Saturday, February 13, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day Phil! We send you our love from Cambodia!


I returned from Kravanh only to go back to Kravanh the very next day for a Sustainable Cambodia versus Kravanh futbol game (plans change fast in Cambodia). Feeling the team spirit and wanting to spread it, Laura (one of the volunteers) and I woke up early and went to the market to buy green (our team color) fabric to make headwraps for the staff, students, and volunteers. After a breakfast of bai saik jrut (rice with pork) and cafe dtuk dtuk o chow (coffee with fresh milk), we returned to the school and spent the morning cutting fabric to make headwraps and writing sayings on them such as "Go Go SC!" "Win Win SC!" "SC is on fire!" "Best SC!" and "Awesome SC!"

We passed out the headwraps, and our transportation arrived at the school. It was a pick-up truck. We stuffed 30 students into the back and headed to Kravanh.

One of our teachers, Mr. Chenda, offered for me to ride with him in his car, and of course, my eyes still burning from the dust on my moto rides to and from Kravanh, I accepted. I didn't know he was going to let Laura drive (Cambodian driving is nothing like driving in the US, there are no stop signs or traffic lights, the only thing you use to communicate with other drivers is your horn, and you use it a lot), so we were all a little nervous, but she proved to be a good driver. Below is a picture of our view ahead of the dusty road and kids in their pick-up truck.

When we got to the field, there was a lot of drumming, dancing, and cheering. The teachers played first and the game tied. Then the students played, and in a close game, they lost by a point.

We went back to Pursat and shared a hot pot dinner.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Clean shower please

There are so many tasks to be completed around here that I haven't had time to update. I finished writing a grant proposal for The Rotary Club of Calgary to fund university scholarships for our 25 graduating seniors on Tuesday, so fingers crossed, it will be accepted, and we will be sending off another bunch of students to become college graduates.

I had my first Khmer lesson Tuesday night. My teacher, Mr. Paulee, is a motodope (moto driver), and he spent the entire first lesson teaching me how to say 5 sentences. I think I now know what it feels like to be a slow learner, he would say a word, and I would repeat it, he would say it again, and I would repeat, over and over again until I said the word correctly, and then we would move on to the next word, and then back to the start because I would forget how to pronounce the old word. I just keep telling myself that languages are not my gift but to carry on, that I will get better. I learned how to say:

Suosday. Soksabay te? Kyom chmoo Geneva. Kyom mok pee amerit. Kyom cheer nyaa smuck jut. Kyom twakaa cheermoy angkaa SC no Pursat.

Translates to: Hi. How are you? My name is Geneva. I am from America. I am a volunteer. I work for SC in Pursat.

On Wednesday I was off to Kravanh (pronounced Kravine) with the 3H (Health, Hunger, and Humanity) Team to install biosand filters. Kravanh is a district about 1 hour SW of Pursat town by moto. The government has neglected the area because of its former political affiliation with the Khmer Rouge (if you don't know about the genocide it Cambodia, you can read about it here: Sustainable Cambodia partnered with Kravanh in hopes that if we made a strong presence there with wells (see pic below), biosand filters, community ponds, rainwater harvesting, a preschool, and other programs, the government might be encouraged to begin to help there too, and they have, shortly after Sustainable Cambodia built a preschool there, the government built a state school on the very same grounds!

We took a moto to Kravanh. Moto riding is one of the must-have experiences in Cambodia, and it involves a) carrying many more things than you should be carrying b) high speeds and dirt roads (frequently there is so much dust that you can't see the road ahead) c) swerving around cars, other motos, bicycles, buffalo, cows, and dogs!

When we arrived to the village, we started our work on the biosand filters (see pic below). Biosand filters are based on the concept of a traditional slow sand water filter. They are simply concrete containers, enclosing layers of sand and gravel which trap and eliminate sediments, pathogens, and other impurities from the water.

We spent our time in Kravanh painting the biosand filters, labeling them, filtering the gravel and sand, putting the gravel and sand in the biosand filters, getting them to the community members, and teaching them how to use them. I got to practice some of the Khmer I had learned from Mr. Paulee with the villagers. At night, we had a village meeting in which we used the generator (there's no electricity in the villages) to do a powerpoint presentation teaching the villagers how to use the biosand filters and then asked them questions about what we'd taught them. They got prizes such as buckets, soap, and toothbrushes for correctly answering the questions. After, the villagers prepared a meal for us in thanks, and is the Khmer way (eating is very important in Cambodia), we ate.

There were many misadventures on this trip, including getting peed on by a baby girl I was playing with (right after I'd gotten out of the shower), the villagers just laughed and told me that if a baby pees on you, it means you will be very fertile (look out Phil). The villagers also thought it quite funny that barang (foreigner) did not know how to eat a banana. Here, you do not peel a banana from the top (the top being where you pull it off the bunch), but instead from the bottom. I couldn't help but think how stupid they mustvé thought I was, I mean really, who doesn't know how to peel a banana?

And me showering in the Khmer way surely gave the villagers something to talk about. Showering is a community event, and of course, I joined in on it. The shower is a big bucket that sits either in front of or behind the house (see pic below). You use a scoop to pour water on yourself and wash off. The process begins with putting a sarong on over your clothing. Careful not to expose any skin (this is a big no-no in Khmer culture), you then take off your clothes underneath the sarong. To shower, you pour buckets of water over yourself with the sarong on. When you are finished with your shower, you put a towel on top of your sarong and slip the sarong off underneath your towel. Finally, you put your clothes on over your towel, and then you can take off your towel underneath your clothes. There was lots of looking, laughing, and pointing!

Be well, I am!

Friday, February 5, 2010

I'm in Cambodia!

I arrived in Phnom Penh after 24 hours on a plane at around midnight on Thursday. Priya, one of the Sustainable Cambodia staff, met me at the airport and arranged a taxi and guest house for me. The guest house was expensive by Cambodian terms, costing $15 per night. It was a big splurge, last time I was in Phnom Penh I paid just a few dollars a night. Living in luxury, I was gently reminded that you can never get too comfortable in Cambodia, there were loads of mosquitoes that feasted on me, and this sign on my nightstand...

I would highly recommend the book, "Off the Rails in Phnom Penh" if you are interested in the dark side of Cambodia.

I woke up early the next morning and hired a tuk-tuk for the day. My body aching from being contorted into pretzel positions while I was on the plane, we went straight to Seeing Hands Massage, an NGO that trains and employs blind people to give massages. I opted for the "strong" massage, and it was 1 hour of heaven for $6. When the young girl whose hands were kneading out the knots in my neck and back asked me if I would like another hour (surely she knew that I needed it), I had to pass because I was to meet one of my former students at Phnom Penh University.

We arrived at the Foreign Language Institute of Phnom Penh University, and I took a seat under the shady banyon tree and waited for Lyhuong to get out of class. Lyhuong graduated from high school last year and did so well on her government exams, that she received a full scholarship to attend University! Scholarships are something to be celebrated in the US, but they are an even bigger accomplishment in Cambodia, where if you don't have a scholarship and can't pay to go to college, you do not have the option of taking out a loan. I went to English class with her and took a practice test with the class and joined in on the small group activities. Then we parted ways, and I headed to the bus station to catch the bus to Pursat. The only "barang" (foreigner) on the bus,I was on my way to the countryside.

...So much has changed at Sustainable Cambodia since I was here last. The school moved to new grounds with fruit trees, a pond, gardens, a library, and guesthouses for the volunteers. I was so happy to see all of the familiar, smiling faces...and so many new faces, too! Sustainable Cambodia has grown so much! There are now 12 teachers and 400 students at the Sylvia Lasky school and many more teachers at the preschools and at the primary schools in the villages!

When I arrived, a man from UNICEF was here training the staff on how to test the water from the villages. I listened in, and I started ruminating about the importance of clean water. Cambodia is a very wet place during the rainy season, and a very parched place during the dry season. If rain water is collected and stored during the rainy season there should be enough to sustain the people, their animals, and their crops through the dry season. I asked questions about this, and so I learned that Sustainable Cambodia has started a rainwater harvesting program. The Community Development side of Sustainable Cambodia is making large cement containers that collect rainwater. Each one can hold 4000 liters of rainwater. Soon they will be ready to distribute them to the villagers...and that water can be filtered through the biosand clean water for everyone!

Later that night, all of the foreigners went to dinner at Mlop Svay ("Shady Mango") and shared lok lok (beef with ginger and fried potatoes), squid, veggies, and Angkor (so named after Angkor Wat, the temples that Tomb Raiders was filmed in) beer.

Yesterday, I finally got to see Lyhoung, the National Coordinator of Sustainable Cambodia's wife, one of my dearest friends in Cambodia. On my first trip, we spent every day together laughing, eating Khmer food, playing with her children, and practicing English. She is the most beautiful wife mother, and friend, inside and out. We caught up for a long time in her house...but this time was different because she is fluent in English now! It was such a joy to be able to have real, meaningful conversations with her. She now has 5 children, one she calls her "stepson," a child with a difficult home life that she took in. After we talked for a few hours, I went back to my guesthouse to read. Later, she came by my room and asked me if I wanted to go shopping with her. Sitting on the back of her moto with her 8 month old son in my arms, we rode through Pursat. My arms wrapped tightly around him, he looked inquisitively at the motos and people and giggled, while I am sure I increased the number of my forehead wrinkles worrying that he didnt have a helmet on, aggh, it is the Khmer way though, and so I can not waste my time worrying! Lyhuong took me to one of the local spots that families go to relax in the evening, and we walked around and talked. We were quite the hit, as lots of Khmer people asked her about her "barang" (foreigner) friend. Then, sweet, sweet Lyhoung, trying to make feel at home, took me to get a hamburger. Even though I would have preferred Khmer food, I had to get one and made it my dinner. Pictures to follow...

There are 3 other girls here volunteering, one from UF, one from Belgium, and the other from England and 1 man who is from Canada and doesn't live on site with us. They have been filling me in on all of the new things that are happening at Sustainable Cambodia! It is Sunday, our day off. We woke up early today (as I do everyday, it is impossible to sleep in with the stifling heat) and went to one of the street stalls for a breakfast of rice and pork. Mmmm... Then we headed to another open air shop to talk and get our caffeine fix with some iced coffee. Before the heat became unbearable, we rode our bikes to the market to buy rip-off watches (I am lusting for this 80s Caseo digital watch with a calculator on its face and of course a straw hat!) and mangoes (which I, of course, am not eating, but they are the beessttt!), sweet bananas, and ly chee fruit. Tonight we are having some of the students over to watch a movie.

Life is good...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Finding my way...

With my 4th trip to Cambodia quickly approaching, I decided to open up my heart and share my journey with friends and family.

It is hard to capture moments in time, but I am hoping that I will be able to share them as they happen here, with you. It doesn't seem long ago when I first traveled to Cambodia...6 years ago on Semester at Sea. It was then...sharing smiles with the Khmer people, laughing with the children who were trying to scam me for my dollars, and holding on for my life as I tore through Cambodia's capital on the back of a moto...that I knew that I would travel back to Cambodia again...and again. I felt I had so much to give back, and I had found the place that I wanted to pay it forward. At that time, though, I had no idea how Cambodia and its people would change my own life...

Serendipitously, when I returned back to school at UF, I was talking with one of Phil's friends about my trip, and he told me about Sustainable Cambodia, an NGO based right out of my home, Gainesville. I quickly contacted Richard and Susan, the directors of Sustainable Cambodia and spent some time working with them in their US-office and then, a month later, left for Cambodia. Landing at the airport in Phnom Penh, tired after a full 24 hours on an airplane, it was everything I remembered it to be...dusty streets, motos blowing past me every which way, and homeless children with outstretched arms.

I was greeted by a man who worked for Sustainable Cambodia who took me to the volunteer house and then a taxi driver who took me on a bumpy 2 hour ride to Pursat, the province I would be working in. There I was met by the smiling faces and open hearts of the children I would be working with. They took me to the house I would be staying in and introduced me to the volunteers who were leaving the very next day. I remember swatting the insects away, so distracted by the buzzing in my ears and bomb-diving at my face that I had difficulty carrying on the conversation, while the seasoned volunteers only stopped to wipe their sweaty foreheads and take a sip of water to cool off. Little did I know, that I would soon be sitting in their seats, welcoming newcomers in the same way they had me.

I spent my 2 months becoming part of a new family, my second family. I remember when it was time for the National Coordinator, Soknay, to take his family vacation to his farm, I was piled into his rickety car with the other volunteer, his wife, and their 2 children. We arrived to his farm, and after a long day of eating (as is the Khmer way), taking in the sights and sounds of the pristine countryside, and getting to know everyone, all of the women (myself included) and children headed to the river for a bath!

My life in Cambodia was simple...I woke up each morning at daybreak to the sound of the roosters, went to the hammock with my flashlight and read my book and waited for my housemate, a Cambodian who was repaying his scholarship with service, to wake up. We then shared breakfast, usually rice porridge and sweet bananas, pineapple, and mango, then headed to the school to teach. I taught English in an open-air classroom to a group of children who absorbed my lessons like sponges and were the most inquisitive bunch I have ever known. They had instilled in them a sense of service I have never known here in the US, always wondering how they could help to make things in their villages and country better, always writing in their essays about how they would give back.

I would on occasion travel to the villages where I was both deeply saddened by the poverty and empowered by the strong wills and giving hearts of the villagers. These are things I carry with me today.

I came back home and started medical school at UF. I don't think a day passed that I didn't think about what I had been a part of in Cambodia, but I was not able to be as active with Sustainable Cambodia as I would have liked because I was in the trenches of medical school. Now, here I am, in my last year of medical school, finally with time to be person that I want to be. I have been able to help to write the Sustainable Cambodia Updates this year, which are a joy...a way for me to reconnect with the people there. If you would like to read the Updates, you can subscribe for free here:

And of course...I found time to return to Pursat to work with Sustainable Cambodia. I don't know what this journey will bring, what I will be doing while I am there (since this is a short-term visit, I don't have an assignment), but I know that I will find purpose in whatever work I am doing. ...And now I embark, with you, on my 4th journey, a new journey to Cambodia!