with glittering eyes

A journey through Peace Corps: Cambodia

Site Visit Recap

A rite of passage with a certain anticipation built in, site visit is when bright-eyed and bushy-tailed PCTs visit what will be our permanent sites for the next two years. Anxiety and high and everyone is usually trying their best to love, not just like, their assigned situation as it’s where we will be working, living, and integrating for the duration of our service.

The omnipotent hand of Khemarith the Health Program Manager had chosen to place me in Kampot province, Teuk Chhu district. I was rather pleased off the bat to be placed in the Kampot province because Ryan had taken my group to the provincial town of Kampot on our PCV visit and we headed to this wonderful little bar called Bodhi Villa and jumped off a few mounted 3 meter 2×4 planks into what must have been murky-as-fuck river water that thankfully the night skies camouflaged. I was even more pleased when my welcome packet informed me that my village is only a short 12 km (look at me, going metric!) from the Kampot provincial town.

A little note on distances in Cambodia, though. My training district of Tboung Kmoum looked, on the map, approximately equidistant from the provincial town of Kampong Cham as the other two districts, Chamkar Leu and Prey Chor. However, when we compared biking times, my group was able to bike from our village to Kampong Cham in about 55 minutes. It took Chamkar Leu about an hour and fifteen, and Prey Chor about an hour and twenty. Normally I would just jump to believing that our group is simply athletically superior, but there are some quite athletic people in the other two villages so stamina probably isn’t the issue. When I inquired about the exact distance from Tboung Kmoum to Kampong Cham, though, the answers I got pretty much ran the gamut. My host sister claimed it was a short 14km, my host brother the commercial driver said it was more like 20km. One of the LCFs (Language and Cross Cultural Facilitators: they teach our language classes and tell us if we’re doing something un-Khmer like (read: wrong)) said it was 22km and the Kampong Cham native LCF said it was about 25km. Between all of them, there is a good 10km of variable distance so I’m not entirely sure what to believe, except that I should always take Cambodian estimates of distance and time with many large grains of salt. Bottom line, whether it’s 12km or 15 or 20km, I’m by far the closest of any of the trainees to Kampot town because I was able to hop on a tuk-tuk (a motorbike that’s pulling a wagon with seats and a sunshade) from my village and 30 minutes, 4 stops, and 1500 riel (about 40 cents) later, I found myself in the bustling market of Kampot.

Because I’m the kind of person who gets almost perversely excited about things (and usually the outcome is kind of sad and pathetic so I end up getting hugely disappointed), I tried my best not to anticipate immediate bonding and feeling exactly at home at my new site. Dara, one of the language coordinators, had told me that Teuk Chhu has beautiful clear waters to swim in and mountain trails to hike, causing the outdoorsy side of me to rub its greedy little hands and cackle gleefully. Unfortunately, the Teuk Chhu district is not to be confused with the rather well known Teuk Chhu provincial resort, with its plethora of beautiful waterfalls and majestic mountains (and what Dara was talking about), but it does pretty well for itself. The community straddles the National Highway #3, has a small market about 500 meters from my house and various little shops and restaurants that line the highway. The health center, wat, and police station are all adjacent to each other on this dirt road that leads 1km east of the national road. My house is on the corner of the national road and another paved road that follows the 2km to the base of a mountain that looks, had I been in possession of tools (and knowledge), perfect for rock climbing. Along all of these small roads are rice fields for miles against the backdrop of the Kampot mountains, dotted occasionally with coconut trees and other miscellaneous foliage.

My permanent host family is comprised of a mom, a dad, and three children: an 18 year old daughter, a 13 year old son, and a 9 year old daughter. They are a farming family and in the backyard there are 2 cows, 2 sows, 10 newborn baby piglets, and an innumerable number of chickens and chicklets. One of my favorite things to do during the two days was to stand in the pig stalls watching mama pig chow down while petting the 4-day-old piglets (it was the only time I could get to them because at any other time when she wasn’t distracted by delicious rice porridge she’d jump up and start sniffing menacingly at me if I got too close). I even had the honor of watching my host mother inject the newborns with some kind of deworming medicine one night—she would literally pick each piglet up by its hind leg and jam a syringe filled with an ominous dark liquid into their buttock, not even flinching as they jerked back and forth squealing bloody murder. Having never lived on a farm or even near one during any period of my life, this was all really exciting and awesome and I didn’t even mind the permanent scent of cow dung hanging in the air. Or I don’t know, maybe that’s just how animals smell, shitty. Because what can be said for my family is that even though they are a farming family, they keep everything super, super clean. The pig shed is de-pooped three times a day. The living quarters are kept so squeaky that I can eat off of the floor, and that’s saying a whole lot for it being Cambodia and all. The bathroom is spotless and without that smell most Cambodian bathrooms have and the upstairs is dusted and swept constantly. The family and I enjoy Khmer telenovelas every night after dinner and everyone is always willing to help. When I took a shower first thing in the morning the host mother assumed that it was because I was really hot that night (which I was) so the next night there was a fan hooked up to a car battery (I think the only car battery the family owns; we use car batteries because we don’t have 24/7 electricity and the generator is only on from 6pm to 9pm) underneath my mosquito net waiting for me. When I told my host mother I needed a tuk tuk to get into town today she ran and called one for me, and as I was leaving stuffed a fresh coconut and various cakes into my arms saying that if I got hungry I could eat them. They really don’t have much but they are so willing to accept me into the family and give me everything they have, and I just wish my Khmer were good enough to express how truly grateful I am.

At the end of it all, I guess you can say I’m pretty pleased with my permanent site and host family, perpetually optimistic outlook or not.


September 1, 2010 Posted by | Training | 5 Comments

And The Flood Gates Open

After a long weekend of our day off in rainy Kampong Cham and an almost unnecessarily long seminar day, we were all pretty eager to get home to our families and resume the routine we’d so tentatively set up for ourselves. I, especially, was looking forward to being able to do my morning run and wash a few articles of clothing.

When the van dropped us off at my house Monday night and I ran through the metal gates, what greeted me were not smiles and dinner but my sister sloshing through the first floor of our house in galoshes. Yes, she was sloshing through our house in galoshes. The entire first floor of my house had flooded due to some sort of monsoon that went on and there was ankle-deep water everywhere. Inside, outside, on the 10-meter trek to the outdoor bathroom, water was freakin’ everywhere. My bedroom is luckily on the second floor so nothing got destroyed but it is quite inconvenient that the only indoor bathroom has also flooded so for now I can’t do laundry, I have to take outdoor showers, and I cannot possibly exit the house with my bike without wading through what seems to be the shallow end of the Mekong.

Tuesday morning, I stood outside on my balcony overlooking my pond-home and noticed that the water was…moving? I looked a little closer and I realized that no, it wasn’t the water moving. There were fish. Swimming in the flood pond. There were literally fish swimming inside of my house, because the flood had caused the stream in the backyard and the house to become one entity. I wade around for a little bit and realize that not only are there fish everywhere, we even have a crab that’s dug itself a little niche underneath the stairs. Furthermore, my cat, who I’m still not sure if I’m allergic to or not, has taken to inhabiting the second floor of the house because she’s terrified of the water. This would be fine with me if she didn’t break into my store of socks and pretend like they were all chew toys and chewed holes in all of them before proceeding to hide them under my bed. If she didn’t serve the purpose of being the only semi-competent rat-catcher in the house, I would have long hurled her little calico body into the blazing sun of Cambodia.

Why semi-competent? Because there are still rats here. Not as many as there would be without the calico devil, but they’re here. Running through the rafters, shitting all over the place, befriending the bats who also happen to live in my house…sometimes I honestly feel like Mowgli from the Jungle Book because of the menagerie of critters I co-habitate with. Welcome to life in Cambodia, Christine. Did you think it was going to be easy? Hell no.

There is some solace to be gathered from this, however. I now have a great excuse to be able to wear my ultra-comfortable shower flip flops everywhere. Khmer professional dress? Sorry, I can’t walk through my home without soaking everything from ankle down so shower shoes are all you’re going to get from this gal. More than the shower shoes privilege, though, is the great honor of watching how Cambodians deal with animals. The cats are quite keen to do anything to stay out of the water so they’ve taken to climbing the windowsills attempting to escape into the dry haven my grandparents have set up for themselves. This greatly displeases my grandpa, and today I got to witness him stick a fist through the window and punch the cat, yowling, into the watery abyss below.

Later, at dinner, (mind you, we are eating outside, so our ankles are dragging through the murky flood water as we chew) the cats jumped onto our table in hopes of amending both their hunger and their constant dampness and an enraged grandma stretches out her wicked backhand and sweeps both of them, yowling again, into the water.

It’s not just my family that has a unique way of dealing with animals, though. Wednesday, my language group and I were studying at the wat (pagoda; it’s a religious building where people go to pray and monks live in the surrounding buildings). I have studied there once before and had the great pleasure of meeting the wat sow. She is gigantic and has a cleft hoof so she kind of walks with a limp while peeing and shitting everywhere. Once in awhile she’d like to mess with us and get really close, oinking and snorting, sniffing at feet and chewing on unsuspecting shoes, while we reacted with screams of fear/awe and started running in the opposite direction. Usually she would lose interest and go away within a few minutes, allowing us to proceed with our studies.

This time, though, she sniffed at Bill’s shoe and then proceeded to lie down right underneath our table. This table is the only table inside of the wat that’s big enough for a language group so we were all standing around timidly eyeing the sow and wondering if we could resume the use of our table without either her excrement or fondness for notebook paper disrupt us. The monks saw this and after getting their fair share of laughter in, one of them, maybe about 15 in age, walks over to the sow carrying what I presume to be the sow-beating stick. He strolls over nonchalantly and when he was right behind her, whacks her hard with the stick. She scrambled up squealing bloody murder and trots off away from the table. We thought this would be the end of it but the monk continued to stroll after her and beat her several more times with the sow-beating stick like it was no big deal.

Other news: the mini-flood has since dried up, and I am currently sitting in the comfort of the Mekong Hotel in Kampong Cham about to embark on a week-long site visit trip. We got our permanent sites (read: where I’ll be spending the next TWO YEARS!) today, and I am going to Kampot Province, Teuk Chhu district. It’s about 15 km north of Kampot town, which means I’m a short 20km from the GULF OF THAILAND. Google map it. And then imagine you were me. And then come visit me!

Oh, and another short note on letters: everyone else has been makin’ like Glen Coco and getting four candy canes every mail day and I have yet to get anything but the SD card from Stephen. Step it up! In return, I shall say a few more prayers in your direction next time I’m at the wat. Hugs and kisses!

August 28, 2010 Posted by | Training, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Take off that red shirt

First things first: I am safely in Cambodia. It is hot, and I’ve pretty much resigned to permanent stickiness–a combination of humidity, sweat, and insect repellent.

So far we’ve been keeping pretty busy with orientation and training, and it will only continue to get busier, especially after we move into our host families’ homes on Tuesday. We also won’t be getting any internet there, so I’m pretty sure this blog is going to be somewhat neglected until training is over. On the bright side though, we DO get electricity. Isn’t that the greatest piece of news you’ve ever heard?

Today in training we went over some crucial life skills, such as how to wipe the nether regions with one’s hands after relieving oneself in the bathroom. In some places (some lucky places, where there is running water), there is a “butt blaster” (so coined by one of the K2 trainers) that somewhat resembles a kitchen sink sprayer. You aim that guy at your butt, spray, and rid yourself of any residual excrement. Afterward, you try to shake off any excess water but your bum is still going to be a little bit dripping wet–too bad. Wet spots on the seat of the pants are so in right now. If you’re out of running water range, you simply take a small potful of water out of the communal water reservoir and splash at your ass with the water. It will take some getting used to, but I can safely say at this point I have already successfully hand-wiped twice, and have had the ceremonial wet spot to show for it.

Today in training we also discussed dress code. Something you might not know is that we’ve been separated from most of our luggage since we left San Francisco. All we were told was to pack a small bag filled with three or four outfits to last us until we are reunited with luggage and are ready to move in with the training host family. What they didn’t tell us was that we needed three or four DRESS outfits, to wear to work, so ya girl as usual packed three white tshirts and my stretchy pants. I had one dress outfit, though, because I knew that we were supposed to look nice when we stepped off the plane.

And yes, that one dress outfit has lasted me four days, sweat and grime and all. No big deal. I’m pretty sure that is the reason why there is a small radius of empty space around me wherever I sit, but whatever. No big deal.

In addition to having collars and not wearing tshirts and jeans, there are other guidelines too. Nothing see through, make sure the hem of your shirt falls low enough to constantly cover your belly even when your hands are raised, tuck your shirt in, skirt must cover knees, no loud prints, no low-cut shirts, etc.

Also: make sure you don’t wear bright red, because it’s seen as flashy and showy and somewhat suggestive.

What color was my shirt for these past four days? Bright red. Maybe that’s why I was getting all those stares as I walked down the street. Nothing like taking a running start into integrating into my Khmai community!

And as for the title of this post? “Take off that red shirt” is mostly a Cal gameday chant where we show our blue and gold pride by heckling anyone wearing red (and for those who don’t understand why, our biggest rivalries are with Stanfurd and USC, where red is a school color at both). I am a Cal fan for life, and this is not the end of the Cal pride that will be making its way into this blog…so get ready!

July 24, 2010 Posted by | Training | 1 Comment

Officially a Peace Corps Trainee

Today was hard.

Woke up early, had the last of Mom’s Home Cooking that I’ll eat for the next few years, drove through traffic to LAX, made it through security barely on time to board plane, sat down, watched plane take off–

And then I bawled. For about 40 straight minutes. They were inconsolable, heaving sobs that, try as I freakin’ might, just could not hold back.

The last 20 minutes of the flight I forced myself to stop because I wanted to look presentable at staging and I didn’t want my cohort to think that I’m just an overlarge infant hiding behind a tough girl shell (also because I barely noticed they were showing Big Bang Theory on in-flight entertainment and I wanted to watch).

I met up with a few other trainees at the airport and we made our way to the hotel where we had staging. Which, really, should just be renamed “waiting”. Waiting in line to turn in forms, waiting for passports, waiting for boring speeches and group exercises to be over. During which, I counted the number of males and females in our group. There are approximately 54 of us going, and about 26 of them are male–a pretty even gender split, which is definitely not what I was expecting. A few people got sent home before even making it out of staging. There was a girl who fractured her patella a few days ago and was deemed medically unfit, a girl who quit without telling anyone, and a girl who fainted and got ambulanced out of the hotel. And a guy who I guess missed his flight, because he’s joining us tomorrow.

That’s what I should have done. I should have missed my flight so that I could skip all the boring parts of today.

After staging we went and withdrew our Peace Corps allowance (about $120 to cover travel expenses and food from now until we land in Phnom Penh on Thursday) and most of us went to dinner at Johnny’s Joynt, a pastrami-corned beef-barbecue beef sandwich/dinner place on Geary and Post that was once featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. I got the day’s special, which was oxtail with pasta. It was okay. Kind of tasted like really soggy ribs on top of really soggy pasta.

Tomorrow we’re flying out of SFO to Hong Kong. Our flight leaves at 1:20pm. We’re leaving the hotel at 8:30. It takes this long because of all our baggage and getting through security. Everyone else brought so much stuff and is telling everyone else how they were barely under the luggage weight limit. The limit is 100 pounds, split between two bags. I only have 40. I hope this is something I’ll be relieved about rather than regret, but it’s probably the latter because I’m imagining what it’ll feel like when I realize I’ve forgotten something really important.

And lastly before I forget: contact information has been updated. I have a phone number now! Please don’t call until Friday, though–that’s when the physical phone will actually be delivered into our hands.

Next time I update this I will be in Asia. I can’t decide if I’m excited or nauseated.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | Preparing to Leave, Training | Leave a comment