Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Big Day

This is a big day for me - I've had an essay published. 


Mind you, it's published on a small online magazine and has a picture of Kristen Stewart hi-lighting the page and there's one point at which they forgot to press "enter" and make a paragraph break--but still! To celebrate, I screamed a little, danced a little, went for a little hike, and generally wriggled all evening (a little). Perhaps not a big day, but a baby step. But I love it all the same and here's my celebratory post!

Also, link: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/152956-learning-from-vampires/ It's a pretty cool magazine, honestly. It has very interesting articles from what I've seen.

Anyway, must go teach (the life of a writer): Blessings all and thanks for reading!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Street I'd Never Seen Before

Last night I went for a walk with a couple friends through Jigalchi. Jigalchi is one of the big fishing areas of Busan (a harbor city). We walked through a street I’d never seen before lined by fish of all kinds. Some swam in aquariums, others wriggled in buckets of water, others lay bloody, others fried—all sitting and waiting to be eaten.

It was a neat little area of town—alive with convivial white lights and conversation. Beyond the clatter of chopsticks on plates and the pervasive smell of fish, the air was brisk and the night streets cool and deserted. We wound our way through a few more streets, up a side staircase, past a tree-lined road and some apartment buildings.

There we found another neat little area of town—dead with sulky purple lights and silence. Behind the aquarium windows and the uncharacteristically clean streets, Korean girls sat and waited for someone to chose them for pleasure, applying make-up and styling their hair. The brothel moms prowled in front of hallways of doorways to small, private rooms.

We walked through a street I’d never seen before lined by girls of all kinds. Some curled their hair, others straightened, some wore clingy dresses, others bras with shoulders exposed—all sitting and waiting to be eaten.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Jiggety-Jigging Back in Korea

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

That’s something my dad always said at the sight of our garage after long trips—soccer tournaments, vacations to the Corn Palace—and it’s now what I repeat to myself whenever I find myself coming home.

Coming home used to be the familiar curb double-bump as dad eased each axel of our white Montana onto the driveway and then the sudden chUuuuuuuuun of our green garage door yawning us inside during the night. It used to be the pitter-patter of our dog’s feet on cement as she joyfully circled the vehicle, wriggling in anticipation. It used to be a sleepy struggle just to pull my suitcase or soccer bag from the hatch and into the mudroom; it only made it up the stairs on night one if mom ordered it. Coming home used to be a comfortable rhythm: home again, home again—jiggety jig.

I’ve written before about the joys of traveling—about the ups and downs and the trade-offs. We’ve traded familiarity for novelty and that comes with certain repercussions. I’ve realized another repercussion these last few days as I’ve tried to settle back into Busan life: when you’re far away from home, you make new homes very quickly.

Two months in Thailand was more than enough to make a home there. And it was the kind of home I haven’t been part of in a long time—a home with moms and dads and brothers and sisters. It’s a sticky spider-web of a home to make, with lots of sharing—sharing a bedroom full of squeaking beds, bathrooms with buckets showers, coughs and lice and rice—that’s one kind of home.

A dorm room with Hilary is another kind of home for me—sharing a laundry basket and how our days were. We went to the dining hall together, borrowed clothes, and did homework at the same time. An apartment with Laura (the magnificent) is another home—complete with kittens and cookies and an enormous paper chain counting off days until her wedding.[1]

Growing up, I lived with mom and dad and bickered with my older sister. We didn’t share a bedroom for very long, but our bedrooms shared a wall that I would bang on when she stayed up all night talking to her boyfriend on the phone. We all ate breakfast together and we coordinated car rides between us.

Those are the kinds of homes you can jiggety jig home again to. But a one-bedroom with a non-squeaking bed, no cats, no laundry basket, and no bickering is not a jiggety-jig sort of homecoming. It’s still a homecoming, complete with the long-anticipated hoddeok, reliable public transportation and hot—glorious! Scalding!—water. But even with the hot water, my jiggety jig back to Korea was more of a reluctant shiver than a contented sigh.

It’s a different sort of home here—very adult, I guess. Different, the traveler must acknowledge, is not a disaster. It takes flexibility and patience and, as my last blog noted, prayer. I like it here in Korea. I like feeling cleaner. I like my church here. I like how beautiful Koreans are. I like wearing high-heels. I like seeing the water and climbing mountains. I like my puffy coat.

The other day I went for my first winter hike. Korea does not believe in switchbacks, so it was straight up the mountain for me. Winded, but running late, I huffed and puffed my way past three ajhummas taking a quick kimchi break. They smiled and called out a hello. I puffed an annyeong-haseyo! back and inappropriately but automatically put my palms together in a wai.

The adjustment—to this non-jiggety-jig sort of place—will take a little time.

[1] I imagine it’s much shorter these days...

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. (Isaiah 65:24)

I’m familiar with that part of the story. I holler up at Him, pointing at my  bruised knee, battered ego, and he picks me up, dusts me off and we carry on. Humbling, pathetic, mewling, but a comfortable predictable pattern. The created and her Creator. The clay and its Potter. The questioner and the Answer.

I’ve never had a calling. I like to write, play soccer, and teaching is okay, too. I prefer to be busy and useful. Being cold stinks and having access to cookies makes my life both chubbier and happier. I like being at home with my family, but I like abroad, too. School was fun; work is interesting.

At no point have I felt Called.

As I understand it, there are many different ways for this capital C to occur. A friend described one type of calling as being “hit over the head with a two-by-four.” The obvious choice: you grew up reading dictionaries so you become an English professor. You see a child die on the street in front of you and from then on you know you were always supposed to go to medical school.

Then there’s a whole set of shades of grey until, at the other end of the spectrum, you have where I’ve always lived. As mom puts it, God lays out two or three or four options, shrugs, and says, “You chose and I’ll bless it, okay?” I fell into going to Calvin, being an English major, and then coming to Korea. Even these last two months were an unpredictable fluke.

“So how did you find out about H.E.L.P Thailand?” I was asked a dozen times.
“Ummm...I got into an argument with a coworker and maybe it...snowballed from there? I don’t remember.”

But as Terry Pratchett says in Good Omens:

“God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

I love this description because it’s how I see God in my life: loving and always guiding me, but ineffable. So I’m a little freaked out when it seems like God is—quite suddenly—hefting a two-by-four. The conversation, over four or five days and said ineffable game of cards, has gone something like this.

God:    So, you’ve had a good trip, right? Ready to go back?
Me:      Yes and no.
God:    Do tell.
Me:      I’m happy here; I love it. But I’m a little tired, and I miss my personal space. And it’s frustrating to teach willy-nilly like this, with no schedule. Plus the weather never changes here.
God:    Scintillating. What about your job?
Me:      shrug I get five months paid vacation. That’s pretty cool.
God:    Which you use to go volunteer with an NGO.
Me:      So you’re saying I should be a missionary.
God:    Goodness. I said that?
Me:      I can’t afford it on my own and don’t want to waste peoples’ money.
God:    shuffles the cards Here. Allow me bring about four conversations with mature Christians about financial matters within my Church.
Me:      blinking Oh. Huh. I’ll, uh, keeping reading. Maybe like a year and a half?
God:    Because you want to travel more and earn money so you don’t have to ask others for it or trust me that I’ll provide what you need and put you to work in six months.
Me:      So...a year and a half?
God:    You remember Jonah?
Me:      I'll keep praying about it, then?
God:    You do that. I’ll hold onto the cards.

There are pros and cons and cons and protestations of all sorts. Maybe I’m just homesick right now—missing P’Bry and mystery meatballs and the outdoorseyness of Thailand that Korea will never possess. I can't deny that Korea, while now familiar, doesn't feel right.

Don’t get me wrong. Korea still makes me laugh with its puffy coats, manpurses, and some girl with donut-scented lip-gloss on the subway which somehow manage to plague me all afternoon. I love seeing my friends again. I took not one, but two 15-minute showers today. And it’s certainly easier to write in an apartment by myself.

Sometimes, Sara Holbrook says, alone is a relief.

But sometimes—after you’ve realized no one has sung “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart” today—it’s a burden. (I tried during my second 15-minute shower, but I sounded stupid by myself.) 

I feel like I’m on the bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok again, still staring out the window thinking anything, fighting tears, stomach queasy.

So, I'll keep praying about it.

Jersey buddies

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lots of Lurve


Oh hi cutest things ever
I recall a post a while ago when I wrote that any class I taught (I wrote this in Korea) could take a dramatic 180 or, for that matter, a 360. It's not that I was wrong, exactly. It's that I left out the backlash. It's like sitting on a swing and twisting the ropes up for maybe four rotations. If you've coiled up the tension right (and you have a good swing with long enough ropes) you ought to untwist so fast that you retwist at least a couple times the other way. 

That's how today was. I planned a lot, but when all that came untwisted, the real day began.

Despite the schedule (which isn't even a guideline anymore), no one was available for an English lesson today. So I took the day off and enjoyed Valentine's Day as if it were a real holiday.

Instead of teaching today I...

...went for a small walk
...made a couple lesson plans
...transcribed one of the most beautiful testimonies I've ever heard (I hope to share it with you soon)
...observed a pig being chopped up in a pool of its own blood (I'd heard its death screams a mere three hours earlier)
...bought and arranged upwards of 200 flowers into ten or so Valentine's Day-themed table decorations.
...did the dishes
...tied ribbons to said decorations (I'm not crafty, so this was harder than it sounds)
Cheerful butchers
...ate the best dinner at P'Joy's house: potato curry with chicken (and heavenly green ice cream on a stick for dessert)
...accepted Valentines from P'Joy's sons (two of which thoughtfully wished me a Merry Christmas)

                    ...had a mini dance party with Nana and Diyo
...cut and glued pretty paper onto boxes for Nerry's homework assignment.

I've written about the difficulties of holidays outside of America but let me just say that Valentine's Day is much better beyond the confines of the U.S.A.


My partner in flower crime.

p.s. putting pictures on this blog has always been my kryptonite. I'm working on fixing the old ones. In the meantime, try not to judge my organizational skills by the haphazard alignments of these photos. So far I have been unsuccessful in figuring out what code words/signs/covert clickings blogger wants me to do to communicate my photographical intentions. I'll try Mermish next. Then Klingon? We'll see.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Meet the Fam

I have been remiss. For each new place I visit, I like to introduce my readers to the people I’m living, eating, and working with. Despite various and hack-eyed mentionings, I haven’t yet done that for Thailand and my apologies are sincere.
One of the key principles of the H.E.L.P organization is that the house parents and house workers ought to be people of a common ethnicity with the girls and boys they care for. That way, the kids grow up within their own culture, with someone who can understand their backgrounds and speak their language fluently. These house parents and helpers are my new family here in SE Asia.

Mam and Ton were the first house parents for the now three houses in Thailand. Mam was 27 when she started dating the 18 year-old Ton. “If we are still dating in 2 years,” Mam told him, “you have to marry me.” They will soon celebrate their 8-year anniversary with their two little girls Marie and Mana—as well as the thirty-five odd orphans living in the next room. Mam loves the movies and being part of such a huge family. P’Ton likes making puns, playing soccer, and being a dad.

Bow and Boot have one son, Philip, and they take care of the second girls’ home on the land. Bow, the cuddliest momma in the world, is the talker of the two, while Boot, so shy that he’s literally hiding behind trees when I come to teach English, is the funny one. When she and Boot first started dating, Bow says, “My friends no like P’Boot. Too old for me they say. But now when I go home, they say, ‘No, no! You no need come. We want P’Boot come’.” Like most Thai men, he listens well to his wife. When I asked her if she and Boot had wanted to be house parents she laughed. “I want. And P’Boot do what Bow say. He happy.”

Joy. Joy exudes love and compassion. The nine boys H.E.L.P. Thailand has rescued are her boys and they adore her. I’ve never seen such a happily rowdy pack of boys pack it in with such alacrity as when P’Joy tells them to. She studies English harder than anyone and laughs when I say that her cooking is my favorite in the world. After every lesson she says, “Thank you, teacher. God bless you and give you strength.”

Jiab and Bank. Jiab and Bank are the youngest of the group at 27 and 25, respectively. They have one daughter, Pat, and serve as itinerate parents/cooks/grounds crew/drivers for all three houses. Jiab tackles the twists of English grammar with ferocious aggression while Ban(k)[1] wanders in and out of lessons memorizing vocabulary that’s more important to him—like “jersey,” “dangerous,” and “take a nap.” As previously stated, Ban(k)’s smile cures cancer and Jiab’s laugh lights up the world.

P’Bry. Bry, Bow’s younger sister, helps at Mam and Ton’s house taking care of the little ones, cooking, and driving. Like Auntie Nim, she has a very healthy laughing life, but misses hanging out with people her own age. We chop vegetables for dinner together and go for walks during which she tries to teach me Thai but mostly laughs and says, “mai chai!”—literally meaning “not yes” meaning “wrong”—a lot.

Ba Nim. “Ba” means “Auntie” and Nim is everyone’s go-to Auntie—also possibly Wonder Woman. Her husband died leaving her to raise two girls, which she’s done with aplomb, a toothy cackle and a lot of God. Every girl wais to Auntie Nim and goes to her if they have problems. Remarried mothers with AIDS, a rip in a new dress, depression, sick stomach, anything—Auntie Nim is the guru of all wisdom.

[1] In Thai the last consonant isn’t very important in names like “Bank” and “Boot,” so you often only...feel their presence rather than pronounce it. Ban(k) sounds kind of like “bang” as previously mentioned.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


I’ve had worse days than yesterday—but for a while there in the morning it was looking pretty grim. Riddled with mosquito bites, I woke up with a stiff and swollen ankle and memories of yesterday’s missed soccer game, product of one misstep and two decades of competitive soccer weakening said joint. Pouting, I had skipped my freezing shower the night before and thus had to endure it in the morning instead. That’s when I found out I had head lice.

Once you find a bug in your hair and are inclined to look twice at the “mosquito” bites running up from your knees to settle in blotches at your hips. The red swelling around your wrists and elbows no longer appear to be the work of two or three nefarious mosquitoes that slipped under the mosquito net.

By 7:00, I knew I not only had a twisted ankle, head lice, and a mysterious rash, but I had quite possibly infected the other intern. Said intern, Victoria, who is quite awesome and enjoys watching Korean dramas with me bless her soul, took the news calmly.

“Really? Good gravy. First we need to wash those sheets.”

Auntie Nim’s and P’Bry’s reactions were similarly helpful.
“Good morning! I have lice.”
“Lice?” P’Bry asked. “Arraina?”[1]
P’Ton, walking by in his bilingual state, explained in Thai.
They burst out laughing. Then they pointed to my hair.
“Laaw?” Really.
“Jingjing.” Really.
They laughed some more.
P’Ton suggested I put mayonnaise in my hair.
I suggested he put ketchup in his.

Turns out he wasn’t joking. To get rid of lice, you can put mayonnaise in your hair and tie a plastic bag over your head while you sleep—for three nights in a row. (Nana is currently and unhappily undergoing this procedure, but with Vaseline instead of mayonnaise.) Fortunately I escaped Nana’s fate since Auntie Nim, besides having one of the healthiest laughing lives around, is also very knowledgeable about the house’s medicine cabinet.

No fewer than six girls picked through my hair that day, combing out (and then squishing to death with their fingernails) nits and lice. If it weren’t so disgusting, it would have been cute. The rash brought back poison ivy flashbacks from this summer in vivid detail. But this time around I had a weapon that would send poison ivy and itch-related insomnia into shrieking terror: TIGER BALM.

Here, where mosquito bites and accompanying itching are as common as cornfields in Indiana, TIGER BALM works like a charm. Within minutes of smearing the cinnamon-scented goodness on it, the rash had visibly decreased and a couple hours later, only the hardiest had endured the scourge that is TIGER BALM. The house-parents laugh at the title and say, “No tiger! Just plants!” but it’s a lot better than Calamine.

My apologies for my ever-lengthening blog-posts; blessings to you if you bother reading more than a paragraph. The following paragraphs can be summed up by saying, “laughter really is the best medicine!” and “a true friend is a priceless treasure,” but I hate enthusiastic clich├ęs almost more than watching bad soccer. In my opinion, they are Calamine lotion to the TIGER BALM of real description.

If you have a more reasonable temperament, feel free to skip to the end. For the rest of us, the following wordiness is my substitute:

P’Bank asked about my ankle and said, “Next Sunday you play football?” and smiled when I said “I hope so.”[2] Auntie Nim laughed with (at) me all day. P’Bry took me for a walk and worked hard during her lesson. P’Jiab massaged my ankle—more painful than the Cruciatus Curse, but instrumental in keeping the swelling down. P’Ton awkwardly handed me a plastic bag and a told me to open it (when I did, he snatched it back so he could remove the forgotten price tag). Inside was a Barcelona jersey. A nice one.

“P’Ton! For real?”
“Your team. So you can remember me and Mam when you infect all of Korea with the lice.”

Meanwhile Victoria returned with a bag with de-lousing shampoo, cookies, and a violin keychain with my name carved into it. That evening she combed my lice-infested hair, made my bed (with her own sheets—cute ones with Dumbo on them), and joined me in watching the two penultimate episodes of our current Korean drama. If that’s not Tiger Balm, I don’t know what is.

Like Auntie Nim, she both laughed with me and reminded me to take some Benadryl when we discovered around midnight that my bottom lip had swollen to Angelina Jolie proportions and I’d grown a hunchback on my right eye, possibly the compliments of an allergic reaction to delousing shampoo.

The following is an actual excerpt from my journal yesterday—before the ankle, before the lice, before my wrists, stomach, knees and elbows were covered with itchy red patches of unknown origin, when the sun was shining:

“I know that there truly is a season for all things and right now the season is so easy, beautiful, healthy. When does the wheel turn—King Lear—[3] leaving me on the bottom again?”

Not yet, Shakespeare, that’s for sure. Because of I have TIGER BALM.

[1] “What does it mean?” or as I sometimes mentally translate it: “huh?” I get this one a lot.
[2] Like Nana’s hugs, P’Bank’s smile can cure cancer.
[3] Worse I may be yet. The worst is not—so long as we can say, ‘this is the worst’.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

My Date with a Khmer Boy (Part 2)

I have a thing about boats. I love them and water to an unreasonable degree and if you ever want me to do something I wouldn’t do normally (for instance, secluding myself on a tiny Cambodian beach with a Khmer boy I met thirty minutes ago), offer me a boat ride. I admit I had more than a second’s worth of doubt when we went down to the beach and he said, “Boat is gone. Wait here” and disappeared into the surrounding bushes.[1] It was enough doubt that I began thinking about protecting my borrowed camera using my bike chain and padlock for self-defense.

As usual with my fantastical contingency imaginings, none of that was necessary. Seyha appeared around the half-submerged coconut bushes (the Cambodian vegetation equivalent of cattails) singing in Khmer and paddling a blue fishing skiff. I jumped in—and by jumped I mean gingerly perched on a seat he dusted off and conscientiously avoided the dead fish and green standing water on the boat’s floor. He pushed off and paddled us around pointing out landmarks and asking questions until, unable to bear how much I was imposing, I said I should probably go soon.
“Want to see my house?”
“Sure. Real quick on the way back.”
“Okay. Do you like singing?”
“I know three songs in English.”

He sang every one of them for me. And every one of them was a love ballad. He was embarrassed, I was embarrassed, and I firmly believe as I ever did that serenading is a painful experience. Especially when the serenadee suspects that the serenader is making up lyrics like “I miss you forever. I happy only singing to you.”

We went back to his place and I met his crotchety dog. He took me up to his room—the one he shares with his mom, two sisters and triples as their kitchen and living room. He urged me to walk slowly on the bamboo slats for the floor, since it was very breakable. I felt them creak under my American bulk.

Behind the stilts holding up the room was his schoolhouse—a small dry-erase board stained with blue marker and some wooden boards in the dirt for the kids to sit on. His teaching book is mashed almost into a newspaper roll it’s so well-used. I thanked him again for the boat ride and made sure I knew which way to take out of his driveway. He pointed but said he would go too.

Then he asked me for money.

*a heartbeat*

“How much?”
“Maybe to pay one month of English school?”

I gave him five dollars, a quarter of what I had in my wallet, a quarter of what he needed, a fortune in Thai traveling expenses, a hamburger back in America, half of a hamburger in Korea. He biked me back to the red dusty road I’d come from. A minute after we parted ways I was closed back into the hub of tourists and temples.

[1] I had spent the last couple of nights reading about the Khmer Rouge and that’ll give you nightmares.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

My Date with a Khmer Boy

I’ll trust the pictures and History to tell the story of Angkor Wat better than I ever will manage. For me, the morning—but not the story—began with an exhilarating bike ride through the black morning culminating in an un-dramatic and buggy sunrise over Cambodia’s most famous temple. Temples are temples and Angkor Wat, while impressive in its bigness and its exciting in its availability for clambering wherever one chooses, is just one more temple.

I enjoyed my time there, but was ready to start my bike ride when I split off from my Canadian friends. I headed out for the farthest temple which was, according to my map, on the corner of a lake. Within a minute of pedaling I found myself on a dirt road, completely free of the budding crowds of late morning tourist traffic. A few minutes later I had left “temple Cambodia” for “village Cambodia,” and there was definitely someone tailing me.

I braked my pink, basketed bike to a squeaky halt, preferring confrontation to lurking suspicion. A skinny, smiling Khmer boy pulled up next to me. His shirt was pinker than my bike, his jeans worn and rolled up to his knees, his bike rickety, black and dusty.

“How are you?”
“I’m good. You?”
“I’m fine, thanks! Excuse me, what is your name?”
“Elaine.” Neville Longbottom.
“Excuse me, how old are you?”
“Twenty-five.” What are you selling?
“Are you a student?”
“A teacher. What’s your name?”
“Seyha. Where are you from?”
Big laugh. “Whaa??? You are...Korean?”
A smile. “No, no. I’m American.”
“Ahhh. Okay okay! Excuse me...”

And so it went until he found out where I was going. I lied about other things besides my age—I said I was traveling with friends and that we were meeting up soon for lunch by the temple. And I prayed that God would keep me safe as I blindly followed Seyha down a dusty dirt road to see his village and—he indicated—take a short-cut to the temple.

We biked together and chatted. Seyha is 20 and stopped school after ninth grade, when he was 18 and his family needed the money. He lives with his mom and his two sisters—one older and one younger. His older sister cleans houses all day and also speaks very good English; his younger sister is still in school. His father died fighting the Thai a year ago in a dispute about a temple close to the border, but while he was a soldier, they only saw him a couple days for every few months.

In the morning he wakes up at 4 to drive an hour into Siem Reap and sell wood with his mother. Every day he fishes, chops wood in the mountains, and studies English. He also plays a lot of volleyball, like every self-respecting Cambodian boy. He’s quite tall—177 cm he says—and he motioned that he likes to spike the ball. In the evenings he teaches English in his backyard to all the little children in his village. He wants to take a class in Siem Reap about teaching English, but it costs $20 a month.

He’s never been to Phnom Penh. He laughed when I asked—he’s never been outside of his province and quite possibly never will. His bike was free (I didn’t ask how he’d acquired it), is 12 years old and only has the metal skeleton cylinders for real pedals. He pointed out his home, his school, his friends—all on one dusty, bumpy dirt trail—before turning off on a sandy side road. We disembarked and pushed our bikes up a sand hill that we later descended at ridiculously unsafe speeds.

At the top of the hill and several more minutes of question-answer, we stopped and he pointed out at a lake.

“That’s the temple.”
“There. That island. It’s very small. You can swim. Or bike.” Grinning laughter.
“Okay!” I pantomime riding a bike through the water which makes him laugh more.
“Want to ride on a boat?” he suggested.

To be continued...

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Four Hundred Thousand Riel Budget

I spent about $100 in Cambodia, total, for over a week’s visit. That includes buses from Phnom Penh to Svey Rieng (and back) and to Siem Reap. It includes tuk-tuk rides and torre drives and a three-day bike rental. It includes hotel costs and food costs (much of which was admittedly covered by staying with friends and at the girls’ home). It includes luxuries like mango smoothies, trips to the bakery, and a ticket to Angkor Wat.

It’s impossible for me not to think about money while I travel. It’s important to keep track of funds and not to get carried away at markets and eating out for dinner every night. Plus there’s the constant bartering and begging and selling culture that surrounds SE Asian tourism. I bought a sarong in Svey Rieng province and the woman selling it said it cost $4, about twice the price my Khmer-speaking friend told me to expect. When she asked why it was so expensive the woman shrugged. I waited in the dim lighting of the stuffy, covered market for the translation: “She says it’s because western people have money.” She's not wrong, but are we better off for it? Is it better to live in a world of blue skies or brown dirt?

I paid 75 cents this morning for a bag of fruit. To the seller, a dark-skinned Khmer woman with serious eyes, I showed the Cambodian riel I had left and asked her what I could buy. She loaded my bag with tamarinds and this purplish dirty fruit with a large stem. You pinch the peel hard and at its epicenter there’s a sweet white circle of pure goodness. In my gluttony, I also considered the bananas and the money left in my wallet.

“How much does it cost for a tuk-tuk to the airport?” I asked, enunciating “how much,” “tuk-tuk” and “airport.”
She looked baffled and didn’t meet my eyes.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s okay. I—”
“I’ve never...”

Of course she’d never gone to the airport. She probably never would. How many Khmer fruit-sellers have the kind of money it takes to sit in an air-conditioned plane on its way to Bangkok, eating free airline meals with their luggage checked and their passports stamped? Does she even have a passport?

The $100 I spent in Cambodia is an unheard of amount of money for most Khmer—especially when it’s associated with “one week.” Once again I’m in the airport, waiting for my delayed flight to take off. At the departure gate where I’m sitting, there are Koreans, Japanese, and Taiwanese—the rest are white westerners. The only Khmer here are working for security. Angkor Wat was the same—and those were the lucky Khmer, with a steady job.

Unfortunately, most of the best-paid, steadiest jobs revolve around Westerners: tour guides, fruit and souvenir stands at tourist sites, tuk-tuk drivers, banks, hostels, restaurants. It’s just like the sarong seller said: westerners have money.

We do. We have digital cameras and kindles, iphones, ipods, and ipads. We have bank accounts and flight reservations. We definitely have the $5 dollars that woman just asked for the scarf she’s holding, but we talk her down to $3 because we can—and then we brag about the purchase on the ride home, knowing full well it will be forgotten or given away in a mad souvenir-giving extravaganza.

When I was out on West Mebon lake, being paddled along by Seyha, we talked about travel. “How much for your plane ticket to here?” I told him and he almost fell into the water expressing his amazement. “Yeah, it was expensive,” I say inadequately. He told me it takes an hour for he and his mother to get to Siem Reap in the mornings and that he’s never been to Phnom Penh—certainly not out of the province.

He dipped the paddle into the water with soft, splashing plops—the kind you’d never hear in an airport with its rows of metal chairs and vaulted ceilings. The boat wobbled when I turned to face him. “I am very happy,” Seyha said, unprompted. I smiled and watched the water, trying to figure out if it was brown or blue.