May 6, 2011

Long overdue conclusion

It's funny how easily the pace of the Western world can sweep us away from something as simple as sharing stories. In the hustle of the end of service, I didn’t even have time to write a closing reflection surmising those last few months. How strange. Although, I think it would be unfair to say I haven’t shared my story this past year. It has just been in a different medium than the quiet, removed reflection of the internet. My service ended roughly a year ago, and I have been looking forward to my life ahead, while surreptitiously looking behind me at the path that led me here. With some distance now between my daily life and the rice paddies, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on what the Peace Corps did for me. Because, of course, I am living proof of the cliché every Returned Peace Corps Volunteer says when recruiting new volunteers: ultimately, it will not be you serving your host country. Your host country will serve you.

Don’t let me kid you. In my two years in Cambodia, I made cultural gaffes that I look back on in horror, did my fair share of pissing people off, and got away with being a stereotypically insensitive American at times. Yet somewhere in the midst of the peaceful lethargy brought on by too many bong’imes and humidity, Cambodia slapped me right across the face and opened my sleepy eyes. The funny thing is, I don’t think I even fully realized it until long after the fact. The reality is, even at its most challenging times, serving in the Peace Corps is like stretching towards some unattainable version of a more utopic society. It represents a higher ideal, a better version of the world (and yourself), and an unrealized sense of global citizenship that is just beyond our grasp. 

I find myself telling stories about the Peace Corps on almost a daily basis. To anyone who will listen. Although I try to resist the urge to start every sentence with, “This one time, when I was in Cambodia…” (and other phrases that provoke a glazed expressions from even the most patient listeners), these little anecdotes have a funny way of sneaking into the most mundane conversations. It goes something like this.

I’m sitting at my desk listening to employees comment on the price of burgers at a new restaurant. Suddenly, I hear myself adding, “Oh yeah I know, its insane right? But then I think about how in the Peace Corps, we used to spend a whole day’s allowance – which was only $4 by the way -- on one burger when we were really desperate for Western food.” Right. Where did that come from? Or a friend is trying to tell me how her new job as a teacher is far more challenging than she thought it would be: “Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Your concern about the school board’s influence on budgetary issues is exactly how I felt when my co-teachers tried to force students to pay them before administering their exams.” Reality check. Completely unrelated.
While I may be overdramatizing a little here, I’m pretty sure anyone who has tried to hold a conversation with a PCV will have to laugh. Every time I introduce myself, I catch myself bracing for the inevitable part of the conversation when I need to explain what I was doing from 2008-2010. IGraduatedSaintJamesin2004MajoredInEnglishAndFrenchAtHamiltonCollegeInternedInCorporateAmerica and then went into the Peace Corps after I finished undergrad. Blink, blink, blink. ItWasIncredibleButAnywayNowIAmGoingBackToGradSchoolThisFallToPursueMyMBAISimplyCanNotWait. It’s not like I expect anyone to make a big production of my service. And I certainly hope this pause is interpreted as nothing more than my own personal reminder: It was real. I was there. It did change me -- see, here are the indelible marks left on my lifestyle and personality.
When I think about my service, I feel a little piece of myself rushing to another time and place. Not in a displaced or melancholy way, but in a sincere celebration of something that has profoundly changed me for the better. That’s not to say every day felt like a blessing, or that I was the perfect volunteer, but the overall experience was profound. So much so that I still struggle to find the perfect five-words-or-less summary of my experience when someone asks, “Oh yeah, you were out of the country for a while there. So how was the Peace Corps, anyway?”
Well, 768 words in and counting, I still don’t think I can perfectly sum it up for you. It forced me to be more open minded, more willing to stand up for what I know to be right, more grateful, stronger. Themes I’m sure you’ve heard in my other reflections, but ones that have pushed my dream ceiling far beyond that unreachable star. Not only do I have the capacity to dream bigger because I have seen what we can accomplish together, but I know we can achieve it. And there it is. Maybe I don’t need 800-plus words or the perfect catch phrase to summarize the Peace Corps. Maybe I really only need one word. Hope.Upon returning to the United States, I  spent the last year working in the family insurance business. I will be joining the University of Miami School of Business MBA class of 2014. Although many of the illnesses I had in Cambodia were curable …wanderlust was not.

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January 6, 2010

Same Same, But Different

The Khmer word for "different" is "p'sain-p'sain," which sounds an awful lot like "same same" when you're speaking quickly. Hence the fabulously ANNOYING, yet often overused, joke: "same same, but different." You see it on t-shirts and stickers, tourists love it, and expats think they're clever for getting it. ...But as much as it drives me nuts, it perfectly describes how I can totally relate to my friend John's latest blog post even though he's serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan while I'm sweatin' it out in Cambodia. Maybe our day to day life isn't the same, and maybe he's sick of the snow instead of the heat, but fundamentally we're going through the same things. I can literally hear myself in almost every word of his post (and laughed myself silly reading it). Washing machine withdrawl, wondering what exactly we're doing some days, high highs, low lows, and everything in between. So here's a shout out from one kindred spirit to another: we may be miles apart, but PC service around the world is more same same than you think. Best of luck to him and all the other PCVs out there for another great, inspiring year.

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January 5, 2010

Click Click

Photos from the end of '09 and beginning of OH'10 already up under new album "The Beginning of the End" at right and a few samples of my students' New Year's Resolutions!:

- "Change Idea; Change Life"
- "I decided that I don't go to school late."
- "This year I want to change my life to be more happy.
- "In New Year 2010 I want to change my character and my habit that very lazy to try to study and try all my work."
- "Don't think about love - study harder instead!"
- "This new year, I want to be a good person that don't want to tell lie to someone. "

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Remix: Jingle Bells, Phnom Penh Smells

It may not have been a white Christmas…but it sure was memorable. After my parents’ visit in November, I put myself on self-imposed lockdown until the end of December. In case you’re wondering, that meant 6 weeks at site (my longest run to date), and a small eternity when the only evidence that Christmas exists out in the village was the Christmas music I was blasting in my room 24/7. Last year, the holidays were barely a blip on the radar, so the girls and I decided to go ALL-OUT this year to make it special. By the eve of the 22nd, I felt like a kid trying to get some sleep on the big night so Santa would come. Oh wait, I kinda was.
Tara’s birthday was on the 23rd, so we had plenty to celebrate as if Christmas wasn’t enough. The three of us checked into a plush hotel the morning of and soaked up as much air conditioning as possible before heading to Kambol Raceway for some go-karting. Our rides were more like jet-powered lawnmowers than race cars – but those things packed a punch! Tif managed to lap Tara and me twice, but she let the birthday girl stand in the winner’s circle for posterity. Who said getting older doesn’t have its perks? After we lived out our “Days of Thunder” fantasies, we had cake, ice cream (truth be told, our second hit of ice cream for the day, but who is counting?) and presents. And to wrap up the night we told Tara to get ready, no questions asked, and follow us into the depths of Phnom Penh. Although we had been boycotting the PP party scene for a few weeks after the only decent club – a floating pontoon boat – floated away (literally), T’s birthday called for drastic measures. Tired of un-showered backpackers and creepy expats, we decided to try a chic lounge club Tif heard about from a friend. Can you say upgrade? There was an awesome band, flame-throwing bar tenders, and not a flip-flop in sight. By the time we all made it back to the hotel, we were happier than ever to be able to fall onto our fluffy down comforter and order our first room service breakfast in over a year and a half. Eggs never tasted so good.

And so we spent our Christmas Eve day lounging around, doing some last minute gift shopping, and eventually beginning the three hour beautification process to clean all that orange dust out from under our finger nails before heading to the Raffles hotel for a Christmas Eve Gala. Walking up the red carpet, through the giant French doors, and into the alabaster lobby of the Raffles was like walking out of Cambodia and into New York City (almost). The 20 foot Christmas tree, shimmering candles, and holly boughs were all set off by the frosty windows (due to the AC, not sub-zero temperatures, silly) and holiday cheer humming around the restaurant. We spent the next four hours wining and dining on the most delicious five course meal you can imagine. Fois gras, mushroom cappuccino, lobster ragu, rack of lamb, roasted pineapple with peanut brittle ice-cream. Yes, at moments like these even I forget I’m a volunteer. After dinner we curled up together to watch Fred Caluse and dream of sugar plums and egg nog.

There’s nothing like Christmas morning spent with your family. Even though my family was far away, these girls are as close to family as you can get. I mean really, who else could appreciate spending half our month’s pay check on one meal because we simply couldn’t go any longer without cheese? They say craziness is genetic; but trust me, it’s totally environmental. We all woke up at the crack of dawn – one part out of excitement, one part because we were still on “village time” – to open presents and toast to our health and happiness over a glass of freshly made egg nog. Each of us had made a gift and bought something for each other so the gifts were as meaningful as the company. Although the store-bought gifts were fabulous, I have to take a minute to share what the girls made. Tara painted Tif and me each a funky rendering good memories that we never caught on film. She titled them “photos never taken” and, aside from being incredibly cute, are the heart of at least 100 inside jokes. Tif sewed a paper collage of each of our initials with hand dyed paper and thread. The results were stunning, and aptly called “the pieces of you that make you extraordinary.” No need to add that sent my sentimental radar into overdrive. Truly, they are something I will cherish always. After we got out our giggles and tears, Tara and I headed to church and brunch and then we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying our new “prizes” and prepping to go out later that night. Word to the wise: you don’t want to go out on Christmas in Cambodia. Although Cambodians don’t actually celebrate or understand Christmas, every bar and club was packed with tiny brown people pulsing to spastic red and green lights, yelling “We wiss you a happy merry Chrissmaah!” Hope you didn’t miss the annual viewing of a Christmas Story on TBS. Fa ra ra ra ra indeed!

Christmas may have passed too quickly, but we weren’t ready to go home yet. I spent the next few days at Tara’s site working on a mural for her newly refurbished sewing room and planning our New Year’s camping adventure. Naturally, when we got wind of the fabulous red-carpet party taking place at the same lounge we celebrated Tara’s birthday in, we knew camping would have to wait. The river wasn’t going anywhere right? Back in Phnom Penh for our third celebratory installment and on a mission to find the perfect outfit to ring in the New Year, we fueled up with Fatboy’s Subs and hit the streets. We all did our damage, ordered in, and settled in to get glammed up for the night. Tif notoriously takes less time to get ready than me and T, so while we agonized over our dresses, Tif made her debut as a karaoke singer in our hotel common space. Although I did enjoy her rendition of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’,” I’m guessin’ our neighbor guests wished they had some boots to walk all over the mic. Good thing we were back in backpacker land. By two hours until midnight, we were ready to roll. We headed back to our new hot spot and settled in at our private table. By the time we were raising our glasses and singing the chorus of Auld Lang Syne , the party was just getting started. My girls and I never kiss and tell, but I will say, we all started off 2010 with the requisite New Year’s kiss. And to think, I almost forgot how much I liked blonds?

After we brought in the new year in our finest style, we all headed to my site, or as we jokingly refer to it: “rehab,” to give those heels a rest and take on the wilderness. We packed a champagne picnic, complete with bread, cheese, fruit and a bottle of Cambodia’s finest of course, and headed out to a glassy, crystal clear river about an hour and a half away from my site. By the time we got there, I didn’t think we could get any dirtier. We all looked like umpa-lumpas with bad spray tans from the dust, and were literally caked in mud. Good thing all we had to do was strip down to our suits, pop the bubbly and enjoy the ice cold stream. There wasn’t another person in sight, aside from a couple of kids high jacking a sunken canoe and a little old lady selling fresh watermelon. We spent the whole day soaking up the sun and enjoying the cleanest water I have -EVER- seen in Cambodia. It felt so good to just float in the stream, splashing, and chatting for hours under that blue sky. Although we didn’t do much, it stands out as one of my best days here in Cambodia. Once we headed back to P-town and cleaned up, we met Christian for dinner and drinks at a little tiki restaurant to round off the fabulous day.

The girls spent the rest of the weekend here and then – much to our dismay – headed back to their respective sites. …but of course, we’re already planning our next adventure. Peace, love, and a happy 2010 to everyone I’m missing at home. I hope you started your New Year off as blissfully as mine.

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December 15, 2009

Expats, Immigration & Integration ...... Oh My!

Almost every meal, my host mother asks me, “Do you have this dish in America?” Not could you make this in America? But more specifically, do you eat this in your everyday life? Sometimes the answer is yes. Yes, we eat beef and broccoli stir-fry. Yes, we eat yellow curry sauce. More often than not though, the answer is no. We do not eat fermented fish paste, no boiled fish soup, no bland rice porridge, and definitely no chicken feet. Every once in a while, when I say we (“we” meaning all Americans as far as Cambodians are concerned – the concept that the United States is as large and diverse as, well, 50 separate countries, is impossibly difficult for this tiny, extremely homogenous culture to grasp) she gets a puzzled look on her face. “But, Whitney-oi, when I visited my family in America, the Cambodians there had this. America is just like Cambodia.” …Just like Cambodia if you’re living in Long Beach, California or Jacksonville, Florida perhaps (the two most highly Khmer-populated cities outside Phnom Penh), but probably not if you’re from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania or even Sacramento, California.
Whenever she says things like this, I can’t help but think about cultural integration and what that means. How many times have you sat in a nail salon listening to Vietnamese and feeling like a complete foreigner in your own town? Do you consider your barbeque spareribs from China Sea Chinese food or American food? Does the Spanish-speaking population still have a claim to the American dream if they can’t speak English? Now, I don’t want to start a political debate about immigration laws, so let’s take it one step farther: if you studied or have traveled abroad, how often did you speak the native language? Did you hang out with mostly Americans, doing “American” things? Do you have to fully integrate to appreciate a culture? Should you fully integrate if you immigrate? And where’s the balance when you’re living abroad as an expat, hoping to share your culture?

When we first arrived for training, Peace Corps pushed us to integrate, integrate, integrate—or as I like to call it, “go native.” Live as Cambodians live, eat as they eat, speak as they speak. But is that realistic? As humans, we are programmed to seek out like-minded people, a sense of the familiar, and a taste of home. Even in France, every once in a while my American classmates and I would get together and go bowling or hit the Hard Rock Café for some good ol’ fashioned American fun. And trust me; the Hard Rock is très American. Similarly, here in Cambodia, birds of a feather flock together. Christian and I are always on the lookout at our site for other foreigners because let’s face it, sometimes we just need to speak English, or I just need to vent about how many times a child screamed “HELLOBARANGWHEREYOUGOWHATYOURNAME” as I biked down the dirt road near my host family’s house for at least the millionth time.

That isn’t to say that we aren’t happily adjusted. I can honestly say that I love teaching my classes, I love biking back from Sustainable Cambodia at night and looking up at a billion and one stars, and I love walking by the river with my students talking about everything and nothing. I eat rice two to three times a day, wear a traditional teaching skirt to school, and never show the soles of my feet to anyone. For all intents and purposes, I live like a Cambodian. But, I’m not Cambodian. And I never will be. I am much too independent and outspoken to fit neatly into the traditional female model, I’m too much of a snowbird to cover my shoulders when it hits 104 degrees outside, and I fear that I will never grow accustomed to the slow pace of life here after 22 years of fitting as many things as I possibly could on my “to-do” list before I rushed off to yearbook, painting class, piano lessons, cheerleading, horseback riding, theater rehearsal, or a sorority meeting.

One of the volunteers once told me she never really fit in America, and so coming here and being an outsider and minority was less difficult. At least here she stands out because of the color of her skin rather than some indefinable question mark. Not an unfamiliar story. Many of the expats living in Cambodia have “escaped” to find a familiarity they never could at home. I have seen volunteers fall so deeply in love with the culture that their integration seemed more like a homecoming than a willful assimilation into a new culture. But that certainly isn’t the case for everyone who travels abroad. I would venture to say for my host mother’s family living in Jacksonville, eating Amok fish, speaking Khmer, and attending Pagoda regularly, they are no more American than I am Cambodian. That is to say, we have witnessed another culture, and let ourselves be boiled down into that great melting pot without giving up our essence. We are wholly part, and yet wholly separate from the place we are living in.

I will take with me a deeper appreciation for my family as a result of living in a world rarely dominated by thoughts of the individual. I am more tolerant, more peaceful, and forgiving as a result of watching Cambodians step back from conflict that won’t benefit anyone. I am proud to say I am no longer afraid of spiders and creeping night-time things. And I understand that living with less does not make you less happy. At the same time, I hope to leave my female students with a sense of bravery and courage in the face of adversity. I hope to leave my co-teachers with a passion for their work as opposed to a feeling of obligation. And I hope to see my community embrace their civic responsibility more fully as a result of my service to make a brighter, more sustainable future for Cambodia.

No doubt about it -- Cambodia has left its mark on me. That’s not to say I identify with or am willing to embrace every aspect of this culture, but it has polished some of my undefined edges, and helped me fill in some of the blanks to that age old question, “Who am I?” With every step we take farther from home, we leave footprints behind us, but in the end, it is us who are changed the most. Give me a wheel of brebis and a bottle of côte du rhone and I’ll happily tell you what a Francophile I’ve become as a result of my junior year abroad. For those of you thinking, “I told you so” (ahem, mother), go ahead and say it. Each place I’ve lived has changed me – I believe for the better – and yet, as I look forward to the next chapter in my life, I am happy to say, “There’s no place like home.”

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December 5, 2009

The Gift of Music

I had heard rumors that Korea was donating electric pianos to every province in Cambodia, but I never believed it would actually happen. Or, on the off chance that it did, the piano would be a junky keyboard, quickly absconded by some Khmai staff for a small bribe, or shoved in a closet because it used too much electricity. Either way, I wasn’t getting my hopes up. Then, last Friday afternoon, while I was killing time between classes I heard a noise that sounded suspiciously like a piano. A good one.
I poked around until I found where the sound was coming from and to my utter astonishment there was a full size electric piano with weighted keys, built in metronome, working pedals, and—oh please, oh please, God—yes—they said I could play. The teachers in the room pulled up a red plastic chair, sat me down, and waited expectantly. To truly understand this moment, you have to realize I haven’t touched a piano in over a year, and haven’t seriously played in over four years. I always promised myself I would pick up lessons again after college and then I ended up in Cambodia where you can’t find lessons in the capital city, let alone out in the provincial towns. Every once in a while, when I’m fantasizing about my future apartment, browsing the William and Sonoma website in a last ditch effort to save my sanity when things get really crazy here, or playing Martha Stewart with the craft supplies I’ve managed to collect over the last six months, I get this longing to play. To just sit down and close my eyes and get lost in the music for an hour or two like I used to do once upon a time.

I put my hands on the keys and felt the smooth, cool, plastic beneath my fingers. My hands were shaking a little as I stared down at them, hoping that the music hadn’t left me for good. Playing piano is like learning a language…when you don’t use it for a while, you tend to forget. Did I still remember? I looked up at the staff—yup, they were still waiting—and then I began to play. I could feel my hands remembering the first notes of Fur Elise and, as my hands danced, I felt a little bit of that anticipation anxiety slip away—I still had it. It wasn’t perfect and it certainly wasn’t my most moving rendition of the first movement I’ve ever played, but it was there, inside, waiting to be polished.

The Khmai staff was sufficiently impressed and encouraged me to play more … but they didn’t have any music and I’ve long since lost so much of what I used to know by heart. I told them I’d be back and ran outside to find the head of the English department. I asked him if he thought I could play and if there might be people who would want to take lessons. Yes and yes. That’s all I needed. I headed over to the NGO I volunteer at to print out the last Sonitina, Nocturne and Aria I was playing before I quit, a few Christmas songs, and some miscellaneous classical music I thought would be good to “get back in shape” with and then began the long, impatient wait until the next morning.

I was at the school and situated by 7:20 a.m. (probably a new record). I had a small audience for most of the morning, but was more or less uninterrupted for three solid hours. By 10:30, I was starting to get some of my speed back, sure of the most common scales, and rediscovering some of the music that had been sleeping inside me…but badly in need of brushing up on my musical theory to make up for lost time (damn, that Barbra Crane was right-I DID need to know that stuff!).

Being able to play again is an incredible gift. It’ll be wonderful to share with anyone who wants to listen, but also a fantastic escape, and a little piece of home. More importantly, it’s a gift I can give to my colleagues and they can pass on to others when I’m gone. After I finished, several of the staff asked when I would be starting lessons. I said I could start on Monday and would teach a different person each day for one hour, five days a week. I know they were a little disappointed that I would only be taking five students, but learning to play will be a big commitment, and practicing will be a challenge at best.

I already designed my first lesson on the “language” of music. Interestingly enough, music is never taught in Cambodia except in a vocational capacity to monks and orphans learning to play traditional instruments. That means we are truly starting at the beginning. I feel like learning to play properly will be a great cultural exchange, the beginning of what I hope will someday be a true leisure and arts culture (since theirs was wiped out during the civil war), and good mental gymnastics to help push them beyond the easy, expected, and familiar.

It looks like Christmas came a little early this year…and what a present.

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December 1, 2009

Everything but the Cranberry Sauce

In any given Cambodian village you would NOT find turkey, cranberry sauce, butter, milk, an oven, pie crust, wheat flour, cheese, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, casserole dishes, canned corn, rosemary, or an electric mixer. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Thanksgiving is doomed. But this year, I was determined not to let the holiday pass with a stir-fried substitute. The whole idea presented a logistical nightmare. Thursday was out of the question because the NGO I volunteer at just moved to a new—fantastic –but still very unorganized location, which basically means my life is in absolute chaos. But maybe more importantly was the question of food. I convinced Tara to come up to my site, bringing with her all the necessary goodies from Phnom Penh that we couldn’t hope to find here (although a small store in town JUST started stocking cereal this past week, which is a huge upgrade from the usual prok-and-rice breakfast!). We set the date for Saturday, and she Christian, and two other volunteers who live at my site began preparing for the feast. So what do you get when 3 Peace Corps volunteers, a Belgian, and a Canadian set out to make Thanksgiving dinner in a wooden hut without an oven? A Thanksgiving dinner that was just like home –with everything but the cranberry sauce.

We spent all day Saturday wandering around the open-air market finding all the ingredients Tara wasn’t brining from Phnom Penh and the biggest chicken we could find, which ended up being only slightly larger than a Cornish hen. Anne was in charge of the chicken because in Belgium they cook whole chickens and turkeys in a pan without the aid of an oven. Score! I was in charge of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy. Don’t worry mom, I didn’t tell anyone your secret recipe for cow-pie consistency potatoes. Tara was brining canned corn and concocting a delicious green bean casserole with onion rings and alfredo sauce. Who knew!? Christian had the sweet potatoes and pumpkin-pudding-mud-pie. David was in charge of lighting and keeping the charcoal clay burner under control. And last, but not least, we all pitched in a little love to make mulled wine.

Naturally, the whole process to about 10 times longer than it would in the States, and we ended up eating around 9:00 at night, but the wait was worth it!! Everything tasted the way it should, with a few substitutes and quick fixes along the way, and by the end of the night we were all unbuttoning our top pants button and kicking up our feet. In a word: success! We all crashed together in the NGO’s volunteer house and went to sleep dreaming of sugar plums dancing in our heads.

As if the weekend could get any better, on Saturday Christian cooked us a traditional Mexican feast complete with quesadillas, homemade salsa and queso dip, chicken flautas (my absolute all-time favorite Mexican dish), and Spanish rice. He taught us all how to make everything so I promise to cook all the Clinton Tex-Mex veterans the “real thing” once I return!
Although we spent most of the weekend pigging out, as we walked back to my house after dinner on Sunday night underneath a full harvest moon, I couldn’t help but feel it was a real Thanksgiving in more ways than just the menu. I’m especially thankful for my blessings here, where I am reminded daily of what it means to have less by simply looking at my neighbors. I am especially thankful for my friends here who helped me miss my family less and have become like family members in more ways than one. And I am thankful to know my family is at home, safe, happy, and healthy and unbuttoning their top buttons too.

Gobble, gobble, gobble!

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November 10, 2009

Somethin' New

New photos from mom and dad's vacation in SE Asia under the summer photos!
*** NEW PHONE NUMBER: +855978772952 ***

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