Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Do the hustle

Oh so corny but I couldn't resist using this title for this blog. I feel like I am doing the Cambodian hustle; the race around Phnom Penh to pick up stuff, drop off stuff and tie up those straggling ends of my life here.

Right now, I am running around but it still feels so surreal. As I flag down a moto driver to take me to the market, negotiate the price, put on my helmet and hop on for the ride, I am reminded that I won't be doing this again any time soon. The basic details and tasks of life are changing. How frightening, but hopefully fantastic as well.

Overall, in my tired, emotional daze, I feel richly blessed by this year, in a way I can't describe right now. In relationships, experiences, travel and work, I have been welcomed and taught by amazing people and places. For all that, I am grateful. What comes next I am not sure of but I suspect this experience will continue to unfold even after I have left Cambodia. Let's hope so.

So we close with another favorite quote by Rainer Maria Rilke. It kind of perfectly sums up everything.

"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

The more I see, the more I wonder, the less I know. What a mystery and blessing that is. Thank God!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A village

This sign says you are in Kroviek village. Its a tiny community at the base of a few small mountains, way way off the main roads. I visited Kroviek in March to talk with villagers about their history and experiences with LWF Cambodia.

One of the things I love about LWF Cambodia is the way it approaches development. It isn't one project, a school or a road. It is everything, farms, finance, food security, health, sanitation, education and more. To see it first hand over the past 10 months has been humbling and hopeful. This little project paints a picture of how it all works.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Favorite Things

One of the things I will miss about Cambodia is that even if you have a less than exciting day, your still in Cambodia with little surprises around every corner.

It rained heavily yesterday afternoon so I wasn't alarmed that the concrete courtyard of my house was flooded with about four inches of water when I got home from work. Luckily, the rain had ended about an hour before so the water was not murky. I paused, watching the little bubbles popping up through the cracks in the concrete, took off my shoes and rolled up my pants (white leather flip flops don't do well with sandy water). The little girl who lives down stairs at my house ran inside to get a big red bucket and I was trying to figure out if she would attempt to float me through the water with it.

Then something moved on the roof of the small warehouse next to our house. Stupid horny cat, I thought, guessing this was the creature whose yowling makes me cringe. But then I noticed its unusually long tail. And long limbs. And face. It was a small, pale monkey! I have never seen a monkey anywhere in Phnom Penh besides Wat Phnom park and, though my land lady said there were monkeys near the house, I was pretty surprised.

I started pointing at the monkey frantically as it crawled between the wooden openings of the roof. The land lady's husband, in only his plaid boxer/short things, plodded out into the water and looked up too. Unfortunately, the monkey was gone by then and I didn't know how to communicate that in Khmer. So I shrugged and waded over to the stairs to my porch. By then Alida (little girl) was back with the bucket and gave it to her dad and pointed at me. I tried to say I didn't need it but he came over to me on the stairs. And then he poured water from the bucket over my feet with a joking, "Oooh!"

I laughed, said thanks and headed inside with a warm fuzzy feeling. This place and the people here continue to amaze me.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Glitter and Glamour

I have a theory that when it comes to glamour, no one does it better than Cambodians. This was confirmed at the wedding of Martha, my coworker Savannary's eldest daughter. Vannary, Martha and the family were kind enough to invite me to watch the many ceremonies that make up a Cambodian wedding.

The wedding started on Sunday with a blessing by monks and offerings and continued Monday with the fruit procession and more ceremonies. All the ceremonies take place in the front room of the bride's house, which is emptied of funiture and then bedazzled with red and gold ribbons and flowers. Relatives come to witness and take part in the different steps. The rituals included "hair cutting," feeding each other in bed, offerings to the parents and blessings by those in attendance. And for each one there were different outfits! Marta wore at least eight different traditional costumes (that I saw). Each step was filmed and photographed with such tenacity that the camera men were kind of like hired paparazzi.

The wedding concluded with dinner and dancing at Chenla theater for about 980 guests. I have to admit, I was a bit tired after just attending all the events. I gotta have respect for Vannary and her family for organizing everything and hosting so many people. I remember hearing people comment on huge, extravagant weddings in the U.S. and I think I can safely say that those don't hold a candle to the kind of weddings that go down here.

Watching all the little steps in the process of Martha and Teathe's wedding, I was awed by how long it takes and how everyone is involved. It really is a gathering of family to support and bless this new union. In one particular rite, the bride and groom bent over golden cushions and held an ornate sword. Friends and family, starting with the parents, tied red strings from a bowl of flower petals and water around their wrists and blessed the couple. They also put money between their hands and the sword. It reminded me a little bit of the dollar dance that you see at some weddings in the States....but with more meaning and glam.
Ready for their blessing.

Relatives throw flowers after the blessing ceremony.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Done riding elephants

Summary of May's trip to magically Mondulkiri:

lots of green space

lots of rain, lightning and house-shaking thunder

lots of bugs

many water falls

many hours in the car

good food

good friends

And I am done riding elephants after four hours on top of a giant purring, tree munching one.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pomp and Circumstance Shout out

Congratulations to Braden Cook on graduating from high school tomorrow! I received a scrolly, orange and black announcement and this dashing photo today. Of course, I had to show it off around the office. Coworkers expressed congratulations and some concluded that Brady and I look nothing a like. I told them, “Wait until my mother is here next week.”

While trying to describe my relationship to him in Khmer I accidentally called him my son (goan proh). I corrected myself but the slip made me think how much I miss him. I have admit to feeling a little maternal about my siblings, especially the youngest, but that is pretty typical of us fretting, older sister types.

Joking about family resemblance and mixed Khmer nouns aside, I am really, really proud of my little brother. He rocks and I can’t wait to see what shenanigans and adventures await him.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Every day is a winding road

Lesson learned today:

Raid does not kill maggots.

Monday, May 11, 2009

On the road again

I know, cliche title but couldn't resist it as I will be spending at least ten hours in a mini bus tomorrow. This week marks holiday # 3,432,233 and # 3,432,234 of my time in Cambodia. Just kidding. But really, it will be my 20th and 21st official holiday.

And what, you may ask, is the occasion. Tomorrow, in addition to being the birthday of my awesome sister, is also Royal Plow Day. This event is somewhat similar to groundhog's day but with oxen instead of rodent. Three royal oxen plow a symbolic circle in front of the National Museum and are then offered seven bowls of water, rice, corn, sesame seed, beans, grass and rice wine. Whatever the oxen eat is the crop that will prosper in the coming year.

Royal Plow Day precedes a three day holiday for the King's Birthday. Rather than stick around and watch the oxen plow, I am headed off to Mondulkiri, an eastern province bordering Vietnam. I am looking forward to beautiful water falls and elephant rides. However, I am not so excited about the bus ride, which could become tricky if it rains.

Besides literally being on the road to Mondulkiri, I find myself on the road in a more figurative way too. Though I have two months left in Cambodia, I can feel the pull of transition at my heel, like the current when you wade into a river. At night, I dream of being in U.S. amoung family and friends, either shocked to be there or nagged by the feeling that I should still be in Cambodia. I wake up startled but releaved to be in my wooden house and listen to the whir of the fan and the sounds of the neighborhood.

I wonder who I will be after this experience. My identity here is built on being an expat, an NGO worker, a mission personnel, a friend to those I have met in Cambodia. I am still who I was when I left, a daughter, a girlfriend, a sister, a friend. I am also totally different. People are always encouraging you to take the road less traveled. But no one tells you what to do after that. Guess that's the point.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Little April Showers

April is the hottest month in Cambodia. Meaning 100 degrees, humidity, buckets of sweat, multiple showers a day, dust everywhere and trees heavy with gorgeous yellow blossoms. However, April is coming with an unseasonal twist this year, heavy rains.

The communications office of LWF Cambodia moved last month from upstairs to a room adjacent to the main building. Today we are experiencing rain in our new office for the first time.

It starts with Chanthorn noticing the ominous signs of rain outside. Ratna agrees it will rain. Then I ask if we have a tin roof. Oh yes we do.

It starts with a few random plinks, like someone is throwing rocks up there. Within seconds it escalates to hammering and pounding. The thunder is rolling and the sound is almost like machine gun sound effects from a movie or soda can full of pebbles I used to shake at my dog but neither really captures it. Though we have to shout over it to be heard, I love the sound. There is nothing quite like it.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


There is a saying in Cambodia. Men are like gold, once tarnished they can be polished to regain their luster. Women, on the hand, are like white cloth; once soiled they are stained forever. This duality exists all over the world to various degrees and it is deeply ingrained in the culture here. Women out late at night can be arrested on charges of prostitution even if they are just out to get milk for their children. Visiting brothels is normal and acceptable for young men but for a young woman to have a boyfriend is inappropriate.

This saying's message is painfully apparent. Women are not worth much. One misstep can ruin their lives and reputations. This attitude radiates into many areas of life. Violence against women is wide spread and rapists can get off the hook by paying the families of their often shockingly young victims. Visiting a rural village last week, the women said domestic violence is a problem for all of the families. One woman was raising her three children on her own. Her husband drank and was not "right in the head." He takes out his frustration on her and the family. And there are so few resources for her, or for him, to change this pattern.

I have been come more aware of this the longer I am here. And the more I see it, the angrier and sadder I get. So over the last four months, it has been a huge blessing to be involved in something that sends an alternative message. The Vagina Monologues.

I have loved the play since I saw it in Missoula but never had the opportunity to participate. Begin here, in Phnom Penh, meeting with a group of awe-inspiring women to talk about that which is taboo, to embrace it and celebrate it, has been incredible. The Vagina Monologues is part of a wider movement called V-Day to end violence against girls and women. At face value, the play is hilarious and heartbreaking. But as it has grown into a global movement, the Monologues have become a tool for change. So far, our little performance has raised over $5,000 for Women Peacemakers, a Cambodian organization that teaches rural villagers ways to confront domestic violence.

Here in Cambodia the cast has been all expats (not for lack of trying to recruit Cambodians). But I hope that as the play is performed year after year, more Cambodian women will become involved. This year, it opened each night with the Messenger Band, an all female Cambodian protest band. These women truly amaze me. Their songs speak out about women's rights, factory worker's rights and the need for men and women to work together for a harmonious life. Hopefully, their message can slowly change people's thoughts on rights and gender.

Well I need to go get ready for our last performance. If you haven't seen the Vagina Monologues yet, I encourage you to look for a performance near you next year on Valentine's Day. Together, we can change the message.

Check out for more information on V-Day!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Adventures of a Peep

Once upon a time, packed snugly in a box, a group of peeps traveled from Idaho to Cambodia. It was a long journey across the Pacific Ocean to get to Phnom Penh.

After they arrived, most of the peeps were content to sit in the box, waiting to be devoured. But one little peep was curious. It wanted to see Cambodia. So it hoped out of the box and ventured into the LWF office.
The little peep quickly made friends around the office. Vutha held it...

Panha gave it a kiss....

and Borin gave it a ride on his moto.

After hanging out in the office, the peep ventured outside. It took a tuk tuk to the market...

And got some lunch.

The peep returned to the office and contemplated its future. Go back to the US and face massive falls in candy sales as economic crisis deepens, be eaten by a sugar-loving communications consultant or run away and melt in the Cambodia heat. Poor peep.

Fortunately, the peep happened to have amazing computer skills. So it put them to use and started work on projects for LWF Cambodia!

And so the peep lived happily ever after in the LWF office with its new friends (including Sokny).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

InDesign makes my world go round

I am a design nerd. I love fonts (except for Comic Sans, which is evil). I have a habit of pointed out which ones are used in billboards, programs and movie trailers. Adobe InDesign and I have a long term relationship. In the last year, I have spent more time with this program than with my family.

At last, all that nerdiness has been put to good use. Presenting the baby of the Communications Unit, conceived by many hours with InDesign, several weeks of visiting the countryside and a lot of editing. The LWF Cambodia 2008 Annual Report. Ta dah!

Check out the full report at

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

If you wanna be my songsa

So for the past three and a half weeks, I was blessed to have Nathan visiting me here in Cambodia (thus my absence from communications with friends, family, etc.) It was so amazing to have him here with me, to walk to the Russian Market with him, hear him give a tuk tuk driver directions in Khmer (after a few lessons) and just spend time together.

Last night he boarded a plane for Seoul and as I type this he is probably curled up on a bench at in that spaceship of an airport. Though I felt ridiculously sad at times yesterday, today I feel grateful for his visit and hopeful that we will see each other again back in the US in July (ticket prices willing). Because I am a fan of list, here are the highlights of Nathan’s visit.

Fish massage: Oh yeah, it’s weird. You put your feet in a pool of little fish and watch as they form a sock of wriggling tails and fins in a mad dash to eat the dead skin off your feet. Nathan tried this out at the night market in Siem Reap and then requested I join him for another round the next night. For a person with ticklish feet, the first 5 minutes of this are torture. We grimaces and squealed like preteen girls at a Hannah Montana concert as the little mouths nibbled away.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat on Valentine’s Day.

Eating: All day, every day. Phat Thai on Ko San Road in Bangkok, a wedding feast in Phnom Penh and a giant meal with my lovely coworker Vannary and her family on a river boat cruise. Also, I must not forget to include the massive Costco bag of candy and the giant jar of Jelly Bellys brought by Nathan I am rapidly devouring.

Ko Chang: An laid back little island of the coast of Thailand where we stayed in a 1970s looking mini cabin on the beach and snorkeled with the puffer fish.

Wedding picture: Now we did not get married. But for our third anniversary, I “treated” Nathan to a Khmer style photo session. For him, it entailed white pants, purple shirt, a Titanic style "Heart of the Ocean" necklace and a touch of pink, shimmery lip gloss. Unfortunately for me it was 45 minutes of intense make-up application (complete with little pieces of plastic tape to make my eye creases bigger), hair styling and general bedazzlement. The result is the hilarious picture above.

Of course the trip wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Protesters in Thailand made for a tricky ride to the airport, we got “lost” among the Bangkok’s mega-malls, I lost it a few times in negotiations with tuk tuks and the heat and sickness paralyzed Nathan on several occasions. But nothing stopped the visit from being wonderful and inspiring. I am left remember lines of the poem that has become our relationship anthem since I accepted this position in Cambodia.

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)

Songsa is Khmer for boyfriend

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This is why I'm hot

Oh the cold season in Cambodia. What a tease! A few weeks of blissfully cool weather (in the high 70s) and then it is all snatched away. I was enjoying sleeping under a blanket at night without a fan and wearing hoodies to work in the morning. But then, on Friday, I sat on the back of a moto on the way home from work and caught myself pouting as I began to sweat. Good-bye blanket, farewell hoodies.

But this entry is about more than me whining about the heat. I am hot not only because of my proximity to the equator. Oh no. I am also hot because of my Space Crown. That's right, my Space Crown, my trusty helmet. Purchased in my first week here, this ever so stylish headgear made of foam and plastic has been my constant companion. I bought it with help from my old tuk tuk driver. He pointed to it and said, " This is made in Thailand. Good." Pointing to some cheaper options he said, "Those are made in Cambodia" and shook his head. So it was settled.

This type of helmet is most often styled by Cambodian macho men, astronauts, Darth Vader or, in my case, the incredibly safety conscious. With a drop down visor and chin coverage, this baby may make me look like a bobble head doll but at least I feel safe...ish.

Number of Space Crowns: 1
Days until Nathan arrives: 8