So, there haven’t been any updates to speak of for the simple logistical fact that internet access has been only an occasional thing. I do have a few things written down from the last two months so I’ll just condense a few of those thoughts into this mega post.
July 22 – The Honeymoon Period
Stepping off the plane in Phnom Penh, I had already expected to sweat more than I could imagine. I was certainly not disappointed. Within the first 30 minutes of our arrival, I had easily drenched my shirt and was dismayed to find the sweat was making progress on my pants.
This picture (featuring my good South Dakota friends Billy and Aaron) wasn’t from the same day, but illustrates my perpetual state quite well.
Of course, we were all expected to wear dress shirts and pants when we arrived, so this didn’t help the situation. Supposedly we landed near the start of the cool/rainy season, so any thoughts of being comfortable for the next two years are merely mad daydreams. On the plus side, I’m looking forward to losing weight from living in a perpetual sauna!
We spent our first day in Phnom Penh, filling out paperwork, being shown the main office, and being taken around to see some of the sights by the previous volunteers in tuk-tuks (a kind of taxi similar to a rickshaw except pulled by a motorcycle). Transportation in Phnom Penh (as well as Cambodia at large) can be a rather precarious undertaking most of the time. People are squeezed past seating capacity to get just that extra bit of money, and the traffic laws many times seem non-existent. Drivers pass even when it is not particularly convenient. This is, quite often, scary as hell. When coming back from a restaurant at night, our tuk-tuk and another one that had fellow trainees in it got into a race of sorts, and the others narrowly avoided being t-boned by a SUV. Thankfully, everyone came away unscathed, but it was a definite reminder that we weren’t in the US anymore.
Like any big city, Phnom Penh can be difficult to wrap your head around. Excesses from developed nations are juxtaposed and clash with the extreme poverty of less developed nations. The city itself has about 4 to 6 main streets which the volunteers use to orient themselves. The more I visit, the less crazy and jumbled it seems. Still, my first impression sticks with me. I could not remember how far away our hotel was or which direction we had traveled to get to the river or where Wat Phnom was. I did see monkeys, and an elephant, and a few beggars, and I thanked my stars we had someone with us who knew what the hell they were doing.
I call this post the honeymoon period because during training they described our relationship with this country and our experiences in it as a sort of wave sine, with our initial experiences being at the top of the wave, slowly making its way downwards before hopefully making its way back up again. At the top of the wave, we have “The Honeymoon Period”, which is the period where you feel ecstatic at your new surroundings and are willing to overlook a few, shall we say, blemishes. They are niggling little things that if more closely scrutinized would probably sour you on ever coming back. This is why people go on vacation to Hawaii and say, “I could live here,” only to neglect the reality of what that would mean, such as cost of living or being away from every single person who ever knew you or missing the changing of seasons and so on and so forth. For many of us it was the same, and for a select few it might still be. At first, things like using a squat toilet or having rice with every meal were a novelty, something that seemed like merely part of the cultural flavor. Now they are just everyday occurrences, sometimes acknowledged as annoyance but most of the time just a part of life. What you start experiencing near the end of the honeymoon period is what moves you towards “rejection”.
August - Rejection
Rejection may begin with subtle things. You may have a slight cold or one meal that just did not sit right with you. Then you begin to become annoyed by larger things: the dogs howling at 4 in the morning or the monks chanting at 4:30. Suddenly you find yourself on that downward plunge towards rejection. From what I can tell, everyone experiences this feeling and each person experiences and exhibits it in different ways. Usually you start to notice it after the first few weeks. I know I certainly had my share.
After our few first days in Phnom Penh, we were moved to our training province of Kampong Cham. We spent a few more days in the provincial town preparing to live amongst host families, and then our group of 50+ volunteers was split into three training villages. Ours was Bosknaus in the district of Chamkar Leu. Chamkar Leu roughly means “Upper Farm” in Khmer, and there certainly were farms abounding.
The first meeting with our training host families was predictably awkward. We could maybe say five words of Khmer, so many of us just nodded our heads when spoken to gestured towards. I was relieved that my host dad was only joking when he said they preferred to eat with their hands (at least that’s what was translated to me).
My first night in a wood shack had its share of challenges: mosquitoes buzzing, geckos chirping, ants swarming, and an occasional rat noise to name a few. Thankfully the family did have electricity and I was able to use a fan they had supplied. The aforementioned ants were oddly one of the things later in training that while throwing me into rejection mode also brought me closer to some of the other trainees. We would briefly vent our frustrations at them swarming our rooms as well as our water filters (“What the hell are they doing in there? I thought they hated water!”)
So language and technical training continued through the end of July and August. Some members of the group had contracted Dengue Fever, while others like myself had merely gotten giardia. It’s during those times of illness when your mind is most at risk of rejection. When one of my good friends here had something that wasn’t quite serious but was still crappy enough to make him feel awful for half a week, a terrible but thankfully brief thought had entered his head. It was, “I’m a volunteer: I can simply go home. At any time during this thing, I can make the choice to not stay.” He knew the impulse was fleeting and knew he was much stronger than that, but in the back of my mind I know we are all tempted by such thoughts. That’s why I’m thankful the downward plunge usually tapers back up towards Sociology.
September - Sociology
By the end of August, I was feeling pretty good. We had completed a number of tasks such as the practice LPI, aka the Language Proficiency Indicator, aka the test that decides if our language is good enough to stay or not, and most everyone was on track. We had what is called Practicum, which is a week of teaching practice with Khmer students. I and two others were assigned 9th grade. I’ll write more about this experience later but I can probably say it was very reassuring for me at the least. We also had a site visit to places where current volunteers are serving in Cambodia. I and two others had visited Dillon in Svay Rieng, close to the border of Vietnam. Our visit got me fairly excited for the long haul. We had expressed many of our doubts and frustrations during training, and he seemed to confirm what we had hoped: real service is not like training. Seminar days are a thing of the past, and you actually get to structure your day how you want it. However, there still remains a possibility of this being a case of “be careful what you wish for”. Most volunteers I’ve spoken to remember a few good things about training but for the most part wouldn’t want to be back at that stage.
So to the Sociological stage. This is where you are on the upswing but find you are still having difficulties. Instead of just retreating into yourself or blaming the country out of spite, you try to pick yourself up and understand why the things that upset you are the way they are. Instead of being instantly annoyed when your family keeps you up at night by watching television loudly or by waking you up again at 4 in the morning, you try and reason that this is their time to be together, since the day is reserved either for working or for napping during the hottest part of the day. The Sociological perspective does not mean you aren’t pissed off, only that you are doing something more constructive with that pissed-off-ness.
I would say I didn’t experience as dramatic a plunge or upswing as many of my fellow trainees. If things bothered me I tried not to let it show, but for the most part I felt like things were as they should be. If I got upset, it felt natural and would probably pass. If I was happy, I tried to hold onto that feeling for as long as I could. Being with other trainees in the village helped. If I or they wanted to vent, we could do so easily. Being at my permanent site by myself, I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it as well as I previously did.
Late September - Acceptance and understanding
So that brings us to now. As of September 23, 2010, I am officially a Peace Corps volunteer. Before we were merely trainees: scared, weak, unsure of our place in this country. Now, the 49 of us who have sworn in are scattered to our respective provinces, hopefully fit to make our way in our communities. We have left the security of our training host families, of whom many had grown attached, and the immediacy of our fellow volunteers, of which many came to rely on.
I now find myself in the district town of Krakor in Pursat province, where I will be staying for the next two years. In my province, I will have Bill, another Seattleite from our newly inducted group, and two other current volunteers. My house is on National Highway 5, right across from the school where I will be co-teaching. Already I know that noise will be something that could potentially pull me down again. After two days at site, I know that boredom is something I will have to fight viciously against. I have a small library of books at my disposal and the numbers of all the friends I made during training. After spending a week in Phnom Penh eating western food, I found I was craving just a simple meal of bai saik jrook (rice with pork). It’ll be good to settle in I think.
Acceptance comes close to where the honeymoon period had started at the top of the wave. It doesn’t ever really get to that point again, because you have the knowledge that situations change and what set you off before could very well do so again. But because you are armed with that knowledge, it makes the next plunge easier to handle. Or so we hope. I hope that what sustained me through training will sustain and develop throughout the next two years in Cambodia. We give ourselves things to look forward to. For me, it’s the thought of maybe singing the national anthem for the US embassy in July. Earlier than that, its maybe taking my first bit of annual leave in April and doing some traveling. Even earlier than that, it’s Thanksgiving in Battambang. And this week, it’s buying a pair of pants that actually fit. You gotta start somewhere, folks.
More to come.