‘We are all alone here’

That’s what one of my roommates said to me when we were discussing how intense relationships can be here. There’s an expat community here that seems to be fairly small. A lot of people know each other. It’s easy to meet people, but it’s also because the people who come here on their own are forced to meet people or spend their days alone.

At the end of the day, if you came here alone, you’re most likely alone. Even if someone is considered your best friend after hanging out a handful of times. That’s not necessarily bad. It’s just how it is. In the U.S. and elsewhere, friendships are built over months and years. Here, they’re made over hours and days.

I think it’s interesting that when you move to a new place or are traveling on your own, you really learn to connect with people on a very basic level:

You’re from America? Let’s be friends!
You like following the news? We should hang out!
And for women, nothing connects us more than talking about relationships.

Advertisements

Conducting my first interviews in Cambodia

While I came to Cambodia to help a women’s rights organization, I also want to do some freelance reporting and writing. I started thinking of some story ideas before I left and have made it a point to pitch stories as often as possible.

I got the green light on two, which was exciting. But that meant I actually had to go out and conduct the interviews! I’ve written travel features from a few different countries and reported from the Northern Marianas, but both instances are different than what I’m trying to do here. While I want to write some travel features, I also want to write some substantive pieces examining human rights and what everyday life is like. What’s challenging about that is that I have no one to really show me the ropes or guide me. I’m pretty much figuring it out on my own. Also, the language barrier can be an issue.

That’s why last Friday was such a big milestone for me. It was the first official interview I conducted for a story here in Cambodia. And it was with local Cambodians, not expats, so it made it that much more memorable.

I hope the story will be completed and published fairly soon. I’ll post a link to it here once it is. I also conducted another interview on Saturday for a separate story. In both instances, I set up the interviews via email and phone and then found the locations on my own with minimal trouble.

Now comes the actual writing of stories!

Since Friday and Saturday were so much about journalism, it’s fitting that I spent Saturday night at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal Elephant Bar, a one-time hotspot for foreign correspondents. The five-start hotel is easily the nicest in the city. It has a storied history – Jackie Kennedy visited the hotel and bar in 1967 while visiting Angkor Wat – and is very opulent. Journalists covering Cambodia used to stay at the hotel, including those who covered the Khmer Rouge. I doubt most news outlets have the budgets to put their reporters up there now, but who knows. The bar features – of course – lots of elephants. The drinks were pricey even by American standards – luckily happy hour is every day from 5 to 9 p.m. – and the clientele seemed to be all tourists during my visit. I’m not sure how often I’ll go back, but I’m glad I tried it out once.

2015/01/img_0092.jpg

2015/01/img_0094.jpg

2015/01/img_0093.jpg

The high and lows of Cambodia living: week 1

The highs:

1. Meeting kind people from all over the world who go out of their way to help me out and learn about me. I’ve met and hung out with people from Cambodia, England, Australia, Slovenia, Russia and Belgium.

2. The students I’m working with. I’m working with the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency, which offer vocational training for young men and young women. (Please like them on Facebook or follow them on twitter at @CWDA1.) I’m teaching them English (something that is new to me!), and the students are wonderful. They are so excited and kind and extremely helpful.

3. Cheap food and drinks. Iced coffee can be bought for 50 cents. Not helping my addiction.

4. Trying new things like eating crickets.

5. Walking everywhere and stumbling upon interesting stores on my own

6. Free beer. Show Box, a bar a few streets away from my house, offers free beer from 6:30 to 7 p.m. EVERY DAY.

The lows:

1. Bugs and lizards. Sooo many bugs and lizards. I left snacks wrapped in a box in the kitchen and ants soon overtook it. I also reached into a container of crackers only to be greeted by a lizard with eyes the size of small pearls. I’m not one to jump or scream often due to a pesky creature (see the above about eating bugs), but boy, did that freak and gross me out for a second. I’m now sticking everything in the refrigerator, even my chocolate cookies.

2. Constantly being asked if I want to ride a motorbike or tuk-tuk. I’m asked about every five feet if I’d like a ride. It’s already a bit annoying.

3. Getting a working phone. I think I’ve been very good at staying relaxed and calm with figuring things out, but getting a working phone almost had me in tears — which I largely attribute to the heat and walking all over the city trying to get it sorted out. AT&T said my phone was unlocked before I came over, but apparently it was not. I finally got that fixed and then learned the guy at the SIM card store at the airport gave me the wrong SIM card. After four days, five miles of walking, and at least two instances of the hangry face (yes, hangry. Look it up), I finally had a working phone in my hands.

Lessons I’ve learned so far:

1. Go with the flow. Seriously. Can’t be said enough.

2. Embrace the sweaty, messy, dirty and unknown.

3. I shouldn’t try to do too much at once. Things will always take longer than I think.

4. Always carry toilet paper or tissue. Always.

2015/01/img_1206.jpg

2015/01/img_1160.jpg

This is why I love to travel

Meet Sam.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/333/71426438/files/2015/01/img_1187.jpg

We met through an expat blog, though she’s Khmer (Cambodian.) She loves meeting people from other countries because she’s a bit of an adventurer. She’s a teacher who has received fellowships abroad to Europe, Africa and the U.S. She knows three languages. As if that’s not cool enough, I also learned that her dad was a monk for 20 years before she was born. Oh, and she’s super sweet and very friendly.

We met up at a park and hit it off, later going for coffee at a marketplace. Coffee turned into her teaching me how to make Bang aem Baba lapov (pumpkin dessert) and going for barbecue at a local street restaurant where I tried cricket for the first time.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/333/71426438/files/2015/01/img_1189.jpg

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/333/71426438/files/2015/01/img_1197.jpg

She’s getting ready to go do awesome stuff and learn amazing things in Africa and Washington D.C. very soon so she can come back to Cambodia to be a better teacher.

It’s sad we connected so well and she’s leaving, but it reminded me why traveling can be so much fun: you can meet people from the other side of the world and still bond over the simplest of things.

Trusting that most people are good

Two full days after I first started my travel, I arrived in Phnom Penh. I did fairly well during the entire travel process — I think — but near the end I was running purely on adrenaline and coffee. I was nervous about how it was going to be to be so tired and have to navigate getting a Visa and getting to the house where I’m staying.
Luckily I befriended the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh. Or, she befriended me. She started chatting with me and asking me questions and then proceeded to pull her strings with the people she knew at the airport to get me through the Visa process faster. She then drove me to my house. But first she introduced me to her husband and two adorable daughters.
I, of course, was nervous the entire time, thinking that maybe she was going to steal from me or take me to some abandoned building and I’d end up in a situation straight from “Taken.” At the same time, I knew I could leave the situation whenever I needed to, but that it was really kind of her to help me out. I ended up safe and secure at the house and we exchanged information so that we could keep in touch. It’s a reminder that a lot of people are nice and looking to help others. (She said she wanted to help someone because she had not had that same experience while traveling in Hong Kong.)
My first full day in the city was spent walking around, buying some items and trying to get my phone set up. My flatmate and his friend invited me out for drinks at night and we headed to Show Box, which seems to be a popular ex-pat bar favored for the free beer offered every night from 6:30 to 7 p.m.
It’s been overwhelming, enlightening and fun so far.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/333/71426438/files/2015/01/img_1132.jpg

I’m starting the new year in a new country

I’m leaving the United States on Dec. 31 and arriving in Hong Kong on Jan. 1. I’ll then proceed to my final destination, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. That’s one way to start the new year, right? It actually wasn’t planned. It was just when I could get a free flight, but I think it’ll make for an interesting story to tell people. Also, will I get champagne every time we pass over a new time zone and the clock strikes midnight? I certainly hope so!
So why this new country in 2015? I’m heading to Cambodia to work for a few months for an NGO, hopefully do some freelance writing, and just try to have some fun. I’m excited, nervous and content.
I’m nervous about the cultural differences. I’m nervous about meeting people. I’m nervous about the emotional toll the job could take on me. I’m nervous about losing my passport and money and being stranded on the side of the road in a remote village where no one speaks English. (The mind is a funny thing.) But at the same time, I’m super excited to just go with the flow and relearn how to overcome obstacles when they arise. I’m excited to see new sights, meet new people and get off the daily grind for a little bit, too.
2014 had its ups and downs, as most years do. But it was a huge year of personal growth for me. The last quarter seemed to really change me. I feel like I woke up one day and a light went off in my head and it all became clear: I’m the only one who can control my happiness, so why not choose to do what makes me happy? Happiness looks different to different people, but as long as I’m being a productive member of society, paying my bills and not hurting anyone else, who says I can’t live my life how I want to?
There will always be fear and worry, but why let it stop me from doing what I want to do?
I’ve never been someone who has made resolutions. I have goals. I have many, many goals for myself. But they never coincide with the new year, and if I were to have a goal for this year I think it would be to put less pressure on myself to reach certain milestones or life goals I’ve previously set. So that’s why I’ve decided on five mantras to live by in 2015:
1. Choose happiness
2. Trust in myself and my abilities
3. Know my worth
4. Say yes often, but be content with my decision to say no
5. Nervousness and worry are a natural part of life. Don’t let them control how I live it.

Do you set resolutions or words to live by? What are they?

Cheers to 2015!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/333/71426438/files/2014/12/img_1104.jpg

Who doesn’t like the miniature version? Fairy doors in Ann Arbor

I’ve always had a fascination with dioramas and what they represent: capturing one specific moment in time in a miniature form.
As a child I was obsessed with small three-dimensional models. I’d spend hours in between school and dance or gymnastics practice cutting out people and furniture from magazines and attaching sticks to the back to add to my shoebox scene of family life (with authentic carpet scraps!) or figuring out which liquid would last the longest in my homemade snow globes created using leftover olive jars.
I’m not quite sure why I was so enamored. I think I may have liked the thought of being able to create my own perfect situation and then holding it in my own hands, or maybe I just enjoyed small stuff since I’m kind of small. (I’m hoping it’s the latter because the former sounds like I may have some control issues. But it may be all of the above.)
Whatever it was, I still have a love for the miniature model. But I spend a lot less time making them now. So when I was on a recent trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan — a city I knew up to that point solely for the University of Michigan campus and football stadium — I was delighted to learn about the urban fairy doors throughout the city’s downtown area.
In fact, I first learned about the miniature dioramas at the base of a handful of storefronts while in one of the stores. I promptly walked outside, got down on my hands and knees, and — kneeling in front of the store’s main entrance — gazed in amazement through the tiny door and looked at the scene before me — a tiny replica of the store I had just walked out from.
I later learned that there are a handful of fairy doors in the downtown area, all of which are the work of artist and “fairyologist” Jonathan B. Wright, who first created the doors at his Ann Arbor home before expanding to local businesses. Children will sometimes leave treats at the tiny doors for the fairies.
The doors are a wonderful way to get kids and adults to stop and pay better attention to the world around them. I found myself putting my phone away as I walked down the street in hopes that I’d be able to find the next fairy door. If you’re ever in Ann Arbor’s downtown district, make sure you keep your eyes open for the fairies — and their doors.

IMG_1146

Book adventure

So, if you didn’t know, I wrote a book. It was a tiring, fun, educational ¬†and stressful experience. There’s a lot I did well, I think, but also a lot I’d change looking back on it.

I wish I’d had a bigger publisher. I wish I’d gotten an advance. I wish I had more time to work on it. I wish I had done some companion video pieces with it. I wish I’d done a lot of things, but I didn’t have the time nor the resources. (Isn’t it always about time and resources?) And near the end, it was ¬†largely a mental game of just racing to the finish line and getting it completed.

But I’m still really proud of how it turned out. I’ve reached a life goal I’ve had for as long as I can remember: pitch, research, write and release a book, and that’s what I’ve been most excited about throughout the entire process.

Once it was actually released, though, I had to promote it. I’d kept the whole thing quiet up until that point, only telling two or three people about it. I think I was a little nervous about actually getting it done as well as coming off as braggy. If you know me well, you know I hate promoting myself or patting myself on the back. You should also know, however, that I’m trying to get over that because I think #selfpromotion (yes, in hashtag form) is our new world. (Fake it until you make it, right?) So I started sharing on social media, telling friends and family, and conducting book signing and lectures throughout the state. I’ve also gotten some press in local TV, radio, newspapers and magazines.

It’s been amazing and humbling meeting people who are interested in spending their hard-earned money on something I produced, and it’s been a great reminder that drive and not letting rejection or doubt get in the way can often determine whether you reach a goal or not.

Before a recent signing in Yukon, Oklahoma.

Before a recent signing in Yukon, Oklahoma.

An impromptu trip to Puerto Rico, in numbers and selfies

I was in desperate need of a beautiful beach and my passport was stolen. Thus, a last-minute trip to Puerto Rico.

Days before booking trip: 7
Hours my first-grade pen pal (and good friend) had before deciding to join me and stepping foot on the plane to meet me: 8
Pairs of sunglasses lost in the Caribbean Sea: 1
Fitbits lost in Old San Juan: 1
selfies taken between the two of us: approximately 20
Miles walked in the rainforest: 4ish
Number of waterfalls seen: 2
Tropical storm warnings issued: 1
Hours we couldn’t order alcohol because of impending weather: 2
Important life discussions that took place: 20
Important life questions resolved: 0
Bottles of wine consumed between the two of us: 6?

#rainforestselfie

#rainforestselfie

#beachselfie

#beachselfie

#rooftoppoolselfie

#rooftoppoolselfie

#weirdhotellightingselfie

#weirdhotellightingselfie

(P.S. Look for an upcoming story or blog post that actually gives recommendations on what to do and see in Puerto Rico.)

Virginia is for lovers

I’d never been to Virginia, and being completely honest, I never really thought I’d go unless I was on a quest to visit all 50 states or had some specific reason to go. Well, I recently found myself in a position of wanting to go for a specific reason: a good friend from high school was getting married in Richmond.

It makes sense they’d choose Virginia, right? Virginia is for lovers.

IMG_0096

(Actually, he’s from Richmond and that’s why they got married there.)

Though I’ve become a big history lover as I get older, I never really had a big desire to see Virginia mainly because it conjures up images of harsh winters for me. October was not bad, though. I also have a great-aunt who lives in a suburb south of Richmond that I hadn’t seen since I was 17, which was another good reason to go. She was kind enough to pick me up from the airport, show me around for a bit and let me spend a night there before the wedding festivities started.

The church where Patrick Henry made his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech was among the many stops on the great-aunt Mary tour.

St. John's Church in Richmond is where Patrick Henry made his famous speech.

St. John’s Church in Richmond is where Patrick Henry made his famous speech.

The next day I was dropped off in downtown Richmond and wondered around the Capitol and the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, housed in the oldest standing home in Richmond.

photo 3

Then it was off to Glen Allen, a northern Richmond suburb where the wedding events took place. The weekend was my first Hindu wedding, and it was great to learn and see some of the customs that take place. I was warned that Hindu weddings tend to be a tad more laid back than Christian weddings — I was asked to be a part of the wedding the day before and learned my role shortly before — but I was still caught a bit off guard. The wedding photographer got a phone call in the middle of the ceremony and not only did he answer the phone, he continued snapping photos while talking on the phone! The whole thing was very laid back and was more about celebrating the two of them, which I really enjoyed being a part of.

Stephanie all dressed up right before she walked down the aisle!

Stephanie all dressed up right before she walked down the aisle!

High school friends catching up!

High school friends catching up!

Following the wedding, one of my friends from high school and I spent the next day and a half driving around Richmond’s neighborhoods including Carytown and Shockoe Bottom. Carytown was a mix of funky little shops and colorful restaurants. Shockoe Bottom had a bit more of a historical feel to it, but I’d say both districts are where the hip urbanites probably choose to live. I, of course, made sure to get a picture taken on Main Street.

IMG_0101

It’s now off to another high school friend’s wedding later this week!