Monday, February 21, 2011

Maps and Parties

The world map is done!! Well, ALMOST done.

The holdup is trying to find a person to write the names of the countries in Khmer. Although I could write them in English I feel it will not help any of the students or staff members at Romeak Hek High School become more geographically literate. And they really do not know anything about geography.

I spend a lot of time in my school’s library – especially lately - as I’ve been finishing up on the map. When teachers or students come in I nearly always ask them to point to Cambodia on the map. I’ve had people point to a country in Africa, South America, and one person even pointed to China. Results are equally frightening when I ask them where the United States is. Rarely, if ever, does anyone point to the correct country. And when shown which country on the map IS Cambodia they always look very dejected, and often exclaim at how small it is.

This is why I gave permission yesterday for my English Club students draw a four foot map of Cambodia right next to the world map. I admit I was a little selfish of the world map. I had a few of my club’s students help me paint some of the larger countries, but the majority of the work was done by me. The map turned out fairly good (although I still can’t muster the energy to draw all the island countries in the South Pacific) but I am racked with guilt for not letting the students do the map themselves. So now they have their own map project and couldn’t be more excited. And I am happy because I know that Europe’s countries are, for the most part, in the right place.

February is nearly over which means my birthday is just around the corner. Surprisingly my host family asked me about two months ago if they could throw me a birthday party. I thought, sure, why not? So, this Thursday, I’ll have my first and only Cambodian birthday party. I’ve already been promised some duck meat, num ban chalk (Cambodian noodles), rice wine, and music. A few weeks ago my host dad sat down with me at the table and started talking about the party. He told me about all those things that he would get for the party but that he would need me to take care of my cake.

A cake. Easy. Right?

Only not in rural Cambodia.

In Romeas Hek we actually do have a family that supplies weddings, and other celebrations of the well-to-do families of our district, with cakes. I’ve had one of these cakes. And to put it lightly, they taste like chemical throw up. I will admit they ARE pretty but I’m fairly sure there is nothing in them that would make my birthday a sweet one.

Luckily for me there is a French restaurant in Phnom Penh that bakes cakes and packages them so they can not only travel but also SURVIVE without being refrigerated (there’s no frosting on them). So last week, when I had a dentist appointment in Phnom Penh, I picked up four of these cakes. As each cake is supposed to serve 10 people – and we are expecting 40 – I hope it will be enough.

This upcoming weekend I hope to celebrate again with some of my fellow volunteers in the big city as well as watch the Academy Awards. For the first time in my life I have watched every single one of the nominated films for Best Picture. Thank you, Cambodian Black Market, for making this possible.

Poop Patrol

In Peace Corps you come to terms with many things. And some things you may never come to terms with. For me, the risk of parasites has always been a pervading worry in my mind. Not a trip to the bathroom has gone by without me inspecting my poop in the toilet; a very sad, but true, fact of life.

I eat a large quantity of bean sprouts here – mostly they come in my morning soup although lately my host sister has been making stir fry with them. These sprouts are sometimes over 2 inches long and in their transparent and whitish color, it makes them hard distinguish whether or not they are parasites. Standing over the squat toilet, staring and scrutinizing over your poo can really make you crazy. It was a particular day last week- with some very questionable looking poops- that I became very worried. And no matter how long I stared at them, poked them with a stick, or swirled them around in the bowl, I couldn’t come to a concrete conclusion.

I thought about my options. I could put it in a Ziploc bag and take it with me to Phnom Penh the following week. Gross. I could touch it and compare its consistency with that of a bean sprout. NO WAY. So time wore on. And time in a mosquito filled bathroom feels like eternity. As each minute passed, I was increasingly becoming more anxious about the whole thing. Finally I made the decision to bring my host mother into the bathroom for her opinion. My host mother is a nurse, so I didn’t think it would be too weird to ask her to look at my poop, and as my host mother I’m fairly certain she is used to my eccentricities by now.

Now this is not a normal thing in Cambodian culture – and I have no idea what she thought when I invited her to go to the bathroom with me. When we arrived and I showed her the contents of the bowl, she looked at me with this look of disgust… and curiosity(?)… right before she grabbed the water bucket and flushed my excrement evidence down the toilet. I was a bit shaken up after all this – I mean – wasn’t she taking this seriously? I could be hosting a parasite party in my body RIGHT NOW! After we left the bathroom and went out to the table under the house (where the rest of my host family was sitting) she asked me what I had eaten in Phnom Penh. I said Chinese food. And then she looked into my eyes and asked me if I had eaten any American food.

I must admit, after my Phnom Penh trips I usually come back to site with some major stomach problems. It always worries my host family but then I usually just blame it on the fact that my stomach “no longer recognizes American food”. They laugh and then look relieved that they had not, in some way, inflicted dysentery on me.

This time I got a bit upset that she didn’t believe me. That and because she thought I had somehow ingested a three inch long parasite without my knowledge. I mean, it takes awhile for those things to get that long, right?

Since then, I have kept up with the poop patrol. I haven’t found any other evidence of parasites at play – which makes me happy – and a bit concerned that maybe I’m not looking closely enough. I’ve read enough frightening things on the internet (they can get into your brain! And lungs!) that I will keep up my duty with diligence. Now that I’ve been here over a year and had enough false calls (what do you mean my teeth are perfect? I swear I have a cavity right here!!) that only time will tell.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Five months left? Future plans??

After rereading my blog post “Initial Reactions”, I have a few things to say…

First and foremost, it feels like I wrote that post only yesterday... not over a year ago. Secondly, most of those things I wrote about - namely my anxiety to move into a host family and my understanding of the culture – were in the most part correct. Those few months of training were the hardest I’ve had to go through – and I would never want to go through that again. Ever.

Having been thrown the question of “so what exactly ARE you doing over there?” more than once, I suppose now is the time to carefully write out what I have been doing all the way out here in SE Asia besides the obvious - surviving. Specifically, it is time to finally write down what I will do and DO IT. With only five months left I hope putting this "To-Do" list on such a public forum will give me some more incentive to see things through. So ...I expect all of you to hold me accountable for the things mentioned below.

I have laid it out in an easy to read format (bullets) so that you may peruse at your discretion.

- English/Leadership Club: Although I have been absent recently due to GRE testing and preparation as well as two New Year celebrations (Western and Chinese), I am throwing myself into it this next week – starting with essay writing. The students in the club requested that I teach it to them – starting with paragraphs- and so I plan on doing that for as many weeks as it takes. The leadership aspect of the club has been a harder subject to breach. My hope is to secretly teach them ethics, speaking, and things like that through the guise of essay writing.
- Library: Finishing the world map (finally) and getting the library into some kind of organized system. I’ve also been made aware of some grant money I can apply for that would help in getting some much needed, albeit expensive, items like a white board and reference books.
- Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Health camp? Still a big question mark as we wait to see if we qualify for grant money… cross your fingers :)
- Studying for the GREs. I recently took them in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and could be much happier with the score I received. I hope to take them again sometime in the spring before they change the test again (for the umpteenth time). (Side note, when I told my co-teachers of my disappointment they asked if I offered some corruption to the test givers. When I said no, they just shook their heads and laughed. I still don’t know if they were telling a joke or being sincere. I assume the latter).
- Teaching. I have been doing a lot less of this recently though as my co-teachers seem to be on perpetual hiatus. For example, Chinese New year was celebrated this week and when I showed up to teach I was surprised to find most of the teachers and students gone. Some other teachers told me it was because of the New Years celebrations. Everyone seems to be Chinese on Chinese New Year. Here’s hoping to better attendance these last few months.
- Cleaning my room and washing my clothes. It takes enough time, and is such a pain, that it warrants at least an entire day of my week. Sad but true.
- Planning for the future? With the post-Cambodia future within sight, I find myself spending more of my hours at site thinking about those months following the end of my service. If any of you know of someone who would like to hire me from September/October 2011 until the summer 2012 – I am all ears. I have lots of skills such as… mosquito swatting, washing clothes by hand, and cussing in Cambodian. Resume available by request.

Also, one of my good friends - who is also a fellow volunteer but with Volunteer Service Abroad aka VSA (New Zealand's verson of the Peace Corps) has been volunteering at the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights (CCPCR) for over a year now. CCPCR is an amazing and much needed shelter for women and children who have been, or are in danger of being, trafficked. Not only does it provide shelter to these women and girls but helps fund their education and professional training. Unfortunately their funding will dry up this month and so she and some people back in New Zealand and the United States (Thanks Mom!) are trying to raise a bit of money to see them through a few more months. To get more information about the center you can go to and to donate please visit If you wish to donate please note that the currency is in New Zealand dollars and not USD.