Long story short, I was approached, I said yes, and I now teach English once a week on a radio show called Youth Voice which targets youngsters living in Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia, to engage, inform, and entertain. Here’s a short video/audio clip of the segment!
Many times throughout our lives we have heard people tell a tale or two of adventure in far away lands, and some of us sit there in awe and wonder if we’ll ever experience such a rush. Or we sit in front of a television screen or in a theatre and watch as the protagonists venture into the unknown, encountering new people, walking on exotic lands, getting killer diarrhea from strange foods, dancing to new beats, and falling in love. All the while, we are still sitting, comfortable and in some extreme cases wasting away. We’ve all felt that longing to want to live outside of the comfort of our couches, but we don’t know how to go about doing it. To make matters worse, it seems everywhere we look, there is someone trying to scare the hell out of us. You know, the world is a dangerous place full of terrorists wanting to destroy westerners, especially Americans who stray too far from the safety of the big red white and blue. Those warnings are echoed by the economic crisis the world is currently still supposedly recovering from. Like many other young people of my generation, I honestly do not want to participate in the game our governments are crafting, so I took a chance one day, and have been taking chances ever since. Funny enough, the first chance I took was to apply for a government position as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I got accepted, and was missioned to serve in Cambodia. As long as I was getting my adventure, I was okay with that. Use the system right?
These are some of my experiences written during my time living in Cambodia. I just want to share my own little adventure and possibly inspire some to pursue their own.
I lie on my stinky warped mattress, stomach first with my laptop illuminating my acne infested face. My mosquito net does a wonderful job of keeping malaria and dengue at a safe distance. Outside, fields of rice blend into the horizon interrupted by some palm, banana, and mango trees. Most of the village sits on either side of the dirt road leading to national highway number 5, which is a couple of kilometers to the right of my current home. There is a circus school across the dirt road making the location of my host family’s house a strategic spot for selling noodle soups and snacks, and behind me is a temple where loud chanting and music make sure to wake anyone up. But for now, it is quiet. There’s a sense of peace and serenity that only happens at night and for the last fifteen months, the quiet hours have helped me to appreciate my new reality. Except for the frogs and insects making their nightly orchestral performance, and the humming of my fan which is pointing towards me, Cambodia sleeps.
A little wooden room which fits a queen sized springless lumpy mattress and a meter long metal trunk full of worthless stuff, has become my home. Being that it is only a ten by ten foot room, I don’t have space for much else so coincidentally, there’s stuff thrown all around the floor, including but not limited to clean clothes mixed with dirty clothes, creams, water bottles, and more stuff. There is an empty one litter water bottle next to me in my mosquito net for when nature calls. It is my chamber pot. I use the flashlight from my cellphone to make sure that I aim into the twenty five cent coin sized opening of the bottle. This is all done within my mosquito net, for once I’m inside, I don’t go out. I’ve learned the hard way that those little bloodsuckers only need half a second to get in. I’ll empty the bottle in the morning when I go wash my face over the toilet, unless I forget. Until then, the pee bottle rests on my bed next to me. I used to pee out the barred blue window in my room which is on the second floor directly above my host family’s bedroom. All I have to do is position my pelvis forward so as not to have any drops fall on the wooden floor of my bedroom. There is something therapeutic about hearing my pee fall through the vegetation outside. I am creating a nice little waterfall for all the thirsty little insects. I have been doing this for months. The restroom is downstairs and just too far away to do something which I could do out the window. Eventually my host family called me out on it. In Khmer, they said that they couldn’t open their bedroom window because it smelled of pee. “It stinks,” they said. They were right of course. It smelled of urinal, but my newfound sense of liberty made me think I could get away with it, and I was too far up to get a whiff of that. I did stop though.
Luckily, when I do have to go, the restroom has a western toilet so that I can actually rest my cheeks on something instead of squatting over a hole in the ground, which is the norm all over Cambodia. After that, mosquitos are the next thing to be noticed because there are hundreds in that four by seven space. The far end of the wall has a concrete bath looking compartment where stagnant water for bathing is stored. This is mosquito haven. Larvae swim around in the cold water in happy little circles until I scoop them up with my shower bucket and pour. Unfortunately for both of us, they end up in my hair on my head and perhaps on other parts of my body. Constant movement while bathing is necessary in order to avoid the bites, so I take the opportunity to practice my salsa turns.The sink in the restroom has no running water so I instinctively hover over the toilet bowl to wash my face. I never thought about it but I’m just realizing that I think it might have to do with my brain wanting to have a container reminiscent of the sink catch the water I drop. It’s not very nice however when I lift the toilet lid to find someone’s bean sprouts floating about in a pool of poop nuggets. I could easily just wash my face and let the water drop on the floor anywhere else in the restroom, but for some reason I always hover over the toilet in order to wash my face, even though I know what may lie beneath. Guess I realized poop is a reality and I am willing to face it everyday. Literally face it. It’s natural. I’m not repulsed. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
In the states, I would be outraged and find the culprit and make the bastard flush that shit, but here, I just take it. I don’t know yet if it is submission or patience. I’d like to think the latter. Point is that after being here for one whole year, I don’t know where I stand. I can feel a great change in my being but nothing a mirror can show me. Adaptation perhaps, or a beat down.
Anyway, last night King Sihanouk died at the age of 89 or 90 (Cambodians count time spent in the womb as a year) in a Chinese hospital. I got a text from the Peace Corps office this morning to inform all volunteers about what had happened. It was bizarre to be woken up by a text that said “The King has died.” I don’t care. I don’t know exactly what he was doing in China, it could be that they have better hospitals or maybe he was making business with some Chinese guy who wanted to take more land from Cambodia. Whatever it was it is not important to me. Notice the indifference, which by the way I blame on my newfound value in selfishness thanks to Ayn Rand whose books I accidentally discovered while almost bored. I felt nothing. People die all the time and honestly I dislike political figures especially monarchies or anything that has to do with hierarchy. Funny I dislike all that but I’m here living in a culture where hierarchy dominates and dictates the daily activities and interactions of millions, which I will get into a lot more later on. I asked my Cambodian friend, Soviet, whom I will be mentioning a lot, if he was sad about the king dying and he said no. At least he didn’t laugh hysterically like my host family when I asked them if they were sad that the king had died. Soviet then proceeded to tell me in English that the king was half robot. A little confused, I asked what he meant…(inside I was laughing so loud.) Apparently the king was in China because of health reasons and he had some artificial organs, which according to Soviet, included his heart, lungs, stomach, and everything else necessary to live. We are both very visual people with a similar sense of humor so we sat, visualized this description, and laughed about it as we ate some awesome Vietnamese vegetable crepes. Now, that isn’t to say that Cambodian people don’t care about the king’s passing. Some Cambodian people have taken the king’s passing very seriously. The Royal Palace in the capital has received thousands and thousands of mourners after his body was returned to Cambodia. According to what I’ve heard, people will be able to visit the Royal Palace where his body shall remain for three months.
So check this out. I went to Phnom Penh soon after the king died. The streets were ever so busy and certain city blocks around the Royal Palace were blocked off to vehicles. Now Phnom Penh, is the capital of Cambodia, and as might be expected it has the largest population of any city in the country. The streets are overrun by hundreds and hundreds of tuk tuks, which are motorcycles with a cabin attached to the rear. Well, I was cycling around the city one night getting from place to place, dodging dangerous tuk tuk drivers and moto drivers when after a while of sensing something was off, I noticed people kept looking up at the sky. I continued biking but from the corner of my eye I could see people looking up, so when I could I risked a glance to see what exactly they were looking at. There was nothing to be seen other than a crescent moon, which everyone has seen before. Na, there had to be something else, but I just didn’t care enough to ask in Khmer, “Hey sir, would you mind telling me what you are so intently staring at up in the sky?” So after coming back to my permanent residence in Battambang province, up in northern Cambodia, I was asked by a Khmer person if I had seen the King on the moon. Immediately, I connected the dots and realized then why everyone back in Phnom Penh was looking up at the sky. They were looking at the King’s face on the moon. How silly of me! Why didn’t I see that coming. The best thing though was when I actually saw a photoshopped image of the Kings face on the moon somewhere in a shop. It made me so happy deep down inside to see that someone had actually gone through the trouble of forcing the two images together. And just today, I went to sit on the riverfront at night where the reflection of scattered building lights along the river made for a beautiful starry night down below from where I was sitting. The moon was out and all was quiet as most Cambodians go to bed early, when this local man comes and sits next to me. He was such a friendly guy and he also smelled of alcohol. I was in a good mood after having a coconut fruit shake so I made it easy for him to start a conversation with me by breaking the ice and saying in Cambodian, “How are you?” His eyes sparkled under the moonlight and his smile spread wider across his face. “You speak Cambodian?” he asked incredulously. “Yes, I’ve been in Cambodia for fifteen months” I replied. “Wow, you know so much.” I really don’t know all that much, but it is easy to impress Cambodians with the little Khmer that foreigners are willing to learn so we shared small talk until eventually I asked if he was sad that the king had died, all the while I purposefully looked up at the moon. I was hoping he’d say something about the king being up there. He did! Not only that, he pointed and examined it looking for traces of the king. It took about two whole minutes before the man found the king on the moon. Pointing up at it, as if that were proof enough, he asked excited, “You see? You see?” I consider myself an open minded guy and didn’t want to close myself off to the possibility of actually seeing the king up there, so I went along with it and hurt my eyes straining. “No” I replied. “I don’t see him” He then told me how to find him. “Look at the dark side of the moon, and then go down, and then right.” “I still don’t see him” I replied. “Today it’s not so clear, but yesterday and the day before yesterday it was very clear and you could see the King,” he said in Khmer.
Cambodia goes to bed as early as seven thirty every night, which creates a beautiful balance for those who thrive in chaos and those who require the time and space to withdraw from it. A smile and the happiness that triggers it are the last thing I am aware of when I finally go to sleep at the end of every night. The transition to the semi silence when darkness arrives is such a polar opposite to the raucous of the day. It is the small sounds that remind me of my existence. Cambodia is still alive at night, only now that the humans have turned their radios off and are resting their vocal pipes, can the creatures of the night be heard. This life outside is what encouraged me to start peeing out of my window; to participate. I took pleasure in the act. How could I not. A natural release while witnessing the moonlit landscape along with the mysterious shadows that bend and twist through the greenery made me feel like a contributor to the natural night life. One truly magical experience only happens at night when the rice fields reach up for the stars. One star for every stem it seems. Frogs in the rice paddies sing to the constellations and these respond by shooting one of their own down to our plane, in acknowledgment. I’d never seen nebula clouds nor was I sure of ever seeing galaxies, but I saw all of this one day as I stood in the muddy terrain along the paddies. Mosquitoes demanded my attention but I did not give it to them. Suck all you want I thought. I won’t kill you tonight. How could I? No violent act could be perpetrated on a night such as this, and with such a spectacle. Standing outside in the middle of this phenomenon made me feel invincible and thankful for my existence. It was only during this time that I loved everyone and everything. If only the coldest of hearts could be brought to this land and allowed to contemplate I thought, we’d live in a different world. But like all truly majestic things, only under unique circumstances can things such as these be appreciated. Perhaps my circumstance was that of being alone with no one to share, starved for real living; not boxed away in some air conditioned room trying to keep my virtual self ever present in the minds of my online “friends.” I was happier than I’d ever been. Another beautiful thing to witness are the Battambang clouds which sometimes grant me these visions of the universe, through their openings. But they also hide them in the dark sky, and it seems to be in their nature to turn spectators into addicts wanting, needing more, only to keep the treasure hidden until the next magical night. I always walk out with my eyes looking up to heavens hoping to get a glance of that cosmic display.
Another thing that Cambodia has to offer is an endless display of smiles. I’m not talking about those unconvincing lip twitches that last half a second with no participation from the eyes. ( I’m thinking about Tyra Banks and her “smile with your eyes.” ) Well, it’s true. You can tell when someone is truly smiling, by looking at their eyes. Cambodian people have genuine smiles, and they do it so often. I don’t know why, but I’ve convinced myself that it has to do with the sun. They are true children of the sun, projecting light. You understand what I’m talking about if you’ve ever been to Cambodia. Anyway, I think it is popular knowledge that people who live in warm places are generally a lot more friendly and happier than those who live in the cold. It can’t be just that though, because I’ve been to Mexico, Malaysia, Thailand, Italy and although all of the people of those countries are nice, Cambodians are so much nicer. It is also a country of children, of innocence. According to the 2009 Unicef “Situation Analysis on Youth in Cambodia, over 40% of Cambodia’s population ins under the age of 18. It is impossible to ride down the street on my bicycle without hearing a hello from either side of the road. “Hello, hello, hello!” followed by giggles and laughs. I’m sure if they knew more English they’d stop me and try to have a whole conversation with me. Just the other day, I was riding my bike on my way to the ATM, when this youngster rode up on his motorcycle and said hello. I wasn’t in a particularly good mood but I responded with a hello as well. Still riding by my side, and after about thirty seconds, he asks me in English where I’m going. “to the ATM,” I tell him. He then asks how long I have been in Cambodia (still in English.) I respond. “Oh, and where do you work?” I told him and then he say’s, “Okay, bye bye!” I couldn’t help but smile after that. He actually managed to put me in a good mood and I’m sure that it was not his intention to come and brighten up my day. “Hey, I’m gonna go make that foreigner happy.” No, he was just being friendly like the majority of the Cambodian population. Funny enough, right after he took off, I turned a street only to hear a loud maniacal laugh. It caught me off guard, so I looked for the source, and found it sitting on a bench smiling hard and looking straight at me. I don’t know what I had done to make her so happy, but she made me happy back. If you’d seen the way she was acting, you’d think she was on crack, but she was just excited about something. Back in the states, I would avoid her. Here in Cambodia, I wanted to be her best friend.