One Semester Down

29 01 2012

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already been at site for almost four months. So it was a rude awakening when my coteachers told me that semester exams were coming up already. These months have been both busy and slow, productive and not, and, naturally, rewarding and frustrating.

I think my time here is significantly different from Katie’s, since I have much more structured time at the school than she has at the health center. Peace Corps requires education volunteers to be in their school for at least 16 hours a week (slave drivers, right?). It is somehow surprisingly difficult to teach much more than 22 hours at my school based on English teachers schedules. So between my English Club and public school classes, I’m at the school for about 20 hours a week in an ideal week. Once you take away holidays, community service days, coteachers not wanting to teach days, and whatever else comes up, it seems rare for me to put in a full week’s work at the public school.

When I am at school, I’ve been having a blast most days. My coteachers and I have really started to work well together, trust each other more, and have a good time while we teach. As a result, the famously stoic Khmer students are more relaxed, have more fun, and (hopefully) learn more. As I’ve slowly introduced new teaching techniques, my hesitant coteachers have seen the response from students and began to teach in the same way. This mimicry has been one very big positive sign here for me that the capacity building that we were sent here to do is happening – even on a very small level.

So this week the students have semester tests so I’m not teaching. In fact, I’m not allowed to be at the school to even observe the very tests that I wrote. Tests are always a contentious issue at my school (and probably most schools around Cambodia) due to several corruption issues. First, most public school teachers teach private classes immediately before or after school, and may choose to have a “review” session before the exam just for their private class for 4 or 5 times the regular price.

Second, at my school all the students are required to pay the teacher for each test, which is illegal in Cambodia. Early on, I recognized that making copies for all the students can be expensive so I decided not to tackle the issue since it would probably make me more enemies than friends. Recently, however, I found out that the teachers charge ten times the amount that it costs them to make copies. All told, this little test scam contributes about 20% of my coteachers’ monthly income. Not surprisingly, this makes the kids’ relationships with teachers more like customers than students. I found this out after I told my coteacher that I gave three ‘zeros’ on tests after rampant cheating in a class I was observing. He said, “The students paid for the test, so maybe we can’t give them zeros.” In spite of all the rigidity, formality, and militaristic emphasis within the Cambodian education system, it only cost twelve and a half cents for those students to completely flip the relationship of student and teacher.

But this wasn’t meant to be about corruption. A running joke in our private advanced class is how many minutes will go by before someone mentions corruption. Whether we talk about education, the environment, development, gender issues, or sports, corruption seems to come up.

Speaking of private classes, they have been going well too. I really enjoy being able to teach exactly what I want to my private students without the constraints of a book. I still have private classes four days a week. The advanced class continues to be the highlight of my week as we are able to talk in-depth about Cambodia in a structured way. I think I tend to learn more from the class than they do, but mostly they seem to be happy to be able to practice English in a relaxed setting.

With the first semester over, the thought of summer is starting to loom larger and larger over my head. I’ll need to find some work independent of the school for 3 months. There are a couple of NGOs in town that I may be able to work with; otherwise I’m going to have to get creative.

So since I have the week off, I’m taking advantage by cooking a ton, thinking about secondary projects, and spending some much needed time with my rabies-free wife.



After a Little Time Away…

25 01 2012

An incredibly busy husband and a computer-less wife has meant an unusually long hiatus from the blogging world. But, after more than two weeks, we’re back!

First of all, let me clarify one thing since I’ve received so many inquiries in my inbox about it: I do not actually have rabies! The dog that bit me is still alive and acting perfectly normal. So nothing to worry about. The truth of it is that I probably won’t even end up with a battle scar. Oh well, I’m sure there are many more of those waiting for me in this country.

So as I mentioned before, Anne Marie came to visit. Let me give you the low down on how that was. In a word: refreshing. But I’m guessing if you read this blog, you’d probably appreciate more than a single word. (Be sure to click on the links, they lead to more pictures!)

Anne Marie arrived on Sunday the 8th. I was supposed to pick her up at the airport but I was getting my rabies shot at the time so Tim got to do the honor solo. That evening, we were able to meet up in Kampong Kdey at long last. After a dramatic sprint across the street and long, backpack-filled hug, the warp-speed chatting began. “How has the trip been? What was your favorite part? What do you want to do here? What will happen when you head back to the ‘burgh?” My questions for her were rapid fire, but so were hers for me. “How’s Cambodia? What’s Peace Corps like? How do you like your town? What should we do while I’m here?”

We spent the next two days together at site. She got to see our Angkorian era bridge, the large produce selection at the market, my health center, and all the charm that a small Cambodian town has to offer. Because she was here for Victory Over Genocide Day, she even got to attend a traditional Cambodian party with us. Sampot and all!

Together again at last

Then she took off to Siem Reap, leaving me and Tim at site for a few days to continue our daily work (hence the boring work-related post that seemed to almost immediately follow the dramatic announcement of her arrival). On Friday though, we all headed to Battambang together to explore the laid back, artsy town I first discovered during our in-service training.

We took a boat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang. It was supposed to take six hours but, in reality, ended up being closer to nine and a half. The first five hours were lovely. The views were beautiful, and it provided insight into a side of Cambodian life that I hadn’t gotten to see yet. However, after gently crashing once and having to pump water out from the boat twice, we were ready to arrive at our destination.

Three passengers set sail that day for a nine hour tour, a nine hour tour

We spent a few days in Battambang being tourists, something else I had yet to really experience in my first six months in country. We ate at all the Western restaurants, shopped at the Japanese thrift store and visited Cambodia’s only winery. We also hit up one “must see” for tourists: the bamboo train. It’s a small wooden platform that is powered by a motor along train tracks. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing. I’m not sure if I need to do it again but it was definitely worth the five bucks. The highlight, however, was the circus. Seeing the young people, who are trained at a French-run school in Battambang, contort themselves, balance on the tightrope and do all sorts of flips in the air was nothing less than impressive. The most impressive thing, however, was their spirit. All of the kids were such great performers. They were so funny, so talented and so extroverted. It was a side of Cambodian youth that I don’t often get to see at site.

Batambang circus

From Battambang, we headed southeast to Phnom Penh. And once again, I got to be a tourist, taking photos of the markets, the riverfront and the colonial architecture. While in Phnom Penh, we took a tuk tuk out to one of the biggest killing fields in the country. The Khmer Rouge killed approximately 17,000 Cambodians at this site, often by beating them to death as to save precious bullets. Although there isn’t much to see at the site, the audio tour was well done, and it’s important for any foreigner in Cambodia to see. After all of the death and destruction, we were lucky enough to be able to book ourselves some luxury treatment at one of the many spas in the city. After an hour long massage and a pedicure, I was feeling like I could take on the world. (Isn’t life as a Peace Corps Volunteer hard?)

Royal Palace Complex in Phnom Penh

But it wasn’t the world I had to take on, it was “goodbye.” Anne Marie’s ten days in Cambodia had come to an end already. At one of our last meals together, I realized how energized I was feeling after having seen her. I was worried that having a piece of home close to me again would make me sad, but it had the opposite effect. It was so wonderful to see such a close friend; I am so lucky.

When I asked Anne Marie her thoughts on Cambodia, one of the things she kept repeating was how “reasonable” it is. Tourists use many words to describe Cambodia: tragic, enchanting, humble, beautiful. “Reasonable?” I hadn’t heard that one. “It’s all so reasonable,” she’d start. “The prices, the food, the people, the accommodations. Even the buses are reasonable.” And it’s true, especially for a tourist. Cambodia is a reasonable country in a lot of ways. I had been using the words “gentle” and “easy,” but I think ultimately, we were saying the same thing. It’s easy to be happy here as a foreigner. You’re not working against the culture or the people to feel good.Things just seem to work in your favor, even if the country is still going through some serious struggles at the macro level. There’s little harassment or violence toward outsiders. Locals tend to be open and appreciate your limited language skills or cultural knowledge. You get your own seat on the bus. You can afford to treat yourself once in while. These are perfectly reasonable things that don’t exist everywhere. It’s an interesting perspective.

After Anne Marie left me to go explore the beaches of Thailand (and then the hidden wonders of Laos), I stayed in Phnom Penh for a few meetings, and just got back to site on Sunday. It’s so refreshing to be back. I always miss this place when I’m away. It’s not that I feel like I have so many friends here or that my work is too important to leave for a week. It’s not any of that. This place is just comfortable and happy. It makes me breathe a sigh of relief every time I get off the bus and head toward my house.

So anyway, I’m back in the swing of things. You can expect more posts soon.


Serving in the Peace Corps as a Married Couple: Project Opportunities

10 01 2012

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 the previous installments of this series, check them out here and here.

Demographics have an impact on what kind of projects volunteers can easily carry out. For instance, as a woman, I am in a better position than male volunteers to educate women on birth spacing options or the importance of breastfeeding. I can more easily build relationships with young girls through a girls’ club. I can lend a hand in the delivery room. Men sometimes do these things too, but as a female, I am more naturally poised to help out in these settings.

Married PCVs, woot woot!

Similarly, serving in the Peace Corps as a married couple puts volunteers in a position to more easily address certain issues. Being a couple may grant you access to certain populations like, for example, women working in the sex industry. If a single male volunteer tried to work with these women, most community members would likely assume he was paying for their services. If it’s a single female volunteer, the community might assume that she is working with the women. Both of these things could ruin a volunteer’s reputation and greatly hinder their work. Not to mention the safety concerns of being alone in this potentially dangerous environment. Although there will always be obstacles in working with marginalized populations, a couple might have an easier time providing education or counseling to these women.

Tim and I realized early on that, as a married couple, we were in a unique position, and we committed to trying to leverage our status as a couple to take on projects that might be more difficult for single volunteers. For our first project as a couple, our population will not be women in the sex industry though, we will be working with young newly-married couples.

We are in the process of starting what we’ve decided to call a “Healthy Relationships Group.” We will meet regularly with a few young couples to talk about issues such as family planning, domestic violence, decision-making, division of labor and conflict resolution. Since dating (at least how we conceptualize it in the US) often does not take place before marriages in rural Cambodian, couples generally know very little about one another before their wedding. This group will hopefully encourage newlyweds to discuss important issues and be deliberate in making decisions that will strengthen their relationship and bring them closer to their goals as individuals and as a couple.

Cambodian newlyweds

This group is likely to be a challenge because Cambodians seem to be rather reserved, particularly when both genders are brought together. The topics we plan to talk about are very personal and, even in the most open societies, can be difficult to discuss in a group. However, we feel that it’s very important, and we’ve gotten a lot of positive responses from the various NGOs we’ve spoken with about the group. The ideal situation would be that the group goes well and the participants are interested in being trained to lead Healthy Relationship Groups of their own. For now though, our plan is to take the group slow and really focus on building relationships with the couples who have agreed to participate. I think it will be really interesting to see how this develops.


So I have this friend…

7 01 2012

Anyone who knows me knows that I have this friend, Anne Marie.

You might remember her as being the one who, for a short time, lived with me and Tim in the Highview Street apartment. (If you remember this, you probably also remember that we lived off of red wine and Ben and Jerry’s the entire time.)

You might know her as being the one who is a board member for the totally amazing organization Awamaki. PS: How great was the house party/fundraiser she threw last year?

You might remember that she and I spent countless hours of our lives trying to monetize the social impact of a Pittsburgh-based organization that imports coffee from a remote Nicaraguan coffee farm. Or you may remember that we decided, on only a week’s notice, that we just needed to visit that farm. You know, for research’s sake.

Or maybe you remember that a mere three weeks later we jetted off to Cuba. Again, it was all about the research.

Perhaps you remember that Anne Marie came to visit me and Tim in Argentina (twice) or that when we returned to the US, she was the one throwing us multiple dinner parties. (Not to mention the fact that while in South America, she bought us one of my favorite presents ever!)

Maybe you remember that she’s the one who introduced me to banjo night, this song, and our “friendly neighborhood radical bookstore” in Bloomfield.

Or it’s possible that you know that  Anne Marie is my friend who is spending six months backpacking through Asia right now.

But I bet you didn’t know that she will be landing in Cambodia this weekend!! That’s right, AM, one of my best friends and most admired women, will be here with me in 24 short hours, and I could not be any happier. There is sure to be a lot of laughing, crying, and reminiscing for the next ten days as we travel together to some of the greatest cities in Cambodia. Like I said, I simply couldn’t be happier.

Welcome to Cambodia, Anne Marie!! Thanks for always finding me.


An Exciting Day

4 01 2012

Today brought with it two very exciting events, although one was decidedly more positive than the other. First of all, I had the first official meeting of my girls’ club at the high school! The club, which meets twice a week, will focus on health and leadership. It will take a few weeks to figure out who’s committed to attending the meetings regularly, but today’s meeting went very well. I just need to find a counterpart and I’ll be all set!

Then, after club, I was riding my bike home, when our town’s infamous three-legged dog bit me and, in the process, pulled me off of my bike. It was startling and hurt a little, but was not a big deal. However, now I have to head to Phnom Penh for several nights to get a series of rabies shots. I’ve already been vaccinated (and there’s absolutely nothing indicating that this dog is rabid), but the post-exposure prophylaxis is another precaution. The worst part about it is leaving site. I was already planning on being away for a week this month, so taking off for these extra days means that building momentum will be that much harder. Oh well, it’s definitely better than contracting rabies.

To learn more about my potential fate, check out this PSA featuring Hollywood’s only trusted rabies expert: Steve Carell.

I’m sure Tim will let you know if I start foaming at the mouth. For now though, I’ve got to get going. I’m just so darn thirsty… (Too much? Am I tempting death here?)


The First Day of the New Year

1 01 2012

The first day of 2012 is coming to a close here in Cambodia. We didn’t do anything special to ring in the new year; instead, we had a quiet, but lovely, weekend at site. We stayed in bed as late as possible then started the day with some of the usual chores: washing laundry and buying veggies at the market. We studied a little Khmer, worked on some projects, and streamed a couple of our favorite shows. We caught up on emails and took mid-afternoon naps. Tim met up for a Coke with a friend while I went riding through the villages.

The only sign of the holiday in our house was this single piece of cake

In many ways, I think today captures my expectations for 2012. These are the things that have become our reality in 2011 and that I’m sure will begin to feel even more comfortable in the year ahead. The Peace Corps experience gets romanticized as being two years full of adventure, where every day brings an exciting story to tell. While I’m sure that 2012 will bring plenty of adventures, it will also bring lazy weekends at site, a lot of  quality time with Tim, and hours upon hours of studying and project planning.

If 2012 is anything like I’m expecting, it’s going to be an incredible year.

Happy New Year from Cambodia with love!