Sunday, January 24, 2010

From Cambodia

Dear Pamela.

Yeah.How do you do!

At first i'd like sorry for did not email to you for a long itme and did not answer to all of your questions before.because i've been busy with my studying at school.
Oh.I want to tell you that I will get the first semester on 3th until 6th next month.
I hope I will be great on that days.

Oh.Have your school have semesters or not?
There are two semesters in here.
For 7,8,10,11 grade,but it different for 9,12.
When i'm in 12th grade i'll get two semesters and then i'll get the final test.
If i past i'll continue to the University.If i fall i won't continueto the University.

Here is very cold.The weather was changed.
Before was cold in the December and begin January,but now wan't cold in December,but it's cold in the middle of January.
I get up early and then i take a shower,it's very and very cold.

Yeah of course i can answer to you question.
When i'm not school i like to study the subjects that I studied at school and sometimes I read and practice english. Are you busy with your job? When will your visit us again?

Yeah.thanks very much....
I hope that I'll get your email back.

Best regards,

Friday, August 28, 2009

Crossing the Mekong: My Excellent Summer Adventure

From the moment we left Chicago, our trip was packed with new and unexpected adventures. I was somewhat prepared for my first trip to Asia via prior reading, videos, and conversations, but the preview simply touched the surface of what we experienced. Our first stop, Hong Kong provided a night-time view of a crystal fairyland nestled among the mountains and proved to be only the first stop on an incredible eight day journey through crowded, litter-strewn streets, peaceful country sides, dimly lit markets, ancient temples, monuments to the martyrs of genocide and meandering rivers.

When people ask, “What was your favorite thing?”, so many pictures are etched in my mind like the city scenes of thousand of motorbikes; mile after mile of dwellings where generations of families sold their wares to passers-by from a storefront and lived in the back of the simple dwelling; a new definition of open-air dining where families squatted around a small grill awaiting the next meal; the ever-present vendors who urged, “buy something from me madam”. There were parks, monuments, buildings, and temples that serve as reminders of the ingenuity of ancient civilizations. The beautiful countryside dotted with rice patties, water buffalo, and gently rolling hills offered yet another, more tranquil scene. But if I had to choose, I’d say it was the quiet dignity, resolute manner, and spirit of the Cambodian people that left the greatest impression.

Our Cambodian guide, Rith, modeled the strength of his people. He shared the story of an idyllic childhood that changed so drastically with the reign of the Khmer Rouge who attempted to wipe out the population of educated Cambodians. After walking the Killing Fields, hearing the stories, and giving silent homage to those who had died there during the years of terror under the Khmer Rouge, I wondered how Rith could still possess such a positive attitude and outlook on life. It appeared that his Hindu faith based in forgiveness and looking toward the future was the source of his strength.
This positive attitude was also seen in the children we met. From the moment we arrived at the Bright Future Kids Home, we were bombarded with smiles and youthful giggles. The afternoon flew by as they sang songs; we shared games and visited with the children who called BFKH their home. There was no doubt that they were eager to discover as much as they could about us and practice their English speaking skills. As students, they were exceptional. Two fifteen year old boys shared their dreams for the future and the plans they’d mapped out to get there. Their focus and dedication to learning were inspiring. The talented students of the Sangkhum School demonstrated their talents in an awe inspiring presentation of Cambodian music and dance. Years of practice had resulted in their ability to expertly perform the music and dances of their ancestors and would eventually enable them to live independently.

While our trip provided the opportunity to learn so much about the people of Cambodia, their culture and history, I feel like there is another chapter to be written. I’d like to return and volunteer at BKFH and help the students there to achieve their dreams. With that in mind, I’ve added yet another item to my “bucket list” and plan to work diligently to see that the wish is realized.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


As the colorful spinning top of the Mekong adventure starts to settle, I realize that several thoughts keep resurfacing in my head.

I had done my pre-trip homework by studying the history of Vietnam and the history of Cambodia. I also had visited sites on YouTube which captured in pictures the lush Mekong delta and the amazing temples outside of Siem Reap. I knew that each country would offer its own separate, but enticing experiences. Therefore, I was unprepared to come away from visiting each country with a vastly different emotional response. The impressions were formed primarily by the urban areas and tour guides.

Ho Chi Minh City gave me my first impression of Vietnam. It is an exhausting city where my senses were constantly bombarded. While traveling by foot in the city, I found myself wedged between a sidewalk packed with parked scooters and the street alive with moving motor scooters. Shop fronts the size of garage doors lined the never-ending city blocks selling a very small stock of beverages to very few customers. Slung between poles, I observed resting shop owners and children. Interspersed between the shops stood the stalls of fruit sellers where mounds of exotic fruit of all colors and scents (both good and bad) blasted the passersby. Fruit rinds and garbage were strewn every which way. Masses of telephone wires hung between poles. Under the rooftop of the central markets hundreds of sellers stood in dark hot stalls poking customers and hawking their wares with, “Madam, madam, for you?” Open parks were rare. In this bustling city, there appeared to be no green spaces or buildings that offered tranquility.

Our guide in Vietnam, Mr. D, shared a lot of valuable information, but there was an edge to him. What was his real take on the American involvement in the Vietnam War? Did he appreciate his country’s economic system where every family member contributed to the household, and cash, not credit, bought your extended family a house? Did he really believe that it was okay when children didn’t attend school because their parents didn’t work hard enough to pay for the education? Was this communism or conservatism?

In contrast, Cambodia felt like a reprieve to the over-stimulating life in Ho Chi Minh City. Although Phnom Penh had some rough areas, there was room to breath. Flower-planted boulevards and parks graced the city. Families happily congregated at playgrounds on Sunday. Large and small shops lined the streets adding variety, not monotony. Shop owners and city workers were busy sweeping sidewalks and pruning weeds. When garbage was visible, it was swept into a pile to the side. The central markets were just as crowded as in Vietnam, but the sellers were more relaxed, less intense. Striking Buddhist temples were sprinkled everywhere.

Our guide in Cambodia, Rith, was an icon of gentleness. With the voice and poise of Sidney Poitier he shared information about the Cambodian culture. I was struck by the fact that he could maintain this presence in spite of being a victim of the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970s. The love for his country and children was evident, and he supported his government’s decision to give amnesty to the Khmer Rouge people.

Was it just the luck of the draw that we landed two very different guides? Would more time in Vietnam and more visits to urban areas have given me a different feeling about the country? Having observed the death and destruction caused by the Vietnam War on the nightly TV news in the late ‘60s, I believe I was hoping in 2009 for the Vietnamese to be surrounded in a peaceful, heavenly environment. Perhaps they were.

For me, the most difficult experience of the trip was spent at Tuol Sleng Cambodia, the detention center for the families of intellectuals, business people, and enemies of the Khmer Rouge. In this museum courtyard under the branches of the trees that produced simple white flowers, Rith told the story of the families that were victimized by the Khmer Rouge. Torture, separation from family, reeducation and eventual murder were institutionalized. Rith told us his own story of being separated from his family from age nine to 11. He remarked that it was his older sister who recognized him after a long absence and how they needed to hide this familial bond in front of the Khmer Rouge. Visitors to the Tuol Sleng Genicide Museum strolled through the buildings absorbing the horrors of this holocaust, weeping in silence. This event occurred just 30 years ago. How did it happen? How was it allowed to happen? How can we prevent other acts of genocide?

And then there were the children. The children who attend the ACIS schools without electricity. The children who smile and respond in spite of the heat. The orphaned children who live on the love from their community care-givers. The children whose only possessions are a change of clothes and a well-worn doll. The bright children who live 500 km from home, hoping to learn everything and give back to their countries. Out of our four visits with children’s centers, my most vivid memory with the Cambodian children was at the orphanage center. Here, the main care-taker had spent 30 years supporting orphaned children. These 15 or so children had a parent with HIV, had been struggling to survive and had been found and transferred to the orphanage. Prior to life at the orphanage, one boy of 12 had supported his three younger brothers and sister on tiny cakes he could sell at a profit of 2 cents each. Our USM team taught American games to the children on the dried mud in the blistering heat. The children caught on easily and there appeared to be glee in their hearts as we chased each other in “Duck, Duck, Goose” and waggled to the chicken dance. Why was no one whining? How is it that they could play so cooperatively? Where did this indomitable spirit come from?

My last most memorable experience was touring the temples outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was impressive to discover how this 10 year-old government imposed a system of preservation in the enormous park that housed the temples. Entering the 400 square km of Angkor Archaeological Park, tickets were purchased from efficient park employees. Rules governed the park, one of which allowed the long-standing villages and people to remain in their modest ancestral homes. No new construction was permitted. A significant amount of park employees kept the Ankgor Wat moat clean and the walkways free of weeds. The temple ruins were surreal. Giant silk-cotton trees grew in and out of the Ta Prohm’s temple crevices creating dreamlike facades. Did the trees’ roots hold up the walls or did the walls hold up the trees? How was it possible that there was so much consistency in design throughout the temple? Did a general contractor race from one end of the 500 square acre temple of Angkor Wat to another, ensuring consistency in wall height and uniformity in the carvings of the apsaras? What else can we learn about ordinary life from the Angkor period based upon the carvings?

One strong indicator of a trip’s success is the interest that it continues to generate long after the experience has passed. I am deeply grateful that I was given the opportunity to experience Vietnam and Cambodia. My curiosity and questions continue. I look forward to learning more about these countries and sharing my experiences with the USM community.

Lori VanderVelde

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Final Thoughts

One of the pitfalls of being the last to post a reflection is trying to find something different to say from all of the previous posts. But after spending 11 days travelling with my colleagues and reading their reflections, I know exactly what I want to write about.

Throughout the trip I was continually struck by how much this group loves children and loves teaching. I've always known this fact about all of my faculty, but it was brought home time and again as I watched our interaction with the children whom we encountered. Of course we were impressed by the sights that we saw, we were saddened by the depth of poverty we observed, we were awed by the ancient ruins, we were engaged in trying to understand the differences in cultures, and we were constantly discussing and asking questions to absorb as much knowledge about Vietnam and Cambodia as we could. But this was all surpassed by the presence of a child. Whether it was the students at the schools or the children at the orphanage, or a child playing on a city street, it seemed as if we were drawn to them: we wanted to take their pictures to have them always in our memory, we wanted to teach them, to play games with them, to hug them, to engage in conversation with them. The love of teaching and the love of children is ingrained in us. We don't just work with children at USM from 8 to 4. Teaching isn't a "job" for us - it's a passion. Our hearts broke when we saw how little these children have. It was very difficult to leave the children at the schools and the orphanage - we would turn several times to wave good-bye, many of us with tears in our eyes, before getting on our bus to continue our journey.

The trip was a fabulous experience. I was so proud of my teachers - their responsiveness to the children, their desire to bring back all that they learned to enhance our USM students' learning, and their hope to create a service project that will help the children of Vietnam and Cambodia become the future leaders of their countries. Amazing how much impact 11 days can make in a person's life.....

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Yesterday morning I began organizing and sorting through my 1300+ images of Vietnam and Cambodia. While looking at the pictures several thoughts and reactions came to me as I remembered all our experiences during our ten day trip. First of all, the visit to Southeast Asia took me completely out of my comfort zone. The language, the food, the culture, the sounds, the smells were all so different from my life in Milwaukee.

As a member of the Vietnam generation, while we were making our descent into Saigon I could only think of my high school classmates who were drafted after graduation and their anxiety as they flew into Vietnam. They must have been terrified having left (for most of them their first time out of Missouri) the comfort of our hometown and arriving into a war zone. Like Joe, this trip was also a way I could see Vietnam and not always think of the nightly images that appeared on the 5 o’clock news.

I must say my fondest memory was the Cambodian children. Whether we met them in the schools, the orphanages, the streets it did not matter. They always would greet us with a quick smile and a beautiful friendly face. I began talking to a woman from St Louis as we were waiting for our boarding call in Thailand. Once she heard about our trip she immediately responded by saying that her first goal would be to bring the Cambodian orphans to the United States. I immediately responded that if she saw the love and care those children receive she would not think an American adoption would be the best for these children. The Cambodian children are cherished and it is obvious that the adults see the children as the hope for a better future for Cambodia. They may not have the material belongings that a life in the United States would give them but they are loved, nurtured and most importantly happy in their homeland.

Francine Eppelsheimer

The summer of 2009 is surely one that will stand out in my memory for years to come.  Three days into summer vacation, I found myself 8615 miles (as the crow flies and the map service tells me) from Milwaukee.  Even though that fact alone might cause one to think of the trip as “memorable” there are numerous verbal, physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences that I encountered on my 10-day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia that are much more significant.

            Right now, as I sit with my journal and nearly 1000 photographs that I’ve taken, I will begin the on-going process of reliving and reflecting further about the things I saw and heard while on this journey.  Mind you, this is only the beginning……….

            On our first full day in Vietnam we visited the Viet Cong Cu Chi Tunnels.  As I overcame my claustrophobic tendencies and crawled (bent over) a short distance through one of the tunnels to the next exit, I thought about the lengths people will go to survive.  I couldn’t wait to reach the light of day. With over 200 km (that’s about 124 miles, you know) of connecting tunnels and rooms, I begin to try to imagine what it would have been like to stay, live, and eat down underground for months at a time. After a brief five or so minutes of crawling around in the dark, I was ready to exit!  We saw a diagram of the ingenious layout of the tunnel system – the four-chambered system which would allow smoke from cooking and heating fires to escape slowly to the outdoors, the ventilation holes placed strategically near huge termite hills for camouflage, and the parts of the tunnel that were placed near the river in order to hold the livestock near.  Well laid-out – well thought-out……….hard to imagine living in them.

            As we walked the grounds, seeing (or rather having the guide point out the various entrances to the tunnels) I also thought about our soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War and what little chance they really had in defeating/surviving here.  Viewing the assorted booby traps and devices used in the jungle against other human beings turned my stomach.  What horror – war.  What a dichotomy – killing and striving to stay alive.

            In the cities we visited I was taken by the juxtaposition of old and new.  Old, shanty-like homes and store fronts intermingled with brightly colored, modern homes and apartments – some palatial.  Apparently no zoning laws, at least none like those in the US.  Perhaps more striking is the fact that no one seems to mind.

            The foods of Vietnam and Cambodia were, for the most part, delicious.  I know that I will be searching the bookstores and the Internet for some of the recipes of the foods I enjoyed.  (Although I have little hope of being able to find Elephant Ear fish here in the U. S.)  Perhaps, I’ll even make more frequent visits to the Mekong CafĂ©!

            The trips to Unicorn Island, the Cham village, and the floating market will not be forgotten.  The lifestyles of the peoples in these communities contrast heavily with those in the U. S.  The reliance on the river, the rain, and the natural resources in their surroundings provide them with a strong sense of cooperation and connections to family and community.  All work together to survive, all the while maintaining a friendly, welcoming demeanor – despite their hard work and struggles.  Their pride is evident in how they conduct themselves and the daily efforts they put forth to provide for themselves and their families.


            The visits to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields were the most harrowing.  Our guide was seven years old at the time the Pol Pot Regime evacuation of Phnom Penh and separated from his family for four years.  My eyes swelled as he told his story.  It’s hard for me to imagine how and why such senseless killing could occur.  How possibly justify the killings of so many innocents, the indoctrination of children? How very evil.  That history should repeat itself in such a form is the deepest of tragedies.  I know that it’s important – much like the Holocaust Museum – to make these inhumanity-to-man crimes public in the hopes that such things will not happen again.  I am now reading a book I purchased at the museum on the Pol Pot Regime, in an attempt to find out more facts about this time and place in history, knowing that despite what I read there will never be a “reason” for such travesties.  This period of time in Cambodia will continue to unnerve me anew each time I reflect on it.  It will never find “a place” in my mind.  The suffering of the Cambodian peoples has, however, found a place in my heart.


            I was delighted with the visits to the ACIS school in Khprob Village, the Sangkheum Center, and the Bright Futures Kids Home and A New Life Orphanage.  These visits were definitely highlights of the trip. I was impressed with the difference one person or a handful of people can make in the lives of children.  The sense of family and community prevailed in all of the facilities. Whether teaching, playing games, or simply talking with the children at these locations, the fact that children are children (and the hope of the future) no matter where you are in the world was brought home.  I hope someday that I will be able to return to Siem Reap and spend more time with the children and teachers there.  In the meantime, I will have to contend myself with maintaining communication via email with those that I met. (Oh! The wonders of technology!)
            One high school student who I met at the Bright Futures Kids Home had asked if I would like to exchange emails with him.  Of course, my reply was the affirmative. By the time I returned to the hotel later that evening a message from him awaited! Since that visit I have received three more emails from two other students and a helper at the orphanage who is studying to be an accountant.  I fantasize about meeting all of them again.

            The new ACIS school is only beginning to develop.  (I believe we are the first Americans to visit the school.) Many of the students are from the poor surrounding villages and bike to school. Class sizes are large – about 50 students – and there are no computers.  Perhaps USM can continue to assist and support in the development of the school.  Both students and teachers were excited about our visit and our contributions of Harry Potter books (written both in Khmer and English), school supplies, balls, and, of course, American candy!

            The temple visits were somewhat overwhelming.  Although I have quite extensively documented each of these visits (Angkor Wat, et al) photographically, I found it necessary to purchase a book that not only contains the correct spellings of the names of the temples, god, and goddesses, but also includes a history and explanations of the multitude of carvings and buildings on each site.  My mind raced as my ears heard and attempted to catalogue all of the information that simply rolled out of the mouth of our knowledgeable guide. 


            So, it seems that at least my early summer reading has been selected.  The trip was a confirmation of the fact that the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s so much that I have yet to learn.  My head is filled with so many new facts and experiences, but my heart is filled with a new sense of wonder, of knowing, and of anticipation of good things yet to come.  I am so appreciative of having had the opportunity to take this journey – one that will impact my future and, hopefully, make me a better person for having had the experiences it provided. 


I’m (Edie) not very good at expressing myself with words….especially when the words I’m looking for reflect the things that have touched me the most. I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity of being with the “Crossing the Mekong” group, and for learning and experiencing all that we did. There are so many memories and moments that I will carry with me forever. There are memories that I hope will change me forever. The Cambodian genocide has touched me deeply. To hear the story of our tour guide first hand while standing in the courtyard of the facility that once housed thousands of Cambodians before they were slaughtered, and now houses their pictures and stories in a museum, was so overwhelming. To play with the children left behind from this tragedy… to talk and interact with the orphaned… to see their spirit and hear their dreams was so encouraging. I am going to choose the better words of a songwriter to express what it all means to me. The following is part of a song called, “I Saw What I Saw” by Sara Groves, who wrote these words after a similar visit to Rwanda.

I saw what I saw and I can't forget it
I heard what I heard and I can't go back
I know what I know and I can't deny it

Something on the road, cut me to the soul
Your pain has changed me
Your dream inspires
Your face a memory
Your hope a fire
Your courage asks me
What I'm afraid of
(what I am made of)
And what I know of love