18th month in the Cambodian countryside
On Monday morning, March 16th I received the email but didn’t open it immediately. I already knew what it would say. Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen had issued the emergency evacuation of more than 7,000 volunteers and suspended all operations globally for the first time since its creation in the Kennedy administration.
The roosters woke me, like every other day, at 4:30 am sharp. I lay in bed, pondering on how probable an early termination of service is in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fear had settled in during the weekend and I’m sure I came to peace with that realization before I received the official confirmation at around 9 am. Messages and calls came non-stop after that; the phone vibrations shook the whole of my compact cement room. I didn’t want to believe it.
I didn’t go to work that day. As an Education Teacher and Teacher-Trainer volunteer (ETTT) work required me to go to school Monday thru Saturdays at 7 am. I lesson planned and co-taught with the English Teachers of the community and together we came up with novel ways of teaching English to classrooms of more than fifty students each.
On Sundays, I woke up as late as eleven o’clock to drink coffee, have lunch and sweat in a hammock for the rest of the day while I listened to podcasts and scratched my belly. I explained to my host family who had been taking care of me during my service that this is a customary habit but instead of hammocks we have recliners in America. They never believed me. “Not all Americans can be as lazy as you,” they had once told me. If they only knew the truth.
It felt like one of those days.
School had been canceled the week before until after Khmer New Year vacation break in mid-April by the Ministry of Education due to reportage of sporadic positive coronavirus cases in the country and I think it was during that time while watching one of many of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s televisions broadcast addressing the people and not understanding much of what he said and waiting for my host brother to simplify his words of an imminent national lockdown did I know that my Peace Corps service in Cambodia, in the Kingdom of Wonder, would come to an abrupt and premature end.
My host mother chopped and cracked wood from our garden behind the house with a meat clever and placed the broken remains in an ashy fire pit. Lunch would be ready soon but she had boiling hot water waiting for me. I came down, without combing my hair or even brushing my teeth, and she laughed at the sight of me. She wakes up every day before the roosters and likes to remind me of it. I’m pretty sure she is the one who wakes them up. And, like any mother would, likes to remind me of how much I slept.
“You’re not going to school today?” My host sister asked. She was breastfeeding her nine-month-old baby girl with one arm and stirring a hot pot of baba (rice porridge) with the other. I told her that I probably wouldn’t be going back until next month. “That’s great!” she says. “You’ll have more vacation days with us.”
Whenever my host family would show excitement towards spending time with me I was always taken aback. My relationship with them had been bumpy from the start with so many misunderstandings and nothing remotely in common. I could say it was due to gender roles in Cambodian society. Being placed in a household full of women, in a culture where boys and girls rarely spend time together, might not have been the best site placement decision Peace Corps has made; or I could admit that there isn’t anything interesting about me. For the longest time, the relationship with them had been a business agreement, landlord and tenant, editor and writer, producer and musician, pimp and prostitute.
Many volunteers in the past have opt-out and changed either host family or site altogether because their expectations of being received and nurtured by a warm, welcoming community (expectations that at times were over-embellished by Peace Corps staff) didn’t meet reality.
I eventually grew on them; not that they had another choice. There isn’t a volunteer refund policy with the Peace Corps (not that I know of) in the case a host family were to receive a volunteer that was not to their liking or expectations.
I admit that there is a chance that I might not have been the best volunteer when it came to community integration. And pretty much everything else as well. My ego doesn’t allow me to accept it. I fell victim to laying under my fan in my bedroom during the day and bingeing pirated TV shows in the afternoon (the other option being Bollywood soap operas with my Mai (host mother) and even though they were dubbed in Khmer neither of us knew what was going on in those crazy shows), but I stuck around. I helped while also aware that I was more in the way than actually being of assistance, and they allowed it like a little kid who brings his plastic beach shovel to help his parents landscape their front yard. They included me and that’s more than I could ever ask for. In the end, we became family because you don’t choose your members like wildflowers in a garden. Rather, you’re stuck with them and blossom together.
My coffee was ready. Having it iced with milk is an opulent commodity around here, especially in this heat, but I couldn’t do that. The ice dilutes the acidity, the flavor spreads around too far apart to make an impact once it enters the palate. I need to tell them that I’ll be leaving them soon. To balance out the bitterness I add two spoons of sugar. Their home, their lives. I’ll do it after I finish the coffee, I told myself. The imminent farewell talk bounced around inside my cranium like a computer screensaver of the early 2000s. Tell the school and my colleagues who last month gave me a matching uniform; my students that I will not be seeing them again next semester; and my neighbors that I will no longer drink and sing karaoke with them on Thursday nights. That coffee lasted me a lifetime.
The Pearl of Asia has never looked so empty
I arrive at Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and biggest city, on Thursday of that same week. A day earlier than the planned arrival date for all volunteers to evacuate because on Tuesday I ran a fever and lost my shit. I called PCMO, the medical staff in every Peace Corps post, and told them I felt ill and was panicking. COVID-19 was spreading fast in the country, we all knew that but what we didn’t was how fast.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had repeatedly stated that the situation was under control all thanks to the unrelenting efforts of the government. Even after it had refused to evacuate its citizens from the Hubei province, where it is believed to be the origin and, at that time, epicenter of the virus, in China. Even after officially declaring that travel restrictions with China would not be limited and Chinese tourists were allowed to travel to Preah Sihanouk and Siem Reap freely.
Even after the MS Westerdam, the cruise ship turned away by nearly all nations around the Pacific in early February, docked in the port of Sihanoukville, and its passengers were greeted by Hun Sen’s entourage wielding bouquets of roses but face masks were nowhere to be seen.
Of the more than 2,000 people on board, the Cambodian government tested 20 people for COVID-19, all came out negative and deemed it was sufficient up until one passenger, an 83-year-old American woman, tested positive upon arrival by plane to Malaysia.
U. S. President Trump even thanked Cambodia for doing something that other countries refused to, most likely wary that they’d have another Diamond Princess but quarantined on their shores and not in the Tokyo Bay. The Cambodian public and us foreign volunteers shared a similar notion but verbally expressing it was a preposterous idea.
At the Doctor’s office
“You might have ‘stress-induced’ symptoms,” my Dr. said as she folded her stethoscope.
“Sometimes when under stress the mind can create symptoms and it makes you believe you are sick.”
The good Doctor’s office suddenly went more quiet than usual and I embarrassingly hoped that no one else heard what she had just said. I went from feeling worried to feeling like a fool.
“Hold up — You’re telling me that my mind gave me a fever and diarrhea?”
“No, that was most likely a reaction from something you ate. Everything else checks out. You tested negative for Influenza, you have no signs of infection, your last fever was 2 days ago…”
“What about the tightness in my chest? The somewhat difficulty breathing?”
“Well, are you a smoker? And speak honestly.”
“Speak honestly, please.”
“Well, speaking honestly…”
She placed her hand on my shoulder like the way a teacher would to a student who just pissed his pants during a school field trip. A kind and sympathetic gesture that said ‘you poor dummy.’
“You should try to relax. Get some rest. We’re all on alert because of this new coronavirus. I can give you something that helps with anxiety.”
“Rumors say people are dropping like flies!”
In late March, news of COVID-19 cases soaring outside of China spread just as fast as rumors in Cambodia, and fear was trailing behind. There was talk about the virus mutating constantly that soon dogs and cats would be infected, too; that it was possible to get infected several times or it would downright be with you for the rest of your days like herpes; that it wouldn’t survive in warm climates but it was designed to take out the entire elderly populace. And that all foreigners had it.
It wasn’t fear of the virus itself, the symptoms aren’t as visceral as how the movie Contagion depicted a modded Nipah (a virus also from bats that turned brains into mush), but rather a fear of the unknown, the confusion of how bad things were and the uncertainty of how things would become.
The usually crowded streets of Phnom Penh, with mopeds swarming about like bees, dipping in and out of the street from sidewalks and alleyways and pouncing on top of cars and rooftops or diving into the canals and rivers that gutted the heart of the city, doing anything humanly and inhumanly possible to get through traffic, were astonishingly absent. The city would close down soon, and then the entire country. And we were meant to leave before it did.
Vendors who would ordinarily sell fried fish treats had their carts covered in disposable and cloth facemasks. Everywhere you turned, Cambodians wore them. As I walked through the street, I took notice that some kept their distance from me by stepping off the sidewalk or crossing the street. There’s nothing wrong with taking too much precaution, or so I had thought until a tuk-tuk driver refused to take me. These gents follow you around like hounds, circle around like vultures, and manifest themselves before the idea of getting a tuk-tuk ever reaches your mind. And now, they were refusing to take foreigners.
People fear what they don’t know.
Our service is coming to an end
The volunteers rendezvoused at the Hotel Cambodiana and for some it took a two-days travel to reach the capital. Anguished and heartbroken, their feelings were kept bottled up during the ride and spilled out at first glance of their colleagues. They had said goodbye to their friends and family at site and, after 18 months of cultivating relationships, they knew those bonds were meant to last a lifetime, so the pain was greater.
The hotel was a 15-minute walk from the Royal Palace and overlooked the Three Great Rivers that conjoined in Phnom Penh. The Mekong flowing grand and determined south from Laos is joined by the Tonle Sap which starts south of Angkor Wat of the Old Khmer Kings, swerves through the country, and is intercepted by the Tonle Bassac which flows southerly into Vietnam. What a fitting place for everyone to meet.
I once heard a story of a volunteer who swam across the Mekong from Kampong Cham to Tbong Khmum. I always thought that was bullshit because 1) the river is more than a kilometer in width and 2) your average volunteer wouldn’t have the physical capabilities of an Olympic swimmer if his or her diet was a mix of rice, tea, and fish cheese (prohok is, actually, very tasty), and 3) the holy Mekong isn’t the most sanitary river. Still, it was a noble challenge and I promised the coffee vendor of my village that I would swim across it before I left Cambodia. She didn’t believe me and said that I was so skinny I’d be swept away like a plastic straw.
That was the first memory that came to me when Peace Corps staff told us our service was coming to an end. The chances of the world recovering soon from the pandemic looked small and us returning to Cambodia to finish the 6 months we had left were even smaller. Our projects for the community, plans with host families, and personal promises to coffee vendors went out the window.
Medical exams and endless logistical sessions started the following day. As Close Of Service tradition goes, it is required of us to send in a stool sample to the medical staff but due to haste that inconvenient task was botched up and I know I speak for everyone when I say that nobody is ever looking forward to pooping inside a bag and extracting a sample.
“Peace Corps is firing us and making it look pretty.”
At the final session, we rang the ceremonial gong signifying our official COS. We were RPCVs now, whether we wanted or not. It was a bittersweet moment, one we all had hoped to achieve since the beginning but not in these terms. Staff talked about the benefits of being RPCVs and the support we can get for continuing our studies and careers. But when unemployment benefits and extended health care was mentioned, two major concerns every time one leaves a job, there was silence, hesitation and an improvised monologue of “everyone is doing the best we can.”
As concerning those two things are, they weren’t the elephant in the room. What was on everyone’s mind was the fact that we’ll be flying international, 7,000 volunteers from every corner of the world, to a single destination during what we thought was the apogee of this pandemic and straight to home.
“Once you arrive, you’ll have to quarantine yourselves,” staff said. We expressed our fear in bringing something back to our families knowing that the large majority of outbreaks occurred at that time because people came into contact with someone who had recently traveled.
Do whatever you feel seems best and God speed is what I got from it. A friend turned to me and said: “we’re not simply going back home. The government has liquidated the non-essential staff. Peace Corps is firing us and making it look pretty.”
A mass exodus
The first batch of volunteers left on Friday and by Sunday evening the last 16 of more than 70 were at the airport ready to leave Cambodia. It was a race against time as flights were dwindling with each passing day and with the US closing its borders soon, the possibility of being stranded in an airport like that Tom Hanks movie went from a joke when the multitude of foreign masses lined up at the ticket booths to a premonition as we saw the flight arrival/departure dashboard with its DELAYED- DELAYED in hazard yellow and CANCELED- CANCELED- CANCELED in dismal red.
We were able to nab one to Tokyo, a flight so full we had to place the smaller passengers in the luggage compartments and beneath our seats. As we shimmied down the rows to our places, it came to no surprise that the only people who weren’t wearing masks were American looking. A friend of mine was stumbling into his seat when a man behind him started to cough horrendously as if he had an entire lamb chop stuck beneath his tonsils. Of course, the foreigner wasn’t wearing a mask and my friend looked at me in despair, eyes boggled, slid down into his seat, and prepared for the six-hour flight.
I was noticeably nervous. I drenched my hands in anti-bacterial gel every time I touched my face, refused to eat any of the snacks, and had a mortal fear of coughing that it even woke me from my sleep. I saw it like a nightmare. Either by clearing my throat or choking on saliva, I’d cough so loud that even the pilots in the cockpit could hear. Then everyone would be looking at me, sharing whispers and pointing fingers. “He coughed,” a voice two rows front said. “He has it!” the pair behind me shouted and then stands the Karen version of Nippon airways and shouts “He has the virus! Get him off this plane!” I jump from my sleep and grab the hand of the man next to me. “How you doing?” I tell him, hand still awkwardly grabbing his.
Tokyo is one of the most visited cities in Asia, if not the world. In 2018 it hosted more than 30 million tourists, with Narita international airport having an average of 120 thousand travelers both on arrivals and in transit. But on that day of March 24, those who disembarked the plane from Cambodia were the only ones in the airport.
Terminals were empty, hallways ghost-quiet, and stores were closed down. No one else around but the cleaning staff who were startled when they saw us wandering about as if we didn’t belong there. An eerie and unsettling scenario suitable for an apocalyptic movie. I expected to walk into a terminal full with the remains of the airport personal bloodied, mutilated, savaged, and before I caught sight of the abomination that was bringing Hell upon Narita my ankle is grabbed by an old Japanese woman whose bottom half is missing and tells me “r-run… get out of here!”
A twelve-hour layover does no good to the mind. I spent the first two hours on a massage chair overlooking the airport apron until I ran out of Yen and another two napping outside of our gate. I woke up, feeling the best I had ever felt in the past three days only to see that we had eight more hours to go. So, what to do in an airport all to ourselves? “We’re playing hide and seek!”
Next stop, the other side of the Pacific!
When it was finally time only about eight people in total were waiting for the jumbo jet to San Francisco. Out the window, the landscape was vast and green. Its rolling hills appeared like waves frozen in time and lead the eye to a tundra just below the horizon. I can say I’ve seen Japan, a small piece, that is. I’ll have to come back and see the rest of it.
“Konichiwa,” the air hostess greet us. “Welcome aboard!” They tell that we can sit anywhere we’d like and we each grab a trio of seats by the windows. They also tell us, quite subtly, that they have enough wine for a plane full of people.
“Keep those bottles coming our way, please,” I say to her. “We’ll drink the whole ride!” But binge drinking wine is an art on its own and it shall be respected. I lasted nearly an hour (and by that I mean nearly half an hour but it rounds up to one) and passed out. By the time I woke up we were approaching the other side of the Pacific.
A dozen people pass freely through immigration and TSA stops me and only me. “I’m going to need you to stand over here,” the officer says.
“And this is entirely random, right officer?” I ask. He looks at me, a person who hadn’t shaved yet that month, dressed as if I had no other clothes to put on and a name on me that didn’t sound Caucasian.
“Don’t sass me,” he says, patting me down in parts not even my past girlfriends have touched.
And the airport is bustling! People coming and going, from smart-looking boomer businessmen to millennial yogis, this place has never been so alive! And not a mask in sight. Almost as if the global pandemic couldn’t touch them. Almost as if their individual concerns are far greater than whatever the hell is happening in Asia or Europe or Argentina. It’s not like that could actually get in the way of my business or make the beast that is the American Econom — No! Not just American — the global economy comes to a standstill! Not a chance in hell!
I grab a beer at the nearest bar and it’s ten dollars. 10 freaking dollars. I would have spat it out if it didn’t taste so good. I had been so accustomed to one dollar beers and living in Cambodia, that the readjustment period would be greater than the one I experience when arriving to Cambodia.
“Welcome back to America,” I say to myself. The bartender looked at me funny.
Coming full circle
Months have passed and the future still looks uncertain. I didn’t feel as lost and confused as the day I arrived at my town’s airport without a notion of what to do or where to go. As I waited in an abandoned arrival/departure wing for family friends, who were so generous enough to come to my aid, I thought about the day I decided to put Fresno as my home of record.
During the application process, it’s mandatory that Peace Corps has registered a volunteer’s home of record (in the usual cases, that being the parents’ home) for the extreme instances of early termination of service such as administrative separation (for foul, unprofessional behavior), medical separation (anything from malaria to uncontrollably pooping your pants so much that it is ideal the volunteer be sent back) or the 1% chance of being evacuated.
I didn’t have one nor did I think I’d need it. What were the chances I get sent home early? It proved to be an obstacle during the mandatory FBI background test and further investigations had to be done to get an idea of who the hell I was. I felt embarrassed having to admit that my family didn’t live in America, that I was a first-generation American and it had been years since I’ve had a stable address. I was far from Peace Corps’ expectations of an ideal volunteer but I didn’t want my inconveniences to limit me and what I wanted to do. So I placed the address of where I was living at the time of applying knowing that that address in Fresno would cease to exist the moment I left for Cambodia.
The city looked desolate. Streets were abandoned as if the townsfolk cut and ran for the hills. Rain drizzled through the warm mist and I had forgotten what spring felt like. I found a room to rent and planned to wait out the storm.
California had shut down. Amenities and services will no longer be available until further notice. Travel was restricted and international flying seemed like a luxurious commodity, one that was taken for granted and acknowledged during a remembrance scene of an apocalyptic film in which the motley crew of survivors reminisce on the “good ol’ times” and how easy they had it. “My Italian Espresso machine, HBO, and random Tinder dates.”
I wondered when I’d see my family again in Mexico. Of how things were down south and if worse. I knew it wouldn’t be any time soon.
What I’ve learned from the Peace Corps
Traditionally, volunteers aren’t qualified to apply for unemployment benefits given that technically ‘volunteering’ isn’t a job. But the right people were sitting where they were needed most in congress and a bill was passed in late April making me and 7,000 others eligible for the coronavirus relief plan.
Now would be the time to look into a new start, all over again. Peace Corps has an excellent support system for Return Volunteers that help them find a government job or nail a good scholarship for graduate school, but neither sounded like plausible options. If I had known that by choosing to serve two years abroad I’d wind up being in a similar, disorientating position I was in immediately after college, I’d surely be hesitant to join. Weighing in more on the risks than rewards and the only thing certain being the uncertainties of it all, career, money, life, friendships, love interests, and the well-being of your family, the pragmatical mind would suggest that it wouldn’t be worth it. Not at all.
Thus, in the spirit of the Peace Corps and how things go in that world, it depends.
As I got ready for bed, I texted my mother that I just had dinner and she sent me back a picture of the Virgin Mary, one of those that circles around your contacts like a chain. “Send this to five others to be blessed.” I was selecting the most atheist people I knew who could get a good blessing when a video call from the other side of the world came in. As the call connected and screen loaded, then appears the faces of people I once called family, with ear to ear smiles, so wide their eyes downsized. They could never contain their laughter, and neither could I. They told me that the baby was learning how to walk and was able to stand up for a couple of seconds until she fell on her ass.
Right then and there I knew it was worth it.