Last full day in Cambodia, first day of transitioning back to life in the United States. We started at a place that opened its first shop in Phnom Penh a week or two ago, to fortify ourselves for a day of window and souvenir shopping in the downtown markets:
I decided not to get anything, because I'd had my fill of K2 years ago when I lived in Georgia. But then someone brought around a tray of plain glazed doughnuts that were just milliseconds out of the oven, and I caved and took one. Krispy Kreme's iced doughnuts from the display case are nothing special, but their fresh doughnuts are what made them deservedly famous.
We then spent two hours poking around the Russian Market, and I spent money on two things. First, I bought some fresh durian and went out to the parking lot to try it:
It was tasty! Fruity, and a bit tart, and a bit sweet, and all in all very enjoyable. I ate two fairly large pieces of it, shared a bit with Sarah and a larger portion with Sway, and later handed the rest off to Chloe and Joe to sample. There is now officially nothing about Khmer food that scares me.
Back in the marketplace, I took Don Brewster's advice and stocked up on Amok Seasoning.
The ingredients really aren't that exotic; it's just lemongrass, garlic, galangal and kaffir lime peel. I bought enough to make a bunch of batches, and after they run out, I can experiment with making my own seasoning mix from fresher ingredients. Since chicken amok is a pretty common variant, I'm thinking I might actually be able to take a few chicken thighs and whip it up in the crock pot. I might even use it for burrito filling. I am genuinely excited at the thought of Cambodian freezer burritos.
Not much was said, at least within my earshot, about more meaningful echoes of the past couple of weeks. It's still too recent, and I get the feeling most folks are letting the experience settle a bit before they make any bold claims about it. For right now, I feel good about paying attention to frivolous things, at least for a couple of days. The reflection and insight will amount to a lot more if we aren't in too much of a hurry and don't try to force them.
I'll also add, I'm already experiencing a bit of an emotional letdown, and I don't think I'm alone: there've been several episodes of mutual grumpiness today. I hope it winds down, or at least doesn't escalate, or the travel home could be even more wearying than it's already going to be. We had about an hour's talk before dinner about reentry, about the adjustment struggles and the way to tell the story to people who ask. Now I'm planning to look up some combination of Josh, Krista and Erik for lunch sometime soon, so I can pass along my stories and compare notes with them. I'm hoping that'll bring helpful perspective from people who understand, but who are not on this team. This team is made of some wonderful people, but three weeks of this much togetherness is quite enough. It'll be nice to work through some of this with other folks.
Time to pack, sleep, and then say goodbye to Cambodia. In the morning, we're headed home.
This morning we worshipped at Rahab's Church in S. P., and then we said goodbye. Barang led worship and Pastor Chantha preached. The sermon was about 1 Kings 17, the power of a righteous man's prayers, Jesus' rejection in Nazareth in Luke 4, and God's love for all people from all nations. Afterward, we had a debrief with the Rahab's House staff and the Disciples for the purpose of thanking and encouraging each other. Pastor Chantha had another flood of kind words for me, and said he'd learned a great deal from the Bible study on Friday. I was caught very off guard by his praise, but Annie talked a bit with Kimloi, and came away with the explanation that they expect a college professor to be a very high status person who remains aloof, so they saw my taking part in games and conversation as great humility. Actually, it's more that they were delightful people, and it blessed me to learn their stories, so I think a lot of the kind words were unmerited, or at least greatly exaggerated. But either way, it was heartwarming to hear, and it made it even harder to say goodbye.
In the afternoon, Pastor Troy led us in a four hour discussion of the entire experience, including how it compared to our expectations, what we thought God taught us, and what we planned to do next when we arrive home. A lot of half-finished thoughts were shoehorned into words that didn't quite fit, and a few tears flowed. As I write this, he's out bowling with a few of the hardier students, and I'm thinking about an early bedtime.
Tomorrow we hunt souvenirs, and the top of my shopping list is the spice packets Don Brewster tipped me off were available for making my own ហហ្មុកត្រី. Then, bright and early Tuesday morning, we hop on a plane to head home.
This morning, we threw a party for the girls at Agape Restoration House. We set up stations, including a photo booth, a visor-decorating station, a coloring and drawing station, a games station, and a blind taste test station. The girls sang and danced for us, and we did "I can count on God" for them. We had lunch with them, including fried chicken and corn on the cob, and birthday cake for all the girls and staff whose birthdays fell in May. Again, as with Rapha's house, this was a place for our female members to take the lead while the men hung back unless approached by a girl. A few of the girls lured me into photo booth pictures, but otherwise I got to watch the fun, which is actually more enjoyable when the cultural gap is this wide.
One nice moment for me: the older girls did a traditional Khmer dance of blessing, which included a lot of practiced steps and hand gestures, but near the end they threw small flowers at us by the handful. I looked around for one with a long stem, and I tucked it into my goatee at about the midpoint. Immediately after that dance, they asked all of us up on stage to introduce ourselves, and when I told them my name, they all spotted the flower and got a good laugh out of it. It wasn't a calculated bid for attention; more absent-minded than anything else, but it did break some of the ice, which I was pleased to see.
In the afternoon, we went to Bloom Cafe, which is where at least some of the women wind up after they complete the ARH program. As with Blossom back in Siem Reap, the cakes they had on display were mind-blowingly intricate. We strolled down the street to Monument Books, and I thumbed through a Khmer language course that I plan to get on Amazon when I return home. (I'm all for putting hard currency into the Cambodian economy, but fifty dollars was a bit much, and I have to guard my shrinking supply of cash pretty fiercely.)
Tomorrow, we have church at Rahab's House, immediately followed by our big debrief with the Rahab's House staff, which likely will include some wrenching goodbyes. We've become very fond of a lot of these folks in just the few days we've worked together. Then, over lunch, we'll do our own team debrief, and then everyone else will go to watch the Cambodian national soccer team play a local club, while I hole up in my room and read something.
Today was our last day at Rahab's House, which was happy-sad.
The storytelling students told their stories. Barang and Sakha were both very groggy, because they'd pulled an all-nighter to record a song in Khmer for someone who wanted it no later than today. The class voted Barang's story the best of all, and I asked him if he'd be willing to tell it in Kids Club. He declined, partly out of shyness and partly because he didn't think he could do the story justice on two hours' sleep. The story, incidentally, was how God broke through to him using his love of the piano. He started the story with the first time he ever touched a piano key, and how it brought to the surface all the pain he felt over his bad home life. The story was entirely in Khmer, so all I knew of it was the very short English synopsis he gave me, but everyone in the class said it was powerful.
In the Young Disciples Bible study, we finished up the year of jubilee, talking about slaves being redeemed and returning to their families. We talked about the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read at the Nazareth synagogue, and why He compared His ministry to jubilee. That got us to how sin enslaves us, but Jesus is our kinsman who redeems us and allows us to go home to be with God and our family of fellow believers. Pastor Chantha sat in and translated, and afterward had some incredibly kind and gracious things to say about the lesson. It turns out that he's preaching on Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue this Sunday. I truly love it when God arranges perfect timing like that.
At Kids Club, we also finished up the year of jubilee. Delia and Ratanak continued playing off each other; they have wonderful performance chemistry together, and the kids loved them. Afterward, the Disciples showed off what they'd learned in the morning classes we'd taught: Barang and Pia played "Jesus Loves Me" while we all sang, and then Dara and Kimloi teamed up with Joe and Chloe to do a wordless skit to music. Finally, I took a chance and asked Barang if he would possibly be willing to tell his story, and he smiled and said yes. Only when he got up on stage and looked horrified did I realize that he'd misunderstood the question and still didn't want to. But he was already on stage, and people were chanting his name, so he relented and told it. A couple of times he had to fight back tears, but the kids were attentive, and at the end he got a hearty round of applause. And I saw tears in a few other eyes around the room.
We prayed over them, sang and danced to several more songs, and told the kids goodbye for the last time. We'll see the Disciples again at church on Sunday, and possibly a few of the kids, but for the most part, we've wrapped up the big relationship-forging stage of the trip. Tomorrow we're staging a party for some girls in after-care, and then we pay a visit to Bloom Café.
God has been very merciful to me in one specific way: I haven't gotten sick. No upset stomach, no fever, nothing. I'm one of the few who can say that. But I did yesterday finally get a little post-nasal drip, which means I'm sniffling and clearing my throat a tad, and I've had a couple of quick sneezing fits. It feels like the tiny bit of allergy I get occasionally back home. It's rained pretty hard on occasion over the past several days, and as the local vegetation gets a fresh burst of vitality from that, I suspect it's all belching some pollen into the air. Naturally, my immune system needs to commence playing war games to be ready for the threat of Cambodian pollen. At any rate, if this is the worst symptom I experience here, then I'm still doing pretty good.
Funny moment: Sway is our only team member that speaks Khmer, and today, one of the boys asked him if I came down from the sky. Sway found the question confusing, so he asked the boy why he thought that. The boy said I looked like one of the Kung fu masters from a Chinese movie who come down from the sky. That was a fine thing to hear secondhand later on. I wish I could think up a way to use it to mess with them tomorrow, but it's our last day, and the setup likely would be too complicated.
Also this afternoon, I resumed giving away my office toys. The Kids Club lesson was about Leviticus 26, the year of jubilee. One situation I wanted the kids to imagine was losing something they owned, but getting it back later, so we had a skit in which Delia was the teacher, and Sara was a pupil caught playing with a toy. Delia took the toy and said Sara could have it back at the end of the week. The toy we used was my large inflatable hammer, and there was a nice touch of absurdity with Sara swinging around this huge thing during class and getting caught with it. Then, near the end of the lesson, I wanted to make the point that everything belongs to God, and that He judges our hearts by what we do with the possessions temporarily entrusted to us. For that skit, Sara started by using the hammer to repair the leaky roof of a poor widow. Delia admired the hammer and asked if she could hold it, so Sara made her promise only to do good and nice things with it. Delia then scampered around the room, hitting everybody she could reach on the head with the hammer, which the kids absolutely loved. When she got to Ratanak, she hit him several times, and he playfully toppled over and passed out. After the end of the lesson, I explained about my office toys and why I was giving them away, and I presented the inflatable hammer to Ratanak. He almost immediately hit Delia with it.
Tomorrow is our last day at Rahab's House: the storytelling students will perform their stories, and the adults and kids all will learn about how the year of jubilee was supposed to mean freedom for all the captives. Chuttrah asks for more prayer for his wife's health, and all of the NCU folks could use prayer for the last of our energy to stretch through one more round of everything.
I had another couple of good talks today. One young man named Chetra shared his testimony with me, and asked that I pray for his wife, who has heart problems. They want to start a family, but first they have to get her more healthy, and the available care so far hasn't done the trick.
Then there's the youth pastor at Rahab's House, whose name is Ratanak. Pastor Troy calls him the best youth pastor he's ever seen. Today, he motioned me over after lunch, and we had a nice rap about the Bible. We talked about whether conflict between church leaders is a sinful departure from being of one mind, and Paul and Barnabas' split over John Mark was the example. We also talked about Bible study, and worshipful nature of menial service like sweeping floors. He's a very good man, and I'm proud to call him a new friend.
Ratanak has a lightning-fast sense of humor, and he's been translating for us during Kids Club. Yesterday, in the middle of a skit, he sang a line of Justin Bieber to Delia, and she lost it; couldn't get her laughter under control until we'd moved on to something else and taken the attention off her. So today's lesson was about Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement, and I got an idea for how we could put Ratanak's gifts to best use.
We demonstrated the scapegoat ritual by acting it out. Sara played the high priest, and Delia played a goat, and Chloe and Joe guest-starred as the second goat for the girls' and boys' groups, respectively. Instead of choosing the goats by lot, we told the kids they would get to vote for which goat lived and which goat died. I then handed the microphone to Delia, and then to Chloe and/or Joe, and each got to make a speech pleading to stay alive. Unfortunately, since they were goats, the speech consisted only of "Baa! Baaaaaaaaa!"
I told them Ratanak knew how to translate not only from English, but also from goat language, which meant he got to make up what their speeches said. And obviously, I didn't tell him in advance I was going to do it, because I thought what he improvised in the moment would be even funnier than what he might plan out. We have absolutely no idea what he said, but the kids laughed until they couldn't sit up. The Kids Club sessions went a thousand percent better today than yesterday. Now we just need a brainstorm for tomorrow and Friday.
I'll get right to two prayer requests. Today I made a friend named Keo, which rhymes with Ohio, and he's remarkable. He's a second year engineering major, and he dreams of building dams and canals to supply drinking water to poor villages all over the provinces. I mentioned that engineers probably make a good living, and he said "I don't care about that at all; I want to do what God wants me to do." Keo asks that we pray for his father. His mother and sister believe in Jesus, but his father does not. He was a Buddhist monk for a number of years, and while he knows about Jesus, he hasn't yet come to believe. If you would keep Keo's father in your prayers, for him to come to know Jesus, that would be wonderful. You might also pray that Keo's studies and career be blessed, because he's going to work humbly and tirelessly to bring relief to a whole lot of suffering people, and to glorify his Creator in the process.
The other prayer request is for my student, Kia. Kia is in the storytelling class I teach every morning at 9 AM. He's trained as an English teacher, but they've been forced to discontinue classes because they don't have classroom space. They own land that's set aside to build a new classroom building, but at the moment they're out of money. If you would pray for their fundraising for the classroom building, that would also be wonderful. Kia told me that an education is one of the best protections against being trafficked, so there are lots of reasons it would be a blessing.
In other news, I can report improvement on all fronts. Storytelling went well again, the Bible study overcame a few translation struggles to end on a very high note, and Kids Club was a lot more interactive, although I did forget to start the timer, and as a result we ran a bit short. There's still room for more improvement, but I'd score it about an 8.3 out of 10. The Khmer staff are wonderful people, and the children are beautiful. I predict that by Friday I'm going to find it hard to leave.
Oh, and I had water buffalo for dinner. It was delicious.
Day one at Rahab's House in S. P. On a scale of one to ten, I give it a 7.8. It wasn't great, wasn't even solidly good, but it wasn't a meltdown.
The first hour, I taught a storytelling class to five young adults. We introduced ourselves and did a little icebreaker, and then I talked through the five reasons to tell stories: to teach, to strengthen group identity, to speak for the unheard, because it's fun, and to testify of God's goodness. I then asked them to choose three stories that they would like to polish up and deliver: one from the Bible, one from their own lives, and one that hadn't happened to them personally, but they knew about: history, or news, or something along those lines. The Bible stories they picked were ambitious: Job, Jonah, David and Bathsheba, Jesus walking on water, and I can't remember the fifth. For the personal story, all five wanted to work on their testimony. For the third person nonfiction story, two want to tell the story of S. P., one wants to tell the story of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, one wants to tell a revenge story she heard someplace, and the fifth wants to tell the story of the Titanic.
The second hour, we convened the first day of a weeklong Bible study on Leviticus 11 - 25. Today was just the overview, so we talked about why, in the Good Samaritan, the priest and Levite passed the robbery victim on the other side of the street, and why Isaiah through he was undone in his vision in chapter six. Those were the springboard for a broad, conceptual discussion of clean vs. unclean, and tomorrow we get down to details. We then fellowshipped with the Rahab's House disciples for an hour and a half: an hour of a very energetic name-learning game, followed by lunch together. They gave us a tour of all their living centers and job centers, and by two PM it was time for Kids Club.
Kids Club didn't go badly, given the material we were asked to teach: it's the same as the morning Bible study, the laws of clean and unclean in Leviticus. We played a little game where Delia and Sara planned what to take on a picnic, while the kids yelled "Clean!" or "Unclean!" in Khmer after every selection. Some of the lesson was just unavoidably dull, and the room was hot, but our translator spiced it up with some creative sound effects and a hilarious imitation of the voice of God. This part is where there's the most room for improvement. We've got to figure out a way to make these lessons more eventful and interactive. Not easy, when you're teaching Levitical cleanliness laws, but it's a challenge and we deal in those.
The kids are wonderfully bold. Four or five have reached for my goatee, and I held still while they ran their fingers through it. So far, nobody's tried to yank it. A few have also helped themselves to rubbing my bald head, which is especially funny after all Pastor Troy's warnings that the top of the head is sacred in Khmer culture, and no one ever touches anyone on the head. But in our own culture, small children do all sorts of things that violate norms; it just means they're not too far along in the process of enculturation.
Leftover funny moment from Saturday: in the morning, Pastor Troy said something silly about the possibility of giraffes at the wildlife refuge. Afterward, at dinner, Mary Jo said "Troy, I thought there were supposed to be giraffes." Troy was distracted, so she repeated herself a couple of times. Calvin looked absolutely shocked, and after a confusing exchange, he explained that he thought she said "Troy, I thought I was supposed to beat your" something that rhymes with glass. That would be quite out of character for Mary Jo. So then this morning, I was talking Delia through the parts of the Kids Club lesson, and the last part was "What does this tell us about Jesus?" Delia got wide-eyed, and finally said she heard it as I was planning to hand out cigarettes. Apparently we're all getting too tired either to enunciate properly, or maybe just to listen carefully.
This evening, Troy told us about a raid that went down today. It's unclear to me how detailed I can be, since a lot of AIM's activities have to be fairly closely guarded secrets, so all I'll say is that God is good.
So I know I have a striking appearance, and I'm quite used to being recognized when I return to places: the bald head plus the long goatee together mean that happens pretty often. Over here, though, they've taken it up a notch. All of us get stares, but I get more than my share, and a number of people stroke their chins while smiling and nodding. The hotel folks, both in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, have been handing me my room key automatically, where almost everyone else has to ask for their key by room number. Matthew Stock told me they would notice the beard and approve of it, since a lot of them actually can't grow facial hair, and that's turning out to be accurate. I'm glad, because I had a strong urge to cut it off short before I left, but he persuaded me not to.
(That's not the entire church; that's just an event tent they set up on the sidewalk and part of the street for a jobs fair they hosted. Those tents are a common sight in Cambodia, but they're usually for weddings.)
At New Life Fellowship, both the pastor and the associate pastor's wife have roots in Eugene, so we felt a little cool breeze of home. During the song service, we sang "Great are You Lord," some in Khmer and some in English, which gave extra power to the line, "All the earth will shout your praise." The pastor, Jesse McCaul, preached in fluent Khmer, complete with good comic timing and very Asian nonverbals. They passed out small radio receivers with earbuds for instant English translation, but there are still some bugs to be banged out of the system, so most of us abandoned the radios midway through the sermon and just watched. They're launching a new church plant next Sunday, so that's something you could include in your prayers.
We spent the afternoon getting our ducks in a row for next week's ministry opportunities at Rahab's House. The Bible study was still in the very early stages, so we talked about it at length, and then broke up to write our individual assignments up. I'll be teaching a storytelling class in the morning, then teaching Leviticus right after that, then doing what amounts to a large VBS lesson in the afternoon.
We 're trying to get to this point, where we're sufficiently prepared to teach children and build relationships. I think we're close to ready; tomorrow will be messy and improvised, but we're going to hold it together and be cheerful and enthusiastic, and by evening we'll have a better idea what we're up against, so we can firm up plans for the balance of the week. But we'll take any prayer you can spare.
On Tuesday of this week, we started the day at Rapha House, but then had lunch at Viva in Siem Reap, and I made a discovery: ហហ្មុកត្រី, pronounced amok trey, which is steamed fish in a spicy coconut sauce. It's awfully good; awfully, awfully good. So good, in fact, that I've eaten it six times in five days: at Koulen, at the hotel restaurant, and then in Phnom Penh at Blue Pumpkin, at Olala, and at Freebird. I'm already a sucker for Asian food with coconut in the sauce -- my favorite Indian dish is navratan korma -- and I also like fish a good deal. I keep telling myself to knock off ordering it so often, but the rule I gave myself is to try Khmer cooking whenever possible, and several times there hasn't been another Khmer option on the menu that I hadn't tried. And it is very, very tasty, and very filling. I think Blue Pumpkin had the best sauce, but they did theirs as a ravioli, which was a bit odd. When I get home, I definitely need to get to work tracking down a recipe and learning how to make it myself. And I like to think this means I've been willing and obedient, but probably not; probably just God indulging His child.
(Pastor Troy wanted me to title this entry, "Doyle runs amok in Cambodia." I didn't title it that, because I've got a format going, but I did open with it. Incidentally, "amok" rhymes with joke and poke, so the gag doesn't work out loud. And Pastor Troy is on a similar obsessive mission for cashew chicken, so Mary Jo said he needed to title a blog post, "Pastor Troy goes nuts in Cambodia.")
We spent the late morning and early afternoon at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, which takes in animals that have been abused or are threatened by poachers. Here's a deer auditioning to be an emoji.
Vendors sold us bananas, sugar cane and bamboo to feed to the animals. There were dozens upon dozens of fearless and aggressive monkeys ready to relieve us of all the food if we got distracted. Some of the animals were native Cambodian species we'd not heard of, some were variations on familiar wildlife, like the black-necked pelican, and some were very familiar. We had several good minutes with a monogamous pair of gibbons; the female gibbon liked to put her hand through the bars and let human visitors hold it. She and her mate snuggled and groomed one another, and when she treated us to her ululating call, he joined in with a little doo-wop harmony at the tail end. And near the end of the visit, we spent a bunch of quality time with a couple of elephants.
Needless to say, every beast we visited belongs to God, and in some ways it was a good way to follow up yesterday's sobering reminders. Animals can be dangerous and violent, but they're free from the sort of calculated, meticulously designed cruelty we studied up close. The animals we greeted and fed were curious, friendly, and wonderfully made.
Tomorrow morning we're off to church, followed by an intense afternoon work session to be ready for next week's ministry at Rahab's House. Keep praying for us.
I was a World War Two buff for most of my childhood, so I read a lot of written accounts of the Holocaust. Then, in 1997, when I was closing in on thirty years old, I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. just a few years after it opened. I stood in a boxcar that had transported victims to Auschwitz. I looked through a gas chamber door. I stared at a huge pile of shoes, clothes and suitcases whose owners no longer needed them.
When we left the museum, I couldn't speak. For about an hour, I could not form words. It wasn't sadness or anguish; it more resembled shock, and the condition of being entirely overwhelmed. Those written accounts had supplied me with dates, facts and figures, but the material reality, close enough to see, unmediated, in the same room with me, gave it power I could not have foreseen.
I've read a lot about the Cambodian genocide over the years. I know a great deal about the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields. I've seen the film and worked through several books on the subject. But today we visited Tuol Sleng prison and the Choeung Ek mass grave. They didn't hit with as much force, because I think you can only lose your innocence once, but they were sobering.
And I don't think there's Scripture that can do justice to the whole affair better than Jeremiah.
Today was the last of the interior travel days. In the morning, we visited Angkor Silk Farm, where they grow, dye and weave silk. Here are some silkworms.
The looms were fascinating. I could've stood by for hours, watching people weave silk thread into fabric.
Angkor Artisans takes young women and men on as apprentices, then keeps them as interns, then sends them out as skilled crafters who can earn money and keep Cambodian textile culture alive and well. In addition to silk, they do stone carving and a number of other regional arts. The patterns they made with tie-dying were remarkable.
Right after a slightly early lunch, we hopped on a Giant Ibis bus for the six hour trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. We're back in the big city, and Pastor Troy chose the last hotel to give people a look at inner city Cambodia. I already made a new friend.
Monday starts the intense phase of the work we came here to do. Everything until now has been adjustment and overture, and it's almost time to get to work. Now would be a wonderful time for you to keep us in your prayers.
Would've posted this yesterday, but a storm knocked out the power and the WiFi. The power came back on almost immediately, but the WiFi stayed unavailable until about fifteen minutes ago, give or take.
We started by joining the staff devotional. We sang "What a friend we have in Jesus" and "Shout to the Lord," with some singing in English and others in Khmer. It felt a little like this; our words were different, but the message was the same. Afterward, the associate director talked us through the center's work, fielded questions, and took us to meet the kids. The males among us held back, and the women took point in playing, singing and doing crafts with the girls. "Down by the banks" and "duck-duck-lobster" broke the ice pretty thoroughly, but I have to say that they once again found the song bewildering. We all worked on the craft, which was a cross made from beadwork. Joe helped me out several times when I got confused about which way to thread the cord back through to get the shape right.
Nothing about the girls gave away what had happened before; they were cheerful and friendly. But each of them is on a long road to mitigate the effects of the unspeakable, and needs prayer and safety. The center's work is complicated by its relationship with the Cambodian government, as well as the entanglement of trafficking and prostitution with the poverty and cultural norms of this community. Providing care and counseling isn't an undertaking with a simple beginning and end; the goal is to engineer options that make more sense than returning to sex work, which, sadly, is not straightforward. But better to show up, plunge right in, pray every step of the way, and not get discouraged.
In the evening, we went to watch Cambodian dance, so I don't have to end this day as a pure wall of text.
Wednesday, we visited a place I first decided almost twenty years ago that I wanted to see before I die: Angkor Wat. We actually stopped at the Angkor Thom south gate, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Angkor Wat, in that order. The artisanship was incredible, and the vandalism and tourist shenanigans were pitiful. We watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat at 5:41 AM, and I saw hundreds of people take the exact same picture. That rubbed something in me the wrong way, so I made up my mind on the spot that I was going to spend the day looking at the site, not composing shots of it. I didn't take a single picture, but I saw some beautiful things. Good day.
Tomorrow, we get back on the bus for Phnom Penh. Pray for safe travel, if you would.
What I've seen so far on this trip resembles what I've seen on all my previous short-term mission trips: the group is growing more and more cohesive. In part, that's because we have long hours to kill, so we chew over what we're seeing, and we tell stories, and we play games, and uncertainty reduction theory says all that verbal exchange coupled with nonverbal warmth should reduce uncertainty and increase liking. And it does, plainly. But I think a bigger part of it is the shared work: we come to each other's aid, we pitch in, we feel satisfied at what we accomplish together. I think, and have thought for years, that shared work is sadly underappreciated as a way to tighten and strengthen relationships of all kinds, especially in American culture.
I arrived at NCU in the fall of 2007, and I was one of seven new hires that year. On a faculty our size, that's a big infusion of new faces. At new faculty orientation, there was an icebreaking game that I've blotted out of my memory, an effort at using planned, scheduled "fun" to jump-start collegial relationships. It didn't accomplish much. But right after that, we had a work session, in small groups, to mark up part of the school's strategic plan and suggest changes. It was fairly unengrossing work, but at the end of that hour, that's when I first felt some recognition and some closeness with my new colleagues.
Something like that is happening here. My curmudgeonly opinion of "kids today" is that they too often put fun and enjoyment at the focus of what they do. They do that in their down time, and many of them expect it during work time as well. I don't think they're lazy or childish to do so, but I do think they're missing out. Fun for fun's sake is like a meal of cotton candy: nice flavor, but too insubstantial. Doing meaningful things, and weaving in fun as a by-product, is a far more effective and sustainable strategy. It works the same way being liked works: people who set out with being liked as their goal are often the least likable, while people who proceed from integrity and comfortability with themselves find themselves popular as an indirect, not direct, outcome. The harder you try, the more it eludes you, but the more you turn your focus to what really ought to matter, the more good luck you seem to have as a fringe benefit. This, in other words.
People are getting sick; no emergencies, but some moderately scary developments. Sarah spent a couple of days fighting off fever and nausea, and today Sway and Calvin both took to their beds. Sway was up and around in a few hours, thinking it might have been a reaction to a bite, or a scorpion sting, or something similar. But for Calvin, we had to call a doctor: he was having enough trouble keeping anything down that dehydration became a genuine possibility. He's better, but we're still watchful. We've done some focused, no-nonsense praying for health, and it would be wonderful if you kept our health in your prayers as well: for Sarah and Sway and Calvin to be restored to complete health, and for the rest of us to be protected from illness.
Tomorrow, we visit Rapha House. No photographs allowed, so the day's blog post will be even more of a wall of text than this one.
Getting from place to place is a big part of each day, and a big part of the entire experience. The truck in the second picture down in Day Two has come to feel like home, because we've spent a lot of hours in the bed of it. There are benches on both sides running the length of the truck bed; they're padded, and there's also a padded back rest, but some of the roads put the suspension to the test, particularly the dirt roads. It's no exaggeration to say we've caught air a few times. It means just the trip by road can be pretty physically taxing, and when we get back from the day's events, it sometimes feels as though the drive was the most tiring part. And Delia and Calvin both have old injuries that have spoken up about all the jostling. But here again, what perspective is showing me is how spoiled I am on the simple logistics of my daily commute. I don't ride in vehicles very often these days, but when I do, I travel on smooth roads in an enclosed, air-conditioned passenger compartment. What folks here accomplish, both as far as their work and the condition of their hearts, they accomplish in spite of obstacles and complications that wear me out after just a few days' experience.
It's also the case that drivers pass one another in a fashion that in the United States would look unbelievably reckless, but here is accepted and routine. I don't really mind that, though: I haven't felt unsafe at all. I wouldn't want to drive here, without a long period of observing and then practicing, but being a passenger is fine. God has well and truly kept our going out and our coming in, and I'm thankful.
Time in the truck bed has been a good opportunity for me to listen to Sam a bit. Sam is at Hope Bible Institute, and has been coordinating visits along with Pastor Troy, as well as translating for us. He's told me a good deal of his story, how he came to trust Jesus, his view of the work that needs doing in Cambodia, and even some of his opinions about the United States. When I told him I didn't own a car, he was quite shocked, and so were the other Cambodian staff who were along that day. I mentioned that Eugene is very walkable, that walking is good for my health, and that cars are expensive, and I think it's the last reason that surprised them the most.
I've noticed a few times that they take it for granted that Americans can draw on bottomless affluence for whatever we need. They don't explicitly think that; intellectually, they know that money is tight the world over, but their quick first reaction to a number of conversational turns reveals how they imagine America. Not Sam, necessarily; he lived in the United States for many years. But it's true of some of the other folks. I told them about how my former student Nick directs a nonprofit that raises funds for other agencies, while employing homeless people, and they assumed I meant outside the United States. I then mentioned that my former student Peter turned aside from his college major and trained to become an ASL interpreter, and again, they assumed that if Peter was working with people in need, it must be outside the United States. I think they can think of Americans as being homeless or in need of ministry, but it takes effort, in much the same way I can think about Cambodian pastors, scientists, businesspeople, but it's not the first picture that pops into my head. But that's a failure of my own perception, and being here is helping.
This morning, we went to Hope Bible Institute's church for Sunday worship.
As we'd done on the home church visits, we introduced ourselves, and we sang "I can count on God." In yesterday's post, I neglected to mention that Troy forgot his iPad and speaker in the truck, so we just sang it a cappella. That went well enough that today we did it a cappella again. The youngsters joined in on the motions, but so did the parents and elders, which was fun to watch. After that, Chloe, Joe, Delia, Annie and Sway performed "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)," with Annie signing the lyrics.
(Chloe's not in the shot because she was playing the keyboard, and a big fan blocked my view of her.) When they finished, Pastor Troy delivered the message.
His passage was Mark 9:33-37. He talked about playing Superman when he was a boy, with a towel tied to his neck for a cape, and went from there to Jesus with the towel around His waist, washing the disciples' feet. At one point, Sway, who speaks and understands Khmer, started laughing, and couldn't get himself under control for a minute or two. Afterward, he told us that when Troy said he used the towel as a cape, Sam had translated it that Troy hung himself with a towel. Not quite.
When the service ended, the church invited us to stay for lunch. And I think God read my post from yesterday, because this was a pretty good corrective for all the feasting we've been doing.
The upper left corner is a frog leg. From there, clockwise, there's a mess of crickets, a number of silkworms, and a few beetles: all perfectly edible and full of protein, and all reasonably tasty. As a former finicky eater, I feel downright proud of how much I enjoyed this meal. They did also serve us mangosteen, as well as fresh papaya that they grew right there on the institute campus. And they had a wonderful curried pork, too; it wasn't solely a John the Baptist meal. But the insects were an experience, and a good one. The best part was that it was a meal around the table with a church family, cooked up by Loak Krou Chanthou's wife and several other church ladies. It was sharing food as an expression of togetherness and warmth, and it took away at least a little of my disquiet at all the lavish restaurant meals.
After lunch, Loak Krou Chantou shared his testimony with us.
He was forced into a work camp by the Khmer Rouge and fed only a single can of rice which was split up among the entire work crew. He escaped, and rose to the rank of commander in the Cambodian Nationalist force. But he didn't come to know the Lord until one day his unit was hopelessly outnumbered in battle, and his soldiers were terrified. His wife had always said to him, "Put your faith in Jesus," but he had never paid attention until he was cornered and facing almost certain death. He and his soldiers prayed out loud, asking Jesus for help, and they survived the battle, in some cases with miraculous near misses. At one point, Chanthou bent over, and a shot went straight through the space his head had just occupied and hit a tree. After the battle, all the soldiers under his command chose to be baptized.
Today, Chanthou pastors a church and works with Hope Bible Institute. He and his wife raised nine children, the youngest of whom is a razor-sharp eleventh grader. She has a Khmer name that I'm sure I'd misspell, if it even has a definitive transliteration, but she goes by Elizabeth with English speaking friends. She's traveled around with us for the past three days, and she's delightful: kind and thoughtful and possessed of joy. Chanthou's family has blessed us in many ways, most of which I'm probably overlooking, and I'm going to miss them when we depart Battambang for Siem Reap tomorrow.
By the way, we're leaving Battambang for Siem Reap tomorrow.
Eating has been nothing but a pleasure, which is both wonderful and troubling. The meals are absurdly cheap, but the quality is better than what I'd expect in stateside restaurants. Many of them have very American foods like burgers and chicken strips, but I haven't given in; I don't want to get home and wish I'd tried more Khmer dishes. I've had more bowls of kuy tiev, sometimes with egg noodles, beef lok lak, noodles with peanut and fish paste sauce, and today I had Khmer-style vegetable stir fry, and all of it has been really tasty.
The troubling part, of course, is that the folks we're meeting with are very food insecure, and can't possibly afford to have even one of the meals I'm having three times a day. We bring bread, and the kids carefully carry it home to share with their entire family. We don't compare all that favorably with the Apostles in their work commissioning churches; we're feasting before we go to strengthen and encourage churches, and somehow that's not sitting quite right with me.
A reasonable reply might be that we're braving the heat, so we're afflicting ourselves deliberately and making an offering of our physical comfort. Another reasonable reply might be that the shock of transplanting ourselves from the United States to here is severe enough that if we add fasting on top, we soon reach the point where people get sick, and then we can't minister to anyone. Distorted sleep schedules and flirting with dehydration are quite enough by themselves, so we eat bountiful meals to offset those effects. Still, it's luxurious, and it just unsettles me that we go from luxury to want, and then back to luxury again.
Today, we traveled out to a third home church.
These youngsters didn't sing songs for us, but they did speak a surprising amount of English. Several of them are sponsored through Worldvision, and their church leaders had worked with them on some beginning sentences. If we asked, "What is your name?" they answered "My name is ___" very clearly, with virtually no accent. That might not sound staggeringly impressive, but the phoneme sets for English and Khmer are so different that a great deal of hard work and practice must have gone into just that one exchange.
They were also patient beyond their years in repeating their names for us. Khmer includes vowels that we're learning to hear decades too late -- if we didn't them as infants, we have virtually no chance to learn them now. So we try to repeat their names, often several times, but we're inevitably wildly off target. Sometimes they keep trying to guide us, and sometimes they just laugh and convey that whatever we're saying is close enough.
Today, just to change things up, Pastor Troy farmed out the message, so different people talked for just a minute or two about how Jesus is Creator, Provider, Protector, Savior and King. Then we played games -- soccer for the boys, duck-duck-lobster for the girls, and I got a game of catch going again with some of the boys who opted out of soccer. Today's desk toy was my pair of Balls of Whacks:
In case you're not familiar with it, each one is made up of a bunch of segments held together by reasonably strong magnets. We had to throw and catch very gently, because a drop or hard catch would make all the segments fly apart. The smallest boys laughed themselves silly every time it happened, and the bigger boys had a good time with the challenge of throwing and catching gently.
After games, we distributed food and did crafts. Today, the kids made picture frames.
Yes, those are water bottles on the table. Yesterday's Aha! moment brought about some changes. We left our own bottles in the truck, and we gave the kids bottles of water to drink with their bread.
That wraps up the visits to home churches. Tomorrow, we're off to a full church service at Hope Bible Institute. Some of the musically skilled among us will be leading worship, and Pastor Troy will deliver the message. Then, bright and early Monday morning, we pack up our wagon to hit the road for Siem Reap.
I've been thinking more about the question from yesterday about whether we make any difference in so short a visit. An illustration struck me that clarified my thinking on the subject. Parents are enormously influential in the lives of their children, and no wonder: they have genetics, rulemaking authority, control over resources, and a tight relational bond. But even with all those tools and advantages, everybody, and I mean everybody, gets that parenting isn't done in big, bold strokes that lay entire problems permanently to rest, but rather in little discrete touches, day to day. If that's how parents effect change, then why on earth does it make sense for us to wonder if this work is worthwhile just because we don't see the change in a single day? I mean, I get the bungee-jumping criticism, that we're popping in and out and not investing any time, and obviously parenting is an enormous investment of time. But to me, that's a textbook case of making the perfect the enemy of the good. It's too redolent of Judas grumbling that Mary didn't sell her precious ointment and give the money to the poor. Jesus shushed Judas and praised Mary, because Mary's loving act was more pleasing to God than human angst over our failure to wipe out planet-wide social ills with our own meager resources and cleverness.
This morning, we headed out to another home church.
The original plan was that we would drive about three hours, out to a very remote church that never gets any visitors. But the heat is record-breaking, and it's the holiday for the king's birthday which made road travel even more unpredictable than on a typical day. So instead, we went to the church of Loak Krou Chantou, the pastor that's been driving us around all week. We sang the same three songs as yesterday, and this time the children sang their own songs back to us. They sang "This is the day" in English, which blew my mind, and then "Jesus is my rock" and "I have decided" in Khmer. Loak Krou Chantou's daughter, Otia, is the church's worship and youth pastor, and all the children follow her instructions precisely.
The inside of the church building was the hottest, muggiest place I'd been all week, and the sweat was pouring off everyone, so after Troy finished his shortened message, we stepped outside to play games. There were more rounds of duck-duck-lobster.
And at some point, they got a good hokey-pokey going; here's Sarah turning herself around.
The crafts segment was a bit bumpy. Today we were making cross necklaces with a couple of extra beads, but the hole for the string was so tiny that it was slow going. Chloe used a bobby pin to enlarge the holes, and Otia produced a stick of just the right size to accomplish the same purpose. The inside of the building wasn't quite as hot with about half the attendees outside playing games, but it definitely was hot enough to make patience with a non-compliant necklace even more challenging. Mary Jo held things together inside and worked extremely hard to accomplish that. I'm not sure how many people noticed, but then Mary Jo does a lot of important and loving things that most people don't notice, and Jesus has opinions about that.
In my office back in Oregon, on my desk, I keep a bunch of good fidget toys that students can play with when they come to talk to me, because it helps them think. Right before we left, I threw most of the fidget toys in my luggage, planning to use them to break ice with the kids and then give them away. Today I took my blue and yellow Hoberman switch-pitch ball and started a game of catch with the kids. What worked well about it was that I could include everyone, even the very small ones, by inviting them with my eyes and gesture to catch the ball and then throwing it very gently for them. We played for fifteen or twenty minutes and the game grew to about a dozen kids. Right before we left, I presented the ball to Otia, explaining where I had previously kept it, and that blue and yellow were our school colors. My hope is that when the kids play with the ball in the future, it'll bring up a number of good memories from our visit.
In the afternoon debrief, we talked about the fact that everyone was carrying a water bottle and drinking from it in front of the church members, even though they were just as hot and thirsty, and didn't have water for themselves. Jesus' words about a cup of cold water landed heavily on a lot of hearts. We thought hard about the kinds of selfish acts that aren't deliberate, such as the unintended effects of actions like pulling out smartphones to photograph a child, when the child very likely won't ever be able to afford one.
After that, we headed out to Phnom Sampov, a temple on top of something roughly the size of Skinner Butte. It was one of the last holdout bases for the Khmer Rouge, and there are still artillery pieces on site.
We took the stairs up the hill, a thousand steps of climbing. At the top, we took team pictures in a couple of spots, then made our way back down by the road to watch bats emerge from one particular cave for a night's feeding. The bat exit took almost twenty minutes; I've read elsewhere that they estimate the cave's population at five million, and that the locals call the bat swarm "the dragon."
And as we watched, we made a friend.
Annie was in hog heaven at seeing monkeys all over Phnom Sampov; she counted sixty-one of them. In particular, we spotted one that was quite pregnant, and several youngsters playing king of the mountain on a prayer flagpole. We also saw a food cart operator drive a monkey away from his food with a very hard salvo from his slingshot. The monkey didn't like that at all, and for a second it looked as though there might be a fight, but the monkey stalked away and sulked instead. The little guy in the picture above was fairly sedate, but we kept our distance, as mom was only a few feet away. She didn't watch carefully, but we knew it wouldn't take much to trigger her protective instincts.
The strangeness of the place is wearing off. The heat and humidity haven't gone anywhere, but managing them is now a known quantity. People have adjusted to using facial expressions and gestures when the language barrier breaks down completely; it now happens a lot more smoothly and instinctively. Today was better than yesterday, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow.
This morning, we took an hour's drive out of Battambang to visit a house church:
The agenda was to play a few games, sing three songs, have Pastor Troy deliver a short message, do a craft, distribute some school supplies and food, and then pray with and for the church leaders. The songs were "Peace like a river" with motions, "Allelu-allelu-allelu-alleluia" in Khmer, and "I can count on God," also with motions. We used the drive time as rehearsal time:
When we arrived, the women and girls played Duck-Duck-Lobster, and the men and boys got a soccer game going. The only reasonably flat space to play was about a twelve foot stretch of the unpaved driveway, but that didn't dampen the kids' competitive fire at all.
We then sang our songs for them, and I hate to admit this, but they looked baffled. Part of the problem was that Chloe was singing solo on the verses, since the rest of us hadn't quite learned all the lyrics. Another glitch was that I was doing everything mirror image to everyone else -- after all these years, I still can't reliably tell left from right. But some of the more upbeat youngsters motioned along, and they all clapped politely at the end. We adjourned to get the craft and distribution ready while Pastor Troy delivered his message:
After we did the craft and distributed food and school supplies, we talked through the interpreter with the lady who leads the house church. Pastor Troy asked her how she came to start the church; she said when she came to know the Lord, she felt like her heart was on fire, and she couldn't stop telling other people what had happened to her, and the telling snowballed until her home became a church. Troy asked what we could be praying for, and she asked that we pray for a Bible teacher to come teach her congregation, and also for her to be able to repair her home and improve the plumbing.
We prayed those requests, and if you're reading this, it would be wonderful if you prayed over them as well. This village is very remote, and there are no jobs, so the poverty is a heavy burden and people are drowning in unmet needs. A number of the kids have unmistakable signs of malnutrition and poorly-healed injuries. Sara noticed that a few of the girls wore makeup, age-inappropriate clothes and jewelry, and that they were noticeably far more slow to engage with any of us; Pastor Troy said very likely their parents are desperately poor and are trafficking them to make ends meet. Again, unspeakable and intolerable suffering, close enough to reach, and no 911 to dial, no sledgehammer to swing: we had friendliness and small gifts, and those were our ministry tools.
Back in Battambang we debriefed, and a genuinely difficult question came up: are we making any difference at all? We were there for about an hour, had a little limited, wordless contact, and gave away things that won't last long. Was it a waste of time? That question hangs over a lot of mission work, especially short-term. There were a couple of stabs at glib answers, but where we wound up is that real change, real ministry, is the cumulative force of loving and prayerful acts from a lot of people on a lot of occasions, permeated with trust that God marshals those efforts and directs them in ways we don't see to where the need is acute. Someone today, several someones, made a lifetime memory, and will do something, go somewhere, choose something, motivated in part by that memory. Someone really needed school supplies, and God arranged the delivery. What's naïve is the belief that if change didn't happen on the spot, visibly, as an observable outcome of a single group's efforts, then nothing changed and nothing is going to change. That's not how it works; not that quickly, not that straightforwardly, and not, as Mary Jo pointed out, like a movie plot, with everything neatly tied up in two hours. We came today and reached out where we saw openings. And we will keep it up.
In the evening, we saw a troupe of Cambodian acrobats, all teens or very young adults.
They were students at Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO that offers vulnerable children education and training. They were very skilled, and it was obvious a great deal of hard work and discipline went into working up the show. Tomorrow, we're off to another area church where we'll have a little more time, so more games, more singing, possibly two crafts, another message, and more human contact. We'll plant and water and trust God to give the increase.
Lesson learned at breakfast, in two parts. Part one, if the menu shows Khmer kuy tiev, order it. It's a broth with white noodles and cooked I'm-not-sure-what meat, and it tastes wonderful. Sprouts and a small lime come on the side, but I didn't notice those until I was nearly done, so I apparently had the bland version of the soup and it was still wonderful. Hot soup for breakfast is a Cambodian thing; it raises body temperature so the ambient temperature doesn't seem so bad, and it's hearty enough to power a full day's strenuous activity. And the utensils work differently: you hold a spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other; you spoon up broth and chopstick the soup's ingredients on top, and then take a bite. I didn't really master it, since it involved using a spoon with my non-dominant hand, but that was another chance for me to feel like a child again, lacking mastery of basic tasks. Good meal, and good lesson.
Part two, if Pastor Troy recommends something, try it. I never in a million years would've ordered Khmer kuy tiev on my own, but it was superb. Good meal, and good lesson.
The bulk of today we spent in a mini-bus on the very last, please merciful Lord Jesus let this be the last, leg of the journey: Phnom Penh to Battambang. The mini-bus belonged to a school called Kids College, which I thought was apt, so on a pit stop people obligingly posed with the name:
To people-, building- and traffic-watching, we added wildlife-watching: there were caribou and water buffalo foraging for any hardy blades the drought had spared. There were chickens and piglets being transported alive by the dozens or hundreds while hanging upside-down from their legs. The piglets were in a truck, but the chickens were all suspended from a motorcycle.
In Battambang, we made contact with Sam at the Cambodian Christian Church Organization. Pastor Troy sat and made plans with the staff while we had a look at the Hope Bible Institute campus.
Just across the road, there was a gaggle of young children whom I suspect had played with foreign visitors before, because they waved at us excitedly from the moment we turned into the driveway. Morgan decided that squirming, happy children interested her more than the HBI facilities, so she approached them to get to playing. They had tiny attacks of shyness and retreated a few feet, but she persisted, and other NCU students joined her, and before long, the ice was broken. They took turns chasing each other playfully a short distance while the children worked up the courage to come close. Then they played a simple imitation game, taking turns being the leader and doing something silly for everyone else to imitate. Finally, the last of the kids' shyness broke, and our students picked them up, gave piggyback rides, gave shoulder rides, and swung them every which way.
The nice thing about the play session with the children was that it was entirely unplanned. All credit to Morgan for reaching out instinctively and fearlessly to make a connection, for showing friendliness and warmth that washed away her foreignness.
After dinner, we met on the hotel veranda and circled up for a debrief and preview of days to come. Pastor Troy pointed out that the building across the parking lot was a KTV, a Cambodian karaoke bar where customers would negotiate with hostesses for a girl to take elsewhere. We've traveled a very long way to arrive here, but we've found what we heard about, and we're close enough to pitch in and make a difference. The problem operates on a dizzying scale, and has roots that are tangled, complex and stubborn, but we're here to minister where we see openings.
Tomorrow we visit our first house church. No more travel: we're here.
My feet are on Cambodian soil. I've met several Khmer people, nearly all women, and started the work of trying to tune my ear to their extremely different phoneme set. I've seen Cambodian street traffic, and I've felt Cambodian heat and humidity.
The heat and humidity are intense, but eminently bearable. It's typical Texas July weather. We sometimes went camping in July, and by the end of each day we would be fully as sweaty and sticky as I am here. It's still a very good idea to drink extra water, and to be thoughtful and deliberate about any strenuous physical activity, but it seems to me too many folks are afraid of the heat. I'm not accusing anyone of being a hypochondriac, but it's quite well established that hammering a group of people with repeated messages about "You're supposed to feel sick, you're supposed to feel uncomfortable" has a framing effect. I genuinely think if we had a simpler, down-to-earth talk about precautions like drinking water, but also a little mindfulness work on noticing and then ignoring the heat, we'd be better off.
We spent several hours at a site where a group of Khmer women and one American expat, a Texan from Carrollton, gave us a crash course in Khmer culture and etiquette. They keep pretty tight security around the place -- no photos allowed, and a certain secrecy around the house's location -- which is why I'm not including the names of any of the women. Well, the real reason is that I couldn't, even if I wanted to: I can't yet listen to Khmer any better than I can speak it. We learned an incredibly simple dance which I wasn't anywhere near coordinated enough to do, and we played a couple of local games, during one of which I fell while being chased and skinned myself up, but didn't break anything important. We wrote our names in Khmer script, which I still find completely baffling. The lessons were useful, but the language barrier is so massive, and the cultural difference so expansive, that we barely succeeded in touching the surface, never mind scratching it. But they were warm and friendly, and the lessons were nicely put together and helpful, so I appreciate them a great deal. It was a nice welcome. Oh, and I had my first rambutan, which was tasty.
The part of the day that engrossed me was the first drive from the airport to the learning site. That was a chance to people-watch, building-watch, and traffic-watch. The traffic is anarchic, but in normal range for much of the world. I saw a fair amount of what American drivers would call daredevil driving -- lane-splitting by small scooters, chiefly -- but I didn't really see any near misses, let alone accidents. No doubt they happen, but I get the feeling most people here are accustomed to the traffic and have a serviceable mastery of the unwritten rules of driving. Lots of passengers balance precariously on scooters as they speed through traffic, and that would scare the life out of me.
But mostly I got to peek inside lots of shops and cafes and watch people watch the world go by. Much of what I saw is probably attributable to the heat wave, but no one seemed so much as focused and determined, let alone happy. A lot of people wore defeated looks on their faces. It's dicey, trying to decode facial expressions on people from a very different culture, and all I had were quick glimpses, but weariness is weariness, and alertness is alertness, and the only form of alertness I saw was a guarded, defensive look. I did see a few children playing, and they were happy and had kid-energy, but only a few.
Looking back on all of that, Matthew 9:36 is very much on my heart. I don't want at all to be condescending, or to presume everyone here is miserable; there's no shortage of neighborhoods in the United States where I could find a comparable air of suspicion and defeat. But we drove all over Phnom Penh, and it seemed as though it was everywhere. The shepherds who have risen up to look after these sheep have instead enriched themselves. Jesus talked so much about the Good Shepherd because of the enormous price in misery left behind by bad ones. I know, in the abstract, about the systemic roots of poverty, poor education and abuse that afflict this country, but yesterday I took a very unscientific sample of the people, and I saw it. It was nothing dramatic, nothing that would make good YouTube; it was in the air, like the humidity. And seeing more and more of it, in neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood, drove into my heart how enormous is the job of helping, of ministering in a way that makes a meaningful difference.
That, of course, takes me up to Matthew 19:26 Big jobs are God's specialty, and audacious children who go in His name to offer what they have to ease the suffering of others bring along His words, His love. And yes, we'll find His words and His love waiting for us here, in the mouths and hearts of the workers who were here long before us. So, even if we don't see miraculous, overnight solutions to problems, what we do plants seeds, and what we do brings people together in respectful and loving work, one encounter at a time.
At the end of the day, we had dinner at a very American-looking pizza joint. The toppings list was in Khmer, which made ordering a little adventurous, but it was all very familiar and tasty. The ambitious part of me thinks it was an opportunity wasted -- dang it, we have pizza joints in Eugene! -- but the exhausted part of me welcomed the chance not to watch or think very carefully.
There's a lot to learn, far too much for the very scarce and precious time we have, but every bit of it can be pressed into service for the work ahead. Because the amount to learn is tiny next to the amount of work cut out for us all, American and Khmer alike.