W is for Wary

What had the latest higher up in some office, far away from reality, dreamed up this time?

Wary, I took a look at the freshly arrived load off the boat from the Mekong.

Radios, used radios from God knows what era. As I sifted through them, I found one reminiscent from my teen years, a yellow banana shaped radio that you could carry on your wrist on the way to the beach. I had used it for a summer or two and then discarded it along the way. Still useful but no longer cool, it met its demise. Or so I had thought.

Where had the United Nations found all these old radios? Had they gone from thrift store to thrift store or put out some UN announcement that Cambodia was in desperate need for radios?

Wary, but not worried, I told the workers to store them in my house until we decided what we were going to do with them. Swamped with our work as we prepared the local population for the imminent election, we returned to our office. The radios, out of sight, out of mind, or so we mistakenly thought.

Later that evening, resting at home sweet home, I heard loud pounding at my door. No way to check who it was, I opened it up to find two men in military gear (very common in my Cambodian district – soldiers? police? renegades?) with AK-47s. Sensibly, I let them in. As an objective party in the midst of an election, this wasn’t too unusual. However, I was alone and unable to communicate with them. And then it began…

Whipping their guns around and yelling at me in Khmer, I went to get my cook who looked terrified. Through sign and gun language, I deciphered that they wanted the radios in my living room. Now the fun starts. In Khmer, I try to get my point across (please leave and come back later…much later) but they see this as a sign to start opening boxes and check out the radios. I call for back up on my radio and thankfully, one of my interpreters comes.

Deciding that correct protocol is not worth our lives, I cave and hand over 2 radios. Within minutes, I have a hoard of anxious radio protesters on our porch. Word is out and we are being bombarded. My interpreter tries to negotiate but fails. The porch frenzy quickly turns into a living room frenzy and officially, Radio Hell, has begun. Radios are flying as people push and shove to get into the boxes. More back up arrives, this time armed, and we finally succeed in quashing the thirst for radios… temporarily.

A quick solution is needed. In a Buddhist country such as Cambodia, monks are revered so off to the Wat we go. Radios in hand (well… actually under cover) we happily pass them over for them to decide their fate. Seeing the prized merchandise, the monks decide to keep all the radios for themselves. We then knew that the monks would be well-informed of the upcoming election and our district would, at least, have a good monk/voter turn out rate!

NO, it wasn’t the Khmer Rouge death threat letters, NO, it wasn’t malaria, it was those frigging old radios that almost killed me!

Cheryl from the Family C travelling from A to Z.

Have you ever felt fearful when you were living or travelling somewhere?

N is for Nettable

Adjective land in alphabet land is getting to be a bit of a stretttttttch.

Nettable means capable of being netted.

Something I highly advise when travelling in insect filled countries (and yes, Canada is included) with creepy crawlers, flying cockroaches, and lurking biting things, just waiting for their chance.

I am a magnet for all things that sting, bite and generally freak travellers out (at least this family of travellers).

I have received a few insect awards along the way.

I am the proud recipient to be one of the very first UN workers in Cambodia (1993 election) to be diagnosed with malaria. And to surpass this award, the Australians diagnosed with me dengue fever at the same time. Imagine…mosquitoes love me 24/7, day and night. The upside – you lose a lot of weight and the downside – you lose a lot of hair!

Travelling in Namibia, I was lucky enough to find a friend in my bed who decided to bite me before we even met. After nabbing him, incarcerating him, he was hand delivered to the nearest doctor. No, I didn’t die but the pain and fear can lead you from A. I am happy and healthy to B. What just happened? to C. What is that? Is it poisonous? D. To a complete melt down – fairly quickly.

The evil thing that bit me in Namibia.

The evil thing that bit me in Namibia.

So I am now nettable, capable and most willing of being netted from Mozambique to Guatemala to Canada to Peru.

I will never forget the night of the flying cockroach invasion in Mozambique, a perfect setting for a horror movie. Read here for gory details. My mosquito net was the only thing keeping me from sprinting from that house of terror.

Again in Guatemala Jade and I huddled under our net amongst spiders the size of my hands and red ants that just wouldn’t let go. Neither of us slept much, stuck together from humidity and fear, laughing at our pathetic selves. Jade became an expert in the net, knowing how to undo it in mere seconds to get in and out. She threatened to boot me out if I messed with her system. A teen of her word, I followed the net rules and together, we remained. for better or for worse, until daylight.

Usually in Canada, I don’t think to pull out my net. However, recently if I could have paid someone to net my entire house from the hostile take over by disgusting rodents, some call mice, I would have gladly.

And sadly, they haven’t invented a fashionable net one can wear. Recently attacked by sand flies in Peru, I wonder why I love this thing called travel?!

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Sand flies don’t make your legs and feet look great or feel great!

Be safe and use a net! Important words from Family C who enjoys travelling from A to Z. 

What is your security blanket when you travel? 

H is for Happy

We have a blended family with 4 girls. That is a LOT of girls; at least in my books. Usually we gel but sometimes we rebel. At least a few of us that is.

Now in this blended family, I am the one who likes to stir the pot, mash things up.

We were supposed to do the usual in Niagara Falls. Which we did.

The usual version of seeing Niagara Falls on the Maid of the Mist boat.

The usual version of seeing Niagara Falls on the Maid of the Mist boat.

But for me, that was simply not enough.

I had eyed a helicopter. A helicopter makes me very happy.

A perk from my old United Nations days was flying in helicopters. I even loved being evacuated in a helicopter.

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But…what makes one happy 🙂 makes another unhappy 😦

Enter: our blended family.Three of us were on board and two of us were standing ground.

If you are the “on board” type, then get yourself to a helicopter to fly over Niagara Falls pronto. As teens say, EPIC! The helicopter is all glass so the experience and the views take you out of this world and even more importantly, out of the tacky town attached to such beauty.

In fact, it was the most fun I have ever had in North America. A short, expensive kind of fun but exhilarating and worth every Canadian dollar – which is worth less and less; great news if you are an American tourist however.

Happy soaring from Cheryl and only a part of the Family C, moving rapidly from A to Z.

A Barn Reincarnated into an Office Brings Hope

Yes, this was a barn that then became my office in Prek Presap, Cambodia.

It takes a bit of interior design to transform a barn full of pigs, chickens and who knows what else… into a fine proud UN institution (which we didn’t quite accomplish) worthy of bringing hope for a democratic future.

Being 22 years old and with only the limited summer work experience of most Canadian university grads, it was no shock that I had zero clue what I was getting into. It was most definitely, a tiny one step at a time kind of year.

The photo shows our opening day.

Word had got out that we would be arriving and that maybe interviews for positions might begin. My UN partner and I had 2 interpreters and 2 drivers. We had no idea how to begin to interview the numbers that showed up or what the criteria should even be. This was not a job that came with a guidebook.

Once we got into the flow of things, we learned how to use our interpreters to interview quickly due to the huge numbers of people waiting in line.It is tough to know for sure if decisions made are the right ones when communication is lacking.

It turns out we might have made one big mistake; hiring a former(?) Khmer Rouge to have a key role on one of our electoral teams. Oops. Not good. We brought in the UN security guys to deal with that one.

In the end we hired more than 300 people. But… a big But..we discovered that we had unknowingly hired many teachers leading to the school being shut down (temporarily until we fixed that slight problem). Not exactly the goal we were setting out to achieve.

How to convince people to return to old jobs such as teaching when ours paid so much more? The influx of money into a district that was previously isolated from such a world threw everything out of balance.

One guy who was doing the same job as me in the neighboring province was killed by a disgruntled person who apparently had not been hired. Never had I thought what this kind of responsibility and I guess, power, could lead to. Scary. Given the option to leave and return to Canada, I chose to stay but the knowledge of what could happen was now present and rumbling in my mind.

I don’t regret staying, in fact, it was an incredibly rewarding year, despite the fact that the electoral process did not go according to plan. The Khmer Rouge threw some twists and turns into it but our amazing staff persevered through all the challenges.

Their success shone that day when Cambodians walked miles and miles to get to the nearest voting station and proudly marked their ballots; signifying that their voices would finally be heard.

“No Cheryl No, You Said You Wouldn’t…”

When I arrived in Prek Presap, Cambodia, I took one look at our house located 30 seconds from the Mekong River.

Is that swimmable I wondered?

But then I saw the water buffalo come down to the river for their daily bath (have you ever seen how muddy and dirty those things are? ) and then I thought, NOPE, NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

Then, unfortunately, I saw a body or two float by (yes, this wonderful place can have a bit of the “wild west” element to it) and I thought, MOST DEFINITELY NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

Well then the hot season hit and the good ole shower (think bucket and a holding tank full of water) just wasn’t cutting it and yes, I CAVED! Everyone else was swimming (yes, peer pressure) so I ventured down in my full one piece swimming ensemble with sarong to take a little dip… just a little dip.. and just like any bad habit… that one little dip led to one more and before I knew it, I was swimming in that Mekong River every day. And you know what, it was the best bad habit I ever had!

Sony Walkman, Flak Jacket, Helmet … All Dressed Up and Ready for Work

All ready for an ambush on the Mekong River, as I listen to Roxette on my Walkman and prepare for Cambodia’s first election since the years (1975 – 1979) of the Killing Fields.

Fortunately there was no ambush as I had been told that my flak jacket would only work if I was a certain distance away (oh hold on… I need to get a few more feet ahead of you before you take aim) and my helmet, as you might be able to tell, was way bigger than my head and would tilt from side to side.

Oh well, I had a lot of other good UN stuff like a telephone installed in my jungle office that didn’t work alongside the photocopier that was never used because it used electricity and well.. we didn’t have electricity. Oh well… the photocopier made a good table and the helmet kept the sun off my head!

How a Law Degree Led to Being Pen Pals with the Khmer Rouge

So a looonnnngggg time ago, in a far away place, I found myself working with the UN in rural Cambodia. I was officially called a district electoral supervisor and civic education trainer. I was living in a Garden of Eden kind of place called Prek Presap on the Mekong River in Kratie. We were renting a barn as an office and someone else’s home as our home. I had civilian police and soldiers to protect me and the work we were doing. We had drivers, translators, toyota trucks and boats at our disposal. Oh and yes, as a Canadian, I was there because I spoke French (well… sort of) and had a law degree. I had hit the jackpot; won the job lottery and I was only 22!!!

Over the course of the year, so many things happened. Landmines went off, monsoons hit, trucks got stuck in the mud, many wedding invitations were received and danced at, Christmas celebrations were held with fellow Colombians, Buddhist traditions were learned, relationships with the local monks were formed, used radios were delivered to the people, Cambodians were registered, tons of la vache qui rit was eaten, millions of baguettes were consumed, our cat Unnie learned how to kill the mice that were foraging through my chocolate stache, driving a standard was “mastered”and how to knock off the door of said standard backing up, sleeping in a hammock was learnt, the BBC became our friend as it told us what was actually happening in the country where we lived, and oh yah, the infamous arrival of the letters.

Now the letters that arrived to our house were written in Khmer so that was kind of pointless for me. Upon delivering them to the team of UN experts, it was discovered that they were the genuine authentic deal; actually written by the Khmer Rouge and informing us that we were in danger; thanks to them of course.

So sadly we left our Garden of Eden and so our daily commute down the Mekong began as we had to relocate to the capital city of Kratie. Our district wasn’t quite the same; it felt a bit tainted as we were no longer as safe and secure there. Unfortunately as the election got closer, the security situation waned and our barn, known as our office, became a bit of a fortress complete with sand bags, guns, look out posts, MREs (meals ready to eat that had indeed expired), and flak jackets. Fortunately we had a high voter turn out rate in our district on the election days and only one landmine went off and the person on her bike was injured; but not killed. In Cambodia at that time, that is considered a success.

It has been years since I have lived there or have visited this Garden of Eden and I hope to return to it some day soon. I can now visit YouTube and see how the capital city looks and see the number of hotels and restaurants that have been built so tourists can go to see the pink dolphins situated close by. How strange! I lived on and off there for a year and didn’t even know of the dolphins at that time. I guess I had a different focus back then with electoral plans, security plans and evacuation plans on the go. I must admit I am relieved to see that YouTube however, has not found Prek Presap yet and I hope it stays that way.

Every Mom and Daughter Should Spend Quality Time Looking For Drugs Together – A Cambodian Tale

So the BBC reporter keeps asking me questions as I wander through the rice fields in who knows where rural Cambodia.

It is awhile ago (like 1992) but I remember it like it was yesterday. He is going on and on and I am feeling drowsier and drowsier. I blame my lack of response on his accent ( I just don’t get it however… I really don’t understand anything at this moment) as I seem to fade away more and more.

Finally he shuts up and I get back to our boat and return to our home on stilts along the Mekong River in Prek Presap. I am working with the UN as we set up our district for an “almost free and fair” election.

That night I wake up freezing and then I am dying of heat and so it goes all night back and forth. I finally wake up my Swedish partner and he calls for a medivac. Well, a medivac in our district means a zodiac boat and this is not the easiest forms of transportation when one most likely has malaria. Trying to hold onto that fast boat as we power up the Mekong was all I could barely do. Normally it would have been a blast but under the circumstances, not so much.

Then I am back in the provincial capital (loosely used term for capital) and the maybe we have been drinking Russian crew” powers up the helicopter to fly me back to Phnom Penh in those oh so old helicopters.

When I arrive to Phnom Penh I head to the “hospital” that has been taken over by the UN. I am really lucky because the Germans are the doctors for this hospital and they have so so so much knowledge of malaria, Germany being so malaria infested and all. Needless to say, this begins a malaria event that ends up involving the Australians, the Canadians and the Thais… and of course, we can’t forget the Germans. The Germans diagnose me with malaria falciparum (a not so nice one but at least it doesn’t come back once it is killed) and begin to attack it (or me) with a LOT of meds. As I receive those meds, I also get the lovely side effects of them which doesn’t really make one want to eat. But try telling that to them when I refuse multiple steaks each and every day. Who eats steak when they have malaria?

In the meantime, I don’t seem to be getting better (because in actuality the meds are making me quite sick and I am maybe receiving a few extras that I don’t need) so the Australians literally sneak in as they don’t trust the Germans’ diagnosis of me and instead, they proclaim I have dengue fever. Well whatever I have, it is completely understood that mosquitoes love me!

So now the Canadian embassy gets involved (I am wearing out my welcome at the hospital so they are beginning to wonder what is going on) and they announce to my family that maybe someone should come over and help me out. My dad volunteers my mom who has never been to Asia before. In a matter of days, she is on a plane and spending a nite at the Bangkok airport on the way. She has always been a real trooper!

When she gets there, I’m finally released from the hospital but told that I need drugs from the black market to get better.

So mom and I get on our motos and begin to search Phnom Penh for the drugs, the elixir that will finally heal me. We spent hours weaving in and around the PP traffic; going from hospital to pharmacy to street corners looking for these drugs. We would get a lead and then it would fall short.

As a result, the next plan was to head to Bangkok to try out the medical system there. I smuggled my blood slides from the hospital (the Aussies told me too) to Thailand where I was informed that my malaria had been officially killed – probably many days before. My wonderful Thai hospital resembled a hotel and I actually got to wear a Thai sarong as a hospital gown. I even had my own deck and personal yard attached to my room.

Oh those were the hospital days!!!

Upon a clean bill of health, I hopped on a plane to return so I could actually begin my job. I think I was one of the first of all of the UN to get malaria that year.

I returned to my district, tired and weak but oh so happy to be there. Even though all my hair fell out that year and I had to chop it all off and start over again, having malaria gave my mom and I a chance to bond over some very strange moments. We also got to sneak in a trip to Angkor Wat where we were the ONLY tourists there. I remember one little girl who was selling touristy items at the entrance and that was it… a far cry from how Angkor Wat is described today. However, that won’t stop me from returning to it someday in the near future… this time with a full set of hair and a bit more spring in my step.

Oh yes, the BBC apparently published the story about my partner and I, and thank goodness, the reporter discovered that I had had malaria so he at least knew that I was NOT just a complete idiot who didn’t know what was going on.