February 22nd, 2017 – 5 Months and 1 Week at Site
Reading: The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
I finally managed to bike all the way to James’ site which should have happened long before now given that he’s technically the closest volunteer to me. Buuuut since neither of us are permitted to bike along the dirt roads through the rice fields between our houses (as the crow would fly), we have to pop north up to Takeo Town and then head back south along the paved, permissible roads if we want to visit. Anyhow we goofed around at his house where his host-mom served us syrupy coffee, then biked to a nearby pagoda on a little hill. We trekked up its stairs which felt like brushing our heads against the ceiling of heaven after so many months of Cambodia’s pancake-flat landscape. We received a blessing from a kind old man who lived in a cow shrine halfway to the top, then chit-chatted with all the elderly groundskeepers in the cathedral at the “peak.” Several solicitors upturned their palms for us at the base of the stairs and I gave several bigger bills since they were all I had. Pretty much anything could have happened that morning, though, given that my tailor and I made a bra-extender from an old bra that morning so I felt like a bonafide genius.
When James visited the next day I felt so proud of my site. Everyone was so welcoming and excited to have him, not an inappropriate comment about our appearances escaped, nor were any comparisons made about our language skills. That afternoon I tutored with Sweetie which felt great even though I was exhausted. We’re finally having some real exchanges, actual small conversations. From there I headed to the wat and tutored my new monk friend, Lok Samnang, in English, but most of the time was spent learning from him a new breathing/stress-relief technique that he’d just seen on YouTube.
The next morning at work, by some miracle, I found that I was the only person on staff who knew how to read and use the children’s growth cards. Vuth had to zip off and get some immunization supplies from our operational district office, but the mothers and grannies expectant of vaccinations for their kids just kept arriving. Soon the health center was choked with women and babies, all demanding to get their kid vaccinated first. Channa, the usually haughty and pedantic assistant chief, was trying to take control of the situation but it was soon clear he actually had no idea how our vaccination program worked, let alone how to read the vaccination schedules on each kid’s card. I helped direct the women toward the scale for weighing, discerned whose children were due for vaccination and who’s weren’t, and wrote in the cards as necessary. When our chief rounded the corner and asked me to head next door and attend the monthly commune meeting in his stead, Channa had me hurriedly finish the haphazard stack of remaining cards before departing.
I was petrified at the commune office, surrounded by village health volunteers and other local officials who I’d known for some months now but I still guessed overestimated my ability to understand what the heck was going on at any one time. To my surprise, though, when our clerk for the committee for women and children asked if I had anything to add, I did. Would the village health volunteers be interested in helping me do home visits with patients throughout the commune? Would they mind giving their phone numbers to me? They all smiled and started chatting in excitement, then began to pass around a piece of paper and write down their phone numbers.
After work I was pretty pathetic with a headache and just general fatigue, but Uncle Kha managed to drag me from the house to his place for lunch. He and his wife were so excited to introduce me to gko laeng phnom, “the cow climbs the mountain,” a hot-pot dish with beef and veggies which get steamed atop a little aluminum dome over the flame. These two are so sweet. Next week I will help see them off to Phnom Penh. From there they head to Korea for a year to live and work near their oldest daughter who just married a Korean man. I’ll miss them so much.
I’ve been going for a jog through the rice-fields once or twice per week for stress-management and it usually works. The trick has been enduring the cajoling and harassment (well-intended, I’m sure…?) from everyone lounging or tidying up in front of their homes as I walk to the edge of the village. Something like trying to seek peace and quiet or doing anything willingly solo is openly laughed about. “Where are you going!… Hello! Teacher!… What are you wearing there?… Jeez, you walk fast!… Hello!” It only takes about four minutes but it’s enough to jettison me from the village boundary desperate for some space and peace. Once jogging, though, the paved road out of the village is fairly quiet in the early evening. I run along that for about six or seven minutes and then turn either left or right and run along the rice-field roads. Young eucalyptus and palms grow in a sparse pattern along the path’s edge and I can see the village from the entire route. There are occasional uncles moto-ing to and from their rice paddies but there are no homes. It’s so peaceful. Recently, though, I’ve been chided about going somewhere (anywhere) so “isolated and dangerous.” Thus far, I’ve been pretty compliant with the village’s guidance and instruction. These runs, however, have been my saving grace in terms of not totally murdering everyone here who calls me fat, calls me useless, calls my language unintelligible. For my jog the other day I stuck along the paved road which is more populated and therefore theoretically safer, just to humor everyone. I didn’t make it long before the harassment from everyone and their mother was simply more than I could handle.
“Ah, exercise! 1,2! 1,2! 1,2! Ha ha ha!”
“Where are you going?”
“How far will you go?”
“Those pants are so tight!”
“Are you tired yet?”
“Look at her sweat!”
“Where are you going!”
“Exercise everyday but still fat!”
“Woah, slow down!”
“Hey girly, wanna ride on my moto? Come on!”
“Where are you going, pretty girl?”
“Where are you going, teacher?”
“Where are you going, foreigner?”