To those who have been asking: thank you for your concern, and I’m sorry for the long delay in blog entries! My only real excuse is that so much has happened since my last post that this entry loomed before me like a Research Methods literature review, and I kept putting it off. So without further ado, here’s what’s been going on in Southeast Asia (besides Gangnam Style).
The Kingdom of Cambodia
Between Thailand and Vietnam, there’s a little land full of friendly people and fermented fish paste. I arrived in Cambodia mid-November, and quickly had to shed the basic Hindi vocabulary I had acquired and start picking up Khmer. I learned to convert and use the odd double currency system of U.S. dollars and Cambodian riel. I forced myself to stop doing the Indian head bobble during every social interaction, and (hardest of all) I had to quit eating rice with my hands and attempt the ever-unwieldy chopsticks. The turning point came when an elderly man walked over to my table and interrupted the meal I had been eating with my hands to show me the utensils right in front of me. In short, some acclimation was necessary. But Cambodia is charming and easy to love. The scenery is standard Southeast Asia: miles upon miles of bright green rice fields, rivers bearing small fishing vessels, dusty roads full of motorcycles, roving water buffalo, street-side coconut stands, brightly floral patterned clothing, people-powered carts of fruit and vegetables. But it’s the people who make Cambodia memorable. They’re quick to smile, quick to laugh, and always eager to start a conversation (even if it consists mostly of charades). It hasn’t been difficult to feel right at home in this country that was completely foreign to me.
Mighty Fine Football
I chose to come to Cambodia because of the Mighty Girls: a program sponsored by an organization called SALT (Sport and Leadership Training) Academy that supports the education and football training of exceptionally talented and motivated young women. There are currently 24 girls on the team, between the ages of 13 and 19. These girls can play some mean football. Although there isn’t much women’s football infrastructure in Cambodia (and hence not much local competition), the Mighty Girls have proven that their daily training sessions have given them the skills necessary to compete internationally.
Like Yuwa, however, the most compelling thing about the Mighty Girls program isn’t the sweet football skills or the massive trophy shelf—it’s the leadership and confidence that’s being fostered in each player. Most of the girls come from backgrounds with varying degrees of adversity: poverty, risk of being trafficked into Thailand for work, lack of family support, etc. Once accepted into the Mighty Girls, players receive a full scholarship to an excellent high school, daily tutoring in English and computer skills, at least one meal a day, and (if circumstances apply) the opportunity to live in the program’s dormitory house. In return, each player is expected to keep up with their studies, attend every football practice, participate in weekly life skills workshops, coach or assistant coach a younger SALT team, and help lead various outreach activities (which often means football skills workshops in nearby communities). The big idea is to give already-exceptional girls the resources they need to reach their own goals in life and become confident role models for Cambodian youth—especially girls. It’s a young program, having just started in 2009; but SALT has secured funding to make it possible, and the girls truly embody the program’s objectives. Early last month, 15 of the Mighty Girls traveled to Singapore to play a series of friendly matches with international teams. Their crowning moment was a decisive victory over Singapore’s under-17 national team—all the more impressive because the Mighty Girls were all under age 15. After they returned, I spoke with one of the star players about what it was like to play such an intense match in front of hundreds of spectators. At first she didn’t understand the question.
“Were you nervous?” I goaded, trying to imagine how I myself would have felt in such a situation.
She made a face and shrugged. “It was like normal.”
So they’re cool under pressure. The times I’ve really seen the girls shine, though, have been when they lead clinics, practices, or workshops for younger kids. In an instant, the girl who had previously seemed introverted and quiet becomes dynamic and assertive. You can see the respect in the eyes of the younger kids: they listen attentively, perched in a crouch on the toes of their feet. Of course, the Mighty Girls seem like heroes. They’re talented, happy, intelligent, constantly winning matches and tournaments, attending the best school in the area, and tough enough to compete against boys’ teams. In a culture where docility seems to be the feminine ideal, it’s kick-awesome to see such a fierce group of young women reaching out to their community.
This year has turned out to be very football-centric—which is ironic for me, having never played football myself. Frankly, my foot-eye coordination is terrible. When I explain my fellowship to people, I am constantly asked if I’m a football player and/or coach. I’m often met with confused responses when I explain that I’m not. That said, I’ve taken to practicing with the Mighty Girls daily. They train for two hours every Monday – Friday, during the hottest part of the day. It’s bearable with frequent water breaks, but it’s a practice in patience for me to keep a positive attitude with my obvious lack of football finesse. The girls swear that I’ve improved and cheer unnecessarily loudly when I do anything notable on the field. Regardless of the truth in their affirmations, I appreciate the support. My best moment came during a scrimmage when I (unintentionally) used my face to simultaneously keep a ball in bounds and pass to player on my team for a goal. It was glorious.
SALT and the Mighty Girls are based in Battambang, Cambodia. Despite its status as the second-largest city in the country, Battambang has the feel of a small town. After one week, I could navigate the city effortlessly on my bicycle—which is no small feat for me, since I struggle with navigation. The street names that I know exist are 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3. But the names aren’t really necessary. It’s simpler to remember them as the street with the Noodle Man restaurant, the street with my favorite bicycle repair shop, the street with the store that sells cold coconuts, or the main street with the central market.
Battambang wakes up early. The markets bustle to life, the street-side breakfast noodle places with the red plastic chairs fill up quickly, and kids walk or bicycle to school. When I first arrived in Battambang, the thing that delighted me most was the traffic (probably because of its stark contrast with the madness of India). Vehicles on the road are 75% scooters, motorcycles, or bicycles. It’s a fluid system with flexible rules. The golden rule, however, is this: don’t try to get anywhere is a hurry. Intersections are a prime example. Everyone, regardless of your mode of transport, is expected to slow down enough to nonverbally communicate who yields to who. The beauty of this is that you rarely need to come to complete stop. I’ve seen one minor accident and no displays of road rage. When there are near misses or even fender-benders, Cambodians seem to laugh it off with a mutual “Ha ha, that was close!” To be fair, I have heard that it’s common for Khmer people to smile or laugh when they’re upset, scared, or even angry—so it’s entirely likely that I’ve been misreading disguised emotion.
I’m living in a house that’s rented by SALT, with four roommates: two young German volunteers, the Khmer woman who acts as program coordinator and tutor for the Mighty Girls, and one of the Mighty Girls who recently graduated from high school. We also live with two geckos, who creep around the kitchen, the ceilings, and inside our loaves of bread. Meals consist of rice, fish, soup, rice porridge, or noodles. Everything is improved with the addition of a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. I’ve received valuable fashion advice from my Mighty Girl roommate: wear ponytails high on your head to attract attention to your face and apply glitter liberally. I sleep under a purple mosquito net that looks like it belonged to a Disney Princess. Sunsets are best watched on our small balcony, and Gangnam Style is the soundtrack to life.
Show Me That Horizon
In contrast to my time Jharkhand, I’ve had the freedom of mobility in Cambodia. The land is flat and the roads are bicycle friendly: which is my ticket to ride just about anywhere. The Cambodian kids make me feel like a celebrity when I ride by; I can’t cycle a kilometer without a kid or group of kids yelling HELLO! at me. The frequent roadside coconut stands, sugarcane juice carts, and hammock lunch places make even the hottest day a great day for cycling. Early in December, I took a long weekend to cycle to the nearby city of Siem Reap. My aim was to join a 100 k charity bike race being held in Siem Reap’s famous ancient temples, Angkor Wat. Along the way I had the great fortune of meeting a fellow cyclist: Lisa, a young woman from Ireland who’s solo-touring Southeast Asia on bicycle for a few months. She’s traveling around the world for a year, and, like me, had just arrived in Cambodia after spending time in India. We hit it off immediately. After a weekend of doing the cycle race and exploring the Angkor Wat temples, Lisa and I decided that we might as well meet up again for Christmas. We heard a rumor that Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) had some serious holiday spirit, so we made tentative plans to see each other at the end of the month.
In high school, I took an excellent course on Vietnam and U.S. relations. It delved into the murky history in a way that both fascinated and horrified me. Although my memory of the details of the course have become fuzzy around the edges, I was eager to visit the country that had been the site of such bitter controversy, resistance, and conflict. I didn’t know how I would be received as an American tourist. After a quick two weeks in Vietnam, I can say that not once did I encounter any animosity or even coolness based upon my nationality. Although my visit was brief, Vietnam won me over with its open-air café culture, its friendly people, and of course—its food.
When you cross the street in Ho Cho Minh City, you take one step at a time at a steady pace. Motorcycles and scooters zip by on either side of you. If you hesitate or listen to the survival instinct that’s telling you to pause or run, you will likely be plowed over by the wave of 2-wheeled traffic. For foreigners, this takes some real effort and practice. Mumbai traffic hadn’t even prepared me for the unspoken pedestrian rules of Vietnam’s moto-flow.
I met up with Lisa, who had accumulated an additional travel buddy—an Australian guy named Ben, who was also cycling through Southeast Asia. Our trio was a serendipitous convergence of solo-travelers, and I couldn’t have asked for better company for the holidays.
We had been told the truth about Ho Chi Minh City’s love of Christmas. On the Eve, December 24th, the people of Saigon gather in front of the city cathedral donning an array of gaudy, festive hats. As midnight approaches, the revelers acquire cans of fake snow and the courtyard in front of the cathedral turns into a foamy free-for-all. Lisa, Ben, and I wound up in the middle of this fray. The chaos was fun, but we didn’t stand a chance. Being foreigners, we might as well have had giant targets on our foreheads. Hopelessly outnumbered, it was only a matter of minutes before we were covered in fake snow and glitter. The fake snow acted as a sort of adhesive to keep the glitter on our skin and hair, marking us as Cathedral Snow Fight Losers for the rest of the evening.
After spending a week in Saigon, our happy trio hit a couple of beaches on the coast of Southern Vietnam. Oddly, this area is dominated by Russian tourists. I felt like the oddball not because I was a foreigner, but because I wasn’t Russian. Little Moscow was so prevalent that I encountered restaurants with menus exclusively in Russian and Vietnamese locals who spoke Russian. Imported vodka took up most of the shelves in local liquor stores. There was even a shop selling high performance, cold-weather mountaineering gear. In Southern Vietnam.
I was a bit sad to leave Vietnam, not only because it meant breaking up our happy trio, but because I was intrigued by the country and wanted to spend more time exploring the mountainous north. Coming back to Battambang, however, felt good and familiar. The Noodle Man still makes the best noodles I’ve ever tasted, the geckos still creep around our kitchen, and the Mighty Girls welcomed me back to football practice like I had never been away.
In conclusion, I need to make one more note about The Song of 2012. The influence of Gangnam Style can’t be understated. I feel privileged to be in Asia during the time of Gangnam. Despite Cambodia being pretty far from Korea (both physically and culturally), Gangnam Style has brought about a tangible pan-Asian pride. Oppas can be heard on any given street at any time of the day. PSY t-shirts can be bought anywhere that sells t-shirts. Kids skip around singing Korean words they don’t understand. Spontaneous invisible-horse dancing breaks out in the markets. The underlying Gangnam beat is the pulse of Asia.