— This morning in the dorm lounge I watched Hellboy dubbed in Khmer and subtitled in English.

–A girl said to me today: “I think you are polite and lovely… and attractive, too.” This is totally common. They tell me every day how pretty I am. I have never been so flattered on the constant.

–One girl had been given a worksheet for her English class (at the university) that was on her level linguistically but conceptually far below her intellect. Basically, it was a drawing of a children’s party in a classroom and it asked her to describe  the picture. It’d be in a third-grade workbook in the US. In her paragraph of “what’s happening in this picture” she managed to work in how children’s rights are important and parents and community members must work together to support their education.

–Sometimes my bag is like the Room of Requirement. I’d been pining for a tweezers (haven’t found one here) and then one tumbled out of a pocket of my napsack today — packed for a long-ago trip.

Malls; motos; ‘are they happy?’

The moto is the primary form of transport in Phnom Penh. Honda scooters in various states of repair and disrepair buzz in all directions through all streets; people carry multiple family members and stepladders and unplucked but dead chickens live chickens hanging by their feet and monks in saffron robes and entire windowpanes – maybe two. I ride on the back of a moto (wearing a helmet!) at least once a day. I usually ask the same moto driver for a ride because he speaks fairly good English and lives near the dorm. (He has a sweet little family, too, and every dollar I give him supports them as well, so that’s a cool side bonus.)

Last night as we were rounding a traffic circle and weaving through the many motos, he asked, “Are there this many motos like this, at this time of night in the US?” Our main commonality is in fact traffic, so this made sense as a topic. No, I explained, it’s mostly cars… some motos, mostly cars.

This morning over watermelon (see previous entry), M. asked me the same question. She explained how in Cambodia, once a kid turns 16 or they graduate from high school, they ask their parents for a moto.  I said:

–It’s the same in the U.S. but with cars. … I didn’t have a car, though. My parents couldn’t afford it. I had to ask people for rides.

–[She laughs at me, a hybrid sympathy/teasing giggle, and sticks up her thumb.]  Hitchhike?

–No, no, hitchhiking, too dangerous.

–So why is there no train or bus where you are from?

–I’m from… the suburbs. There was no reason to build a train because everyone already had a car. [Yes, I realize my logic was falling apart here…]

–How long does it take to get to the city?

–About a half an hour… but no one really goes to the city.

–What about for the market?

[Here’s where my brain got squirmy as the difference between life here and there expanded.]

–Oh, we have lots of shopping. We don’t need to go to the city… there’s big stores everywhere. Like the supermarket. There’s stores named Target and Wal-Mart and… lots of malls…

[The super markets here are very deluxe-y and look like shopping malls. Regular people shop in markets, rich people go to the supermarket and also buy sparkly jewelry there. Apparently.]

–So people buy a lot of things?

–Welll…. sort of. People do buy things. But sometimes people just go to a mall and hang out. They walk around with their friends and don’t buy anything.

–[She looks astounded.] Are they happy?

–Um… That’s a really good question.

Who Stepped on My Watermelon?

Every day there’s a fruit break of some sort. Someone buys a bag of fruit from somewhere (market trip, passing seller, etc.) and an insta-picnic begins. One girl grabs ceramic bowls, another the (very large) cleaver, another gets chairs, someone starts to slice or peel — speedy, clockwork-like, and the gossip and relaxation begins, a thirty-minute respite from a hardworking day. I’ve tried a bunch of new fruits. Brown grape-sized spheres with husks, peel to reveal a jelly-like fruit surrounding a pit, slick the fruit off with your tongue. Fuzzy brown seed pods filled with sweet tamarind paste. Something that looked like a bit of chopped-off cactus. I always have to ask for operating instructions from one of the girls, who is always super-amused that I need help with something so simple.

Today, though. Today was watermelon. And I know how to eat watermelon. “Do they have this watermelon in the U.S.?” one asked. “Oh yes,” I said. “In the summer. Only for a few months a year.”

Then S. began to tell her watermelon story. In Khmer. I had no idea what she was saying, but she spoke animatedly and was cracking up the half-dozen girls who were munching on watermelon chunks and slicing new ones with the cleaver. I wanted to know what the joke was. She didn’t want to tell me in English. I’m thinking, what kind of joke is she telling? What could possibly be so side-splittingly funny about watermelon?

Finally the other girls persuaded her to give it a try, even though she was nervous about her English. And here’s the gist of it:

She went to a relative’s farm and in the field she saw a little watermelon. It was so cute, and she wanted to eat it, but it was too young to eat right then. She didn’t want anyone else to find it, though! Someone might come along and pick her perfect watermelon! So she decided to hide it. She buried it in the ground and thought it would be ok there while it continued to grow. She wanted to save it for six days.

After six days she returned to the spot where her little watermelon was buried.

“But it was broken!” she said, laughing.

“A cow came along and stepped on it,” Marady explained. “The cow didn’t know.”

Their comic timing was so awesome that I, too, was just rolling on the floor over this watermelon debacle. And it made me realize a few things. 1) Humor can be pretty universal. 2) I have never, ever valued a watermelon so much that I tried to save it from all harm until it was fully grown. So maybe I should take better care to love things I’d consider ordinary. and 3) Maybe this is a self-help book in the making. You think you have it all figured out, you bury your watermelon for later… but then along comes a cow.

Inadvertent Vocabulary Lessons

Phrases I’ve used and had to explain/teach:

–“Stressed out”

–“No wonder”

–“What are you up to?”

–“Sticking your tongue out”.

This last one was awesome because about five girls all started to stick their tongues out at me and say, “Sticking your tongue out! Sticking your tongue out!”

The Night of 70 Pancakes

The founder of the dorm where I’m living, who’s an American, started a tradition: When he comes to town, he makes pancakes. Or, more accurately, everyone makes pancakes.

By the time we’re ten pancakes in, I’m spattered and battered, my hair back in a scarf, hot oil, hot pancakes, hot kitchen. We’ve got a top-notch operation: Two frying pans downstairs, two in the upstairs kitchen. Each station has its own crowd of helpers. One girl ladles batter, one checks the edges for done-ness, one spoons oil.  I’m flipping. Between the two kitchens, we need to make 70 pancakes, because there’s a hungry crowd outside.

Basically the girls are acting like the Beatles have come to town. There’s screeching and jumping, squealing and singing. I have never seen such exuberance over breakfast — and I like me some breakfast. But breakfast in Cambodia looks a lot like lunch and dinner, rice with meat and vegetables. So … this was like saying: TONS AND TONS OF DESSERT FOR EVERYONE!

Soon it’s a free-for-all; as pancakes come off the stove, the girls slather them in Ratanakiri honey and jam. I’m still flipping, but they keep handing me stuff to eat while we cook — chunks of sticky sweet dragon fruit, the juice and seeds dribble down my wrist; and of course — pancakes. At some point they learn to cook them into heart shapes, and they pass one around and pose with it, like it’s a celebrity.

The power of changing expectations, or: How I learned to take a cold shower

I love long, hot showers. Decadent steamy showers, 20 or even 30 minutes long, with too much sudsy soap. I don’t think about all the energy wasted; the gas bill can go to hell. Showertime.

There is no hot water in this dorm.

The first day was impossible. I stood there with soap in my hand feeling shivery and miserable, then turned on the water, which was a sad trickly stream, and did some crazed half-in, half-out dance. After about thirty seconds, I bailed. On day two, small progress. I realized you can do a lot without the water actually on, and you can turn it on for rinsing purposes. So I conquered a tiny bit of shampooing in addition to the world’s fastest soap-up, and rinsed under the sad trickly stream of coldness.

Day three, though — a breakthrough. I finally asked one of the girls about a burning (ha) question. In each of the shower stalls, there’s what looks like a plastic saucepan hanging on a hook. I learned: The shower head is broken. Fill up the pan with water from the faucet-style tap in the stall and rinse that way.

The first pan of cold water that I sluiced over my head felt truly miserable. Same for the second and third. But by the fourth, I’d mastered a slow, less-panicky pouring motion, and it began to dawn on me that this was not a shower. In a good way. Yeah, I was naked and sudsing shampoo around in the vicinity of water. But I’d been thinking of this as “a cold shower” — aka, a terrible version of something I really like. Instead this more closely resembled (drum roll)….a swimming pool in tiny doses.

This discovery made me laugh — which probably sounded very strange to anyone else in the bathroom. But I feel cleaner than I have in days.

Impossible Things Over Breakfast

The day starts early, 6am at the latest. All the girls cook all the meals according to a rotating schedule. The breakfast cook of the day, still in her nightgown, stands over a hot wok while the electric rice cooker works its magic on the counter. This morning, breakfast was a chopped-up combo of soybeans and pork — sweet, spicy and smoky. Scoop rice into the bowl first, add meat. If a few people are eating at the same time, someone pulls out the straw mat, and all sit cross-legged on the floor with their bowls.

Every meal I’ve had so far brings a new conversation. This morning I learned that one girl is working on a new project to export Cambodia’s legendarily delicious green mangoes. I’m someone who’s usually pro-local food in the US, so this was a good eye-opener for me. She told me about how Cambodia’s wide network of farmer’s can’t standardize its production and distribution enough to become an exporter. Instead companies from Vietnam and Thailand come over the border, buy what they like and label them as their own for resale.

She talked about looking at a map one day, of all the countries that export mangoes, and wondered, “Why not Cambodia?”

Later she wants to go back to her hometown and work with an old high school friend to start a new agricultural initiatives that would bring work to the area.

Next, coffee. A boiling teapot on the electric stove, a packet of Nescafe, a mug. In the slightly cool early morning, cross-legged on a straw mat with inspiration brewing, it was just about perfect.

Rooftops, Laundry


My friend Claire sent me a quote this morning:

“”Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends.
You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky — all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
— Cesare Pavese in “The Comfort of Strangers”

11:11, Make a Wish

There’s a line in Alice in Wonderland that goes, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” That line is running through my head now, for a few reasons.

First: Yesterday I ate two inedible things before sundown. Not like, “This food is so weird I can’t eat it.” No, as in “Oh, you’re not supposed to eat that part?” Lychee have pits. Bone fish have, well, about a bajillion bones.

And more importantly: I am at an amazing place full of smart, sincere, energy-filled women who are working at lightning speed to not only earn their college degrees in things like economics, human rights law, international relations and other fancy subjects, but they’re also learning to be fluent in English. Ok, how can I describe this. I’ve met at least 15 of the 35 girls in the dorm. Here’s what I know so far. They wake up at 5:30am and study for the day’s lessons, go to school for at least five-six hours, come home around 5, have more classes at night in the dorm, study until midnight and then wake up and do it all over again.

Brief snippets of interactions so far:

-Kunthea cracks up if you pronounce her name wrong because you’re mistakenly calling her “baby duck”. She wants to work in international human rights law in order to help children and families. -A few of the girls could not believe I was 30 years old. As in, super-wide eyes, dropped jaws. Several exclaimed: “But you’re so YOUNG! You’re younger than US!”
-Yesterday Marady pointed to a big bouquet of bright tropical flowers, with a sweet scent. She asked, “What do you say for the smell of flowers? It’s not a delicious smell… that’s for food.” And I realized I had no idea if there was a special word for a good-smelling flower. It’s not delicious, it’s… it’s…
-I held up my cell phone to a girl, pointed to the time and said, “It’s 11:11, make a wish!” (Yes, I realize this is extremely dorky.) And she looked confused, so I explained the expression and she got SO excited, she said “Oh yes, make a wish!”; jumped back about 12 inches, squinched her eyes shut, clutched her notebook to her chest and wished for like 15 seconds.

Lessons from Day One

It’s been a long journey. Here’s a quickety-quick recap:

1) A valiant band of fantastico women never fails to save my ass. Exhibit A: College friend Claire ran into me at the coffee shop and gave the perfect, serendipitous pep talk about how, right before her round-the-world trip last year, she wondered: WHY AM I DOING THIS. I was similarly wigging out. Exhibit B: My sister Lisa helped pack my entire (entire) bedroom for the subletter while I packed my suitcase. Sister bonding. Exhibit C: Becca showed up to drive me to the airport with a bevy of drugstore purchases PLUS a camera she’d bought at Target THAT MORNING. PLUS a breakfast burrito.

2) Letting go is easy sometimes. In the car to the airport I immediately spilled a bunch of breakfast-burrito juice down my only sweatshirt and experienced a bizarre lack of caring about the situation.

3) Airline seating sometimes rocks. At the gate I spotted a woman who seemed to be a kindred spirit. For one, we were the same (tall) height. For another, we had pretty much the same glasses on. And she wore cute accessories, like a twisty, rust-metal ring that I was already coveting. But she looked tired. I was tired. We didn’t speak. Then, on the plane, I was shoving my messenger bag under the seat in front of me with the toe of my sneaker when I looked up to see…. her. She was sitting next to me. So she (Kendra) and I exchanged 5-minute autobiographies that morphed into 5-hour autobiographies, then watched movies and napped and ate bi bim bop from plastic containers with real silverware and little tubes of hot red pepper paste.

4) The airport in Seoul, Korea? Is awesome. Free wifi, pretty and clean, free luggage carts, good bookstore… and when you need to buy lady products from behind the counter at the pharmacy, you can just point.

5) It IS possible to get a ton of work done once you check into a hotel after a 20-hour journey because your body doesn’t realize that it’s 2am. Feels so afternoon-y!

How to Tell a True Story

One summer in high school I took a college class, just for fun, at a local university. We read and read, and I wrote and wrote, and it was the happiest I’d ever been. I remember the title of the course (“Journeys in Literature”), and I’ve saved most of the readings in a fat folder that comes with me each time I change my address. One essay in particular rocked my clock. It was my first brush with meta — the magical synthesis of lit and philosophy that I still love: Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story.

I don’t have any war stories. Not yet; and knock on wood. But I’ve got stories, same as anyone, and sometimes on stage I tell them. If I’m lucky.  If my scrawny wrists can arch the way Mavis Beacon taught me and let the whole story fly. If the curators of the show say, “Yes, you.”

I’m not always so lucky, and I don’t always tell the best stories. I don’t ever tell how we threw coins in every fountain or watched the sunrise from every pier. I don’t ever tell how one morning my favorite mug was broken, but I didn’t remember breaking it. I watched you tell stories, though, and that’s how I learned — about the time you skated headfirst down the cemetery hill, or lit that field of tires on fire, or saw the ghost on the ship. And I was always right there with you, watching as you felt the cold breeze of a long-dead sailor whistle up your spine and out to sea.

“It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. It was a ghost story. But you can’t say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth. No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. And it didn’t happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.

In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.” 

— Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

My dear friend SJY is telling a story at Second Story on January 9 and 10. Come see her, if you’re in Chicago, won’t you? The theme is journeys. Last time, remembering this class.