“[Pre-Service Training] lasts about 10 weeks. It’s a crash course designed to help us integrate into our communities of service. If we survive and pass with operable colors, we become sworn in as real, true Peace Corps Volunteers. Currently, we are just Trainees.”
We really did it. We really pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and peaced out of America. The journey began with a high-stress, high-fun tumble into the SFO airport, all seventy-something of us. Our conga-line of rollaways and errant neck-pillows held up the traffic flow at arrivals for too many minutes. We made our way through security once everyone’s bags were tagged and brows were glistening. Thus begun the hunt for the perfect final American meal. Yes. Diner fries, a burger, and a milkshake. Caption: Paul, Amanda, Rajath, Shanniqua, Jacob and I took a hike to a neighboring terminal for this luscious spread. Shanniqua even found her smoothie. Worth it.
That burger stuck to my ribs for the next 17.5 hours (15.5 in the air, another 2 for sitting on the tarmac) while I enjoyed bouts of drool from either side courtesy of Pearl and Paul Stahlke, though he redeemed himself by being rewardingly awful at both trivia and Battleship. [pic of Paul’s double meals] We touched down in Shanghai and scattered, all itching to enjoy the many fabled wonders of this renowned airport. In the end we decided it was more of an intense shopping mall which also offered air-travel. Between the spas and butterfly, koi, and sunflower garden, it was a humid whirlwind. The land surrounding the airport was highly manicured and spotless. Trash was not a thing here.
Then… then it was finally time. The last leap! Next stop: Cambodia! Paul and I were doomed to sit together again – cursed be our alphabetically conjoined names – so we got to share the excitement of our touch-down in Phnom Penh. We were here. We worked our way through a flurry of check-in procedures and congregated outside to barely dodge our first Cambodian rainstorm. First impressions: Sticky heat that clings to your neck and makes your heart thud, thud, thud. The drive through the capital city gave us our first look at the madness of Cambodian traffic – not stop signs, no pedestrian right of way, and an essential void of all order or reason. From the bus we surveyed the showcase of countless unregulated business run from family homes and shops. Gasoline sold from empty soda bottles. Street-side hair cuts. Body piercing shops complete with vivid descriptive gentalia advertisement.
The next few days of staging would be held at a resort outside of the city. Our huge cohort was split into language groups upon arrival and jettisoned into language classes almost immediately following introductions from Cambodian Peace Corps staff. Our language group had instant chemistry and we could not have been more lucky to have been placed with the greatest Khmer (read: “km-eye”) teacher on Earth: Savin (read: “Sawin”). He taught us our very first Khmer and sat with us for our first Cambodian meal. We were already attached and couldn’t imagine trying to navigate this new world without him. Until that day comes, we will cling to him like white on rice. You can say that here.
The Peace Corps staff proved with every hour that they are nothing short of a wonder-machine, churning us through various skill stations to ensure that we could navigate a squatty-potty, scrub our laundry clean, hang a mosquito net/avoid malaria, and not insult anyone during family meals. Why were these skills so crucial? Because tomorrow we would be meeting our host families for Pre-Service Training! PST lasts about 10 weeks. It’s a crash course designed to help us integrate into our communities of service. If we survive and pass with operable colors, we become sworn in as real, true Peace Corps Volunteers. Currently, we are just Trainees. We need to earn our stripes. Our PST host families would be welcoming us into their homes in mere hours. We could hardly wait! We practiced our formal greetings and ensured that we had at least basic questions prepped for our new families. Nervous doesn’t begin to describe it.
PCMO: Don’t get HIT. Don’t get LIT. Don’t do IT. Don’t EAT SHIT.
Kids at heart, we relished in one final day in definitive civilization. The PST sites would be much more rural, without amenities like wifi… or plumbing. A dip in the pool and a campfire song or two was warranted. The prospect of splitting up into Health volunteers and Education left us bummed, for certain, but we knew we would reunite in a short week. We can do this. PST, brace yourself. So long, Western plumbing. Ye shall be sorely missed.
Our Pre-Service Training is being held in the province of Kandal surrounding the capital city of Phnom Penh. We were all fortunate enough to have our presence graced by the sitting governor who – much to our relief – spoke fluent English due to his time at university in the states to become a police officer. After his kind welcome and sound advice (“help Cambodians help themselves”), we were divvied up so as to be whisked away to our true PST villages farther from the city. But how would we, green and tender little Americans, survive village life in Cambodia? Local host families! Yes, we were on our way to the Wat (pagoda) in our training village to 1) be blessed by the monks residing in that wat and 2) be introduced with our host-families. Sadly, no photos were captured in the Wat due to my outright fear of committing some type of cardinal sin by capturing the likeness of a cherished spiritual monument.
We were all in our finest, most modest clothing we could muster, eager to make positive first impressions on our new moms, dad, and siblings. These families were opening their arms to take us in as their own while we figured out how to *live* here. We kneeled anxously in the wat, sans shoes, and drank in the silence before the monks began to chant. When they began, unexpected tears streamed from my eyes cast on the ground. This was my first true moment of astonishment. Can I really be here? Am I in the right body? How can anything sound or feel this beautiful? The tears we stymied by the subsequent joy and excitement of the pairing with families. We were called up one by one to meet our moms or dads. We were all met with huge hugs and parents that matched our excitement tenfold. When my name was called, I sprang up and greeted my new mom: Mai (mom) Kim, a spry, slight elder woman who rarely ceases grinning. We joined Christy and her host mother for snacks, during which Christy and I learned that we were now related! Christy’s mom is my older sister (30 y.o.) and my mom is her grandmother. We would be living next door to one another and sharing most family meals. Such a score. However, there was little time to celebrate. We needed to wrap up, get to our homes, unpack, have dinner, and get enough sleep to power ourselves through the next few days of class. Those next few hours were a blur. But it was from that glorious night of sleep that my new life began.