Friday, April 29, 2011

Where Cordial Meets Crooked--Things aren't quite right here

In the sunny, yawning, late afternoon this Friday I had a meeting with the anti-money laundering folks at the central bank, the Financial Intelligence Unit. The name suggests a high-tech surveillance operation, but in the last few hours of the work-week, I stood in a room of empty cubicles next to a platter of chocolates, a vase of fake roses and a stuffed cat, waiting for the director to open his door. Then I was ushered into a deep leather armchair, sun beating down on me, to have a talk about how things are going. It’s a funny question to ask with a straight face the man accountable for the prevention of fraud, money laundering, and terrorist financing here. Two weeks ago I walked to a meeting on Norodom Boulevard past workers dutifully unscrewing the name plate from the gates of Peng Heng SME Bank—I could see beyond the gate office furniture piled in front of the door. The bank had just appeared in the Phnom Penh Post under investigation by the Government of Canada for a massive money laundering scandal. And oddly enough, the bank’s owner was making a second go of the business, having been previously convicted on similar charges a few years ago. This was just one name plate in a pattern of criminal activity that various Cambodia-watchers have been tracking over the past fifteen years or so.
My counterpart was a warm, friendly guy, and in the afternoon sunshine, it seemed that efforts are well underway, that capacity has been weak but it’s getting stronger, that the unit is new and the learning curve is steep. We discussed areas where technical assistance could be helpful, where training courses and manuals could build up staff skills, and I passed along my business card. It was a cordial meeting. I rode back to the office along Norodom Boulevard past another bank, where an armored truck was pulled into a loading dock. What the hell is going on around here anyway?
There’s a funny feeling in my job of convivial familiarity with government authorities, dinners out together and emails signed-off with nicknames, and on the other hand, an unspoken skepticism about everything that’s said and done. Two years ago, at an event I arranged in Jakarta, I was introduced to Afghanistan’s central bank governor, a look-you-in-the-eyes kind of guy with a strong handshake that says, Hey man, we’re in this together. I was working with a more senior Russian economist, and she took an even chummier approach to him. She called him Fitrat, and they smoked together in the lobby. Now I’m sipping coffee and reading about our buddy, whose IMF support has been frozen while he tries to figure out how 95 percent of Kabul Bank's portfolio disappeared into the pockets of Karzai’s inner circle.
I do a lot of head scratching. You want to be engaged, but you don’t want reputational risk. You shouldn’t be judgmental, but you can’t be na├»ve.
To its credit, this country has opened its doors to many not-for-profit organizations, and many who come here to do good have distanced themselves from official government and state institutions. They work directly with the orphaned and the blind, the homeless and the sexually exploited. They work on the scale of two hands and the capacity of the human heart. So a handmade quilt puts a child through a month of school, and a woven basket feeds a family, a vocational training center teaches a young deaf young man to give haircuts a few blocks from our apartment, and another center teaches a blind woman to do massage therapy. I’m drawn to the idea of a making a one-for-one contribution, holding the hand of the person I’m helping. I’m also a pragmatist and a believer that people can be their own best advocates when markets and systems allow them to be. For instance, it makes a big difference to be able to borrow money, or remit it over a mobile phone, to hold a property title, or to sue for one in court. So the story goes, you’ve got to work on the bigger picture, or the child weaving a basket today in exchange for food will still be weaving with her grandchildren fifty years from now.
For me, working on the ‘bigger picture’ here has meant a Monday through Friday schedule of office visits and coffees, luncheons and hotel receptions. Prioritizations, proposals, milestones, objectives. These are the third-derivatives of human needs, embedded in the email chain and attached files. A few steps outside the office, and I can see how dissimilar is the world of those discussing aid from the world of those struggling to receive it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Canadians Aghast, Things aren't quite right here

An otherwise peaceful afternoon was disturbed by an uninvited meeting with Canadian embassy security officer. Actually, the Canadians closed up shop here a few years ago, so I guess the Cambodians didn’t like afternoon disturbances either. Just flown in from Bangkok, a high-pitched woman and aggressive note-taker, her face kept an aghast expression for the full hour. Did I know what was going on in those casinos? And in the boats? And if you’re serious about laundering money, this seems to be the place to do it alright! She was a 60-minute barrage of shock and awe, to which I could only insert the occasional approving grunt and nod.
I poured myself a coffee after that meeting, and loped back upstairs to my office to continue reading emails.
Well if you’re going to get bent out of shape every time things look odd, you’ll burn a hole in your chair around here. Everything’s a little off. Take this meeting for instance. I’m sitting in another horrid pleather furniture set at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, small-talking with junior supervisors while we wait for the director to get off his phone call. It’s a meeting geared at getting a signature, and just a signature on a preliminary expression of interest. We’re smiling and nodding, and I notice three things—first the glinting diamond ring on the director’s pinkie, then the framed diploma from Harvard Kennedy School in his bookcase, and then the small safe under his desk. I guess I could also have noticed the bad furniture or the plastic bucket of mentos on his table, but those three things seemed to tell me a story. And another 'what the #$!*?'  moment. I rode back in the office Land Cruiser wondering if Federal Reserve supervisors keep wads of cash under their desks, or if US senators score brownie points for flashing jewelry at constituents, and I was pretty sure they didn’t. But then I sat on some emails at the office and started feeling badly for being high on my horse, because I am not that Canadian lady after all. I am not always with my finger pointed and my eyebrows raised.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter Cambodia!

Happy Easter! As my Russian teacher told me on skype this morning, Xristos Voskresen (Christ is Risen!). We crammed into a darkened meeting room at World Vision on Saturday evening with all the English-speaking Catholics in Phnom Penh dripping candle wax on each other, and imitated the procession to the tomb while a deep-voiced Khmer woman sang the entire liturgy. Puck fell asleep, because the service was so long, and Ernest, not wanting to extinguish his candle, let the scalding wax run down his hand and onto his foot. The place was packed to the rafters, and it was a special feeling to be part of that community, even if we are the only ones eating chocolate eggs in a Buddhist country.
We hunted for hard-boiled eggs that the Khmer bunny hid, and found milk chocolate chickens, because there weren't any chocolate bunnies.
Love to all of you back in the States!

Natural Living, Minus all the Crap

We didn’t come to Phnom Penh with any particular agenda as consumers. I figured out the airlines’ baggage allowance, and drew up a list of the essential clothes and first aid, pots and toys that would get us through half a year in reasonable shape. And keeping in mind that I would be responsible for lugging the stuff around until we found an apartment, I considered it’s always easier to buy something locally than overstuff the bags. But since we’ve come here, I’ve become aware of a curious change taking place in our home. Well, what I’ve been seeing is what isn’t happening. We aren’t accumulating anymore. No incoming packages, no placating impulse buys from Target, no goodie bags, no plastic miscellanea. Food is coming in each week in our cloth bags from the supermarket, and a bag of mango pits, eggshells and wrappers is going out. Shoes are thoroughly destroyed, and then they are replaced. The same pile of Lincoln Logs is constructed and deconstructed over and over and over again.
I don’t consider myself a dogmatic consumer—mostly I treat shopping like a necessary burden—but this transition has opened my eyes to two phenomena that we took for granted before. First, we have been living waist-high in shit. As Americans, we’ve developed sophisticated systems to rapidly and hygienically remove the shit from all around us, but at the same time, we’ve built up a colossal appetite to be dissatisfied, to find occasion, to constantly, nervously, neurotically consume more shit. The suburban home is a tightly organized warehouse that cleanly disguises this lifelong accumulation while constantly requiring more. It holds its owner by the ankles, Don’t go! You can’t leave me!! By comparison, poor countries can’t get away from their shit, and so it is chucked in trash piles along the sides of streets, it is picked over by children, it literally plops out of the behinds of human beings and animals alike and dots the walkways, reminding us at each step, See? Your shit is everywhere!
The second phenomenon is finding that when kids aren’t presented with new stuff, they play with old stuff, and that when they’re not presented with anything, they play with each other. This sounds terribly self-evident, but it never seemed to happen that way back home. New things arrived whether we needed them or not, and accelerated the obsolescence of what had seemed yesterday to be enough. The steady stream of stuff kept up the adrenalin rush to get one’s fair share, and to stake out whose was whose. Nobody puts up a battle for old toys. They are homely and dependable and always available.
Away from the watchful eyes of Arlington uber-moms, I’m also testing the limits of what kids can do to each other when their play is not intervened. And as the solo parent 24/7, it’s a relief to pour a glass of wine, put up my feet, and watch the sparks fly. On Sunday at the pool, Tika grabbed Yoshi by the shoulders and pushed him down for so long that he flailed and rose up crying that he couldn’t breathe. Earlier in the day, Yoshi pushed Puck’s head into a doorframe, then pulled his sister’s feet out from under her. Don’t even ask what happens when they’re given a large dessert to share. Ernest calls it ‘Lord of the Flies time’. But when they’re lying in bed with the lights off, I can hear Ernest consoling Yoshi about friendships and classmates. TIika strokes her little brother’s head, and Pucks sings lullabies long after his sister has fallen asleep.
In a small apartment with very little to pick up and put away, I sip my wine and watch some BBC. Then, blotting off sweat and smelling like garlic, I climb into bed with my little ones—a bear with her cubs.

Natural Living in Phnom Penh?

I’m out of access to my regular cornucopia of health and body treatments around here. I suppose I could look around and find a French pharmacy or a Chinese beauty supply store, and that most of the deprivations and homespun remedies are my own imagination. More likely, we are buying less stuff because we—meaning Ernest and I working and the other three running away—have to carry it out to the street, load it into a tuk-tuk, and ride home sitting on top of it. Tiny bottles of second-rate American shampoo at 14 bucks, and the pint-sized vanilla Haagen Daz at 44 make the Costco-mom cringe, (if only these shoppers could ride in my flat-bed cart in Arlington!) and sense the necessity for invention. 
So we are trying to go natural, so-to-speak. That’s not going natural the way you’re thinking of—farmers markets and 4-dollar-tomatoes. No, there’s a separate market for those kinds of shoppers around here, and I really can’t figure out what is the guiding ethos. There, pale, freckled, long-skirted women agonize over small baskets of bruised bananas and wilted greens in narrow, high-real estate storefronts with hardwood floors and ready-looking Khmers in crisp aprons. It’s a ridiculous-looking foreign translation, set alongside a skinny young man carting an oversize basket of ripe mangoes on his bike, and an old woman squatting next to a pile of pomelos, chewing cashews, outside.
No, we are going natural by default. Cramps? Lay down. Hot? Take off clothes, then lay down. Constipated? Raw garlic and kimchi, then move around. I find myself shopping along the top and bottom shelves of the Asian aisle at Lucky Supermarket, and making my money in the produce section. Once you are past the fear of food-borne illness—which is to say that you know it’s everywhere, that you gargle with tap water, and you don’t ask about your ice cubes—there is a really wonderful variety of fruits, greens, herbs and melons here. The large, unbruised, perfectly ripe papaya probably is locally grown, and at 85 cents, it’s nature’s cure for stomach bugs. Green peppercorns and baby eggplants—the key ingredients in Thai and Khmer curry dishes—are piled up next to lemongrass (for soups), ginger, bitter melon, and three different colors of basil. You need curiosity and a sharp knife here. Many of the fruits don’t look like fruit (think about the discovery of rhubarb) and wear a worty skin or spiked armor, or ooze a milky glue. It’s a test of persistence and appetite.
So from the financial decision to give up air conditioning to the pioneering choices in diet, I feel us becoming natural animals again. I certainly smelled that way after a week of intestinal purification on raw garlic. And when I sat on the couch drinking coffee and watching Yoshi strangle his sister, push her to floor, then take an elbow to the ribs and leap up, run back, and dive forward again, I thought—yeah, we are spending this Sunday like animals. The natural way.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mommy Goes to School

Today I am a really lucky mom, because I got to go to school with my kids. The van driver let me get on board when I asked if I could squeeze on just this once. With a day off from work, I could think of no better way to spend it. Ernest and Yoshi were just relieved that we did our kisses at home, and they high-fived me as we stepped out at the school gate. Puck would be my faithful guide in the morning, and Tika in the afternoon.
Puck has become a dutiful hand-raiser, counter, and singer of songs. He lines up his shoes along the wall with the other kids in the hallway, knows where to store his backpack, and sits on his own spot on the carpet. He also shoots flirting glances at his mom while he is waiting his turn to speak. I am seeing my baby boy in a new light, I realized. He holds his hands together behind his back when he walks in the hallway so he will get a star for keeping his hands to himself, he told me. He already has six stars, and will get a green rubber ball when he reaches fifteen. When he says his prayers, he closes his eyes so hard that his forehead scrunches up.
Tika has made a few conclusions about the way things work around her. She lines up first for lunch and takes a big serving of rice and fish curry. She was very happy to have me sitting next to her, and polished off the whole plate. Then she headed back for seconds. You get more if you are at the head of the line and eat it all right away. This place is a really great deal, she told me. And when I finish this, there’s even a dessert. Tika has a friend named Joy who rides next to her on the swings at recess. When other kids want a turn, they get off and share, but they stand next to the kids counting down from ten. That way they’re sure things are fair and square. Outside of Tika’s classroom is a bulletin board where each of the kids has written what he hopes to be when he grows up. Tika has drawn a picture of herself with pretty eyelashes and big hair surrounded by beakers and writes that she wants to be a scientist and do her own iksprumits. Next to the picture is another drawing of herself with long hair and a triangle-shaped dress hopping up the side of a smoking mountain, and below it says—in perfect spelling—that she wants to be a volcanologist.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Adventure to Mondulkiri, part 3

The Bunong people live in mountain settlements around Sen Monorom. They are one of a few ethnic minorities that make up the majority of Mondulkiri, and they live a lonely lifestyle from huts deep in the jungle, collecting cashews and fruits, selectively cutting wood, and carrying in baskets on their backs their subsistence from one settlement to another along steep mountain footpaths. For years elephants have been at the center of their community and economy, although more recently many are finding cattle and pigs to be a more lucrative and less onerous investment. The folks at Nature Lodge have set up a profitable business with the Bunong, referring trekkers to the community for hikes and elephant rides that make better money, I’m told, than smallholder farming, and provide the elephants with less demanding labor than their alternative uses in other communities—mainly hauling lumber. Since elephants command about $20,000 on the market, according to our guide, matching them with profitable business is essential to keeping them. And the longer the Bunong can hold on to the trekking business, the longer they can forestall further clearing and burning in the jungles around their communities—so the reasoning goes.
We are going to do what?! Ernest’s face lit up when I explained the day’s plan over breakfast. A pick-up truck was waiting along the dirt road to take us over to the next village. We stepped out to the curious eyes of so many children coming down from one-room houses on ladders, and stooping to come out of low circular yurt-like huts. A mother pig basked in the sun surrounded by her piglets. Puck swatted flies and waited to see what will happen next. Our guide explained that the mahout was bringing the elephants out of the forest. Since elephants consume on average 300 kg of vegetation per day, they are not actually kept in the settlement, but roam foraging through the surrounding jungle nearby. Apparently they recognize and follow the mahout, and somehow each household knows its own elephant. It’s an interesting long-distance marriage.
When it seemed like we had been stared at and kicking dirt for a good long while, suddenly two enormous forms emerged gracefully from the bushes. Yoshi cheered. Tika hid behind me. The elephants have arrived! We were guided to a scaffolding and ladder behind the houses, where, climbing one by one up the ladder, holding the mahout’s hand, we stepped (as softly as we could) across the elephant’s forehead, over his neck, and into a bamboo basket with a small wooden seat on his back. He stood patiently next to the scaffolding, arcing up his trunk over and around to get a sense about us. Ernest and Yoshi happily in position on the first elephant, I passed Puck and then Tika up the ladder and into place on the second, then myself climbed up and in between them in the basket.
Then began the slow, back-breaking ride into the forest. Down, down the path we would descend to a waterfall far below. Our elephants would measure each step, position each great footfall in ditches and over rocks and logs, and we would rock and tilt and thud-thud along until my rear end was all a bruise. But they are steady, attentive workers. Each elephant carried his mahout on the back of his neck, who, arching his bare toes behind the great animal’s ears, guided his way along the twisting turning paths.  Many times the elephants tuned out the mahouts, and took detours into the woods poking their trunks between trees to seek out a cluster of bamboo or tasty vines. They curled their trunks far up into the trees and yanked down leaves and vines, sometimes returning to the path dragging branches behind. At one point, our two elephants seemed to have cornered themselves head-to-tail in a thick of trees. The kids and I watched in amazement as the boys’ elephant pushed a front leg into the trunk of a 6-inch-diameter tree, and pushed it to the ground, trundling right over it. So the ride continued, deeper into the forest, passing small garden clearings here and there, listening to bird-calls and Puck’s sing-song chatter as we bumped along.
Getting down to ground again when we finally reached the river was a major relief. I could stretch my legs and start to feel my butt again. The elephants were freed of the bamboo baskets and set off into the woods for more grazing. We were set free to chuck rocks in the stream, take a dip, and eat lunch. Cooling off, the boys sun-drying in their underwear, we sat on a rock by the river and I read a few scenes from King Lear. Yoshi peed off the edge of a small waterfall. Why are Goneril and Regan so mean? Ernest thought the Earl of Kent would make a good, loyal friend.
Before heading back up the mountain, the mahouts told us, it was time to wash the elephants in the river. We cleared our clothes and shoes from the rocks to make way for their entry into the water, and then the mahouts, sitting on the elephants’ necks, directed each one to lay down in the water. For the first time, we were face to face with our big friends, watching them enjoy a vigorous scrubbing. Ernest and Yoshi were quick to volunteer to help, and I sat with the little ones on the shore and the boys climbed up on one elephant’s back, splashed water all over his head and sides, and took a good squirting from his trunk. He seemed to enjoy getting his head washed, and the big lobes of his forehead with their wrinkled skin and wiry hairs had the endearing look of a granddaddy. The mahouts let Ernest and Yoshi ride out of the river bareback on the elephant back to the tree-stand on shore, where they climbed down a ladder. It was my first chance to pat him on his trunk and look into his big thoughtful eyes to say thank-you for letting us play with him today. I began to think, maybe the Bunong aren’t such lonely people after all. He turned up his trunk to give me a sniff and then exhaled a moist spray on my shirt.

Adventure to Mondulkiri, part 2

There are times on this weird journey when I have thought maybe this is what loneliness is all about. It doesn’t get any lonelier than standing by your broken-down truck on an empty highway in the jungle. Or being the only one awake, unable to move your arms or legs, feeling like a pounding wall of rain will smash the ceiling down on your face. Or that strange disorienting walk to an outhouse in total darkness and trying to find the way back under trees in the night.
But then for me there is always some thread tied on my finger showing me where to go next. In the darkness there is Tika stomping out a fire ant, and Ernest calling out ahead. From a flashlight-beam by the outhouse we meet two teachers from the kids’ school—they recognize Tika. From the bus station we find—wearing the tell-tale T-shirt—another swimmer from the Mekong. And certainly pressed like cozy sardines in bed, and with Puck breathing his sweet cheesy breath on my cheek I can’t feel alone. Can I?
The flip-side of losing power and going to bed at seven-thirty is that sunshine, birds and monkey-calls wake everyone up before six. Ernest was outside the door leaning over the platform, searching the trees for the source of the woop-wooping. We were eager to explore. Mondulkiri is known for its mountains, waterfalls, and elephants. With bellies full of pancakes and scrambled eggs (what else would you expect from a backpacker-treehouse?) we headed out to find adventure.

Adventure to Mondulkiri, part 1

How nice to be back in a clean apartment again, taking a cold shower and scrubbing the red dirt out of my toes. We stumbled through the door late this afternoon following a long bus ride from Mondulkiri, where we woke up under a bug net in a chilly cabin in the mountains. Ernest woke up before the sunrise and I could hear him peeing off the railing into the woods below. Tika was nestled under the netting, afraid of the large spiders crawling around the thatched roof. And now—clapping red mud out of shoes, dumping out the clothes, scrubbing dirt from the folds of Puck’s chubby neck and revealing the white of his feet again. And ah! The cartoons are playing again in the living room.
Mondulkiri is Cambodia’s largest and least populated province—something like 2 people to a square kilometer—along the eastern border with Vietnam in the cooler jungle-covered mountains (see this blogger's adventure). It is a breakfast-basket to the country, growing most of Cambodia’s coffee, as well as mangos, papayas and bananas. The ride was eight hours across the flat lands north of Phnom Penh, through Kampong Cham and then across one of the two bridges in Cambodia that crosses the Mekong River—very wide at that point—through Snuol, and then up into hilly country. At the same time I noticed forest changing to orderly rows of sapling rubber-trees, I felt the road change to smooth pavement, a wide two-lane highway with proper shoulder and lane markings. The landscape is also broken by large tracts of clear-cutting and burnt-out forest. Then the highway climbs higher into low mountains and there is only forest and burnt space, a patchwork of green and black on both sides. Twice we passed unlucky motorists stranded with their trucks at the side and I wondered—who is out here? Finally we descended into a clearing where an Angkor Beer billboard, a cluster of buildings, and a cell tower marked the small town of Sen Monorom, our destination.
Pulling into a place like this (nobody pressing at the bus door, a sleeping dog, and two parked cars) can make you feel like you’ve arrived at the end of the printed map. Taking a stab at a suggestion I read online (thank goodness for lonelyplanet and travelfish websites!) we jumped on a slow dusty ride down a long dirt road to a place called Nature Lodge. And funny enough, it seemed like most of our foreign bus companions were riding there too.
Nature Lodge is fanciful never-land kind of place set up by an adventurous Israeli woman and her Khmer husband, along with their beautiful baby daughter, multi-lingual staff, and scores of cattle, horses, chickens, cats and dogs grazing and playing over a hillside beyond Sen Monorom. The ‘reception’ is a massive, friendly German shepherd and a sprawling, multi-layer tree house with long, wide swings hanging below and look-outs over the mountains. The bar, set on a platform in the trees, is a swarm of international backpackers drinking gin and tonics, listening to Billie Holiday, and planning their next trekking adventure. There is no hotel, only one-room cabins dotted over the hillside, and a few outhouses scattered in between. It was a little taste of heaven.
It didn’t take long for the kids to adapt to this new paradise—Yoshi called it a jungly Yellowstone, and Tika said it was like camping in the Shenandoah with Daddy. Showering with a cold-water hose leaning over the outhouse toilet, I could hear their voices running around the field, swinging under a tree, skipping over horse poop. That night Ernest built us a bonfire with bamboo, durian shells and kindling from the field and we sat under a huge sky in almost total darkness. Tik wished they sold marshmallows in Mondulkiri. Then the power went out around seven, and I dug through my bag for my cell phone, the only thing I had to generate enough light to see a few inches in front of us. Finding our way to the cabin, we brushed our teeth and peed and changed clothes by the light of that phone. Then we climbed into the one bed we five had to share, lined up arm-to-arm, and I tucked the edges of our bug net around four sides of the mattress to cover our little fort. Sometime in the middle of the night, the sky tore open with rain, and I laid awake on the edge of the bed, as thunder exploded over us and lightening seemed to crack the trees all around.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happy Khmer New Year! More bus adventures to come

Happy Khmer New Year! A time for wishing good luck! A holiday so big it goes on all week. Last night the walls were shaking from partying up and down the street, music blaring out of restaurants, whooping cat-calls of young men and screeching brakes of motos into the early hours of dawn. Today the roads are nearly empty, shops are closed up, and I sat alone in my wing of the office, putting in a Western work-day in the pin-drop silence of after-hours work. Atey grabbed her purse eagerly as I stepped through the door this evening, wishing us all good luck on the New Year, and hurrying off to the last of her young city-parties. Tomorrow she too will make the long bumpy bus voyage to the provinces, heading to her hometown like most of Phnom Penh did yesterday.
We are curiously imitating our city neighbors. I too scavenged the ATM machines last week to find one that still had currency, unloaded what I could, and queued up at the chaotic bus station for tickets. Prices doubled for Khmer New Year, elbows jabbing, pushed to the back of the line by so many complicated transactions ahead of me. But we are curious and aimless travelers, so I picked two cities that seem opposite and complements to each other: Kep, that is on the Gulf coast to the south, and Sen Monorom, that is in the mountainous jungles to the east. A plus, I thought, that these are small cities and the tickets hadn’t sold out yet.
The early morning bus station, the seats, the travelers, are becoming familiar like the sweet onion smell of a well-worn shirt. Ernest immediately pulls a book from our bag and begins his long read. Yoshi negotiates the seating and snack distribution. Tika and Puck rev up for a five-hour tussle punctuated by peals of laughter and shrieking. I am usually wedged on the edge of their two seats keeping the peace or trying to muffle their screams. I can count on the Khmer travelers to take the kids’ side on noise-making, but I am cowed by the nasty glances of the older, barren, safari-clad Jack Kerouacs from England and Australia who think they deserve peace and quiet for their four-dollar bus fare.
No, I feel a stronger kinship with the Khmer grandmother aboard our last bus, who ran to the front of the aisle, screaming baby on arm, sodden wad of pants in hand, and begged for a stop. She didn’t flinch at re-boarding with happy naked baby tucked against her. I remember getting off along the route to Siem Reap and noticing that one woman had let her two boys ride naked, apparently a cooler way to travel. These are people who tickle the kids’ arms in between the bus seats, squeeze Puck’s cheeks until they’re red, bite off choice morsels of dried fish and offer them to Tika, while counting the kids, looking me over and giving an approving wink. With a few more bus rides, I could feel right at home here.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sleepy Beaches and a Nature Walk in Kep

The road to Kep is the same that leads to Kampot, but stops a half-hour sooner along the coastline. We pass through the muddy flat lands sparsely marked by coconut trees and irrigation ditches, then into the low southern mountains, a few rocky hills jutting up out of paddy, some with pagodas on top, some with cell towers. We are riding down the largest hill with dense green sloping up behind us, and then suddenly there is the sparkling sea ahead of us. The highway makes a few sharp turns and then winds along right next to the beach, where sun-baked boys are pulling in crab traps and fishing nets, and further on, a few women make slow business letting out beach shacks and hammocks to picnickers. A few meters on, the bus station is a paved area next to the roundabout that marks the center of town: a few plastic chairs for waiting travelers, a bar, a guest house, and a sign advertising boat tickets to Rabbit Island. Four tuk-tuk drivers compete for your business as you de-board the bus, each gouging the other—you can get across town for 2000 riel, 50 cents, if you hold out to the last driver.
If Kampot has just launched a tourist revival, then Kep is about a decade behind. Its long pebble beaches see ladies squatting over crab traps, and naked children taking a bath, daily laundry washing, and cattle brought for water. Checking into a modest guesthouse directly on the Gulf, we settled into our hammocks and watched a group of boys fishing off an old wooden boat, while cattle grazed behind us. Yoshi studied their slow operation. First, the boat let out a very long net trailing an arc behind. Two boys moving from our right to left were hauling net toward the boat. A third boy walked slowly to our left along the shoreline, smacking the water with a long stick, driving fish toward the net, we guessed. Two more boys worked the incoming net from the boat.
We decided to take a walk across Kep. From our guesthouse, it was a straight line back to the traffic roundabout along a pebbly road with lots for cattle grazing, another orphanage, and a few other guesthouses. The passing traffic was mostly bicycles, groups of teenage girls in white blouses and navy skirts pedaling by and flirting with Puck, eyeing Tika. From the roundabout there is a steep dirt road leading up the central hill to a forest reserve on top, Kep National Park. The ‘park’ seems only to be distinguished by the $2 foreigner entry fee and a barricade stick that opens and shuts for paying guests, putting some credibility behind the fee, I guess. Ernest was eager for a hike, although Yoshi is never too happy about walking for exercise and Tik was pushing the limits of her stacked heels—an impulsive choice of footwear that she would defend to the last. We strolled a while on the dirt path that forms a ring around Kep’s highest point. In a few places, the forest closed in a canopy over our heads, and we could just catch the colors of birds’ wings flashing over us. Ernest was all ears, and thrilled to hear the first sounds of monkey chatter from the trees. We stopped and listened to an orchestra of birds, crickets, and monkey-calls. It was amazing. Yoshi takes advantage of these moments to warn Tika against unseen predators that are waiting to leap from the next bush—it gets her every time, and then I am carrying both a tired Puck and a terrorized Tika. The heels weren’t helping her either, so it seemed this hike would be a short one. They are lucky to have a pack-mule mom, because I had brought a few changes of shoes, water, Neosporin and band-aids.
We hiked back toward the gatekeeper and the moving stick. In a number of places the canopy opens up, and we stopped to admire views way out into the Gulf of Thailand. These openings aren’t an accident, though. It seems every Tom-Dick-and Harry setting up the next backpacker house in Kep is carving out a chunk of the canopy, putting up elevated guestrooms, and marketing sea-views. It kind of bugs me that they call their places eco-lodges, as if recycling the timber into hotel flooring is a conservation project.
We made our way out of the forest and down the hill road leading back to the beach and a short line-up of crab-stands that forms the Kep restaurant district. We sat on the sea wall for a while, I drank a beer and the kids had Fanta and jackfruit. On our right was the fish market, and at the back the traps and nets were being unloaded and sorted in buckets. Women picked them over to purchase for the restaurants next door, and road-side vendors grilled fish, squid, and crabs. Puck leaned out over the sea wall to watch the back-of-market business, and got a few good salty blasts to the face. Then Yoshi tried it too. We were a sweaty, stinky group.
Before heading to smash and eat our share of crabs, we took a stroll down this mainstreet Kep. Again we passed the burnt-out concrete skeletons of once-fancy seaside villas. Behind garden walls and half-broken gates we could see in some yards the tarpaulins and corrugated metal of makeshift homes. A few families had even settled right in the frames of destroyed mansions—living like aristocrats except for plumbing, I thought. How long will it take to retrofit this place into something livable for the people today? The next lot was a grass clearing with an intensive volleyball match going on. It seemed to be the place where all of Kep’s young men were hanging out that evening. Puck pulled himself up on the fence to watch, and Ernest explained to his siblings the process of bumping, setting, and spiking the ball. A few boys put on theatrical expressions when I took their pictures. Then my boys said all the staring was making them feel awkward.
That evening we hammered and slurped crabs in a shack on the edge of the water. A few well-trained cats placed themselves beneath Tika’s and Puck’s chairs to catch the many droppings. It turned into a game. Then Tika spotted a few Khmer girls on the pebble beach behind the shack and joined them to collect seashells, which she brought me one by one for safekeeping, except for one, that contained an enormous black beetle.

Humming tunes on National Highway 3

“Where is everyone going?” We have pulled over for the eighth or ninth time at another non-descript dirt-road turn-off to let more passengers off. Unlike our family and the backpacker-sophisticates at the front of the bus, these travelers have personally-negotiated entry- and exit-points along the route. They are two- and three-generations together. They carry whole households of goods, bags of eggs, jackfruit and salted fish to cram around their seats and then haul off at unmarked roads like this one. As we made this and so many more stops on our Saturday journey to Kep, I had to remind Ernest that this is like our family’s Christmas trip to East Pittston or State Road—the boondocks of America, where excited grandparents and warm home-cooked food awaits. Watching one woman, daughter and granddaughter de-board and mount a motor-scooter down a dirt road, I thought of the special arrival they are bringing to a one-room house that is lighting up with a whole family brought together this week. 
Bus rides make me sing Paul Simon songs, because I think Paul Simon liked riding buses, too. I imagine him hitch-hiking from Saginaw, and counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike with Cathy smoking cigarettes next to him, and together longing for that path into some unknown adventure. I think of his journey to Graceland with his nine-year-old son, and the believing that we poor boys and pilgrims will all be received in Graceland, Graceland… It’s a great way to pass the time while riding 30-miles an hour around oxen and motorbikes.
And again, it gets me wondering about this journey. When they’re not pulling hair or demanding snacks, the kids are all antennae absorbing the scenery. I am shepherding four enthusiastic optimists to go find something along these roads.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Swimming the Mekong River, Mother and Son

Well in a convoluted way, an opportunity came up for me to re-pay Ernest the favor. And it’s called the Mekong River Swim. When I was first handed the flyer at the boys’ swim meet I thought, ‘Really? Can expats think up one more stupid thing to do in a foreign country?’ I taped the flyer to the wall in my office and looked at it for a few days.
The Mekong is a wide, silty, slow-flowing river that carries water off the Himalayas, through China, Laos, across Cambodia and into Vietnam. It barely moves during the dry season. The river carries great barges of commercial freight and trash, it is dotted with wooden fishing boats, and although the waters have been long devoid of salt water crocodiles (more than 25 years disappeared from the Mekong), it is home to a great many micro-organisms, and not too clean, either. I could already see in my mind’s eye the macho, Speedo-clad adventure-club plunging in.
Americans carry a special kind of collective bravado. In fairness, the Brits and Australians around here can put up a good show, too. Taken together, the American confidence doesn’t always look good—think George W. trying to be eloquent. American confidence takes all-you-can-eat as a challenge, drives muscle trucks, and buys sofa-sets with no payments for five years. The world must have enjoyed a laugh on us when Paul Krugman belittled America’s “confidence fairy” last week.
But foolish as we look from time to time—and certainly as foolish as all these expats in goggles and swim caps will look in the Mekong—confidence is everything. Taking risks, making things happen, convincing others to follow your lead, begin with believing that you know what you’re doing. (OK, to be fair, it takes a good deal of resourcefulness and competence, too.) A Khmer colleague at work recently looked me up and came by my office to tell me how infatuated he has become with America. Having just returned from his first visit to the States, he was in awe of the place. The freedoms? The openness? No. He was amazed by the size of the rockets at the National Air and Space Museum, and by the height of the buildings in Manhattan! You see? It’s a powerful force, this confidence thing.
Which brings me to Ernest. He’s in a tough spot as the oldest child in a family where two kids need help on the toilet and three kids get their shoes tied for them. He’s also trying to sort out two roles that he imagines we demand from him: the boy blasting his nerf machine gun and inventing things with legos, and the substitute-dad, who keeps his siblings in line and prepares mental check-lists for mom as we’re going out the door. And as I’ve got no prior experience raising pre-teens, sometimes my methods—cuddles and songs and extra dessert—don’t fit the bill. I realize in our two older boys that I’m not just in the nurture-and-love business, but I’m in the business of building men. And although this is kind of foreign territory for me, I think it has a lot to do with confidence.
So I paid the twenty bucks and put our names down. (Yoshi will have to wait—registration starts at age 10). I called our dependable driver and booked the date. I told a somber Ernest, who absorbed this new task seriously, and confirmed that yes, it must be done.

Sunday morning. Should I admit to Ernest that I spent the whole night tossing and turning? Could we still get out of it? No way! Ernest was already brushing his teeth and putting on his suit. The other kids, bleary-eyed, eating breakfast in their PJs, were curious to see what all the excitement was about. At 7:30, we set off across Phnom Penh in Phin’s Jeep, eight little legs swinging in the back seat.
We headed north over the Japanese Friendship Bridge up Highway 6 on the narrow peninsula that separates the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Rivers. About 6 km above Phnom Penh, an island splits the Mekong, providing a narrower river on the west side without shipping traffic, a little under 1 km wide. This would be our crossing point.  The parking lot at Prek Leap Agricultural College was filling up with swimmers—loud-talking tough guys in flip-flops and Speedos (as I had expected), but also moms and daughters, granddads and funny-shaped older women—lining up to sign-in and get numbers written on their upper arms. They would count us going in and count us coming out. The kids and Phin and I made a quick trip to scout out the river before the swim and take some pictures—there wouldn’t be any photos in the water. Again, I was wondering if we could still get out of this. Then the spectators were marshaled to an awaiting boat, and it was time for stripping off clothes and shoes, kisses and good luck, handing over the backpack to Yoshi, and putting Phin in charge. A wiry Brit with a megaphone was outlining the safety measures—lifeguards in kayaks and paramedics and boats carrying inner-tubes—and indicating our course—straight across. Before we knew it, we were lining up and making our slow, muddy descent to the river.
Doing crazy things is easy when you’re in a group, so making those first steps into shin-deep muck and wading out into the opaque brown water wasn’t too hard. Ernest was on a high from the excitement, and maybe also from the group of young girls swimming with their dad near us. He splashed and kicked and belly-flopped, cooling off while we waited for the go. And then came the buzzer.
I’ve never done a swim-a-thon like this before, so wasn’t quite prepared for all the hands and elbows and feet that splash in your face when 200+ people take off at the same time. Ernest and I agreed to swim side-by-side. “You’re going to talk to me along the way, right, Mom?” Right. Ernest put up a determined freestyle for the first fifty meters or so, following the bigger guys’ lead. I glided along in a sidestroke beside him, reminding him to take it easy and pace himself. We rolled on our backs and did some elementary backstroke, the easiest way to go a long distance without a lot of work. We rolled over and did some breaststroke. The crowd was spreading itself across the river, bound by two columns of kayaks and wooden life boats. Glide, glide. Stroke, stroke. I watched on my back Ernest’s head bobbing up and down to the rhythm of his breaststroke. When we reached the middle of the river, it was really peaceful. The current was only a gentle pull downstream. I could see we were a few meters off course. So we swam at a slight diagonal, and I stopped every few meters to wait for Ernest to catch up and stay alongside me. It was a long peaceful swim. One of the lifeguards kept his kayak at a close parallel with Ernest, talking him through the last leg. And then, there we were at the opposite shore. I treaded water again so that Ernest and I could step on the shoreline together and get the same finishing time.
Glurp, glurp. We stepped through more muck up the opposite shore and climbed aboard the return boat to the congratulations of the other swimmers. Ernest told me his legs felt wobbly, and I helped him up from behind. “How old are you anyway?” “Wow! You’re my hero!” Some of the older guys were pretty impressed with Ernie. And then, as we took our places in the line for water bottles and time-recording, I saw Ernest stand up a little straighter. He could see from off the side of the boat that many more swimmers were approaching the shore. We hadn’t been the last ones. He did it—and he was pretty good at it, too.
“Mom, do you think I could tell Dad about this?” “Yes Ernest, you sure can.”

Lenten Soul-Cleansing

Tonight I’m looking at the fading marker-number on my upper arm and feeling pretty good. I look at the number on Ernie’s arm and feel really proud of him. He’s proud too. I hope he will remember when he’s older the day he and his mom swam across the Mekong River.
The story really begins a few weeks ago. This is Lent, and no one is more attuned to our duties during Lent than Ernest. So when he found out that World Vision priests are hearing confessions on Saturday afternoons before mass, he insisted that we go early and each make a confession. I’m not strident about religion. I like the warm fuzzy feeling I get lining my kids up around me at mass, the belonging feeling at Church events, and the nostalgic feeling when they burn incense and light candles. I like the Bible stories that remind my kids that Jesus loves them and angels are looking out for them, and I don’t bother with the stories of Job’s undeserved trials, or the impenetrable ones like Samson doomed by a haircut. Anyway, I don’t make a fuss if one boy wants to confess and the other prefers keeping his sins to himself. Actually, I have been quite happy to keep mine to myself, too, and really didn’t see a need to discuss them with our hometown priest, who I’d then have to awkwardly re-visit at bake sales, pageant rehearsals and track events.
But Ernest is nothing if he’s not persistent, and he couldn’t close his eyes at night without assurance of my salvation. So, two weeks ago, following meekly in my eleven-year-old’s lead, I pulled out a squeaky plastic chair in the fluorescent-lit meeting room/confessional and, face to face with a congenial missionary priest, I tried to recount more than two decades’ worth of sinning.
The set-up was daunting. Here I was sitting a few feet from my kids (Puck, Tika and Yoshi already jabbing each other, Ernest beaming at me over the seats), spitting distance from a choir rehearsal, with the priest looking right at me with his personable, inviting smile. I tried to remember the prayer you’re supposed to say to start a confession, and was just starting to mentally prioritize and sub-categorize all my wrongs, when he cut in, waving it all off, and in his cheerful, Appalachian drawl, said ‘Look, I don’t think you really need to bother with all that, and I know you can remember the sins in your heart.’ Wait a second… ‘So I just want you to think about being a better person each day’ You mean you don’t want to hear them all? ‘—That’s what God calls us each to do through reconciliation.’ I was pretty sure that I saw him looking at his wristwatch— ‘And your coming here today is the first step in making that happen.’ Victory!
We had a talk about who do I really want to be and how I need to think about what I’ve done to get there at the end of each day, and I thought—yeah, this is some practical advice after my own heart. Then, when he gave the ‘I absolve you,’ I almost felt like I cheated the system. So quick! And here he was already getting up to go test the microphones and put on his robe, and Ernie was coming up to high-five me, and all my twenty-plus years of sins were washed away without anyone having the time or interest to hear them all.
You’d have to be raised a Catholic to know how good that feels.