Thursday, July 16, 2009

Group 78

Last August I started training for the Angkor Wat half-marathon, waking up at 5 am to run a few miles as the sun rose. My favorite loop was around Phnom Penh's riverfront, circling overly-manicured parks where hundreds of people gathered daily to walk, do aerobics, learn karate and practice traditional Chinese sword and fan dances. In a few kilometers my running buddy and I could get to most of the city's tourist attractions: the Royal Palace, the National Museum, the big casino, the home of Phnom Penh's elephant... The end of our run would take us back behind the National Assembly and by a little community called Group 78. The village of wooden homes, some of them with plastic tarps for walls seemed out of place surrounded by the homes, offices and gardens of the wealthy, one of the last remaining pockets of working class residents in downtown Phnom Penh.

Group 78 will most likely be evicted tomorrow. Under Cambodia's 2001 Land Law, the residents are legal owners of the land after occupying it for more than five years. However, like many other communities along the riverfront, their land has been turned over to a local developer and the police are preparing to chase the people from their homes. After the Land Law was put in place, the World Bank began funding the LMAP program to title all the land in Cambodia. At first glance, this should be good news for poor people who, in theory, should have tenure security and be able to harness the value of their land. Things have not always turned out that way, in this case because in order to ensure the cooperation of the Cambodian government, the World Bank has promised to keep its mitts off any disputed land (like Group 78). In all likelihood, these people will lose their homes and their jobs tomorrow in the name of "improving" the Phnom Penh.

Monday, July 13, 2009

a hat to farm in

I think God and my parents are getting a particularly good set of laughs as I trip and fall my way around trying to be an adult. The most recent irony involves a certain hat.

When my family first moved to Kenya, we spent three months camping in the bush in an orientation program (to prepare us for 15 years of living in one of Africa's most modern cities...yeah). In the American tradition of gearing up to go to intense places like Africa, my parents bought matching hats - dark khaki, synthetic, floppy broad-brimmed things with black strings and those toggles (like you use to keep a stuff sack shut) to keep them on your head, ensuring that they were the dorkiest things ever. I complained about those hats for years at every sports day and game drive when my dad would pull his out. There was a succession of variations on the fisherman's hat, none of which I approved of and which were eventually lost to various theme park rides and other misadventures, ensuring that the original hat persisted.

While I haven't seen that hat in a few years, it came up again a few days ago. As I look forward to starting work on the farm in a bit more than a month, I'm running into the fact that I don't have good work clothes, and I don't have the money to buy them. My parents generously volunteered one of those original hats for the purpose.

I just might have to do it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

chips on a hot dog bun

In honor of the Fourth of July and the annual awkwardness of being the only non-meat eater at a barbecue, and in recognition that I'll be spending the next year thinking about it, learning about it and...umm...growing it...the first of some reflections on food.

My family had a tradition of marking the day we moved to Kenya - September 1st. Along with making a cake, we would make a list of the things we were thankful for, specifically related to living where we were. One of my entries on the list perhaps foreshadowed something. I thanked God for all the wonderful fruits and vegetables.

As a child I would eschew hotdogs at cookouts and instead happily load a bun with chips, ketchup, mustard, and lots of relish. I refused to eat drumsticks, stuck to white turkey meat at Thanksgiving, and religiously pulled apart bacon strips to remove the lines of white fat. My parents weren't thrilled with the idea of my becoming a vegetarian, so I waited for an opportune moment (when they were jetlagged and exhausted in Heathrow Airport - not a particularly ethical strategy) to ask if I could quit eating meat my senior year, and they agreed. They had no recollection of this conversation when I brought it up again (surprise), but by that time I was determined to quit eating meat, and so they relented under the condition that I prepared my own non-meat sources of protein. This, of course, did not happen. I interpreted this aggreement to mean that I would open my own can of baked beans now and then, which was unacceptable to my mother who had been a vegetarian once upon a time. She started making lots of lentils.

All this to say, I am not a virtuous vegetarian. As I learn more about the ecological and environmental consequences of industrial meat production, along with the health benefits of eating vegetarian, I'm more convinced that it is an important choice, but unlike most vegetarians I know, I'm not really giving anything up. One of the most difficult things about my time in Cambodia (up there with major illness/med evac) was eating meat at (almost) every meal.

Unlike meat served in the US, what showed up in my bowl in Phnom Penh very much resembled the animal from which it came. No energy was ever put into removing the bones of anything we ate, be it fish, mammal or amphibian. One evening my host grandmother enthusiastically served me what she called "leg of the pig soup"...and sure enough, there it was, bristles and all.

Walking past cases of meat in US grocery stores now, it strikes me how much effort is put into disassociating what ends up in your cart or on your plate from what was once walking or swimming around. This goes for non-meat items as well. While a sign may tell you that your grapes came from Chile, quality standards and the modification of food crops to maximize shelf life and delay ripening mean that the impact of the location something was grown is seldom evident in the taste or appearance of the food.

So I'm going to farm for a year, and perhaps learn way more than I ever wanted to know about those fruits and vegetables.