Friday, July 9, 2010

Spirituality as a Source of Sustainability

Below is an article I've been working on this week. It details the connection between health and religion in Cambodia, and how IRD would be wise to begin utilizing local relgious leaders in their work.

"To avoid the heat, the ceremony began early. The rented red plastic chairs were full and the babies were pacified with dried noddles. Rising to speak was the village chief; behind him a man in orange robes came into view.

The presence of a monk at a Child Survival Program event is uncommon. The target of International Relief and Development’s USAID funded grant is to decrease the morbidity and mortality rates of children in the struggling Tuk Phos province of Cambodia. IRD’s scope of work is not focused on the impact religious leaders have upon their communities. But should it be? The relationship between religious figures and the masses in Southeastern Asia has historically been strong and is currently one of the major elements keeping this rural region hopeful.

The pagoda, the road side shrines, and the daily chants all help to add color to the life of a Cambodian village. And for most villages involved with the CS Project, this distinct religious atmosphere remains segregated from the work IRD is doing. IRD hosts training meetings to help villagers care for their bodies; Buddhism offers blessing ceremonies to help villagers care for their souls. While it would seem that health and religion have separate aims, they are actually two sectors of the local economy that could be further integrated.

It may be true that health and religion are very distinct disciplines, but IRD’s work could be strengthened if it employed the help of local religious leaders. For within this particular community, health and religion have one major thing in common: education. IRD seeks to provide villagers with nutritional training so that they may become more healthy and self-sufficient. Faith practitioners hope to see villagers gain an increased passion for study so that they may become more informed about and active within their own spirituality. If IRD seeks to continue serving as a vehicle for education, a partnership with the local religious community would be highly beneficial.

Villagers themselves have voiced excitement over such a partnership. In 22 interviews conducted with local villagers within the Tuk Phos district, it was nearly unanimous that the aid of monks, achars (laymen), and nuns would be a helpful addition to the work IRD is currently doing. Sorn Chankoy, a 24 year old mother of one, said that there has been little incorporation of religious figures into the work IRD has done in her village. When asked if such involvement would be positive or negative, she claimed that “Monks have a lot of experience teaching. Monks are the model. They are respected.”

30 year old Pach Sopheap echoed Sorn’s sentiments, expressing enthusiasm over the connection between IRD’s education and the education provided by religious leaders. Pach lives near a pagoda, so she is accustomed to receiving teaching from monks. In fact, monks already “help educate about feeding and hygiene” in her community. “They help to remind us,” she said. If IRD could provide formal training on nutrition and health to local monks, their role of “reminding” would only be fortified.

By providing local religious leaders with formal training in health, IRD taps into a source that is able to meet needs for sustainability. Individuals who are already committed to meeting community needs are the perfect population to receive increased training. While their technical skills may fall short of IRD’s health practitioners, their values and passions don’t. Since religious leaders are so strongly committed to being advocates for the well-being of their villages, the level of trust and confidence villagers possess is already high. Religious figures can become more than qualified to teach and advise on nutrition and hygiene, for their impact and influence is far reaching.

Religion in Cambodia is not going anywhere fast. IRD’s Child Survival Grant, however, is. Ending in September of 2010, the project is phasing out and local volunteers will tackle the task of ensuring that what IRD begun is continued. In an effort at being sustainable, what better than religion to take the reins?

The stitching of this country’s social fabric has been, at times, a little jagged. Regimes have risen and fallen. Dictators have invaded and evacuated. Atrocities have hit and demolished. But religion has been a uniting and encompassing thread, holding the broken pieces together. Religion has provided a steady presence of peace and hope. In these times of sickness and disease and death, religion is capable of providing life; if not with the needle of a doctor, then with the word of a teacher."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Angkor What?

The past couple of weeks have been very busy here. I’d say its been a rather healthy balance of work and play.

Work is kicking into high gear. I have been out in the field conducting interviews on a regular basis, gathering information to write up briefs and articles for IRD. I have many fun photos of families and children as well as their stories to share with you, but I’ll save those for a later post.

For now, let me tell you about all the playing I’ve been doing. And by playing, I really only mean one thing – getting to see Angkor Wat. This was the one thing that I had to see while in Cambodia. The country continues to be plagued by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime while Angkor Wat remains the country’s jewel, one of the main things that still produces solidarity and provides a sense of belonging to the Cambodian people. It is truly a source of pride, as it should rightfully be.

The thousands of temples at the Angkor complex are absolutely magical places. They have ceased to support a civilization for almost a thousand years, and yet they are the beating heart of this country. They were the symbol of a civilization unrivaled, and they still are the symbol of a civilization unmatched. The sheer vastness and scope of Angkor Wat reveals the power and influence that was once focused out of this very country.

The complex is so large and overwhelming that when I say I spent 10 hours at this place, that is actually a disappointing amount of time. While we did quite a lot in that time and don’t feel slighted in the least, there is still so much that we failed to see. Brekke and I saw the sunrise over the main temple, the one actually called Angkor Wat. Then we rode by tuk-tuk to the other major temple sites – Bayon, The Terrace of the Elephants, The Temple of the Leper King, Ta Prom, Ta Koa, and Banteay Srey. And in the afternoon we headed about an hour north to the River of a Thousand Lingas. They are were very unique and had their own history and story to reveal.

Bayon was my favorite. It was one of the first temples we saw. If it was a wedding dress and I tried it on first, I would have no problem ending my search. We were there early in the morning as the sun had just hit the sky; it was slightly hazy and cool. There were no fanny pack toting tourists in sight. Brekke and I got to explore this ancient wonder by ourselves which made it that much more mind blowing. The symmetry of the temple is perfect, as is the detail of the carvings. There are over 200 large faces carved into 54 tall towers with tons of little crannies to get lost in. I can just imagine what a grand place it would have been during its height.

Ta Kao was also incredibly impressive, but mainly so because of what Brekke and I did there. We climb out of the tuk tuk with cameras in hand, ready to document another mound of old rock. We are planning on climbing to the top of this one, seeing as how there is one huge door frame at its summit that would make an awesome picture. As we walk off, our tuk tuk driver reminds us that 3 Japanese tourists died last year while climbing this very temple. First comes the shock that death always brings, then the terror of the idea of still climbing this thing, and finally the anger at the driver because he has ruined our picture. Or did he? That's right. We bravely hand him our cameras and we head off to climb Ta Kao. "We're in shape! We'll be careful!" We'll. Be. Fine.

Until we're not. Until we get half way and start to shake and wobble. We both begin to get short of breath. Brekke softly reminds me that "Jesus did not being us to Southeast Asia to die," while I yell "Yes he did! We're going to die! Oh, and we will have to add this to the list when we get to heaven!" Just imagine our arms and legs sprawled over steps that are so steep they should actually be called a wall, and you have envisioned what I thought was my last moment. Thankfully we find our way to a stoop, get a picture from the tuk-tuk driver at the bottom, and somehow find our way down...only to realize when we later examine our picture that we were only a few steps away from the top.

Thankfully, our afternoon was not filled with a brush with death. It was, in fact, very peaceful. The River visit was incredible. I mean, with a name like “The River of a Thousand Lingas,” who wouldn’t love it? It sounds so full of adventure and…well…Indiana Jones. We had to hike up 2000 km to the top of a mountain to get to the river. Butterflies of yellow and orange led the way as we climbed through jungle and over rock. At the top, the river beds are actually lined with even more carvings – the Lingas – and produced a little water fall. After seeing all the temples in the morning, the river was fairly unimpressive, but the hike was wonderful. Definitely something new and different.

I’ll end with this quote that I stumbled upon as I was reading the guide book about Ta Prom, the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed. It sums up my experience at Angkor Wat perfectly: “Everywhere around you, you see Nature in its dual role as destroyer and consoler; strangling on the one hand, and healing on the other; no sooner splitting the carved stone asunder than she dresses their wounds with cool, velvety mosses, and binds them with her most delicate tendrils.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cambodian Manna

I knew that I liked food. But I didn’t know that I liked it this much. The events of this morning confirm that I am in fact crazy about food and will, in this case, do anything for a round piece of sesame bread.

So let’s dispel any notions that sesame bread is bland and somehow unworthy of being the object of my morning's madness. Sesame bread, in Cambodia, is one of the most delicious foods I have tasted. Admittedly, I’m not sesame’s biggest fan, but this bread is heavenly. It’s round and hollow like a beignet but with sweetened sesame seeds on top. It’s more doughy than flaky, more thick than thin. I have only had it twice, so imagine how bad my cravings must have been as I embarked on my pilgrimage to the market this morning to track it down for breakfast.

I love the market here. It’s busy, alive, and overflowing with fresh fruits, vegetables, and breads. It’s chaotic and smelly and best of all, I get to ride my bike around and put all my purchases in my little bike basket. If knowing that it’s finally Friday wasn’t enough to make me get out of bed this morning, then the promise of riding my bike to purchase sesame bread surely was. Let’s just say that I was excited and may or may not have been singing to myself in the bathroom this morning. I’m telling you, this bread makes me go crazy.

So I get to the market, park my bike near a curb, and begin my search. Now, I have never bought this bread for myself before. It always seems to just appear in front of me. Once I had it at a restaurant where it was the complimentary bread; another time my boss, Som, bought it for us on her morning walk. That’s another reason why the bread is heavenly – it just appears out of thin air, not that different from Manna. Thus, knowing that this bread is rather elusive, I’m on my A game. My eyes are peeled and my money is out. My stomach is growling and ready to pounce on that sweet baked goodness when I spot it.

Imagine my slight confusion when the bread is nowhere to be found. There is French bread, garlic bread, rolls, and buns…but nothing resembling my manna. I walk nervously back and forth, up and down all the stalls of the market. Nothing. I walk to a fruit stand where I know the vendor speaks decent English. I describe my bread, curving my hands into a round shape and pretending to take a bite. I was on a mission, and words were not enough. I needed hand motions. She understands me, laughs, and points down the street to the gas station. I thank her, hop on my bike, and already feel better knowing that the bread exists…just not in the market.

Dodging all the motos and chickens and ox carts was difficult in the morning traffic, but I swear I was more confident on that bike, knowing that bread was soon to be bought. I ride down to the gas station with a smile on my face. I pull up, but there are no vendors. In fact, there is no food anywhere. Not even a restaurant. My confusion turns to frustration as I begin to realize that this bread hunt is turning into just that…a hunt. It is no longer a lazy morning stroll through the market, it is a full on scramble to FIND THAT BREAD before I have to head to work.

I ride down to the bank. Nothing. I pop into a café. Even more nothing. I talk to a few people on the street, relying on my hand motions again. No one knows where to find it. At this point, I say a desperate prayer to the God of Manna that this bread will begin to rain from above and fill the streets with its sweetness. When my prayer goes unanswered (because that is definitely how God works), I start to get mad, thinking that this town is full of a bunch of nothing! If there is no sesame bread, then why is the world even still spinning!? These thoughts, among others that are more colorful, go through my head as I imagine heading to work breadless and breakfast-less.

I resolve to end the search, after one last hurrah. I head back to the hotel, recalling that I have seen sesame bread on their menu before. I walk in, head straight to the waitress that speaks the best English, and, as politely as I can muster, order sesame bread. She nods and takes my money. I wait.

A dreadfully long time later, she returns with a to-go bag. A rush of relief washes over me, until I realize that my sesame bread has been taken captive by a loaf of French bread! What? Where did it go? I don’t want French bread! I want sesame bread! This must be some kind of mistake! After getting yet another confused look as to why this other bread simply won’t do, I call it a day and ask for my money back. I sulk out of the hotel to head to work, thinking that the world is just not a good place this morning.

I walk into work with a look of defeat on my face. And in this case, defeat could be acting as a synonym for rage (Ask Brekke what I said when she asked if I found my bread. It was a touchy subject, okay? It was just too soon). I walk down to my friend Nith’s office to vent about the bread, seeing as how he was the one that told me I could find it at the market. After telling me that I had actually been looking on the wrong side of the market, God enters his body and speaks to me directly: “I’ll send a driver to get it for you. One piece or two?” The world becomes a better place in that moment, as I jump up and down screaming “Two! Two!”

As the God of the Old Testament says, referring to manna, “… in the morning you shall be filled with bread; then you shall know that I am The Lord your God” (Exodus 16:12). I guess it is only appropriate that, try as I may, I couldn’t provide the bread for myself.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Living Out in the Open

Cambodian culture is not only distinct, but it is distinct in a visible way. By visible, I mean that as an American it is easy to detect the differences between my way of life and a Cambodian’s way of life – the food, the language, the “dress code,” and of course, the vast economic and political differences. But by visible, I also mean something that is perhaps more obvious, and definitely more indicting of the way that my life is organized in America. Cambodian’s live in a visible way, meaning that their lives are not hidden from the lives of neighbors, or customers, or foreign tourists. Many own little shops lining the roads or sell fruit at the local market, sitting next to their products hour after hour. Most of their homes are comprised of one large room, perhaps one bed. Cambodians do not remain hidden behind tinted windows, for bicycles and motorcycles are the most common form of transportation. Granted, this visibility may not be an active choice for many Cambodians because of their various levels of poverty and utter dependence on others. But, this visibility, whatever the reason, is in fact a radical departure from the way Americans more than not choose to structure their lives. In the United States, we love eating in booths for privacy, building fences and planting shrubbery around our property, and even having multiple rooms in our homes devoted to “escaping” from other family members. We cannot deny that we create boundaries for ourselves, shielding our lives from others around us. In Cambodia, those boundaries seem almost non-existent. This tactic of shielding is rare and would frankly be an insulting way to live here.

Among the new ways of life that I have encountered, living out in the open has been the most challenging. I can try new foods, learn words of Khmer, dress more modestly, and work to help build a Cambodia that is more stable and self-sufficient. But a purposeful tearing down of my erected boundaries has not been an easy task, for I am realizing that I am almost intrinsically wired to build forms of protection around myself. I have been taught to value independence. I have been taught to strive for security. And perhaps most sadly, I have been taught that reliance is in fact a weakness. Learning how to forgo the parts of myself that are riddled with procuring security and seeking out seclusion has been difficult, but in Cambodia, I seem to have quite the support group to emulate. Although I purchased a bike and try to eat my meals with locals when I feel confident enough to stomach a new dish, I have a long way to go. And I am not wholly convinced that I will achieve this “living out in the open” before I leave Cambodia. It will indeed be something that I intentionally strive to maintain and continue when I return home.

So how do we reconcile these vastly different ways of living? Is the answer to completely abandon eating in a booth or buying plants? I don’t think so. I do, however, think the answer lies in the act of being deliberate, for which the life of Jesus can prove to be a valuable model. There was nothing secure or safe or secluded in what he preached, whom he ate with, or where he traveled. Yes, his life was filled with risk, but it was also abundant in intentionality. I believe that intentionality is the key if our lives are to become more interwoven and interconnected. We must become a people who step out from behind. Jesus advocated for a life lived fully, and a life lived fully cannot occur from behind tinted windows or tall shrubbery. The characters from Monty Python and the Holy Grail are popular proponents of shrubbery, but if I recall correctly, they failed to find the Holy Grail.

I plan on submitting this post to Emory's blog website, as well. There, you can also read stories of the other Emory IRD interns stationed around the globe. Here is the web address of the abroad blog:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The List

This may come as a rather blunt or worry-inducing thing to say, but lately I have had several brushes with death. Getting horribly sick because of mis-prescribed malaria medication, being out to sea when a monsoon hit, and almost being slamed by speeding motos and yes, cows, in the not-so-calm streets are the main events I have encountered. None of said incidents actually brought me to the point of visualizing Peter and his Pearly Gate, but they were rather frightening and, shall we say, thought-provoking.

Now, I cannot claim the brushes with death as wholly my own. Brekke has been there for most of them and has also seen her life flash before her eyes. Naturally, death has become a running joke between us and we finally did what we have been talking about doing for the past two weeks: create the Top 10 Ways to Die in Cambodia list. While it is true that this list does come out of our experience, it is also meant to be both funny and revealing about what life in Cambodia can be like. Inadequate medical care, less than enforced traffic laws, and unsanitary drinking water are normal here. Thus, I have come to realize just how safe of a life I live in America, simply because of what I have access to. Fortunately, we are only here for two months and WE WILL COME BACK ALIVE. Many Cambodians deal with these things on a daily basis and death is more of a daily reality for them than it has ever been and will ever be for me.

Thanks be to the mastermind, Brekke, behind the compilation of The List.

10. Hydroplaning in a vehicle of any sort - The monsoon rains are sudden and last for quite a long time (think multiple hours). Paired with rather unkempt roads and rather uncouth drivers, hydroplaning is a sure way to “loose the mortal coil” as one might say. A car out of control could take out not just the passengers, but also passing motos, bicyclers, pedestrians and unwary cows. Because monsoon rains are only once a day though, hydroplaning makes number 10.

9. Infected bites, cuts, abrasions, lacerations, etc – after the tragic implanting of sea urchin spines into my right heel this past weekend, I became acutely aware of the health risk that infection poses to most Cambodians, and to ex pats living and working here. With less than adequate facilities dotting the country, any kind of open sore or wound has a high likelihood of being easily infected. The tap water here isn’t potable (which means we can’t drink it) and while it’s not too terrible to wash in, if you don’t want to swallow it, you don’t want to wash a wound with it. Since we hope to avoid open wounds at all costs, infection is only number 9 on our list.

8. Attack by roving bands of she-hes - according to British Dave, as opposed to Aussie Dave (two travelers we met while snorkeling),bands of “she-hes” (we’re not exactly sure what he meant, but we guess that they were transvestites) lie in wait for tourists in bars. While Sara and I have never experienced this, Dave was quite adamant, and had battle wounds to prove it. Apparently, he had been lured into a room with one of these wily bands and had to jump out a glass window in order to escape. He had several deep cuts and a bad burn form where he jumped on a speeding moto in his get-away. If he wasn’t so embarrassed by the story I would have thought he was lying to me. So, because you never know who you’ll meet in a bar, the she-hes make number 8.

7. Drowning in a boat on the way to or from shore – Sara and I had plans to go snorkeling one of the days on our beach trip (can I just say epic fail) and in route to the island the rains hit (in the morning!) and I think we very nearly drowned. The normally peaceful ocean turned grey, warm salty water smashed into our little dingy from the sea, cold water was pelting us from the sky. As we strapped orange life-vests to our shivering little selves, I remember thinking “this is a crappy way to go, out here in the middle of nowhere ocean, no one knowing where we are.” And then the motor of the boat died. Because only the grace the Almighty got us through that storm, death by drowning hits the top 10 list at number 7.

6. Abduction by the Khmer Rouge – while we have been lucky to have had our travels be (mostly) uneventful, the Khmer Rouge is still a significant threat in parts of the country. So, visiting the majestic mountains that rise out on the horizon is a no-go for these rather bumbling Americans. The rebels tend to stay in their mountains; as long as we avoid them, they should avoid us. But, because of their bloody past and unsure future, the Khmer Rouge lands just shy of the top 5 at number 6.

5. Unexploded landmines – Cambodia has the most unexploded landmines of ANY Southeast Asian country. Because there are so many of them, people routinely die from stepping in the wrong spot. Off-trail hiking is illegal in Cambodia because so many tourists have died over the years. And, if the landmine didn’t kill you and you survive the substandard medical care (think back to number 9), you inability to get work will probably result in death by malnutrition. The CMAC landmine detection and detonation training center is about a mile from the IRD office in Kampong Chhnang and routinely interrupts our meetings with small explosions. Because landmines are undiscriminating and can cause multiple death scenarios, they make it to the top 5.

4. Malaria medication – As Sara unfortunately discovered this past week, mis-prescribed Malaria mediation can be just as painful – and potentially lethal – as contracting the disease itself. Malaria medications have a variety of side effects, including: constipation, diarrhea, fever, hallucination, vivid dreaming, bi-polar tendencies, depression, gastritious and acid reflux. If you can survive your medication, then you’re doing well. Because Malaria medication is suppose to be preventative, and is mandatory for travel in Cambodia, it ranks as the number 4 way to die in Cambodia.

3. Malaria and Dengue Fever – if you stop taking your Malaria medication as a medical intervention, you then run the risk of contracting the very disease you were trying to prevent. Not to mention Dengue Fever, which there is no prevention for except to spray down with bug spray and pray. And don’t think OFF Deep Woods will be enough; I have learned the hard way that it merely dissuades already passive mosquitoes. The really persistent ones pay no mind to the spray. Day or night, mosquitoes present and pose a real threat, especially to foreigners who haven’t acclimated to the climate and to the prevalence of the diseases. Because of the unavoidable effects of Malaria and Dengue fever – whether preventative measures, or unfortunate contraction – this pair of diseases comes in third on our top 10 list.

2. Diarrhea – this unavoidable reality for all travelers to Cambodia is still the number one killer of children under the age of 5. Coupled with malnutrition, diarrhea is a leading factor in why there is an alarmingly high <5 mortality rate and why so many children are stunted and have growth and development problems. The prevalence of contaminated water is a direct cause of diarrhea. What’s more, as the monsoons set in, what is known as the “diarrhea season” hits like…well, you know. And, this unsavory sickness doesn’t just strike poor village farmers; your intrepid explorers are not immune to illness. Undercooked foods, vegetables washed in contaminated water, the side effects of Dengue, Malaria and Malaria medication all cause achy and incompliant bowels. Diarrhea – like landmines – is an indiscriminant way to kick the bucket (while on it). Because it pays no mind to social class, gender, nationality or job description, Diarrhea comes in as the second best (?) way to die in Cambodia.

1. Car accident – if any of my previous posts didn’t already give it away, car accidents rank as the number one most-likely and best (worst?) way to die in Cambodia. You may survive abduction, angry ocean waves, upset intestines and blistering heat but in a country without traffic laws or traffic police, death behind the wheel is unfortunately a high probability. Not to mention the whizzing moto drivers, riding helmetless through busy Phnom Penh streets. Due to poorly maintained roads, a frightening lack of accepted traffic laws and the sheer swarm of people on all manner of transport, death by car accident (or tuk-tuk crash, or moto catastrophe) is the number one most likely, best and worst way to die in Cambodia.