Caught in a Rainstorm

29 08 2012

Scribblings from my notebook, written yesterday:

It’s about 2:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and I’m once again making the 10 hour journey from Siem Reap to Takeo to help with K6 training. About half an hour ago, I arrived in Phnom Penh, where I’ll have to change buses for the next leg of the trip. However, a sudden downpour has left me trapped in the bus company’s office while torrential rains fill the streets. As I wonder if I’ll be able to make it to Takeo before dark, I take a moment to stop and take in my surroundings.

A local music video is playing on a flat screen Toshiba on the wall. In the video, three different pedestrians are hit by cars before each has a romantic- and bloody- reunion with a lover. Just to my left, a naked boy, no older than three or four, is peeing on the red welcome mat by the door. A women, his mother perhaps, is dressed in a green and white University of Michigan shirt (?!) and is encouraging the boy to aim for the tiled floor instead. Just outside the door, a rat scurries by, looking for something to eat or maybe some shelter from the rain.

Through the door frame, I see a single cyclo driver, his wet shirt plastered to his bony chest, pedaling contentedly through the storm, as if the sun were shining and the birds chirping.  A group of moto drivers are playfully splashing a mangy dog with their bare feet, while smoking cigarettes and asking me – for the fourth time – if I want a ride.

As I sit there waiting for the rain to stop, wearing a shirt covered in the pink projectile vomit of a child who was sitting behind me on the bus from Siem Reap, I marvel at the stark differences between the two worlds I straddle as an American living in Cambodia.

Before I fall too deep into thought though, the rain softens so I roll up my pant legs and begin to wade through the flooded streets toward the next bus station.


Childhood Nutrition Training

23 08 2012

This week was the official kick-off of the childhood nutrition project I’ve been planning the past two months. The goal of the project is to rehabilitate malnourished children under the age of five who live in two nearby villages. The project is modeled off of a methodology called PD Hearth, which is used by international NGOs (and Peace Corps) in countries around the world. I won’t bore you with the details of the process now, but I will be updating on the project as it unfolds over the next six months.

Participants learn proper weighing technique

On Monday, we started with a three-day training for the village health volunteers who will be helping implement the project. A third-year Peace Corps Volunteer facilitated most of the training, with some help from one of the midwives from my health center. Although I helped facilitate a little, I spent most of the training behind the scenes, dealing with the logistics and organization of the sessions. Even without being the main facilitator, it was an exhausting week. We were pulling 12-hour days, spending hours each night debriefing about the day’s activities and preparing for the following day. It’s the first time that a PCV in Cambodia has done this training so it was a bit of an experiment. I think it went really well, but there is definitely room for improvement. Based on this week, I think we can make some important changes to the training that will benefit the other health volunteers who will be implementing this project over the course of the next year. Either way, I am really happy with how it turned out. Plus, I’m excited to be starting a new project, especially one that has me in the villages so often!

Reviewing Cambodia’s three food groups

Now that the training is over, we’ll move on to the first project activity – weighing the children in the villages to see how many are malnourished. But, in the meantime, I’m heading back to Takeo again to help out with K6 training some more. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s been hectic lately – but it’s also been fulfilling. I think I speak for both of us when I say that we are really hitting our stride. Our language skills have reached a point where we feel comfortable with meaningful project work and we feel a solid sense of community in our village. We are certainly looking forward to the weeks and months ahead.

I’ve posted pictures of the PD Hearth training here, plus some of K6 training in Takeo. Now that things have slowed down a little, we’ll try to update more often, but no promises!


In Takeo Once Again – Nearly One Year Later

13 08 2012

Today, I’m writing from a guesthouse in  the provincial town of Takeo, where Tim and I are staying for a week. After being away for approximately 11 months, we’ve returned to the only place in Cambodia that felt familiar as a trainee, although it feels significantly less familiar now.

Tim and I are visiting the province where we trained  in order to help with training for the new group of volunteers. It appears that we’ve come full circle, or something like that. Their training is about halfway done, which means that this week is practicum for them. You might remember from last year that practicum is a chance for volunteers to get more hands-on experience. The first few weeks of training are quite theoretical and knowledge-based, but starting with practicum, trainees get to practice for the jobs they are about to begin. For English teachers, this means spending some time in a Cambodian classroom, teaching students who are willing to study during their break. For health volunteers, it means a lot of surveys and focus groups, plus some informal teaching. Volunteers from both programs must also complete a community project.

The lake in Takeo

I’m excited to see the ways in which training has evolved, to better get to know the group of volunteers and, quite frankly, to be put up in a decent guesthouse for a week. Although helping with training takes up several hours of each day, it also leaves me some time for last minute planning for the big workshop we’ll have at my health center next week to kick off the childhood nutrition project.

There are quite a few more things I could update on, but I think this is it for today. I am going to leave you with a little video that makes me incredible happy (despite the fact that T-Mobile totally robbed us when we left the US for Peace Corps). It’s a video I used to watch often when we lived in Argentina, and it surprisingly showed up on one of my international development blogs today, just below an infographic about arms trade between the years of 1992-2010 and the problems of leadership succession in Africa. The video has nothing to do with either of those things. Hope it brings a smile to your face. My favorite moments are at 1:59 and 2:23.


Camp GLOW: Mission Accomplished

8 08 2012

Just as Tim’s hospitality project is taking off, one of mine is coming to a close. Last week, thirty-nine high school girls, two Cambodian teachers, four NGO staff members and five Peace Corps Volunteers gathered at the Siem Reap Provincial Teacher Training Center for a girls’ empowerment camp. The four-day camp focused on women’s health, rights and opportunities.

On Thursday, all of the girls, aged 14-20, arrived to the guesthouse. They came from three different villages, each approximately an hour or two outside of Siem Reap. This was the first time for some of them to ever visit Siem Reap, and the majority had never stayed in a guesthouse before. They excitedly settled into their rooms and then made the three minute walk over to the training center where we studied.

Group shot

For the first two days, staff from the Battambang-based NGO Our Strength led sessions about women’s health. One of the sessions that the girls cited as being the most informative and important was on menstruation and hygiene. Most of these topics are not taught in school, and the girls said they have never had an opportunity to ask such sensitive questions before. Other sessions touched on issues like sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, gender, Cambodian beliefs about sexuality, healthy relationships, etc. There were also several Q&A sessions, during which the girls demonstrated their complete trust in and respect for the presenters by asking a huge number of questions about their own health and bodies.

During a session related to gender roles

Group work

One thing that impressed me was how well the presenters integrated with the girls. When we would walk to a nearby restaurant together to eat, the staff would always sit and talk with the girls. They would call girls by name, take endless photos with them, and treat them like peers. Additionally, as I wrote in a recent email to the organization, the staff “modeled what it means to be strong, smart, socially-minded Cambodian women.” It was a real pleasure getting to know them and working alongside them.

The third day, we had an equally impressive speaker come from the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap. Having worked with the organization before, I knew that Pisey would do a great job. The third day, which started with a giggle-filled yoga session, focused on important issues like self-awareness, domestic violence and goal setting. Although they enjoyed all of the sessions, the girls really expressed an interest in the domestic violence part. In fact, two of the three groups of girls decided that they would teach their communities what they had learned about domestic violence.

Pisey facilitating a session on self-awareness

The fourth day was all about preparing the girls to be good community educators because each group is required to go back to their community to teach one aspect of what they learned at Camp GLOW. The girls enthusiastically prepared and presented mock sessions before diving into the plans for their real presentations. My group of girls will be coming over tomorrow to finish their lesson plan and to set a date for the education session(s). They think that domestic violence is an important issue in our community, and I whole-heartedly agree. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Overall, I think the girls were exposed to a lot of new information. The knowledge-based tests show that the girls nearly doubled their understanding of issues related to sexual and reproductive health. Compared to the first day, more girls at the end of the camp also indicated that they “have a lot of friends,” “are proud of themselves,” “have goals that they can achieve” and “are generally happy people.”

In fact, although the knowledge gained was certainly an important part of the camp, I think there was a lot more to be gained from the experience. It was amazing to watch how three distinct groups of shy, insular girls melded into one big, happy group of friends over the course of four days. One of the best activities we did was to have each girl decorate a paper bag with her name on it and hang it on the wall. Throughout the camp, the other girls would then write nice things about that girl and put it in her bag. At the end of the camp, each girl had a bag filled with compliments and the phone numbers of her new friends. This activity was one that definitely encouraged the girls to become closer.

Decorating paper bags

The beautifully decorated bags hanging from the wall

There were other experiences that were uncommon, or even brand new, for the girls. For example, they got to express themselves creatively as they decorated t-shirts, made bracelets and painted each others’ nails during the evening activities. They got to see a different side of their own country when we took a field trip to Siem Reap’s touristy night market and the town’s only shopping mall. They ate new foods at Lucky Burger, learned new ways to exercise through dance and yoga, and got to make real connections with the volunteers living in their towns.

First, we exercise…

Then we eat fast food

And THEN we eat ice cream. It’s the American way.

Just the experience of being away from families was a big deal for these girls, who often live in cramped quarters where they share a sleeping space with all of their family members. This culture does not allow for much independence so it was an interesting chance for them to examine themselves as individuals. This might all be very Western-slanting, but the girls echoed these ideas as well.

The camp culminated in a closing ceremony, where we gave each girl a certificate and a photo of all of the girls together. We also played a slide show of photos taken throughout the camp. While the girls cheered, laughed and blushed as their faces appeared on the big screen, it was hard not to get emotional. I thought back to all of the activities I did as a teen that I still vividly remember. These experiences – band trips, summer camps, Youth in Government – all played a part in my development. I can only hope that the students who came to Camp GLOW will look back on this experience with the same fondness and appreciation that I feel when I think back on my own. Either way, the most important thing is that they learned and will retain important information related to their health and well being.

The closing ceremony

Camp GLOW 2012 is over, but we’re already looking ahead to next year. In the meantime, I am eager to continue working with the girls as they plan and execute their community education sessions.

You can check out more pictures of the camp here.


Fully Funded!

7 08 2012

Here’s just a quick update on the hospitality project. In less than four days time, the project went from zero to fully funded. It happened so much quicker than I had expected. Thanks to everyone who donated and reposted about the project. Unfortunately, I haven’t received information yet on the donors, so I can’t thank you individually yet, but know that it’s coming. Now that we have the funding, the hospitality portion of the class will start shortly.

The group of students that I’m working with have been an absolute joy to teach so far. They look out for one another and are really supportive of each other. Despite being from different villages and communes, they have become fast friends while studying a huge amount of material. I keep having to add to my lesson plans just to keep up! They clearly study a lot at home, and are really motivated to both understand the language and use it. It has been so invigorating to have such wonderful students, all studying with such purpose. I assume it will only get better as time goes on and we spend even more of our days together.

Again, thanks to all who contributed to the project. I’ll certainly provide pictures as the project goes along. And, in case you weren’t able to donate in time, don’t worry – I’m sure Katie or I will have another project that could use your support in the future.


Hospitality Training for Low Income Youth: Please Donate!

3 08 2012

Some of our loyal readers might remember the post I wrote about my upcoming summer project. If not, see it here. Well, it’s summer and the intensive English for hospitality class has started. We’ll start the hospitality portion of the class soon, but in the meantime there is a way you can help! Peace Corps allows us to write a Peace Corps Partnership Proposal in order to connect projects in our community with people in the states that want to help.

Money donated to this project would help create a mock kitchen for students to receive hands-on experience in preparation for work in Siem Reap. Students will learn food safety and teamwork in the kitchen. We will prepare Western and Khmer dishes and focus on preparing safe, delicious, restaurant-quality food.

In addition, this project will provide transportation to a hospitality school entrance exam in Siem Reap. The end goal for all of our students is further education at hospitality school. With this additional year of education, students can receive high paying jobs in management positions throughout the country.

So, what does your hard-earned money get you? $30 will supply one of four complete sets of cooking supplies for our mock kitchen. $80 will purchase all the food needed for our demonstrations. $170 will allow students to travel to Siem Reap and take the Sala Bai entrance exam, including accommodations, food, and transportation.

Overall, four hundred dollars will go a long way to help teach the underserved youth in our community. These kids have been forced to drop out of school because of the financial situation of their families. Most have never left the area where they grew up. With these donations, we’ll be able to better prepare them to not only study hospitality further, but also to become successful professionals.

If you want to donate or learn more about the project, please click here.

Feel free to email me any questions you may have about this project or Peace Corps at

Thanks in advance for your generosity!