Cambodia diary, Days 16-18

7:58 p.m. EST | 6:58 a.m. local time | 5-20-16

This post should really be titled “why I’m thankful for journalism.”

I know, I like to glorify the fact that I “made a mistake” and have found more satisfaction in customizing my own major than in pursuing just-straight journalism school for four years – that much hasn’t changed.

But what has changed is my full-hearted appreciation for the art, the grit, and the sacrifice that journalism represents in our modern world. It’s humans’ best attempt to keep asking the question “Why?” – even when the majority is satisfied by the “What?”

I’ve never been one to resist asking “Why?” – I’m naturally curious. But what 2 years of journalism school taught me is to be unsatisfied with the world’s first answer; never take what’s given to you without always remaining dubious and critical.

This was the part of journalism that I, at first, detested. My altogether accepting heart found it difficult – and at times unbearable – to remain consistently and stubbornly unsatisfied. I wanted to believe the stories that people told me, as if they were standing under oath under my microphone.

Instead, journalism taught me to become self-reliant in my information-sleuthing skills. To dig a little deeper and find that extra verification (even if this tenet is not always practiced by journalists, it’s taught). To challenge my own assumption that what I know to be true might not be true, and to trust that a part of what I’m being told is always shaded in falsity.

So, why am I thinking about these things in Cambodia? For my client consulting project, I was hard-core sleuthing the Internet for any government documentation in regards to southeast Asian and/or Cambodian environmental policy in the last 10 years. Let’s just say it didn’t take a leisurely hour on Google to accomplish this task.

But it was the journalists of Phnom Penh – from the Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily newspapers – who guided me. Without their trail of articles and announcements on government-enforced environmental policy and regulation, I wouldn’t have been able to locate the plethora of 150-page plus policy memos and reports on the topic of my assignment: waste management in Phnom Penh. And even though the Cambodian government in 2006 effectively blamed the journalists for the country’s inadequate knowledge about various environmental-related issues – despite an inconsistent level of enforcement for existing (and largely unknown) regulation – I found I trusted these institutions more so than the sporadic reports coming from the Cambodian Ministry of Environment.

And perhaps that’s just fate of circumstances: once a dancer, always a dancer; once a journalist-in-training, always a journalist-in-training.

Reflecting on the execution and reliance on these skills I learned – integrity, questioning, scrutiny, truth-seeking – I am really amazed by how much journalism school continues to shape my view of the world and where I see myself in 10 years’ time.

Perhaps I have journalism to thank for me carefully and cautiously examining the various career paths that have presented themselves to me in these blindingly fast 6 months. Perhaps I have journalism to thank for my unguarded belief in asking questions – and only being satisfied with answers that actually answer the question. Perhaps I have journalism to thank for my healthy skepticism – not completely cynical view – of governments and policy (I’ve learned my lessons of disappointment in “altruistic governance” well).

In the end, I’ll be honest in admitting that I felt more like a journalist in these past 2 weeks than a policy analyst, asking questions and re-evaluating Cambodia’s current strategy for waste management and proposing well-researched solutions instead of solutions the Ministry wants to hear.

Journalism taught me to become not just independent in my opinions (of which was largely the reason I “flunked” out of journalism school, in the first place – I didn’t need any additional assistance in establishing my sometimes very opinionated stance), but independent in my evaluation of information, as best as I can. And for this gift I am grateful.

4:17 a.m. EST | 3:17 p.m. local time | 5-20-16

So, here we are: the last leg of our southeast Asian journey. I’ve just finished what will be one of my final (if not the last) meal at the Khmer Surin Guesthouse, our temporary home for the last 2 weeks. At the beginning of our voyage, we all referred to going “back to the hotel.” Just yesterday, I found myself saying “back home.”

Khmer Surin really has been a lovely oasis in the excruciating heat and restlessness of the Phnom Penh city. It makes me nostalgic already, just thinking about if I ever do return to Cambodia, I doubt the Khmer Surin (in its present form) will even ben an available option for lodging.

I still have a few things on my Cambodian bucket list and a few more last-minute gifts to attend to. I’m nervous I won’t be able to fit in all I want to do before my plane leaves early Monday morning!

I’m already dreading the 14-hr. plane ride back to LAX (and our 8-hr. layover in the Shanghai airport … nowhere close to Shanghai the city; who’s idea was that?!). But I’m anticipating all of the yummy, uncooked fruits and vegetables (and lentils!) I’ll be eating in less than one week’s time. Guess I’m just not cut out to live in southeast Asia, yet.

This morning, our GLC troupe commemorated all of those lost to the Khmer Rouge genocide at the Choeung Ek “Killing Fields” memorial site. The sun was relentless and I, in my respectful long-sleeve sweater, was sweating profusely once again. Walking slowly around still-hollowed out excavation holes – a ground bone-dry and dead as the hundreds of remains left in the ground 40 years ago – was jarring. It’s so hard to imagine the cruelty and the severity of such atrocities, sometimes. I stopped for a moment along the perimeter of the memorial grounds, peering out at the city skyline through a 7-ft. stone wall and barbed wire floating along the top. I guess some things never change.

To compliment walking the grounds – and circumnavigating the temple-like structure in the middle of the memorial, showcasing all of the excavated skulls in plain sight – our class was fortunate enough to hear a master of traditional “smot” song perform for us with her grandson – who has learned this traditional art form from his grandmother. Though this woman, who survived the Khmer Rouge with her husband, has since gone blind, her voice was clear, strong, and steady despite her age. Even the grandson held a piercing vibrato that seemed to linger in the empty spaces of the parched burial grounds.

After their singing, I approached the family and asked a question, through a translator, to both the grandson and his grandmother. She then took my hands in hers and answered in Khmer. Hands still grasped in hers, I turned to the translator and asked what she said in response.

The translator offered a warm smile. “She says even though she cannot see you, she feels like she can.”

I turned to the grandson and grinned delightedly, mirroring his beautiful white smile against coffee-colored cheekbones and a bright teal button-up. This woman and her family, though separated from me by language, had just accepted me, forgiven me as an American, in some unexplainable way.

That was all I never knew I ever needed.

On the bumpy bus ride back, I kept thinking of the gates, and the flowers and trees that have since blossomed in the shadows of discarded burial remains. I heard the words of a song played just before arriving at the Killing Fields: “The Dying Kind” by Joy Williams.

“Every rose has its thorn; every thorn has its crown. We’re all the dying kind.”

4:47 a.m. EST | 3:48 p.m. local time | 5-20-16

It looks like it’s about to storm here in the hot and humid city of Phnom Penh. I’ve just moved outside on our balcony, curious to see the storm roll in.

We’re supposed to go to a river-boat dinner on the Mekong River this evening, though it looks like thunderstorms are promised for the next 3 days. That’ll put a real “damper” on our final weekend adventures here in Cambodia.

Though I’ve enjoyed my stay here, I’m ready for American purified water, predictable weather patterns, and a relaxing 3 weeks with my family on vacation.

I also miss running, hiking, biking, yoga, and getting outside in a breathable temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever once longed for Ohio’s relatively cool air temperatures and drastically reduced humidity levels in my entire life.

The rains have begun, but more like a flood beating down on the tiled rooftops than a benign drizzle. The intensity of the storm even begins to drown out the sounds of construction 20 ft. away.

The air immediately cools with the presence of rain water. I can practically feel the humidity in the surrounding heat transform into angry droplets of rain. How torrential. How magnificent.

The rain is now falling in sideways sheets, pummeling the rooftops and making all the citizens below scramble for cover.

The construction workers keep on constructing. I’m sure glad I didn’t venture out to Brown Coffeehouse a half hour ago – I would have been walking home in this mess.

5:14 a.m. EST | 4:14 p.m. local time | 5-20-16

Looks like the storm was Mother Nature’s ironic metaphor for another storm that just hit me, 5 min. ago. Now I know my stomach was not just upset by the food or the project stress …

This is going to be an interesting next 3 days.

7:43 p.m. EST | 6:43 a.m. local time | 5-21-16

Last night was one of the most unbelievable nights of my entire adult life; no prom, HallOUween, or my 20th blizzard birthday could top this evening.

After braving through the ensuing rains on our bus, the GLC troupe splish-splashed to the riverside, where we then gingerly tip-toed our way down the slick catwalk to the dock of the Mekong River. There waiting for us on a two-tiered, tarp-covered boat was Kosal Khiev.

To give a little background, Kosal is a spoken-word poet who grew up in … America. His family fled the Khmer Rouge and surrounding Thailand refugee camps when he was just 1 years old, in 1981. He spent his adolescent youth educating and experimenting on the streets of southern California. He was arrested for gang-related violence charges when he was 15 and spent the next 14 years of his life in a state penitentiary – a portion of which was spent in solitary confinement.

Upon his release, though, he was “picked up” by the U.S. immigration system as a “deportable” Cambodian refugee. The “Cambodian Son” documentary site describes Kosal’s circumstances like this:

“But despite this personal transformation, and having paid his debt to society, Kosal was handed a second punishment. As a result of a 2002 repatriation agreement with Cambodia and the retroactive enforcement of the 1996 Immigration Act, Kosal’s felony conviction combined with his non-citizen status meant deportation upon prison release. Kosal was marked for automatic deportation upon his release in 2010. Kosal was immediately moved from prison into immigration detention until his deportation date.

On March 17, 2011, Kosal’s first step into freedom after 14 years in prison was in Cambodia- the country his family had fled before he was born.”

So, he was deposited on the streets of Cambodia – a country he had not (and still doesn’t) consider “true home” – away from his family still rooted in California.

Despite Kosal’s rise in international fame for his spoken word poetry and his story of “exiled” life, he has yet to be allowed to see his family in the States since his conviction.

Unpacking all of those interwoven hardships – immigration, penal system, racial-based violence, gang crime – in one man, flesh and blood and bones sitting across the wooden bench from me, was almost unreal. I mean, here he was, the “Cambodian Son” himself, staring off into the murky Mekong waters, same as me, spit-balling ideas about God, creation, society, and the power of personal choices. What did I do for the stars to align in this precise moment?

You see, it’s not just because he’s now an internationally recognized artist, or “cute” as Professor Süss asked me during the dinner: It’s the power of his poetry. It’s not just him but his words that personify him in a way that speaks for him, no explanation required. Watching him tumble out verses and expressions and emotions later that evening – with a front-row seat, I might add – was spell-binding. Never have I witnessed a person become his own poetry before, so convincingly, so mesmerizingly.

Because poetry saved me from the dark, crowded corners of depression, torment, and bullying. It transported me into the coveted world of pen, paper, and thought during the 3 years of my eating disorder recovery. It’s my personal form of expression, since learning and writing my first poem in Mr. Vaas’ 6th grade English class. Poetry freed this man just the same as poetry absolved me of my sins.

I am verse-less to describe the impact of that spoken-word performance, coating me in an armor so powerful and defiant, like the raindrops falling all around me. Sitting and speaking in the presence of Kosal – seeing his eyes merge from ebony-black to deep chocolate brown every time I spoke a truth that resonated with him, as well – was spiritual in a way, like Angkor Wat. Like watching the circus come to life. Like performing traditional Cambodian dance. Like embracing Arn Chorn-Pond again at the AUPP presentations. It’s the power of the creative arts, the human spirit, that moves us all – but especially moves me.

11:34 p.m. EST | 10:34 a.m. local time | 5-22-16

Well, it’s my last afternoon in Phnom Penh. I’m sitting here at the Anise – the hotel where this journey begins and ends – typing up my last few entries because my left arm is incapacitated. Here’s what happened:

Yesterday morning, after strolling to Brown Coffee for the first time (a must-see for any coffee lover in Cambodia!) and responding to various emails, my AUPP team-mates stopped over at the Khmer Surin to take Quintin and I on our last adventure. We were going ice skating at the mall!

Fun in theory. Fun in practice. Until … I fall.

I hadn’t been ice skating in a few years, and as a winter baby with a little grace from dance lessons, I was having such a blast! (“was” being the key word in that last sentence). Skating around the rink, with my flow-y skirt and scarf, I felt like a January queen on the ice. It also didn’t help my ego that I was getting plenty of stares from the Cambodian teenagers hanging out on the sidelines. Look at meee, I thought, gliding around the rink with my arms spread out like a bird in flight.

Quintin and I were also helping guide Kaly and David how to skate, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences to do so. Imagine, not ever enjoying ice skating in the wintertime!

It was a foolish move. It was a rookie move. Looking back on it now, I was almost spotless in my performance as the “American ice skater.” But I turned backwards to ask Kaly how she was doing … and lost my footing. And tumbled, hard, on to my left elbow.

I was quickly back on my skates, thanks to the kindness of Sopheaktra and one of the rink staffers, but a little woozy from the impact. I exited the rink and drank some tepid water from my bottle. I remember still being able to flex and clench my fist – albeit painfully – so I didn’t think it was necessarily a bone fracture. It felt (and still feels) like a muscle spasm right over the tendon that connects the upper half and the lower half of my arm. And, of course, I landed on my dominant arm … so eating, cleaning my face, putting up my hair, has been THE STRUGGLE for the past day and a half.

The rest of yesterday’s “adventure” – moving Quintin in to his hostel, getting lost on our way to Lot 369, shoveling food for me to get back to the architecture tour at 2 p.m. – was coated in a grimy layer of uncomfortable pain spasms.

And it’s all my fault, really. After this experience, I honestly believe in the realness of karma.

The night before my fall, I was daydreaming about my to-be tattoo in Cambodia, planned for my last day before coming back to the States. Eben had done it. Adar had done it. A group of us girls were all going to get tattoos in Cambodia – all for one, one for all.

But where was I going to get it done? The design was either going to be a lotus flower, a pair of koi fish, or a Khmer script that read “home” – that was already decided. I thought about initially getting the tattoo on my ankle or heel … but then thought of all the biking, hiking, running, and dancing that I do on an everyday basis in the States. What if something went horribly wrong, and I couldn’t use my leg like I wanted to for a month or so? The inactivity would kill me.

So I decided on the inside of my forearm. I don’t really use my arms for anything strenuous, I thought. I would be able to survive if something happened to my arm.

Honest to the gods above, those words pulsated through my mind the night before I fell and sprained my elbow – on the arm that I was planning on getting my tattoo done. My mother must have gotten wind of my aching desire for a tattoo in a foreign country, and sent the evil spirits warning me not to get one … Or I just lost my footing and tumbled on the ice. Either way, I’m no longer getting a tattoo. Instead, I’m walking around Phnom Penh with a tank-top-turned-tourniquet waiting for American medical care and a great, big Momma hug upon arrival in the Columbus airport. Because I’m still a child, and I need some tender love and care in this moment of travel-pain.

Now that I’m attempting to pack, to clean, to brush my teeth, to apply my make-up, to use the bathroom for the love of God, I’m mentally punishing myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I USE MY ARMS FOR EVERYTHING, DAMN IT. WHY DID I EVER THINK FOR ONE SECOND THAT THEY WERE USELESS?!?

Okay, rant over.

I’ll transcribe the rest of yesterday’s events, including the details of the architecture tour and the final Cambodian Living Arts performance I was fortunate enough to watch with Dr. Stewart and his wife Penny, sometime either today during our lengthy interlude between check-out time at 12:00 p.m. and our flight leaving at 12:15 a.m. tomorrow morning. Or during our 8-hr. interlude, waiting for our flight to leave the Shanghai airport from 5:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. tomorrow. Or during our 12-hr. day in L.A.

Either way, I have a lot of time on my hands — or, err, hand — in the next 3 days.

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