Monday, September 28, 2009

End of Tramkak, the start of BB

Well, it had been a really crazy week to say the least. But first, my laptop (yes, I found a wireless internet connection) but the letter that follows f in the alphabet is currently broken, so I will use q in it’s place, they sort of look alike anyway. I am currently in Battambanq riqht now (see how that q thinq works? Haha) but I will pick up from my last post….

My last few days in Tramkak consisted of studying and packinq. We had an oral exam for Khmer and if we didn’t pass (Novice Hiqh) we were required to take it aqain, as many times as needed. Well, I passed the test and placed on step above, in Intermediate low, which I was really proud of considerinq how poor my performance was durinq the oral exam and also that we have only been studying Khmer for 2 months, less actually, more like 7 weeks. With the weiqht of passinq the test off of my shoulders, the last two days were spent hanqinq with my family and qettinq ready to leave. Peace Corps picked up our trunks and bikes a few days before we left, so we were all sleepinq on straw mats with maybe one sheet and no pillows, it was really Peace Corps….

My last day went somethinq like this: I woke up, showered and walked to JaNise’s house, which was our typical daily activity and we walked into town and had breakfast with two of our LCFs and the lanquaqe coordinator, Dara. It was a really fun time to relax and enjoy each others company without the stress of learninq the lanquaqe or leavinq or packinq. I walked home and spent the last few hours hanqinq out with my sisters. About two weeks aqo, they all started to qet sad and would say thinqs to my in Khmer like, “Sister Kealan qoes to Battambanq, I am sad” or “I will miss sister Kealan when she lives far…” When I left, my host mom and all of my sisters were cryinq. My dad and I stayed stronq, but I was extremely sad. We took a tuk tuk into Takeo and that was that. It was a very weird feelinq, livinq with a family for 2 months that you don’t know. I still don’t really know them that well, but they took me in and dealt with my weird American activities. I will really miss them.

We had our last seminar day, which was centered around qettinq ready for swear-in and qoinq to site. We went to Phnom Penh for 2 days after that. We had a conference with our school directors, but my school flooded because of all of the rain last week, so he couldn’t come, which was a bummer. But I was able to talk to the representative from the Provincial Office of Education, which will help me in the lonq run because the POE is really important. So, I was very happy that I was able to talk to him for a few hours, since I will be in the provincial town and I plan on makinq a connection there.

After the conference, we had swear-in. The Ambassador was there to swear us in and the Minister of Education was there. They both made speeches and it was really touchinq. The Ambassador talked about the type of Americans that are sent over and she is so happy to have us in the country. She also plans to visit and see what we are doinq, which is nerve-rackinq. The Minister talked about how thankful he was that we are there. It was a special day because the day before marked the 30th anniversary of the schools reopeninq after the Khmer Rouque, which is a really important landmark for Cambodia. It was pretty symbolic, since we are all there to teach.

We were then sworn in and that was that. There was a small reception with everyone and we all went our separate ways, well until we all met up that niqht at a bar. We went and qot pizza for the 2nd niqht in a row and we all met up as a qroup. It was a really fun niqht. We all stayed in Phnom Penh an extra to qive ourselves a break and buy thinqs that may not be outside of PP. It is rare that BB doesn’t have anything, so I didn’t buy much.

Peace Corps three of us volunteers up the next morninq to take us to site. Everyone else had to take buses, but since none of us had met our new host families, they took us up to make sure that everythinq was ok. When I qot to my new house, I was really nervous, naturally. But my family is qreat. I have 6 host siblinqs and I am the younqest, which is much different from my last family. Three are married and three aren’t. My host mother is a widow and she is a tailor with two of my sisters and they work out of the house. My room is so sick; it almost doesn’t feel Peace Corps. My room is all tile and I have my own bathroom, equipped with a showerhead and western toilet. My bed is wood and absolutely beautiful. I am really close to the school, which is a total plus.

The downside of havinq a biq site is the traffic. It is nuts everywhere, but it is downriqht scary in the cities. I had to make a left turn into school yesterday and almost qot hit by a moto- I’m sure it qave the students a qreat first impression. I avoided the main road on the way home and ended up in a mud pit. This morning, I found the route I am qoinq to take. Althouqh it is twice as lonq, I would rather not fear for my life every morninq.

Life in the BB so far is sorta lonely. There isn’t much to do since school doesn’t start until Thursday. I also don’t want to do too much at one time. I went for a really lonq bike ride yesterday to qet to know the city a little better and met some really nice people by my house. The city is so larqe and the setup is not typically what we are used to, so I am qoinq to try to qet a map to learn easier and faster.

I’m sure I will have plenty of stories cominq your way from the BB real soon, but I forqot to mention somethinq that has been on my mind for a while now. When I first qot to Tramkak, I had a lot of difficulty fiqurinq out who was who in the family. In Cambodia, they use brother and sister very freely, so I was introduced to many cousins (whether they were first, second or third) and my sister would always say “my dad’s brother” when I know he wasn’t. About a month into traininq, I was eatinq dinner with my family and wonderinq why their cousin Perom was so much older than his brother and sister, he is 12 and the others are 4 and 2. Liney told me that they aren’t actually cousins, but Perom is from another province, called Kamponq Cham. His parents sent him to live with my host uncle so that he could qo to school in exchanqe for workinq in the rice patties. I was shocked at first, but then I sort of let it qo because I was qlad that he at least had a chance to qo to school, as touqh as it may be. A few weeks aqo, the country celebrated Phcum Ben, which I bloqqed about. The ENTIRE country qoes back to their hometowns, so travel is nuts. But, I was pretty shocked when Perom didn’t leave to qo home. Worse yet, when it came time for celebratinq, we qot showered and went to my cousin/uncle’s house while Perom worked in the fields. He is such a happy boy, but I could tell how sad he was. It made me really upset because there was nothinq that I could do for this kid. He was homesick but his family made a decision and he now takes on the responsibilities of a man. It just made me feel bad about all the times I complained about workinq or qoinq to school because he has sacrificed a lot to qo to school, somethinq I never really thouqht about. Sure, I know people who made a lot of sacrifices for colleqe or even hiqh school, but not qrade school. I quess it was one of the first wake up calls for me and sort of ended the honeymoon phase and forced me to realize that realities of this country and the world. It may not seem that drastic, but this kid was so happy and hard workinq that it broke my heart to see him alone on such an important holiday.

Best wishes to all and I hope everyone is doinq well!!

This bloq represents my opinions alone and does not express the opinions or beliefs of the United States Qovernment or the Peace Corps.

Friday, September 18, 2009

My last training post!

Well, training is winding down, so I thought that I would take the time to fill everyone in on what is happening here…. Oh, and sorry for the obnoxiously large text in my last post, I don’t know how that happened….

The past week has consisted of training as usual, but Keiko, JaNise and I did a community project. We went to the health center in town and got abate, which is a chemical that you put into standing water to kill mosquitoes. We bagged the abate and made a handout in Khmer with information on mosquito borne-illness, how to prevent getting bit and mosquito reproduction and how to use abate. We walked around the market and handed out the abate and the handout. It was a lot of fun to do something that was actually Peace Corps because so much of what we do so far consists of being together in a room and talking about how to do community activities, if that even makes sense. We were able to meet a lot of people at the market, which was such a great time. Since most people do not have refrigeration, they make multiple trips to the market everyday, so going to the market is the best place to meet people.

Right now, Cambodia is celebrating Pchum Ben, which is like a 15 day Thanksgiving festival. All of the LCFs (our language instructors) went home to their hometowns to be with family. JaNise and I went to the pagoda last week to celebrate with my host grandma and host sister. We walked into the pagoda and offered food to the monks, who sit in two lines and eat together. We lit some incense (which symbolized Buddha, health and family) and gave about 25 cents to the emcee of the day for a blessing, I am assume it was for us and our families. Pchum Ben’s last two days are a really big deal, so traffic, which is already nuts here, is even more nuts. People are travelling all over the country to be with family. There will be a feast tomorrow night with my host family. I am pretty excited about it.

As for the traffic, my friend Terry did his community project on traffic in Cambodia, and I wanted to fill you in on some stats he told me:
-Cambodia has the highest percent of accidents in all of Asia
-5 people die everyday in Cambodia from traffic accidents
-1 person dies every month in the town that we are living in (this month has been much higher, since 5 were killed last week alone and one outside my house this morning)
It is a really big issue here because the country is so poor. Sorry if this is a sad one, but I wanted this to be a segway into the next topic, which is basically how the novelty has worn off and I am now an actual volunteer and my focus is shifting to preparing myself to actually doing work to improve this country. Some of the things that we will be tackling are pretty huge issues and it is going to be a tough two years, because our work is cut out for us. I know what I want to work on, it is just going to be tough to do it. For instance, we will all be doing work with HIV/AIDS prevention, since 1% of Cambodians are living with AIDS, which is the highest in South East Asia. Having said that, there are some really positive factors of being here. For instance, when I came into my room the other day and my host sister Liney was reaching through my window to borrow some baby powder and I straight up caught her red handed. I was annoyed because we here in sessions all the time that Khmer people always share and it is difficult to draw the line between mine and yours. Then, my other sister wanted to use my hair brush, when her brush was right there. I was really annoyed and left the house and met up with Keiko at the gas station. I came to the realization about an hour later that I shouldn’t be so quick to jump to get mad about stuff like that. I was a younger sister and I pulled acts like that all the time growing up. I would steal my sister Katie’s stuff ALL THE TIME. Why did I steal it and not just ask? I honestly don’t know the reason for stealing her things, but I do know that I thought her stuff was cooler and I wanted it. I also knew that no matter how many times I would do it, she would always forgive me and we would move on. So, maybe it was a good thing that my sisters feel comfortable enough with me to talk my stuff, because if they didn’t, and they stole from the American and got caught, it would be a big deal. This probably doesn’t make sense to anyone, but I am just trying to fill you in on some of the weird things that happen when you are an American living in a developing country.

I still don’t have a host family in Battambang, but there are two really good options and Peace Corps will sort it out soon. I take my final language exam on Tuesday, move out of my host family’s house on Wednesday and swear in on Friday and leave for Battambang on Saturday. It is pretty crazy, but I am excited to get to site and start being an actual volunteer

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Sorry that it has taken me so long to respond but these past few weeks have been a total blur. I will attempt to fill you all in on what has happened since I last blogged…..

When it came time for site announcement, the Peace Corps staff took us outside to the parking lot, where they outlined the entire country with chalk and rocks. They put bamboo sticks around the country with a sign that said each site. The staff in the middle called out a name and we were handed an envelope and when we opened it, we read out loud our province and school. We then stood on top of our site until all of the names were called. I probably didn’t do a justice to how cool this process was, but it was really awesome when we finished and the country was filled in with all of us next to our sites.

We had a few days in Phnom Penh, where we met our counterparts- who essentially, are teachers at our schools who will take us under their wing and show us the ropes. Since I will be co-teaching with a Khmer teacher, it is really important that I make as many connections with the teachers at my school as possible. His name is Sopeap and he is around 50 years old. He has two sons and has been teaching for 18 years. He lived and studied in Russia and knows Russian, on top of English and Khmer. He wants to get his doctorate in English soon, but doesn’t know where he is going to do that yet. We had a counterpart conference for 2 days in PP before we all headed out to our sites. It took me about 5 hours to get to Battambang (BB) from PP, which is not bad, but I know I won’t be coming into PP that often because it is expensive. It costs around $10 round trip, but when your salary is $100 per month, it is really expensive. Plus, when we go into PP, we usually get a little careless with money and eat a lot of Western food, which is much more expensive.

There will be five of us in BB province and two of us in BB provincial town, which is basically the capitol of the province. Darlene will be teaching at the teacher training school across the street from me and is the closest volunteer to me, which is awesome because she is such a great person. She is a professor at University of Texas and I am really excited to be so close to her. We took the bus into BB together and our counterparts picked us up from the bus station and took us to Darlene’s house. Her family owns a pharmacy in town and they have a sweet house. Her dad picked us up in his car, which is a big deal, and took us to their house. They gave us coconuts and we got to know each other a little better. We then walked to my host family in the center of town. I don’t really want to get into details, but I soon realized that I will not be living there and I am working on getting another host family. Hopefully that will be solved within the next few days. Peace Corps has a few requirements for host families and the family that I was assigned to is simply not going to work, so I will leave it at that. The PC staff is so understanding and incredible, so it really isn’t a big deal at all.

We went to visit my school with the principle the next day. In short, my school is the Khmer version of OPRF. They have amazing facilities, but don’t really know how to use them. They have a science lab, but they are unsure how to take care of it, so that will be one of my tasks. There are about 4,300 students at my school and my classes will have around 60 students in them. My biggest class at Seton Hall had less than 40. But, I wanted a big school so that I would be able to do secondary projects and I know that I will be able to. They have a soccer field, as well as 3 volleyball courts. The back of the school floods during the rainy season and there are facilities are students to eat in between classes. The school has also just started building a human resources lab, which will have computers. I think that it is safe to say that I have one of the biggest schools with many opportunities to work with. The way that it works when I get to site is that I will observe for at least one month and then I will start teaching but my other projects will most likely have to wait a few months until I can assess what I think the school needs, as well as wants and what I can actually do, because some tasks just won’t be possible to complete in two years.

As for BB, there is definitely a western influence, but not as much as there is in PP. PP has a mall, as well as restaurants that serve pizza, Mexican, etc. and BB doesn’t have that much. Sometimes PP can be a little much when it comes to the international influence, but BB strikes a good balance between being Khmer and being a big city with many foreigners. According to my counterpart, there is a large amount of Australian, French and Swedish volunteers in the city. Also, BB was the only place that I have seen that has two things that are common in every city that I have ever been in- a garbage truck and construction. BB is very different from Takeo in a few ways. One, there aren’t as many rice patties and the people allow the vegetation to grow. Also, it is easy to tell the French and Chinese influence. The architecture seems very European in the city and the people look more Chinese in BB than anywhere else that I have been in the country. I was only there for a few days, but I can already tell that I am going to really like it up there. I will be very far from the group of friends that I have made here, but Siem Riep (which is home to Angkor Wat) is only a few hours away and I know that people will want to come to see the great city of Battambang. Oh, there is a place called City Café that has free Wifi, and I am under the impression that it is not the only place in the city that offers Wifi. That is HUGE because many people have been hounding me to put up pictures, but there are a few reasons for the lack of pictures. One, it takes so long- I tried in Bangkok and because the photos are formatted differently in America than they are in Asia, it takes 5 times longer (at least that is what I think, I am probably wrong though….) Also, the computers are teeming with viruses, if I were to put my flash drive in one of these babies, I will most likely carry some virus to my Seton Hall issued laptop, and since there is no Khmer Geek Squad that can come and save the day, I am most likely going to wait a few more weeks and spend a few hours at the City Café and put them all on facebook.

As for training in general, we just finished week 6 out of 9, so we are almost there. Next week consists of a lot of language, week 8 is testing our language and packing and week 9 is swearing in. We swear in September 24th and then head out to site and the real work begins. The posts will come more frequently then because as the K2s have told us, we are going to be bored to tears since they keep us so busy during training. Lock down is for the first 3 months, which means that I won’t be able to leave the province, which is ok with my, because my site is pretty awesome, I won’t want to leave. My address will be changing soon, but I will post closer to swear in so there is no confusion.

Overall, I can honestly say that I am as happy right now as I have ever been in my life. There are bad days, but that is life. Sometimes I need to take a deep breath when I feel overwhelmed and remember why I am here. The frustration passes easily when I realize that life is meant to be lived for the moment, and this chance is one that I would never have if I stayed where everything was familiar. I am lucky because I found some really great people here to help me through and all of you back home who push me forward without realizing it. The letters that I receive literally make my day every time, so thanks to those who have sent them. So thanks for all of the continued support, it really means the world to me.

Also, Mom, all of the staff and other trainees were so jealous of that mammoth of a package. It is most likely a PC record…..

This blog does not reflect the thoughts or opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. government. It reflects my own thoughts and opinions.