Too many things to see and do

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February 1st 2010
Published: February 1st 2010
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I was too wiped out to blog yesterday. I twisted a toe when I stepped on a brick fragment hidden by ash on the surface I was stepping onto and just wanted to go to sleep. (It's pretty much better now but walking was a bit painful yesterday afternoon.)

We began with a long morning by meeting children at an orphanage, though "orphans" is a bit of a misnomer. Some are orphans, some use services of the orphanage but are more like "day students," and all have at least one parent with HIV. Some members of our group rode the bus with the kids. The orphanage is supported by Indra Devi Association, which provides many services in the greater Phnom Penh area. The founder, who I think is interviewed in Bhavia's book, sat by me on the bus and told me her story, including what her family's life was like in the Khmer Rouge period. I have heard several people refer to these experiences on this trip, which is a shift from previous visits and may reflect a cultural change in whether the story can be told and what it means.

We stopped at a big, beautiful wat in the Phnom Udong area. One of the nuns is a retired doctor, one of the 50 to survive the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia. She's also interviewed in Bhavia's book. I was handed a bunch of lotus buds to give as an offering to the Buddha. I have great reservations about this, because I am very clear that the Budda said he was not a god and was not to be deified or revered as if he were, but the practice of popular Buddhism includes practices such as praying to Buddha or making offerings to big gold images of Buddha. I am not religious but I think about religion, ethics, and values a great deal and have a hard time participating in rites that I don't believe in. I'm happy to sit quietly and be respectful, I'm happy to participate in the parts I can affirm, but I'm uncomfortable doing things I think are a bad idea, bowing down before and making offerings to golden idols being one of those. Having been handed the flowers, however, I decided it was better to be gracious than refuse them, so I did put them on the altar, thinking that in this instance it would need to be sufficient that I did so as a sign of respect for the community I was in, not as an offering to a god.

We continued to a "slum area." The history is that these were people living in a slum in Phnom Penh. The land values in the city have skyrocketed and a politician took a bribe from a developer to clear everyone out so the land could be developed. They were moved to Kampong Speu. "Moved" meand picked up and set down in a field with nothing. They build shacks and somer NGOs were assisting them. Then the government decided to move them again, plunking them down in a field near Phnom Udong with nothing, demarcating 4x4 meter plots of land for each family. The government's story is that the families have been repatriated to the countryside where they can farm, but that's not what we saw. We saw destitute families whose water was provided by an NGO, for whom Indra Devi had build a 2-hole latrine, who had no well, electricity, equipment, or fields. They are living in shacks constructed of bamboo or scrapwood frames with tarps, sheets, or mats as walls. Their possessions are extremely meager, the women clustered around to show us their sores and ailments, the children show signs of malnutrition. It was filthy and hot. The local people complain about the drain on their resources and the unsanitary conditions. A sturdy shack with mat walls costs $250 to build, which none of them could afford and which must be financed as funds are available by charitable organizations. The latrine cost about $500. It was a depressing scence compared even to the orphans, who had clean clothes, food, and drinking water, as well as immunizations and school.

We re-joined the children at a little school. They played games, we practiced English, and we had a nice outing. Indra Devi wanted to take us to another project, but we had another appointment in town.

On an hour's break, Cindy and I walked up Street 240, where there are some nice restaurants, and over to Monument Books where I picked up a few monographs on trafficking and one on climate change and low-lying countries that may be swamped as the ocean rises.

We then spent several hours with university students whose education Friendship with Cambodia sponsors through Southeast Asia Development Program (SADP). We met about 16 of the 26 students, all from poor families, several with disabilities, many from outlying areas (the rural students said that the scariest thing about coming to thr city for school was learning to deal with the traffic.) We spoke to them in a group, saw a PowerPoint about projects they conduct as volunteers with rural children, and then had time for small group and one-on-one conversation. They thanked us for caring about poor people from another country when the rich people in their own don't help them. They promised to study hard and give back to their communities.

Dinner was at Friends Cafe (not the one with the spiders), which trains street children in hospitality and culinary skills.

I was able to conduct a research interview, though there was a lot of background noise so I'll see if it's usable. I hope so, because it was very interesting.

Insert sleeping the sleep of the dead here.

This morning we visited Krousar Themy, an organization that provides services to street children. Friendship with Cambodia supports one of their shelters in Poi Pet, a town near Thailand where kids are very vulnerable to being trafficked over the border. As you may know, a person's status is even more precarious if they're in a country illegally, so that provides both a threat that can be leveled at them and a great vulnerability. The kids were very sweet, and the question of why some of the alphabet pictures on the walls ("A, Apple") also had Hebrew words was answered when I saw that several Israeli organizations provide some funding.

We stopped at Rehab Crafts, which is now Khmer-run and where every employee has a disability (some from landmines, some from polio, others from birth or acquired). We spoke with a landmine survivor who lost both legs and now works as a packager. We also met an accountant with no forearms and several craftspeople carving or staining sculpture and wood objects or sewing.

After Lunch at Le Rit's, associated with another NGO, we had an hour for rest, which I spent drafting this entry.

We took cyclos ("SEE-klo") to Toul Sleng or S-21, the Khmer Rouge interrogation center that is now a genocide museum. I didn't go in--it's still very vivid from previous exposures. Instead, I sat at Boddhi Tree cafe and wrote a little. Some group members joined me early, having had enough. We talked a little as a group, then went our separate ways. I headed back to the hotel because I hadn't heard from my colleagues at the Royal University. I backed up some photos, then a few of us went to dinner at a Khmer place. As I've been uploading photos, I've had an e-mail saying that at least one of the people I wanted to meet with will be available Friday at 3:30, which should give me a chance to deliver some gifts, say hello, and catch up before I rejoin my group for dinner.

I had more photos, but the connection's slow tonight. Maybe later.

Tomorrow we head to Kampot. I don't know what the internet situation will be there. but I'll try to keep posting.

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1st February 2010

Thank you for your insights about the people you are meeting. Your descriptions are very clear and paint a vivid picture of what you are seeing- some not so pleasant, but none-the-less, important to know about. I wanted to share that as you were talking about the orphanages, I was thinking about a man asociated w/the chirch I attend, Eugene Faith Center ( a Four Square denomination), I remebered an associate of the church, a missionary in Cambodia, Ted Olbrich, who had spoke earlier this fall. Over a period of years, he has established soewhere around 80 orphanages in Cambodia, and I think, some other sourrounding countries. It's called Warm Blankets Orphan Care International. I believe that they are caring for somewhere around 1000 children- many simply appearing on his doorstep out of the blue. His description of many things you have describes parallel completely. Your supporting information confirms for me that the $$ I have given to this organization was a positive choice. Thank you for the work you are doing, and that you are willing to share so much of it. I hope your toes is better:).

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