted turtle. We did not partake.

Language
Khmer is the hardest. Everyday we communicate with Monsoon and the girls through gestures, which we’ve gotten really good at. Picture me scooping up invisible ice cubes and dropping them into my empty glass, saying tink, tink, tink. Ohhh! Ice! Ice! Picture Jeff squawking like a chicken, laying a pretend egg, cracking it on the surface of an invisible frying pan and making a Chhhhh noise. Oh! Fried Egg! Fried Egg!  Imagine Monsoon with her hand above her head saying Shhhhh and washing her armpits. Oh! Shower! Shower!  And, if you dare, imagine Monsoon walking past the dinner table with my clean bra (she does our laundry) around her waist trying hard not to laugh. Oh!  Saggy boobs! Saggy boobs! Monsoon is funny even with no words.

Work
Each morning we meet Srey Leak, CGI staff, at the primary school to speak with the teachers in each class. Usually we’re greeted by excited and squirmy students, and the top one or two are selected by the teacher to stand up and perform a song or greeting, which is adorable. But we actually come in search of the lowest ranked students, not the highest, and they’re often times sitting at the back with embarrassed smiles and very little eye contact.  We walk home with a different struggling student every day at lunch to visit with families and learn what might be keeping each child from being successful.

We’ve gone home with students whose parents are fighting or divorced or using drugs. Our hearts broke with a student whose siblings were killed in a car accident three years ago and who is being called “a gentleman’s boy”—the equivalent to being called gay—by other kids in the class. There was a little boy whose parents had each abandoned him leaving his two grandmothers in a deadlock over whether or not to sell the little boy to ‘His Excellency’, another term for rich man.  There have been orphans and single parent homes and homes with disabilities. We’ve seen families of four living in 10×15 sq foot rooms, and four families of too-many-to-count living in a four-bedroom house. We’ve seen families who simply don’t have the means to pay for afternoon classes or for lunch. We’ve seen kids who live too far away to walk back and forth every day. And we have visited with kids whose families can’t care for them at all and have arranged for their stay at a Children’s home, which most refer to as an orphanage.

We are also learning that the stories not told over lunch are those things that happen when the poverty becomes insurmountable. When the snails don’t sell, and the fish don’t bite, and the kids have already dropped out of school, and there is nothing left to eat. In that tight spot, we’ve found the underbelly of poverty. It’s not hunger or filth or lack of education—though these things are difficult enough. For some families, there is one last option, one final economic recourse: selling or renting out a child. The underbelly of poverty here is the sex trade. It’s what happens when there is simply no other solution.

But! We’re seeing the prevention of this recourse through the program we’re working with: CGI Kids. CGI is working hard to identify and intervene through relationships and community involvement before the family reaches this level of desperation. J and I got the chance to meet two little girls and their families, for whom CGI has provided an alternative.

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My feature article in July will be the story of these two little girls and their families, about CGI Kids and Kien Svay kids and my little nieces and how all of these things fit together. So download the July issue! It will be broadcasted from a virtual blowhorn on all my social media accounts when its ready for download.

Church
You thought this update was over, didn’t you?

Church yesterday morning: hour-long van ride to the bank of a river with wooden steps leading into the water, a boat appeared and ferried us to an Island, we removed our shoes before entering the church, sang worship songs in Khmenglish, then voted on 2 of 4 singers who were competing in a singing contest to be the new worship leader. People around us wanted #2 and #3 to win, so they took our #1 and #4 slips, but somehow #4 won, and he was definitely in last place. All this was followed by a sermon and kool-aid communion, my legs lifted off the floor the entire time due to 3 big spiders roaming the tile, and with a couple of 4-year-olds sticking their little hands through my chair to tickle my armpits. Door to door? About 5 hours.

Play
Due to my lack of legit updating, it might appear via FB that all we do is play. That’s because I posted like 300 pictures of bike rides through our neighborhood, some bamboo picnic areas on stilts, a bamboo train ride with the team, and a fantastic 24-hour anniversary celebration in Phnom Penh. Some friends let us borrow bikes for the summer, and we’ve been making friends with neighbors, visiting the “ploating” restaurants on the river behind us, and finding ways to explore Phnom Penh by rooftop when we make it into town.  We’ve visited the S-21 genocide memorial, the National Palace and Museum, the Silver Pagoda, the Fine Arts District, a sunset boat tour of the Mekong, and will visit the Killing fields this week. We’ve also had a couple of team days in Phnom Penh and Battambang and will head to Siem Reap this weekend by boat for our mid-trip retreat. What?! Half over already?

Our anniversary was awesome because school was conveniently closed for testing, so we packed up and went to Phnom Penh.  For the entire 24 hours we did activities that benefited ministries all over the city. We ate lunch at Friends, a restaurant that trains and employs street kids, got massages by trained blind masseurs using their skills for self-sufficient living, and river toured with a company who’s profits maintain an orphanage.  Pics from the weekend: here.

Okay. I think that’s it for now, except everything else, which you’ll find in the July issue of World Next Door! Speaking of, did you download Rwanda’s Issue? DO IT! But if you can’t download the app, you can still find the content online here. It’s our first published content for World Next Door and we’re pretty pumped about it. People outside the family even like it :)

Welp. If you’re still here, you’ve made it until the end. For your diligence, here is a dancing kindergartener:

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For more pics of our time in Cambodia, click here.

For more pics around our Kien Svay neighborhood, click here.

For additional posts about Cambodia, click here.

Bye!

I Am (eating too much rice)

It’s Sunday again. How’d that happen?!

I Am two entire loaves of French bread every morning that are so tough on the outside I’ve thrown out my neck ripping a bite off, and so soft on the inside I want to throw out my lumpy pillow and remake it with French bread guts. I am crunchy peanut butter on top of the bread and half a teaspoon of instant Nescafe and boiled water every morning.

I Am on a rooftop looking over the entire city of Phnom Penh in the blazing heat, and standing underneath the best-feeling cold shower of my entire life in a tiny Kien Svay bathroom at least 3 times daily. I am allowing Cambodia to redefine the cold shower. I am walking off the last wooden step over a river onto a boat that will ferry me across to an island church, and I am singing Shout to the Lord in English from the third row while everyone around me sings it in Khmer. In that moment, that thin place, I am in heaven.

I Am cared for by the personification of the spiritual gift of hospitality: Monsoon. I am all feet-washed, pillow fluffed, clothes folded, three utensils in my cereal, shirt tucked, hair behind my ear, and today, physically lifted off my seat and onto her lap in the van to escape the sun shining inside the van window onto my skin. I am a tissue from her purse wiping the peanut butter off my face and fingers, and I am her hands all over my outfit trying to get the bread crumbs off. Wait. Grams? Is that you?

I Am (phonetic spelling) “Nyam bai? Nyam bai?” Eat rice? Eat rice? I am the following gestures from Cambodians weekly: swirly motion on my belly, baby rocking, question mark? I am shaking my head no. I am laughter while everyone around me pretends to shovel food into their mouths as they say, patting my belly, “Nyam bai! Nyam bai!” Eat rice! Eat rice! I am recalling an article I read that tells me to speak kindly to myself and shake this one off. I am rolling in laughter when, as our poor intern pukes, Jeff says in his best Cambodian accent, Throw up rice? Throw up rice?

So. WHO ARE YOU? Food, places, people, and words spoken into your life… Go!

Pants Gone Wild

Sing it with me:
Sheeeee woooooore ginormous elastic huge fantastic yellow polka-dot balloon pants…

First off, we now call Mom-sung Monsoon, because she is EVERYWHERE, swooping in 1000 miles per hour doing things like washing our feet, laying blankets on us when we nap, covering our feet when the AC is on, cutting our food, placing extra utensils in our cereal bowls to help eat… those types of things. She also once ran into our room to get some bug spray, holding a scarf in place on her chest to cover her naked body. Oh, Monsoon.

So. After watching Monsoon run around the compound every day in these lightweight, elastic, knee-length, wide-leg pants in varying patterns, I tried to tell her I liked them. I am constantly hot, and fabric touching me is annoying. These pants appear to just float around her body never actually touching her. When she couldn’t understand me, she got one the girls who sews clothes at the Imprint Project shop to have a look. She and the other girls became excited and said, “Pisei can make! Pisei make for you! Yes!”

Pisei is kind of the leader of the group, CGI staff and seamstress, and watches over the girls at the house. She said the fabric and sewing would cost $5 and she’d bring the magical pants home tomorrow from the shop. She asked what kind of fabric I’d like, and I said, “Whatever you think is cute! I trust you.” I had seen so many prints, and I had no idea what to choose or how to communicate my style. Pisei has awesome style, though, and everything she wears, she has made herself. I was sure that almost anything would have been fine with me.

The next evening when the girls returned home from the shop, they gathered around as Pisei produced the pants: bright yellow polka-dot elastic balloon pants. The girls remained cautious until I tried them on to make sure they fit, and then asked, “You like?”

I mean, they’re lightweight and if I’m ever going to walk around in yellow-polka dot pants, it will be here in Cambodia handmade by my housemate friend. Of course I like. “Yes!” I said, turning a circle for all to admire. “I like!”

They all burst out laughing and Pisei said, “Oh good!” a look of relief on her face. She liked the fabric, but when she got done making them, the other girls wore them around the shop calling each other crazy. With MY homemade yellow polka-dot pants.

No. I mean, NO! Not crazy at all. (Right?)

Later, Pisei showed me a picture of the dress she’d made Anna, one of the other interns, and it was adorable. I had no idea normal clothing was an option. Pisei said, “You like the dress? It’s the same one I am wearing.”

Yes! I loved the dress. Pisei said she could go to the market today, find some fabric, and make the dress on Monday at the shop. I looked at the dress on Pisei and the intern, Anna, who were both tiny, and tried to show Pisei my food baby, Crystal. She said, “I understand, I understand! No problem. I am small M. You are big L.”

Yes, that’s me. I am big L, and on Monday I may have a cute dress, or I may have a yellow polka-dot dress. Either way, you will soon notice me in all the team pics as the one in the bright yellow polka-dot pants, size big L.

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A Conversation With No Words

First, Mom-sung brought out this little pink dragon fruit

Dragon fruit

Then, she chopped it up for us because we had no idea how to get inside

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Then we ate it, and it stained our faces and hands dark pink

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Which led to a discussion about clothing and face dye out of dragon fruit

(When I say discussion, I mean gestures)

Which led to Mom-sung giving me a tube of pink lipstick

Which led her to opening it and applying it for me

And then she requested, via gesture, that I kiss Jeff on the cheek to leave a stain

Which led to nail “stain”

Which led to Mom-sung giving me a bottle of pink nail polish, which you can see next to the lipstick tube

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Which led to one of the Daughters painting my nails

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Which is the best “conversation” I’ve ever had with no words!

In Which I Eat a Sweet Roll Off the Ground and Misunderstand Trafficking

A small victory was achieved this morning when J and I were able to effectively communicate with Mom-sung (phonetic spelling), the woman who watches over the Daughter’s House: One egg lunch Jeff. Eat rice Brooke. Lunchtime. Egg. One. Jeff. No egg Brooke. Eat rice. 12 lunch.

We spoke all these words in Khmer, and Mom-sung eventually decoded our accents and repeated the words in Khmer with gestures. It didn’t sound the same, but we checked our notebook, understood we were all saying the same magical words, and then threw a party! We clapped and cheered, Mom-sung hopped up and down, we danced a small circle all around each other with big smiles and thumbs up signaling success.

When we came home for lunch, we found three eggs, heaping plates of rice and some cucumber. Close enough!

For almost four days we have been happily settled into our host home, but totally confused. Mom-sung, so sweet and energetic, speaks to us non-stop in Khmer with lots of gestures, but we can never figure out what is going on. For the first 24 hours we had no food or water, because the Daughters (who we would typically eat dinner with) had already eaten dinner, and we couldn’t figure out how to get breakfast, because the girls eat breakfast at the workshop.  Even with our translator friend, something just kept getting lost in all the back and forth and when all conversations were finished—there was still no food or water!

Finally around noon the next day, half-starved and dehydrated, we saw a roadside stand, purchased a sweet roll and a bottle of water, accidentally dropped the roll on the ground, stumbled over each other to dust it off, and ate it anyway. Given that we had just eaten a roll off the ground, we did not have to try very hard to convey our desperation to Srey Leak (our translator friend, CGI Kids host, and the woman we spend our days with), but continued the long walk to and from home visits. It would have taken less effort if the little girl we were going home with hadn’t sped off on her bike without us. We walked half a mile down, turned around to ask the sweet roll ladies who the girl was and where she lived, walked another quarter mile but couldn’t find her, looped back around to the village chief’s house and then found the girl.

When our friend walked us home at 1p, she spoke a few words to Mom-sung, and the next thing we knew, a giant plate of rice and several fried eggs with soy sauce were set out in front of us.  By 5p we had a 5-gallon water tub and immediately got water-drunk. That night we ate dinner with the daughters: shoes off, cross-legged on bamboo mat, spices and sauces in a bowl, chopped the roasted chicken, spooned the rice, and dipped everything into everything. By 7p I was in bed with the dehydration-walked-forever-in-the-hot-sun-barely-ate-but-accidentally-worked-out-because-I-didn’t-know-the-day-would-go-like-this headache. I slept 11 hours, drank another liter, and have been back to normal ever since.

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We also went into town for a birthday party yesterday, visited the big supermarket, and came home with a few essential easy-to-store groceries and maybe a sleeve of Oreos that somehow ended up in our bag.  Srey Leak helped us set up a bread delivery each morning, so now we get 4 baguettes. Two for breakfast and two for lunch. And then (are you tired of me yet?) today we passed a little surprise pop-up roadside market and bought tomatoes and cucumbers to eat with our baguettes. We bypassed the frogs, eels and snails, though.

(Uh, also Jeff ate a baby duck at that birthday party. Video is on FB. Gag me.)

In my notebook, the first three pages are words in Khmer, like water, breakfast, lunch, egg, one, two—all words we needed to know in the order we needed to know them. You could easily read my vocab list as though it were a journal and understand what was going on in our life simply by the words we learned and in what order. Funny. I think it’s safe to say between the vocab, the bread delivery, the water tub and our surprise market, we’re now onto a regular routine of eating :).

In other news—this is it, I promise— I have a nice little lost in translation moment. Yesterday we sat in the schoolyard waiting to meet with a teacher for THREE HOURS after having been told the teacher had just gone to the market. Later we learned she’d left to attend a customary three-day funeral. Whoops. During our three-hour wait, we got into a pretty intense conversation with Srey Leak about the dangers of being born beautiful in Cambodia, and the value of lighter skin tone as it relates to beauty, which is why most Cambodians wear full-length shirts and pants despite the heat. They want to protect their skin from the sun—not out of skin cancer fear, but fear of turning a shade or two darker.  In the middle of this discussion, as she was introducing all kinds of different “issues” in Cambodia, she told us they have a big problem with trafficking. J and I looked at each other like, here we go. Straight into the issue.

She continued to talk with a look of concern, said a bunch of things we had a hard time following, made the motion of two fists banging into each other, and then said, “Yeah. Trafficking is a big problem. The cars and the motos crash into each other and sometimes they crash into a tuk-tuk. They drive too fast.”

Traffic. They have a big traffic problem.

An album of school kids, meals, the bamboo train, our neighborhood and other first-week-firsts? HERE!