…And So It Ends

A week before I boarded a trans-Pacific plane eleven months ago, I wrote about the anticipation of beginning my New Zealand journey. A couple months ago, I entered the bittersweet limbo season and began to detect the light barely glimmering at the end of the tunnel. Welp, two months came and went (flash!). Today, the impending assignments are all done and dusted. I’ve completed a Master’s degree, slotted in and smashed out about as many adventures as I could manage, and in one short week, the #JCompinNZ journey will come to a close. What a significant, memorable year it has been.

Continue reading “…And So It Ends”


Power, Poverty, and Pain in Phnom Penh

I haven’t had access to internet for a while… From May 11:

After two grueling plane rides of fourteen and five hours each, we landed in the Pearl of Asia – Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. As I entered the loading bridge, I was hit with a wave of tangible humidity. Half a world away from Charleston, the weather here is more comparable to home than Roanoke. In two days, we visited all of the key tourist sights. At Wat Phnom, a Buddhist shrine atop a man-made mound twenty-seven meters above the city streets, we awkwardly flashed our cameras amidst the chorus of xylophones resonating through the temple. Worshipers burned suffocating quantities of incense and fervently proffered themselves before the golden Buddha, praying for luck and blessings.
Wat Phnom
Over and over, we pulled our cameras out of our packs and flashed away… at the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, in the National Museum of Cambodian artifacts, in the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields, both of which are reminders of the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime. The food here is amazing, and pictures have definitely been taken of each lunch dish, beginning with our first course of fresh, savory vegetables sautéed in lemon and olive oil to our dessert of deep fried chocolate and banana spring rolls. (And classmates speak of losing weight over here. Right.)

Buddha Buddha Buddha Buddha rockin’ everywhere
Royal Palace

I want to remember everything and share it with you, so the pictures will continue, but I wish I didn’t feel so touristy. The fact of the matter is, right now, that is what we are. In three days, I have never been so aware of my wealth. As we enter each “must see” location, there is a persistent group of aged amputees and half-naked children holding out their hand. “One dollar?” they beg. “Yes please?” My eyes shift downward and I pass by, trying to subdue my guilt.
Mere decades ago, the Khmer Rouge Regime decimated Phnom Penh. Today, the corruption of the Cambodian People’s Party, composed of select dictators who make up this so-called government, though less blatant, is not much improved. You have to be blind to miss the poverty, the prostitution, the pain…it’s rampant.
An estimated two million innocent natives were murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime. Many suspected traitors were first sent to a torture chamber, like the Toul Sleng S-21 prison we visited two days ago. Of the 17,000 victims who entered, only seven survived. They endured terrible torture – salt water doused on fresh wounds, pulled fingernails, ripped testicles, and electrocution. The mangled bodies do not look human. Reminiscent of the Holocaust, rows of pictures line the museum. Each person portrays a different emotion, seen in the direction of their brow, the whites of their eyes, the tension in their jaw. Some angry, others tired, many terrified, a handful peaceful. None smile. Even the babies, 2,000 of them, were killed, because “you can’t just cut the grass; you have to pull the roots out, too.”
Torture Room of S-21 Prison
Most of these victims were buried in one of the hundreds of killing fields located throughout Cambodia. With its dozens of large, gradually sloping holes outlined by a maze of walking paths, the one just outside of Phnom Penh resembles an unkempt golf course or a grade A beginner’s dirt bike trail. Think again. Each of these holes is a mass grave, and some hold the remains of several hundred people. In one, all of the bodies were decapitated. As I passed, I heard a tour guide explain this was because they had the body of a Cambodian and the head of a Vietnamese. In the center of the killing field, a towering glass stupa displays hundreds of skulls. The skeletal remains from the Khmer Rouge reign testify to the power of the government, and in my few days here as a tourist, I see it playing out.

Soldiers used the serrated edge of this type of palm plant to slit people’s throats at the Killing Fields. (!)
When my sister was four, Pink Baby, her life-sized doll, was always in tow. A piece of plastic never received so much attention. That’s the thing, though. Pink Baby was plastic, indestructible. When she was dropped, which, though loved, happened  often, Pink Baby suffered no brain damage. Yesterday I witnessed a little girl loosely holding a scrawny, naked baby – a real one, mind you – in her arms, its head unsupported, hanging at least fifty degrees past the crook of her elbow. Only a few years older than the malnourished infant herself, she carelessly lost hold of his waist. I stared, shocked, as his soft skill inevitably hit the dirt. In a three-second wayward glance out the tour bus window, a variety of scenes are witnessed.
Later that day at the central market, I quickly emptied my money belt of all of the cash I had with me bargaining for a few gifts. On my last purchase, I even had to borrow an extra two dollars from Courtney. Afterwards, the whole group ventured over to a sidewalk technology kiosk where they sell cheap electronics the same way a New Yorker sells hotdogs. It began raining, an unexpected gift on a typically hot afternoon. As I inched backward for cover under the overhang, I bumped into a short, emaciated woman holding out her hands, rambling on in Khmer. Her grin revealed a few crooked, decaying teeth. I know the Lonely Planet travel guide advises me not to give money to the beggars or the children, but how am I to ignore the harmless woman half a foot away from me? After being refused by many in the group, she and her friend continued to stand uncomfortably close to us, motioning her wrinkled hands up to her mouth.
“I don’t have any money,” I confessed, shaking my head and opening my empty hands.

Oh God. This is the worst. I really did not have any money with me. They laughed and kept on foolishly smiling. They think I’m lying. They think I’ve got a few extra bills I could so easily throw their way, that I’m being a selfish white woman. I would have given it to them.

The next day, I did stick a dollar each through a chain-length fence to two small boys. I know you can’t give to everyone; you wouldn’t be able to pay for your hotel at the end of the day. But I have so much, and even if they are getting money from all of the other soft-hearted tourists, I will be richer than them for the rest of my life. If I have a $20,000 salary someday, I will still be better off. It’s a dollar, and I will never miss it.
I think I’ll continue to struggle with my infinite wealth in places of poverty; when we go to the countryside, I’ve heard it gets even worse. Still, I don’t see an utterly despondent Phnom Penh. Walking around the city and flashing my camera, I capture glimmers of promise. Even with the prostitution and the genocide and the poor kids out of school, these people are some of the happiest I have met. As a whole population, their pain has brought resilience. They are polite and positive, and the natural environment, from the banyan tree to the water buffalo, exudes peace and healing.
We, the moneybag tourists with our swanky digital cameras, malaria pills, and dorky money belts, can’t change everything, but we can choose how to tour. We have a lot to learn from the Cambodians, and we can help improve their standard of living. Organizations like Friends International and Daughters of Cambodia have established restaurants and gift shops whose profits directly support the education of street kids and prostitutes. After their training, many go on to work in other hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh. 

The delectable and authentic food is more expensive, but it’s still reasonable and so worth it. A child safe network of hotels and businesses in the area has been established who do not tolerate sex tourism. When everything is so cheap, we can afford to support these restaurants and hotels with our business. I found a corner of graffiti in the S-21 prison – “peace,” “never again,” “always remember.” It was encouraging. Likewise, the air of solemnity surrounding the killing fields is tangible, but visitors had placed hundreds of multi-colored string-woven bracelets hung over the bamboo fences around the graves. Do not forget us, they seemed to say, but you can overcome; there is hope.

I may be a tourist, but this country is giving me hope. Perhaps I am giving it a little bit too.

Oh Magnolia

If you want to climb a tree, go find a Magnolia. They are squat and sturdy, and you never have to look for the next limb to step onto. They’re everywhere, branching almost horizontally in a 360 degree radius around the trunk. Climbing these trees is not just kids’ sport either.  Last spring, hidden from the goings-on below on Roanoke’s campus, I spent at least a half hour watching students and faculty pass by. Granted, I was wearing corduroy overall and pigtails, feeling rather whimsical. So maybe most normal adults don’t climb magnolias, but I challenge you to try it. Take my word of caution, though.  Limb by limb, it is easy to get way higher than you originally intended; the descent can be surprisingly treacherous.
Can you see me?? Upper left quadrant.
Apparently, the flower on this tree is ancient. Bees weren’t even around when it began popping up; it depended on beetles for pollination, so it has a tough, waxy outer coating to prevent the beetles from eating or damaging it. It is beautiful and surprisingly strong.
A great gal named Ellie Holcomb sings about this magnolia.
Oh Magnolia, won’t you please come home?
Oh Magnolia, you don’t have to walk alone.
Oh Magnolia, won’t you rest your head on my shoulder?
On the surface, it’s just a really sweet song. (Check it out here.) Listen again. She is not just singing about a flower. She sings as if God is talking directly to her. She has been working hard, trying to make things in her life “right.” She is alone, tangled in burdens, distractions, and failures. This magnolia, her heart, is exhausted and lost.
All along the way, Jesus keeps on talking to her, forever faithful.
I’m right here, waiting on you. I’ll take your burdens. Come back to me. Walk with me.
Last week, a lot of people, many of whom are de-churched, twice-a-year Christians, came together to celebrate a little something known as Easter.  Under the white tent at Boone Hall, I observed their discomfort. They stood stiffly, hands awkwardly shoved in their seer-sucker pockets during worship, passive during the sermon. They are tired of religion, of rules and not measuring up. The church failed them long ago. Their family has hurt them, their job hasn’t provided. They go and go and go, seeking fulfillment, eternally unfulfilled. And they’re tired.
If that broad “they” sounds like you, I’m right there with you. Easter felt like a pretty passive, unimportant day. For being a part of it my whole life, I don’t always get the church. I see the ways people mess up and hurt each other. They have for all eternity, and they will continue to. I see my natural inclination to walk away and find fulfillment in my school work and leadership positions.  So far, I still haven’t been fulfilled. The world is not faithful; in the end, it will always let you down.
So, I, too, am a magnolia. Like its coat of wax, I have built up layers of defense against the world. I burrow into school and schedules where I feel safe. Sometimes I don’t engage in relationships because of the messiness that comes with them. Better to be clean. Don’t share your life. Not totally, anyway. What about other people’s problems? What am I supposed to do with their junk? I am one weak branch, distantly connected to the roots.
But this Jesus, he engages the mess. He took the junk, and last week we gave thanks for the greatest gift ever. Grace: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. When he rose from the grave, Jesus became accessible. He is alive – a living person who keeps taking our crap, who keeps calling his magnolia back to him. Over and over and over.
I’m right here, waiting on you. I’ll take your burdens. Come back to me. Walk with me.
You are precious to me, and I love you.
This invitation he offers, that sounds life-giving. I want that companion. Because of the resurrection, I have Him. You can too.
Lord, I wish I didn’t leave your side, but I do. So once again, your magnolia is coming home.