In the End…

When I began my journey to Southeast Asia I was filled with ecstasy. I firmly believe that what ever gene predisposes you to the desire to travel is not only present inside of me, but has caused some mutations. My desires to travel were laced with excitement for a change in scenery to the ability to expand my global knowledge. What I did not prepare myself for was that the trip would be incredibly humbling and have a lasting effect on the rest of my life. I did not know that in the attempt to unplug and dive into the culture abroad, I would reenter my life back in the state with a similar disconnect.

From the beginning of the trip visiting young entrepreneurs to the end of the trip witnessing water bring people to life, my typical line of thought was morphed and molded into a mindset that I’ve remained in, still three weeks post trip. Speaking with James and Tyler injected me with the urge to be a go-getter. They left me feeling like there’s absolutely no excuse and that even in the worst of times, the situation could always be worse. You have to seize what you’re made of, harness your abilities, and put them into action. That attitude bled through the rest of the trip. As we visited social enterprises in Vientam and Cambodia, like STREETS International, Reaching Out, and Angkor Artisans, I was immediately confronted by my thoughts to expand. However, I also picked apart the pieces of all of the enterprises we visited and said, “Okay. This is great, but what would make it better?” When we arrived in Pnohm Penh, that attitude turned into frustration

There was much to harness,  much to seize. Yet, what I was presenting was a level of disgust and frustration with humanity. I like to think that those feelings were grounding. So far on the trip we’d been visiting places that have created responses to the risky problems of poverty, and were successful. Now, we were being reminded that things don’t always work out and there is much left to address. That sentiment remained on the rest of the trip. As we traveled to Svey Rieng I noticed that the risky problems had spread like wildfire. A nation, stained by the atrocities instilled by their own government, people with broken walls of trust, now had to rebuild themselves. Naturally, the first reaction is to want to help.

Western mindset sees a problem searches for a solution. We have the contrasting monochronic mindset needed in a polychronic world. As the world is ever-changing and constantly influenced by outside forces, operating on a system that looks at point A and asks how to get to point B only leaves you clueless, reckless, and ineffective. We, as citizens of the planet, need to not be so shallow minded. We need to know that there’s more out there than just ourselves, that there’s more than just your county, your state, and your country. We need to constantly asking question, searching to build relationships, be willing to adapt, and be open to new ideas.

If you enter a travel journey with as open of a mind as you can possibly pry, if you don’t ever settle for certainty, if you don’t try to travel or certain why or maintain expectations, you will have a greater impact on yourself and those around you. I don’t want to sound like an expert on the matter, but I do want to stress that in my travels I managed to disconnect from life back home. What that has left me with is the inability to reconnect in the way that I was was. My values and attitudes were shifted and realized that I didn’t travel to escape life, but for life not to escape me. Don’t let it escape. Don’t fall in the rut of routine, you will only regret the choices you didn’t make and the opportunities you didn’t grasp.

An anonymous person once said, “Life begins just past your comfort zone.” So be uncomfortable. Try new things and challenge yourself not to see new things but to see things with different eyes.

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The Roller Coaster 05-24-15

Our last day in Svay Rieng was short as we had plans to travel back to Ho Chi Minh City that afternoon. Today was the beginning of what would leave a lasting impression on my life. I was venturing back to my normal routine after being so deeply engrained in everything else but myself. I began to notice I became more of an introvert on this trip than I previously had been, which is pretty introverted if you know me. I began to think analytically and felt that everyone around me acted in cynicism. I noticed complaining and self-interest more.

Ya serenades us after breakfast on our departing day.

Ya serenades us after breakfast on our departing day.

Comments about the heat, being hungry, being tired, and more made my skin crawl. How could we have anything to complain about? We just witnessed children that may or may not have water at home. We saw children displaced from their families just so they could receive an education. We saw a family build their latrine so that they had somewhere to defecate. We saw a community welcome us with warm arms and feed us a feast. It brought me back to the thoughts of what it means to be rich.

All of us (minus Heather), on the back of the work truck.

All of us (minus Heather), on the back of the work truck.

This entire trip I felt as if all of my life up to this point, I’ve been living poor. Leaving Svay Rieng I reminisced on all of the rich people I saw in an area deeply impoverished. I started to feel guilty, but then I remembered a debrief we had with Josh from Wine to Water. We talked about how you should never feel guilty. You should harness those feelings into being able to understand that we have absolutely no excuse not to live up to our full potential and be the best human we can be. Whether or not that entails participating in international relief efforts or not, be all that you can with no hesitation. If it does involve international development, remember that time is polychronic. You should never be focused on “getting things done” or focusing on one aspect of poverty. Poverty is a risky problem which has many responses. The first step for any aspect of poverty brings us back to our innate desires, relationships.

Poverty is the direct result of a broken relationship. To break the barrier of trust issue, you need to get to know someone and then the community.

Wells and Hygiene 05-23-15

Forget everything you’ve ever known about digging wells. Forget what you think they look like. This is taking third world ingenuity to an entirely different level. I actually don’t like that term “third world” because it establishes what is desirable to achieve. It sets a standard of what it means to be successful. I prefer developing world but for the sake of describing, I’ll call it third world ingenuity. The rig was constructed entirely out of local materials, tire tubes used as an electrical tape and fastener, engines from old cars, and completely man powered. Because it is uses locally sourced materials, a quick stop at the market can fix any issue. On the same tune, because it is locally sourced, it’s not a structurally sound as, say an imported rig, and breaks down quite a bit. In fact, we had to wait while they made some repairs on the well before we went to the site.

The well rig

The well rig

Giving the rig a push start

Giving the rig a push start

The site was the home of an elderly woman, who now has to live with her children because she doesn’t have a well. For the time she was living in her home she went to the neighboring homes to borrow water from their well. Not only does this establish vulnerability but it creates tension with the neighbors. Picture your neighbor coming over to your house to use your hose any time they had to bathe, cook, clean, etc. Now picture how you would feel if you were the neighbor asking for water. That was this woman, and she was elderly. So, walking back and forth with a bucket of water can be a burden.

Well site

Well site

While at the site, again, we did very little “dirty work” considering the nature of the project. There four men that were the only men in the world that knew how to operate the rig, therefore they maned that. We were able to build a reservoir to bring water close to the rig because the rig needed water to operate. We were able to bring buckets of water to the reservoir. We were able to be of assistance any time they asked. But, again, we weren’t there to work. We were there to learn about well drilling and where the waterbed lies in Cambodia. We learned how low it sits in the dry season, the season we were there, and how it’s beneficial to drill in the dry season so the well doesn’t run out. We learned that once a reservoir does run out, it takes about 2 hours to replenish itself. Without hands-on activity, we were able to observe and think critically.

Critical thinking led to observations of the sense of community. Little children from the village came to see the well. Probably because they saw white skin, but once they were there they saw something different. The young boys were pointing to the rig, touching the soil that came up, inquiring about how it works. It was like we were seeing the birth of young engineers. They saw work being done for the people by the people. Work ethic also presides far beyond description. The rig workers were there from morning until evening with just one 32oz bottle of water. They wouldn’t stop until they found water. They used primitive methods that made the modern mechanic laughable. A student I was with, Andrew, has a family background in mining. He was amazed at the ability of the team of men to dig a well with very limited resources. The only “tool” in site was a ho, handsaw, and a wrench. Andrew made this statement and I couldn’t help but laugh but also think of how pathetic it is, “We would ask someone back home to complete a project and they would say, ‘I can’t’. They had an entire shed of tools and couldn’t. These guys did it all with hardly anything!”. He was right. But is it our lack of ability, our lack of drive, or our incompetence that causes the “can’t” to surface. Have we been spoiled too much with fast results and easy routes, that we have given up on ourselves? It’s pathetic.

The well took essentially all day to dig. We took a break from the site and went to deliver a hygiene lesson to a school, another Kone Kmeng site. This school hosted around 150 young children who were oozing with enthusiasm. Our group broke into two. One group would be talking about hand washing and the other would talk about dental hygiene. My group talked about hand washing and demonstrated the spread of germs with sunscreen. We put sunscreen on our hands and touched various things to show how germs spread. Then, we explained why it’s important to wash your hands and when. Communicating to bright-eyed children who speak no English was a game of charades. Luckily, Ya served as our translator and his teaching skills were in full-speed yet again. He got the children and the adults bursting with laughter. Who knew hygiene could be so funny, right?

Introducing ourselves to the children

Introducing ourselves to the children

GERMS!

GERMS!

It wasn’t all laughs and fun though. I noticed during the dental hygiene lesson that one of the children that volunteered to demonstrate brushing teeth had a bloody mouth. My immediate thought was that he may have brushed too hard but upon further deliberation I assumed that there had to be more underlying issues, maybe gum disease. What if this was the first time that boy had brushed his teeth in his life? My heart again was torn. It seemed to have this feeling a lot in Cambodia. On the one hand I was happy that at least now he would know how to brush his teeth. On the other, what happens when he runs out of the supplies we provided, (we provided bags with a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, soap, and shampoo to the children) would his family be able to purchase more? This was the closest thing to a handout that we participated in. In fact, you could quite possibly call it a handout. I like to think that the lesson was sustainable and that the children would tell all of their friends and family about it in hopes of them jumping on board. I can only think that. It’s been two weeks since we’ve been there and it pains me to know those supplies probably did run out.

The young boy who's mouth bled.

The young boy who’s mouth bled.

And I’m here, living my “normal”, comfortable, western, spoiled life. And they’re there.

Svay Rieng 05-22-15

By this point in the trip, I’ve noticed my critical thinking cap is fastened tight. Today we went to into the field. Driving through the countryside seemed picturesque until my thinking gap started asking questions. The group split into two groups, one stayed at a house to teach water sanitation and how to use the water filters, and the other went to go build a latrine. We were able to experience the first water filter distribution ever done by Kone Kmeng. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Ya give his teaching lesson for the first time ever, but fortunately the opportunity presented itself to see him during the second presentation later in the day. Also fortunately, is my opportunity to witness latrine building. I’d never build one before or even understood the process.

Unloading filters at the first site

Unloading filters at the first site

Filter

Filter

As parts started to come together I thought in my head “Oh so this does this. Oh that goes there. OH!! HOW COOL!”. I know right, who knew toilets could be so interesting. BUT I LOVED IT! All of the fun and tomboy joy that presides inside of me began to come to a halt as I observed the scene analytically. If I could break it down into three main points it would be these:

1. How could I be filled with joy knowing that 1 in 5 children die of a waterborne illness, most commonly diarrhea? How could I be jittery when I notice that there’s 5 children here, one of which looks young and sick? How could I be smiling when the children are running around naked, dirty, and haven’t had anywhere to defecate until now? Well, hope. Now this family is just one step closer to living a healthy life and I was a part of that.

2. I said witness latrine building because much of it was done by the locals and homeowner, not us. When we arrived to the scene the hole for the latrine was near completion, a daunting feat to go through clay yet they performed it effortlessly. They let the boys hack away with an axe but laughed as they were not nearly efficient. They let me mix the cement, also laughing. It’s interesting how the gender stereotypes are so prevalent but more interesting is their eagerness to complete the work themselves leading to my last point.

3. Their inclusion of our work, much less our presence, really displayed their level of trust. To let white foreigners into their land is a huge act of hospitality. What’s important to understand is that we weren’t there to offer handouts. We were there to learn about latrine building, to understand how Kone Khmeng has been doing work with the community, and to observe techniques specific to that area.

The other half of the group at the first filter distribution site.

The other half of the group at the first filter distribution site.

After our first field experience, we head to the home where the first filter distribution was made to have lunch. This was probably the least enticing of my culinary cuisines but it was still an experience. Heather suggested we fill up on snacks and politely eat a small amount of the food. She noticed that the dogs, of course not immunized, were drinking from the cookware. I noticed that compared to Vietnam, Cambodians utilized more of their ingredients. Whole chickens, talons intestines, liver, and all were in a soup. A whole fish, eyeballs and skin were served for lunch. This isn’t the first time I’d seen a whole fish so it didn’t bother me. However, I think that whatever was in that food, or poor sanitation practices, got me sick.

Ya inserting the "exhaust" for the latrine

Ya inserting the “exhaust” for the latrine

I noticed while eating, that there was a huge divide between us and the locals, such a divide that we were sitting at different tables. Throughout the day I noticed that Brad and Josh, the Wine to Water representative, made continuous efforts to lessen that divide by being inclusive. Brad would teach the children of the village instead of taking pictures of them. Josh sat at the table with the locals during lunch. In doing so, they’ve already begin to break the boundary of stereotypes. We often feel the need to assist in international aid to fill a guilt void within us. When we do it for the sake of ourselves and not for the people who we’re there to empower, we strengthen the stereotype of westerners coming in with their money and power and providing handouts. Perhaps that’s why the ground partners didn’t want us too involved with construction.

Later we went to go to a second filter distribution site. I was very fortunate to have seen Ya deliver the instructional lesson. Keep in mind this is only his second time EVER doing it and the second time EVER for Kone Kmeng to deliver filters. He had me fooled. Speaking in Khmer, even I understood what he was saying because of the detailed pictures, his voice fluctuations, and pausing. I noticed how some members of the audience were more interested and enthused than others. It’s interesting to see how a few women of a village can spark a shared sentiment. Although I didn’t attend the previous distribution, the students said the women were far more eager than they were here. Why is that? Maybe it’s because there were more of us and it could have been overwhelming to them. But then we were told of a weather-related fear.

Lightning deaths are very common in the wide open fields of the countryside. Because of this fact, many people stay inside when a storm comes. A storm was brewing the entire time of the filtration system lesson and we noticed when it was time to pass out the filters, there were some people missing. It’s mandatory for whomever purchased the filter to attend the training, or else they can’t receive it. Many fellow villagers were trying to blame the lightning on lack of attendance and deliver the filters to their neighbors. Ya and Kone Khmeng wouldn’t allow that. There are several good business practices that have developed from trial and error in the past. This was one of them. They didn’t want to hand out filters and have them not know what to do with them or improperly use them. Another was that they wanted to follow up. To do so, they took a picture of the person while they received their filter. As I helped pass out the filters and they were taking my picture, I was originally uncomfortable. I felt like the locals were doing it to give me a good Facebook photo were only subscribing to the negative outcomes of volunteer tourism. But then I realized it was for follow-up purposes and it gave me a good feeling. It made me appreciate the sustainability of Kone Khmeng.

After dinner and a long day of learning, we ventured to another Kone Khmeng establishment. A dormitory just minutes from our hotel houses students who live away from home to receive an education. Ranging from ages 10-21, the students are given a chance to learn subjects like English, Math, Science, and History, that they would otherwise not receive from home. We sat and talked with the students, they taught us some Khmer, and we tried to teach them English. I think they were teaching us more though to be honest. I learned how to count from one to five, how to say “I love you”, and they taught us a phrase that I still don’t understand the meaning of. Whatever it was though, they laughed hysterically every time we said it. The children, all so very different in age, were tightly interwoven and warm hearted. They taught us more than just their language. The taught unconditional love and how to make the most of your situation. They were eager and loving. They were happy and joyful. We can all learn a lot from someone even if you can’t understand anything their saying.

Tattoos at the dormitory

Tattoos at the dormitory

Water Works and Stagnant Progression 05-21-15

Today we saw the inner workings of a company that goes beyond water works. This company has utilized local materials to bring jobs, health education and sanitation, and most importantly, clean water to rural Cambodian villages. RDI, Research Development International, has a ceramic water filter factory that has developed a system catered to that region. For international development and relief work, it is important to consider that there is no cookie cutter mold that works in every location. Each country and even regions within that country will have constantly revolving issues specific to them and therefore you must be able to adapt and develop methods for that area.

Artistic clay and rice husk used to make the pots

Artistic clay and rice husk used to make the pots

Blending the ingredients into large chunks to be molded into a pot.

Blending the ingredients into large chunks to be molded into a pot.

RDI has done a wonderful job at sourcing local materials, clay and rice husk, to form terra-cotta like pots that filter water. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Specific details down to the type of clay used matters. RDI uses an artists type of clay that is easier to shape, but also the right porosity to capture parasites. Once formed, a gentlemen smooths out the pots to work out the indentions from the mold. Aesthetically pleasing goods dictate high quality and credibility for the locals. The clay pots are then impregnated with a silver bath because silver acts as a natural antimicrobial agent. Once completed, the clay pots go into a plastic holding container.Water is poured into the pot and filters out into the holding container and is ready for consumption.

Smoothing out the pots

Smoothing out the pots

Finished pots after fired in kiln.

Finished pots after fired in kiln.

The science behind this type of water filter is not new in the scene. In fact, Potters For Peace uses this technology worldwide. What is specific to this area is the materials used to make the pots and the methods of education. In sort of a neapolitan ice-cream fashion RDI, Kone Khmeng, and Wine to Water all work together. RDI develops the “technology”, Kone Khmeng works on educating and doing work in the field, and Wine to Water is the guiding hand along the way.

Finished filtration system

Finished filtration system

Water testing lab.

Water testing lab.

Something very reputable about Wine to Water is that they don’t go into any project in any country and tell them what’s “right” or “wrong”.  They go in with the knowledge, like Brad Ponack a renowned water sanitation specialists and engineer, to help the ground partners negotiate and think of proper methods. With Wine to Water’s presence, they’ve managed to introduce new ideas of sanitation, where you should build a well in relation to a latrine, and how a latrine should be constructed to prevent contaminating well water.

RDI offered information overload, it was in a way another show of “How It’s Made”. However, we were in for a bonus treat because we get to see these filters in action. It was like we were following a crumb trail towards the big finale. Following that crumb trail really allows you to understand the complexity of having a sustainable business model. You must be detailed and focused on every aspect along the trail to establish positive relationships and successful reputations within the community. Along this trail, RDI has gained knowledge of the Cambodian culture. For example, the system of bargaining is engrained in the culture. Therefore, if the price for the filters is set at $20, they have room for negotiation to the end of profit margin at $13.50.

From the ceramic clay factory we traveled to the Svay Rieng province. It is here, the pinnacle of rural cambodia, that we would be doing work with Wine to Water. It is also here that poverty seemed most rampant. To compare to my experience in Costa Rica, Svay Rieng was still well developed. We didn’t see any houses composed of thatch and hay, mostly everybody has a well on site, thanks to Kone Kmeng for providing over 500 in the community. But to compare it to Ho Chi Minh City, which was just hours drive away and in the heart of the city, was like night and day. Ho Chi Minh is the largest city in Vietnam and growing at an exponential rate. The population exceeds 9 million and by the end of 2014 the GDP grew by 8.9%. In Svay Rieng, the population is just over 400,000.

Being essentially a geographic skip away, Svay Rieng seems unable to grasp onto the reigns of development. You begin to ask why. Then you remember incidents imposed by the Khmer Rogue, a wipe out of 25% of the population just 40 years ago. Such a recent even in Cambodian history has not only dramatically sized down the population to young people, but it wiped out the intellects, the artists, the creativity, and also the hope. The citizens of Cambodia have been seriously stained by the events surrounding the Khmer Rouge and left at the disadvantage while cities just hours by boom with prosperity. Then you begin to question what it would take to bring them back to where they could potentially be. Perhaps the government. Perhaps the people. But when the people fear the government, progress is stagnant. When people try to protest to ask for better wage and are shot by the police, something that happened just months ago, progress is stagnant. When the locals say when asked about their government “We can’t say much. We’re not allowed to talk about him [the prime minister]”, progress is stagnant. There’s a lot to digest about the stagnant progression of a nation that once had the chance to be as flourished as it’s neighboring country.

For further information about Cambodia check out the documentary”Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll”

The Hidden Stain 05-20-15

Overnight bus rides. Oh, joy. We left Siem Reap around midnight to take a bus ride to Pnohm Penh at 5:30 am. A bumpy road, a hard mat, and some picked up hitchhikers led the way. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. It wasn’t a blast but everything is an experience and that was a first. Melatonin and some earplugs managed to rock me in a constant lullaby, so sleeping wasn’t too much of an issue. I suppose if it were, then maybe I’d sing to a different tune.

View from my bed in the bus

View from my bed in the bus

We arrive in Pnohm Penh as scheduled, just not where scheduled. You see, the bus was supposed to arrange to take us to our hotel. The bus driver was clearly swangry (a word we made up to describe being swampy hot, hungry, and angry) and didn’t care where we needed to be or when. He wanted us off of that bus right then and there.

Eventually, two tut-tut’s (taxi), a hotel, and an hour later, we made it to where we needed to be. Sleepy, moody, and swangry. We have breakfast at GReen Pasture Inn, a story to come later, and then travel to S-21.

To little surprise, I’m sure many of you reading this would not know who or what the Khmer Rouge was. Unfortunately it’s so because of the limited and biased history education we receive. However, sadly, the events expelled by the Khmer Rouge are not too far in our past. From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rogue operated as the ruling Cambodian party. Communists by definition, the Khmer aimed to establish an agrarian society by executing forced labor, malnutrition, executions, mass killings, and torture. What began as an attack on the educated and artistic class turned into a mass genocide harming at least 25% of the population.

S-21 was formerly an old high school and turned into a torture house and prison. In the four years of horrific operation, some 17,000 people were killed. At any one time, there were 1,000-2,000 people held captive. Prisoners were tortured, threatened, and had to witness atrocities of family members being killed and tortured in front of them. Methods of torture including retelling your autobiography and any time you mentioned a family member, someone recorded their name to go find them and bring them in as a prisoner.

Of the 17,000 victims, three survivors are alive to retell their story today, two of which we had the honor of meeting. Chum Mey and Bou Meng both have written autobiographies attempting to capture the horrors they faced. Bou Meng was kept alive because his captors felt his artistic abilities were something to restore. In his biography he tells storied of a method of torture. Prisoners were asked to defecate into a small hole, if they missed, they had to lick up the residue. Bou Meng also tells the story of his wife being killed and him hearing her yell for mercy. Graphic details are far and in-between what I’m able to articulate, however, I highly recommend doing some research on this topic.

After S-21, we went back to Green Pastuer Inn to learn about Kone Kmeng, ground partners that we would be working with while in the Svay Rien province. Without getting into too much detail, because I know it will be far more interesting to see the company in action on the field, Kone Kmeng began with a few strong visionaries sparked by a single dream in the middle of the night. Kone Kmeng’s original goal and dream was to help the children of Cambodia. With missions to help children at risk, they’ve also managed to help relief and development assistance, children’s prayer movements, and a dorm ministry program. We would be learning about the relief and development assistance.

Overwhelmed with all that was soon in store, we head to The Killing Fields. An emotionally riveting, disturbing, and powerfully rich preservation of the atrocities imposed by the Khmer Rogue. The Killing Fields hosts a number of mass grave sites where over 1,000,000 people were killed. We decided to tour the fields at our own pace without a guide. Reading the signs you learned the ways that the victims were killed. One of the most chilling scenes is “The Killing Tree”. It was here that executioner would pick up children by their ankles and impail them against the trees until they were dead. The silence in the air was filled with so many thoughts and voices of the victims that passed. Innocent deaths flooded the fields. As we walked around I soon noticed that we were walking amongst the bones of the victims. Being such a large site of a mass killing, not all of the bones were excavated.

The Killing Tree

The Killing Tree

"Magic Tree" - This tree was used to hang a speaker that played a loud noise to mask the noise of moans from dying victims.

“Magic Tree” – This tree was used to hang a speaker that played a loud noise to mask the noise of moans from dying victims.

As tears rushed down my face, I questioned humanity and became disgusted with evil that can preside within anyone. With even the smallest ounce of power, that evil can manifest and wipe out a population. Members of their own nationally wanted, and felt absolutely no remorse, with wiping out their own race, their own brothers and sisters. How deep can the seeds of evil plant themselves within an army of sick minded individuals? I also began to question why the U.S. felt on one end, no need to intervene, and on the other end, no end to educate about this atrocious event. I muddled the thought over and over and came to a conclusion, it did not involve us so why should we involve ourselves? However, it’s completely okay to involve ourselves in an attempt to end communism in Vietnam and have a similar effect on the destruction of a population at the Khmer Rouge had. *Sigh*

A stupa houses some of the remains of the victims. This one labels the age and gender of the victims.

A stupa houses some of the remains of the victims. This one labels the age and gender of the victims.

A fraction of the skulls from victims.

A fraction of the skulls from victims.

Siem Reap 05-19-15

The last time I was up at 4am was because I was celebrating through the night. This time it would be to celebrate something entirely different. We were on our way to watch the sunrise Angkor Wat. After just 4 hours of sleep, I was up and ready at 4:15 for a view that brought tears to my eyes.

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Sunrise outside of the moat

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Angkor Wat was originally built at the Hindu capital for the Khmer Empire and transformed into a Buddhist temple by the 12th center. That means this place has been standing for roughly 1000 years… Because of the transfer from Hindu to Buddhist purpose, some of the carvings and statues have been removed.  The structures have managed to be preserved in such a way that still baffles me. On top of that, 5,000-6,000 visitors come to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples per day. It’s been named one of the largest tourists attractions in the world and is also the filming site for Tomb Raider. Various conservation efforts are in place on a daily basis.

Hindu fragments have been taken out

Hindu fragments have been taken out

Detail of carvings on the interior

Detail of carvings on the interior

In the late afternoon we traveled to Angkor Artisans, a social enterprise with a very similar business platform to Reaching Out. Aimed at providing the underprivileged youth and misrepresented members of the population with a job, crafts ranged from basket weaving to soap making. One aspect present in Angkor Artisans that did not exist at Reaching Out was the presence of a working garden. Here, artisans crafted soaps, spices, teas, wines and many more. It really got my agricultural gear grinding and I thought of Costa Rica and the sustainable farm I worked on.

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Workers at Angkor Artisans work under fair trade principles and receive healthcare. However, to compare the two; Reaching out is privately owned and operated more efficiently. It seems that the workers at Angkor Artisans followed a mold of what to create, ultimately hindering creativity. Angkor Artisans also seemed to be owned and operated by the government. To compare the two in an extremely drastic and skewed way, it can be compared to social welfare and a NGO.

Later in the evening we were in for a sensory treasure. Phare, a Cambodian circus, focuses on providing education through the arts. Young children who are facing difficult times in the home or are living on the streets can come to this school to heal and express themselves through art. Art ranges from performing arts to music and studio art. The show that we saw, “Sokha”, retells the story of a girl who is haunted by the destruction exposed by the Khmer Rouge. Traumatized by grueling nightmares and memories, she harnesses this energy to dedicate in education through the arts. This story and all of the stories performed are based on real stories of the members of Phare. Sokha tells the story of the founding members and their struggle to overcome the stain of trauma after being refugees in Thailand.

Performers at Phare

Performers at Phare

Amazing coordination and balance

Amazing coordination

The most amazing component of the show is the ability to harness the passion and emotion from the performers. You truly get a sense of their dedication and commitment to the arts. You also begin to question their upbringing and what brought them to where they are. What traumatizing event has led them to dedicate themselves to becoming the most powerfully talented artists in all of Cambodia?

Today we went from a typical tourists destination, which don’t get me wrong is a must see, to a more sustainable model of tourism. When foreign money is being brought into a country, it is very important to understand where that money is being spent and if it’s going to a good cause. For example, many people think of Southeast Asia and say “OMG ELEPHANT RIDES!” and I think to myself “OMG LET ME TORTURE YOU THE WAY THEYRE TORTURED AND SEE IF YOU WANT TO GO FOR RIDE!”. Granted, not every elephant sanctuary practices inhumanely, but that’s why it’s important to do your research. I feel highly comfortable recommending anybody in Cambodia to visit the Phare circus because it’s for a well established and sustainable cause.

A Tailor’s Story of Rags to Riches 05-18-15

I really don’t like the saying “rags to riches” because it has a western connotation of what it means to be “rich”. In my travels around Southeast Asia, I’ve encountered some people who, to our standards, would be considered very poor. Based off of a system that measure success on monetary value and material possessions, we’ve redefined the word “rich”. To you, it might be defined as having possessions or material wealth, or being very expensive, beautiful, or impressive. But what bout the other meanings such as, “vivid or deep in color”, “magnificently impressive”, or “pure or nearly pure”.

As the days went on, I noticed that our definition of becoming rich has in fact left us poor in so many other ways. Similarly, who we consider “poor” is rich in so many different ways. The drive to success and money has left us starving for familial connections, close relationships, and a sense of community. No longer do we know, or care to know, about our neighbors. Too often we work long hours with no vacation time to afford that brand new car, or to live in the neighborhood of our dreams. In doing so, we’ve lost touch with some of our innate desires, relationships, and values. This post is about a woman who has not only rose from the ashes but has maintained true to herself along the way.

For those of you that may be reading this and went on the trip with me might have been thinking “I can’t believe she left out Lien!” That is because I wanted to dedicate this day to her, the day she shared her story. For those of you who don’t know, Lien is a tailor in Hoi An. However, Lien is more than just a tailor, she is a well-established entrepreneur. At Yen Dung Tailor Shop she draws in just about anybody that walks by with her ora of joy. In a group of 7, Lien was able to measure us as we chose our fabric and have our pieces ready by the next day.

The journey actually began 05/15 when we had our first measurements, and the next day we had our first fitting… all of us. And I’m not talking one t-shirt here, one kimono there, two of us had custom suits, one guy had two jackets, I had a peacoat, and the list goes on. Over twelve articles of clothing were ready for fitting THE NEXT DAY!

When we went in for our fitting, you were able to tell her if you didn’t like the way it fell here or pulled there. If you did like it and everything looked “perfect”, she found at least one alteration to make. She truly has the eye. Despite her continued service of excellence, her story has not always been one of fine craft.

Today she shared her story. One that is emotionally drenched and unsuspecting when you see the radiant glow of affection that surrounds her. Lien grew up in a divorced household. Divorce is not as abundant as cornfields as it is here, it’s something that is highly ostracized and shunned by an entire community. Because of that seclusions, Lien lived in a very economically stressed household growing up. She began working at age ten in construction, also something extremely societally strange. A female working in construction is almost laughed at in a Mulan songlike way. My recollection is spotty but if I remember correctly, she was married at 16. In modern wedding tradition, it is common for the newly married couple to go home to their own house. However, because Lien was not yet well off and her husband did not have much to his name, they went the traditional route and went to his home with his parents. Lien now had to tend to a household of 7 by taking on all of their dishes, laundry, cooking, and also dealing with the surfacing of a husband who was an abusive alcoholic.

Lien found work in Hugo Tailor shop. It was here that she began to establish her flourishing business. One customer in particular developed a strong relationship with her. They were from either, again memory fog, The Netherlands or Denmark. News struck Lien like the weight of whale that she had breast cancer. Lien said she cried and cried every day only because she feared for her daughter. When a man with children who is desperate for money and living in Vietnam runs out of options, selling their children to sex slavery is not unheard of. Lien feared that sense he had been jobless throughout their entire marriage, there would soon come a day when he’d consider that option.

Tears written all over her face, the couple ran into Lien and knew something was wrong. Although she insisted that everything was okay, showing weakness or vulnerability is unheard of in the culture, the couple eventually pried it out of her and understood her condition. Without hesitation they offered to pay for her cancer treatment and to give her $20,000 to construct her new home. That’s A LOT of money in Vietnamese standards. While she was undergoing treatment, another brave soul and App State graduate, Tyler, had prepared, drafted, and was ready to sign adoption paperwork for Lien’s daughter in the event that her fight against cancer was lost.

As she shared her story with us, the Vietnamese coffee that we were so feverishly slurping down had now halted. The spice from the Bahn Mi she retrieved for us seemed dull. I was covered in goosebumps as I heard her story.

Although we didn’t know Lien when she was battling cancer, her attempt to maintain her composure and focus on the relationships with her customers and daughter prove how she was already rich to begin with. Now, she’s just financially comfortable. She didn’t need a fancy house and certainly doesn’t need a husband to measure her success. She is successful and strong in ways that translate across the globe.

Lien now owns her own shop, lives in a house that she is very proud of, and has a business so successful that she often thinks of expanding. Even if you don’t need clothes I recommend visiting her if you make it to Hoi An and ask to have a coffee.

In the late afternoon we fly into Siem Reap and arrive at Pavillion D’orient after a large storm has damaged some of the town.

Sunset as our plane lands in Siem Reap

Sunset as our plane lands in Siem Reap

Cuisine in the Country Side 05-17-2015

After a night out in the historic district of Hoi An, which to put into perspective, coming from Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An is like going from Charlotte to Boone, we were in for treat this morning. A 6am countryside bike ride revealed some of the hidden gems of Hoi An. Led by the infamous tour guide, Dong, we ventured through shrimp farms, veggie gardens, and rice fields. Some of the sights revealed included water buffalo rolling in the mud and women both young and old fetching the freshest herbs to be used in cooking for the day or sold at the market.

Vegetable and Herb Garden

Vegetable and Herb Garden

Farmers retrieve algae from beneath a shrimp farm to replenish the soil

Farmers retrieve algae from beneath a shrimp farm to replenish the soil

Coconut farm

Coconut farm

One of the most memorable foodie moments of Hoi An was the beloved, the coveted, the respected, holy grail of all sandwiches, the Báhn mì. Báhn is the Vietnamese word for bread, which is truly what makes this sandwich. French influence in Vietnam began after the French conquered Ho Chi Minh in 1859. Under the name of Saigon, the French exercised control over this French colony until 1975. If you’re doing you’re math right, yes, we were there for the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Celebrations included karaoke and drinking, which if we’re honest, karaoke is pretty much an everyday thing. So maybe karaoke for the fall of Saigon celebration was just a little louder and fueled by Tiger beer.

While there has been an attempt to eliminate as much of the French control as possible, many of it remains in the cuisine. If there is one good thing to thank France for invading Vietnam it’s for bringing their baguettes and for the ingenuity of the Vietnamese to pair it with the finest ingredients of pork, lime, cilantro, sprouts, chili sauce, and pickled carrots. The use of rice flour in making the baguettes makes it lighter option to the more dense wheat version, but it also leaves the crust in a thin crispy shell while preserving the marshmallow fluff of an interior.

The sunrises on the fish market

The sunrises on the fish market

My experience with this Báhn mì was interlaced with extreme hunger and the aromas of the fish market early in the morning. Fish had not yet taken their pungent smell as fisherman were seen still unloading the boats. The saying goes, “the early bird gets the worm”, well, the early bird gets the best Báhn mí. We asked Dong if we could stop for a taste, and at $.50 a sandwich, we ordered 5. I’m not sure if the woman’s shop was yet open as she was still setting up some of the ingredients, but I would have waited hours for this sandwich. The meat was freshly marinated and juicy, the mayonnaise was homemade and full of flavor, and I don’t even like mayonnaise. The chili sauce was the perfect combination of knock your socks off and pat you on the back, sweet and spicy. It was everything I could ever ask for and all I imagined it would be back in the states.

The name says it all

The name says it all

Just look at the Báhn mì. I would have pried it open to show you more, but that just wouldn't be fair.

Just look at the Báhn mì. I would have pried it open to show you more, but that just wouldn’t be fair.

The culinary endeavors did not seize, although I may have from pure ecstasy. We meandered through more backroads stopping to absorb the views and enter into sensory overload. Eventually, after 4 or more hours we made it back to the homestay to freshen up as we were on our way to some Cao Lâu cooking lessons!

Cao Lâu is very similar to Phô but oh so very different. Both beef noodle soups. Both take up an entire day to make. Yet Cao Lâu has a spiritual connection.  If you saw the photo in my previous post, “Pho real,” you’d notice that it really has the composition of soup, highly based on broth. Cao Lâu however, is more focused on the noodles. That is because the noodles are said to have healing powers. Only in Hoi An can you retrieve the authentic noodles for this dish because the water to make them must be fetched from the Ba Le well located only in Hoi An. That well is what contains the healing powers. Now, of course, just like you can get a bagel anywhere in the U.S. its never the same as what you get one in New York. There’s just something about the water.

Dong's mother preparing lunch

Dong’s mother preparing lunch

Dong brought us into his home for his mom to unveil some, but not all, of the secret to making Cao Lâu. Once you have the noodles it’s a pretty basic science, but making the noodles is where the magic hides. It’s because these noodles are so sacred that the recipe for Cao Lâu has been chained down to Hoi An. Nowhere else in Southeast Asia can you order this dish. It consists of the thick, chewy, dense noodles, that really have no comparison, barbecued pork, bean sprouts, greens, and crunchy croutons. At the very bottom of the bowl theres enough liquid to sip down after you’ve finished your noodles, only begging for more of their sacred goodness.

Cao Lâu pronounced cow laow

Cao Lâu pronounced cow laow

Dressing the Cao Lâu

Dressing the Cao Lâu

As the group and I stared in amazement, and even tried and miserably failed at making a crepe/omelet concoction, our mouths were watering despite the humidity drenching us. Dong and his mother giggled as we tried to flip the omelet with a chopstick, something they can do without looking. As his mother faintly shouted “Quick, you’ll burn it” or “Quick, throw in the shrimp now”, it was clear to see that the culinary craft is one that must be tended to carefully and taken seriously. She was the Bill Nye of Cao Lâu and I could only thank her with plenty of slurps.

A Helping Hand 05-16-15

The bulk of this day was consumed by the respectable organization, Reaching Out. Many of you probably know, have met, and certainly all of you have seen, somebody with mental and/or physical illness or disabilities. Some of you may even have a member in your immediate family experiencing the troubles and limitations caused by such illness or disability. If you’re reading this and you live in the United States, you’re fortunate enough to know that this person still has a chance at living a normal life.

Something as simple as the American Disabilities Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability for employment, is unheard of in Vietnam. Many people living with full cognitive ability are denied work simply because of a disability. Now certainly, just because we have laws in existence does not mean there are never violations. However, the point I’m making is at least this law and other laws (Telecommunications Act, Fair Housing Act, National Voter Registration Act, etc.) exist and can be used in a defense.

In Vietnam, with the exception of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities signed in 2008, such laws do not exist. The idea of providing inclusion for persons with disabilities in Vietnam is still a relatively new concept consequently leaving many of those individuals ostracized and left without work. Reaching Out attempts to alleviate the level of exclusion by offering jobs to persons with disabilities. Started by a Vietnamese couple, one of which operates a wheelchair, they work on fair trade principles. Fair trade means that the workers have a healthy and safe working environment, that they are paid a fair wage, and that they can decide a fair price to sell their craft. With 45 workers in the on-site shop, crafts made range from bedding to jewelry and from tea pots to children’s clothes.

On our tour of the workshop we got to see some of the artists in action. Individuals who were hearing impaired did metal work and felt the vibration of a hammer against the metal to determine the strength at which to strike for shaping purposes. At the weaving center a divine duo, Tuang and Bay, operate a hand weaving station. The colors that they choose are reflections of their mood, brighter colors equate to a good mood and darker colors express feelings of sorrow. Upstairs in the shop women who were described as deaf were sewing. We learned a way to greet them. (I’m not sure what the exact translation is because it’s not “Hello”) Our guide and a saleswoman at Reaching Out, Ni, describes her coworkers as not disabled but having different abilities.

Thoung weaves bright colors, a sign that he is happy!

Thoung weaves bright colors, a sign that he is happy!

Reaching Out does an amazing job at making the workers feel worthwhile. It’s called Reaching Out and not Handing Out, and for good reason. One of the things I’ve begun to learn about is the importance of differentiating between a handout versus something that is sustainable and has a lasting impact. For Reaching Out to give these people a job, not only allows them to provide for their family and lead normal lives, but it also leaves a lasting impression on the community as a safe place to work. It’s not a handout because the workers have to actually work for their money instead of being given free housing, free food, etc.

Later in the afternoon we spent some time at Bang Beach and had a family style dinner back at Betel Garden. I kid you not, these people are the friendliest, most hospitable, and caring people. We were situated amongst all of the guest of the homestay ranging from a couple from New Zealand to a couple from England. Amidst the dialect ping-pong and discussion of stereotypes, Dong sat there absorbing every bit as he made sure drinks were poured, especially beer. Dong works at the homestay and is comedic even cross-culturally. He takes effort to learn about every person that comes though Betel Garden as if he wants to mentally travel back to where they are from. One of the many perks about Betel Garden, the staff.

Bang Beach

Bang Beach

From a day beginning with a warmhearted social enterprise to an evening filled with warm food and even more kind hearts, Hoi An slowly chipped away at my heart.

The only two methods of transportation in the historic district of Hoi An. No motor vehicles allowed!

The only two methods of transportation in the historic district of Hoi An. No motor vehicles allowed!

Vibrant boats float the Thu Bon river, a once flourishing trade route.

Vibrant boats float the Thu Bon river, a once flourishing trade route.