Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saying Hello at ASPECA Orphanage

After another long ride down dusty roads and over the Old Bridge, we pulled into the gates of ASPECA, the state-run Kampot Province orphanage. Tika is intrigued that all the schools in Cambodia look the same: they are yellow stucco buildings with gray-blue shuttered windows with outdoor hallways and a playground in the middle. She asks every time we pass one whether it is the Tuol Sleng Prison, because that prison was actually created out of a school, emptied out, surrounded in razor wire, and converted into a torture center. Oddly enough, the real Tuol Sleng also has flowering frangiapani, coconut trees and a basketball backstop in its center. But now we were pulling into a playground alive with Saturday afternoon games. Bigger kids were playing volleyball, smaller ones were chasing each other across the yard, girls in navy skirts with long, smooth pony-tails were grouped together chattering, and a few wiry boys caked in dust were weaving in among the other kids on bicycles.
Suddenly I felt intimidated. The tuk-tuk driver stopped and sat under a tree for a smoke. Here I was in the middle of the playground, having no particular plan for what to do. My attempts to phone the director before coming were unsuccessful; whoever had answered spoke only Khmer. Ernest and Yoshi made no offer to help, but ran across the yard to hide from the boys who were now chasing them. Tika and Puck were picking flowers off the trees. I had to think up a plan quickly. I spotted an older woman cradling a sleeping baby, and approached her to introduce myself. She smiled and looked down modestly, indicating she couldn’t speak English, then pointed to another building. I approached a room lined with beds and a young boy who seemed to be sick, sitting up on one of them. An older boy was helping him and then turned when he saw me. 
He introduced himself to me, explaining that the director was away today and he was the oldest child here and could speak English and French. His eyes were slightly bulging, a little bit cloudy and crossed, but he seemed to see me fine, and offered to take me around. I said I was visiting Kampot with my kids and that we’d like to take a look around and make a donation if that was OK. He said that’s fine, and he takes tourists around here often. Spotting me with the new person, Tika and Puck ran up to follow along.
We curiously poked our heads into group sleeping rooms, a dark sooty dining room, and the outdoor kitchen. To Tika's delight, we were introduced to the orphanage pig, who sleeps in a muddy corner next to the kitchen. The little ones ran off again. The deputy-in-charge explained to me that the orphanage holds about fifty children from the province whose parents have died or else turned them over for lack of money for food. The orphans share their school with other town children, who come on weekdays for lessons in English and French. He had grown up here, and was now helping the director, along with two ladies who speak only Khmer.
As we came back to sit down next to the ladies with the babies, I thanked him for the walk-through and offered him our donation. Since he seemed to be running the place solo, I sensed he needed to get back to work. This time, rather than pulling timid kids off my leg, I had to go find the four of them and tell them it was time to go.
Riding back to our guest house, we passed two saffron-robed monks on a sleepy street. I remembered reading earlier in the week that the Dalai Lama has announced he wants to retire. What a life—to be meditative and dispense spiritual guidance all the time! But an interesting bit of his guidance had stuck in my head all week—find within yourself sincerity of intention. What does that mean? Why am I doing what I’m doing anyway? Why do I keep poking around orphanages? What am I bringing to these village kids, whom I under-pay and disappoint in the end, anyway? Am I another in the ridiculous menagerie of tourists?  What messages am I trying to convey to my own kids out of all of this?
Being a mom doesn’t leave much time for contemplation—I’m not good monk-material—and we were hungry anyway. We headed over to the riverfront to watch the fisherman paddling at sunset and find dinner in a local bar. There, overlooking the river and the shantytown on the other side, we ate nachos and played pool. Puck even got a few balls in the pocket, with some assistance. As streetlights turned on and the music got louder, Ernest and Yoshi had to give up their cues to a few Kampot locals. I sat back with a margarita and watched these guys take long puffs of their cigarettes, looking tough, and belting out along with Janice Joplin, in Khmer accent, protest songs from the decade before they were born.
That night we slept, like the orphans across the river, under bug nets on bed mats, tangled up with each other and the rattle-rattle of our fan.

Exploring Kampot, with Kiddie Companions

Thursdays find me restlessly scrolling down the Sorya Transport bus schedule, eying distances and travel times, checking my well-worn Cambodia map. Like the Trans-Siberian Railroad, that carries sardine-style platzkartny passengers for about 25 cents an hour across the country, Cambodia’s bus network connects every significant town for under 4 bucks—an unbeatable deal, if you don’t get motion sick easily and have an optimistic feeling for road travel. Having tired of the sultry market scene and of long afternoons in the apartment carping about homework, we were ready for another get-away. Besides, a few hours bouncing along on a bus brings the kids and me closer together.
Kampot is described as a lazy riverside town and a former southern retreat for French colonial administrators. This gives the impression of elegant riverboats and deep front porches, but it’s not entirely accurate. There were, in the 20’s and 30’s, the stylish Bokor Casino, the ornate Black Palace and villas along the hillside, commanding views of the sea and neighboring Vietnam over the jungle canopy.  But approaching Kampot this weekend along Highway 3, we passed skeletons of concrete buildings, a few motorbikes on lonely roads, and every here and there the razor-wire and garish turquoise roof tiles of another vacation home-colossus for Cambodia’s civil servants. If I hadn’t read about it before setting out, I wouldn’t have noticed the concrete remains of watch towers along the hillside to my right, built when the Khmer Rouge took the city, stripped all its wealth, and set up their control from above.
Bus station arrivals are always noisy and unruly, with tuk-tuk drivers elbowing toward the door, girls hawking baggies of sliced mango and pineapple, old ladies with baskets of bread on their heads, and more travelers pushing through to board the bus as you’re stepping off. This gives us a few seconds to grab our bags, stand up and make a family-chain hand-in-hand down the bus aisle to push our way out. The Kampot bus-stop presented the usual menagerie of foreign backpackers—salty over-tanned old men with big lazy bellies and Panama hats, hopeful-looking college-age girls in tank tops and long flowing skirts, dreadlocked chain-smokers with distant expressions. We held hands, clutching our stuffed kitty cat and a book about chess, and made our way through to set about finding a guesthouse.
Getting settled in a Cambodian guesthouse is a reminder to me that my kids can adapt to just about anything that’s presented to them as an adventure. The Blissful Guesthouse provides the basics in shelter: two small beds (think low wooden table with a mat on top) mosquito nets draped over the top, small toilet and faucet in corner, sign indicating that toilet paper cannot be flushed, ceiling fan provides background noise. Finding no entertainment in the bedroom, and not too impressed with the characters sharing war-stories in the common room, we head out to the garden. This is Ernest’s favorite spot, and he likes to imagine his future meditation garden, where he will work out great inventions beneath banana trees. Tik and Yosh squirm around each other in hammocks, and Puck tries to climb in without flipping himself off on the other side, his frequent mistake. All around us are blossoms, and mango, jackfruit, and rose apple trees hanging with fruit. Geckos dart between flowerpots and up tree trunks. Sometimes I think, if it weren’t for the hammock-injuries and hammock-inspired fighting, we could spend whole days like this together.
The afternoon would be a long, dusty tuk-tuking adventure, and I only realized how dusty it was when I tried to comb through Tika’s sweat-cemented hair before bedtime. I’m not a huge travel researcher, so I really had no plans for what to do in Kampot other than a brochure a guy handed me as I stepped off the bus. I had learned that Bokor National Park, the main attraction of the area, was closed to road construction, but could be reached by a three-hour jungle hike—maybe when Puck is older. I’m not sure how to take the advice to “hike with guide due to tiger risk”. I had also located the main orphanage of Kampot Province—ASPECA, just across the river. There is something that keeps drawing me to these places.
Having negotiated our plan for the afternoon, we set out back down Highway 3 and then down a very long dirt road through rice paddies and pig farms toward some old caves we wanted to explore. Since most homes don’t have plumbing, you get a very intimate view of people in passing through a village—a man bathing over an urn next to a shack, a small boy squatting to poop in the corner of a garden, a pig getting comfortable in the muck. Yoshi pointed and screamed out at each new sighting.
Then we were slowing down around a bend and out of every corner children appeared, chasing us on foot and on their bicycles. Some reached out to touch Yoshi, Puck turned to see how they were gaining on us, Ernest called out a friendly ‘sosi-dey’. We stopped next to a dirt path, and were surrounded by about ten kids, all cheerfully introducing themselves as our guides. I’m so glad that Ernest, Yoshi, Tika and Puck are starting to feel at home, and I let them run ahead with the kids while I climbed out of the tuk-tuk.
So many questions! Where is your husband? Are these all your children? How old are you? Where are you from? Parle francais? They must have guided many other cave-lookers before us. Each kid found his buddy, and they chattered along down the path, lifting Puck over rocks and ditches, then up a winding stone stairway, and then down another stairway into the heart of the cave. “See—See—The stone makes an elephant here, and it makes a turtle there.” We stood in a great limestone cathedral with bats over our heads and a few small holes far above us with sunlight streaming through. One of the bigger boys pulled a lighter from his pocket and showed me the little brick stupa built into the cave. We ducked to fit inside, where there is a linga (stump-shaped statue representing fertility), and he told me what are stalactites and stalagmites. The place must have taken on a spiritual significance when people saw animals in the limestone, and then decided to add this small temple inside. The kids and I stayed gazing around, trying reverently to absorb all the meaning from the animal-rocks. Puck was getting thirsty. Then it was up, up, up, and down the rock staircase again and out the long winding path across the field.
Before we could get too close to the tuk-tuk, one of the older boys turned to me with a frank expression—“Now is when you will pay us for guide.” “OK,” I said. I had been expecting that they would want something, but I wished I had a pile of small bills. Managing small money has become a perennial challenge for me here, since the country operates mainly on US dollars, but nobody can make change. You basically need to carry fifty dollars in ones everywhere you go. I was also confronted with the mommy dilemma, which is that every kid wants to receive exactly the same thing. But what could I do if ten kids claimed to be my guide? I broke mommy protocol and handed a one dollar bill to the older girl who had first spotted us, and 2000 riel (about 50 cents) to the boy who had demanded payment.
Their expressions changed. Why couldn’t I give everyone a dollar bill? I wasn’t going to budge. Not only was I out of ones, but the tuk-tuk driver was already agreed to get ten dollars for the whole day’s work, and he couldn’t watch me give all these kids more than that just for running around beside us. Ernest and Yoshi were oblivious to the wage dispute going on around them, and climbed merrily back into the tuk-tuk, waving and smiling at the kids, who now sucked their fingers and scratched their scalps, looking sullen. We pulled away. Tika and Puck were laughing and tickling and pointing at still more backyard bathers and poopers, and it crossed my mind that there is a huge gulf between my kids and these kids. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Prayer for a 4-year old girl

Tika greeted me at the apartment door last evening with pursed lips and a serene expression. ‘Mom—I have some good news and some bad news for you, and we need to talk about it in private.’ She indicated the bedroom, and giving Atey and Puck a little wave, we went off to have our talk. ‘The bad news, Mom, is that there is a boy in our school, Avec, I think he is in the second grade, and, um, he has a sister who was riding on a motorbike without a helmet and she fell off and she died, and I think she was four years old. The good news is my teacher says now she is in heaven with God.’ Tika was eyeing me closely to read my response, as I was watching her to try to discern whether she was nervous or sad or what. My heart fell, because here is my six-year-old telling me what must have been horrifying news circulating through an elementary school this morning. ‘Oh Tika!’ I gave her a hug. ‘I’m so sorry that it happened.’
After a while the boys came home from swim practice on the late bus, and more nervous hinting, then more bits of information surfaced. Avec, an eight-year-old Pakistani from a Christian missionary family had come to live in Phnom Penh with his little sister and parents. He apparently had been the subject of combined sympathy and frightened ostracism at school today while trying to digest bit by bit the total loss of his little sister. And here were my children trying in their own way through secret whispering and detail-mongering, to grasp the death of another child. It occurred to me that, whether his parents had intended or not, Avec is the French word for “with”, and that in my own family, no one child thinks of himself without the poking, tickling, jabbing and comforting presence of his brothers and sister.
Having sent the kids off on the van to school this morning, I sat down with my coffee and laptop to catch up on the news. I scrolled through pictures of the Japanese tsunami damage in Minamisanriku and Rikuzentakata, strewn detritus, plastic bags, plywood and car parts. Whole villages swept up and sucked out to sea, and all the anchored fixtures of families and lives tossed like dry leaves.
I thought of how easily a four-year-old on a motorbike would sail up into the air and fly too like a leaf or a bit of flotsam in a tidal wave. Tika said her class was praying for Avec’s sister, and we should say a prayer too. A small gesture from a shell-shocked kindergarten teacher, no doubt, to try to make sense for the kids out of disturbing news. Walking to work along my usual path today, I passed many more precarious families on motorbikes, toddlers dangling their feet under father’s arm, mothers riding side-saddle with baby, or whole pyramids of eggs and produce balanced from behind. It’s too easy to see all these people as flotsam, as many precariously-balanced lives that the next flood or conflict will toss headfirst into the air, swirl around and scatter in another great helicopter-image of human strife.
But I found myself saying a Hail Mary anyway, because I remembered that Tika had told me that I should, and because it seemed like the least I could do to anchor Avec’s sister—we don’t even know what her name is—to some fixture in our hearts.
I realized too that I was flippant in my remarks about my sister last week. She deserves to have a redeeming value, no matter what she does to herself. She is our million-dollar-baby, and when she is tossed into the air, she is brought down gently and tenderly anchored and resuscitated. It’s not fair that other people are yanked up, thrown loose and come down hard, but that’s not anybody’s fault. Maybe a little prayer doesn’t fix the wrong, but it gives somebody gravity who is not, after all, a piece of flotsam.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Allegory of the Cave, and Bureaucrat-Speak

Maybe because bureaucrats have to spend their days in monochromatic cubicles, we take every opportunity to inject colorful metaphors into what we say, hearkening some tribal wisdom or other. I had to smile inside the first time I heard a Pakistani manager say in heavily-accented English that he ‘didn’t want to play Monday morning quarterback’ on somebody else’s decision, but…  And in the same way, a prim Australian economist at an office farewell party related how aboriginal elders refer a young person to live with another community, and that’s why we are referring so-and-so to transfer to the Washington office. It’s becoming a staple of the multinational office that it’s better to describe your situation in the parables of another culture than in the plain-vanilla language of your own upbringing.
Well there’s one metaphor that has been used so frequently—and by the way, ascribed to virtually every people between Bangalore and Bamako—that it should be standard in the template for project planning memos—and that’s the story of the blindfolded man touching the elephant. In case you’re among the uninitiated, the story is that a blindfolded man has a hand put on the elephant’s leg and says it’s a pillar, on his tail and says it’s a rope, on his skin and says… you get the picture.  If only the departments, divisions, units within our organization were talking to each other more, we’d see that this is really an elephant!
It’s the same line of logic that makes management consultants want to break down silos, and political commentators shake fingers at officials’ failure to connect dots when something nearly explodes on an airliner.
On the other hand, I remember feeling piqued by a college lecture on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which seems a lot truer to life—minus the shackles and the cave. Since most people don’t remember their college classics class, here’s a recap: a prisoner is shackled to a wall inside a cave and can only look straight ahead. He sees forms moving on the wall in front of him, and tries to make sense of them. Little does he know that behind him, creatures are moving around a fire, and what he is seeing are only the shadows…  You see? It’s a lot kinder to the humble ignoramus than the elephant parable. You’d have no way of knowing what’s behind you if you’re chained to a wall, and there’s no simple remedy like taking off the blindfold. You only have your power of inference to make a more complicated, fuller story, out of the two-dimensional shadows moving around in front of you—without, by the way, having any reason to suppose that there ought to be more dimensions and complexity. It’s a bit like Stephen Hawking telling us that we can’t see it, but trust me, there are lots of tiny dimensions all curled around themselves out there, and here’s a simple drawing of a nutshell for all you ordinary people.
I was thinking about these things last week when I was signing the boys up for summer camp online. Thank goodness for online catalogues and veri-sign payment pages, or I’d never be able to manage things at home from way over here. Hopefully I haven’t been summoned for jury duty, or we’d really be in trouble.  Anyway, in addition to creating a registration profile, most of these pages now ask you to read a squiggly image and transcribe it in letters and numerals to prove that you are in fact a human. Funny, eh? I guess for all the malicious programs that can take over our identities and empty bank accounts, they still can’t imitate our human ability to read patterns out of messy information. We’re surprisingly good at it, when you think that a little Kenyan baby breaks his mommy’s babble into meaningful syllables of Swahili, and little Aussies make sense out of their mum’s English, accent and all.
But then I wondered—are we maybe too good at this? Can it be a limit on our thinking, especially our thinking together, that we reflexively arrange information into patterns, probably dropping off pieces that don’t fit, so that we can have a ‘big picture’?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reading Anne Frank from Our Little Apartment

What a week we have had! Even though we are sending out-of-sync emails and only sometimes hitting the right times with each other to skype, my heart has been out there on the limb with mom and dad all week, and it seems like their hearts are strung out to the breaking point. It can’t be easy feeling like the middle-man between granddad and his caregivers and Medicaid, and between my sister and her now-rather-frustrated doctors and the ambiguities of chronic care for a young person. I’m sure sometimes it feels like your hearts can’t take more insult and frustration.
The boys and I are reading the Diary of Anne Frank, and she has just been relocated with her family and the Van Daans into the hiding spot in the attic. Ernest and Yoshi were fascinated by the spy-novel quality of her escape, the secret stairwell, and the cunning letter left behind to suggest to the police that they have fled to Maastricht. What is sinking in now with them is the reality that this thirteen-year-old girl and two families will spend years in the same small rooms, whispering, wondering, worrying about creaking the floor boards. Ernie wonders how a human being can be out of sunlight for so long. I wonder how parents can tolerate confinement of the families in such a small space without everyone going at each others’ throats. Maybe the diary was the key to survival.
Anyway, I left off talking to mom and dad last night thinking that if Anne Frank can turn confinement and fear into an everyday reality, then maybe the human spirit can live up to surprisingly stressful conditions and turn them into normal.
By the way, reader, you might have seen that Sarabi Frank's not my real name. I chose Frank after Anne Frank, because her journal is so inspiring. I hope that I can be half as candid as she is in those pages, and that something in the process of being honest with you and my thoughts will reach out to another heart the way Anne has to me.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Faith, Mothers-in-Law, and the Occult

We just finished Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and Yoshi enjoyed the Latin flair for cursing (Ernie was repentant) and the build-up to a bloodbath at the end of the book. I had forgotten since high school that the honor-killing centered on Angela Vicario’s loss of virginity and failure to produce the expected bloodstain on her wedding night. So mid-stream through the book, and sensing that I might not have chosen 11-year-old-appropriate material, I tried to substitute key images with more ambiguous references, and to keep the level of vocabulary sophisticated enough that I could move through certain passages without catching Yoshi’s attention. The book –with much humor—weaves together the heavy fist of Catholic institutions, gold-trimmed robes and drunk nuns, with the ever-present influence of the occult, symbols coming from nature and forebodings in nervous mothers’ dreams. Why is it always the nervous mother whose dreams foretell disaster? 
Ernest has been a little uncomfortable with where to place statues and icons in his spiritual hierarchy. Buddhists are very material in their relationship with the divine. They place statues of Buddha, and then flowers, and fruit, and bowls of money, and shimmering gold and silver ornaments, at the center of the Wat, and then kneel and meditate in front of these things. Ernest can’t help seeing the piles of things as –well, things—and how is the statue going to spend the money anyway? His teacher, an Indian-American missionary a bit more strident than the rest, who sets Exodus as the basis for his curriculum and spiritual outlook, has the class focused right now on Moses’ covenant with God, and the Ten Commandments brought down the mountain on two stone slabs. Though shalt not set false god before me. When a monk at Angkor Wat put incense sticks into Ernie’s and Yoshi’s hands, they were happy to take them and place them in the urn in front of a Buddha. They even imitated the ten short bows before the Buddha that must have been some request for wish-fulfillment. I wasn’t too obliging when he suggested I deposit ten bucks to Buddha for good measure. But Ernest left there troubled—why worship a statue? I said if we ever visited the Vatican or some churches in Spain, he’d see that Catholics also got pretty caught up in fancy-pants decorations around Jesus—and much moreso than the Cambodian Buddhists. But thinking about it more afterwards, it seems like many of us follow a combination of invisible spiritual leadership, and ornaments that remind us of what we believe in, and signals we are trying to read from the world around us. Are they angels intervening to send a message? Are the birds and the trees part of a divine arrangement that is trying to guide us?
I’ve been happy to have the help of a young lady in the office, who is an aspiring law student and getting her start as a team assistant here. After putting together a few of my meetings at various ministries, Chak Riya approached me to say that I really would do better to have a personal assistant and ad-hoc translator, and that she should accompany me on my meetings from now on.  So Chak Riya and I have been making the rounds together lately—the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Justice, the Court of Appeals—and she is smoothing out the conversations with interjections in Khmer and easily locating offices within the massive government compounds that I would spend hours hunting for. We sit through traffic jams together, too, talking about project objectives and plans for follow-up. But one day last week, she asked me how old was I when I got married. Do all Americans get married so young? When did you start having children? Well, you get the idea. I tried to counter that she is doing well for herself, and things will happen in their own good time. ‘No,’ she said, ‘This week was supposed to be my wedding. I had the invitations printed and the restaurant booked and all the catering and music paid for. But it is cancelled now, and I am bankrupt.’ I was in over my head, having no idea where her line of questions was leading me. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘My boyfriend is a Chinese,’ she explained, ‘and I am a Khmer.’ Was that a problem? Were the families against it? Why not leverage her job and move to some other place? ‘It was his mother. She visited a fortune-teller, who said something I can’t repeat, and now we cannot get married.’  I was dumbfounded. I could just imagine the fury of putting an entire wedding together, spending money she hadn’t even earned yet, and having it sabotaged by a superstitious mother-in-law! But I had learned enough about Buddhists and the occult not to reject this logic as completely out of hand. ‘Well, have you thought about moving to America with your boyfriend?’ I wondered. ‘No, we want to go to Canada.’  Probably the dark forces working against Chak Riya will not be as strong in Toronto.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Visit to Silk Village, and Kids Fight on a Boat

We were slurping up the last bits of watermelon, skyping with Grammie and Grampie, and watching cartoons from the apartment this morning when I cooked up another trip idea. Let’s hire a boat up the Mekong River! ‘Will there be snacks?’  Yes. ‘OK!’ (Really, the kids’ enthusiasm and flexibility are a blessing).

I grabbed money, phone, camera, water bottles, 2 loaves of bread, a bunch of bananas, and our well-worn map of Phnom Penh. Then—the motherly reflex—we all need to go to the bathroom (I will be asking twenty years from now if everyone has been to the toilet recently). Of course, you will have to see what I mean about toilets to understand this fixation – it’s all-go or no-go around here, so you’d better get it out in the apartment, and then switch to rice and a salt-lick when you’re out there.

We took a tuk-tuk to the pier along the Tonle Sap by the bar district, where we were eagerly greeted by a young man who seemed ready to navigate anywhere we wanted. He showed me a line-up of posters and I pointed to Koh Dach, a silk-weaving village up the Mekong River. After counting the kids and looking at his watch, he suggested a price. After looking around the empty pier and his idle boatman, I made a counter-offer, and we agreed. Again we found ourselves skipping down a rickety plank to what Ernie calls ‘another adventure’.
With all of us aboard a rather large wood-and-iron sight-seeing boat, and appearing to be his only customers this lazy Sunday morning, the boatman hopped on, pulling a long plank behind him, and we set off noisily from the pier. Our trip would begin with a large U-turn. We chugged down the Tonle Sap River past the bars and massage parlors, past the Royal Palace, and the pricy Foreign Correspondents’ Club, nearing the Himawari and Cambodiana Hotels, where the Tonle Sap joins up with the Mekong River, and the brown silty water arcs out into the wide dark green of the Mekong. Turning left around a low peninsula, we could see the rebar and concrete work of a new high-rise going up at the point. Prime real estate, I guess, unless there is a flood. Judging by the tawdry palatial homes and apartments around it, this is likely considered a prime location for Phnom Penh’s elite. Along the shore of the peninsula between the two rivers are dozens of fishing boats, like long covered canoes with motors. These weave among each other and around sightseeing boats like ours and the larger green barges carrying trash and cargo along the rivers. About a hundred meters off the peninsula is a little island, no bigger than a schoolyard, with no structures whatsoever and whose only inhabitants are kids Puck’s size smacking grass with sticks and chasing each other in and out of the water. A spontaneous daycare, I guessed, for the mothers and fathers in the fishing boats moving around them. Bundled mercilessly by their mother into steamy lifejackets, Ernest, Yoshi, Tika and Puck eyed their fellow river-goers curiously as we rode by.
We picked up speed entering the Mekong River, and turning left again, headed north in the direction of Koh Dach, and if you were to keep going, into Laos. The breeze was stronger out there, that was a relief, as the little ones looked at me with injured expressions from their massive life vests. Moving farther north, the difference between the west bank of the Mekong—the Phnom Penh side, and the east bank—the countryside, becomes more pronounced. On the left, we saw the ostentatious multi-layer wedding-cake houses of Cambodia’s civil servants and men of business. On the right, we approached a group of boys who seemed the same age as Ernest and Yoshi, naked to the waist, dunking and splashing each other along the shore. Then there were two men and a group of water buffalo, surprisingly agile in the water despite their lumbering bodies. We saw more of the one-room wooden house on stilts with palm-leaf roof. Some have a water tower: a large aluminum cylinder of water on a frame five meters or so over several homes. We passed orchards of banana and coconut trees, an orchard of papaya trees alongside a pipe running down to the bank of the river, maybe an irrigation system. We saw a young man with two buckets on a stick over his shoulders making his slow, steady climb up the dirt bank back from the river, another irrigation system.
Travelling with kids is always a reminder that no matter how remote, how exotic the surroundings, we are creatures of ordinary needs. Ernest used to get embarrassed when we’d go out together, me carrying Puck, and after some little frustration, Puck would plant his open mouth on my breast and grunt at me. ‘Gimme!’ Now we are a little bigger, but the needs are just as basic. ‘I’m hungry!’ ‘Is that all you brought?’ ‘We ate that last time!’ I’m not sure how much of our conversation the boatman could understand, but with Yoshi’s insistent provocations, Tika’s coquettish invitations for more, the pinching and hair pulling, and my occasional outbursts, I guess he got the idea and put the boat in high gear.
Landing at Koh Dach, I could see the reason for the long plank. We had basically rammed the boat head-on into a steep dirt bank, and would need to walk up a 45 degree ascent on a narrow plank, then some makeshift dirt steps, to reach the path high above. Ernest and Yoshi quickly forgot their squabbles from the boat, and jumped at the opportunity for a good climb. Tika and Puck fell in behind. Sometimes, when I am two steps behind or else handicapped by the smallest child, I am amazed to see how sturdy and sure-footed the kids can be on their own. We climbed single-file up the plank, up the banks, and into a shady banana orchard leading to the silk village.
The silk village consists of an English/French/Khmer welcome sign, an inviting middle-aged hostess who offers each visitor a banana, a bottle of water, and a Kleenex, and an open area full of looms. Here you see young women weaving silk cloth from many-colored threads, adding intricate patterns on old-fashioned wooden looms using foot pedals and a hand-thrown mechanism (what is that thing called again?) that passes the thread beneath. Incidentally, there is also a low jackfruit tree as you walk into the yard, with thirty-dollar jackfruits practically bumping you in the head. Tika was impressed. There is also a panting, dust-colored dog laying near the jackfruit tree, who seems pretty agnostic about tourist children. Ernest and Yoshi walked all through the place, over-hearing someone else’s tour, while Tika and Puck raided the gift shop and played with all the toys. They also found the weaver’s hammock behind the looms, and climbed in with great celebration. What fun—and it really swings!
Sometimes these tourist-oriented culture-spots can feel more like a lens through which we examine our own behavior and foibles than any realistic view of how Khmer people are spending their time. Coming into the dirt bank right behind us was another boat with two American families that seemed to be on an educational vacation together with young kids the same age as our little ones. They spoke loudly, asked hundreds of questions and held their kids in front of them to ensure maximizing the learning opportunity. One of the fathers looked aghast when his daughter followed my kids into the gift shop to poke through toys and swing a bamboo whirly-gig at full force. He seemed to be looking around for another eager-beaver parent to step in and restore the order, and I think I was over by the hammock. The mother spoke to her American child with interjections of bad-accent French, to which her daughter looked nonchalant and didn’t reply. Behind them were approaching a leathery old Englishman with a safari hat and a young blonde woman with the most enormous telephoto lens I’d ever seen. Enough said. We were heading out of the silk village.
Having expected a little more for our excursion fare, I climbed back down the bank in search of our boatman. It took some signaling with hands and feet to convey that I didn’t want to go back, but rather to be taken around walking on this island and to see more. He shrugged and gave in, bringing his cell phone and I guess talking with friends along the way.
If there’s one pastime I really hope to share with my kids, it’s idly walking long distances in unknown places. It’s just about my favorite thing to do. In countries where the temperatures are roasting, and people work all day to make a living, the idea of idle walking seems pretty strange. It looks even more strange when done with two-hundred-dollar boots, quick-dry pants, and a walking stick. At least I’ve found that with a dusty blouse, skirt, and flip-flops, I can manage to walk along without looking too much like a recently-arrived extraterrestrial.
We made our way slowly and aimlessly down a dirt road, a few bicycles passing by, and had to step to the side to let some water buffalo pass. Yoshi and Tika find the rear-ends of most large animals to be very funny, and water buffalo are rectangular back there.
Coming upon a nicely-built gate leading into a garden, our boatman led us down a walkway lined with animal statues: elephants holding lotus flowers, a goose, and a Khmer solider riding on a giant rat. There were little shrines and a large pagoda with a lovely golden Buddha inside. In the center of the garden was a large rectangular open-air hall, and in the center, a group of monks were just sitting down to lunch. A young boy was carrying bowls of food from another building to the side, where we could see in the open kitchen the stoves and large pots. Waddling in between the buildings was a gaggle of geese and an obese pig snorting and rising up from the ground. Like the hammock, these were a marvelous find, and Tika ran toward them at once honking and waving her arms. I’m not sure why, but from a young age, she has had an aggressive attitude toward geese. And seeing them in action, I’m a little afraid that my daughter doesn’t realize how dangerous a pissed-off goose can be. We steered away, with the lumbering pig following behind, too heavy to really get herself going. As we were moving away from the monks at their dining hall, I could hear beyond the goose-honking and pig-snorting and kid-screaming that they were chanting something, probably some prayer before their meal. It occurred to me again that in our efforts to get close to the ‘real thing’ and see Khmer people in action, we are constantly disturbing them. We are catching only glimpses of a real life behind the messiness and chaos of our own behavior everywhere we go.  
With a long dusty walk back to the river and down the plank to our boat, we headed back to Phnom Penh. Within minutes of setting out there was again some provocation. I think Tika has learned the art of little-sister annoyance and puts it to good use whenever we are confined to a space together—airplanes, elevators, boat rides. The three younger ones were a mass of squirming crocodile-children at each other’s throats when the boat pulled back into the pier at Sisowath Quay, and it was time to extricate themselves and climb off. It was a silent, sullen ride across the city to our apartment. Only after five warm showers, a fresh change of clothes, and about an hour of cartoons, was everyone ready to be friendly again.
Oh the drama!

Stomach Bugs in a Fool's Paradise?

Why do I like travelling so much? Why do I get to one place, and then immediately start dreaming up how I could go someplace else?
The thought crossed my mind years ago when diarrhea set it on day-3 on the trans-Siberian railroad, and again two weeks ago on hour-5 coming bumping along back from Siem Reap, that Ralph Waldo Emerson had said “travelling is a fool’s paradise.”
I want to put a lot of land under my feet. I wish that my kids could be as fascinated by maps as I am, just spend time studying them, consuming them.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Spunky Swimmers

We are becoming super swimmers here. I think the swimming pools are the antidote to heat and urban claustrophobia. It was great thinking by the Asian Hope Foundation to put a pool and kiddie-pool next to the Logos School, and incorporate swimming lessons into the curriculum. The international schools all have swim teams, and their occasional Saturday swim meets will give us the chance to feel like a big Christian community again. I miss that from our Catholic school at home and the CYO activities back in Virginnia.
Hotel pools are another escape for us. We have been frequenting the Cambodiana Hotel pool deck on weekends, because it’s got a kiddie-pool with a slide, and a panoramic view of the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers just beyond the hotel lawn. While I was watching Puck splash in the kiddie pool this weekend, Tika was watching her brothers cannon-ball and dive in the deep end. After not-too-long, Ernest called me over to look—she had learned how to do a flip into the pool! She is a fearless elastic band. I’m so proud of my pig-tailed-princess.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Hunger in a Rice-Basket?

...Which brings me to another observation…  Labor costs are hugely different, depending on where you are. But food is food, and depending on the climate you live in and the efficiency or not of your transport system, your food might have to come a long expensive way to your bowl. I think my earlier impression about people living on low wages in poorer countries was that they had a special access to lower-cost living than I do. I paid triple at the Grand Bazaar what a Turk could bargain for, I paid double on the Russian railways for the foreigner-price ticket, I pay more every time I smile naively and pull out my wallet and say—‘How much does this thing cost?’
Well that’s mostly true. But food can only get so cheap, no matter how much haggling you do. And in Cambodia, the floor price of food has got to be firm, because most of the vegetables, milk, cheese, meat, are being imported from the outside. Cambodia has got so far to go in improving its transport system, its system of pricing and intermediating farming, its technologies for seeds, planting, irrigating, you-name-it, that delicious mangos go bad in carts miles away from urban markets, while Vietnamese fruits and vegetables are sold expensively in Phnom Penh stores.
Of course I didn’t have to come here to realize that Americans pay for and consume far more food than they actually need to get by. Riding the bus back from Siem Reap, I felt like the mother bird surrounded by my little chicks constantly poking, whining, prodding—‘Feed me! Feed me!’ Between my feet and on my lap were bags of crackers, muffins, sliced pineapple, bananas, jackfruit, beef jerky. We were a moving feast. A few hours into the trip, I noticed that the Khmer folks around us were napping, looking out the windows, and consumed almost nothing for the whole ride.
Leaving the tailor yesterday, who charged me $3 to alter 3 skirts, I wondered what his after-overhead profits were buying for him? Oranges are $3.50 per kilo and are imported from Florida (we learned with great shock after our one-and-only orange purchase). Apples—not sure where from—are $2.50 per kilo. Bananas are cheaper at about $0.50 per kilo. Milk is pricy at $1.65 per liter. Cheese and meat are very expensive, butter is impossible, at $4.50 per  100 grams, imported from Australia and New Zealand, I guess in freezer containers.
So we come back to rice. Rice, incidentally, is Cambodia’s primary agricultural export, but most of it is exported in raw form, because the technology and financing isn’t well-developed for refining. So most of the refined rice sold at food stores and restaurants is actually re-imported from Thailand and Vietnam.
But what is rice doing for people? It’s just starch! I remember looking at Tika’s very skinny Vietnamese friend Natlin (this was back in Virginia), and noticing that virtually every meal she eats is a bowl of rice (and many many lollipops). All her molars are silver, and she sparkles when she smiles. There is a gap between her two front teeth wearing into a circular hole. We weren’t here in Phnom Penh very long before noticing that I’m a full head taller than most adults, and that Puck is built like a grizzly bear compared to other kids that might be three-year-olds.
Prices for so many other things might depend on who and where you are, but food is like a hard currency, and our bodies grow (or don’t grow) with what currency we have. To be heavy-set in Cambodia is to be well-placed. Most people are living from meal to meal.

Unravelling the "Capacity" Question

I am a bureaucrat. For ten hours a day, I am a bureaucrat through-and-through. I have absorbed the lingua-franca of bureaucracy, and spin together memos about objectives, outputs and outcomes, milestones and results-indicators without flinching. The easiest paragraphs are the ones that, upon re-reading, mean nothing at all. Some re-state the previous paragraph with slight changes in the verbs that imply actions having been taken, or results achieved because actions were taken, always with non-descript responsibility for action and ownership of the results.
One term that I am learning to use in almost all contexts is ‘capacity-building.’ Functionally, it’s more vague than ‘guidebook,’ ‘seminar,’ or ‘training course,’ and so it slides by more managers and funds-providers without eliciting too much criticism. It’s also a more sensitive and acceptable way of saying ‘you folks have no idea what you’re doing,’ or ‘we’re going to have to say it to you, then show it to you, then hold your hand and do it for you.’
When I sit through meetings with directors and senior officials at one ministry or another, and hear that they need capacity to implement this or that improvement, and his diamond ring is flashing at me, and his office is awkwardly crammed with mahogany furniture and leather sofas, and the staff parking lot is full of Lexuses and Land Rovers, I’m wondering—‘Where exactly is the capacity going?’ I don’t say that, though. I just write down the areas where he says capacity is needed, and then we try to see back at the office what can we propose to do. In one of my first trainings here, I learned that it’s not productive to think of your client as corrupt. In fact, it’s not productive to use the word 'corruption,' because it is a normative word, and it makes it impossible to have a conversation as equal partners when we use normative words about each other.
But upon further reflection, I’m seeing that capacity-building is a real thing, and it’s not fair to say that someone is unmotivated or unskilled because he doesn’t do things we would expect. Take the cleaning lady, for instance. The landlord advertised this apartment as ‘serviced’, and indicated that a lady will come twice each week to clean the unit for us. What a deal! We’ve never been cleaned-up for in the US before, and felt like royalty. But after a few cleanings, I saw that her tools consisted of a dirty rag and a bucket of water. I also noticed scum and hair all around the toilet, food stuck on the counter, and dirt behind the sofa after she left. Judging by what I hear from other tenants, she’s being paid 2 or 3 dollars a day. At that rate, she’s probably living in a group apartment, maybe with a shared squat-toilet, someplace far away. So how would she know what a traveler expects when he enters a fresh hotel bathroom? How would she know what Americans see on Lysol commercials that sets the standard for a sparkling kitchen? And how could she implement that with a dirty rag? She’s undoubtedly making our home a hundred times nicer than her place, but she’s got no reference point for what I would think of as a ‘serviced apartment.’ Needless to say, I put on my bandana on Sunday, got down on my knees and had a close scrubbing of the toilets. Case closed.
Capacity-building is everywhere—the tailor shops that can’t size clothes, the tuk-tuk drivers that don’t know where they’re going, the nanny that doesn’t coordinate homework or start dinner. Labor here is shockingly cheap, sadly cheap. A tailor will take in a skirt for a dollar and make a dress for 4. A tuk-tuk driver will take you across town, wait outside for an hour, then bring you back for 3 dollars. Most nannies will work for a dollar an hour in the city and less in the country (we pay ours way above market rate).
But there has been little or no opportunity for workers to build a skill-set, to integrate knowledge with production and add value.  In America, we expect that a taxi driver integrates his knowledge of the whole city landscape with his car and his agreement to drive you someplace. Here, the tuk-tuk driver is literally just a man with a motorbike and a wagon the back, and there are thousands of them. Having no particular skill for English, or knowledge of the city layout, he is just a gas pedal, and you have to provide the turn-by-turn directions.  How long have nannies existed in Cambodia the way Americans think of them? So how far they need to go to understand expectations about learning-play, child safety, bath-time precautions, and kitchen hygiene! And what a market they will have made for themselves when they can more successfully integrate these skills with social networking among the urban elites, some English skills, and some self-promotion! There are really so many skills and expectations that I have been taking totally for granted until coming here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bus Ride as a Metaphor

Another week is flying by with so many stresses and challenges and near misses. I was thinking of Dad when we were riding the bus back from Siem Reap on Tuesday evening along a bumpy 6-hour ride. The buses and trucks share the narrow national highways with families on motorbikes, oxen pulling cartloads of wood, boys toting little sisters on bicycles-- all on the same road swerving around and narrowly missing one another. This is a country full of survivors, and I was thinking of Dad's observation this week that God is looking out for every little one of us and has in mind that each one of us should play a role.

I was thinking also of little baby rolling around in Paula's belly with as-yet-unknown gender sucking thumb and not considering all the big changes in his/her life just a few weeks away. I was thinking of my friend from Washington, whose son is just learning to pee in the potty by running across the room naked, sprinkling a long zig-zag across the floor as he goes. And I was thinking of granddad, who is potty-un-training on the other end of things, and pulling the many strands from the storyline of his life to make a different sense of things each day. Some days there seems to be a master at work moving us toward an enlightened idea, and other days seem like same shit, different day.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

People-Watching and Bus Rides

Cambodia is taking the uppity out of us, if there is any left. We have a frank and familiar relationship with the toilet, increasing indifference to bodies and smells, relaxed approach to inter-personal touching, staring, and questioning, and a more relative sense of road safety.
That said, I've become more keenly aware that I am taller and heavier than the people around me, that being raised with money makes your teeth whiter and straighter, and your feet better cared for.

Tika has been having particular anxiety about all the disfigured people we encounter here--men and women missing arms or legs, some from landmines, some from other accidents, faces badly burned. I've tried to take the fear out of her by hiding part of my arm behind my back, or bending my leg to hide part of it, and showing her how she looks when she does it to herself. See? It's the same you and me, but only part isn't there. She's tentative about that.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Friendly Faces at Rainbow Orphanage

Today we left the guesthouse early with a driver to visit a small village I had learned about online before our trip. Since doing a little bit of fundraising for an orphanage while TJ and I lived in Moscow, I've been curious about how orphans are looked after in different countries. (If anyone is up for a difficult but inspiring read, There is No Me Without You tells the story of an Ethiopian woman who starts caring for orphans by chance and ends up running a large institution in Addis Ababa). So when I found Rainbow Orphanage just outside Siem Reap, I was eager to give the kids this experience, and also impressed by the orphanage's savvy business strategy. By encouraging tourists to take an extra day to tour their village and learn crafts with the kids, and charging a fee, the orphanage director drew foreigners' attention to his program and gathered a steady revenue. After riding thirty minutes off the pavement along a deeply potholed dirt road, we arrived at the small orphanage. Two dormitories and a few outbuildings, brightly painted with the names and years of various donors, and the director, on crutches, loped out to meet us.
Mr. Pean explained that he had injured his spine and needed the crutches and a brace, but then proceeded to lead us across the dirt yard and into the gardens. I suggested that he take a load off, but he explained he was only one running the place, and giving the tours. He led us past the mango and jackfruit trees, lemon grass and vegetable gardens. We saw their hens and chicks, laying eggs around a lightbulb wired to a car battery (there is no electricity in the village). He showed Ernie and Yosh an outbuilding lined with smelly sandwich-sized bags of dark soil-- they are cultivating mushrooms for sale. He took pride in showing off the manure pile and manure-burning stoves used for cooking and heat in the cool season. Ernest was impressed to see biofuel in action.
We crossed the gardens onto another dirt road and were followed, we noticed, by a growing number of kids Puck's size. They were returning from the morning lessons at another village school (a distance we later found was about about 7 km down the road) to eat lunch. In various one-room elevated shacks, Pean introduced us to women weaving baskets and roof thatching out of banana leaves, weaving fishing baskets from bamboo, tending pigs. Yoshi and Tika found the local water well and enjoyed squirting water all over themselves for some relief from the heat. Of course, everything we did made me feel even more like we must be space aliens to these people. Big, sweaty tall folks taking so many pictures, drinking bottled water, smiling and saying hello over and over and over. Tika and Puck wanted to hide sometimes. Yoshi said he didn't like people staring at him.
When we returned to the orphanage, the children were all arriving from the village school to the orphanage classrooms for special English and math classes. For a while we were celebrities to the kids. They swarmed around us, running into classrooms and urging Tika and Puck to follow, showing them their papers on the walls, trying to touch them. Ernest made his best effort to play it cool, and even kept up a reasonable Q&A with a few kids and a teacher about school and America. We took loads of pictures, and the kids laughed when I gave Puck the camera and let him snap away.
Pean explained that he houses 28 kids, now teenagers, and takes all these additional kids during the day from the village for lessons. We spied them kicking a ball around, washing clothes and preparing food in the outdoor kitchen. Ernest watched the math class from the back of the room--trying to measure himself up against these students. Pean showed me his two enormous water tanks. We compared notes on purifying drinking water. He said he doesn't have the means to boil all the water that his kids drink, but uses a purifier that an NGO has provided for him. He said his kids' number-one health problem is diarreah, and many of them have it now. He said that now that most of his kids are teenagers, they are too old to go to the Siem Reap children's hospital, but that the clinic is too expensive--US$70 per week of in-patient care. Instead, they treat many of their problems right there in the village using herbs from the garden and patiently waiting through a lot of illnesses. By our third day in Siem Reap, the kids and I were already complaining about the miserable squat toilets, the absence of sinks and soap to wash hands, and (for me) the pain in the neck of having to carry everyone's water all day. It's hard to imagine those conditions as permanent.
I paid our "tour fee" plus a donation to the orphanage, and was impressed when Pean wrote out a receipt and asked me if I intended to tie the funds to a particular project; he had learned the ropes of not-for-profit accounting, and had to keep records for his auditors, he explained. I said he knew better than me where the funds were needed most. He wants to improve the well head and water storage, he said.
We said our thank-you's and good-byes just as the sky ripped open with a flooding rain, thunder and lightening that made Tika start to cry. Shutters crashed open and shut, and thunder boomed over our heads for about twenty minutes, then quiet again. A group of young men pushed our van through the muddiest part of the yard back up to the elevated roadway. Our driver produced colorful umbrellas from his trunk and we felt again like weird alien royalty as he escorted us from a classroom to the van under umbrellas and worried over our wet feet. We watched through rainy windows the village pass behind us, then the landscape bouncing up and down as we slowly rolled up and over each muddy hole in the long road back to the highway.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Chasing Kids at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the attraction that draws everyone to Siem Reap. Nearly a thousand years old, it is the largest of a series of massive stone temples built in precise arrangement around the Tonle Sap River at a time when each stone must have been cut, lifted and hauled by many slaves and oxen. We took a long dusty tuk-tuk ride into the temple complex, and together with the hordes of tourists, climbed and crawled and scrambled around the temple ruins all day. We found shady corners with part-broken Buddhas and little pots with incense sticks, endless stretches of walls carved with histories of dynasties, warfare, and overthrows. Ernest trailed slowly behind trying to absorb the meaning of each carving, while Puck and Yoshi chased their way through maze-like ruins. Unlike Russia or China, where a line would be painted showing where to walk, or a guard would be stationed every 10 feet to discipline tourists, Cambodia seems to treat Angkor Wat like the rest of the country-- a total anarchy, where you can run your hands over ancient carvings, where men stand on narrow ledges high above the ground to smoke cigarettes and flick the butts into the ruins below, where kids scramble around stone ruins next to a knocked-over sign that says "Walk at own risk". That the ruins have survived at all with such neglect and through the country's violent history must be a testament to some good engineering from the last millenium.
The kids were pretty spent on looking at Buddha and Shiva and Brahma and Ganesh, and all the talk about empires and architecture. So this evening we headed back for a second round of chucking fish at crocodiles.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Arriving in Siem Reap, the dynasty today

Well for our family over here, the weekend brought a combination of the thoughtful and the ridiculous. The kids were really happy to have five days off from school (International Women's Day is a big deal here). We took advantage of the long weekend and Cambodia's cheap domestic bus service to travel north. We visited Siem Reap, a city up the Tonle Sap River that used to be the capital, when Cambodia was a powerful kingdom controlling most of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand more than a thousand years ago. The kingdom was Hindi when Indian traders and Chinese traders crossed paths here, and then became majority Buddhist around 1200 AD. Like the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Angkor kingdom charted the stars and created a calendar and a system of architecture and math and laws, before sinking into scientific and economic oblivion, broken apart by rival neighbors, colonized by the French, and then torn apart by their own people in the 1970s. Now Siem Reap is tourist town like Daytona Beach for Cambodians. It has hotels in every price range, casinos, nail salons, massage parlors on almost every corner, and a small center (around Pub Street) overflowing with imported liquor, upscale clothes shops, and high-budget travel bums.

As all-American fun-lovers, we headed straight for the tawdry Crocodile Farm, where for a small fee you can stand over their pen, throw fish, and watch them chomp. I didn't realize what a loud noise they make when their jaws snap shut. Ernest was appalled by the advertisements for crocodile boots and purses hanging on the railings. Yoshi and Puck thought it was awesome. Tika kept her distance. Crocodiles lay still in the blazing heat for a long time like statues, some with their mouths open cooling off. Then one moves and the whole group start diving at each other, grunting and biting until they suddenly freeze again, or the offending croc lurches into the water.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ernest the Engineer, and Puckie Makes an Observation

Ernie is working like and ox, and also getting a lot of new perspective on the world around him. I think if he could have his ideal house, he would have an engineer's drafting room all to his own, because he likes to break off from us every now and then with his pencil and notebook and draws up ideas. Once in a while he calls out "How do you spell hydraulic ?" I have peeked into his notebook and found drawings of pistons and rotors and electrical lines, and he makes pro-and-con lists that talk about renewable resources, low-cost, accessible, and clean. I leave him alone when he's at work, and just keep a steady stream of aid agency press releases coming home about road projects, rural electrification, and health infrastructure. And it doesn't take much pointing out for him to notice the deficiencies around here.
I love them all. Each one is budding with new observations and nuanced conversation. I was hugging Puckie at the side of our street this morning waiting for the school van, and he leaned in and sniffed me closely, then leaned out to look at my whole face and said, "Did you notice it smells like barbequed chicken around here?"