Ball and Chain

What if there were no clocks? Not in your car, on the walls, computer or phone. There are no watches or timepieces either. Only skyward approximations illuminating from the universe’s originating source; the faithful rising and setting of the sun.

While we’re at it, let’s also remove calendars. Birthdays, holiday celebrations and election years are no longer. We’ve merely the rotation of the planet and seasonal metamorphosis of climate and foliage reminding us of the fragile impermanence of all that is.

Work still exists and life still goes on, albeit at a more leisurely pace and gracious, forgiving speed. There are still 24 hours in a day and 52 weeks in a year. However, without the conventional tools to tell us so, this tasty morsel of conversational minutiae is reduced to party faire.

What exactly is time?

Ultimately speaking, it is a concept. Much like a country’s borders, it was contrived by man to provide mutually held beliefs by which we may organize our lives. Certainly, there's usefulness in this design. However, as a planetary population, it seems we’ve taken this tool of convenience and premeditated our world around it, losing sight of the fact that at its core, time is an intangible illusion.

Janis Joplin, at the end of this live performance of Ball & Chain, imparts to us, a gift of insightful commentary. It’s an impassioned plea to begin living a life of love and compassion today because, “…it’s all the same fucking day, man.

She plucks an intriguing cord.

By removing the rigidity of calculation, the x number of years we’ve each spent roaming the planet, have been nothing but a single continuum, broken up by fitful nights of sleep. Without fretting over age related accomplishments, milestones, aspirations or projections, we awaken to each new day and what has changed? Everything? Nothing?

The imagery of the past does not truly exist. Neither do our fantasies of the future. These two insoluble states of our existence are poised in constant culmination at the present moment (see fig. 1a). These guideposts have however, instead of providing direction, been mistaken for our destination.

Missing the signs due to our focus on the past and future, something has been lost. Don’t you feel it? In the pursuit of chasing of our dreams, what many of us have traded, in addition to our present, is our ability to give freely. Pragmatic generosity and compassion, on a global scale, are missing on levels that rise above quotes passed through social media.

The late mystic, Osho, is of the belief that compassion cannot be forced; that it may be derived only through the process of mental purification. Because of this, we’ve only a superficial grasp of what it means to love.

This is far too bleak for those of us taking baby steps toward our altruistic ideals. As prosaic as the social trend of quoting sagely wisdom may appear, at least it demonstrates hope. And even the largest of blazing infernos begins with a single spark.

But hope is not a strategy.

If we are the hero in this epic novel of Life, what's the plot? To pay off the mortgage? Take a nice holiday? If the predictability of security replaces our need for raw spontaneity we risk losing interest in our own story. And if absorption within our own pursuits misplaces our ability to freely care about others, we’ve lost something even more valuable.

Hope may not be a strategy but if it sparks desire and this desire ignites action, this is a formula for change. Humanity as a whole is in dire need. We’re losing our ability to see past our own desires and into the lives of the millions that suffer, truly suffer, on a daily basis.

I happen to be of the belief that Osho is misguided in his assertion. It isn’t purity that begets generosity and compassion; it is repeated acts of compassion and generosity that contribute to mental purity. Ultimately though, it is Janis that truly has it figured out:

…if you gotta care for one day…that one day man, better be your life…because that’s all you got. If you got a today you don’t wear it tomorrow, man. Cause you don’t need it… Tomorrow never happens.

The only mastery we will ever truly gain over the passage of time is in continually re-discovering the present moment. This seemingly long stretch of days, nights and seasonal transformation, simply provides a vivid stage upon which our temporal existence is acted out. It is not the dawning of each new day, but along every point of life’s continuum that presents an opportunity to choose. An infinite string of tomorrows, only ever arriving in concept, will always remain one day too late to make a difference.

How will the next chapter of your story read?

Live. Learn. Most importantly: Lend your voice.

~ by Christine Fowle, Pokhara 2014

Free Tibet

Throughout this trip I’ve spoken to my mother numerous times. Each conversation ended the same way. ”You are coming home?” she’d ask. She’d been asking since before I left. Up until three days prior to boarding a flight home, my answer was always, “Yes. Of course. It would be foolish of me not to.” With five months of intense travel behind me and gainful employment lined up, I was more than ready to come home. That is, until I wasn’t.  It was in McLeod Ganj, Himachel Pradesh (India) that the decision was made.

September found me meditating again, this time in a center outside of Dharamshala, where the Tibetan Government in Exile is located. The growing population of Tibetans refugees and melancholy undercurrents found here evoked feelings akin to that which I experienced in Cambodia. The main difference being that Cambodians, for the last thirty years, have been recovering from their genocidal disaster. Tibetans are still living theirs.

Prior to the 1949 invasion by the Chinese, Tibet was a peaceful nation. It had its own government, currency, postal system, language and legal systems. The country functioned as a fully autonomous nation. The only thing Tibet didn’t have was a military force strong enough to fight China or the desire to do so. In 1959, after ten years of Chinese infiltration, the Dalai Lama, followed by over 100,000 Tibetans, fled to India and into exile. It has been over fifty years and still, it is here they reside.

Since the time of the Chinese occupation, a reported six thousand Buddhist monasteries have been destroyed in Tibet. Six thousand of centers of faith, devotion, spiritual practice and lifeblood. Tibetans found with a photograph of the Dalai Lama have been tortured and imprisoned. Monks and nuns are “re-educated” for weeks at a time with repeated lessons in denouncing the Dalai Lama. Torture is not just a word; innocent people are beaten, monks and nuns, raped, debased and shocked with electricity.

The Tibetan flag and national anthem are banned. Imprisonment for acts deemed as ‘splittist’ or ‘subversive’ include distribution of leaflets and sending ‘incriminating’ information abroad. At present there are countless political prisoners being held and thousands unaccounted for, including the (at time of abduction) 6-year old Panchen Lama. Chinese soldiers continue to occupy the country with the population under constant surveillance and each passing year ensuring Tibetans will maintain their status as a decreasing minority in their own land.

It may not seem like a big deal — supporting a small country on the other side of the planet. But this gorgeous little nation was peaceful and defenseless until a big badass bully exerted its mighty power and took it over, raping its resources, its people and heritage. Imprisonment, torture and execution are pushing Tibetan culture over the systematic edge of a genocidal death sentence and have been for over six decades — while world leaders, instead of standing firm on ethical grounds, attempt to leverage morality with political bastion.

Peace is not a concept. It is not an idealistic notion preached by the educated, pious or powerful and it’s not about what is in a country’s immediate economic interest or consumer needs. Peace is the living embodiment of moral, ethical and collective standards that will lead to a healthy and prosperous future for all the world’s inhabitants, if only we would wake up.

In the time spent outside of Dharamsala it is impossible not to care. Graphic stories of repeated torture involving beatings, rape, electrocution and imprisonment at the hands of the Chinese cease to be mere stories when the unfathomable is a first-hand narrative. These humble personifications of courage and perseverance have risked their lives for freedom and relive the excruciating life-altering events of their past with one wish.  They are entrusting their words to the few so that those of us living in sovereign nations will speak loudly enough for their message to be heard.

There is only one Truth and it is only through the path of peace that it may be found. It is why I must stay and it is also why I am joining the hundreds of thousands of voices entreating for the freedom of Tibet.

Please.

Live. Learn. Most importantly: Lend your voice.

~ by Christine Fowle

Depth

A parched riverbed runs through the city of Bodh Gaya; ancient depressions carrying the strength of apparitions though the sand, borne of the opposing desert, emerging from the mirage. Dust fuels a local market’s heat streaked pace. Cattle, vegetables and cash change hands; the subtle flow of commerce marches on. Karsen brings me to a village.

Two men greet us as the motorbike turns onto the perpendicular path. We walk, weaving through a patchwork of homes crafted of mud and thatch, a matching rusty hue with the earth. A group of children begins collecting behind us.

Radiating a warm glow, the village is resting in the quiet corner of a lucid dream. We sit. A welcome glass of water is accepted. A few dozen adults and children gather amidst manmade constructs of no doors, only windows. Women draped in saris effortlessly lower to the ground close by, men on the opposite side. Children arrange and re-arrange themselves, curious.

Then, we do something: nothing. In the silence only stillness permeates and we quietly sit — like sitting in a temple. Centuries of devotion, encased instead of within stone walls, by flesh, revealing reverence of equal depth. Absorbed in the energy of the moment we simply are.

Finally, we stand and silently stroll, stopping at a tin roof supported by metal bars wedged into the dirt. It’s the children’s school. We stand in this space and I am introduced to the teacher. She motions with her hand, “Come,” she says. “To my home.”

An iron stove anchors the front room along with a push-pedal sewing machine. In the back is a sleeping room with fan where we sit. She says in English, “Not good, my home.” I search my Hindi. “Bahut accha.” It’s all I have at a subtle contradiction. I want to tell her the walls are good and the floors are good but the words escape me.

We take our leave. My train departs Bodh Gaya at 1:55am and after dinner I am dropped at the gates of the guesthouse. Upon bidding my new acquaintance good bye Karsen asks, “Would you like to give money? To help fix the roofs in the village.”

I’d considered it, before dinner, offering money. Touring the village we discussed fixes to the dwellings, the need obvious. But instead of listening with my head about dollars, cents and obvious need, I listened with my heart. My heart said nothing. Doing nothing is also a choice. It was a privilege to visit the village. But when giving becomes compulsory, compassion is removed and it is no longer a gift.

I also remembered something. The first words Karsen spoke to me at the temple were not: “Which country?” They were, “Twenty rupees to take a photo.” It was the reason I ignored him.

“No, I don’t think so,” I tell him.

“Maybe later,” he says.

“Yes. Maybe later.”

~ by Christine Fowle

Destiny Calling

Destiny is calling and once again, it is time to move on. Cambodia has proven to be a remarkable country in which to spread my wings. Each of the destinations inside this destination played a worthy hand in a highly spirited game of discover the hidden mojo. But beyond the emotive temples and past the scenic serenity, the poignant charm of Cambodia is carefully concealed within the subtle grace of her people.

Born post Khemer Rouge, the fantastic glow emanating from the young adults with whom I interacted radiates hopes and dreams. Perhaps it is borne from the repression their parents endured. Out of the darkness and into a life, ever-marked by the unspeakable acts of which man is capable. Does the balance grow under the light of freedom found on the other side? I don’t know. What I am certain of is that there is tangible purity in these children.

The surge in tourism is viewed as a blessing, creating jobs, enhancing the standard of living and bringing to their doorstep, vicarious journeys as experienced through the eyes of visiting guests. The concept of traveling themselves as foreign as the thousands pouring through temple gates, for now, they still find it exciting to be a part a different world, if just for a moment

As a personal practice, optimism generally prevails over pessimism. But with one foot firmly rooted in reality, I have no choice but to add a large dose of pragmatism here. I wish to wrap my arms around these kids as to perpetually protect their innocence.  In addition to catalyzing economic development, rapid growth can also pave the way for an influx of interested visitors that do not always have the best interest of a country, it’s people or the environment, at heart.

From Ubud to Uluwatu, I imagine Indonesians originally shared such positive notions about the impact of tourism. If you asked now, I wonder if the Balinese would tell a different story. The island, is at this moment, surging to capacity yet the building continues. Expansion more profitable than zoning, hotels, resorts, restaurants and shops are rapidly replacing what is left of the rice terraces and farmland. Retail space is becoming too expensive for locals to rent; more and more Western shops are moving in. Much of the remaining agricultural parcels are being sold off as the quality of life becomes less valuable than the property. The prohibitive cost of living pushes families further and further from the tourist hubs, all but evicting sacred vibes of the island. Bliss is now pedaled as the hot commodity. What has it cost?

One Western toilet flushes more water than the average Indonesian consumes in one day. Yet the building continues. Heavy smog permeates the cities, road congestion clogs the streets and water pollution is killing the fish. The building continues. Deforestation and habitat destruction is devastating the wildlife on the island. When is enough, enough?

There is a window of opportunity after which everything changes. Cambodia is now in that window. Consider this my written plea to the almighty gods of tourism: Please, please, please, let’s not make the same mistakes again. Cambodians are proud of their land and of their perseverance. They still care about the happiness of visitors and possess a desire for us to find their home worthy. They possess an innocence I no longer do.

Live. Learn. Lend your voice.

~ by Christine Fowle

Under The Big Top

Taking a detour and boarding the 7a.m. bus to Battambang instead of heading south to the coast for a bit of chill, I wave good-bye to Siem Reap in search of some more boogie-time.

And boooy do I find it.

The circus is in town!

The circus is always in town when you’re in Battambang!

Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) is a Cambodian NGO that is developing children socially, culturally and skillfully, through the arts. There’s a cornucopia of vocational options to choose from, from theatre, to visual arts to music and the students’ skills are recognized and requested throughout the country by numerous organizations and hospitals. Two of their young performers are even training with the Cirque du Soleil in Montreal!

PPS has designed a holistic approach to dealing with life issues such as AIDS, drugs, human trafficking and domestic violence. It’s combined with a dedication to education, offering both formalized and supplemental programs, as well as social action, embracing the community with a Child Care Center, Social Services program and Leisure Center.

Did I mention the circus?!

I pop in to catch one of the bi-weekly performances, this one entitled, Cabaret. And what a show! There were no clowns to be found on this set, only a group of talented kids ranging in age from single to double digits. The performance was spectacular — their little bodies were contorting, twisting & turning, dropping & hopping, bouncing & spinning & flying! Whew. Don’t even get me started on the musicians. The finale involved the entire cast and a very long flaming jump rope. Set to the energetic beat of hip, jammin’ tunes, the joie de vivre bursting from these kids wasn’t just enthusiastic. it was infectious.

I wanted my training to begin immediately either twirling about 40-foot scarves, dangling from the rafters or plinking & plunking on the Dr. Seuss-like musical instruments. They were having sooo much fun! If even slightest possibility existed that my application might be considered, I would have signed up on the spot.

Phare Ponleu Selpak translates as “the brightness of the arts” and this unique operation welcomes 1400 children into its various programs each and every day. If the creative spark these kids ignite onstage is any measurement of success, they have a serious firestorm brewing. This was the most spectacular event I’ve felt privileged to be a part of since my arrival in Cambodia. Right on kids!

~ by Christine Fowle

Finger Wagging

Siem Reap, not quite ready to release me from her grasp is bequeathing the gift of one more night. I extended my stay and very quickly discovered myself free to attend a performance. But not just any performance. It’s Beatocello.

There is a hospital next to the hotel. For days I have wheeled past the men, women and children — lots of children, queuing on the sidewalks in front. They stand under overhanging tree branches quietly watching life on the street pass by. Every day they wait. It’s my new friend Boran, that finally clues me in. “It is a free hospital,” he tells me. Surely his English must be confused. “Free?”

Throughout town, poked into grass, posted on buildings, light posts and storefronts, even in the hotel lobby, are signs for Beatocello. Held every Saturday night, it’s gratis performance that includes J.S. Bach cello works and remarkably enlightening commentary. Beatocello is Dr. Beat Richner, founder and director of the Kantha Bopha hospitals. And yes, treatment for allCambodians is completely free of charge.

Dr. Richner began working in Cambodia with a small pediatric hospital in the 1970’s. When the Khmer Rouge invaded he was driven out and forced to retreat to his homeland, Switzerland. Years later, at the request of King Norodom Sihanouk, Dr. Richner once again left behind the comforts of Zurich and returned to Cambodia. In 1992 Kantha Bopha I officially opened its doors. The hospital was a tremendous success and in 1996 Kantha Bopha II was christened, followed by the Siem Reap, Jayavarman VII in 1998.

Humble beginnings employing 16 foreigners and 68 Cambodians has now grown into a revered operation supporting 2,100 Cambodians and only 2 permanent foreigners. The impact has been astounding. Against the odds of governmental corruption and a fractured healthcare system, the Kantha Bopha[1] hospitals have treated over 9 Million outpatients, 900,000 inpatients and performed 90,000 surgical operations. Over 550,000 children that would have otherwise died, did not.

This is indeed remarkable but it has come at a price. That price has been Dr. Richner’s life. Of the hospitals’ funding, 90% is derived from private donation. And this is why Beatocello plays. Every Saturday. Over 600 performances. For twenty years, Dr. Beat Richner has been sustaining the financial burden of these institutions. He is the primary reason people donate.

He’s frustrated. He’s angry. And he’s tired.

Beatocello’s performance is moving and his style direct. The good doctor has no qualms about prodding his bow into the BIG white global healthcare elephant stomping through the operating room. He stabs at the debilitating issues of international bureaucracy, inappropriate fund distribution and grossly ineffective methodology. But this was not at the heart of Dr. Richner’s impassioned plea. The most critical dilemma focuses on the rights of poor people to quality medical treatment.

Several years ago I began exploring global issues, mostly because I was painfully ignorant.  I’d spent a great deal of time working in Northwest Europe but didn’t comprehend what was taking place in the poorer countries of the world. The more questions I raised, the more answers I received. The more answers I received, the more disturbed I became. Years later I’m still sorting through the quagmire of information. There are however, some glaring certainties[2].

  • In 2010 there were approximately 8.8 Million cases of tuberculosis.
    • An estimated 1.1 Million died.
  • In 2010 there were approximately 216 Million malaria cases.
    • An estimated 655,000 died.
  • There are 3-5 Million cholera cases every year
    • 100,000 – 120,000 result in death.
  • An estimated 500,000 require hospitalization for Dengue Fever every year.
    • 12,500 die. Mostly children.
  • Worldwide recorded cases of SARS were slightly over 8,000.
    • Less than 1,000 have died.

Which issue ignited a global media frenzy?

Every year 7.6 Million children under the age of five die; 19,178 children, every day.

What constitutes a crisis? What is preventing the international community from garnering the necessary awareness to solve these problems? Why haven’t we experienced worldwide rallying to stop this senseless loss of life? I still have more questions than answers.

My passport is issued by a country that in less than two years, has generated $1,317,000,000 for a presidential race[2]. The 2012 Congressional elections have amassed $1,853,106,280.

Admittedly, I find the finer nuances of politics confusing. But there is nothing perplexing about how $3.1 Billion could be spent. I’ll give you a hint — in the twenty years Kantha Bopha has been healing the Cambodian population, operating costs have totaled $400 Million (with only 5% paying administrative costs).

Twenty years; $400 Million. One election season; $3.1 Billion.

There are obvious systemic flaws if chaotic campaign financing is not only conceivable but legally permissible. It would be easy to wag a finger and say, “Bad, bad, politicians.” But we as individuals are ultimately responsible. We are responsible for electing the governmental officials that make decisions on our behalf. We are also responsible for policing them when they step out of line.

Fixing these problems involves the removal of root causes, of which there are many. One of the most basic is the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution that recognizes corporations with the same legal rights as living, breathing human beings. The most immediately prevalent issue however, is the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission  which essentially provides corporations with a green light to procure politicians. A corporation can legally now spend limitless amounts of cash toward funding the candidates that best support its idealistic value of maximizing profitability.

The rules that govern our lives are not static. If we shake the planet loud enough we can affect change. Until then, we get what we get. As I’ve come to understand, democracy, much like life, is not a passive process. I’m not saying that fixing the United States’ political problems will mend global healthcare. But until the political lunacy that is gobbling up billions of dollars and bombarding our psyches with polluted promises of prosperity stop, nothing will improve. This much is certain. The planet will continue to hemorrhage cash. Beatocello will continue to play. And over 19,000 children will continue die — every day.

Live. Learn. Most importantly: Lend your voice.

We have an opportunity to be part of the solution. Each one of us as individuals has personal power and a choice.

~ by Christine Fowle

[1] Source: Kantha Bopha Website
[2] Source: World Health Organization.
[3] Source: FEC.
[1] Source: World Health Organization.

Lady Tuk Tuk

An understanding developed a few years ago. It involves how I spend money. Awareness began cultivating, that one powerful method of expressing my values is by aligning my purchases with the principles I hold dear. Spending meaningfully is one way of making a statement. Yes, I am only one individual and perhaps the conglomerates whose lean production costs are capitalizing on overseas labor don’t miss my patronage. But the social entrepreneurs taking risks to start businesses representative of their own convictions, value my support on a very personal level.

This being said, I have been officially reduced to the auspicious title of Lady Tuk Tuk.

Two nights ago, based on a desire to spend my Riel in significant ways, I strolled past a looong row of drivers along the narrow street, all competing for my off-season business by shouting the afore mentioned “Hey lady, tuk tuk?!” Wrong move. “I’m no lady,” reverberated through my head but didn’t quite convey the reversal of respect I was hoping to command and therefore kept the thought precisely where it belonged. Instead, a young man uttering nary a word, caught my eye. He was a young twenty-something wearing a baseball cap and when I approached, he smiled a smile that lit up his entire face and I just knew — he’s my guy.

“You want tuk tuk or motorbike?” he asked and I noticed the bike was unhooked from the cab and I’m all about the cool night breeze whooshing through my hair! “Motorbike,” definitely the motorbike. His name is Boran and his temperament is every bit as genuine as his smile. I also find that he makes for very good company.

After two days of climbing Angkor’s holy rocks I’ve self-prescribed some extended temple rest and decide that open road therapy is the sweet cure I’m looking for. So, I employ my newest friend and we head for the hills. Breaking through the city limits, cruising with our gorgeous traveling companions flora and fauna, it’s a rural daydream leaving nothing but dust! The highlight is undoubtedly our trip to the butterfly sanctuary — from caterpillars to pupas into winged beauties, the fluttering works of art are precisely what the doctor ordered; we even spy two butterflies mating!

Inhaling the scenery in reverse, Boran returns me to town where digging into the Siem Reap soil also unearths a bountiful bouquet of happy. A myriad of projects cultivating empowerment, education and community are sprouting up on either side of the river, providing numerous opportunities to support this city in lasting ways. Planted along busy streets and quiet roads are shops, eateries, galleries and hotels offering charming collections of meaningful methods to help grow local prosperity and travel with a purpose.

Along with Sala Baï, a small handful of neighborhood restaurants are also serving as training grounds for fresh, young pupils looking to make their mark on the world. Traditional and experimental artists occupying studios and alleys include painters, photographers, weavers, carvers and silver smiths — amateurs to master craftsman, from remote villages and developing cities. Landmine victims are peddling books by pedaling with their arms and clothing stores are assisting women living with HIV/AIDS. Boutiques offer sustainable handbags, Fair Trade souvenirs and jewelry crafted from recycled materials; there is no shortage of shops focused on projects supporting orphans, education, the disabled and disadvantaged.

Time, energy and financial means are finite resources and therefore not only valuable but cherished, and expenditures I make return the favor. In addition to receiving the benefit from the product invested in, I’m also granted the gift of satisfaction. At home and abroad, knowing my dollars, Rupiah, Riel and Rupee are feeding sustainable systems provides a small slice of inner peace. Even if Lady Tuk Tuk does at times, go a little out of her way to pay it forward, its well worth the effort. The rewards are priceless.

~ by Christine Fowle

Gone Fishing...

Twenty-five years of working in the hospitality industry has firmly planted its roots in the very essence of my being. Service excellence renders me giddy and authenticity is perched high on a pedestal and vehemently exalted. My current home, Le Meridien Angkor, feeds into this passion, making both coming and going a supreme delight.

It is only in the staff that the gift lies to transform a hotel from a pretty box housing a lot of nice stuff into an exquisite locale in which you feel recognized and cared for. And this pretty box is filled with young men and women that exude genuine kindness and graciously bestow it upon each and every guest that passes through their doors. It’s during one such interaction that a lovely girl in the restaurant shares a bit of information with me. She is a student at Sala Baï and with a little research I discover a very special school with an extraordinary mission.

What I love about Sala Baï is not only the school’s tourism based educational focus; it is the methodology behind their execution. The program is exclusively designed to provide hotel and restaurant skills to youths from underprivileged families within Cambodia with a household income of less than $300 USD per year. One hundred students are accepted annually to participate in the eleven-month curriculum, with majors including Housekeeping, Front Office, Restaurant Service and Cooking. The scholarships include supplies, accommodation, food, bicycles, uniforms and medical coverage with absolutely no cost incurred by the students or their families. Because of this, the competition for admission is steep and involves a meticulous selection process including family visits, examinations and personal interviews.

Phort, one of Sala Baï’s young scholars provides me with a tour of the facility and also lives in the dormitory with Ek, the sweet girl that sparked my initial interest. The hotel consists of three deluxe rooms and a suite; the restaurant, open for breakfast and lunch, is run entirely by the students, who also receive instruction in both French and English. Phort seems impressed with my limited French vocabulary and neglect to tell her that after living in the country nearly three years I’ve only achieved the narrow linguistic accomplishment of interpreting restaurant menus.

In passing I’m introduced to Emmanuelle Dethomas, the school’s Communication Officer who has signed on for two years with the project. Emmanuelle describes the background the students and explains that a portion of the integration process often involves an introduction to electricity and running water before training even begins. She also shares that the school boasts a job placement rate of 100% and that along with several other hotels, Le Meridien Angkor provides internships to approximately five students per semester and in many cases continues the relationship after graduation.

In addition to local hotels and restaurants, the school is also supported by international partnerships, private donations, as well as, hotel room and restaurant sales; they even have a cookbook! My guide was superb and I absolutely LOVE what they are doing here. Not only are these young ladies and gentlemen being taught how to fish, they are learning how to prepare and then serve it up in grand style. Nicely done Sala Baï!

Why?

Before you read this you should know that it is graphic. This isn’t a joke. Life isn’t always pretty and neither is this post. Some nasty shit has gone down in many parts of the world and Cambodia is no exception. My intent here isn’t to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. I do have a point to make and hope that by depicting the events that took place here, you understand.

The airplane descends, hovering over the cement square buildings, tropical landscape and dirt roads, finally setting down on the landing strip. Slowly navigating the exhaust filled streets, every inch is crammed with cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks. Beyond the road, dilapidated open wood structures remind me of many parts of Indonesia and India I traveled last year; homes, open to the elements, held together by whatever scraps available.

Dozens of adjacent open garages line the streets, places of business. Hanging from ropes are old power tools. Piled on the ground are stacks of tire rims, motorbike parts and rebar. Other enclosures reveal racks of used clothing, household items and cooked food, intended for sale to locals. One can quickly ascertain that there is not a great deal of income being amassed when the broken sidewalks are loaded with similar stalls competing for the same Cambodian Riel.

The next day my driver picks me up at 10am. Our very limited agenda consists only of two stops, the first of which is the Tuol Sleng Museum. After purchasing my ticket I walk outside the sparse office, look around and quickly re-enter.  I ask for the assistance of a guide; her name is Mhaurin. The museum is a high school; was a high school, until seized by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and one of the first cities evacuated by a regime called the Khmer Rouge at the onset of the Communist Party of Kampuchea victory in 1975. Soldiers instructed residents that the city would be decimated by a US air raid and that deportation to the countryside was necessary for survival. This was a lie. Roads out of the city were jammed with evacuees as were the roads leading from other cities throughout the country. In a very short time Phnom Penh’s population of over two million was emptied.

Pol Pot was leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and his Khmer Rouge army consisted predominately of boys snatched from their homes in small villages bordering Cambodia with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of these young men were living in poverty. Promised food and a purpose, they were indoctrinated, and the demented craft of exacting torture was developed on animals, to hone what would later become a means of destroying their own blood.

Pol Pot’s vision was that of a social engineered communist agrarian society, a classless existence in which the entire country consisted of peasants and the evils of city life abolished. Eliminating any intermediary steps to achieve this objective, the population was categorized into two groups “Old People,” those living rurally, and “New People,” made up of those residing in urban areas.

The terror began unfolding with the evacuation of the cities and the forcing of the Cambodian population into agricultural labor camps. Families were ripped apart and divided into numbered work units based on age and sex. The country was cut off from foreign influence. Borders were closed and all institutions, financial, educational and religious, seized.

The personified “enemies” of the regime’s distorted ideals were indiscriminately murdered, but not before undergoing interrogation. This list of enemies fell into every category imaginable beginning with anyone with connection with the former government of Cambodia or any foreign governments. The intellectual elite followed, viewed as the greatest threat to the new existence and an embodiment of free-market capitalism, the very essence of what the Khmer Rouge set out to destroy.

Tuol Sleng, or S-21, as it was assigned, was a high school converted into a torture camp. The methods were crude. Prisoners’ fingernails were pulled out, appendages chopped off and chlorine poured in.  They were bound, hoisted over a wooden beam, turned upside down, spun and beaten unconscious. The captive men were then dipped in chemical-filled vats to revive them. They were shacked to metal bed frames and electrocuted, forced to admit they were KGB or CIA, and subsequently provide names of family, friends and colleagues.

Artists, teachers, ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai, Christians, Muslims, Buddhist monks and the Catholic Church, all enemies. Anyone educated was considered a menace and anyone with a religious calling, a “social parasite”. The former were killed the latter, Monks and Nuns, defrocked and killed or forced into labor. Temples, churches, cathedrals and mosques were demolished. Any scrap of religion, culture or unity was to be decimated in the name of the new society.

Sick, hungry, weak and desperate, the laborers, as they were reduced to, were forced to work twelve hours a day or more in the scorching heat. Food was scarce; they were provided little more than a daily handful of rice. Those not executed were dying from malnutrition, exhaustion and disease; children were murdered to avoid avenging the deaths of their parents. The Khmer Rouge had a motto: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

Approximately 17,000 prisoners passed through the gates of Tuol Sieng before being transported to sites now known as the Killing Fields, where they were executed and dumped into mass graves. Bullets were too expensive to waste; instead the means of death included pickax, club and spiny leaves of palm trees, used to slice throats. There are an estimated 20,000 of these sites located all over the country. Only twelve prisoners were known to have survived the ordeal at Tuol Sieng.

The Khmer Rouge reign finally came to an end when the Vietnamese armed forces invaded Cambodia and in January of 1979 seized Phnom Penh. They subsequently found the schoolhouse, abandoned, and the twelve dead prisoners, still shackled to the bed frames. Their bodies were buried in the school courtyard in remembrance.

The Killing Field Choeung Ek, is now the site of a Buddhist memorial park, constructed around the mass graves of many thousands of victims that died here. It’s a peaceful place of introspection, commemorating the tremendous loss this country has endured.

There is no happy ending here, no happily ever after. Cambodians, slaughtered at the hands of Cambodians. Three years. Three months. Eight days. 1.7 Million people[1], dead. Friends lost neighbors. Husbands lost wives. Mother’s lost children.

Mauhrin’s brother was one of these children. She was thirteen years when she was separated from her family. She was forced to walk 180 miles (290 kilometers) from Phnom Penh to Battambang. The journey took three months on roads congested with others making the same trek, stepping over the bodies of the dead. Upon reaching Battambang she was put to work in the fields where she labored with the others, desolate and afraid.

She knew the number of the group her mother was sent away with. When released, she ran and ran until she found her. Her father, a teacher and older brother, a student, were both killed. Today her mother is 88 years old.

I cried. From the moment I stepped foot in the first room of the schoolhouse and saw the picture of the dead prisoner found here. I cried looking at the metal bed frame and the shackles he was bound with. I cried in the second room and in the third and in the fourth. I cried looking at the hundreds of photographs taken of the prisoners: men and women, girls and boys. I cried for the hundreds of thousands of innocent people they represent. I cried for Mhaurin, for her mother and her father and older brother. Mostly I cried because the pain was unbearable.

Millions of deaths cannot be for nothing. There must be a lesson here. Cambodia is only one example of many. Too many. One in every five men women and children were killed. ONE in every FIVE.

It would be pointless to bring up such graphic detail about past events for the sake of retching through emotional circumstances that will forever remain unchanged. My point is, there are valuable lessons here and genocide is not a thing of the past. It is occurring now. Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, Congo – millions of human tragedies over what? Religion. Race. Money. Power.

Really?

Children are being ripped from their families and trained as soldiers. These are real children. Children that should be receiving an education. Children that should be embracing their cultures and loved by their parents. Women are being raped and young boys, programmed as killing machines. Governments are orchestrating the slaughtering of their own people. You don’t have to see it firsthand to know it is real. Look at Syria. Look at Sudan. These massacres are very, very real.

We live in the most influential nations in the world. What good is our freedom if its not exercised? What good is power if not used toward something meaningful? Progress is not a mere measure of GDP. Until we tell our governments that we think these causes are worthy of our attention, they won’t be. We are NOT powerless. We have a voice. And this human tragedy only ends when we stand up and say enough.

There is change happening; we are on the brink of possibility. Never before have we been able to make a difference so quickly. With a click, everything can change. But it requires opening our eyes and acknowledging that the world is a small place and that human life is indeed valuable. What good is history if we don’t learn from it? As individuals, as nations and as a human race, we can help or we can sit back and watch while the planet self-destructs.

We have an opportunity to be part of the solution. Each one of us, as individuals, has personal power and a choice. And whether we want to admit it or not, doing nothing is also choice.

Live. Learn. Most importantly: Lend your voice.

~ by Christine Fowle

 

[1] Based on Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program data.

Center of Hope

After a week in paradise it is time to venture into new territory. Last year I picked up a flyer for the Peduli Anak Foundation. It’s a child development center on a nearby island that caught my eye because of the brief mention of UNICEF in the literature. This is significant because the European division of the hotel company I worked for has been partnered with UNICEF for over 15 years in a program called Check-out for Children. Donations received from hotel guests and employee fundraising efforts have generated over $25 million dollars toward immunizations and educational aid for children very much in need. It’s an outstanding program that I was proud to be a part of and it sparked my interest in checking out what was going on in Peduli Anak.

The program is supported by an organization out of the Netherlands and my tour guide, a bubbly 28-year old named Muslaeni, confirms something I learned in Banda Aceh last year but did not wish to believe. The majority of the children are here not because their parents are incapable of caring for them, but because they do not want them. She explains that marriage in Indonesia occurs at a very young age and unlike views of many other Asian cultures, the union does not carry the weight of permanent consequence. It is commonplace to marry multiple times and it has also grown acceptable to give up children from previous marriages. This means either handing the child off to a grandparent, or if it is an option, to an orphanage. Granted, this scenario is not the case for all abandonments and many parents exercise visitation privileges, but with the majority of the circumstances in Peduli Anak and at the orphanage I worked with in Banda Aceh, falling into this category, it does make one stand up and take notice.

Every choice we make in this lifetime comes with personal consequence, but guilt doesn’t provide food and shelter for children left without a home or family. The core solution is not to build more centers. What is required here is a stern talking to and societal change. Only once social norms deem a parent’s unloading of their child as unacceptable, will it be acknowledged as such. Until an invisible Big Brother steps in to begin the process of enacting change and educating the population, centers like Peduli Anak, need not only be celebrated, but also supported.

The 80 boys and girls living at the center have been assimilated into a lifestyle that provides a real sense of self: a safe environment, good education and positive social interaction. Indonesia is a country, like many in this part of the world, bursting at the seams with need and while funding exists for visible physical improvements to the center, educational support is their biggest challenge. There are any number of ways to provide assistance and taking one look at these children provides more than 80 ample reasons.

The experience Muslaeni provided me with was as unforgettable as her gregarious personality and upon completion of my tour she was very close to climbing into my backpack to join me. So I make her a deal, next year when I return, I promised to whisk her away for a one-week excursion. We’re both adding the dates to our calendars and I hope she’s ready because I intend to keep my word.