Grace Admist the Challenges

My memories of her would suggest that my maternal grandmother, Jennie Inge Vester would probably call what I felt on the morning of July 22, 2010, one year after boarding the plane to Cambodia -- grace. Loaded down with a large backpack of “just in case” outfits, at 5:45 a.m. I walked the 1 kilo to P’sa T’may (New Market) to catch the Battambang City bus to Phnom Penh for my 50th birthday celebration. Walking along Highway 5, witnessing the sunrise and responding to calls in Khmer to buy bread or to hop a ride on back of a moto (forbidden by Peace Corps), and watching the surprised looks when I confidently respond back in Khmer, it takes only a few steps to feel a fullness in my heart — sensing the manifestation of grace in my life. I whisper a prayer of thanks! And yell out loud “It is so cool to start the second half of life as a Peace Corps volunteer!” By 6:00 a.m., I stop for a cup of sweet Khmer coffee at my usual spot in the already bustling, colorful, muddy, dirty, filthy (had to say it) market and entertain the husband-wife coffee stand owners, their children and customers (who stare unabashedly) with my Khmer.

 

Then on to the 5 and 1/2 hr. bus ride. Buses usually include DVD players and a speaker system which usually blares Khmer music videos or their version of slap stick stand-up comedy which I now understand a good deal of. Napping is challenging as many Cambodian villagers are not accustomed to bus rides, snack like crazy on the bus, and proceed to throw up into the plastic bags offered as one boards.  Geesk!  And once one person throws up...it’s contagion theory in action. For my birthday I was treated to a different bus ride. The movie Titanic played nearly most of the ride, no blaring music or slap stick, and I could nap here and there when I wasn’t delighted that I understood the Khmer dubbed movie! In Phnom Penh for a late lunch, a shower, and a power nap. By 6:30 pm I had splurged on a delightful bottle of South African Pinotage wine, then I treated myself and three other PCVs to foot massages at an upscale spa as my birthday present to myself, sipping the wine and greeting the new year of life with gusto. We laughed and joked in Khmer with our Khmer masseurs and have an open invitation for massages as we were such a delightful group. A few of my cohort of PCVs enjoyed fooot massages and then b’day dinner at my favorite Phnom Penh Italian restaurant later in the evening.  I was surprised with a lovely cake.

 

It is fitting that a synonym of grace is responsiveness.  I knew that the traditional 23- 24-year-old volunteer has a life-changing experience in the Peace Corps, but I worried a bit how it could possible change my already eventful, full and successful life. I am pleased to report that while giving a lot, as a 50-year-old, I too have gained more from this experience than I have given! This Peace Corps experience awakens the senses lulled to sleep in response to our typical stimulus and resource filled American lives. No car, communal living, little privacy, and people all around striving and surviving with so much less. I am grateful for the grace that allows me to feel, listen and respond — to longings for adventure related to helping others to make this world a better place.  And it is in being responsive through Peace Corps service that I receive much love and appreciation from my Khmer families and friends, my teaching counterparts, my students, and my fellow PCVs. Thus I can unabashedly welcome you to the challenge to find and enjoy a little bit of the grace that I have found in Cambodia. It can be among the greatest adventures of your life if you’re open to the possibility of grace amidst the challenges.

 

Sincerely,

Darlene



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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.