Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tuk-Tuk, Madam?

By my calculation, since I’ve moved to Phnom Penh I have been in fifty-seven near-accidents in city traffic.  This is a conservative estimate.

I am not a stranger to the chaotic roadscapes of Asia.  I have waded into the rapids that are the Saigon streets – ten to twelve lanes abreast. I have snaked my way through the busting avenues of downtown Jaipur.

When I first arrived in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand two years ago, I found a general disregard for any variety of traffic regulation.  I documented with amusement the varying interpretations of traffic lights and stop signs and the liberal understanding of the purpose of sidewalks.  None of this, however, prevented me from hopping on my own motorbike and joining the driving experiment.

Here in Cambodia I am more ambivalent.

Succinctly put, Phnom Penh drivers make those of Chiang Mai appear law-abiding and demure.  Drivers here appear to believe they are steering the Knight Bus from Harry Potter, with the magical ability to squeeze through the tightest of spaces.  They do not.

And yet still they try. They accelerate and weave James Bond-style through rapidly narrowing gaps between a motley collection of motos, tuk-tuks and SUVs.

Sidewalks are unashamedly employed as extra lanes, and corner gas stations double as access ramps for perpendicular roads without having to wait for a green light.

Besides the cars and bikes and trucks and motos and tuk-tuks, the streets of Phnom Penh are filled with an entire produce markets on wheels.  There are flocks of chickens strapped to motos, and bags of rubbery plucked chickens in bags. There are towering bags of cabbage, stacks of eggs, bundles of eggplants and protruding poles of sugar cane.  There are large wicker baskets of mangosteens that sink on either side of the bike, extending the width of three motos strapped together.

In the weeks that I have been here, mostly I have ridden on the backs of motos.   They are cheaper by half, than the cushioned, canopied and wood carved tuk-tuks.  The increased danger of course may not be worth the cost.

As in New York or London, one never needs to search out tuk-tuks or motos.  They lounge on every street corner.  “Tuk-tuk, madam?” “Moto, moto.”  Their profusion on the streets of Phnom Penh is explained two-fold: it is a product of the imbalance between available jobs and city population, as well as the ease of becoming a chauffeur. If you have a moto, you have a job. 

The lack of barriers to entering the profession comes with tradeoffs.  In London, want-to-be cabbies must first learn “The Knowledge” – memorizing 320 routes, and upwards of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, to any of which passengers might request transport.  In Phnom Penh an aspiring cabbie need not know any streets or any landmarks.   A passing knowledge of the city is desirable, but beyond that it is often up to the passenger to navigate the journey.

I have yet to decide whether I will join the fray.  I continue to weigh the relative safety and stupidity of being a passenger versus being a driver.  I take motos when I must, and I inevitably clench my teeth the entire time – a fact that some passing moto drivers have noticed and laughed at.  If I can, I walk -- although sidewalks are haphazard. 

Perhaps, if I decide to get a moto of my own, I can start offering rides as well.  In the mean time, I’m practicing up on my Khmer driving vocabulary. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Under Construction

Phnom Penh is being built at my doorstep.

Saws, wood sanders and hammers are the white noise of our alleyway, tucked into the southern tip of the city.  The alley is near what was once a small lake.  The lake is gone, recently drained, filled and built over.  On Western maps the lake still exists, they have not yet caught up with the rate of construction.

Phnom Penh used to be referred to as the “Pearl of Asia.”  The Vietnam (or American) War and the Khmer Rouge have dulled its luster.  The city is caught in the in between: dilapidated colonial grandeur, glitzy new skyscrapers and the low-storied growth of a developing nation.  Construction sites are everywhere.

From the balcony of my dorm I can watch the progress of five-story cement facades  criss-crossed by sapling scaffolding.  Construction workers double as trapeze artists along the roofs.

Craning over the balcony I can make out the alley’s carpentry shop below the coconut palm.  Men and women crouch over elaborately carved wood furniture, heavy bed boards and boxy chairs.  I pass the carpenters on my search for motos and tuk-tuks at the alley’s mouth.  Often I see the smallest of puppies playing in the sawdust.

Our dorm is set amidst apartments, primarily two story hastily constructed structures with exposed cement and jutting wire crossbeams.  The most active apartment is directly across from us, five stories and set with curved balconies that would not be out of place at a 70’s style movie theater.  In the early evening shirtless men spend long hours on these balconies, in between the hanging laundry.  They talk on their phones or lean over and watch the alley below.

In the alleyway, children, ages one to twelve, play.  The kids congregate on a parked tuk-tuk, or pedal wobbly tricycles, or shoot at each other with plastic gold automatics.  When I leave the dorm I am greeted with a chorus of “Hello” “Hello” “Hello.”

Farther down the alley, is a warren of slum dwellings – narrow alleys and lopsided structures. I have found tucked into a corner, a neighborhood temple that looks like just another cement construction until you get up close and peer through the grate and find Buddhist murals.

Outside our dorm there are two hole-in-the wall hair salons (quite literally).  I have spent an hour in one watching my roommate have her hair teased and sprayed and curled.  And I have submitted to heavy amounts of purple eye shadow and half inch lashes for the occasion of a wedding.

There are house fronts up and down the alley that double as storefronts.  On tables they sell everything from pre-wrapped sandwiches, to coconuts, to bottles of soy sauce, to whole glistening fishes beset by flies. A few stalls compress stalks of sugarcane, mixing limes in the juice and serving it in plastic bags with a straw – a Khmer to-go mug.

Food carts meander by at unpredictable hours hawking buns, bananas wrapped in sticky rice, and most commonly – salted and roasted eggs on a stick.  The man driving the cart plays a recording on-loop. “Eggs delicious eggs – they are hot, they are nice, they are delicious.” Even the singsong voice sounds heat-wearied.

In the evening when the sun dips behind the new construction, the street fills with families and neighbors dragging circles of plastic chairs into the road.  The men go shirtless and the small children pant-less.  It is not uncommon for small boys to run down the streets completely bare.

Our alley is a workspace, a playground, a communal living room.  By late evening though, the dust settled, the neighbors retreat into their homes and the on-and-off electricity.  Grates are pulled down and locked.  The symphony of a growing city – the saws and sanders – ceases. 

I like to stand on the balcony at this time – ignoring the hum of mosquitos, taking in the fleeting quiet, the slight breeze. 

And then clattering into the night a lone man walks down the now deserted alleyway. He carries two sticks in his hands and plays out a beat of taps - a delivery boy for the midnight snack attacks of the neighborhood.  Soup, noodles, dumplings – all of these he will seek out and deliver for a fee.  He disappears into the gloom of the alley, his tapping following in his wake.  Rat-ta-tat-tat, Rat-ta-tat-tat.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Four Electoral Votes

We were racing against the clock.

With an hour and fifteen minutes before the close of elections in Merrimack County, New Hampshire, we took to the cars and the streets.  We abandoned our staging location, grabbed walk packets and lists of sporadic voters and charged out into the dark for our final Get Out the Vote effort!

We tore down dark rural roads scanning mailbox numbers. When we reached a house on our list, the older woman accompanying me would zoom in to the driveway and I would hurdle out of the car and up to the door.  “We are just making sure everyone has voted.  And offering rides for those who haven’t.  Have you voted sir?”

For the last two and a half months, I suspended my life as a teacher, trading it for life on the campaign trail.  I moved up to New Hampshire and set up as a full-time, unpaid fellow with Organizing for America – President Obama’s grassroots campaign.

Four years ago I volunteered on Barak Obama’s campaign, but in a more limited capacity.  I was still in college. I canvassed and phone banked on holidays and during the final weeks of the election – on evenings in between paper writing. 

But this election, with no hard commitments, I wanted to do more.  Why? Simply put: I believe in the president.   But I also have a deep conviction that, as an American --  as a citizen of a country where I have the power to be involved in the political process and the possibility to effect change -- I have an obligation to participate.

And so, I traded lesson plans for walk packets.  For two months my life took on a new routine: hours of driving around rural New Hampshire, walking up drive ways and into trailer parks to talk to voters, then back to our office for yet more hours sitting on the floor making phone calls to more potential voters.

I canvassed the house of a 75-year-old Irish priest who invited me into discuss politics in the rectory, and I knocked on the door of a 19-year-old girl who had never considered voting before we talked.  I traipsed up a long driveway to a dilapidated mobile home and spoke with a grizzled, beer-bellied man with no shirt who politely refused to share his political leanings.

It wasn’t easy.   There were days when I canvassed for six hours alone, in the rain – going from silent home to silent home, leaving behind a wake of literature.  There were nights when I made 250 phone calls.  I would be cursed at, lied to, hung up on – not just by Republicans, but also by Democrats fed-up with the political season.  We would spend hours prepping canvassing packets and then be told that our targets had switched and we had to scrap our work and start afresh. 

But there were also the volunteers who worked with us week after week  -- as the leaves changed colors and then fell, as the air went from crisp to biting.  There was the sixteen-year-old high school girl who was a powerhouse on the phones, who admitted that her grades were slipping as a result of being at our office for so many hours a week, and who in the same sentence brushed that concern aside with a simple “This is more important.”  There was the 84-year-old British woman who had been a nurse in Boston and spoke bluntly about watching women die on the operating table from back-alley abortions in a time before Roe v. Wade.  She and an older gentleman would sit near the windows and, between phone calls to voters, reminisce about life under FDR.

For two months I listened to stories – from men, women, old and young.  I listened to worries, concerns, hopes, fears and dreams.

In the end, all of our hours of canvassing and phone calls came down to one day – November 6th 2012. 

It came down to how many people we could encourage to vote.  It was a numbers game.  But it was also, on the ground, an individual game.  We arranged rides to the polls for elderly people.  We followed up with others to ensure that they registered at the right polling location.  These were men and women that I had grown to know over two months, whose doors I had knocked on, whose stories I had listened to.

Each vote was a story.

A week before the election one of my volunteers canvassed the house of a man with a minor criminal record.  A town clerk told him that he could not vote because of this record. Checking, we found that New Hampshire law disenfranchises only those still serving time or those convicted of voting fraud.  We returned to his house to tell him so.  At 6:30 am on Election Day he called my boss to thank her and say that he was off to the polls to vote for the President.

During that last hour of the election, as we sped along the back-roads of rural New Hampshire looking for final potential voters who had yet to make it to the polls, we swapped stories in the car.   The older woman with whom I was driving told me that she became politically active at a young age.  When she was fifteen, she proceeded to tell me, Dr. Martin Luther King came to Boston.  Skipping school, she wore her Catholic school uniform and joined in the parade. As they marched down the streets of Boston, older men began ushering her to the front, until she was, in the end, walking hand in hand with Dr. King.

Hours later we, all the staff in the Concord office, crowded into an unheated room in our office to watch as the polls come in,.  We fretted as we refreshed our internet browsers incessantly.  Around 10 pm, they called NH for the President. 

The election was still to be called. But we in New Hampshire, with our four precious electoral votes, we had done what we set out to do.  There was champagne, hugs, tears and a little dancing.  

And then, finally, we went home to sleep.

President Obama has another four years to help move America forward.

The campaign is over and I am heading back to the classroom.  I miss students, I miss teaching.  But for all the worry, stress, frustrations and pure exhaustion of the last two months I would not have had it any other way.  It has been my privilege and my honor as a young woman, and a young American, to work for my President.

There is still work to do. 

But I can now return to the classroom knowing that I have a President who has my back and has the back of my students. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Singing in the Rain

Where better to teach Macbeth than in a monsoon?

When shall we three meet again?  In thunder, lightening, or in rain?

That’s exactly what we did one muggy July afternoon when the ominous skies finally split, releasing a torrential downpour.

For an hour already we had been rehearsing indoors with the three teenagers cast as the prophetic witches of Macbeth. But, the result still wasn’t right. Despite their hard work, the students’ cackling voices were stilted, their gestures artificial. 

But with the rains stabbing the windows I had the harebrained idea of taking our rehearsal outdoors.  Luckily, my students were just as excited and we all thundered down the stairs and out the front door – raising more than a few eyebrows from the other young thespians practicing in the halls.

The weird sisters hand in hand, posters of the sea and land!   

The three girls danced in the storm.  They yelled their lines to the waterlogged clouds.  They spun in circles, throwing their linked arms out, embracing the heavens.

As the sky cleared we traipsed, dripping, back inside.  Back upstairs, back to rehearsal.

But something had clicked: they no longer acted out the witches, they embodied them. 


For the last two years I’ve taught at the bookends of teenagedom – college students in Chiang Mai last year and middle-schoolers in Charlestown this year.  But this summer I had an opportunity to see what happens in between the two. 

Throughout the school year I had interned with the locally-based Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which, besides producing a great season of Shakespeare, sustains a vibrant education arm – teaching the Bard in schools, in after-schools and in lock-up facilities.

When my school year ended, I joined their amazing teaching team, under director and professional actor, Jason Bowen.

When most teens might prefer to be sunbathing on the beach or cooling off at a neighborhood pool, nineteen students – ages 13 through 19 – chose to spend three weeks of their vacation studying Shakespeare.

Our ensemble came from all across the Boston area.  They came from the suburbs and they came from the heart of the city.  They came from public schools and exams schools and private schools.  Some had previously come from youth detention centers or were once in city gangs.  They came with years of acting camps and school plays and they came with no formal theatrical training.  And every morning they converged on the small converted fire-station that became our joint home for a large part of July. 

Very quickly I realized I was not in middle school any more.

Within two short days, our collection of strangers had transformed into a supportive and engaged ensemble.  In contrast to my sixth-graders, with whom I had to devote large portions of time to juggling behaviors and attitudes, here in the stage-lit black box, everyone came ready to learn and more importantly, to experiment.

We took the group outside and had them yell Shakespearean insults at each other with so much force that dog walkers and passing cars slowed down and stared.

We worked one on one with students: Lady Macbeth rolled and screamed as she explored the sleep walking scene; Ross ran up and down stairs, up and down, up and down before delivering, out of breath, the victorious news to King Duncan; the Porter walked around with a balloon under his shirt attempting to mimic a drunken stagger.

And students worked on their own – in corners of the upstairs rooms, on the stairs, in the front hall.  They scribbled notes in the margins of their scripts, they checked and rechecked different translations, and they repeated their lines under their breath – over and over and over.

Differences in age and experience and background dropped away.

Two girls playing Lady Macbeth got genuinely excited to look up etymologies in the two-volume Shakespeare lexicon.   The boys playing Macbeth took their work home and stayed up several nights past midnight (once til 2 am) studying their lines.

Friendships were formed over blockings of stage fights, experimentation with silly accents, and concocting of fake blood (equal parts chocolate and strawberry sauce).  It was a space where being a Shakespeare scholar was “Cool”. 

At the end of three weeks we swept the stage, rechecked the light cues and opened the doors of our theater to admit our audience. 

If only all classrooms were black-box theaters: there is no better place to learn.   No desks, no pencil shavings, no wall clocks. 

Paradoxically, acting allows students the freedom to act like themselves. 

In school, students are consumed with adopting personas that establish them within the hierarchy of their peers.

But, in the black box, demure students learn to scream and cocky ones to cry.  Everyone gets to yell Shakespearean insults at each other and then, ten minutes later, to clasp hands.

By lunchtime each day, our ensemble would have attempted so many characters that slouching back into school personas seemed silly.

And that’s when the real learning took place.

Our black box Shakespeare theater granted our students the permission and the freedom to yell and laugh and dance and sing in the rain.