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|
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