Sunday, February 24, 2013

Can Do, Will Do, Make Do

Last week was a rather complicated week for our family. As soon as we returned from an emotionally draining visit to Tuol Sleng, Jeff had to start packing—the next day, he was working a full day before catching the evening flight to Bangkok.

As Jeff left Tuesday morning to go to his job, several locally-hired embassy workers arrived here to start theirs—the Periodic Preventive Maintenance for this embassy-leased residence. Every few months, a small swarm of men arrive and spend the day inspecting, cleaning, and repairing various items around the house: the distiller, the generator, the air conditioners, the outdoor light fixtures that fill with dead bugs. The first time they came, I was surprised to walk into my kitchen and find a man sitting under the table, fixing the wobbly leg. Now I think nothing of discovering a man cleaning out the residual debris from the tub’s drain or making sure the kitchen sink drains properly.

So it was no surprise to discover, around 4pm, that a clogged drain had been found and cleared. It was, however, a surprise to discover that the clog had been the only thing keeping the water flow through a damaged pipe slow enough that the ground could absorb the leaked water before its presence became apparent. My housekeeper and I both were very surprised when my daughter pointed out the water in the hall, and even more so because the threshold at the back door is raised enough that no water possibly could come in from outside—it was coming up through the floor and wall.

The workers told me to keep towels down in the hall that night, and the landlord—whose responsibility it is to repair the house itself, including its broken pipes—would come the next morning. From this instruction, I assumed that the pooled water I saw in the hall had accumulated over a longish period of time, and the leak was slow enough not to be a problem overnight. Silly me.

By 6pm, as the driver arrived to take Jeff to the airport, it became apparent that the leak was major. Almost every towel we own was in the dryer, still sopping wet, or in the hall, sopping wet, with water spreading around them. I asked Jeff what would happen if the water made it down the hall and spread into our bedroom—a real possibility—and hit the transformer that we use in there. I believe the phrase he used was “double plus ungood.” Jeff told me to call the man in charge of the relevant embassy office and ask him to send someone immediately. Then he kissed me, said “Welcome to the Foreign Service,” and walked out the door. (Really, what else was he supposed to do? This situation was serious, but not such an emergency that he needed to stay home and deal with it … it was time to pull out my “can do, will do, make do” attitude and make the best of it.)

I got on the phone and made arrangements for someone to come deal with the problem. Unfortunately, the only thing that could be done at that time was to turn off the water to the pipe, which “may” mean that “part” of the house would be without water. Mmm hmm, I knew what that meant.

I quickly bathed Alexa, filled the bath tub with tap water, filled several bottles with distilled water, and washed the dishes, then filled the kitchen sink. Right on time, as I finished my water-hoarding tasks, the embassy worker arrived. He took me around back of the house and showed me how to turn the water to the whole house off and back on. Yep, I thought I knew what “may” and “part” meant. At least he did show me how to turn it on in case I really needed it. I made sure the guard knew how to turn it on as well, in case he needed it for the guards’ bathroom, then went back inside and made the best of it.

The next morning, I used some of my reserves—I’d over-prepared a bit—to make coffee and settled in to wait. It didn’t take long. The owner arrived around the same time as my housekeeper, and she handled all interaction with him, since he and I don’t have any languages in common. She also privately told me of the conversations she overheard between him and the two men he brought with him, warning me that he didn’t appear to know much about plumbing.

Throughout that day, men came and went. Mostly they were outside, on the back porch, but we left the back door unlocked so they could come in and check the water in the bathrooms as necessary. The guard’s hearing was checked as he listened for the gate’s bell from the back of the house, where he watched over these strangers in our domain. My housekeeper forsook all effort at cleaning as she watched over them every time they stepped foot inside the house—the guard isn’t supposed to come in—and simultaneously did me the enormous favor of watching Alexa. (Have I mentioned that Alexa was recovering from a cold, and mine was coming on pretty strong by that point? I was congested, miserable, and exhausted, as I don’t sleep well when Jeff isn’t here.)

By mid-afternoon, the water was turned back on. But not all of it—the leak had been determined to be in the hot water pipe, so we had cold water only. An embassy employee called me to pass along the message that I would have water, but only cold water, until the next day, or maybe the day after. Recognizing the validity of my housekeeper’s doubts about the landlord’s abilities, I resigned myself to at least one more day of cold water only and decided to brave a shower, as I felt fairly disgusting by that point. I shuddered in anticipation of the icy water … only to find that “cold” water in Cambodia isn’t cold at all—it’s very pleasantly lukewarm. My housekeeper laughed at me when I expressed my joy at this discovery; apparently most Cambodians don’t have hot water at all.

The rest of Wednesday was pretty good. I didn’t have hot water, but I didn’t really need it. Lukewarm water was more than enough for someone with a good attitude.

I didn’t sleep well again—Jeff was, after all, still away—and my cold took a turn for the worse, so I slept late enough that I hadn’t had a shower by the time my housekeeper (and the landlord) arrived Thursday morning. I was told that the leak was gone. They hadn’t fixed it, but it was gone. They’d turned the hot water back on, and no water came flooding to the surface, so everything was fine. I doubted that, but decided to go shower anyway. Imagine my surprise when the water, which had been there the day before, had at best half the volume and pressure as usual. I thought it probably would be enough, so I went ahead … only to have the volume decrease by half again partway through. I found out later that my housekeeper had put in a load of laundry.

I again relied heavily on my housekeeper. She communicated the water pressure problem—it was happening throughout the house, not just in the bathroom—to the landlord, supervised access to the house, and gently suggested that I take a nap and let her watch Alexa after she saw me sitting quietly, obviously choosing, with difficulty, to say nothing rather than yell at my precious toddler for behaving like the two-year-old that she is. As I felt even worse Thursday than I had Wednesday, I acquiesced without much argument. Thursday was not a good day, and I was grateful that night to go to bed. I had no idea what, if anything, had been done about the water pressure. Because I wasn’t sure that the not-fixed pipe wouldn’t spring another leak, however, I did arrange with the guard to check the back porch for water during his rounds, so he could turn the water off if necessary … I was still thinking of that transformer in the bedroom.

Friday morning I woke up feeling better, though not anywhere near well. I still had water, so apparently the not-fixed pipe was still fixed enough. I showered and was pleasantly surprised to find hot water in sufficient quantities with sufficient pressure. I had no idea what accounted for the change.

My housekeeper arrived on time. The landlord didn’t come. We discovered that although the water pressure in the bathrooms was fine, the water pressure in the kitchen sink was problematic. This information was passed on to an embassy worker, who arrived sometime after my early-afternoon trip to the supermarket (during which several store employees justifiably looked at me as if I should be locked away to protect the public health). The embassy worker explained that the water pressure should be fine, because they had cleaned a filter that had gotten clogged with dirt from the broken pipe. When my housekeeper explained that most of the water pressure was fine, but not the kitchen sink, his face lit up with understanding. Apparently there’s a second filter on that faucet. He cleaned it, and voila! No more water problems.

We still don’t know exactly where the pipe was (or is) busted or why it suddenly stopped leaking. My best guess is that God was giving me a taste of the annoyances from which He protects me every day … and testing my attitude. However, I must admit that I was not the one who displayed a “can do, will do, make do” attitude throughout those few days—that attitude was displayed best by my housekeeper and by our team of guards, who quietly dealt with as many of the annoyances as they could, sheltering me as much as possible from any inconvenience, leaving fully intact my illusions about my own great attitude.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Tuol Sleng: The Hill of the Poisonous Trees

On Monday, Jeff and I took advantage of the holiday and spent a couple of hours visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was a nice day, a little warm but not too hot, with a brightly shining sun, perfect for the short walk from our BKK neighborhood to Tuol Sleng, located on Street 113 near Street 360. All the information I’d found on the internet indicated that Tuol Sleng was right on the corner, impossible to miss; although it was impossible to miss, thanks to the huge sign on the corner, Tuol Sleng itself was a block north of Street 360. We paid our $2 entry fee (each) and splurged on the $3 brochure, but said a polite “Qat tee, akuun” to the tour guides offering their services, then entered the former prison.
Building C: From far enough away, you can't even see the barbed wire
At first glance, Tuol Sleng appeared unremarkable, much like the many high schools scattered around the city. Not too surprising, as it originally was Tuol Svay Prey high school. It was converted into the secret torture prison S-21 (Security Office-21) shortly after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. One of the signs now present at Tuol Sleng explains that Pol Pot and his regime shunned education and viewed it as a corrupting influence, so I guess for him, it was poetic justice to transform a school into a prison for “traitors.” I assume that the moniker Tuol Sleng, meaning “Hill of the Poisonous Trees,” was attached sometime after the prison was discovered by liberating Vietnamese forces in 1979.

Fourteen tombs

We entered the facility at the corner of a large courtyard. This courtyard is now a gravesite: It holds the tombs of the last 14 victims of the prison, those whose mangled bodies were found by the Vietnamese liberators. The courtyard also displays a sign with a list of rules the prisoners were forced to obey, including prohibitions on talking or any noise whatsoever, even during beatings; on contradicting the guards in any way; and on taking any time at all to think before answering a question.

A room in Building A for high-ranking prisoners

To the left of the courtyard is Building A, where high ranking Khmer Rouge were held and tortured. This building now displays grisly photographs of the remains of the last 14 victims, as well as a few beds and other objects that were used in its days as S-21.


Building B, located behind the courtyard, was used for the mass detention of prisoners. Now, it’s filled with room after room of photographs. The administrators at S-21 apparently were diligent record-keepers: Each prisoner, upon entry to the prison, was seated in a chair and photographed. Detailed information was obtained about the victims’ lives, starting in childhood, and later, information from the “confessions” was added. At some point, the photographs were separated from the information files, so even though the pictures were recovered, most of them have not been identified. Building B displays a massive amount of those photographs. What is striking about the pictures is the diversity: Although almost all are Cambodian, they range in age from a baby in his mother’s arms to old people; males and females are included; and the prisoners could be anyone from a farmer accused of stealing food to a Khmer Rouge officer accused of being a secret agent for the CIA … or it could just as easily be a farmer accused of working for the CIA—the regime didn’t seem too particular about whether or not the accusations made sense, just that they had been made. Guilt by association also was assumed; if a father or mother was accused, both parents and all the children were arrested, and quite possibly the extended family and friends as well. Although I was disturbed by the sheer number of photographs, I was most disturbed by the pictures of children, sitting bravely in the chair, unaware (I hope) of the horrors they would soon endure.


In the middle of the facility, to the right of the courtyard, is the administration building. We did not enter that building, as it continues to be used mostly for administrative purposes—though two of the survivors of S-21 now spend their days around that building, speaking to tourists and selling their autobiographies. On the other side of the administration building is a second courtyard, with Building C behind it and Building D to its right.

Building C: Cells and barbed wire

Building C is the one that, on the face of it, appears most disturbing. Barbed wire covers the verandas, to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping. The classrooms in the bottom two floors were converted into tiny individual cells, constructed of brick on the ground floor and of wood on the first floor (second floor, for Americans). Narrow holes were blasted into the walls of the classrooms to make a single long walkway from one end of the building to the other. The second floor (or third, to Americans) was left as larger rooms for mass detention; prisoners were forced to lie on the floor, head to foot, utterly silent.

Artist's rendition of a man in a brick cell

 Building D contains more photographs, as well as displays of some of the original equipment. The chair on which victims sat for their photographs is displayed there, as are several instruments of torture and a couple of artists’ renditions of life in S-21: a painting of a mass detention room and another of a man in a brick cell. One room on the ground floor houses a memorial stupa, where bones of the victims are displayed and people can leave offerings of food, drink, and incense. The first floor contains a Peace Exhibit, which is a cooperative effort of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Okinawa Prefecture Peace Memorial Museum. I wandered through the exhibit but did not look closely at most of it, as I was too wrapped up in my thoughts of genocide at S-21 to want to read much about Okinawa, and I feared that if I did read it, I would find the inexcusable equating of the genocide perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime and the American military administration of Okinawa during and after World War II. Jeff, who did look more closely at the exhibit, told me that my instincts to avoid it were right; it did indeed draw inaccurate and offensive parallels. [Edited to add comments from Jeff: The focus of the Okinawa portion of the exhibit was the unfortunate civilian casualties that happened during the battle for Okinawa between the U.S. and Japanese forces. To my mind, comparing the collateral damage done to a third party during a battle to the tortures and murder inflicted by a regime upon its own people invites a moral relativism that I find repugnant. As a technical collaboration to share/learn artifact/evidence preparation and preservation, I think it's great, but the display presented left me feeling like there was a comparison being made that was unwarranted and unfair to the victims of Tuol Sleng as well as to the American forces (probably the Japanese too, but their record of wartime atrocities makes me less sure) at Okinawa. I found it somewhat akin to comparing a police officer who accidentally shoots a hostage to one who abducts, tortures, and then murders their neighbor. The end result is the same, but the level of evil is dramatically different.]

Memorial stupa

Building D also is the location where an hour-long film about S-21 can be viewed twice a day. Because it was almost time for our housekeeper to get off work, and we had left Alexa in her care, we chose to skip the film and instead head home.

A photograph of the Skull Map of Cambodia (dismantled in 2002)
I am glad that I visited Tuol Sleng, though it is a difficult place to visit. I cannot say that I enjoyed my time there, and despite my interest in the film, I’m almost certain that I will not return to view it. At the same time, however, it feels somehow necessary to me to visit once, to pay homage to those who suffered and died there, or who suffered there before being sent to Cheoung Ek to die. It’s as if a part of me wants to ignore places like Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek, to retreat from the horror of what people can do to other people—but another, larger part of me realizes that if we don’t acknowledge and remember the evil that has been perpetrated in the past, we leave ourselves vulnerable to forgetting that it’s possible, failing to defend against it, and repeating history. So as difficult as it may be to go, as tempting as it is to look at Cambodia’s ancient history rather than its more recent history, I do recommend that visitors to Cambodia visit Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek, every bit as much as I recommend that they visit Angkor Wat and the Royal Palace. I believe that we owe it to the victims, to ourselves, and to our children to remember that against which we must guard.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Our Cambodian Villa

Almost a year and a half ago, we first saw the villa that would be our home during our time in Cambodia. Before even seeing it, I was excited—I’d heard that the embassy here leases huge houses, because the smaller ones don’t meet our security needs. I’d heard stories of singles living in beautiful homes that dwarf our three-bedroom Egyptian apartment.

The stories were true.

Our first glimpse of our new home—once we got past the forbidding, barbed-wire topped wall with the gates that can be opened only from the inside*—was of a lovely villa with a large porch and a small garden (or yard, as we’d call it in the States, though “garden” is more accurate, since it contains crabapple, mango, and other fruit trees). The welcoming patio set in the tiled driveway more than made up for the huge generator and the small guard shack. Despite my expectations, the house looked bigger, grander, and lovelier than I had imagined.

 The inside of the house continued the initial impression of a huge, beautiful, rather formal home. High ceilings, arched doorways, and gorgeous crown molding contribute to the formal feel of the place, and multiple chandeliers and large windows ensure plenty of light. The place is huge, even the kitchen, in a land in which kitchens often are tiny cubbyholes that feel more like closets than “real” rooms. Although readily-accessible storage space is limited (the “walk-in closets” hold about the same amount of clothing as the not-walk-in closet of my childhood), we quickly learned that there’s an attic with almost as much floor space as the rest of the house, so there’s plenty of room for seasonal or seldom-used storage.

Stacks of boxes--one reason this post was delayed

 I immediately decided that I would write a blog post about this enchanting new home of ours. And then I decided to wait until after we had the walls painted … then after our stuff arrived so it would be all decorated and homey in the pictures … then after we got most of said stuff put away so you could see something other than stacks of boxes … then after we had the pictures hung on the walls … then after we had the playroom fully set up with our new toy storage, wall decorations, and carpet … you get the idea. I satisfied myself (and my family) in the meantime with pictures that I could just throw up on Facebook, so I never felt any real urgency to get that blog post written. But now, as we’re preparing to leave in just ten weeks or so, the urgency is back—I want this post to be included in the blog book that I’ll have printed after we depart. So, now—finally!—I’m blogging about this enchanting “new” home of ours.

As you enter our home, you’re greeted by the sight of a large foyer area, which is divided by an arched entryway with open shelving on each side. To your right is the living room. When we arrived, this area was set up as a formal seating area, with no television or other media. We realized we would not use it that way, so we turned it into a more traditional American living room—with the television as the focal point. The natural light in this room is so wonderfully bright that we ended up having blackout curtains made, so that we could make the room dark enough to be a proper home theater. Now it gets practically cave-like when we draw the curtains at night, and very gloomy-looking if we draw them during the day. 

Through the arched entry, you enter the second half of the open foyer area. To your right is the dining room, which we use mostly as a large office. When people come over, we move the laptops to the chest that houses the router and other computer equipment, bring out the tablecloth, and just assume that people will be polite and ignore the computer paraphernalia in the corners. The more traditional office is across from the dining room, where a pretty little seating area had been set up when we arrived—we moved the desk there from the third bedroom, believing we’d use it there … we’ve ended up using the dining room table instead, though.

From the dining room-foyer, you have a choice: you can continue straight into the rest of the main living area, or you can turn left. If you turn left, you’ll pass a half-bath before entering the laundry room and turning right into the huge kitchen. I have enjoyed this kitchen. It isn’t as pretty or modern as my kitchen in Egypt was—no dishwasher—but there are lots of cabinets and drawers, especially with the extra utility shelving provided by the embassy. And we enjoy the casual dining set in there each morning for breakfast.

If you continue straight from the dining room-foyer, you enter the playroom. When we arrived, this room was the family room, set up for television viewing. It worked well in that there are no windows, but it worked poorly in that it’s nestled right between the three bedrooms—a key consideration when the toddler has an 8pm bedtime. So we had baby gates made to enable us to contain Alexa in there as necessary (and to allow us to leave the door to the third bedroom open for the cats to access their litter box and water without concern over whether Alexa would access it as well), and we converted it into a playroom. There’s still a small TV viewing area, mostly used by Alexa to watch Curious George and other cartoons, but there’s also a reading corner, and the bulk of the room is toy storage and open play area, with soft mats and carpeting on the hard tile floor. I’m particularly proud of the whimsical elements in this room—the butterfly mobile in the corner, the colorful tapestries, and the silk geckos on the wall (though the geckos were Jeff’s idea).

Off the playroom is the third bedroom, affectionately referred to as the “cat room.” It houses the litter box in its attached bathroom, a lot of Kleenex and other consumables in its closet, and the cats’ water fountains in the bedroom proper. It also houses our workout equipment, and on the one occasion when we’ve had overnight guests, we’ve moved the cat stuff out and the inflatable mattress in, converting it to a passable guest bedroom.

A short hallway opens up off the back of the playroom. The hall houses another utility shelf, transformed into something rather pretty by the addition of draped fabric to hide its contents (more consumable goods). The doors to Alexa’s room and our room also are off the hall. Alexa’s room is a small cave-like room. It gets relatively bright if the curtains are open, but we rarely bother to open them, since we’re not in there during the day. There’s just enough room for Alexa’s nursery furniture and the doors to her closet and bathroom.

Our room, on the other hand, is huge. It’s big enough that when we emptied Alexa’s room of the embassy furniture, we moved the two dressers into our room rather than having them taken back to the warehouse. In our room, we experimented by painting not only the walls, but the ceiling. The light grayish-blue provides a relaxing atmosphere—and they make the crown molding pop. Our bathroom also is large, especially when compared to the other bathrooms, which are functional but small. Our bathroom has the only tub in the house, which caused me much consternation at first, though we adapted just fine.

One of our Cambodian treasures

Overall, I have little reason to complain about this house. The closets could stand to be larger, and I’d love to have a tub in Alexa’s bathroom, but those are very minor complaints. This house is much larger and nicer than anything we’re likely to buy or rent in the United States. I’m pretty sure that at least six rural Cambodian families could live here quite happily with the addition of one shower head and drain in the half bath, two walls to close off the living and dining rooms, and two doors to close off the playroom. When you add in the fact that every major room has its own independently adjustable air conditioner, I’m certain that this place would be a wonderland for most of the world’s population.

As for me, I still look around in awe sometimes at this beautiful villa that we call home.

Egyptian treasures, transplanted to Cambodia

*When we first arrived, I anxiously asked Jeff how we were supposed to let ourselves in to our own home—it really bothered me that someone else would be controlling our access. He had to remind me that because we have a guard on duty 24 hours a day, access wouldn’t be a problem for us … and it really isn’t any different from our time in Egypt, when the guards had to open the gate to our apartment building. Now it once again feels normal to ring my own doorbell, wait for the guard to open the gate, and then make my way to my front door.