Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Adventures of the super tourist

My secret identity has been uncovered; try as I might to keep it hidden, the truth eventually came out in all its strength. Behold, the super tourist! No Monument is safe from the reach of my 18-300 lens, no destination left un-explored. I read maps and instructive brochures. I carry all the essential items in my souvenir bags and camera cases. I protect my delicate skin from the tropical sun. My identity badges ensure that I am never lost in a foreign place. In short, all I need to complete my super-identity is a cape and boots, which would of course wreck the image entirely. A cape would just look ridiculous, and we can have none of that.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Call me lazy....

The pace has quickened lately. This is my lame excuse for having not updated this page in a while. My apologies to the friends, family, acquaintances, fans, internet addicts, detractors, and faithful groupies who no doubt monitor this page closely and have been awaiting this post with bated breath. I shant keep you waiting any longer. The last three weeks, in brief:

1) Zooming around Pursat province on a moto. My official function was to shadow the RACHA people as they launched the insurance thing in a new area. It would have been a lot more edifying if I had anything that resembled competency in Kmer. But I don’t. So I took to wandering the village, which was fabulous. A lot of the kids had literally never seen a white person before, so I was a smash hit. When the launch was done, I took off on the moto, following a rural lady around as she was selling insurance and telling people about the relative merits of using birth spacing. Not knowing Kmer was less of a crutch, I got to amuse myself by distracting the infants and children while their mothers listened attentively, which suited me perfectly. On top of that, I was staying for free at the RACHA guest house, using their motos and spending time with their staff, who were so pleasant in every possible way. People here are amazingly welcoming and generous. There was a mango tree in front of the house, so every morning I was presented with a fresh mango for breakfast. Yum!

2) The ladies in the office invited me to see a traditional Kmer dance. The Kmer rouge tried to exterminate the art, but it is being revived, slowly. Cambodian dance is slow and precise—they move with deliberate, graceful steps and tell the story with their hands. The traditional costumes are fabulous, with sparkling beads and smooth silk. And the ladies in the office are so good to me, showing me a culture I may not have found on my own.

3) This is me on the top of a mountain. Awesome.

4) You can also go inside the same mountain. It was a phenomenal place—a Buddhist wat marked the entrace to the cave, which lead to a circular glen inside the mountain, lined with smaller caves, wherein there were several smaller shrines and things. The mountain was pretty much hollow, there were caves everywhere—some had swimming holes, some reeked of bats, and one was used as an extermination site during the Pol Pot regime. The kids who were our guides called that one the ghost cave. It is eerie how the past can sneak up on you where you least expect it.

5) Welcome to paradise. Unfortunately, we could only stay for a night. But this is what tropical islands were supposed to be like, before tourism ruined them. Solitude. The sound of the waves. Cool, salty sea breeze. The most beautiful sunset you can imagine. Fresh tropical fruits to your hears content. A hammock strung between palm trees. Cows, pigs and goats roaming freely between the thatched bungalows. Ours was equipped with a mesh hammock, a bed, and a single bare light bulb, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

6) School has begun in ernest—by that I mean, I have 12 credits of work to complete in the next month or so, and this while traveling throughout southeast Asia. Fun stuff, as a course on world religions couples readings (which in theory I should have already completed), talking personally with religious leaders and my extremely knowledgeable professor, and visiting ancient religious sites.

7) Faced with my complete inability to communicate, Ashley and I found ourselves a language tutor. Chhinn is a fabulous fellow that we met at church. He just got off a mission in California and was looking for a productive way to fill the one month before he goes back to the states to start nursing school. He’s been helping us every night to learn basic words and grammar, and he pretty much rocks.

8) Thanks to the Cambodian knack for simile, I’ve learned a lot about myself that I didn’t know before. I have hair like gold, a pointy nose, and teeth like pearls. My face looks like a doll’s face. And the hair on my arms looks like pigs hair. Nice.

Tomorrow morning, I take off for Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia (tourist edition), Malaysia, and Indonesia. All things told, it will be just under one month of travel. It should be fabulous. I’ll try to post pictures periodically, but no promises.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sunrise on the Mekong

Motivated by the lethargy that I had been feeling lately, I decided to wake up early and go for a run. At 5 am, the streets are almost empty, things are relatively quiet, and the air feels cleaner. I ran away from my house, down towards the quay, where the river is flanked by a broad walkway, complete with paving stones, grassy patches, and hibiscus trees. I wanted to do yoga and meditate in relative peace along the river, while watching the sunrise. I didn't find relative peace, but what I did find was better.

There are no gyms or health clubs in Cambodia; the lifestyle is such that the days activites, combined with fresh foods, leave people healthy and satisfied, feeling very little urge to work out in the western sense. The fitness fad, however, has begun its eastward migration, and the motivated few are finding ways to get their aerobic excercise fix. Behold Cambodia's primitive aerobics class. I am not sure what this exercise is designed to accomplish, but I found the whole spectacle highly entertaining.
An explanation might be in order: there are several bunches, like this one, composed mostly of middle aged women arranged in rows in the open air, taking up most of the walking space doing something that resembles a line dance. The instructor is easy to identify because he'll be the only 20-something male, located in the front line next to the boom box that provides the soundtrack. He'll also be shaking it with a little more enthusiasm and ease than most of his followers, whose movements are generally a bit awkward; clearly this type of movement is not what people are used to.

In between excercise groups, apparently unfazed by the upbeat music (strains of 'Just beat it, beat it beat it......' can be heard from a more distant locale) are flocks of pidgeons being fed by people of every age and description. Feeding the birds is a joy shared by old women, children, and middle-aged men alike. My favorite was the toddler who took great pleasure disrupting the birds by running through the middle of their feeding zone--I failed to get a good picture, but I'll be back. This side of Phnom Penh is a pleasant window to the life that exists beyond my neighborhood, office, and the typical tourist experience. I love it!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Practical matters

I've had some inquiries after what I actually do while at work. When I am not surreptitiously blogging or writing emails, I amuse myself by contemplating the mechanics of Community Based Health Insurance, known henceforth as CBHI. A seasoned NGO employee (that is, one who works with a non-governmental organization) would use such acronyms prolifically in order to speed the typing process, retard reading comprehension, and, as is usual all respectable NGO circles, to legitimize any and all documents by increasing their resemblance to official government rubbish.

CBHI, then, is intended to alleviate poverty and improve health among the rural poor by making reliable health care more accessible. RACHA (the Reproductive and Child Health Association, my place of work) started the project--they make contracts for payment with health centers, advertise the program, and try to get villagers to join, with varying degrees of success. Basically, RACHA is the insurrance agent and broker; they attempt to pool the health risks among the rural poor, asking a phenomenally low premium that is subsidized by interest earned in a micro-credit program that they run in the same village.

The CBHI pilot program in Pursat province has been in place for a year, and it is time for the yearly review. The program is losing money faster than they are taking it in, which is causing people to worry. Their solution is to expand the program but charge a higher premium in the new areas. My original plan was to get information on health indicators and find out if RACHA had been successful in targeting the poor and in improving their health by improving access to care, and to measure how people respond to changes in price--somewhat generic, but interesting to the economics geek in me, because it is a unique sort of program and scholarly works on Cambodia, and CBHI, are slim.

Well, it has transpired that, rather than taking an ex-post gander at CBHI to determine if it works or not, I am now responsible for analyzing the existing program, improving it, and implementing the improvements in the new area. So, with my 3 semesters of training in economics, I am designing a financially solvent insurrance scheme that will actually be put to work at the end of July. Undergraduates aren't really supposed to do this sort of somewhat resembles turning a chem major loose in the lab, telling him to experiment with alternate uses of gunpowder, and giving him a box of matches. Adult supervision recommended. But, as previously noted, normal rules don't apply in this country, and since 3 semesters of economics is better than none, I am in charge. I'm just hoping nothing explodes. How is that for an objective?

Anyways, current tasks include working with the monitoring and evaluation unit to design a survey that will theoretically tell me the things I need to know about the village economic and health status, the Health Centers that are supposed to treat people, and the CBHI scheme that is supposed to make treatment affordable. Also on the docket are figuring out how to get vital documents translated in English, discovering whether the aforementioned vital documents actually exist (the Cambodian health system has some issues with transparency in accounting and record keeping), and finding a way to procure the information requested in the beginning of this paragraph.

In the next week, I will venture bravely away from my desk, computer, and swivel chair to visit villages and health centers in order to see first hand what I'm talking about....right now it is all just paper, which isn't very exciting. I'll probably have more questions and fewer answers, but that is the fun part of this game.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

It's a zoo over here.....

I am coming to understand that normal rules don’t really apply in this country. Monday, we took a trip to the zoo (we got the day off work in honor of the venerable Visak Bochea—I have no idea who that is, and ironically none of the local Buddhists do either). It fell a bit short of the paved walkways and very large fences that are so ubiquitous in the zoo’s American cousins. Also absent were the balloons, goldfish pond, and cotton candy that complete every five-year olds idyllic dream. This experience was actually more closely related to a petting zoo—replace the goats with the ‘common Asian dear’ and the bunnies with pelicans and storks, and you’re in business. Behind a short chain-link fence, we found the crocodiles. I could easily have stuck my hand through the mesh to touch the thing, it was so close, but that didn’t seem advisable. However, for a small fee, you can buy a live chicken to throw into the pen. In the section with monkeys, there were more monkeys out of the cages than in them. This one just wants to hold hands. The Asian black bears will whine until you throw a coconut their way, but the otters squeal (they sound like they are in pain nigh unto death) until you feed them fresh coconut slivers piece by piece through the fence. They stick their paws out and grab the food right out of your hands. The elephants would dance, take money from your hand, and play soccer. The wire fences containing the panthers, lions, and tigers looked woefully inadequate, given that the thin wire chain link fence, the kind your dog always bent and dug under to escape the yard, is the only thing standing between you and this beast that looked so much more friendly in the Disney movies.

The middle of this walking tour featured food stalls, with four options: on the left, we have fried frog, on the right, charred fish, bottom left is boiled freshwater crab, and not pictured bags of chips that contain more air than substance. We passed on the food stalls and waited until we got back into town.

Friday was another national holiday (this time, I believe we were given the day off in honor of the Royal plowing festival—the fifth national holiday in the last 3 weeks. There isn’t another until September, folks.) and so we took off for the beach. Four hours and five dollars later, the bus dropped us off in Sihanoukville, Champong Sam Province on Cambodia’s south coast. Since a picture is worth 1000 words, I’ll just leave a few of those, with the small addition (probably unnecessary) that it was a glorious weekend.

Work is coming along splendidly—despite the plentiful Holidays, I do actually have something useful to be doing. Next week sometime, after I finish with preliminary research and design my survey, I take off for the provinces to collect data. The nerd in me recognizes this set up as the living manifestation of the empirical researcher’s wildest fantasies. The rest of me is just thrilled to be here, experiencing something so entirely new.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Against the best wishes of anyone who ever loved me...... (sorry mom)

I’m sporting a new hair do these days—the promised restyling has been successfully achieved, probably to the surprise of most everyone. I don’t think people believed that I would actually do it. But, emboldened by my new surroundings and far away from my mother, who would probably have corrected my adventurous new look with a pair of scissors in the dead of night, I actually did the deed. And it doesn’t look half bad.

Life has settled into something that resembles normality. The sun rises around five fifteen and we get up with the rest of the family—thanks to traits inherited from my father, I actually enjoy being up in the morning because the day always seems so much more productive. Plus, you can see the sunrise, gold framed by palm trees and dark rooftops.

The roof is my favorite part of the house—I could sit there for hours just watching. The sea of rooftops is punctuated by little green tufts, the upper edges of palm fronds, evidence of life below. The part of that life that I can see in the ally below is endlessly amusing—four boys can be seen there at any hour of the day playing soccer and forcing the motos to swerve around their game, people move in and out carrying produce in baskets balanced on their heads, and children run around barefoot and smiling.

Nobody seems to notice that the soccer ball is hand woven from plastic strips, that the barefoot children are running through piles of trash and rancid water, or that the people emerge from houses made of cracking wood and corrugated tin, with barred windows and barbed wire fences. Maybe they notice, but no one complains.

The road to my house is small, not even on the map. The house itself is fairly average—long and narrow, like most houses here, with all tile floors and a rooftop balcony. It is small but clean and well kept, though we do share our bathroom with a family of ants who seem reluctant to leave their current residence. Ashley and I inhabit the only room in the house with an air conditioner, which makes sleeping much more comfortable, though I hate the idea of inconveniencing the room’s previous occupant, probably our host mom.
(toilet paper in the bathroom.....those are ants. there are more crawling around the bottom and inbetween the sheets, but they appear to be camera shy)

At night, I stay up talking with my new family—brother speaks English quite well, but mama and sister don’t, so communicating involves a lot of sign language and even more un-knowing smiles, the tacit sign that we had better give up while we are ahead. I am trying to learn Kmer quickly, but this is one instance where time is required more than anything else, and it seems that there is little I can do to change that.

I start work on wednesday--we had a meeting today and it looks like the perfect place for me. A combination of plenty of hands on field work and a great opportunity for research. I think I've found a topic for my honors thesis! I remain fully convinced that this is going to be an amazing summer. keep me updated on your lives though--I'd rather not fall off the edge of the earth, even if I am on the other side of it!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Bienvenue au Cambodge.......

Translation: Welcome to Cambodia. I'd write something more interesting in Kmer, but as I have recently been reminded, I don't speak it, so French will have to do.

The first thing that hits you getting off of the airplane is the heat--the air is thick and humid, and stiflingly hot. The second thing that hits you is the smell, pungent and earthy, with a floral sort of edge, but punctuated by the tangy smell of fruit gone sour. From the air, it is a patchwork of rice patties villages clustered around stream beds, running fuller now because it is monsoon season. The rooftops in Phnom Penh are either a dignified red tile or a dull and rusted tin. Even from the sky, you can see the contradictions in this city--Much of the population is poor, barely getting by, but there is another part, living right beside them, whose beautiful terraced homes, complete with guards and high garden walls, are evidence of their relative wealth. The juxtaposition of luxury and squalor is really striking.

I get around the city on a refurbished bronze beach cruiser, complete with a hand bell, basket, and pedal-powered headlight. Phnom Penh is quite bike friendly, in that it is not any less friendly to bicycles than it is to anybody else. People here drive like we wish we could drive in the US, were it not for the constraints imposed by law. In fact, US drivers who aspire to drive in true cambodian form are generally slapped with huge fines, suspended from all future operation of a motor vehicle, and/or imprisoned. Cars, when people can afford them, are ostentatious and large---like the shiny black hummers and land cruisers with the words "land cruiser" stamped on the doors in huge print. They honk profusely and generally exploit the fact that they are much bigger and stronger than anything else on the road. Most people get around on motos, up to 5 people on one. They zoom all around the city, three or four to a lane, swerving in an out of traffic and honking to alert you of their presence. Only the intersections of large boulevards have any sort of traffic signal whatsoever. Crossing smaller streets is terrifying. They are unmarked, but there is a constant flow of traffic in both directions. Keys to escaping the eminent jaws of death include keeping a steady pace when crossing the street, so cross traffic can swerve around you, and riding next to a car, since others will generally stop and allow the car through.

The morning rush starts early, to avoid the heat, presumably, but it doesn't really let up until the rain comes. There is nothing like this rain. It is like the almighty creator wanted to empty out his swimming pool, and decided to pour the contents here. Clouds gather spontaneously--your five minute warning--and then comes the deluge. Huge, warm drops falling fast and furious. Within fifteen minutes, the smaller streets are flooded with three inches of water, and if you are new to all this, your bike, with a flat front tire, is sloshing through the street, its sodden driver wondering A)where everyone disappeared to, and B) where one can purchase the plastic ponchos that have materialized to cover the few natives who remain on the roads. Kids run outside in their underwear to play in the water, adults start sweeping the refuse from their porches (it is like a free daily pressure washer), and I am wet, laughing, and wondering how long this can possibly last. My camera, however, didn't have such a joyful experience. Pictures are coming either when I can coerce it to turn on again, or when I find a place to buy another. I've seen cell phone stores, but no where that is likely to sell a camera, digital or otherwise. I'll ask people at church later, someone ought to know.

As alluded to before, I don't speak the language at all. Most of my communication has consisted of strange hand motions and sorry attempts to use the few phrases I do know. Ordering food is nearly impossible, but after learning yesterday that we need to figure out how to pay for things, Ashley and I have memorized how to count and make change--four thousand riel to a dollar, and you can pay with either. (dinner last night for both of us was 10,000 riel--or 2.50 for two huge plates of fried rice. we didn't mean to order fried rice but liked it anyways. And we can do all this in Kmer. Sort of.) People hear me try to talk and pretend to understand. I was trying to talk to an old man, his grand-daughter took a more logical approach and just laughed. People often stare at me and laugh at the crazy things I do. Never with malice, mind you. I am just a tall, blonde oddity clearly out of my element, and that is alright.

I did manage one coherent conversation today with someone besides Ashley. Sorry to you detractors who told me French is a useless language, and I had better learn Spanish--A very kindly French lady found me today. I was looking ill at the grocery store and she offered to help. I was just a bit dizzy due to heat, so I was fine to bike home after a short rest, but she was so nice. We talked for 20 minutes about the city, her family, her two years here, and general safety tips (don't take asprin, it makes you more vulnerable to denge fever, and "etre prudent...garde ton sac, parce que quelqu'on vont essayer de le voler." ie, careful, you stick out so people will try to steal your stuff)

I've found, however, that people are friendly and try to help when approached. I'll be safe because I am careful. Just keep my in your prayers.

I love it here and can't wait for the adventure to continue!