Sunday, January 07, 2007

Leaving in Stages

Apologies to anyone that may actually read this blog on a regular basis, the last few months have been a bit of blur with finishing our lives in Cambodia, traveling for a few weeks, seeing family and friends in Australia and dealing with the inevitable culture shock (“Oh my god! White people! And no-one to wash my clothes!” – the latter is actually patently false given how much we have thus far mooched off our respective parents…)

Despite long held expectations to the contrary, leaving work turned out to be a fairly low key affair. Staff farewell parties at Pact tend to be rather large well scripted affairs where all the staff are hustled into the large meeting room at 4pm for free food (beef jerky was always my favorite and the first to go) and several long speeches are given. Typically when a long serving (more than a year) foreigner leaves there is a rolling series of other engagements. In the past 2 years I have often stood at staff farewells and started composing what would no doubt be the most eloquent and philosophical speech ever given, with deep metaphors about building bridges between East and West and mutual learning. This in turn would cause all staff to realize that they were going to miss me even more than they’d originally thought. As it turned out I ended up in a mass farewell for three staff (as is Pact’s staff turnover at the moment) and received a farewell speech in Khmer from the Deputy Country Representative (an unprecedented event with our Country Representative away). My speech came right at the end of the party after many of the people I had worked closely with had left already, and ended up being rather muddled and short.

All of this didn’t matter too much as I was able to come back several weeks later and say nice low-key goodbyes to everyone. Most importantly, I was able to have dinner with my team just before I left the country. I took note of mistakes that friends have made when leaving the country, and made sure that the evening was on terms that our team would be familiar with (in the past we had ignorantly gone to restaurants the local staff couldn’t afford). And it doesn’t get much more Khmer than a private karaoke room at a barbecue restaurant. To give you an idea of how special the evening was, Anth even broke her iron clad promise NEVER to do karaoke by joining me for a touching rendition of the unofficial Asian anthem – Hotel California.

I will miss all of our team immensely. Working so closely with a small team that is made up of extremely capable and dedicated local staff is something that not many people I know have been able to experience due to time, organizational, position etc. constraints. The awareness of my privilege was far from immediately apparent – and I still vividly remember the night that it finally hit home. It was around 9.30 in the evening at the end of 2005 and I was sitting on the curb by the carpark outside my office waiting for one of the roadside fix-it chaps to mend a flat bicycle tire. I think that up until that point I had still naively believed that on balance my colleagues were benefiting the most from my presence – not vice versa. The immediate past of Cambodia and the dignity and resolve shown by the vast majority of Cambodians in the face of it is almost something that is so obvious and tacitly accepted that I never really thought about it too much – but at that point in time it really hit me, and I recall cycling home feeling immensely humbled. In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t press ahead with my long held intentions to somehow work this anecdote into my farewell speech. But anyways, I digress…

The logistics of leaving work also turned out slightly differently than I had expected. I had begun the preparations for leaving several weeks prior to the event and the calming effect of two public holidays that left office empty in my final week gave the false impression that I was on track. Naturally, I was wrong. My final three nights were spent working till very late and I unfortunately didn’t have time to conduct a proper in-person handover with Ratanak – my replacement. It was quite surreal leaving an organization after almost three years and being the last to lock up the office on a Friday night at 11.30. I peered into the now darkened office just before I left wondering why balloons weren’t falling from the roof with people cheering, and what it felt like to walk through the doors for the first time on my fourth day of being in Cambodia.

There wasn’t much time to comprehend all the emotions and sentiment fueled by lack of sleep, as we were due to begin a new phase precisely 7.5 hours later. I returned home to find the entire contents of Anth’s flat in my room and the need for both of us to pack for several weeks of travel.. The next morning Ben, Bec, Nic, Melissa, Anth and I drove a minivan up to Siem Reap with Yim and her extended family. The results of this most wonderful expedition – which ranks as one of the highlights of the year – are ably chronicled here (eternal gratitude to Bec for all her work in organizing the trip in the face of potential opposition from Yim’s evil matriarch).

After two days in Siem Reap, Anth and I split to go to Bangkok and then onto Burma. A combination of prior experience and discreet (albeit slightly impatient) words in Khmer meant that we shortened the usual interminable (up to 4 hours) wait at the Thai border and we were ushered into a brand new minivan that got us in with sufficient time to dine at our favorite Jordanian restaurant in the Arabic district. Given all that had happened in the preceding days I wasn’t able to comprehend that I was finally about to go to Burma after years of pining and aborted travel plans. When I worked at the development desk job from hell at Monash back in 2003, we were invited by AusAID to bid for a highly unique and prestigious human rights training program. We were successful, but several days before the program was due to launch Aung San Suu Kyi was re-arrested after a brutal attack on her supporters as she toured the country. The bureaucratic hell of AusAID neglect and country desk officer turnover that followed the arrest left the program in limbo – which only heightened the unattainable mystique of Burma. From the moment I arrived in Cambodia I made definite plans to visit Burma and slightly vaguer plans to maybe even try and find work there. My bedside table also always contained books that I had intended to read about Burma but never got round too. Against this backdrop of long-standing ignorance and intrigue, there was only one inevitable result from our brief trip there – disappointment.

Aesthetically Burma is incredibly interesting and the key tourist attractions – Shewedagon Pagoda, Bagan and Inle Lake – are stunning. The old colonial architecture and the unexepectedly strong sub-continental influences in Rangoon were also striking. On a superficial level Anth and I were also taken by many of the considerable differences to Cambodia: cars stopping instantly (and in some cases even reversing at intersections) when the lights went red (amazing what a huge, well resourced and widely feared police presence can do); people selling second hand books in all of the cities we visited (again, it helps not to have your entire middle class wiped out and your TV options drastically limited by the government); the large public parks in Rangoon that had grass that you could actually sit on (along with the railways one of the few obvious legacies of the British); and the ability of Burmese to appreciate multiple styles of music (Anth and I stumbled upon a Green-Day-esque local punk band doing a CD launch in one of the few upmarket shopping centres in Rangoon – our jaws dropped in shock and delight). Despite what I felt were positive differences as a middle class Westerner – we were quickly reminded of something we already knew – despite the seemingly glossy veneer we found in Rangoon, Burma is even more screwed up than Cambodia in its own unique ways.

George Orwell spent five formative years working as a servant of the British Empire in the northern Burma when he was young – and it is tragically fitting that the Burmese government is now one of the few remaining international powers dedicated to implementing the type of hermetically sealed social nightmare found in 1984. With the help of a few brief conversations with locals and members of the local Pact office who very kindly entertained us – we were able to start piecing together the types of extreme restrictions that are placed on the movement of all Burmese. We also saw that all the billboards in Burma advertise consumer goods that are produced by the government (the handful of locally made international brands are all joint ventures) and that the billboards all feature the same small group of government endorsed pop stars. The streets of Rangoon and Mandalay were also clogged with wildly archaic cars and other machinery as the taxes on imports are so ridiculously high. In the 10 days that we were there – Anth and I barely scratched the surface of political and social issues in Burma – but we still got a sense pretty quickly that something wasn’t quite right. This feeling further reinforced the importance of following the independent tourist mantra in Burma – avoid engaging in activities that support the government financially (a losing battle no doubt though given that the package tourists we saw far exceeded independent ones – incidentally, middle aged Germans have recently been declared a new ethnic minority).

Despite all of the above qualifications and reservations – Anth and I found the trip to be immensely rewarding. The only catch is that we were in a constant state of exhaustion (and I was struck down by a flu for several days) due to our complete failure to allow any time to recover after finishing work. Another problem is that the Burmese government had arbitrarily closed all land borders a month prior to our visit (we were incredibly lucky to find this out from a travel agent in Rangoon) – which royally screwed our plans to travel overland to Laos via Chiang Rai in North West Thailand. Faced with only 4-5 days left in our modified itinerary (unfortunately not enough time to get off the beaten trail North of Mandalay – which I’d been hoping to do) we made a snap decision to deal with some other unfinished Indochinese business – the Thai islands. After the stresses of the preceding weeks and with the memories of a 17 hour bus trip to Rangoon (a break down, miniscule leg room, ear-shattering music, virtually all passengers throwing up at some point etc.) fresh in our minds we were ecstatic to prostitute ourselves to the land of 711s (“Look Anth, you can get Diet Coke for less than $3, and I can buy 2 Magnum ice creams!”), well-oiled tourist infrastructure, and scantily clad white folk (who’s ranks we wanted to join). Several ridiculously short days at the beach, and one well-oiled present shopping/movie watching/ fast food eating/ book store loitering 2 day mission in Bangkok later we were back in Phnom Penh.

For some stupid reason we thought that 2.5 days would be enough to pack up our lives and say goodbye to our friends. We just managed the former and barely managed the latter. It was quite surreal coming back after several weeks away – we didn’t realize how much we had already separated ourselves from Cambodia and we were very conscious of leaving several days later – which left us feeling disconnected and transitory as we went through the final motions. Leaving was unfortunately much more stressful that we’d hoped. Including hand luggage Anth and I took back about a combined total of 130 kg – which we somehow managed to sneak past multiple hand luggage checks prior to boarding. All of this was horrifically stressful – and made us unable to deal properly with the incredible emotions of saying goodbye to Yim, Ben and Bec who had all come to the airport. Anth and I miraculously avoided the final baggage inspection and slumped in our seats not knowing quite what had hit us. As soon as the plane started the sharp descent away from the country that had been our home for the last few years, we were finally overcome with emotion (much to the puzzlement of the annoyed looking rich Khmer lady beside us).

12 hours later, after dropping Anth at her grandparents house, I found myself sitting silently in the bedroom that I had last permanently slept in 1996. No matter how many times you go through reverse culture shock, it never gets any easier.