On packing, or a lack thereof

Soundtrack to this post:


I should be packing right now, but, well, I keep finding other things that I should do first. Like wash my clothes, or sweep the red dust off the balcony (again), or write a plog post about how I should be packing.

My feelings about leaving are like a roller coaster, or maybe more like an iceberg. Whatever, pick your favourite cliche. I want to be home, I’m ready to be home, and all of my activities and thoughts are centred around being home: job searching, apartment hunting, connecting with friends to make sure they’re still there, looking up what new and exciting restaurants are waiting for me to discover in Toronto. But leaving? Going home? That part isn’t so simple.

Living here, you have to adjust to the temporary nature of everything and everyone in your life, and the sense that what’s yours is only on loan.

My house – the contents of which is the accumulation of books, furniture, sheets, trinkets, art, towels, kitchenware, etc, that belongs to the ether and has been left behind by years of other foreigner tenants, and will be left behind by me for the next tenant – probably more accurately belongs to the geckos, spiders, chipmunks, bees, frogs, and rats that scurry out of sight when I enter the room and have seen dozens of human occupants come and go. It’s been forcibly broken into twice since I’ve lived here, and things have mysteriously disappeared from in and outside the house too many times to count. One day the low-hanging branches on my milk fruit tree are heavy with ripe fruit, and the next the branches are bare when I go to pick them. One day I have three pairs of shoes outside the door, and the next I have only one. One day I have a garbage bin outside the gate, and the next I have none. One day my cooking pot is in the kitchen, the next it’s in the yard. Nail clippers, tampons, scissors, fridge magnets, speakers, reusable cloth bags, frying pans, flip flops, foreign currencies, the green dish scrubbies…where did they all go?

People and animals are similarly gone from your life all too soon. Pets tend to choose you, rather than the other way around, showing up asleep on your balcony one day, expecting tummy rubs and food scraps and a soft spot to sleep. A few months later, they die or disappear just as quickly as they came, never to be seen again. Work colleagues, the lady from the corner shop, the little boy who used to collect plastic bottles for recycling, neighbours…simply aren’t there one day. Inevitably you learn they’ve died in a road accident or of an unidentified disease. The white flags hung outside the dead’s house and the mournful cry of a funeral song that I can hear somewhere off in the distance as I write this are public and almost daily expressions of loss, each house in town taking its turn, each passer-by and person within earshot turning their head as they take notice. In Cambodia, new friends and lovers appear seemingly out of thin air, connections made fast and furious, and then they move back home, or I do.

Even the little things come and go more frequently here than they do at home. Hair grows faster and falls out more frequently. Electricity is there one minute, gone the next. Nails grow faster. Batteries drain more quickly. The air comes out of your tires more quickly. Why is everything in such a hurry?

The moral of the story is probably to acknowledge that all things are temporary, to appreciate and love them fully while they last, to take time to mourn their loss, and to let them go. This is maybe what spiritual people call “non-attachment”, and something I always thought I was pretty good at. As the end nears, though, I find myself pushing away the appreciating-it-while-it-lasts part, putting up blinding screens between me and the loss part, and pretending I’m already at the let-it-go part. Hm. I know there are some feelings in there somewhere because my eyes have threatened but stopped just short of welling up three times while writing this. I’ll pack tomorrow.


Adventures in Bizarro World

So…Japan! Amiright? What’s up with that place? I mean, you hear that it’s well-organised, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing, but what they don’t tell you is that you can drink the water straight out of the tap. And not only can you sit directly on the toilet seat without wiping off any footprints first, but that seat is heated. Heated!

The things that surprised me most about Japan (like getting hot water to come out of the tap) are probably the opposite of what would have struck me if I’d been coming from living in Toronto, but coming from Cambodia, this was a Bizarro World of the most excellent kind.

When I first arrived in Tokyo, it felt oddly like Toronto. Properly paved litter-free streets, shiny tall buildings, well-dressed people who are busily to-ing and fro-ing, cold, and a metro ride from the airport that looks eerily like the subway stretch between Davisville and Eglinton Stations.

And then I used a toilet. A Japanese toilet.

Have you heard about these things? Yes, the seats are heated. And controlled by computers. And play musical flushing sounds to hide your other bathroom noises. And provide bidet and other squirting features at a variety of water pressures, temperatures, and angles. And have built-in bum blow-dryers.


After giggling my way through my first Japanese bathroom experience much to my sister’s amusement, I discovered many other differences between Tokyo and Toronto, most notably related to transportation. For example, it’s illegal NOT to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk, and there are bike lanes connecting them at each intersection. The metro trains arrive and depart on time – to the minute – and they don’t stop in between stations for a nap. Despite the massive population, I didn’t see a single traffic jam or indication of congestion of any kind. And the scramble intersection at Yonge and Dundas is a snore compared to the madness of Shibuya Crossing.

Tokyo also excels at neon lights, city parks, narrow winding shopping lanes, vending machines, temples, cute stuff, creatively-dressed adolescents, and food courts. More like food palaces, the sparkling basement floor of each department store is dedicated to fancy food counters where they give away free samples of expensive and delicious foods. I approve.

The differences from Cambodia were more immediately apparent (such as the sheer existence of trains, city parks, or anything else mentioned in the previous paragraph), the most unexpected of which was the unwavering ability of random people to give accurate directions. The Japanese are very good at giving directions. Not only did we get easy-to-follow and accurate instructions every time, but on four separate occasions we were escorted all the way to our destination, even when it was several blocks away. The police are particularly keen to help anyone standing around puzzling over a map, which is largely attributable to the low crime rates turning police officers into uniformed public helpers, waiting around for anyone who might need any assistance of any kind.

After stuffing my face with sushi and gyoza and mochi for three days in Tokyo, we went up to Kitami where my sister lives with her family. Kitami is on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido (you can almost see Putin from her house!), and I was treated to something I haven’t experienced in a long time: winter! Not the miserable, dirty, bitter winds, -18C, when-will-it-ever-end kind of winter that you guys in Canada seem to be stuck in (sorry). Sunny blue skies, deep and clean white snow perfect for snowshoeing, temperatures between -5C and +1C, and only a few days of it. Heaven.

Photo 3-2-14, 3 05 55

We went to the winter festival at Akan National Park, where there was ice skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing (which you then take to a shack where they fry up your catch for you), snow sculptures, volcanoes and hot springs, and beautiful wintery mountainscapes and wild open spaces.

I got to enjoy an amazingly warm and welcome stay with family, which I’ve been getting a lot of lately with Peter and Jenny’s recent visit to Cambodia. As well as some much-needed sibling hangout time in Banlung with some cheap bubbly from the guesthouse next door, I got to do a few things with Peter and Jenny that I’ve never done before, like crawl through the bat cave at the unpronounceable Phnom Chhngok, check out the view from the highest rooftop bar in Phnom Penh, and actually go sailing at the Sailing Club in Kep. Unfortunately I forgot my camera, and Peter wouldn’t let me take pictures with an iPad, so you’ll have to harass him for the photos.

With only one week left in Banlung and less than a month before United flight 3818 lands me back at YYZ (April 13th – mark your calendars), the blast of family and the taste of more familiar city and country scenes in Japan were a fitting little amuse bouche to start getting my head and heart around going home. (Ahhhhh!!!!!) But let’s deal with that later, shall we?

PS A huge thank you to my mom and sister for making it possible for me to go to Japan, and to my sister’s family for welcoming me so warmly into your cosy home. I can’t wait to come back.

Oh ya, and also I went to the most beautiful place in the world.

Hm, I guess I forgot to post about my trip to Guilin, China. A full(er) set of photos has been on Facebook for ages (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), but I thought I’d better throw something up here too. Unfortunately, my memory is poor and my attention span worse, so here’s Anna’s Unofficial Guide to Guilin.

Guilin is a city and a county in south-eastern China.  It’s beautiful. The city is very green, clean, and full of people selling wooden combs. They like to push their combs under your nose for you to smell. Don’t be afraid, they really do smell good.

Green streets  Blending in with the sceneryUnder the bridge downtown  IMG_6153smell my comb  Glass bridge

From Guilin City, head north to the “Dragon’s Backbone” Longji Rice Terraces in Longsheng. It’s also beautiful. Probably even more beautiful at any other time of year than the time when I went, so maybe don’t go in November. It’s pretty cold there, so bring a hat, but this can be avoided if you don’t go in November. You can hike in the hills and take in the beautiful views and pass many hearty women walking up and down the hills in colourful clothing with astonishingly long hair and adorable children strapped to their backs.

IMG_6315_ IMG_6317 IMG_6332 IMG_6379    IMG_6399     higgledy piggledy

From Longsheng, pass through Guilin City again on your way south to Yangshuo, China’s answer to Canada’s Banff, though with better architecture and far more street-side exercise equipment. It’s beautiful too. Nice things to do include spending a night or two in Moon Hill, cycling up through villages along the Yulong River, then taking a bamboo raft back down, having conversations made up of things like “Oh my god”, “Wow”, and “WTF? Why is this so beautiful?”, eating lots of “welfare glutinous rice cakes”, eating mandarin oranges off the tree, and generally standing around open-mouthed while the Discovery Channel’s “Boom-de-yada” song runs through your mind.

Downtown Yangshuo    Downtown Yangshuo Morning in Yangshuo    On the Yulong River On the Yulong River    Along the Yulong RiverView from our guesthouse in Moon Hill    Yulong River

After Yangshuo, you can start heading north again, this time up the east side of the Li River, passing through the ancient town of Fuli, famous for its silk fans, and spend a night or two in also-ancient Xingping. All of these places are beautiful. Xingping has a nice mountain in town that you can climb before breakfast if you like that sort of thing. I did. From Xingping you can also do the bamboo rafts and eat more welfare glutinous rice cakes. An excellent afternoon can be spent hiking north up the Li River from Xingping to Yangdi, crossing the river on ferries and rafts several times, and walking along dirt paths, paved streets, and cobblestone walkways through immaculate farms, orange groves, ancient villages, bamboo forests, cemeteries, and wildflowers, all surrounded by the stunning karsts.

Fuli Village  Making fans in FuliAlong the Li River  Along the Li River Along the Li River  Along the Li RiverAlong the Li River  Ancient village along the Li River Along the Li River  Along the Li RiverAlong the Li River  Morning Mountain

Here’s the Google Map I made when we were planning our trip. It has some useful information and links that might help you plan your trip.

Don’t forget to bring good friends with you and to remark frequently about the high quality of the bed linens.


In conclusion, you should go there. You will like it.


Meet Narin:


Narin is my VA (Volunteer Assistant). Every VSO volunteer has one, and up until yesterday, Narin had the unofficial title of best VA in Cambodia, at least among those in the know. Now he has a new title.

Narin translates my brash western direct English ways (“This behaviour is unacceptable. We will cancel this project if you don’t take responsibility for your teachers”) into gentle nudging Khmer (“Where are the teachers today?”), he reins in and shapes my plans to fit the local context, and he has all the best ideas. He’s been doing this far longer than I have, working as a translator by name but as an advisor in deed for the half a dozen or so VSO volunteers like me who have come and gone over the last seven years, and he knows what works and what doesn’t. He can work an Excel spreadsheet like nobody’s business, and he moves seamlessly between motivating children in sports and discussing policy with high-level government officials. He runs an English school and a cafe out of his house, and he’s a tour guide and raises chickens in his spare time. He adopted his son-in-law rather than see him placed in an orphanage, and he has three other children living with him and his wife full-time who aren’t their own. He fixes my motorbike and drinks beer with me on Fridays after work. He teaches me about the trees and the berries and the insects, and he tells me when to take off my shoes. He’s the same age as me.


And he’s been trapped in this role, earning less than I do as a “volunteer”, because he never finished high school and can’t break into the NGO job pool. He passed his grade 9 exams last year and he’s working towards getting his diploma.

Trapped until this week. After weeks of touching up resumes, second guessing cover letters, listening to everyone’s advice who will give it, doing practice interviews with me and Janet and others, and a very suspenseful few weeks of waiting after his interview, yesterday Narin was offered a job as a Project Supervisor for a new youth volunteering program with VSO, a job that will more than double his salary and be the leg up and out that he’s been waiting for and working towards for seven years. He’s more than ready. I’ll miss him terribly, and my already dismal work will no doubt take a plunge even further south, but this is hands down the best work-related thing that has happened since I arrived in Cambodia. Finally I can see someone advancing themself. Working hard, accepting encouragement, taking advice to heart, and moving up. We’re meant to be capacity-building in our roles, and a lot of VSOs will agree that that’s more true with our VAs than with our partner organisations. But I know in this case, he’s built my capacity at least as much as much I’ve built his, and I can’t take an ounce of credit for what Narin’s accomplished; he’s worked his butt off and earned VSO’s respect all on his own.

A new chapter begins…see you dancing in d shade of d rubber trees, my friend!


Sunday ramblings

My mom sent me a link this morning to an article in the Globe and Mail about a new totem pole being raised on southern Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, celebrating the 20-year anniversary of an agreement with the Canadian government to create a national park rather than clear-cut the land. In addition to the grizzly bear, the raven, and other animal totems, the faces of the “five good people” who formed the blockade across the logging road that led to the park’s creation are depicted on the pole.

My mom’s point was that the full weight of our impact may not be felt or acknowledged until many years later. This is a common sentiment at VSO and is what we keep telling ourselves.

Logging blockades stir the heart for me of course, because of the three months off and on I spent at a protest camp in Temagami in northern Ontario in the fall of 1996 and the blockade I was arrested in after 8 hours locked to a bridge on a -25C late November day at the ripe old age of 16.


Through my and 61 others’ court cases, and with support from none other than Clayton Ruby, the logging was found to be illegal and all our charges were dropped. Not surprisingly, that experience is one of the most important of my life, if not the single most important, and it’s hard to imagine who I’d be and what I’d be doing if I’d never gotten involved or if my parents had never allowed me to go.

In the end it mattered little to the trees as they redrew the plans and continued their logging just up the road, and I see logging in Temagami is still making the news these days. When I went back a few years ago for one night in the forest on the shore of Lake Timiskaming, the adjacent area had all been logged and the only real impact I could see of our efforts over a decade before was that the new bridge that replaced the one I and several others had blockaded had been built with beams too tightly spaced to fit an arm and a handcuff through.


Despite the logging nearby, the forest’s magic wasn’t lost.


Whatever it is I’m doing here in Cambodia feels even less effective than holding off the logging trucks for one more day, and far more complex. If I come back in 10 years, the people I worked with will no doubt be living different lives than they were when I started working with them, but that will be because they wanted it and because the country changed around them, not because of me. I don’t have any formal training in development work, and I feel like an amateur making amateur mistakes. Maybe that’s my fault for not researching or planning more carefully, or maybe it’s VSO’s for not designing the program better based on the knowledge that all of their “volunteer professionals” are professionals in something other than international development, or maybe that’s just how all of development works. Nobody really knows what they’re doing, so they just try different stuff that sounds good and then report back that it worked great and could we have some more funding please? I thought I was making a career move by coming here, dipping a toe in the development waters to make sure that it’s for me before going back to school for some professional qualifications. Well, it’s not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’m here, but it turns out it’s more for my sake than for Cambodia’s. When I think about what I’m most proud of in my life, what impact I’ve had on the world around me, it’s not standing up for the forest (picture me wearing a cape and tights in this part) or moving to a developing country to improve its education system (here I’m kneeling down and smiling widely while holding a dark-skinned child’s hand in a dusty environment). Those were selfish decisions, things I needed to do for me, to learn and to grow, and decisions that had relatively little impact on anything or anyone other than me.

It’s teaching. Just being a high school teacher. Being with teenagers day in and day out, sometimes speaking, mostly listening, shooting the breeze about pi or special relativity or about cutting yourself. It’s the kid who entered my class at the start of the year who had a panic attack every time she saw an equal sign, and who left the final exam beaming and saying “I think I aced it”. And the student who told me very earnestly on the last day of school that I was Gandalf and he was Frodo. And it’s seeing my students grow into young adults whom I respect and who still respect me.

I don’t think I was a great teacher, but I was a good one. And I think I can become great. And I’d like to get on with it already.

Now that I feel like I’ve gotten what I needed out of Cambodia, and I don’t think anything will change in the next 7 months that will allow it to get what it needs from me, I can’t say there’s much keeping me here other than a commitment. It’s already earned its place on my totem pole, and I know I’ll never make the short list for Cambodia’s, so what are we waiting for?

I feel like that’s the wrong way to think, and like it’s giving up too soon. And like it means I only want to do something if I can be great at it. Is that so bad? I don’t know. Either way, I’ve got some thinking to do if I’m going to make the next 7 months more than just a waiting game.

Happy anniversary to me

Two years ago today, I walked across the Cambodian-Thai border into Poipet and, in standard Poipet form, promptly fell victim to my first scam. Not only did I pay almost double the standard fare for a minivan from the border to Kampong Thom ($20 seemed like a reasonable price at the time…), but I paid it twice. Once to the man who arranged my ticket for me in Poipet, and once to the driver who told me he didn’t know the other guy and that he’d been told I would pay on arrival in Kampong Thom. I have since learned how to say “please write a receipt” in Khmer.

Two years…and only two friends and two family members have come to visit! Get on it people, you’re running out of time!

Two years…and the impossible colour of rice fields, the submerged-but-for-the-eyes water buffaloes, the adoring fathers gushing and playing with babies, the smoke from curbside stoves hanging across the road in morning sunbeams, the sleeping dogs, the running-with-purpose dogs, the stoic staring-into-the-distance-dogs, the gangs of children running and free, playing the flip flop game or shooting slingshots into trees, the oxen pulling ploughs through farmers’ fields, the balancing act of carrying pigs or baskets or children on bicycles and motos, and the afternoon clouds and light of the Cambodian countryside, all still keep me transfixed at my window on my monthly 12-hour bus trips, to and from Phnom Penh.

Two years…and I’ve eaten spiders, crickets, bee larva, ants, and flying termites. The crickets are the only ones I’ve gone back to for more.

Two years…and I still smile at every “hello”. Whether it’s coming from shy teenage girls with sweet smiles who ride their bicycles in pace with mine, or the little boys who yell “hellowadisyonamehowahyoo” at the top of their lungs and then quickly run away in stitches; whether it’s the young mother holding a baby and waving its arm calling “hello hello” to teach it how to greet foreigners, or the toothless old lady out for a walk down a country road, having a laugh at the sight of a westerner in her village and testing out what may well be her first “hello”; whether it’s a gang of bold kids who want to pose for pictures, or an entire family that calls out in unison then invites you to eat rice with them when you respond in Khmer, hello never gets old.

Two years…and no two wats alike. Some old, some new, some ancient… Some wooden, some brick, some stone… Some with giant Buddhas, some giant fruit, some giant animals… Some are peaceful, some carnivals… Some are full of precocious young monks who show off for their friends, some with wandering pensive monks, some meditating monkeys… Some have a view, some a dark past.

Two years…and it’s a lot harder now to write plog posts. “My New Life in Cambodia” has become simply “life”, and my observations now are more internal than external. When everything was new, it was easy to write from a Canadian perspective, experiencing Cambodia in a way that makes for an exciting travel log for friends and family back home. Now that the novel has become routine, it’s harder to make light-hearted observations through new eyes in a way that will keep random Facebook followers entertained and reading new posts, and all of the real changes taking place are internal. And who wants to read about that?

Two years…and nine months to go. Sometimes it feels like too much, other times not enough. A lot of my work here has felt useless: from the start the partnership was poorly arranged, and in my inexperience I agreed to activities and a project and target schools that I now know are inappropriate. I was able to start a side project to help support parents’ advocacy in one of the weakest schools, and this became the only thing I was doing that felt like it could have a real impact…until the plug was pulled by the Provincial Office of Education a month or so ago. Nine months (ten, at that point) seemed like an awfully long time to continue feeling impotent, especially when most of my friends had left town and I was starting to feel homesick. After a month of wallowing, meetings, and a road trip to get out of my rut and visit with other NGOs, I have fresh ideas and VSO’s blessing to change tack and hopefully do something worthwhile with what’s left of my time here. And suddenly nine months feels too short…

Two years…and I think I’ll ring in the third with this picture of a woman strolling in her PJs like it ain’t no thang, which, by the way, never gets old.


Khmer word of the day: “jhee-dhoan-mouey”

jhee-dhoan = grandmother

mouey = one

jhee-dhoan-mouey = cousin (literally: one grandmother)

Gran died today. Or was it yesterday? When you live in the future, it’s hard to tell exactly when people died or got fired or married or adopted a stray kitten or were born.

Living in two worlds at once – this one in Cambodia, where friendship appears in town one day unannounced, is intense and at once demands openness and access, then ends abruptly as it floats out of town again a few months later, its absence immediately and sorely felt and then soon forgotten; and that other one over there, 11 hours in the past, where my home is, where my friends are, where my family is, where lifelong friendship and connection are such a given, an unspoken underlying foundation of every day life, that they demand little of me and I of them – can be disorienting.

Since I’ve left, people I love have gotten married. I should be glad they waited until I left, I hate weddings.

Since I’ve left, people I love have created new life (life!) and their babies have entered the world and are breathing air for the first time, and crying and smiling and pooping and seeing and needing for the first time. People I love care more about something I’ve never met than they do about anything else in the world. I never cared much for babies before, I should be happy I don’t have to hold their spit-up-y mess and smell their weird yellow shit and pretend it’s great how our conversations never go uninterrupted for more than 15 seconds.

Since I’ve left, people I love have died. I should be happy they waited until I left, I hate death.

When Dan died so suddenly last year, my friends had never felt closer, nor so far away, and I know that I won’t really have let him go until I can look all of you in the eye and say I love you and I’m sorry you lost your friend and I miss him too. I can’t be sure he’s gone, really, until I know you’re still there.  I feel that gentle homeward tug – that door that wants to close – just a little bit, every day.

Gran’s death isn’t shocking or sudden. I said good-bye before I left and knew I’d probably never see her again. She’s been waiting a long time. But there’s that tug again, to the eyes I can’t meet and the space I can’t share, in laughter or in tears or in silence.

Whip-smart and warm, classy and charming, respected and composed but betraying a wild spark of danger in the wink of her eye, independent but deeply connected, a “tough old strip of leather” as mom wrote a few days ago, knowing the end was near – Gran lived a full and meaningful life. She’s been an anchor at the centre of a large, sprawling, love-filled family for as long as I’ve been alive, and my aunts and uncles and parents and siblings and cousins and fourth-cousins-once-removeds and I have been so lucky to have grown up in the family she started with Norman and continued to nurture after he died long before I was born.


I should be happy that life, and death, go on in my friends’ and families’ lives in my absence, and I am. But, still, I’d like to hold your babies soon.

Grampy Norman and Gran get married

Grampy Norman and Gran get married