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Paula Mehmel

Paula V. Mehmel, who describes herself as a “radical, evangelical, Lutheran mystic,” is currently parish pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Fargo. Based in Casselton, N.D., but a Minnesota native, she holds an undergraduate degree in English and German from Washington University in St. Louis and her Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. “Pastor Paula,” as she is widely known, is a popular speaker, writer, and proud single mother of two sons who both attend Harvard University. With a passion for serving the last, the lost and the least, Mehmel is a committed community member with a special interest in homelessness, refugee resettlement and addressing issues of sexual violence. She also created a no-cut community theater in Casselton to assure herself a small role in the ensemble each summer, fulfilling her desire to sing and dance on stage. She relishes the opportunity to share her thoughts on anything from social justice to theology to random musings about her latest travel adventures.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Without Reservations

Something happened to me today that has I’ve never done before while traveling. I made my reservation for the wrong day.

In a European calendar, the days begins with Monday not Sunday. When making reservations I have always caught this fact but must have been tired when booking the Pension Gina in Gorlitz, Germany, because I made it one day later than I’d meant.

I received an email from the proprietor yesterday asking me to call 30 minutes before we arrived as he did not live on the premises and this morning, I responded that I would and looked forward to seeing him today.

I called and when we arrived Frank, the proprietor, said there was a problem. The reservation was for tomorrow. And the pension was fully booked for tonight. I got the wifi password and checked it out, and he was correct, and the mistake was 100 percent my fault.

However, Frank did not leave me in the lurch. Instead, he made a call to a friend and when that was fruitless, he told me to get in the car with him as we headed out to find a place for us.

He told the boys to stay at the pension and watch TV, which I translated. Frank does not speak a word of English.

We drove to the city center to the information booth and to another hotel booking place. Both were closed.

We then drove to visit a friend of his who had a hotel, and there, too, there was no room at the inn. But the woman who owned it and all of the guests at the bar pitched in to help, suggesting places we could stay, to no avail. Who knew Gorlitz was so popular?

Even as they discussed where to stay, Frank was concerned about costs for me. He kept saying places were too expensive.

Finally, we returned to the pension, he took the phone book, and I logged on to Trivago to see what we could find. Finally, we found a place for three, although Frank was still concerned about the price.

Then he called — and negotiated down for me — getting me what he said was a more fair price.

We went outside, and he told me to follow him, as he led us to our new hotel in his car.

When I tried to pay him for the night I won’t be using tomorrow, Frank declined. Insistently. Then he hugged me and went on his way.

I was dumbstruck by the entire event.

I made a mistake. Frank would be losing money on my account. Yet he took time out of his schedule — well over an hour — drove me around, made many phone calls, showed concern for my well-0being and made sure I had a place to stay at a reasonable price.

This came from a complete stranger who showed to me what true hospitality really means.

One of the reasons I love to travel is that you get to see different cultures and peoples, and you get to show the best of who you are and what you represent.

Today, a man who grew up in Communist East Germany and spoke no English whatsoever, became the greatest ambassador for Germany I could ever have hoped to see.

And I struggled hard to not be the “ugly American.” I owned my mistake and offered to pay for it. I communicated with him in his own language. And I was effusive with my thankfulness and gratitude. I was in the wrong, and my new friend, Frank, made everything right.

At one point in the middle of all of our communication, I accidentally called Frank “du” rather than “Sie,” the more intimate use of the word “you” in German, is rude to use for anyone but a dear friend or family member.

As soon as I said it, I immediately backtracked and apologized, and Frank said “du is OK. We are friends now.

We all make mistakes when we travel, but I was lucky today. My mistake gave me the image of a humble innkeeper who truly went the extra mile when there was no room at the inn.

And I’m pretty sure there is a sermon somewhere in this story.

Oh, and should any of my readers ever visit Gorlitz please stay at the Pension Gina. Tell Frank Paula sent you. And make sure you make the reservation for the right day.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Iceland And Norway: Rental Cars, Planes And Ferries

One of the things about travel is that you really have to learn to “go with the flow,” and for me, some of those parts are easier than others.

For example, a snafu with weather, a travel delay or an unexpected glitch in my plans usually doesn’t get under my skin. Being late for flights, however, not so much.

Unfortunately, this morning, I had just one of those experiences. We were up and out of our lovely Icelandic bed and breakfast in what should have been plenty of time, except when I entered what I thought was “Keflavik Airport” into my Google maps, I inadvertently hit “Keflavik Airport Inn,” which it turns out is a good five miles from the actual airport.

Once we figured this out, which took sadly longer than it should have due to morning brain, we whipped over to the actual airport as fast as we could, arriving at the rental place 54 minutes before our scheduled departure to Norway.

The car rental return went smoothly enough, but the shuttle wasn’t there when we finished, so we hoofed it over to the airport as fast as we could in the rain and got into the checkin and luggage line at 7:17 a.m. for our 8 a.m. flight.

At first, I was optimistic. Even though we had to clear customs and security, I thought we could still do it, even though the line was very long. That is until I saw that only one person was working economy checkout, and the line snaked back three rows.

This is when my panic mode went in gear. I was mentally figuring out how much I was going to lose in prepaid ferry fees and hostels and how I was going to rebook them during the height of tourist season in Norway.

Duncan, who is more familiar with being late for flights than I am, kept me calm and assured me it would work out fine. It is a skill with which I was impressed, but one that I never want to be so practiced at as to acquire.

Just when I thought all hope was lost, they called out for anyone going to Europe to go to the head of the line, and we processed our bags at 7:34 a.m. While doing that, I discovered something that held true for the remainder of my time with Icelandair. The employees were kind, positive and helpful. Never once were we scolded or shamed, and my anxiety was calmed. United could take a few lessons from these fine folks.

I had planned to get a refund on my tax on my sweater, but there was a line, and I had no time. I felt fine about my donation to the economy of Iceland. Iceland has an equitable health care system and free universities for residents, so my money went to support something I support.

After whipping through security and customs (honestly, Iceland is the simplest border I have ever crossed going both ways), I ended up running the length of the airport to get to our gate, arriving five minutes before our scheduled departure. And believe it or not, they were waiting for us. And were pleasant and polite, once again.

I did not feel as bad as I would have making them wait, as others were waiting for the shuttle to take us to the plane, which arrived a few minutes later. Guilt is engrained in me when I make others wait for me, and the fact that our late arrival didn’t slow the plane assuaged my concerns. But I am quite sure my heart can’t take being late for flights very often — in terms of nerves and running in airports!

The flight to Bergen, Norway was lovely, but when we arrived, it was raining. After discovering once again that my cash car did not work, I continued in an unintentional experiment to find out if it is possible to travel Europe on a purely credit card economy, eschewing cash altogether. So far so good.

I had hoped to explore Bergen a bit, but a downpour hit, so Duncan and I found a cafe where we warmed ourselves with soup. I had chicken with saffron — I recommend it as a great spice for soup. Duncan had reindeer — and we discovered the Norwegian word for reindeer is Rudolf. He felt no guilt at all. I could not have done it.

We headed for our ferry, which provided a lovely five-hour ride to the Sogndal, in the fjords, where we will stay for the next three days. It has been overcast and rainy all day, but I am still amazed at the greenery on the hills, the blueness of the water and the freshness of the air.

Tomorrow, we rise early to head up to the glaciers for a five-hour glacier hike. I’m hoping that we get to the bus in plenty of time, because one story about the travails of the travel process is quite enough for one trip.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — What Would Have Been My Silver Anniversary

I was married 25 years ago today. And I’m not sure how to think about it.

My marriage ended 11 years ago, and Steve died seven years later. I was holding his hand as he took his last breath, providing a lasting legacy of grace for our children, a reminder of the power of love and the transformative nature of forgiveness.

But all of that water under the bridge means that I am not celebrating what would have been my silver anniversary, and as someone who marks her time in terms of dates and remembrances, that creates in me an assortment of feelings that are at odds with each other.

The old joke says that marriages end, but divorce goes on forever. I think of that every time I have to check the box that says, under marital status “divorced,” in a survey or a form. As I check it, I think, “Why do I have to check this box? The person to whom I was married is no longer alive, but I’m still divorced from him?” That never adds up in my mind — how you can be divorced from someone who is dead. There has to be a different box to check. But rule follower that I am, I still check it.

I can’t look back at my marriage with regret, for many reasons. I married a wonderful man — funny, smart, good-looking, kind and the best cook I have ever known, truly the love of my life.

When we were married, I became the stepmother to two amazing children, who remain an integral part of my life to this day, and who are the parents of my five grandchildren.

Finally, the fruit of that marriage is still very much alive in my sons. I never have trouble looking at my sons and seeing their father in them. Anyone who knew Steve and knows them is aware that the best parts of their father are alive in them, and my marriage gave me these two phoenixes who arose from the ashes of our union.

But I am also a realist. Just because Steve is gone, I can’t turn my marriage into a fantasy that it was not. In spite of the gifts that my marriage gave to me, in the end it was a failure, as the ravages of addiction and the havoc it wreaked on our lives overcame what was sincere and deeply felt love, expressed on a sunny Saturday morning in my hometown of Willmar, Minn., and celebrated at a beach picnic on the shores of Green Lake, in nearby Spicer, Minn.

As a perfectionist, it is hard to accept failure in any form, least of all the very public failure of marriage. Perhaps that is why I held onto my marriage for so long, longer than I should have — because, damn it, I can make this thing work if I just put enough time, effort and energy into it. But sadly, that can’t be the case in something as fluid as a relationship between two living beings. Some things, no matter how hard you try, are just destined to fail.

Which brings me to today. What is it? A celebration of what was real and resulted in the creation of two beautiful and incredible people? Or a reminder of the greatest and most public failure of my life, one that I have to own and declare any time I fill out an application or a government form?

Perhaps I don’t have to pick, as I live in the tension between the two.

The need to pick sides, to have winners and losers, is one of the greatest challenges we face today, the incessant desire to cast our lots with villains and victors, good guys and bad guys. We live in an either/or world and I am a both/and kind of person.

When I look at my marriage, and the two people in it, it isn’t that simple, or that easy. The truth was that we were two broken people who together could not make a whole, especially when the third party of addiction ran rampant, leaving destruction in its wake.

So today, as I reflect on what would have been my silver anniversary, I recognize what silver is — a soft and malleable metal that i​s stable in oxygen and water but tarnishes when exposed to sulfur compounds. In other words, it remains shiny in some conditions, but not in others, and it is not as solid or strong as other compounds.

That was my marriage.

As I embrace that image, I don’t have to deny what was good or ignore what was bad. I can see it’s beauty even as I know that it was deeply tarnished.

Because marriage and divorce, like the silver compounds that are poured into the bowls that commemorate this anniversary, are complex, and not simply a box to be checked.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Chance Of Life

It’s been an interesting week.

It started last Thursday, when Ian and I were driving to work. I had just passed the Veteran’s Boulevard underpass when I saw what looked to me like a mushroom cloud of dust in my rear-view mirror. I immediately told Ian, and he turned around and saw it as well, and we both commented that something bad had just happened.

Throughout the morning, I kept an eye on my Facebook newsfeed and eventually saw a report that Interstate 94 had closed in both directions due to a crash that involved two semis that had blocked the freeway going both east and west but that no one was injured in the accident.

Satisfied that I had my answer to the mystery of the mushroom-shaped cloud of dust, and thankful that no one was hurt, I put the accident out of my mind.

However, later that night, I saw a report that they had video of the accident, and it was really quite remarkable that there were no injuries. I clicked play and watched with amazement as a semi rolled over on the on-ramp on the eastbound lane, landing on top of another semi and sending that truck hurling into oncoming traffic in the westbound lane.

It was stunning that no other cars were involved, as the car behind the semi braked quickly enough, and there were no cars in the westbound lane of traffic when the other semi went over the median into the other lane.

Then I watched the video again a bit closer and a frightening reality hit me. The car in front of the semi was mine. I timed it out and had I been a second and a half slower, the semi on the onramp would have rolled on top of Ian and me.

A second and a half. Between potentially dying in a car crash with my son or seeing dust rise in our rear-view mirror.

I went to bed saying a prayer of thankfulness for every second of life, knowing that seconds do count.

Fast-forward to last night. Ian, his friend, Jack, and I had gone to the International Refugee Day Potluck at Lutheran Social Services and after we returned home, we stood by my car in the driveway.

At one point, I looked down at my phone to check the updated results of the Georgia 6 election and suddenly I heard Jack yell, “Paula,” and instinctively, having no idea what was happening, I lurched forward. As I did I felt a sudden pain on my arm and heard the sound of something crashing onto the driveway.

I fell to my knees, my arm in pain, and then turned around to see a large dead branch had fallen off the tree next to our driveway, and the thickest portion had landed right where I was standing. Had Jack not yelled my name when he heard the crack of the branch and saw the leaves start to flutter on this windless night, my head would have taken the hit solidly, instead of it being a glancing blow to my arm as I lunged away from where I was standing.

I can’t say with assurance that I would have died, but being hit in the head by something that heavy dropped from that high could have easily altered my life.

So twice in less than I week, I was faced with my own mortality, the fleeting nature of life and capriciousness of time and chance.

My profession makes it hard for me to ignore how quickly life can change. I get phone calls in the middle of the night and have police showing up at my door asking me to go be the bearer of shocking and heartbreaking news.

The truth is, we are all often seconds away from life-altering events. One turn here, one slow beat there, and we could all face imminent doom each day. And sometimes, it goes our way, and sometimes, unexpected and tragic accidents happen. That is the nature of life.

I think it is probably a good thing that we don’t get to see, in the vivid terms I experienced this week, how close we often come to death. Because I believe such knowledge could end up leaving us terrified and afraid to move. Honestly, I haven’t walked into my yard since the branch fell without glancing up at the tree with a great trepidation and more than a little anxiety.

However, seeing first on a video and then in the detritus of a limb of a tree on my driveway, the reality of how I was seconds and then milliseconds away from mortal peril, also gave me great cause to pause and reflect.

Life, at its very core, is both a matter of chance as well as a gift. The fact that the one sperm met the one egg to form you into the very individual you are and me into who I am is both improbable and incredible.

There is so much in life that we absolutely cannot control. Yet, I find myself too often becoming obsessed by those things over which I have no power. Now, more than ever, I find myself focusing my time and energy on what is happening, externally, in the world, without fixing the same energy into changing the world where I can.

I was staring down at the results of a congressional race over which I had absolutely no influence while the bough above me was breaking and coming crashing down on my head. Had Jack not been paying attention to the world around him, I could have been lost to the world around me.

Does this mean I should ignore the news and the effects of what is transpiring right now in our country? Hardly. But there is a difference between being aware and being obsessed. I think it is just as bad to stick one’s head into the news and not engage with the world as it is to stick one’s head in the sand.

So I resolved this week to limit my consumption of social media, cable news and online articles and pour that time and energy into caring for those who are being left behind and those who are around me. I need to look up and watch out for those whose lives are coming crashing down around them as they face a reduction in their health care benefits or changes in their housing benefits and engage in more conversations with people who may not see the world the way I do, to help bridge the great divide in our country.

I need to spend more time listening to the voices of the disenfranchised and sharing their stories than I do to the talking heads on television news. And I need to spend more time living my life rather than watching what is happening when I have no power or control of the outcome.

For me, it wasn’t so much getting hit upside the head that told me that but rather missing getting hit upside the head by a branch.

Life is chance and I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, or what might have happened if I had been a second earlier or a second slower. But in the meantime, I am going to take every chance I get to live life, fully engaged and keep my head up.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Race Of Life

I am not a runner.

Oh, there have been times in my life when I’ve run, like when I was in high school and I was in track. I was a thrower — shot put and discus — but the coach wanted to fill out the full roster for team points, so I was forced to run the two-mile. And forced is the right word. I used to pray for rain, and even do rain dances, so that meets would be canceled and I wouldn’t have to run.

The thing is, when you are bad at something like the 100-meter dash, you can only lose by so much. Your humiliation is over quickly. But when you are bad at the two-mile,  it can go on for what seems like an eternity. And I was bad — to the tune of being lapped a time or two in an eight-lap event.

So bad, in fact, that everyone on the field would be pulling for me. I often thought it was because they were all afraid I would die and it would gum up the rest of the meet. But those cheers mattered. They got me through the race.

I tried to take up running a few years ago, completed an abysmally slow 5K, and in the process tore my medial meniscus and needed surgery. I think God was telling me something. So now I don’t run.

Even though I don’t run, I nonetheless often use running metaphors when I talk about a life of faith. The Bible frequently uses the image of running the race  as a comparison to a life of faith, including a call  for people of faith to “run the race that is set before you.”

As a pastor, I tell people that they need to practice their faith for the same reason that people need to train for a marathon. You train for a marathon so that you are ready to go when the big day comes — you are prepared to face the challenge.

And by practicing your faith, you are ready when there are challenges in life. You are prepared.

But unlike training for a marathon, you don’t know when your challenges will come. You don’t know when you are going to have to rely on your faith to help you forge ahead in the face of struggle, heartache and pain.

Just as marathon runners train their muscles to deal with the pain, when you practice your faith through prayer, worship, service and devotion, you are ready to deal with whatever life throws you. Faith isn’t to get into heaven — that was accomplished by Jesus and his defeat of death and offer of forgiveness. Faith is to get you through life. To help you run the race that is set before you.

It isn’t easy to get through a marathon — or to get through life. But if you are prepared, you are better able to handle it.

That is why I watched with shock the YouTube video of Scott Cramer, the Minnesota State University-Moorhead student who ran a marathon without training for it. I know Scott tangentially. He is dating a young woman who is the daughter of one of my closest friends. I baptized Jaden, taught her in confirmation, and she was president of the Philanthropy group I advised when she was in high school. So I know that he has good taste and must be a quality guy.

But I also think he has a few rocks loose in his head. After watching the video he made while running the Fargo Marathon, I think he may agree. His plan was to train for the marathon when he registered for it last October, but he never got around to training for it. So he decided instead to run it without training and make a video of his effort.

Scott survived his ordeal. At first, he was confidant — running the first nine miles, but as time wore on, the reality set in, and he discovered what real pain was. However, he soldiered on, finishing the 26.2 miles in 6 hours and 16 minutes. Not exactly a top finisher, but a finisher nonetheless.

He credits his ability to complete the race to the encouragement he received, both from the people along the way, who cheered him on, as well as his core supporters, Jaden, as well as his sister, who walked about six miles with him, to keep him going when he was down on himself.

As I reflected on his journey and what I have often said about faith, I have decided that Scott is the exception who proves the rule. Scott did get through the race. But it was much harder than it would have been without training, he didn’t do as well as he could have, and he hurt far more than he needed to. The pain that was apparent in his video the next day revealed a man who could barely move. He was literally felled by the race he endured.

In life, that is also true. Can we get through the challenges of life without faith Well, sometimes you just have to. You just forge ahead. But if you aren’t practicing your faith, those challenges can take everything out of you and literally drive you to your knees, unable to move forward.

There is still pain when you are in shape — spiritually or physically. But the immediate and lasting effects of being ready allow you to cope better. You are better prepared for what comes your way, far better prepared than Scott was. And because of that, you are better able to face the journey and stronger in its aftermath, rather than being laid out flat on your back, unable to move.

But there was one other part of this story that struck me. It was the role that both Jaden and Scott’s sister played. Scott said he could not have made it had they not walked with him and encouraged him. They kept him going when he was down on himself and motivated him to finish the race.

In Hebrews 12:1, it says that “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

When you practice your faith, and stay in shape spiritually, it becomes your job to be a part of that “cloud of witnesses,”  to be encouragers who support and urge on others in their race, whether they are in shape or not.

Because just as faith is not to get into heaven, but to get through life, it is also not just for ourselves. Living a life of faith means living a life that focuses on others.

Selfishness is the antithesis of a spiritual life. Jaden and Scott’s sister could have derided Scott and told him that he needed to do this himself. That kind of “rise from your own bootstraps” mentality, where they could have told him “You are responsible for this, so we aren’t going to help you.”

But that’s not what they did. Instead, they cheered him on, walked with him, and helped him finish the race. They literally went the extra mile — actually six miles — to accompany him as part of his cloud of witnesses.

Because that is what friends do, and that is what Christians are called to do. To help others when they are down on themselves, to see their needs and to accompany them on their journey.

Those who say people are not responsible for the needs of others, who don’t want to support them, or worse yet, tear them down, miss the point of faith entirely. It isn’t meant to just run your own race. It is a team event. Where we call out to each other and support each other on our journey.

The life of faith is about being a part of a community and being a community means supporting each other.

Back in the day, when I was a reluctant runner, earning “team points” as I circled the track, being lapped not because I was out of shape, but because I was just bad, it was those who cheered me on who got me through the race.

And Scott said the same thing — he wasn’t ready, but those around him were ready to cheer him on. And that made all the difference.

So I urge you today to keep in shape spiritually so you are ready for the race. Learn from Scott that not being in shape can make life hurt more than it needs to. And learn from Jaden that cheering others on can help them finish the race, even if they aren’t prepared.

In doing that, you live out what it means to run the race of life. Not just for yourself, but for others.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Lure Of Angor Wat

When discussing with Jen what I wanted to do in Cambodia, I made it clear that my first priority was to be of service to the Young Adult in Global Mission program and to her in any way possible and that I had no reconceived expectations.

That said, I added, if it worked out, I would really love to see Angor Wat. Jen responded by telling me that the Cambodians she knew would be most upset if I visited their country and did not get a chance to tour Angor Wat, a place of majesty and beauty that is rightfully a source of great national pride.

We set off for Angor Wat, a 350-kilometer, 6½-hour ride by bus. The buses in Cambodia are of varying quality, but I have by in large been impressed by them, their frequency and efficiency. Because of timing, we took the cheaper ($6) bus there and were the only Westerners, returning on a fancier $15 bus with reclining seats and wifi that had more of the backpacking crowd. Both were great, however.

Angor Wat is located near Siem Reap, a lovely tourist mecca that has a great vibe. There are numerous upscale hotels but also a great market area and lower budget “hang-out” place in the neighborhood of Old Market. We had a great meal and then bargained our way through the market as I bought items to share with others upon my return. Jen is much better at bargaining than I, so I got a few great deals, I think. I am not made for bargaining.

Our hotel was incredible — for $20 a night we had a lovely room with a king bed and a double, breakfast, free transport to and from the airport or bus station, two 30-minute massages and free dinner one night. Oh, and the place had a pool.  With a fine meal for two including beer running about $8, Cambodia is definitely a good stop for a budget traveler.

We arranged with a tuk tuk driver to leave the next morning at 5 a.m. so we could head out to the ticket area to buy tickets — an incredibly organized affair where they process thousands of tickets with your photo on them in short order — and then out to Angor Wat.

Angor Wat is the name of the both the Archeological Park and what is often the first, and most well-known, stops within the park. A Wat is a seminary, or monastery, where priests gather and study. These temple-like structures were built by each ruler as a sign of their connection with God, with high stupas that reach toward the heavens, where the ruler’s cremated remains are placed after their death. Each Wat in the area we visited seemed to get larger with each ensuing ruler, with Angor Wat being the largest.

As we approached it, the iconic spires set against the rising sun gave off one of those views that is every bit as amazing as you would expect it to be. There were some clouds in the area that allowed for shades of pink and yellow that added to the glory.

People arrive at sunrise largely for two reasons. One is because with the sunrise behind it, Angor Wat is astounding at that hour, and the light hits the whole area in a magical way. The other is practical — it is HOT and the humidity is stifling so one wears down quickly with a heat index that goes over 100 degrees early in the day. It isn’t cool in the morning by a long shot, but it is slightly less oppressive.

After walking though the Wat once on our own, I opted to hire a guide because I find that you get insight you would not otherwise receive, and I preferred to have it told to me as opposed to looking up and down from a guide book. I am glad I did.

The guide we hired was helpful in giving us the history of Angor Wat and pointing out details that I would have otherwise missed. One of my favorite facts was that if a Wat was not complete before the ruler died, his successor might finish off the external structure — like finishing  a spire — but not the decorative pieces, like the astounding bas reliefs on the walls. Most of them were complete, but there were spots when you could see the stenciling that had been done prior to the carving that was never complete.

Built in the 12th century, Angor Wat is the largest religious temple in the world.  However, when the rulers of the Khmer Kingdom moved  the capital south to Phnom Penh, in part to get away from continuous wars with nearby Siam (Thailand) and in part to be better positioned for agriculture production and transportation on the Mekong River, the place fell into disrepair and faded into the jungle. It was never completely abandoned, unlike some of the other spots we visited on our tour, but it nonetheless bore the effects of time, weather and neglect.

It largely remained intact during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, although they used whatever wood remained. Even though Pol Pot sought to destroy anything connected with religion, Angor Wat was a symbol of the power and ingenuity of the Khmer people.

It was during the Vietnamese rule and the civil wars in the 1980s and early ’90s when smugglers came in and lopped the heads off of many of the Buddhas and statues of the gods because they are easier to carry. The temple was originally created to honor the Hindu god, Vishnu, but as Cambodia became a Buddhist nation, the temple became a  home to Buddhist monks.

The tour was fascinating, and the view from the top spire was astounding. Well worth the steps up to the top. The reliefs told stories of Hindu gods, and our guide helped us understand them more, which was definitely value added.

After our tour — we were there over three hours — we had breakfast. I was amused that the breakfast spots, which was a series of little restaurants linked together under a tent, had funky names. We ate at Harry Potter, Spiderman and Lady Gaga. Jen said it was the way the propieters got you to remember their names when they accosted you as you entered the park. “Come back and eat at Angelina Jolie. I give you a good deal.”

I did find the vendors particularly aggressive around this space, but that makes sense. It’s a place rife with tourists. They encourage you at every stop not to buy from children as it encourages them to sell and not be in school. That was good to see but didn’t affect a rather strong child marketing campaign.

From Angor Wat, our tuk tuk driver took us to a series of archeological sites throughout the park. We saw the main town (the Wat is always away from the town) and  several temples in various states of repair. They each had their own unique character. Most visits involved a lot of climbing on sometimes precarious stairs or steps but the view was always worth the risk. They each had their own

One of the temples had been painfully taken apart for restoration in the 1960s because overgrowth and erosion had sunk it into the earth. But before it could be restored, the Khmer Rouge took over and although they didn’t destroy the spot, they destroyed the plans and maps of how to put the rocks back together, so countless cleaned and numbered stones lay around, as no one knew how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Jen and I were well matched for our tour, since we both have active imaginations and a love for stores like “The Chronicles on Narnia,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As a result, we really enjoyed the various entryways, catacomb-like spaces and portals and often kept looking for the magical ones that would take us back in time — perhaps a time before Trump first declared his candidacy — to warn people.

It was hot and exhausting, so we would at times have to sit down and catch our breath (OK, I had to. Jen is much younger.) On one such occasion, I sat down on a rock that I failed to see was covered in red ants. When they started biting, I leaped up.

Throwing modesty to the wind, I threw up my skirt to remove some from my torso as Jen removed them from my socks. For the next while, we kept intermittently stopping as I felt a bit, and we found another ant, and after that was done, more “ghost feelings” of bites and crawling of ants that weren’t there.

Our last stop was Ta Prohm, the site where the movie “Tomb Raider” was filmed.  It was my favorite stop, with overgrown trees that literally encompassed the ruins in their roots. It all felt very surreal. Except for being a bit bothered by a European family that spent over 10 minutes literally doing their own photo shoot at a spot where I wanted to take a photo (reminding me that tourists can be real jerks), it was a truly astounding and peaceful place for a last stop of the day, as I sought out spaces where it was quiet and I could be alone to soak up the majesty, mystery and magic of not just Ta Prohm but all of Angor Wat Archeological Park.

As I was leaving the temple near the end of my tour, I slipped on a wet stone and slowly fell to my knees — my legs weary from the nearly 12 miles we had walked in the past 11 hours — and it felt like an apt metaphor for this amazing, spiritual journey through Angkorean Temples. The place literally brought me to my knees.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A Trip Into The Heart Of Cambodia

We took a tuk tuk to Takeo.

Takeo, a province south of Phnom Penh, is not only the location of a spot Jen was scouting as a possible end of the year retreat for the YAGM volunteers, it was also the home province of our friend and tuk tuk driver, Me-an’s wife’s family. So when Jen arranged with him to take us out there to see if the area was suitable, he extended to us an invitation to visit his home and meet the members of his family.

Tuk tuk drivers, like so many of the other workers in the city, as a rule come from the provinces because they cannot make a sustainable income there. They purchase a motorcycle and carriage in the hopes of being able to live in the city and send home funds to provide for the family members they are obligated to support. (Parents and in-laws are supported by their family in their old age, and obviously children need support, as well as family members who cannot work.) Depending on the distance and time they have available, some get home a couple times of year and others on a monthly or biweekly basis.

Me-an rarely got to his familial home in the distant province, but he lives with his in-laws and tries to get there every other week to see his twin daughters, who are in Grade 12, as well as his mother, father, brother-in-law and nephew, who is the son of another brother. Living in extended family units is not uncommon due to the nature of culture, economics and family life. Post Khmer Rouge, where so many family trees were broken, it is possibly even more convoluted due to necessity of caring for those who survived.

Me-an’s wife also does not live full time in Takeo Province. She works at a sweat shop in Ta-khmal, 40 kilometers north of the village. Sweat shops pick up women before 7 a.m. to work, load them in open trucks where they are squished in, as thousands of them are transported to the factories. After working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., they are once again loaded into these trucks and hauled like cattle to the drop-off location. For their efforts, the receive $153 a month, $5 of which is a government subsidy, so essentially $6 a day. … All so that we can have bargain clothing and the retail industry management can have huge markups.

Me-an and his wife see each other occasionally — when neither of them are working. But they work so that their daughters can become educated. In Cambodia, school is free, unlike many other countries, as long as you have the uniform. However, public school teachers are so poorly paid that most don’t fully engage in the process, hoping to earn extra money to have a sustainable income by tutoring students after school with the information students need in order to pass exams and get into the university. It is a broken system, but it would be too easy to fault the teachers, who need to earn enough to live. Life doesn’t always fall into easy patterns where there are good guys and bad guys in every scenario.

We set off for the adventure on Me-an’s tuk tuk, which took us the 36 miles to his home over a variety of roads — the chaos of the city driving and then down the highway, as we passed shop after shop filled with everything from baskets and tires for sale, to raw meat hung out in the hot (close to 100 degrees) sun and finally to country roads. Some of those were brand-new and smooth and others were awful, as we wandered down ones that became wet with the rains and dried in a manner that left our bottoms a bit sore.

As we got close to the turn off to his village, Me-an pulled over to point out what was essentially half a mountainous hill, where it was clear that mining was being done. He picked up the rocks from the road and pointed to the mountain.

The newer infrastructure being provided for the ease of transportation was at the expense of the hills that surrounded the region. The mountains were literally being removed from the face of the earth.

Jen asked Me-an if he thought this was good, and he said in Khmer, “Not good, I don’t like it.” The systemic excavation of hills for the sake of growth and the deforestation that results as a consequence of it are among the significant environmental issues that face Cambodia, along with the effects of global warming.

We continued our journey and finally arrived at Me-an’s home. He kept saying he was poor to assure us of its simplicity but it was a lovely home, in the style of rural Cambodia. It was essentially a house on stilts, largely to keep it above water in the rainy season and to create a shared, open-air place of shade beneath the home where families can spend time together.

The main dwelling was an upstairs, where most everyone slept. The bottom level was an open-air patio-like area, with a space in back where the elders slept, next to a paddock for the four cows.

Behind the house was a hut for cooking and a bath house. There was a system of water delivery that seemed quite impressive, but nothing that even approached modern plumbing. A couple of light bulbs and electric outlets were powered by solar cells.

The flowers in front had a hedging made from pop bottles, and several poultry — many of which were pecked free of feathers — and dogs wandered around.

When we arrived, we met his mother-in-law, who immediately went back to cook for us. Cambodian women are often painfully shy and rarely interact with Westerners. In Cambodian culture, men and women as a rule don’t interact outside of marriage, but since I was with Jen and we were Westerners, we were able to visit and the men could talk to us.

After being given coconuts to drink minutes after they were chopped off the tree and prepared with a machete, we sat down for the meal. Numerous beers were set out, a huge pan full of rice, and three dishes. One was duck, one was fish, and the last was the most amazing ginger, onion and pepper dish I have ever tasted. I will have dreams about it.

I ate the duck I was served to the extent I could — it was neck, I believe, and the meat was sparse, and the fish was excellent. Jen warned me not to finish my plate or they would refill it with rice, but I ate too much and had it refilled. The meal was interrupted every few bites as we clinked our beer cans and coconuts together to say “cheers.”

While we ate, Me-an’s daughters, who are truly beautiful, returned from school and greeted us shyly and left. They returned in a bit with pillows and mat, where Jen and I were encouraged to take a post-repast nap. With the heat and the fullness of our stomachs, we both drifted off as they placed fans around us to strategically cool us off.

When we awoke, we got ready to leave, having been honored to experience the fullness of Cambodian hospitality in this village, except for one of chickens who kept pecking at me. As we left, Me-an shouted greetings to everyone, proud to show us his role in the community.

We took a different route back, that led us to a mountain that Me-an had told Jen about. When we arrived, he encouraged us to go in for a “10-minute walk” to the Buddhist shrine and pagoda at the top.

Ten minutes my foot. We began the ascent together, but as it became apparent that I was slowing Jen down a bit, I sent her ahead. She needed to reach the top to determine if it was a good location for the YAGM volunteers to visit. My goal was simpler — to leave this mountain alive.

I am a persistent, determined and stubborn woman, however, and despite the heat and humidity, I reached the 412th step (with several steps in between each of the steps) still breathing, albeit heavily.

I was greeted by about as classic an image as one could imagine — a shirtless Buddhist monk sitting cross legged at top of a mountain. He offered me a chair and then fanned me as I recovered, then offered me a chance to light some incense, making homage to the shrine, and offer my own prayers. I am a huge believer in the universality of prayer and delighted in the chance to bear witness in my own prayers to my God, who is a big and inclusive God. After praying, he tied my wrist with a red string and offered me a blessing of good fortune.

It was now time to descend, which should have been easier, but the monsoon rain that showered on us forced us to pull over at a little “shrine along the way,” much to the bemusement of the monk we encountered there.

Back in the tuk tuk, we passed rice fields and lotus flowers As we traveled, Me-an stopped by a stretch of women all selling the same thing — which turned out to be stuffed frog that for some reason had a reddish hue. It was on a stick, and I am thinking that perhaps those women might have a market at the Minnesota State Fair.

We continued on until we arrived at a beautiful lake retreat spot, Tonle Bati, which was one of Jen’s places she needed to see. We walked out on precarious slats of wood, with a flimsy bamboo hand rail for balance only, to an hut on stilts above the water with a hammock and a mat inside. Some women came out with baskets of palm fruit and cakes, which we purchased, and the proprietor came with a menu. We ordered some food and settled in for another break.

My favorite part of this excursion were the boat venders that kept coming by with delicacies like beetles, grass hoppers, crickets and small speckled eggs that might have once belonged to a quail. And ramen. Because, you know  …Cambodia.

After this break and another quick tour of a 12th-century temple that Jen also was checking out (complete with locals trying to sell us flowers and all manner of other items), we finally made our way home.

This last leg was also the dustiest — at one point Jen and I put her krama (a Cambodian scarf) over our heads, completely covering our faces, to protect us from the element. We took a selfie — Jen said it was her favorite picture of the two of us!

By the time we arrived back at Jen and Matt’s apartment, we had completed about an 80-mile journey that had us on the road for nearly six hours. My backside was sore, but my heart was full with an excursion that took me on a tuk tuk to Takeo, but even more so, into the heart of Cambodia.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Communion And More

Today was all about Communion.

Our morning began very early, before the sun had even considered rising, as we needed to take a journey back to Phnom Penh following the wedding the previous night. The journey had been about four hours in our minibus, but the return trip in our taxi was slightly under three, getting us to Phnom Penh about 8 a.m.

For me, the most shocking thing about this part of the trip was the cost. A taxi picked us up at 5 a.m. in Kampot, drove us to Phnom Penh and then drove back with no passengers — all for $40.  Yet, we would pay $5 for a tuk tuk ride from Jen’s apartment to the church — a mere 30 minutes. The tickets to get to Kampot were $6 per person for a seat on a large bus. Jen assured me that when it came to money, nothing about Cambodia was relative.

The plan at worship was for me to preach and be present at Communion as Pastor Daniel, who had just been approved for ordination earlier this week, presided.

The Lutheran Church in Cambodia is quite young, with its first congregation beginning in 2010. It currently has five people who are at various stages in pastoral training — three men and two women — and Pastor Daniel will be the first Cambodian to be ordained, a celebration that will take place in November. In an unusual twist, he will not only become the first ordained pastor but will also assume the role of bishop.

For me, the service consisted of a series of firsts. I have always been a “black clerical shirt” kinda gal, and I broke out a new blue one, in part of a quest to push my boundaries. (I need to break out of my comfort zone every once in a while.)

It was also the first time I have ever preached in bare feet, the first time I have ever seen a cat run across the Communion table during worship and the first time I have ever used “Footprints in the Sand” as a sermon illustration.

Of all of those, I feel the “Footprints” needs the most explanation. When one preaches in a different culture, one needs to be deliberate about examples so that they mesh with the culture to whom you are speaking.

My text was the Road to Emmaus and the concept of Jesus walking with us, even when he disappeared from their midst, lent itself well to that story, which no one hear had heard, so it wasn’t cliched. In a culture where one often walks a long distance in sandals, footprints work as an image.

The worship service itself was Spirit-filled. Most in attendance were the students who live at the hostel that the church runs for university students from the provinces. Some come from Christian backgrounds, but others come there for lodging and experience Christ along the way.

One of the things that moved me most deeply were the prayer concerns, which included prayers for Turkey and Erdogan, racism in Europe and the situation in North Korea. This is a church that is globally connected.

It was an honor to be present as Pastor Daniel presided, as an ordained pastor standing alongside a future colleague and bishop, and to serve Communion with him. And I loved bringing greetings from the ELCA, my synod, and Elim.

Following worship, Jen and I headed back to her flat to drop off our stuff and then headed out to the rural village, Tang Krang, where we would join another young congregation — which began just last October.

The trip out there and back was all part of the journey — first in a van that normally seats 15, but rarely has that few. Jen said the max she had been in had 30 people. Ours wasn’t quite that full, but there were a few chickens who joined us, clucking back and forth at each other from the front and the back of the van.

After we were dropped off — quite a distance from where we wanted to be dropped because the driver didn’t think Jen knew what she was talking about (not an uncommon occurrence since this village isn’t a tourist hot spot, so why would foreigners think they should stop here?) —  we took a tuk tuk down a rough dirt path that had plenty of jolts, passed ponds filled with lotus, to the church.

We arrived just as Sunday School was ending. One of the main outreaches to the village is providing education for the children. The Young Adult in Global Mission volunteer, Lindsay, was doing a new song with the kids today — Father Abraham in Khmer. What a delight to witness that!

Worship was full as well, mostly with children. The ministry sponsored a football (soccer) team, so the kids were there in uniform, ready for a game that would take place following the service. It turned out to be the younger kids vs. the older kids, so the pastor sent them off with the story of David and Goliath.

Part of the service included Communion. Since Pastor Vibol and Sister Sreleak had not yet been approved for ordination, they cannot preside, even with an ordained pastor present, so this was an opportunity to share the sacrament with the community.

I brought the wafers (a gift from Elim) and wine (an expensive port I purchased before we left at the liquor store down the street from Jen. They had a dearth of reds, so this was my only option, which was fine since it keeps with my Communion motto:  “Jesus didn’t die for cheap wine.”)

As I presided, I got goofed up. I have said the Words of Institution well over a thousand times, but when it is interrupted by translation, that muscle memory failed me, and I lost my place.

But that didn’t matter because the eyes of the little ones were trained on me with amazement. This was the first time many of those children had ever witnessed the sacrament. And kids who had been squirrely during the sermon, prayers and readings, sat still with rapt attention. None were baptized, so they didn’t partake, but it was moving nonetheless.

Following worship, we headed back to Phnom Penh, using a reverse route — tuk tuk to van. The trip started out fast but ended in standstill traffic by the river, where we moved only a few hundred feet in a half hour.

Traffic, by the way, is a whole part of the experience. Jen likens it to a dance, which makes sense as motorcycles and tuk tuks move back and forth, finding space where none seems to exist. Direction also seems optional, as I learned as we headed the wrong way down a one-way street once, to avoid road construction. My greatest fear in all of my travels is always traffic accidents.

We finally got out of the tuk tuk and walked the river, looking for a place to eat. We settled at a cafe where we sat outside, by the street.

Almost as soon as we sat down, we were approached by a young boy — perhaps 8 or 9 — with excellent English patter that he used to try to convince us to buy his bracelets or wallets. Jen spoke to him a bit and invited him to sit with us, but refused to buy from him.

Although it is hard for me, I understand and honor her conviction. These children more often than not have “handlers” who use them to get sales and take the money. And even though the kids may be punished if they don’t sell anything, by buying, the cycle is perpetuated. If it makes money for the handler, they will continue to exploit these children. Besides, the sales for those items will either go to a woman in a market supporting her family or these kids supporting some form of human scum. I know who I chose.

After my order of fried spring rolls had arrived, a couple of more kids showed up. As they eyed the spring rolls I offered the boy some and said he could take them. As he grabbed them, other children magically appeared, and suddenly there were three spring rolls for four kids. As one grabbed at them, the other pulled back with a look in his eyes that can only be described as hunger. The real effects of hunger.

Jen quickly placed an order for two more plates of fried rice, and we were joined by five street urchins at our table. Jen engaged in conversation with them, as she urged them to sit in their chairs instead of on their haunches. And we both encouraged them to keep the volume down. Jen also took advantage of the time to learn the colors in Khmer. The other diners looked quite shocked.

We thought the scene might be a bit much for the proprietor, and Jen asked for a to-go box for that and most of the rice and sauce that came with my chicken amok. She said no, as that might result in the kids fighting among themselves, and instead brought five plates and told us to stay. A kindness that Jen plans to remember when she chooses where to dine in the future.

As I went to pay the bill, I thanked her for kindness, and she thanked me for mine. I truly said it was nothing. I spent $6 to feed a few kids. But she said it would at least fill their bellies for tonight. A sad truth, a brief respite from a seemingly never-ending struggle for these poor boys, forced to work, paid nothing and fed less.

They devoured the food with a ferocity that can only be seen in those who lack food security — a situation I have never been in. And then they headed off to work the streets again, aware that the eyes of their employer were probably on them, and they would get in trouble for taking a break without making a sale.

One boy was thirsty, however, and we wandered down the street with him to buy a 75-cent bottle of clean water.

Water and rice. That is what we shared. Communion in a Cambodian context.

There is much that could be said about what happened — both good and bad. There is so much we cannot do and so much that we do to only make ourselves feel better. There are struggles with feeding a few as opposed to investing in addressing the systemic structures that lead to hunger.

And there is the great problem of being seen as the “benefactors,” the “good people” who have the ability to help, somehow becoming superior for simply being in the position in which we can give. There is nothing heroic or particularly great about what we did that night, and no praise should be rendered.

However, all those thoughts aside, sometimes you need to take situations for what they are. And that meal, and my memory of it, will simply be the last form of Communion I shared today.

Because in all of them, Jesus was present.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — ‘One Night In Cambodia’

I never went to prom.

However, at the age of 53, I did attend a Cambodian wedding celebration, which I believe goes one step better.

In order to attend the wedding, and be properly respectful, the first order of business was getting a Cambodian dress.

That was easier said than done, however, because the Cambodian people are small and I am not. So I had to check my vanity at the door as Jen and I wandered the stalls at the market in Phnom Penh trying to find a skirt that would fit. Woman after woman would size me up and down and then, either with a laugh or a bemused face, shake their head “no.”

At long last, we found a woman who had larger skirts and, lo and behold, it fit, with room to spare. This was after shucking my skirt and changing into the wraparound that they would sew to my size in the aisles of the market. Modesty also needed to be left at the door.

Unfortunately, the rust skirt didn’t match the “super fancy blouse,” which was a brilliant shade of emerald green, that Jen had instructed me to bring for the wedding. So off we were in search of a matching blouse. This ended fruitfully, but as the proprietor of this stall did not have the usual sheet to change behind, also included me stripped down to my bra in the full view of God and everyone else. Shopping in Cambodian markets is not for the faint of heart.

Outfit in hand, we took the bus the next morning to the (almost) coastal village, where the reception would take place. The groom was the host brother of the Young Adult in Global Mission volunteer in that area — Jen and her husband Matt are country program coordinators for the ELCA program — and so Jen was invited and I was her “plus one,” with Matt still stateside.

We did not attend the wedding — that took place in the provinces, where the bride was from, over a series of days the preceding week. Those affairs involve ceremony and pageantry that is hard for us to comprehend. The bride had 17 dresses for all of the various facets of the wedding and reception. I saw six and there may have been more.

On our drive back to Phnom Penh, we witnessed a parade of people with both hands full of gifts of fruit and food to present to another bride and groom at 6:40 on a Sunday morning, so I got a glimpse of what I missed with the ceremony.

But we were invited to the finale, grand event — the reception.

Before we could go, though, we needed to get fancied up. I am not someone who wears a lot of makeup, and my idea of a good haircut is one that involves no work, so let’s just say that this is outside of my wheelhouse. Even on my own wedding day, I kept it simple — only a ringlet of roses in my hair.

Part of my “prom-like experience” was two hours of a group of wonderful Cambodian women crimping my hair.
Part of my “prom-like experience” was two hours of a group of wonderful Cambodian women crimping my hair.

So this was my “prom-like experience,” two hours of a group of wonderful Cambodian women crimping my hair — reminding me of the good old ’80s, the best era for my kind of hair — into ringlets that formed what Jen described as “goldilocks hair” and finally weaving it into an amazing series of knots that ended with a rose secured in the center. My hair must have been very confused. It has never had an experience like this. Prior to this, it’s only claim to fame is that I have no gray and don’t color it. The end result was astounding.

Then it was on to the makeup.  I am in theater, so I have worn stage makeup, but this took it to a whole new level. And false eyelashes graced my eyes for the first, and I suspect only time ever. (My eyelashes are the one part of my face of which I am proud. They are long and full.)

As all of this was transpiring, Jen kept joking that of all the things she ever expected to do with me over the years, a “girl’s day” with Pastor Paula would have been last on the list. She thought rock climbing and an exploratory journey to the moon more likely.

By the time we left the shop, I was, without question, a new me.

So off we went to the gala. I used to joke to my boys when they were in high school and talking about prom themes (since they were class officers) that “One Night in Bangkok” was a perfect theme. Well, different song and focus, obviously, but my “prom” was “One Night in Cambodia.”

And it did feel like a souped-up prom as we entered. There were women in stunning dresses that represented every color in the rainbow and then some. The men were less formally dressed, but nonetheless, sharp in brightly colored silk, short-sleeve shirts in a classy Khmer style.

Except for the groom, who donned at least six different suits, like his bride. And an assortment of groomsmen or men in waiting, who were sharply dressed in silk suits of brilliant blue as we entered under an arch of woven flowers that led to a canopy of running blue and flickering white lights that simulated a twilight sky.

At the end of the canopy was a love seat with a background to take photos.  Hello, “One Night in Cambodia — Paula’s Pseudo Prom, circa 2017.”

Once inside the venue, we saw a huge hall full of tables set for 10, full of cans of beer, pop and water for the guests, an open airy place with the river in the background. We were seated in the front, as a sign of honor, since we were guests from another country. I felt incredibly sorry for the young man who ended up seated next to me, as my Khmer conversational skills were sorely lacking.

Over the next few hours, people came in and were fed whenever the table was full, starting in the back, so it was a while before our table had food. But when it did, it was worth it.

The food was served family-style, with a lazy Susan in the middle of the table.
The food was served family-style, with a lazy Susan in the middle of the table.

The food, served family-style with a lazy Susan in the center, just kept coming, eight courses in total, with some incorporating numerous entrees. We had nuts, vegetables, nearly every form of meat from beef and pork to duck, a variety of seafood including stuffed clams, octopus and a seafood stew, cow intestine — a delicacy I choose not to partake (I am still recovering from the Burmese cat intestine I ate trekking in Burma/Thailand in 1988) — and a whole fish.

The meal ended with a truly amazing gelatin or tapioca-like substance in a coconut sauce with palm fruit. One of the people at our table saw the relish with which I ate it and offered me her’s as well. Politeness and diabetes be damned, I accepted with gratitude.

A five-piece rock band with at least three male singers and five female singers/back up dancers entertained at the celebration.
A five-piece rock band with at least three male singers and five female singers/back up dancers entertained at the celebration.

All the while this was happening, a five-piece rock band with at least three male singers and five female singers/back up dancers entertained us with nonstop Cambodian top 40 songs.

Once the meal was over, the celebration began in earnest. In many ways, it was so much like an American wedding, and yet so very different. “Same, same, but different,” as the locals say.

The guests were all encouraged to gather in two lines, to make a path for the bride and groom — now clad in a Western traditional bridal gown and tux, with a Cambodian flare — to walk down. We threw flower petals as they passed us and then lit sparklers to shower them with blessings. (I was a bit afraid with the fire and the amount of hairspray in the room someone would combust.)

Silly string shoots, poppers explode with confetti, and peoples shower the the couple with small fake $100 bills.
Silly string shoots, poppers explode with confetti, and peoples shower the the couple with small fake $100 bills.

Then, after paying homage to their parents who were now seated in front of the band, in what felt like part of a very traditional ceremony, the couple gathered at the huge table of fruit in the center of the dance floor. Silly string shot out, poppers exploded with confetti, and people showered them with small fake $100 bills to encourage wealth and luck, I believe.

The bride and the groom took the stage at this point, where “same, same but different,” was exhibited in full force. The groom threw out the bouquet to a gaggle of waiting men.

The groom pours a magnum of champagne over a stack of glasses that fills at the next level as the upper level pours over the top.
The groom pours a magnum of champagne over a stack of glasses that fills at the next level as the upper level pours over the top.

The groom then poured a magnum of champagne over a stack of glasses that filled at the next level as the upper level poured over the top and the parents and the couple exchange toasts. (I discovered at our tables toasts are popular in Cambodia, as after very few bites, we would hoist our glasses for something.)

After the band leader — who reminded me at this point of the cheesiest of DJ’s —encouraged the couple to share their first public kiss while he was making noises I can’t really describe but I invite you to imagine (whatever you are imagining, I think this was a hundred degrees more),  the couple fed their parents the first bites of fruit. Then, quickly, people began grabbing the fruit off the table, and the bridal party had their first dance.

Then the rest of us were encouraged to join and I did so gleefully. I was made for Cambodian dancing. It involved shuffling your feet to the music while you move your arms around gracefully as you walk in a circle. Several Cambodian women joined me, showing me what I decided were their “signature moves” as we circled the fruit table. They were all so gracious, and one woman asked me if I was happy. Indeed I was. Two kind men even joined Jen and me for a three-step move that had us exhausted.

Having eaten my fill and danced my heart out, it was time for us to leave. By the time we did, many of the others had left as well. As we left, there we were about 40 men and a handful of women still dancing in a circle around a table of what remained of the fruit in the center of the floor.

Which, Jen assured me, was just like prom.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Easy And Right Aren’t the Same Thing

It’s easy, in the face of atrocities, to want to look the other way.

That’s what went through my mind today as I stared at skull upon skull stacked 18 levels high at the Killing Fields Memorial Site, or as I listened to the audio descriptions of torture as I walked through Tuol Sleng Prison, the Genocide Museum.

It would be just as easy to look away and turn it off and pretend that none of this ever happened. Easier for me. But as a citizen of the world, it is not only imperative that I learn while I am here but that I also share because genocides and torture still happen, and the more we know, the better equipped we are to stand strong in the face of hatred.

For those of you, who, like me before today, only have a tertiary understanding of what happened in Cambodia, this is a short version to bring you up to speed.

During the early 1970s, Cambodia was the focus of the “secret war,” where the U.S. carpet-bombed the country regularly. As a result, when the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, just as Vietnam was falling to the Communist rule, they were greeted with cheers.

However, it was only a matter of hours before it became apparent that their intention was anything but good. People in the cities were given mere minutes to prepare before they were forced to leave their homes go out to rural villages in order to develop an agrarian society.

The objectives of Pol Pot and his henchmen went beyond that, however. It was a determined effort to rid the nation of an educated or elite class. People were killed merely for having glasses or soft hands because it indicated that they were not “tough.”

Entire families were killed because the Khmer Rouge believed that “to stop the weeds, you need to pull it out by the roots.” Even babies were killed because he didn’t want family members left to exact revenge.

When there was a question of whether a person should be killed, the general rule was, “Better to kill an innocent person than let a guilty person go free.” And guilty of what?  Usually, nothing but fabricated charges, in an effort to unnerve society by turning everyone into enemies.

By the time Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge fled Cambodia when the Vietnamese invaded and put a new regime in power, at least 2 million Cambodians had been killed — one-fourth of the population.

The Killing Fields is a powerful and overwhelming place, where you see mounds that contained mass graves of the thousands of people thrown their anonymously after they had their throats slit, their skulls bashed or their limbs hacked off. Even as you walk through today, bones are still being unearthed, as well as scraps of clothing, as a powerful reminder that the dead their never found a true resting place.

The Killing Tree.
The Killing Tree.

And then there’s the Killing Tree. The horror of it, next to a pit where women were thrown after often being raped and then murdered, chilled my soul. When Cambodia was liberated, they figured out what this tree was used for by the bits of skull, blood and hair of the babies and small children that were bashed against it before they were thrown in the pit.

It would be easier to just look away.

The same is true as I wandered through Tuol Sleng. I saw the rooms where people were brutality tortured and beaten, the gallows where they were hung upside down and dropped until they became unconscious and then had their heads stuck in a pot full of excrement to wake them up to do it again and the table where they were water boarded, a grotesque torture where one experiences the horror of drowning,

The audio tour left no detail out, as I listened to these brutal devices used to extract false confessions to imagined crimes, justifying the blind folding of the prisoners who were sent off to be killed at night. … If they survived the torture.

And it would have been just as easy to tune it out.

But I couldn’t. These were real things that happened to real people.

I had lunch with a man, who at age 3 was ripped out of the arms of an uncle who was caring for him, since his parents had been taken away. His uncle was blindfolded, bludgeoned in the back of the head, taken to Tuol Sleng and then the Killing Fields.

I went to the Survivor Talk and heard a woman who, like me, was born in 1964. But while I was enjoying life as a junior high schooler, she was separated from her family, saw her brother being dragged to death for trying to get more food and forced to dig what she thought would be her own mass grave.

They couldn’t look away, so I can’t, either.

In 1979, however, when Pol Pot was removed from power, most of the Western World did. He and his henchmen were acknowledged as the “rightful leaders” of Cambodia, and received support — financial and otherwise — from the U.S., among other countries, simply because they had been displaced by a government supported by Communist Vietnam.

Never mind the genocide. Never mind the horrors inflicted on their people. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” was the official stance of countries that turned a blind eye on these atrocities.

Because it is just as easy to look the other way.

Today, too, it is easy to ignore human rights abuses simply because they don’t mesh with our narrative of the world or to determine that the access to natural resources is more significant than how people are treated by their governments.

We live in a world where we can tune out things we don’t like or things with which we don’t agree. We can live in our own echo chamber. And we can ignore things that make us uncomfortable.

But to do that is to fail to see the world as it is. And if we fail to do that, then we cease to able to be agents of change.

I was just a kid when this was all unfolding in Cambodia, and I was powerless to do anything to change it. But being aware that this kind of systemic brutality is not just relegated to the past but very much a part of our recent history and current reality allows me to be voice for the voiceless in a world that needs to hear what happens when we start seeing those who are different from us as enemies.

The people of Germany contributed to building the Genocide Museum because they are only too aware of what can and does happen when we begin to ignore the dignity of each and every person. And they want to witness to where the power of hate can lead.

Both the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng end their audio tours with a challenge to bear witness to what you’ve seen and share it with the world. This blog is the start of that, and as I signed the guestbook, I made a pledge to tell others and to speak out in the face of atrocities and injustice.

It’s easy, in the face of atrocities, to want to look the other way. But easy and right aren’t the same thing.