The Index: Revisiting our Trip to Vietnam

30 05 2012

If you haven’t gotten enough of our Vietnam trip already, check out this piece I wrote for my hometown newspaper, The Index.

As my husband and I crossed the border into Vietnam on the first day of our vacation, it was obvious that we were no longer in Cambodia. We had only moments before left the brown, desolate Cambodian fields when we were greeted by a bright emerald hue that could only be cultivated by expensive irrigation systems and chemical treatments. Both places were experiencing the dry season, but Vietnam’s land immediately looked more productive and profitable.

Green rice fields were not the only thing we noticed from the bus window as we entered the country, approaching the southern capital of Saigon, now referred to as Ho Chi Minh City. For one, motorcycle drivers were separated from the rest of traffic by a concrete barrier instead of weaving precariously through the pickup trucks and oversized SUVs like in Cambodia. On top of that, most motos were graced by only one or two people—not the four or five that we were used to. Plus, all of the drivers were wearing helmets. What a surprise!

During the next two weeks, as we snaked our way up the country to Hanoi, it was these little differences that we noticed the most: lush, green parks dotting the cities, garbage trucks collecting trash from personal and public trash bins, French-inspired pastries for sale, house plants dangling off of apartment balconies. After ten months in a semi-rural Cambodian village, these small signs of comfort and wealth were often the topic of conversation.

Overall, Vietnamese city life looked different than what I’ve experienced in Cambodia. In Ho Chi Minh City, wide boulevards, modern skylines and a slew of international restaurants greeted us when we arrived. In fact, the size of the city was a little unsettling at first. With six million people calling Ho Chi Minh City home, it’s significantly larger than Phnom Penh, which houses a mere 1.5 million Cambodians. With so many people and such a developed tourist industry, Vietnam predictably provides refuge to a large and aggressive group of scammers too. Since Cambodians are well-known for the friendliness and warm smiles, this was one of the most marked differences of the trip.

One similarity between both Vietnamese and Cambodian cities, however, was that the majority of day-to-day life happens outdoors. Streets were packed with a range of vehicles including the obvious cars, motorcycles and bikes, but also ox carts, bicycle-powered taxis and vendors who traveled on foot to sell you fried treats or fresh fruit. Sidewalks in both countries are lined with food stalls or simply with plastic stools, where people gather to chat and pass the morning. The scale of this outdoor lifestyle was intensified in cities like Hanoi, where a network of incredibly narrow streets resulted in a feeling of either sheer pandemonium or invigorating energy, depending on the person.

The differences were not limited to the city scenes, however. For example, in Vietnam, jungle-filled mountains lined the horizon to the west, while bright blue ocean waters provided a border on the east. Although Cambodia has both shoreline and mountains, it is primarily described as “a land of paddies:” flat and green, with the occasional palm tree adding some interest to the skyline. Again, the contrast was stark and immediate, but both countries provide a beautiful and exotic backdrop to any trip.


My Summer Vacation: Hospitality Training

29 05 2012

Summer is nearly upon us here in Cambodia, and with it comes cooler weather. Wait, what? Yes, cooler weather, full rain barrels, an end to school, and new projects to prevent hammock-induced bed sores. One of the bigger projects that I’ll be working on over the summer break is an introductory hospitality course for young adults from low income families. Kampong Kdei tends to send its young people off to study or work in the big city (Siem Reap or Phnom Penh) if the families can afford it. With better education, the kids can get better jobs in Kampong Kdei or in the city to provide for the family. Since only some families are able to send their children, the families that can’t are generally left stuck while the other families continue to accumulate education and wealth. At least in our area, this has become a driving force for major inequality: those without the initial capital to allow their kids to study have remained in the countryside with very little money or prospect for making more.

Proper food handling technique? Doubtful.

The project I’m starting will target the youth in these families. Through applications, interviews, meetings with village officials, and home visits, we’ll target the most needy to attend an introductory hospitality course. The students will receive intensive English classes; go on field trips to Siem Reap to see the hospitality industry firsthand; and learn all the basics to cooking, safe food handling, and customer service to qualify for jobs in the tourist industry. Once the class is finished, the students will receive support in applying for one of the two hospitality schools in Siem Reap and may receive scholarships, housing, and a living allowance to study once accepted. Students that have already gone through the program in other areas have landed jobs in the top hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

I like the project for a few different reasons. First, I have the backing of a great NGO in Siem Reap, led by a good friend of Katie’s from Pitt. Second, the project targets not only the poorest, but also those wanting vocational training over further formal education. This to me is a totally underserved population in Cambodia. Thirdly, what better industry to train students than the fastest growing industry in the country: tourism. Lastly, teaching about all things cooking and food is one of my favorite things.

Leak, a graduate of the NGO-run program

I have a couple of great counterparts helping me with the project and couldn’t possibly do it without them. They have quickly realized how pivotal the 4-month course could be for those who have fallen years behind in school or dropped out completely. They both have been supportive in all ways, including freely challenging my plans and ideas when they were not the best way to do things. Openly questioning a bad idea is not generally a Khmer character trait, so I was overjoyed to have some heated discussions during a planning session recently.

All in all, I’m excited to shift gears away from school for a while yet retain my counterparts. Promotion for the class is in progress and we’ll start applications rolling soon, with the first class in the beginning of July. Expect a lot more updates on this soon.


Holidays, Trainings and… Cheese!

23 05 2012

Woah, May is coming to a close. How do these things happen without me realizing? This month, like the last, has flown by! As I mentioned before, the first half of May was filled with holidays: Labor Day, Visaka Bochea, Royal Plowing Day and, of course, three full days for the King’s birthday.

I took advantage of this time off to travel to Siem Reap. I spent two long weekends there doing intensive language training with a bright, sweet young woman who tripled my health-related vocabulary in Khmer and helped me to understand the much-loved comedy of Prom Manh, a famous Khmer entertainer, among other things. While there, I attended a few NGO events and met up with some expat friends. Plus, best of all, I bought a couch! We had been completely furniture-less for several months so I finally gave in and purchased a comfortable, wicker couch with a deep purple cushion. Having a comfortable place to sit, instead of on a rice mat on the floor, has made all the difference in our daily relaxation levels. Money well spent.

At the Banteay Srey Butterfly Center

During my second trip to Siem Reap, we got to spend some quality time with Tim’s former co-worker Adam and his wife Jenna, who were visiting Southeast Asia on their honeymoon. We went out for countless meals, visited the Ceramics Center, wandered through the butterfly reserve, and even gave in to the people in the streets shouting “Fish massage! Fish massage! No piranhas!” (For those of you who haven’t yet heard of Siem Reap’s famous fish massage, you stick your feet in a tank and little feeder fish eat the dry skin off of your feet. It tickles like nothing I have ever felt but was sort of relaxing after a while.) All in all, whether in spite of the fish massage or because of it, we had a lovely time and a very unique opportunity to get to know some fellow ‘Burghers.

Then last week, we headed to training in Phnom Penh. It was a busy few days but, fortunately, it culminated in a wonderful group-wide boat ride on the Mekong. Not a bad way to wrap up several jam-packed days. We got back to site on Sunday and, for me, it’s been nonstop ever since. Between teaching health, Spanish and several English classes, I haven’t had much time to breathe, let alone work on some of my longer-term projects. Tim’s week started off a little slower, with a sick co-teacher and monthly exams, meaning he hasn’t done much teaching since we got back. Tonight, however, he taught a few of our friends an invaluable lesson: how to make and eat pizza. These simple cultural exchanges are always a highlight for me. But man oh man, how I feel for those poor souls who tonight, at the age of 27 or 28, tried cheese for the first time!

Look at how eager they all look…


The View from the Porch

20 05 2012

Since we just had some friends visiting (thanks Adam and Jenna!), I’ve been imagining what it would be like for other close friends or family members  to somehow be transported to our house for a day. What would we do? What would we have to see? More than exploring, I can’t help but imagine lounging on the porch with someone from the States, just watching the world go by.

With this idea in mind, here is something for those of you that wish you could be transported here for a day, if only to drink some iced tea and watch the world go by. (Iced tea not included.)

So sit back, sip an iced tea, and imagine that you’re in Cambodia with us.

Just to give you an idea of how unexciting the view from the porch is, I originally took 739 pictures over about 7 hours. These 112 had something worthwhile happening. In order to keep you click-happy, app-multitasking, hashtagging people engaged, all the frames with nothing changing were removed. Should anyone want the full project; moving clouds, shadows and nothingness included, let me know.


Protests in Cambodia

9 05 2012

I have to admit it: I was wrong. A few months ago, I wrote a post, in which I speculated that the likelihood of Cambodians to actively protest would be low. I said:

“Cambodian society is still haunted by a strong sense of fear and obedience left over from the Pol Pot regime. Having no history of public uprising and a horrifying political genocide in its recent past, Cambodians might be left feeling paralyzed.”

However, as of late, land and labor protests have been at the center of national (and international) news. Unfortunately, many of these protests have ended in violence. In February, for example, thousands of garment workers had gathered to demand better pay and working conditions when the governor fired into a crowd, wounding three women.

Then, last month, a prominent environmental activist, Chut Wutty, was shot and killed by a government official while attempting to expose the dangers of the widespread illegal logging industry.

The late environmental activist, Chut Wutty

The most recent demonstration has been land grab protest  in Phnom Penh. One day last week, a group of women made a radical statement by stripping down to just their underwear in front of the National Assembly. Then, the following day, five women were injured by riot police.

So it appears the spirit of protest does exist in Cambodia, despite the risks. In an age when one lone fruit seller or a single tweet can change the political landscape of an entire region, it’s hard to know if these protests will be the catalyst for any bigger movements. Either way, I think the protests– and the subsequent responses– provide an interesting look into current Cambodia. It certainly is a country ripe for change.


Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig

2 05 2012

Our Vietnam vacation ended more than a week ago so I guess it’s time to focus once again on life here in Cambodia.

While we were gone, Cambodians celebrated Khmer New Year, officially a three day event that, in reality, often hemorrhages into several weeks. In order to celebrate, most Cambodians return to their “homeland,” which is how they refer to the place where their parents or relatives live. Once the family is all together, people celebrate in different ways. While young single people head to the pagodas to play games and (hopefully) meet their potential mates, married men spend the afternoons immobile in their hammocks. The women are generally busy preparing special meals for the occasion or cleaning their house for the spirits. Families also bring food to offer the monks, as is the custom for most holidays.

People at site told us that this Khmer New Year was especially hot. The director of the health center said his Khmer New Year was “bad, very, very bad” because of the heat. It sounds like many people were without water too, so they couldn’t even cool down with a quick shower. The temperatures here have been steadily hovering around 100 degrees, with the heat index getting even higher. The heat and humidity can make even the most hardworking person feel lazy. And, apparently, for some it can even suck the joy out of a popular holiday season.

Anyway, Khmer New Year is special not only because it is the beginning of a new year—this year is the year of the dragon—but also because Cambodians turn a year older during this time. Birthdays are not widely celebrated here so during Khmer New Year, everyone adds a year to their age.

Most of the festivities were over by the time we arrived back at site but regular activities weren’t quite in full swing yet. So last week we were a bit more relaxed, getting back into the routine and readjusting to the heat. This week has been back to normal, full of meetings with NGOs, English classes, proposal reviews, and paperwork for upcoming projects. And it’s been hard to complain about missing Vietnamese food since this week’s treats have included fresh fruit leather, frog legs and homemade milkshakes (but not at the same time).

I think we both agree that it’s good to be back… but we won’t be here for too long. I’ll be away three weekends this month for training, and Tim will be joining me for two of those. And it might be difficult to gain any real momentum with projects because May has six—count ‘em, six!— holidays. It is, however, a great month to reconnect with the people we missed while in Vietnam and to plan for summer projects. As always, we’ll keep you updated.