Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Weight Loss and Other Changes

Note: This post is potentially triggering for talk of weight loss. I know I have some friends who have suffered or are suffering from eating disorders, so beware. I love you all. 

 To start with a quote: “Sometimes I think we travel to see ourselves rather than what we’ve supposedly come to see.” – Louise (a friend of the author’s, from the book Gecko Tails) [Note: I know I’m more ‘living’ than ‘traveling’, but it’s the same idea.]

 It’s no surprise to anyone that Peace Corps service changes you. Over and over again, you’ll hear volunteers say that their country of service gave more to them than they were able to give to it. Two years out of your comfort zone, away from your childhood friends, your family, your support system… it really does do a number on you, mostly good, sometimes bad. That’s beside the point, though.

 The biggest change that volunteers see, and the most noticeable, is weight change. Some volunteers gain, some volunteers lose, some volunteers gain and then realize they have to change their diet and exercise routine to go back to the way they were pre-service, and some volunteers lose, become comfortable in their surroundings once again, find the awesome nom ladies, and then gain the weight back. It’s a spectrum. From what I’ve been told, usually, it’s women who gain and men who lose.

 I’m one of those volunteers who has lost weight… a significant amount of weight. Some 52 pounds of weight since I landed last July. That’s roughly 25% of my starting weight. I’m a numbers girl, so I’m going to keep throwing them at you. The first weekend we were in Cambodia, our measurements were taken so that we could bring them to the tailor to have sampots and shirts made. My starting measurements (in centimeters)? 107-92-121… My measurements now? 90-74-100… that’s a total of 56 centimeters lost in just my bust-waist-hips! I can see a difference in my arms and my legs as well, but the differences aren’t just superficial.
July 2013 vs. Sept 2014
I realized a few weeks ago that I haven’t had knee pain in a very long time, and I’ve had chronic knee pain since I was a young teen. I get winded less easily. I can run, sort of. My stamina is higher and I just feel really, really good all over. And once I hit about 165 pounds, I started to get serious about exercising. Aside from trips into Phnom Penh, and sick days, I’ve exercised almost every day since the second week of August. So now not only am I thinner, I’m also stronger. I did the first push-up, the first real push-up of my life last month. Not on my knees, not with my butt in the air, but a real, straight-backed push-up. I can hold a plank position for over 30 seconds. I can do crunches and lunges and squats correctly. I feel amazing. It is so much easier to work out when there is less on you to move around.

 Of course, the weight loss hasn’t been all fun and games. I arrived in Cambodia at around 205 pounds, courtesy of stuffing my face with all my favorite foods before leaving. 205 pounds is roughly 93 kilograms. During the course of the 8 weeks of Pre-Service Training, I lost 8 kilos (roughly 17.5 pounds), arriving to site at 85 kilos. Those 15+ pounds just melted off of my body with the increase in movement (we biked everywhere and played volleyball on the weekends and sometimes played soccer in the afternoons, not to mention going from washing machines to hand-washing clothing) and the change in diet (what, no Starbucks lattes three times a day in Cambodia? No macaroni and cheese? No frequent beers with friends? No Twix or Snickers or KitKats?). That’s what experts always say, right? Diet and exercise… and for me, both had dramatically changed from my previous life.

 So, I arrived at my permanent site a lovely 85 kilos, which Khmer folks still consider to be rather large. My current host aunt never tires of telling me how the Health Center Director’s wife told her that the barang (white person) that Peace Corps sent this time was “so tall and so big and her neck is so fat” (This is normal for a Cambodian to say… just keep reading). After a month at site, I was down another 4 kilos. (Measurements: 102-86-111). That’s not healthy, so let me explain. I tried to be vegetarian, and in the process was basically starving myself. My host family at the time didn’t really know how to make many vegetarian dishes, so it ended up being a rotation of the same 3 dishes over and over again, which I got bored of. I also had really ridiculously terrible food poisoning during Pchum Ben last year, which left me throwing up for two days, and it was another 3 days before I could stomach more than 3 spoonfuls of borbor (watery rice porridge).

 After another month, I was down another 2 kilos, again for the same reasons, although I didn’t have food poisoning, I was just sick in general. That’s been an interesting theme this year. I am forever sick – colds, sinus infections, stomach illnesses, ear aches, food poisoning, general malaise. I’m talking, at least once a month. I used to record on my calendar when I was sick, but then I decided that was futile since I feel under the weather a lot of the time. Between the rain, the heat, and the changing seasons, my body always finds something to complain about. However, at this point, I embrace it. What’s life without a little illness to remind us that we are human?

 Anyway, by the middle of December, the weight loss had slowed and I had lost just one more kilo. By the beginning of 2014, I was down another kilo and weighing in at 77 kilograms (measurements: 92-86-103). This was after another bout of food poisoning on New Year’s Eve of all days. By the beginning of March I was down to 75 kilos (measurements: 94-80-101). After that, life got a little rough for me so I didn’t measure anything again until late summer, and now it’s October, so I’ve lost a little over 5 kilos since March. You probably didn’t need or want to know all of that, but hey, I had it recorded so why not write it down?

 How do I know all of this? It became a bit of an obsession for me. Not in a disordered-eating way, but in a “I’ve always been the slow, fat, picked-last kid and now I’m not, whoa, this is awesome” way. So every few weeks I would record my weight and every few months, I’d measure myself when we had a slow moment at the health center.

 I’ve allowed the weight loss to push me into healthier habits all around. I’ve already mentioned the exercise. I drink at least 2 Liters of water a day, mostly because I was(am) tired of being sick and that is supposed to help. It did help with some recurring headaches so yay for not being dehydrated all the time! I make sure to eat lots of vegetables every day, along with lots of rice and a good portion of meat or fish. (Headline news: Vegetarian of 11 years decides that meat tastes amazing! Who knew?!). I even meditate. I also sleep 8 hours a night. This, I think, is the biggest change for me.

 During high school, I averaged between 5-6 hours a night on school days, 10 hours a night on weekends, unless I was working at church that Sunday. During my first year of college, I averaged the same as high school. During my sophomore through senior years of college, I worked a night job, along with doing a million other things, and would sleep anywhere from 0 hours a night to 4 or 5 hours a night on nights that I worked. I also napped, but it never helped. To put it lightly, I was wreck. I would cry easily. I was stressed beyond belief. Sometimes I even fell asleep during shifts, or worse, during classes. Sometimes I didn’t even go to class so that I could catch up on sleep. It was a nightmare of my own making. After graduation in 2011, I moved back home, but I still didn’t sleep much, thanks to taking more classes, working a lot, and the lure of the internet. So again, I was averaging 5-6 hours a night, sometimes less if I put off homework until the last minute. (I really like taking classes, can you tell?). Anyway, the point of all of this is that I have never had a proper sleep schedule that I kept for long periods of time. And now I do. And now I feel the most emotionally stable I have ever felt in my life! Yay for giving the brain the rest that it needs!

 Aside from the previously mentioned changes, I think the biggest psychological change I’ve gone through, aside from the wonderful emotional stability, is that I have become more patient than I have ever thought possible. I mean, if you’re reading this now, there’s a chance you read the earlier posts when I was talking about how long it seemed Peace Corps was taking to get back to me and to get me an invite and all of that stuff. But now, delays just seem to roll off of my shoulders. The torrie is going to be two hours late? Ut bunyaha (no problem). The tuk-tuk driver has no idea where he is going? That’s why I left early (Although, on rare occasions, this does make me impatient). My friend said we were leaving in an hour but it has actually been two and it doesn’t look like we will be leaving anytime soon? Tomadah (Usual). Khmer people are rarely in a rush, so why should I be?

 I’m hoping to carry this new-found patience with me for the rest of my life, as Cambodians have been so patient with me when it comes to customs and language. I now understand the difficulty that people go through in trying to learn a new language, especially in adulthood. I hope to never laugh at somebody’s English skills again, but instead, to help them through what they are trying to say. In terms of American life, so many people believe that in order to move permanently to the US, a person should speak English. While I can see where they might get this idea, it is easier said than done. English is a really hard language to learn, especially coming from a country with fewer words, no articles, and very few verb tenses. I’m grateful I’m an English speaker learning Khmer, rather than the other way around.

 So, a year and a month into service, this is how I have changed, and really, these are just the changes I’ve noticed. I’m sure I, and my fellow volunteers, have changed in ways that we won’t realize until we land at home. Maybe when I’m home for Christmas, I’ll realize more. Who knows?

 Long Side Note: I know it seems like most of my blog entries are about me. I hope I don’t come across as self-centered. I try to write about what I know, and I know me. I never feel like I could truly put into words what I think I know about Cambodia. Every time I want to say something that is not a description, every time I want to tell a story, I feel as though I may say something wrong or offend somebody. Really, someone who aspires to be a writer shouldn’t feel like this, but I do. I want everyone to know how wonderful and amazing and confusing this experience is, but it’s hard to put in the right words. It’s the reason why I haven’t posted in so long. I’ve written plenty of entries, but I felt none of them were good enough to post. I’ll leave you with this quote, found at the beginning of the book I’m currently reading (Gecko Tails by Carol Livingston):
 “After a week in the country, I thought I could write a book. After six months, I thought I could write a story. After a year, I didn’t know what to say.” – Unknown Rwandan relief worker

Friday, May 2, 2014

Honesty

Edit: This post was written on Sunday, the one month anniversary of my hostmom’s death. I was having a hard time emotionally with everything that was going on. Now, I am okay. I feel fine and like I’m ready to continue with my work. With that being said, here’s the original post in its entirety. 

Coming up in the next few weeks on this blog: all of the trainings I’ve had this year (which will probably be posted at the beginning of June, as I have another training at the end of May), the grieving process and how it’s been different than the last time I experienced a death, and the details of when I had two friends come (on separate occasions). 

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Two weeks ago, I had a friend visit. This is my second friend who has come to visit, and it was a lot of fun, but that is not what this entry is about. One of the main topics of conversation throughout the week and a half that my friend and I spent together had to do with Facebook and how we, as people, present ourselves to the world through our various forms of social media. We both agreed on one thing: people try to make their lives look shiny and enviable on the internet, always posting the good things and leaving out the bad. Personally, I try not to do that, but everyone does it to an extent, even if we don’t try to.

What does that have to do with this blog post? Everything. I’m about to get extremely honest right now, and it’s not pretty.

Being in the Peace Corps is HARD… It has moments that are terrifying, life-changing (for the worse), exhausting, and hurtful. It is filled with experiences that are hard to relate to anyone who isn’t a fellow PCV. It is tiring. It changes you, mentally and physically, sometimes for the worse. Your English starts getting worse, and if you binge on TV rather than books, you could have trouble concentrating when trying to get back into reading. You have to speak in a language that you just learned with enough fluency to get your needs met, day in and day out. Sometimes, you want to stay in your room and not speak to people, but you need sustenance. Depending on your country, your physical needs may not be met at all (think hugs/cuddles/etc), and your emotional needs can only be met by telephone, because learning how to express emotion appropriately in a completely different culture takes more than just a few months, and if you are more than a bike ride away from a fellow volunteer, it can be weeks before you can accurately express everything you are feeling in person to another person who will actually understand what you are saying.

On the job front, weeks can go by where you feel like you are not accomplishing anything at your site. Some days may feel like a success, and then you want to review what you thought was successful, only to find that nobody remembers. It is hard to motivate people. You can learn everything about Behavior Change Communication and still be unable to get people to listen. You want to help but you feel helpless yourself.

Sometimes, things happen suddenly that can completely change or destroy your service. At home, a family member may fall extremely ill or may pass away suddenly. At site, a host country national that you are close to may suffer a similar fate. You could get hit by a moving vehicle and have a serious enough injury to be sent home. You could be assaulted and decide that you no longer feel safe in country. Your body could decide that it just cannot handle something in country, and go berserk on you until you have to leave. Your brain could do the same.

You could want this with every fiber of your being, and still want to ET. Peace Corps loves acronyms… ET stands for Early Termination. There is no judgment in ET-ing; sometimes, what you thought you wanted just ends up being completely wrong for you in practice. We recently had a K7 ET. But this isn’t about that person, this is about me.

For the past month, I have gone through moments where I am seriously ready to pack up and go home. I miss my family. I miss the way things used to be at my site before my host mom passed away. I feel lonely and dissatisfied, and I find myself with some really not awesome thoughts that I haven’t had in a really, really long time, and that scares me. That’s the big stuff.

And then there’s the little stuff: I miss refrigeration, air conditioning, “modern” amenities. I’ve lived without them fine for the past 9 months, but when you are down, all you want is a little comfort from home. I miss 7-11s and Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. I miss cheese and fresh salad whenever I want. I miss being able to drive. I miss speaking English and not having to rephrase things until people understand what I am trying to say. I miss being in control of my life…

I knew becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer would be hard. It took me two years to get my invite and, if you know my personality, you know I’m the kind of person who researches everything about what I want to do. I read histories of the Peace Corps, books by RPCVs, blogs by current PCVs. I kept up with any and all news having to do with PC: deaths, rape statistics, current legislation (this included keeping an eye on what was happening with the Kate Puzey Act). Everyone says that it is hard. Heck, during training, we were given a rough graph on what our emotions would be like during service and told that “the highs will be the highest, but the lows will be the lowest.” Truer words were never spoken.

I have had some pretty ridiculously low points in my relatively short life, but nothing, NOTHING, compares to the lows you feel when you feel low in Peace Corps. Luckily, I am surrounded by amazing, wonderful fellow PCVs who are on the ride with me and we have been so supportive on the days were I’m 2 seconds away from saying “F- it” and going home.

 I know I would absolutely hate myself if I voluntarily went home from service early. But some days, it just seems so easy. It’s a strangely comforting thing to be able to think to myself that I could be on a plane home in less than a week if this gets too hard. That I could never have to speak another word of Khmer. That I can escape the staring, the comments on my body and skin color, the 30 people crammed into an 11-person van, the constant price-jacking because of what I look like. That I would never again have to deal with the torrential downpours, the heat, the mosquitos.

I want to end this on a high note but I want to stay true to my feelings right now, so here are two tips I’ve heard on getting through the rough times if you are a current or future PCV:
1) Think to yourself: what would I be doing if I was at home? And not just the good stuff… what job would you be doing? Would you be going to school? Where would you live and with whom? If you are seriously considering leaving, start to set these things up. By the time you finish, you might find your funk has finished as well. (My note on this: I’m a control freak, so it calms me down to feel like I’ve regained control, even if it is just a little control. When I’m feeling ready to ET, I browse LinkedIn on my phone. I can’t tell you why, but it is comforting to look at all the jobs and realize nothing is going to have the impact I hope to have by the end of my service.)
2) The One Week Rule. If you find yourself in a constant funk, try this: Count each day as it goes by. If nothing makes you happy or nothing gives you even the smallest smile, that day becomes 1. If it happens the next day, that day becomes 2. And so on… If you make it to 7, then perhaps ET-ing will be good for your mental health. BUT, if even one thing makes you crack a smile, something as small as a child that smiles at you that causes you to smile back, then that day becomes 0 and you have to start all over again. Eventually, you’ll find you can’t even make it one day without finding something good that happened.

Have any other tips? Leave them in the comments!

Monday, March 31, 2014

In Memoriam


Here is a picture of my amazing host mother (and me):


The last picture we took together. I'm so glad she suggested a little photo shoot.
This was right before the dinner for International Women's Day.

Unfortunately, my host mom passed away on Thursday, March 27th. It was an unexpected and sudden death. She had been feeling sick all weekend, went to the hospital on Monday, got a little worse on Wednesday, and then passed away as my host sister and I rushed to Phnom Penh to see her at the hospital to say our goodbyes. We didn’t make it in time.

I was crushed. I still am crushed. I’m having trouble processing that this has actually happened. If you are my Facebook friend, you know just how much I loved my host mother, since I was always sharing stories about her. Here are some of my favorite memories of her:
- The way she would say “mostiko” instead of “mosquito” and “cocodoung” instead of “coconut.”
- How she got me to open up by putting on karaoke DVDs and dancing around our living room with me
- She made me pumpkin on Halloween because I asked
- She organized a Christmas party for me at our house after she caught me crying as I decorated my little tree, because I missed my family so much and she just wanted me to be happy
- She invited me to all of the happenings in town: the festival for Pchum Ben, the January 7th Commemoration, the dinner to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th (she even won a free sarong at that dinner!)
- She went to the carnival in our town with me, and managed to basically drag me onto the ferris wheel, after buying me a ticket to go on.
On the Ferris Wheel together.
- The time she sat me down to tell me how worried she was about my host sisters because they are women in Cambodian society and she is always afraid that they are going to get hurt
- She took me to the school to meet everyone so that I could try to get something going at the high school
- Whenever I asked, she would explain to me what she was doing when she had lots of papers in front of her: grading, scheduling, etc. One time, she was getting her stuff ready to go to the provincial town to do some more trainings, and she showed me pictures from her teacher training classes and all of the certificates she had.
- How she sat me down within my first two weeks in her house to tell me about her experience with the Khmer Rouge. I understood only about 30% of that conversation, and I was going to ask her to write it down so that I could have it translated to fully understand her experience. Now, I’ll never know.
- The way she would always encourage me to dance at weddings
- Sitting and playing cards with her and my sisters
- She taught me how to Khmer traditional dance
- She invited me to go to Kampong Som with the teachers from the high school on New Year’s Day. That day was a lot of fun, even if most of it was spent in a torrie going there and coming back.
- She never wanted me to spend a lot of money, so she would send one of my sisters to go with me or she would go with me if I wanted to buy something, so that I could get the “Khmer price”
- On Valentine’s Day, we were drinking together, and she broke down crying, telling me that she would miss me when I left and that I would forget her. I told her that she shouldn’t cry because I’m not leaving for another year and a half, and I would never, ever forget her. I thought we had so much time…
- Most of all, though, she treated me like a daughter from the moment I stepped into her house

I don’t know how it’s possible to completely integrate somebody into your life so quickly, but my host mom was way more than just a host mother to me. My host mom was my Khmer mom, in every sense of the word. I have never met a more caring, loving individual willing to take me on as her own… to house me, to feed me, to help me integrate, even when my language wasn’t awesome. My host mom had the biggest heart, helping people when they needed it, offering advice, and just sitting and smiling with me.

She touched so many lives. In Khmer culture, the body usually sits out for three days (in a coffin), and then the funeral happens on the third day. Throughout the three days, many people came to give their condolences, many incense sticks were lit, and many “good luck” bracelets were tied around wrists.

When my sister and I arrived in Phnom Penh, we went straight to see her body at this wake, as we would call it in the States. While I was kneeling by the body, my oldest host sister, who lives in Phnom Penh (my host mom has four children), came over to tell me how much my host mom absolutely loved me. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from more than one person. I hope I was able to show her how much I loved her as well, and I made sure to tell her every time she asked. She wore her heart on her sleeve and loved with everything she had in her.

Her funeral was on Saturday, and I will never forget the sounds that my host sisters made. I’ve never seen Khmer people cry like that. It was one of the most heart-breaking things I have had to go through in my adult life.


So here is to my Khmer mom, Teacher Em Mony. May her memory live on through everyone she has taught, everyone she has touched, and everyone she has loved. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Out With the Old...

So, it’s the last day of 2013, and I haven’t updated this thing in over a month. Why? Because I’ve been really busy.

In the last month, a lot has happened:
- I’ve started to teach English at the primary school. I had a meeting with the Primary School Directors on the 17th, and was informed I would start teaching 4th, 5th, and 6th grades the following day through the week. I’m now teaching at the school around 5 hours a week. They know I want to teach health, so I’m going to trying implementing a two-weeks-English, one-week-Health thing, and I’m going to do the Health lessons in Khmer AND English. We’ll see how that works out.
- I’m now on the Gender and Development Committee, which is awesome, right up my alley, and comes as no surprise to anybody who knows me in real life.
- I had lice that refused to go away for two weeks. When we first discovered it, we pulled out over 50 adults and 100 babies from my hair. My hair, by the way, is over a foot and a half long. Combing it was the worst. Here are some pictures:
Look at those little buggers!

This is the length of my hair. Too long!

- Christmas came and went, along with an incredibly crippling bout of homesickness that left me crying for a majority of the 3 days before Christmas. Not only did I get to Skype with my extended family on Christmas morning (Christmas Eve for them) to partake in a tradition that I can’t even remember the beginning of, but my host mom saw how sad I was and threw a Christmas party just for me, complete with special food, and neighbors and students. And beer. It was really special.
- I’ve been sick the past few days. According to my symptoms, the medical officer told me I had a pretty bad bacterial infection. I thought I was better today, but stomach cramps and exhaustion had me home from work in less than half an hour. I’m now surviving on Oral Rehydration Salts. Hopefully I’m okay for a trip I’m supposed to go on tomorrow.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. And now, a reflection on 2013:

2013 started off okay and continued on pretty normally, if a bit hectic between working and school. I almost forgot to write about being selected to do an "Alternative Spring Break" down the shore by MTV. Cool swag, being followed around by cameras, making friends with the most awesome of people (Wolfpack!!), free trip to Six Flags... how could I forget that?! And of course, my trip to LA to see Shaked graduate (my grandlil... I feel so old!), and see my friends and sorority sisters.
Really, the biggest thing that happened this year was receiving my Peace Corps Invitation in March, getting all of my final clearances, and finally boarding the plane to come to Cambodia in July. I was also excited to take my NJ -> Orlando -> Toronto -> NJ trip the weekend before I left for Cambodia, even if it left me a little tired. I finally got to go to Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and I got to add Canada to my list of countries I’ve visited (finally!). And the party I had before leaving showed me how much love was already in my life. I’ve never felt more supported and loved than I have as I’ve started and continued through this Peace Corps journey.
Honestly, when I got my invitation, I had huge doubts about coming here, even crying once I processed that Africa was no longer in the picture. However, Placement knew exactly what they were doing, and my time here so far has proven how very wrong my initial feelings of doubt and sadness were. I love it here. I love my host family. I’m sure I probably would’ve enjoyed other places, but everything about Cambodia is perfect for me. I’ve been sick somewhere around 5 times here, and I still have no complaints.

Sorry if this is a bit all over the place, I’m still recovering from being sick!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Normalcy/Settling... and Some Stories

I know I haven’t updated you in awhile with what I’ve been doing in my everyday life, but that’s because it has become almost normal. Yes, the frustration I feel with my language on an hourly basis has become normal. Yes, rice with every meal has become normal. Yes, bucket baths seem more normal than showers at this point, because of all of the water that is saved. Yes, putting up my mosquito net every single night has become just one more normal pre-bedtime ritual. But that’s not to say I’ve settled.

In fact, I don’t think I, personally, will ever be “settled” anywhere. I recently read two things that have me convinced of this: one was on a Reddit thread about “best quotes” and the other one was towards the end of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and had to do with dreaming and nostalgia about the places that we have lived or visited. Both of them talked about how a traveler’s soul is never settled. Honestly, from all the moving around I’ve done, I think that it is 100% true. I missed NJ when I was in California, I missed the US when I was in Tanzania, I missed California when I was in Ireland, and I missed LA when I was in NJ. I’ve been to a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things and met a lot of awesome people, and I carry them with me wherever I go. You can’t rid yourself of travel, true travel, true integration, once you start with your first trip, because it changes you in ways you don’t realize until long after you have left. 

 I miss home a lot when I am here, but I know when I visit home and when I eventually go home for good, I’m going to miss a lot about here. I miss being able to see my family easily; talking through screens just isn’t the same. I miss fancy coffee drinks and nights out with my friends. I miss being able to understand everything that is going on around me. I miss shorts and tank tops. I can already tell you some of the things I will miss about Cambodia: the children shouting “Hello, Teacher!” (even if it does get annoying sometimes), bargaining for stuff in the market, the sunsets, the rain, the freshness of all of the food due to the lack of a refrigerator. 

So, those are my current thoughts. Here are some stories from the past few weeks, in no particular order:

- I walked up behind my one year old cousin, and she looked up at me, said “elephant,” in Khmer, and ran away.

- I had to go to Phnom Penh because I was having some ear issues. Getting there was fine, even though a child was crying on the bus for so long (the ride from my site to PP is 4+ hours), that I contemplated what the headlines would say if I actually threw the child off of the bus. [Side note: I’m not commenting on the parenting style of this woman. I felt so bad for her because she tried everything and this little girl would still not stop wailing. I was just tired and in pain and wanted the kid to just be quiet.] I got to PP, got lost trying to get to the Peace Corps Office, but eventually got that sorted out. Got everything checked out and fixed up in a sense, and thought that the drama was over. NO! The next morning was the worst morning here, but, as I retold the story, my tears turned to laughter and now it’s pretty funny. Basically, I tried to catch a bus that ended up being cancelled, had to fight about not riding a moto to buy a ticket for another bus, they tried to charge me $20 for that ticket, which ended with me in tears and them accepting the $9 that I had, then them trying to get me on another moto to get me to the bus, me crying again, getting my money back, and then taking a tuk-tuk to the PC Office. PCVL Katie was awesome at calming me down, and then I talked to a few staff and got everything sorted out, and was on my way home soon after lunchtime! 

- I went to visit Rachel at her site with my two French friends, two Brits, and my Cambodian friend. Fun times were had by all, the boat ride there was pretty epic, with us stopping to swim at a floating Buddha on the way. Her site was also gorgeous, with cool waterfalls, a fun path, and a pretty rickety bridge. Her family was really nice and fed me lunch! I love Cambodian hospitality. 

- The birthdays of both of my host sisters are in November, so we celebrated with a bunch of food and beer. Keep in mind, my sisters were 13 and 15, and it was them, their friends, my mom, my aunt, and me. Fun(ny) times were had!

- Went to PP for a 3 day weekend. Saw a bunch of K7s which was really awesome because I miss my training class! Saw Thor 2 in theaters with my friends Alice, Jon, and Michael, and it was a really good movie. Got a massage. Ended up meeting a fellow Trojan! Ate lots of American food. It was a great weekend overall.

- This past week, I was contemplating how awesome it was that I haven’t fallen in awhile, and I ended up stepping in a ditch at the health center and completely wiping out. Thank goodness nobody saw, but I did end up with a few scratches and bruises. Next time, I’m not going to think about it. Haha

- I am officially a full-blooded meat eater. Who knew that fresh beef tasted so good?! At this point, I’ve had beef and pork, but not chicken. I’m actually not a huge fan of the pork here, but maybe that’s just my own mental blocks against it.

- My mom had a serious talk with me about my sisters a few weeks ago. This was a turning point for me in 2 ways: 1) I understood about 85% of the conversation, and when I didn’t understand something, I was just tell her rather than guess, and she would rephrase things. 2) She trusted me to talk to about this, which made me feel like I was really fitting in. 

- Last week, some new people were at the health center and we were conversing in Khmer, even though they knew a bit of English. They asked me where I came from, but I misheard it as “Where is your health center director?” After we clarified, we all laughed for a good few minutes. Yay language barriers!

- I wrote a poem for the first time in awhile, and edited it until I like it. I want to post it, but I’m not sure. Would you all like to read my poem?

And last but not least:
- Today was super productive and I’m really glad. I did my laundry, finished a book, completely cleaned and reorganized my room, and then watched a movie. I wanted to get some other stuff done, but I figured I’d leave that for tomorrow. 

Hope everyone is doing well!

PS – If you want to send me holiday cards, here’s my address:

PCV Mary Walsh
Peace Corps
P.O. Box 2453
Phnom Penh 3
Cambodia

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Skin Color



Today is a holiday, so I’ve been reading and doing the exercises in “Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook,” which has let to me doing some thinking about diversity all morning, and especially, in light of something that happened earlier this week, skin color.

I’m about as white as a person from the United States can get: Irish-American decent, (dark) blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles, and when my skin is left unexposed to the sun for long periods of time, I’m the color of printer paper. In Cambodia, the whiter you are, the more beautiful you are. Since I arrived here, I have been told over and over how beautiful I am, and the compliments have only come more as I’ve lost a significant amount of weight. (Yeah, being thin here is also highly valued. Yay body policing!)

At first, I was bothered by it. Then, I started to accept it. Now, when people compliment my skin color, I joke with them about how “tan” is considered beautiful in the US, not the pasty white that I am. But, as I joke more about it, it’s come full circle to bothering me again. I mean, it’s nice to be complimented, but it’s also weird in a way.

Earlier this week, I was reaching to grab something in my health center with some patients in the room, and my shirt lifted a bit and exposed my (printer-paper white) stomach. The women in the room immediately started telling me how beautiful my stomach is and asked why I let my arms start to get “k’mau” (black) like their skin color. I told them that white may be beautiful here, but dark, like my arms are getting, is more beautiful in the states. I explained about people spending long days in the sun and about tanning beds (with the limited Khmer that I had to explain these, haha).

Also this week, I went to buy soap, and sometimes, it’s really hard to find soaps without “whitening” products in them. I had to explain to the merchant that I wanted a bar of soap “ut me-in bpoah sah” 1) since I don’t feel like exposing myself to those chemicals and 2) I’m white enough already. Almost all of the soap commercials I have seen on TV have emphasized the “whitening” formula, hoping to gain customers. I mean, sometimes some women look ridiculous, with dark bodies and really white faces, either from the chemicals or because of make-up.

As thoughts of whitening chemicals and tanning beds swirled around my head, so did thoughts of “the grass is always greener” and thoughts of the ways we are killing ourselves with beauty. Alas, the Gender Studies Degree was not a waste of time. But in all seriousness, it’s an interesting study in the ways we try to conform (or not) to what our different societies deem acceptable. Regulations in some states in the US have been proposed for the use of tanning beds by people under a certain age, due to a threat of skin cancer… I wonder if those same ideas could someday influence law-makers in countries where whitening skin products are sold, after the effects of those whitening chemicals are researched and known (if they aren’t already).

I’ll leave you with this little tidbit (which I think I mentioned before, but is worth a second mention): My training host dad was a teacher before the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. If you know the history of the KR, you know they tried to eliminate all of the intellectuals, etc, which included teachers. My host dad was spared killing because he was “too dark” to have possibly been a teacher/intellectual. Dark skin = working in the fields all day.

I hope this post got you thinking!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mountain Climbing and Silly Dancing



Hello!

The day after I wrote last time was the day I had food poisoning all day. It was excruciating and I hated it, and even on Saturday and Sunday, after I was technically better, I could barely look at food or eat. Being sick made me completely lose my appetite.

Aside from that, I’ve been up to a bit, but mostly this week as opposed to last.

During Pchum Ben, I met a guy who spoke English very well while walking around the Wat, and he invited me to stop by his NGO, which hosts foreigners from time to time. I was supposed to go the following Monday, but ended up unable to go from the residual feelings of ickyness from the food poisoning. Last Saturday, I finally decided to bike up to the NGO, and lo-and-behold, two French women had just arrived and were going to be staying for a month. He, the two women, and I all talked for about an hour, until my French friends went to go fishing, but not before he had decided to do some sight-seeing the next day.

On Sunday, I woke up bright and early, ready to see a waterfall before lunchtime. When my Cambodian friend had described our adventure as a “hike,” I had no idea what was actually in store for us. We ended up boating about half an hour up the river from my town, turning left into another river, and sailing for another 20 minutes, until we reached the bottom of a river. We climbed to the waterfall through the river, which ended up taking us up a mini mountain. I have to say, I still have bruises and a few not-so-nice cuts from the hike up, including a beautiful cut on my chin from when I slipped on a giant rock and was convinced I was going to fall to my death. I hung there for a good 10 minutes before I was finally goaded into moving, with the help of my friends. That wasn’t even the scariest part of the climb… that award goes to the vertical climb we had to do up the actual waterfall in order to get to the trail to lead us down the mountain and back to the boat. Did I mention the trail had a multitude of leeches? At one point, I probably had at least 7 on me at once, but in total, I got around 20. Luckily, my friend/guide pulled them right off. All in all, it was gorgeous, but I am never doing it again. My friend says next time we go, we will climb to the first (mini) waterfall, and then come back the way we came. I think I’d be okay with that.

We left at 8:30am and were back in town by 2pm. It was quite intense, but that wasn’t supposed to be the end of our adventure. We had planned, and paid for, the boat man to take us out to sea at 3pm to see the coast, but just after 2:45, a huge storm hit, leaving us without a way to go to the ocean. However, I was okay with this because I was exhausted, and ended up falling asleep until dinner time. I was still sore for the next two days, but it was so worth it.

On Monday, I finally started with my Khmer language tutor. He is teaching me to read and write, and helps me with words that I hear but don’t know. I’m excited to have finally started. We are using a first grade Khmer writing workbook as our guide, which was my idea, after seeing his son’s workbook. It is completely in Khmer, so obviously, it challenges me to get better at the language as fast as possible. My homestay mom helps me in the evenings when I go through the days lessons.

Tuesday was a holiday, so I didn’t have work. I was supposed to learn how to cook, but ended up sleeping in late, so my mom and sisters just made lunch without me. Oops! After I woke up, I told my mom that I wanted to go to the Wat with her later that day, since I missed when she went to the Wat for Pchum Ben because of my food poisoning. While there, we saw my language teacher, who asked me why I was worshipping the Cambodian king, since the holiday was a day of Remembrance for the King who passed away last year. I just shrugged. The service was longer than the masses I was used to as a child, and since we kneeled the entire time, my legs were not happy by the time I had to get up. I don’t really care though, as it was quite the experience.

Later that day, my mom had a friend (or sister or some other relation… I have a lot of trouble keeping everyone straight) over, and they were watching music videos. I was in my room reading, with the door open, and I guess I was moving my hand along with the music because my mom came in and told me to come dance in the living room with her. Who can say no to that? So we danced for a few songs, but then I told her I was tired. By this time, my sisters had come back from their English lessons. My mom asked me if I drink beer, I said yes, and then next thing I know, my sister comes back with 5 Blank Panthers (it’s a dark beer, and my favorite in this country), and me, my mom, and my mom’s friend start drinking after dinner. Soon enough, we are dancing. We danced the Macarena at least 4 times, Gangham style twice, the Cha Cha twice, and the Twist at least once. It was so much fun!

My mom was then telling her friend how she’s going to take me to all of the weddings that she is going to in December because she likes the way that I dance. They asked me if I had anything to wear to a wedding, so I showed them some of my dresses, and then we started talking about make-up. I brought out my make-up case, and the next thing you know, my mom’s friend has some of my bright pink (I mean, I call it Nicki Minaj pink, but Malibu Barbie pink could also work) lipstick on and we are all laughing. I put on my dark red, my mom put on my bright pink, and then I was showing them how I do my eyes, and all of a sudden we were taking all sorts of pictures. I’ll have to post them when I get a chance. It was an amazingly fun night, and it really made me feel closer to my family.

Yesterday, I started teaching at the NGO where the French girls are volunteering and my Cambodian friend works. Now, I have a class that I co-teach every day right after I finish work for the day. I’m excited to refine my teaching skills. It also helps with my Khmer, since my co-teacher does half-English/half-Khmer for his class, and he has them translate the English sentences into Khmer.

That’s it for now!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Provincial Town, Pchum Ben, and Giardia



Hey everyone!

I’ve been up to a lot since I last wrote. I’ve been out of my site twice, once to go with the 2 other K7s in my province to our provincial town, and once to go visit one of those people at their site.

The trip into Koh Kong town was a lot of fun, and a nice break from attempting to speak Khmer all the time. Rachel, Devin, and I feasted on as much American-type food we could find while we were there. We stayed for one night and ended up meeting another American, 19 years old, who was taking a gap year and traveling the world. She had some great stories about volunteering around Asia. We had originally gone to KK to get some money out of the bank, but apparently, it’s closed on weekends. Oops. That was two weekends ago.

Last Friday, I visited Devin in her site because she has a bank, and I needed to get money out since our KK adventure hadn’t really worked out. Her site is huge, and we passed this gorgeous Wat on our way into town, where we stopped to look at the views and take pictures. On our way out of the Wat, I slipped and fell as a huge crowd of people were walking behind us. I couldn’t get up for a minute or two because my foot and ankle hurt so bad. After I stood up and managed to laugh at myself, I took a look at the damage. My write was bleeding and my shin and foot were covered in scrapes, but other than my foot hurting, everything else seemed fine. This really nice older gentleman came over with some antiseptic that he happened to be carrying, so I cleaned myself up as best as I could, and then Devin and I headed out into her town. I only stayed for a few hours, but it was a fun trip.

Aside from trips, it’s been an exciting couple of weeks since Pchum Ben has started. The (loud) music starts early and goes late, and since I live 3 houses down from the Wat, I hear it all day. Sometimes it’s chanting, sometimes it’s EDM, and sometimes it’s Gangham Style. I’ve learned to kind of ignore it. My Wat is like a carnival every night. I’ve been twice and the first time I felt really out of place, but the second time was fun because I found someone who spoke fluent English. I tried out one of the carnival games and completely sucked at it. Darts will never be my thing.

So that’s the exciting stuff! The not-so-exciting stuff is that I’ve been sick for over a week. At first, I thought it was just residual stomach issues from eating so much cheese in KK town. My mom “coined” me the day after I came back because I left work early due to an upset stomach and a bad headache. Coining hurts! I’ll post pictures when I have better internet, but basically, coining is when someone puts lotion or tiger balm on you, and then continually rubs a patch of skin until it becomes deeply bruised. They do this over and over again down your back, and sometimes, as my mom did, down my arms and across my chest. The result looks something like tiger stripes. While sick, I also had borbor (runny rice porridge) for the first time, and honestly, it did make me feel a bit better.

I eventually got sick of being sick for so long and called the Medical Office. They thought it was gastro-something until I called two days later with a new symptom, at which point they diagnosed me with giardia. I took the medicine yesterday, and I’m starting to feel a bit better, so I’m hoping that is all that is was.

And that’s it for now!