Friday, December 20, 2013

So Not Home for the Holidays

I was filled with bliss on the evening walk home on an evening in early December. Dry season has arrived with crisp cool breezes and I was imbued with a general fresh feeling, poised for new opportunities and endeavors.   My friendly fellow knitters and I had spent the evening scheming on a new collaborative fiber art project (Storming the Cyclo 2014) at the local vegan arts cafĂ© and I was happy to feel connected and directed on something other than my job.

In the midst of my internal euphoria, I was startled and saddened to see the young boy lying on the small patch of grass alongside the towering wall surrounding the Royal Palace.  Face down, he was motionless and seemingly abandoned.  I stopped for a moment and looked at him, noted the gentle rising and falling of his chest and glanced around for any adult nearby.  The storefront lights in the window of the high- end furniture store across the street illuminated the western-style bed frame and nightstand, gleaming and pristine white.  For a moment I was paralyzed by wanting to wake him up and take him home and the unfortunate helplessness that comes from being, by most practical means, unable to do to absolutely anything in that moment to help him without creating a scene of misunderstandings and inappropriate foreigner behavior.  I kept walking and he haunted me for a while. 

That experience was tame compared to India. My trip to Bangalore involved a conference on neglected tropical diseases, with international experts presenting short briefing sessions, some of which were  completely incomprehensible 10 minute speed sessions of the acronym filled, accent-laden, tiny font on complex chart PowerPoint presentations about diseases that very few have heard of.
Depicting symptoms of meliodosis, also known as "the great mimicker." It is frequently misdiagnosed. Because our lab can grow microbiological cultures, it can be identified and treated. 
These problems: leishmaniasis, schistosomaisis, lymphatic filariasis and meliodosis  plague the very poor:  insects and reptile bites, parasites, and complex bacteria resulting from substandard housing, lack of access to clean water, decent sanitation and quality health care. Because they individually impact very few, they do not receive adequate funding for research and treatment.  These diseases kill, maim and impede any progress to alleviating poverty and sustaining economic development. They are deemed neglected in contrast to HIV, TB and Malaria. 

After a few days of being ensconced in the cocoon of a nice hotel and after the close of the conference, I found a couple of colleagues who were interested in a road trip to Mysore on Sunday.  In the early morning departure,  the traffic was already apparent.   India is so noisy;  life there a barrage of honking horns, speeding vehicles and whoever happens to be in the road at the time: small dogs, grandmothers in brilliant saris and cows.

 I was already queasy from three days of the hotel’s buffet.   The hair-raising winding ascension to the mountaintop temple proved to be too much for my stomach and with a desperate, universally understood plea, I literally lost my lunch.  On our next tourist stop, my Sundanese colleague’s wallet was stolen from her purse. It was an eventful tour.

Just browsing...
After the hell-bent taxi ride to the airport delivered me with time to spare at the gate, I mulled over the cows begging at the Chamundi temple.  I saw a family drop a peeled orange on the ground. The cow stepped up and sucked it up in a jiffy and then approached the family for more, scattering the mother carrying her son and startling the grandmother into slow-motion action. Another cow scoped out the parking lot,  ambled over to the tour bus decorated with long strings of marigolds and promptly set upon eating all of them, stumbling away with the long white thread of the garland tangled around its hooves. While some seem well-fed, others were curled up on the pavement as the humans walked around them. There are always contrasts everywhere.

Sofitel Phnom Penh serves Pumpkin Poup. 
I arrived at the  evening buffet at the Sofitel on the back of a motodop. who likely makes as much money in two weeks as I was going to spend for dinner in a night.  I was invited by a friend to join her group for an expensive feast with all the fixings. However, shortly after we were seated it became glaringly apparent that the staff was both overwhelmed and clueless.  The chefs were pleading for forgiveness from the anxious Americans lined up to receive their allotted portion of the rapidly disappearing turkey; there were no cranberries.  Wisps of pumpkin pie slices were forlorn on the platters.  The disgruntled patrons began loading up on sushi and rich cheeses, I was intrigued with roast duck and the marshmallows in the chocolate fountain. What should have been great was not. 

The end of Thanksgiving week delivered the Asian version of Christmas: towering glittery purple and silver trees in the lobbies of shopping centers and upper middle class venues,  techno-electric variations of old favorites and mini-skirted waitresses in santa hats.  Many of the expats are preparing for visits home (two of my friends have not had a Christmas in their homeland for at least four years) and the juxtaposition and contrasts of my life here are achieving remarkable clarity, yet also triggering memories of a holidays spent in past jobs.

Between 1984 and 1989, I worked as a street outreach counselor in downtown Boston. My job entailed a daily patrol around the edges and peripheries of urban existence: street hustlers, punk rockers and townies kids with horrible family histories.  The youth were marginalized and always bored; the holiday season amplified the sense of disconnection and failure and of wanting and lacking. They congregated in the evening, after the blaring music was turned off and hustling shoppers laden with brightly covered shopping bags had returned to their homes.  Sometimes the  "Merry Christmas!" greetings perpetuate a myth that all of us recognize, on some level, was never really was real in the first place.  We've all had the presents that never manifested under the tree, the family gatherings that got a little creepy, the New Year’s eves where we went to bed early and just waited for the morning when it would be all over and we could begin afresh.

For the youth on the streets of Boston, the agency would plan a special day; staff were assigned to man the tables by lottery.  We put together an early holiday lunch buffet with everything, cleared the classroom floor and rented a videocassette movie.   The youth were so appreciative; not only to have a full-on stuff your face food fest, but also to have a warm, comfortable place to stretch out and relax in the middle of the day with a full belly.  The room was filled with the scent of unwashed bodies and tobacco smoke, punctuated with the occasional snoring and whispered commentary.  It was simply a day unlike any other; a time to capture a small gift of the generosity before the movie ended and the reality of street life resumed. 

In the midst of all of the contrasts between my expat friends and of the incredibly thin, terribly sick and unspeakably poor patients that I pass by on my walk to my office in the hospital each morning,  I'm not tuned into the Christmas spirit.  There's a longing and wistful nostalgia for the comfort of family and familiar tradition, yet my choices and circumstances have me here with one foot lightly resting on each world.   Two years ago in Thailand, it seemed easier.  I paraded my way through morning assembly in a santa suit and led a rendition of jingle bells because I was the only foreigner around.   I taught classes for the rest of the day and opened presents from home in the evening and made plans for New Year vacation on the beach.

from Phnom Penh Post. Inflatable reindeer and
glittery garland are on display everywhere.
This year, the community of expats around me creates feelings of what "should be".  There's a loose plan to meet for a river boat trip, keeping it open for people to do their own thing for dinner.  The big hotels and restaurants are putting together set menus.  My Christian colleagues have services planned.  I'm laying low, unresolved about whether it is better to spend lots of money in crowded restaurants with  casual acquaintances or if I want to find my favorite noodle shop.  I'll go to work a little late and leave a little early. I'll be surrounded by my Buddhist colleagues,cooking up plans and getting things organized in the quiet lull of the holidays while the western world carries on.

Solstice is much more meaningful for me.   I'll celebrate and exercise in the power of a crisp high weather front, consider the potential of what will transpire in the new year and bolster commitments for how to achieve balance in this crazy expatriate life of homeless children and wine bars, of great potential and crushing reality, and of the pressing needs all around us and boundless compassion.  For soon, even here on the shores of the mighty Mekong river, the light will extend farther into the evening.

Winter greetings to all from the tropics~

Monday, November 11, 2013

Equilibrium and Equanimity

There are days when “too much work” is exemplified in the moment the Spanx™ are peeled off in the work bathroom after the sun has set and the birds have begun their evening flutters in the hospital courtyard.    My epic day was, in fact, somewhat typical since returning from my writing retreat nearly a month ago.  

An early morning meeting with major donors and the VP from the states (hence a nice dress and tummy control), then diving into a 90 minute power-write into a proposal for a new TB case finding project (rebuilt ambulance for mobile chest x-ray into villages yeah!) while at the same time battling confusion around the baffling prevalence numbers from the national TB program.  A quick jaunt across the street for a the usual 75 cent lunch and visiting with international volunteers who were hanging out in the break room shortly after.  A coaching meeting with a colleague through the draft of his grant report (why does the word “has” come up every other sentence?), trotting over on my third trip across the street to the social enterprise clinic for a photo op with a Cambodian donor/patient and topping it all off with an all staff meeting where my close colleague was selected as Employee of the Month and the executive director announced his resignation.
The team decided to implement certificates instead of thank you notes for our Cambodian donors. The frame indicates a large gift.  This donor's son was trained at the hospital and she's been coming to us since 1999 for outpatient care for Type 2 diabetes.
Work is consuming my life; and for this I am resigned and a little resentful,  tired and hopeful, nostalgic for the days of yore and wondering how many times in my life I have to re-learn the same stress management lessons.   My job is a fantastic opportunity to advance an organization’s local capacity.  I’m getting paid reasonably well within the organization (but not within the market) and learning each day.  When the supervisor/colleague left in June, my position grew beyond project development, grant writing and grant management to encompass fundraising and communications, and overseeing 6 staff including a part-time western IT consultant working on an analysis of our medical record database. 

 Some work days are a roller coaster of  nagging, pervasive malaise and exhaustion, occasionally surging into an overwhelmed helplessness and moral indignation.  Other days dissipate back into a relatively manageable sense of being busy, productive, needed and appreciated.  This persistent problem of getting overly involved with work, sometimes leading to mental and physical breakdowns, has been a constant thread throughout my life.  Like the elbow of the blind masseuse that grinds into my cement shoulders to try and gain some flexibility, my pattern is that I often take drastic measures when my inner waters get too turbulent.
So little time...

I left an emotionally intense job doing social work on the streets of Boston in the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic to work my way around the country for seven years. I found peace in the great physical work of guiding on rivers, oceans and forests, and spent winters knitting beautiful hats while working at the front desk of hotels. I moved to Anchorage, bought a house and got my first real job. That involved the transition of two executive directors and an office move.   I fled to graduate school after turning around a failing consulting practice after the tragic death of a senior consultant from a brain tumor.  Eventually, although it took several years, I left for southeast Asia.  That radical departure was set in motion after managing an organization through a forced headquarters relocation that involved moving  50 staff who had been in the same building for 20 years, while designing and securing donations for the new space and preparing ground work for an ultimately successful capital campaign for a summer camp renovation.  (One summer at camp, we had problems with a pair of adolescent grizzly bears who wandered through periodically and thus I found myself thinking about shotguns and rubber bullets.)  After leaving that job at the advent of the great recession of 2008,  I supported myself with consulting projects and stressed over health insurance costs that equaled a monthly mortgage payment. A seemingly god-sent ultimate real job resulted in  a mystifying, byzantine power play and a pink slip. The dog died and my love affair with Alaska ended. 

So, now the challenge remains as I wind my way through yet another office job and organization in flux. I have only been in this position for nine months and thus,  for survival's sake, find a way to manage my stress and  find the balance between what I “should” do and the what would make me truly happy. Or at least identify how I want to spend my time here.

The “should do” category becomes a bit more looming after 50.  I’m at the place where financial planners dread. Living with diabetes has its expensive obligations of self-care. The life work I've chosen to do--standing beside the hurt, marginalized and vulnerable—has never paid exceptionally well.  I keep my expenses down, fastidiously saving for special things.   The reward of the stable monthly check in the bank account has its concurrent equally draining obligations.  Every day is a tornado of problems, needs, things to be written, budgeted, explained and the vast chasm between a far-reaching vision of what could be with the crushing reality of what is.  I have little spirit left for my creative self, and that makes me longing for imaginary greener pastures.
Heads of Hevajra and Four Dancing Yoginis, 
from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 
“God brought you to us,” my colleague said when she left in June.  “and you need to take care of yourself.  People like you, without a family, have a harder time setting the limits.”   The juggle of things that keep me awake at night coupled with the small agonies of living in a developing country and a very real lack of work support system does not make it easy here.  I'm laden with obligations given the substantial organizational investment in my salary; I work well past the time that my expat colleagues (Christian volunteers)  gather for their late afternoon carpool home.  I am the only staff person, besides the doctor on call for a very sick patient, who has non-negotiable deadlines for which failure to adhere has some  implications.  Hence the labor in the office after dark.

“Doing what it takes to get ‘er done”  has been my professional mantra of so many of my previous jobs.  Yet in a country where not accomplishing much in your desk job can be a national sport, being too stressed out among colleagues is definitely not culturally appropriate.   The wrist brace I've taken to wearing again to help with computer fatigue generates concern among staff, to which I have to reply- "really, it's just like a shoe for your hand!"  Clearly, some adjustments are needed; I started seeing a western physiotherapist last week.      

I'm finding that is the small shifts in perspective, repeated over and over again, that make a difference. Some of them, with the physio's help, need to be guided and repeated.   Adjust the posture at the work station. Hope for the best for the three giggly girls as they speed into incoming traffic. Have gratitude for the gifts of experience both positive and negative. Remember to smile at everyone.  Suck in the gut, lower the shoulders, and walk away from the keyboard.  Surround the listless baby in the begging women's arms at a major urban intersection with a fierce swath of virtual love and protection.   Reach out to a growing circle of friends and acquaintances.  Recuperate often. Breathe.

Every day is a new beginning, much like the newly emerged coconuts I saw on the motorbike taxi commute on Friday. In a swift lean in around the curve while seated sidesaddle in the fresh air of morning, I glimpsed it emerging from the top of a tall palm: tawny and rich with a hint of red, shiny with promise and potential of sweetness to come.  

Andy Goldsworthy, via Smithsonian

Sunday, October 20, 2013


I was horrified to see the date on the last post.    The well meaning intention to write a little something for the folks back home got waylaid by the stress of the single-minded and determined march to meet deadlines at work. In the three months and  the three international trips that occurred recently, I careened through life  like a suddenly spooked horse with blinders on. Nothing much seemed to matter except going forward. 

Opposition leader Sam Rainsey and Prime Minister Hun Sen, 17 September.
Concurrently, the political situation of both America and Cambodia were both seemingly stuck in the same timeframe.  While the shutdown/debt ceiling petulant antics were only just recently bandaged in the US, the opposition party  has still not come to sit and vote in the Cambodian Parliament. The CNRP continues to stand ground that the elections were fraudulent; refusing to support the system as it stands.  Party leader Sam Rainsey will be returning from an international tour later this week and a three day rally is planned.  Previous rallies resulted in injuries, deaths and massive road closures in my neighborhood.  I watched from afar.  

Batur Hot Spr ings.
Now, after having returned back to home, I am facing my own impasse.  I’d had a list of things planned to accomplish by year end:  small improvements to the apartment, creative work, health and body related housekeeping and projects.  However, one small moment changed it all.  I was blissed out in the hot spring,  the strong stream of hot water on my tension-ravaged shoulders, when  I noticed I was the only one left still soaking.  As I hurried to find the group, my foot hit an unexpected obstacle.  A shot of pain, later swollen and painful, seemed to be a bad sprain.  I was not the perfect patient throughout the following week; soldiering on to take in temples and wild places and grabbing ice cubes, ibuprofen and compression bandages when I could.  On my second day back at work, I realized it was not getting better and trudged into the ED for a consult at the employee health clinic.  Hence the foot cast.  For a month.

In the midst of bewildering political strategies of my current home and my homeland, I’m now placed in a enforced hiatus while things heal.  Small things seem to matter more, both in challenges and in the small kindnesses.   I am counting down the days.    Here’s a few notes on the travels for those who want to read on:

On the mid-August Thailand trip, I accomplished a lot.  I went to the expat friendly hospital for an annual check-up, an eye exam and the laboratory work that can’t be performed here in Cambodia and  I had a few days with Rochelle, my good friend who lived up in the next town north.  The results from the medical exam were less than optimal—I’ve gained weight, some lab numbers are not as good as last year and I was diagnosed with optic neuropathy, which is affecting my right eye and now unable to be treated.  I passed on the recommended week-long course of  IV steroids that should have been administered in April when I first noticed symptoms.  However, weeks later and after consults with a couple of the hospital's international volunteers, I've realized that this is now my reality. Another minor annoyance in my aging body.  

Goddess statue in Freising, Germany. 
In Thailand, seeing my friend Rochelle was a great antidote to the travails at the hospital, and we had a lovely time touring around Kanchanaburi, a small town on the edge of a huge jungle of national parks and waterfalls.    On the day we signed up for an all-day tour, we soaked in some hot springs with two bus loads of Russian tourists. One of these was an obese and stern woman in her sixties, with braids wrapped around the back of her head and wearing a red bikini.   We also had a lovely ladyboy guide who diligently walked with us through the rain to Hellfire Pass; her hooded sweatshirt had two little cat ears at the crown.  There was time for a quick writing exercise and a hug before I caught the bus back to the airport. 

Three weeks later, my parents met me at the Munich airport. Dad ascended the hills of Freising to visit the cathedral, where we were lucky enough to hear the bells resound among the ancient walls.  
The next day we went onward to Innsbruck, navigating luggage and tight transitions on the train system, passing by idyllic mountain valley farms.  Mom and Dad met their professional colleagues.   I had a day on my own partake in a free mountain hike with the Alpine School of Innsbruck, with a guide who happened to be the dude that suggested that Denali National Park rangers get some training in mountain rescue.  Mom and I took the public bus system to Hall, an old city to the west while the other accompanying partners went off to the tour of the Swarovski crystal factory.   I had time to read about floods in Boulder Colorado and post-election violence in Phnom Penh. Dad went to meetings, there was a banquet and off we went to Lucerne and Zurich for the remainder of the journey, where the swans and the crisp orderliness created nostalgia for the jackets in storage and a developed civilization filled with confident bicyclists and clean streets.  It was a bittersweet departure: so terrific to see my parents in such great shape, but sad to end the plush travel lifestyle.

I returned to s a whirlwind eight days before I headed to Bali in the afternoon of the Pchum Ben holiday.  Bonar picked me up as the torrent was just starting. He navigated through foot-high lakes in the street, swearing at the driver who sped by on the left and drenched us both with flood water. (The tuk tuk's tarpaulin shelter had torn from the velcro strip in the wind and rain, leaving a gap which I had been fruitlessly trying to refasten for the past six blocks.)  
Puaji temple on Lembongen Island. A conversation with a 10 year old bracelet vendor led me here. The pink umbrella sunshade was a life saver and the fresh coconut drink at her mother's fruit stand on the way back hit the spot.  
 I had a few days traveling solo on the coast for a couple of days before joining my writer’s group.  I did some walking on a tropical island and followed clues to find a stunning set of male and female old growth banyan trees honored with a temple.  Hosted by a terrific facilitator and local guide, the next day I was surrounded by an accomplished group of writers amidst stunning mountain scenery, fruitful writing exercises and the unfettered flow of thoughts that have formed the structure for the project.  

Black and white checkered cloths drape the entrance sentinels at many Bali temples:
they represent balance between light and dark.  
At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, I was overwhelmed and intrigued, pained and nourished,  humbled and inspired.  I realized that the process of writing takes time and (as I knew) daily commitment.    To reach a published book by 2019, there are plenty of small steps to take along the way.  Including this—my first public blog. 

With enormous physical energy required to move anywhere, I am now forced to use this next four weeks well.  My priorities have changed. I'm taking some steps to move through the impasse between the deadlines of work and my physical well-being.   I'll continue to shake my head with distant resignation at the tragic, misspent energies of American politics. I can only hope for a non-violent, nonlethal resolution of Cambodia's withering and stale political stalemate.  I'd like to reinforce  a stronger sense of balance for my self;  hone the creative compass and keep the center whole. 

Wheel of Fortune from the Tyrol Folklore Museum in Innsbruck. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Astroturf and the scent of fresh flowers

There is promise wafting through the air.  Cambodia's quinquennial National election is occurring on today, Sunday. Cambodian election season lasts exactly one month before.   Instead of yard signs, endless political commercials and leaflets conveniently secured with rubber bands on the front doors of target districts, there are motorcades of supporters.  From "Bribes remain rampant".  13 July 2013. Phnom Penh Post

From "Bribes remain rampant". 13 July 2013. Phnom Penh Post
 There are two parties vying on the ballot—the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which will surely win and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), whose leader was just pardoned by King Sihamoni and allowed to return to Cambodia just a week before the election.  There is a strong undercurrent of “we want change” buoyed by the opposition leader’s return; the jubilation is manifested by the hundreds of people that gathered in rallies across the country over the past two weeks.  Indeed, the National Election Committee reports 3.5 million of the country's 9.5 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30.  That’s a lot of energy for politics.

I was nearly moved to tears on Friday  last week, on the evening walk on the riverside.  I was struggling with the news of my friend Martha’s suicide.  She was found on the shores of Turnagain Arm last week, a place that strikes a powerful chord in my visual memories.  Martha was a passionate career activist that linked youth, women and environmental causes into a powerful support network that has empowered hundreds of people across the Alaska.   I was mystified and grieving for her decision and needed to walk it through my brain.  But, I couldn't get across the street.  I knew, as I saw it, that I was bearing witness to an unprecendented moment in Cambodian history.

CNRP parade.
CNRP parade.
Sam Rainsey returned to Cambodia to lead the CNRP earlier that morning, with thousands of supporters turning out to greet him near the airport.  To continue the celebration, hundreds of young people streamed down the Sisowath Quay on motorbikes and tuk tuks,  adorned with stickers on their cheeks, passengers carrying flags and many holding up five fingers on one hand and two on the other to represent ballot listing for the CNRP.  Their flow was a a palatable affirmation of an alternative to the years of greed and corruption and insider deals and feudal power dynamics that maintain Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt ruling party.  Martha would have appreciated the spirit of youth who were standing up for something. Their faces glowed with collective optimism, contagious spirit and energy while they chanted, “P’doh. P’doh. P’doh. (Change. Change. Change)”

What a contrast to the nightly CPP rallies that were set up at one of Phnom Penh’s premier intersections over the past month.   The full sound stage and the typical blaring music volume of any Cambodian gathering in the neighboring park, surrounded by  logo-ed trucks and buses lining the periphery. Hundreds of young people milled about in the standard issue white shirt and white logo hat.  I didn’t detect a lot of enthusiasm until I saw the crowd surrounding a couple of tables, piled with stacks of the rectangular Styrofoam containers that are common for takeaway food.   The Phnom Penh Post reported on accounts of $5 payments (and obviously a free dinner)  to ensure support, particularly to people in Phnom Penh’s outlying neighborhoods.  

CPP bandwagon
CPP bandwagon
The first morning of election season, I experienced my first CPP motorcade.  I was getting a ride home after the hospital’s soccer tourney, thankfuly secured in the car's aircon bubble.   Police stopped the incoming traffic to let the procession go by.  A chicken hung from a motorbike waiting next to us, blinking in  the middle of the noonday sun.   Everyone obeyed the diligent police as the procession of stickered and black-windowed Lexuses, Range Rovers, and other big trucks with flags and supporters lumbered by.  When they passed, the gridlock continued all the way home.   On another evening, a CPP bandwagon sped down the street, the rear bed decorated with disco lights, a 5 piece ensemble and a young woman in scanty clothing singing screechy campaign  songs.   Other smaller trucks drive around with large speakers and a screen in the back, broadcasting video footage and speeches that sound eerily like the historic recordings of Germany in 1940. The CPP message is using fear; any change will lead to a recurrence of another murderous regime. 

24 July 2013 Phnom Penh Post
24 July 2013 Phnom Penh Post
The CPP will carry on for another five year term.  “Astroturf”, said my neighbor,cynical and hardened with 20 yeas of development experience in Cambodia.   “It’s not a real election.”   There are reports of bloated voter rolls in contentious districts, media blackouts on opposition success stories, and concerns about the  ink used to prevent voter fraud.  (Apparently it washes off without much trouble.)  A friend reports that there are just 41 official election observers in the entire country. My colleagues mention their difficulties with securing election IDs and unsettled concerns that there will be violence, similar to the coup that occurred after election in 1997.  There was an alcohol ban for the day before and the day of the election, and a national holiday declared for Monday. 

In the midst of these discussions with my Cambodian colleagues, I’m struck by how many people look to America as an example.  I consider the electoral college, hanging chads in Florida, accusations about Diebold voting machines, Super-PACs, new voter fraud prevention laws occurring in some states and the Voting Rights Act just amended by the Supreme Court.  We are not perfect, but we can be reasonably assured that the result of our vote will be private.  In Cambodia, voting against the party line could cost you your livelihood and any prospects for the future.

Many local professionals and the expat development experts are now looking ahead to 2018.  As one friend mused recently, the current unemployment and food shortages will surely continue and likely escalate  if the ruling elite maintains their policies in the near future.  The millions of young people who are now voting for the first time  will have their frontal lobes fully developed into adulthood.  Pro-democracy donors will have ample time to work with local activists to build a platform and capacity for mobilization.  Cambodia already has a very high use of social media and this campaign season  has alreadyy proved the efficacy of the tool for reaching that population.  CNRP has 170,653 "likes" compared to Prime Minister Hun Sen's page at 72,000.    This election’s  momentum has chipped a hole into the wall that the CPP have built to surround their empire.   The true result may not manifest now, but in the years to come.

The young man selling Vietnamese coffee (.35 cents each) at the hospital gate was convivial on Friday afternoon. His friends, the motodups and tuk tuk guys, hovered around his stand and me as he prepared my coffee.  They’d just returned from a CNRP rally across the street  and were pumped up.  He asked me to spell out CNRP in ballpoint pen on his arm.  The men asked about the word “rescue”, rolling over the pronunciation a few times and trying to get it right.   The young man asked with a curiousity I felt was sparked by all this momentum,  “What does rescue mean?”  

Rumdul, the Cambodian National flower
Rumdul, the Cambodian National flower

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Burning the candle at both ends

I giggle every time I hear the squeaker of Phnom Penh’s “etjai” (garbage collectors) heralding their arrival in the streets in the morning, but their jobs are anything but funny.  They patrol their routes throughout the day, picking through the trashcans or stopping in the middle of neighborhood alleys to collect cans, cardboard, and plastic water bottles.   Every in the heat and traffic, covered from head to toe in large brimmed hats, long sleeves and flip flops, they tow a large cart. Mothers bring their toddlers, who stand in the front of the cart in the early morning and then take a nap as the load fills up during the day.  It’s work that never ends and it pays them about $2 each day. 

Cambodians let little go to waste and the sensibilities about resources are prevalent in everyday life.  It is not uncommon to see beggars and etjai raking through large mounds of garbage that are piled up on sidewalks in the evening.   Hotel rooms have “locks” on the power switches that are activated by a room key, avoiding the problem of leaving the room with AC and the lights on. The printer in my office has refillable cartridges on the outside of the machine. 
The dry erase markers in my Thai classroom were carefully filled with an ink that managed to create small stains on most of my uniform shirts.  Shops to fix sewing machines and  motorbikes line the streets of certain neighborhoods.    I passed a motorbike trailer carrying large bins of food waste through the city streets, likely on the way to feed pigs and chickens somewhere on the outskirts of town. Last week, I saw a young man with repairing a fan in the alley below my apartment, his toolbox strapped to the back of his bicycle.

That said, are contradictions.   The tuk tuk driver will take the long way to keep moving through traffic as opposed to just sitting at the light and cutting the engine.  Old trees are revered, yet I’ve heard stories of the Prime Minister ordering the removal of them because the poor people camp often hang out in their shade.  In general,  the government has little issue with demolishing old growth forests for Vietnamese rubber tree plantations.  I know of an expat who blasts the air conditioning at night just so she can snuggle under blankets. The trash piles are filled with disposable food containers, organic waste, and millions of plastic bags.  The river is rife with plastic detritus.  The rainy season is upon us, and the street in my neighborhood floods with after torrential rains, resulting in overflowing storm drains that are rumored to contain sewage waste. 

I’m backlogged myself.  It has been a long time since my last post.  I was underwater in deadline and project management, working long hours and losing my connections with people and place here.  Language lessons and daily walks have fallen by the wayside both in work deadlines and the uncertain skies above. Storms come in moments now, blustering in on escalating winds and drenching rain.  

I’m balancing the idealization that I will be here for a relatively short period of time (I’m committed until early 2015) and not wanting to invest a lot in home and hearth, yet also longing for my beloved cast iron skillet and the crisp fresh air of the Alaskan summer.   I'm saving money for the next stage and thus don't want to spend a lot of money on rent, but there are times when a little AC would go a long way.   I dream of the expat apartment buildings with a resident gym and pool.    I’m torn between thinking about all that needs to be done in the present moment and pacing myself for the long haul.  I realize how hard it is to consider ongoing self-sustainability at the same time one is faced with pressing needs.

These are the lessons that I must learn over and over again.  Last week’s project deadline left me in a state of physical and emotional tatters, bruised and battered by "race to the end" tensions, inter-departmental conflicts and overwrought self-expectation.  The dry season's heat, Phnom Penh's escalating power needs and a power supply battle with Viet Nam have resulted in frequent power outages throughout the city.  At the hospital, in the heat of the afternoon, the generator rumbles to life to compensate.  The surges and fluctuations stress the equipment;  this year's generator use is unprecedented   The fuel costs are unbudgeted.  

There are reports of the crazy things happening in Alaska.  The winter lasted until May and now record breaking heat in June.   The increasing notices of melting, drought, fierce storms, smog, coupled with the frequent reports of environmental degradation all over southeast Asia and the globe has me  worried.  There is so much in life that is out of our control, and the small actions seem to be hopeless in the face of the enormity of action needed to right the balance.  

On Friday, I was happy to make an executive decision to call in sick to work and spend the day in my pajamas, feeling the breeze of the fan and the light rain on the metal roof just below my terrace.  After cleaning the house, I brought my stockpile of aluminum cans (created from drinking too much beer in an attempt to "manage" the stress of last week), to the etjai.   These are the small gifts we can offer to each other in the world. If we are going to go out in a blaze of consumptive glory and widespread denial, we might as well do the small things to be kind to each other and notice what's important.  

To be completely and totally focused on the gifts of each day and the small whispers of nature that permeate the city life.  The sound of the crickets who seem to appear from nowhere in the night, the flittery birds around the barbed wire around the fence next door and the stately, resource-rich palms that dot the riverside.  

For indeed, it is the small actions and notices that matter.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A colleague, a wedding, a future

The skies ripped open in the late afternoon, with thunder and lightning that rattled the bones and generated a shiver of excitement.   I glanced at my phone and noted that Sideth’s wedding celebration was due to start in just a few minutes.   Was it considered a bad omen?  I didn’t know.  

I was gleeful when I received my wedding invitation.  Weddings are a big deal in Cambodia.  The invitation was beautiful- a long silver envelope embossed with ribbon and hand glued sequins, personalized with a name sticker.  As the rains deluged Phnom Penh, I knew it would mean some challenges for the event.  Part of the wedding culture includes the small, bill-sized envelope in the invitation.  Gifts are secondary; the custom is to make a financial contribution for the event and a little something extra for the couple.    The older and/or richer that you are, the more you are expected to give.  I wanted to look the middle-aged expat boss part, which meant a new dress.  

There’s always a mix of hope and dread in the Southeast Asian shopping experience.   Walking around in  markets frequented by tourists, I feel besieged by shopkeeper’s pleas.  I like to look first:  gauge size and color, style and fabric.  But here, stopping in front of a market booth to look is an instant signal that you are ready to buy. Various items presented, the plastic bags holding inventory are rustled through and after a few minutes of the service frenzy  I start to feel guilty about not making the purchase.   However, that morning I saw what I wanted right away.  It was $18, more than my usual clothes budget but it looked like a solid prospect.
This was not the "perfect" dress, but it was the only one I had
for the Khmer New year party in early April.
Note Rotha and Grace, work colleagues,
 both wearing the traditional glue-on eyelashes.
 We went to the beauty parlor for hair and makeup.

 If I was going to buy I wanted to make sure it fit.   I hustled into the narrow aisle between booths, stripped off the shirt, tried not to make eye contact with the women starting at me (this was unprecedented behavior for a foreigner)  and realized, as the sequined and silky fabric slipped over my shoulders and around my waist over the skirt I was already wearing, that it was absolutely, completely, wonderfully, perfect.  Cranberry red lacy Cambodian style in an XXL!

When my work colleagues picked me up later that evening, it had stopped raining.  We made our way to the wedding through the streets: past people wading through puddles calf deep, driving across ponds created from backed up storm and sewer drains that brush against the bottom of the CRV, past the market with the flood waters lapping up against the food carts lit by a single compact florescent bulb, and through traffic jams created by other wedding celebrations that nearly block off the entire street with a towering white long narrow tent bedecked with brightly colored bunting. My colleague drove confidently; his family had been to this venue before.  Sideth, mindful of the notorious reputation that tent wedding celebrations have for food borne illnesses such as Typhoid Fever, was going a little upscale. He'd likely been saving to afford the wedding for months.
As I trouped in behind Grace with her husband and daughter,the music was blaring against the gleaming marble of the floor and I got a few approving nods from my Cambodian co-workers on the outfit.  Tables were empty, reflecting people’s water-logged transportation problems.  We were seated, blissfully away from the music speakers, at a large round table with an enormous lazy susan in the center.  Cans of sodas and beer were intermingled with chopsticks, bowls and spoons around the periphery.   Others joined us to fill the requisite ten seats,  which cued the arrival of the table’s bottle of Johnny Walker Red. This was followed by appetizers, an entire fish cooked with steaming broth, vegetables and a sterno and the the celebratory half-fertilized eggs (soft, crunchy bones with a salty, yolky flavor),
 other unidentified meat products, more flaming soupy things and rice.  Meanwhile, all around us the partying escalated to epic proportions.  Crumpled napkins and beer/soda cans littered the floor around each table, with boisterous and jovial bantering.  The party began to move into the zone from nice event into a somewhat exploitative "how much free beer can I drink" free-for-all of young men going wild.  As the whole loud, raucous and echo-y environment  jangled my inner introvert on all levels,  I realized that the median age of this party was pretty low. 

This is not an unusual feeling in Phnom Penh.  Over 20% of the population was killed between 1975 and 1979 under the maniacal tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Thousands more died afterward in the aftermath of starvation and non-existent health services.  The young people who are 25 now were born in the mid-80’s while the country was still being stabilized under Vietnamese authority.  Their parents were deeply traumatized; resources and government systems were in transition. A new government was established in 1992, with a bloody coup occurring just 5 years later when the current Prime Minister ascended to power.   Today, about half of the Cambodian population is under 25 years of age.  Fancy coffee and tea shops, trendy clothing retail stories and electronic shops are big here, but the most telling sign is the dismissal of evening classes at local Universities at 8:30, when hundreds of young people on motorcycles and bicycles stream into the city streets and make their way to cheap street side restaurants  and home.
CIA world factbook 

CIA world factbook

Unfortunately, even while a young person may have a degree or a certificate, it doesn't mean that they can do the work.  I seem to spend a large portion of my workday coaching my young colleagues  through problem solving or explaining written materials.   The stated unemployment rate is at a respectable 3%, far less than the US at 9% (, but it’s common around the hospital to have young people toiling away in the IT department or in accounting as a volunteer and hoping they get hired when a position opens up.  The rich can buy their way through a diploma and receive a plum government post, meaning they are in a position to receive payments from others below them who want to keep their jobs.  The young people working everywhere throughout the hospital are really happy to be here.   

Sideth has an important position in the hospital.    His English is very good, so he provides support to the international volunteer doctors that come to the hospital and helps me with grant management tasks.  While salaries are low even by Cambodian standards (have you tried living on $400 a month?) ,  =ositions at the Center of HOPE include 26 national paid holidays a year and an additional two weeks of annual leave.  He also supports two younger sisters and his new wife.    As an expat, I’m making much more than Sideth, in fact equivalent to our senior level physicians in leadership positions.  One day at work, he says, “Ellen. You are rich.”  I looked at him questioningly and he clarifies that it’s not that you are blingy and tastefully clothed, but more that you carry the attitude.

Representative wedding photo.
Representative wedding photo.
As Sideth and Phalla arose the stairs to join the revelers who were in full swing, they were both beautiful.  Sideth’s creamy pink satin jacket with jeweled buttons, white pants and white shoes were a wonderful complement to Phalla’s incredibly positioned hair, heavy makeup and the glue-on eyelashes. Phalla also looked exhausted and overwhelmed as the two of them made their procession down to the wedding cake. Crowds of people lined the walkway and while most had a handful of flower pedals, there were others busily shaking cans of Chinese knock-off silly string.  

  Indeed, as the music commenced and they began to walk, the beautiful outfits and hair of all party attendees were sprayed in a tragic, colorful and toxic graffiti.  Toddlers ran around with sparklers and some ceremonies happened a the front of the room,but most of the group went back to the tables to a fresher-upper.  Before I knew it, Grace mentioned it was time for the fruit grab.   The man carrying the entire branch from the coconut palm put my small handful of mangosteen to shame, but I was lucky to get anything.  The band cued up for the first couple’s dance, the rest of the group soon followed with dancing in the circle around the table to the same songs and moves that everyone knows and is willing to teach you.

I wonder what is ahead for Sideth and Phalla and for the rest of their generation.   Much of Cambodia’s young population has left their family’s rice fields behind for University education, jobs and the air-conditioned coffee shops in Phnom Penh.  While this generation is doing their best to move beyond the horrific past of their parents and grandparents, they are also confronted with an old school government comprised of the “100 families” of  Cambodia’s ruling elite.  The Khmer Riche, as referred to by writer Andrew Marshall, holds a tight grip on Ministerial positions, extractive land concessions and the industries that continue the ever widening gap between the urban wealthy and the glaring poverty of the rural poor.  They continue the cycle of corruption and greed, of privilege and entitlement.   The elections are coming in July and all are confident that nothing will change.  Prime Minister Hun Sen released a statement that says his eldest son was born from a powerful spirit, nearly in the same breath that he calls the Cambodia a "heaven of religious tolerance" and donates three large, flat screen TVs to a Buddhist Wat in a rural province.

On the way home from the ceremony, the flood waters had dissipated and life was returned to normal.  Sideth and Phalla will wait until the sisters finish school to start their family.  And for the years ahead, they will be the parents who stand outside the afterschool English classes waiting for their children, scrimping and saving to give their child the benefit of an education, the potential of an emerging economy, a step up the class ladder and the grand unknown future inherent in this generation in this country.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Morning Ride

The bike ride to work was blissfully predictable this morning.   Along the way, I passed older ladies in brightly colored cotton pajamas, girls with long hair and long skirts and long sleeve shirts on their way to school, and the nice motodop who takes me to work on the mornings I want to sleep in.  The man pulling the cart of coconuts passed by the pagoda, where the woman selling bananas was surrounded by elderly women in white shirts headed to morning prayers. At the big traffic light,   I found the break in  the traffic to cross the lanes and make my pivotal left hand turn.  Most workday mornings, I apply the peppermint-tingly  lipstick, secure the helmet and adjust the skirt. I’m using a beater bike to make the fifteen minute commute and wheel out into Phnom Penh’s ever increasing and notorious traffic.   

Saavy, long-time expats will say “PP has improved a lot over the past five years” or “Saigon is worse.” But, for a person used to the relatively orderly nuances of Thai traffic and the positively staid Western driving style, moving around on these chaotic urban streets gets easier with practice.

While you are on the move, a rider has to be completely and totally centered on the present moment, watching in a ranging 180 degree visual sight.  You have to trust the small glances over your shoulder, put yourself out there and move into the flow, confident in yourself and observant of the dynamics all around.

On my bike, I make an effort to make myself both happy and receptive yet wary and defensive. The school uniformed kids piled up on the back or stuffed into the front of their parent’s motorbike will sometimes stare at me while we wait in the cluster of the traffic light.  I think they are wondering, “Why is that old white lady on the bicycle?”  To that, I reply with the biggest smile I can muster.  The two year old, standing on his mother’s lap with a unique perspective of unobstructed observation of the world and a ripping road breeze opportunity, looks behind at me as his father pulls ahead of me on the moto and leaves me cruising behind.

There are small ups and downs on every morning commute.  There is always a tiny relief when I pull into the front gate of the hospital and the bike corral, receive my claim ticket, toss my helmet into the bike basket and fluff my hair.

The following maneuvers are why I'm happy to be parked:

#1: “Cover me, I’m going through”  I use this all the time with tuk tuks and cars.  Keep them on the outside of oncoming traffic and you are golden.  No one can get you.  Unless it’s the person going the wrong way on a one way street.

#2: “Nudge and crawl”  Often seen in traffic jams, people will put one foot on the ground to move their bikes (motor and otherwise) forward ever so creepily.   You move forward until you can’t go anymore.  Then you move forward again.  Or cut across the sidewalk.

#3: “Clench and creep” This tactic is used when you approach an intersection with a  light that is going to turn green soon and a bunch of traffic piled up waiting.  I suck in my abs and try to keep the feet on the pedals for as long as I can, sometimes deploying the “quick reverse pedal pivot” to keep the ever so slow balancing act in play.   If I win at this game, I am psyched.

Observed maneuvers that are part of the traffic landscape,but that I generally don’t do:

#1:   The short cut.  Frequently used anytime going with the traffic flow would take more time or effort.  It is common to see oncoming riders hugging the sidewalk.  Facing them, a rider with the flow must move to the left.  This tactic is routine with bikes and motos, but I also saw a large commercial truck going the wrong way up a one way street.  The young men were perched on top of the load were laughing in an “I can’t believe we are doing this” giddy sort of way.

#2: The early cut.  When turning onto a street, you cut across the opposite lane far above the turn. This was, incidentally, the maneuver that was used by the guy who hit my shin with his motorcycle when I was walking across Norodom Boulevard. 

#4: “Crowd and cut”This technique is a when a group of people need to cross incoming traffic, even against the lights.   A variation of # 1,often used when multiple numbers of people want to go in the same direction.

#5 Pass anyway you can.   I have people pass me both on the right and the left simultaneously. This can be an issue with drivers doing maneuver #1.   Related to this maneuver is the “pass you on the left then cut across right in front of you to make a right turn” and the“pass the traffic stopped for a left turn to make an illegal left U-turn into incoming traffic” tactic.

#7 “Bob and weave, we’re invincible!”  One of the more terrifying aspects of street life in Phnom Penh involves three young men (and sometimes girls)  in their twenties, laughing and shrieking, speeding and weaving through traffic and across traffic lights.   Double trouble when coupled with a customized horn that sounds like a large truck.

#8 “The dispassionate violator” Blasting or creeping your way through traffic lights, crossing double lines, taking up a third lane of incoming traffic to get an early start on a green light, backing out into traffic and pulling a U turn across all four lanes, and speeding down the street honking the Lexus horn every three seconds.  These all require a sense of resigned acceptance. Anger is just not healthy.

Yet in the midst of the selfish road behavior  escalated through morning, lunchtime and dinnertime rush hours, there are the elegant Cyclos.   These stately tricycle taxis are a remnant of times past, powered by thin, dark and often elderly men whose feet sometimes don’t reach the pedals.  They carry products and people and are often found napping by the side of the road in the shade.   A group of them,  organized by an NGO and outfitted in matching bright green T-shirts,  move in a slow procession carrying a dozen much larger tourists parading in the heat of the day.  In the small patch of grass and trees at the end of the block near my apartment, they hand shower with a water-filled plastic shopping bag.   They move slowly in a lumbering RV of the Phnom Penh bicycle world, perched high above the rest of the traffic and maintaining a regal dignified line.

On some mornings, I will ride "draft" behind them to soak in their calm and deliberate patterns like an island a midst a tumultuous sea.  I  emulate their dignified way through the flat streets, avoiding a sweat, as Phnom Penh begins to start the morning rush hour at 7 am most weekday mornings.
The Three Wheels Better Pool:
The Three Wheels Better Pool:

NB-- For a more graphic interpretation of Phnom Penh's driving patterns, check this out: