29 July 2009
peace and love
explore the depths
(return home now)
A disgustingly beautiful city full of contradictions. It draws on the attractions of struggling souls competing for space with weathered shrubs, all stuck in the middle of icy cobblestones. However cold the Czech people appear they can be bubbling over with many stories and laughter after a few beers, yet they are quite rude to people they dislike for no apparent reason.
The Czechs assumed Alicia and Jose Berrios were Roma people because they have darker skin tones than most Europeans. The Latino couple had arrived in Prague with a phone number from the Hospitality Club of a possible house to stay overnight at but, received no help in finding a phone. At least until they introduced themselves to an American student studying in Prague for the semester.
I had expected to simply enjoy a cappuccino before class but Alicia approached me requesting help with calling a Czech number. She had assumed that I was Czech and spoke slowly in hopes that I could understand her accented English. Unfortunately, I do not own a cell phone and began to explain the issue when, I saw a classmate enter the café.
Luckily, she had a cell phone and Alicia became ecstatic upon realizing that we were both Americans and spoke English perfectly fine. The phone number she had went unanswered and the Berrios’ excitement faded with worries of where to spend the night. I proposed that they could stay in our dorm, Kolej Komenskeho, since it was advertised as “the cheapest accommodations” in Prague. This declaration proved true when Alicia only paid for one bed that they could both share.
As I prepared a meal on our hotplate with one working burner, the Berrios explained how, and why, they were in Europe for the next forty-five days. “We realized that our dream would never happen if we continued waiting for the day our finances would stabilize. Even though our family has been worried about the whole idea, we had to do it sooner than later,” Alicia exclaimed.
They continued to tell of how they had sold their embroidery business in Fort Lauderdale, Florida along with nearly all of their material possessions. Now only Alicia’s photography, along with Jose’s paintings, saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet remained at their previous apartment now resided by a relative.
“We sold our two cars and bought an RV van that is awaiting our return in June; than we will begin driving around North and South America for a couple years stopping at campgrounds and festivals to sell our artwork. Alicia makes jewelry that we can sell for gas money and I have begun selling my paintings online,” explained Jose.
I accompanied the Berrios on a walk along the river to Vysehrad so they could attain a better view of the entire city. Alicia soon agreed that photographing strangers is more exciting than capturing the ever present landscape. We caught intimate expressions of people lounging along the riverbank and debated what their story could be. After spending the entire day witnessing a moment of random characters’ lives Jose could not hold back hunger pangs.
“We need to buy beer for the walk back. It is my fuel to carry on!” he proclaimed as we started to walk down from Vysehrad.
Our speed increased along with the pains in our feet as we came closer to Kolej Komenskeho. Alicia would lag until Jose made a joke that nearly started an asthma attack she laughed so hard. He even questioned if walking was cheaper than simply purchasing a tram pass since, after all our shoes were wearing down and we could almost feel the cobblestones underneath. However, after another night of pasta, fruit and beer shared with hilarious conversations we could barely say farewell.
They left with a promise that we would meet again in the states and so I only wished them luck on their trip, rather than saying goodbye. Another student, Sophie Vodvarka, in the kolej (dorm) wandered off with the Berrios on a hiking trail from Prague to Vienna early Saturday morning. They were hoping to reach Vienna in at least three days so that Vodvarka, originally from Nebraska, could return to classes in Prague.
During my first week of studies in Prague I discovered a bulleting board with posts for students to exchange their language in turn for another. After creating a post, I received numerous responses from Czechs interested in practicing their English skills. During the first week I met a total of six different Czech men who possessed various levels of English skills. One girl did respond to the post but, my reply email to her went unanswered and later when she became my friend’s tandem we learned of her concern that I was a man. Apparently Brooke is considered a masculine name to most Czechs; which explains why all my other responses were men who seemed quite shocked to meet a petite young girl.
I was actually shocked myself that our first meetings lasted a minimum of four hours! We never seemed to run out of conversation topics while speaking in English, some that was very shaky and broken. One man, who is an Anthropology Major and has been meeting with me once a week, is always very nervous while attempting to compare our cultures in English but is full of information. During our first meeting we discussed our backgrounds with drinking before discussing his latest research project entitled “Pub Tales”. He is collecting various stories that are simply overheard at the local pubs scattered throughout the Czech Republic and analyzing the culture of these people. Since than we have discussed everything from holiday traditions to the drugs created during Communism which are still more popular than their counterparts that were banned at that time.
These meetings in local apartment cafes and even expensive formal restaurants have led me to better understand who the Czech people really are. Since, I have met with extremely different people who provide an array of perspectives to draw conclusions from. One tandem is nearly the complete opposite of the one mentioned previously, who Majored in Law and Sociology and is now working on his Ph.D. in both while working for a legal company, had traveled enough to discuss the rest of the world in every subject we explored. Unfortunately, we only met once because he had to study in Germany most of April. I was simply left with new realizations of just how different America is than the rest of the world’s cultures, those that are somehow much more similar in everyday customs. For instance, both Europe and Asia are not worried about spending time just sitting with a stranger over drinks for hours and accidentally missing another appointment that was supposed to occur during that same time. Time is approached with less stress and worries over deadlines and efficiency, which I have to agree, is not as important as America makes it out to be.
Another tandem, who is a psychology major hoping to study in Seattle this coming September, brought me to a teahouse that he frequently spends hours experimenting with various brews. We shared a hookah and tasted a few varieties of tea from Japan, China and Taiwan while comparing Prague and Seattle. He explained the main inspiration for picking that city was his interest in the grunge music scene. I have since than come across many Czechs who are also very into that era of music; it is often their only reference to Seattle!
So even though my Czech has not improved too much from these meetings, I have taken more than was expected from our discussions of football (soccer) hooligans and the lucky chance Michel’s father had to swim in the Baltic Sea during Communism, just before the Soviet’s entered Prague in 1968. Hopefully, I will continue to expand my language skills during random encounters at pubs and shows around the city.
Each generation seems to become more casual and slowly erase the line between public and private life. Especially, with after the advent of online social networks that allow nearly everything to be shared with whoever has the ability to view ones profile.
However, the contrasting sides of average Czechs are deeper than it ever was in other countries. Only China and Korea could possibly understand the lifestyle these people have had to create for survival during the communist era. Learning to abide by the parties rules so not to be taken in for a random comment made to the wrong individual. Czechs mastered this lifestyle so well that many still act in a similar manner.
They pick a seat on the tram and find a direction to stare without making eye contact in anyway. Of course, everyone remains nearly silent except with a few comments to an acquaintance if they notice one. Even when these two Czech notice each other they will not crack a smile but maintain the stern expression perfectly mastered from years of being watched.
During the communist days people had to be wary of who they met with even if no relationship really existed between them. The party could use any excuse for investigating someone else’s life. There were secret tricks developed for those who did not want to upset the party. Although, many did not care to let the party keep them in fear and developed another extreme.
It was most common for people to only relax in the private of their home. Except conversations still had to be limited in every room but the bathroom. There were some people who did not mind this at all though and saw no reason to restrict their lifestyle. They created an underground that held parties as if nothing had changed from their life before communism.
These artist, writers and intellectuals were used as an example of how comrades should not be living. They were seen as indulgent hedonists and often bothered by the party for their actions. Some left the country to continue their career of writing text not allowed in the Czech Republic as Milan Kundera. Others were arrested for music that was too unique for the party to accept like that of the Plastic People of the Universe.
Even the most serious of Czechs can enjoy a viewing for one of Jan Svankmajer’s films since they revel most anything eccentric. Especially when it is accompanied by subtle humor that is not easy to detect. Svankmajer has an interesting approach to filming food and advertisements that provides humor for most Czechs but foreigners are often disgusted or simply cannot understand it.
The people of the Czech Republic who developed a double life during communism have only increased their complicated personas. Unlike the public and private sides of Americans, or even the Czech’s neighbors in Poland, is quite easier to detect. However, it seems that Czechs were more complex before communism and simply added another layer to their character to live under the party. Kundera explained characters as not being born like people, of woman, but born of situation.
“A sentence, a metaphor, containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility...They are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them and equally horrified by them,” Kundera wrote on development of characters in his novels.
There is a connection to this expansion of a false persona to that of any individual in reality. The Czech people have morphed over time because of various events that affected their society. Communism was not the only time their culture was twisted around. When Catholicism first spread throughout the country many people were forced to convert. Now the majority holds a negative opinion toward religion and register as Atheists. The history of the Czech Republic is just as complex as the characters united as Czechs.
pushed along well traveled tracks
gliding amidst foreign crowds
exiting among rundown pastel structures
those reminiscent of New York's projects
just brighter -- less industrial
balconies decorated with soviet kitsch
dogs chasing the wind in grassy dunes
behind this attempted development
trains tagged by locals whiz past
shaking window panes
rustling laundry strung between buildings
threatening every dog in the area
challenging others to conquer nature as well
across the tracks
quaint cottages rest easy behind fences
shaded by native pines
accented with seemingly random poppies
mothers cruise by with fully loaded carriages
no city traffic to disturb their child's sleep
I'm quickly avoided with a slight turn of the wrist
my tousled appearance startles them
It seems that I meshed better on the other side of these tracks
People were so worried of being imprisoned for unknowingly saying something against the party they would leave those concrete structures and crowd into dark pubs. Now the culture nearly revolves around drinking beer in local pubs more often than at home. A few traditional bars remain on the wishes of the first President Havel as reminders of what held the people together during risky times.
Couples would meet on public trams so nobody could report on who was visiting their apartment, just in case one of them was "against the party". They would squeeze onto trams and whisper to each other crowded with strangers. Hasty kisses were taken while couples shared a seat on the trams. This practice still continues with old and young couples publicly displaying their affection very openly on the trams. The old pubs remaining are just as packed with locals as these these Trams used to be; so packed that nobody can get a seat unless a local fades away like communism.
It is not simply the Baroque and Gothic structures that create a magical scenery but, the history surrounding these castles and bridges is soaked in love stories. These architectural feats creating romance were built for the love of another.
The castle in Cesky Krumlov nestled above a rock near the riverbank was built and named after a fair maiden. According to local legends Rozmberk Jost followed a doe until it disappeared beyond the cliffs by Vtava. A fair maiden appeared in its place and Jost’s heart instantly belonged to her. The young woman would not believe him though, unless he proved his love in deeds. The castle was built as proof of his love to her and named Divci Kamen, or Maiden’s Rock.
These public displays of affection were never limited to one day of the year or mass produced by card companies. These grand structures were only an attempt to express the strength of a person’s feeling toward the other.
Now they inspire others to take risks in conveying exactly what emotions are created by their love. When someone loves another they often cannot wait to find privacy before embracing their significant other. Love slips out at random times and usually can barely be controlled by those involved in the relationship.
Czechs seem to let their emotions dictate their actions. They are not bothered by the time or place of any sign of affection. History has shown them that love is too powerful to attempt restraining to one day.
I am so sorry to have not posted anything on here for so long. Last week I was caught up with the students for 12 or more hours each day. They ended up accomanying me to the market or inviting me over for lunch most days, as well as staying later to use the internet. One night we even just watched some Karaoke videos I purchased at the market after they checked their emails and added a bit to their websites. Four of them have websites now and I hope they can keep up with them while I am away. I will post the links for all of them later, so far the Krung website I added a link for earlier is the most detailed.
Friday I had an interesting trip to Prey Veng beginning with the students attiving at 5:30 in the morning to use the internet before it shut off for the day. The minibus (van) broke down before coming to get me so they had to send the large bus around to pick everyone up and I was last. Somehow they got lost and drove around the lake instead of turning up to Anne's house but luyckily one of the students chased them on his Moto to bring them back! I said farewell to everyone standing around the front gate and sat down next to a Laos women from Veun Sai. She knew enough English that we could talk for a bit and I practiced my Khmer and Krung with her since she knew both! However, I had been up late with the students eating Jackfruit and watching Karaoke or listening to Indigenous Gong music then up early with them again. So, I quickly fell asleep for the bumpy ride towards Kratie. After a quick lunch and parting ways with the Laos women, we headed even further South. Soon enough we arrived at the intersection that I would transfer to Prey Veng at.
So, I departed from the bus and they headed towards Phnom Penh.
Immediately I was surrounded by Moto drivers offering me various prices to Prey Veng. Luckily I knew enough Khmer to refuse and slowly cross the street to find a minibus headed that way. I had a note written in Khmer of my final destination that helped me find a bus to take me part way but, they wanted to put me up top with two Motos because the inside was full of people already. Somehow in the confusion of people trying to secure me as a passenger with them, I ended up in a nearly broken down minibus with two elderly women and a sewing machine.
The two women were related to the driver and none of them spoke any English. Luckily, the note and cell phone (used to call Barb for directions to her house) helped me actually reach my final destination before nightfall. The women and I tried conversing in Khmer a bit but I only know enough for basic introductions and market use, then some random words from my students. They were both originally from Ratanakiri and happy to hear I was teaching up there. They told me how many children they each had and where they lived now, that they didn't have a farm but were seamstresses and their names and ages. I explained my family and background information to them also, and randomly asked what something we were passing by was. Halfway to Prey Veng they became impatient since the sun was setting and got a Moto back to their house.
Then I was alone and free to move about the van taking photos of the rice fields, huts surrounded by water and first sunset colors. He stopped a few times for no apparent reason except to yell "O Barang" (O Foreigner) and something about me to whoever would listen! Afer we reached Prey Veng I called Barb to find her house but the driver either didn't listen at all or didn't know his right vs left! He kept shaking his head at me when I tried directing him the way she told me and would always go the other way! Then he stopped twice to yell about the "Barang" to random people outside while I called Barb again. Finally, we reached her house after I had gone on a circular 'tour' of Prey Veng and been introduced to most of the street vendors!
I will add on about my time in Prey Veng soon but am only on a public computer now and don't have too much time.
take it easy
I recently discovered that the word "kalai" in Khmer means "impure", which inevitably led me to question the lifestyle of the three Kalai villages on the lining the road to Veun Sai. I understand that at first someone might assume the Krung here do not live purely as they drink excessive amounts of rice wine at nearly any possible excuse for a 'ceremony'. They are often drinking to ward off spirits or protect themselves from the harm inflicted by a spirit. Their core beliefs are centered in the supernatural world and any mind altering substance holds a different value to them, then simply escaping from reality or enjoying the high. Their is even a plant in the forest (asked for the English word but noone knew it) that can steal your memory of a way back home if you even look at it. Even when they are terribly drunk and trying to give me more glasses of wine, actually they are nearly forcing me to drink it, I view it as less impure than if the same was to occur in the states.
Traditionally alcohol has been a regular aspect of Cambodia's (and other Asian countries) aspect of ceremonies not simply a regular drink with lunch or dinner. They reserve this drink for celebrating weddinds, mourning a death or attempting not to "catch a spirit" after butchering a buffalo. There is a level of respect attached to drinking rice wine with strangers, so their continued offering of drinks is not simply 'peer pressure' but actually a respectful gesture. They were honoring me as a guest inerested in their culture. Preparing a baby chicken egg to eat with the vilage chief and keeping my glass full was their way of thanking me for visiting their farm and attempting to speak their language. My small bits of Krung showed that I was respectful of their culture and grateful of their welcoming gestures.
In thes states, there is a twisted view of alcohol that holds various complications, like the belief that alcoholism is a disease that overpowers freewill. With the first arrival of Europeans to America, people drank mostly liqour as they contracted diseases from the water. Rum was the first recipe discovered to suit settlers in the north but, was soon decided to be unagreeable with the heat of the southern states. So, people in the current state of Tennessee created a form of whiskey to drink in the warmer weather. These liqours were consumed at nearly every meal; it was actually believed that some liqours aided in improving your liver and digestion. People ate quickly as soon as the food appeared to be able to get the best picks and drink more afterwards. Actually, the most common cause of death in New York City was chocking during large group meals at hotels. This habit of speed and overconsumption continues in the American culture where people often try to reach a point of biligerence as quickly as possible. When beer did catch on in the states, it was diluted for easier consumption and drunk like water. Europeans thought Americans had a horrible taste as their beer was a full, rich flavor and drinking held certain ettiquete rules as most daily routines did. They prefered complex wines and beers after meals like an extra course in the meal.
Hence, I believe the Krung are an "kalai" people despite their habits of drinking rice wine, smoking tobacco and beginning to immitate fads from from the Khmer and Thai soaps. Their culture has remained intact with a pure respect for traditions much longer than the American belief in alcoholism. They are just beginning to their 'superstar' obsession as curiosity for satalites and Karaoke grows. Hopefully the modern media won't defile their culture to the level of material overconsumption that America seems to thrive in. I personally think the Krung in these "kalai" vilages are as pure as any Indiegnous person I've met in Cambodia so far.
I am so sorry for not having done much on this site for the last week. I have been busy every night with fellowships, students and dinner with some Vietnamese I met by going to their sweet shop in town last year. Actually, I have spent more time working on a student’s site than my own. He remembered most of what I taught last year and so now we’ve progressed into creating a site about his Indigenous group, the Krung. If you have any free time please go to this link…http://krungindigenous.sampasite.com/…He is using my photos and I have edited most of what is typed but otherwise, it is entirely his own thing! Now I will attempt to catch you up on the events of this past week in a condensed version.
I have begun teaching the Education Director of Ratanakiri Province, Phan Phirun, on Thursdays and Fridays for one hour in between IYDP classes. He mainly needs help with definitions and pronunciation, as he has been practicing English on his own for quite a while. Each time he has something new to ask me though, similar words that confuse him and need to be clarified. My students have told me that his son is an English teacher and at first didn’t understand why he would need help with English; but I explained that pronunciation is best learned from a native speaker.
Last Sunday, I visited one of my student’s churches that was started one year ago by a Khmer from Phnom Penh. The service was more Western then some of the churches led by Western Missionaries that I have visited. My student (Ravy) told me what verses the sermon would be on so that I could follow along a bit, since it would be in Khmer. Afterwards the Minister explained how he began the church and the English classes held during the weekdays. There is also a small collection of books about Missionaries in various countries that he encourages the young people to read.
Then Ravy, Sotha, and myself squeezed onto one Moto and zipped away from the ‘modern’ city towards more remote areas. I was glad to have left the helmet behind since it would only become a mini-sauna in this sweltering heat. The wind felt amazing after sitting in the sweltering church building all morning. Ravy steadily swerved down slim trails on the way towards his brother’s house in O Chum. He was hoping that we could pick up another Moto and not have to squish on one for the longer trip to Kalai however, the other one was out of petrol. Just as I was beginning to really feel the heat again, we hopped back on the Moto to bounce around the dirt roads towards Kalai.
We ended up taking a random stop to visit the waterfall called “starting love on” because, so many couples visit the site on “dates”. A date would be a large group of different “couples” that to anyone else just appears to be friends having a picnic together.
After about 8 kilometers on the dusty main road, we arrived in the center of Kalai and turned down a small side road that led to Sotha’s farm. His parents were at the other farm further away so I didn’t meet them but two of his sisters were there; one with her two children who couldn’t stop staring while we joked around photographing the house. Sotha captured nearly every inch of the house in pictures so that “I would not forget later after leaving”. Really he just saved me the trouble of documenting the area while everybody watches and wonders what this why this foreign girl is so interested in their common belongings. –I, myself, often think it is quite strange that I am snapping photos of their daily routine. I sometimes debate if I am intruding at all or just providing entertainment for the week.- After discovering that Sotha is the eldest in a set of twins, why they hang bamboo creations from long poles in the yard, and making the children laugh with hand puppets I was asked for the English terms of a few items around the house. Of course, I wrote down the Khmer and Krung forms of each word since I am trying to learn more of both languages for my next trip. We took a very steep hill down to some rice fields attempting to find a better view of the landscape but, I just wanted to climb the trees surrounding us. Sotha kept trying to stop me because many people fall out of trees here and are seriously hurt, he actually has a limp because of a tree related accident.
We returned to the center of the village along the main road to visit Ravy’s sister, brother-in-law, nephew and aunt; as well as Sotha’s brother who just happened to be buying rice wine from Ravy’s sister when we arrived. - The villages in this area actually remind me of being in Minnesota surrounded by relatives and a close community of friends nearby. It might be the farm lifestyle that creates this casual network of people who return often, if they happen to venture away from the core a bit. – We didn’t have much time to visit though as I had to teach another class at Anne’s in the afternoon.
After class, I had a dinner appointment with the Vietnamese who have been learning English with me while I learn a few things in their language. I will type more on them later though because, this has become increasingly more interesting.
I had a mostly normal day of classes on Monday, except for starting Mao’s website and teaching one NTFP staff member a few things on PowerPoint. Two more students showed up just as the website was getting somewhere; they were seeing what Mao was doing because he hadn’t come home after computer class two hours ago. We all crowded around my laptop to check emails and add photos to the website. James made some tea for all of us knowing that it would be a while before everyone left. He has been practicing typing a few times a week, after I finish other classes.
Tuesday I accompanied Mao to a village in O Chum where he would be teaching Krung children about their rights. Once a month different IYDP students spend a week teaching about children’s rights, a different village each day. Whenever some of them couldn’t stop staring I’d end up teaching them some hand puppets with little verbal communication. Just before ending the day Mao asked me if I could teach them an American song or game and he would translate for them. They wanted me to say everything in English first though. The easiest thing I could come up with was “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” so I sang it for them before going slower a few times with them. After running through it like a drill they were able to sing it slowly with Mao! Then we visited the other Dam in O Chum, which the children were going to swim at. Mao briefly explained the history to me as I photographed the area. As the children gleefully jumped into the dirty reservoir, I heard how Pol Pot used to have truck loads of people dumped in the water to drown. The Vietnamese had built the dam years ago but it wasn’t used for electricity by the Cambodian government until 1993, when the country finally gained Independence from the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam.
I will have to stop here for a bit because my students are returning for another lesson. Hopefully I will get a chance to add on more from this last week before heading out to Kalai again tomorrow.
Sadly I had to turn away some of my favorite students this morning. The Director of IYDP has noticed that some of the youth attending my classes are not part of the Indigenous Youth Program, so they are not allowed to attend my classes. I had been under the impression that as long as they were Indigenous and not distracting the other youth, that it was fine for them to attend. Many of the IYDP students brought their friends, since most of the time three share one Moto. Also, there is a house set up by an expat for Indigenous boys to live at, some of whom are my students. However, they of course tell their friends who tell others sometimes and they all attend. I actually only did one announcement and then simply left a note on the board for others to read when they arrived, but decided not to send any of them away as the majority of "new" people got the message and hadn't shown up anyway.
One of the boys who grew up in the same village as one of my best students, is learning quickly but isn't IYDP. His application was denied because he is not within the 7th to 10th grades, but 11th now. Sunday, during our card game he mentioned something about a souvenir but they usually give advice of things I should get so I didn't think much of it. Though, last night just as the computer class was finishing up he gave me a plastic bag that hid a gourd used for storing water! He said it was a souvenir for me and had even written a note to thank me for teaching him. It has some errors but that almost makes me like it even more, so I've decided to have it "plasticized" in the market for safe keeping.
There are also students who came to my classes in October who are not IYDP and have returned for more lessons. They are wonderful and it's crushing to think they must leave simply for being in the 11th or 12th grades of school. I understand if they can afford other lessons and already know English well but, many of them are simple farm kids with no real lessons besides the highschool. The highschool actually just forces memorization but no real learning that can aid them later. So, I will continue to allow them to attend unless it becomes a real problem with wealthy Khmer attending somehow.
All these dark clouds are testing my patience
I'm craving deep water to wade in
Harsh droplets to break upon my skin
The red Earth to cover me in a silky layer
Bring on the mighty winds!
That will further encourage electric streaks across the sky
Lighting up the night; as day
Provoking the thunder until it angrily lashes out
Surround me with a cool breeze as I soak in the dyed liquid
Ironically I scribbled this down just before getting trapped in the rain. I could barely stand the heat during a sweltering lunch break from teaching on Friday, as the entire week was dry. I toyed with the idea of shaving my head again just for relief, but ended up taking a "shower" in the middle of the day as well as at night to cool down. However, Friday night on the way to a village in the O Chum district (about half an hour away on Moto) we couldn't beat the inevitable rain storm. As it had already rained there earlier so the mud was slippery, like ice for the Moto tires, and we hit a couple areas where the road was overflowing with water so I had to get off and walk. About fifteen minutes before we reached the village, the rain hit us hard and we had to go even slower through the rushing waters pushing horizontal to our original direction which was into the wind. Up to that point it had simply been thunder and lightening close enough (at times) to make it seem as if it were 8AM not PM! James was surprised that I was not scared of being hit and almost excited with me in watching the bolts dance around us. I told him it was because in the states it is so rare that lightening causes any harm, I have no reason to develop a fear. Also, it is usually seen very far away branching off around the sky but never hitting the earth and lighting up the road. We were soaked upon arrival but thankfully, the Krung family whose house we were staying at quickly found extra clothes for us to change into and Kromas to dry off with. Today there was another rain storm that cut my Internet class short (as having anything plugged in or even laptops being on presents a danger) but allowed for casual conversation time with my students. We played card games and laughed about random nonsensical things while teaching eachother our native languages.
Sometimes when I visit the villages my thoughts revert back to the early history of America and more often they are filled with times of the Khmer Rouge. I'll see a white-haired man or woman staring at me and instantly imagine their shock being in my presence during the ordeal. Somehow making it past "Chlops" in the forest and pirates on the rivers to experience their turmoil as well. This happens especially when I see a delapitated building that is somehow still occupied by human beings and their animals, or when the very disadvantaged are spotted. Sometimes it just happens and others I consciously place the current scene in various past times. This may sound crazy to you and it is a bit however; with my head full of stories and facts from past catasrophes I can't help but let my thoughts relate the present to what I know from books. For instance, in this one village the feeling stuck with me during the Moto ride back as it was so "out-dated" at least in the States, but Cambodia is similar to just after the Revolution War period as there are modern "comforts" but things are still stabilizing politically and economically.
James and I visited a Tampuen village that stretched into Government land that was currently not in use. We were told that some of the people now living on this land had lost their own land when the Khmer Rouge were here and others mistakenly sold too much at the first sight of money from city-dwellers. Now they all work on nearby plantations and live on the government land. One of these houses appeared to be more professional than the others and James decided it was the Office building for the plantations. After speaking with nearly every house in the village though, we were curious to know what was down the hill in this more stable structure. A young girl told us that a blind woman lived in the old-office with her two sons, although she was not married. Men had raped her multiple times and so she has two children now. After the first child though, her younger sister's husband died and now she took care of the children and elder sister.
We quickly scrambled down the hill to discover her situation and James carefully knocked before pushing open the door slightly. It seemed to open for us, as the blind woman was opening it while croutched on the floor. One child had tear streaked eyes and couldn't stop staring at me so, I began making interesting hand gestures learned in Elementary School. James spoke with the younger sister who was cooking and trying to keep the younger child still. The floor had more than a layer of dirt that was covering the younger child and blind woman who seemed to move in a frog position around the small room. She had a "kroma" wrapped around her waist but nothing more to shield her skin from the bugs and dirt swirling about as the chidlren ran around the room. As they spoke a little Khmer and no English but mainly Tampuen, James was the only one able to verbally communicate with them. I entertained the children while wondering if the blind woman even knew I was there. I croutched down next to her and debated photographing the entire scene. She looked my direction and seemed to sense someone or thing being present. I shifted my weight as she moved her hands on the door, turning her head towards James. I decided against the photos believing it may have left them feeling embarassed like I was simply a tourist viewing the local attraction.
My thoughts drifted back to the Khmer Rouge communes and this woman barely surviving except for entertaining the young males. Soon I was comparing early America and Europe to current Cambodian villages. I know that England was nearly worse than many "red light" areas of Thailand, Amsterdam, Russia and Viet Nam; also early America was not the sterile, pure image taught so often in the public school system. It was a much harsher climate that only tough women could survive in, or be very protected against the crude men who were mainly drunk most of the day. Anyway, before I begin rambling about the social history of America stemming from the lower class of Europe; I shall conclude on a brighter note.
After returning to Ban Lung, James spread the word of this woman's situation to friends and family while I collected some donations from the few people I know here. He ended up with a large bag of noodles, cans of sardines in tomato sauce, medicines, clothes and some food in the market (all of this was only $8 total). I collected some too and added it to the funds for rices and vegetables James purchased before visiting her again. This is one place I feel very safe but still know thefts are common so, I suggested that he do not let anyone else in the village know about what he is doing on his visit. He hadn't even thought of bringing the things hidden in backpack, since he was so exstatic to help these women and children. He did agree though that they might be stolen or put both women at risks of being harmed by the men, again. I did not accompany him on this second visit, as foreigners are already considered to be very rich and the donations might be viewed as an insulting "hand-out" or re-enforce stereotypes even more.
Well, I am exhausted from teaching in this sweltering heat and must plan a lesson for tomorrow still.
peace and love
The chaos has begun and my days of relaxing at Yaek Laom or simply strolling through villages must end. The day began calmly, of course it usually does as a ruse to wake me before twisting events around my poor sleepy mind. Okay so I am exagerating a bit, however I wish there was more warning to busy days. It was still a wonderful day full of familiar faces explaining news from the past months. Even though I lost track of time reading while heating water for coffee, I made it to the meeting only a few minutes late because James showed up on his Moto just as I was locking the gate! He rushed me up to the office where the students were already seated in front of an overused white-board discussing the upcoming month. I was hoping they might begin later since hardly anything begins on time here but, I was more than ten minutes late so they could have still started after the agreed upon time of 8AM.
I tried to enter quietly but everyone still turned to see who was coming and there were many waves, smiles and salutations exclaimed as I sat towards the back. Although many of the students called out for me to sit near them I didn't want to creep around the bodies already situated on the mats. One girl actually ended up moving back to speak with me as they finished discussing plans for Non-Formal Education in the surrounding vilages. She was one I came to know very well during my last visit, as she attended nearly every session and used every opportunity to converse with me in our "free-time". Before I knew it they were ready to discuss a schedule for the classes I will teach and what should be covered in them.
This planning period was completely different than last time as it was organized and things were discussed in a linear manner. We actually used the white board to write possible subjects and times before creating a concete plan. Last time we just taped up a piece of butcher-paper with subjects down one side, then added times randomly as the students crowded around trying to fit their names onto the paper also! This structured method took much longer though. We breaked for fruit and water after deciding on a plan for the English classes but, before even touching on the classes for anything computer related which is the majority of what they want to learn. When everyone just began to come alive, again, they were called back to sit for a few more hours and finalize the schedule for classes involving Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Moviemaker, and anything relating to the Internet.
I returned to the house sweating from the afternoon heat and took a quick "shower", actually just splashing water on myself, before finally eating and sipping a cup of fresh coffee. Really the day wasn't to hectic, it was simply draining because of the new system of meetings with IYDP and walking back in the sweltering heat. I decided to skip the market and read for the last couple hours of daylight, which turned out to be a good decision as it began raining just as I finished "showering". I will visit the market tomorrow after teaching a few students things on the Internet, just after breakfast if I get a chance for that since everyone wakes up early here to use every bit of daylight. Then I will escape for a trip to a vilage in the O Chum district with James before hopefully getting the chance to read before teaching again.
Must add that the "rainy season" here is fantastic! It remains relatively warm but not as stifling since the rain usually comes with strong gusts. Last night my internet time was cut short because of lightening but I stayed up reading as the wind wrapped around me, shaking the house and whiping rain drops across the deck. It definitely beats the harsh rain of Seattle, not that I don't love that as well since Seattle is as many know my core base. However, this rain awakens the spirit and makes me want to dance gracefully on my tip-toes not crazily jump about in puddles like Seattle rain. Maybe it's not the rain so much as other cultural factors adding to my varied reaction...hmmmm. Well, take it easy and keep in touch when you can.
Of course, just when I have a chance to sit and explain a few things from the day the rain begins with a few flashes of lightening. Sorry, I will just leave you with a tidbit that kept crossing my mind a the lake today.
Cambodian buy every product possible to make their skin white whereas Americans purchase whatever they can to become darker. In Cambodia light skin is considered a sign of being elite and not having to toil in the fields. Only farmers have darker skin as they are exposed to the sun daily for long stretches of time. Interesting how they seem to be a bit more blunt with the obvious class difference that America also experiences but becomes flustered with insecurities of revealing too much. What is too much though? When we are all a part of the same society and all take part in creating a culture; wouldn't we rather be honest to change anything we disagreed with? Or shall we just let things stew and appear at awkward moments such as, rubbing on tanning oil on a dock surrounded by Khmer rubbing on whitening powder?
through ideas, plans
minnows drift across my skin
settle on a crease
for a short moment
I begin to sink
immersed in smooth notions
slight kicks disturb the peace
bring air to my lungs
crack the lid
additional comparisons form
Khmer time slips unnoticed
as only a leaf floating down
causing slight ripples
no drastic changes on the surface
tradition goes as before
the depths conceal secret pasts
no need to plunge any further
simply continue living
with a few advances
Western time is meticulously kept
quickly passing one deadline
simultaneously creating another
as if trying to skip a rock
while scanning the beach again
already having pocketed two more
yet this new one might be better
the first is simply tossed in
crashing through layers of algae
confusing the entire ecosystem
but holding the belief
it will all settle better in the end
bright rays disturb my rest
instinctively shock my limbs
as if an alarm clock sounded
toppling me over
like a curved log
into any tiny creatures below
to the next appointment
twenty minutes past
the agreed upon time
keeping with the Khmer system
I am so sorry for skipping out on updating everyone on the last two days. I did warn everyone that this might happen depending on internet service, power outages and visits to villages. I hadn’t expected things to occur so soon but was excited to get out and about already. NTFP hasn’t been able to meet with me and plan class schedules as they were on holiday most of the week, so I’ve been recuperating from finals.
Wednesday night I visited a literacy class in the O Chum District with a missionary from Chicago and a teacher from Phnom Penh, originally Switzerland, who is debating moving up here. After a quick dinner we rode out to the village over bumpy dirt roads almost as lively as the conversations within the car. Ester, the woman visiting from Phnom Penh, shot off questions nearly quicker then Kreg, the missionary, could respond. I mostly sat and soaked in the stories of Cambodia ten years ago but at times explained the situation further north along the river; at least how it was last time I was here. We reached the village just as the sun had completely disappeared and single bulbs glowed in random huts. A few crowds were gathered around TVs probably watching Thai soup-operas or karaoke. We parked in the center of the village which soon became covered by a herd of cows. There were only two classes because something was wrong with the center classrooms light. After learning more details of the tribe and development work, as well as invading their hushed auras with bright camera flashes. I actually kept mine off because I always feel guilty blinding and shocking their shy stares full of curiosity and enthusiasm. After exploring the vilage by the moon light we wove past the cows and out to the bumpy dirt. We passed by graves and Cashew plantations while discussing the possibility of mixing development work and evangelism which is difficult up here. Most people do one or the other and are warned to remain focused on their specific project. Ester began asking about dangerous wild animals in the area, many of which have retreated to the National Park in the Mountains, but there have been random sitings of Tigers and larger Lizards and Pythons. Just as I finished explaining my problem with snakes Kreg exclaimed we just passed one and asked if we should go back. He had run over it's tail and decided to "finish it off" since it was a striped poisonous type. For some reason we were all silent as he went over it again, slight 'uhs' came out after the pop was heard, yet he still backed over it again. Somehow it kept darting the tire to preserve its head so after one last POP we left it for the villagers. I tried not to think about it while walking through Anne's yard to the front door with a tiny flashlight to light a spot ahead.
Thursday night I went to a youth Bible study at the church in Ban Lung with Anne’s “housekeeper” and previous gardener. They both, Dina and James, attend the church regularly and recently a youth fellowship has begun; tonight there were five not including me. James brought up a few verses and then everyone discussed them. One of the young men translated for me and I sketched an image of my interpretation. Sketches are easier to understand without words and each person can take away their own idea of what the inspiration behind the image is. Although it turned out a bit odd, even for my tastes, they enjoyed how it conveyed the message. For anyone curious, I will post the image and passages relating to it soon. We didn't get back until after ten and were exhausted from a long day in the heat. Time is no issue to people up here which is sometimes wonderful as I don't really understand all the rush back in the states but, often annoying when everyone shows up to me class an hour "late".
Today I finally met with the Director of the Program I will teach at. We discussed my contract and class schedule but decided to wait on planning things until speaking with the students. Tomorrow some might show up for computer lessons before going to Yaek Laom, a larger lake without leeches that Towel has, and swimming with James. I also visited this Vietnamese sweet shop in town for lunch. The owner, Kim, is very talkative but strangely left me alone for a bit when she saw I had a book out. Though after I had been there an hour of sipping tea and eating a moon cake, she sat down by me while preparing jackfruit (tastes like a banana but looks sort of like a durian) for a pastry. We chatted and she invited me to lunch on Sunday to meet her neices who also work at the shop sometimes but have families in Viet Nam.
Watching the mist settle in the lush foliage surrounding me, my thoughts drift off to rainy days in Seattle. I have found myself comparing the areas quite often and in this case it simply involves rain and the outlook of it from the different cultures. Even the rhythm in which the rain falls seems different here than in Seattle. It varies between a thick and heavy rain that falls fast and hard, to a soft and slow mist that almost just sits in the grey. It has spunk in the way it splats onto thatched roofs whereas Seattle rain seems to hit the cement hyped up on as much caffeine as the population around it. This rain reminds me of Midwest rain and sliding across wide lawns in Southern Minnesota.
The people even react differently to this rain as it seems to be such an integral part of their culture; partially because “the rainy season” makes up half of their year. The farmers rest with the assurance that their crops will not wither in the coming months. The children attempt playing in puddles that happen to sit in the middle of the road, but are quickly dragged away by frustrated mothers. The younger ones take off all their clothes and lay in the muck outside. Others take advantage of the free and CLEAN shower that does not require a small bucket to splash water across ones back.
Many people consider Seattle rain to be quite dreary however; I disagree and love to curl up with a book and coffee on rainy days. Statistics seem to place blame on Seattle’s rain for high suicide rates and many theorists exhaust the lists of effects brought on by this grey weather. Some people believe in Seasonal Depression and purchase UV lights to remain content, even happy sometimes, during the grey stretches of the year. I don’t mean to offend anyone with my musings on this topic but it has been bouncing around my mind all day. I have settled on a few ideas behind Seasonal Depression that are much more complex than simply lacking the sunlight. Some of them warrant further discussion at a later date but until then let your mind wonder and begin its own discussions.
First of all, this modern world has removed people from most cultural and religious traditions and connections between people, their senses, and most natural elements. Sadly this has left many people even more fragile and suspicious of change. This presents an odd paradigm though because a lot of people crave change and intentionally create new experiences, events and tasks in life. Yet at the same time, if an unexpected change occurs they are shocked and lose stability for a few moments. This could be one cause leading into Seasonal Depression; the drastic changes proving no option for human control. Another aspect of this cause could be the lack f stability and control in their daily lives before adding weather to the equation.
Also, the majority of people affected by Seasonal Depression lead semi- to very detached lives. Social involvement increases a person’s dopamine production therefore increasing their potentially happy attitude. When this is not occurring a UV light can provide an extra amount of Vitamin E to boosts their mood and make up for the loss of dopamine. The same situation is possible when a person experiences a lack of Vitamin B-12 in their diet, their mood decreases quickly. If they are exposed to sunlight or electronically created UV rays they can remain stable enough without B-12 until it is available.
One worry brought to mind by this notion of Seasonal Depression is that these people do not understand how to gain a true and constant happiness. They are seeking satisfaction that will only be temporary through false sunlight but, they would not require any UV rays to benefit their mood if they knew the real truth behind happiness. Granted this requires further discussion; since each person holds their own personal truth and must discover what that is.
The modern world has conjured up many replacements for this attainable truth because many lack trust in things that are physically present so it is even harder to open up to an “invisible force”. Many in the modern world dismiss this notion of believing and having faith in something unworldly as lunacy. However, isn’t getting happiness from a lamp just as crazy?
After meeting up with some girls visiting for the first time in three years since their parents were last missionaries here; I ventured around the market and picked up some vegetables so I will not have to remain on this rice and noodle diet. We then ate lunch where they are staying and went over to another missionary's house for a bike ride.
I was hit with a realization (again as it happened last time as well) of just how detached these missionay children are from the modern world. Not that this is always a negative thing as they are not tarnished by some harsh aspects presented mainly by the media. However, they are a few years behind children born and raised in the modern world. Which presents even less equal ground for us to relate on. For example, one of their mother's had a joke about Tom Selek and I was the only one around (at the time) besides her that knew who he was!
It does erk me though that since I am at such an in between age for the population of NGOs and missionaries here, I often get stuck in awkward positions. The adults commonly try to place me with their children and provide opportunities for us to bond yet, I end up in most of the adults conversations. This is mostly just a problem with the missionaries as they are the only ones with children out of the foreigners in Ban Lung. It doesn't bother me too much since they are all very kind and helpful with anything I may need while Anne is away.
There are other times though, such as at the weekly Fellowship when I usually bounce around small talk and end up sipping tea observing. Also, on nights such as this very one. Yesterday the neighbor told me she would like me to meet a couple girls around my age, actually they are much younger in their teens but it must have slipped her mind, and we could arrange a sleepover. Then today I discover it is actually ALL of the missionary children coming over and this event was planned a week ago knowing that I would be here in Anne's house alone. It is very sweet they are trying to keep me company and make sure I am not lonely during my stay. However, it is a bit like a "backhanded compliment" in the sense that everything was organized and prepared around me...they simply needed my consent to use Anne's house for the night.
I am actually typing this while the young boys are crowded around a small portable DVD player watching Macgyver and the young girls are taking turns showering next door (they have hot water and Anne doesn't). The mother of two of the boys is setting up mosquito nets despite my comments that we can figure it out and I am grateful for all she has done already. She helped us girls prepare dinner next door and gave us a "cooking class". Which reminds me of just how gender seperate these families are and how eccentric I seem to them. Some of the fathers' actually look worried when I am explaining my hopes of traveling to more places ALONE and having no immediate need for a man's aid in these ventures.
Well, I must help this mother set up other beds for the children I am watching tonight. peace.
One of the things I love about traveling is the chances to meet people I wouldn't otherwise. Not only do we often find many similarities in our short time together but we are both more honest then usuall. Somehow we trust the other instantly and explain nearly our entire life story before parting ways. It is as if the knowledge that we will never see eachother again provides safe grounds for disclosing intimate details. knowing there is a shorter time limit to include all the juicy details may partially motivate the speed in getting to know eachother.
While waiting for my flight to Taipei at the SeaTac airport I met a group of people from Wenatchee traveling to Bangkok for their annual check-up on English teachers affiliated with their program. Three of them were around my age and on their first trip to this area, all excited to enter such an exotic country. I felt a tad guilty when they looked down after hearing how Western Thailand is now. Although, I myself have not visited there but merely heard stories from others in SE Asia. My traveling honesty did express that my negative thoughts on tourism and Western influence spreading throughout SE Asia and other semi-remote regions.
On the flight I sat next to a Vietnamese man who has been studying Architecture in Texas and will be visitng his family. We compared Vietnam and Cambodia but decided we shouldn't take eachother word and each must visit the other country.
During the layover in Taipei, after checking my email at their complimentary station, I conversed with a Cambodian girl who has been living in the Seattle/Renton area for six years. She lent me her IPOD after spending a few hours chatting about how differently we are treated in Cambodia simply for being "from the West". They even charge her more than local Khmer because they believe she can afford it more, which by her very American pop-culture appearance it makes sense. We parted ways on the airplane but exchanged numbers for meeting upon returning to the states.
My seat was by a Khmer who had been living in the California for over twenty years. He escaped from the Khmer Rouge at the peak of his soccer career, but became a Christian and soccer coach in the states. Now he is returning to Phnom Penh to begin a soccer ministry with youth in the city. He has had difficulties since he never received a college degree but is well versed in theology and soccer. He will remain in Phnom Penh for one year before returning to gain further support.
On the bus trip (16 people in a minivan) from Phnom Penh to Ban Lung I met a woman from California visiting relatives in the city. She was traveling to Ratanakiri with her nephew and his sons to purchase a Rubber Tree Plantation. I can only guess her age and what she has experienced with her two children on their escape to the states. Her nephew did not speak a word of English but had learned French before the Khmer Rouge took power. One of his sons spoke English very well though, as he had learned it from passengers in his Tuk-Tuk arouHe nd Siem Reap. I ate lunch with them and chatted about the changes Cambodia has gone through in the last thirty years. They seemed to be just as shocked as myself with the current stability in the country. Before parting ways they instructed the bus driver how to find Anne's house and gave Azia gave me her phone number to reach her in California.
I reached Anne's just after six and luckily met up with James, her gardener, who was changing the locks. He caught me up on news things around the house and proised to return and take me to church in the morning.