Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"It's like a family vacation. A never-ending, together-for-16-hours-a-day family vacation."

Battambang is smaller than Phnom Penh, so we were curious as to how we would spend our evenings after work. The business trips here are a little different from the American counterparts. In the US, a business trip would usually involve traveling separately to an agreed-upon destination; going to some meetings in a nondescript, beige room with a powerpoint screen gently swinging in the breeze from the air conditioner; breaking for a business lunch where reports and proposals are passed around over bleu cheese salads, pasta, or maybe even a steak sandwich; followed by another meeting where attendees could congratulate themselves on the great work they did in the morning meeting, before everyone broke off to do their own thing for the night.

Not here. Here, you eat every single meal together (and no fast food; count on everything being cooked from scratch, so every table gathering is at least 90 minutes), then you travel on, well, things that once were or aspiring to be roads, crammed together in a midsize Toyota while you battle for knee space with fellow passengers, followed by some sort of evening activity.

The first night's evening activity, however, was well worth all the travel. When you flip open the Lonely Planet Cambodia travel guide (or, as I call it, my iPhone replacement for the number of times it's fed, housed, or entertained me), the section on Battambang is about a page and a half. Not exactly a happening night life for 20-somethings. Under the activities section, there were two options:

1) one night club
2) the circus

The club kind of got a mumbled, half-hearted response from us, kind of a "mweeh" sound, so it wasn't at the top of the list. The circus sounded more interesting, even though I've always been uncomfortable with circuses because of their treatment of animals (and seeing a circus in a country not especially known for animal rights protection sounded like a recipe for horrors). 

As it turned out, this was more of a Cirque du Soleil program, run by one of the coolest organizations I've seen so far in Cambodia. The circus is actually just one arm of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO that runs a traditional school as well as art programs for low-income kids. The school is open to anyone, and the classes run on a drop-in basis, so whenever the kids can make it to the center they can take a dance, art, theater, or music class. The circus is made up entirely of kids and teens, and they're really successful; some of the students are just finishing up a tour of Europe and Australia. We saw jugglers, silk climbing, contortionists, and clowns; so good! It was especially cute to see a French family in the front row with two little kids that were cracking up at the three clown students on stage. Each laugh from the French kids egged the Cambodian kids to be even funnier, making wild, exaggerated faces and running all around the tent until everyone dissolved into laughter.

I tried to get some photos, but my camera battery died, so here's the website if you want to learn more about the circus:


Before the circus, we visited one of the art classrooms. There was an art show exhibit displaying the work from one of the visual art classes. Over twenty beautiful outfits hung from the ceiling, each made by the kids. I ended up talking to the teacher, a really laid-back, cooler-than-I'll-ever-be girl from Minneapolis. Her mom is American, and her dad is Cambodian, so she said that she's spending the year here teaching to learn more about her dad's side of the family. She graduated with a visual arts degree last year, so she joined Phare Ponleu Selpak and took over one of the largest art classes with students ranging from 6-years-old to 26. On her first day, she handed out pencils and paper to all the kids and asked them to draw anything they wanted. She got back about twenty pictures of Angkor Wat; apparently, looking at your partner's paper is as big of a problem here as it is in elementary schools back home.

She decided that she needed a new plan. She told everyone that the next assignment was to make a piece of clothing, using only discarded materials that you found on the street. There was no way for them to cheat, because even if their dress or shirt designs initially looked the same, the likelihood that they would find the same materials to use was very slim. 

This was such a cool concept to me; it was great to see her use the piles of trash that collect on the street for an amazingly beautiful homework assignment. The outfits hung over tables full of decorative masks and paintings (another homework assignment, and not many Angkor Wat pictures). The kids in the class milled around as tourists came to look at their work. They looked so proud whenever one of the paintings or masks they created sold; it reminded me of every art show back at Herman L. Horn or William Byrd, where all the hours you spent working in the art room finally pays off with a purchase. I really wanted to buy some paintings and masks, but I didn't have enough money on me so hopefully I can make it back to Battambang before I leave the country. 

Here are some pictures of the artwork:

The tower of masks:

A paper mache crab that I wanted to bring back for mom, but didn't know how to not crush him in my suitcase!

All of their art materials are donated from the United States, so if you want to donate to their program check out their website for details. Trust me, the acrylics, watercolors, pencils and paper are well-used and well-loved.

The next day, we traveled to meet with one of the clients in an extremely rural region. It rained really hard the night before (sensing a weather theme here?), so the red dirt road turned into a soupy, slippery mess of slop. As we crept along, we passed several Greyhound-sized buses that were admirably Little-Engine-That-Could-ing it down the path. We had one close call, as one of them slid out of control after it passed our car and swung horizontally across the road, blocking traffic in both directions as it sunk further into the mud. 

We weren't able to take the car all the way to the client, as the road narrowed down until it became a farmland path, easily traversed only on foot or by tractor. As we didn't have access to the latter (I knew I forgot to pack something from Roanoke), we set out on a rather arduous 2-kilometer walk (a little over a mile). 

Did you know that it's actually better to wear dress work shoes for this kind of activity instead of flip flops? Apparently, and I now know this from experience, the first time that you slip into a rather large puddle of tepid, gnat-infested water, your flip flop will attach itself to the mud and manure piles. When you try to remove said flip flop, an arch of that mud and manure will spray gracefully in the air, landing on every spare inch of skin and clothing you own. Your feet become covered in a wet, thick slime, which causes them to slip around on the flip flop until you end up straggling behind the group, calling for help (I swear that if we reverted back to a state of nature I'd die first). I only caught up after one of the lawyers spotted me, walked me over to a pond, and showed me how to clean off my feet and washed my shoes for me like I was a 3-year-old.

We met with the client and discussed the upcoming case. They fed us a lunch of rice and chicken, and gave us a hot tea made from water and the juice of a local fruit that's said to calm an upset stomach (it totally works, I loved it!). On the way back, we upgraded from our feet to one of the farmer's tractors. 

The tractor's engine was, I'm convinced, ripped from an out-of-date washing machine. We were all piled on top of a wagon, which was attached to this tiny, sickly-sounding motor. It broke down on the journey. Twice. After the second time, we thanked the farmer and continued the rest of the way on foot. The lawyers kept laughing about how the American interns' answers to every inconvenience was, "No problem!" They said we must be soldiers because of all of the harsh elements we survived in order to get our legal work done. 

Here are some pictures of us as soldiers:

The walk begins:

Upgrade to tractor for the ride back:

The washing machine engine!

The travel doctor I met with before leaving for Cambodia asked if I would come into contact with any livestock. Nope, I said, no livestock.

Our lawyer:

Our trusty steed breaks down the first time.

Ominous clouds gathering while the engine is fixed. Rain can only help matters.

My hand clutching on for dear life during the bumpy ride.

After breaking down a second time, back to walking.

I am literally marching in this picture.

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