Friday, September 25, 2009

So, it’s official, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer. Last night in Phnom Penh we officially said the oath that the military takes swearing us to defend our country. It was actually a very official ceremony. The ministry of education and the US ambassador spoke, and the Cambodian Secretary of State was in attendance. A lot of old peace corps people came as well. I chatted a bit with a guy from USAID who works in Cambodia who was a volunteer in the 1970s. He told me I shouldn't have a problem getting a job after I'm done with my service. That was good to hear!
On Thursday of this week I took a language test and passed. This was such a relief. Basically, my Khmer is good enough to get me around. I’m sure it’s going to improve once I actually get to my site because very few people speak English- and my family pretty much speaks none. Nonetheless, it was such a good feeling to not have the pressure of a language test looming over my head!
Today I’m in Phnom Penh for one more night. I’m probably going to get some essential Western food to carry me through the first three months. I’ve probably not mentioned this before, but I’m not allowed to leave my Provence for the first three months of service. This for most people is not quite so bad because their Provincial towns have western food. However, mine does not. It has been rumored that there is a grocery store on the Vietnamese/Cambodia border. The only downfall is that it is a no mans land where you leave your passport at the border. I think some of us are going to go before Thanksgiving in order to cook Western food.
Well...that's it for now. I'm not sure when I'll be able to post again!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

This past week about 11 of us volunteers have been traveling around Cambodia in a bus meeting different NGOS and organizations working in the health sector. Pretty much we think we are the luckiest people because everyone else is eating fish soup in the village (and apparently it has rained everyday and almost everyone is sick…kind of makes you feel bad that you’re getting to see Cambodia, learn about the work going on here in the health sector, eating Western food, and having access to the internet!)
The first day we went to Phnom Penh and met with an organization doing water sanitation. We were able to see the different water pumps they install and also look at the water filters they produce. Their water filters were made out of clay pots that used rice hull to filter out the bad/dangerous bacteria in the water (brilliant). They were also producing education videos cautioning against drinking water out of wells due to the high levels of arsenic in the water in Cambodia. It was completely fascinating. One program they did targeted kids and was in a format similar to that of Sesame Street. I wanted a copy because it also teaches children the Khmer alphabet and how to write the script! The next day we drove north to Kampong Chnam Provence. Due to the heavy rain the bridge we had to cross was out, so we had to take the “bamboo train.” Sounds exotic, yeah? That’s how I imagined it. Something like old world Asia. Nope. Essentially it is four wheels, bamboo and a motor (picture to the right). Anyway, it was raining and about 20 of us squeezed on this train that took us through the middle of nowhere. Along the hour to hour-and-a-half trip we actually met a real train! However, not to worry, the “bamboo train” is very easy to disassemble. We disassembled it about 4 times total. It was actually really fun and a real adventure that is definitely off the beaten path. The train took us to a pretty remote village where we were able to observe some of the work an NGO was doing in the realm of child malnutrition. We got to observe a community meeting talking about healthy eating habits. That night on our way to Pursat at about 5:00 our bus started smoking about an hour and a half away. So we pulled over and it was decided that the bus was not going to make it any further. I tell you what, breaking down in Cambodia is an interesting thing. The new bus was on its way but was 2 ½ hours away. Thus, the other option became to try to flag down a bus or taxi from the side of the road and hitch a ride to Pursat…and that is what we did. We literally laid branches in the road and finally (in the dark to add) a tour bus stopped and had enough seats for us to ride the entire way to Pursat! We were all relieved!

Currently, I am in Battambang. It’s a semi-popular tourist town. It’s been weird to see so many foreigners walking around since normally we’re the only ones! It’s absolutely beautiful! There is a river running through town, Buddhist temples everywhere and the architectural legacy of the French. Additionally, we’ve eaten some amazing Western food (and ice cream and real coffee!!!!!) Yesterday, we toured an NGO/ social enterprise organization that train those who are poor, disabled, and women rescued from the sex trade in digitalizing documents. For example, universities will contract this organization to digitize books, journals, etc. The social enterprising aspect of the organization is brilliant because it’s a business that pays for the majority of its mission (e.g not completely reliant on private funding). This NGO trains individuals in computer skills so that they are able to get jobs and pays for 60-100% of the tuition for a college degree.
This morning was kind of our day off. We headed to a village about 10K from Battambang to visit another peace corps volunteer. Her host dad is a health volunteer in the community. We were able to learn more about his role in promoting help within the community and the health needs of his community. It was very helpful for us since a lot of our role as health volunteers is health education. Here many have little to no knowledge relating to health, sanitation and basic nutrition. Actually, only recently has there been a push from the government for women to have their babies at the health center. Many did and still do go to traditional birth attendants or have them at home. Or, I've learned that in my province women will not eat or drink much during pregnancy so that the baby is smaller and easier to deliver. I mean can you imagine? Even if they do go to a health center they do not do any surgical procedures (or only very limited ones) so there is no way to do a cesarean or deal with other complications that may arise.
Next we went to the Wat (Buddhist Temple) across the street to look around. Currently going on is one of Cambodia’s largest holidays that lasts 15 days. I’ll blog about this more since next week I'll be attending the celebrations with my family in my training village. Anyway, we arrived in time for the feeding of the monks. They actually let us “barangs” or foreigners participate. I've somehow figured out how to successfully post pictures on my blog so you can find them in the slide show. It was awesome. After we left the Wat we went to an Ankorian temple. This, too, was a lot of fun. It’s good to see the ruins from the Ankor era….they are everywhere around Cambodia but all are different. Anyway, things are going well. Due to my daily internet access I'll try hard to post more entries and pictures. Oh, and the Khmer Rouge trial post is coming...I'm still working on it filling in some of the blanks.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Site Visit

I just got back from visiting where I will live for the next two years. It was great and I think that I am really going to love it! My family are the nicest people in the world. Also, I'll have two sisters who are excited for me to be living with them (despite me taking one of their rooms!) On the amenities side of things, I have electricity 24-hours a day (they get it cheap from Vietnam), my own huge bed, and my own attached bathroom with a western toilet! Before coming, I could not have even imagined that a house could have all these things, but they, I'll take it! Also, the community has really welcomed me. Because they have had a volunteer before they know what to expect. It seems that this will make my transition as a community member a lot easier. I wasn't going to learn to write Khmer but the volunteer did, so I have a feeling I'll have to. Also, she LOVED Khmer weddings and Khmer dancing. I've already been attempting to talk myself into being open to the idea of Khmer dancing.
Oh, one kind of funny thing that happened with my family was that at dinner the school director came to my house for dinner because he is friends with my family. We're all sitting down to eat and my dad starts filling these shot glasses with what I assumed to be water because it was from a water bottle. He then passed the shot glasses around the table to all the men and me. I thought, "weird, why not just cups..oh well." Then he toasted to me in Khmer and we all took drinks. I tell you what, that was not water!!! It was definitely rice wine and it burned all sorts of pain going down my throat definitely making my face turn red and I thought I might start a coughing fit.

Getting to my village was kind of crazy. Literally, I went to this market with the name of my taxi driver written in Khmer on a piece of paper and showed it to some of the drivers in the market. They then told me where he would normally be. Oh, I should note that someone had arranged for him to meet me in the market, so I wasn't just showing up even though that's kind of what you just go to the market where your taxi and buses leave from and try to catch one. So, I go to where he should be and showed the paper to a security guard of sorts. He then proceeds to communicate in very little English and then Khmer that he will be at that market tomorrow! To which I respond, "impossible, I need him to come today." Then my driver actually calls me. Now, I speak VERY little Khmer and even more little on the phone because I've gotten the whole routine down of reading lips and using hand gestures as cues for what is actually being said therefore making the phone impossible to ascertain what's going on. I then decided to just hand the phone off to the guard. He then tells me that my driver is in another market and that he will flag down a moto for me to take to get to him. I then have to tell him I cannot ride motos, but that a tuk tuk I can take. So, he gets a tuk tuk driver who for $3 takes me about 20 miles across town. The entire time I kept thinking, "this is CRAZY" and that you really have to be trusting of other people. Anyway, somehow it all worked out. I met up with my driver and made it to my village in about 3 hours. I've found that you get what you expect here of people. Also, once people know you are here to teach English and are a volunteer (no worries I tell everyone I meet this and can do it in Khmer) people want to help you and protect you because they know how much of a service you're doing to their country and practically everyone wants to learn English.

Today is my last day in Phnom Penh which is sort of sad because of all the Western luxuries.
I'm kind of ready to get back to the village and finish training. Today we actually get to go to the tribunal of a former Khmer Rouge officer. It's VERY, VERY exciting. The genocide here happened 30 years ago, so it's kind of crazy that they would finally be trying this guy. He was a higher up that was over a massive killing program. I'll try to post more on this next time because it's all so interesting.