Not Enough Cooks in the Kitchen

28 10 2012

Since Tim’s been in Phnom Penh the past few days, I’ve been without a head chef. Tim has taken over all of the cooking duties in Cambodia since (most days) he finds the challenge of making good food here exciting. I, on the other hand, find it exhausting.

Anyway, Tim’s gone, which means I have to forage for myself for a few days. I’ve been cheating a little by going out for one meal a day so I don’t have to cook as often. Yesterday, I invited a friend to go eat with me and we went to my favorite spot to eat some nime.

Nime is essentially a big spring roll, served fresh and rolled in a thick, moist wrapper. What makes nime so good though is the peanut sauce used for dipping. It’s something that I will definitely miss when we return to the States. Yum!


GLOW Girls Talking about their Golden Doors

27 10 2012

Today, for the final step of Camp GLOW, the girls from my village led an education session for forty of their peers. After weeks of deliberation, they decided to teach on the female reproductive system and menstruation. In a culture that considers sex far more taboo than even the most conservative of places in the US, I found this decision to be brave and inspiring.

Look at those GLOW girls teach!

The GLOW line-up in their awesomely bright t-shirts.

The GLOW girls spent a full 90 minutes teaching about female anatomy, hygiene, and menstruation. They used loads of good teaching techniques to involve the other students and check if they were retaining the new information. I’m so proud of these girls and hope that some of them will find time in their busy senior schedules to work with me on some upcoming projects.


A Tale of Two Cities…er, Villages

24 10 2012

After a full week of no rain, I woke up this morning and realized the streak was over. I got out of bed immediately to call the village health volunteer who works on the nutrition project with me. I knew from previous experience that when it rains, it’s best to cancel project activities. More often than not, paid government employees like teachers or health center staff won’t go to work if it’s raining, so it’s even less probable that community members will volunteer to come to projects when it’s wet outside.

I called the volunteer and asked if we should still have the planned feeding session, the second in a series of ten. Yes, she assured me. Yes, the mothers will come. Let’s still have the session. I was skeptical, but trusted this volunteer. She told me that the mothers would come so I believed her.

Volunteers mapping where the underweight children live

At least, that’s what I thought she had told me. But when I arrived in the village a half an hour later, I realized I had misunderstood. Since the Khmer language doesn’t have tenses, I hadn’t realized when we were talking that the volunteer had told me, “Yes, the mothers came” and not, “Yes, the mothers will come.”

So I showed up on my bike, a little wet, and was greeted by more than 30 smiling faces who were sitting underneath the stilted house eating their nutritious weaning porridge while a light rain fell around them. Everything about this situation was surprising to me. First, it was only seven in the morning, and they had already made and started to eat the porridge. In the other village where we did the project, it was a battle to get the porridge finished in time for my 11am class. Second, there were 30 people there, including every single child on the list of underweight kids. Again, this was nothing like in the other village, where we were happy to get half of the participants to show up. And, finally, the volunteers were enthusiastically teaching about nutrition to the mothers, using the education tools they had been trained on. In the other village, I had to do a large portion of the education because the volunteers refused to do it. And when they did teach, they certainly didn’t use as effective of methods. All of this, and it was raining to boot! I sat and watched the whole thing unfold, almost feeling unneeded. A bittersweet feeling, indeed.

Volunteers learning about behavior change communication

Consider this is another situation to file under “things that baffle me.” (Although, to be fair, it would be unusual if more than a couple of days went by without having something to add to that list.) Volunteers from both villages received the same training. The villages are a mere 500 meters from one another. As far as I can tell, they have approximately the same level of income and resources available. Yet, I’ve seen drastically different results in the two places. It’s been like night and day since the beginning of the project, but this morning was the perfect illustration of the competence – and confidence – found within the second village.

This morning, one of the project volunteers from the second village excitedly approached me saying, “I think the mothers trust us already. I think they have confidence in us and understand that our method will help their children. Mothers won’t change their behaviors unless they trust us – and trust this project – but they do! All of the mothers in the village want to come participate now. They all want to learn how to help their kids grow up to be healthy and strong.” And then, after a pause, “This many women didn’t want to participate in [village one], did they? In our village, the mothers want to learn, they want to be healthy. Today, every single mother brought money to contribute. All of the mothers made time for their children. They want to be lazy, but they are not because they know that health is important. I think our two villages are different.” Truer words were never spoken.

Letting the porridge thicken

This whole thing leads me to a perennial question for Peace Corps Volunteers: Who should we be working with? People or groups who, like the second village, have the desire and a foundation of skills to help themselves? It certainly seems as though that’s where we can be most effective. Connecting willing and able communities with resources and knowledge seems like a great role for PCVs. But then what about those other communities? Why are they more difficult to work with? Do they really not want to help themselves? Are they “lazy,” as the other villages will quickly label them? Or do they lack the capacity? Should we be focusing on building the abilities of these villages to self-organize and manage projects instead of putting resources into villages who already have these skills?

It’s a tough question. Maybe in the long-run, it is best to focus on villages like the first who can’t do it themselves yet, even if it is more difficult. However, when it comes down to it, when I plan my next project, it’s much more likely that I’ll continue to work with the volunteers in the second village. If nothing else, they show up when it rains.



File this under “Things that Baffle Me”

22 10 2012

The health center where I am based is large. While many Cambodian health centers are made of only one building, mine has four, including a building for consultations, one for ante-natal care and birthing, one for trainings, and one for TB testing and beds. If I were to estimate how much of this space the staff and patients actually use, it would be around 60 percent. Not much more than half.

They broke ground last week

And yet, for some reason unbeknownst to me, my health center decided they need a new building. So now a new wing is being constructed on the health center grounds. I’m told it will be for women to recover after they give birth. We have three beds for that currently, and I’ve never seen them all occupied at once. We also have two big rooms full of beds in the training building that I’ve never seen anyone use. This feels like one of those unfortunate instances where people simply equate development to building stuff. I’m hoping as the project continues I’ll learn more to justify the costly construction.


Back at Work

21 10 2012

Vacation is over, and Tim and I are back at work. For Tim, that means wrapping up the first phase of his hospitality course and settling in to his new schedule at the public school. For me, it means back to my nutrition project. On Monday, we’ll be having another workshop with the project volunteers to practice their skills, share their experiences from the project thus far, and solidify the timeline moving forward. Then, on Tuesday, we’ll start the feeding sessions in the second community. That will keep me busy every morning through the end of this month and into November.

Tim’s hospitality students at a hotel in Siem Reap

The other project I’ve started working on is leading strategic planning workshops for an NGO based in Siem Reap. If you remember this post, you’ll remember how much I geek out over strategic planning. I met with some of the staff members earlier in the month to talk about how we might structure this process, and then I led my first meeting on Thursday, focused on creating meaningful mission and vision statements. In a few weeks, I’ll do an an introduction to needs assessments with them.

These things, along with trying to finalize my plan for working with students now that school is back in session, will keep me occupied until my parents arrive early next month. Just over two weeks before they touch down in Siem Reap!



15 10 2012

During our first (and possibly only) visit to Sihanoukville in the south of Cambodia, the city’s namesake died at the age of  89. King Sihanouk is revered in Cambodia, with many believing in the notion of the “god-king,” which assumes the king had powers beyond what had been bestowed on him by the country. Thus far, we haven’t noticed anything different among Khmer people, but I imagine the mood may be different outside the city.

After spending a few days in Kampot, we took a taxi down to Sihanoukville. Since it’s the middle of the Pchum Ben holiday, we were greeted by high prices and throngs of Khmer families celebrating on the beach. The whole area seemed to have the feeling of an enormous 4th of July party. The food has been incredible, with seafood barbecues all along the beach as well as street vendors with bags of fresh crabs. We ate a ton, lounged on the beach, and explored the town away from the beach. Overall, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much we’ve enjoyed our time here. We’ll head back to site tomorrow and get back into the swing of things on Wednesday.




Next Stop: Sihanoukville

14 10 2012

After three days in the tranquil tourist town of Kampot, Tim and I are making our way to Sihanoukville.

The highlight of Kampot was definitely the food: the best Mexican we’ve had in Cambodia yet, countless gooey brownies, spectacular ribs, pumpkin pancakes and more.

Ribs, mashed potatoes and coleslaw

The scenery is also lovely, with a few beautiful hills lurking in the background and a crystal clear river that runs through town.

The riverfront

On Friday, Tim and I hopped on some mountain bikes and took a ride to a cave temple located just outside of town. The view before descending into the cave was breathtaking.

The view from the cave’s entrance


The Temple


Now, we’re off to spend a couple of lazy days on the beach before we head back to site… but I could really get used to this whole vacation thing.


Celebrating the Journey

11 10 2012

Three years ago, Tim and I celebrated our new marriage with a small wedding in Pittsburgh. Today, in an effort to revisit that occasion,  I read through the ceremony once again. Here, I share one of the passages that seems particularly relevant as we begin our second year of service in a rural town half a world away from the place where we fell in love.


The road the two of you have traveled since we all lived within a few blocks of one another in tiny Mount Pleasant, Michigan, has been remarkable… But what of the journey ahead?  Where will it take you?  No one can say.  Consider for a moment, as Rumi did in many of his writings, a compass.  In his time this invention was both innovation and revelation, but a compass is a simple thing, really.  It only knows one thing for certain, and everything else is just a well calculated guess.

It knows its true north…

Know your true north.  Let your arrow guide you.  Follow the road on your shared journey forward that runs closest to your hearts.


Heading South

10 10 2012

Today, Tim and I leave for a vacation to Cambodia’s south. This trip comes at the perfect time to celebrate the one year mark as official Peace Corps Volunteers, our three year wedding anniversary, and the end of a productive summer. It’s also the Pchum Ben holiday, which means the wat directly across from our house will be (and has been) blaring music all day long. It’s enough to make my brain feel rattled. The perfect excuse for a vacation!

Sihanoukville – thanks to a Google Image search

So we’re getting away for a little rest and relaxation. We’ll be spending a couple of days in the sleepy town of Kampot before heading to Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s most famous beach town. Pictures and stories to come!


To My “BFF Forever”

4 10 2012

Living abroad often means missing out on important life events back in the States. Believe it or not, all of the normal life stages continue to take place, even in my absence: Babies are born, people die, students graduate and couples get married.

…Like my “BFF Forever” Susannah, whose wedding is this weekend!

Susannah and  I have been friends since elementary school, when we were both members of the “Babysitters Club,” a small group of exclusive ten year old girls with zero babysitting experience. A couple of years later, as middle schoolers, we created a magical world in a small wooded area near her house. We painted abstract art together. We played together on a soccer team that didn’t win a single game. We passed boy crazy notes to each other during class. Since we were born on the same day, we also had a joint birthday party, which is where this gem of a photo comes from:

A lot has happened since then. Throughout high school we continued to be best friends, spending countless weekends together, cramming for tests together, and even switching dates for the senior prom with one another! I remember being worried about what would happen when we left to study at different colleges, but there was no need for concern. Despite the fact that we haven’t lived in the same town since high school, Susannah and I have maintained a deep friendship that I consider to be invaluable. She is family.



So today I want to take a second to send a BIG CONGRATULATIONS more than 8,000 miles away to my best childhood friend. I hope you and Rob have a beautiful day. I wish I could be there to celebrate with you.