30 October, 2012


Fear – A vital response to physical and emotional danger.

One of our high school graduates had the opportunity to fly to Thailand to attend an International Yoga Conference.  He has diligently been studying yoga for a couple of years now.  It was very difficult at times; as not only is it taught in English, he also had to learn so many things his rural government education just did not teach; an18-year-old boy who didn’t know what or where his spine was.

This young man joined his brothers at Wat Opot about 8 years ago.  Same story, a promiscuous husband brings home the disease to his family and it eventually kills him and many times those he infected.  As with many AIDS orphans, before the disease ruined their family structure, their families had money.  They had a nice home and many times went to good schools and lived in nice neighborhoods. 

AIDS orphans are in that sense different than those orphaned by poverty. The disease does not affect only the underprivileged populations.  Wealthy parents die and leave behind children.  Greedy relatives steal fortunes and the children are left behind.  Some of our children have seen “the good life” or at least understand that there is more to life than living on $1 a day.  They know with hard work and an education they can become as successful as they wish –success measured in whatever terms they deem.

I say this because this young man knows what he can (and there’s no doubt in my mind that he will) become.  He studied when he didn’t want to, he had his ups and downs but he persevered.  And last week he boarded an airplane to another country.  With his new passport in hand, he called me from the airport sounding like a kid at Disneyland.  His voice was 3 octaves higher and he was talking in run-on sentences.  I laughed at his excitement.  He said later that he was so scared to fly.  That he had to stop thinking about the airplane in the air.  He wanted the experience so badly, but feared it as much.

There is a site listing persistent, irrational fears of specific objects, activities or situations that lead to a compelling desire to avoid it.  A.K.A. - Phobia’s.   There are fears (phobia’s) that kept the human population alive to reproduce such as Iophobia, snakephobia, agrizoophobia, or parasitophobia.  And then there are those such as epistemophobia, kakorrhaphiophobia, xenophobia, or zeusophobia, which may have kept them alive only to lead them into battle and kill each other.

Overcoming fear!  That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?  Something so simple as the fear of an immunization that is over in seconds, can cause someone to fret about it for weeks or until they make themselves sick. A dentist visit?  An HIV test?  Fear.  Every time I land at a US airport, I hear LOUD and clear that the country is in Code Yellow (Elevated / Significant Risk) or Code Orange (High Risk). That is the first thing I hear upon departing the plane and entering immigration.  My headphones blaring in my ears cannot drowned it out!  It’s like:

“Hello and welcome to the United States, the land of fear.  We appreciate you coming, but you should know that you are in Significant DANGER, it could be lurking around the corner, fear the man in front of you, he could have a bomb, fear the woman struggling with 3 children, DON'T help her, it could be a trap, and by all means fear the elderly woman in the wheel chair, because who knows WHAT she has nestled into that blue wig!

Homeland Security Advisory System has set 5 color-coded Terrorist level:

Expired Alerts

1.) Green
2.) Blue
3.) Yellow
4.) Orange
5.) Red.  

Did anyone even know there is a Green and Blue?  I didn’t.  What happens in a country that is run by fear?  An idea that the entire country should be afraid of the “Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks” – a.k.a Code Yellow.  Really?  The word significant which means having or likely to have influence or effect?  Significant?  Really?

The United States is likely to have a terrorist attack at any moment.  Any moment!  How about living in a lesser color such as a Guarded Code Blue; blue is a nice calming color, maybe a baby blue perhaps.  Well, the nice shade of blue that could soothe a politically worn out country has yet to be announced.  And how about Sea Green! The US government going green? Now that really makes me LOL!  Blue = General Risk of Terrorist Attack and Green = Low Risk.  No matter what color the Government chooses, the absolute best my country can put the nation at is LOW risk.  But like I mentioned, the US has never ever dropped below the Elevated Code Yellow since it incorporated the color-coded system on 11 March, 2002 – in 2009, it was proposed to have the pretty environmental colors, 1 and 2 removed from the list entirely and make Yellow the new green, but as far as I could find, that proposal went nowhere.

According to Wikipedia, There are actually no published criteria for the threat levels, and thus no independent way to tell whether the current threat level is accurate.”  Now not to pat myself on the back, although I do occasionally, but I’m pretty savy in the google search department.  I do not take internet information at face value.  Additional research is ALWAYS necessary.  Soooo, armed with my 2nd café latte and hot plate of fried bananas, I searched and I searched…for more than an hour (Phnom Penh coffee shop’s are great, especially when waiting for the rain to stop) and found nothing at any of the government sites that could tell me any information on what exactly the criteria is for the levels.  What does that mean; besides of course that Wikipedia is correct?  That means that fear (of the unknown) is a wonderful tool of control.  That which controls fear is in control.  I continue to wonder about the use of “Fear of God”…why should one fear God? – hmmm, another day or Wayne, do you want to take that one?

The teachers in the school our children attend use a long stick to control the children who misbehave, enough so that the children behave, most of the time.  There has on occasion been a child that doesn’t want to go to school because they are “afraid” of the teacher.  It’s not that unusual I guess, when I was in high school the boys who broke the rules received ‘swats’.  Sounds innocent enough, until you see one of the school’s tough football players afterwards with red swollen eyes.  At Wat Opot, we have talked to the kids about the idea behind the use of a stick (or violence in general) as a means of control.  In regards to not listening or defiance, we have asked  “You are not listening to me, would you listen to me if I had a stick poised over my head?”  

Unfortunately, their response is, “yes”.  We continually try to explain that fear of the stick may make you sit up straight and pretend to listen, but does it make you learn?

In all my reading and searching, I find it ironic that the coded color warnings which continue to create noise pollution at all US airports were replaced on 26 April, 2011. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that a new two-level terrorism threat advisory scale will replace the color-coded system because it often presented "little practical information" to the public.  THe National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) will provide alerts "specific to the threat" with "a specified end date". Napolitano stated "This new system is built on a clear and simple premise: when a credible threat develops that could impact the public, we will tell you.  We will provide whatever information we can so you know how to protect yourselves, your families, and your communities."  

If this is the new system in place and IF this system REPLACED the old one, then why am I still hearing colors - why are they on the website?  Why can I download a TERRORIST WARNING icon to put on my webpage to give me up to the minute color coded warnings from a system that should by all means and purposes no longer exist?  I flew almost a year after the new system was announced.  Why didn't I hear anything from the new two-level terrorism threat advisory scale?  Maybe because this is why:

Current Alerts

There are no current alerts.
There are no expired alerts.

Since it's inception, the NTSA has found no terrorist threats, period.  If there are no terrorist threats, then you cannot implement fear in the people.  I'm sure that whoever created the new system will be overjoyed to one day actually get to put it to use; but until then, we'll keep on with an outdated model because what fun is a safe country filled with happy secure people?

The color code is like a big stick Homeland Security waves above our heads.  A large yellow outdated stick.  But outdated or not, that yellow stick makes people sit up and take notice; they will fear it…but will they really change their ways or will they just get used to the sunny color until it changes to Orange or Red?  What about the strong-willed individual who challenges the stick or whatever entity holds it?  Over time, with enough strikes, many will submit and learn to fear not only the stick and the one holding it, they will fear those who look like the stick holder, or pray like the stick holder or love like the stick holder.  Fear begets hate.  What is the tipping point when that fear turns to hate?  How many strikes does it take until submission; until the pent up frustrations turn fear into hate?  How long until one learns to hate skin color, religion, the opposite sex…When? When does it stop?

I used the United States as an example because the more I researched the more interested, albeit baffled, I became, but of course, fear does not reside in only one country.  Like the AIDS virus, fear and hate have no boundaries, nor do they adhere to one certain race, culture, religion, etc. 

But always the optimistic realist (or am I the realistic optimist?), I trust that fear can die and along with it hate.  If only it could be as easy as swallowing your fears and stepping onto a plane.  Not onto a plane headed into destruction, but one headed for the pure bliss of the unknown. 

21 October, 2012

Wat Opot School for Tots

With the 'big' kids in school, Rortana and Phahna are left behind to run the place in their absence.  Rortana has always been quite independent but Phahna, being the youngest, has been coddled by the older girls and likes to spend her days holed up in their bedroom listening to Korean pop music.  Her world changed when the girls went off to high school!  She cried her heart out when she was handed over to me...maybe it wasn't as bad as that.  Either she has a small heart (doubtful) or she realized that "E-Da" (as she calls me) isn't all that bad after all (takes some longer than others to realize this!)  considering the tears stopped after the 40 seconds it took us to walk to the Creative Learning Center.

Wow, the CLC all to ourselves!

I got to work reorganizing a bit to allow easy access for the preschool learning toys and puzzles.  Since they couldn't go more than 10 seconds without "E-Da look", I decided to put on a DVD for them.  Yes...sigh, a caregivers best friend at times.  But, I did put in Baby Einstein and they were mesmerized!  I had never watched those DVD's before, but I had to tear myself away from it to get back to work.  Soon the girls were dancing around and I look up.  They were watching little girls dancing around with Butterfly wings on.

A Lightbulb Went Off Over My Head!

Earlier in 2012, Gail had brought with her some little costume butterfly wings.  Seeing how fragile they were, I tucked them away for just the right occasion.  Well, that opportune moment had arrived!!!  I ran into the store room and brought them out dancing with excitement.  The girls looked at me with blank faces and backed away from me as I approached them.  I turned to Tavery (our soon to be first female university student) who was working on the computer.  She donned the wings and went back to work, unfazed.

The Lightbulb went off in the little girls head then; "OH, THAT'S what they are for!"

A few days later we had an official Wat Opot little Tot Preschool - this time in the Craft room.  They had fun playing with the seed-bead animals the older kids made...

Look a Duck! 

Look an alligator!

Look a bee!

Rortana watched the photo process I had with Phanha and said "No me" and grabbed them all at once. I guess she was ready to get to stringing some beads for herself.

so then they began stringing some necklaces.

After a long day of educational play, we made a tent.  Phahna wandered out to find Tavery while Rortana stayed to make her little home.

And what's the best thing to do once you get your home organized?  Why, you sit down with a nice glass of wine and some soft music...or if you are 3 years old, you take a nap.  

Sleep tight little Rortana, much more fun times ahead in your safe happy home.

14 October, 2012

Channgs Cafe

Brang Chhang, was a little boy who lived and died at Wat Opot.  Little Chhang continued to have such a presence here that the café at Wat Opot was named after him.  The café has gone through many changes.  The most recent renovation enclosed the formerly open-to-the-outside eating area, making it a much quieter place to eat, read or study.  A wall was removed making a more open floor plan. (an L shape area).

With the cement floor covered in tile and a large table, we can now comfortably seat 10.  More if we squeeze!

The other side of the café now houses a sink and 2 burner stove.  This area is where the café action takes place.  At Wat Opot, the kids get paid a daily allowance, which provides them with the money to buy a snack in the afternoon.   Additionally, they are encouraged to put a little each day into their savings account (or as we call it, “in the computer” – as the financial spreadsheet is there.)  Once we set the goal of having $5 in their savings, there are only 4 or 5 that have not reached that goal.  This is not an easy feat as most only earn pennies a day. - and we just upped the goal to $8.00!

Learning to manage their money is just another skill this generation of rural kids is exposed to.  Money…a necessary evil…which brings me back to the café.  Everyday the kids would get their allowance and then go running down the road to the village snack stands and get a snack.  Most of the time they would come back with candy or other sugery sweets.   Their teeth are bad enough without all that added sugar in their diet.  I'm all for supporting the local community, but many of the little stores would take advantage of the kids and give them snacks on credit; leaving some in big debt. (big around here is around $1.00 - when you consider it would take some over 2 weeks to pay back.)

Since we are making an effort to teach our kids the danger of debt and also to make Wat Opot more self-sufficient, we started stocking the café with fruit, frozen jellies and juice, bottled water, nuts, sunflower seeds, bread based snacks and yes, a little candy.   Previously the cafe was really more for volunteers to buy coke's, iced coffee and a few snacks.  Now, the kids have a choice to buy from the café instead of other places.  The fruit is ALWAYS the first to go, competing with the frozen snacks on hot days.  The first thing the kids said when we opened was "Melinda me borrow" (their english word for credit).  They were quickly informed that in no way or form will they be able to get any snack unless they have the money in hand to pay for it.

I man the café most days, but sometimes I have Srey Nou and Kunthy run it for me.  Instead of paying the girls an hourly salary for working in the café, they get 10% of the profits of the day.  After that minor adjustment, the profits increased and the idea of giving something away for free (to their ‘best friend just this once’) decreased.  The little kids laugh because Wayne gives them their allowance, they run to the cafe and buy snacks and give me their money, and then I give the money back to Wayne at the end of the day.

Now that school has somewhat started, I cannot rely on the high school girls, so the next best choice was 4th grader Channy.  Channy came to us 2 years ago with her little sister Rortana.  (More about the sisters - click hereNow Rortana and Channy are somewhat of a pair and because they also both hold a special place in my heart, both arrived for work ready to sell sell sell (as Channy said to me!).

The first thing Channy did was walk over to the sink and wash her hands.  That girl never ceases to impress me! 

While Rortana entertained the growing clientele!

Channy worked the door selling the frozen jelly’s…

…and Rortana sat dangerously close to the snacks!

Channy got to work cleaning the cups from the juice sales - I didn’t even have ask her, she just noticed they needed to be done!

While Rortana helped herself to one of the pickles or as Channy exclaimed, “Melinda, Rortana eat money”.

 They both took a little break while waiting for the next wave of customers.

And when finished, Rortana “drank the money” this time!

Channy was happy that I finally let her count the money when we closed up.  She kept trying to do so during the 2 hours we worked, but I told her to not worry about the money, but to pay attention to the kids first.

The thing with Channy is that she is totally trusting of people.  That is probably what makes her so trustworthy.  I do not hesitate to give her my keys and ask her to get something behind a locked door with no supervision.  She is very tough and will stand up to anyone, even if that person is a male and 10 years older.  Her confrontational nature causes her to shed many tears, but she bounces back.  We had a volunteer who promised to go to her classroom with her stating "Yes Channy I promise I will go to school with you tomorrow" and  the next day as I walked by the closed door of the volunteer and then a very sad but patient Channy sitting waiting (late for school), I had to tell her that not everyone is true to their promises.  That some people say things to make you feel good, but they are only words.  I reminded her of who she can unconditionally trust (Wayne and I) and to continue to trust others, but be cautious.  

An aunt and older brothers who live in Phnom Penh (but do not want to take care of her or Rortana) come to visit once or twice a year.  They drive up in their Lexus SUV and give meager presents and maybe $5 each to the girls.  Yes, 2 'orphaned girls' have wealthy family; this is not a secluded case by any means.  On their last visit a week ago, Channy was given a promise by her brothers that they will come get her and Rortana and take them to Phnom Penh for the upcoming holiday.  She was promised a bicycle.  

Channy runs up to me everyday and counts down the days until they are supposed to arrive.  "Melinda, my brother come 4 days", "Melinda, my brother come 3 days"...  As I smile to her and say "I am happy you are here Channy and I will be sad if you go", I selfishly wish her family does not show up, but the beautiful look on her face has me silently willing them to come.  Two little sisters, smiling often on the outside, can hurt more than you can imagine on the inside.

10 October, 2012

First Day of School...sort of...

Wat Opot blogged about the kids 1st day ofschool; which turned out to be the typical Not First Day of School.  Leading up to that day took a bit of work!  The woman who used to do our books and take care of buying supplies including getting the kids ready for school no longer works for us, so it was up to me to get them ready. 

Now I’m an old hand at getting kids ready for school, you know being a former Professional Nanny and all.  Been there done that, right?  WRONG!    If I had to ever update my resume again, I would have to add that endeavor as a special skill set. 

Let’s see, First grade needs 2 notebooks, plastic covers for said notebooks, 2 pencils, one eraser and one sharpener.  No problem, got it.  Second grade needs 3 notebooks, covers, 2 pens, 1 pencil (sharpner, eraser), still there, no problem.  Third grade bumps it up to 4 notebooks and similar accessories. Forth grade 5 notebooks and same stuff as the lower grades, but add a ruler and red pen.  Fifth and Sixth grade, same same but different and MORE. Oh and I forgot uniforms, shirts for all, pants/shorts for boys and skirts for girls plus backpacks for all.

In 2 days, I had handed out approximately 113 notebooks, over 200 pens and pencils and misc. supplies, made sure each child had a pencil case and backpack to their liking.  Oh and yeah, shoes too!  The universe was kind to me this year, though.  Throughout the year we receive school supply donations such as backpacks and such.  I have been stockpiling them in our storage room (out of the site of the kids and staff).  As the older kids helped me organize the supplies, I found out that the only thing I lacked was boys flip flops.

Once the Primary School kids had everything organized in their backpacks, I kept them in the office until the first day of school.

When that day arrived, the sun was just peaking over the horizon and as I walked out of my room, I was greeted by the youngsters who were ready to get this day started! 

I made it from my room to the office building in record time as I was pulled and pushed along the way.  While in India, I spent time at Sri Ram Ashram Children’s Home and received some important advice from an old hand there.  Make a Line!  Yes, life is much easier since the kids have been required to form lines.  Lines into the playroom, lines into the craft room, lines to get snack, etc. 

All I have to do is say loudly “get in line” and a cluster of anxious pushing children turns into a pretty good line.  Stating “Toot to Tom” transforms (in the midst of groans) the line into the smallest children first.  With this ingrained in my mind (and theirs), I stood in the doorway and looked upon the mass of shoving and pushing children with a quizzical look on my face and Nak To yelled, “Get in a line – Toot to Tom”.  Oh, they know me so well!

They grabbed their books and took off running for their dorm!

Once there, they ripped open their packs and started putting on their new uniforms with the help of our irreplaceable boys caretaker, Mr. Paul.

Then it was off to eat breakfast but more importantly, to go through their goodies and write their names inside their notebooks.  The first graders didn’t know how to write their names in Khmer, only English!  Oops!  So the older boys stepped in.

Then it was off to School, with Somnang taking Sovanrith on his bike and the others walking the short distance on foot.

Again, this was the unofficial first day of school, as the kids didn’t even get to the end of the country road before they were informed that the teachers weren’t there.  Taking it in stride, they ran back and we changed into their play clothes.  It was kind of like a trial run, or a ‘first day of school drill’.

Now school has kind of started, but the kids come home at random times.  We are told that after the Pchum Ben Holiday, which is from the 14th – 16th, school will officially start.  The past week and forthcoming one are to get acquainted with your class, teacher and school.  Not sure they needed a full 2 weeks to do this, but what can you do, but go with the flow and hope for the best!

07 October, 2012

Angkor Archaeological Park

Nora is a graduate of the Austria Peace Program.  We did not have a semester together, but met when I graduated.  She had the opportunity to visit Cambodia (and me!) on her recent trip to Thailand.  While in Cambodia, she was able to come to Wat Opot for a few days and taught the kids how to make little seed bead animals!

We then spent time in Phnom Penh before heading to Siem Reap and to the Angkor Temples.  I have been to Siem Reap a few times and visited the Temples with my friend Mark a couple of years ago, but realized that I had never posted about it.  Angkor Archaeological Park is outside the city of Siem Reap which is about a 6 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh. This particular bus we took to get there was a first for me.  I have taken sleeper buses before, but this bus gave a whole new meaning to it.  Actual bed-ish seats!  We left around midnight and arrived around 5:30am.

It wasn’t the greatest night of sleep (mainly because the air conditioning was on full blast!) but it could have been worse; from the stories I have heard about bus trips…yes, it could have been worse.  When we arrived, it was still dark out and with my trusty map in hand, we decided we would walk to the city; as according to what I read, the bus station is not far outside of it.  Long story short, what I read was wrong and after walking for over an hour and a half (sun came up eventually) in the countryside we finally found the city.  Seems that there are 2 or more bus stations…silly me for thinking the station in Phnom Penh where we bought the tickets would give me the accurate arrival information.

By the time we found a hotel we were wide awake and figured we should just go to see the temples after getting a little breakfast.  After securing a tuktuk for the day we were off.  No need to regurgitate information about the place, so to read up; click here!  I quickly realized Nora’s camera was about 1000 times better than mine, so I stuck mine in my backpack and let her click away!  Here are some of the amazing shots.

The main attraction: Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm Temple - made famous from the first Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie.

We spent 2 days at the Angkor Temples, complete with sunrise at Srah Srang; a temple on the water.

More photo's with Nora's Sony Cybershot DSC-HX20V.  I had to put in a plug for that camera - the zoom is amazing and the photo's are the best I have seen.  They have the camera in Phnom Penh, but it's $100 more than in the US...but I may just have to pay the difference...unless someone is coming to see me in the very near future!

Gate entrance to Angkor Tom

 Phimeanakas Temple

Thank you for coming to see me Nora, next I'll have to meet you in Jordan.