Disclaimer: These are my views and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Things Beside Food

A few times this week, I've reminded myself of Buster from Arrested Development. "Hey, brother," is the literal translation of how I greet my host brothers, due to this, a scene from the show will pop into my head. I'll smile and remember the countless times I watched the show with my roommates at 50 Del Mar. It's just the way that you address people here (earlier this reminded me of a fraternity and sorority colloquialism, now Arrested Development, what next?) I'm sitting here listening to Charles Mingus' "Rem Blues" on Money Jungle, feeling slightly tired and introspective. During training, one of the older volunteers told us that, "life would be like a roller coaster" and that "our highs would be higher because our lows would be that much lower." I remember thinking to myself, "yeah, and all the worlds a stage and all of us are actors." Cliched metaphors aside, she had a point.

I woke up this morning and went in to teach for the first time with the new teacher at my school. It was a frustrating experience. Earlier in the week, I taught with one of the veteran teachers, and we traded off teaching (eight hours on Monday) back and forth. Although not eagerly receptive to change everything right away (as to be expected) he let me do my thing and I let him do his. We kept the class mostly in English. I felt successful at the end of the day. The students had learned something. Today, not so much. The level of translation was so high that the students easily grasped the content of the lesson, but didn't have to use any English to figure it out. Instead, they would wait a few seconds and the teacher would tell them, word for word, what was going on in Khmer. I managed to force in a little bit of English in the second class, when I had the students give simple introductions e.g. Written on the board: "My name is ____. I am from ____. I am ___ years old." A few of the students had trouble with this. They've been studying English for three years... Patience. Patience. Patience. After four hours of hearing every word and every question translated into Khmer, I talked to the teacher (I had to bite my tongue a few times to keep from telling him off in front of the class, which would have been incredibly counter productive because of the whole concept of "saving face" e.g. don't ever correct the teacher in front of the students) I told him how I felt about translation and asked if we could try and not translate next time. He seemed to be receptive to this. We'll see how it goes next time.

From here, my day starts arcing like the upward slope of a sine wave. On my way home, I stop by the first host family I stayed with here and ask to buy some fried bananas. They insist on not letting me pay, and I sit and happily masticate warm deep fried banana and chat with them. Then, my co-worker, tutor, and friend Tola shows up and he helps me translate a bit of what first-host-mom-in-Srong was saying i.e. "you should come by more often" and "I'm happy you're here." Coming from a lady who I was pretty sure didn't like me, it was really sweet.

Afterwards, I went home and had some lunch, without having to eat fish heads, and took a nap. I woke up refreshed, did some dishes from my morning's breakfast, and started studying as I waited for Tola to come over for tutoring. The session went really well! We talked in Khmer for nearly the whole hour and a half. I wrote down about two pages full of new words, and I really felt like I could concentrate and respond to parts of conversation that were more abstract than the immediate here and now. We went out to coffee afterward and my host dad came along too. We chatted for awhile with each other and some of the curious people who wandered by, and then I went for an evening run.

I passed some monk children on the way, and I invited them to run with me. They were all smiles and challenged me to race. I sprinted ahead of them and turned to wave goodbye. I felt great, and, as I approached the watt with the giant Buddha, out of the forest came the beginning of the song "I've gotta feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas. Regardless of your 'feelings' about the song, it's got a good beat to run to. I got to the watt and turned around at the gate (a conditioned reflex from the first time I ran in and the dogs went nuts).

After a few seconds, the song switched to a Khmer song, and my stomach started churning. It was a feeling reminiscent of the recent diarrhea bouts I'd gone through when I was sick. I was afraid to fart. As I passed the monk children the second time, they we're as excited to race as before (there was even an older monk in the road with a digital camera.) I sucked in my gut and gave a last ditch attempt at a run and tried to smile. I kept thinking of Don Gately from Infinite Jest who said roughly "The pain at any one moment isn't too much to deal with. It's the adding up of all the moments seemingly stretching into eternity that becomes impossible to bear." I stayed present and made it home. Three trips to the bathroom later, I had some dinner. I played guitar and sang. I went upstairs and wrote about my day, and sat listening to music. So far so good.

Pickles, Fish Heads, and Congealed Blood

These are a few of the strange things I have eaten here thus far. Let me explain the pickles. I honestly thought they were cucumbers because of the way they were cooked and the dishes they showed up in. There was always something strange about the way the little chopped up green vegetables tasted in the stir fry dishes my host mom cooked. Normally, I would just throw some hot sauce (a garlic, fish oil, and chili pepper mix that makes any dish taste more like the sauce than anything else, a real life saver at times) and munch away. Recently, the stir fry was a little undercooked, and I was feeling adventurous and decided not to use any hot sauce. A few bites helped me discover that the cucumbers were pickles.

In a similar way, I discovered that I had eaten congealed blood. My first host mom would cook up a variety of dishes in which there would be little brownish squares that soaked up the flavor of whatever they were cooked in. I thought it was brown tofu... Coincidentally, the day that we learned about pain and injuries in language class, I asked about what it was that I was eating. Bad call. The answer was straight to the point, "that's cow blood." I smiled, a nervous what-did-I-get-myself-into smile and then remembered that I'd been happily eating the stuff for a few weeks so there really wasn't any reason to pick around it now. I will admit that I stopped specifically searching it out with the spoon though.

The fish heads were a recent phenomenon. Trying to make conversation at dinner, I asked a question that no one should ever ask, "do you eat the fish's head?" Again, my Khmer host brother treated me to the same matter of fact answer, "yes, eat." Wow, keeping my mouth shut would have been a much better call in both cases. Twice since then, I've crunched through all the cartilage that is, a fish's head. It kind of reminds me of eating shrimp tails in Chinese food. Having had the choice to eat or not to eat, I can't really explain that one away.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rasta Beanies and Mickey Mouse

I am in the process of observing Cambodian teachers and trying to work out a schedule for the school year. I have also been observing current student fashion trends (see above).

Brief anecdote: I was cast into an impromptu lesson yesterday. The teacher finished his lesson, walked over to me and asked, "Can you teach now? I want to see how you would teach vocabulary." Me: "What vocabulary should I teach?" Him: "Just pick a word it doesn't matter." Me: "Ok, give me a second." I ended up teaching the students about the word "graffiti" as I figured it would be one they had never heard before. Then, I proceeded to play a word association game with them i.e. "where does graffiti come from?" "a pen" "where does a pen come from?" etc. Then I had them each come up with one word in English to share with the class. I basically just really wanted to get them talking and try to break up the general presence of silence that they've gotten used to in the English classroom. One class I observed today went on for about an hour without the students saying a single word! Once I'd compiled their words on the board, I wrote a few sentences using the words and had them come up and act out the sentences. I had fun, and I imagine that the students did as well. Some highlights: the students that acted out a mouse finding and sniffing the cheese (another student) and the dog being fed under the table. Humiliating for the students? Maybe. Entertaining? You bet. I need to take care not to abuse this power. Haha, oh the joys of teaching.

While I am not teaching, I've been keeping up my Khmer studies, running, and searching for bread. I love bread so much, but it is a rarity in my community. I had a bread lady in my training village who I visited daily. My toughest days were the ones where she ran out of bread. It's amazing how much of an impact food has on my mood. I've even been ordered by close friends to eat at times when I've gotten cranky. From a series of inquisitions and what could be termed prolonged jests, but not conversations, with my crazy host-aunt, yes I have a crazy host-aunt, (I use the term endearingly. She is, shall we say, eccentric. She generally dons a wide brimmed circular hat with circling, alternating, black and yellow stripes like a bumblebee. She speaks to me as if I understand every word that she says, and everything I say she finds hilarious. e.g. I am going to school. (burst of laughter -quick repetition of what I said, "going to school!") I love curry (same reaction) I miss my family (another burst of laughter)) and through her, I've determined that one way to get bread is to wait by the side of the road and flag down a person driving by who has bread. This seems to be a somewhat inefficient method, but somehow my host-mom managed to get a few loaves of bread for the curry we had last night. Therefore, I am hopeful about the prospect of eating bread in the future.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sin aire, sin sonido, sin substancia!

(Me with my dirty-one-week-of-sickness beard)

Hi everyone. I am currently in my hammock, happy as a clam. I feel somewhat like a clam too, as the hammock is fully wrapped around me, except for an opening at the top (maybe more like a burrito, man i miss Mexican food!)

In other news, i was sick for about a week and now I'm better. So it goes. The other day, while i sat outside with my host family, I saw a bus go through our village, past the house. I looked up to see two white faces staring at me. For a moment we all shared the exact same thought, "what on earth (pg version) are you doing here?" likely coupled with the same surprised expression. It was a strange moment and i'm still not exactly sure what to make of it. Was i feeling a bit territorial? Have i been here that long that the sight of a white person is a spectacle? Either way it felt unique.

I begin another week of observation next week. I hope by the end i will know who i will be working with for the coming year and what grades i will be teaching with any luck beginning the following week. It's been a bit of a rocky start, but it seems like things are moving at last.

P.S. The title is a line from el amor by neruda. I'm still being enraptured by the captain's verses.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Khmer Rap Group and My Traveling M.O.


So, I saw this poster and I couldn't pass it without taking a picture. There's the typical 5 person possy all schwagged out with various articles of bling. Not gonna lie, the headband guy with Jordan's number kinda reminded me of Questy. Not really sure about the various signs being thrown, but I think the guy on the right is advocating for peace. Master Wizard seems to be the group leader. I say this because he is on top, and he has the most bling. Also, he is shooting rays of fire, light, or gangster-related inspirational energy at the others, which makes him the leader by default. Then, there is the woman in the shiny dress, who doesn't really seem to fit in with either the gangster or wizard party. Maybe she's going to prom with one of them.

Throughout my travels with Guillaume in Central America, I could often be found eating peanut butter, sometimes plain, sometimes with a spoon, sometimes without utensils... Here I managed to find some bread, and while going on a mini-vacation this past weekend, I returned to my usual ways. Guillaume, I hope you are proud of me.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

100 Kilos...

So maybe I've gained a bit of weight since I've been here, no biggie. Actually, I've probably lost weight, but I'm guessing I won't see a scale for awhile. Although, sometimes in the bigger cities, there are beggar children who go around to tourists with scales charging to let you know your weight. The concept of weight is different here. In America it would be offensive to call someone fat or to ask how much someone weighs, here it is commonplace. My host-aunt was just looking through a photo album I showed her and commented on how fat I used to be. Then she told me that I should eat more, because "fatter is stronger." My past host family, would always tease my host-brother in law about his bit of pudge and would tell me "fat not pretty." Needless to say, these contradicting comments sent me into a shame-spiral-eating-frenzy, (not really, i jest) but I digress.

The title actually refers to the number of kilometers I biked yesterday to get to the closest Peace Corps volunteer and get back to my village. I got a pretty decent sunburn and my legs are sore, but it was worth it to feel like I was not alone. Not that i've been all that lonely, my family is great, it's just nice to speak in English. The trip was an adventure through the depths of rural cambodia, and I wanted to share a few highlights / lowlights.

First the lowlights: I wasn't a fan of seeing the shirt "Equal Opportunity Asskicker!" in a country where women's issues are very prevalent and real. Although, as some of my friends will remember, I may have participated in my share of sexist jokes in high school e.g. "Do you want to hear a joke... women's rights." These jokes were made because of the reaction they evoked and never with any degree of seriousness. I consider myself a feminist in the root sense of the word. I feel that women really should have the same rights as men, and while I am not ignorant of our biological differences, I feel that in most cases where preconceived differences are attributed to sex, there is a misconception linking biological differences to socialized behavior. Luckily, I don't think the guy wearing the shirt knew what he had on his back. I've seen enough ridiculous shirts here to realize that most people don't have a clue what their clothes say.

The next "lowlight" really wasn't all that bad. I ended up lost in a river (yes, biking through a river). I was up to my pedals in water heading towards a particularly remote village. A few of the locals growled at me, which perturbed me, to say the least. I kept moving, heralded by the cries of "BARONG!" which continued to follow me throughout the ride. My route ended up being a shortcut, a fact I learned by taking the long road home.

I met up with my friend Bryan about halfway into the ride which was totally unexpected because I managed to mix up north and south thinking that he was biking a different direction. His knee was hurting and so we decided to head back toward his village. About half way back, we stopped for some cold soybean milk, so good! Then we went for lunch at his village / town and had some fried ramen noodles with veggies and cow. After lunch we ordered some bolboa (not sure how to spell it) it turned out to not be bolboa, but it was pretty good nonetheless. I bought a loaf of bread, pretty much my M.O. here whenever I see it (we don't have it in my town either which makes it that much more special now). Bryan took me home to meet the folks, who insisted that I stay the night, I declined, as I told my family I'd be back that day. Long story short, after stocking up my waterpouch (camelback knock-off) I was off.

It started raining on the way back and I was utterly soaked. The roads are all dirt and I got all dirty. See exhibit 1:

The bike ride back was long enough that I had some time to think. I realized that being in Cambodian society is sort of like being part of a giant fraternity / sorority. There are three aspects to this analogy 1) When they drink, they drink to get drunk. 2) Everyone calls one another "big/little" "brother/sister" and sometimes just "big" or "little." 3) They play music way too loud!

One last thing, in one of towns I biked through there were two girls playing in the road. The older one, around 5, rushed to pick up the little one and carry her out of the way. I guess she thought that if she didn't move the little one I would run her over. There was plenty of room to maneuver, and this scene surprised me. People don't really know what to think of me here. I have been treated like a vengeful deity, an unwelcome guest, a prince charming (come to marry and take a bride to America), an omniscient being, a trophy, an idiot, and, during the best of times, as a human being.

First Day of School

I woke up early, 3:15 am or so, to a dog sporadically, yet incessantly, barking right below my window. My room 1 is on the second floor, and I wasn't about to get up and go downstairs to see what was going on. I lay there for awhile considering my options, and eventually took the more passive, less violent option of throwing in some earplugs. A few hours later, I woke up again and threw on some music to get pumped for the day (Pinback and then, I'm embarrassed to admit, a little "Party in the USA" by Miley Cyrus :) it's just so catchy "then i put my hands up they're singing my song...." i'm sure you know the rest) Holding my water heater at chest height, because the outlet is set high on a post and the cord doesn't reach the floor, i boil a liter for coffee and oatmeal (still my go-to breakfast).

Excited about the day, I dance around the room throwing my most formal outfit, i.e. black pants, a belt (still getting used to that thing...), the nice collared blue shirt my mom got for me, and, of course, sandals. Next, I hop on my Peace Corps bike with my P.C. approved, goofy-looking, helmet and bike off to school. I weave in and out of potholes, puddles, teens, and children, who bike at what I endearingly call the "Khmer pace," to be distinguished from "the American pace" that I like to set.

I get to school and chat with a few of my co-teachers and vice principal. The vp asks me if I like wwe / wwf wrestling and tells me about how much he likes "The Undertaker" this is all in Khmer, with a little help from one of the co-teachers who speaks some English. As 8:30 rolls around (I was told to be there at 7:30...) things began. A stage was set up in front of the students, there was an m.c. and a table with the school director, vp, who I assumed were the district governor and the head of the education dept, and then there was me. Having been invited to sit at the front, I played the role of the trophy white person, sitting and smiling for two hours. I asked the director if he wanted me to say anything, but, without receiving a direct no, I realized that they just wanted me to sit. So i sat. That was it. School was done for the day, and I went home.

I spent the rest of the day, doing what is slowly becoming my routine, i.e. running to train for the half-marathon in December, lifting weights or doing yoga, reading in my hammock, studying khmer, playing kicki-feather with some of my host-siblings, and occasionally shooting the breeze with the mings (my host-aunts and my host-mom).


Bon Tope Dayk (Bedroom)

The wooden floor is covered
in a flowery plastic repetition
whose beginning and end are obscured
by its rectangular shape.

A bouquet of fake flowers,
whose floral attributes
resemble the laminated carpeting,
rests on the hard wood table.

Fireworks sound in the distance
as if timed to break
the silence softened by crickets.

I rock slowly
in a green mesh cradle
under a brick tiled roof
that leaks during storms,
while the cigarette-box-backed glass
mirrors my reflection
as I stare at an ancient temple,
the background of a beer poster
plastered on the wall.