A little boy tromping down the street in man-size rain boots; a waitress with a face so chemical-stained white she looks like a mime; an ecstatic toddler poking his head up over the seat to look behind the tuk-tuk as he rides along with his family: these are the moments that ground me as I finish up my first week of living in Phnom Penh. In cities like this one, it is easy to get so caught up in the challenge and frenzy day to day of surviving the heat, the crowds, and finding one’s way around town. If I were to be honest, I would say that all too often I forget about the humanity around me—the life and vibrancy in moments instant (like the above) and drawn out (like eating a plate of hot Khmer rice, maneuvering through tight rows in the market, or riding on the back of a motorbike in early morning traffic).
This past week has been a whirlwind of learning about Cambodian culture and touring the city, in addition to spending some time as a team of interns getting to know each other. On Tuesday we attended an all-day workshop about caring for one’s self while working in this type of context (volunteer work, oversees, high stimulation, etc). I have heard all too often stories of people who move to places like Cambodia, hearts set on loving the people around them, yet they don’t take time to love on themselves. An empty, worn-out pot can’t hold enough water to sustain anyone.
Yesterday some of the interns and I learned about different aspects of Cambodian culture. We danced traditional dances, saw what living in the Province would be like, and wrote our names in Khmer! It was also interesting to learn about the ABC’s of religion in Cambodia—animism, Buddhism, and Christianity/Cham (Islam). Interestingly enough, while over 95% of the country is “Buddhist”, it must be noted that much of the religion (as is the case with Cham and Christianity) is infiltrated with animism, leading to a heavy focus on and fear of spirits. It is believed that each piece of land has a spirit attached to it, so when a house or building is built on that land, a smaller house is placed on a pedestal on the land for the spirit to abide in. Incense and food offerings are presented in hopes to appease the spirit and avoid any disfavor. Everywhere you go, especially in the mornings, the strong spicy floral fragrance of incense can be detected wafting from shops lining the street.
Some other highlights of daily life here are torrential downpours that cool off this hellishly hot place, the occasional wafts of fresh jasmine that hangs from tuk tuks, tiny children with big brown eyes who are always ready to smile and wave, coconut, coconut, coconut galore!