Posts Tagged Bethel

Phnom Penh – Not cropping out the sadness

Phnom Penh sits uncomfortably on the wide Mekong river. Three wheeled tuk-tuks filled with sugar cane, tiny mattresses or unwashed hippie tourists (usually male) meander from one area to another, dodging uniformed school children on their way to classes. Next to a government owned Mercedes G-class, an extended family wakes up on cardboard mats. With the millions of remaining landmines, it is common to see human jigsaw puzzles trying to survive off of determination and hard work. Elegant estates and vast professional sweat-shops the size of airport terminals (20% of our cloths are made here) are counter points to a country that lacks a postal system. Quickly you get the feel that you are in a damaged country, inhabited by a damaged culture made up of damaged people.





The people are soft spoken, kind and interested in those that come to visit. Family is critical to the makeup of the culture and it is not uncommon to see a Mother taking time to play with her children during whatever job she is working at. One local told me that there are only four types of people in Cambodia, those few that have, those that do not have, those that come to help and those that come to exploit. That explains why on the side of most tuk-tuks (and our hotel) is a sticker that ask the reader to report child prostitution.IMG_1267


After a few days, we headed south to the coast for a half marathon that Tamara had planned. The race went well and it was during this side trip that we made a very poor choice. Sitting on the beach, enjoying the warm sand and a cold beer, one of us decided to order a chocolate shake. Did we both know that the restaurant (shack) it would come from had no toilet paper or soap in the employee bathroom? Yes we did. Did we know that the water was not safe to drink? Yes we did. Why did we do this…..we don’t know.


72 hours later we recovered enough to be fairly confident that we would not die in that horrible place and made plans to hire a driver and car to take us back to the capital to a nice hotel where we could heal up. It took a week or so to start to feel better but likely we have relearned a good lesson about sanitation. (only eat what locals eat unless it is milk, ice or lettuce)

Visiting the Bethel was a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh. The 16 volunteer bethelites focus on translation, organization and education. It was only in 1990 that the work was able to start fully and by 2008 the language received the complete Greek scriptures. Now the 20 hardworking congregations enjoy a freedom that is not to be taken for granted in this area of the world.


I have had some friends ask why Tamara and I visit refugee camps, concentration camps and genocide memorials when we travel and the reason is simple but hard to explain. It boils down to we hate bullies and refuse to pretend bad things don’t happen. This was a driving force behind both of us wanting to visit the genocide museum at one of the “killing fields” around the area.


It always seemed to me that genocide/mass murder was a disaster caused by chaos and fear but Pol Pot (the leader of the bad guys) was well educated in France, expertly planned out his actions and meticulously documented every single name and photographed all 2+ million (25% of the population) killed (by hand) during his attempt to create a playground for himself. Emptying the cities (where the people had fled to escape the 4 year American carpet bombing) he killed all teachers, artists, anyone that could speak a second language and even those that wore glasses or had a skill other than farming. He forbad commerce, religion, education and family.


The open air museum had a audio guide that related survivors’ stories of the camps and the reign of terror. Each section seemed to be more horrible than the next ending in a tree used to kill babies. The museum tries to gather up the bones after each rain yet even still we had to step over pieces of fabric or bone as we walk around.



It was only when Vietnam could not deal with Pol Pot anymore did they enter the country, kick him out, setup a simple communist government in 1979 and went home. Shockingly, until 1982 the UN, US, Britain and China would only recognize Pol Pot as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia….even providing him with money and a seat at the UN. These things seem to happen in slow motion and anyone looking to the UN for peace and security has no knowledge of history.

There is many wonderful things about Cambodia and it is a shame that mostly the bad stuff seemed to surface in my writing. Writing for me is less like a camera taking photos of neat things but more  stained clothing that you earn by navigating a path.

Our next stop is the crown jewel of Cambodia, Angkor Wat and the many square miles of ruins in the central part of the country.

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Hong Kong 15 years later.

I remember thinking on our first trip to Hong Kong (one of our first trips anywhere) in 1999, that it felt like the ominous cityscape in Bladerunner. Dark looming buildings counterweighted by oversized neon signs, offering the oblivious fast-paced pedestrians all manner of objects and services. Now, 15 years later it feels even more so as the predominantly young Hong Kongesse (don’t call them Chinese please) are permanently hunched over their iphones or tablets. Even the most traditionally dressed grandma has bright colored audio cables snaking into each ear. The impressive skyline is now even more impressive yet curtained off by a soupy smog.






The new airport is built far outside the city on a new island that took billions of dollars and years to reclaim from the sea. The old airport had you flying into a narrow valley of buildings inside the main city. Your first exposure to Hong Kong would be the bedrooms of sleepy families just above your airplane window. As it is now, you take a modern high speed rail over artificial islands and even under ground until you reach the heart of the City. Our Hostel is a typical low range artsy fartsy affair with a foosball table, balcony and a in-room bathroom that is encased in transparent glass. The complete lack of privacy was mitigated by a thin curtain that encouraged the other to bury their head in a book when nature called the other.


No visit to a new area of the world is complete (for us) without searching out our fellow Brothers and Sisters. The Bethel (administrative/translation center) has grown since our last visit. In 1999, there were only 35-40 in the office but now has increased to 200. Most of the work is assisting the Brothers in China, who are banned by the government for being “extremist”. Another focus of the Hong Kong Bethel is medical education of the local doctors in the many new methods of blood-less surgery. It has been such a success that many doctors in this area have become leaders in advanced medical (blood-less) care.


One great surprise was meeting Diane Leung again, who we met 15 years ago at the old Bethel. She remembered us and asked how we had used our youth since we last met. We were shown the new literature carts and even a few prototypes that are being sent to many large cities. It made me remember the sandwich boards that our Grandparents used to bring attention to the Bible message.


Until recently, we were unaware that Hong Kong has a Disneyland and this knowledge required Tamara to make “the pilgrimage”. Our jet-lag brought us to the magic kingdom far too early and we walked around for hours in a nearly empty park riding one ride after another. The park was surprisingly cleaner, newer and slightly smaller than the California park. The Asian flavor was muffled yet found ways to escape the homogeneous messaging.




Much of the preaching work in Hong Kong is done in public spaces because of the difficulty entering the compact secured mega-structures. Being the most densely populated place on earth, the “mansions” as they are called, are concrete cubes that provide less living space per person than a berth in a US Prison.


The Brothers and Sisters setup stands at various public places, (we assisted on the water front one day with our friend Katie) , and await the endless tourist buses of mainland Chinese (42 million last year) that arrive for a taste of “clean” air and goods from around the world. One 3 hour span resulted in over 500 brochures placed with many providing email addresses for return visits once they return home inside China.



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Our wanderings around the city was enjoyable with us never feeling spooked or in danger. The well dressed residents walk quickly from one unknown location to another, never looking away from their screens but somehow missing taxis and belching transport busses with inches to spare. The language is harsh, quick and aspergerish in its cadence but we found them nice if you could break them away from their electronic trance. One trek we took was to the “Peak” and is a highlight of Hong Kong. The hike up the small mountain ended with us shivering at the top, waiting for the large buildings below to turn on their colorful lights. One of my favorite memories is of us at this spot 15 years ago.

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Our Hong Kong adventured ended with us attending a meeting at the Kowloon Central English hall that is made up of 200 Filipino sisters and 5 local Brothers. The sisters are “imported servants” for the rich Hong Kong parents of overweight Hong Kong children. The Sisters leave their home and families to work in (according to a Amnesty International report I read recently) substandard and often exploitative conditions. The Sisters only get one day off a week and so this required that the meetings are all conducted on their day off. I found their comments during the Watchtower (simplified edition) encouraging and almost universally starting with “what I learned….” Or “ I want to use this to improve my relationship with God by….”.


Sitting next to and visiting with these wonderfully kind, meek and materially poor Sisters caused both Tamara and I to feel something similar to shame or guilt at the freedom that we two possess. Coming to terms with inequity is something easier pushed aside than examined too closely if given the choice…those that travel are often not given that choice.


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Zambia Eight Years Later

Our first International Volunteer assignment was to Zambia in 2003.  We had made many friends, enjoyed our time and allowed our minds and hearts to be affected by the experience. The 3 months in the Zambia Branch and the 5 weeks afterward exploring Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa) helped us to focus our lives to what we really wanted to do.

You can read about some of our experiences HERE

I recently received some links to some other young couples and their time working at the Zambia Bethel.

Here are the links for you to enjoy.

Is that a Python?

Lester and Leah in Zambia



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Slovenia (part 2)

I am not sure why we always rush from one place to the other on our travels. After just a day or two of resting up from our travels, we both are itching to explore and see new things! Taking a road that wandered higher into the mountains, we found another beautiful lake  that had steep mountains on either side. The trees were just changing colors and had it not been for the sun, it would have been too cold to explore

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During the winter this is a popular place for skiing. Fortunate, some of the ski lifts were still running and one lift still took us up to a large remote lodge, overlooking the green valley below.

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From there, we headed off up the mountain on a hiking trail to see what was up at the top of the mountain. Winter is still a few months off and the sun was just enough to keep us warm against the high chilling air. We walked/stumbled over the stone path that looked like white marble and the few trees around were short scrubby pines that looked very old. Many trails (or goat paths not sure) led off in many directions but we were able to stay on course because of the trail markings, small red and white circles painted on the rocks.

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The views pulled us higher and higher until we reached what felt like the top of the world. All around us was distant Alp mountains and the clear air made the distant sleepy farming villages look like miniature models.

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Just as we were feeling “hardcore” for a self guided hike into the mountains, along came two backpackers with large packs. They looked so silly with their giant packs and we wondered just how much stuff did they need to bring with them.

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They dropped their packs at a scenic spot and started o pull out some really long sleeping bags. “How strange.”, we thought as we started to take pictures of them. Then they started to put on helmets and we knew we had misjudged them as backpackers.

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With just a quick look around and a sharp jerk, their fabric wing inflated and they briskly walked off the cliff into the sky. Instead of dropping, the air currents lifted held them aloft and they almost surfed invisible air waves.

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They were still sailing the thermals like eagles when we made it back to our car and drove away into the Autumn colored valley below.

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After three days in the same place, our itchy feet told us it was time to head to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. Since there is a original language in Slovenia, there is also a Bethel Translation center. We didn’t get to tour the facility but we did take some quick pictures.

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Entering into the sleepy capital of Ljubljana we turned in our rental car, found a hostel and explored the city a bit by local bus and foot. Our hostel was very unique as it was originally a prison. Our room came complete with two foot thick concrete walls, bars on our door and window and overly short bunks. At least the pizza was cheap and we could charge our IPods.

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In the morning we head off via train to Italy. This is the final leg of our trip and we feel about ready to be home.

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Croatia (part 2)

The Bethel in Croatia is in the capital city of Zagreb, a sleepy capital with worn concrete buildings and angry drivers.

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Instead of continuing on our journey, we jumped at the invitation to spend a night and tour the translation center, or Bethel as we call it.

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50 full time volunteers work here to translate literature for the Croatia people and provide support for disaster relief and hospital stays for the Brothers and Sisters. Jehovah Witnesses were legalized in the country in 1953 but communism limited their growth. Then came the breakup of the Soviet Union that led to ethnic and religious killings. I remember the wars in the 90’s and how little I paid attention. Of course the Brothers (like everywhere in the world) would not join a side or support any faction. This lead to some being killed but many times their reputation of neutrality helped save the lives of many JWs. You can read more about their trials during this genocidal war, in one of the recent Yearbooks.

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One last thing on the Bethel, they had a display setup that showed the time-line of the Bible in Croatian. In 1665, some guy translated the Bible from Latin to Croatian but Pope after Pope would not let the Bible be released to the populous until 1831. Jehovah’s name was used in this Bible over 6000 times. The Witnesses used this (difficult to understand because of the old translation) Bible but noticed that every time it was republished (by a for profit publisher), that a few instances of Jehovah’s name was removed and replaced with “God” or “Lord” even though this was inaccurate. Eventually, the translation was deemed not good enough for use and after 10 years of work, the New World Translation was released in Croatian in 2006. The 60 congregations in Croatia now have a easily understood Bible that they can study.

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The southernmost city of Dubrovnik has what has to be one of the best ancient walled cities in the world….it was just unfortunate that we have become tired of old cities, ancient walls and medieval fortifications. Tamara and I faked it, trying to enjoy exploring the city. While we were disappointed with the level of commercialism in the city, the incredibly old buildings were impressive.

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Then we discovered that the fortified walls were open to being explored. They have maintained the wall enough that you can walk around the entire city, pretending the city is under siege by some foreign force! The funny thing is that during the ethnic war of the 1990s, the city of Dubrovnik was besieged by a modern military. They with-stood the siege but the city was heavily damaged by rockets and artillery. Most of all the damage has been repaired.

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Eventually, my “itchy feet” got the better of us and we were off driving around the countryside. We visited a few towns in Bosnia and Montenegro bringing our visited countries to 43. In case you are wondering, they are similar to Croatia just not as nice and more farm equipment on the road.

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Soon we turned our car north and headed to Slovenia, one of the least known countries in Europe. Hope to share more soon!

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