Christmas in Cambodia

26 12 2011

Merry Christmas everyone!

Being away for the holidays has been difficult for many Volunteers. The majority of us have found ourselves getting nostalgic about things like cups of rich hot chocolate, snow covered landscapes and Christmas carols. However, thanks to some wonderful people– both here and back home– Tim and I had a great Christmas weekend in spite of being so far from family!

My (incredibly generous) parents sent us a couple of packages stuffed to the brim with wrapped presents and delicious foods we’ve been missing from back home. Included in the packages were cards from some of my relatives back home too. They were the only two Christmas packages that arrived before the holidays (apparently there are others on the way), but they certainly helped create a Christmas atmosphere. Friday afternoon we put on some Christmas tunes and sat at the base of Tim’s makeshift Christmas tree made of brooms and Coke cans. As we opened up our presents– everything from gift cards to jewelry to homemade Chex mix– it truly felt like Christmas.

Then three of our dearest Peace Corps friends came for a visit. The lovely ladies spent a couple of nights with us at site, exploring our small town, making obscene amounts of food and catching up on one another’s experiences here. It was a perfectly relaxed, yet festive, weekend that set the bar high for future holidays in Cambodia.

Enjoy the slide show below or check out the public Facebook album here. 

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Bizarro World

22 12 2011

This morning I arrived at the health center a little later than usual, but still a solid half an hour before the majority of the staff usually arrives. Normally, I find the one staff member who’s on duty watching TV in the waiting room and a small group of patients waiting patiently for the doctor to arrive. Today, however, I found bizarro world.

All of the staff members had already arrived. I checked my watch. Only 7:50, weird. Everyone was wearing gloves and caps, walking around smiling. The patients who had arrived early were already in the consultation room, meeting individually with the doctor. Some patients were even being handed their medications by the friendly pharmacist already. I had never seen medicine distributed before nine o’clock, let alone before 8:00. No patients had to wait. No staff members barked out orders. Things were running quickly and smoothly, and the staff was displaying the best customer service skills I have yet to witness in Cambodia.

As it turns out, two staff members from a leading (US-backed) NGO came to visit the health center today. I watched one of the nurses lead them around the newly-raked grounds, smiling and gesturing while she spoke. It was the perfect picture of what a health center in the developing world can achieve when fully utilizing its material and human resources. Throw a picture or video of my health center in a donor appeal, and you’d be sure to receive record donations.

So I found myself sitting there with nothing to do. Since no patients had to wait, there wasn’t a good opportunity to talk with them about health issues. Since the staff was busy doing their jobs, I was left with no one to socialize with. So I watched, and as I watched, things became increasingly clear. The lab techs had spent a week organizing their slides. A crew had spent several days cleaning up the grounds. Brand new signs were just installed throughout. Everyone had been too busy yesterday to study English. All of these things, all of them, were because of the NGO visit. So I watched for about an hour and then I left, frustrated.

The staff already know what they’re supposed to do, and they have the skills to do it. Today proved that. When they needed to run a good health center, they could. But what about the other 364 days a year? What about all of the patients who come in throughout the year and receive substandard care because there’s no NGO representative in town that day? Why was I sent here to build the capacity of individuals who already knew how to do their jobs, but weren’t?

Yes, I understand there’s a whole host of social and cultural factors here that I need to consider. Maybe the staff really can’t arrive on time everyday because of the responsibilities they have at home. Maybe they don’t have the financial resources to buy gloves and caps for everyday. I get that.  But, if nothing else, they can be nice to their patients everyday. Being nice doesn’t take any extra time or money. And they clearly know how they should be treating their patients, they just don’t.

Now that I’ve seen that they have the knowledge and the skills to be doing their jobs well, I’m left with the challenge of figuring out how to incentivize them to do this everyday. How can the picture perfect health center I saw today function like that all year round?


The Index: Round Two

20 12 2011

Last month, I included a link for a short piece I wrote for my parents’ newspaper, the Homer Index. I have since discovered that the link (obviously) doesn’t work after a while because, even in the small town of Homer, the news changes. So for the soon-to-be-published second installment of the series, I have chosen to just include the text below. I will be writing new content for the paper every 4-8 weeks (tag: index), so keep your eyes peeled.

(PS – If you live in the Homer area, you should just subscribe to the paper. Don’t make me feel guilty for posting this online for the other blog readers with no connection to my hometown.)

Downtown Homer, Home of the Index

Here it is.

The first couple of months in a new host community can be some of the most difficult for Peace Corps Volunteers, who are trying to settle into their new lives despite a language barrier, striking cultural differences, and an ambiguous job title. It’s a time for exploration, asking questions, making mistakes and recognizing potential.

My husband Tim and I have been at our site for only two months, but we’ve experienced all of these things already. As Peace Corps Volunteers, the expectations of us can seem vague. We know we are supposed to support the community’s development and facilitate cultural exchange, but what does that look like on a day-to-day basis? It can be a complicated question to navigate.

Fortunately, at the request of the Royal Government of Cambodia, the Peace Corps has given us primary assignments to help focus our work, particularly at the beginning of our two years of service. My title is Community Health Educator at our town’s health center, while Tim is an English teacher and youth development worker at the public high school.

Tim has found his job at the school to be straightforward and enjoyable. He teaches seven sections of English, alongside two Cambodian teachers. His job is to simultaneously help the students improve their English skills, while building the capacity of the full-time teachers to effectively and creatively plan and conduct English lessons. He also leads an optional English club that supplements the official Cambodian curriculum by using inventive activities to help the students improve their conversation skills.

While Tim is busy teaching classes, I spend my mornings at our local health center or doing health outreach in nearby villages. My role is to provide education on issues like maternal health, childhood nutrition, and water and sanitation. Because I have no set classroom or group of students, I have begun teaching the patients in the health center as they wait for a consultation or to receive their medications. I also work with a group of volunteers who have committed to being the liaison between the health center and the surrounding communities. Soon we will coordinate regular health classes in the villages together.

These assignments have provided us an entryway into the community, allowing us to build relationships with our coworkers and learn more about our new home. However, these jobs currently require only 20 hours a week, leaving us with plenty of time and energy to commit to secondary projects that can help our site.

For now, our secondary projects consist mostly of teaching private English classes to our coworkers and friends in the community, but they will likely transform into wider-reaching projects as we learn more about the desires and skills of the people who live here.

Even though we have found ourselves busy with our primary assignment and our private English classes, we have still found enough time to explore our new home. Afternoon bike rides through the rice paddies, wedding receptions and community gatherings have all given us insight into the warm, rich culture that we’ll be surrounded by for the next two years. If these first two months of service are any indication of how the rest of our time here will be, we are in for quite an exciting time.


Facing my Fears in a Sandwich Shop

14 12 2011

In the last post, I mentioned that living with a host family was a concern for me and Tim when deciding whether or not to accept our invitation to serve in Cambodia. Well, that wasn’t the only concern I had. From a professional standpoint, I was also nervous that I would not gain enough experience in these two years abroad.

I knew that working in Cambodia would help me to continue developing so-called “soft skills” like patience, adaptability and multiculturalism, but I was nervous that I would not be gaining the same tangible skill sets that my colleagues would be gaining, as they worked as Field Officers or Project Managers in offices across the globe. I knew that as a Peace Corps Volunteer I would have no office, no defined role, and no professional mentors providing daily support or guidance. And because of that, I was nervous. After all, I still need to be able to compete with my peers when I (presumably) return to the States in a couple of years.

This was on my mind when I met up with a friend in Siem Reap last month. Emily is a friend of mine from Pitt who is currently working for a nonprofit in Siem Reap (small world!), and in mid-November we met up for sandwiches in a small shop in the town’s tourist district. We happily greeted one another, but then I dove right in with questions about her work. You see, Emily and I share many professional interests so I was truly eager to hear about the nitty gritty of her job. I soon found out that she was coordinating the strategic planning efforts for the organization and helping to refocus its target population, in addition to her general program management duties. This may sound like drivel to most of you, but my heart was racing with excitement to hear these things.

Strategic planning! Project management! Scaling-up! Target populations! I die…

(I bet many of you didn’t know I was that big of a geek, did you?)

At the Sandwich Shop in Siem Reap

So I drilled her, hanging onto every word. I was sincerely excited for her because Emily is a brilliant and energetic young woman who could do great things for any organization she stepped foot into, but I was also trying desperately to live—and learn—vicariously through her. She had been in Cambodia for a shorter time than I had and was already able to speak in a meaningful way about the work she was doing and the experience she was gaining; whereas, when asked about my work, all I could say was that I was still in the “initial stages.”

“Initial stages?” What I really meant was that I understood less than half of what was being said at site, still couldn’t comprehend really important aspects of how my host organization runs, and still had no clearly identified role or projects.

Now, as I said before, I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for the Peace Corps. I knew there would be a whole lot of waiting. I knew learning would be slow and unpredictable. I knew that I was going to be operating in a foreign language and that I might never have a defined role. I’ve done this sort of thing before so I knew. But looking across the table at Emily and hearing how much she had accomplished—and in less time than I’d been here— I was face-to-face with my fear.

That day, I promised myself to proactively look for opportunities to use and build upon the kind of program design and management skills I was hoping to develop. Well, those opportunities have arrived!

Since the Peace Corps health program here in Cambodia just finished its first year of existence, there is an effort to reflect on how the first year went and propose any necessary changes to the project framework. So I will be working on this, along with several other health volunteers, both K4s and K5s. Do I even need to brag about how this means I will get to be involved in the process of evaluating indicators, exploring partnership opportunities and assessing internal communication practices? Be still my heart.

In addition, I’ve also been selected to serve on a PC grant review committee, meaning that I’ll be heading to Phnom Penh this weekend for training. I know, I know—I am truly a geek, but, again, this is great! I like reviewing grants even more than I like writing them. How fun!

So, for now, it looks as though I’ll have plenty of opportunities to gain that professional experience I was hoping for by working on initiatives within the Peace Corps. Hopefully I can eventually take these skills and use (and transfer!) them within my host community. Because although developing my own professional skills is a great thing, I’m ultimately here to develop the skills of my counterparts here at site.


Serving in the Peace Corps as a Married Couple: Part Two

10 12 2011

Tim and I will, from time to time, be offering insight on what it’s been like to serve in Cambodia as a married couple. If you haven’t seen Part One of this series, check it out here.

When deciding whether to accept our invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, one of our biggest concerns as a couple was what our housing would be like in Cambodia. Before leaving, we had been married for 20 months. Of those twenty months, we had lived with a roommate or host family for 14. So we were more than ready to move into a space of our own. Then, the Peace Corps Washington staff told us that we would be spending the following 27 months with a host family. Oh boy. It was the single biggest issue that we discussed when making our decision, but we ultimately decided that the inconveniences of living with a host family could not possibly outweigh all of the life-changing experiences that coming here could offer.

As you probably all remember, Tim and I got to live together during training. This does not always happen with couples in the Peace Corps, but with the way that our training was organized, we ended up in the same village. During training, Tim and I had a much more traditional homestay. We had one bedroom in a house, and we lived with a mother and her teenage daughter. We ate all of our meals together, watched TV or studied together, and generally interacted with one another for several hours each day.

Despite this, we were still given a lot of independence, and although there are many factors involved, my impression is that much of that independence was given because we were married. So while some other volunteers felt like their families were watching (and, at times, criticizing) their every move, we were free to wash our laundry, clean our room and go for bike rides with no scrutiny. When I got food poisoning at the house, the family insisted I eat some food, but promptly backed down when Tim explained that I was not ready to eat yet. From what I’ve heard from other (single) volunteers, their experiences were much different and their families were much more involved and worried.

In many ways, the fact that we are married helps us fit in with Cambodian expectations. “Good” men and women get married (albeit a little older than we did). Once you are married, you are seen as being responsible, independent and capable in a way that your single counterparts are not. Our training host family both trusted our judgment and knew that we had one another to rely on, relieving them of some of the pressure to take care of us.

Being married also let them see our personalities much more than if we were living in the house alone. It can be very difficult to feel like yourself when you have to speak in a foreign language all day, but Tim and I have the luxury of speaking English together. This means that our family got to see us talk, study and play together in a way that we were unable to do with them because of the language barrier. I think this helped them see us as more complete (and happy) people than what they could see when we had to rely on our Khmer. Furthermore, if one of us was having a bad day or struggling with the language, the other person was there to pick up the slack with the conversation and help smooth things over. I think our family was less likely to be hyper in tune with our individual moods because the other person acted as a sort of buffer in those situations.

As training came to an end, we were eager to learn about our permanent site. Even after 17 months of living with families abroad, I have never been good with homestays, and I was quite nervous about what our housing situation would be at site. Turns out, it is fantastic! Tim and I have the entire upstairs floor of the house and have been given a huge amount of independence.

We have the freedom to cook all of our own meals and have our own bathroom. We come and go as we please. We have plenty of space so we aren’t attached at the hip all day long. We don’t even necessarily see our host family every day, but they are there whenever we have questions or need advice. It’s been an ideal living situation for us so far.

Of course, every couple’s situation is different. Some have nicer or bigger places than us, some don’t. Some have host families that are more involved than ours, some don’t. I have to say though that Peace Corps has been willing to work with all volunteers on issues relating to housing. If a volunteer isn’t comfortable in his/her house, s/he isn’t going to be happy and probably won’t be as effective in the community. I have total faith that the PC Cambodia staff would help us out if we felt like we needed even more independence in our homestay. Luckily, this isn’t an issue for us.

So, it turns out that housing, an issue that was almost a deal breaker for us, has turned out to be one of the highlights of our experience so far. It’s been wonderfully reassuring to feel like we have a home here in Cambodia. We can walk into our second floor apartment, plop down in the hammock and feel completely comfortable. We can eat exactly what food– and what quantity of food– we want. We can have private conversations without feeling like we have an audience. And–this is really exciting!– I can hold Tim’s hand or sit close to him without offending anyone or making others uncomfortable. These little things make the world of difference after a hard day.


Khmer Wedding Food

9 12 2011

As promised, today we bring another list of Khmer wedding bests. It’s hard to top the awkward moments, but I’ll try my best to bring you the wedding’s best food:

3) Banana bread. The final dessert  of the two day event was both locally made and amazing. This probably rates higher more because of the idea of regular delicious baked goods than the actual taste of the bread.

Banana bread in special wedding boxes

2) Snake. The wedding party on the first night had two different types of snake. The first was chopped fine and mixed with onions and more cardamom per bite than an entire cup of Turkish coffee. It was chewy and gristly, but loaded with flavor. I was surprised to taste anything like cardamom, since I’d never seen or tasted it in Khmer food before.

The two snake dishes

The second type of snake came whole. It was fried, and heavily salted. As I ripped mine open, I was lucky(?) enough to find a mass of eggs inside. There was little meat, but the skin was somehow both chewy and crunchy. The eggs were by far the best part – little gelatinous balls of salty goodness.

Tastes like chicken. Really.

1) The best food of the Khmer wedding, and perhaps the best Khmer food we’ve had so far in country was….quail! I had thus far never tasted quail, and this was an excellent first start. It was juicy without being greasy and went great with pepper sauce. It was even more exciting to eat at the time because in a somewhat startling English-Khmer misunderstanding, my co-teachers insisted we were eating a Kiwi (a small bird native to New Zealand). That sounded very exotic to us until we got home and read up on it. Turns out that the kiwi is on the verge of extinction. We frantically did some research and found out that it was not kiwi, but quail. Either way it was delicious.

Mystery Bird

There you have it folks; the three best foods from the wedding. It was great to taste so many different Khmer foods all at once, especially since we cook for ourselves in our homestay. But Katie will talk more about that tomorrow…


Our First Khmer Wedding

8 12 2011

Tim’s co-teacher Chanthou got married this week, and we were invited to both days of the wedding festivities. There is truly too much to say about Khmer weddings– it would never fit in only one blog entry– so today we will just include some of the highlights.

The happy couple!

Specifically, we’d like to recognize the three most awkward moments of the occasion– you know, those moments that have you physically uncomfortable because of how agonizingly awkward they are. I have to tell you, this was a tough decision. We felt that there were many worthy moments, but we’ve narrowed it down to the top three for your pleasure.

(Before going on, let’s not take this too seriously. Virtually all cultures have wedding rituals that would seem nothing short of bizarre to outsiders. I could have just as easily compiled a list of awkward moments at US weddings. The removing of the garter, anyone?)

Okay, let’s begin with the second runner-up.

3.) The bride and groom stoically sompea-ing (bowing) to the audience as they were being covered in silly string. It doesn’t sound like much, I know, but how on Earth do you take yourself seriously when being sprayed with silly string? The juxtaposition of one of mankind’s most playful inventions against the solemn (grave, even) expressions on the wedding party’s faces was just too much for me.  High awkwardness rating.

Next up…

2.) The father being fed a banana by the wedding singer. Painfully awkward to watch. I’ll let the photo speak for itself.

And, (drum roll, please!), the winner of most awkward moment is….

1.) The bride and groom’s first kiss!

As I’ve mentioned, Cambodian courtship is drastically different from in the US. For example, a couple getting married in our town has (generally) never kissed before. This was the case for Tim’s co-teacher and his new wife, and let’s just say it was blindingly obvious that this was their first time.

In fact, it reminded me of a little clip that I recently came across on the interwebs. If you haven’t seen this clip of Ellen talking about TLC’s new show “Virgin Diaries,” I implore you to do so now. You will not regret it… plus, it will help you better relate to the discomfort that Tim and I felt last night watching the nervous couple share their first kiss.

“Less chewing!”

Okay, all jokes aside, Tim and I had a great time at the wedding. Chanthou and Kunthea seem to be sincerely happy, and we wish them the best of luck. We felt very lucky to get to participate in the celebrations, especially with so many friends who made sure we had a good time. It was a very special occasion and one that I’m sure we will remember for a long time. Congratulations to the new couple!!

Tune in tomorrow for our awards for the top three best dishes at the event. And, in the meantime, check out more pictures of the wedding on Facebook.


Mines In Cambodia

7 12 2011

On Sunday, Katie kicked some serious Angkor Wat butt as she ran a half marathon around some of the most famous temples in the world. The race proceeds went to benefit several causes, but land mine victims in particular. According to UNICEF, Cambodia is the second most mined country in the world by area (second only to Bosnia and Herzegovina) with an estimated 143 mines per square mile.  The number of mines and other unexploded ordinance in Cambodia is a very rough estimate, but I have seen 4 million (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) to 10 million (UN). In contrast to mines in other countries, the mines remaining in the ground in Cambodia were never mapped as they were put in the ground. This obviously makes demining efforts very slow, very dangerous, and very costly.

So where did all the mines come from? Mines were laid by the North Vietnamese as early as 1967, and  by the US-backed Lon Nol regime against the incoming Khmer Rouge fighters from 1970-1975. A large amount was also used under the Khmer Rouge along every border, and surrounding farm cooperatives. Later, the Khmer Rouge insurgents laid mines during the civil war from 1979 to 1998. Of course, mines were also laid by the regimes following the Khmer Rouge against the insurgents and against any possible Thai invasion.

Besides mines, still other dangers remain from unexploded ordinance (UXO) dropped by the United States during the secret bombing campaign from 1965 to 1973 under Johnson and Nixon. 2,756,941 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia by the US during this time (more than all of the bombs dropped by the Allies in World War II) and with a dud rate of about 10%, that leaves a lot of very dangerous material lying around.

US Bombing Concentrations

Strangely enough, I happened to be reading George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops? as I was thinking about writing this entry, and believe it or not, even he weighed in on the issue globally:

There are 340 different types of land mines made by a hundred different companies. Every day roughly six thousand fresh mines are placed in the ground. Right now, there are 110 million land mines in seventy-two countries; and every twenty-two minutes, one of them explodes. Seventy-five mines explode every day, and each month seven hundred people are maimed or killed. Don’t you find that interesting?

Mines cost only three dollars to make and put in the ground. But they cost a hundred dollars [$1,000+] to disarm and remove. If you tried to remove them all, it would cost $33 billion and it would take eleven hundred years. They cost three dollars apiece, and they last indefinitely. Wouldn’t it be nice if other products could make that claim?

Here’s another funny statistic: In Cambodia, one out of every 236 civilians is missing a limb or an eye from an exploded land mine. Cambodia now has thirty thousand people [40,000] with at least one missing limb. And they still have 4 [6-10] million mines in the ground.

Even as unreliable a resource as George Carlin may be, his statistics still underestimate the issue. I added the higher stats in brackets for your reading pleasure.

Mine and UXO Casualties

Besides creating a country where 40,000 people are living as amputees, land mines and UXO have contaminated an estimated 648 km2 of land that could otherwise be used for agriculture. While waiting for the land to be cleared, often Cambodians risk their lives in search of water, firewood, or just to find a place to go to the bathroom.

Although we are in a considerably more contaminated area in the northwest of Cambodia, our town doesn’t not immediately appear to have many landmine victims. Riding our bikes to the surrounding villages tells a different story, however. It is not uncommon to see several amputees during one thirty minute bike trip. There is obviously a geographic bias for victims, but as a result, there is also an economic bias for those affected by mines.

Mine Accidents by Province

Organizations such as the Cambodian Mine Action Center continue to work every day clearing mines and other UXO. The goal is to clear the entire country of mines and UXO by 2019. With the amount of money and time needed to clear these dangers, mine clearing teams undoubtedly have a lot of work ahead of them.


A note to the parents: Although the statistics may be shocking and worrisome, your beloved children are safe and sound. 

It’s Official: I’m a Half-lete!

4 12 2011

Two months ago today I went for a run. It was fifteen minutes long. It was the first time I had run in more than two years. Today, a couple of short months later, I successfully completed the Angkor Wat International Marathon! Although my time was laughable, I did, in fact, run the entire 13.1 miles without stopping. I am happy to cross this off my bucket list, but will never consider doing it again! :)

Enjoy a few shots taken by my number one fan and go-to photographer, Tim.

The setting

Lining up for the race

Last kilometer... almost there!


New Address

2 12 2011

We have a new address! The old one will work, but this should be faster:

Tim and/or Katie Muller
US Peace Corps
P.O. Box 93205
Siem Reap, Cambodia

A big thanks to everyone who has sent us mail. We’ve loved staying connected (..and the chocolate wasn’t bad either).