Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Lord's Prayer

I am a believer in balance. Thus, since I provided one of my grandfather's favorite prayers as the title of my previous post, I am going to give a shout out to my other grandfather, a very religious man, in this title. He forgot most of my birthdays, but he remembered when I went through confirmation and bought me a beautiful Bible. I still have it.

He loved the classic Lord's Prayer. Don't know it? Memorize it, so if you are ever invited to a Christian home, you won't look like an asshole if asked to lead a prayer. I am talking to you, Matt Coolidge.

Again, nothing to do with my blog. This blog is about the amazing people we met in PP.

In general, we found a lot of expats in Phnom Penh that had relocated there to start sustainable businesses that help local people. They had fallen in love with the city and dropped their lives at home to start new lives in a place with which they'd formed a deep connection.

Because of this condition, we found a lot of innovative organizations and friendly people.

Organizations we enjoyed:

First and foremost, there are a lot of great organizations in PP. Two of Matt and my favorites ended up being restaurants. Our favorite being a place called Friends that trained and hired people that were living on the street and taught them about the restaurant industry. The food was delicious and it was conveniently located next to the National Museum.



Picture of Friends from the street.

Additionally, Matt and I ate at Pteah Clare, which gives a portion of its proceeds to help get water filters into the slums. Unsanitary water is the number one reason for child fatalities in Cambodia.

Picture outside of Pteah Clare.

I also support an organization called Cambodian Children's Fund. I had learned about the organization from another really amazing Cambodian based organization called the Somaly Mam Foundation. Cambodian Children's Fund provides education and nourishment to children from some of Cambodia's most destitute communities. You can donate money, sponsor a child or sponsor a family. It Just depends on how much you can give.

I really like this organization for many reasons.

  • First, I think education is the most important instrument to get any child out of poverty.
  • Second, they primarily hire Khmer people. I think this is great because, they understand the culture these students are coming from and it gives locals really great jobs.
  • Third, they don't let just anyone into the building, you have to go through a lengthy process to volunteer. You also have to volunteer for at least a year. This ensures safety for the students both mentally and physically. Some of the kids have gone through a lot of mental turmoil and CCF wants the children's lives to be as stable as possible. If an orphanage just gladly accepts you into their facilities and asks for money, it is most like a scam.
  • Fourth, if you don't write to your students, you lose your students. Again, this comes down to the mental stability of the child. They want an adult to remain as a constant in their lives. They don't just want someone darting in and out.

Lucky for me, the students at CCF live in Phnom Penh, and sponsors are able to meet them - all meetings have a chaperone. My student's name is Reaksmey, which means brightness in Khmer. Matt and I took Reaksmey, her friend, and a chaperone to the Royal Palace one afternoon while I was there. They all spoke English super well, especially her chaperone, who was fairly young himself and had just finished college with a major in English. He was also a CCF alum.

Reaksmey was very shy, but her friend was hilarious. They talked about Phnom Penh, some of the dangers that annoyed them, mainly pick pocketing, as well as what they wanted to be when they grew up. Reaksmey started her first semester of college this year and her friend was in her second.

The group inside the Royal Palace. Reaksmey's eyes are closed, oops!

Although, there were a lot of uncomfortable silences (and the fact that the girls didn't speak to Matt), we had a good time and I was so happy that my student was well adjusted, bright and happy.

Our PP Cheers:

Our major hangout was a placed called Empire Theater. It was owned by a married couple (one Khmer and one British). They played all the latest releases (Matt and I saw American Hustle, Twelve Years A Slave, The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club, etc). After not watching movies for about three months, it was a breath of fresh air.

We would often hang out at the bar after a film and met a lot of the PP locals hanging out or folks coming through town. A few favorites and interesting characters we met:

  • Lee Ann - worked there and also taught. Had lived in Asia for five plus years. Originally from England, but spent most her childhood in Australia.
  • Enders - crazy Irishman who lived in Afghanistan and was a psychologist for men and women infected with HIV. He could have been the maddest person I have ever met. But, who wouldn't go mad with his job? Actually, I think you would have to be mad to take it. The night we met him he got kicked out of a bar for trying to do E. Needless to say, the owner of the bar was more mad at the douche-y red head that sold Enders the E than Enders. Enders was also mad at the red head as he had paid him a lot of money and ended up pocketing the drugs and getting the hell out of the bar. It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world!
  • Anastasia - a Russian girl, who was actually Volga German, which is my own heritage. If you want to learn more about Volga Germans, check out this article. They have an amazing history and talking with her about her family's history made me very happy that my family immigrated to the U.S. when they did. Four words: Bolsheviks hated Volga Germans.
What will it be tonight?

Local Flavor:

Along with meeting Reaksmey, I was also able to reconnect with my friend Badong. I had met him about three years ago on my first trip to Cambodia. He was our tuk tuk driver at the time, but has since left the business and is working for a hotel.

It was really great talking with him, as he gave us some amazing inside perspective of the country, both good and bad. Sadly, Cambodia is selling a lot of its land to foreign investors. Sand is being sold to Malaysia, China has bought up large chunks of the country. The list goes on. There is major fear from the locals that this will cause disaster and is not sustainable for the people. I couldn't agree more.

Badong really wants Khmer people to create more businesses and control more of the businesses too. I really hope this happens. I see so much potential for this place, but it is still fragile and corruption is rampant in the government.

Sorry, this blog might have taken a little longer than I intended, but I wanted to capture it all. Phnom Pehn is a diamond in the rough that is growing brighter and brighter. Although it has its sex tourism and dead rats - we saw so many pancaked rats that had been hit by tuk tuks (rats and tuk tuks run rampant!) - we really enjoyed the people that we met. It is a city with good bones that has lots of potential, and those that are willing to stand the crazy that the city has to offer will be well rewarded.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Good Food, Good Meat! Good God, Let's Eat!

This is by far my favorite prayer, and one my grandfather use to say all the time when asked to provide a prayer for the table. He was not a religious man, so the faster he could get to his plate, the better.

 This intro has nothing (or very little) to do with the content of this blog post. I don't care. That prayer makes me smile, and I hope that the next time you consume a meal, you think of it. My editor and boyfriend, Matt Coolidge, will advise me to edit this out. Again, I don't care. And, I hope you don't care either, reader. [Editor's Note: I don't care either - in fact, I actually like it]

 So, what is this blog about? The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (PP). Yes, there was a lot of eating there. And if I regularly prayed for people's souls, I'm sure I would have done a lot of praying there. So here goes the good, bad and ugly of the PP.

 First and foremost, Phnom Penh was the biggest surprise of our trip. We went into the city expecting nothing and came out with a lot of great stories. It was one of the only places on the trip in which Matt and I could see ourselves living long term. It was a place that had tons of rats, dead and alive, on the streets. More prostitute bars than regular bars. And, bed bugs, or at least phantom bed bugs, in our 'guesthouse'! But even with all its seediness, I still loved it. And to think, we were originally going to bypass the Asian city of our dreams...

 Matt and I were not planning to go to PP to begin with, but had heard it was a great place to get an Indian visa (a completely different story that I hope Matt will share with you, as he did experience about ten mental breakdowns at the Indian Embassy. I hate to gossip about others' mental woes, so I will leave it to him). So, in desperate need of an Indian visa, we decided to take a five-hour bus from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to PP.

 The bus was smoother than smooth. The border crossing was clean and, wait for it, efficient! Efficient border crossings and transportation is a bit unheard of in Southeast Asia. We also got to take a ferry over the mighty Mekong! It was not scenic at all, but it is still fun to say you crossed any mighty river, right?

Took this picture as we were leaving Hoh Chi Minh City.

As we began to cross into the city via another river, there was a large slum to our right. I don't take pictures of slums as I don't want to exploit and/or glorify other people's poverty, but if you google "Phnom Penh slum," the second or third picture in the series should give a pretty accurate idea of the conditions there. The houses seemed to be leaning and falling into the river. It wasn't rainy season, but I figure during that time many houses must be completely submerged. Where do the people go?

 As we carried on towards the river and the proverbial "right side of the tracks," I heard a triumphant scream from outside. As I squinted my eyes and stared into the slum, I saw a net, 12 players... A volleyball game was in full swing!

Volleyball was a game of my childhood. A game that I played with white soled shoes, white socks and white knee pads. A game where you have to clean the court before you start. A game where you slide on the floor for so long because the sealant wax is so fresh and new. I love that smell.

It is a sterile game.

The most sterile kind of game you can find, sans maybe badminton.

 There was nothing sterile about the game outside of PP. The court was made of mud. There were no shoes, sock or knee pads. There was just the sound of the ball as it was being passed, set, spiked, and the cheer and slaps of the team when one made an ace and a groan when one fumbled a serve.

I discovered later that volleyball is played all over Cambodia. In most of Southeast Asia, soccer is the official sport. But in Cambodia, you can find a volleyball net in cities big and small. Even if the town does not have running water, there will be a net and a ball.

 Once the bus stopped, We were pounced on by tuk tuk drivers all wanting to know if we wanted to see the 'Killing Fields' or S21 prison (a school turned torture chamber during the Khmer Rouge regime). Matt and I started to run for the streets, and eventually found a guy who wasn't pushing a hard sell. He took us to our guesthouse.

I won't go into details about this guesthouse or about seeing all the sites of Phnom Penh. For the most part, the sites to see in PP will leave you depressed for months and the guesthouses are nothing to write home about. I think we actually stayed in a 'pay by the hour' guesthouse for the majority of our trip. Plus, we stayed in PP for two weeks! So to save you an hour or two, let's talk about why I loved

The Architecture:

There were beautiful French homes here that would tickle the biggest architect aficionado. The National Museum of Cambodia, which is a must if you ever go here, was gorgeous. The museum houses mainly ancient Khmer art from the time of the Khmer Empire (Wiki tells me that the empire started in 802 A.D. and ended in the 15th century). The building was started in 1917 and was created to resemble a Khmer Temple. There is a beautiful courtyard inside the museum with multiple koi ponds. I could have sat and lingered there all day.

 My eyes were constantly looking around and finding one architectural embellishment after another in that enigmatic capital. Through the grime of the walls, you could see its old grandeur - and potential for new beauty. Not to mention, the boulevards were big here. I mean, they were French boulevards. It was easy to walk everywhere or ride your bike - the city is flatter than flat too!

Beautiful building we passed on our way to the Indian Embassy. Purpose:unknown.

Matt requested that I take this picture of him outside the National Museum.

A building from the Royal Palace in PP

Statue of Ganesha, a Hindu God, outside of the National Museum

A beautiful boulevard in PP

Photo from a balcony downtown. I think I can see a rat from here.

Matt Coolidge original of the Royal Palace

The Food:

Khmer people are very adaptable and hospitable. Something that is so apparent in the cuisine and service of Cambodia. Cambodia does not have delicious food. A lot of Khmer food will shock you more than wet your chops (yes, we ate snake!). Some common roadside snacks are crickets and duck embryos. But, you will always be greeted warmly.

 Now for the adaptability: Khmer people are great at creating other countries' cuisines. Matt and I ate delicious pizzas, amazing burritos and anything our little hearts desired. We ate well and we ate cheap. You can find western food all over Asia, but by and large it is crap and you are better sticking to local cuisine; Cambodia was the exception.

The logo for our favorite Mexican joint in PP. It was owned by a guy from Dallas.

Fish Amok. Another Classic Khmer dish. The fancy fish amok come in bamboo like this one. It is similar to a curry, but without the spice. We had it once. Enough said.

Did I mention, you could get a proper cocktail here too? Most cocktails I have found in SEA taste like sweet vomit or pepto bismol.

 I was going to write another section entitled 'people,' but I have way too much to say in that department. So, if you are interested in reading more about the crazy characters we met (think cocaine highs and Russian refugees), read the next blog: The Lord's Prayer.