Category Archives: Stories

Understanding Genocide in Cambodia

For my latest guest post for Ethos Magazine, I explored the meaning of genocide with a focus on my trip to the Killing Fields, also known as Cheong Ek, just outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia.  I had always felt a sort of detachment when learning about the horrors or war and conflict because it was so difficult to actually understand what widespread suffering and death meant.  At the point in my life that I visited Cambodia’s Killing Fields, the only death I had known was that of my childhood cat.  To comprehend the murder of millions of people by the Khmer Rouge was so inconceivable that I just left it as an abstract thought in the back of my head.  But, when I found a lone tooth on the ground at Cheong Ek things quickly changed as I slowly became aware of the meaning of the life and death of one person.  To read more about my experience trying to understand genocide in Cambodia and beyond check out my story titled “The Tooth.”

Hi, It’s Madonna Calling. How’s Your Life Insurance Policy?

One of the reasons I keep coming back to South and Southeast Asia is because I find it endlessly fascinating to observe the interactions between the “developing” and the “developed” world. Having been raised and educated in the “West”, I’ve come to see the world from a certain point of view. Now, being based in the developing world, I’m allowed a new perspective and point of view that’s difficult to get at home. New perspective is, of course, one of the main reasons I think it is imperative for young people, if they have the means, to leave their home countries to travel and live abroad. Additionally, I have a strong interest in Asian cultures, peoples and politics, so I try as much as possible to keep updated on the latest news spanning the region.

Being stationed in Asia, and in a developing country at that, it’s absorbing to see how globalization really works on the other end of the line. As long as I am reading something or learning about it in the academic world, there’s always a certain degree of undeniable separation. Bridging that separation through travel and stories excites me and makes me more interested to learn about the world. Here’s one such story that I thought put a humorous human face on globalization.

It’s Madonna Calling

At my job, I recently wrote a story about a fascinating business concept: knowledge based outsourcing. Instead of just outsourcing jobs in a sweat shop, this guy is outsourcing his brain power: he designs homes and structures from Kathmandu for people in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. This architect never actually visits the homes he designs, despite sometimes being involved in the design and building progress for years. He’s developed ways using various technologies, like virtual tour software, to make the business run smoothly.

Researching the outsourcing business in South Asia spurred me to bring up the topic with one of my colleagues at the magazine. The topic shifted to call-centers, which are perhaps the most famous form of outsourcing. Many of us in the West have often talked on the phone with someone with a slight British-Indian accent whose name is “Joe Smith” or “Martha Jones.” Obviously their real names are probably something more like “Manav Bachchan” or “Sita Sherawat,” and they’re likely sitting in a chair in Bangalore or New Delhi, India. I’ve read about call-centers in books about globalization and I even watched a documentary for school about the young Indian people who run these enterprises.

My colleague ended up telling me that she had worked at a call-center based in Kathmandu before switching to the media business.

“What’s it like?” I asked.

“Boring,” she told me. “We do nothing all day but call people in the U.S. and most people just hung up on us.”

Then, one of the other editors at my office chimed in.

“You worked in a call-center?” he asked. “What was your name?”

When Nepalis or Indians work in a call center that deals with a Western customer base, they take on a Western sounding name during their shift. I suppose that this is to reassure the client that their friendly help-line attendant is sitting right down the block, or at least within the borders of the client’s own country.

According to my female co-worker, picking a name for the day would depend on which Hollywood actress she was especially enthralled with at the moment. Some days she would introduce herself to the American customers as “Jennifer” if she had seen an especially good Jennifer Aniston movie lately. Other days it would be: “Hi, this is Julia,” if a great Julia Roberts movie had just been released.

She told me that her time selling life insurance at the call-center was not especially successful,. But, she did recall one day when when her sales were especially good. It was the day that she chose to introducer herself as “Madonna.”

“I remember this one guy,” she said. “The day I was ‘Madonna’ he wanted to talk for an hour and he kept telling me I had a beautiful voice. That was one of the only days I made some good sales!”

Running With the Himalayan Hash House Harriers

My shoes after the Hash.

One of the sturdy Nepali runners, by the name of “Kimmo,” stood in the middle of the river, brown water gushing past in torrential waves. As each one of us came to the river bank, he reached out his hand, grabbed on and flung us, one by one, across the raging waters. One woman was pushed over by the strong current, almost totally submerged. When it was my turn, I grabbed the man’s hand and jumped in the river, which was about waist deep. He helped move me to one side of the river to the other as I teetered, keeping a precarious balance in the waters.

I made it to the opposite side successfully and proceeded to follow the group. We scrambled up an almost completely vertical mud hill, grabbing chunks of grass and roots to steady our ascent. At the top of the embankment, my heart felt like it was going to explode from my chest. I quickly checked my ankles for leeches and continued on, sprinting with the group down a six-inch wide mud wall dividing two rice paddies.

“GET A FUCKING MOVE ON! WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS, A VACATION?” screams the G.M. from behind me, in a thick British accent.

I smile and run a little faster. I slip, almost falling into the adjacent rice paddy, as my right foot become completely submerged up the the ankle in a thick, clay-like mud.

“HA HA!” comes the G.M.’s voice from behind me. “YOU’VE ALMOST HAD YOUR FIRST HASH CRASH!”

Bessie, the G.M.’s black and white shaggy dog, nips at my heals.

“KEEP FUCKING RUNNING!” says the G.M. again. And I do.

This muddy, soggy, wet, monsoon run marks my first with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers (HHHH). There are Hash House Harriers groups all around the world, from this one in Nepal, to Nairobi, Kenya, to Stockholm, Sweden, to Portland, Oregon (and almost everywhere in between).

The Hashers call themselves a “drinking group with a running problem,” which explains the jovial beer-drinking activities that commence at the end of the run. The first Hash House Harriers group was started in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1939 by a group of Brits who wanted a way to “rid themselves of the excesses of the previous weekend.” The Himalayan Hashers, just like their forefathers, are loud and proud and vulgar, and they love every minute of it.

I had heard of the Hash House Harriers before, but didn’t know what to expect from my first excursion with them. I contacted the G.M. (also known as the “Grand Master,” who is in charge of the whole group) and he picked me up at 1:45 on Saturday afternoon. We drove to the location of the Hash (also known as the ‘run’) with two other runners, the G.M.’s driver and the G.M’s dog, Bessie. During the ride, profanities, hilariously raunchy jokes and teasing were plentiful. I had a feeling that this run would be like no other I’d ever experienced.

After getting out of central Kathmandu, we took a muddy and pot-holed road to the location of the day’s run, which was the 1,664th Hash of the HHHH. (Hashes are always given a specific number. The HHHH have been “trashing the Valley since 1979,” so are nearing 1,700 runs since the late 70’s.) To find the location, one is supposed to follow the piles of confetti paper on the ground. Since it was monsooning out and the roads had basically become mud rivers, this was very difficult, but finally we found the spot which was at Phutung, north of Balaju.

I hopped out of the car and joined my fellow runners at the location, which was in a small village near the rim of the Kathmandu Valley. The runners slowly trickled in on bikes, in taxis or in their own cars. There were between 30 and 40 people running in the 1664 Hash, which surprised me, considering the heavy monsoon rains that were soaking us to the bone before the run even started. The majority of the group were expatriates: teachers at international schools, UN workers, embassy workers and NGO workers. In addition, there were probably six or seven Nepali runners. The runners heralded from all over the world: Australia, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Africa, Denmark and beyond. Some had been coming to the Himalayan Hash for a month, others, who are more permanent residents of Nepal, had attended hundreds. Many of the long-time Hashers have Hash nicknames. According to the G.M., these names are earned, not simply given out to anyone who attends. The names often stem from something that happened on a certain run. I met “Lady Chatterly,” “Happy Clappy,” “Dead-in-the-Water,” “Kruel,” “In-And-Out,” “HeBitch,” “Dr. Death” and “Kimmo” on my first day.

After everyone had arrived, we circled up in an open field area and the rules were explained. There is a set course already laid out by the day’s “Hares” (they come early and run the course first). The Hares “lay the trail” by putting circles of ripped paper in various spots on the correct trail. The runners must follow the paper path, wherever it may lead, back to the beginning. The catch is that the Hares sometimes put down “false trails” that purposefully lead the runners astray. When this happens, everyone must gather together and search within a 200 meter radius to find the correct way. It became apparent during the course that the process of finding the paper trail becomes exponentially more complicated when it’s monsooning out, for much of the paper either disintegrates or gets washed away.

After explaining the rules, we were off. The run began with a hazardous descent of a muddy hill into the surrounding rice paddies. We were slipping, sliding and falling on our knees from the beginning.

As the minutes passed, we sprinted further and further into the countryside, winding through the lush green rice paddies and past tiny brick huts. We wound through small clusters of homes owned by the rice farmers and past herds of goats feeding on soggy hay. As we ran by, the local farmers looked at us like we were U.F.O.’s, most likely wondering why in the world these mud-caked, soaking wet, Lycra-clad foreigners were running through their villages and rice fields. In some places, it seemed that the entire village gathered outside their homes to stare and laugh, wide-eyed.

Forty-five minutes into the run, the monsoon rains subsided and the sun made its appearance. I was grateful for this because my pants had become so mud and waterlogged that I feared they would fall off. The sun dried us out a bit and made the rest of the run slightly less slippery.

Over an hour and a half later we made it back to the beginning location. Endorphins were pumping through my body from the intense exercise and I was uncontrollably ravenous. Luckily, a table was set out for us with snacks and drinks. “HeBitch” (one of the Hares for the day) passed around brownies, and I could have sworn that I’d never tasted anything so heavenly in my life.

After twenty minutes of social time and eating, the G.M. demanded we circle up, which is the tradition after every Hash. The G.M. stood in the center making jokes and teasing various Hashers. Then, he instructed the “virgins” (those whose first Hash it was) to come to the center for our initiation. There were three other virgins along with myself. We were given gold goblets filled with beer. Then, the Hashers sing a chant and you must chug your beer before the song is done or else pour the beer on your head. We virgins were all successfully initiated into the group.

That night I returned home exhausted, shedding mud and satisfied. I’ll surely be joining the Himalayan Hashers for many more runs during my stay in Nepal.

My mud soaked shoes and socks after the Hash run. Note: The socks were new and crisp white before the run began.

Guest Blog for Ethos Magazine

Ethos Magazine is a totally kick-ass, student run, multi-cultural publication at the University of Oregon.  I’ve been working for Ethos since 2008, doing everything from writing, to editing to multimedia.  Although I’m no longer a UO student, I’ll continue doing guest blogs for the Ethos website about my year in Kathmandu.

Check out my lastest article, “Kathmandu: The Return,” which is all about first few hours in the city.  As my plane touched down at the airport, fueled (or not fueled) by lack of sleep and food, all I could think was: “What the HELL am I doing back here?”  Quickly, my apprehensions dried up as I remembered why, after three years, I had decided to return to this place for a year.  Please check it out!  Comments are always appreciated, too.

More on Ethos:

My last article I did for the magazine before I graduated is called “One Sketch at a Time.”  The piece is about University of Oregon Professor Ken O’Connell, an inspirational guy who has traveled the world many times over.  He has a unique take on travel memories.  Instead of taking pictures of beautiful things, he sketches them.  Ken has 70 sketchbooks that chronicle the last 50 years of his life and his travels.  Flipping through his sketchbooks was absolutely magical.  It felt like stepping into chapters of his life, whether those were lived in Italy, or Japan, or Oregon.

From Sty to Stew: Understanding Hyper-Local Food Systems

You’ve never slaughtered a pig before?” Alia said as he shot me an incredulous look.

I shook my head.

“It’s easy!” he said. “Here, you can give it a try.” Alia offered me the glinting, foot-long machete in his hand.

My heart pounded in my ears as I looked at the 100-pound, squealing pink pig in front of me. I told him, in what I hoped was a nonchalant way, that I would just watch this time and maybe try the next one.

Alia shrugged his shoulders, turned to the pig, and with a swift jerk plunged the machete into the pig’s soft flesh and through its ribs.

After the pig is bled out and the workers are dragging the animal away to be butchered, I kick myself for not taking Alia up on his offer. After all, I did come to Thailand to understand a way of eating that is different from the industrial model I am familiar with in the United States.

On a quest to investigate a hyper-local food system, I find myself on Amee Doyer’s Organic Farm in Northern Thailand. I’ve connected with Alia, the owner of the farm, through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOF allows people who want to learn about sustainable growing practices to connect with farmers around the world. In exchange for long days of farm work, Alia provides me with food and a room.

For the rest of the day Alia’s question rings in my head: “You’ve never slaughtered a pig before?” His disbelief jolted me. As I ponder his question, I realize that in fact, I’ve never even seen an animal killed until today. This doesn’t make sense to him because everyday at the dinner table I eat meat with his family. For Alia, he must slaughter an animal before it is consumed. For me, I simply buy it pre-packaged at the store.

Alia, a refugee from Burma, has never bought pre-packaged meat in his life. He has never heard of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation where most of my meat comes from at home. In this hyper-local food system, consuming meat means slaughtering the animal first. For me, eating meat means buying a package neatly marked with weight and price at the supermarket. The idea that the animals I eat were once alive is so disconnected for me that when I do see an animal killed, I am in utter shock.

As I watch the farmers remove the pig’s organs one by one, it surprises me that the countless times I have consumed pork in my life I never connected the idea of pork with the image of a live pig. The industrial food system I am part of has created such a disconnect in my head that even as a life-long omnivore, I have never truly understood that at one point the animal I am eating was as alive as I am right now.

Later that night, Alia passes me a bowl of stew, which includes pig liver, intestine, and boiled blood. I eat my bowl with satisfaction and a new-found sense of respect for myself as an omnivore and for the animal I am eating.

The fundamental difference between the meat I eat at home and the meat I eat here is that this animal was cared for and respected from the moment it was born to the moment it passes through my lips. I know exactly where this food came from and that makes every meaty morsel even more delectable.

Photo Supplement: From Sty to Stew

The pigs are the farm are cared for every day.  There are several farm workers whose sole job is to mix food for and feed the pigs.

Several of the farmers at the farm clean and cut the pig up into parts.  Almost none of the pig is wasted slaughtered.

How Not To Win A Trip With Nick Kristof

Every year New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announces his latest “Win-A-Trip” contest.  The contest is open to students around the United States who want to travel with Kristof as he reports on location in Africa.  Kristof, an incredibly influential voice where poverty is concerned, offers to take the student he chooses around Africa, investigating topics like AIDS, war and malnourishment.

When I first read about the contest, I thought: “I HAVE to apply for this.”  I immediately began crafting my essay for the contest.  The guidelines ask for a story that is no more than 700 words about why you would be the ultimate travel companion for Kristof on this reporting mission.  Past winners have included journalism students, medical students and high school teachers.  I spent a long time crafting and editing my essay and, unfortunately, didn’t win.  I thought my essay was pretty good, so here it is in original form, just as it was submitted to Nicholas Kristof.  I hope future applicants will read this essay and think of a new strategy to help win that elusive trip with Nick! Good luck to you all!

My Essay for Nick Kristof:

Sweat the Small Stuff

by Leah Olson

An old tooth changed my life.

In 2007, I visited Cambodia to learn more about the Khmer Rouge genocide. Some reports said 1.5 million people were killed, others said 3 million. Either way, it was impossible for me to conceptualize these enormous numbers.

“One million,” I thought. “Just how many is that?”

When I toured the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, I walked past the memorial full of skulls and discarded clothing and past the mass graves. Near the edge of the fields I spotted a human molar, yellow and half buried in the dirt.

I picked it up and held it in my palm. This tooth, a tragic reminder of one of the darkest periods in history, came from a single mouth. The statistics instantly became a gruesome reality. I couldn’t comprehend one million until I could comprehend one. Witnessing the details, firsthand or vicariously through storytelling, is perhaps the best way for humans to understand each other.

Details make inconceivable issues tangible. They engage our emotions, help us relate and feel empathy. Without the details, it’s easy to be indifferent.

I began writing seriously three years ago when I moved to Nepal to work in a hospital and first observed people living in poverty. When the sun disappeared behind Kathmandu’s jagged skyline, I found myself wandering the alleys, watching women line the streets and rickshaw drivers settle into their vehicles for a night’s sleep.

As the weeks passed, I noticed dark piles of tangled limbs and torsos in corners of the city: sleeping humans, many of them young boys. I soon learned a startling truth: they were addicted to huffing glue.

Every time I passed a child holding a brown paper bag to his mouth, I wanted to write about my anger but I knew that spouting statistics about drug addiction and poverty would do nothing to convey the grim scene. Instead I focused on the details of the boys’ lives: discarded tubes of Dendrite glue, crumpled paper bags and torn T-shirts. I found that my attention to detail provoked a profound emotional response from many readers of my blog.

I am studying journalism and Japanese at the University of Oregon. I’ve been studying Japanese for over fifteen years. I chose journalism because I thrive on crafting stories and I know that stories, not statistics, are what inspire outrage, hope and change. A story about the millions who have died from malaria is not as powerful as a story about how the disease has affected one person.

I have traveled extensively in South and Southeast Asia, writing along the way. I’ve worked at a hospital in Kathmandu, witnessing many of the country’s public health issues, like tuberculosis and hepatitis A. I’ve traveled in the Nepali countryside and seen villages that have suspiciously few young women, many of whom have been trafficked to India. I’ve worked on a small Thai farm with Burmese refugees. I’ve seen many of the problems in developing countries, but I’ve also talked to people who are working on the solutions.

I am an insatiably curious writer, blogger, reporter, photographer and videographer. I have more than three years experience with writing, blogging and photography. As an electronic media student, I’ve shot and edited videos on a deadline. I have worked as a writer and associate editor and am currently the multimedia director at the University of Oregon’s student-run multicultural magazine, Ethos.

Journalism is changing, and so are the means by which to captivate an audience. This reporting trip with Mr. Kristof is an opportunity to encourage readers, especially members of my generation, to be interested and involved in the developing world. In conjunction with compelling stories, breathtaking photographs and well-executed videos, we should be continuously using new media throughout the trip to connect with a new audience.

For me it was a long-forgotten tooth that made genocide tangible. Not everyone has the chance to travel to developing countries, yet, in the age of globalization, every world citizen needs to understand both its human triumphs and tragedies. I am confident that a better tomorrow is possible, but first, people need to see the details, one tooth at a time.

Lost Childhood in Kathmandu

I had seen the boys many times before on the city streets.

The first time we spoke, I was sitting on the steps near a street vendor cart, eating doughy chapatis in the tourist district of Thamel, in Kathmandu, Nepal. The city’s hectic nightlife pulsed around me as he and his friend approached, shuffling bare feet under the glum lights of late night restaurants and bars. They quickly cram small plastic bags down the back of their pants.

“20 rupees?” they ask me in broken English, pointing to the street cart.

I refuse.

“We’re hungry!” they persist.

“No,” I reply.” If I give you money, you’ll use it to buy glue, not food.”

“We don’t do that!” they retort, glaring at me. “That’s bad.”

I stare at their protruding cheek-bones and wonder if giving them a few rupees would really hurt? But I know that it could hurt because I’ve witnessed it before: tourists give them money for food and they spend it on inhalants.

When I first moved to Kathmandu, the homeless children alarmed me. They gaze with hollow faces. Their hair comes out in chunks. They wear no shoes, only ripped pants and once-white T-shirts now heavy with dirt from picking through garbage dumps. Now, I’m accustomed to their ragged state. Gangs of them swarm the darkest corners of the city, surviving on garbage scraps and sleeping under cardboard tents.

The duo continues to deny my claims as absurdities. I scan them up and down, and judging by their stature, guess they are between 7 and 9. I ask them how old they are. They say they are 13 and 15.

Their small size is a result of malnourishment and inhalant abuse from an early age. I work in a Kathmandu city hospital where the street boys are regulars. They hardly come in on their own accord though. Frequently, foreign tourists drag them to the ER after witnessing their appalling physical condition. The children suffer from pneumonia, skin abscesses, and pink eye as a result of their glue addiction.

After asking me again for money, the boys deem it a lost cause. As they walk away from me the plastic glue bags appear from their back pockets, and taking a few pulls, the boys quickly forget my existence altogether. A cloud of hash smoke floats past me as the boys dissolve into the crowd.

The street boys of Kathmandu stand in huddles, playing cards and telling jokes, like I did when I was a child. But after I notice the crumpled plastic bag in each boy’s grip, I know that their lives are nothing like my own childhood. A shock jolts through me when one young gang leader squeezes a tube of glue into the bags of his cohorts. When I realize that these children are inhaling fumes, I feel bewildered, angry and depressed at the same time. A cheap and easy high never even crossed my mind when I was a child. I used glue for art projects. They use glue to subdue their hunger pangs.

As months pass, I see the same routine everyday: The street boys with glue bags pressed to cracked and dry lips, small chests heaving in and out as the bags expand and contract over their mouths like lungs. Soon, their eyes glaze over as they stumble around the dark streets with heads full of glue and vapors. No longer able to walk straight or speak coherently, they momentarily forget their homelessness, hunger, and poor health. Huffing glue is their escape from life on the street.

A week later, as I walk to work, I see the 15-year-old boy I had met near the street vendor cart. He lies on a piece of cardboard, tucked away between two stores. Another boy, curled into a ball, shares his cardboard bed. The boy I met appears to be sleeping until I look a little closer. He lies on his back, staring up into the hazy sky. His eyes are halfway open, glazed over and glassy. A look of pure desperation paints his face. It’s a look of raging anger at the world, yet, at the same time, a look of submission to his fate. Never before had I seen such a hardened look on such a young person.

Later that afternoon, I spot the same boy again. The Kathmandu streets buzz with more fortunate school children in crisp white uniforms, street vendors frying fresh batches of samosas, and business people running to catch the mini-bus. I wait on the corner of the busiest traffic intersection in the city, where the roads are paved and have fully functioning, but largely ignored, traffic lights. The sidewalks pulse with the flowing crowd as the streets teem with cars, taxis and rickshaws.

The boy stands on the corner next to me, wailing uncontrollably as tears stream down his face. He holds a brick by his head, looking as if he aches to throw it at someone. I shrink away a little, unsure of what to do.

He just holds the brick, ready to hurl it, but doesn’t. I glance around to see if there’s someone he might be aiming at. There is nobody.

He stands on the street corner, holding the brick, tears streaming down his growth-stunted face. They forge clean rivers down his dirty cheeks. Twin waterfalls of yellow mucus connect his nose and mouth. No one notices him.

Kathmandu’s residents hurry past him through the approaching evening. Dogs stop to lick their mangy fur. The boy with the brick continues his tantrum, watching the people go home to their families. He has nothing but a brick, a ragged T-shirt, and a bag for huffing. This boy, like hundreds of others in Kathmandu, has lost his childhood to a tube of glue. His eyes burn with hopelessness. As he decides whether or not to throw the brick it looks as if he wavers on whether or not he can make it through another day on the streets.

As the sun disappears and night spreads over Kathmandu, he won’t go home; he’ll go to his piece of cardboard on the sidewalk. He won’t go to his family; he’ll go to his street gang. Garbage scraps from the back of tourist restaurants will be his dinner, and his solace: the crumpled plastic bag. Another huff and none of it will matter anymore.