Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Picture This

It's nearly 2009 in Cambodia. I guess my 25 years are starting to show, because I'm considering turning in for the night before the official rollover into the New Year. Of course part of that is because I am leaving early tomorrow morning to go to Vietnam. My visa to Cambodia expires on Saturday, so I'm taking a little trip across the border. I'm going with some people from Partners in Progress, and will be gone a few days. I promise to tell you all about it when I get back. But I did want to tell you more about my parents' visit to Cambodia. But since I am tired and still have a bit of packing to do before tomorrow morning's early departure, I decided that instead of telling you about my parents' trip using my usual narrative style, I will show you about their trip through pictures instead....

Awww...aren't they cute?

Spirit Houses- ubiquitously Cambodian
An Elephant near Wat Phnom. None of us rode it. I was a little sad.
Christmas day was spent at the Welch's doing puzzles...
...And making sugar cookies! (We didn't have cookie cutters, so our shapes are a bit creative)
Hiking around the National Park was apparently pretty tiring.
And what trip to Cambodia would be complete without sampling the local cuisine?
I have it on good authority that "locusts taste like fried chicken". (Oh and in case you were wondering, crickets and meal worms are not bad either, though meal worms are a little squishy.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

A History Lesson

As I write this post, my parents are somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on their way back to the United States. They haven’t even been gone from Cambodia 24 hours, but I already miss them so much! I didn’t realize how much being away from my family these past 6 months would affect me. I mean, I’ve lived abroad before, and haven’t been “in the nest” for nearly 7 years now. Even still, seeing my mom and dad’s wonderful, smiling faces at the Phnom Penh airport was quite possibly the most welcome sight I’ve had in a long while.

(Here they are riding in their first Tuk-tuk!)

It didn’t even matter that their arrival came 3 DAYS later than expected, and completely shifted our whole trip’s itinerary. Because I wanted my mom and dad to have the best experience possible in Cambodia, I was fairly upset when I realized we would have to forgo our excursion to the ruins at Siem Reap. But we made the most of their 6 full days here, packing in a visit to Wat Phnom, the Russian Market, the National Park, and even an all-day trip to several village churches for worship. There will be more to come on that experience in a later post. But today, I wanted to write about our first day’s excursion to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek (or the Killing Fields).

(Tuol Sleng Museum's Entrance)

Anyone who has read anything on Cambodia knows that the horrendous genocide that took place barely 30 years ago under the Khmer Rouge has single-handedly shaped this nation in ways we Westerners will never truly fathom. Killing off 1/5 of the nation’s inhabitants, Pol Pot’s brutal communist regime mercilessly beat, starved and tortured between 1 to 2.5 million people during his rule from 1975 to 1979.

There are few, if any, Cambodians that have not personally suffered in some way because of the terror inflicted on their nation. Many of my peers here have had to grow up without parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles. In fact, so many people died during that small section of time that there is a gap in Cambodia’s population. Today, the average age in Cambodia is 20.6 years, and over half the people are under the age of 25! Land mine victims can be found on nearly every corner- some begging for spare change, others working selling cards or other handmade crafts. Even a short visit to Cambodia will reveal how deeply impacted everyone here continues to be by the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge.

I know none of that is something that many of you want to hear. However, I personally think it is essential that people the world over open their eyes to the atrocities going on around them. No, they are not pleasant to hear about. But unless and until we acknowledge the evil that exist in the world today, we can never hope to defeat it. That is why I was so eager to take my mom and dad to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as well as to the Killing Fields. I wanted them to see firsthand how horrible the Khmer Rouge’s actions were. While not a lighthearted day, our time spent touring those two sights was undoubtedly impactful.

Here are some photos of the victims of S-21, a prison in which the museum is located:

And here are the cells people were kept inside:

Here are a few of the excavated mass graves at the Kiling Fields:

I think this sign speaks for itself.

If you can't read that sign at the bottom, it says, "Please don't walk through the mass grave."
I will avoid a long explanation here of everything in these photos. Instead, here are some links to information about both the prison and the Killing Fields for those of you that are interested to learn more.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My New Job and Why I Hate Winter

Many apologies for my recent lapse in posting. I've been in transition here for a few days, moving into a new house and kitty sitting job while an American couple working with PIP goes home for a little over a month. It took me a few days to get settled in and configure my computer to their Internet, so I'm playing catch-up on a lot of things.

So far, I'm loving my new temporary accommodations. Kenny and Jasmine are my fun new companions. Both adopted kitties have incredible stories of how they were rescued- Kenny still bears the scars from when he was found caught in barbed wire and Jasmine got stuck in a sticky-paper rat trap when she was just a few weeks old. The toxins in the glue on the trap meant Jasmine almost died of liver failure. But she pulled through, thanks to special soap to remove the glue from her skin and and IV drip to help her body work the chemicals out of her system. Now they are healthy, happy, and, as you can see, adorable! These pictures are only of Kenny, since Jasmine was feeling shy during our photo session. I'll post some of her another time.

Here's proof that dogs are not the only animals that roll over...

...Cats just do it on their own terms!

Otherwise, my days have been spent still teaching my English students as well as... preparing for the upcoming visit of my MOM and DAD!! A few weeks ago, my mom surprised me with an email asking if it would be okay if they came to Phnom Penh for Christmas! I, of course, told them yes, and the next thing I knew, they had booked tickets! Their flight was scheduled to arrive tonight, but, due to adverse weather conditions, they are still in the U.S. for the time being. I'm not sure when they'll finally get on a flight to Cambodia, but I'm hoping it will be really soon! We're planning a few fun adventures while they are here, so I will definitely let you all know how their time in Phnom Penh goes, once they arrive! Until then, I hope everyone is staying nice and warm and enjoying the holiday season. Less than one week til Christmas!

Kenny wishes you all a very Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

My Dad Should Be Glad I'm Not Khmer!

As I mentioned in my last post, this past Sunday, the cook at Partners in Progress got married. Avey (or Avy, Awey, Awy and Awi as I have also seen her name written) is originally from a village known as “ Da Kamal” (my absurd phonetic spelling of the name) in Kandal Province. “Da Kamal” literally means “Grandfather Black”, but no one I asked knows where the village got this name. At any rate, I, along with a vanload full of other staff members from PIP left at around 9am on Sunday to make the nearly 2 hour drive to Avey’s family home.

Before I explain our adventure, let me begin by telling those of you who don’t know, that Cambodians take their weddings very seriously. In the U.S., couples have been known to spend exorbitant amounts of money on rather elaborate marriage ceremonies. However, compared to the multi-day extravaganza of ceremonies, feasting, and clothing changes that a traditional Cambodian wedding involves, ours seem downright plain! And when you factor in the average income in Cambodia, the several thousand dollars spent on these affairs easily becomes a life savings spent in a matter of days. (So remember, girls, when your fathers get upset over the cost of your wedding dress or catering, to tell him “It could be worse. At least I’m not Khmer!)
But back to Avey’s wedding….
Our little PIP group arrived at the village around 11am. We then parked our vehicle on an obliging neighbor’s land, and loaded up on a ferry to cross the river.

On the other side of the water, we walked a little ways, led by the sounds of Buddhist chants and songs until we found a large tent set up next to some small homes. The tent is where the many guests at the wedding would later enjoy an elaborate 8-course meal of fried fish, chicken, pork rolls and crab. More on that later.

First, we wanted to see Avey! In Cambodia, weddings do not happen at all like they do in the states. Because they often last for many days, the different ceremonies the bride and group go through are not watched by all the guests. So, many people in attendance were sitting in the tent waiting for the meal even while Avey and her husband-to-be were inside a house going through the process of getting married. It was a little awkward to climb up to the place where the ceremony was being held and walk in on the middle of chanting and different things, but no one really seemed to mind that we were there. Several ladies even came and pulled me to them and tried to help me find a comfortable seat to watch everything. I don’t know how to describe all of the different ceremonies I witnessed, because I honestly have no idea what most of it meant. But I do have a few interesting photos of the proceedings, so I thought I’d share them and let them speak for themselves.
Guests give gifts of money and tie red strings on the bride and groom's wrists to ward off evil spirits.
After the ceremonies, Avey came down for some photo ops.
Notice the many different outfits Avey is sporting in these pictures? Apparently she changed clothes 10 times, though I only saw 4 of those outfits.
And here are some pictures of our humongous meal. Seriously, it was so big that, even though I and the other vegetarian in our group only picked out the veggies, peanuts and rice from the different dishes that were served, in the end, we were stuffed full from our grazing! (You can’t really see vegetables in any of my pictures because they were under the meat in most cases)
This is mostly crab meat in various forms, though there are some peanuts in the bottom right corner.
And here is a spicy soup. Yummy!
This is chicken. Thankfully it had been beheaded and defooted prior to serving. That's not usually how I see them in the market!
This is the vat the fish were in before being fried.
And here's the whole fish on a plate. The eye is supposed to be the best part!

We had to rush back to Phnom Penh to make it in time for church services at 4pm, so we left the party very early around 2:30pm. Needless to say, my first Khmer wedding was definitely a unique and interesting cultural experience! While I enjoyed being a guest for the festivities, seeing such an elaborate event made me feel tired for those having to put it on. In fact, I decided that if I were Khmer, I’d probably just forgo the whole thing and elope!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Oh the Weather Outside is...wait....

Today Sharon and I put up their cute little Christmas tree. I can hardly believe the holiday is less than 3 weeks away! Of course that might be because the temperature in Phnom Penh is hovering right around 90 degrees and I'm still wearing short-sleeves and flip-flops....

Tomorrow I am off to a traditional Khmer wedding. The cook at Partners in Progress is getting married about 2 hours from the city, and we're taking a vanload to the event. Pictures are soon to follow.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An Untraditional Tradition

To be honest, Thanksgiving is probably my least favorite holiday. While I do certainly enjoy the chance to spend time with my family and friends on this day, there is little else about the celebration that I would miss if it were gone. I’ve always thought that if we really wanted to have a day in which we truly celebrated all that we were thankful for, we would do a lot more than simply eat a ridiculous amount of food and watch a barbaric sport (can you tell I’m also not a huge football fan?). So, even though I would have liked to go to my aunt and uncle’s house in Franklin, Texas, like my family does every year, I was not too terribly saddened by the fact that I would not be able to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving here in Cambodia, complete with all the turkey-laden trimmings.

Since Thanksgiving is a strictly American holiday (okay, so Canadians have a version too…) last Thursday was a regular working day here in Phnom Penh. But that did not stop the expatriate population from celebrating their beloved holiday. It just postponed it to Saturday. So, 2 days after the official festivities were celebrated in the U.S., 16 Americans in Cambodia got together to hold their own version. As you can see, we were not lacking in the food department!

Everyone pitched in to bring their favorite dishes- or “Cambodian-ified” versions of them. Graham crackers, cream cheese, fritos, corn syrup, pumpkin puree, corn meal are just a few of the items people in our group either could not find or could not justify paying outrageous prices for. So, substitutions abounded! Even still, everything turned out great! And while I did not sample any, I am told that the 4 chickens Sharon roasted were far superior to any “dry turkey” that might have been served on the other side of the globe.

My contribution was carrot-flavored hummus. Not necessarily traditional, but definitely something I love and miss from the states. Plus, it made a great vegetarian source of protein! :)

We completed the day with good conversation and a puzzle that Dennis and Sharon assure me was merely a warm-up for our 1,000-piece Christmas one.

All in all, my Cambodian Thanksgiving was a fun day because it was spent with some really wonderful people. (Of course, the fact that there was not a football in sight didn’t hurt either!)