When It Rains, It Pours

23 07 2012

Based on the title, this post could be about the monsoon season, which is currently in full force here in Cambodia. It could be about the downpours that leave me trapped with no protection but a rickety, old seller’s stall. It could be about the deafening storms that periodically keep me up at night. Or the way the rains interfere with classes or outings. But it isn’t. It’s about the ebb and flow of project work. And just like the weather in this country, the workload always seems to be at one extreme or the other.

It’s been interesting, if not altogether unique, to ride the waves of work the past nine months at site. Although people’s schedules and responsibilities go through cycles in the States too, for me it’s always been a different experience abroad. There’s something about the way time passes in a different country, and the way “work” is defined, that exaggerates both the slow and the busy times.

My newest mini-project: Teaching English to the neighborhood kids

Let’s take June as an example. June was a fairly slow month in terms of my workload. A decent portion of my day-to-day work had been taking place with students at the high school, but then exams hit and the students disappeared, some of them never to return. As a result, the things I was doing at the school – namely the girls’ club and Spanish classes – came to a screeching halt, and I was left to regroup. The exam process takes several weeks and it was very difficult to get in touch with any students during that time so I wasn’t able to set up a summer schedule for my existing projects, nor was I able to get anything new started. So mostly I waited. The month still went by quickly and I was very much enjoying life at site, but the workload dropped off significantly for a couple of weeks.

July, on the other hand, has been an absolute madhouse. I have felt completely swamped this month, in the best kind of way. Writing proposals, working on K6 training, teaching at the health center, organizing Camp GLOW, planning for my childhood nutrition project, traveling to Phnom Penh, the list goes on. Yesterday I drafted a calendar for August to give to my health center director, and it looks like August will be busier yet!

This cycle keeps things interesting, keeps me invested and energized. I need both the highs and the lows to stay happy and sane, but most people who know me know that it’s really during those busy times, like right now, that I thrive.


TedxPhnomPenh Videos Available

20 07 2012

Remember when Tim and I went to the Tedx conference in June? Well, the videos of the talks are now available. Please feel free to check out the following site to hear some “ideas worth spreading:”



Voices of Cambodia: Ea Nearadey

19 07 2012

We are happy to (finally!) post another “Voices of Cambodia” post. This one comes from our neighbor, a lab technician in the health center. This interview was originally conducted in Khmer and was translated to English.

 Name: Ea Nearadey

Age: 47

Occupation: Laboratory Technician

Tell me about yourself.

I am Nearadey. I have a husband; we’ve been married for seven years. We do not have any kids. I went to see a (fertility) doctor in Vietnam but we still don’t have any children. I want more nieces and nephews. I have a niece who is 18 years old, but she left for Siem Reap already. My husband has children because he was married before. I have 10 brothers and sisters; five of each. But two have died already. My mother died nearly three years ago too. I am a nurse.

What do you do in an average day?

I work at my house a little. Sometimes patients come if they are sick. At the health center, I look at blood to see if patients have tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS. At home, I clean the house and make food. My husband builds houses.

What do you want American people to know about Cambodia?

I want them to know that Cambodians want to go visit America. I want to go visit so I can take American drugs that will help me have a child of my own.

How has Cambodia changed in your lifetime?

Thirty years ago, it was very different. They didn’t have phones yet. People were very poor and didn’t have a lot of knowledge. There were no hotels and people didn’t drive motos. Now, we have better roads.

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

I think in ten years the people will know more, especially about foreign languages. (After being asked if there was anything else) No, no. I don’t know. You should really ask the director of the health center. I don’t know.

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

I would educate the villagers about how diseases spread and about hygiene. I would tell them about clean water and food, how to keep their houses tidy. I would teach them about how to protect themselves.

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

I would buy things to protect people from diseases. I would buy things like mosquito nets and water filters and give them to the poor people. Ten thousand dollars can do a lot. A little goes a long way. I would buy all of the poor people mosquito nets and water filters to help them.

Reflections on Cambodia: Year One

17 07 2012

 As we near the one year mark of service in Cambodia, I’ve spent a fair amount of time processing the experience. As the days and months pass, I simultaneously seem to understand more and less about the complexities of this country and its fragile future. Although I could never speak with any authority on what Cambodia truly is, I’ve put together the following list of things Cambodia has become to me. I hope it provides insight into this place and the twelve life-changing months I’ve spent here.


Cambodia is a friendly smile and a nervous laugh. A “hello,” shouted from the rice paddies. It’s the hushed murmur of “barang” as you pass by, and the demanding “Moak bee na?” from a stranger. Cambodia is a string of small children chasing your bike. And a moto driver who stops to stare.

Cambodia is the smell of urine. Of fermented fish and rotting meat. It’s vomit on a long bus ride or the oniony scent of the country’s most beloved fruit. It’s incense burning near a spirit house.

Cambodia is pork with rice. Soup with rice. Noodles with rice. Cambodia is rice with rice.

Cambodia is the sound of roosters in the mornings and dogs at night. The monks’ rhythmic chanting drifting from the wat. It’s the discordant sounds of a wedding or a funeral. Dishes clinking next door or a baby crying. Cambodia is Pitbull and K*Pop, Karaoke and Prom Manh. It’s that same female voice, shrill and submissive, blaring from the TV. Cambodia is the deafening sound of a monsoon falling on the roof. And it’s a silence, a devastating silence, when voices should be heard.

Cambodia is the one glass eye watching everything you do.

Cambodia is emerald fields and killing fields. Disappearing forests and lakes filled with dirt. It’s a flood that ruins the crops. Cambodia is border wars and broken promises. It’s a billion dollars of aid and discouraging results.

Cambodia is 3,000 NGOs. It’s expats in coffee shops and sexpats in brothels. It’s bodyguards in the most exclusive of night clubs. It’s flocks of tourists, “Tuk tuk, lady,” and markets filled with cheap souvenirs. Cambodia is children begging on the streets. Amputees and orphans. It’s mediocre Western food.

Cambodia is its history. Cambodia is Angkor Wat.

Cambodia is a delicate balance of optimism and fatalism. It’s stories of the Khmer Rouge told in a whisper. It’s cheap beer and men who can’t hold their liquor. Cambodia is rovul taking afternoon naps in hammocks and sipping iced coffee on red plastic stools.

Cambodia is whitening creams and painted nails. Bright colored shirts adorned with lace and beads. It’s flexible fingers stretching backward, feet shuffling as music plays. It’s orange robes or bare bellies. Sampots and collared shirts, or tight tops and miniskirts.

It’s traffic and trafficking. Five on a moto and a truck piled high. It’s tai chi as you cross the street. It’s hanging on for dear life.

Cambodia is bats and spiders, snakes and mice. So many damn mice. It’s monkeys and elephants, lizards and butterflies. It’s plankton that glow in the dark.

It’s protractors and white out. Perfectly straight lines and meticulously taken notes. A sea of blue and white as children parade to school. Cambodia is a head ducked with respect, a face that’s been saved. Cambodia is so many vowels that all sound the same.

It’s squat toilets and no toilet paper. Stilted houses and burning trash. It’s life in a garbage dump, in its most literal sense. Cambodia is open defecation. It’s polluted rivers and a toxic lake.

Cambodia is rice farmers. Factory workers. Small business owners. Cambodia is a yay with a checkered kroma tied on her hairless head. A grandfather speaking French under his breath. It’s a teacher trying to do the right thing. A mother standing up for her community. Cambodia is a seller in the market, giving a discount and a smile. It’s a tour guide, beaming with pride.

Cambodia is exhilarating, inspiring and exhausting.

And, for now, Cambodia is my home.



Kampuchea 6

16 07 2012

This weekend, the sixth group of Peace Corps Volunteers (K6s)  arrived in Cambodia. It was an exciting day that spurred conversations that began with phrases like, “Remember last year when…” and “Do you think the K6s will…”

To celebrate the arrival of the new group, nearly forty K4 and K5 volunteers smashed into a bus and headed to the airport, armed with welcome signs, flags and lungs prepared to hoot and holler. Just as happened with us last year, when the K6s stepped out from the baggage claim they were met with a group of people who were sincerely happy to see them. The K4s and K5s cheered, while the K6s looked a little bewildered.

K5s advise the new group to “Embrace the Rice, Rain and Rats”

The next morning, volunteers old and new gathered together once again for a light breakfast/meet and greet at the Peace Corps office. It was a chance for K6s to ask some of the questions that were plaguing them and a time for K5s to eat some free food!

Chatting at the PC office during the meet and greet breakfast

It was a monumental weekend not only for the K6s, who’ve just committed to serving two years abroad, but also for us current volunteers, as it was a reminder of how far we’ve come. Next week marks one year since we K5s arrived in the Kingdom of Wonder. I can hardly believe how fast the time has flown and how much more I know now than I did a year ago.

Congratulations to all of the PCVs in Cambodia this week, as we all celebrate our own milestones! And, of course, a special welcome to the new group of volunteers!

Welcome K6s!


Madame Secretary

13 07 2012

This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a meet and greet with embassy staff and Peace Corps Volunteers at the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh. My name was drawn to get to attend the event so I made the long bus ride in yesterday.



Regardless of political views, Hillary is an important figure in current politics – and a role model for many working women in the United States. It was an honor to hear her remarks. EDIT: Watch the following video to see Hillary encourage audience members to “keep focused on the people of Cambodia.”


Snapshots of Small Shops

11 07 2012

With nearly 90 percent of Cambodia’s employment being informal (according to the ILO), I thought I would try to document some of the small, informal businesses in our town. These are the places where we get our bikes fixed, buy tools, sip teas or have our clothes made. These little shops, and their workers, are a big part of our lives since there are no box stores to run to when we need a few things. So, here you have it: the shops of Kampong Kdey.


These snack stands have become a daily stop for us. We generally opt for either a cold tea, a coconut, or a Pepsi Twist. After sampling all of the packaged snacks available in our town, we decided none of them are worth eating, meaning we usually limit ourselves to beverages only. Generally, there’s a four or five year old selling the cigarettes and booze.


Below is a bike shop where we, you guessed it, get our bikes fixed from time to time. All in all, I’ve been very pleased with how well my Peace Corps-issued bike has worked. I’ve very rarely needed to take it in but when I do, these guys take care of it.


This is Tim’s barber shop. The man pictured is usually the one to give Tim a trim, but often there’s a younger guy with the big, Korean-pop-star-style-hair looking at himself in the mirror too.


This is one of dozens of phone shops in our town. It’s a little embarrassing how often we visit these shops. Not only do they sell the phone cards we need for our pay-as-you-go cell phones, but they also exchange money and sell Internet credit. This means we end up stopping by one of these shops every couple of days. Luckily, there are enough of them that we don’t have to keep coming back to the same people all the time.


This men’s tailor works at his house. Because he lives near us, I see him virtually every day. He works from sunup till sundown, barely pausing to eat, which is a real shame because the food at their house is spectacular. The tailor lives with a young girl named Lucy, whose smile and “hello” are generally a highlight of my day.


This is the closest thing to a department store as we have at site. Although this particular shop specializes in woven baskets, you can see it also has strings of shampoo, soap, cooking oil and other essentials. Don’t let the mobile phone umbrella fool you though — they do not sell phone cards.


This is the only printer/copy shop we have right in town so it’s where we come to print off all of our forms for Peace Corps and any classroom materials we might need. Although the Cambodian classroom does not rely heavily on printed materials, it’s a nice surprise to bring the students a study guide or handout at no-cost to them. Usually, students have to reimburse teachers (and then some) for printing things, in part because printing costs are quite high.


Plus, check out some more photos I took of site this week.


Watch and Learn

7 07 2012

Recently, for the first time, I was able to watch other Peace Corps Volunteers  in action. First, I traveled to the provincial town in Kampong Cham to observe a Camp GLOW. Five volunteers from Kampong Cham province brought together sixty high school girls for the empowerment camp. Over the course of three days, the girls learned about topics ranging from basic sexual anatomy to self-defense to project planning. I am grateful for the opportunity to not only talk with the camp organizers in depth about the planning and implementation of the camp, but also to witness the girls in action. I feel significantly more prepared (and excited!) for our camp next month. A huge shout out to the K Cham-ers on a job very well done!

Camp GLOW girls plan community projects

Then, on Friday, I traveled to Siem Reap to watch an exiting volunteer assist the Women’s Resource Center (remember them?) with a health education session. Again, what a great learning experience! At the session, I was introduced to a few new tools for teaching complex health topics, which I’ve already planned to incorporate into my existing projects. Plus, my anticipation for our Camp GLOW grew even more as I watched Pisey, who is slated to speak at our camp, interact with the young women she was teaching.

Based on how well these visits when, I’m definitely going to try to make more of an effort to observe other PCV projects. For me, the experience was both informative and inspiring.


My Body’s Love/Hate Relationship with Cambodia

2 07 2012

Tim and I recently had our mid-service medical exams. And, lo and behold, we are still alive! In fact, in many respects we’re as healthy as ever. My blood pressure results were the best they’ve been. My pulse rate was in the healthy range. I even came out of the past year cavity-free, which sort of seems like a miracle given my new addiction to Coke and sweet tea.

However, in addition to making us healthy, Cambodia has also taken a toll on our bodies. For one, with the constant heat, it’s hard to stay hydrated. Being dehydrated here really hampers my productivity and energy levels. Then there are the recurring digestive issues that often accompany living abroad. Plus the scrapes and bruises. The sore back from an uncomfortable bed. The lack of sleep due to music at the wat or a dog fight or a crying baby. The fevers that sneak up on you. None of these things by itself is all that terrible but the truth of the matter is that I rarely feel 100 percent here, and I think many volunteers would agree.

Instead of grabbing a bag of chips, we now grab fruit like this one when we want a snack

Tim and I have been extremely lucky to avoid any major illnesses though. Dengue fever, in particular, seems to be the bane of many volunteers here. This year, Cambodia has seen a 340 percent increase in cases of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness often referred to as break-bone fever because of the extreme pain patients feel while infected. We’ve taken the necessary precautions—such as spraying our clothing with permethrin, sleeping under a mosquito net, keeping our bodies covered and dousing any exposed skin with deet—but there’s only so much we can do to protect ourselves.

All of this is to say that my body has a love/hate relationship with Cambodia. I eat more fruits and vegetables than I did at home. I consume less fat and fewer processed foods. I rely on my feet or my bike to get around. But I’m also exposing myself to unrelenting heat, unclean food and mosquito-borne illnesses. All in all, though, we’ve been quite lucky in the health department this past year, so let’s hope we can finish service with no major health issues.