Saturday, June 20, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #7: Kathmandu and Cambodia

Smalls, mediums and larges,

Greetings from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I hope this email finds each of you in health, happiness and awareness. You’re probably thinking, “You said you weren’t going to Cambodia on this trip.” This is true, but I couldn’t deny the value of visiting my mentor/inspiration Scott Neeson at the Cambodian Children’s Fund to pick his brain, see some of the adorable kids I’ve sponsored and emailed for years, and discuss partnership opportunities between the CCF, A New Day Cambodia Girl’s Orphanage and PoP… So here I am. I last wrote from Kathmandu where I was still in fever recovery mode from the Annapurna trek. Fortunately, I was able to settle into a really unforgettable week in Nepal’s capital through the help of several great friends.

Following my dad’s departure I was immediately whisked to the Yellow Guesthouse, a true oasis of comfort, delicious food and even better people just outside the bustling Thamel area. My good friends Anna and Steve are basically family with the Swiss-French owner and his Nepali wife, so I was given a huge room and a warm welcome from the entire staff. Right away I shared a beer-filled lunch with some of the guesthouse’s semi-permanent inhabitants- Jacquie is a Frenchman in his late 60’s who lives with a pack of 39 tigers as a forester in the Nepali and Indian national reserve lands, Rick is a gentle Texan who runs an art shop between Kathmandu/Paris and was actually in the Andaman Islands when the Tsunami struck (his entire beachfront bungalow filled with water but he luckily survived), Nadia is a 30-something Canadian who teaches rehabilitation and self-help courses to battered woman, children and jailed offenders in Kathmandu, and the list goes on. Everything at the Yellow House is communal- you eat your meals, share drinks, play ping pong and bocce, or discuss the day’s events always with others. It’s a true slice of effervescent disco lemonade and highly recommended by this guy.

Kathmandu happens to be an outwardly dirty and noisy city. At first glance it lacks all charm, and seems to be overrun by people, cows and NGO’s… but once you peel back the surface and see it through a local’s eye, the city is actually filled with hidden gems. Candlelit bars, traditional restaurants, kind nods of “Namaste” and palms pressed against one another in devotion and respect await those who give Kathmandu a chance to win them over through its toothless grin. Anna, Steve and I said our prayers at the ancient monkey-filled (real monkeys, not statues) temple of Swoyambhu (arguably the world’s oldest active temple) and spent time at the tiny home and feet of one of Kathmandu’s most powerful female spiritual healers. After they left I went to see the massive stuppa at Bodona, visited the 12th century city of Bahktapur with its towering pagodas, and witnessed riverfront cremation ceremonies at Pashupati, Nepal’s version of Varanassi.

On Anna and Steve’s final night there was a massive farewell dinner at the Yellow House with family-style pasta, gin, beer and bocce. My good buddy Rory from Bain had just moved to Kathmandu, so he joined us for a huge night highlighted by our savage beating of “the French team” by “the American team” (apparently it’s like their national sport, whereas it was Rory and my first game ever) to the cheers of an all-French crowd that loved heckling their experienced but drunken countrymen. Over the next few days I toured more of the city, dined with Rory and friends at night, and on my last day met up with a Nepali friend of a friend named Pranab. It was an extremely bittersweet day, because as Pranab and I discussed Nepali vs. American culture and education in his newly built bookstore, the sold out Pencils of Promise White Party was erupting in New York City.

Oh how it killed me to not be there… but in starting to plan out the event back in February, it was always understood that I wouldn’t be there to attend. It would be an opportunity for all those who expressed an interest in getting involved with PoP to actually take full ownership over the event and the org, effectively expanding it far beyond any personal network and into the youthful NYC masses, and through the incredible hard work of the PoP leadership, volunteers and summer internship teams they put on a beautifully epic night (for pics checkout You guys are seriously amazing. I also had this indescribable feeling, one of those where you don’t really “feel” but rather “know”, that important things would happen on the ground in SE Asia around the time of the event. Fortunately the fates dealt an ace of spades that day.

Without my knowledge Pranab had invited a woman of enormous intellect and presence, Sadhana Shrestha, who for the past 8 years had been Nepal’s head of Ashoka (a massive organization that has given stipends to innovative social entrepreneurs for many years), to meet with me at the bookstore. We immediately hit it off, and within 5 minutes of our conversation’s start she began telling me about an Ashoka Fellow who founded and had now been running a countrywide organization for 30 years that provides early childhood education programs and learning centers/schools to women and children in poor, rural areas of Nepal. She mentioned that her office was just a 10 minute walk away but she didn’t have her cell phone, so without thinking I immediately asked, “Can you draw me a map? I’ll walk there now and try to find her. I’ve got to meet this woman."

The map was drawn, and suddenly I found myself walking alone through random side streets of a Nepali neighborhood in search of an unmarked building, on a street they thought it might be on, to convince a woman who chances were wouldn’t even be there at 4pm on what happened to be a national holiday, that she should meet and talk with a random 25-year old stranger for several hours about her work… But as I said, the PoP event was going on in NYC at that same moment, so I had the ace of spades on my side. After 45 minutes of walking through the exhausting heat, knocking on many random doors, shadily entering several empty homes, and a motorbike ride by a nameless man who took me to her office’s doorstep, I arrived to shake hands with Agatha Thapa.

In her late 50's, Agatha wore a bright green traditional sari that paled beside her luminescent spirit, vigor and ambition. She’s a fighter. It’s clear from the moment you meet her that she’s lived her entire life overcoming the hardships of adversity and naysayers, bolstered by the prioritization of education and female empowerment in a country where egalitarianism is as common as political stability (this is sarcasm… they have neither). What started as a conversation about each of our backgrounds quickened in pace and excitement as we realized the many partnership opportunities to better each others’ organization and educational outreach… Two hours later we left her office only because their electricity shuts off at 5pm and we were now talking in the dark… Kindred spirits for sure. As I left her, I offhandedly said, “Well I’m so glad I decided not to return to New York for this party and got to meet you instead.” She immediately stopped, looked with penetrating intent into my eyes, and stated, “You did not make any decision. G-d has made this decision. Do you believe me, because I know this.” She still didn’t move, letting the question hang in the air. “Yes, I believe you” I said, and then I left with her words, her conviction, her radiance and her infectious resilience written onto the corners of that ace of spades.

Later that night I shared a lengthy conversation and dinner with Sadhana, Pranab and his friend Suvani, and the following morning I flew out of Kathmandu heading for Phnom Penh, but there was a slight issue. The entire city was shut down by a full day of huge political protests. Any taxi or motorbike was beaten with sticks, and I had to somehow get about 20km to the airport. I’ll share the detailed stories in person because my worry-filled grandmothers get these emails, but I fortunately made it unscathed on a bicycle-driven tuktuk through two pretty scary incidents where I was much closer to a mob beating than I ever want to be. Luckily many humble statements of hand-clasped “Namaste” and a look of sincere empathy with their cause got me out of two very sticky situations.

Two days later and I found myself in the place where it all began, the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Four years ago while backpacking through Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia with two friends we were linked up with the CCF’s founder, Scott Neeson, who had just left his job as one of Hollywood’s top executives to move alone to Phnom Penh to build an orphanage/school for 40 kids out of the Steung Muenchey dumpster where they worked all day collecting hard plastics for 25 cents per potato sack filled. His work was the most heroic, trustworthy and tangible that I’d ever seen, so in efforts to become a part of what at the time was just him in a three-story building with three staff members and two computers, he allowed me to have a “CCF Fundraising Coordinator” title and business card. Until starting PoP in October, that was my pseudo-side job/passion for three years and I’m so grateful that he let me be a part of what he was creating... Scott has absolutely been a mentor and inspiration from Day 1.

To say he’s made significant progress in four years would be the understatement of the century. He now has 500 kids, seven fully operational centers, a staff of 140, an amazing curriculum that includes everything from drama, music, karate and dance to phonetic English and excel tutorials, 100 or so computers for the staff and kids, around $2M in annual funding, and the love of every child in his program. When we’d arrive at each facility they’d mob Scott and I with hugs and handholding. Shockingly many remembered the 2005 visit (one in particular immediately asked “How is Dennis?!”, my Owen Wilson-like friend she developed a huge crush on within 2 minutes of meeting him… a four year crush, that’s serious). Over several days I was able to visit each CCF facility, visit the dump and its surrounding shanty-hut villages again to walk amongst the garbage-pickers in what can only be described as living hell (Scott couldn’t attend because he has pneumonia for the third time in 9 months from all the time he’s spent there and his doctor insisted he stay away until he’s regained full health!), discuss partnership opportunities, spend plenty of time with my angelic sponsored child Sokha (a former garbage-picker herself for as long as she can remember), and visit another tremendous orphanage NGO called A New Day Cambodia to see their amazing kids and meet with their wonderful Executive Director Annette Jenson. The children worship her, and rightfully so because she just gets it in every way, so we discussed the progress of their NGO, shared learnings, and laid a bit of groundwork for a potential volunteer-placement partnership.

The past 10 days have been intense and enriching and wonderful. At Pashupati a national minister was being cremated at the main waterfront platform, flanked by thousands of onlookers. Rather than standing among the masses, I somehow came across and watched for 30 minutes as a small gathering of men poured rice, flowers and kerosene on the body of a parent wrapped in a brilliant orange cloth at the smallest and most distant platform designated for the untouchable Dalit caste, the lowest in Indian/Nepali culture. The wailing cries of the three shirtless brothers tore through every person nearby, and I was paralyzed by the ferocity and purity of their grief. As tradition dictates, the oldest brother has to light the initial fire in the mouth of the deceased parent, which he did while being held up by another man to keep from collapsing. Tears poured from the eyes of every one of us watching, as the body was instantly engulfed in towering flames… And yet only days later I found myself inside the CCF and ANDC facilities holding the hands of children literally brought back from the dead by the work of Scott Neeson and Annette Jenson.

That cycle of death and rebirth goes on all around us every day, but we rarely get a chance to see it on such a personal, humanized level. To spend the morning in a garbage dump of human agony and an afternoon with its five-year-old survivors as they practice English, Excel and traditional Khmer dance provides a renewed sense of faith for anyone fortunate enough witness such acts of heroism. These experiences are rare, but they inspire us not to worry about trivial concerns and live whatever we are going through richly and deeply. To say I love you more often. To inhale life’s recipe of uppercuts and stardust fully, and exhale with the lionheart conviction of an Agatha Thapa and Sadhana Shrestha. Nepal and Cambodia have been the welcomed salt and pepper to these spicy travels, but for now it’s back to Laos for me, where the death of each night’s moon marks the birth of a new day, and another chance to leave a few footsteps in the land of no dollars and a thousand smiles.

Walkin' down the many roads,

Key Trip Statistics
Days- 97
Song of Note- "Love is Only a Feeling" by The Darkness. Such a jam. Huge chords, ripping solos, this song will have you raising your goblet to the rock deities by the end of minute 1.
Album of Note- Sister Rosetta Tharp's "Live in Paris." A gospel singing female rock-n-roll blues guitarist who played when TV was still in black and white. She's only about 5,000 years ahead of her time. Look her up on Youtube and you'll want to thank Al Gore for inventing the internet.

No comments: