Category Archives: Travel

A Lesson in Cultural Sensitivity: Assumptions

Last week, my team and I learned a valuable lesson in cultural sensitivity. Having traveled as much as I have and having been in many situations where I have been privy to privileged information, I considered myself to be well versed in culturally sensitivity. However, as I have learned countless times in essentially every aspect of life, there is always space for improvement and a seemingly endless stream of lessons to be learned.

Focus Group

 As I am currently in India studying a highly sensitive topic, in planning my research, I attempted to make every effort to ensure that my data collection was appropriate and inoffensive. I have spent years rearching this facinating culture but despite my research on these topics, I still had a lot to learn being on the ground interacting with women. Before leaving, I felt like I was constantly debriefing my team members on what to expect with Indian culture. We set up focus groups with Community Health Workers (CHWs) to refine our questions, piloted the final result, and asked our questions with well-educated Telugu translators. I knew that the women in villages would be too embarrassed to discuss their menstruation habits with men, so I arranged to conduct interviews with the only female translator that was available. The other members of my team, both male, interviewed CHWs and, unfortunately, had to take a male translator.

 

Hut in a Village

 This is where we made our first mistake–the assumption that because the CHWs interact with both male doctors and men about sensitive health information, that they would feel comfortable talking about the menstrual health habits of women in their villages with a male American medical student. However, the questions asked were still too sensitive and the situations in which they were asked brought embarrassment to the CHWs. On our first day, at the suggestion of our male translator, the male portion of our team interviewed the CHWs outside their home. The translator had a very loud and projecting voice and he spoke so loudly that I had to send my translator out from where I was interviewing to ask him to speak quietly. The next day, we realized that these questions needed to be asked in a private environment and, with the intense heat (110 F +), again at the suggestion of the male translator, this team decided to interview the CHWs in a private, air conditioned car. In making this decision, no one considered how this would appear to the villagers, and we neglected to think of having a female chaperone.    

In both of these situations, our team attracted attention to our project. As we are discussing such a sensitive and taboo topic, much of the attention that we drew was negative. In a society that is unfortunately dominated by males, the husbands of our interviewees interrogated their wives and became angry at us for asking their wives such sensitive questions. In retrospect, I see how someone might be offended if a group of men took another man’s wife into a private vehicle and asked whether she or the women in her village wore underwear… Sometimes it takes this sort incident to shift the lens and change perspective.

Some of the questions themselves that we asked were offensive. For example, we were interested in finding out about the villager’s and CHW’s general knowledge of menstruation. We quickly found that no one knew anything about the physiological process of menstruation and that this lack of knowledge made them feel uncomfortable. One question in particular, asking about the origin of menstrual blood, was extremely offensive. Even a seemly innocuous question—a question about which religion our interviewee followed–was met with extreme discomfort. Unfortunately, this question was misunderstood by the villagers, who thought that we were asking about their caste.

Unfortunately, we did not know that any of this was going on for our first two days of interviewing–we were at the mercy of our translators. We had made yet another assumption that our translators would translate the full responses, including the discomfort and the scolding that apparently went on in some of the interviews. We only learned of the trouble we caused when it was large enough to inhibit the study’s progress. One evening at dinner, we were told that the CHWs were calling each other and saying that we should not be allowed into their villages, as we were asking “bad questions”. We also were told that the husbands were particularly angry that we were asking their wives such sensitive information, and that if we proceeded with the study as is, we could be met with violence in some villages. I think that this lack of communication was due to the fact that our translators, who were also our hosts, felt obligated to proceed with our faulty and insensitive study, as they did not want to offend us. Having worked closely with people in this part of India for the last two and a half years, including one of our translators, I regretfully should have anticipated this issue and should have spoke with our translators more about giving us “bad news”.
 

Esther and BeBe (CHW)

 After learning this unfortunate and surprising news, we were all understandably upset. After all, we came to India in attempts to help alleviate some suffering, not to cause further discomfort and suffering. I felt (and am) responsible for the discomfort caused and couldn’t help but think that I could be responsible for episodes of domestic abuse, which is horrifyingly all too common in the villages. I retreated to my room, where, between several episodes of crying out of frustration and guilt, I began to brainstorm ways to salvage the study. After several Skype calls with friends and mentors, I was able to organize my thoughts and come up with a plan. In the period of about 16 hours (including about four and a half hours of sleep), I shifted the focus of the study, pulled the males (and with them, an important aspect of the study, as I do not have time to do in-depth interviews with all 25 CHWs on my own), and built in the mentorship and knowledge of key persons into the study, getting every question approved by multiple wise and influential women. 

The trouble that we faced happened because we made assumptions. We made the assumption that menstruation was less taboo of a subject, the assumption that the CHWs would be comfortable talking with men about menstruation, and the assumption that our translators would translate our interviewees discomfort and inform us if our study was not well received. As painful and frustrating as this experience was, myself and my team learned important lessons in global health and cultural sensitivity that we will take with us on future endeavors. 

  

Post Interview

  

 Currently, the newly designed study is going smoothly. The women leave the interviews smiling and many wait for all the interviews to complete to take pictures with me or walk me to my vehicle with their children. The CHWs are happy and comfortable, generously offering their home and electricity so that I can have both comfortable and private interviews. So far, my findings are interesting and my mind keeps rolling with new study ideas and possible interventions. In fact, one important finding is that many of the women in the villages suffer from painful menses and cite this as a primary reason for missing work or school. Today, I was able to present information on normal menstruation as well as an intervention for painful menstruation to 22 CHWs at the quarterly CHW training. 

In closing, I learned a valuable lesson in cultural sensitivity and in making assumptions. However difficult, this experience will undoubtedly shape my approach to future work abroad. Luckily, I was able to salvage and reshape the study and look forward to sharing the results in the coming months.

Chalagamari VIllage

India, India! (I return)

After over two years, I’m back in India. For whatever reason, this country has grabbed me more than most, and I have returned to the same place again in my travels, with plans to return for many many more visits… 

  

SNP Widows

 In the middle of an unrelenting heat-wave, I am back at the BIRDS campus in the village of Muthylapadu, in the Kurnool District of Andhra (no longer Andhra-Pradesh), India. The school children are on summer break and without them, the campus feels empty but at peace. Taking their place, are the widowed employees of Shelter International’s Sanitary Napkin Project. Visiting them in their workshop and my interactions with them have been a highlight of the last few years. Words do not begin to express my sentiments and I hope that I am able to process and share these feelings in the future.

While I am here for the widows, I am also here to research the beliefs and practices of feminine hygiene in this portion of village India. Two friends have joined me and together we are trying to create a concrete and evidence-based picture of the area’s current feminine hygiene practices. As tools, we are using focus groups and individual interviews with women and Community Health Workers (CHWs).

 

Transportation

 So far, only two days into the individual interviews, our results are quite interesting. It seems that the majority of women here already use sanitary napkins, most having adopted them recently because they wanted the “freedom” and “comfort” to move about. Previously, they used bits of cloths that restricted their movements, caused mortifying menstrual mishaps, unpleasant smells, rashes, and were embarrassing to wash, dry, and reuse. When I ask these impoverished women the maximum price that they would pay for napkins, they almost unanimously reply, “Napkins are now a necessity. Even if the cost was 100 rupees (current prices in the villages range from 26-45 rupees), we will pay it, because we will never go back to the old ways.” 

Despite this unexpected progress, many of the women still face restrictions on their behaviors and movements during menstruation. So far, none of them worship during their menses, as they feel “impure.” Several do not travel or leave the house, many restrict the foods that they eat, and some are forced to stay outside or in a corner for the duration of their period. Thus, while some women do have the freedom and comfort to go about their days normally, because of custom, many women are still restricted and stay home from work or school during menstruation.

Education is also lacking and, perhaps surprisingly, mothers do not tell their daughters about menstruation until after menarche (their first period). And, as one might expect, sex education is lacking in the Indian school system. Thus, when girls see their first drops of blood, they fear disease or death and run crying to their mothers, who then tell them that this is a normal process for girls– their entrance into womanhood. Several of the women revealed that they never had the opportunity to learn from their mothers, because they were married within a month of menarche and their mothers did not have time to explain how to manage menses. Furthermore, women have no knowledge of the physiological process of menstruation and very few women are able to identify the origin of menstrual blood.

Still early in this process, my mind rolls over future projects and mostly educational interventions. I am also dreaming up ways to expand Shelter to employ more widows, as widows frequently travel great distances hearing that we employ widows and treat them well (unfortunately, the stigma of widows is still strong). While I do have a slight bias, I have already seen the impact that Shelter has had on the lives of our employees and even on women in the villages. I feel so lucky and thankful to be able to do this work. It is what drives me and gives me the energy to succeed in my studies.

More to come as time, internet, and power allow…

 

I interviewed this widow over 2.5 years ago. She is still alive, wearing the same blouse, and is now in her 90s.

  

Raw Material and almost finsihed product

    

The BIRDS farm

 

(An Introduction to) Life in Texas

On my drive to Texas...

On my drive to Texas…

New Starts. I love them. In my life, for better or worse, I have had many (more than I can even think of counting). I had seven high schools appear on my college application (I was only physically at five…) and attended three different colleges fulltime (not counting the other three or so where I have taken courses…). I have also traveled extensively, where every day essentially becomes a new beginning. And now I have started the next phase… Oh how I have loved the tabula rasa!

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(Hopefully) my little cottage!

I’ve been here, in San Antonio, for almost three and a half weeks. My time here has been busy, filled with my master’s courses, nearly completing my biochemistry prerequisite, working on SHELTER International’s Sanitary Napkin project, and an attempt to explore my new city. I also spent my first few weeks here scrambling to find housing, which I finally (hopefully) have. After visiting several over priced and mostly mediocre rental properties, I decided to buy an adorable little house in a historic district, mid-way between campus, Whole Foods, and my new hangouts. The house closes just a few days before classes start and I cannot wait to move in! I have been essentially living out of a suitcase since April and am anxious to settle. After a transitional few years (but isn’t all of life traditional?), I know I will have the motivation (of both relaxation and resale) to make the space beautifully my own. The decision to buy essentially happened overnight and I joke that I went from twenty-five (or whatever I am, some claim ninety…) to thirty in a period of just hours, as my free time suddenly became filled with thoughts of interior wall colors, countertops, how to tastefully match exterior paint with the new (green) roof which I will not replace, what to do with my front lawn, and my planting calendar…

A real first…

Other than buying a house and living around my homework schedule, I have had the chance to explore the city and meet a few people. The classmates that I have met so far are wonderful and I am excited to be around similarly motivated individuals. Also, actually very surprising to me, I actually really like San Antonio! Yes I have had “conversations” with conservatives who corner me with monologues of disbelief that I actually want to go into medicine in this day and age (can you believe it?!) and I will be driving past pro-lifers protesting Planned Parenthood (an organization to which I have proudly donated the last several years) on my daily commute. But I like it here. If anything, these oppositions will remind me why I have chosen the path that I have and will only serve to make life more interesting…

The road

The road

Other positives about San Antonio: I love the heat. I doubt that I will have to use my “happy lamp” often and will not need to make daily or even weekly trips to the sauna. I’ve found little corners of the city where I feel at home and have even found a few restaurants where I can eat!  More positives. I was asked out more times in my first two weeks here than I was in my six years in Oregon. Very few men here wear skinny jeans (they traded them in for cowboy hats and boots, a different story entirely…). It is a diverse city with a lot of culture to explore. Hill country is lovely. Most importantly, people are nice and I have encountered very little pretension. In short, Texas has welcomed me and I am doing my best to embrace a culture very different from my own. I am really looking forward to the next four years here and think that I am going to love it.

So, far away friends… come visit me once I partially reemerge from the stressful first semester of medical school!

A great fresh start!

A great fresh start!

Movement.

Path.jpgEarly this morning, I looked at my calendar after awaking from a restless sleep. After months of living at or near limbo, I am ready to make as much of a decision as I am able to make in my current situation.

The decision that I have become fixated upon involves taking a leap that I have dreamed of making for years but haven’t dared take—leaving Portland.

20140123-215031.jpgI have fallen for this city. In these past five years in Portland and the surrounding areas, I have explored my mind, body, heart, and soul. I have made friends with waterfalls, blown kisses to the ocean as the water gently caresses the shore, watched the appearance and progression of wildflowers signifying the arrival of Spring, chased rainbows and the rare thunderstorm, spent months buried in books, and fell in love for the first and second times.

Life in Portland has been good to me. Though I often complain mostly about rain, bearded men, and cigarettes, I enjoy what the city has to offer and the minimal amount of effort it takes to live here. I love that I live equidistant from a specialty market and my favorite yoga studio, and only a mile from a(n inactive?) volcano. I enjoy that I can get away with never changing out of yoga pants, and that I rarely have to explain my eating habits when I share a meal. Life in Portland is easy. It’s been great and has stolen more than a piece of me.

Wildflowers_Mt. Hood.jpgI am a creature that loves beauty and exploration. I thrive on change and often find myself craving movement. I haven’t yet left Portland because of its comforts and its ability to make time evaporate. I also can’t get away from the city’s proximity to the easily-accessible and jaw-dropping beauty of the Pacific Northwest. I willingly (with some moments of hesitation) gave my early twenties to Portland, but, as I progress into another phase, I now feel that I am ready for change.

As I looked at my calendar this morning, I counted how much time I likely have left here in Portland, and I picked a date.

March 31. 66 days.

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I then thought longingly about the lonely drive from Portland, Oregon to Sedona, Arizona—It will be pretty come Spring…

And I then started looking at plane tickets, made some calculations, and explored the fine lines between dreams and my early morning consciousness…

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2013: Reflections

Two-Thousand-Fourteen.

Twenty-Thirteen has come and gone in what feels like less than a moment. This time last year, I was lonely in Coimbatore but living passionately. It was perfect. I was shadowing at the wonderful Womens Center and running almost daily (in an attempt to ease heartache and train for my first and so-far-only race—the Coimbatore Rock n’ Run Marathon—where I ran a rocky and dusty 10 km and got fairly drunk for breakfast immediately following its completion).

What a life I have lived.

Dancing in a Cambodian Wedding Train

Dancing in a Cambodian Wedding Train

Asia was just fantastic and I have been recovering from the high since my April return (really in recovery since May, as the high lasted for at least couple of weeks). Travel really is a drug—I find myself reaching and plateauing at these sensational peaks—constantly in love with everything, everyone, and my own serendipitous and glorious existence. And the come down, the come down…It has lasted much longer than any hangover and leaves me longing for the constant engagement and stimulation that travel provides…

My return was difficult. It has been difficult. I moved into a transitional state (where I still linger) and I am someone who dislikes states of prolonged uncertainty (yet somehow, I am still in love with life and all its complexities just the same). My six months of unemployment were a lesson in humility, as my hopes and ego were shattered on a daily basis with silent rejections (I have since found a wonderful job that has proven to be a near-perfect fit for my brief stint in limbo). And then there was the reemergence of more-than-one heartache that I thought that I had left behind, somewhere in the bowels of Asia…

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On top of a mountain, looking up…

To the hum of this ambient whine, and most important to me as a person, was the task of applying, interviewing, wait-listing, and then finally being accepted into medical school. This endeavor has been with me constantly for at least the past year—even entering my mind while spacing out in the produce section of New Seasons Market—and has been the topic of hours upon hours of conversation. It has been a source of great stress and has tested my patience. Now that I have finally been accepted into a school where I feel that I will be quite happy, I breath. I have worked so hard for these things that matter most and everything is finally falling into place, like they often seem to do…

Twenty-thirteen has been a year of lessons. I was reminded that life is full of peaks and valleys, gives and takes, moments of delightful ease followed by months of challenge, that I will get through whatever is thrust before me, and still come out grateful for both sides of the experience.

[Change is inevitable and, as wonderful as it would be, life has no pause option (and I am thankful that just this past year has given me a plethora of pause-worthy experiences, so many that I couldn’t even begin to choose where to bask in the sun—or snow—for eternity)]

But I am ready for change and have been asking and working hard for more movement, wherever it takes me. Once again, I am incredibly thankful for the experiences that have allowed me to learn, love, and grow. I will continue to use these valuable tools to fine-tune my life.

May twenty-fourteen be stimulating, engaging, and full. May twenty-fourteen be exactly what we need.

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My disappearance (from the virtual realm)

20130606-100644.jpgWell, I have finally returned to Portland after a seven-month hiatus. It has been an interesting time of transitions and perhaps why I have not updated my blog in over a month. (I’ve been figuring out some health issues, applying to medical school, applying for jobs, working on writing up a report for my research on Indian widows, catching up with old friends…)

I’ve been settling back into life in Portland. I’ve moved back into the same little cottage with the same furniture and flatware and I sleep in the same bed where I slept a year ago. Back in this reality, I’ve had several moments where I began to question if anything had actually changed in my months away. Everything looked the same. Habits that I didn’t even know I had resumed. Even my kale tasted the same. Had life just paused? Reality—Check?

Of course I had changed. My face even looks older and I am now rarely carded when I buy wine. Being back in a similar situation as before has really forced me to look at the lasting effect of my travels (or the effects of time on self-development). I’ve had to put myself into the context of this new here-and-now.

The still unfinished "self" portrait ( I assure you that I am at least 50 billion times happier than I appear in this portrait)

The still unfinished “self” portrait ( I assure you that I am at least 50 billion times happier than I appear in this portrait)

A few weeks ago I felt like painting. Intimidated by the task of starting something new, I picked up an old unfinished self-portrait from over a year ago. I set up my drop cloth where it had been and carefully placed my mirror. I sat in the exact location as before as to capture the same shadowy contours of my face. As I sat there looking at myself, I was overwhelmed with where the last year had taken me. Physically, all over (well, almost). Emotionally, I have traversed a great deal as well. Looking into my eyes—both my actual reflection and the old portrait—I saw my growth. Perhaps it took this disorienting juxtaposition to remind myself that the last (now eight plus) months actually happened and I had grown from them.

While reintegration has been a bit disorienting, I am grateful to have been granted such a unique opportunity to reflect on myself.

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(reverse) Culture Shock

I experienced little to no “culture shock” while journeying through Asia. I arrived in Asia knowing that life would be vastly different and brought an open mind that fit this realization. Instead of shock, I felt intrigue and let the beat of new cultures and environments pulse through my veins.

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Coming back to the West, I have experienced what one might call “reverse-culture shock.” This “shock” hit me hardest when I entered a gas station in rural Arizona while driving from Sedona, Arizona to San Francisco, California. I stopped at one of those massive truck stop filling stations in Yucca, Arizona–the first stop on my trip and the last exit before the California border and elevated gas prices.

I stepped out of my car to be surrounded by smiling and arguing families in minivans and solo drivers in large SUVs with smug looks on their sunglassed faces–I think I was actually sized up! Suddenly, something so simple and completely ordinary became surreal. My perceptions slowly began to shift–I felt as though someone had spiked my water with some mind-altering substance.  Then I walked into the gas station’s attached “mini”-mart…

Country music was blaring and I saw the first actual cowboy boots off of fashionistas in a long time. And nearly everyone was wearing them. People were looking at me strangely (perhaps because in my unease my hands were glued in “namaste”)–and I got an almost confrontational vibe. And then there were the packaged “foods” and bucket sized drinks being carried out and slurped by what will surely soon turn into giants and giantesses. And then more county music and the nauseating smell of hot dogs slowly rotating under a heat lamp (and the knowledge that they could have been there for years). Welcome (back) to rural America…

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At only about 10 am or so, I ran back to my car, put it into the completely uneconomical and  un-eco-friendly sport mode which I reserve only for “emergency” situations….and sped away, back to the controlled solitude of my comfortable car and the distant mountains of the Mohave Desert. Thinking of the food and realizing I hadn’t eaten in hours, I reached over for an organic apple when my appetite returned after this jarring experience. Back in the peace of my mobile sanctuary, I realized that, for practically the first time in my life, I had experienced culture shock.

Note: Those of you that know me well hopefully realize that, while there is some truth to this post, I am having fun making fun of my quirks. But, I have definitely experienced some reverse culture shock–like people stopping for me when I cross streets with the aggression needed for surrival in Asia (and visiting truck stops in rural Arizona)…

New Beginnings (the journey ends)

20130416-104147.jpgMy journey in Asia has ended and I have returned to the United States where I am currently visiting my parents in beautiful Sedona, Arizona (of the countless countries and places I have visited, Sedona continues to be one of the most beautiful and special places that I have ever been. I feel so blessed to have grown up here). In total, I traveled out of the country for six months and 10 days although I could have gone on indefinitely had money and time allowed. What an amazing trip! I spent roughly a month in Nepal, three and a half months in Southern India, one month and a half in Cambodia, ten days in Thailand, and five days in Singapore. I have finally caught up on sleep and have recovered from my long and sleepless flight from Singapore, to Tokyo, to Los Angeles, to Phoenix, followed by a two hour drive north, to Sedona.

In Singapore, people were surprised that I traveled so long—especially when they found out that I did so alone. “Wow!” they would say, “did you have any moments of amazing insight?” “Shouldn’t you have those everyday?” was my reply. And I did. And I still do. But I will say it is so much easier to be “gifted” this wisdom and intense appreciation for life while traveling.

So, of course I had many eye opening experiences on my travels. Far too many to count and probably far too many to even remember! But, they were all meaningful and all served to help me stretch and grow as a person.

Now, what are these insights you might ask?

Firstly, my work in India (especially) showed me something that I already knew—that I need to spend my life working for the improvement of health and happiness in others, particularly women. We women are such incredible creatures and while the world has made enormous strides in helping to better our lives, we still have a long way to go and I would like to be part of this push. Thus, spending so much time with women in need made my conviction that I need to be a doctor even stronger because, as a doctor, I can combine all my passions and, in doing so, do so much more to improve the lives of others.

13919_10200340754134414_1825709756_nSecondly, the world is a strange and beautiful place—and my traveling days are far from over. I had so many beautiful experiences and exchanges that I cannot even begin to capture in words. However, I will try: Eating corn after a long motorbike ride on the side of a dusty dirt road in rural Cambodia while attempting to converse with the seventeen year old girl tending the shop. A little boy using me as his pillow on a bus ride while his grandmother gave me apologetic glances. Stumbling on places of such intense natural beauty that my atheistic mind declares—“Alas! God must exist!” The realization that there is just so much more to discover…

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A morning prayer

Thirdly, the sentiment that I literally constantly felt flowing through my veins of—“How lucky am I?” On my entire trip, I had next to no bad luck or unpleasant experiences. Even when it appeared that disaster struck (the loss of a rented motorbike) redemption followed (it miraculously was returned). I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunities and experiences, good and bad, that I have had and I absolutely love my life. I am incredibly grateful to be alive.

The next portal?

The next portal?

Lastly, the journey didn’t end when I stepped foot on American soil. I feel as though my life is a (nearly) blank canvas that I can fill and consciously create whichever way I choose. I am so lucky to have the opportunity to create the life that I want for myself and plan on taking full advantage of this rare freedom. I will continue to live honestly, continue to grow and expand… I have so much life and learning ahead of me—it will be exciting to see where it all takes me.

Note: I have been asked by several people if the end of my trip means the end of my blog. In case you haven’t noticed, I love writing so the answer is probably not. Anyways, I have at least two more posts about my trip that will come out at some point in the future so look out for those. Also, thank you all for your continued support!

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Cambodia, Cambodia!

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How can one put experience to words? This is what I must try to do in writing about my six weeks in Cambodia. I sit writing this piece crouched in the last seat in the back of a Cambodian bus–leaving Sihanoukville for Phnom Penh…departing Cambodia for Thailand in the morning. I am thinking–“Is there a way to capture it all?” Definitely not. But I hope to retain the feelings, sights, and experiences in memory, and perhaps in a few words as well. But what an experience it has been.

I started my journey to Cambodia with a red eye flight from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India to Singapore, to Phnom Penh. Being the sleeper that I am not, I was awake for at least forty hours when I finally arrived in Phnom Penh in the early afternoon–only to discover that while I had arrived, my baggage had not. I perhaps managed to leave my information with the “baggage officials” at the airport and set off for the only guest house I booked during my time in Cambodia. I showered, changed into the running clothes that I thankfully bought in the Singapore airport, and went off to hit the city. I wandered here and there, sweat some–and then some more, and then asked an ex-pat where I could find authentic, affordable Khmer food. He sent me somewhere near the night market–I could identify it because it had the number “18” encrypted into the Khmer script of its name. I wasn’t sure what I had–I ordered and pointed to the picture of something that looked like it didn’t contain pork. I wandered back, sought company, and introduced myself to a group of backpackers staying across the way. We had a beer or two (or three) and I managed to convince a small crowd to come check out the “girly bars” with me as sex-work is something that has always fascinated me.

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Typical

So, with two boys and one other girl…we hit the clubs. We followed a solo, older, western man to a bar with a tame sounding name—“Oasis”–to be greeted by young, beautiful, and unhappy looking Khmer girls wearing next to nothing–tight, cleavage revealing red “dresses.” We chatted with the girls for a bit, finished our pitcher of beer, decided to be a bit brave, and next hit club–“Sixty-Nine”. We danced–the other girl wandered off to bed–and we were given some dirty looks from the mama san as I guess we looked like unlikely customers. We bought a few drinks for the girls to make mama san happy, got everyone dancing, and explored the underworld (perhaps tamer than what I could have found) of Cambodian “girly bars.” While not all of the girls were actual prostitutes, they were all looking for “western boyfriends” which many of them found as you could see by the many aging, mostly overweight, western men walking around Phnom Penh with potentially underage and skantily clad Khmer girls hanging off their flabby and often tattooed arms.

It was an interesting time in Phnom Penh.  I loved it.  I stayed four or five nights waiting for my baggage to arrive before heading to the beautiful and relatively peaceful Kampot (read Blaming the Victim for more on Kampot). I stayed at Bohdi’s Villa in a rooftop bungalow overlooking the river. For a few nights, I had my own palace.

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After a few days of lazing away between motorbike adventures, I headed off with an American girl I had met to Otres Beach where I continued to laze away–letting the warm sea, gentle waves, and soft sea breeze blow what little cares I had left away. Several days later, I chased my bus to Pousat down on a motorbike. I stayed there just two days and had an experience out of a Salvador Dali painting–a visit to the nearly untouched floating villages of Kampong Luong. Then I was off to Battambang, where I climbed up to the killing caves and saw ten million bats fly out of another cave. In Battambang, I looked at my calendar, had a near panic attack, and immediately booked a ticket to Sisophon where I planed to visit Bantey Chmar, a long lost jungle temple well off the beaten tourist path.

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Crickets with the groom

Sisophon was an experience. More so than Pousat, I was the only westerner and felt like I had the small city to myself. While wandering around, I stumbled on another westerner who happened to be taking part in a traditional Cambodian wedding (a joy of being a solo traveler!). I was invited by the groom to stay for dinner and any and all of the next few day’s ceremonies. While I didn’t want to impose (but I actually really did), I joined them for dinner that evening where I avoided pork but tried the Cambodian delicacies of whole baby frogs and crickets.

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My time in and around Sisophan was magic. I found my favorite Bahn Chev (savory pancake) place at the market where I had a blast each visit trying to communicate that I wanted a vegetarian pancake by the chef’s wife and I making animal noises and faces at each other while laughing. I had many delicious (and vegetarian!) pancakes at this stall for just twenty-five cents. I was completely satisfied and didn’t even get sick from the accompanying basil leaves and lettuce (my stomach is getting strong!).

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Giant helmet

In Sisophan, I created one of my favorite memories that I have had in Cambodia (but my oh my there are just so many!). I rented what I now call the shittiest motorbike in the world and drove it over 120 k down one of the world’s worst dirt roads. On this road were Lexus (plural) speeding past, semi-trucks that would fly by creating giant dust clouds and complete white out conditions, and the occasional Cambodian family tightly packed onto a motor bike. With no suspension and little motor biking experience, I did my best to dodge potholes and sandpits. In areas where there was “road-work,” I learned how to handle hydroplaning and driving through mud. (Don’t worry–my helmet was huge!). It was a long rough ride and I realized how important it is to live in the moment while motor biking (and otherwise as well!). The minute that I slipped off into a sweet daydream, I hit a combination sandpit-pothole and went down hard and fast. Lucky for me, I fell to the left and I didn’t suffer and burns from the exhaust pipe. Alone and in the middle of nowhere Cambodia, I struggled to lift the bike off me and managed to get to the side of the road with the bike. I observed the damage, which was really not much more than ripped and blood stained pants (my spoon was in my pocket–which ripped through the pocked and into the surface of my thigh) and some probable (and rather terrible) bruising. I was lucky. While I could have hailed a car to get me back to Sisophan, I decided to get back on the bike, this time really aware of living in the present, and headed towards that temple. But, my bike wouldn’t start so I hailed down the next Cambodian that passed–who gladly fiddled with my bike and got it started again. And I was off. (Despite the little mishaps I have had motor biking, I am seriously considering trading my station wagon in for a 500 hp Royal Enfield…)

The temple was incredible and I had the 9 km grounds more or less to myself.  As I signed the tourist register, I noticed that about five other tourists had visited in the last week. I spent a few hours wandering in awe before I started the long and rough journey back to Sisophan. I enjoyed another dinner and dance in excellent company at the Cambodian wedding (and was even dragged up to dance on stage with the band!) and went off to Siem Reap early the next morning.

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Angkor Wat was, is, and forever will be amazing. You can read better writers writing about it so I won’t say much here other than I loved it. Seriously. I think everyone needs to go. I also enjoyed great people watching in Siem Reap’s night life. I met great people in Siem Reap and really enjoyed my time visiting the temples.

From Siem Reap, I went straight back to Otres Beach. I spent just three weeks there but feel as though I created a small life for myself. I went on early morning beach runs and in the afternoon helped a friend facilitate donation-based yoga and meditation classes on the beach. Yoga and mediation have been an important part of my life since the age of sixteen and, while I am still very much a student myself, I love sharing the little bit of knowledge and my love for these practices with others, especially if they have never done anything like it before.

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Every Saturday, Otres Beach has a little “hippy market” with live music, cold drinks, and food stalls. Here, I tapped into my long-lost creative side and got into making chocolates (first “bark”, then truffles) and sold these at the market with a friend who made delicious chocolate balls and (later) epic veggie burgers. We also offered tea and “almost raw” salads. While I love Otres Beach and the community of people it attracts, a lot of life there revolves around drinking and drugs. While I am not a judgmental person, my friend and I thought it would be nice to offer something a little more healthy to balance the lifestyle of the average Cambodian beach goer (hence the yoga and dark chocolates that both get you high–naturally!). The next week we expanded the offering into veggie burgers which flew off the six-dollar gas-powered range. I had the pleasure of taking part in three of these markets–it was nice to do something so lovely that I will probably never do again. I am a chocolate lover to the highest degree and really loved watching peoples faces explode in pleasure as they tried the chocolate truffles and “sophisticated snickers” I made using just a metal bowl and a three-dollar hot pot as my instruments. With both the yoga and market, I made some money and really enjoyed doing so. I rediscovered my love for creation–this time in cooking–and am looking forward to continuing these delicious creations with more tools in the US.

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In Otres, I stayed in a lovely but very basic room above a Cambodian owned and run bar and restaurant called Sunshine Cafe. The family who runs the place wakes up early every morning to start serving customers and works late into the night, every night, for months and months on end. So, at the suggestion of a few westerners who work at the bar for food and accommodation, we closed the Cambodian kitchen for one night and took over the restaurant and bar. I was in charge of veggie burgers and dessert, and the other two “chefs” (one actually was a chef from Ireland) were in charge of everything else. Things got off to a rather rough start–the supermarket in town was out of lentils so instead they bought beans which wouldn’t cook in the few hours I had to prepare the veggie burgers. The others were also dealing with shortages of this and that and we had to borrow pots and pans from various other beach restaurants. However, we got over the bumps and actually put on a great meal for at least fifty-five people (despite it all–the veggie burgers turned out great!). For dessert, I made my first ever rice-pudding. It was flavored with palm sugar and mango and topped by a choice of warm mango or banana sauce. I loved watching the faces of those that tried it and hearing the satisfying “mmms” and “”yummms” coming from the mouths of happy customers. While the five of us worked hard (two bar/server girls), we made over $400 that night. When we gave the earnings over to the family, their faces lit up in gratitude. They had a night off from working (although they seemed very skeptical and perhaps a little afraid of what we were doing) and I think made at least one hundred dollars more than they make on an average night (which goes along way in Cambodia—especially if you are Cambodian…).

Well, once again I have fallen in love with another country. Cambodia truly took care of me and blessed me with many beautiful and enriching experiences. I immediately felt at home here and, since my arrival, have had many people (including ex-pats and Cambodians), mistake me for an ex-pat! I have been touched by Cambodia deeply and hope that one day I will have the opportunity to return to this country and explore more of its beautiful countryside and lovely people. Cambodia, Cambodia…. What will I do without you?

(I will find out tomorrow!)