Monthly Archives: April 2013

“What are you doing there, anyway?”

Lately speaking with a few friends from back in the states, I have been surprised to realize that most of them do not know where I am, what I am doing, and, most importantly, why I am here.  As I thought about it, the fact began to bother me.  I’m not sure I have done a proper job in communicating my story to my beloved friends back home, so I am going to give another brief explanation right now.  (Or you can refer back to my first post from December.)

 
Beginning in January, I spent two months traveling with a program called Pacific Discovery to finish up a few honors credits for my undergraduate degree.  We spent 9 weeks exploring, volunteering, absorbing the history, and, of course, taking part in all the local fun in four unique fantastic countries: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  I ended this trip backpacking some fantastic southern Thailand beaches for a few weeks.  
 
I flew to Kolkata, India on March 30 to start a 9 week internship working with an anti-trafficking organization here.  This was the original reason I wanted to come out to Asia: to gain experience in a grassroots NGO promoting justice and making a real sustainable impact for the struggling.  Saying that, it has been a very challenging transition coming from the lazy backpacker life to working full-time in a crazy, unfamiliar city with all new faces, personalities, culture, and overall lifestyle to adapt to, but it has forced me to face a part of myself that does not come easy and that is something I would not trade for anything.
 
After my first week and a half of work, through all the struggles, self-doubt, and awkward encounters, I have felt so blessed to be in the position I am and to be able to work with the amazing people I do.  Being in the presence of these real life heroes is such an honor and, even with all my inadequacies, I am glad I can take part of this movement in some small way.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Kolkata

I wasn’t expecting so much culture shock when I got here.  I figured traveling for two months throughout four developing countries would prepare me plenty for Kolkata.  I could not have been more wrong.  Leaving the soothing, picturesque paradise of Koh Phangan behind me, I stepped off the plane into a world like I had never experienced before. And all I could think of was…I seriously have to liiive here for the next 10 weeks? Thiiis is home?? 

 
I was met at the Kolkata airport by the young American couple, Chris and Sally,  who would be my fellow roommates and coworkers for the next few months.  They were an extremely kind couple who had been living here since September and they had graciously offered me a place to stay in their apartment for my time in Kolkata.  When we stepped outside the airport, I was quite relieved to feel a slightly “cooler” temperature than the unbearable 100 degrees I kept hearing of.  But my joy was short-lived as Sally announced to me that this was the coolest day they had had in a while, and warned me to prepare for the worst.  I did not understand how much worse it could get past 100, but I decided to avoid the reality of it until I had to face it myself.
 
Taking the taxi home, my subconscious slowly soaked in the chaotic surroundings: cars racing around one another in a series of beeping chaos, dark-skinned people flooding the streets all rushing onto their various destinations, shiny and colorful trash heaps lining the roads, women dressed in full Indian garb with bright-colored dresses flowing past their ankles and elbows, and towering, plain structures appearing as if they hadn’t been used in years. And all I could think to myself, in a silent fit of shock, was “welcome home Kaleigh, welcome home.”
 
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The best was saved for last!

 

Well I made it to Kolkata…And I do not think this place could be more opposite from the Thailand beach paradise I just came from.  I have been extremely spoiled these last few months traveling throughout Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and meeting some amazing people along the way.  Pacific Discovery, the program I traveled with, had a final shebang in the stunning Railey Beach near Krabi, Thailand.  I have seen a lot of beautiful places in the last few months, but nothing can compare to this one.  It was absolutely breathtaking with the rocks jutting hundreds of feet out of the green-blue ocean.  During our fabulous last few days together in paradise, the group had a chance to go scuba-diving in one of the most renowned corral reefs in the world off of Koh Phi Phi Island, famous for where The Beach was filmed.  As my first time scuba diving, the experience was absolutely stunning with the so many stunning colors and crazy fish life I never knew existed; it also convinced me that I not only want to become a climbing instructor now, but switch off as a scuba instructor as well.   Our instructor was actually one of these lucky people who was originally from England and offered to take Jackie and I out rope rock-climbing for free at one of the most coveted rockwalls in Asia!  We set a date for two days later, and spent the next day deep-water solo climbing, snorkeling, and cliff jumping with some of the PD groupies.  This marked our last day together asa group and we ended it with a great catered meal, watching a spectacular sunset and skinny dipping in the ocean. haha  On the morning of March 24, Pacific Discovery departed back to Bangkok from the three girls staying behind, me included.  We haddecided to take an extra week to soak up the sun at a few different islands.  This marked the first of many goodbyes, which was a lot harder than I imagined it would be.  

 
It was a strange transition traveling independently after being with 15 other people on a more or less guided tour for two months.  On our first day “alone,” Jackie and I distracted ourselves by rope-climbing at, according to our [sucba] instructor, the best wall in Southeast Asia, ending with a 150 ft 6A that shot straight up hundreds of feet above the aqua-blue water.  What a spectacular view we had!! It was a moment I will not forget for a long time. To thank our previous scuba guide for taking us out climbing for free, we made him and his mom (who happened to be visiting) lunch on the beach and watched our last picturesque sunset at Railey.   The night ended with some crazy fire dancing (by Jackie herself) and slack lining frenzy as did most nights at Railey/Tonsei.  I will never forget this little laidback climbing mecca and can definitely see myself coming back here in the not-so-faroff future.
 
We left early the next morning to catch a bus and, then, ferry to Koh Phangan, the final destination for our last week together.  We arrived late that night groggy from our lack of sleep and day-long travel.  But as soon as we arrived we could feel a whole different world of energy than the chill backpacker beach we had just left.  There were signs everywhere posting about parties and celebrations for everyday of the week.  This place was going to be a bit wild, to say the least.  The rest of the week was like a dream, and by far the best I have had on my entire trip altogether.  We spent six fantastic days lounging on the beach staying during the day and staying out all night, and motor biking around the island to secret, pristine swimming holes, each with their own distinct vibe about them.  We also got to take part in the infamous Full Moon Party, which is basically when a few tens of thousands of backpackers come together for one last huge party on the beach under the full moon every month.  We got there at midnight and stayed until sunrise.  It was an incredible night!
 
And then I flew into Kolkata…
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Some moments of impact…(written in mid March)

Instead of trying to sum up the last week in brief like usual, just wanted to share two very delicate and impacting moments I was able to experience over the last few days.  The first one took place earlier this week in Phnom Penh.  During a late night out exploring the city, a couple girls from my group and I had met a friendly Cambodian tuk-tuk driver around our age who spoke fantastic English for a change.  Enjoying his company, we invited him to join us for a drink, and he ended up giving us a ride back for free.  During the ride home, our conversation began to switch from light easy topics to exchanging heavy personal stories.  The driver, who I ashamedly don’t recall his name, opened up about his successful lineage of family that were viciously destroyed in the American bombings and dark Khmer Rouge times.  I sat outside the hotel for what seemed like hours listening to the raw and honest horrors of his family’s past that was little over 30 years ago.  He told me about how his grandfather was one of the most renowned doctors in all of Cambodia until he was killed by an American bomb that had blown up his house.  The bombs had also blown up his Aunt and Uncles home, killing some of his cousins.  The few educated people that were left in his family were murdered by the Khmer Rouge a few years later.  His father was shot near the end of the reign just before he was born, as well as all of his paternal uncles.  His mom, one of the few family survivors, still waits in Phnom Penh in hopes that one of her displaced older siblings will return there one day, although the chances are very likely that they were killed as well.  

 
Narrating his story of hopelessness, the man began to weep for the desperate state of his country.  I think it was the moment that he mentioned his grandpa dying by the American bombings that really touched home with me and I began to cry as well.  I’d been to the museums all over Vietnam and saw the pictures, but there was nothing like hearing the monstrosities of what the Americans had done firsthand.  i explained to him that many close friends grandparents had been drafted into the war.  So there we were, two generations down the road both with direct contacts to this wretched war, an American and Cambodian weeping over how senseless violence can so easily destroy an innocent family, and an entire nation.
 
But forgiveness and understanding sat in the air, and we hugged for a long time sitting on the road there.  I don’t think we said much after that and I eventually made my way back to my room in silence.  God bless that driver for impacting me more than he will ever know.
 
 
The second moment of impact…
 

Picture this: all the garbage and sewage your family accumulates in one year, slowly collecting in one big rotting pile of crap. Fast forward that image seven years, even more decay, with an unbearable stench wafting all around twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Now, multiply that petrifying image to 6000 families, crammed tightly together in a village, shack to shack, rotting waste overflowing into homes, compiled for seven years, no removal, no cleaning, just sitting and rotting. Absolute filth, an unfathomable smell, and a perfect scenario for disease infestation, and absolutely nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, this place exists, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was there to see it with my own eyes.

I am a pretty normal college student from back in the U.S.A, with a passion for development. I had read about villages having to be forcefully moved because of a variety of reasons. I had studied how distraught and ripped apart that it can leave communities. I mean, I cannot even imagine having my whole family and neighbors being moved without warning, leaving your house behind, and possibly most of your belongings, to be relocated to a place not of your choice. After this small town in Cambodia, I have a little clearer picture of this. They had lived along a lush river, in a much more open area and, for undisclosed reasons, were kicked out to an area a fraction of the size, forced to make a living in the back of an old cow pasture that was partly encompassed by a swamp.

I visited the village guided by a friend who was working on a reconstruction project there. While living in the states, I had heard about the village project and wanted to witness the progress for myself. I did not know much about the village besides it was extremely poor and had no means of leaving the desolate area it had been handed. When I arrived, I was astounded by how small of an area such a city of 6000 residents could fit into. By my estimation, it looked like no more than 30 to 40 acres with all of the shops and public service areas included. The entrance to the city was the area being reconstructed, and it was coming along beautifully. I know there had been a number of outside influences helping it regain its control since it had been moved locations seven years before, and this semi-reconstructed area looked clean and organized with rowed houses, a new market place, and even a newly developed sewage system! But, as we moved deeper into the city, where many projects had been vacated, an entire different type of nightmarish reality developed before me. 

We moved past current reconstruction to the area that had been left untouched by human aid groups. The immediate loss of concrete road was the first sign, which quickly transformed from paved straight roads to uneven dirt paths to a swampy mess of sewage with only a pipe to hobble down between homes. This sewage area made up the lowest part of the town, and is where all of the waste generally flowed, to along with most of the garbage since the rains would naturally push it to this area naturally.

This vicinity was the most shocking to my system, and, by eyeballing, I guessed it made up nearly a third of the entire city area. The sight was something I could have never imagined until being there in its presence. When the first dirt path converted into these large transporting pipe ways, snaking their way in between rows of compacted shacks, I had to stop for a second to take it all in. We were literally walking on a pipe, of which purpose no one really knows, that barely surfaced the excrement that piled up on all sides. At the surface, the waste took on a rainbow of shapes and colors that quickly melded into a dark gooey heap of incomprehensible mass. Not even a meter from the walking-pipe, laid the small shanties of the hundreds of families living amongst the rubbish. The stench drifted up with a sickly sweet, yet sour stench of burnt rubber, feces, stale urine, and putrid products; it was nearly intolerable to bear and I ended up stuffing small cotton swabs into my nose that I happened to have in my pocket. We stopped to talk with the bordering homes, and the families seemed happy enough, playing cards, kids running freely up and down the pipe, some even plummeting into the mysterious goop below, making treasures out of what others had left behind, whatever that may be. The homes were raised barely a foot or two above the mess, with a common room on bottom, and the bedrooms and kitchens strategically placed on top, but highly doubt that this organization stopped much of the disease that spread quite rampantly through the area I had heard. I could not imagine why…

The shallow water hole lay not far from this living dump, where the people all bathed and drank from. I wondered to myself what the statistics of survival are in this area compared to most. My host explained to me that this was their last and biggest area of the city to tackle for proper sewage. He still had no idea how it was going to be all figured out in the end. Nobody wanted to do it, or had any idea where to even start. How can you efficiently and effectively clean this area that has been collecting rot for seven years straight in a small enclosed area where hundreds call home?

That is a question that I would very much like to see answered myself. A people that once had a flourishing community next to a lively river, now stuck in a collecting heap of decaying rubbish. After visiting this sight, I feel like it cannot be fully comprehended until you actually walk and talk with the people who live their daily lives in the disarray. It’s absolutely astounding that this actually happens, and still no solution yet solidified. The future has yet to answer these tough questions

 

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