Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jess's new adventures on the farm

I moved back to the US in December 2008. After 3 months in the hometown, I moved to a small biointensive, organic farm off the coast of Washington state to learn about how to grow things. You can check out the new digs here.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reflections: Neither in nor out

In Cambodia I was an insider-outsider. As a half-asian person with dark-ish skin, I was often mistaken for part-Cambodian. I was both "on the inside," but also always the "other." People assumed I would know how to eat certain foods (at least more likely to "take" to things that my whitey-white counterparts), people were receptive and encouraging of my attempts at Khmer. They tried to listen because I looked like I might be able to speak.

It's funny how being "ethnic" can help you avoid some of the idolization of westerners. Well... you're barang, but not realllllllly. I still remember when a student at the local business university would not believe I was American -- "no, you can't be! you're chinese!"

Friday, December 12, 2008

New Toilet Feelings

It's 4:50 am on December 12. I'm in a lovely hotel room at the oh-so-trendy Blue Lime in Phnom Penh and I can't sleep because I'm too hyped up about flying home today.

My mum calls me "new toilet girl" after a Chinese saying about the type of person who has to be the first to use the new latrine hole once it's been dug. As much as I want to be sad about leaving, my predominant feeling is excitement. Not excitement to leave, but a deep thrill thinking about moving on to WHAT'S NEXT.

Things I'll miss: #1 Getting to know Cambodians

Back in May, when the sun blared down and the water in the river was low, but rising, I took my new bike out for an afternoon over the bamboo bridge. The bridge is a seasonal feature of Kampong Cham. It's built at the beginning of the dry season each year, and each year, as the water level rises and the waters come, the bridge washes away and the island's residents have to fall back on the ferry to get themselves and their goods to market.

The island is an oasis. It is made of the fertile red soil for which Kampong Cham is famous. Outside practically every house are slender trees dripping with the weight of heavy pumelo orbs. Bananas are also in abundance, those tiny sweeter-than-sweet yellow fingers. The rice fields are a piercing green and even the cows are nobler than some in Cambodia. There's very little traffic other than a few motos here and there, but the island is mostly silent and idyllic.

That afternoon, I biked around the perimeter of the island, about 10 kilometers. The small space between my fender and tires grew thick with red mud and my feet and ankles were caked completely. Near the end of the trail, a boy came out, hands waving to stop me. "Where are you going? Where are you from? Are you alone?" And then finally, "Come in, come in, my family wants to meet you."

For the next two hours, I sat with Sophy and his family talking with them about their work out in the rice fields, but mostly answering questions in my broken Khmer about my own life, and life in America. They patted my stomach and and asked me if I could cut their hair short too. Sophy asked me about scholarships to study abroad and his aunties admonished me for riding all alone, for not wearing long sleeves, for not wearing earrings (because they would be so pretty!)

When I finally left, they made me promise to come back to visit. Sophy got my phone number and started sending me "i miss you" text messages every so often.

Despite some rough moments, I have found so much openness and compassion here in Cambodia.

At first I was tempted to accredit people's friendliness to curiousity. "What's up with the foreigner?" But then I see the way that people share babies in a crowded car, or the way that strangers talk like friends in the marketplace, and I see that this kind of personal connection is the norm in Cambodia.

I'm going to miss smiling at random people on the street. I'm going to miss calling people sister and uncle. I'm going to miss random belly pats and friendly advice from total strangers. I'm going to miss Cambodia.

Kids do the monkey dance at Wat Nokor

One of my good friends in Cambodia is Vandong the monk, a young, amazingly charismatic man who started an organization to help the most vulnerable people in his hometown of Kampong Seam.

Just a couple of years ago, BSDA was run on nothing but the strength of Vandong's goodwill and the free time of a couple of other monk volunteers. Now, thanks to his cult of personality, the organization has an office, a computer lab, English classes, two buildings for the children, a full stage for the kids' dancing performances, a car, a tuk-tuk, money for programs, and more volunteers.

Vandong is a go-getter. He sees something that needs doing and he finds a way. It's not always methodical, and not always perfect, but he works tirelessly and has an uncanny knack for drawing others to his cause. Vandong and I met soon after I came to Cambodia when he was leading a ceremonial New Year blessing of our office. The outgoing volunteers warned me that Vandong would find a way to "suck me in" to help with BSDA's programs, and they were right. There was just no refusing Vandong. I don't know if was the bright orange robe, or his dazzling smile that was more mesmerizing, but whatever it was, it drew me back to the BSDA offices week after week to help read over donor reports, write new grants, and lend Vandong a sympathetic ear.

When people came to Kampong Cham looking for volunteer opportunities, I sent them over to Vandong. Les Frenchies did a presentation for Vandong's staff about the medical effects of drugs for their drug rehabilitation program and my couchsurfer extraordinaire helped train the English teachers on making lesson plans.

BSDA runs a variety of programs, including life skills like sewing, mushroom growing and pig raising, drug rehabilitation programs, drug-use prevention, and some scholarships. But by far my favorite program is the program to teach Khmer music and dance to orphans and vulnerable children. The kids are practice with a professional teacher and perform for the community and occasionally for tourists. In the process, they gain confidence, self-esteem, and a foothold into the broader community.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Things I'll miss: #2 Cooking with friends

I love the way that my Cambodian friends seem to come together in a kitchen. Starting at the market around 7 am, watching them in action is like observing the industrious and mysterious workings of a beehive or colony of termites. First someone comes up with a plan. What will we make today? Once the plan is agreed, everyone spreads out in their own separate directions to the meat stalls, to the dry goods, to the green grocers to collect the requisite ingredients. It's not at all clear who's buying what or how much, but somehow, when we reconnoiter back at the house, all the ingredients are there in perfect ratio.

At this point, I pull out my pad and paper and start to take assiduous notes -- what's that vegetable? fry for how long? but can you substitute...? -- while the others are in a flurry of chopping, peeling and pounding all around me. As at the market, the flow is remarkable. At any one time, there can be 5 to 10 pairs of hands in the mix yet it seems like the old adage about "too many cooks" just doesn't hold true here. There are 4 dishes going on at once, and the person peeling the shallots seems to know just how many to do and where they all belong. Neighbors come and go, lending a hand, squatting to pound some fish, falling seamlessly into the action for a few minutes before heading home to cook their own meal. There's gossip, laughing, tasting, scolding, and then miraculously, there's lunch.

We spread a mat on the floor, dish out the rice, and partake. Generally the eating portion is done in a fraction of the time it takes to prepare -- no longer than 20 minutes, and then the dishes are swept away, the mat rolled, and each one to her house and a nap. The cooking is obviously the main event of our "small parties," the eating merely a polite afterthought.

I'm going to miss this camaraderie that came from chopping, frying, and learning alongside all my friends.

Things I'll miss: #3 Raja

My little kitty has new parents now. The lovely Muoy and her fiance John have adopted Raja and she left to live with them on Tuesday last week. It was a difficult transition, but Raja's beginning to settle into her new life now, eating and drinking and back to her usual playful antics.

Though I came my kitty in a manner somewhat against my will, I grew to love my feisty feline companion and miss her like the dickens already. My favorite thing was when she would crawl up on my while I was sleeping and fall asleep across my neck like a thick furry scarf.

Bye Raja!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Things I'll miss: #4 Going to the market

Market set-up in the wee hours of morning

Chicken lady

Beansprouts, tofu, and noodles

My home goods vendor

Marketing was scary at first in Kampong Cham. My first week in the city, I subsisted largely off of packs of dried ramen, not out of laziness, but because I couldn't muster the courage to get myself to the market. My first Saturday alone in my house, before I had my bicycle or motorcycle, I ventured out to catch a moto to the market. Would he understand where I wanted to go? How would I get back? Would I be cheated at the market? How would I endure the staring and the titters? I headed downstairs, out to the street, only to scamper back inside and boil some water for another noodle lunch.

Sunday was a little better. I managed to wave down a moto man outside my house and made it all the way to the market. That first day, I bought (what else?) some more dried noodles, some eggs and some vegetables before my courage gave out and I retreated back to home base to plan my next mission.

Each trip I became bolder. My Khmer lessons centered mostly around learning words for food and for bargaining and as my vocabulary improved, so did my confidence. By the first month, I was bargaining for meat, finding flour, picking out coconuts. When I got my moto, I learned where to park and how to pay the attendant. I came to recognize faces and became a regular at certain stalls. I had a place for housewares, for chicken, beef, pork, fish, eggs, tofu and beansprouts, veggies in the late afternoon.

Beside my staples, I was always discovering something new. The market had all kinds of treasures -- huge sacks of dried lentils, gooey, steaming coconut cakes, dried flattened bananas, sausages brought in from Siem Reap, dried fish in at least 30 different forms, stinky shrimp paste -- and these things changed month-to-month. You only had to seek out the fruit stalls to see the degree to which the market was ruled by the seasons. My first months were ruled by juicy yellow mangoes and rambutans. Then came the custard apples and famous bright red longans. Pumelos began to pop up with more frequency around July and pomegranates appeared soon thereafter, followed by tiny orange tangerines. Through it all, dragonfruit, bananas, and pineapple were mainstays.

Going to market was a ritual that made me feel part of the thrum of Cambodian life.

My eyes loomed large during my first visit to the Lucky Supermarket in Phnom Penh. Neatly packaged apples in styrofoam and plastic wrap, a-la Trader Joe's. Ice cream and yogurt and Prego pasta sauce and Cornflakes. Olive oil and Camembert and lunch meats, all within the confines of the one air-conditioned building. An entire chocolate section. Dark, light, hazelnuts and almonds. More than almost anything else in Phnom Penh, the supermarket was a place that brought me back to the Western world, with all its dazzling choice and convenience, and with all of its air-conditioned, odorless sterility.

And now I'm back to that world for good. Farmers markets are the closest I'm going to get to recreating the market experience, and they don't really come close.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Things I'll miss: #5 Clouds

In my opinion, Cambodia's landscape can get pretty boring. The majority of the country is flat as an ironing board (the coast and the Cardomom Mountains excepted). The rolling green rice paddies set before a background of tall palms, dotted with cows, and houses perched on stilts -- it can go on and on with little differentiation from Siem Reap to Battambang to Kampong Cham. The people are what give the country character -- the children flying kites or splashing in muddy orange waters, the motorcycle man carrying piglets to market, and the teens in uniform riding in a straight white and navy-blue line 20 km to school.

And then there's the clouds. The clouds redeem the countryside in their unrelentingly, always changing beauty. There are the crisp white cumulus that hang above the paddies, set against the swimming-pool blue skies. The fast-moving wisps that tear overhead before a storm, and the dark grey sheets that drape blanket-like foretelling lightening.

There are the shockingly vibrant clouds at sunrise over a Sra Srang pond in Siem Reap and the mellow pastels of sunset over the river in Kampong Cham.

I'm not sure what meteorological miracle produces the startling effects, but whenever I reached my threshold of plastic pollution or motodup catcalls, I knew I could rely on a view of the sky to calm my nerves and make me appreciate this country.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Things I'll miss: #6 Coffee and condensed milk and grilled pork and rice for breakfast

Rumdourl and I went out for our last breakfast together on Monday morning. Grilled pork and rice at the restaurant just beside my house. All those months living there, and I had never checked it out, mostly because in all the time I've walked or ridden my bike past by the place, I've never seen a single female sit down to eat. But Rumdourl assured me that this place was yummy, so we braved the testosterone and ordered our rice and my coffee.

Sure enough, there were more than the usual share of curious stares. Rumdourl knew half of the people there -- a fact that never fails to surprise me given that Kampong Cham isn't a tiny town (supposedly over 60,000 people) but that didn't stop them from ogling unabashedly and giggling in their somewhat disconcerting leering, but nervous sort of way.

But really, all this is beside the point of what I'm going to miss. Breakfast has always been one of my favorite meals and Cambodians are much the same. If we have an appointment in the field at 8, we arrange to leave at 6, to ensure ample time for a roadside stop for breakfast. And even if we're running late, everything can be postponed to accommodate an hour for a steaming bowl of kway teiouv noodles, khmer donuts with coffee or garlicky pork rice.

I'll miss the food itself -- rice, meat and pickled veg is pretty atypical as western breakfasts go -- but what I think I'll miss more is the mentality that prioritizes breakfast and body over productivity. Sure, it can be irritating when you're running late for a training, but I admire the peace and patience it takes to ignore (or at least postpone) so-called obligations to take care of primary functions first and foremost.