Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Overdue update

Within the realm of Peace Corps Cambodia Volunteers, April is known as the month we can have a break and take a vacation.  Khmer New Year is always in the middle of the month, but the date changes from year to year because the holiday (like most Buddhist holidays) is celebrated according to the lunar calendar.  This year, the holiday was from April 14-16, but school ended the last week in March and will resume next week.  For much of April, people are allowed to go back to their “homeland” to celebrate Khmer New Year.  Many of my students took two weeks to go back home to be with their families.  Last year, there wasn’t much to do and besides my trip to Vietnam, I didn’t do much.  This year couldn’t have been more different (which is my excuse for not writing a blog post for some time…)

April 1-3- Siem Reap.  Because I had been at site for 1.5 months, I decided to take a trip to Siem Reap for the weekend as a refresher because I knew that April would be a really busy and crazy month.  I went with my friends Keiko and Lisa and it’s always great to be around friends in a western setting.  There is nothing really to report, but because our friend Tyler has an apartment there, we were able to do really American things there, which is a great change for us.  We cooked fajitas, played wiffle ball, swam in the pool and swapped music.  For us, that is a big deal, but it sounds like a typical weekend for an American. 

April 5- After grade 12 students finish their first semester exams, they typically have a party with their friends to celebrate their accomplishment.  My grade 12 students invited me to their party, along with Darlene (who couldn’t attend because she was in China) and Phanet, Darlene’s co-teacher (who also volunteers and is a counterpart for many of our projects).  Phanet borrowed her dad’s car and we drove out to Kimny’s house, which is about 7k from the high school.  I am always awed when I see just how far my students travel, and the conditions of the roads that they travel on multiple times per day.  We arrived to a feast of banchayou, which is probably my favorite food.  I have described it before, but in case you forgot, it is first made from ground rice that makes a batter.  The batter is spread on a wok and covered with a lid to cook.  Next, a paste mix of pork, carrots and some other ingredients are put in the middle, along with bean sprouts then covered again to cook.  The banchayou is then taken off the wok and folded on a banana leaf.  My students must have made 50 of these.  We all sat down (after drinking a coconut) and ate our meal.  To eat banchayou, there are a few different ways.  First, you can tear a part of the banchayou, wrap it in lettuce with some basil and cucumber, then dipped in a sauce, which is made from chopped peanuts, fish sauce and chili peppers.  Or you can cut up your banchayou in a bowl and add some vegetables and sauce and eat it like a salad.  Either way yields the same great taste. 

The party was really fun because it had all the important components to a fun party- music (we played Khmer New Year music in preparation for the holiday), great food and spectacular company.  The students are always great to be around, and I really enjoy spending time with Phanet.  She is a great role model for the students and they love to be around her.  They are so respectful and really admire her, so it is great for her to be around them too. 

April 7-9 Although the wedding didn’t start until April 8th, the 7th consisted of a lot of last minute preparations and setting up the tents for the wedding.  The house was converted to a proper venue for a wedding, which basically means that everything at the front of the house was moved out or upstairs.  All of the offerings were wrapped and sorted.  One interesting Khmer tradition is to use speakers to announce to everyone in the village that there is a wedding, which seems silly because they give everyone invitations anyways, but regardless, the speakers started that night. 

April 8th, the first day of the wedding, started at 3:45 am when the hair and make-up workers set up shop in the kitchen, right next to my bedroom.  My friend Lisa came for the wedding, and we drifted in and out of sleep and watched the preparations.  The actual ceremony started at 8 when the guests arrived and walked the offerings down the street then back again.  I was part of the welcome crew at the entrance, with my host mother and sisters.  I felt honored to be up there. 

The ceremonies lasted basically all day.  There are many different parts that I don’t really understand, but it takes longer because the bride changes clothes so frequently.  Over the two day affair, I counted 12 different outfits.  That includes costume, shoes, jewelry and sometimes hair and make-up.  So what could probably have been a few hour ceremony took all day long.  It’s pretty exhausting, but here are the pictures and hopefully a sufficient description.

April 9th started much the same, with a 4 am wake-up call.  I made sure, though, that I got my hair and make-up done because I didn’t the day before.  There were too many people and I had no advocates for me (usually my host sisters and mom look out for me in these situations where I feel weird, but they were clearly swamped with stuff to do), but I got it done for the second day.  The first day is all ceremonies and not too many people come.  It’s typically family, close friends and the grandmothers (I believe that Cambodian pagodas would collapse without grandmothers or “yays” as they are called here).  The second day is more what we would categorize as the reception, where many people come, eat, dance and drink.  There was a small ceremony in the morning, but then people started to come for the “nyum kah” which means literally the “eating at a wedding”.  Lisa, who was lent and eventually given a wedding outfit by my amazing host sister, and I sat down at a table with a bunch of yays and ate rice with women all over the age of 60.  Yays are the coolest and because older people are so respected here, they can basically get away with anything.  They say what is on their mind and it doesn’t matter.  They are great company. 

Like all of the young people at the party, Lisa and I started drinking with my host family and soon enough were dragged onstage by my host sister and couldn’t leave for an entire song.  We rotated between drinking and dancing, mainly because everyone wanted to drink with the foreigners or dance with the foreigners.  The concept of sipping or casual drinking simply doesn’t exist here, so that concept combined with everyone wanting to drink with the foreigners led to a lot of Angkor beer for Lisa and I.  It was really fun and almost two years of experiences like this, we can hold our own and know enough to continue to drink water and dance.  The Cambodian way to drink is, much like everything else here, communal.  Drinking happens as a group.  Everyone says “joll guy-you”, which means “enter glass” but cheers for us, then drinks.  Sometimes they want to drink the whole glass.  I typically say, “oh no, I can’t do that, I have to drink one by one”.  One by one here means one at a time, but in Khmer it’s “muy muy” and “muy” means one.  So when I said that I wanted to drink “muy muy” that got twisted around to drinking one glass at a time, chugging the whole glass and led to a night long joke. 

All said and done, it was a blast and I was really glad to be a part of it.  The weddings that I have gone to before are as follows:

- A math teacher at my high school invited me to his daughter’s wedding 3 months after I came to Cambodia and had never talked to this teacher before
-A man who works at the orphanage where I built the hygiene station (I knew him the best out of all of these weddings, besides my host sister)
-My initial host family when I came to visit Battambang during training
-The sister of the woman whose stand I buy soap and detergent from

Having said that, going to the wedding of someone that I know and moreover being a part of the family and ceremony makes for much more fun and enjoyment than just being the token foreigner that everyone stares at throughout the meal. 

April 10-12 Early the morning after the wedding ended, I got on a bus to Phnom Penh because my friend from high school and her boyfriend came to visit.  We spent two days in Phnom Penh.  We did some sightseeing (the Royal Palace and the National Museum), shopping and ate some really good food.  Phnom Penh is enjoyable when you know how to get around and where to go.  Phnom Penh as really grown on me and we had a lot of fun. 

April 12-14 Early on April 12th, we got an early taxi to Battambang.  We checked into the hotel and went to my host family’s house, but Ma was the only one there.  My host sister went to visit her in-laws with her husband (who moved into our house after the wedding) and my host brother went to visit his wife’s family for Khmer New Year in a province in the south. 

I told her that we would be back for dinner that night then went to Kunthea’s house, who was my student at my high school and now is a first year student at the university that I work at (and an English Club member).  A lot of my former grade 12 students came back from Phnom Penh for Khmer New Year and wanted to make banchayou (see April 5th’s description of this food).  It was so great to see the students from last year and Catte and Tucker were able to get to know some of my students.  The food was so good and we had a lot of fun hanging out and talking as a group.  It was great to get updates from the students who are now in university.  They are all doing really well, but I could tell that they were happy to be home and have a break.  Most of them live in dorms or rented rooms and it seems tough to live so far from home without anyone familiar.  But they have grown and are more confident. 

April 13th was a fun-filled busy day that started with seeing a fortune teller after breakfast.  Phanet came as our translator and Tucker and Catte got their fortunes told.  This is the same fortune teller that I went to one time before and he is a numerologist.  Because he calculates one’s fortunes by the day that they were born on, the month and the year (year of the rabbit, not 1987), I was able to get my brother’s fortune told.  I won’t go into details, but he has a good fortune.  Tucker and Catte seemed to be satisfied with their fortunes.  Overall, it was a really fun experience. 

After the fortune teller, we rode the bamboo train, which is always fun.  Phanet had never gone and really enjoyed it.  It’s a great way to see the countryside.  We then ate lunch together and went back to the hotel for a nap.  After our nap, we took a tuk tuk really far down the road next to the river to my student Ranin’s house.  My current grade 12 students (the ones who threw the first banchayou party on April 5th) wanted to meet Catte and Tucker and invited us over for fruit and drinks.  Ranin lives right on the river and it’s so beautiful there.  The students were able to practice English and take pictures.  Ranin lives even further than Kimny, about 15k out and a few of the students lived right near him.  It is always incredible to see where my students come from and just how much time and energy they spend traveling. 

On April 14th, the first day of Khmer New Year, we went to my host family’s house to go to the pagoda, but I found out that my host mom wasn’t going until April 15th, so we decided to head to Siem Reap a few house early.  When I came back, my host mom apologized that everyone was so tired after the wedding to really celebrate anything, which I totally understand. 

April 14-16- When we got to Siem Reap, we checked into the hotel and swam in the pool and ate lunch.  It was a very relaxing hotel and we were taking on the temples the next day, so we wanted to enjoy some pool time. 

April 15th- we went to the temples really early, but because of Khmer New Year, there were so many people there.  Since it is considered a pilgrimage for many Cambodians, families typically save up their money all year and come with a lot of people.  We were still able to walk around and see a lot of the temples.  After the temples, we were pretty tired and came back to the hotel and swam a bit more (they had a great pool).

The next morning, we took a flight to Phuket, an island on the coast of Thailand.

April 16-20- We flew from Siem Reap to Phuket, but connected in Bangkok.  Although the layover was short, I took advantage and got some Burger King for the first time in almost 2 years (I wish they had a Wendy’s!).  While in Phuket, we stayed in an incredible hotel, right on the water.  Our days consisted of swimming in the ocean or the amazing pools (they were fresh water, a good relief from the intense waves and salt).  It was incredible relaxing and we spent our days reading, laying poolside and getting burnt.  We went into town a few times for food and snacks, but when the weather was bad (it rained a few times), Tucker and I watched baseball on his laptop and it was so nice to watch a game, regardless of who was playing. 
April 20-22- On April 20th, we flew from Phuket to Bangkok and stayed at the Mandarin Oriental.  I was happy to be in a more developed country.  They had some things there that I hadn’t seen in almost two years- a subway, Starbucks, malls with real stores and so on.  My interest wasn’t in seeing the Royal Palace since we have one in Cambodia! Thai culture and Khmer culture don’t seem to be so different and I knew that I would rather spend $5 on a gift for my host niece and nephew and not on an entry fee to a museum that is really similar to something that we have in Cambodians.  My host family would be upset with me if they ever knew that I compared Thai culture to Khmer culture (since they don’t really like the Thai, like most Cambodians) but the last leg of the trip was enjoyable, for me at least, because I felt like I wasn’t in a developing country.  This trip was a chance for me to refresh my spirits for my last few months here. 

Catte and Tucker left for New York early on April 22 and we said our farewells at the airport.  I took a van to the Thai border with Cambodia and although I was so nervous about the crossing, there was no reason, because the only other people in my van were a woman and her son, who were Khmer.  She spoke incredible English and works on the Cambodians side of the border for the Catholic Church and told me that I could be in their taxi, since they were traveling on to Phnom Penh.  So, they dropped me off, right at my house.  I was home in record time and was so happy to see my host family, even though Chun Lai and Chun Liap are still at their grandparents’ house far away. 

Now it’s back to site life.

This trip reinforces something that I have really seen here- karma.  Whatever you want to call it, I truly believe in the idea that universe seeks balance and regulates the good and bad.  On the trip, when I was being grumpy or rude, something bad happened to me.  But when I was friendly or positive, something good happened to me.  It is such a simple message- treat others poorly and you will be treated poorly in return, but treat others well, and you will be treated well in return.  It may not be as immediate as we’d like, but it always seems to balance out. 

Another important aspect of this month has been goals #2 and #3 of Peace Corps, which are to increase the awareness of American on the part of Cambodians and vice versa.  This is a job I take every seriously, as you can see by this blog, but having visitors is such a great way to work towards accomplishing this goal.  My family has been able to come visit and now two friends, which means that there are now 6 more people who know about Cambodia that may never have.  Likewise, my students and host family have very directly interacted with my family and friends and now I am not the sole representation of America for those who have met my family and friends.  There is a possibility of more visitors, which only increases the awareness and interaction between people who would NEVER be able to meet each other.  It’s incredible to be on this side of it. 

Sorry for the delay, but as you can see, it’s been a really crazy month.  Things will probably not really go back to normal because I have a lot of things coming up, but I will be better about updates for these last 2.5 months, I promise.  School starts again today and I’m not too sure when it will end officially and what is happening at the university, but English Club for my grade 12 students will be happening, undoubtedly.  I need to find things to fill my time, but not wastes of time. 

In other news, Chun Lai is starting school next month, so I will be taking plenty of pictures of him in his school uniform.  I cannot wait to see how cute he will look. 

As of April 25th, 641 days in Cambodia, 78 days to go.  I like to keep that in mind.