About TESS O'KEEFE

When I was in the third grade I wrote a book about dogs called "Puppy Love". On the inside cover was an "About The Author" tab which read "Tess O'Keefe is a nine-year-old from Peace Dale Elementary School. She loves dogs, soccer, people, the beach and exploring. She hopes to be an author one day." Except for the fact that I am now 22 and a college graduate, that description is pretty dead-on.

Bangkok

After our bus broke down three times, we transferred vans twice and walked across the Cambodian/Thailand border, 20 of us arrived safely in Bangkok in an 8-person van with dead ipods and sweaty ass cracks.

Before heading into the Chiang Mai jungle, Jordan and I enjoyed the food, books, art and people of the notorious Khao San road.

Two days later Jordan and I took our first ever surprisingly comfortable sleeper train to northern thailand.

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The Monkey Attack

After our bus broke down three times and we transferred buses once, Jordan and I made it safely to Siem Reap. In the morning, Thanksgiving morning, we biked to the famous Angkor Wat, where we spent the day.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I haven’t had a traditional thanksgiving in years. This year was no exception. On our way back to our bikes from the Angkor Wat tour, Jordan and I decided to stop and get freshly sliced mango from a fruit stand on the side of the street. That was our first mistake. The second mistake was our decision to take the “woodsy”, more scenic route. While we were walking in the woods, with no one else around, enjoying our mangos we spotted our first monkey. Though Jordan thought it was cool and cute, I immediately felt as though we were in trouble. I swear to God that me and the monkey locked eyes. All of a sudden it started galloping toward us. We froze. We were shocked. The monkey took a wide turn (around Jordan!)  and climbed up my leg and onto my arm. I covered my face with my hands and screamed for Jordan who replied “THROW THE MANGO”, so I threw the mango as far as I could, and luckily, the monkey climbed off of me  and ran after the mango. Why it didn’t want Jordan’s equally delicious, closer, mango is beyond me. But when I e-mailed my friends and family about this charade, the alike response was that “that could only happen to you”. And it’s true. These things always happen to me. Being attacked by a monkey is kind of like having your car stolen out of Eastward Look during finals week your senior year of college.

I didn’t have time to take a picture of the exact monkey, or take a video which I’m sure would have been priceless, and neither did Jordan (she insists that she blacked out during those long seconds of a monkey swatting his huge man hands at my face while she stood idly by), but here’s a picture of his monkey friends so that you get the idea.

Jordan and I ran the rest of the way back to our bikes super freaked out, hysterically laughing, and unable to talk about what had just happened. But, needless to say, along with my friends and family, this thanksgiving I was very thankful to have not been bitten by a monkey.

Street Kids and Mith Samlanh

The streets of Phnom Penh were filled with children. All day, kids from ages 3-15 roamed the local markets targeting tourists and asking for money–so you can imagine that as two pale, freckled women wandering aimlessly in the center of Cambodia, Jordan and I were stopped every few feet. And since saying no to a begging, underweight child holding out his or her tiny little hands is impossible, Jordan and I ended up giving away a good amount of money. We had no problem doing so, and easily justified that they needed it more than we did, until we read UN-sponsored warnings advising tourists not to give to begging children. The problem, the warning said, is that the children are ordered by corrupt adults (sometimes a parent, sometimes an abductor) to beg for money and are forced to give 100% of the money back to the adult and are often abused because the money (regardless of how much) is never enough. So instead of feeling as though we were helping, Jordan and I ended up feeling horribly guilty for contributing to what seemed like solution-less problem and a never-ending cycle.

What to do?  Jordan and I turned to Jan, our reliable tuk-tuk driver to get a local perspective on the situation. Jan agreed with the UN warning. Instead, he suggested that we bring the begging children to a food stand and let them pick out a meal, so we know that we are helping the child and not giving money into the massive drug trafficking or brothel industry.

In less than an hour, Jordan and I were able to take Jan’s advice. We were at a local market buying our breakfast for the next day when a child tapped me on the shoulder and held out his hands for money. Feeling worldly, helpful and “in the know”, I motioned to the food and told him to pick whatever he wanted. He ordered a pound of cherries and immediately opened the bag and wolfed them down. He was starving. I let him pick something else, ordered my food, and turned toward the tuk-tuk. When I turned around, there were 5 more children standing there holding out the world’s cutest hands. So of course, we bought the rest of them dinner.

What to do? We can’t afford to buy every child a meal. And even if we could, a meal is still only a temporary solution. What about the next meal? And the next day?

Mith Samlanh is the closest thing we found to a solution. It is a a local organization in Phnom Penh run by former street youth and their teachers. It focuses primarily on getting children off the street and teaching them practical skills to prepare them for employment. The focus of the training is “building self-esteem, self respect, high standards of hygiene, and of course, hospitality skills.”

Once the children graduate from the program, they are allowed to work in the sister restaurant, Friends, as a host, server or cook. When the training is complete, the staff helps the graduates find jobs in the area. All profits from the restaurants are reinvested into Mith Samlanh’s projects for former street children.

The restaurant is able to stay afloat because the majority of the food is donated by local farms, and the restaurant accepts donations from around the world. Aside from monetary donations, Mith Samlanh sells photographs, bricks and sidewalk space where supporters can pay for an engraved shout-out.

Everyone at Friends was outgoing, open and friendly, and it really showed the value of community and what we are capable of doing when we work together. From its brightly painted center behind Friends the Restaurant, Mith Samlanh offers food, shelter, medical care, training and educational facilities for over 1,800 homeless, vulnerable or abandoned children each day, and has recently been awarded as the first and only NGO in Cambodia to receive the “Best Practice Award” by the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia for compliance with all standards in the code of ethical principles and minimum standards.

Phnom Penh, Jan, and The Killing Fields

In Phnom Penh Jordan and I were greeted by our tuk-tuk driver, Jan. A tuk-tuk is a Southeast Asian taxi, a.k.a. a mo-ped dragging a wagon that can hold up to 4 people. Despite the dying engine, nearly side-swiping cars, or tipping the wagon altogether, we were very lucky to have Jan. He was our personal driver for the 3 days we were in Phnom Penh, spoke impressive English, and agreed to drag us around the main tourist attractions such as The Killing Fields and the S-21 prison openly giving his own account of the horrifying genocide. He also took us to his favorite places and ate lunch with us at local restaurants that our Lonely Planet Guide neglected.

Unfortunately, the only documentation of I have of Jan and the tuk-tuk is on video which I STILL have not figured out how to upload. Maybe one day.

Here’s a few pictures from the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison, and as unsettling as they are, they don’t do the experience of walking through the fields and prisons any justice. From 1975-1979 approximately 1.3 million Cambodians were brutally killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge Regime. The targets were the members of Cambodia’s former government, foreign governments, and professionals, intellectuals and scholars who threatened the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Jan, who was only 9 during the genocide, considers his family lucky because they were poor and uneducated and were not a threat to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. However, Jan lost aunts and uncles who refused to be ruled by Pol Pot, and siblings to starvation and disease during that time period.

Although the bodies were buried in fields over 30 years ago, clothing, bones, and teeth appear from the ground every time it rains. Jordan and I walked through the fields carefully listening to headsets with personal accounts of some of the few survivors and their horror stories are unbelievable. And it’s so crazy because 1979 was not that long ago (my brother was alive then!) and yet the killings are so primal and barbaric. It’s pretty scary and it felt very real.

The war ended in 1979 when Communist Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Regime. Today, there is a memorial in its honor, tours of the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison to spread awareness and prevent another genocide from happening. Of course, like in Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Ho Chi Minh City and ground zero in NYC, there are paper cranes from the Japanese representing world peace.

Rivers and Roads to Phnom Penh

Our boat stopped at a floating restaurant, with a bathroom aka hole in the wooden floor (which I had never been more thankful for) before the Cambodian border where we paid twenty-two American dollars for our Cambodian visas in preparation of the border crossing coming up. Normally, visas for another country are bound inside a passport, but Jordan and I applied for loose visas due to time constraints and instead of stamping the visas and giving them back, the woman simply took them. We asked if we would need them at the border and she said we were all set. We were suspicious, and then asked if we could just keep the visa as memorabilia. The woman said no, and left with no other choice, Jordan and I boarded the boat and headed for the Cambodian border.

Our boat docked at the border, where we (unsurprisingly!) needed our visas to cross! So Jordan and I were held on the Vietnam/Cambodia border for a solid hour while we tried to explain (charade) that the woman had taken our visas at the last stop. Meanwhile, our boat, with no lights and a tight schedule to arrive to Phnom Penh before dark, was waiting in the river with a full crowd. Finally, after standing by in one-hundred degree weather and floating in our own nervous sweat, someone called the visa office and gave us the go ahead. With that, we got back onto our boat, rode 5-hours, transferred to a van with 10 seats, 15 people and 15 backpacks, and rode through flooded, bumpy dirt roads for 4 hours with explosive diarrhea.

 

The Mekong Delta

Jordan and I chose to take combinations of uncomfortable canoes, speedboats, buses and vans on a 3-day venture from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in an effort to see as much as possible. The majority of the trip was by way of the Mekong Delta, and we wove in and out of floating villages for hours.

The people who live on (and in the middle of) the Mekong Delta are a close-knit community of people who share their resources and tie their houses and boats close together during the rainy season so that they don’t drift away. They use the Mekong to farm fish, bathe and do laundry, but they mostly use it as a toilet–so we decided to steer clear of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta seaweed specialty.

I have a short, poor-quality video taken from the motorboat portion of the journey, but i’m having serious trouble uploading it, so for now pictures will have to suffice.  Also, if you’re wondering when my traveler’s diarrhea kicked in, it was about one hour into the eight-hour, non-stop boat ride.

Here’s a photo of Jordan and I on the Mekong that makes it less of a mystery why so many people thought that we were a couple.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Jordan and I traveled south to Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon, where we replaced Jordan’s long lost Lonely Planet guide (we got a boot-leg one with nearly non-existent maps from a local vendor), had the world’s best spring rolls, and visited the Vietnam War Remnants Museum.

The museum was four floors of heartbreaking, history-packed, journals, photos, and memorabilia. The entrance was lined with children and adults alike that suffer multiple disabilities due to the effects of Agent Orange, an often deadly chemical that was sprayed indiscriminately on the people and land throughout Vietnam. The disabilities are both mental and physical, and include blindness, deafness, and growth defects. Walking past them was a bone-chilling, stiff reminder that the Vietnam War is not just a thing of the past. Today, people are still living and adjusting to the horrible causes and desperate decisions made by the United States.

To not be touched by the War Remnants Museum, you honestly have to be cold-blooded. Jordan and I left nearly in tears and felt ridden with guilt that our country had caused so much pain and destruction. But what’s interesting is that the main message of the museum was not anti-american, but anti-war in general. The goal of the museum is to promote awareness and peace, and and prevent something so horrific from happening again, not just to Vietnam, but around the globe. The vibes of the museum were ones of forgiveness and hope, common to the vibes of the Peace Museum in Hiroshima that I visited with my family when I was studying abroad in Japan.

In both Japan and Vietnam, where the U.S. caused unimaginable destruction, I feared being disliked simply for being an American. And if I was, I would have understood. But in both places I was welcomed with open arms, and open discussion of our countries past was encouraged with the common hope that together we can prevent history from repeating itself.

 

 

Artwork sent from elementary schools around the world promoting peace.