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Report 2 Working in Phnom Penh

Last week ended with a bang. Friday night at the theatre with Jill and Belinda (who I met through a Yahoo group. Belinda moved here a whole week before me for a job in a small consulting firm that funds (equity and debt) technologically innovative projects designed to assist third-world countries. She’s freshly minted from Stanford and all sorts of brief frenetic world-wide experiences.) We all had a fun time and plenty in common.

Oh and did I mention a mardi gras party at the home of the second-in-command at the US Embassy? I was told this is where the embassy scene meets the gay scene in Phnom Penh. Hostess Jill had invited me during the week and when we met Belinda at the play the night before, she got swept along.

Belinda is on for most anything. We got to see her apartment on the way—it’s big and nice and near mine—(we had the tuk-tuk driver wait for us) and applied whatever flashy eye makeup I could talk to two ladies into. Then off to the party, the beads and the booze. But most importantly there was great dancing—the host playing a mean DJ. I ran into an actress from our Vagina Monologues adventure the night before (a fun-and-not brilliant production in tribute to The Rising against violence against women. Yes it’s dated, but we all still seem to have ‘em. Well, sorry boys.) The actress had just come from a performance. She’s a playwright and hopefully will keep me posted on her next reading in March. And then I haven’t had a minute to think about that portion of life since. Sunday I moved into my apt. and unpacked after a lazy day swimming at Jill’s pool and doing computer things.

Monday morning I started work with a pickup from Sophiep, our AJWS liaison. He is a very kind and helpful man and has a very fluent command of English. Mr. Bonith, the Executive Director of KYSD (Founder too, I think) conducted a very official meeting to welcome me. The financial manager laid out all the rules. And everyone got introduced (although several folks are out in the field.) Most of the Khmer names are rather long and there are many complex sounds I am only just beginning to realize are buried in these words. This is a really intense and complex language. Aya, the most outgoing member of the team, had the presence of mind to create a manageable nickname and the other’s quickly followed suit.

Aya had lunch with me Monday, helping me negotiate one of the little Cambodian restaurants that are everywhere and seem a bit impenetrable to the foreigner. (They come to life at dawn all over town each morning with folding tables and plastic chairs and they do a brisk local trade.)

There are usually a few big pots of soupy or stewy things that you look into like you were in your mother’s kitchen. Supposedly a custom-prepared lunch costs a little more—it definitely takes more time. Tuesday, my supervisor Den and I went to a similar place and we had them fry up a fresh juicy little fish that was accompanied with a beef and greens stir fry. Good and not more money. So who knows? It’s all something of a mystery until someone says what we all owe, but it’s never been more than about $1.75. ( Sometimes they seem to send unsolicited stuff they think we might like. Or maybe I don’t quite understand what goes with what. ) So far so good on the taste and the tummy front. And all of these people are painstakingly honest.

The tastes seem lighter than Thai food. They definitely like bitter flavors—they cook a lot of bitter melon and they use some herb that is also bitter. At first it’s a little overpowering but it’s actually sort of refreshing in the heat. Tiny red pepper slices are hot going in and out. Then there’s a fish sauce I could live without. But you can dilute anything with the endless rice.

So what does KYSD do and what do I do? KYSD (Khmer Youth and Social Development) works in 4 rural provinces not too far from Phnom Penh organizing ecology-oriented Youth Clubs They hold trainings with the young people (anyone 15 to thirty) in things like leadership and they provide educational material, trainings, workshops on natural resource management, sustainable agriculture, human rights, gender equity and climate change. That may sound like very disparate subjects but in these tiny villages it’s all interconnected. These are forested regions where people may live from what they can find in the forest and probably also grow rice. Deforestation –legal and illegal–is a constant threat. There isn’t a representative forum or process, nor much of a tradition of protest, assembly or activism.

The young people get a voice and a little organizational footing and spread their interest to the villagers. They also work closely with community forestry councils. And they fight for their rights to the continued health of the forest and survival of their community. These geographic areas are also drought stricken because of climate change and the young people are taught drought-friendly agricultural techniques and in one case, were provided drought resilient rice. For many of the women who have come to these workshops and trainings this is the first time they’ve said boo to a goose. These small, localized actions are very brave and rather effective. In a country where over 70% of the population is under 30 and many people don’t receive much formal education it’s an interesting approach to getting people engaged in society.

So my work so far has been long days editing the grant reports for a grantor called Forum Syd—in Sweden I think. These would be difficult reports to write in one’s native tongue, but for my colleagues, who have very little formal training in English between them, I can’t imagine how difficult this work is. (Their expertise is in a language with no vowels, no tenses and hell—let’s face it, even my American college prep students have no idea how to use English prepositions–and to think, Grover so patiently spoon-fed it to them.) But they do know and believe what they’re talking about.

Today I started an English workshop for the KYSD staff, and then it tripled in size, including a group of students who come to the Agency for computer training in the afternoons. After our introductory session today we figured we’ll have the students with almost no English on Wednesdays and Thursdays at lunch and I’ll work with the staff on Fridays and we’ll see how that goes. People seem willing-happy even-to dive into whatever English they know. And it’s way better than my Khmer will ever be. But in written language-oy. I’m on the word-a-day program with Khmer¬-taught to me by my colleagues, who are sometimes impatient with my pronunciation challenges and sometimes stunned that I said a Cambodian word. So far I’m focusing on things I might want to say to my Tuk-tuk driver, since he speaks no English at all. (But gets me to and from work perfectly.) As of yesterday I also joined the ranks (not small) of mask wearers, at least for my half-hour commuting tuk-tuk drives. The air here is heavy with particulate and those little blue masks might make that a little less irritating. At least they remind you to breathe only through your nose.

But when I get out by 6 am the air still smells sweet and life is pretty mellow in this hard working city. That ,plus a bright pink sunrise and the only 2 daylight hours under 90 degrees are good incentive to get out and walk.