Thursday, May 22, 2008

New pix from the field

Things have been hectic at the office lately trying to get our research wrapped up and our pilot off the ground before the school year comes to a close.

Thankfully, I was able to escape report-monotony twice in the past couple of weeks to observe some of our programs in action.

Some pix here.

More soon on the English class I'm teaching, my new responsibilities at the Buddhism and Society Development Association (BSDA), my trip over the bamboo bridge, various existential crises and more.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Vignettes in celebration of friends and fun

A couple more pix here.

It's a beautiful Saturday morning, there's a breeze on my balcony, I just had a bowl of oatmeal with mangoes and a cup of coffee from my Vietnamese drip, and I'm quite content.

Don't really feel like writing about work at the moment as I've been in it up to my ears. So instead, I'll talk about the varied, random, adhoc social scene I've been part of over the past month and a half. This has been a month of parties and fun and so far, it's been a kaleidoscope of ages, nationalities, cultures, and personalities. Because there are so few people very much like me, I've found myself hanging out with groups that you might not see together in any other context.

I must say that I'm very glad that I don't live in Phnom Penh -- having been there one weekend, I can say it's absolutely lovely to visit, but it seems too close to the same kind of thing I'm used to. The "NGO scene" and the travelers that pass through are certainly colorful and more international that I might get on a Saturday night in San Francisco, but at the same time, they all seem to be the same young 20-something idealistic young professional types that I'm accustomed to seeing and socializing with (no offense to any of you, my dear, dear friends ;)

So, in celebration of all my new friends, here's a short summary of a couple of my recent social engagements:

An intro to the office -- Khmer noodles and cards
My very first Friday in Kampong Cham, Brigitte, the Dutch volunteer who's since left, invited me over for Noam Ban Chop (Khmer noodles) and a card game. This was my first introduction to many of the staff working in my section and we all had a fun "getting-to-know-you" afternoon, pounding up soup ingredients, slurping down food, playing a hilarious card game called "Take 6" and eating apple beignets.

The crowd here consisted of the two volunteers, Brigitte (in her 30s) and Sally (in her 60s), 5 women Cambodian staff, and one husband.

A soaking at the airstrip
The same weekend, Brigitte & Sally organized a trip out to the old American airstrip just out of town. The three of us were joined by Elaine (the volunteer who's working with me now that Brigitte and Sally have both gone), Elisa a Dutch volunteer in her early 30s who lives on a boat back in Holland and will be stationed in the horrible border town of Poi Pet, and Esther, a British fisheries volunteer in her late 20s who'll be stationed in Battambong.

We enjoyed wine, pringles, and some Cadbury easter eggs I had stashed away, but unfortunately instead of a sunset, we were visited by the first torrential downpour of the season. By the time our tuk-tuks finally arrived to rescue us, we were already soaked "down to the knickers" as the Brits would say. Wet & still hungry, we headed over to Joe's Bar near the river for nourishment and a dance party.

Awkward moments with my landlord
It's tradition for Khmer New Year to spend time with the family, so when the time rolled around, our already bustling household filled to the brim with daughters, son-in-laws, grandchildren, and nephews. On the first evening of the new year, on my way out to the internet cafe, my landlord and a group of other menfolk insisted that I stick around, share a beer, and toast to the new year.

I happily sat down, ready to take part in the new year jollity and meet the family. The group was already well into their 4th or 5th can of Angkor (none of them particularly large guys) which made for a particularly boisterous crowd. Around the table, we had my landlord, two dentists, a military general (apparently a very important man), and a businessman.

The businessman, Mr. Sam was my landlord's nephew. He was the most eager to speak English, so he drove the conversation, asking about where I was from, what I did and why I wanted to come to Cambodia. Every couple of minutes, we raised our glasses and toasted "to health!" Soon, my very happy landlord started to join in, proudly telling me about Mr. Sam's millions. When I expressed my admiration, he went on to reiterate that Mr. Sam was a in the garment industry, and added that he was still single. Eventually it came out that Mr. Sam had travelled extensively in Singapore and in the US and was now in search of a foreign wife. We laughed and my landlord taught me how to say "just joking" in Khmer, but the conversation eventually went on long enough to become slightly uncomfortable even for Mr. Sam, so I excused myself and promised to come back after my dinner for one more drink.

I didn't make it back in time for the promised drink, but the next morning, my landlord was quite abashed, and there's been no mention of Mr. Sam since then.

Volunteers make kebabs
VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) is an organization that brings professionals from around the world over to developing nations to help build capacity in local NGOs -- it's the group that brought Sally, Brigitte, and Elaine to Cambodia. The first 6-8 weeks of a VSO volunteer's life is taken up by training (language, culture, development), and lucky for me, part of this training took place in Kampong Cham which meant a jolly crew to bump around with for a few weeks.

The VSOs-in-training all lived together in a big house in town. The group had a rowdy element -- some heavy drinkers and frequenters of karaoke bars, so I was ready for an exciting night when they invited me over for a BBQ one Sunday in honor of Elaine's birthday and the New Year.

The group was diverse -- 5 young women from Australia, Holland, and Britain ranging from mid-20s to early 30s (including Elisa and Esther), a married couple from Britain, a recent graduate from Canada, four Filipinos, two Ugandans, two middle-aged British men, and two older British ladies (including Elaine). We started off the evening talking Jesus and the phenomenon of "born again Christians" with one of the girls (a staunch Christian herself), ate some delicious kebabs, sang happy birthday to Elaine, then danced the rest of the night away to a joint-playlist made up with 5 "favorites" from each VSO. I was disappointed that no one recognized my songs, but alas, I guess my American taste for the classics (e.g. Paul Simon, Tom Petty, Journey) was lost on the crowd.

Making "Escape Beef"
Rumdourl, Mary and I decided we should have (yet another) small party in honor of Khmer New Year, so we requisitioned Sally's house and began debating the menu. In the end, we didn't decide until the trip to the market that morning -- I made basil tofu and paratha and Rum, Mary, Tiwon and another friend got stuff for "escape beef" and Cambodian omlettes. We prepped everything on the floor in my kitchen and then went over to Sally's to cook.

Escape beef is almost like a Khmer fondue, cooked in a hot pot in the center of the table. The pot is filled with oil, butter, and some prepared sauce of seasoned tofu blended with sugar, salt, and I'm not sure what else. You throw in raw beef with Khmer potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and oyster mushrooms and pull things out as they get done.

We ate once until we were too stuffed to talk, then sat down to a few rounds of the infamous "Take 6" then back to the table for another round of eating.

Three Nepali speakers at one table sets a new record in Kampong Cham
Before she left, Brigitte gave me the card for a Peace Corps volunteer in town. I gave John a ring out of the blue to see if he wanted to meet up for a drink, and he rang me the next week to invite me to dinner with a whole crew. Our dinner at the usual Joe's Bar was highly unusual in that we ended up with three Nepali speakers (and no fluent Khmer speakers!) at the same table. Kurt, my next-door neighbor, now works for the World Food Program, but had originally been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. There, he met his now-wife, Hira, who just came to live with him in Cambodia. The two of them were joined by the ex-English teacher of a friend of Kurt -- a 20-something girl who happened to be visiting from Phnom Penh and brought this teacher along. He, in fact, had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal some 30 years back, and was eager to shake the rust off his skills and practice with Kurt and Hira.

Besides the six of us: John, Kurt, Hira, 20-something, ex-teacher, and me, there was also a Maryknoll catechist (priest-in-training) from Chicago who was stationed in Kampong Cham

At dinner, I sat between John (who told me about losing 40lbs since coming to Cambodia), and Kurt (who shared the story of how he and Hira met... very romantic).

Dance-a-thon in a bar on a boat in Phnom Penh
The last weekend of April, I headed out to Phnom Penh to check out the city, stock up on groceries, and meet some friends-of-friends who were living and working there. The first night, I met up for happy hour with Lauren who I had met by email through a friend of a friend in San Francisco. I brought along Elaine and Sally and Lauren brought Rachel (her roommate), Andrew (a recent grad from NY teaching English at the Royal University), and Joe (a Brit who had spent the previous year or so leading adventure trips in the jungles of Malaysia and South America).

After the first successful night, we decided to meet up again the next night to go and hear a friend of Joe's DJ at a local bar. After being completely soaked in another downpour (early rainy season!) we took a few drinks along the river, then headed to the bar, Pontoon, which was on a boat out in the river. The club was full of hippie travelers and young-ish NGO types, and we enjoyed each other's company and danced like crazy until 2am. Achaya, the DJ, invited us back to an afterparty at his house (next door to the guesthouse where I was staying) so we headed off to wind down the night to good music and good company.

Samat throws me an eel soup welcome party
Samat is the person in the office who is always well-dressed, always madeup, and who is (according to my sources) an avid dancer and karaoke-star. Last Friday morning, Samat invited me to join her for dinner after work as a "welcome to Cambodia" get-together. I happily agreed, and after work, we headed off together on our motos to the Eel Soup restaurant. Needless to say, this outdoor restaurant has one specialty.

The 6-or-so of us from the office sat in a small hut, and the server came over with a wooden bucket of burning charcoal. on top, they placed a ceramic pot, into which they poured a delicious-looking brew of soup, eel, and other unknown goodies. As the pot boiled over, we threw in a plates of veggies and waited a few minutes before ladling it all out over our small bowls of noodles. Chnganh nah!

Paratha and Curry at Sally's goodbye party
Sally left just yesterday and there have been a flurry of going away events in her honor over the past week. The official party at her house consisted of the usual crowd from the office, plus her landlord and her 5 boys. Yet another eating extravaganza followed by cards.

Village mass and dinner with Rodrigo and the Bishop of Kampong Cham
After meeting us all at Joe's bar that night, Rodrigo decided to invite us all over to take a tour of the Catholic compound and have dinner with the priests. He also invited us all to check out a mass in a nearby village -- I was the only one that decided to go, so I left a little early from work to meet him at the compound and drive out to the village. The mass was held at this small retreat center in a village nearby to Kampong Cham. The building itself was a raised house with the typical peaked roof and shutters on the sides. Just as we arrived, the thunder began, the breezes started to blow and the sky went dark, so we quickly scurried inside. Seated at the front of the church was a statue in the style of the seated Buddha, but representing Jesus. Behind the statue were intricately carved shutters, which let in the last light of day. Since there was only one battery powered light-bulb inside, the rest of the congregants read their hymnal by light of small candles. I couldn't follow most of the content of the mass in Khmer, but I knew the general order of events and could share "peace be with yous" at the appropriate moment.

After mass, we headed back to town in the pouring rain. The Bishop of Kampong Cham, a friendly older Indian man, drove the truck. One fellow's moto got a flat, so Rodrigo helped lift it into the back of our truck and he rode huddle back there back to town. We dropped everyone off, then headed back to a delicious dinner at the church compound. When we arrived, Kurt, Hira, and John were already there. We sat down to eat -- the Bishop, Rodrigo, Kurt, Hira, John, a Korean priest-in-training, and a Korean Maryknoll volunteer. The bishop told us the amazing story of the "first Catholic" of Kampong Cham, and we discussed cooperation between the many Christian sects here in town.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Office

Got into work about three-till eight today, parked my moto, exchanged hellos with my buddy Sopheoun and the administrative assistant and got down to work. Folks trickled in until about 8:10, about half the staff's around at any one time, with the rest out in the field of at some meeting-or-other. It's customary to kick our shoes off just inside the front door, next to the mail cubbies and the water dispenser and go around barefoot in the office. There's no air-conditioning, but the standing fans work just fine and help keep the flies away, except for the few hours per week when we lose power.

The office is located on the grounds of the Provincial Teacher Training College (PTTC), across from the Regional Teacher Training College (RTTC) where they train upper secondary school teachers (grades 9-12). Also on the same grounds are a primary school and a special institute for deaf and blind children.

We've got a good-old squat toilet over-around the side, which we keep padlocked presumably so the teachers-in-training can't make a mess of it. They have another public toilet right beside, but the school-children, alas, aren't so lucky and either have to hold it, or find a suitable tree.

The campus is a mix of extreme fastidiousness and disorder. The other day, we were instructed to park our motos facing away from the building because it looked "untidy" the other way. On the other hand, the path leading down the grounds from the main road is completely demolished (think asphalt someone decided to jackhammer and then just leave there). Roundabout noon, little boys and girls collect wood fallen from the trees in the compound to bring home to cook the lunch time meal. Later in the day, a few cows and the occasional goat keep me company just outside my window.

The office consists of four main sections, the Girls Education Initiative (GEI), where I am, Child Friendly Schools (CFS), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and Educational Support for Children in Underserved Populations (ESCUP). GEI and CFS each have about 10 folks who sit together in two workrooms on one side of the office. Our room has windows with wooden shutters that lock on the top and bottom, so you get to clamber up on the desks each time you want to open or shut them properly. On the corner, next to GEI, you have management/administrative. Opposite all that, are two small cubicle rooms for finance and data-entry and the SBP office sandwiched in between. ESCUP has a separate office just around the corner.

There's a large digital clock mounted in the center of the office between the two sides which marks the time and lets us all know when it's noon and time for our lunch break. Every day, religiously at 12pm, the whole office shuffles out and the doors are locked. Folks ride home for food, a shower, and a nap, and then come back at 2 to finish out the day. The long break makes the day seem like two days since you've always got those two chunks. But every day, at 5 'o clock on the dot, we're out the door again. If there's a such thing as a rushed deadline (haven't seen it yet), I guess it's dealt with at home, because if your computer's not off and your shoes nearly on at 5:10, you're liable to be carried out rather unceremoniously.

A group of three monks and three Buddhist priests came and blessed the office at Khmer New Year; they chanted and prayed for an hour and a half to improve our chances at receiving donor support in the next year. We cleared an entire room, set up a special altar with incense, mini-pagodas and small offerings of food, and nearly the whole staff came. At the end, the monks threw candy and longans and flowers at us all. It was a beautiful ceremony but unfortunately for me, the main bit took place in the CFS section, and not my own, which means we only got the whatever luck was leftover near the end when the head monk went from room to room.

More to come on what I actually do at work, other than watch cows and pray.