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Mistranslations

in the Kingdom of Wonder
 

I joined the Peace Corps at the age of 65 

to teach English and Art in Cambodia. Mistranslations is my memoir

of that adventure.

 

Trying to get out of Cambodia at the end of my service is another story, but I didn't know where to put it in the book. Now I do.

Here it is, the Epilogue. 
 

Photo by Jerry Downs

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Photo by Jerry Downs

It’s not easy to leave  Cambodia. You can’t just get on a plane and go. My flight is scheduled to depart around midnight, but it does not take off. Instead, passengers are offered vouchers for ice cream with a promise that we will board. Soon. Finally, we are told that our plane needs a part that may arrive from Thailand. Or China. Probably China. It should be here any time now. Soon. We continue to wait. I strike up a conversation with a Chinese businesswoman who speaks English as well as Chinese, Khmer, and Japanese. She lives in San Francisco and works with the garment industry. Some of the foreign passengers complain loudly to each other, but the Khmer travelers are silent.

At last, we are informed that we will be taken to a hotel for the night and depart early the next morning. My new friend has a long, silver braid down her back that twitches from side to side as she approaches the desk. She does not complain, or play the victim, or raise her voice. She simply says, “I understand the urgency of the situation, but this is not acceptable. I would like you to book me on the next overnight flight leaving Japan tomorrow.” The attendant agrees to this reasonable request and changes her ticket. I chime in, “Me too!”

We are taken to the Hyatt Regency in Phnom Penh. A Peace Corps Volunteer in a five-star hotel? Is this a fever dream? It’s around 2 a.m. when we check in. Still in a Peace Corps state of mind, I wonder if we will be asked to double-up in our rooms, but no, I am escorted to my own suite with two queen-sized beds, a closet that could hold enough luggage for an expedition by mule, and a bathroom—with a bathtub! After two years of using benign latrines, the toilet in this bathroom seems overly eager. Whenever I get close, the lid opens, as though hopeful. Now? Not now. How about now?

I have not had a bath in over two years. Cold water bucket showers, yes. Occasional warm water hotel showers, sure. With my village family, I learned that living in the jungle calls for more than one bucket shower a day. I can't even remember my last bath. I’m beat from being up for more than 20 hours, and the excitement of leaving (and disappointment of having to stay yet another night) but awake enough to fill the tub with the hottest water my big toe can stand. The tub looks like an oversized teacup and I am the tea bag. As I wrestle with the huge white towel I notice a scummy ring around the tub. That’s two years’ essence of me circling the drain—no doubt on its way to the great Mekong River. Part of me will always remain in Cambodia.

The next morning, our flight departed from Phnom Penh to Japan as scheduled. Because of my friend’s calm insistence, we are given a day in Narita with hotel accommodations. I walk to the Shiinshō-ji Temple through the ancient park with ancestor plinths and worn stone pathways and inhale the misty morning. So different from the tropical urban heat of Phnom Penh where even the Mekong River moves slowly. The Naritasan Museum of Calligraphy is open, and I peek in at a class in session. The silent concentration of the calligraphers with the soft scritch of their bamboo pens is as soothing as the morning rain. The park is quiet and serene, with hardly any tourists. The village is remarkably tidy. I realized that the delayed flight and luxurious hotel bath were gifts for my preparation. A cleansing ritual is necessary when entering a new realm. Now I am prepared, ready to go home and return to the Land of Opportunity.                                                                                                                                                                      

Selected Publications & Awards

The Sun magazine. Readers Write on Privacy: "In Cambodia

You Are Never Alone" essay. Sept. 2023

Finalist: Nowhere magazine Nonfiction Travel Writing Contest.

"King Javavarman the VII & the Bell Ringer" essay. 2021 

The Last Tourist in Bali, stories, Baksun Books. 2020
If Bees Are Few, “A/B/C Scenarios” poem. U. 
Minnesota Press. 2016
"Postcards from Cambodia" Peace Corps blog. 2015-17
Contributing reporter for Ventana Monthly. 2014-16

Contributing reporter for The Ojai Quarterly. 2010-16
Low Down & Coming On, “Regarding Pigs” poem.

Red Dragonfly. 2010
"Ask Ms. Metaphor: Poetic Advice for Everyday Use"

advice column. 2010-15 (print) 2020 (online)

Jentel Artist Residency, Sheridan, WY. 2024

Jaipur Literature Festival Colorado. Author Series speaker. 2019
Writer in Residence at Hypatia-in-the-Woods, Shelton, WA. 2017


Finalist: Peace Corps worldwide Blog It Home competition. 2016
Finalist: Boulder Weekly’s 101-Word
s Fiction Contest. 2016; 21
First Prize: Blue ribbon—apricot jam! Ventura County Fair. 2014
Grants, Ventura CA, California Poets in the Schools (CPITS) for underserved area schools. 2013-15
Grant, Boulder Arts Commission (BAC) Arts & Humanities Assembly of Boulder (AHAB), for "A Poet's Alphabet" anthology. 2000
Grant, BAC and AHAB for publication of "Elements" anthology. 1999
Grant, Colorado Council of the Arts, "Sumo Haiku Heavyweight Championship"
 event. 1999

Prose Prize: Boulder Planet Fiction Contest, "Pictures." 1997

Upcoming Workshops & Teaching Experience 

Memoir of a Moment, a one-day writer's workshop at Firehouse Art Center, Longmont, CO. May 2024

Memoir of a Moment, a one-day writer's workshop at Sage Art Center, Sheridan, WY. February 2024

It's All Memoir, a one-day writer's workshop at the Dairy

Arts Center, Boulder, CO. 2023 

I Have a Dream, a 4-week poetry workshop for elementary-school students, Longmont, CO. 2023

Story, 4-week writer's workshop Longmont, CO. 2023

Poetic Forms, 4-week writer's workshop, Longmont Senior

Center, CO. 2022-23

Peace Corps Volunteer Teacher of English & Art, Cambodia. 2015-17

Poetry Workshop Leader & Area Coordinator for California Poets

in the Schools (CPITS), Ventura County, CA. 2010-15

Poetry Coach, Poetry Out Loud. 2010-15

Adjunct English professor, Brooks Photography Institute,

Ventura, CA. 2004-15

Adjunct English professor, Ventura Community College,

Ventura, CA. 2004-15

Adjunct English Professor, Rocky Mountain College of Art

& Design, Denver, CO. 2000-02
 

Recent & Upcoming Art Exhibitions

The Big Draw, “Buckthorn Near & Far” & "Strawflower Stars" cyanotype-photo-drawing. Arvada Center, CO. 2023 

Lafayette Arts & Cultural Resources Dept. biennial Lost & Found: Found Objects exhibit. "Birdy" found glove w/poem. CO. 2023

Marshall Renews Art Exhibition, "What Remains; Reframed; Reclamation" cyanotype-photocollage triptych. Benefit for Marshall Fire victims. Louisville, CO. 2023

On Edge, "Moonlight Ride" cyanotype photocollage,

Edge Gallery, Denver, CO. 2022

Art of the State, “Once in a Blue Moon” cyanotype photocollage, Arvada Center for the Arts, Arvada, CO. 2022

Happiness, “Flower Photobombers” Exhibizone online. 2021

Green Show, “Green Gallery” metal photo, Core New Art Space, Denver, CO. 2021

Escape, “Look Homeward Angel” photocollage, Next Gallery, Denver, CO. 2021

Backroads: Art Less Traveled, “Acolytes Ascend into the Blue Mystery” collage at Vestige Gallery, Pittsburgh, PA. 2021

Blue “Goddess of the Dawn” photo collage at O’Hanlon Arts,

Mill Valley, CA online. 2021

Knickers in a Bunch. “Strange Dreams” collage online. 2021

Pink Progression, “Middle of the Story” original book forgeries; collaboration with painter Irene Delka McCray at Arvada Center for the Arts, Arvada, CO. 2020

RAW Artists National Arts Drive. Sidewalk chalk portrait,

“Harriet Tubman: Black Lives Matter” Longmont, CO. 2020

"Postcards from Cambodia" photos & poems exhibition at

Ojai Art Center, Ojai, CA. 2017

Education

​Cert TESOL, Trinity College London at Indonesia/Australian Language Foundation, Denpasar, Bali. 

MFA Writing & Poetics. Naropa University, Boulder, CO. 

BA English. University of Colorado at Boulder. 

All content copyright © 2024 Tree Bernstein

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