Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Splish Splash!

Ok, so it’s a holiday here and we were super excited to go out of town and see some beautiful parts of Cambodia.  Well, that didn’t happen.  There are floods in many provinces right now and we decided not to travel through them.  But we did try to make the most of it here in Phnom Penh.  Many things are closed due to Pchum Ben, an important holiday celebration, but we ventured out to a water park today that was open.  Yep, a water park right here in Cambodia. Oh, I wish I had my camera there but didn’t because I was fearful it would get stolen.  I’ll describe it (and the fun we had) for you, though. 

The Phnom Penh Waterpark was just like water parks in the USA.... or not.  I mean sure, there was water.  There was a park.  And there were a lot of people having fun.  But it was quite different for sure!

There was a normal pool, a wave pool, a handful of slides, and a couple kids’ areas with fountains and such.  Only thing was all of that was like 30 years old.  The slides had worn out paint and rusty stairs.  The concrete leading from one section to another had worn out and its little bumps were painful to walk on with bare feet.  The park was in need of lots of TLC.  But the laughing, smiling, happy children didn’t care about that!

Most noticeably - there were no rules.  You want to run, go ahead.  Want to make a train of 3 people to slide down the slide?  Or 30?  Why not?  Want to sit at the bottom of the slide where everyone can crash into you on their way down?  Ok, sure.  Want to run back UP the slide with water rushing down?  All right, as long as you think you can make it.  Sit up, lay down, spin around, climb on someone’s shoulders, do whatever you want to get down the slide.  Nope, no rules at all.  Just people having fun.  I’m amazed we didn’t see an injury!

Good thing, too, because there were also no lifeguards.  There were a few security guards sitting around and I heard a whistle blow every once in a while, but I have no idea what they were blowing it at.  No rules, remember?

And (this one is for my brother in law, who doesn’t like water parks, anyway) there was, I’m pretty sure, no chlorine either.  I mean, maybe, but by the looks of the mold around the edges, it didn’t appear so.  The water looked very much like rain water but at least was moving around the slides and such.  I even saw a few creepy looking bugs swimming in the kid’s area.  Oh well.  Once I got over that and reminded myself that I knew coming to Cambodia would be an ADVENTURE, we had a great time.  We played at every section of the park.  Well, except one. The lazy river was a long narrow river but didn’t have any motion to it.  I opted out of that one.  Overall, though, I just told myself that we were there for fun and if the kids didn’t care, I didn’t care!

Another funny observation was that clothing was quite different.  Was it optional?  No way.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I mean, I did see a couple of naked toddlers, but that’s normal anywhere in Cambodia.  I was in a “swim dress” thing that covers a lot of me but I felt quite underdressed!  A few kids had swimsuits on but most people had on t-shirts and shorts.  Long sleeved t-shirts, even.  Most Cambodians don’t like to get sun exposure because they always want to whiten their skin, not tan it.  Huh, that’s different than home for sure!  Some even had on pajama looking clothes with long sleeves and long pants.  I think I may adapt to parts of Cambodian culture, but I’m pretty sure I’ll always prefer swimming in a swim suit to pajamas. 

Wow.  I just read over everything I had just typed.  Six months ago I’d have never been so brave.  Or dumb....  I guess time will tell as the water that made it into my mouth works its way into my stomach!

As for right now, I conclude it was a great day.  Kids had fun, husband had fun, I had fun.  What could I complain about?

But don’t worry, if you come visit me, I’ll find someplace else to take you!  :)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pchum Ben

This week is a big holiday in Cambodia.  For our family it means a few days off work to do some sightseeing around here, but for the people here it means so much more.  On the 15th day of the 10th month in the Khmer Calendar, which falls on Sept 26-28 of our calendar this year, Cambodians celebrate Pchum Ben.  It’s a pretty interesting holiday, so I thought you might like to learn about it, too.  Here is a summary of what I’ve learned.

Other cultures have holidays similar to this, but Pchum Ben, also known as Ancestor’s Day  is only celebrated in Cambodia.  It is a time when locals believe the gates of hell are opened and the spirits of their dead ancestors walk the earth.  The ancestors may leave hell for a temporary time or may have a chance to end their time there.  Most have to return to suffer more, and to ease their suffering, the people bring food offerings to the temples.  Ancestors not in hell (reincarnated or in heaven) supposedly benefit as well.  Many of the Cambodians travel to their home province from wherever they are and participate with extended family members.  For 15 days, they travel to temples and give food, which they believe helps to ease the passing of their dead relatives.  This time leads up the the 15th day, Pchum Ben, which is actually a 3 day holiday during which most businesses, schools, and offices are closed. 

According to Buddhist beliefs, the people have a life after death and that life is impacted by the way they live during their true life.  In general, if you do small sins while living, you get small punishments and if you do really bad things, you get really big punishments after death.  Some punishments include having a crippled or ugly ghost, or having a small mouth or even no mouth at all.  Because of this, the people feed them with rice so that even those with small mouths can partake.  They feed them by throwing the rice on the ground or in the air at the wat (temple).  This starts as early as 4am but continues all day.  Later in the day people return to the wat with offerings for the monks who live there.  They offer clothes, money, shoes, and most often, food.  Poor people sit outside the temples during this time hoping to also receive food or money.  Giving to the monks and the poor shows good merit that can help their own afterlives be better.  In Buddhism, the merits during Pchum Ben have potential to cancel out the bad things they have done.  The people also spend much of the day praying to their dead relatives. 

In ancient times, this festival lasted for 3 months, ending on the 15th day of their 10th month, but now it usually goes for 15 days.  During the 15 days, the Cambodians visit as many of the temples as they can.  Visiting seven temples is ideal but they believe that visiting even one brings them good merit.  Because the last 3 days are holidays from work and school, this is the time most people visit their families and participate. 

And here are some links I used as sources if you want to read more about it.  I will let you know what my personal experience teaches me after the end of Pchum Ben.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Snapping Pics in Phnom Penh

If you read my last post, then you know what I’ve been up to lately.  I have been taking pictures all over the streets of Cambodia.  It’s been fun, but there are quite a few obstacles I’ve had to overcome to make this happen. 

First, I had to act like a tourist.  I’m not a tourist.  I live here, and I’m proud of that.  But running around snapping pictures of total strangers is something a tourist does.  And to be honest, I’d kind of rather them think I’m a tourist.  I don’t know.  It’s weird.  Have you ever just taken your camera out and snapped pictures in your hometown?  I just felt funny.  But I got over that.  My “I love Cambodia” t-shirt from the market helps me fit the tourist profile.

Another obstacle was fear.  No, not fear of being harmed or lost or even ridiculed (that was the first one), but fear of my camera being stolen!  I worry that someone could grab it while I’m on the tuk tuk or ride by on a moto and yank it off my neck.  They do that here.  So to start with I only used the camera when my big strong husband (and our two young distractions) could tag along!  Kind of canceled each other out, huh?  Now I’m more confident about where to go and when, and I take my camera along as much as I can.  Only time will tell if that is the right choice.  It wouldn’t hurt to see if that thing is insured here in Cambodia either, though. 

And then when I finally got out there to take photos I worried what I would take photos of.  I mean, I like taking pictures of my kids and of families and cute things that are somewhat posed and, at the very least, AWARE that the camera in my hand is aimed at them.  These people had no idea!  I watched a youtube video from a NYC street photographer and the best advice he had was “shoot everything.” You never know what will turn out nice and what won’t.

So I did.  I took some pictures Saturday night as our tuk tuk creeped through traffic.  It was twilight and the fading sunlight combined with the moving vehicle we were in made for poor images.  Lesson learned.  But some of these not-so-blurry but not-so-sharp images turned out quite beautiful.

And that brings me to the last obstacle, the biggest one.  One which I’m still trying to figure out how to overcome.  See, if I want people to love these Cambodians and see their needs, and in turn hopefully have a changed heart to help them, then I have to show them to you.  But, since I love these children and want them to have better lives, I don’t want to post their faces on the internet for anyone to see.  It’s not hard to figure out where we are in the photos to someone who knows what they are doing.  And Cambodia is one of the largest centers of child sex trafficking on the globe, so yes, people ARE looking.  They are looking at the dirty children on the street who have no parents around and I don’t want to make that job easier for them! 

So here’s what I decided... most of the photos I took that first night are blurry.  That was a lighting and movement issue.  Or was it?  Maybe it was God showing me a way to do this.  I will show you faces of people when I can.  People who don’t seem like targets.  But not the children.  Not for now.  Until I learn more.  I will try to take beautiful photos of the children, too, doing my best to keep their identities safe.

And the quality of images is greatly reduced here on the blog anyway.  So, here are some shots I got.  They were up on the river front, a popular place for tourists, hotels, restaurants, and fun.  That makes it a good place for people from overseas and here in Cambodia to hang out.  And a place for poor Cambodians to sell various treasures or ask for money.  It was a great photo op.

And I would appreciate your feedback – your favorites, ones you don’t like, and any further ideas on this new “project” of mine!    Here you go:

Fishing on the riverfront.  We've seen people catch stuff in nets here, never seen a pole here before, but it was fun to watch.

View from the tuk tuk into a traffic jam.  It's not always this bad but in some places, at some intersections, it gets really busy at times.

I forget what these are called.  They taste like a grapefruit - a giant one - but not quite as sour.  And we peel them like an orange and eat the pieces.  Popular with the locals, hence the street corner sales.

Children carrying children.  Pretty common sight in parts of the city.  I can't imagine that life.  Little one's face is blurred for safety.

Kids playing at the riverfront - it's a great place because of the wide sidewalks.  Much better than the streets - and probably less holes, too!  

Buddhist monks are everywhere.  Their orange robes are so beautiful and they do seem very kind.  I would love to talk to one some day.  Here's a few on a tuk tuk.

Typical street shot... trash everywhere. It's so sad.  I want to start a clean up PP campaign, but goodness, I can only do one thing at a time!  

At the riverfront again.

This could have been a really pretty picture, but it is so out of focus!

And in honor of international tourism day coming soon, they have flags from all the nations along the river. Note our USA flag! And how about those skies?!

Don't worry, there will be more pictures.  Hopefully better ones.  And I'd love your suggestions on how to make that happen.

And don't just look at them.  Pray for them!  Love them!  Ask for ways to help them.  I can help you if you need it.

Until next time...

Monday, September 12, 2011

When I Grow Up

Ok, I’m a bit old to be saying this, but I do indeed have to say it: I finally know what I want to be when I grow up. I am inspired by a blog I will share in a moment!

I studied biology in college and worked for several years in both academic and business laboratory environments. Throughout my scientific career I studied some pretty interesting (and at times, quite unpleasant) stuff. I worked in a head injury research lab, a vaccine development laboratory, and lab that produced tissues for victims of burns and illness. The specialty changed from lab to lab but the basic techniques were rather similar at each job, and I’m proud to admit that I was quite good at them. I miss that period of my life all the time.

Two kids and a few years later I’m not sure what happened to my brain! I feel so forgetful and mindless at times. These days I’m not sure being in a lab would be safe for me or anyone around me. I spent several years following my husband wherever his job took us in the Army and at our last duty station I just plain couldn’t find a place to work! So I turned to something I always loved doing on the side...

Photography. And it was always fun and exciting. No lab rats or smelly formulations. No critical thinking, until I got to editing anyway. Just cute kids, couples in love, and beautiful, memorable moments. I loved capturing picturesque memories one by one.

And now we’ve moved again. It was God who moved us this time. Here we are in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and I’m trying to figure out how to use this artistic gift and passion He gave me. I’ve been struggling to figure out how to use it best here in this new, frighteningly different, yet always inspirational third world country. Then I came across this article from Owlhaven:

Esther Havens is a photographer who works in various countries around the world, doing story-telling photography for non-profit organizations. She began her career as a photojournalist, complete with the standard belief that photographers are not supposed to get involved in the lives of the people they are photographing.

The first time she traveled to Africa, her aim was to get that perfect ‘pitiful’ National Geographic picture. You know, the sad waif with flies on his face. When she finally got just the picture she wanted, she was elated.

But when she pulled the photo up on her computer screen, instead of elation, she felt shame. She realized she hadn’t done anything to improve this child’s life. She hadn’t even learned his name. She began to doubt her purpose as a photographer. What good were her photos if they didn’t help the people she photographed?

The next time she went to Rwanda, she felt God speak to her: “My light shines upon them.” She approached her next photo subject with those words still buzzing in her head. It was a beautiful woman with a baby on her back. Before Esther began to take pictures, she stopped to talk to her, to find out about her life. And in the process of making time for a relationship with this woman, she also ended up with a stunningly radiant, light-filled portrait. A portrait of a woman filled with strength and beauty. A portrait that showed the woman as God saw her. When the woman saw the picture she cried. “I am beautiful,” she said, as if realizing it for the first time in her life.

And in Esther’s ear again whispered the voice, My light shines upon them. And she knew that honoring these people was right.

Esther tells of a time in Ethiopia, when she asked a girl drawing water if she could take her picture. The girl giggled, embarrassed, and said, “Oh no, I’m in my pajamas. Let me go get dressed first.” Esther went to the girl’s house with her, and ended up with a beautiful, pride-filled picture of the girl dressed in her best, with her whole family around her.

These days Esther’s aim is to tell stories about people in a way that shows the need and moves others to help, while still preserving the dignity of those in need. Esther works extensively with a beautiful organization called charity: water. For her birthday this year she asked friends and family instead of giving her a gift to donate money for a water well. To her delight, enough money was raised, and then she got the privilege of taking beautiful pictures of that well going in, and showed the difference it made for the people in that community.

Isn’t it amazing that photography has such life-changing power? Visit her website to learn more about how to support her.

(and thanks, Owlhaven for this great article!)

So, there it is. I know what I want to be when I “grow up.” I want to be like this incredible lady. And I want to start today. I’m heading out to do some street photography here in Cambodia. I want to show you the photos because the eyes change the heart. Once you see, I pray you will be moved to help! There are so many needs. We’ll get into those in coming weeks, but for now just check back soon to see real photos of real people right here where I live.

Oh, I can’t wait! The camera batteries are on the charger!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

And The Adventure Goes On...

Well, if you notice the title above my blog here, it’s called “The ADVENTURE of following God.” I have to say, in the 11 weeks we have lived here in Cambodia, it’s definitely been an adventure. In fact, just a quick glimpse of the ups and downs of my last 2 weeks will prove that.

So here’s that glimpse:

About 2 weeks ago we bought bikes. Nope, not the cool moto kind everyone else here has – just the normal ol’ 2 wheelers that are powered painfully by my own calves. A bell was an essential add-on since apparently people honk (or ring) as they cross streets to warn others that they are crossing. Haha, as if my little bell could be heard on a loud motorcycle or in a car. But, I got the bell. And we got a baby seat on the front of my bike and a bigger seat on the back. Why? Because biking around the city with my two kids strapped on is part of the adventure! And yes, I’ll get you a photo of that soon. I know many of you are dying to laugh at me.

So we started getting around better using the bikes. The after school programs started at the International school. We’re doing school at home but have opted to put the boys into some of the fun activities like Karate and swimming so they can be around other kids and have a good time. And guess what? It’s been a great place to meet some new friends for them and, by default, for me! That’s fun and has made these couple weeks much better.

So when Stephen had to go to the beach town again for a trial, he asked us to go along and take a mini vacation away from the normal and spend a couple days there. We’d been once before, but it rained the whole time (read about THAT right here). We opted to stay here in Phnom Penh until Thursday afternoon, when we had finished the afterschool clubs and the morning homeschooling routine for the week and meet up with him later that day. It wasn’t until I had been in a taxi for two hours with my kids and a total stranger of a driver who spoke no English that I began to wonder, “When in the world did I become so adventurous?? Or was I just simply crazy?” Seriously, when did I become brave enough to plop my little ones in the backseat of a car and hop in the front with no map, and thus no clue which way to drive, and a gigantic impenetrable language barrier separating me from the driver just trusting blindly that we’d end up in the right place? Oops. Adventure? Maybe? Maybe not? I don’t know. Short story is that it turned out great and when we arrived at the hotel, Stephen was waiting for us outside. IJM had arranged the taxi so it wasn’t like it was totally crazy! If they trust the guy, why not me? Just trying to show you what was going through my head.

And then we had an amazing time once we got there. It’s a land of $20 per night hotels, tourists from all over the earth, papasan chairs right on the beach, critters plucked straight out of the sea and grilled and served right there on the beach, and some of the most gorgeous water and beaches I’ve ever seen. We spent the first morning at the local beach, where many Cambodian families make a living off of tourists like me. It was a Friday, a day kids should be at school and yet they were everywhere, trying to sell bracelets, hairbands, toys, and more little trinkets at outrageous prices. The ladies sold fresh crabs and lobsters or offered a foot massage and pedicure right there on the sand, and the men sold sunglasses to tourists. We were immediately approached by two little girls, who claimed to be 12 and 14 but probably weren’t over 10 and who spoke pretty much perfect English. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with them.

They sat beside me and commented on how young and pretty I was, no doubt trying to butter me up for their sale, but quite effectively, I must say. They had their honest moments, too. They tried to convince me to let them “thread” my arms, legs, armpits, or anything but that was easy to decline (ouch!). And when they pointed out that I have a few gray hairs I realized that they did hair coloring right there on the beach too. They played with the boys and we all had a great time. In the end, we bought some friendship bracelets and other things but left them with a message I felt God urging us to share… “If you ever get into trouble, take this business card (Stephen’s from IJM) and call him.” Because these little girls would be just the type to fall victim to the crime we are trying to fight. I hung up my bracelet on my prayer wall and committed to pray for them daily. I don’t want to jeopardize their safety, so here’s a discreet photo. You can pray for them and their friends also.

Anyway, more adventure. It was a day full of adventure.

The next day we went to a private beach at a resort. It’s gorgeous, and from these photos you’ll see it is like walking into a postcard.

We loved that place. Even there our little one made a little friend. Of course, you can see what motivates him to be “friends.”

And both boys enjoyed playing with each other and with the Cambodians at the beach.

When we got back to the hotel, Stephen’s computer wouldn’t turn on. Annoying, but we figured it was the power there at the hotel. It had gone in and out a few times so we didn’t get too concerned.

When we got home, though, Saturday night, we learned that my computer was also not turning on. We were left with no way to connect with the outside world and personally I don’t like that very much at all! It was quite frustrating. But we survived without the computers, though it made my homeschool lessons on Monday quite difficult when I couldn’t print the necessary papers. We took the computers in and later the next day got a phone call.

“We were able to repair one computer. Not the other.” In my mind I was thinking, oh no, which would be worse? Of course I didn’t want it to be mine that was broken, but I didn’t really wish that for Stephen, either, you know? Well, it was mine. The motherboard crashed. No solution except to buy a new computer. On a limited budget. In a foreign country. Where many electronics are stolen or already used. In a place software is almost always pirated. Adventure, right?

I decided to take that afternoon and leave the kids with my sitter, go get a pedicure, and try to relax. It was nice. I got my feet massaged and a pretty pink on my toes (all for just $6!) and then rode my bike back home.

And on the way home, in an act that I can only figure was motivated by sheer meanness, something not common here from what I’ve seen, a tuk tuk driver did a full circle in front of me causing me to make a quick stop and get a flat tire. He hit the tire, but thankfully I was just fine. Shaken up and annoyed that I had to walk home with a broken bike, but just fine.

The adventures continue. Every day is another one.

And despite the fact that white coffee, a drink I fell in love with when we got here, now seems to have disappeared off every shelf, I still get up every day and look forward to what’s waiting for me.


The Adventure of Following God.

“Much like a wild goose, the Spirit of God cannot be tracked or tamed. An element of danger, an air of unpredictability surround Him. And … I cannot think of a better description of what it’s like to follow the Spirit through life.”

-Mark Batterson, Wild Goose Chase