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!

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Cone of I’m-never-getting-back-in-this-car-again, Ike, so back off.

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Every time this blasted Cone shows up I am in need of 8 Ibuprofen, a bag of Oreos, and $150 in gas money. It has been called the Cone of Uncertainty and the Cone of Probability, The Cone of Error, The Cone of Terror, The Cone of Confusion, The Cone of Contradiction, The Cone of Complete Cluelessness, and, my favorite: El Cono del Muerte.I don’t even think I can evacuate to the Grampies this time because they happen to fall inside the Cone of Insanity, too.

I woke up today feeling tired and desperate bright and hopeful to return to NOLA tomorrow upon the dorm’s reopening at noon. Here is what lay in my inbox, a present from the devil:

Welcoming Students and Watching the Gulf

As we continue to prepare for the reopening of campus, we are still monitoring Hurricane Ike, which we have been doing since Tuesday. Originally, Ike’s track was predicted to travel along the east coast of Florida and up the Atlantic seaboard. However, in the last day this track has changed to indicate that Ike may enter the Gulf. If it does, landfall is projected toward the end of next week. 


While this current projection is not news we want to hear, it is too soon to determine whether the storm poses a threat to Louisiana or the Gulf Coast. Meanwhile, the university’s leadership group is receiving multiple daily updates from our weather service and is ready to respond quickly if necessary.

I need to go to school. This no-school thing is responsible for 40 blog posts a day, so YOU need me to go to school, too. Please join me in worrying about—I mean—praying for Ike.

Speaking of hurricanes

Everyone keeps asking if I’ve made friends yet.

Facebook says no. Facebook is just being smart, I think.

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Fall is an apprehensive time around here.  Everyone is obsessed with weather, and rightly so.  I overhear ten-thousand conversations a day about active weather off the coast of Africa that might turn into a tropical system. Lucky for all of us, I am obsessed with weather, too.

I watch the weather channel 24 hours a day and have the local radar widget on my computer, phone and ipod.  I wake up to Jim Cantore and fall asleep to Jennifer Lopez (the meteorologist, not the singer).   I love local on the eights and the tropical update at 50 past the hour. I have the music memorized and I watch storm stories late at night. When I was little and my family returned from vacations, I couldn’t WAIT to run inside to see what I missed on the Weather Channel while we were gone. My family can attest to this.  It’s true.

I also love tracking storms.  In another life I would have been a tornado chaser.  People give me tornado mousepads and buttons and books, and when there are hurricanes, they call me with questions about why the storm is taking a certain track versus another knowing I have been briefed by the Weather Channel itself.  I explain about the high and low pressure systems and feel giddy.  It’s just all so delicious to me.  I think, in reality, I am a nervous person and I enjoy something that updates me every 8 minutes.  Whatever.  I fit right in here is what I’m saying.

When I first arrived, we had to fill out a personal evacuation plan and sign up for text or email alerts.  We got an alert today about Gustav. Just an alert to be on the lookout for an alert.  I like how they think.

Katrina hit on the first day of school in 05. Orientation is Thursday, the storm is supposed to hit on Monday, and the first day of class is Tuesday. Everyone here is very concerned about the first day of school. All my friends (from the bookstore) are locals who go to Loyola or Tulane. They spent the first day of school in 05 evacuating, and spent the first semester of the 05-06 school year as strangers at other schools in Texas and Alabama and Georgia.

This says it all.

I really hope we have a first day of school here.  (I already have an outfit and all.)

Tap dancing in the cafeteria

Behold the funny, followed by the crazy.

This is a video of the Fort Wayne Ballet doing some tap lessons with a group of our kids in the cafeteria.  Note the big guy in the plaid shorts pointing his foot just so.

 

Hil-air. 

Today I went to the McCormick site to collect some pre-tests and attendance records, and here is an account of everything that followed:

  • The radio announced a severe thunderstorm warning for Allen county.
  • I got out of the car and walked toward the club, but was momentarily distracted by the dark swirly clouds above me. Also, a witch on a bicycle in the sky. I think I have a sixth sense about these things.
  • The electricity went out in the club.
  • The plumber arrived to fixthe overflowing toilet on the first floor.
  • Tornado sirens went off.
  • Parents came running for their kids.
  • We stuffed 35 kids into one hallway the size of a bathtub.
  • The executive director arrived to give a tour with the housing director and a potential donor.

At this point, Ken was standing on a chair in the bathroom shining a flashlight onto the plumber, and the kids and I were stuffed like sardines into the stairwell trying to figure out whether or not the tornado warning had expired.

The director didn’t even know there was a tornado. I can only imagine her internal dialogue.

After two hours with no electricity or air circulation, the entire club smelled like an overflowing toilet and dirty kids. We had to close early.

It took me 40 minutes to get back to the Fairfield site, because all the roads looked like this:

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It’s a floating Cadillac.