Friday, May 15, 2020

Why did it feel like the world turned upside down?

It felt like the world had turned upside down, and yet at the same time stayed the same.

For the May Linkup on A Chronic Voice  I'm attempting to describe my experience of being an Australian in Cambodia during Covid-19. Part of the experience was scrolling Facebook and incongruously laughing at all the memes, so I've included some here.
Prompts for this month: foreseeing, upbringing, accessing, panicking, soothing. Sorry, they're a bit hidden this month. 


That was the sound of five heavy, rough stones falling into a small, thin, plastic bag in quick succession. It could really only fit two rocks, so the bag was painfully stretched. The weight and shape of the rocks was uncomfortable.  And the speed at which they were dropped in, almost all at the same time also caused distress.

It had already been sneaking into our lives, but in the third week of March 2020 the new virus really made its impact. We had been aware of it, but we didn’t foresee it turning our world upside down.

Only 1 confirmed case in Cambodia for the longest time, but in March they began to rise.  Schools in town were shut down in the first week of March, and the COVID-19 outbreak declared a pandemic. 

In hindsight I see these as heralding the changes to come. That Sunday, 15th in church Soeun explained hand washing and distancing. It turned out to be the last Sunday church service to date.

I felt like that thin, small, plastic bag the week beginning 16th March. By the next Monday I was so tense, anxious and confused, not even sure why it felt like everything was different. Because it also felt like everything was the same. 

So what was going on that week?  My husband being extra busy in new ways; his role as Christian leader morphed from teacher to a million other roles. Humid weather arrived, its stickiness slowing my brain and body down. People all over the world panicking, things in China seemed to be easing while in many other countries things sped up. While also slowing down. 

Into this busy, humid panicky backdrop fell those five stones, landing one after the other. 
Thud- thud- thud- thud- thud. Without enough time between them to see what they were.  All I knew is they were heavy and uncomfortable. It wasn’t until later that I was able to pull them all out and have a look at each one. Somehow it was soothing to examine each one.

1. Uneasy about accessing medical care in this country.

Confronted with a friend’s hospital experience reminded us health care in Cambodia was not pandemic ready.  When a fractured bone is left untreated, and yet still sends people into debt, you don’t like to think what would happen if many people were sick at the same time.

2. Undone?

Like a newborn baby our church community was only just starting to form. After about half a year of intentional bonding with church members and the leadership team suddenly religious meetings were banned. Making the abrupt change with a brand new group wasn’t exactly plain sailing. We are happy to stay apart to prevent the virus spreading faster and thankful for online connections, but wondering what all the newly formed relationships will be like when the dust settles.

3. Unexpected.

Air travel changed quickly, flights cancelled, extra travel restrictions and bans came into effect and borders threatening to close. The Australian government urged Aussies to get back while they still could, especially if they were in countries with questionable healthcare.  

I had not even considered this option before and suddenly I had to decide immediately. 

Amidst the humidity I tried to weigh up the dangers of travel verses the danger of getting stuck in South East Asia during a worldwide health crisis. I would have to start packing for the kids and I right away, if I was to get out before it all shut down. What kind of upbringing did we want to give them? If we left,  when would we get back to Soeun and our house where they are used to playing and learning?  

I saw the government message on Wednesday 17th, by the 19th two Aussie families I know had announced they were leaving. By the weekend they were on the plane. One, traumatically actually had to pack up her whole life in a day as they had to leave permanently.   

4. Economic uncertainty.

The sharp decline in tourism was being felt by a town full of people already just getting by. That was only a blurry background for me until seeing the desperation of a family known to us.  Suddenly, in that third week of March it was brought into sharp focus.  I felt like we were living in a town of hospitality workers who had not earned enough for a few months, and the months ahead looked like things would get even worse.

5. Unprecedented.

Like a giant game of musical chairs everyone suddenly jumped up and started racing around the world, hoping to end up in the right place before the music stopped. I saw (via Facebook) fellow expats around the world making a quick exit from their host countries. Often without goodbyes, and not knowing when they would be back. Some knowing they wouldn't be back.

While others who were meant to make an international move stayed put.  Also via Facebook I saw friends who were about to move overseas, or about to move back to their passport country having to cancel the long planned for transition. 

And still others got caught in a third country where they neither lived, nor were from. 


After I had looked at each "rock", and had time to get used to it all I felt much better. Uneasy, undone, unexpected, uncertainty, unprecedented. No wonder I felt overwhelmed and exhausted!

Although my daily life was almost identical to pre March 16th, the changes in our street, town and the world were filling the windscreen. 

I noticed on the Linkup Sheryl mentioned this is Mental Health month in America.

"It can be easy to get caught up in your emotions as you’re feeling them. Most people don’t think about what emotions they are dealing with, but taking the time to really identify what you’re feeling can help you to better cope with challenging situations."

For more about this see Owning your Feelings. 

Photo credit: Unsplash Fateme Alaie

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Staying at home with celebrations, storms and sickness. April 2020

Happily Easter was much more noticeable his year, it normally gets swallowed up by Khmer New Year as they often fall close together in mid April. We often don't have any special Easter thing at church, or sometimes we don't even have church if most people are away. And going out anywhere, such as church, is hot and chaotic, not very pleasant.

Palm Sunday

Thanks to Covid-19 the KNY public holidays and travel were cancelled, so the 4 of us were at home together for all of April. No travel, no relatives staying, no church. So great, I wish we could do it that way every year. Well, you know, apart from the unprecedented uncertainty playing in the background.

We spent the lead up to Easter reading out bits of Matthew, and then in the days before Good Friday reading some of Mark. And because Australians were also at home, we got to enjoy some extra things as everyone took their ministry online. Colin Buchanan started doing Facebook live concerts at home, Quiz Worx put some talks up with activities sheets and extra things. So great! We also watched the weekly Sunday school lessons from a church in America called Saddleback, just randomly found on Youtube. The first one we watched is here, in the lead up to Easter, then it became our weekly thing.

We had a Khmer zoom Sunday morning meeting, and there was also an English language church meeting by zoom in the evening, but we had a huge storm as mentioned here and power cut so couldn't join.

The next day was the first day of Khmer New year, and people welcomed the New Year angel around 8pm that night. It was so noisy and smoky! I think they usually visit relatives out of town to do it, I hadn't realised but I think it was the first time the kids saw and heard what I described back here- photos from 2009 but the post is mainly about 2007. 

The rain started the Thursday before Good Friday, and since then it has been stormy/low pressure so Soeun has been unwell since then. The cooler change meant I was feeling a bit more energetic though, after the humid weeks of late March and early April, so I started adding a bit of school work into the day. We don't really do much homeschooling in the hottest part of the year.

As far as hot season go, it wasn't so bad. In fact according the to BCI it was easier than normal. We only had a few short power cuts, and the pump only stopped a few times, probably due to lower water level underground. It was also much calmer than March, which I'm still getting my head around. And the stress that caused the blog black hole of Nov19-March 2020 took a back seat, so despite the humidity it was actually a pleasant month. The kids spent a lot of time drawing and playing together, I tried to take a photo of some of their creations and activities but I couldn't keep up!

Still reeling from my own March 2020 experience (hope to write about it here soon), I was reading stories like these: Aussies who stayed and Aussies who left.

At the start of the month we had just been through what felt like some quick, scary changes and were bracing for a disaster. On the final day of April I went to buy fruit and veggies at our local market as usual and felt like people in our village are more relaxed about it now. In Feb I was the barefaced white person at the market while most others were masked, but now on the other side of March, I'm still wearing a mask but less Khmer are.

The last time the kids left the house/yard was 8th March, 8 weeks ago! We have the space set up for our homeschool life, with a big yard and they are used to playing at home together, so its been mostly quite nice. Things are beginning to open up a bit now it seemed, although it doesn't feel like things will just spring back to normal in weeks. Maybe never? Siem Reap economy is missing the international tourists.

The kids just keep making things out of things they find around the house. Their ideas are like a tap that won't turn off, we have an endless supply of boats and spaceships.