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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Only a temporary goodbye

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted to the blog – apologies to you who have been faithfully following my escapades. The last four weeks since my Aug 20th post have been filled to the brim with activities and efforts to complete my volunteer assignment by Sept. 14, which was my last day with VSO, officially. Perhaps another assignment in the future?...?...?

This has been a life-changing experience for me, and now that I have returned to the USA I can see it even more. Living for six months immersed in another culture has had its way with me. I have had the experience of being a foreigner in my own country for the days since I’ve been home, seeing things with very fresh eyes. Sure, things are the same here as when I left them, but now many things seem to stand out.

One of the first things that struck me was the content of conversation, overhearing people on the airplanes in the USA talking about golf holidays, sports scores and all other matter, little of which I have been exposed to for quite awhile. And then the Sky Mall magazine on the airplane – full of gadgets and “necessities of life”, like motorized drink caddies for the pool, a personalized branding iron for steaks and a toy ATM for children at home that really works. It struck me how oriented toward leisure Americans are and that we have that opportunity so readily available to us. Just one Sky Mall gadget purchase would equal a major chunk of the average Cambodian family's income for a year ($280).

This is one of the struggles that I return with. I look at my own lifestyle, the home I live in, the things I own, the purchases I make - and it is diametrically opposite from how 95% of how the rest of the world lives. How I lived there is a sharp contrast to how I live here, and yet I have been truly happy, not really for want of anything.

So I leave with important questions. How will I live my life from this point onward? How will I engage with the rest of the world? What is my responsibility? How will I share what I have? With whom will I share it? And how much will I share without "neglecting" my own needs? Most all of us in the West are rich in comparison to the rest of the world and would have a very long way to the bottom when compared to much of the world. Even most of the impoverished in the USA or the UK are in sustainable and relatively comfortable situations. Not to say that it shouldn't change, but our poor are poor in relation to the American or British economic context.

So I leave Cambodia, absolutely in love with the country and its people, filled with the richness of an up-close and personal experience with a culture so different from mine, yet it is now part of me.

I leave with personal dilemmas to ponder and act upon, like answering the questions above and choosing what is right for me. I hope that I've given you some insights into this great country and perhaps raised some new questions for you to ponder about how you want to engage with this world of ours. Maybe it won't be a volunteer assignment in a faraway place, but I do know at least one of my readers who is now seriously contemplating a two year stint with VSO.

There are so many ways in which to play a part. It's about awareness and then choosing.

I also leave behind a project - conceived, designed, planned, funded and ready to be executed beginning in November of this year. This project in Enterprise Development based on market research is new for VSO and the first component will directly affect the incomes of over 500 poor families during the pilot year with an expansion that will affect a thousand or more families in the second. From that point forward, it has the potential to affect tens of thousands annually. Components 2 & 3 will will indirectly affect several thousand families in the first year alone, with steady growth thereafter. I'm feeling very satisfied with my work and very optimistic of what it will create for the poor.

I touched down in Knoxville after four flights, 9,200 miles and 31 hours of travel at 1:00pm Sunday. Katie picked me up at the airport and we went off to lunch on Market Square in Knoxville. The first thing that struck me was how overweight people are! I mean many, many people way oversized – surely exacerbated by the experience of being around very skinny Cambodians. And then my lunch came – it was HUGE to my eyes.

And the flavors in the food I’ve been eating over the last few days have been, to my palette, largely bland. Sam, the gent who takes such good care of my house while I trot about the globe, was really thoughtful by going to Kroger and buying “food that you like”, he said to me. I looked in the fridge but I couldn’t find the food I like to eat. It’s not the food I’ve had over the last six months! It was like looking in a refrigerator museum of prepackaged, processed foods. They are available in Cambodia, but they’re not as dominant (read blog post from April 1 about my first trip to the REAL market ).

One of the best decisions I made while in Cambodia was to go to a one day cooking class on Khmer cuisine. From that point forward I cooked nearly 100% of my meals based on that style and nearly all my meals out were Khmer and Asian style of eating. No cheese, limited dairy products, rare deep frying, extraordinarily lean meats with no hormones added – but lots and lots of rice and fish! As a final exclamation point on this subject of food and fat, my cholesterol score was baselined at 214 when I left in March – yesterday it was 172. 42 points, just on diet alone!

What I notice now as I sit here and write is how even-keeled I feel. My internal rhythm seems to run at a gentler pace and I feel exceedingly happy inside. Although there is a mountain of stuff to get done in the next week before I leave again, catching up on what has passed and getting prepared for what’s to come, I feel confident and quiet inside trusting that it will all come together. I’ve been touched deeply by the way of the culture, the way of the Cambodian people - a faith that things will work out.

Although my time in Cambodia as a VSO volunteer is complete, I have decided to keep open the possibilities to return in the very near future. Several opportunities have emerged and I intend to pursue them, including a very exciting consulting project that could affect many Cambodian farmers. I'll keep you posted.

One definite thing is that Lizzy and I will be married in London on March 28 at Kew Gardens! So there is lots to be done in anticipation of the big event.

In my next posting I intend to do my best to tempt you to come to Cambodia. I’ll give lots of places to go, websites that can give you working knowledge, etc. It is my fondest hope that you consider visiting this place, and before it becomes too discovered. It is a rare opportunity.

Thanks for coming along with me on this journey.

Monday, August 20, 2007

To the moon and back

I’ve just returned from a 10 day trip to Japan to see Tyler who has just recently relocated there to teach English. Izu Oshima is his new home, a sleepy volcanic island about 100km from Tokyo out in the Pacific. Sleepy refers to the people – the volcano is very much alive and kicking.

Let me tell you, Japan is no picnic for the English speaking traveler. This being claimed by one who has spent six months of this year in backward Cambodia. For the record, Cambodians speak and understand far more English than the Japanese.

It was really interesting ordering my first meal after I had settled into the hotel and then ventured out into modern Tokyo. I was lured into a restaurant by its sidewalk English signboard saying “special”. That was the last English word I read. Try ordering off a menu with no English and no pictures. What I ended up with was a bowl of cold rice with a lump of raw minced and marinated fish on top. Good thing I’ve been training my stomach and tastebuds on Cambodian cuisine.

Tyler met up with me about 3pm and we ventured out into the unknown of Tokyo, visiting the emperor’s digs and old section of the city the first day before heading out to the fabby chic area of Shibuyo that night. Think Times Square. The world’s largest pedestrian crossing where when the lights go green, all walkers unite into a mass of magnificent humanity. Unbelievable.

We spent the next two nights in Tokyo as well before heading over to Tyler’s island. It’s only a 90 minute ride by hydrofoil, skimming along the water at 50 mph - a very pleasant ride indeed. Instantly, we entered a world starkly different from that of Tokyo. Oshima has 9,000 inhabitants, scattered about in 5 villages – Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world with over 35 million people in the metroplex.

1986 was the most recent volcanic eruption, but it’s not the last. To make things really real, Tyler (and all Oshima residents) has a white plastic hard hat in his closet, just in case…

Tossing caution to the wind, Tyler and I hiked Mt. Mihara – the volcano – on my second to last day. Our 8 km jaunt was like going to the moon. It’s the fantasy birthplace of Godzilla (Go-zee-ra). Imagine an ancient crater that is 5 km in diameter and then within that circumference another crater, 600 feet higher and 1km in diameter; and then within that a .5km cylindrical blow hole. We hiked it all in virtual solitude, seeing only two people at the very end. Spectacularly eerie. The photo below is Tyler standing on the edge of an extinguished lava flow on the inside of the older crater.

I’m so glad I went to be with Tyler in his new habitat. I think he was glad to see me too, particularly in a sea of change too. I’m very proud of him for taking this very big and unusual step. I’m sure he’ll do well. He’s a great adapter and knows no strangers, even when there are language and cultural barriers.

Asia is the new frontier in so many ways and does an exceptional job in arresting our comfy Western ways. Tyler is in for the time of his young life. (yes, that's Mt. Fuji on the left, as seen from "Tyler's Island"). If you'd like to write to him, his new email address is:

Proud Dad...

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

S-21 Prison

Two words that strike fear into the heart of Cambodians. Tuol Sleng. Once a high school in Phnom Penh, it was transformed into a horrific torture prison by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Known as S-21, the secret prison was the most brutal and well-known evil machine of the Khmer Rouge years. Actually, there were over 200 prisons and labour camps scattered about Cambodia, with an equal number of “killing fields” where people were sent to their deaths with one swift blow of an oxcart handle to the base of the skull.

Few of us really know what happened in Cambodia during these four dark years in the late 1970’s. Even fewer of us from the free world can comprehend the atrocities committed here. Most people have heard of the Khmer Rouge, the communist movement led by Pol Pot and his Western-educated band of Western-hating revolutionaries. Most have heard of the killing fields, the expression popularized by the movie of the same name (well worth seeing). But few people really understand what actually happened in Cambodia or have a grasp of the breadth and depth of the destruction wrought here – me included.

It’s time for me to talk about this because the trouble we are dealing with in Cambodia today stems directly from this hugely destructive period beginning earlier than, but gaining traction by 1968. It’s also time to talk about this because FINALLY, the Khmer Rouge leadership – the ones who are still alive that is – are being brought to justice after nearly 30 years. You’ve probably read this in the news – only so, I’m afraid, because it makes a sensational headline that sells newspapers.

Cambodia is a lovely country filled with graceful, easy-going people, but also owns an sinister past from which questions arise as to how its people will eventually recover. Living literally four blocks from S-21, I wonder what some of the people whom I see everyday were doing back then. Were they victims? Were they perpetrators? Were they forced? Were they willing participants? It is a classic “good side – bad side” of the personality of a good portion of this population. It would be foolish to think that economic recovery will ever erase or even ease the unbearable pain of genocide, whichever side one was on.

Two million Cambodians died out of a population of eight million during the years 1970 to 1979. That’s 25% of the population. Imagine that – 75 million Americans or 15 million British citizens killed. Many of those who perished were the leaders of the country – its politicians, doctors, attorneys, teachers – anyone who smacked of Western influence. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were determined to remove from Cambodia any and all Western influence and to exterminate the bourgeoisie. The hoped for result was to be a Maoist agrarian civilization devoid of external influences and a country turned inward, dependent only upon itself.

Out of the two million that died, roughly a half million were as a result of American bombing as it attempted to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines that snaked through the eastern half of Cambodia during the Vietnam war. Ironically, it was this attempt to defeat the NVA that propelled the Khmer Rouge into eventual victory and power in Cambodia. The people of rural Cambodia became so disenchanted with the corruption laden, American-backed government of Lon Nol that they turned to the Khmer Rouge as saviors.

It is estimated that another 200,000 people were victims of direct Khmer Rouge genocidal purges. Another 1.3 million died as a result of the brutality encountered in slave labour camps and the ill-conceived agricultural revolution that literally starved the country’s occupants. Imagine, working the fields all day in the very hot Cambodian sun only to receive one cup of a watery rice mixture as your daily nourishment.

A generation of educated leadership, intelligence and culture was wiped out. It should come as no surprise that nearly 70% of Cambodia’s population is younger than age 30, 50% less than 15 – only 3% older than 60! Literally, the cultural, political and social fibre and intelligence of this society has been decapitated. No wonder the road back isn’t as easy as just being at peace or attained simply by ageing.

So, there’s some fat to chew on this week. Savour your liberty.

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Small Explosion

Sunday morning, 11:48am - B O O M! Lizzy and I stop, mid-bite, lock eyes and turn quickly towards the reverberating sound. A shrug of the shoulders and back to chewing our late breakfast at Java Cafe, but with minds whirring rapidly to settle the unsettling shock.

Just on Saturday I was questioning with Lizzy about how fragile the peace is in Cambodia. After being here for awhile, if you're keen to it, you learn what happens behind the scenes of politics and daily life. The somewhat placid bustling pace of street vendors, moto-dops, half-naked toddlers and ubiquitous honking of horns masks a government that seems to keep things under control.

Most everything looks and seems okay. There are political parties - the CPP is the ruling party with Hun Sen as the Prime Minister, and Funcinpec as its main rival. Then at a distance there is the Sam Rainsy Party and now the new Human Rights Party. There is the usual and typical bickering that reverberates between back and forth between parties. But in recent decades, this is a country that is used to settling political squabbles with violence. Only recently have they had democratic elections and still learning about what that really means, I think.

When the Vietnamese pulled out in 1989 there was a void of leadership and government. The UN came in with UNTAC and troops to keep the peace until there were "democratic" elections in a free Cambodia in 1993. Open fighting in the street aside, an uneasy decision was rendered which put co-prime ministers from CPP and Funcinpec in power. For the next four years it was a very shaky power-sharing agreement between Hun Sen and Prince Rannaridh. But that changed in 1997.

On July 5 and 6 a very swift shift happened when outright armed conflict plagued Phnom Penh once again. The more or less private armies of the two parties skirmished in various parts of the capital city and in the end, Hun Sen became the sole Prime Minister as he is today. According to an article in the Phnom Penh Post, a number of soldiers loyal to the Funcinpec party were later dug up with hands tied behind their backs and single bullets to their heads. Never has there been a thought given to prosecution of those responsible. Some say it was a coup d'etat manufactured by one side; others say that CPP was only defending itself from a reverse coup attempt. Who knows.

The more I'm here, the more I read and the more conversations I have, I begin to learn more of the detail of Cambodia's history that's not easily offered up. The ruling party has the privilege of the spoils - the position of power to control the rich natural resources of the country. It sickens me to realize that so few people enjoy these resources, and yet I equally realize that peace is worth the price that is being borne by the people.

But one must understand the context from which this country springs. People have been exhausted by decades of civil war, genocide and factional fighting, which has been eased by the ways of politics today. So much better than it was and yet so much has been yielded by a populace hungry for peace.

For the casual tourist, the obvious Khmer history is within easy reach. Visitors here are typically guilt-fully shocked at their own ignorance of the atrocities committed at the Killing Fields or S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison) where nearly 17,000 lost their lives. Or at the news that 500,000 tons of American bombs actually accelerated the Khmer Rouge's ascent to its horrific power. Difficult questions surge forth: "Why did this happen? Why did I not know about this?"

But there is even more to the story than can be easily accessed, even when one is willing to ask the painful questions about what actually happened.

What I have found is that most Khmer do not like to talk about the years and events under the Khmer Rouge. I remember a conversation with three colleagues several months ago where it was revealed that one man's father had been executed by the Khmer Rouge. As his chin nearly grazed his chest I sensitively asked the follow on of 'do you know what happened?' Three eternal seconds ticked by when the voice of another colleague came to the rescue, "We don't like to talk about those kinds of memories." All of us swallowed hard and grasped for some rare air to move on from the delicate subject. I learned something important that evening.

Cambodia is on the verge of the long-awaited and long-delayed trials of the Khmer Rouge. Two million people died during three and three quarter years of their reign. Many were executed, still more died from starvation and slave labor. The number is not even exact, but it was too many, many times over. But for almost 30 years the guilty have mostly gone free. Only Duch, the infamous prison warden of S-21, has been incarcerated since 1999. It's as if the entire KR guilt is laid upon his shoulders, but there were those who directed his actions. We'll see what justice awaits Duch and other old Khmer Rouge leaders, at least those whom are still alive.

So, as a Western visitor in this exotic country, much lies below the surface of tourism and ancient monuments. Still, I feel safe in this place and worry not about what might happen. The struggle for this country is not with me, but with them. "Safe" coup d'etats seem to happen in this region of the world, such as has happened many times in Thailand. My concern is for the people of this country who need its leaders to find a vein of compassion matched with a backbone to fight rampant corruption that sucks the blood of the economy.

Today I read in the Cambodia Daily that three fertilizer bombs, small five-gallon bucket versions of the Oklahoma City truck bomb, had been placed at the base of the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument and one had partially detonated. The blast we heard was a controlled explosion of the other two.

And life goes on.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The big green can

Sitting at Flavours on the corner of Rue 51 and Rue 278 for breakfast one morning not long ago, I thought I heard a marching band, in the middle of the week. You know, a good old marching band with drums and horns and all the trimmings. No way, I thought. Then there it was again, the faint but distinguishable sound of a marching band.

I strained my eyes toward the end of the street and began to notice a couple of official vehicles with their emergency lights flashing. Then the majorettes and flag bearers, and finally the band. I could have been in the middle of Pensacola, Pittsburgh, perhaps even Poughkeepsie – but not Phnom Penh. It was a complete Western-outfitted marching band like they’d come straight from the heartland of America.

And then there were floats. Three of them to be exact. The front and rear floats had what looked like huge green cans of Raid insect spray, each about 10 feet tall. I thought, “Hmmm, I guess Raid is sponsoring this parade - how odd.” The middle float had a number of children clad in lime green raid tee shirts and a crowned queen – I suppose she was the Raid Queen of Cambodia. A colossal honor for a young Cambodian girl, I suppose.

But then after the floats came hundreds of children, during the middle of a school day no less, all clad in Raid lime green t’s. Then a few hundred more, followed by a few hundred more. It was unreal. Something big was up.

So I asked my waitress what was going on (actually I just pointed and gestured, using a few pidgin English words to try and communicate with a non-English speaker) and she simply said one word: dengue.

Dengue is a word that strikes fear into the hearts of families with young Khmer children because if left untreated - or poorly treated – it can be deadly. Otherwise known as “break-bone” fever, dengue is transmitted by mosquitoes, similar to malaria, but there is no vaccine against it. There are several forms of dengue, but the most serious form is hemorrhagic dengue. One of my fellow volunteers came down with this form of the disease and had to go to Bangkok for treatment.

So, like malaria, people of the west rarely hear about diseases that ravage children. Several hundred have died here in Cambodia this year, with tens of thousands contracting it this year alone. It is at epidemic proportions this year and it seems to recur every five years or so in SE Asia. With proper medical attention the mortality rate should be very, very low. Not so in Cambodia where the health care system is abysmal – so much so that if any of our volunteers get really sick they get on a plane and head for Bangkok, about an hour away from Phnom Penh.

The availability and quality of medical treatment here is directly related to the inhumane and torturous years of the Khmer Rouge. Democratic Kampuchea may have only lasted less than four years from April 1975 to January 1979, but the utter decimation of civil society rendered nearly all institutions essentially null, including healthcare. Because the Khmer Rouge rejected anything Western, all doctors and medical personnel either were forced to flee the country or were killed. The same fate was met by all formally educated Cambodians who were thought to be polluted by Western thought. Pol Pot wanted Democratic Kampuchea to be rebuilt on an extreme communist platform, Mao Tse Tung style, and to devolve the country into a pre-industrial agrarian society. Two million people lost their lives in this failed communist experiment – nearly one fourth of all Cambodians. (Finally, nearly 30 years later, it appears the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders are actually going to come off.)

So these kids in green shirts were marching to create awareness amongst Khmer families. Buying a can of Raid and spraying it in one's home to kill mosquitoes is one method. Having the government provide mosquito control would be another, but they seem to be too busy with other things. An epidemic is underway, but no action, no acknowledgement of a problem since November 2006 when it started, nothing. Dr. Beat Richner, an outspoken doctor, has been referring to this (and other ignored diseases) as the “passive genocide of children”.

Nearly 20% of Cambodian children don’t reach their 18th birthday. They suffer from a toxic range of threats that children in Western or developed countries simply don’t face, not in large numbers at least. Personally, I was shocked at the huge outcry of support for the young English child, Madeleine, who was abducted in Portugal recently. She is just one of a number of Western poster children who symbolize the high value we place on a Western child’s life. But what about the two to three million children that die each year from preventable diseases such as malaria? Where is the public outcry and outrage over that?

It starts with awareness, and it continues with action. If you'd like to help, one small act you can do that has impact is to support the mosquito net program sponsored by the Cambodia Daily, the local Phnom Penh newspaper. Each $5 contributed buys a mosquito net that provides protection for three family members and will be distributed for free to the most in need Cambodians. Although dengue is the current major threat, malaria is still Cambodia’s most deadly disease. Click here if you’d like to find out how to contribute. 100% of the money goes directly toward buying mosquito nets.

And don't worry about me - I take mosquito borne illnesses seriously. The DEET people are doing very well off of me for these six months.