On the Mekong

More than two years ago Jen and I flew into Phnom Penh with 42 other tired and nervous Peace Corps Trainees. We were met at Pochentong International Airport by a small contingent of veteran volunteers, who had already been living in Cambodia for a year, and then promptly whisked away to the heart of the city and lifeblood of the country: the mighty Mekong.

My first view of the Mekong was from the veranda of the old Foreign Correspondence Club, housed in a French colonial-era building, and a fittingly appropriate place to first discover the river. The Mekong was only fully navigated in 1868 by a team of French explorers commissioned by their government in the name of colonial expansion. The expedition, led by a sickly French naval officer, never made it to the headwaters of the river in Tibet, but did make it as far as Yunnan province in southern China, where the captain died from a bad case of the “pasty foreigner meets tropical Asian disease.” After months on the river dodging falls and rapids and then their captain’s death, the French expedition declared the Mekong too dangerous for navigation and trade.

From my vantage point in the by-gone colonialist’s mansion, the Mekong’s waters looked a calm, muddy brown. However, I was struck by its size and activity; the river seemed to stretch to the horizon, filled with fishing boats and ferries plying its waters. Only later did I learn that where I sat soaking up my first evening in Cambodia is actually a confluence of three rivers: the Tonle Sap, Bassac, and the Mekong. I also later learned that bizarrely, during the wet season, the Mekong becomes so bloated with rain water that the extra water reverses the direction of the Tonle Sap and flows over a hundred kilometers farther north, where it replenishes the Tonle Sap lake and the largest fresh water fisheries in Southeast Asia.

During my service in Cambodia, the view of the Mekong from the Phnom Penh waterfront became a soothing tonic for the soul. Every time I looked out at the river I was reminded of my first day in Cambodia, and consequently of how far I had come since that day. It was there that I learned that I had fallen in love with Cambodia. Sadly, however, I never explored more of the river than what I could see from its banks in Phnom Penh. We never saw the last of the river dolphins, never sailed down its stately current, or swam in its muddy waters (I don’t regret that one). And so, for the last two years, the Mekong remained fixed in my mind as I knew it in Phnom Penh.

Until two weeks ago that is, when Jen and I went to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Like Phnom Penh farther to the south, Vientiane is built alongside the Mekong (though its size and mien are not nearly as impressive) and also claims the architectural remains of French Indochina. The resemblance between the two cities, however, stops there. Where Phnom Penh assaults the senses with the roar of countless motorbikes and garish street shops, Vientiane is so quiet you can nearly hear a pin drop. The roads are virtually empty and the main river drag is downright pleasant. It is a city that only comes alive at sunset for an ephemeral moment when people walk the river and dine on barbequed fish, before they retreat back to their homes after dusk.

We only spent one evening in Vientiane, long enough to tour the city and see some of its more famous temples and stupas. Like most of the other major towns in Southeast Asia, Vientiane has been sacked and rebuilt countless times as it exchanged hands between warring ancient kingdoms. We didn’t stay long enough to really get a feel for the city, however, because our sites were directed northward, towards Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of the country, tucked away in the remote mountains of northern Laos.

Now, as this is still something of a travel blog, I must warn the reader, should you plan a trip to Luang Prabang (which you should), you are strongly advised against riding the bus from Vientiane. Jen and I suffered 12 hours of pothole-riddled mud roads snaking up mountain passes all to the chorus of half a dozen people retching out their previous evening’s dinner. Luang Prabang has an international airport: use it!

Once we had finally arrived in Luang Prabang, we knew immediately that we would stay as long as our short time allowed. Our tuk tuk dropped us off in the old town and with one look we were both smitten. Built on a long, thin peninsula outlined by the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, the old town of Luang Prabang is reminiscent of the Asia of Old. The peninsula is cut in half by a long, narrow road lined with old French buildings and even older glittering temples. In the morning light, as the sun crept up over the mountains and the shadows hid the motorbikes along the road, we felt like we had entered a world stuck in time.

In Luang Prabang we found our peace by slowing down for a week. After the emotional roller coaster of departing from Cambodia a month ago and then our hectic visit to Vietnam, the quiet beauty along the Mekong was exactly what we needed. We spent our days enjoying the delicacies of France’s culinary legacy in small cafes while also exploring the diverse array of Laos cuisine through a local cooking course.

We explored the surrounding areas by motorbike and bicycle, gaining a small feel for the country at large. The mountains of Laos, we discovered, are regal unlike anywhere else in Southeast Asia. They tower over small rice-growing hamlets and are covered in lush, tropical forests. Their size and terrain, however, did appear to make for hard farming and sluggish transportation. The towns that we visited and the countryside in between bore the hallmarks of a country still wallowing economically at the bottom of the developing world. More than even Cambodia, the rural life of Loas must be hard.

Our sole excursion into the mountains for an adventure (which Laos is famous for), was a day long kayaking trip down the Nam Khan river, the main local tributary to the Mekong. We spent much of our day at a bizarre waterfall above the river. Running only during the wet season, the waterfall raged down a hillside right through the forest, between trees and over boulder terraces, creating stepped pools large enough for us (and elephants) to swim in.

Following the waterfall back down to the river in the afternoon, we hopped in our kayaks and proceeded to soar down the bloated river for several hours. The river wound through hillocks covered in corn, sticky rice, and teak tree plantations. The only sign of human activity was an occasional fisherman paddling furiously across the wide river in a shallow long boat. The houses along the river were nothing more than thatched shacks, big enough for a single family and perched precariously on the banks of the river, looking like something out of Apocalypse Now. The ride evoked dueling emotions: a lingering appreciation for the river’s natural beauty but a sadness for the families eking out a life along it.

We left Luang Prabang differently than we arrived. We booked a couple of seats on the daily slow boat that runs between Luang Prabang and the Thai border, two days up river along the Mekong. We chose this route because of its fame amongst other Southeast Asian travelers and because I was eager to see the river that I had known for two years from a different perspective. While in Cambodia I had also read a lot about the Laos government’s proposed hydroelectric dam projects. They were rather controversial within the region and unambiguously opposed by local environmental groups. China had built three major hydroelectric dams along the main channel of the Mekong several years ago, and in the process had displaced tens of thousands of residents. Recent studies have also shown that these Chinese dams have seriously disrupted life for endemic and rare species in the Mekong. Not surprisingly, there are now fears that the proposed Laos dams would cause even further damage along the river, mostly by blocking migratory fish from their spawning grounds and impeding sediment important for fertilizing the delta’s highly productive farming region in Vietnam. The dams would also be the end for most of the fishing communities along the river (though we were told these same communities have largely overfished the river already).

But like most major development projects like these dams, the devil’s in the details. Laos, as I mentioned, is one of the poorest countries in the world, and from my observations certainly far less prosperous than its surrounding neighbors. Laos government officials are angrily defending their need to dam the Mekong in order to raise badly needed revenues  for rural development by selling the electricity to the heavy energy consumers Thailand and Vietnam (ironically two countries politically opposing the dams). The dams would also provide electricity throughout the country to villages that still exist somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries.

A Mekong River Commission, comprised of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, have officially agreed to place a moratorium on the dam projects for the time being, pending future studies on the impact of the dams. Like any good neighbor, however, Laos has secretly begun preparing the future site of the dam by building roads and clearing forests. And even more clandestine, they are doing it with the assistance of a Thai firm that stands to receive most of the initial profits from the sale of electricity until the Laos government pays back the company. While we didn’t see any signs of it while in Laos, local and international media say that the Laos government is also carrying out a massive public relations campaign to convince the people living on the river that the dams will mean jobs and a higher standard of living. For this last part, it may not all be untruth.

For our trip up the Mekong, however, we saw no sign of dams. The river still flows deep and strong, filled with mud and debris, mercilessly carving its way through verdant hills and jagged mountains. I like to believe that our trip may have been one of the last chances to see the Mekong river free flowing and unleashed. It was a stately trip that took us slowly out of the mountains and from lush jungle to cultivated farms. We entered an altered state (that is to say a fairly mind-numbing state) along the river, stopping for a night at a small outpost filled with gap-year backpackers drinking their way through Southeast Asia and hotels riddled with bedbugs. The two days washed by quickly and before we knew it, we were crossing the border into Thailand and saying our goodbyes to Laos and the Mekong.

Along the Mekong, the countries of Southeast Asia are deciding their fates. They all share the same river and are in their own way intimately connected to it. How they choose to protect it or harness its power will reflect what they choose to prioritize as they continue to develop. For Thailand, a country already plugged into the modern age, the Mekong has great potential to fuel its continued prosperity. Laos and Cambodia, though they still lag far behind their bigger neighbors, will have to figure out how to compromise with each other, as each sees different visions for the river. Laos needs money and electricity, while Cambodia continues to rely on the fertile water that the Mekong flushes into its rice fields and fish nets. Vietnam, at the bottom end of the river, has to deal with the river as it comes, and so has a great interest in seeing it protected. When I first caught site of the Mekong two years ago, little did I fully comprehend just how much the river means to this part of the world, and how integral its fate is linked with the fates of the people who live alongside it.

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Navigating Vietnam

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to visit Iraq or Afghanistan sometime in the distant future if we fail to “win the wars”? Like 40 years, perhaps. What do you think that you’d see? Given all the propaganda that got us into the wars, probably something very apocalyptic; images of long-bearded Afghani men sitting around in a smoky room plotting to destroy freedom and democracy might come to mind. Or perhaps happiness as we know it would be dead in the streets of Iraq. I mean, why else would America be spending trillions of dollars and thousands of young men and women’s lives if this weren’t the logical conclusion to us leaving these countries to their own affairs?

But then there’s Vietnam. Not that long ago (less than 40 years in fact), many people in America would have thought similarly about the communist forces raging south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Surely, without the blessed might of the American military, a brutally war-torn country left to its own devices must have squandered its hope and freedom. But then you get here. And you look around, and you sit down on a street corner, order a cup of coffee, and begin to wonder who’s been lying to you. The communists may have taken over and socialism may have been written into the constitution, but dang, that coffee is good and all those cars, cell phones, and big skyscrapers kind of remind you of home. In fact, Vietnam not only survived the onslaught of the communist scourge, but after over two weeks eating in its cities and walking its streets it has become abundantly clear that Vietnam is flourishing.

Our first four days in the country were spent reveling in the modern creature comforts of Ho Chi Minh City. We dined on Vietnamese barbeque with the city’s growing yuppie population, luxuriated in a first-rate Cineplex over popcorn, and even indulged our intellects at the country’s very own modern art museum. Previously known as Saigon (a name that assuredly still induces a shiver of foreboding within the people of my parent’s generation), the city hardly lets on that for nearly three decades it was the seat of imperial power resisting a communist uprising. The buildings are new and the streets are alive with shiny cars and moto-bikes. Though not quite the equivalent of its neighboring metropolitan behemoths like Bangkok or Singapore, HCMC is rapidly becoming a 21st century city.

Upon leaving HCMC, we flew north to Hanoi, the country’s capital. Like most tourists, Jen and I stayed in the Old Quarter of the city, a neighborhood that has witnessed a thousand years of dynamic urban life. Today the Old Quarter is a bustling maze of streets and alleyways that make navigation frightful and walking deadly (I can safely say that you’re more likely to be nailed by a motorist in Hanoi than anywhere else on the planet). The bright side, on the other hand, is that the Old Quarter has a wealth of colonial architecture nestled amidst ancient Chinese temples. The rest of Hanoi seems to spiral outward from the heart of the Old Quarter and take on the feel of a modern Asian city chugging haphazardly forward towards modernity.

After a couple of days in Hanoi, Jen’s parents joined us there for a weeklong tour of the north. At this point, I must admit that Vietnam is not necessarily an easy place for the independent-minded traveler. It’s mainly a matter of hospitality: Vietnam is an intense country. It’s intense for a lot of reasons, most of which I can’t really analyze after only two and a half weeks. One fact that stands out and seems to reside at the bottom of the country’s personality is 30 years of warfare: from 1945, with the beginning of violent revolutionary protests, to 1975 and the evacuation of the U.S. embassy, the Vietnamese were ravaged by war.

Since then, as I said above, the Vietnamese have made a miraculous recovery economically speaking. But perhaps a side-effect of such rapid growth and modernization is that there is now a small percentage of people who have made it big, and a large percentage of people who want to catch up. For instance, when Jen and I crossed over the border from our sleepy little district in Cambodia, not much in the way of development changed on the Vietnam side. Houses were still small, the country side was still dotted by the half-built villages grasping for city-hood, and the roads still sucked. The biggest shock was the sheer number of people in the Vietnamese country side. Most of the people in Vietnam still cut rice, or come from a family of rice cutters, despite the rising tide of prosperity in the cities. As a result, from a traveler’s perspective, the Vietnamese people we’ve interacted have their eyes on the future, and that means money.

How does money relate to traveling and hospitality? Simple, everybody wants yours. Time and again, unfortunately, we found that as tourists, somebody had a way of getting more money out of you, be it the vastly monopolistic tourism industry or the cab drivers seeking to eke out another 50 cents from a ride through the city. As any tourist knows, this kind of reception isn’t necessarily a rarity on the road, but the Vietnamese seem to take it to the next level, for good and for bad.

The montagnard (French for mountain people) are a clear example of the good. Vietnam has a great wealth of ethnic diversity, especially in the highlands. There are over 54 different ethnicities in the country, one of which was only discovered seven years ago. The Viet ethnic group comprises 84% of the population, and is the group that America waged war with nearly four decades ago. They’re also the ones who have experienced the greatest improvement in living standards and economic prosperity. Most of the rest of the ethnic groups in Vietnam are now playing catch up. We saw this first hand when we traveled to Sapa from Hanoi.

Sapa is a small hill station founded by the French back in the 1920s and is now a popular tourist destination for foreigners and Vietnamese alike. There is something like half a dozen different ethnic minority groups that are indigenous to the area surrounding Sapa. Amongst these, the Hmong are the biggest group, and the first that you see when you arrive into town. Each day, Hmong women, wearing handmade clothes dyed a dark indigo, welcome groups of tourists with phrasebook English and bright smiles. We were no exception, and as we headed to our hotel, we found ourselves inundated in a sea of bobbing black heads and chipper sales pitches. The Hmong, one soon discovers, have embraced the tourism industry with great gusto.

But unlike many other tourist traps that fake the traditional life of indigenous cultures, Sapa is the real thing. Sort of. It’s an example of an isolated culture that has figured out how to adapt and survive in a rapidly changing world. One strategy goes something like this: on one of our days we set off for a trek through the beautifully terraced valleys around Sapa and soon found ourselves accompanied by the same group of Hmong women that met us upon our arrival into town. As our mixed group of trekkers descended into the valley, and the path became more treacherous, the Hmong women came to our rescue. They held our hands and chatted about the history of their village. By the time we arrived to the Hmong village at the bottom of the valley, a bizarrely authentic bond of friendship had formed between us and our Hmong entourage. At this point came the destined sales pitch for all the handmade crafts the women had toted around all day, but rather than feeling obligatory, the transaction was a welcome way to show our gratitude for the Hmong women’s presence.

What such a monumental agent of change tourism will be for the people around Sapa I of course cannot say. Their lives are still poor by the standards of most Vietnamese and their youth are surely to seek lives outside the local community as more ideas and technologies enter their world (we saw many groups of young girls and boys clustered in phone and camera shops throughout the town during our stay). For the tourist in Vietnam, however, it is a fascinating experience to meet such a diversity of people in a beautiful land.

Leaving Sapa, we snaked our way back down from the highlands of northern Vietnam through Hanoi and west to the Gulf of Tonkin to visit one of the great natural wonders of the world: Halong Bay. Known to the Vietnamese as “Descending Dragon,” the name aptly describes the majestic limestone islands that pierce the crystalline waters like the spines of a slumbering dragon. Unfortunately, to visit this beautiful treasure of nature, we had to face the bad part of Vietnam’s cut-throat tourism industry. Enter the group tour. Like most people of my age and proclivity, I eschew group tours with a passion for reasons that are obvious to people who know me or people like me (read: a somewhat unusual desire to live amidst rice paddies in the rural backwaters of Asia for two years). But despite this distaste, we chose to go with a group nonetheless because it is by far the most expedient way to visit this unforgettable destination.

To do Halong Bay justice, you have to take an overnight boat into the heart of the archipelago. On our first day, the four of us sailed with about 16 other people on a gorgeous 90-foot wooden junk to an island cavern the size of a basketball stadium. Filled with incredible rock formations (many of which our guide was helpful enough to point out looked rather phallic), it was a great testament to the weathering power of water. Afterwards, we kayaked around smaller islands and through other unnamed caves. In the evening we dove off the junk into the bath-water like ocean for a long swim. Falling asleep and waking up surrounded by the islands of Halong made any and all annoyances caused by group-traveling to disappear in a fog of contentment.

Our next day, sadly, was not quite so serene. We disembarked from our junk on the shores of Cat Ba Island, and headed inland for a trek and our hotel. Almost as beautiful as the island-dotted bay surrounding it, Cat Ba was however much more crowded and developed than we liked. Due to the rising prosperity of middle-class Vietnamese, developers have seized the opportunity to do what any good developer does: take a beautiful area and make it ugly. We saw massive projects to fill in smaller bays with rock and sand to pave the way for sky-scrapers and golf courses. The main port of Cat Ba already has its share of such behemoths and thus after one evening we were ready to return to Hanoi. As a tip to the curious reader: hurry up and get to Halong Bay soon, before its pristine beauty becomes tarnished too much by the hands of development.

Our last several days were wiled away at museums in Hanoi. Most noteworthy was our visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a block away from his mausoleum. Entering into the soviet-styled structure from below, we climbed the stairs to the top floor and immediately felt as though we had ascended into the schizophrenic brain of the late revolutionary leader. Inspired by the other great communists of his era, Ho Chi Minh spent much of his time in the 30s and 40s leading the communist uprising from ramshackle rural outposts, writing poetry and perfecting his goatee. In the mid to late 40s, after declaring their independence from colonialist France, Ho Chi Minh became the national hero in the revolutionary cause. I can’t speak much to the atrocities that he and his North Vietnamese Army committed during this bloody period because according to the museum there never were any. Ho Chi Minh, for any school-aged Vietnamese child today, was always Uncle Ho, with a ready grin and out-stretched arms (who also non-chalantly called for the sacrifice of every Vietnamese youth of his day).

And finally we made one last day trip to the old capital of Vietnam, 100 km south of Hanoi, to visit more incredible landscapes. Called dry-Halong Bay, the mountain ranges of the old kingdom were equally as stunning as wet-Halong Bay. Our visit was short and sweet and a fantastic way to wrap up our time in Vietnam.

Traveling through Vietnam I was wracked with mixed emotions and intrigued by the many juxtapositions. It is a country with a vast history, of which only a small part of is known to outsiders. I learned an immense amount about my neighbor for the last two years and also about a part of history that defined my parent’s generation. I was without a doubt impacted by the propaganda of the museums I visited in Vietnam, and justly so. What America did in Vietnam should make us all lower our heads in shame. We meddled with a country that we did not understand. We allied ourselves with the losing side of history by fighting against a country that had repelled more imperialist armies than I can count. And in so doing, we most certainly caused several generations of Vietnamese to suffer and decay. Their devotion to freedom and their success in prosperity ought to be characteristics of admiration for us as Americans. And yet, Vietnam is not exactly an easy place to visit. It is an intense and fast-paced country with its eyes on the future. But that shouldn’t stop intrepid travelers, because more than many countries I’ve been to, I learned a lot about a country that has many lessons to teach the world today. Especially Americans, who seem to have forgotten this unforgiveable part of our history, as we now proceed recklessly in a different corner of the world, chasing again the imagined enemies of freedom and democracy.

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Farewell Kampuchea!

Peace Corps provides training for nearly everything that a volunteer requires. Perhaps not enough training, or necessarily of the best quality, but there is a handbook somewhere that all training staff have to pay lip service to, and so volunteers get advice on pretty much every aspect of life that they might need help with. It was no surprise then that Peace Corps dedicated an entire two hours last month to training my fellow volunteers and I how to answer the infamous question, “So, how was Cambodia?”

Supposedly Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, or RPCVs, must learn how to cope with this and a multitude of other equally dreadful questions upon their return. Questions like, “Did they have, like, roads in Cambodia?” and “Where exactly in Africa is Cambodia?” are fair game for our friends, and yes sometimes family, to ask us upon our return. It’s not that these kinds of questions are necessarily bad (except for the last one, because everyone knows that Cambodia is exactly 11 degrees north of the Equator and 104 degrees east of the Prime Meridian, sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand in Southeast Asia), but that these types of questions are so ridiculously difficult for us to answer. Ask any writer, let alone somebody still trying to figure out how to use toilet paper again, to sum up two years of life in a manageable sound bite and they’ll probably tell you to go to hell.

To really and truly understand the state of mind of an RPCV, you must pack up all of your valuables into a single suitcase and ship off to some remote corner of the planet for two years and learn to live in a foreign community, speak a foreign language, and go without a proper beer or comfortable chair all the while. In a word, you must join the Peace Corps. Barring that, any kind-hearted soul seeking to provide empathy to an RPCV should be ready to sit down for at least three or four hours over a good beer (see above) and listen to the RPCV ramble on and on about their gastrological escapades and tear-wrenching nostalgia for their host community.

This latter fact of life for an RPCV is especially important to understand. Let me provide my own examples. For the last week, Jennifer and I have been wined and dined each day and often multiple times a day by all of the people who wanted to have a solitary moment with us before we left their lives. Saying goodbye to that many people in any situation is challenging, but perhaps the most sad and difficult part of leaving is the overwhelming finality of the farewells. Jen and I, combined, probably taught roughly 5 or 600 students over two years, worked with seven different Cambodian teachers, and interacted daily with dozens of people from our community. These people became our best friends and sometimes they even began to feel like our family. Even with the best of intentions, the chances that we will meet with a fraction of these people again are slim to none.

But there is always a silver lining, and as any RPCV will tell you, it is exactly these goodbyes that make us realize just how much people have come to appreciate our presence in their lives. Take, for example, Jen’s and my landlord, Om. When we arrived in Kampong Trach nearly two years ago, we were welcomed by a tiny, slightly hysterical Khmer woman in her early 60s. Om spoke no English (and at the time we would have sworn no Khmer either), and was deathly afraid of us. We didn’t fully understand the severity of her anxiety until we invited our English co-teacher over to help us sign our renter’s lease. After chatting with Om for some time, our co-teacher proceeded to explain to us that she had heard from a friend, who had heard from a friend, that once upon a time a Khmer landlord had rented a house to foreigners who ended up murdering her and stealing all of her belongings. Bam. There it was out in the open: our landlord thought we were probably going to kill her.

Fast forward two years and you have Jen and I leaving our house for the last time. Over twenty people are standing around our taxi to say goodbye and wish us good journeys. Amongst this small crowd is our four and a half foot tall landlord clinging to us with tears streaming down her face. I’m not appealing to melodrama here, I really and truly was moved by the emotion of Om’s goodbye. It was only after we were driving down the highway, silently reeling from our final departure, that I realized what I’m now telling to you. In two years we had become such a fixture in Om’s life that not only did she no longer harbor her original fears, she was actually lamenting the departure of her own two grandchildren. The feelings were mutual.

But the sorrow that many RPCVs feel isn’t just caused by the emotional farewells of their last week. It’s a longing for a way of life that we’re leaving behind; a life that we created from scratch, through determination and perseverance, which can’t be completely conveyed. Two years ago, Jen and I waltzed into a community that was still recovering from the brutality of Khmer Rouge guerrillas hiding out in nearby hills and was just beginning to open up to the outside world. We spoke little of the local language, had absolutely no idea where anything was, or what anything was for that matter, and couldn’t figure out how to wash our damned dishes without a sink. Since that time we’ve learned how to function in a society where we are a constant anomaly and source of bewilderment. We’ve marched to the market each and every day to buy our food in sanitary conditions that would frighten the most stalwart believer in the ten-second-rule, we’ve dealt with all manners of house guests (from snakes to night time bats), and most importantly we’ve learned how to contribute to a foreign school system fraught with challenges and corruption.

On Peace Corps’ self-assessment scale of community integration, I have consistently scored myself somewhere between “Integrated” and “Very integrated” for the last six months. It’s not a very rigorous rubric, but it reflects to an extent how I felt the last several months. Jen and I haven’t become more Khmer (though there is some of that), but rather our life in our small town has come to feel so normal. Walking around outside and chatting with our neighbors hasn’t felt like work. Going to the barber, or to the fruit vendors, or to one of our many restaurants around town are just daily routines part of a simple life. And that’s what we’ll both miss about the life that we’ve created here: it’s simplicity (see Living Simpler). We went our first full year without internet, our full two years without T.V. or any appliance for that matter, and all of our food has been local and fresh. And living all that time in a community that once seemed so strange but now seems so normal as a result of our efforts to integrate, well, that makes leaving it all behind that much more difficult.

There is one final fact of life for an RPCV that ought to be addressed: namely, volunteers are badass. I mean, in their host countries, volunteers are hip, popular, and above all totally worth taking notice of. As a volunteer, I can walk down any street anywhere in Cambodia and make a dozen friends without breaking a sweat. I can make people laugh just by asking them if they’ve eaten yet. Little kids go ballistic just at the site of me (whether this is endearing depends on your mood). I can swing with the richest and poorest people in my town without making anyone feel uncomfortable.

How can this be possible? It’s easy in a country where the majority of people have never actually interacted with a foreigner. And Khmer people love foreigners, especially those who can ask them about their families and the food that they’ve just eaten. This kind of awesomeness, sadly, just doesn’t exist for the RPCV. In America, an RPCV has to cope with becoming a nobody again. Just another mid-20 year old with a lot of weird stories from a country that most people have never heard of. It’s not easy coming home to a world that doesn’t care much about you after spending two years being the center of attention and the person everyone wants to be friends with.

But who knows if we’ll actually feel this way upon our return. Jen and I are only going off what it feels like to have just left our home a week ago and on the scary stories we’ve heard from other RPCVs. America is, after all, our real home full of magical things like washing machines and Giardia- free salads. It’s where we’ve spent 24 years of our life attending concerts, driving big, beautiful cars, and hanging out with our families. Supposedly it’s still the land of the free, where anyone with a big enough microphone can become a politician and people usually  follow traffic laws. Maybe after we get home, leaving Cambodia will not feel so painful and readjusting won’t seem so scary. Maybe. Just so long as nobody asks us, “Are you ready to join the real world again?”

Click on the photo to go to our Farewell Parties facebook album!


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