feeling homesick

I’ve left Cambodia nearly 3 months ago. After 12 months I needed and wanted to leave, I was ready to go some new place and see what else I might come upon. The past weeks I have constantly been on the road. First New Zealand, then California, Portland, Seattle and now Canada. In a few days, I’ll be in New York and after that finally back in Germany.

While I certainly enjoy getting to see so many places and meet many different people along the way, there is one thing that doesn’t change – I miss Cambodia. More than I thought I would. Everyone told me that this would happen, the frowned upon “reverse culture-shock”.  Knowing about it, unfortunately, hasn’t made things any easier. Now when I feel like I’m in the wrong place and wonder why no one else appreciates the fact that I always pay using two hands or feel overwhelmed by so much luxury and materialism around me, I know that this is a culture-shock but besides that, it doesn’t make things better.

Missing a place where you cannot be is annoying. I can tell myself that it is alright, that I will get used to my “own” culture again and that, if I want it enough, I can just go back to Cambodia (even though it won’t be the same). But all these options involve patience, which I am not the biggest fan of.

My life in Cambodia was fulfilling. I had a job that made me feel like I was doing something good with my time instead of procrastinating. I was – and still am- grateful & proud to be working for SCAO. Even though Phnom Penh is far from the cleanest and safest city I’ve ever seen, I miss its vibe. The various smells on the markets, motos on the street, the praying of the monks, chatting with the street vendors and eating fried rice in the tiniest plastic chairs. Trying to speak Khmer with my landlady, getting fried banana before class would start at 5.30, hearing the same excuses for why we really shouldn’t write the vocabulary test today over and over again and hanging out with the other volunteers on countless rooftop bars throughout the cities. Weekend trips to small islands, ancient temples or bungalows in the jungle. Famous dinners at 18 and endless waiting for food and drinks at Score. Endless ceremonies, all dressed up and hidden behind what felt like 10 layers of make-up, being late for work because of the rain in Phnom Penh and water fights with the children when the heat got too much. Rice for breakfast and noodles for dinner. Frozen energy drinks and other snacks, including sour mango with chili and salt, cream-o’s and coconut-ice from a small plastic bag.

And yes I know I’ll need to wait a bit until I can come back, but one thing is for sure – I am going to be back. Even if it will test my patience.

Leaving Cambodia and what’s coming up next

After one year of living in Cambodia it was time to leave this beautiful country and set off to new adventures. Even though there were plenty of times I thought I might just stay in Cambodia forever, I have now officially left the country.

My year with the Save poor Children in Asia Organization had been more than I would have ever expected and more than I could have ever hoped for. I made so many new experiences – good and bad ones, meet amazing people, got introduced to a whole new culture and it’s many traditions, learnt to speak another language and faced plenty challenges – none of which I will ever miss. I will be forever grateful for these 12 months and to all the people that have somehow contributed to it. Thank you.

I also want to use this opportunity to promote the building of the third school of SCAO. Many engaged and passionate people at SCAO are working really hard to get this all going. Please check it out at this webpage, spread and share the word with your friends and if you would like to support an awesome project like this, donate something. Every contribution helps!

www.scao-school.org

Originally I had planned to go back to Germany after my time in Cambodia and start university somewhere. However for a few months now I’ve been planning something completely different. Thanks to my wonderful family and my friends, I’ll be travelling through New Zealand, California, Oregon, Washington, back to Vancouver Island and later New York before returning to Hamburg in December 2014. Naturally I’m really excited and also a tiny bit nervous about this odyssey coming up. I’ll try to update this blog, but everyone who has read this over the past year knows how bad I am at posting things regularly.

May, June and July – Catching up Part 2

Visit from Zoe

Due to national holidays in Cambodia, i had another week off in May. Lucky me got a visit from Zoe, my friend from Hamburg, who was swinging by on her way back to Germany from New Zealand.

It was great to have someone who i knew from home here in Cambodia. We had a chance to catch up and i got to show her my life in Cambodia.

We stayed in Phnom Penh for a few days, where I introduced her to SCAO, took her to various markets and went to a Khmer fotoshooting together.

Then we decided to head to Mondulkiri for a few days. I had been there before, but I really wanted to go again and we craved some jungle instead of lying on one of the beaches of Sihanoukville/Koh Rong. Like my first trip to Mondulkiri, the second proved as an adventure.

We rented a moto, explored the countryside, stood under a huge waterfall, ate the most delicious soup in the middle of nowhere, jumped town a smaller waterfall and rode an elephant – just for 20 minutes though. Even though i came back with a bruised ribcage from the jump down the waterfall, the trip was worth it and it was wonderful to spend time with Zoe.

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Visit from Marie & Inken

Looking back i really had lots of visitors during my last months in Cambodia.
Beginning of June Marie came along and stayed for about a month. Not only did she stay at my place, she also worked at SCAO for about 2 weeks. It was great to have her as a volunteer and share some work experience with her. Together we went to Sihanoukville and mainly watched the World Cup in Cambodia – which meant waiting for a game to start until 3 am and stay up until 5 am at least and then going to SCAO on the next morning.

End of June another friend of ours, Inken, visited Cambodia on her way home from New Zealand. The three of us went to see Battambang and Siem Reap together.
In Battambang we explored the surrounding temples and mountains and went for a ride on the bamboo train. After two days in Battambang we took the bus to Siem Reap, where we visited Angkor Wat. I had already seen parts of it when I was there with my family in December but it was worth going a second time. Especially with the two girl it was a lot of fun. Besides temples and ancient ruins we enjoyed a lot of massages and shopping in Siem Reap.
I had an amazing time with them and it was a bit hard to readjust to live without them when they left for Germany again.

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Birthday Celebrations and World Cup finals

My 20th birthday was spent singing Karaoke and watching the Germany vs. Brazil game at 3 am.
Emilly, Steffen and Fabian had bought a cake for me and brought it to the sports bar beforehand and then surprised me with it and the whole bar singing “Happy Birthday” right before the game started.
Even though I was tired from all the singing, we were watching the game and soon enough were celebrating the German team and their 7:1 win! This was probably one of the greatest birthday gifts ever.
The next morning I was luckily able to sleep in and only had to teach one hour at SCAO. When I came to my Pre-Intermediate class in the evening one of the girls tried to distract me by telling me there was a snake outside the classroom and when I turned around my whole class was singing for me and two students were bringing in a bright pink and white cake. We all took pictures together and later had a wild cake fight. I am still so grateful to all my students and will never forget this special birthday with them.

The World Cup final took place the weekend after my birthday and Emilly, Steffen and Fabi convinced me to go up to Siem Reap with them to visit some other volunteers and spent the weekend there. We were also invited to a Cambodian ceremony, which was somewhat similar to the baptism of a child and visited some of Steffens friends in the countryside.
The whole weekend was topped off with the World Cup Final which Germany won against Argentina! Because no one could decide on where to watch the game and changing our location about three times just before the game started we later ended up watching it in the Pub Street in Siem Reap, which was quite similar to public viewing outdoors. There were several screens throughout the street, loud music so you couldn’t really listen to the commentator of the game and no seats, however no one cared about that once Germany had won the game! The celebration was great and quite passionate, it seemed like all German tourists/backpackers/volunteers etc. had met at the Pub Street and the Khmer also happily joined in, in the various songs being sung/shouted.

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March (& April) Madness – Catching up Part 1

So i haven’t written anything in months. By now I should probably acknowledge that blogging isn’t really my thing – or at least, blogging continuously isn’t. However i’m still going to try to tell you a bit about the past 4 to 5 months here in Cambodia.

Midterm Seminar in Kampot – March

Every “weltwärts” participant agrees to visit three seminars. One before the stay abroad, as preparation, a second one, halfway through the year abroad, to reflect on experiences and talk about what’s to come, and the last one, after ones return, to discuss living back in Germany.

The Midterm Seminar took place in Kampot, one of my favorite places in Cambodia.

Together with participants from “Brot für die Welt”, “Mission eine Welt” and “Banyan Tree e.V.” we, that being the other four Red Cross volunteers and me, spent a week living in bungalows right by the river, talking about our experiences with Cambodian society and culture, our work placements and our expectations for the next months. Most of the other volunteers were also placed within organisations in Cambodia but some were also working in Thailand and Malaysia.

It was great to meet so many new people that all made similar experiences and to share views and opinions on our volunteer service with each other. Fortunately a bunch of the other volunteers also works in Phnom Penh, so we didn’t have to say goodybe to them after that one short week.

Vacation in Vietnam – April

During the Khmer New Year holiday, Emilly, Melli (a former SCAO volunteer) and me traveled through Vietnam. On our way we met up with Cecile (another former volunteer) and Steffen, a German friend of ours.

Emilly and me started our journey by bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where we met Melli. From there we went to Mui Ne, then Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay and back again.

While in Vietnam we managed to use every possible way of transport there was. We walked, rode bycicles and motos, drove in cars, rode trains and busses, made a boat trip and travelled by plane.

Even though we were constantly on the move (about 2300 km back and forth) i really enjoyed Vietnam and its diversity. In  HCMC Emilly and me were fascinated by the fast and, in comparison to Cambodia, quite developed city. In Mui Ne we were able to hang out at the beach – even though it was super windy – and visit some desert like sand dunes. We were also introduced to Vietnamese hospitals when Melli injured her foot.

Hoi An is an old chinese trade city. While there we felt like we travelled back in time. Lots and lots of lampions, beautiful bridges, tiny alleys and traditional chinese music. It was by far our favorite spot on the journey. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore Hanoi, but we had some delicious Vietnamese coffee in one of its endless coffee shops and fantastic food. From Hanoi we booked a two day cruise through Halong Bay, north of Hanoi. Once we reached Halong Bay, we were quite disappointed with the foggy weather, but nevertheless the bay was spectacular and we had a great time on the boat.

After 12 days of eating Pho, drinking Vietnamese coffee, not learning a singe word of Vietnamese and praising Vietnams infrastructure, Emilly and me headed back to Phnom Penh.

It was great to visit Vietnam and leave Cambodia for a while. It made me appreciate a lot of things in Cambodia and also helped me to change my view on Cambodia (and Vietnam as well) a bit, take a step back from my loving, forgiving opinion before. Even though i enjoyed my trip to Vietnam immensely, i’m so glad i’ve chosen to spend my year abroad in Cambodia.

 

Moving into my first apartment – April

Before heading off to Vietnam for our vacation, Emilly and me started to search for apartments to rent. We both had made the decision to move out of SCAO and decided to move to Phnom Penh together.

I’ve absolutely loved my months living at SCAO, but after 8 months of not having my own room, much less my own bed and sharing a bathroom with 16 children it was time for me to move from the village to the city, into an apartment with doors. In addition there are just a lot more things to do in the city and you are closer to more things than out in the village.

Emilly and me found an apartment close to the Russian Market, in the south of Phnom Penh, that we really liked and could affort. We signed the lease shortly before our vacation and told them that we’d move in when we came back from Vietnam.

We came back on a Tuesday evening, worked Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and were planning on moving on Saturday. Friday evening Emilly called me and asked why we shouldn’t move in right now. I had no idea why not, so we packed our bags and made our way to our new apartment. The first night was spent cleaning and planning.

Now, after already living here for nearly 3 months, i’m so glad we moved. At first i wasn’t really sure, about leaving the village and my family at SCAO, but i still see them everyday at work, so it’s fine. It’s great to have your own room, your own fridge and most of all, your own huge balcony. Even though it’s not always easy and i feel like i have to learn a looooot of new things with me now living on my own, it feels great.

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Excerpts from my second Red Cross Report

Work in Cambodia
My tasks within S.C.A.O. have slightly changed. Before Leon and me didn’t really split the tasks and both of us were just doing everything that needed to be done at certain times. Now that our tasks have been split I’m responsible for all administrative tasks within S.C.A.O and working closely together with our director, Mr. Sameth. All tasks have been split into so-called “teams” at the S.C.A.O. Center. Leon is the team leader of Education and I’m the team leader of Administration. In addition we have a team leader of the family and the kids, which is Aleix from Spain.
So now I answer all emails from the information account and the emails from the volunteering account. I also do the volunteer planning and work together with our partner organization AIESEC in sending over new volunteers. […]
I still teach, however not that much. The only class that I’ve never given up for anyone else to teach is my Pre-Intermediate class from 5.30 to 6.30. This class has been taught by me for six months already. It is wonderful to see their progress and do more and more content focused projects with them. At the end of January I let them work in groups to work on their own presentations about creating a law to improve Cambodia. They enjoyed it a lot and came up with so many great ideas, that I actually hope are going to be used one day, for example ideas on how to prevent domestic violence and saving the Cambodian rainforest. Sometimes I still teach beginner classes, but really only when there are no other volunteers around. […]
Life in Cambodia
At the moment I’m still living at the S.C.A.O. center in Boeng Chhouk. However I’m planning to move out the end of April, and move into an apartment in Phnom Penh together with Emilly.
Life at the Center hasn’t really changed a lot, except for the fact that I spend a lot of my time in the internet café, since I can’t really concentrate on work when I sit downstairs at the Center having a bunch of kids and some volunteers constantly around me, asking questions or wanting to play. I really enjoy life at the center, but it has beenI really enjoy life at the center, but I’ve realized that I need a quiet surrounding to actually get my work done.
[…]
I spend a lot of time with the volunteers from SCAO but I’ve also started hanging out more with Khmer people. For example on Valentine’s Day I met with a bunch of my students and we all spent the day together, walking through Phnom Penh and taking funny pictures. It’s probably not what I would ever do with my friends in Germany, but it is great to be introduced into this aspect of Khmer culture and learn about Cambodian friendships. I’ve also attended the wedding of the sister of a Cambodian friend. For that event I went out and bought traditional Khmer clothes and later had my hair and makeup done together with a friend. Everything was really Khmer Style and it was a lot of fun.
Together with Leon I still attend Khmer classes every day. By now I have started to learn how to write and read Khmer. I’m definitely not as good as I wish I would be, but I know all vowels and consonants now and am able to read and write first, really simple sentences. Learning Khmer writing has also helped me a lot to improve my pronunciation and other than that it is quite fun, since the writing is really beautiful. I do have to start to focus a bit more on vocabulary again, since I’d really like to be able to have deeper conversations that go past “How long do you live here?” and “Where do you work?”.

For the next few months I have a lot to do. In addition to my daily tasks, I need to finish my pieces for the annual report of S.C.A.O. and I also want to film a fundraising video to promote the 3rd school of S.C.A.O.

Regarding my personal life I want to move to Phnom Penh and travel through Vietnam in April, when we have Khmer New Year Holidays.

things that have been happening

I haven’t really had a lot of time to write on this blog recently so i just want to tell you a little bit about some things that have been happening in my life here and at SCAO. About some of these topics I might write a bit more detailed soon.

1. My family visited me (December & January)

Mid December my mother, her husband and my brother came over for two weeks. I showed them Phnom Penh and SCAO and after that we went to Siem Reap, visited the temples of Angkor Wat, went swimming on the beach in Sihanoukville and ate Seafood and walked through the jungle in Kep and Kampot. We had a great time together and I was so grateful I could spend Christmas and New Years together with them. Plus they brought me a bunch of great stuff from Germany. I already miss them a lot already. And I’ll write more about our travels together as soon as I find some time.

 2. Christmas Celebration at the SCAO Schools (December)

We had two Christmas Celebrations at SCAO. One at SCAO I, where I work, and one at SCAO II. Unfortunately I missed the one out in Sam Roung because I was travelling. But both of them were a blast.

We bought food and drinks for all the children and gave out free toothbrushes and toothpaste to each student as a Christmas present. Afterwards we had a talent show that involved a lot of dancing and singing, played some games and enjoyed each others company. It was great to see all the volunteers, staff and children come together. Even though the spirit of Christmas is not really believed in in Cambodia, it was still a nice reason to celebrate and be grateful for each other.

3. Trip to Sihanoukville with the Center Kids and some volunteers (January)

One weekend in January “Estrellas de Camboya” a partner organisation of SCAO sponsored a trip to the beach in Sihanoukville for all the children living in the Center. When me and some other volunteers heard of it we immediately decided to join them. We left early on a Saturday morning, arrived around noon, spent all day on the beach and had dinner all together. Same procedure the next morning – the kids got up around 6 o’clock just waiting to run to the beach. We spent as long as possible splashing around in the water and riding banana boat until we finally had to go back in the early afternoon. It was a great weekend and a wonderful opportunity for the everyone to see the beach and let go and relax for some time.

4. Weekend on Koh Rong Samloem (January)

I spent a wonderful weekend together with Mira and Svenja, two other German volunteers, on an Island called “Koh Rong Samloem” just off the coast of Sihanoukville. I’ll write about this soon. But for now let me just say, a lot of sleep, beach, snorkeling and fruit shakes.

5. 3D painting workshop at SCAO I (January/February)

At the end of January a former SCAO volunteer, Carl, returned and brought some friends with him. Unfortunately they couldn’t stay for a longer time but during their time here they made a huge 3D dot painting with the students of SCAO I. Please read more about the workshop on Carl’s blog:

http://volunteeringabroadblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/dot-painting-in-3d-2/

 

 6. ID Cards for students at SCAO

We have decided to let all the students at both SCAO schools have ID Cards. For this we have been taking pictures of every single student, had everyone fill out an application form in Khmer AND English and collected money from everyone (around 30 cents for one ID card). After all of this was done the real work began. Typing all the names of all students into word documents. Sounds easy, but gets really tricky when you have to type Khmer. Luckily I some of the girls in the Center helped me out and did all the Khmer typing for me – I owe them big time. Soon after we brought the files to the copy shop and today Peter and me picked up the finished prints. Tonight we put all cards into their plastic sleeves and prepared most of the ID cards. Hopefully we’ll be able to hand them out in two days, on Thursday. I can’t wait to see the children receiving their cards and everyone running around with the ID cards around their neck.

7. Spending Valentine’s Day with pals! (obviously February)

This year I spent Valentine’s Day with some of my students and one of the Khmer teachers at SCAO.  We actually had a day off for February 14th, however not because of Valentine’s Day, but because of Meak Bochea, a Buddhist holiday.

We met at the room of Srey Lat (Khmer teacher at SCAO and friend of mine) did our nails, hair and makeup and then went to Phnom Penh. First stop was Wat Phnom, a small temple on top of a tiny hill in the north of the city. We walked around the hill and took a bunch of pictures – with/without sunglasses, hands in the air, peace, smile/serious, etcetera etcetera. Same thing at the riverside and Royal Palace. Afterwards we walked to the independence monument. At first the plan was to do the whole photo shoot thing again at the monument however it was already dark when we got there so we “just” walked there, sat for a while and took some pictures of the monument itself – without us. Even though this is probably not something that I would have done in Germany – or have done the last time in grade 8 – it turned out to be a lot of fun!

8. Improving my Khmer

I have now been studying Khmer for almost 4 months already. Everyday Leon and me come to study at Srey Lat’s place for one hour. In the beginning we concentrated a lot on learning vocabulary and our spoken Khmer. Around December we started to learn how to actually write and read Khmer. Even though we are far from actually writing long sentences and reading whole words, i already do know all the consonants & vowels and am able to write2 or 3 sentences. All of them being similar; I go to the market and buy vegetables and meat. She goes to the market to buy vegetables and meat. Srey Lat and Lilli go to the market and buy vegetables, and so on. Yes, I know, great conversation starter.

So i hope this gave you a quick peek into some things that have been going on recently. I know i’ve said this before, but i will really try to write on here more often.

All the best from Cambodia,

Lilli

Trip to Kampong Cham

The past weekend I spent traveling to the countryside with one of my students from my Pre-Intermediate class.

On Saturday my student, Channa, came to the Center and asked if I would like to go to Kampong Cham with her. “Today?” “Yes”. “Now?” “Yes. And Lilli, can you stay for a night?”

So there it was, decision made. Twenty minutes later I had packed my stuff and was ready to go. Only then it occurred to me to ask: “How are we going to get there?”

We went with Channa’s moto. 3 hours on the back of a moto riding on dusty, bumpy streets. For me it could not have been more fun to be honest. Even though it was not the most comfortable way of traveling we sure had a lot of fun and I got to see so many things along the road.

For the people in the countryside we sure must have been an odd picture. Two girls on a moto, one Khmer and one barang, wearing our masks + helmets, only our eyes visible and one backpack in between us.  We passed rice fields, water buffalos, villages completely covered in beige dust and abandoned looking schools. Since Kampong Cham is in the east of Phnom Penh, we crossed both the Tonle Sap and the Mekong. A long part of the way we drove along the banks of the Mekong, the lifeline of Cambodia.

After three hours we arrived in the village where Channa’s relatives live. We first visited her grandmother who is living in a wooden house on stilts, next to mango and banana trees. Even though I now speak enough Khmer to get along and have something that you could almost call a conversation, I could hardly understand a word that her grandmother said and I was just constantly smiling and nodding while Channa was translating.

Later we went to the market, bought fresh food and then cooked over the fire. Another occasion where I was asking myself what have I really learned all these past years at high school in Germany? Sure I know a lot about academics, but when It comes to really basic and simple things I’m screwed up. Yes, I can cook some easy meals, but cooking the Khmer way and over fire I was just stunned. And Channa could not understand how I could not have learnt that when I was younger.

After having a really delicious dinner, which for some reason also included watermelon with salt – a thing that I just cannot understand, I love adapting to the culture and tradition in Cambodia, but pairing nice sweet watermelon with salt is something that I will NOT get used to – we met some friends of Channas family and after a while it turned out that the wife was also a High School teacher at the local High School in Boeng Chhuk, where I live. We spent quite a while talking to them and I could also convince them to bring their children to SCAO.

That night Channa and me slept at her grandmother’s place. On the bamboo floor, just a small mat underneath. It was one of these moments that I was so stunned to be in Cambodia. Even though I’ve been living in this country for almost 6 months now, I still have days that I can’t really believe I am in Cambodia.

Even though I didn’t sleep too great, due to the hard floor and the praying of the monks at a nearby funeral, I had a good night. Next morning at 8am I was the last person to wake up in the whole house. Channa and her grandmother had already been up for hours.

After a quick shower in the outside bathroom, Channa and me joined the funeral of one of her far relatives.

In Cambodia people have a funeral 3 days after someone dies, and then 100 days after and 300 days after the death again. The funeral we went to was a 100 day after funeral, so maybe imagine it more like a memorial, instead of a real sad western funeral.

Channa knew nearly everyone at the funeral and I stopped asking who was who quite soon after I realized that I would never be able to keep up. There were some cousins here, some neighbours there, aunt or wife of someone etc.. In the end it didn’t really matter. Everyone just comes together to commemorate the deceased and enjoy each other’s company.

Channa and some of her cousins and other children showed me the corn fields and we took a walk through the countryside. A walk in Cambodia equals walking reaaally slow and stopping every minute to take some pictures with your phone. Not exactly what I’ve known from Germany, however still a lot of fun to see the Cambodians posing for all the pictures – and yes I’ve also done some posing myself. Why the heck not?

Around noon we had delicious food again. However this time I was the subject of conversation due to the fact that I’ve told them I could not eat any meat or fish. Well I’ve had these conversations before so again – smile and nod. Actually it didn’t even bother me much, I was just way to happy to be there and enjoy the food – nice seafood salad without the seafood. We also handpicked some guavas, and had freshly boiled corn from the field just behind the house.

After the funeral Channa showed me another part of the village and we visited her aunt. This time though, we didn’t do much because we were so full from the food at the funeral and tired as well. We just relaxed in hammocks for a while, had some more food – fresh mango this time – and then Channa showed me the place where people cut the bamboo, put it into water so they can slice it and then later sell it. Again pictures of us in front of the bamboo were taken.

Around 2 o’clock we decided it would be best to go back, because we wanted to arrive back in Boeng Chhuk before it would get dark. So we hopped on the moto and drove all the way back. This time we also had to take a detour because there was a construction ahead and nearly lost the way. But thanks to a bunch of friendly and helpful people from a village we could find our way back and got back to SCAO safe and sound.

I’m so thankful that Channa asked me to join her and showed me her village in Kampong Cham, I had a wonderful time, one that I will certainly never forget.