November 21st to the 28th, 2010. It was one weird week.
Not only was it Thanksgiving week and Water Festival in Phnom Penh but one of my best friends and her boyfriend had come to visit me from America.
I came in on Saturday to pick my friends up from the airport and see a little bit of the Water Festival. Water festival is HUGE in Phnom Penh. It is a holiday which celebrates the change in the current of the Tonle Sap River through boat races, fireworks, and lots of free concerts. These boats are massive and hold around 40 to 50 people. It is awe inspiring to see how coordinated the rowers can be in their strokes – when completely synchronized they look more like a mythological sea monster. One fin lifts, the other one strikes the water, one, two, one, two…
I had some misgivings about going to water festival to begin with. The crowds are awful. Some places you can hardly move as there are so many people in front, to the back, and both sides of you. And as a foreigner, you draw attention to yourself and it makes being pick pocketed or targeted for theft that much more of a possibility. Needless to say, I avoided the crowds and mostly stayed away from water festival (when I could).
It was great to see my friends Veronica and Ross and catch up with them after a year of being away. They looked good – a little white to me after being in a country of tan people- but overall healthy and happy (even with the jet lag – or “lack of it”). The next day we made to see Cambodia and good use of their short visit (they were only here a week).
Then I heard about the tragedy. On Tuesday morning I got a call at 2 am from a friend asking if I knew what the incident was that happened in Phnom Penh. As I was no longer there, I really had no idea and quickly set about searching it on the internet. The first few hits were a bit frightening. They spoke of people getting electrocuted on a bridge in Phnom Penh – of women inciting a stampede by running around frantically - and people becoming nervous and causing panic and a stampede when the suspension bridge started swaying. The first estimate of casualties was around 180 people.
It took a few days to sort out what exactly happened that night on the Koh Pich Bridge. Even now, over a week later and with over (or nearly?) 400 people dead, they still do not know where the fault lies. All I can say is that too many people got onto the bridge and when everyone panicked, people died. My host sister from training was actually on the bridge and, luckily, survived. She did have to stay about a week in the hospital as she was having trouble breathing.Now, two weeks later, she says it bothers her to laugh or talk sometimes.
After a tragic start to my friends' visit to Cambodia, we continued on to discover the beauty that makes it the "Kingdom of Wonder" including the beach, Angkor Wat, and Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields. On Thanksgiving we celebrated by eating an amazing Italian dinner at Luna D'autunno in Sihanoukville after asking a handful of restaurants if there was anything going on (i.e. Turkey dinners with the works) in town but, apparently, there is no love for that American holiday there. It all worked out though as the food and wine we had that night was amazingly delicious.
They flew out on the 27th and I went back to site the following day to a very, very busy week. Not only did I need to give a presentation to the Provincial Health Department about Peace Corps (in Khmer) but I had visitors coming to my site and I had to prepare myself for my first half marathon that I was running that Sunday. There was a lot of biking, nail biting, and sleepless nights but I survived the week triumphantly. The two things I was most nervous about (the presentation and the half marathon) went better than I expected. Following the presentation, the doctors and NGO staff said that I, and the other two volunteers who gave the presentation, spoke Khmer very clearly. We were giving the presentation in order to give the NGOs and others involved in health in Svay Rieng an idea of what the Peace Corps does and what we would like to do in regards to health. We were also doing it to help our cause in getting a Girls Health and Leadership Camp underway (something we wish to hold in the provincial town sometime in March next year).
My first half marathon at Angkor Wat was a big question mark when I bussed up to Siem Reap on Friday the 3rd. I had not been able to train the last few weeks before and had no idea if I would even be able to run the entire 13 miles as I had never attempted it before. Luckily, as with all things I build up in my head, it was not as bad as I made it seem. At times during the 2 hours and 8 minutes I was out on the course, I did psych myself out enough to stop and walk.... something I wish I hadn't done now so I would know what my real running time was for those 13 miles. The biggest regret I have was drinking nearly an entire water bottle around the 9K mark... which gave me a wicked side ache at the 10k mark... which led me to walk for over a minute... which then made my muscles cold and heavy and unable to move at the pace I set in the beginning and led me to walk more later in the course. Now I have my sights set on running another one before rainy season starts again:)
After all this running around, biking to and from from the provincial town and site, I still cannot relax. Tomorrow I plan on biking (sore muscles and all)to the provincial town in order to get a data projector from the provincial university so I may be able to (FINALLY) draw a world map on a wall in the school's library. Unfortunately, the University needs it back Friday night for a 7:30 am class on Saturday ... which leaves me with a little over a day to draw the entire world map on the wall of the library. I am hoping, wishing, praying, that everything goes as planned and that when I bike (the 25 miles)into town with the projector on Friday afternoon it will be with the knowledge I, and my students, have brought the world to Romeas Hek High School.
Wish us luck :)