Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sue Sadi Chnum Timy!

Happy New Year to you in Khmer! What a mind boggling year it has been. Graduation, moving from Montana to Alaska to Cambodia (with Idaho and Chicago in between, coming to work with LWF Cambodia. I think a little part of me is still reeling from all the change. 2008 was a difficult, exciting and humbling year for me. I feel much older now but at the same time keenly aware of how young I am in many regards.

Through all the changes and new experiences of the past year, there were wonderful people to help me grapple with it all. To avoid turning this into the “Oscar acceptance speech” blog post, I won’t name everyone. Still, I am so thankful to everyone who made life great and taught me new things and since this is the time of year for lists, here are few of my lessons learned in 08.

Firefly Catching: thanks to Carolyn and other orientation friends for teaching me to capture this fascinating bugs for the first time

Bear Dodging at Sarah Palin’s: warning the Governor’s house in Juneau attracts furry friends, check around the corner before proceeding in front of the house, going around back should be sufficient to avoid any bears

How Not to Whale Watch: not in a small, aluminum boat while distracted on the phone so you scream when the whale spouts a few feet from the bow (much gratitude to Nathan the extreme fisherman for bearing with me)

Khmer Dancing: the shuffle steps and “lotus” blossom hand gestures were tricky at first for someone more accustom to hip-hop and rock n’ roll but with the right teachers (i.e. my colleagues) dancing in Cambodia is hilarious fun

Niyee Pisa Khmai (Speaking Khmer): Ok, so I haven’t learned how to speak Khmer super well, but I can get around and I’ve learned more about a foreign language in a month and half of lessons than two trimesters of Spanish taught me

Cooking in Cambodia: despite missteps like oily French Toast, salty oatmeal and spicy cookies, I am getting closer to mastering a basic stir fry and being able to feed myself, fist pound to Carrie for her guidance and willingness to eat my mistakes

So that about wraps up a sampling of what this year taught me. Above all those things though, I have found that people who will love you and support you, no matter how far you are apart or what you are doing, are invaluable. And I am blessed with many of those people.

As my coworker Sokny reminded me, “I think you are lucky to have so many friends here.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ommmmm Bak tick a ta ba do ba

Title song reference number two, any guesses?
Aside from the lyrics to a '90s song, the title of this entry also contains the Khmer words for uncooked rice: om bak (those of you who speak Khmer can debate my spelling of the word if you pronounce it differently). Om bak is also the name for a popular snack available around harvest time. It is made in a three step process and tastes best right after you make it. While in Kampong Chhang province two weeks ago, I got to help make om bak - much to my delight and the entertainment of the ladies who showed me. Here's what I learned about making om bak:

Step One: Put a cup or more of unhusked, raw dry rice into a pot. Heat the pot over a fire. Don't add anything to the rice. The rice will start popping and crackling. Cook until all/most of the rice has popped.

Step Two: Pour the freshly cooked rive into a giant mortar and immediately begin pounding it with a giant, wooden stick. This step works best with three people, two pounding and one using a thin, pointed stick to stir up the rice between poundings. At this step, it is also good to invite a foreigner to join in and laugh as she - not realizing how heavy it is - struggles to lift the big stick. Be warned, the om bak won't be crushed very fast this way if the your foreign guest is weak.

Step Three: After the rice has been sufficiently flattened, put it on a large, flat basket. To remove the bits of husk, gently toss the rice by flopping the basket towards you with gentle motions. Though this sounds simple, it can be difficult for first timers to accomplish without losing the good bits too.

After completing all three step, you'll have a snack that is delightfully crunchy and chewy. Enjoy with caution, according to Ratna one handful of om bak equals one plate of cooked rice.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Call to what?

On Friday morning, soon after I hit the snooze and declined to go running with Carrie, I heard a sound very similar to the call to prayer. In my half sleep I thought, that's nice. Then I remembered there are no mosques in my neighborhood. In fact, I have only seen mosques near the river on the outskirts of town. By then the music was louder and closer than before.

About this time I was feeling not so happy about the music (it was 5:45) and then I remembered the pink and yellow tent set up just a few houses down from us. Oh no, it's a wedding.

Since the cool season started (temperatures are in the mid 70s to low 80s) so have the weddings. They start out early in the morning at the bride's house and part of any wedding in Cambodia is some really loud music. The tents sometimes cause traffic chaos and the music is sure to be heard round the block. The music in question is a hybrid of singing/chanting reminiscent of the call to prayer and someone rocking out on a xylophone.

My slight bitterness towards the music was mitigated when I left for work just in time to see the wedding procession shuffling along to the tunes. The groom led the way with a giant floral arrangement spilling over his arms, while the guests followed him in pairs looking as if they were about to board Noah's ark bearing gifts. Each person carried a silver tray with some food item wrapped in cellophane and ribbon. Fruit and vegetables all passed by. One man even balanced a fresh leg and haunch of pork on his tray. Two young men jumped off their motos just in time to hop on the end of the line clutching trays with small pyramids of Tiger Beer.

Moral of the story: So what if the music is loud, wedding season only comes once a year.

I am bad and have no pictures of this event either so here is the link to a friend's blog if you are wondering, Just what do those pink tents look like?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I ate a cricket and I liked it

Hehehe, sorry I couldn't resist the title. You will probably only understand the song reference if you are under 30 and living in the US. To all others, I apologize.

Last week was four days for province visits with the communications team. On Thursday, Ratna and I visited a brick making group in the evening. After an interview, we watched them make bricks using concrete, sand and one mold. Obviously, having only one mold means it takes a bit of time to make a couple bricks in the yard.

While we watched the men scoop the sand mix into the mold, one of the LWF project staff walked over from the house carrying a bowl. Something in me knew this bowl was not the usual fruit or ambok (more on ambok to come). Sure enough, the bowl was filled with crickets but not the little kind. No, these were the crickets as long as my little finger. She held out the bowl to me. I smiled (as I often do here) and took one.

For a moment, I am sure my expression was 100% culturally insensitive as I looked into the crickets little black eyes and he looked back at me. A little shiver of panic in my brain said, "Ahhh! Crickets are not for eating." Luckily, that tiny spasm was overcome by a voice saying, "Stop being rude and eat it you pansy!" And into my mouth went the cricket.

Now while I won't say I loved the cricket, it was actually good. Like salty, extra crunchy and sometimes chewy sunflower seeds. At first it was weird to feel the shape of the bug but once you start chewing, it is not bad at all. I even at a few more and Ratna took a picture of me eating one. I am not sure if eating a cricket means I am ready for one of the giant fried spiders here but I am one step closer to giving it a try.

Number of Provinces Visited: 5
Number of Crickets Eaten: 5

Monday, November 17, 2008

A series of fortunate unfortunate events

Over the past two months, I have had the wonderful chance to visit four of LWF Cambodia's projects in the provinces. This where the majority of LWF's work happens, in the rural areas of the country.

I will post some fast facts about Cambodia when I have more time. For now, I would like to share about a particularly special trip. In the first week of November, Ratna (my boss) and I headed to Battambang province four and half hours away from Phnom Penh. It was the tail end of the rainy season. While areas of Phnom Penh have been submerged by nasty water and floods, I have been lucky enough to escape most the season's harsher effects (minus a large leak in my roof that floods my closet). The rain has dramatic effects in the provinces as well. Pothole, bump roads become muddy, jarring slip and slides. As evidenced by this picture. Despite the best efforts, our car went off the road twice. Fortunately, people were quick to jump into the mud behind the Jeep and push.

After our off road adventures, I assumed we wouldn't be doing any more mucking around. However, our first planned activity was accompanying a community forestry group as they marched to their forest to check its boundaries and monitor illegal encroachments. The march was ten miles total, half through knee-deep waters in flooded rice fields. I had to admire the dedication of the group as we wade through the fields and forded chest-deep rivers. (Note: The villagers and LWF staff told me this is an unusual activity for the rainy season so please don't get the idea that people in the country side here love to run around in flooded rice fields.)

So here we are, me in my poncho from Vietnam, clutching my camera and following along. Thankfully, the Community Empowerment Officers lead me along when the water was too deep and carried my camera across the river for me. The experience was unpredictable and amazing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Sihanouk's shores

This post is long overdue (as the staff workshop actually happened in the second week of October). But hey, to be cliche, better late than never.

Every LWF Cambodia staff rounds up for a workshop to discuss plans for the next year, spend time together and recognize the achievements of the organization. This year, about 260 people attended the workshop, including me. The workshop was held in Sihanoukville, Cambodia's largest beach town. Though the water probably wasn't the best for swimming, the sky was incredible.

I am the only volunteer with LWF Cambodia and was the only new foreign face at the retreat. I am amazed by how large the staff is! Though I felt like a bit of an odd duck at first, my Phnom Penh coworkers and some new friends were quick to include me in the fun and games of the retreat. I learned that volleyball is a pretty big deal at the retreat. Teams from the project sites and the main office faced off in the prickly grass despite the afternoon heat. Unfortunately, the Phnom Penh office was defeated in the first round again this year.

The highlight of the retreat was definetly the dancing at the end. Though my traditional Khmer dancing skills are non-existant, my collegues were wonderfully willing to coach me along. I will never master the bendy-hand dance move so popular here but I think I can shuffle along decently to the steps :)

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Sapa all in nine days! Crazy travel but a lot of fun. Here are some photos of a wonderful trip with old and new friends.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The chirper in the wall

In this sometimes bewildering environment, I appreciate the small successes more and more. I am thankful for the tiny kindnesses and interactions that make Cambodia beautiful. Even odd and mildly annoying surprises increase my affection for this place.

One such quirky event took place last night in my apartment. When Carrie and I sit in the living room and chat in the evening, a squeaking noise from the wall punctuates our conversation. The noise is not quite a gecko chirp but not exactly a bird twirp. Dubbed, "the chirper in the wall," the rustling, talkative creature seemed to be voicing its opinion. I thought it was a bat, Carrie guessed a mouse or bird.

So last night, Carrie was making delicious soup and Mel came over for dinner. As I grabbed my keys to unlock the orange gate for her, I looked back toward the kitchen and saw something dart in through the open window (we don't have screens). It was a mouse with the longest tail I have ever seen! It scurried over to the kitchen and helped itself to the water in one of our ant traps (plastic bowls of water under the legs of the cabinet to keep ants out of food).

I gasped and pointed out the bold invader to Carrie, who sighed and reached for a broom. After letting Mel in and warning her of the drama in the kitchen, I picked up my camera to record the saga. Carrie, broom in one hand, large green bowl in the other, was trying to coax the mouse out from behind the cabinet where it had hidden. However, Carrie's efforts were only amounting to her petting the mouse with the broom. I began snapping away until Carrie, flustered by the clever mouse, pled, "This is not a documentary!" and handed me the broom. By then the alleged chirper lay rather floppily on the floor, perhaps playing dead or perhaps crippled by the broom.

With broom and feather duster, we scooped the mouse into the bowl. Carrie bravely carried the mouse to the back deck and unceremoniously dumped it into the concrete backyard. We all felt a little sorry for the chirper, who may have become perished in the fall or scampered away to drink from our ant traps another day. However, the chirping in the wall continues. Perhaps the chirper left a family behind or perhaps it is another pest entirely.

I realize this rather long story may not exactly be inspirational to readers. But in some weird way, it reminds me of adventures to be had. When I think about the adventure of living in Cambodia, this Mark Twain quote comes to mind.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I doubt Mark Twain had catching mice along with the trade winds in mind. But I think it is a reminder that despite the possibilities of pain and loss, taking the risk rewards us in the end. Even in little ways, like the comical chatter or the chirper in the wall.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Greetings from a skyscraper less city

Today, if all goes well, I move out of the Golden Gate Hotel and into my home in Phnom Penh. Hopefully, but doubtful, the rain will be merciful and light while I move.

I know the observations (and generalizations) I will make have been made by many before me. Though my impressions may be unoriginal, I remember all the people I met in churches who said they wished they could see it here and wanted to know what it’s like, what people eat, how they travel. So I will share what I see, recognizing that my view is tinted by my biases, upbringing, education and countless other factors. This is my disclaimer.


Phnom Penh is a world apart from my fuzzy memories of my visit three years ago. The streets are choked with glossy new cars wearing large stickers proclaiming, “Land Cruiser” or “Lexus” lumbering along side motorbikes and tuk tusk. Huge mansions sit behind high walls and coils of razor wire. A handful of supermarkets and western style grocery stores have sprung up, though only the rich and the expat can afford to frequent them. A new gym opens up near Independence Monument and charges over a hundred dollars a month. A skyscraper less city will soon be home to “Golden Tower 42,” a high rise boasting a mall, pool, gym and apartments built by a Korean firm.

Amongst all the building and money, many struggle. Inflation and low wages has driven thousands women to seek jobs outside the garment industry. Street children run together in the rain without shoes, pulling their paper thin shirts over their heads, exposing paper thin bodies. A development firm purchased Boeung Kak, the largest lake in Phnom Penh, and is filling it with sand, driving hundreds of people from their homes and livelihoods. Profit and investment have not flowed equal in the city or out into the country side.

This is what I observe from the surface of the city, from the newspapers and the sights. For now I can only imagine the hundreds of stories, influences and players beneath it.


As I mentioned before, I am in a period of constant readjustment. After ten days in the “safety” of an air conditioned, internet and cable supplied hotel, it is time to really move to Phnom Penh. My new home is at traditional wooden house located in a Khmer neighborhood. Carrie, my fabulous roommate, is a Mennonite volunteer handicraft designer and business advisor who has lived in Phnom Penh for a year. Carrie is my favorite part of this new living arrangement, followed by the lovely apartment itself and the two fluffy, wiggling puppies of the landlords. The hole in the ceiling and the lack of screens in the windows are less than exciting, but as my new friend Chris assured me today, there isn’t a house here without something quirky to it.

The first week here was the hardest of my life for sure. However, the Lutheran World Federation Office here is full of wonderful people I look forward to knowing better as the year progresses. The world of the expatriate is alien and amazing to this woman from Idaho Falls. I am endlessly grateful for all the support and advice I have been blessed with from family, friends and strangers. Until next time, you are all in my heart and prayers.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

First Thoughts

So here goes my first blog post (with a sentence I am sure has started off thousands of other blogs).

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

ee cummings