So Long, King Sihanouk

DSC_3601Today was a special day. I witnessed history as a participant in the procession preceding the royal king’s cremation (that’s King Norodom Sihanouk, Hero King, King Father of Independence, Territorial Integrity and Khmer Solidarity to you).

Along with tens of thousands of others from all over the country, I sat along one of the main roads in 30 degree heat, wearing the mourning colors of white and black, watching an endless procession of gilded floats, monks, military, government officials and other important people as the king’s body was made available to the public one last time before, following Buddhist tradition, it is cremated on Monday (Feb. 4).

Since October 2012 when he died of a heart attack, his body had been kept at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh so that mourners could pay their respects. Today, as the body was paraded around, accompanied by his widow and son, Cambodians, both old and young, sat on the sidewalks quietly weeping, their hands held up in prayer as they said their final goodbyes. Many clutched framed photographs of him as a show of affection and reverence.

According to people I have spoken to and things I have read, he was so revered and loved because he was instrumental in gaining Cambodia’s independence from France, investing in and developing the health and education sectors as well as being for the people. Despite some regrettable involvement with the Khmer Rouge, the people still hold him in the highest esteem.

DSC_3615Such an elaborate farewell is new to the country and represents a turning point in the nation’s future. In a nation so rife with corruption in the upper echelons, the King Sihanouk leaves big shoes to fill. Let’s hope the people get the kind of honest political figures they deserve.

It’s ALL True

DSC_3156There’s a quote by Aldous Huxley that reads: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Well, I have to disagree with him on this and say that actually, everyone I’ve ever spoken to about Cambodia has hit the nail on the head – everything I’ve heard has turned out to be true.

Before I arrived here, I spoke to others who had spent time in this traumatized nation and absorbed their deluge of stories, advice, opinions and impressions. And for once, other people were right: the HUGE contrast between rich and poor, visible at every turn; the gated, barbed-wired pastel-coloured French colonial mansions towering over ramshackle huts; the gaggles of tuk-tuk drivers loitering on every corner; barefooted street urchins   straggle along the busiest areas begging; deep-fried tarantulas and frogs can be bought for lunch at the food stalls that dot the boulevards; Australian biker meth-heads congregate in the seedier bars, accompanied by petite yet hagged woman in black singlets and cut-off denim shorts – the country’s unofficial prostitute uniform.

Like tanks, the SUVs of the world’s largest aid agencies (USAID, UN, WHO) patrol the streets, and with some 3,000 NGOs based in the country, Phnom Penh is home to all manner of idealist, adrenalin cowboy, martyr and saint, all busy tapping away on their silver MacBook Pros in the city’s coolest (in every sense of the word) cafes.

Orange-robbed monks roam the streets, stopping here and there to ask for money and in return, bless the workers as they knell and bow their heads in a show of reverence. They swarm around many of the city’s sprawling temple complexes, almost camouflaged against the glimmering golden spires.

Life happens on the street. Navigating any busy street is like participating in an obstacle course – walking over, around, through and sometimes even under objects as pajama-clad locals go about their daily business of cutting hair, washing their clothes, playing cards, tinkering with their motorcycles, cleaning their babies, slurping noodles, hacking open coconuts with rusty knives and pissing against walls.

Main transportation arteries are congested with herds of tuk-tuks and motorbikes – they come in relentless waves and each attempt to cross the road is an act of pure faith. It is organized chaos where traffic lights and road lines are far and few between.

On the fringes of the relatively wealthy and developed central areas, shoe-less children, sometimes completely naked, armed with only their bruises and scars, rummage through piles of rubbish, searching for something that can be sold. Not too far away will be a few rickety tables and umbrellas, masquerading as a market, with shreds of meat hanging from hooks, providing a veritable feast for the local fly population.

In amongst the dust, dirt, begging children and persistent tuk-tuk drivers are impossible pockets of beauty – large, lush, jungle-worthy trees and plants, boasting blossoming flowers that are so perfect they seem to be manmade – the violet, fuchsia, indigo and lemon colored florets imbue even the bleakest locale and are a good reminder that beauty can thrive anywhere. Even in places where land mine victims, missing a limb or part of their face, besiege and frighten those more fortunate.

The Life You Can Save

CambodianchildrenIt has been three weeks since I first stepped into the dirty, sweaty streets of Phnom Penh. I have a much better grip now on how things work here and a deeper understanding of the country, its people, and its culture. I am also now fully immersed in the volunteering venture that I came for.

The organisation I am working for was started by a very well-known Hollywood figure who had an enviable life as a jet-setting executive in the film business. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative as he came from a working class background, achieved the epitome of the American dream only to turn his back on it to work in the slums of Phnom Penh and save children from a bitter life of scavenging in the rubbish dumps.

Witnessing what he and his team of dedicated local staff have built, funded by sponsors all over the world, is nothing short of miraculous. Over 1,000 babies, children and teenagers have been incredibly lucky to become part of this organisation that has literally saved their lives by offering shelter, food, education, healthcare and love.

I am still processing the context in which these young lives come from. Sometimes, when I stop to play briefly with some of the little ones on my way to the classroom where my group of teenagers await, I feel such sadness at seeing the little girl whose face was permanently damaged when her father threw acid on her, or the children with missing fingers from scavenging. Their little bodies are stunted from malnutrition and they appear to be half their age.

In one class of rambunctious teenage girls, we talked about significant moments in their lives and each made a timeline. On my own, I plotted things like ‘I started school,’ ‘I got my first pet,’ ‘I had my first kiss.’ These girls, however, wrote things like, ‘My father died,’ ‘My Mother died,’ ‘I started working’ (at five years old), ‘I had to stop school to take care of my brother,’ ‘I was saved from the rubbish dump.’ It is heartbreaking, but at the same time, there is a sense of hope because they WERE saved and they ARE thriving.

But then, this just highlights the randomness of life – they were incredibly unlucky to be born into such circumstances, but then fortune smiled upon them when one man decided he’d had enough of narcissistic actresses and first-class travel around the world. I am still in both awe and shock and sometimes, as my driver (yes, I get to say that now) cruises along the bumpy “roads” of the slums and I gaze out of the SUV window feeling like I am watching a movie, some kind of Cambodian Slumdog Millionaire.

Another quirk in this whole ordeal is that these kids have seen and experienced so much hardship, their young lives scarred by abuse, neglect, pain, trauma and suffering beyond anything most people who grew up in a developed country would have first hand experience of. Yet, they come to live in this organisation which provides a bubble of safety for them and they their lives become the opposite extreme. Oh, they still work hard, but instead of collecting trash to sell for food, they are studying, learning, engaging, with schedules that rival even the busiest middle-class western child. They are also helping in the community with food programs to feed others, establishing relationships with village elders, teaching the younger children, and pursuing a range of extracurricular activities like Karate. They don’t know what McDonald’s is (in part because there are none here), some of the girls may still play with dolls at 17, but all these kids are going places, and I’m sure will live brilliant lives, despite living in a society with a corrupt and apathetic government.

What I am seeing is that all of the founder’s business acumen, his ferocious negotiation and marketing skills, coupled with his generous A-list contacts with big bucks and the support of the community provide the basis for a thriving NGO. Phenomenal leadership skills (from both western and local staff and supporters) have allowed the organisation to expand, and in turn, preen the future leaders of tomorrow.

In the Wars

My poor legs...

My poor legs…

It’s like my mother used to say, I have been in the wars these past few days. Meaning that physically, everything is going wrong.

It’s not surprising, really, since I have come from a frigid developed country to a sweltering undeveloped one. It would be weird if my body didn’t freak out a little bit at its new environment.

I have been attacked by mosquitoes, probably from my trip to the beach where I lay on the sand. The good thing about mosquitoes (as if there is ever anything good about these malicious creatures) in Korea, is that they are industrial size – you can see them. You can also hear them when they go in for the kill, as if a warplane was buzzing overhead, ready to attack. Here, they are much more subtle – silent but violent – as my red, swollen bites can attest. I have at least 20 bites on each leg and even some on my butt. They itch like crazy and last night, I woke up several times to scratch them as furiously as a stressed chef grates carrots for a salad. I scratched them until they were raw and bleeding, then slathered them in hydrocortisone, which is supposed to be used up to four times a day. I have used it at least eight.

I developed a sinus infection, which means that smelling, tasting, breathing and talking clearly have become difficult, as if someone pushed the off button on my sense of smell and taste and then placed my nostrils in a vice.

As a natural born klutz, I was in a dehydration-induced daydream and tripped down some stairs, hitting the floor hard and badly bruising my right knee. It looks like someone painted an uneven puddle with grey paint over the bony flesh.

As if that wasn’t enough, I went to a Capoiera training session which was held on a concrete basketball court. I should’ve known better but I got carried away and the thick layer of skin on the sole of my right foot tore apart, not bleeding, but making it very difficult to walk. I won’t be able to train again until it heals.

My ever-present enemy in hot weather, Heat Rash, has decided to torment me again. I’m all scratched-out after the mosquito bites, so I hope the spotty pink rash stays very calm and localised. It is being upstaged by the sunburn that has covered my arms in a pink glow (although that is my own fault, I was too lazy to coverup).

An old friend once remarked that I should be wrapped up in cottonwool – which is true, considering how sensitive my body is. My nose once rejected a piercing. I am allergic to most sunscreens and the contraceptive pill. I get motion sick by sitting in a rocking chair and get rashes from shaving and waxing. I hate loud noises and my eardrums hurt after listening to my iPod.

Still, as physically crappy as I feel, I must remember to keep it in perspective as I have not yet become afflicted with three of my most feared physical ailments: malaria, food poisoning and head lice. I hope that my body recovers soon. In the meantime, I am in the market for an industrial strength insect repellent.

The Great Escape

DSC_2802When we travel, we are seeking novelty. We want new experiences, to meet new people, to broaden our horizons and move out of our comfort zone. New landscapes, sights and sounds turns our brain on like a drug and ignites the senses in a way that draws us ever more into the reality of the present moment.

Perhaps my favorite thing about traveling is that it pulls you into a different reality where worry, anxiety and the blah-blah-blah of endless head chatter can be silenced. As writer Elizabeth Gilbert said, travel functions to ‘change your interior landscape so that it knocks you out of your commuter mind and your habitual thinking which at some points in your life becomes destructive.’ Amen.

As someone prone to over-thinking, analyzing and ruminating, I crave the thrill, tranquility and freedom of being inside the travel bubble where I feel most alive and present, where my identity is fluid and I experience things I never imagined possible. Things that ordinarily send me into a fit of self-loathing and a case of the ‘I’m-not-good-enoughs’ are tolerable, because I can instead distract myself with the novelty of my surroundings. Just this morning, for instance, I received some unwelcome news. If I was home, it would’ve sent me on a downward, bottomless spiral. But today, I was able to go to a beautiful garden, immerse myself amongst the exotic flowers and then pamper myself by getting an excellent, cheap pedicure at a spa I couldn’t afford to go to back home.

Of course, there are downsides to traveling, especially alone – the bouts of loneliness, the bi-polar moments of ‘wow-this-is-exciting-omg-why-am-I-crying-myself-to-sleep?’ And not all new experiences are fun or hedonistic – such as bearing witness to abject poverty, begging children and inhumane living conditions.

What’s more, using travel as an escape can be bad because, well, who can afford the time or money to travel all the time. And there are so many times in the past where I’ve wanted to be anywhere except where I actually am. I wish I had a magic carpet. But this is reality, and I don’t.

And now, as I adapt to my surroundings and transition from tourist/traveler to volunteer/short-term expat and the reality of having to work hard everyday sets in, I crave to be a traveler once again. In the meantime, I aim to keep my head straight while the monotony of daily life in the same location sets in.