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.

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On taking the hobbits to Isengard & exploring New Zealands South Island

During the last weeks of September I was travelling around the South Island of New Zealand. I tried to sum up my impressions to describe what i’ve experienced so far and were i’ve been. Hope you guys enjoy reading about it.

Christchurch

My first few nights in New Zealand were spent in Christchurch, a city on the East Coast of the South Island. Christchurch was really damaged in 2011 when a wave of earthquakes hit a city, which is why up to today there is a lot of renovating and building going on in the city and it has lost its appeal. I had decided to stay there a bit longer to get sorted and acclimated to the new culture and mainly climate. I didn’t really do any interesting things beside a day trip to the nearby Banks Peninsula. The weather was really great and I just hung around the harbor of Akaroa for a while and then went for a walk to a small monument. Instead of going on about all those details, I’ll just add some pictures. Akaroa was such a beautiful town. It’s a place where I would probably stay for weeks if I were an author searching for ideas for my next novel.

Lake Tekapo

After 3 nights in Christchurch I took a bus up to Lake Tekapo. The town itself is really small and located right next to the beautiful pristine lake. Unfortunately I’ve only spent a night there, but I still had enough time to walk along the lake and enjoy the calm and quiet atmosphere. Tekapo is know for it’s beautiful night sky and even though I didn’t go up to the observatory , I got a chance to gaze upon the stars at night.

Queenstown

Nearly every person that told me about New Zealand also told me about Queenstown and I had to promise everyone to spend some time there as well. Unfortunately it was raining during my whole stay in Queenstown and I didn’t enjoy it that much. In addition I really started to miss Cambodia and my life there, so I missed out on the whole Queenstown experience. However one day, I did a horse trek and got to see some of the filming locations for the Lord of the Rings movies, which I was really excited about. Some of the locations I saw, where Isengard, Lothlorien and Amon Hen for any other fellow Lord of the Rings fans.

Wanaka

My next stop after Queenstown was Wanaka. I didn’t really have an idea what to do there, but when I got there I met another girl that I had already seen in Queenstown, and together we rented out bikes and went for a 3 hour ride along Lake Wanaka. The sun was shining and it was really nice to get outside after all the rain in Queenstown. In the evening I met some people from Vancouver and we ended up playing Settlers of Catan and talking for hours.

Franz Josef Glacier

This one was actually just a stop that I was somehow forced to do, since the bus didn’t go straight to Punakaiki, where I actually wanted to go. I arrived there around 4pm, after crossing the Haast Pass and going along the West Coast of the South Island. It was raining again and I was too exhausted to go out and do anything – especially since there wasn’t anything to do with the rain. Next morning my bus left early so I didn’t get to do anything that day as well. The glacier must be really nice to see but due to the rain all tracks and activities where shut down. I’ll just need to do this on my next trip to New Zealand.

Punakaiki

Punakaiki is a tiny village on the West Coast between Greymouth and Westport and known for the so-called “Pancake Rocks”. Initially I had planned to only stay a night – one woman I met and told about my plans actually tried to convince me not to stay there, she said that the bus stops there anyways to go see the Pancake Rocks, so I wouldn’t need to spend a night there – but upon stepping out of the bus and looking at the rugged coast with the wild waves, cliffs and mist wavering above the beach I instantly knew that I wanted to stay longer. The backpackers was right next to the beach and a really comfy small place. Punakaiki was the first place that I enjoyed that much, I was so content to just be there and stare at the wild sea for hours even though it was windy and rainy outside. I ended up staying for three nights, meeting lots of interesting people and taking long walks along the beach and the Pancake Rocks.

Abel Tasman National Park & Nelson

I stayed in the Nelson Area for a whole week, since I was visiting the mother of a friend and Zoe, my friend from Germany, who is currently studying in Nelson. My week there was probably the most relaxed so far. It was great to stay in one place for a while and not always get up early to do sightseeing or catch the next bus.

One day I went on a day trip to the Abel Tasman National Park, which was about an hour drive from Nelson. I took a water taxi up into the National Park to Bark Bay and then walked down to Anchorage Bay where I was picked up by the boat again. The trail led me along several bays, bridges and bush. It took me about 3,5 hours to get to Anchorage Bay.

During my time in Nelson I also had the opportunity to meet up with Zoe again, who had already visited me in Cambodia in May. It was great to spend some time with her again and we had an amazing, long weekend.

Nelson was my last stop on the South Island and after a week I took the ferry over to Wellington on the North Island to stay with a friend for a while.

On the road again

Phnom Penh to Bangkok

I left Phnom Penh on the 6th of September to fly to Bangkok before starting my huge journey.
Many of my students and the Center Kids surprised me and brought me to the airport. I was so grateful to them for seeing me off and being with me until my very last minute in Cambodia. After a lengthy goodbye I had to hurry to get through security and to boarding and didn’t even have time to stop and realize that I was about to leave the country that had become my home for the past year. It wasn’t too big of a problem and neither was saying goodbye, because I was and still am sure, that I’ll be back to Cambodia in no time. Knowing that I’ll come back made leaving a lot easier.

Upon arrival in Bangkok I took a cab to town and checked into the hotel my mother had booked for me. After the flight I was so happy to arrive and just fell on the bed and ordered some room service.

The next morning I set out to explore Bangkok and then ended up visiting two really interesting pagodas and a bunch of jewelry shops and tailors, where my (female) TukTuk driver had convinced me to go. After a year of living in Asia I usually didn’t go along with offers like this, however my driver told me she got free fuel at every station we made and she only wanted me to pay 20 baht for the whole tour which was about two hours long – so I visited every single shop and pretended to a) have the money to buy some fancy jewelry and b) to be really interested but never quite sure about the investment. After collecting a bunch of cards, sneaking pictures of the rings and inquiring about rubies, emeralds and lapislazuli I was finally finished with the tour. Then I took the water taxi – more like a water bus actually, a rather big boat going up and down many of the Bangkok canals for 10 baht, to the Siam Square. There I wanted to visit some of Bangkoks biggest malls and make contact with the western culture again. A huge chunk of my time was spent just aimlessly wandering around one of the malls and looking around. I was so overwhelmed by the building, the amount of people and shops and couldn’t really bring myself to do anything besides buying food and later leaving for my hotel again.

The day after I had originally planned to do some sightseeing, but I wasn’t feeling well and suddenly had no interest in Bangkok at all. The city was weird for me; on one side it constantly reminded me of Phnom Penh and Cambodia on the other hand it was the complete opposite. It was so much more developed, the language new to me, the people treated me different, the food was spicier and there were so many western aspects that confused me. I felt lost and helpless and just wanted to go home to Cambodia. Instead I set out to find a post office to send some of my stuff to Germany. Before making my way to the office I had already wrote down the address of an nearby office and showed it to the cab driver, it shouldn’t have been more than 5 minutes from my hotel, however after driving for about 15 minutes I was convinced the driver had no idea – nothing that was completely new to me, but still different because this time the driver didn’t understand a single word I said. One and a half hour later I ended up in front of one of the biggest post offices in Bangkok and a few kilometers away from my hotel. The rest of the day was once again spent in the mall, skyping with friends and family in Germany and packing my package.

On the 10th i didnt do much before my flight other than enjoying the rooftop pool and getting ready for New Zealand. At 19.50 I finally boarded my plane to Christchurch and said goodbye to Asia for the next few months.

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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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.

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.