Cambodia diary, Days 5-8

8:04 p.m. EST | 7:04 a.m. local time | 5-9-16

Yesterday, I experienced a new sensation for the first time: I was the minority. In a city as populated as Phnom Penh, there are mostly Cambodians. AKA there are very few white people. The first 2 days I didn’t really notice the stares, for with our luggage and our cameras our gaggle just looked like tourists. But yesterday in the tuk tuks, with just our sweaty faces and sunglasses, I was still getting stares. Children pointed at my face from behind car-door windows; motor bike passengers just stared – some smiling, others unsmiling – back into my curious gaze.

Never before have I classified myself as ‘exotic,’ yet here I was, white as white can be, in a country that offers skin-bleaching cream on every other corner. Little girls ages 5 and 6 sat mystified in the adjacent lanes, pondering and wondering about me, like I them. I thought about all of the ‘foreigners’ they’d seen in their lifetime. Were we magical to them? Terrifying? Confusing? Beautiful? I couldn’t tell.

I turned in the tuk tuk to make a comment about my zoo-like experience at one of the (infrequent but still existing) stoplights, but paused. Sitting across from me were 3 of the African-American GLC students – a minority in the States for sure, but definitely a minority in our traveling troupe. I wonder how often they feel singled out by looks alone … intentionally or unintentionally. What right do I have to comment on my current exoticness, which will all but fade with my tan on the return flight home? I have a lot to learn about my privileged appearance.

6:02 a.m. EST | 5:02 p.m. local time | 5-9-16

We had quite an adventure this afternoon! First, our rescheduled site visit with our client began awry as soon as I left my phone at Khmer Surin. (I was the primary contact for the group.) Then, we mapped the incorrect Brown Coffeeshop online – we went to the riverfront, Pheakdey was near the Royal Palace. Just goes to show you how much we’ve learned in 48 hours. So, after a 35 min. wait – and emailing Pheakdey on Evan’s phone, calling on Quintin’s mobile – we made it.

Pheakdey was very gracious, considering the circumstances, and was open to our interpretation of the project. Quintin disliked this considerable open-endedness of the project, but I thought it validated our work that we completed for the project so far in Athens – at least we didn’t get shut down for our ideas. I was encouraged, but we have a lot to do to prepare for next Thursday.

After rushing back to the hotel, we met our AUPP team-mates for the first time. It was incredible!! Seeing so many students – some I recognized from Facebook, some I didn’t – all eager to see us made my world-traveling heart so happy. It’s a small world after all.

We divided up into teams and rode off in tuk tuks for a Phnom Penh “treasure hunt” of sorts. The task: take group selfies at 4 predetermined locations around the city. The prize: recognition at the end-of-trip celebration. Challenge accepted, Dr. Stewart!

They are all so welcoming and curious about us as we are of them. I fielded questions about our cars, our student tuition, what I do on the weekends (I kind of blanked, finals week was just 2 weeks ago), and the SNOW. These students have never experienced snow before, and only ever complained about the heat – as I’m literally dripping sweat. But Kaly and I both swapped stories about ‘global warming’ and climate changes in both of our home countries – she’s my kind of girl!

During our tour de Phnom Penh, I sipped a little taste of sugar cane chopped and grinded into a liquid sugar mixture. Man, was that sweet! But a different kind of sweet than the gelatin from yesterday – more natural, more earthy. And it is. As Quintin said, “You can’t get more natural than this.”

The sun continues to make me sweat with such intensity, I didn’t know I had this much liquid capacity in one body. Hydration and cold drinking water are rare commodities – each in short supply. But I’m doing my best.

The other 2 meals I had today also broke my vegan oath; it’s easier to be vegetarian than vegan here, that’s for certain.

Breakfast: egg/mushroom scrambled, with a new kind of toasted bread, fruit and coffee (strong)

Dinner: yellow noodles with egg and steamed veggies, watermelon juice drink

9:19 p.m. EST | 8:19 a.m. local time | 5-10-16

I woke up with the sunrise and the city. As if 5 a.m. was my normal 7 a.m., I slid out of C4 and tip-toed to the balcony. Sun was just beginning to stream across the skyline, but a 20-story building obstructed our Milky Way star himself.

The golden hour in Phnom Penh is just as magical as it is in the States. I felt like the city itself was rubbing its sleepy, sweaty eyes from slumber and flexing its fingers and toes – getting ready for another bustling day.

One by one, Cambodians crept out from their hidden quarters, like ants on a hilltop. Each man and woman went about his or her business: watering the tuk tuk, opening up the shop shutters, collecting stray bottles and wires from the gutters of the streets. It reminded me of “The Village Awakens” – I could almost hum the song tune, too.

Sitting yoga-style on a pillow overlooking the city skyline in the distance, the streets awoke. But what did it feel like, smell like, sound like, on that day in 1975? I tried to imagine. One by one, each street would be consumed by swarms of black-clothed cadres, an AK-47 in one hand, a commanding fist in the other. The city would be confused, easily overwhelmed. The civilians would be shuttled, paraded, exiled from their tuk tuk corners and faithful street shops. It would become a silent city. Now, back to the present, the rest of the city has emerged – construction sites BANG, tuk tuks HONK, people milling about SHOUT and LAUGH – it is strange to imagine what sensations would have been left after the Khmer Rouge takeover. A waterfall trickles behind my seat. Maybe the only sound to remain would have been the sound of water flowing. A poignant thought. The Earth began with water; Phnom Penh, as it was known on that day, ended with the sound of water.

I’ve been thinking about parting gifts for my team-mates already. These 4 students – friends, really – have left an impact on my heart, all in about 4 hours. Sitting at a “trendy” coffeeshop – Kaly’s quote, not mine – sipping cool drinks and laughing about sorority stereotypes, it felt like we had known each other all semester long. And in some ways, we have; Facebook is a wonderful equalizer, if one has access to Wi-Fi. I’d already known that 2 of our team-mates were dating, that “David” preferred David to his Cambodian-born name, and that these students were just as stoked to see us as we them.

But something Sopheaktra said on the tuk tuk ride home really stirred something in me; he asked me if I liked to read. Of course, I said immediately, I love reading books – for school and for pleasure. He responded much the same. I asked if there was a bookstore in town that he liked to shop in. He replied that there was virtually only one; a “monopoly” on the market” he called it. For someone who frequents multiple bookstores – Barnes & Noble and The Book Loft my favorite two – and orders books effortlessly on Amazon, if necessary, this reality got under my skin and stuck – like one of those white, fleshy fruits served daily at breakfast. I cannot even imagine getting shut out of my beloved books.

I asked about e-books, the modern-day revolt against book-sellers and short supplies. Sopheaktra just shook his head. “I prefer to hold books in my hand,” he said. “I want to fill up my bookshelves, one day.”

I smiled. He reminded me so much of my brother in this moment – a brother who will be attending The Ohio State University in the fall to pursue English education. When I also explained that I write and publish my own poetry, Sopheaktra’s eyes lit up. “I’m taking a poetry class this summer,” he exclaimed. “I’m excited to learn how to write my own poetry.”

This business major at the American University of Phnom Penh (AUPP) was talking more about his love of literature than any business major at OU I’d ever encountered. If roles were reversed, and Sopheaktra had a chance to attend a public university in the States, would he still have pursued business? Or would he have pursued a different path – one with more books and words instead of networks and numbers?

I didn’t ask. I don’t know if he would have known the answer if I did, anyway.

What are the answers our hearts refuse to share? Yet, how do we know what the heart really wants, if it’s never been asked?

7:20 a.m. EST | 6:20 p.m. local time | 5-10-16

This morning, Quintin and Evan and I continued to work on finalizing our project focus. After a solid 2.5 hours hammering out some details, we broke for lunch. I hopped down to the Khmer Surin restaurant and ate a filling lunch with Charlee, Maddy, and Emily. This time around, I tried the rice mixed with peanuts, pineapple, and carrots – altogether in a pineapple shell! Never mind the slight pineapple allergy … my feet are already swollen and my eyes will pay the price in the morning. It was sweet and savory on the way down.

After lounging around in the heat – 110 degrees F – long after the lunch crowds had exited, it was off for an afternoon adventure. The lunch crew took a tuk tuk to the river-front, to walk along the waterway. I can see why the AUPP class-mates were hesitant to work on ‘the Boat Project.’ Meandering through the heat – 4 obvious Westerners – we attracted attention, but 4 American females added a whole other stare degree. We were exotic specimens wandering around not in our own domain. I couldn’t tell if the stares were of disgust, lust, or pure bewilderment. Cambodian eyes are deceptive in their rich-brown hue.

We left after strolling in the heat for only 20 min., avoiding the mysterious (and apparently non-existent) “Antique Shop” on the corner.

2:55 a.m. EST | 1:55 p.m. local time | 5-11-16

This afternoon has already been a humid one. I heard Charlee say the “feels like” temperature is 112 degrees F. I’m surprised I’m handling it so well! I hardly notice my sweaty skin and swollen feet … okay, maybe just a little.

Yesterday evening, after cranking out some project focus work with Quintin and Evan, GLC hosted Dr. Taber Hand, a wetland ecologist who focuses on water sanitation in lake/river Cambodian communities through his social enterprise Wetlands Work!. As a journalism, geography, political science, and anthropology student, with a hint of women’s and gender studies mixed in, his presentation fit right in with my line of preferred work.

After the presentation, Dr. Hand, Dr. Stewart and I sat around the Khmer Surin guest lounge for cool drinks (a watermelon smoothie for me) and some sticky fried rice with fresh mango. Needless to say, this traditional Cambodian dish hit the spot after a hot and project-intensive afternoon.

Dr. Hand and I had much to share – I as a watershed-educated communications scholar for the Appalachian Watershed Research Group at Ohio University, he as a well-trained scientist with an eye for marketing and an ear for environmental current issues. I think I impressed him with my knowledge of Terry Tempest Williams and watershed science (thank you Young Reporters for the Environment United States, circa 2014), yet I was equally impressed with his dedication to Cambodia and its environment, considering he’s from Vermont and was educated in the States.

Also, my pen ran out of ink yesterday evening, and I’m now on my second borrowed writing utensil (thanks Quintin).

I’m going to need to find another pen here soon. This lead is already getting soft, and I don’t know how much longer it will take to melt in this heat (like me).

9:19 p.m. EST | 8:19 a.m. local time | 5-12-16

Pen acquired, thanks to Max. He is owed a haiku:

Phnom Penh is as hot as hell

But we’ve learned to sweat

Pens don’t melt, but pencils do.

You’re welcome.

So, where did we leave off before this journal-ista was without her journal? After a hot and restful night, I awoke early for breakfast (as always) yesterday morning and then hopped on a tuk tuk with Riley S. for a Russian market adventure. We didn’t have as much bargaining luck as we’d been taught (we tried, Uymeng!) but I at least started to pick out gifts for family.

I picked a practical gift for both my grandmother and my mother, a neon silk scarf for my cousin Caroline, and found the perfect gift for my brother on a whim, waiting for Quintin and Max to finish getting their canvas art and tapestries wrapped – Russian market adventure #2 for the day. The art and silk table cloths and tapestries are out-of-this-world beautiful. Maybe if I can splurge, I’ll go back and buy myself some. I don’t want to get too many souvenirs for myself – this trip is more for the experience and not for the “stuff” – at least for me. I can’t speak for every one of my travel companions, though. But this confession is coming from the girl who’s wanted an iPad for 2 years and has refrained herself from indulging in “too much technology.” To each her own.

Before my second market adventure of the day, Tajha, Max, Quintin, Abbey and I toured the Aeon mall. At 4 or 5 stories high – with an ice-skating rink, bowling, and a diverse food court selection – and high-end boutiques literally every other storefront, it felt like a different Cambodia, a different time and place. After walking around in the streets of Phnom Penh for 5 days with people who operate and survive on so little, strolling through the mall with mouth agape, was jolting. It seemed like the people shopping here weren’t from the “real” Phnom Penh, but a fantasy world. It was like walking through a dream that had somehow found its way out of the shadows and into reality – but even it was confused as to how it got there. Instead of shopping for lunch, the 5 of us played LASER TAG on the top floor. Buying the elephant pants (which I’m wearing at the present moment) and the laser tag were arguably the best purchases I’ve made all week.

Shortly after coming back from Market Day 2, Round 2, I shoveled another half pineapple of pineapple fried rice and then hopped in Kaly’s Toyota highlander, bound for AUPP. David came with her, and we all enjoyed the comfy seats and A/C – even if it meant wading through and waiting for traffic (the waiting, the waiting, the WAITING).

Although we came to some good revelations – and some excellent brainstorming in the session, too – we have to redesign our project aim. Actually, we don’t have to, but learning what we know now, I say it’s difficult to go back. Personally, I want to propose an answer – even it’s not an “solution” – that I feel is right, not what is convenient, easy, or temporary. I didn’t fly 10,000+ miles to present a fake proposal. I just hope we can produce good work in time.

We got back late in the evening yesterday, and now we’re on a bus – a full-out charter bus with Wi-Fi and A/C – for Siem Reap, the hub of Angkor Wat. Though it’s 7 hours through the Cambodian countryside, I’m so excited I’m shaking (or maybe that’s the coffee working through my veins). As a self-ascribed Zen Buddhist, I’ve been dreaming of wandering through these hallowed halls, which capture the spirit of the ancient Angkor civilization, since I first thought I might be able to travel to Cambodia (last May). Now, I’m sitting on a bus, parked in Phnom Penh and exiting the river-side station soon, it’s real.

It’s happening. The wheels are turning. I’m on a pilgrimage. I’m going somewhere my soul has been searching for, anticipating, for days, months, years, centuries. I’m returning home.

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