Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cambodia finds

My flat is vacated.  My bags are packed, more or less.  I have way too many silk fabric finds (above), and there's no more time for dress-making. For now. 

Indonesia, India, and summer beckon. 

Technically, it isn't time for the move to Bangkok.  It's time for adventure and travel, a little respite.  But practically speaking, this is the beginning of the end of my years living in Cambodia.  Tears have been shed.  

I think back to my move over two years ago. I was so frightened, so excited, so open to everything.  It boggles my mind that these years have passed so quickly and here I am, many more things accumulated, many more experiences shared, and with a person who did not exist in my life before Cambodia, but without whom I could not imagine making this move or any other.  I suppose that's life.

This move feels quite different.   I feel quite different.

Unrelated, today I like this quote:

“And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.”

–Nora Ephron.

And I am off.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Boeung Kak Lake

first image via The Los Angeles Times

The BKL women were freed, though their charges were upheld.  You can read up on the Economist blog here.

Interestingly, and at a critical juncture, Hillary Clinton, who is slated to visit Cambodia in early July, strongly urged the Government to release the activists as a sign of support for freedom of expression.

It's funny how things work here.  What a crazy last week.

The Enabler

I kind of feel like this these days.  Also, an exchange between Ethan and me a few weeks ago:

Ethan [watching me feed Cookie, the feral cat]: I think we may have a serious problem.

Me: What is it?

Ethan:  I think you have the crazy cat lady gene.

Me [laughing]: Maybe.

Ethan:  And I think I may have the crazy cat lady enabling gene.

Travel hair


I love the hair tutorials on Cup of Jo. I think this messy "perfect knot" may be my perfect travel hairstyle.  To be honest, I've given little thought to my travel plans, which start next Monday: overland travel in Indonesia, a day in Malaysia, a flight to Kolkata, and then weeks in northern India and maybe Nepal.  It is going to be a hot and humid summer!

I am looking forward to fresh air and green scenery, to train travel, to boat/ferry journeys, and to new places. I have less than two days at work.  Will I be able to decompress?  Or, will I carry this work with me? 

Last summer, as I was traveling east from Kazakhstan, my organization and others were targeted by the Government for our work on the Railways project.  My team did a great job of keeping this information from me while I was away, but it eventually made its way to me.  In a dark internet-lab in Lanzhou, China, after over 36 hours of hard travel in the August heat, I read the news, and worry set in. 

The pace of work at this organization is so fast, so hurried, that you often do not have time to process.  It was only yesterday, as I was speaking to Dana, the bright-eyed American legal intern, that I realized how much of a threat we functioned under in May, when we traveled to the Manila meetings with the two community members.  Yes, it was a good time in Manila, if not surreal.  Evenings soirees at the Sofitel were filled with the fanciest canap├ęs I have seen and free-flowing champagne.  But there were also meetings, and in those meetings with diplomats and politicians from European, Asian, and American constituent countries, we tried to impress the risks we faced when traveling to meet with them - perhaps we wouldn't be allowed to re-enter the country, or perhaps the organization would again be threatened, or perhaps the communities would face repercussions.  As I spoke to Dana about it yesterday, it dawned on me how nuts the landscape is here. 

Earlier in the week, I had a farewell breakfast with G, an American lawyer who has been working on land issues in Cambodia for many years.  "Sometimes, during your years of work, you leave people behind," he commented. "You have to learn to do what is best for you. Listen to what your body.  Do not apologize. Do not feel guilt."    

I wonder: Does it get easier?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


If someone took a peek into my mind today, they would find that it is filled with these images:

Yesterday, we held a forum for the 150+ complainants we assisted in filing a complaint, many of whom I worked with in my research last year.  In many ways, this forum felt like a good ending to this period in Cambodia.   I wrote an email to a friend this morning.  It said: They were from all over the country.  I've seen their faces during hot days in the provinces, as they stood in their store-fronts, with their babies.  I've seen them in torrential downpours and in meeting rooms with officials. I've seen a lot of these women cry.  

I won't use this post to try to process how I feel about my departure because I don't think I have it all processed yet.  Or, I don't have the mental space or willingness to process it.  It will certainly be something I think about this summer, once I can put a lot of my daily work to rest.


I'm also anticipating July 1st and summer adventures, and I am fondly remembering last year's summer adventures in Kazakhstan and western China (Xinjiang province). My heart swells every time I think back to that time. 

One of my resolutions this year was to bring back summer vacations, without the adult guilt.  Check.

I spoke to my Khmer colleagues about this.  "You have a month and a half between jobs?!" one asked. It's a very un-Khmer thing, this holidaying without guilt.  My Khmer colleagues don't get it.  It's indulgent.  Perhaps this isn't too dissimilar to judgments across the world?  

 images link to source

Drawing dressmaking inspiration from the details on these dresses - one more dash to the Cambodian dressmaker.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My weekend

During one of my last weekends in Phnom Penh, I decided to try a few "firsts." 

We took a short river cruise to the Bungalows Sunset Bar, a floating bungalow and bar, which has been touted as the place to catch a Phnom Penh sunrise.  The river was brown and muddy and unfortunately, the sky was too cloudy to glimpse a proper sunset.  But it was still a nice way to wile away the afternoon with friends. 

Ethan took me to dinner at Romdeng, a Khmer eatery which is housed in a stunning French colonial building and whose profits go to support its projects with street children and their families.  The restaurant is well known for its deep-friend tarantulas with lime sauce, but we tried vegetarian options of Khmer curry and "fish" amok instead.

Other weekend plans: Khmer desserts at NOM with Vy and Saran, Mexican night and too much wine at a N's, followed by listening to blues in really cramped, hot spaces, and an evening walk and ice cream sampling at Le Cone - it was a good weekend. 

What will my last full weekend in Phnom Penh look like?     

Friday, June 15, 2012

To Sulawesi?

With two weeks until my departure date and the official beginning of summer (for me), I realize I have completely neglected the pre-India part of my summer - the part that places Ethan and me on a flight to the  island of Java in Indonesia in early July.  Maybe it's because since I was a child, I've been fascinated by travel in India?  Indonesia, as I have been told, can be incredible.

We fly in and out of Jakarta with about three weeks to spare.  The "plan" is to travel overland and by boat from the island of Java to the island of Bali.  I hear that Ubud (on Bali), a town nestled in rice terraces, is dreamy and the cultural center of the archipelago.  Look at these pictures

But there remains Sulawesi (Celebes), which is more obscure, requires a ferry journey, and is very tempting . . . 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

At the resettlement site

This is a month of "lasts."

This week, I spent a few days at the resettlement site outside Phnom Penh with our research team.  These are days spent talking to people, sitting on floors, parsing out each translated word, all under the heat of a glaring blue sky.

I met this community before it was displaced.  I visited them when they were resettling to this site last autumn and now, during this last visit, I witnessed their lives 8 months later.  Their houses are more or less built, their babies are bigger, and a shred of normalcy has returned - except it hasn't really.  They are more in debt than before and poorer than ever, having borrowed money from private lenders to rebuild their homes (often at usurious rates and according to ambiguous repayment schedules).  With very little livelihood opportunities at the site, they eke a living from random jobs around the site and typically do not have sufficient income to pay back their debts. 

The other day, a woman (not the one pictured above) cried to me and asked for help: the moneylender had come to confiscate her house and land, where her extended family of 15 lived.  What could she do?

On the quiet tuk-tuk ride back to the city, I murmured to my colleagues that she will likely lose her house; all we could do is document it.  Here, solutions, if and when they come, are slow.

I didn't speak another word for that entire ride back home. Neither did my colleagues.  I sometimes wonder how I've been able to manage this line of work. For some reason, that day more than any other, the wave of helplessness really hit me. And I was exhausted.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

For dinner: Pollo alla Romana

Despite the stresses of life lately, this week was a good week. I was able to catch up with a friend in NYC.  Another friend is visiting from China and staying with us for two weeks, while he completes his research.  And yesterday, we attended a colleague's wedding, which was followed by a small cake reception.  After the morning ceremony, we had friends over for makeshift mango mimosas, which we served on our terrace.  We spent a few hours chatting, the wind blowing, the sun burning bright.  Days like that -- those filled with ease and laughter and simple pleasures-- are glorious, no?

One of the simple pleasures I liked to indulge in frequently is eating freshly baked, crusty baguette from one of the local bakeries.  In fact, I spent a good part of my first months in Cambodia on a motorbike with fresh baguette in hand.  And over two years later, that has not changed.  On lazy nights, when we aren't terribly hungry, we'll snack on baguette, a soft rind French cheese, and fruit for dinner.

A few weeks ago, I came across this simple recipe from Rachel Eats.  Pancetta, white wine, slowly simmered with tomatoes, slivers of red peppers, and chicken - what's not to love? Slow cooking is so wonderful because there's this point when everything just magically melts together perfectly.  It's alchemy.

It turns out this dish was also the perfect accompaniment to crusty bread.  This is a definite do-over for me.

Pollo alla Romana
Adapted from this recipe by Rachel Eats


A nice plump chicken weighing about 1.5 kg (or 3-4 chicken breasts)
3 tbsp olive oil
50g pancetta, diced
4-6 cloves of garlic
a glass of dry white wine
300 g tomatoes
3 large red peppers
1-2 bay leaves
salt and pepper

Clean the chicken and cut it into pieces.

In a large heavy based pan, fry the diced pancetta in the olive oil until it renders its fat. Add the chicken pieces skin side down and cook until the skin forms a golden crust, then turn them and fry the other side.

Add salt, several grindings of black pepper and the garlic and turn the pieces over three or four times. Add the wine and let it bubble away until most of it has evaporated.  [Note: At this point, your kitchen will smell amazing!]

Coarsely chop the tomatoes and the red peppers. Add the tomatoes and the peppers to the pan, stir, cover the pan and leave over a over a modest heat.  Add the bay leaves.  Stir every now and then to prevent sticking. Once the peppers release their juices, half cover the pan and cook for another 45 minutes or until the tomatoes and peppers have collapsed into a dense, rich sauce and the chicken is tender.

Allow the pan to sit for about 15 minutes.

my last care package in Cambodia

I've said it before, but I LOVE receiving care packages from family and friends.  This one, my last in Cambodia, included the Ermie silk top I ordered.  I changed into it as soon as I received it. I love the print, and the soft silk and easy cut are perfect for hot and humid days.  It's funny how something as simple as a beautiful garment instantly picks me up.   

(By the way, I am a tad obsessed with Jennifer's instagram - all the colors and patterns make me homesick for California.)

The care package also contained other things, which made me laugh, including dried apples from my parents' garden (my dad always sends me back with a bag or two, which Ethan quickly devours), a box of chocolates from my parents' recent trip to Norway and Brussels, and this birthday sample from Sephora.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Of unforgiving heat and uniforms.

I don't remember it being this hot last year.  Phnom Penh is burning up.  Offering a short respite are the afternoon showers that thunder through the city everyday, like clockwork.

With the increased heat comes my increased laziness in dress.  I've been wearing a uniform these days: a breezy dress and the same sandals. The first two dresses were made by my favorite tailor in Phnom Penh, Monika.  One is a shameless adaptation of the Mayle Ilaria dress I brought to Cambodia, this iteration made in a blue eyelet that I found in the local markets while shopping with my friend Rachel. The picture doesn't do the dress any justice - the button details are well executed. 

It's official: I am on a dress-making binge.  I discovered a decent silk vendor at Toul Tumpong Market.  Her stall is filled with so many solid and printed silks that my mind is swimming with dress shapes and colors.  This week, I found the following silk print.  It reminds me of overstock vintage fabric. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Counting to four.

Four weeks until we depart this amazing, equally frustrating place. Well, not really. We have a few days in August before the move to Bangkok.  But in these four weeks, our flat will be vacated, our things stored, and our contracts done. It feels so official now.  And, I am a giant stress-ball.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Lotus blossoms

Free the 15! Stop the Violence!

Lotus blossoms have become the symbol of a growing international campaign to free the BKL women.  
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