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Monday, January 17, 2011

November 26

Today the kids returned to school, and I walked the little ones over to the schoolhouse. It's only a five minute walk down the road behind the wat, but they love having being chaperoned. I noticed a lot of the other children take bicycles to the elementary school, and no matter how incredibly crowded I've noticed the schools are, park them outside of the schoolyard.

One volunteer at Wat Opot who is from Japan is leaving this weekend, and the NGO through which she is volunteering came to visit today. The kids were incredibly excited; the man who runs it and his wife are visiting and bringing their three daughters, whom all of the little girls just adore. The kids are so protective of each other, just like any siblings would be. But when their new playmates came along, all of the kids played together for hours, leaving me alone in the volunteer quarters. It was pretty nice, I made a 3 in 1 (the most ubiquitous coffee drink in Cambodia, a Nestle powder of coffee, milk and sugar all in one packet) and read some of the books left behind on the Wat Opot bookshelf. One afternoon off of babysitting was great, but I planned out what I would teach for English that night. In the volunteer house are some activity books left behind by a volunteer which are full of coloring activities, puzzles and games. I took a few pages out and decided I'd play games where the kids have to know their colors.

After dinner, the kids weren't as excited and persistent for their English lesson. Perhaps the excitement of having new visitors today changed sent them into a frenzy, but todays' lesson was particularly difficult to get their attention. It was pretty funny to watch them acting up, little Srey Po and Veasna both about 7 years old decided to translate everything I was saying and write in Khmer. Soon after, the other little ones followed suit. A quick singing of the alphabet and all twenty of them ran out of the classroom papers flying in the air and running to their dormitories. Despite this challenge, it was amusing to watch them even more energetic than usual.

I'll have to have a few better tricks up my sleeve for the next lessons, but this weekend I'm preparing to go to Siem Riep and see Angkor Wat! Heading out tomorrow.....

Thursday, December 30, 2010

November 25

This morning the World Food Programme is holding food distribution for the community. I woke to the sounds of dozens of motos and tuk tuks being driven into the campus. About a hundred people waited outside of the offices for Partners for Compassion. Huge bags or rice, jugs of oil and salt were being distributed to families who have been affected by the HIV/AIDS virus. Apparently, the WFP doesn't do programs like this specifically pertaining to HIV/AIDS anywhere else, and through Wat Opot has a unique opportunity to give this support children and families of HIV/AIDS patients. With all of the commotion outside, the kids were all taking haven in the volunteer quarters for their regular tornado through the coloring books, dolls and toys that we have. School is again cancelled today, still due to the tragedy of the Water Festival. However, the teachers from the schoolhouse are here and the kids have lessons throughout the afternoon. The little daredevils insisted I paint their faces as cats, dogs, pigs, frogs and other animals right before school. As the bell rang and they all burst out, I hope my artwork didn't frighten any WFP people.

As some of the younger ones were in class in the schoolhouse, I gave the 6-8 crowd a couple of jump ropes to entertain themselves. I had to settle some of them down so they could share, but we all played snake together and another game they showed me involving someone's shoe and a lot of jumping over the low swinging rope making propeller like circles on the ground. I got tired and thought I'd see what some of the teenage boys were up to. What I found was picture worthy. Wat Opot's campus is beautifully spotted with a few fish ponds, which have some catfish, tilapia and various other kinds of farmed fish. When the kids catch a big one, they receive payment for their catch and it'll be served for lunch! Recently, more than 30 or so little ducklings were purchased so the kids can have duck eggs (and maybe a nice roast once in a while) to save money on purchased goods at market. One of the tilapia ponds were drained to weed out and remove any fishies that may still be lingering in its waters to make room for the ducks. Of course, to teach responsibility and good work ethic--the kids get to do it! It was great watching 15 year old Vandy, 8 year old Tee and adorable 7 year old Suvanrith and about 10 others rolling around in nothing but their tighty whities in the mud, working to pick out small fish and weeds. It didn't seem as if they were working--boys are boys and all were rolling around throwing mud pies at each other. To wash off, they jumped off into another pond full of large catfish and more weeds. I love these kids.

That night after dinner, I was set to teach English once again, today to the older boys. I wasn't sure if a few days off of school had begun showing its ugly colors, but these guys did not want to learn any English. Throughout the lesson, it was difficult to get their attention and no one wanted to speak English. I know the older boys (15 and older) all speak English fairly well, I've seen them have long conversations with Wayne. However, I had very different challenges than I do with the younger children. Some know how to read English fairly well, also. I hope to come up with some exciting methods for the lessons.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

November 24

This morning I woke at 6 am to the sounds of 60 children playing marbles outside of my window. As predicted, school was cancelled. I'd heard at breakfast the teachers simply decided not to show up, some fearing relatives had been involved in the stampede, and others assuming their colleagues wouldn't show may have decided not to show. After breakfast I went back over to the bead room to work on a few pieces I left undone. As I put the keys into the lock, I encountered an unusual present left for me. A large frog had died and dried up near the door. The kids had a riot picking it up by its feet and throwing the crusty animal around to each other. One of the women who lives on campus finally got hold of it and threw it outside into the fish pond. It was curious how that thing even died how it did, it was as if it was freeze dried while it tried to jump. However, the boys were out almost as soon as they went in and I was left working with some of the smaller girls. Little Kunthea, who loves the bead room but loves making a mess almost as much as she dislikes making any jewelry was having a great time hiding everyones pliers. Whenever the kids make anything in the jewelry room, I'm always impressed. I assured each of them it was beautiful by saying "Wow, Sa-a" (Sa-a is beautiful in Khmer). Soon they were modeling their creations, and again I told them "Sa-a", however one suddenly lost some of that confidence and little Channy said 'no, ort sa-a' or 'not pretty'. Despite being the newest member of the Wat Opot community with her baby sister, Channy is usually one of the most extroverted and outgoing. The language barrier is the hardest thing in understanding a lot of these children, but I tried my best to reassure her "cha-saa"--yes, beautiful. I dont quite understand Khmer perception of beauty, maybe a couple more evenings watching television I will. But Channy's story is quite troublesome and could explain why she was so sad when I said that this afternoon.

After dinner was again another lesson in English, which wasn't initiated by me today. As I finished dinner the children, especially by 7 year old cutie Tai-Meng were pleading with me "Anglais, Anglais?" I gathered some more children than yesterday, and many came equipped with their own notepads and pens. I began with today's date and the children were able to read the words easily. I tried to touch on an exercise by counting the numbers 1 to 10 as well as writing the words out in English. Again, some of the children learn faster than others. Its unlike any teaching I've ever tried to do--some 6 year olds write and read better than an 8 year old. But here, that 8 year old bad been living on the streets and had never attended school since last year. I realized today it would be a very difficult teaching experience. Their confidence levels in their work is also very different. Some were eager to call to me during the lesson to see their papers, while others hovered over their work as I walked by. Soon it was medicine time and the kids excitedly took their papers to Wayne to show off their work.

Tonight was no different than usual, however some of the excitement got out of hand. As the nightly shoe soccer game was going on (I hide my sandals behind the big doors now) one of the older teenage boys scraped his foot on the gravel outside. A huge flap of skins was now hanging off of the ball of his foot and everyone headed over to the hospice to prepare for stitching. Two of the other volunteers are trained in medicine and Wayne himself is a nurse, so he is in good hands. The hospice is usually a scary place at night, and most kids--and I'm sure volunteers, too-- are afraid of it. The hospice is not in operation right now, but when it was, it was the place where some of the children watched their parents die slow and painful deaths of AIDS and other diseases. It's said that the hospice is haunted, and there have been some creepy things that have happened at Wat Opot over the years. There are photos taken at night with orbs and flashes of light in the shot that are seemingly unexplained, and there have been accounts from past volunteers about strange feelings, sounds, things breaking, etc. Creepy weird stuff. This is my second week, and I hope I won't have any encounters of a paranormal kind. However tonight, instead of being greeted with a ghost the boy received a benediction when the nurse realized he did not need stitches (and we have no anesthetics!!) instead just bandaging the wound and he was on his way. The wound was washed with alcohol first, and it was funny to watch him muster every ounce of energy in his bones to not scream in front of the other boys. In the end, he saved face and when asked if anything hurt, he simply shook his head and limped back to his room where I assumed he'd cry into his pillow the entire night. Ouch.

Right before this happened, the older boys asked me if I could teach them some English during class as well. Apparently, the other volunteer would make time to teach lessons to the older ones on grammar and assign reading. I didn't know this, and told them to come to the schoolhouse tomorrow evening so we can see where they need help. I love teaching the little ones, too which means I now have to find a time to squeeze in lessons for both and research some lessons for older groups.

November 23

Today I woke up to the worst news I've had on my entire trip. The director of Study Abroad and Exchanges called my cell phone at about 6 am asking me my whereabouts and if I was ok. Confused, I assured him I had arrived at Wat Opot yesterday. Sadly a tragedy happened in Phnom Penh last night during the conclusion of the Water Festival. A stampede occured and hundreds were killed, many more injured. Immediately my heart sank, only the night before, another volunteer and myself had been foolishly stuck in the middle of a huge crowd where people were being dragged out, unclear if they were dead or alive. The stampede happened on the same bridge we had crossed the afternoon only the day before. People were coming from the very carnival we had wiggled out through the crowd of people. I got up from bed and stepped outside, where one of the older boys told me about what happened. With any tragedy, there were many sides of the story. All the boys had different accounts of what caused the stampede--police officers dousing those crossing the bridge with water, overwhelming crowds pushing each other causing the deadly rush, the bridge swaying caused panic among people crossing, etc. Each account was highly plausible; we saw the police corruption, we know how overwhelming the crowds are, we felt the bridge swaying heavily over the Tonle Basaac. At breakfast, Wayne told us 3 locals from the community had been victims of the tragedy--and the wat behind us was holding the funeral. It made sense--at around 11 pm last night the wat began playing traditional music, but I didn't make anything of it, wats are occasionally used as functions for parties and other celebrations in the community, in addition to the Water Festival holiday. Several of those around the community had warned us not to go to the festival, but as first time visitors to Cambodia we couldn't resist. After being there this weekend, it was eerie to see how many children and young people had been victims. We'd pointed out how many young Khmer had been at the festival--its known that many travel from all of the provinces to attend. On the news many of the victims had been teenagers and young children.

The children were all aware of the tragedy, the local television stations were showing footage of the bridge and video of last night where hundreds of people were packed and crowded on the bridge. It was unusual to see the children all mesmerized on the television set, watching people crying and screaming piled on top of each other on this bridge. The news footage showed lifeless bodies being dragged out of the pile of corpses. The victims were laid in bags with faces exposed on the streets near the site where families can claim their loved ones. Hospitals in Phnom Penh listed names and pictures of victims outside where relatives can identify those lost. I was troubled because a lot of the children are not entirely orphaned--they have families and relatives who are still alive, but are under care here because of their illnesses and no one can support them. With over 330 killed, it was easy to imagine why so many of the kids were somber and unable to blink while watching the television. We may receive word if any loved ones were lost, but it would be some time before that would happen. For the festival, some of the older boys had gone with their families in Phnom Penh to celebrate, and last night when the news hit several of the caretakers were in a frenzy. Thankfully, we received word that although all three were at the festival, none were involved in the stampede and were safe. Soon it was lunchtime and the kids moved to the cafeteria. We discussed some of the latest news that had come from the tragedy, which now the Prime Minister was offering reparations to the families who lost loved ones in the stampede--$2,500 US to each victim.

The children resumed their regular play, and I was glad the dark air around the Water Festival tragedy had subsided. After dinner it was time for English class. I'd asked the previous volunteer what kind of lessons she had been giving the children--the alphabet, sounds of the alphabet, consonants and vowels, and pronunciation. There were so many resources and books in the schoolhouse library that I could use as well, many donated from the states. I grouped the children up in one classroom from ages 5 to 10. I began with today's date, and the children copy onto paper. Many know how to write the English alphabet, while other had a harder time. I drew and acted out some faces to show emotions happy, sad, angry and scared as well as helped pronounce the words. Everyone did really well, and I was glad they had a mild understanding of the alphabet and pronunciation. I got some advice from Wayne, who hopes to put up a computer lab in the schoolhouse, that there are internet resources available for language instruction and he suggests teaching computer classes to some of the older children.

That night after medicine, the children watched more footage of the stampede. There also began a telethon to collect donations from viewers to raise funds for the victims. They weren't as engrossed in the news--some of the older boys began playing soccer with the shoes outside again and the girls had an enormous string of rubber band and were playing a game doing cartwheels into the band. The compensation had raised to about $3,000 per victim but we were expecting the death toll to rise as more people were found in the river below, and at hospitals. It was reported no foreigners had been on the bridge, but the news had hit back home and my family was worried--Facebook is a dangerous thing, you post one status about your excitement for Water Festival and everyone's nervous. I assumed the kids wouldn't have school tomorrow either, as funerals and other plans were being made, so I was going to have my hands full.

November 22

Today is Monday and the start of another week at Wat Opot. I slept so soundly all this weekend, as the construction of the high rise condos across the street from us had ceased for the Water Festival. We headed to Lucky Supermarket to pick up some goodies for our days at Wat Opot and also some breakfast. Next door was the Lucky Burger and Cafe where I bought a latte and a Portuguese tart for under $4. I felt so spoiled in this moment, having every American supermarket item at my fingertips, the option of picking up the American newspapers, getting a latte and pastry, shopping for discount designer clothes--all luxuries I could have at home. I really have been deprived, but its been a good feeling.

We called a tuk tuk around noon to take us out to Takeo. There was not as much traffic this early, thankfully as congestion out to the provinces would have been a nightmare. We are both still a little shaken from last nights events and we're glad to be out of Phnom Penh for a while. When we got to the orphanage, the little ones were so excited to see us. They all ran aboard the tuk tuk and helped carry our backpacks to the volunteer house. It was pretty sad to see how they all were asking for the volunteer that left. All day they were asking where she had gone, and if she was still in Phnom Penh. I struggled in Khmer to tell them she left to America and will be back in January, but they dont understand the geography of where America is and where in relation to Cambodia. Because I love geography, I'll be sure to point out the difference on a map.

We gave little Kunthea another bath today, and the scabs have stopped weeping. She is in much better spirits and isn't wearing the kroma as often as before. I'd only been gone two days, but I really missed these kids so much. It was so cute how they shouted our names and were completely freaking out that we were back. No one was in school today, as it was the last day of the Water Festival. That night after dinner, the kids--always inventing new things to do, had a dance party inside of the cafeteria area, which has an enormous entertainment system and karaoke. Some one put the same CD of Khmer pop music playing on the bus when I'd first arrived at Wat Opot, and the kids all had their own unique ways of dancing and expressing themselves. It was adorable to see the little ones wiggling around and holding hands. Then it was time for medicine and all the little ones walked over to the dormitories, grabbed their snacks and crowded around the tv (tu ra tus in Khmer) for an hour before bed. The dormitory has a huge bright light outside of it at night, which often beckons some large lizards, crickets, frogs and other bugs from the grasses and ponds around the building. My little adventurers have invented a game in which they grab the largest of the crickets and frogs and putting them down the volunteers' shirts and in our hair. Its all in good fun, the kids know we dislike them and they don't mean to insult us--but its terribly frightening. As a good tactic with children, never let them see your fear. The first time 8 year old Tee put a cricket on my shoulder, I mustered every inclination to shriek and run away; instead picking the little bug off and setting him on the ground. I was pretty proud of myself, and hoped I'd have the same courage when it was my turn to feel the misfortune of having a baby frog down my blouse as another volunteer had tonight.

As Korean pop music videos played on the tv and we lay the kids down in their beds, it was so easy to see how similar these kids are to kids back home. It made absolutely no difference where they came from, what their stories are--they love the same things kids their age would love back home, they play the same games, and share the same curiosities, sense of humor, rebellion and wit--if not more brilliantly than kids in the states. Tomorrow I plan to teach English all alone for the first time and I want to make the lessons enjoyable--if not I wont be able to catch up with these kids.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

November 21

This Sunday morning I woke and brunched in preparation for another day out exploring Phnom Penh in its Water Festival glory before trekking out to Takeo to Wat Opot. I've become accustomed to seeing the various kinds of beggars in Phnom Penh and the goods or services that one can show off to westerners for a few riel. This morning at brunch, a blind man came to the entryway of the restaurant led by a small boy. He stopped right at the entry and pulled out a small flute and began playing. The restaurant was scarcely occupied, we were one of two other groups there. About 2 minutes into the man's song, the waitress walked over and handed the man a note, I couldn't see how much. The man stopped mid-note and quickly put the money in his pocket. Shortly after, the Italian tourist group behind us sent one of its patrons to make an offering to the man and he also scurried to put the note in his pocket. After this, he put his flute back in its container and walked away with the boy. I hadn't given any contribution, and realized it was funny he had not finished his song just yet but took his money and walked away.

The afternoon of boutique shopping was less congested than yesterday's hunt at the mall, but I was still disappointed at the lack of sizes in many of the shops. It seemed that even if I found anything cheap from H&M it may not even fit. I didn't give up hope, since many of the boutiques were closed for the Water Festival. We'd heard of a huge market and festival near the waterfront near the casinos. This area is notorious since only several years ago it was the site of one of Phnom Penh's biggest slum areas. The land was bulldozed and thousands of people were evacuated and relocated to other areas. Now the land is being commercially developed and is the site of festivals, conventions and other commerce that would encourage tourism to the casino and waterfront area. Seeing this land one could not imagine it one was a slum. Stalls for international brands like Revlon, L'Oreal, Pepsi Cola and others ran promotional events and gave free samples. Some stalls had games and contests for people. All of the major beers of southeast Asia, Angkor, Lao, Singha, Leo, Angkor were there selling beers at a fraction of the retail price and giving out free merchandise. Some cigarette companies also had stalls, with Khmer women dolled up in skimpy costumes giving out free cigarettes.

After sampling beers and grabbing free hats, we crossed a pedestrian bridge to an island of sorts where more markets and a carnival were taking place. Below were children playing in the river, taking naked dives and swimming through reeds as if oblivious to the thousands of people that could see them. There was a ferris wheel set up, and I was a little disappointed it had not been working. Nonetheless, there was a small roller coaster going and I was so eager to hop on. Its not uncommon for people to try to skip in line (theres never a queue in a public restroom, in a shop, fast food, etc.) but it was comical to see the huge crowd of people at the entrance of the roller coaster, all too afraid to go up and board. When the next group could get on the coaster, everyone refused and we simply jumped on. It was $2! I was a bit surprised, and did not feel like I got my money's worth. Riding in a dinosaur in circles just getting whiplash when I've already had too many beers is not an experience to write home about. After the dizzying kiddie ride, we walked some more and discovered a complex of buildings, all designed exactly the same from the exterior. The buildings looked like a  shopping center, except there was no place for retail signage at the entrances. Each had a letter from A to Z and all looked unoccupied. We assumed they were unfinished office complexes or perhaps had some affiliation with the casinos across the small bridge.

Seeing nothing else to do on this island, we walked back over the bridge to the Phnom Penh side of things. We were bored and tired of walking in the hot sun just drinking beers and looking at things we would not buy, so we decided to go into Phnom Penh's most posh casino, NagaWorld. Despite a name that likens the latest Japanese cartoon craze, Nagaworld is a mega hotel casino complex that must have about 50 stories. Inside its lobby is an enormous koi pond, chandeliers and as we entered noticed about a 20 foot Christmas tree being decorated by casino employees with giant glass ornaments and garland. It also has a reputation for excluding Khmer people. The casino is not Cambodian owned, and a lot of the signs throughout were in English, Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese. The other volunteer traveling with me is of Chinese descent and commented on seeing very many Chinese people in the casino, hearing a lot of the gamblers speaking Chinese.

As a 20 year old, visibly not legal and walking into a casino in a tank blouse wearing fake Ray bans and holding a 40 cent can of Sing-ha beer, I was clearly not in a position to gamble nor give any business to Nagaworld. However I was never stopped or asked any questions, because westerners are always welcome. I knew my getup was ridiculous, but I pretended to have some intention of gambling so I played $1 in slots and came up dry. Oh well. My other traveler won about $2 and courageously asked for her earnings. One of the short skirted attendants came over and forked over under $1.50 in riel. When we inquired why we were short changed, we were told the exchange rate is 3,000 riel to the dollar, instead of the standard 4,000. Factor in some casino tricky work and you get short changed. Interestingly, the language barrier was pretty thin and two women who speak English got lost in translation. The explanation came in Mandarin, which it seems everyone speaks here.

After losing $1 and drinking too much cheap beer, it was time for dinner. The crowds had intensely accumulated and walking to the restaurants was almost unbearable. However, we found a tourist place serving Khmer dishes and settled there. Afterwards, outside of the restaurant was a woman selling cockroaches, crickets, larvae, snake, spider, and broiled chicks from a cart. We walked to a tourist trap of a bar and lounge, the FCC. Originally a post for journalists to hang out and drink its now a posh hangout for expats and tourists. Around the time we arrived, the fireworks had begun and people sat taking photos on the lounge of the boats below. An hour later, two drinks down each, evading one creepy expat hitting on us we still had not gotten the bill. Perhaps it was one too many bad Asian beers, that spin on the kiddie coaster or a subpar bowl of noodles but we shamelessly stood up and walked out of the bar without incident.

I'd hoped our dine and dash wasn't bringing us bad karma in a land where everyone is Buddhist. As we headed home on Sihanouk, one of the large boulevards in Phnom Penh en route to the apartment we hit a dead end. An enormous crowd of people, maybe about 2,000 had been congested at the intersection. On top of which, all of the motos and tuk tuks which had tipped the police earlier were now leaving the riverfront. In a massive crowd of thousands of people, motos and tuk tuks were increasingly squeezed together in this tight space. At first, I thought as in New York the crowd would disperse as people began to orderly file into different directions. However, as the crowd pushed and pushed more I saw overhead those in front of me. There was no traffic accident, it was simply an incredible amount of congestion caused by the thousands of people that were leaving this venue. Standing in the same place for about 20 minutes, the bodies pushed on top of mine felt like an inferno. I was panicking, I knew a few more pushes could get very dangerous. As a few motos tried to weave in front of me and the millimeters between the person in front of me, I feared burning my legs with it's exhaust pipe. The most troublesome was hearing a few shrieks of panic and seeing a man carry a small girl whose body seemed lifeless above the crowd as everyone moved aside to make room. I turned around to watch where the child was being taken to, and what I saw gave my body chills. A group of men were carrying a body bag above their heads back down Sihanouk. Immediately, I knew we had to leave. There were only a few people behind us, and we made our way out trying to find an alternate route to the apartment. It didn't matter where we went, the entire city was roadblocked. It was a scary and unforgettable situation, the thousands of people that were all around us. Motos were trying to pass in front of people, cutting of groups and mothers and children. It was complete chaos and I hoped I would get back to the apartment without injury. What should have been about a 20 minute walk took more than an hour to get home. It's incredible how crowded the festival was, it really proved why there were not more tourists there. I was so thankful I was able to get home without incident. Once again, its seems 50 cent spirit has made me nimble and evade a troublesome situation! That was a joke, mom.

November 20

Today we are heading to markets and the riverfront to check out the Water Festival. After brunch, it was Central Market again. This time I could actually look at things without being annoyed by a certain nuisance. I racked up on fake Raybans, fashioned with the actual stickers and tags a real pair of Raybans would have for only $2 each. I love Central Market because its so well organized and heavily frequented by locals and tourists so there are a lot of finds and great things if you look really closely. Like many markets, the sections are by clothes, housewares, shoes, cds and entertainment, and an entire atrium under the main entrance dedicated to jewelry, diamonds, gems and precious stones. I love it for its easy permeability with tourists. I was proud of my Swahili bargaining skills in Tanzania, but Khmer isn't for me and I don't know the numbers yet. However, the vendors are pretty fair and allow me to bargain usually giving me very good prices. Only woman was crazy enough to tell me there was no bargaining in Central Market while I had my purse stuffed with fake sunglasses I'd all bargained for. We laughed and walked away.

 Next to the market is a large shopping mall with supermarket, cafe, ice cream shop and many other smaller independently owned stores. There's a chicken and pizza restaurant, as well as a skating rink on the top floors! One of the boutiques we checked out on the lower floor sold clothes from H&M, and as my retail enslavement there paid for my journey here (Cambodia makes most of the clothes in H&M) I thought it would be interesting to see how much (or how little!) the clothes would cost here, presumably those that have 'fallen off of the back of the truck'. I asked the sales woman, who pointed to the ticket labeled $55. I assumed perhaps it was from another currency. 'Dollars?' I asked. And she nodded her head and smiled. I remembered the top from this summer's collection, and it retailed for $17.95. I put it back and laughed my way out. I was pretty disappointed as we kept shopping how small the clothes are! I shopped effortlessly in Tanzania and never had a problem finding clothes or shoes. However, as we browsed a display outside of a store in the mall, a woman leapt out of her shop and looked at me saying 'Sorry madam, I don't make size for you'. Clearly adjusted to the weight I've lost being abroad, I shrugged and kept walking. It was amusing, however something that stateside would be cause for calling a television camera crew and making a production about weight discrimination. The same happened a few stores down with shoes, as I tried on a pair of sandals (labeled 40, however seemingly no larger than a real 36) a woman assured me there were no such shoes that would fit my feet. Right, lady because I came in here barefoot.

The mall was indescribably packed with people. The other volunteers were also amazed how at how many people were there, most likely in attendance for the Water Festival. I made an observation that most of the people in the mall were so young, many seemed to be in their 20's. It wasnt an unlikely observation, it was a mall after all. And the clothes and shops in it seemed to cater to younger crowds, and judging from the Justin Bieber and Akon music playing outside that is who would choose to come in.

Afterwards, we took tuk tuk to Russian Market, called so after Russian tourists (which must have frequented Cambodia at the time?) and a popular place in Phnom Penh for tourists to pick up souvenirs. Approaching the riverfront we saw more congestion on the streets, evident of the festivities tonight for Water Festival. We laughed on the way, as amidst all of the chaos in the intersection a man sneezed and all talking ceased as everyone stared at the noise he had just made. At Russian Market we briefly went in and bought some cd's and our departing volunteer made some last minute souvenir purchases.  Soon after, we were at the waterfront. All of the major boulevards had been closed. However, as we walked along the boulevard to the riverfront, we noticed some motos had made their way past the pedestrian clearing point by simply giving the police officer behind the rope a handful of a couple Riels and zooming past. Phnom was clearly a different city that night, walking past the Royal Palace without cars, tuk tuks or buses was really cool. Soon after, we found that the Ministry of Tourism set up a special tent for tourists to view the boat races which signal the start of Water Festival. Its fabled that churning of the waters of the Tonle Bassac change the direction of the river's flow and the start of a new season. The long boats were similar to the Chinese boat races I've seen on television and those done in Queens back home. However, after inspection with binoculars I realized the boats are running with two rows of about 50 men total standing and vigorously rowing in complete synchronization. It was incredible that they could even stand upright at the speed they were moving. There were other tourists in the tent, where free booklets of the festival's history were being given out. Besides a minor, and rather unnecessary security point (the five pens and nailclipper I had posed no threat in the metal detector, however they needed to inspect my camera and have me turn it on and off to ensure it was not a bomb) the tent was a great idea.

Bored with the idea of watching people stare at boats, we left and headed to dinner. There are a plethora of places to eat on the riverfront, with the kitsch that often comes in backpacker neighborhoods. The landmark of kitsch and lame tourist food is Happy Herb Pizza. They are famous in the Lonely Planet and even have an outpost in Siem Riep for those hoping to get 'happy' off of their pizza. If you haven't figured it out by now, they marijuana on their pizza. That did not appeal to me as much as the 50 cent draft of Angkor, so off we went. It was bizarre how many people had actually decided to eat there. There were dozens of choices for pizza, and when mine arrived I wasn't  moved by the flavors. I could smell the marijuana, but after having the few slices I realized they just put marijuana on mediocre pizza. As we finished our meal, night had fallen and the procession of lit boats had begun on the Tonle Bassac. Fireworks were also on display and tourists were snapping away photos of the lights. We walked down Sisowath Quay to a French restaurant for a few drinks and laughs at drunk tourists.

That night we found the Phnom Penh night market, which was great now that the Water Festival had called locals from all over Cambodia. The market was full of clothes and other goods, not souvenirs. We tried some of the foods from the stalls, and some cane sugar juice. There was a stage in the middle of the market where an act of karaoke singers and performers were dancing to a crowd of about 400 teenage Khmer kids.

We both quickly realized how Khmer centered this festival was. Many of the traditions and events spectators and participants were Cambodians. The music at the night market, the goods being sold, the choice vendors (no one spoke English this time) and among the enormous crowd here we did not see a single westerner. I made away of the market with a full belly, a $2 silver watch for my sister and a Chinese kite for my 4 year old cousin.

It goes without saying we are still on the hunt for more mango and sticky rice, but todays fare did not include the heavenly dessert. However, another regional (if you're speaking of continents) was found---in a Chinese bakery; Chinese pork buns for $1! Needless to say, my wallet and my belly were content with that night's sleep.

November 19

Today is the last day of the week here at Wat Opot and my first annoyance free time in Phnom Penh! Yay! Again, although it is Friday the kids do not attend school because of the Water Festival since the teachers will not be in attendance. Similar to Tanzania, it seems the teachers have a very relaxed attitude about education--understandably so, with low wages and almost no resources for teaching. Two of the volunteers walked some of the uniformed and ready for school kids to the school this morning, and upon learning school was mostly cancelled one of the teachers that was there offered to take the two Americans down the road back to Wat Opot on his moto. They obviously declined and told him to just teach his class.

After lunch, we said goodbye to the children for the week. It was so cute, they told us they'd miss us so much and we'd only be gone for two days! One volunteer, who has been Cambodia for 4 months had a tough time saying goodbye to the children, especially Kunthea. However I was so happy for her to hear that she had plans on returning long-term next year. Most independent volunteers do end up returning for long term stays, or occasional trips to Wat Opot. Despite being here only 1 week, I think I may inevitably be one of these volunteers. I do plan on returning and visiting more of south Asia and southeast Asia, so why not fly in and visit these amazing kids, maybe when they're a little older?

The tuk tuk ride back was actually better than expected. We'd heard so many bad things about Water Festival this week--its congested and unbearable. However we made it to the apartment, right in the middle of town almost effortlessly. I was glad to enjoy a night of good food and drinks, almost luxuriously, something I had not experienced in Tanzania. I was glad to be spoiled with the amazing restaurants and hotels that were near the apartment. We ate at a great Thai restaurant Setsara, a few streets away, and not in the mood for something terribly spicy I opted for their Italian menu (I guess anywhere you go in the world, there's Italian food, it seems) and had a great plate of pasta alla carbonara, fashioned with a raw egg on top and all. With wine and Angkor beer it was a great meal. I fell in love with a new dessert! I love when I discover a new food addiction--I'd seen it in the Bangkok airport and I wished I'd taken advantage of its availability then. Mango and sticky rice, is a sticky sweet rice cooked in condensed milk and sugar and served on the side with a fresh sweet mango. As an avid rice pudding lover, I was in love. Khmer cuisine doesn't offer very many desserts but this Thai dish is pretty common on menus around Phnom Penh. Across the street is a lounge and guesthouse with a posh lighted pool at night and a cocktail bar. There were tourists swimming and sipping cocktails by the pool--the set looked like an exclusive nightclub in Los Angeles. Although this was not my scene (not even in New York) I was so impressed at the cosmopolitan (no pun intended) life that one can have in Phnom Penh, rather inexpensively by American standards (a good cocktail for $2). This street is pretty much just for expats, the neighborhood itself (NGO Town) is riddled with NGO offices and high rise condominiums for those working for agencies in child protection, HIV/AIDS and the like. It was great that it lacked that certain kitsch that can easily take over places with western food in foreign countries.

I've tried a lot of Khmer food, but I think I can spoil myself with some regional fare--from Thailand, here reguarly. And, the best French restaurant in Cambodia according the Lonely Planet right down the street....I think I know where I will eat tomorrow.

November 18

Today is the last full this week, and its been a long week! This morning was again the usual, but the kids did not attend school. This weekend is the Water Festival and apparently the teachers give themselves time off at their convenience. It was great to have them around all day, I'm getting a lot better at learning their names and their stories. It's hard to hear how they got here and the lives they had (the stories of which we even know) before they came to Wat Opot. So many of them are so full of life that its difficult to understand how they came to this point from having seen their parents sick and dying, and many of the children lived in the slum areas of Phnom Penh. They really are amazing and inspirational kids and I've loved being around them.

However, I learned today that often those happy personalities become dark and we see sides of them that tell us a bit about their anger. This afternoon one of the children, little Nak decided to run away. I wasn't around for the events preceding him becoming so angry, but I heard he was holding a stick and playing with some kids. Eventually the playing got serious and he began hitting some of the others. One volunteer tried to take the stick away from him but he wouldn't give in. He became so enraged that he ran away, down the road that leads to the main road. We've heard some children have run away, none ever been so serious we could not find them. Occasionally, they run away to cool off and make their way back. I was worried because Nak is only 6 years old. He is positive, and although I don't know his story he is incredibly sweet and one of the most sensitive kids. In English, he is one of the fastest learners and I love him because he is so adorable. It was so sweet to see how the other kids became concerned. All of the little ones followed the volunteers and the older boys on moto down the dirt road. One of the other boys shouted 'Nak ran away, Nak ran away!' It was such a testament to the name children's community. After about an hour of searching, Nak came back on moto. He hadn't made it to the main road, thankfully. Like kids, some of the boys were teasing him and pretending to roundhouse kick him as he sat stone faced on the ground outside of the dormitory. Even me, as I'd held him that very morning in the bead room, he did not want to look me in the face. This is unlike any tantrum for any kid I'd ever babysat in my life. It was so strange to see a boy so small so enraged and angry. However, from hearing everyone else's accounts of how often this can happen, I knew that as soon as he cooled off he would be back to normal. And by dinner, he was.

After dinner we took Kunthea back to the volunteer quarters to give her another bath. I've noticed these past few days that she often wears a kroma, the traditional scarf worn by many Khmer especially in the fields. Its a thin piece of cotton designed with a blue or red gingham print and usually older women wear them around their heads in the rice paddies. Kunthea uses her kroma as a bonnet to cover her rash. We know this worsens the rash because it doesn't allow it to breathe. However, she seems to be so troubled by the cosmetic part of having the rash that she refuses to remove it. After the bath, we tried to tell her to take the scarf off. The tea tree oil is very refreshing and soothes the rash, so afterward she was without the kroma. We know the love and care that her favorite volunteer gives her makes her more confident and accepted. Its not possible to eliminate ridicule from the other kids, they're children. But I hate that she is so self-conscious about her looks and although this volunteer leaves tomorrow I see how important it is that showing them that we care gives the confidence they need to feel good about themselves.

November 17

Wednesday after lunch, I headed back over to the bead room with a volunteer to work on some jewelry. Little Kunthea was there, and as usual attached to her side. It was pretty adorable how Kunthea copied her every move. Some of the other children were there too. As I mentioned before, some of the children live here with their families, including their parents. Some are very ill and have been living on the campus assuming they will soon not be able to care for their children. One girl's mother was in the bead room with us today, and I've seen her here before. She likes to sing in Khmer, very well I can say and she often supervises the kids as they sit at the table making jewelry. Today I was surprised she looked at little Kunthea and said something to me and the other volunteer in Khmer. I dont speak the language but she was trying to tell me something and she motioned, almost barbarically by scratching the back of her head. She was obviously making fun of Kunthea and making faces at her behind her back. I was really disappointed that an adult would do this to an innocent child, and the other volunteer told her rather assertively that it was ok and under control. 

Apparently, this isn't uncommon for people in the community, and perhaps in Khmer culture to comment or ridicule a child or someone who has a condition like this. Kunthea's rash is not making much progress--it weeps pus and smells. I really related to her because when I was about 4 I also had a similar rash. I was really embarrassed and family members would comment on it. Kunthea's case is worse for obvious reasons, because she isn't under constant supervision its difficult to get her to bathe multiple times a day and keep good hygiene. Also, because she is positive I've been told her immunity won't just fight off an infection as easily as someone who is not HIV positive. It was awful to watch her face as this adult woman was making fun of her, and she had no idea. I don't hate the woman for making fun of her, because it is out of ignorance. I know she and her daughter are negative, and it's not clear why she lives here on campus. However, because she does live here, I would think she should know better. 


That afternoon, another volunteer and I decided to take a bike ride to town to see if we could find any good food in the stalls at the market. It was about a 20 minute bike ride on the main road towards Phnom Penh. As we made our way down the main road it was amazing the almost immediate transition from rural to semi-urban all with the absence of rice paddies. Suddenly there were more cars and motos and it was difficult, not to mention dangerous to pedal without compromising falling or crashing. We passed one garment factory and I was shocked to see a rickshaw and a truck holding packs of women crammed in the back. It was too far and too much to bike to the market so we retreated and settled at a shop known for its blended drinks. For 50 cents I bought a concoction of jackfruit, papaya, carrot, apple, dragonfruit, some other vegetables, sweetened condensed milk (they love that stuff here), sugar, and of course durian! After its blended and thrown in with some ice, its served in a plastic pouch wrapped in a baggie with ice and a straw is inserted in top. I was told this drink is a medicinal mix (for what ailment I'm not sure) but it was delicious. The durian stood out, but it was not unpleasant. We pedaled down the road some more, and I bought a bag of something that resembled onion rings, or french fried onions for about 30 cents. 

When we got back to Wat Opot we sat at the corner shop to get sodas and ice coffees. One of the men there, about in his early 30's teaches art to some of the older boys at the orphanage. He was very well spoken and understood a lot of English. We laughed at how intrigued he was with my hair--even saying I looked African, which I know I do not. It was pretty awful how funny he thought it was that I have thick hair, something I've never had happen to me in my life. 

At the campus, the children were getting their faces painted by two other volunteers. They were shouting to the volunteers doing the painting to draw dogs, cats, pandas, tigers and other designs. It was adorable when the kids took hold of the markers and painted each others' faces beautifully without fighting or quarrels. As we ate dinner, the kids played near the picnic table playing leapfrog and some other games I didnt recognize. Where do they learn these games from? We hear that the kids come from all different backgrounds and some have other childhoods before they come to Wat Opot. They go showing each other games, as well as teach each other games they learn at school.

After dinner, it was an English lesson which I was really excited to see. The English lessons are held in the schoolhouse on campus and usually volunteer led. Its not mandatory that the kids attend, but the lessons begin with the ringing of a bell outside of the schoolhouse. Many of the kids come running with notebooks and pens while others wander in at their own accord. Many of the kids know the alphabet and numbers, but have trouble remembering meanings of words in English. Its a challenge to teach English without knowing a few words in Khmer so of course I have to get better.