Our Favorites

15 10 2013

Since we’ve decided to stop blogging for now, we thought we’d leave a post at the top of this page with some of our favorite entries from our time in Cambodia. Please feel free to revisit old favorites or check out any posts you might have missed along the way.

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Posts by Katie

Reflections on the Kingdom of Wonder

A day in the life of a Community Health Volunteer

Why art education has the power to transform the country

How one delivery can represent the entire development process

The challenges of health care services

Posts by Tim

A look at the devastating ways poverty can perpetuate itself

Lessons learned from one year in the public schools

The view from our porch

The landmine situation throughout the country

Once again, thanks for reading and– more importantly– supporting us while we were away. This blog served as a great outlet for processing our experiences and sharing a little piece of our world with friends and family across the globe. We’re glad you enjoyed it. Cheers!





Stateside

23 09 2013

I’m not writing this post from underneath my mosquito net in Siem Reap. I’m not writing from a bed in a simple room in a guesthouse in Takeo. I’m not writing from an Internet cafe or an expat restaurant in Phnom Penh. At long last, I am writing this post from my apartment in Philadelphia!

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Two weeks ago today, I landed in the States after a 24-hour journey that started in Phnom Penh. When I got off the plane in Detroit, I bypassed the luggage claim area (the joys of bringing home a single, carry-on bag!) and headed to customs, where I was the only person going through. As I passed each station, I had a moment to chat with the staff, all of whom had opinions on the fact that I was coming from Cambodia. “Where’s that again,” one asked. “Weren’t you scared,” asked a couple of others. “You mean you haven’t been back in two years,” one lady exclaimed as she checked my passport. I was only on US soil for a few minutes before the commentary began.

Luckily, I didn’t have to answer too many questions before I saw my parents waiting for me. Smiling, familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in far too long. After a hug, I put my stuff in the car and we headed back to my childhood home, taking the highway through recognizable corn fields and small Michigan towns.

I’ve spent most of the time since I’ve been back relaxing with my family. It took several days for me to get over the jet lag, so the first few days had me heading to bed around 7 or 8 o’clock. While I was home, I got to spend some time with my sister, who served as my shopping assistant as I tried to remember what clothes were considered cool, and I made my first trip down to the house my brother bought. It was great to get together with old friends who still live in the Mitten. Then, from Michigan, it was off to Pittsburgh for more heart-warming reunions. Finally, on Friday, I arrived in Philly, where Tim was waiting for me with big plans for the weekend, including dinner with my much-missed aunt and uncle at a highly-rated restaurant called Stateside, which I thought was fitting considering the circumstances.

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It’s been amazing to be back in the States and to get a taste of what the next few years will look like. I’ve had a wonderful time exploring my new neighborhood. Despite having heard Tim’s stories, I was in disbelief when I saw that three short blocks from our house is Little Cambodia! Much to my surprise, they were selling sao mao, prahok, ansom jayk, and most every other Cambodian dish I could think of. There were shops selling Khmer wedding gear and women walking around in traditional skirts. My mind was, and still is, completely blown by the way my new life and old life have collided.

I am happy to spend the upcoming days and weeks getting settled in a new city, remembering the excitement and energy that comes from new beginnings. I’m also looking forward to cooking some of my favorite dishes, cuddling up with Tim, and – to a lesser degree- job hunting. It will be interesting to see where the next chapter leads.

I don’t anticipate keeping up the blog now that I’m back, but that, too, is unclear. Maybe the time or mood will strike again, but in case it doesn’t, lee-a sen howie, or goodbye!

Katie





One more sleep

5 09 2013

My last week in Cambodia has been one unlike any other. I’ve spent it tying up the loose ends of my contract work, but luckily that hasn’t been too difficult, leaving plenty of time for fun and relaxation. Throughout the week, I’ve spent countless hours in expat coffee shops, gotten multiple massages, had my hair and nails done, and eaten at several wonderful restaurants. It’s been lovely, and the best part has been the company. I’ve gotten to spend much of this week with some of my colleagues and mentors, which has been a blast.  I am incredibly grateful for the time I got to spend with them.

Relaxed after a week of pampering

Relaxed after a week of pampering

Tonight, my last night in Cambodia, the Country Director hosted a reception for all of the current and incoming volunteers. I really couldn’t ask for a better last night in country, surrounded by the staff and volunteers that have made my service meaningful. Only one more sleep for the trainees before they swear in as volunteers, and only one more sleep for me before I get on that plane to fly home. Unbelievable!

Katie





Cambodia (still) is…

3 09 2013

In July of last year, I wrote a post about all of the things Cambodia had come to mean to me after one year in country. It quickly became– and remains– my most popular post. When I was packing up my house in Kampong Kdey a few months ago, I reread it and realized that most of images still resonated. As a way of capturing those thoughts in printed ink, I submitted the text to Siem Reap’s literary magazine, called the Siem Reader. The latest issue features my piece as the first of the bunch.

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A copy of the magazine will make a perfect souvenir to take with me when I leave next month.

Katie





Tangled

2 09 2013

This is the last in a series of articles I’ve written for my hometown newspaper, the Index.

I’ve been agonizing over how to properly sum up the past two years of my life in a concise, yet meaningful way. Like any two years, my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia has been complex: full of personal milestones, frustrating challenges, and moments of boredom. In that way, it doesn’t feel much different than any other two years I’ve lived.

Yet, these two years took place on the other side of the globe in a context that was completely different from any I had known. Because of that, there’s an expectation that I have neatly-packaged insights that I can easily and eloquently relay when others ask, “How was Cambodia?” or “What was it like?”

I have no shortage of anecdotes I can share when asked these questions – mice shooting out of our toilet, getting bitten by the town’s infamous three-legged dog, running a half marathon through ancient temple ruins. However, interesting anecdotes only touch the surface. In the same way that the pizza you had for dinner last night doesn’t define how your week has been, the ant soup that I ate with my host family, while perhaps an amusing story, in no way represents the experience I’ve had here.

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Although I know most people are not looking for anything but a brief response to their questions, I feel great pressure to give a more complete message about my time in Cambodia than a simple anecdote or two will allow. Crafting my story feels like a heavy responsibility because in telling my story, I also tell Cambodia’s.

However, this kind of in-depth reflection is difficult. How do I make sense of an experience that is so tangled up in who I have become that it’s nearly impossible to separate it from myself?

When thinking back on my Peace Corps service, and other formative events in my life, it becomes easy to slip into a rut of self-absorption. After all, living in Cambodia was life changing, so it should come as no surprise that I want to explore the wide range of emotions I’m feeling now that I’m faced with leaving it.

I feel heartbroken, for example, having to say goodbye to people who have become my closest friends and sources of inspiration.  I feel gratitude for all those who took the time to teach me a new word in Khmer, to share their stories with me, or to work beside me on projects. I feel pride for the effort and thought that I put into my service. I feel unbridled excitement to share my experiences with others when I return.

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However, if I’m honest about my emotions, I also feel disappointed for the days I chose not to leave my house, for finding excuses to avoid studying the language when I had free time, for not trying harder to achieve equality in my workplace relationships.

And then there’s the doubt: doubt about whether, after countless hours of chatting and sharing meals together, I ever meant anything more to my host family than the 100 dollars of rent money I provided each month. I doubt whether my projects did more good than harm. I doubt whether the lessons I’ve supposedly learned over these two years will stick with me once I step foot back in the States.

If dwelling on my own feelings seems too self-absorbed — and it certainly does— shifting the focus to the many brave, resourceful, and open minded Cambodians I met throughout my time in country feels trite. The often cited idea that “they taught me more than I could ever teach them” undoubtedly rings true, yet appears so empty when written on a page for the millionth time. How do I shine a light on individuals like Hoan Hoak, who has become a leader in her community and begun to create a safe and just environment for women and children? How do I recognize Vanna, my student who is brave enough to teach older women about health, even in a culture where age equals respect? How do I give voice to these stories, and so many more, without it seeming forced or formulaic?

I imagine returning from an experience like Peace Corps is one of the only times in my life when I will be asked to summarize two years of my existence, including the place I lived, the people who influenced my day-to-day routine, and my emotional response to it all. It overwhelms me to try and make sense of it.

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When I return to the States next week, I want to feel prepared to tell a nuanced account of what I’ve witnessed and experienced in the past two years. I haven’t figured out exactly what this story will sound like as it plays in my head and comes rushing out of my mouth. After all, some of the most powerful insights come long after an experience is over.

However, as I begin what I imagine I will be a long process of making sense of this journey, I hope never to forget the beautiful complexity of this country or my time in it. I will try to remember that this experience is more than an accumulation of anecdotes, self-righteous reflections, or formulaic stories of local heroes. I might not yet be able to supply neatly-packaged insights, but I can attest that it was two years like any other: messy, beautiful and finite.

Katie





The End of Training

1 09 2013

Pre-service training is coming to a close, meaning I have less than a week before I fly home. On Friday, I led my last technical session, and now I’m left with only a few small tasks to finish up before I return to the States. I know some people thought I was crazy for sticking around after my service ended, but it’s been a great couple of months and I couldn’t be happier with the decision to stay.

I’ve spent the past two months in Takeo province, preparing the community health volunteers for their first few months of service. Practically, this has meant a lot of lesson planning, facilitating sessions, and organizing community events. I’ve been fortunate to work with an outstanding group of trainees who have continually impressed me throughout the eight weeks of training. As I told them in our last session together, I feel complete confidence and overwhelming optimism about what they will accomplish over the next two years.

A trainee practicing health messages in the community

A trainee practicing health messages in the community

My favorite part of training was seeing the new volunteers in action at our community events. Throughout the duration of training, the new volunteers were expected to put their new skills to the test by conducting community assessments in English and Khmer, teaching formal health lessons to secondary school students, leading infant feeding and weighing sessions, building hand washing stations, and so much more. As a trainer, these were highlights because I had the opportunity to see the volunteers step outside of their comfort zones, use their ever-growing language skills, and start to build meaningful relationships with community members. As a former PCV myself, it was one last taste of village life, which I will certainly miss when I leave.

Throughout these eight weeks, I’ve been staying in a guesthouse in the provincial capital of Takeo. It’s a nice room with A/C and hot water, meaning it’s a clear step up from where I’ve been living the past two years even if it felt a little confining some days. There’s a TV with two or three English channels, although my new-found love of NCIS had me glued to Fox Crime most nights. The technical trainer for the English program roomed next door to me, and we would grab dinner together every night. Some nights that meant going to the lone Western restaurant in town for a pizza and a coffee smoothie. Other days we’d head to our favorite Khmer place with hammocks and beautiful views of the water. Most of the time, however, we’d stay in and cook pasta in a rice cooker or grab cheese and crackers from our mini-fridges.

My home for the past eight weeks

My home for the past eight weeks

Yesterday we moved out of that guesthouse and back to Phnom Penh, where we’ll stay until we fly out. I’ve got a few things to finish up, but most of the week will be spent relaxing, taking advantage of all that the capital has to offer, and preparing – mentally and otherwise – to go home on Friday!

Katie





Transitions

15 08 2013

I have always had a deep appreciation for transitions. There’s something gratifying to me about the way that our literal actions, like packing up boxes or hitting the open road, mirror the deeper emotional changes they accompany. When making the decision to stay in Cambodia after my close of service date, I thought often of the fact that I would not be able to make my transition back to the States, and later to Philly, with Tim. The symbolism of taking this next step alone, and months after my husband, didn’t sit well with me. For two years, we had imagined our flight home together, our first day back in the States together, exploring our new neighborhood together. Although I do not have even an ounce of regret about my decision to stay, I am still a little disappointed that Tim and I will have these experiences separately.

Last night, while I was fast asleep, Tim began his journey from Michigan to Philly. He loaded up the moving truck, said goodbye to his parents, and headed east. He drove 300 miles from suburban Detroit to Pittsburgh, where he was lucky enough to meet up with the warmest, most caring friends we’ve ever been blessed to have. They had a small dinner party complete with treats like blackberry basil tea, eggplant sourdough pizza, and peach shortcake — things I can only dream of! Tomorrow, he’ll be making the rest of the trip and moving all of our things into our new, adorable one bedroom apartment in South Philly.

To commemorate this important transition, here are a few pictures from his trip.

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The moving truck loaded and ready to go

Eating a cookie while driving?

Eating a cookie while driving?

The best of friends

The best of friends

Her too!

Her too!

Katie








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