A Day in the Life

26 09 2012

Most Peace Corps Volunteers write a “day in the life” post. This is mine. I thought now would be a good time to write one, as it’s the first stretch of time where I’ve felt like I’ve had something resembling a routine. It won’t last long, but here’s a look at my daily life in Cambodia looks like for now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

6:20 – My alarm goes off. Normally, I’m quick to wake up, but I did not sleep well last night. It seemed as though there was a finely orchestrated, night-long chorus of alternating claps of thunders and mice squeals. When I was sleeping, I had weird dreams. Not ready to get up yet, I decide for the third day in a row that I’ll forgo breakfast.

6:45 – I drag myself out of bed, leering enviously at Tim, who gets to sleep for another hour today. I stumble to the bathroom, where I take a shower, which entails drawing water from a large basin and dumping it over my body a few times. I quickly try to find some clothes. The 10 straight days of rain we’ve had means I haven’t been able to do laundry. I grab a pair of wool pants and an ill-fitting button down top because they’re all I have.

7:00 – I hop on my bike. It’s got a flat, but no time to fill up the tires, as I’m running behind already. I, instead, head to the market to pick up bananas, which are my contribution to the feeding session I’m about to attend. From the market, I head to the session.

7:30 – I arrive at the house of one of the village health volunteers, Ibe. Ibe is there, cutting up the pumpkin that will go in the nutritious weaning porridge we’re making for the malnourished kids in the community. After twenty minutes or so, none of the other mothers show up with their contribution so Ibe sends me back to the market, which is about 2 kilometers away.

8:00 – I head to the market, wondering why no one has shown up yet. Today is the fifth feeding session, and usually by this time a handful of mothers have arrived with food or money in hand. “Oh well,” I think, pedaling through the slippery mud, “They’ve given so much more than I expected the past few days. I’m happy to help out today.” I buy 75 cents worth of pork, two carrots, a couple of duck eggs and some rice at the market and head back. When I get back to Ibe’s house, four mothers are there, chopping greens and chatting. I’m relieved.

8:30 – I sit with the women while they prepare the porridge. They won’t let me help make the food, so I instead try to keep the children happy and occupied. I feed each of them at least two or three small bananas while we wait. I play ball with the bigger kids. The mothers discuss everything including what foods make their kids sick, the man in the community who’s cheating on his wife, why learning English is so difficult, and how to get more women to attend the feeding sessions.

9:30 – The porridge is finally ready. I nervously get out my list of names. There are fourteen mothers who are supposed to come with their young children. Attendance was low the first few days, but yesterday we went house-to-house to talk with all the families about their reasons for not coming. I thought we had broken some ground with them, but only five of the target women are here, plus a few others who always come help even though their kids are healthy.

10:00 – The number is up to ten, but we’re still missing some so I scoop some porridge into a container and go to the kids’ houses to deliver the porridge and talk with their families again. I really enjoy this part. After listening to their reasons for not coming – some of which seem more legitimate than others –  I try to negotiate with them, and leave feeling positive about our conversations.

10:45 – I finish the home visits and ride back to my house, hoping to arrive before “the monsters” do. I beat them home, great news. As I enter the house and plop down on our rattan couch, I’m thankful that Tim’s mom recently sent us a package. I dig around in the box, and pull out a bag of almonds. As I throw a handful in my mouth and begin to open my laptop, the kids arrive, ready to study English. I’m hot and tired from the running around, but the kids are full of energy and need immediate supervision.

11:00 – Only six kids show up, so it’s an easier class to teach. We spend 15 minutes coloring in our health coloring books, then talk about words related to family, wash our hands and eat some fruit. By the time they leave, I’m happy for a break.

11:15 – Tim comes home from teaching his hospitality class. We sit on the couch for a few minutes, zoning out as we check our email, Facebook and the news. Then, I head to the small balcony attached to our kitchen. This is where I do dishes.

11:45 – Tim begins to make lunch. Today, we’re having scrambled egg sandwiches, a quick lunch option with a lot of protein.

12:30 – We sit down on the couch again, this time to eat. We stream the new episode of The Office, and relax for the next twenty minutes.

1:00 – Laundry time. I head back to the balcony with a large armful of dirty clothes covered in mud and dust. I hand wash each garment, wring it out, and hang it on a clothes line that’s strewn in front of a patch of fruit trees.


2:00 – Emails. Boring.

2:30 – I spend a few minutes lesson planning for the daily English class I teach at the health center. I write out a list of words for a dictation exercise and decide on a conversation activity so the students can practice speaking some more.

3:00 – I arrive at the health center to teach. The usual crew is seated, waiting for me to arrive. There are five students, all staff members at the health center. I’ve been teaching this class since last November, so it’s my longest lasting project. It’s a fun class to teach, and I feel close to this group. Today, the students ask me about “vacation,” “light” and “faded,” words they had seen earlier in the week.

4:00 – I go back home, stopping at a friend’s house for a few minutes to “neeyay lang” (chat). She apologizes for not coming to study with me today and tells me that a patient came to her house, looking for help. The patient has low blood sugar and was dizzy, according to my friend. I am supposed to have a Skype meeting with an NGO staff member in Siem Reap at 4 o’clock, but when I get home I see an email postponing it.

5:00 – It’s time to exercise, but it’s raining. I stare at the sky a while, but decide I need to go out anyway. By the time I leave, the rain has died down to a sprinkle, but there’s a cool breeze. It’s the perfect time for a run. When I head toward the south, I’m greeted with a clear, bright rainbow. On my way back, the fiery orange sun is setting over the palm trees. It’s an idyllic view I never get sick of.

6:00 – I take another bucket shower, just as Tim is finishing up the private class he teaches on our porch each night. I quickly wash the dishes for dinner, and head off to get some work done while he cooks. I work on a document about proposal writing that I plan to post on Peace Corps’ information sharing website. I don’t get much done before Tim brings out the food.

7:00 – It’s pasta! A treat purchased in Siem Reap last week when Tim was there for work. We watch The Daily Show and catch up on each other’s days. We spend some time talking about our own projects and schedules, then decide to start planning our upcoming vacation to the southern part of the country. We poke around on a few websites looking at guesthouses and restaurants.

8:30 – I am exhausted since I didn’t sleep well the night before. I spend a few minutes stretching, brush my teeth and head to bed. Lying in bed, I think about everything I need to do for tomorrow. I’m asleep before 9:30.


Nutrition Project: Weighing Sessions and Community Research

14 09 2012

The past two weeks have been filled with activities for my childhood nutrition project. After organizing the training for the project volunteers last month, the next steps included (a) weighing all the children under the age of five in the two target communities and (b) conducting community research to figure out what positive nutrition practices exist in the communities already.

In both villages, we found that less than half of the children were considered to be at a healthy weight. That’s the bad news. The good news is that only a few children in each community were severely underweight, leaving the majority to be either moderately underweight or in danger of falling underweight. Hopefully, this will make it easier for us to pull the kids into the healthy category. To help accelerate that process, we also provided vaccinations, Vitamin A droplets and de-worming medication so that all of the children would be better positioned to gain weight.

All of the children who are  not considered to have a healthy weight have now been invited to a series of sessions where we will provide a healthy variety of a local weaning porridge along with some basic nutrition education. The education provided won’t come from textbooks or the internet though. No, the information will come from the community itself. We want to share with the families what their neighbors are already doing to promote nutrition in their households, with the idea that if an average caretaker is already doing this, the others in the community should be able to do it too.

In order to find out these practices, we conducted surveys in each community. The project volunteers and I went to several homes in each village to learn about how the families are currently helping their children to be healthy. Many of the results to the survey are changes that caretakers can implement without spending any additional money: breastfeeding for the entire first two years after birth, rinsing rice only one time while cooking, washing your hands before cooking and after using the bathroom (lowering the chance of illness), helping young children eat. Others might not be possible for everyone, but are attainable for most: feeding young children four or more times a day, avoiding junk food, adding nutrient-dense foods to porridge, continuing to feed young children while they are sick.

Next week, these feeding/education sessions will begin in one of the villages. We will have ten sessions over the course of 14 days. It can be difficult for families with limited resources to help their children gain enough weight to move into the healthy category so we want to help them out with that. Then, by hopefully implementing some of these simple and low-cost practices we’ll share with them, they will be able to maintain their children at a healthy weight over time.

Let’s hope this works! (More pictures here.)


The Monsters

6 09 2012

In the late morning, several times a week, I hear giggles down the street. “Oh no, it’s time!” I think, as the giggles come closer and closer. The children responsible for those giggles ride through our front gate and park their bikes under our house. “Cher, cher,” they yell, using the common abbreviation for teacher. “It’s eleven o’clock, cher.” I don’t even have to check a clock to know it isn’t eleven. If I’m lucky, it’s 10:30, but usually it’s earlier. I’ve realized by now that our 11:00 start time gets pushed back each time we meet.

The kids leave their shoes at the bottom of the staircase and hustle upstairs, by this time requesting their books. Although this is supposed to be an English class, we begin most days by coloring in our health-based coloring books that a group of previous Peace Corps Volunteers put together. The older kids like to read the health messages written in Khmer to the rest of the group, while the younger kids try to figure out how to stay within the lines. I use this time to talk to the kids about their days, reinforce positive health messages, and slowly transition into English. “What color is this,” I’ll ask, pointing to a marker that one kid is using. “YELLOW,” they’ll all reply in English, proud of themselves for remembering. “What is this,” I ask, holding up the page on dental hygiene. “TOOTHBRUSH,” they’ll scream.

The next hour or so, I desperately try to keep the group’s attention while we sit on the porch and study. With an average of ten students, ranging from 4 years old to 10, it can be difficult to find lessons that they all enjoy and can follow. Three or four of the younger students have trouble writing so I use the older kids to help teach. We also sing songs and play games to keep things interesting, but it’s difficult to predict how the day will go. On the days that the lessons work well and everyone is engaged, teaching “the monsters,” as they’re affectionately called in our house, is one of my favorite activities. On the days that the kids come in riled up or refusing to participate, it’s more difficult.

At the end of the lesson, I always feed them a healthy snack. First, I teach them the word in English. “Peanuts,” I’ll say. Or “popcorn,” “apples,” or “bananas.” Then, in unison, all of the kids start clapping and pleading, “Leeing, dai, cher??” That means: Can we wash our hands, teacher? I know it’s the snack they’re excited for, but I consider it a small victory that they’re all cheering and clapping when they ask. If nothing else, I’ve gotten them to associate washing hands with yummy foods.

To end class, we all wash our hands in the standard basins and sit down to enjoy our snack. Then, all at once, after they’ve eaten every last piece of food, they mount their bikes again and disappear, always asking, “Will we learn again tomorrow, cher?”

For more pictures of my friendly monsters, look here.


The Index: Women in Cambodia

5 09 2012

Here’s the latest article for my hometown newspaper, The Index.

Much of my work in Cambodia has consisted of working with women and girls. Last year, for example, I led a girls’ health club at the high school. More recently, I organized a girls’ leadership and empowerment camp. Currently, I’m working with a local nonprofit to field test lessons about gender-based violence, as well as managing a project that helps mothers identify ways to raise healthy kids.

These activities, initially borne out of a desire to address the inequalities and injustices faced by Cambodian women, have also helped deepen my own understanding of the complex situation for women here.

Some of the inequalities Cambodian women face don’t seem very different from those facing women in the United States: lower wages for the same work, underrepresentation in leadership positions, domestic violence, and rape. In addition, women here, like in many American households, bear the majority of childrearing responsibilities, are in charge of nearly all household chores and are expected to work outside of the home, as well.

Although some of these issues may seem familiar, some of the struggles Cambodian women confront are all but unimaginable for many in the US. Human trafficking is rampant, particularly near the Thai border and in tourist hotspots. Arranged marriages are still all too common in the countryside. Each year, about 2,000 Cambodian mothers die during childbirth. Plus, sweatshop workers are almost exclusively women, and although this is one of the only steady employment opportunities for unskilled female laborers, it often comes at a high risk due to the hazardous conditions of many factories.

Women’s social roles are also restricted to a degree that I have not seen in mainstream America. There’s an often-cited Khmer proverb that compares women to a piece of fine cloth and men to a piece of gold. The cloth, if stained, is impossible to clean. However, if a piece of gold becomes dirty, one can simply wipe the dirt off, making the gold shiny once again. In the context of modern-day Cambodia, this means that a woman’s reputation can be permanently destroyed for drinking a single beer in public, lighting a cigarette or even being in a room alone with a man.

These social norms depend heavily on geographic location, with big cities seeing more relaxed rules. However, even in the village where I’ve been living, a mere 60 kilometers from the country’s most touristed and, arguably, progressive city, these narrow ideas of gender prevail.

You don’t have to look hard to find exceptions though. There are countless women bucking traditional gender roles and attempting to address inequalities head-on. There’s Khim Pisey who, with just a high school education, has gone on to manage a drop-in center for local women. There is Somaly Mam, whose anti-trafficking work has made international headlines. There’s Jessica Lisha Srin, a Cambodian rapper who is paving a new road for women the music industry. And there are the high school students from my leadership camp who are now educating their community members about domestic violence.

Cambodia has a long way to go before women can enjoy the same privileges as men, but after spending some time here it becomes easy to see that although the challenges are innumerable, so, too, are the women who, one step at a time, are fighting for a better Cambodia.


What does poverty look like?

4 09 2012

Since coming to Cambodia, I have chatted with many people who are just passing through. Whether they are friends of mine or strangers riding next to me on the bus, there’s one phrase that many of them have said, particularly the backpacking crowd: Cambodia doesn’t seem as poor as I imagined. Even though by now I’ve heard nearly a dozen variations of this phrase, I still have a visceral reaction when I hear it.

I’ve spent some time thinking about why I have such a strong, negative reaction when people say these things. It actually hits me just as hard as when people belittle Cambodians, glamorize poverty or comment on how “quaint” life is here. But why? Although I’m not particularly proud of this conclusion, I think that, in part, it offends me because it seems to delegitimize my work. If Cambodia is not poor then what is a Peace Corps Volunteer doing here? But, more than that, it offends me because of how simplistic it is. I have such a deep desire for people to understand the Cambodian reality, and such an off-the-cuff comment seems to ignore the challenges faced by average Cambodians each and every day. Poverty is certainly not the only piece of Cambodia’s story but – from my perspective, at least – it is an important one.

Phnom Penh

If you look at the Human Development Index, a measure created by the United Nations to capture overall wellbeing, you will see Cambodia is 139th on the list, below countries like Iraq, India and neighboring Laos. And with over half of the country living on less than two dollars a day, it’s difficult to deny how widespread poverty is. Furthermore, in raw numbers, substantially more Cambodian mothers die in childbirth each year than do American mothers, despite the fact that Cambodia’s population is only 14 million, less than five percent of that of the US. If that isn’t what you consider poor, then I don’t know what is.

To be fair though, these people aren’t saying Cambodia isn’t poor. They are only saying that it doesn’t seem as poor as they thought, which leads me to think that this observation might be the result of some sort of flawed image we have of poverty. Maybe, when we think of poverty we envision mud huts in the African savanna. Or maybe we know poverty looks different in Cambodia, but we are stuck with an image in our heads of the devastation that immediately followed the Khmer Rouge. Or maybe, in an age of growing technology, we can’t reconcile the commonness of cell phones and mp3 players with the concept of extreme need. Who knows?

I’m not entirely sure why so many people have told me that Cambodia doesn’t seem as poor as they thought. If I had to venture a guess though, I think one of the main reasons is probably because tourists are disproportionately exposed to urban centers, which are relatively better off and can hide the country’s poverty in many ways.

The cities of Cambodia are deceiving. First, because the few modern, sparkly buildings you might come across are probably owned by and benefitting the Chinese more than Cambodians. Many argue that the Chinese— and Korean and Vietnamese to a lesser extent— are pouring money into Cambodia in ways that are widening the inequality gap, destroying natural resources and violating human rights. So while the Chinese-backed buildings and infrastructure provide a façade of prosperity, moderate as it may be, most of the profits of the businesses are being sent out of the country or are being restricted from reaching average citizens.

Again, Phnom Penh

The cityscapes are also deceiving because they are sparsely populated, with only 1.5 million Cambodians calling Phnom Penh, the largest city and capital, their home. This leaves urban areas feeling much less congested and overwhelming than I imagine places like Mexico City or Dhaka must feel. It also means that, generally speaking, you don’t see the sprawling shantytowns like the favelas in Rio or the slums of Mumbai. Since these are the images of international poverty that we’re often confronted with, I wonder if the low number of urban residents helps to subconsciously convince us that Cambodia is better off than the statistics would suggest.

Even if tourists are exposed to the rural areas where poverty is more widespread, which is not often since the tourist trail tends not to wander far from the two or three major urban centers in Cambodia, there’s also the fact that rural poverty is easier to miss. Even when taking a road trip through the US, I think it’s the urban poverty which strikes us most heavily, as we take note of the vacant buildings, homeless families or crumbling houses. When we drive through the countryside, I’d guess that few of us remark on how rural populations are often isolated from basic services. The poverty in small towns or farming areas is often less visual in nature and, therefore, harder to spot. Not to mention that as tourists we often don’t have the right cultural lens to judge more subtle differences in wellbeing, even if we are exposed to them.

Although I’m starting to glean some understanding of where the comment might come from, by mentioning that Cambodia doesn’t look as poor as we thought, we diminish the struggle that many Cambodians face. I say this not to reduce Cambodia to its poverty—not at all. I say it to do the opposite: to highlight the complexity of life here. Just because Cambodian life doesn’t mirror the images of poverty you’ve seen on television or on the Internet, or even in your own imagination, it doesn’t make it any easier for all the families here fighting for a better life.


Recent Development(s)

1 09 2012

In the short week of being away from site to help with K6 training, we came back to find a lot of changes in town. First, as I rode my bike in search of “chocolate” cookies, I saw that the old English school was now a Cambo-posh restaurant, complete with a menu. A menu! A menu on the wall and a menu on each table. This is exciting, as it will cut out the inevitable, “What do you have?” conversation, which invariably leaves me reluctantly settling for the fried rice. In addition to the menus, the restaurant even has a refrigerator for beverages. With some of the highest electricity prices in the country, this is a huge status symbol.

Besides these amazing amenities, the new place seems to have overheard my constant pleading that someone take advantage of the tourist traffic near the Angkorian bridge and open a business to serve the hoards of Vietnamese tourists that stop for 15-20 minutes. The sign in front of the restaurant has a picture of Vietnamese coffee and a few menu items in Vietnamese. This is just brilliant.

Lastly, and perhaps most amazingly for us, in the corner of the wall board menu sat a familiar black and white symbol:

“No way!” Katie exclaimed. As we debated the remote possibility that this place actually had WiFi, I spotted the telltale wireless router in the corner. It was true! WiFi has come to the countryside, where only 42% of families even have electricity. (Fun fact: while 42% have electricity, 57% of families have TVs. Think about that for a second.)

With all the excitement going on in town, we almost missed the small things: The new cement slab where the mud pit used to be at our favorite soda stop. The several new houses being built. The new guesthouse going up next door to the nicest guesthouse in town. The health center director’s new four story house towering over town. The new shops opening around the market. The gas station being constructed at breakneck speed (please be a Tela, please be a Tela, please be a Tela).

If we had been oblivious to the rapid changes happening around town so far, we couldn’t help but notice the new blue PVC pipes strewn in front of our house this week. After days without water, I heard a strange sound coming from the bathroom and saw water spraying the bathroom with fire hose-like intensity. We had water, and it was clear, crisp and regular. No more hoping to flip the valve during the golden 30 minutes of the day when the pump was running. No more debating if we’re cleaner after showering than before. This is going to completely change our bucket showering experience. No more rationing ourselves to a couple of buckets.

But, of course, with development comes struggle. With regular water, I no longer have an excuse not to do laundry.