Monday, June 22, 2009

Swimming in poverty and disorder.

Cambodia never really crossed my mind when I knew that I would be traveling to Asia. But as it turns out I've spent four days and three nights in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Its a country that has loads of problems including UXO (Unexploded mines), poor road conditions, corruption, lack of proper medical services, and less than half of Cambodians have access to clean water and sanitation facilities. So why visit? Well, one thing I take seriously is the suggestions of others as far as where to travel next especially if they have found a certain place particularly moving or a "must see." The temples of Angkor Wat (think Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie) are a pretty big deal, 8000 years old big deal it seems and I'm always up for something new and unexpected. I would be exploring Angkor Wat for a day even though to see it all you need three days. All of the traveling would be by bus and a hell of a bus ride they have been so far, you're lucky if you can keep your bum on the seat longer than five minutes. Sleeping is also barely manageable so I've goten a lot of reading done when I'm not talking to the stranger next to me. From Saigon to Phnom Penh is a 6.5 hour bus ride then from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap it's another 6 hours.
We got into PP at 1pm then had a tour of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda at 2pm. By 3pm I was fed up with tours and saw everything I had wanted to see so I separated myself from the group. I jotted down ten or so different places like coffeehouses or restaurants that seemed interesting and ended up going to two. There is a need for help in this country and what has amazed me is the response. There are a slew of businesses that work with non profit organizations as well as restaurants that are reacting and helping all sorts of projects. The restaurant where I just dined holds permanent exhibits that work in conjunction with the Centre for Children's Happiness orphanage that provides a home and access to education. The children living there had previously worked as garbage pickers at a landfill dump, the centre works with the kids as well and teaches them skills- such as photography *displayed at the restaurant for sale. I visited a fair trade shop, spent a whopping 12 bucks that got me lots of presents (soap) and the lady working there was kind enough to offer me a ride to the chocolate shop I was searching for. She saved me a twenty minute walk I really didn't mind taking. The chocolate shop was a bit ritzy so it led me two stores down to The Shop which turned into my haven. Not that I needed one, I just happen to really enjoy the coffeehouse culture. You're immediately welcomed a small path resembling something from The Secret Garden and by the open glass doors. The volume of the music in the background was perfect for any conversation you'd like to have or even overhear while sitting on the simple wooden tables indoors or outdoors. Oh, they also have seating area in the back porch, or is a porch only in the front? Anyways, the art on the ceiling looks freshly painted and everything about The Shop says sit, pick out a magazine or newspaper, and don't forget your cup of coffee. I later found out it's been open for eight years. Just about 90% of the menu items are between a buck and a buck fifty....and they've got plenty. It's not very apparent that they're into sustainability until you walk into the bathroom and notice the towels instead of paper towels as well as the biodegradable packaging some people opt for instead of dining in and hanging out. One woman sat down next to me and had an adorable baby on her lap, we went on and chatted for a bit about her life living in Cambodia versus Washington D.C. Her husband worked for the embassy which hooks you up with housing in the country you relocate to, she almost had me sold on where I would applying for my next job: expenses include 6 dollars a month for cell phone, 100/mo for internet which is a luxury, and 60/every 6mo for cable. You move every two years and can choose where you'd like to live. There is the downside of not having family and friends with you she mentioned.
After leaving The Shop I took a stroll in the direction of the vegan restaurant the woman suggested and ran straight into two large fitness groups exercising to some funky techno cartoon-ish music. It was quite a sight you simply had to laugh at its beauty. Its this type of community involvement/participation I really enjoy witnessing.
Museums, Royal palaces, and the like are great but give me a community in action or a conversation with a local and it'll teach me much more. Coming into Vietnam my dad warned me several times over as did my mom about the dangers and how I need to be more attentive. It's in wandering around the city in the evening with only an address that has made me enjoy being here and appreciating the way it moves. At first it was quite horrendous: loud vehicles honking constantly, the polluted air, intense heat but once the sun sets it turns into a playground. I am convinced the best way to get to know a city is to get lost in it (it's more enjoyable with someone though). Smells, sights, and more that can't be described are all of a sudden overwhelming and perfect. Businesses don't close shop until late which was music to my ears.
Following the 20th mango smoothie I've had since arriving in Asia I realized every recent trip is accompanied by a fruit obsession. Here it's mango & lychee, half a pound for fifty cents! In Guatemala it was also mango, in Spain it was tangerines (the sweetest I've had, ever). Fruit salad anyone? good times :) anyways, substituting fruits for sweets is always a great choice.
After almost three weeks there was an increasing frustration in not knowing what's occurring in Vietnam and only tonight was I made aware of a newspaper that circulates daily in English! A great relief nonetheless. Everyone is entitled to feel like a complete fool every so often.
Back to where I started, Cambodia is swimming in poverty & disorder but it's absolutely stunning once you take a magnifying glass to the work being done to repair itself.

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