November Update

4th grade students in YAGM Lindsay’s afternoon class

It’s been quite some time since we’ve written anything, and so thought it would be a good time to give you a general update on life here in Cambodia.

After a 24-day orientation, we “released” the YAGM volunteers to their service sites on September 21. Sarah and I took a few days to decompress (read: sleep) and clean up after orientation, and then about a week later, Rev. Franklin Ishida, the ELCA’s Program Director for Asia and the Pacific, was here for a few days to visit the Lutheran Church in Cambodia and Life With Dignity. In between meetings, we took Franklin to visit YAGM Haley in Phnom Sruoch and YAGM Ryan in Phnom Penh. Franklin got to drive on Cambodian backroads, which included maneuvering through a herd of cows and going through a stream with water covering most of all 4 wheels on the pickup.

The month of October was busy fielding phone calls and emails and text messages from the volunteers as they began to adapt to living in their new homes. For some of them, this meant learning that rats are common in the provinces. Sarah and I have been super-proud of the volunteers in how they have handled discovering that sometimes they share their space with these little critters – they took (and are taking) it in stride.

After the volunteers were in their service sites for about a month we held a “Seminar Weekend” for them. We had them come to Phnom Penh for a weekend of intentional “checking in”, worship in English, and had Longdi come and do a language class (for some, it was review, for others, it was an opportunity to learn new vocabulary for situations they find themselves in at their sites on a regular basis). It was fun to hear the volunteers describe their sites and give us a glimpse into their lives here in Cambodia. The seminar weekend was also a good time to again talk intentionally about culture shock, as well as what it means to live in relationship and service with their communities.

The rest of our time has been spent doing the “random” things that seem to fill our days: meetings, emails, reading, phone calls, text messages, our own language instruction, making newsletters, doing logistics reports, making “informal” site visits, etc. Additionally, we drove to Cambodia’s beautiful northeast and scouted out locations for our first retreat, which is starting this Friday, 27 November, and so far have made a couple of “formal” site visits. We also took a week off for our anniversary. So, we keep ourselves busy, but it’s not the “I have so much stuff to do I can’t think straight” kind of busy that so often we found ourselves in while living in the States, and for that we are grateful.

Speaking of being grateful, know that we are so grateful that you are joining us on this journey in Cambodia by reading this blog, through the prayers you pray on our behalf, and the emails and Facebook messages you send. They mean so much to us and we give thanks to God for you and your support. Have a great Thanksgiving, stay warm (that won’t be a problem here – it’s 90* as I write this), and stay safe!

Week 1

YAGMs exploring the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
YAGMs exploring the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

Crazy (to us) Fact: We’ve finished almost one week of in-country orientation!

Fast Fact: Our YAGMs have already done 10 hours of Khmer language study (with almost 40 to go – see facebook for a picture of them hard at work!).

Fun Fact: The YAGMS have either participated in, or cheered on fellow YAGMs in, local, outdoor, line dancing.

Interesting Fact: The image on the Cambodian flag is of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. It is also the only national flag in the world that has a symbol of ruins on it.

As orientations go, the one for YAGM Cambodia is long. Three and a half weeks long, actually, and it’s all because of language. While they won’t be learning to read or write Khmer (many of their service sites will help with that), they will learn to listen and speak, which will be invaluable to them.

But, a longer orientation means being able to take our time with other things. And this week’s focus is Cambodian history! Monday we learned about pre-Angkor and Angkorian history (4200 BCE – 1431 CE) and then took a trip to the National Museum to see the art and artifacts from these periods. Yesterday we covered the Cambodian Dark Ages, the French Protectorate, and the beginning of independence (1432-1965), and then visited the Royal Palace (which was built during the French Protectorate). Today, we studied the Khmer Rouge (most deeply felt from 1975-1979, but which held onto a UN seat until 1992), and tomorrow we will spend a full day at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Friday we cover post-Khmer Rouge to present day.

As with most places in the world, history is incredibly important to the people here and understanding who they are, how they view the world, and how they live. And with Cambodian history, we experience both phenomenal heights in the temples and civilization of Angkor, and the depths of killing their own people in the Khmer Rouge. It’s a fascinating history, and it is sure to have made an impression in the lives of anyone who walks it. So if you know a YAGM, make sure you ask them about it.

Next week’s focus: culture and religion!

Better than Target

Orientation shopping at Orussey Market!
Orientation shopping at Orussey Market!


I could do a whole post on how this is both amazing and terrifying, but that just seems obvious.

And no matter how excited and terrified we are as coordinators, the excitement and terror is tenfold that for these YAGMs who are about to arrive.

So, for today, just a picture. A picture of us preparing for the excitement and terror by shopping at Orussey Market – which is also an amazing and terrifying 3-story behemoth of a building with mazes of stalls with anything and everything you could ever possibly imagine. Not that one knows where to find the one thing you’re looking for and not that one doesn’t have to sometimes just squeeze your way through an unknown row until you find yourself outside and then walk around the entire building so you can begin where you started again.

But in the spirit of focusing on the amazing, YAGMs, there’s a place (almost) better than Target!

On the Road

The back of the pickup got a little dirty after our first trip with it into the provinces.
The back of the pickup got a little dirty after our first trip with it into the provinces.

Since we’ve arrived in February we haven’t had a vehicle. Primarily, we have gotten around using tuk-tuks (in fact, we have our “own” driver, which is awesome!), but we’ve also been driven around the provinces by Life With Dignity and Lutheran Church in Cambodia staff, taken buses, taken a taxicab and a taxibus, and even rented a motorbike for a week. We could, but haven’t yet, taken a boat from Phnom Penh up the Tonle Sap River to get to Siem Reap (northwest) and down the Mekong River to get to Vietnam (southeast); at some point I’m sure we will. The only mode of transportation that truly isn’t available to us in Cambodia is train.

During each trip we’ve gone on, whether in the city or the provinces, I’ve made it a point to try and pay attention to what traffic is like, what road conditions are, and how we’ve gotten to our destination. I was trying to prepare myself for when we finally got a vehicle and would be responsible for getting ourselves where we needed to be. Well, that day came, and I realized exactly how much I really wasn’t prepared.

Driving in Cambodia is drastically different than in the United States. One drives on the right-hand side of the road (thankfully), but that’s where the similarities end. Having observed traffic for a few months now, I knew that there would be motorbikes darting in-and-out between vehicles and that the roads would be rough, but knowing something and experiencing something are completely different things, as I’ve come to find out.

Having grown up and learned to drive in northern Wisconsin, I’ve had lots of practice watching the roads for deer that might dart out in front of the car, but that really doesn’t train you for having to watch the front and the sides of your vehicle for bikes and cars and trucks that will suddenly swerve in front of you or come up alongside you, seemingly out of nowhere (not to mention the, what I consider to be unusually- high, number of cows that seem to wander along the roads). Add into that equation nighttime and rain, and it becomes quite a stressful experience. I have driven 15-passenger vans full of high school students while pulling a U-Haul trailer through Chicago and in the Appalachian Mountains, and I’ve not gripped the steering wheel as tightly as I did the night it rained on our way home.

I don’t know if driving will ever be truly “easy” here, but I do know that it will get easier. This is just another in this series of experiences we have, and will have, as we continue to make Cambodia “home”, and I’m sure in a few years when I think about these first few times driving that I’ll laugh at how I overreacted. At least, let’s hope it gets to that point. 🙂

July Update

Visiting one of the many temples at Angkor.

It’s been a while since we’ve posted anything on the blog, so thought we’d provide a quick update:

A highlight of our time this “summer” has been a trip to Siem Reap in June to visit the temples of Angkor. A part of the in-country orientation when the YAGMs arrive will be spent on Cambodian culture and history, and so we thought that it was important to visit the pride and joy of Cambodia, Angkor Wat, before the group got here. I mean, if we’re going to bring the group here in September we’ve got to know which bus to take, which guest house to stay at, and how many temples to visit, right? 🙂 Seriously, we are incredibly lucky to be doing this job for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to visit some of the most amazing historical sites in the world!

The other major thing that we’ve been working on has been purchasing a vehicle so we can get around to the volunteer service sites. The ELCA is now the proud owner of a Mazda BT-50 4×4 pickup truck! It would not have been possible for this vehicle purchase to take place if it wasn’t for the amazing assistance from Life With Dignity, who arranged for bids to be received, test drives to take place, paperwork to be filled out, and insurance to be purchased. We are excited to make visits to each of the service sites at least once more before the volunteers arrive, not to mention figure out how to navigate the countryside roads of Cambodia. However, before we can make our inaugural “solo trip” to the sites, we’re waiting on license plates. It seems to be taking a bit longer than originally thought, but thankfully we do not have any major time crunches, so it isn’t an issue right now.

Other than a trip to Angkor and pickup trucks being purchased, there is not a whole lot to report. We continue our language lessons three times per week; for about 7 weeks now we have been learning to read and write in Khmer. It has been nice to be able to read (some) signs on buildings and streets, but it is clear that we have so much yet to learn. When we’re not studying Khmer, we are continuing to prepare for the volunteers’ arrival and going about our day-to-day lives in a much more relaxed way than we were ever able to in the States. Life is good and we pray that yours is, too!

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Book Cover: In the Shadow of the Banyan

When we arrived in Cambodia in February we had to hit the ground running: find a place to live, visit and meet with potential YAGM partners, select YAGM service sites, put together a presentation for the Discernment-Interview-Placement (DIP) event, fly back to Chicago for two weeks and then fly back to Phnom Penh, and start learning the language. We spent all of our time going from one place to the next and there was hardly time to catch our breath.

Since we returned to Phnom Penh after DIP, though, we’ve been able to breathe a bit and live more of a slower-paced, Cambodian lifestyle, which has been great. In fact, we’ve actually been able to sit and read! One of the books I read was, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.

Raami, the protagonist, was seven years old and a member of the royal family (royal blood, but not immediate family members of the king) in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in April 1975. Just like the rest of the population, the family packs as much as they can and evacuates the city, in anticipation of American bombs being dropped. For Raami’s family, the ordeal is viewed primarily as an inconvenience at the beginning, as they were able to drive their car to their countryside home to “wait out” a potential attack. It soon becomes clear, though, that the family is not going home. The rest of the book describes the ordeal that Raami and her family went through during the rule of “Angkar” (“The Organization” – what the Khmer Rouge called themselves).

Ratner’s story-telling draws you in and it becomes difficult to put the book down, even though much of what she writes is tough to read, as no child, no family, no one, should have to endure this in any time or any place. A seven year-old girl, who was so full of life, is forced to look death in the face on a daily basis. A seven year-old girl, who loves stories, is unable to put words to the horror she witnesses until much later in life. A seven year-old girl, who knew nothing but love, experiences the cancer of hate.

Ratner is able to bring the reader so fully into the story because even though “In the Shadow of the Banyan” is technically a fictional tale, Vaddey Ratner lived this nightmare. Raami’s story is Vaddey’s story. Vaddey was five years-old in April 1975 and her father descended from the royal line of King Sisowath, one of Cambodia’s early 20th-Century kings. While some of the particular stories and thoughts in this book may not be factually accurate, they are experiences the author lived through during her time in forced exile in the Khmer Rouge forced labor communities. The tale is fictional, but the story is real.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to put a human face and an actual story to the tragedy that was the Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea from 1975-1979.

They’re Really Coming

YAGM program staff, country coordinators, and Time for God staff all meeting together in Chicago before DIP.
YAGM program staff, country coordinators, and Time for God staff all meeting together in Chicago before DIP.

We have people coming to Cambodia!!!! After several meetings, a couple presentations, lots of interviews, long conversation, and prayer, we are finally able to tell you that we’re ECSTATIC about the 7 people that have accepted the call to come serve in Cambodia this year!

Yes, you read that right – seven. Not six, but seven. Seven fabulous young adults will show up in Cambodia in late August.  After seeing all of the opportunity in Cambodia to serve and actually meeting these incredible young adults, none of us could resist the nudge to ask just one more person to come, and she accepted!  So whoever of you out there was praying for this ministry, for DIP, for us, and the young adults, thank you. It worked, and we couldn’t be more excited.

Who are they, you ask? Excellent question. Please add to your prayer list: Andrew, Elise, Haley, Jessica, Lindsay, Ryan, and Savannah!

So now the “real” work starts.  Over the next several months we’ll look at all our placement opportunities again, match the gifts and personalities of these young adults with a site, and revisit those places to ensure everything is ready for them – basic necessities like a bed, fan, and bicycle, as well as the things that will shape their year – setting up orientation (yay language study!), retreats, continued learning opportunities, etc. And in the meantime, our young adults will be busy finishing up school and work, applying for visas, deciding what to pack, and all the things that lead up to spending an intentional year abroad.

We’re thrilled. Seriously thrilled. And so we extend our thanks to all of you again: those of you who are supporting us and praying for us, those of you here in Cambodia partnering with us, and those of you who will be coming here in August to serve! We’re grateful.

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