Sunday, July 18, 2010

Travel By Numbers

I’m sitting in Phenom Penh International Airport. I’m waiting for my flight to Seoul to beginning boarding. There is a flat screen tv flashing an American documentary about AIDS in India. Four lovely Korea flight attendants in aquamarine silk suits have congregated about five seats down from me and are chatting warmly. I’m exhausted from an 8 hour bus trip (which included an 1.5 hour “lay-over” at the Vietnam-Cambodia border) that brought me from Saigon to Phnom Penh. I am looking at a 6.5 hour flight to Seoul, a 4 hour lay-over and a 13.5 hour flight to Atlanta. I have two carry-ons, one of which contains two stretched canvas painting of Angkor Wat in thick, bright acrylics. I stupidly paid an outrageous $3 for one iced coffee. There are four Westerners (including myself) waiting at the gate at this point. I have 22 minutes before boarding and 75% of my power remaining in my battery. I have exactly $15 left (which really is minus about $600 because I own my folks money due to unforeseen medical costs).  I have covered an estimated 20,000 miles in the last two months. I will have touched ground in five countries and two continents. I have interviewed roughly 14 individuals, written two official articles, two extended reports, 19 blog posts and only seven paper journal entries. I have 9 days until I leave for Minnesota /Canada and two months before I leave for England. I brought with me only three pairs of pants, one skirt, six shirts, two tank tops, one pair of pj bottoms, 16 pairs of panties, three sports bras, one sweater, one hat and a single, well-worn pair of chacos. My passport has three Visas – two for Cambodia and one for Vietnam – one of which will grant me return access until this coming December. I have spent countless hours writing, dozens of hours reading and too many hours incapacitated with illness. I watched all four seasons (roughly 50+) episodes of Ugly Betty. I take with me one colorful bag from Saigon. I leave behind dozens of co-workers, one awesome boss, one amazing friend and a single, humble piece of my heart.

Monday, July 12, 2010


His face was a charred, burnt red. Like roasting meat pulled from the flames, it was a deep, swollen burgundy. His right eyelid had been blown away leaving a milky white ball with only the cloudy remains of iris and retina. There were no protective lashes or thick brows to shield the exposed ivory bulb. His left eye, relatively intact, was a crisp mahogany; it wasn’t a depthless brown, but a rusted wooden floorboard brown. His lips were a faded wormy pink and puffed up in the right corner. There were shinny burns and hard sores that disrupted the surface of his haggard, tender flesh. His hands were charred stubs, thick scar tissue nubs sprouted from where his fingers use to be. He fumbled with a navy blue baseball cap and sloppily mouthed words that only spilled out like dried beans on a linoleum floor. Hobbling toward me he continued to mumble and I, despite a twinge of compassion, pulled away, averting my eyes and briskly stalking toward a secluded indoor cafĂ©.

He was a landmine victim. Cambodia is the single most landmine-ridden country in all of Asia. Every travel book and website I have read about Cambodia ominously warns against straying from well-worn paths, particularly up in the sparsely populated mountains and along the Thai border. Landmines are an American legacy; President Nixon had landmines planted during the Vietnam War, a measure taken to “quell” any insurgency that could be regrouping inside Cambodia’s borders. But it wasn’t the armed military or Vietnamese guerrillas who became the victims of the mines; women and children wandering across the open, grassy fields would be arbitrarily blown to bits. Pol Pot, the ugly and ferocious Marxist revolutionary, planted even more landmines – particularly along the Cambodian border with Thailand – to dissuade the victims of mass murder from fleeing to safety.

Landmines are indiscriminate killers. Princess Dianna knew this and campaigned tirelessly for the banning of landmine usage around the world. I saw the burnt face of the victim, now unable to work and to provide for a family. Begging and being paraded around like some guilt-machine are often last resorts of mothers and fathers with children to provide for. Medical care is limited and often costly. And landmines remain a major threat, particularly to the thousands of subsistence farmers etching a living out of the countryside.

I walked through a local NGO which has developed simple handicrafts that victims – who often times lose all or part of their legs – can make in order to live self sufficiently and with dignity.  Some of these women sat on the floor of the shop front and smiled at me. They busied their nimble fingers wrapping colored cloth around stings of bead, creating dainty necklaces that I couldn’t help but admire. In my limited Khemai, we made small talk, but their unblemished faces and warm smiles were enough. I bought a small stuffed elephant for a friend’s daughter, and a woman missing all of her left leg and her right leg up to the knee said “good choice, thank you for visiting us.”

The pulpy-faced man hung just outside the little shop. I slipped a few folded bills into a donation box, but kept my eyes on the ground and I tried to innocuously slip away. I still could not look into his torn face.  My heart split at the seams and I felt a mixture of disgust and compassion.   How would Christ respond? Is it enough to leave a few folded dollars? Can I launch a campaign like the late Princess of Wales which impacts lives and stands as a testament before foreign governments? What little thing can I do?

My tuk-tuk waited just around the corner from the little shop. I had only enough money left to get back home. My heart was bloated with emotions: concern, revulsion, empathy, guilt, fear, anger, frustration and a genuine inability to process what a Christ-like response to this kind of suffering would be.  But I did one small thing: I looked this disfigured man full in the face and smiled.  

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Top 10 Ways to Die in Cambodia, Redux

The longer Sara and I have spent in this wickedly wonderful country, we have discovered another host of ways one could perish. In honor of our nearly-complete summer adventure, I present to you Brekke’s Top 10 Ways to Die in Cambodia, Redux!

10. Falling off a Temple – Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complex houses some of the world’s most stunning religious structures. Temples in all manner of degradation are sprinkled through tropical jungles. Ta Koa, a particularly steep Temple with miraculous views for those brave few willing to clamber to the top, has already claimed three lives this year. Because tourists are foolish enough to climb temples in flip flops, Falling off a temple ranks at number 10.

9. Being Struck by Lightening – The monsoon season has swung into high gear, and with the oppressing rain comes lightening storms. Although monsoon season has only been in effect about a month, 28 people have already died from being struck by lightning. The elements don’t play around in Southeast Asia! Because monsoon season is just beginning and the possibility for more lightning-related deaths is high, death by lightning strike is our number 9.

8. Being thrown from a moto – as your intrepid explorers moved from the country to the city, our form of local transport upgraded from our little rinky-dink bicycles (which we loved dearly) to speeding motos. It is customary for lady passengers to ride side-saddle as the whiz through clogged city streets. Unfortunately, this means perching precariously behind the driver, one butt cheek hanging off the back, legs dangling unprotected from oncoming traffic. Because of the destabilized position the risk of being rodeo-thrown into the street is high. Since only ladies ride side saddle, being thrown from a moto ranks number 8.

7. Spider bites – Cambodia has some of the largest spiders I have ever seen. Spiders the size of pancakes – no joke! – creepy-crawled through our field office.  The shrieks of intrepid explorers brought out spider-hunters who used gas, spray, shoes and a long pole to wrangle the beast. Because we’re now living in the city and marginally removed from nature, spider bites come in at number 7.

6. Snake bite – no, not the particularly tasty adult beverage, snake bites are common in rural Cambodia. Snakes and other assorted creepy-crawly creatures roam the countryside, lying in wait for unsuspecting explorers. Cambodia is home to an assortment of venomous reptilians, and Siem Reap (where Angkor Wat is located) hosts a restaurant that doubles as a snake farm for harvesting anti-venoum. Because snakes tend to stay in rural, forested areas, and we are now in the city, snake bites comes in just shy of the top 5 at number 6.

5. Dehydration, heat stroke, sun poisoning, etc – the sun is no joke here in Southeast Asia. Like the Central Americans, Cambodians take a siesta mid-day to escape the brutal sun. Being stuck out in that blistering heat has a plethora of adverse effects including: sun burn, sun poisoning, severe dehydration, heat exhaustion and ultimately heat stroke. With scarce and sub-par medical care, any of these treatable conditions can easily become life threatening. Because the elements are no joke (seriously, no joke), death from the ill effects of heat makes the top 5.

4. Murder-suicide form too much Khmer music – It may seem a little extreme, but a being trapped with constantly blasting Khmer music videos for a six hour bus ride is enough to drive any sane person to the edge. Pop music in Cambodia is quite different than Western pop music; Cambodians enjoy a slightly “edgy” (one might say off-key, leaning on intentionally sharp) quality to their vocal performance. In addition to bad 1980s keyboards, hours without respite is enough to gouge one’s eyes out, circumcise one’s eardrums, and blindly and deafly rampage through the crowded bus tearing out hears in the process. Think I’m exaggerating? Try listening to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” on repeat for six hours and then you’ll get an idea (that actually would be better than Khmer music). Because we still have two 6-hour bus rides to look forward too, murder-suicide comes in at number 4.

3. Homesickness – the languid, wasting sickness that has claimed many a life of would-be intrepid explorers, homesickness strikes from out of the blue. The slow-killing disease rears its ugly head as explorers run out of minutes on their phone cards, episodes of Ugly Betty to watch, and consume the last few scraps of foods from home like raisin bran and cliff bars. Add any form of foreign illness to the mix and homesickness can be lethal. Because modern medications like Skype exist to alleviate symptoms, homesickness is our third worst/best way to die in Cambodia.

2. Worms or other assorted parasites – Contaminated drinking water, undercooked food, dishes handled by unwashed fingers can all lead to the contraction of worms or any number of unsavory parasitic creatures. These uninvited guests can range from relatively harmless belly worms, to little freeloaders who systematically attack your internal organs. Because it’s difficult to gage whether or not you’re infected and how severe the infection is, worms and parasites come in at number 2.

1. Being run over by a motorized vehicle – the transition from living in a predominantly rural town to a densely populated (yet mellow) metropolis is that traffic has increased about 3000%. While pedestrians are common, it doesn’t safeguard the walking citizen. Heedless SUVS, fearless motos and reckless tuk-tuks run stop lights, drive across sidewalks and engage in all manner of risky behavior – paying no mind to the helpless, slow-moving pedestrians caught in their path. As your intrepid explorers have given up their bicycles for the hustle and bustle of city life, walking is the main way of getting around. Because this is a new and improved for of auto-related death, it tops our second top 10 list as the number one best and worst way to die in Cambodia. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My Day as Indiana Jones, a photo essay

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

The famous 52 faces of the Bayoun - plus one

Terrace of the Leper King

Remains of the Angkor bridge

Ta Koa

Ta Pram

Banteay Seri

Kbal Spean, "The River of 1000 Lingas"

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Children. The Bible tells us they are a “heritage from the Lord” (Psalm 127: 3-5). They are whimsical, carefree and downright adorable. They are innocent, trusting and unblemished from the tough lessons that we must learn as we grow older. In short, children are precious.  During my six weeks here in Cambodia, I have marveled at the children, who live joyously despite conditions that make my Western, sanitized heart rattle. The more I see this country, the more I fall in love with the shy smile and wide eyes of its children.

I have noticed, though, that the children here are more reserved than in the United States and in Guatemala (where I have done previous mission and humanitarian work). In Guatemala, children ran to me with open arms, flocked around me tugging at my blond hair and giggling at my broken Spanish. But not here; Cambodian children will watch me, their large dark eyes illuminated by curiosity, but they do not come near.  There is a consciousness that strangers may be entertaining, but only from afar.

In the United States, I have been a babysitter and part-time nanny. I have cared for twin boys (2 different sets, no less!), precious infant girls and an assortment of elementary aged tikes. They are silly, generally happy and willing to throw their love on any responsive stranger that comes their way (with a few shy exceptions). But not in Cambodia. Even after a morning of interviews and warm chatter with their mothers, children here are still shy. They are reserved and skeptical; hardened little observes that will watch you and even reward you with a smile, but rarely ever a hug or handshake.

This is a striking contrast to Guatemala where I was flooded by little Mayan babies. They loved to play, to dance, to take us by the hand and show us around. There was no bottom to the wellspring of enthusiasm that the Mayan children expressed for life. But in Cambodia, there is something that tempers this kind of reckless joy. It’s not that children are not joyous – they certainly are – but that they chose to reign in that abandonment when an outsider is around.

I am reading Samantha Power’s award winning exposĂ©, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, which is an expertly researched and engagingly written examination of America’s response to genocide in the 20th century. My boss lent me the book because it has a section on the Khmer Rouge and the “extermination” of the intellectual class in the late 1970s. Fascinating and heart-breaking, I have been reading about the systematic destruction that wiped about over 20% of the Cambodian population, from which children were not excluded.  In the wake of such a reign of terror, the hesitancy of families to be warm with strangers isn’t so out of place. But, why the children?

Children are resilient. They can survive trauma better than we adults give them credit for. They can imagine a world free of the shackles of the one in which they live. They dream. But, they also can pick up on and be influenced by the nuances in our adult actions and reactions. As I encounter and attempt to engage (i.e. snuggle and love) these precious children, I wonder if the trappings of fear and mistrust which are deeply women into the lives of their parents and grandparents are played out in their reserved response to strangers. And, if that is the case, how unfortunate to live with that haunted sense of mistrust bred by an all too real and horrible past.

Each child that breathes is a child of the Most High God. Each child is a precious gift, a blessing. No matter what country, what religion, what race, what gender, what language, each child is a light and a hope. In the eyes of Cambodian children, wide and silent, I see that small flicker of hope.