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Cambodia, January 2007


30 December 2006:

 I just returned from a quick bus trip to Vietnam (4 hours each way).  Although the official purpose of my trip was to secure a Cambodian visa extension (which required officially leaving the country and returning with the correct paperwork), I also used the trip as an excuse to see more of Cambodia—to see areas of the country, in particular, that showcase the typical Cambodian lifestyle more accurately than what I’ve seen in Phnom Penh.  Everyone has told me that living in Phnom Penh is almost like not living in Cambodia at all; after seeing parts of the countryside during this trip, I’m beginning to understand more what they mean. 

Cambodia is an agrarian country, but it’s not apparent when staying only in Phnom Penh.  Although it is obvious in the capitol that Cambodia is still developing, signs of poverty are also counterbalanced by extravagant displays of wealth by the Cambodian nouveau riche.  Wealth is a relatively new phenomenon here, which is perhaps why those Cambodians who have money feel the need to flaunt their material possessions.  These are the people who seem to be well-connected to one or more high-status government officials, who drive around Phnom Penh in their Lexus or Land Rover SUVs, who must be greeted with certain terms of respect, and who walk past any and all measures of security without difficulty.

What I saw from the window of my bus to the border was very, very different than that.  The types of buildings common to Phnom Penh (large, colonial-style houses or buildings) were few and far between.  Most people live in one-room, wooden houses, stilted to protect the house and its belongings from flooding in the wet season.  And though people in Phnom Penh seem to live in close contact to animals and nature (cows are as frequently seen on the roads), they do even moreso in the countryside.  Often I would pass houses where animals (cows, chickens, and pigs, in addition to pet dogs) were as much a part of the “household” as its human inhabitants.  Homes stand directly next to rice paddies and fields of produce, which seemed to create a sort of continuity between the “farmers” and their livelihood. 

In general, I found the trip incredibly eye-opening.  Seeing almost the full range of Cambodian lifestyles—from the mansions of the governors near my apartment to the stilted houses in the provinces to the floating houses along the river—has given me a more complete sense of the country that I’m living in, and has also made me more curious to explore the provinces farther away.

1 January 2007:

After several plans for New Year’s Eve failed to come to fruition, I rang in the new year here in Phnom Penh. (A weekend in Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok seemed too complicated to organize, and the planning for a trip to the islands off the southern coast was postponed until it was eventually too late.) Nothing too incredibly new—dinner with a few friends and out afterwards, mostly with fellow ex-pats—but it was great to see the city lit up for the holiday.  The trees near Independence Monument were strung up with twinkling blue lights, and the streets were filled with motos and cars heading to one party or another.  It seems that Cambodians celebrate this New Year with equal enthusiasm as they do the Khmer New Year, which was nice after a relatively laid-back Christmas holiday here. 

3 January 2007:

A group of us from the tribunal went down to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offices in Phnom Penh this afternoon to complete a mandatory UN security briefing.  Although the briefing is intended for those just arriving to Cambodia, I think of the group, I was the most recent addition to the UN staff, having been with UNAKRT (United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) for about two weeks.  Because of this tardiness on our part, much of the briefing covered issues irrelevant to our lives at this point (some of those issues lay in the “would have liked to know that, but I suppose it’s too late now” category, like preferable areas of town in which to live, best practice advice for negotiating rent, etc). 

The security advisor did seem to be doing all he could to worry me about almost every other aspect of living in Cambodia that is applicable to the remainder of my stay.  He issued cautionary advice about traveling in the city, warning us to take tuk-tuks instead of motos (my primary form of transport) because Cambodia neither requires a license for motorcycles (very apparent when on the back of one), nor does it offer sound legal/medical recourse in case of moto accidents.

Our security briefing also covered the dangers of walking around in the city at night, and really of walking around the city at all.  As a female ex-pat, my large purse and I are apparently prime targets for the muggers and rapists that the security advisor warned us were all over the city.  Though I’m far from feeling completely safe here at night, I had yet to reach the point of considering Phnom Penh any more dangerous than New York City.  A few stories of theft and sexual violence have changed that.  The guards at the gate of my community don’t seem to provide much security assurance, either.  I usually come home to find them napping or dozing, unwilling to expend the energy to open the gate for me.  They sit in their guard posts, Kalashnikovs piled haphazardly in a corner—which probably poses a threat more than keeps us safe, as I’m not sure they know how to fire them anyway. 

Yet even with the knowledge of all these potential dangers running through my head, it’s my guess that necessity will triumph over caution, at least with regards to transportation security.  I left the briefing to run a few errands on my afternoon off and realized that I only had 10 minutes to make it across town to the US Embassy’s consular section before it closed.  Desperately in need of some more visa pages for my passport, this would be my only free afternoon for awhile.  Despite warnings not to “throw caution to the wind” (his words), I hopped on the back of a moto and raced through rush-hour traffic, making it to the Embassy with two minutes to spare.

5 January 2007:

After my first full week at the ECCC, I’m back at the YFP offices today to prepare for its big Review and Planning workshop.  I’ve been so busy getting settled into a routine at the Tribunal that this facilitation has, in a way, almost snuck up on me.  In terms of materials, I’m ready, thanks to help from Insight Partners, but part of me feels unprepared (and/or unqualified), as I’m still a bit unsure what to expect.  It feels at once both artificial and exciting to be using and teaching skills that I feel I’m still in the process of learning myself.  I like that I can be the authority figure here, and I can assume a role which I’ve only observed in the past.  But this, in turn, intimidates me, as I hope my facilitation skills live up to their expectations. 

The workshop is a long one, starting this Sunday morning and running for a week until Friday afternoon.  I’m worried about staying energetic and on top of things 7 hours a day for 5 days, but hopefully things will be engaging and exciting enough (and I’ll have access to enough coffee) to make time less of an issue.  And I anticipate that it’ll be a great feeling (if everything goes well) to have facilitated such an important meeting for YFP.

7 January 2007:

I’m exhausted from what was the first day of YFP’s weeklong Review and Planning workshop.  But it’s a happy, content, even excited exhaustion, a type of post-adrenaline rush exhaustion.  As nervous as I was about facilitating this workshop, everything went smoothly during this first (half) day.  There are definitely things I need to think about in terms of preparing for and facilitating tomorrow, but overall, I was pleased with today’s results.

In an unexpected turn of events, I had been requested to open the sessions by leading the group in meditation.  In my skepticism, I never thought I’d have to draw from the mindfulness and meditation skills I learned this summer during a workshop.  Yet it seems to have saved me, in this instance, from jumping blindly into something about which I would have known very little otherwise.  After a short meditation session and some introductory games/activities, we jumped into what I think of as the real substance of the meeting—discussion of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, failures, and successes—which took us all the way up to the end.

My nervousness really melted away when I was facilitating.  This is, I think, because I found that I really enjoy it.  The organizational aspect of it really appeals to me, as does the act of helping people get to the root of their thoughts and ideas by digging in to their initial comments.  I discovered that facilitation is so much less about the facilitator than it is about the group that’s meeting.  While I think I knew this from the start, really witnessing it first hand made me realize that much of the pressure I’d been placing on myself was completely unnecessary.  The group looked to me for guidance, but I, in turn, looked to them for substance.  I know very little about some of their topics of discussion; however, I think this may have helped me get to the root of their problems, or question their assumptions, in a way that might not have been possible if I had been an expert on the topic. 

My fears about not being able to maintain high energy levels throughout the meeting also turned out to be unfounded as well (though maybe this will change).  I found that by investing myself not only in this meeting but also in the people at YFP, I had placed myself in a position of genuine interest about the issues being discussed and the outcome of their conversations.  Though I’m tired now, after coming home and unwinding, my energy level remained effortlessly high during the entire facilitation.

Tonight I’ll prepare a bit, but I think my eagerness to keep working on these issues, with these people, will help guide me through the rest of the facilitation more than anything else.

9 January 2007:

I’m beginning to incorporate some teaching points into the facilitation, which in general has made the experience (for me, and I hope for the group as well) a more fulfilling one.  By teaching the group about the “4Ps”, the “ladder of inference”, and other effective communication tools, I feel like I’m giving them something that will last far beyond the end of this week, or even this year.  Perhaps the benefit of having me facilitate this series of meetings extends beyond the simple advantage of having a facilitator,  and that my presence will contribute to staff capacity building (a term, I’ve discovered, they have a great deal of fondness for and use quite often). 

It’s also interesting for me to teach them about ideas that are, in many ways, still a bit complex to me.  Finding a way to relate these ideas not only to others, but to others who don’t share my native language, has been difficult but also exciting in the challenges it poses.  Many terms that I would use to teach these materials are simply not an option—the word “inference,” for example, was not one that my translator knew.  So I’ve been relying on drawings, anecdotes and other examples to convey points that I hope they’re understanding. 

I haven’t been completely alone—YFP’s advisor, Christina, has been a great help in terms of explaining complex ideas or instructions to the group.  The organization has also recently been joined by Sarah and Evelien, two women from the Netherlands who will be working with YFP in an advisory capacity, as well.  In addition to helping me with the logistical obstacles presented by this facilitation, they have been wonderful just to have around, to speak to in English after the mental strain of trying to follow a conversation in Khmer. 

11 January 2007:

Arriving at the YFP offices this morning at 6am was quite a feat, both in terms of waking up and getting ready on time, and also in terms of finding a moto driver at that hour who would take me for a fair price.  I expected the roads to be quiet when I left the house at 5.30 but must have forgotten how early Cambodians rise, since the streets were beginning to crowd with motorcycles, bikes, and cars, and the restaurants were filling up with people sitting down to Khmer breakfast (usually some sort of rice or noodle dish with meat). 

Once all 25 of us and our baggage were loaded into the van, and not one empty seat or foot of aisle remained, we took off around 7 for Sihanoukville, a town on the southern coast of Cambodia.  The drive was not too long—only 4 hours—and the YFP staff made sure it was filled with karaoke singing and story- and joke-telling.  Miraculously, I was able to add on a few hours to last night’s sleep, despite the fact that the van was never once quiet.  

I was neither disappointed nor pleasantly surprised when we pulled into Sihanoukville.  The town is very much like any other beach town—touristy restaurants lining otherwise uninteresting and unattractive streets.  It still feels Cambodian, and the Khmer beaches are very conservative, but it also quickly became apparent that this town is more influenced by the tourists than anyone else.  I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the hotel, which came equipped with air-conditioning, toilet paper in the bathrooms, and cable television.  We unloaded the van and took some lunch.  Then, after a few hours to unpack and rest, it was back to facilitating. 

12 January 2007:

Covering what seemed like an enormous amount of information in the past couple of hours, we ended the Review and Planning meeting this afternoon.  A short brainstorming session wrapped up any dangling ideas or concerns, and we concluded with a very rousing trivia game (Jeopardy-style) to review the materials and tools we’d discussed during the week.  The game drew out a competitive side of the YFP staff that I never knew existed; indeed, Cambodians are generally thought to inhibit their frustrations.  Not so, at least this afternoon.  What I witnessed were some of the louder and more chaotic arguments over points and technicalities I’d ever seen brought out by a trivia game. 

We packed up our materials, and frankly at that point I was glad to be done with the facilitation.  The mental strain of working against language issues to draw out important points and keep everyone on task was really beginning to wear on me.  But my relief was coupled with a great degree of satisfaction and pride that I had not only completed something which I had been so nervous to face, but had also done it with a level of effectiveness and professionalism high enough to please the YFP staff and exceed my own expectations.  It was nice to receive their feedback, most of which seemed to be an honest appraisal of the things I had done well and those I could do differently.  And again, it was great to feel like my contribution to this group, through the facilitation, would be a durable one.

Tonight we head down to the beach, once more, for a barbeque.  It will be nice to eat, play, and relax by the water without thinking about the next day’s agenda or needing to get enough sleep.  And, in a way, it will also be nice to shed my “facilitator” role and just hang out with the YFP group in a purely social way.

14 January 2007:

It was another early morning yesterday as we prepared to head back to Phnom Penh.  The bus ride was an especially fun one—a mix of sheer exhaustion and satisfied excitement to be done with the week.  Before making our way back to the city, we stopped at a small waterfall (near the National Park, I think) to relax, play some cards, and talk a little bit.  Though the waterfalls were not quite as massive or as full of water as I had imagined (it is the dry season, after all, and has only rained once in Cambodia since I’ve been here), it was still great to escape the confines of a crowded bus for an hour or so.  Even better was arriving back home after what seemed like more than just a few days away.  Meeting my friend Aaron for a quick swim in the pool of a nearby hotel made up for the lack of swimming we had done in Sihanoukville.

This evening will make up for the weekend I missed while working.  After searching in vain for an English-language movie theater in Phnom Penh (most cinemas play Khmer movies—very similar in style to Bollywood films, but not even as good in plot or cinematographic quality), Mialy, our friend Damian, and I decided to host a “movie night” of our own.  With a few other friends, we settled down to what was a very un-Cambodian evening: wine, cheese, bread, and the new James Bond movie.  As much as I like exploring Khmer culture, and as much as the divide between Cambodians and ex-pats here bothers me, it was really nice to be doing something different for an evening.  The only reminder that we were still in Cambodia was the low-quality bootleg DVD—the picture and sound quality of which prompted a brief, heated discussion about whether it was actually in black and white, and whether it was worth it for us to turn on the humorously erroneous English subtitles to this English-language film.

16 January 2007:

Visitors have been in and out of our flat, which has added a certain liveliness to the house lately.  Mialy’s friend Putu has been staying with us for a couple of days, taking an extended weekend off from her work with an NGO in Svey Rieng province.  I get the sense that living out there has been wearing on her a bit, which is expected considering the lack of running water or electricity in her single-room apartment.  In any case, Putu’s need of a “mental break” in Phnom Penh has also been great fun for Mialy and me.  In addition, Mialy’s old flatmate, Natasha, arrived back in Phnom Penh from a month-long vacation in Vietnam.  Natasha left the day I moved in, but I had heard so much about her from Mialy and our friends, Dori and Dorine, that she felt very familiar and I was instantly at ease when I met her.  Part of what I love about the ex-pat community here—or anywhere, I would guess—is that even though so many people are here working for one NGO or another, they all come from such diverse and interesting backgrounds!  Hearing about the places that my friends here have traveled, or lived, almost puts my travels this year to shame.  My friends here have had experiences—living in Africa, Asia, the subcontinent—that I’m only glimpsing this year.  In general, their experiences have been very different from what I would have imagined for myself before beginning the Fellowship, but that now are becoming both more desirable and increasingly probable.

18 January 2007:

Yesterday and today have been a nightmare.  All my time in Cambodia eating street food indiscriminately has finally caught up with me, and I’ve become sick.  I’m going to wait awhile until I cave and pay a visit to the UN doctor, even though my symptoms are more consistent with something more serious than a typical bacterial infection.  I’m afraid to take my temperature, because I’m sure I have a fever.  Even though malaria isn’t present in Phnom Penh, dengue is, and I desperately hope I haven’t contracted it.  Frustrating how all the things I’m craving (clean water, bread, ginger ale) to help myself feel better are in short supply or are nonexistent in Phnom Penh.  I’m too weak to ride a bicycle or even hop on the back of a moto; the heat makes doing anything other than lying in my air-conditioned room (or sitting uneasily in my air-conditioned office at the ECCC) unbearable. 

19 January 2007:

At the end of a long week, I had a great day working at the ECCC!  My prosecution team has made a lot of progress in the project on which we’re working, which in and of itself is rewarding since the work itself is very slow-going.  I really like everyone on the team, which makes the work more interesting and these recent signs of progress more rewarding. 

But it was really the small things that made today such a satisfying conclusion to the week.  My friend Bridi, another intern in the Office of the Co-Prosecutors (OCP), organized a lunch delivery from Café Fresco (quite a task, considering that the ECCC is about ½ an hour out of town).  Not only did ordering food in spare us the choice of eating at the ECCC Cantina (not the best Khmer food) or the airport cafeteria (a bit of a trek), but it brought most of the people in the office together in a more social way, which was nice.  It really let me get to know the other lawyers in the OCP a bit better. 

To top it off, Mialy and I went for a quick massage when I got home—a perfect, relaxing end to the week.  I’m really going to miss the simple luxuries that I can afford only because I’m here—cheap spa treatments, good SE Asian food, an amazing apartment at a fraction of what it would cost at home.  I’m also going to miss the people—my great team at the ECCC, the dedicated staff at YFP, and the amazing group of friends I’ve been lucky enough to meet.  It’s hard to believe that I only have about a month and a half here.  Already I’m getting nostalgic.