Vietnam bound!

23 02 2012

Okay, so maybe we’re not Vietnam bound yet but we did get our visas this week! Tim and I are in Phnom Penh for a few (long!) days of training and decided to take advantage of our time in the big city to solidify our vacation plans. Generally, most schools and health centers shut down for virtually the entire month of April because of the celebration of the Khmer New Year. This provides us volunteers a great opportunity to travel. This means that all sixty of us who are currently in town are all busy making plans and buying tickets.

Tim flaunting our visas

Tim and I had been bouncing around a lot of different ideas, but a friend finally convinced us to land on Vietnam. We will spend around two weeks there in early April, hitting some of the most raved-about locations in both the north and the south of the country.

Trip planning has been a highlight in an otherwise long week. We’ve still got a few more days of meetings to survive so you probably won’t hear much from us until we return to site.


A Tuesday Tradition

15 02 2012

In keeping with the theme of our last post (food!), I wanted to write about a special meal that has become a tradition for me and Tim since we’ve arrived in Kampong Kdey.

Tuesdays are usually very long days for us. For some reason, they seem longer, hotter and busier than the other six days of the week. And although we generally feel like crashing by four o’clock, our day always holds much more for us. After the school/work day is through, Tim and I sit down to lesson plan together because on Tuesday nights we teach English to a group of NGO workers at their office. After that, one of the staff members then reciprocates the favor by teaching us Khmer. While we wholeheartedly appreciate this, do you know how tiring it is to begin a Khmer lesson at 6:30pm, after an already long day? To most of you back home that probably doesn’t sound too bad; however, in a village that is usually in for the night before dark falls, it makes for a long day. By the end of the lesson, we are usually exhausted!

But, wait! What comes next? Every Tuesday, the NGO staff hosts us for dinner. Tim doesn’t have to cook.  I don’t have to do dishes. We just sit down after class and share a meal with some of the friendliest people in our community. It is a relaxing, and much appreciated, reprieve from our long day.

I remember during pre-service training we had a session on integration. The session leader was asking a panel of volunteers who “their people” were at site. One Volunteer replied that “his people” are the bank employees that he lives with. Another said she spends her time with the ladies at the market. One said that “her people” were the midwives in the health center where she works. For us, “our people” are the NGO and microfinance employees in our town. They have warmly welcomed us into the community and have taught us so much already.

Even though I’m completely tuckered out by the end of  the day on Tuesdays, our weekly dinners together are always a highlight of my week.

The weekly gathering


The Muller Menu: Looks like Cambodia, Tastes like America

13 02 2012

Due to the what Katie has labeled the “popularity” of the first Muller Menu post, I’ve decided to once again sit down and answer what may be everyone’s favorite question, “What’re you/yinz/ya’ll eatin’ over thur?”

Black Bean Burgers - A weekday staple

Since I had nearly two weeks off from school, I set out to do all the things that I said that I’d do if I had more time: laundry, cleaning, Khmer studying, email returning, and cooking. Guess which one I actually got around to. (I was practically camped in the kitchen – just the way I like it.)

I have really enjoyed cooking in Cambodia, mostly because it comes with some serious limitations. In the US, I tended to cook with a certain flavor profile in mind: creamy, cheesy, rich, and ridiculous. Anybody who knows me has probably been subjected to a 12 pound slice of my triple layer chocolate raspberry stout cake or a piece of meat of my choosing, stuffed with cheese, coated in cheese sauce, with crumbled cheese on top. Moral of this overly descriptive story: I overdid everything.

A simple, cheeseless mango and purple cabbage slaw.

In Cambodia, I have been separated from my most reliable cooking weapons: cheese and cream. Not having a refrigerator really puts some limits on the dairy options. Another limitation is only having one small portable burner. It works great, but good luck having two hot things at the same time for dinner. Lastly, what is a warm-blooded American male without gadgets? Stripping away the food processor, blender, mixer, mandoline, slow-cooker, garlic press, coffee bean grinder, knife set, oven, 4 burner stove, sink, running water, and counter space has made me a much better cook. Having to MacGyver ways to make American classics without actually having the proper tools or ingredients is the best way to learn how to actually cook. Recipes aren’t really an option, so I’ve been able to really feel my way around meals that I’ve always wanted to master.

Mastering an intricate American classic - chili cheese fries, sans cheese.

There is no more spending $50 on groceries to copy one Food & Wine recipe exactly. Our budget is about $2.50 a day for two people for two meals and a snack/dessert. Cambodian prices make a difference to be sure, but we’ve also gone vegetarian at home due to a lack of appetizing meat at the market. This isn’t entirely new for us, but it adds a nutritional component that we have rarely had to think about before. In a complete change from home, we’re on a never ending search for new sources of protein and lately, calories. We’ve both lost weight since arriving, and have been trying hard to level out and stay healthy.

Here’s some of what we’ve been eating since the last Muller Menu:

Regular Sunday pancake breakfast, complete with maple syrup (Thanks P&B!), honey, homemade dairy-free caramel, cinnamon apples, bananas, and peanut butter.

Dumpling soup - when we have no culinary creativity. Or time.

Peanut Butter and Banana Custard Parfait

Katie's favorite - veggie hoagies

Thanks to an excellent meal inspirer, photographer, and eater, Katie.


GHO Clinic at the Health Center

11 02 2012

Earlier this week, a group of American doctors, dentists and other health care professionals from Global Health Outreach held a one-day clinic in Kampong Kdey. Nearly 350 patients flocked to the health center to receive treatment from the foreign doctors. Each patient had the option to choose between dental care, medical care or a basic eye exam. In some cases, patients got to meet with a physical therapist or a radiologist. The team was kind enough to share some of the trends they observed during the consultations, which helps give me a broader sense of the public health needs in the area.

Patients waiting for the doctors. So many people showed up, the health center ran out of chairs.

The dentists worked on more than 75 patients.

There were several tables like this set up for consultations. Each table had an American doctor and a Cambodian translator.

A patient shows her appreciation for the new pair of eyeglasses.

A patient reads a religious pamphlet while she waits.


The Index: Wedding Season

8 02 2012

Last December, Tim and I wrote some quick reviews of our first Cambodian wedding, but now is your opportunity to learn more about this special ceremony. As regular readers know, every 4-8 weeks I contribute a brief article about my life in Cambodia to my hometown newspaper. In the latest installment, I provide a  look at the traditions and rituals included in wedding celebrations. Check it out below. Or, to read the other installments, click on the tag “index.”

Cambodia, like Michigan and most of the Northern Hemisphere, is in its cold season. However, while many Michiganders are fighting off the cold weather with warm sweaters and hot chocolate, Cambodians are taking advantage of the brief reprieve from the heat and scheduling their weddings.

Indeed, we are smack in the middle of wedding season here. All around the country, tents are being raised, elaborate, brightly colored dresses are being hemmed, and discordant wedding music is being blasted from wooden carts piled high with speakers.

Although weddings in the United States have become increasingly customized based on the personalities and beliefs of the couple, Cambodian weddings are steeped with traditions and rituals that can be recognized in virtually every ceremony.

Before a ceremony ever occurs, however, both families must agree to the marriage. In fact, it isn’t entirely rare for families to arrange the union on behalf of their children. Courtship, as it exists in the United States, is virtually nonexistent in rural Cambodia, and even couples who do choose to marry on their own have often never spent time with one another outside of a public setting. In fact, almost all rural Cambodian couples share their first kiss on their wedding day.

After the families agree to the marriage, they negotiate the bride price. In the town where my husband and I have been living and working, the groom and his family usually pay between $2,500 and $3,000 to the bride’s family. Once the bride price is settled, the invitations go out, hand delivered to each family who is invited to the joyous occasion.

On the first day of the wedding celebration, family and friends close to the couple gather at the groom’s house with offerings of fruit and meat. The small crowd then walks, in a gender-segregated single file line, to the bride’s house, where a small ceremony and a light meal of rice porridge take place.

This is generally one of the first opportunities for the couple to model their festive wedding outfits. Many brides have at least five different, glamorous outfits for the occasion. Similarly to many brides in the US, Cambodian women will spend hours pinning their hair into a perfect up-do and generously applying make-up. In Cambodia, a culture that idolizes creamy white skin, most brides also slather on several layers of whitening cream before applying their nearly-white foundation.

The bride will soon flaunt another equally stunning outfit for the haircutting ceremony, during which guests take turns symbolically cutting the hair of the bride and groom. As they pretend to snip the locks of the new couple, family and friends wish them happiness, prosperity and longevity.

In a similar ceremony, blessing strings are tied around the wrists of the bride and groom, as more well wishes are bestowed upon the young couple.

Throughout the various events, Buddhist monks generally chant prayers for the family, and musicians play traditional Cambodian instruments, including the tro, a two- or three-stringed vertical fiddle.

After several days of ritualistic, highly structured ceremonies, the wedding culminates in a large, joyful reception, not much different from many receptions in the United States. Very frequently, 500 people or more gather in a large tent or restaurant to partake in some of the most delicious food the country has to offer. For men, the beer flows freely, but it is not considered polite for women to drink, even at the most important parties, such as a wedding reception.

Shortly after the guests finish eating, contemporary Khmer music blares, loud enough for the entire village to hear, signaling the beginning of the dance party. And what started as a quiet negotiation between two families turns into a raucous party that lasts well into the night.


Voices of Cambodia: Ok Chantha

7 02 2012

Our first Voices of Cambodia interview comes from Chantha, one of our first friends at site.

Name: Ok Chantha

Age: 28

Occupation: Primary school teacher

Tell me about yourself.

My name is Chantha and I am a teacher and I live with my family. There are five people in my family. My father is a farmer and my mother is a housewife. My brother right now is married and stays with his wife. I’m the second son in the family. My younger brother stays with us. He has work also. I like to watch TV when I have free time. I like to watch live concerts from Phnom Penh and I read newspapers and books also.

What do you do in an average day?

Monday through Friday I go to school and teach my students. Class starts at 7 am to 11 am. From 11-1 pm I have free time and I have lunch. From 1 pm to 5 pm, I have class again. Every Saturday and Sunday, I go to Siem Reap for computer class.

What do you want American people to know about Cambodia?

I really want American people to know about the culture. I want them to know more about the situation of people living right now. I want them to know about the students studying in high school.

How has Cambodia changed in your lifetime?

The school has changed. Before, students came far away to study in Kampong Kdei, but the government is building schools. It’s easy for students to study now. Another thing is the road. The road is better now. Students can continue studying and find a good job in Siem Reap. Before, there were no MFIs (Micro Finance Institutions) or NGOs. The material used now is modern – new bicycles, new houses, new motos. When I was young, we had a civil war. There was fighting sometimes, but now it has stopped. They’ve come to work all together.

How do you think Cambodia will be different in ten years?

First, it will be different for students – they can go to school and study together. When they can increase their knowledge, they can find a job to do. Cambodia will be better, but nothing can change without knowledge. If the new generation has high knowledge, they will join and develop the country together.

If you could improve one aspect of your community, what would you improve?

The youth would study more and have a good job to do. They will change themselves and develop the community.

If you won $10,000, what would you do or buy?

I would study at university and find a girl and get married. I would have a plan for my future with my wife and build a new house.

Voices of Cambodia: The Game Plan

6 02 2012

In an ongoing effort to make this blog a readable, interesting, but unromanticized account of our Peace Corps lives, Katie and I have decided to begin a new series entitled “Voices of Cambodia.” We’ve talked at length about the pitfalls of writing personal blogs about Peace Corps service and realized that it is exceedingly difficult to write entries with an honest, unbiased voice to them. While we do try hard, we often find our posts don’t come across as accurately as they should. Slightly stronger adjectives are used; emotions get in the way; personal bias or sensationalism clouds what could be an objective, well-written post. So how do we avoid these pitfalls? By asking the very people we’re writing about so much on this very blog. What better way to teach others about this country and its people than to let this country and its people do the talking?

So here’s the game plan:

  1. Katie and I have come up with seven questions that we think can elicit some particularly interesting responses from Cambodians. We’ll ask these same seven questions to Cambodians in and around our site. We are open to others if you have ideas – just let us know what you want to read about.
  2. We’re starting the interviews with our English speaking friends to finalize the questions, but soon we’ll do them all in Khmer with others in our town as to get a more representative group of responses.
  3. We will not provide commentary about the responses. Their answers will be as raw as translation will allow. We will try our best to translate both Khmer and broken English into something readable, but we will try hard to stay as true to the original language as possible.
  4. You will be able to easily access any of the interviews by clicking on “voices” on the right hand side of the screen under the “Tags” heading.

The questions are as follows:

Tell me about yourself.

What do you do in an average day?

What do you want the American people to know about Cambodia?

How has Cambodia changed in your lifetime?

How do you think Cambodia will be different in 10 years?

If you could improve one aspect of your community, what would you improve?

If you won $10,000, what would you do or buy?

Look for our first interview soon.


“Make the Story be about the Poor”

2 02 2012

Earlier tonight, I came across a new post from Tales from the Hood entitled, “American Culture 101: More blessed to give than to receive.” It’s a passionate article that links the giver-centric American attitude with the contemporary humanitarian aid industry. Drawing upon examples in current pop culture and American history alike, the author makes the argument (among others) that we Americans love being the giver, and therefore, diminish the role of the receiver, whose role is only “to accept and be grateful.”

Before I applied to the Peace Corps, I had three major concerns. One was personal, one professional and one philosophical. I’ve written about the other two previously, but wasn’t sure if I would blog about the philosophical concern I felt. However, this article provides a clear segue.

When considering moving abroad with the Peace Corps, I was concerned that the experience would be too volunteer-focused and would not adequately emphasize the needs of the community. This is a common criticism of volunteer-based international organizations and isn’t limited to the Peace Corps,  but also extends to my former employer in Argentina and other similar organizations. It’s a valid concern too since the composition of these groups is often young (read: unskilled and unfocused), independent (rebellious), privileged (demanding) Millennials. We– I consider myself to have many of these attributes, as well– require a lot of time, money and attention.

After investing all of those resources into Volunteers, the Peace Corps needs to ensure that we don’t leave service early. This is an understandable reason that the agency emphasizes Volunteer happiness. Another reason is because we are needed to promote the experience, to market their product to all potential future Volunteers. Add in liability issues and the administrative mess that stems from unhappy PCVs, and it’s easy to see how why it can get all too Volunteer-focused.

But what about the reason we are here? What about the communities where we serve? How do they fit in?

One argument is that happy Volunteers will be more productive in their communities, so by focusing on the Volunteer, you are also focusing on the community. I think this is fair to an extent. However, I think there is much more that could be done, on an organizational and an individual level, to increase the emphasis placed on the “receivers” of our efforts.

Globally, Peace Corps could modify the recruiting and application process so it truly examines and embraces the skills that Volunteers bring with them.  That way, Volunteers can be better matched with contexts where their skills are needed, thus substantially increasing the potential for positive impact on the community. And, while we’re at it, it’s absolutely essential that Peace Corps have an in-depth and up-to-date understanding of the specific contexts where it works. Only then can it really benefit the people it aims to serve.

Here in Cambodia, the language used during our training was astonishingly Volunteer-focused. Even the overarching topics of our trainings were heavily geared toward having a positive Volunteer experience, instead of emphasizing having a positive impact on the community. Sessions on community-based change and participatory assessments existed, but were, in my opinion, brief and underdeveloped. This needs to change if the program wants to shift its focus to the local people.

As individual Volunteers, we have the greatest opportunity to overcome the giver-centric tendencies mentioned in the article. We can do this by devoting more of our time to reaching a level of fluency that allows for a nuanced understanding; conducting thoughtful, comprehensive assessments that truly put value on the voices of the community; and putting our interests aside in favor of those of the community where we work. These are the things we could be doing, but most of us aren’t. At least not to the extent we could.

All of this is to say that I think that Peace Corps, as it currently functions, fits the model described in the article I read tonight. Peace Corps, for many young people, is an opportunity to have an adventure abroad and feel good about making a difference. From an organizational standpoint, PC relies on the happiness and safety of the Volunteers. These things lead to an organizational focus that strays from the people who are supposed to benefit from the agency’s efforts: the poor.

As the author of the article says:

We have to make the story be about the poor… We have to fight the urge ourselves, both as individuals and as organizations, to make the real story about processes and pipelines and logistics and budgets and technical standards. Of course those things are all important and we have to do them all well. But they are only means to ends. We have to keep the people we’re trying to help in the forefront of the storyline.

I couldn’t agree more with the idea of shifting the emphasis off of donors and aid workers. The poor should most certainly be in the “forefront of the storyline.” In this way (and in many ways), the author is right on, which is why I chose to share the article. But I’d quickly like to note that the one major flaw I find in the article is that it perpetuates the giver/receiver paradigm, which ultimately disempowers the community in many of the same ways that placing an emphasis on donors and processes did in the first place. Yes, the emphasis needs to be taken away from the donors, the aid workers and the Volunteers; however, we should stop using language that paints this as a one way process where we  give to them.

Regardless, it’s a constant struggle. One faced by Peace Corps, yes, but also by hundreds of other organizations with the best of intentions. And I have to admit, as development workers and Peace Corps Volunteers, it is can be a surprisingly difficult task to look beyond ourselves and make the story be about the poor.