“Settling Down” in Cambodia?

26 09 2011

In just one week, Tim and I will officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers and (finally!) begin our two years of service. At this stage, all of us trainees are plagued by questions and doubt:

Will I get to work on projects that interest me?
How will I make friends in my new community?
Will I ever get used to eating rice three times a day?
How will I know if I’ve made a positive impact on my community?
What will it be like to leave the company of other volunteers/trainees?
Do I really have enough skills to do this?

Although these questions are probably common ones, the question that rings in my head is this: How will I react to being in one place for two whole years? Most of you reading this are probably well aware that I have been on the move constantly in recent years. In fact, I recently sat down to figure out the stats:

In the past 7 years, I have lived in seven different cities across four different countries (not including Cambodia). And, to top it off, I have moved residences at least six times more than that! The last time I have lived in any given place for two full years, was from 2002-2004! High School.

I guess you could say I am a nomad. I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to do this, and I have learned more in the past few years than I could have ever anticipated… but am I ready to sit in one place for two years??

Moving so often has allowed me to meet some truly exceptional people. It has given me insight into how people live their lives. And I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process because moving so much has made me step out of my comfort zone so frequently that I’m no longer sure where my comfort zone ends.

Moving so often has also forced me to constantly evaluate– and appreciate– my circumstances. Every time I pack up boxes (or backpacks) full of my things and say goodbye to a place that has become home, I am forced to take stock of the wonderful memories that place has given me.

Furthermore, moving keeps things interesting. It scratches that itch we all get at times, that need to try something new, to get out. There has been a steady stream of curiosity and hope, as I try to predict (to no avail) what my next life will hold.

Of course, being on the move presents a number of challenges as well. The most difficult for me has always been the fact that I haven’t had time to form deep friendships with people before taking off again. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have left just as I was beginning to form a meaningful relationship with someone. Leaving before these relationships are solidified has, at times, left me feeling isolated. Not to mention that having friends all over the world means that you’re friends (and family) are rarely at your side.

However, the positive aspects have always unquestionably outweighed the negative ones… Until now. Now I am ready to “settle down” for two years in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’m ready to trade in my wanderlust for the great opportunities I will have as a health worker with the Peace Corps.

I’m sure there will be times I will go a little stir crazy over the course of the next two years, but this experience is one that is absolutely worth it. The friendly people, the beautiful landscape, the work opportunities, the sense of community… Settling down in Siem Reap is hardly a sacrifice! If any opportunity is worth staying put for, this is it!


It’s Siem Reap!

16 09 2011

After literally years of waiting – waiting for applications, waiting for nominations, waiting for medical clearance, waiting for placement, waiting for that flight to take off….we’ve finally found out where we’ll actually be living for the next two years.

On Saturday, we had to explain to our host families that we were leaving for five days. “Where are you going?” they asked like all good parents. But we could have gone anywhere in the country and Peace Corps just had to make it dramatic.

We came into our hub site town for another day of meetings, knowing by the end of the day (at the very end of the day, of course), we would have our placements. They built the suspense (and maybe softened some disappointment) by driving in dozens of pizzas from Phnom Penh. Were we distracted by warm, cheesy pizza deliciousness? Only briefly. From there, we listened intently to a Commitment Speech given by Peace Corps staff. Then came site announcement. We all stood in a circle of 60 volunteers around a giant map of Cambodia made out of tape on the floor. One by one, our names were called, quickly followed by cheering, jumping in the air, and high fives.

The following morning, we left for Siem Reap city to stay for one night. Siem Reap is one of the most touristy cities in the country due to its proximity to Angkor Wat, meaning lots of poorly dressed foreigners. But also Mexican food. You take the good with the bad. Unfortunately for us, Siem Reap town was completely flooded. After getting off the bus at the bus station, we took a tuk tuk into the city to get to our hotel. After driving through knee-deep water, the driver got us close, but refused to drive any further as the water got higher. We hopped into the water and waded a few more blocks to our guest house. The kids in the city were having a blast playing in the water while store owners and hotel staff tried to prevent the rising water from entering their place of business. After settling in, we waded back into the street, eating our fill of tacos and ice cream.

Our new house in Siem Reap

The next day, with slightly higher water levels, we fought the waves to meet our new host families. We met our host mom (Chovi) and rode with her in an overcrowded pickup truck to our village. The village is larger than our training site, with a huge market and more outlying villages. Katie and I met with our respective counterparts at the health center and high school, and spent the two days getting to know the village and the family. (Pictures will be posted eventually)

From our site we caught the five hour bus back to Phnom Penh and explored the city for the first time. We were able to eat at Friends, a relatively famous restaurant promoting hospitality training for at-risk youth, and the food was delicious (for the foodie friends: mango slaw, chicken curry, cucumber with yogurt mint sauce).

We’re back in Takeo for the next few days, then take off next week for “Kampuchea Adventure,” which sounds like a two day field trip in the south. Our time with our wonderful host family in our training site is limited, so what little free time we have will be focused on spending time with them, studying for our language test next week, and preparing to move to permanent site.


A Week of Small Victories

9 09 2011

As I mentioned in the last post, training is slowly but surely allowing us more independence, as well as more time to interact with the Cambodian people. I am extremely grateful for this shift. And, in fact, because of this new independence, this week has been one filled with small victories. These victories will probably not be all that impressive to many of you reading this, but some of you who have lived abroad and/or learned another language may relate. So, in no real order, here are a few of the things that made this (otherwise mundane) week a little more exciting.

1.) I went to the tailor. Not only did I go to the tailor, but I went by myself and was able to order two custom-made shirts. I got the two shirts in a matter of days and they fit me perfectly. To top it all off, I got a good price. I consider this a testament that my Khmer is coming along. (And besides, now everyone thinks I’m saa-aat– beautiful- because I have a couple of Khmer shirts.)

2.) For our community activity, we held an infant nutrition seminar at the local health center, and I would deem it a resounding success. We demonstrated how to use boboa, a traditional porridge used for weening small children, as the base for a healthy and delicious meal. We added in some locally produced, affordable veggies and wah-zam, a great meal to use when introducing complimentary foods. We had a good turn out, and I had a wonderful time talking with the mothers and children who came.

Nutrition Seminar

3.) Finally, after having been here for six weeks, I can really start to see relationships forming and growing. Tim and I genuinely enjoy spending time with our host family, we are starting to develop some real friendships with other trainees and, even between the two of us, brand new meaningful conversations continue to sprout up on a daily basis. Moving abroad can feel isolating at times, but this week really made me feel like I have a support network of Americans and Cambodians in-country.

So I’ve seen some small, but important victories this week, but the real test is still to come. Tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon, we find out our permanent placement then leave immediately to visit it for a few days. This will be the real test of our speaking abilities. This will the be the first opportunity to see how we are able to form relationships with our future coworkers and host families when we are completely on our own. This is where we begin to assess how realistic our personal and professional expectations are for the next two years. I am supremely optimistic and most certainly looking forward to seeing our new home. It will definitely be a week of surprises though, so I am sure that we will have much more to write about when we get back…



6 09 2011

The first two batches of photos have finally been uploaded to Facebook, thanks to the new Internet cafe. We will have many more to post next week, after visiting the place that will soon be our new home.

But for now, check out these links:



Halfway there

3 09 2011

Training continues. Luckily, the rigid schedule of the past few weeks has loosened up a bit. Two weeks ago, we had “Practicum Week,” which is a chance for volunteers to engage in more hands-on activities that mimic the kinds of projects they are likely to work on at permanent site. This means that Tim and the other education trainees were in the classroom. They taught mostly English lessons, pairing at times with other trainees and at times with Cambodian counterparts. For us health trainees, life was a little different. We observed one day at the health clinic, visited an NGO outside of Phnom Penh, conducted door-to-door surveys in our broken Khmer, learned to make the traditional weening porridge made by Cambodian mothers, and taught health-based lessons in both formal and informal settings. It was a nice break from all of the hours in the classroom– which is, of course, not a true classroom, but a small covered area outside of our teacher’s house, vulnerable to the rain and the wind that is common in rainy season.

This week we were back to classes, but with a couple more activities thrown in. For example, we had the opportunity to practice an assessment tool with the community youth. It was a great way to hear more about what they think could make their community better. Our group decided that drop-out rates were preventing people from getting jobs and making a living, and they brainstormed some possible solutions to these problems, including the creation of an informal learning club, the incorporation of more creative teaching strategies and the development of support networks to encourage students to stay in school. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to address these issues in any long-term way, so we will be passing on their suggestions to the school director and the future volunteer who will get placed here for their permanent site.

Even though we can’t address such structural-level problems in the two months we are staying in our village, we are still trying to find ways to give back. Next week, we have two days off specifically so that we can carry out community projects. The trainees in our town are contemplating ideas related to an opportunity fair, a market clean-up and education campaign, and a nutrition seminar for mothers with young kids. Parts of this week have been devoted to coming up with these project ideas and figuring out the logistics to carry them out. The challenge is of course finding sustainable projects that can be implemented in such a short time frame.

This week, we also had a session on religion that brought us the the wat. We were able to talk with the monks who live there and learn more about Buddhism– particularly the Buddhism practiced by the Cambodian people– and the lifestyle of being a monk. The wat near our house is beautiful, and it’s always a humbling and serene experience to visit, with the gentle chanting in the background and the views of the rice paddies in all directions.

Another thing that happened this week is that Tim and the education trainees traveled to the provincial town to do some teacher training exercises at the University. As time moves forward, we continue to get more practical experience that builds our confidence and skills as we transition to permanent site.

And, on the topic of permanent site, we have only one short week until we find out where our post will be. We have started to develop some preferences based on the information that has leaked about the potential sites for couples, but are trying to stay open and optimistic. We would both be happy anywhere, but are eager to be in places where our skill sets match the needs of the community and host organizations. The good thing is that we had our practice language exam this week, and based on that, we are both learning the language at the speed they expect. We were unofficially given the rating of “Novice High,” which is the level we need to reach by the end of training. We are starting to feel more and more like we are able to communicate with our host family, PC staff members and those people in the community who we interact with on a regular basis. It’s been encouraging, but there is much more to go before we will feel totally capable of successfully working in our sectors.

Other than that, the biggest news is that we finally got an Internet cafe in our town. So we should be able to update more regularly, and– gasp– finally put up some pictures. So plan to hear from us again soon.