Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in Cambodia

Friendly people, delicious food, warm sunshine, hours lounging by the pool, Christmas. Ahhhh vacation! I’ve had an absolutely wonderful time in Cambodia this past week. If I may be so bold to say it, I think it’s my favorite country so far.

The first bit of our stay here was not all smiles and relaxation though. The first thing on our agenda when we arrived into Phnom Penh was to visit the place where the Khmer Rouge murdered their prisoners during their revolutionary overthrow in the 70s. Brittle ivory white skulls, piled up in a stupa at least 50 feet high were the first things I saw. The remains of the millions of innocent people killed. There were mass graves with bones, teeth, and salvaged clothing. A tree marked with a placard indicated where babies and children were beaten to death. Next we visited Tuol Sleng, a high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and torture center. The cells and torture chambers were still set up. I walked through the rooms, looking at the rows and rows of pictures of prisoners’ faces displayed on boards. It was so hard for me to look into the eyes of the men, women, children, and even small babies that had been captured, tortured, and killed in that very place not too long ago. How could I never have learned about this in school? I was shocked and slightly infuriated that this genocide, which killed almost half of Cambodia’s population at the time, had been completely left out from my education. It was a pretty rough morning for me to say the least.

It’s very evident that the aftereffects of the revolution still abound here. Children on the street sell books about Pol Pot and the killing fields, and I fear that it’s even become a sort of tourist attraction. Case in point: our group. I think it’s a good thing that people are being made aware of the atrocities that happened here, however I hope that tourism and hype doesn’t make it seem any less severe.

We left Phnom Penh after three days and traveled by bus to Siem Reap. We had three day passes to the temples. The first day, we toured around by tuk tuk with a guide, who explained to us details about a few of the temples. My favorite was actually the temple the Tomb Raider was filmed at! The next morning, we woke up super early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. On the third day, I rented a bike and rode a loop around the temples. It was really beautiful to see all of the temples and scenery. And it was only one dollar for the whole day! I couldn’t believe it.

The rest of my time here has been spent relaxing. I alternate between jumping in the pool, reading in the sun, and exploring the city. Passing up the countless offers from the tuk tuk drivers—“want a tuk tuk lady?”—I like to walk into the cute downtown area. There are lots of restaurants and shops-- many of the restaurants advertise their use of organic and local foods! I have a hard time choosing where to go. But it doesn’t matter too much, because every one I’ve been to has been amazing. Another thing I was surprised about here were the “Dr. Fish Massages.” They’re everywhere on the streets. Basically, they’re a huge tank full of water and fish that, when you put your feet in, will eat your dead skin. I tried it with my hand for a few seconds, and it felt like little suction cups!

I’ve been amazed at the amount of English the Cambodians speak. I think it’s most likely due to the amount of tourism (lots from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.) On the streets, people will barrage you with offers to buy anything from books to bracelets to drugs…Always the same offer: “Lady, you want a…” Walking to dinner one night, one boy came up to us to try to sell books. First, he chased us with a cooked tarantula (they sell them on the streets here.) He then proceeded to follow us to the restaurant and kept talking to us, even as we sat down. The whole time we were conversing with him English, and he seemed very fluent. They’re very dynamic and cheery, and it’s actually really fun to have conversations with all of the vendors.

We spent our Christmas here in Siem Reap! We celebrated by playing games, performing in a talent show, and revealing our secret santas. Kasha even had a small Christmas tree for us to put our gifts under. I really missed my family and Christmas celebrations at home, but it’s hard to be too down when you’re lying in the sun and swimming in the pool in Cambodia.

We’re flying out to India this afternoon! I’m really excited, but also a bit nervous. It’s going to be quite a trek to get there, complete with a 6 hour layover (from midnight to 6 am) in Mumbai. The book we’re reading to prepare for India is The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m really enjoying it. So at least I have that to keep me occupied!

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Media Project from China!

made by me, Mary, and Rachel.

Monday, December 13, 2010

To Shaxi and Beyond

Last Monday, we said our goodbyes to our host families in Kunming as we loaded up onto a bus bound for Shaxi, where we we’re spending the week in our “rural” homestay. We broke our trip up into two days: the first day we drove about 4 hours to a town called Dali. We walked around looking at the shops selling crafts and trinkets. Dali is known for its tiedye and almost every store had some variation of tiedyed clothing. It felt a little bit like I was transported to some sort of 60s-themed amusement park. We woke up the next day and completed our journey to Shaxi with a 5 hour jaunt on the bus.

When I was told that Shaxi was going to be a rural homestay, I thought it was going to be Los Naranjos rural. But compared to Los Naranjos, Shaxi is a bustling metropolis with its 23,000 people. Which I suppose is rural by China’s standards. There are cafes, restaurants, little markets, a bank, and even hair salons. The town is quaint and quiet. Cobblestone roads connect our woodframe houses and wind out through the fields, which extend out to the base of mountains in the distance.

When we arrived, our host parents met us in the parking lot to help us carry our bags through the old town to our houses. My house is located right next door to the Shaxi Cultural Center. Run by YCCLD (our partner organization in China), the cultural center is where our leaders are staying and where our seminar/discussion/hangout room is. It’s also where my bathroom is! When I first got to my homestay and asked for the bathroom, my host grandma led me to a public restroom. After that, I realized that the cultural center was much closer and much cleaner.

It’s been difficult trying to communicate with my family because they don’t know any English and my Chinese doesn’t really get me anywhere. There has been much hand gesturing on my part and confused looks on my host family’s part. I’m not quite sure they realize that I can’t understand Chinese because they try to talk to me and ask me questions in Chinese while I awkwardly stand there, not knowing what to say or do. I feel bad because I wish I could interact with them more, but sitting in their bedroom and watching Chinese TV at night only goes so far.

For the first few days, I had no idea who the members of my host family actually were. I knew that there was a grandma, because she was the one who met me when we first arrived. But other than that, I wasn’t too sure. As of now, I know there’s a mom, grandma, grandpa, and sister. I’m pretty sure there’s a dad who shows up to meals at times, and possibly a host brother. He does homework in the grandparents’ room, but he’s never eaten with us. My house, like many of the houses here, is comprised of rooms arranged around a courtyard. I think there’s another family living in our little complex, but of course I can’t be too sure. The kitchen is open-air, and there’s no running water (there’s a well in the kitchen) or refrigerator. Ironically, there are TVs. It never ceases to confuse me when I see these “luxury” items like TVs, DVD players, and cell phones when there isn’t even running water. But, as I’ve well learned, my values are not the values held by the rest of the world!

At meals, we eat on tiny stools around a bowl of hot coals. I’ve eaten some interesting food here. Some dishes--like snap peas, lotus root, and seaweed salad--have been really tasty. But the mystery egg/chicken jello-type dish and the white and red poop-smelling dish haven’t been my favorites.

We finished up our teaching careers with four last classes at the middle school here in Shaxi. It was interesting to see the differences between the school in Kunming and the school here. The class I taught used the same textbook and was even on the same lesson as a class I taught in the city, yet the students here understood a significantly smaller amount of English. Shaxi schools have a high reputation compared to other schools in the county, so I wonder what other rural schools are like.

Besides teaching, our days here have been filled with seminars and LOTS of work on our media projects. This morning, Mary, Rachel, and I finally finished our movie, which explores the Chinese and American education systems and whether or not they are preparing their students for the world.

A lot has happened. But one of the highlights for me was our visit to the Shibaoshan temple on Saturday. Before we got there, we were warned about the wild monkeys and advised to not look them in the eyes or feed them. Sure enough, at the parking lot, we were greeted by a cute furry friend who then proceeded to steal Shannon’s bag of peanuts from her backpack and run off with it. When it got a few feet away, it sat down, broke open the bag, and started shelling and downing the peanuts. We then climbed stairs up the mountain to reach the temple. It was beautiful, surrounded by trees and backed up against a rock cliff. Monkeys were all over--crawling on the roof, hanging from the trees, running on the ground. There were trails up onto the rock behind the temple, so I climbed up to find more pagodas filled with Buddha figures. I kept going around the mountain and wound my way up to a nunnery near the top. I knew I was drawing near when I heard the chanting of a monk and ringing of bells. I was so content to be alone in nature, and for a moment forgot all the frustrations I’ve had with the loud, polluted cities in China.

We are in Shaxi for two more days. After that, we go back to Kunming to stay in dorms at the Yunnan Nationalities University before two nights before we’re off to Cambodia! I’m really excited for the sunny, warm weather and am curious about the food, which is supposedly like lesser-spiced Thai food. I hope that’s true!

I also hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season! We had a Hanukkah using some votive candles which we lined up as a makeshift menorah. We also have a secret Santa gift exchange arranged. I do miss eggnog though!

The sun is actually shining right now, so I think I’ll go out to de-thaw!