The Cycle

21 05 2013

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with one of my hospitality students that needs to be retold. It seemed to be a perfect example of how poverty shows itself, and influences the lives of generations. I hope I can explain it accurately, as this instance impacted my own thinking in some pretty profound ways. Most importantly, this is just one story of dozens we’ve heard during our time here that shows the lasting effects of poverty and just how difficult it is to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Mun lives in a house with thatch walls and a thatch roof. The family has a small patch of rice paddy just behind the house that only provides enough rice for the family for a few months. There is no toilet and no water source besides a couple of rain basins. His sister works in a factory in Thailand to help support the family. His father sleeps in a pagoda and drives his moto in Phnom Penh, hoping to earn some cash giving rides around the city. Mun’s mom works as a farm laborer when there is work planting, transplanting and cutting rice, but the rest of the year she remains jobless.

As a result of his family’s precarious financial situation, Mun dropped out of school in 7th grade and became a monk. This is a common life path for many poor Cambodian boys, when “free” public schooling becomes too expensive for families to afford. For Mun, becoming a monk and moving to the pagoda meant he could continue to study informally, and work on his English with older monks. This sparked an interest in English that continues today.

Two years ago, Mun was in an all too common moto accident in Phnom Penh and suffered a head injury. The doctor at the hospital offered to relieve the pressure on his brain for a few hundred dollars. Lacking the money, Mun’s family was forced to take him home without treatment, hoping his condition would improve on its own. After weeks in bed, Mun was slowly able to stand and then walk with support. He is not fully recovered even now, and often has trouble concentrating, standing for long periods, and walking evenly. Mun hasn’t seen a doctor since his initial hospital stay.

Mun and I meet at least twice a week to fine tune his English, work on life skills, vocational skills, and math skills to better prepare him for his dream job: being a receptionist in a hotel in Siem Reap where he can meet tourists from different cultures and continue to practice his English. During one of our many conversations, Mun talked of his injury once again, complaining that he was still weak and couldn’t yet work. He was hopeful however of a new medicine from Japan made from kelp that was being sold in Siem Reap. His aunt had purchased some for stomach problems and had been cured. Would it possible for me to help him pay $170 for three weeks of the medicine?

It was then that I felt the familiar pangs of cultural arrogance that had plagued me during previous conversations about traditional medicine in Cambodia. Although I had generally been patient throughout these discussions before, I found his request for money to buy something that almost certainly was a scam difficult to respond to calmly. Taking a deep breath, I slowly tried to break down the clear logical holes in his plan to finally improve his health. Why don’t doctors have this medicine? Why can’t you buy it in the health center in town? Why would a medicine that helped your aunt’s stomach cure your serious neurological injury? Even though there are commercials on the radio about the medicine, does that mean their claims are true? Why is the medicine so unbelievably expensive?

Mun answered question after question, but missed the greater picture. He insisted his aunt was better and that he would be better too if he only had this medicine. After a failed attempt to explain the placebo effect, the situation finally came into focus for me. Mun’s entire life determined how he approached the decision to buy this medicine or not. His lack of education and short time in an education system that doesn’t foster critical thinking left him vulnerable to scams. The lack of quality medical care in his country led to a distrust in modern medicine, which is inaccessible anyway since his family doesn’t have the money to pay doctors. The communal culture of Cambodia led him to trust his aunt’s experience more than his own lingering doubts about the product. Ultimately, the lack of money for education and health care was leading Mun to make poor decisions about his health out of desperation to get better. These poor decisions about his health would worsen his financial situation, which would worsen his health. The entire cycle of poverty was laid out in front of me. And, yes, it was soul-crushing.

In another world, Mun could have stayed in school to learn critical life skills, been able to afford a moto helmet to prevent head injuries, been able to receive adequate medical care after the accident, and had trust in local medical staff to treat him instead of snake oil salesmen. Instead, he’ll continue to consider “medicine” that costs a fifth of his family’s annual income while he still doesn’t get enough food to eat.



Camp GLOW 2013

7 05 2013

Last weekend was the third annual Camp GLOW in Siem Reap. Sixty-three students from seven secondary schools came to learn about women’s health and empowerment at this four-day workshop. I can’t say enough wonderful things about GLOW – it really is one of my favorite Peace Corps activities.

This year’s t-shirt design

You might remember from last year that Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a project carried out by Peace Corps volunteers across the globe. It’s an opportunity to bring girls together from different communities to share their experiences and build their leadership capacity. Like last year, the camp was funded primarily through USAID’s Small Project Assistance fund, with help from each of the participating communities. However, this year the project grew in size – from 39 girls from three schools to 63 students from seven schools. I brought 11 girls from my site, all of whom had been actively involved in my weekly health club.

Posing with some of the girls

Posing with some of the girls

Our philosophy with Camp GLOW has always been to bring in competent, inspiring Khmer women to lead the sessions, and this year was no different. The first two days of the camp were led by the staff at Our Strength, who focused on sexual health and healthy relationships. The Women’s Resource Center joined us again this year as well, leading activities on self-awareness, goal setting, and community education. There was one new addition to the line-up this year though, as we asked students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh to lead a 4-hour session on career planning.

What does it take to be a good teacher?

In addition to the education sessions, there were plenty of fun activities to keep the girls engaged, including a newspaper fashion show, a pizza party, and a trip to Angkor Wat.

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Cute nas

Cute nas

Now that the camp is finished, each group of girls is planning to teach 100 community members about what they learned at GLOW. Having seen the way that my girls organized and led the domestic violence education event for nearly 500 people in March, I feel confident that they will do a great job passing on what they’ve learned. Even on the van ride home from the camp, the girls were fearlessly teaching the other passengers about menstruation and reproductive anatomy.

For more pictures of GLOW, click here.


A Cruise, A Cremated King and a Couple of Projects

9 02 2013

After more than two weeks of lying in bed nearly all day due to dengue, Tim and I were back at it this week. We’ve got a lot of small updates, none of which seemed to warrant their own post, but collectively seem worth sharing now.

First of all, not too long ago the Acting Director of Peace Corps – the person who manages the program across 68 countries – came to visit Cambodia. Tim and I got to meet her on a sunset cruise in Phnom Penh, which was a wonderful time. We even found out that she briefly attended Central Michigan, which is where Tim and I met. The morning following the cruise, another volunteer and I were invited to take her and her staff shopping for souvenirs. It was such a great opportunity to get to meet such inspiring and down to earth women – not to mention that marveling at beautiful clothes and jewelry is always a good way to spend a Sunday morning.

Tim and another PCV on their way to meet the Acting Director

Tim and another PCV on their way to meet the Acting Director

Shortly after the staff from DC got on a plane to head to their next stop, the former king of Cambodia, who passed away in October, was cremated. There was a procession in Phnom Penh that was attended by tens of thousands of people. The flags were at half-staff, many Cambodians wore black ribbons, and there was a 2-day holiday marking the occasion. Luckily for us, the holidays created a four day weekend that gave us some extra time to rest up before diving back into work.

It was quite a transition too since this week was a busy one. After having Monday off, I helped facilitate a 4-day training session for PD Hearth. Since the project results in the first two villages were promising and I still had money in my budget, I decided to involve two more villages. So another PCV, who did the majority of the training, and I spent four days teaching about childhood nutrition, how to properly determine the nutritional status of a child, how to support mothers with malnourished children, and how to make a healthy weaning porridge. During the training, we spent two mornings in the villages doing field work. On the first trip, we weighed more than 150 children under the age of five. On the second, we interviewed eight families who have limited resources but whose children are still healthy and at an appropriate weight. All in all, the training was a big success. The volunteers for the project are enthusiastic, willing to learn, and happy to help. I’m really excited to start the feeding sessions in these villages next week.

Feeding Session in Poom Trach

Weighing Session in Poom Trach

In addition to the PD Hearth training, I was also busy this week with my regular classes and planning for my upcoming domestic violence project. A huge thank you to everyone who has donated so far. For those who haven’t, please go here and consider contributing. I still need about $750 to make this project a reality. If it doesn’t get fully funded in the next few weeks, I’m not sure if I’ll have time to carry it out…

…and that’s because we have less than five more months in Cambodia! We recently found out that our last day as PCVs will be July 5th. Knowing that we don’t have much more time here definitely has me feeling extra motivated to make the most of this experience. It will be over faster than we realize.


Serving in the Peace Corps as a Married Couple: Togetherness

1 02 2013

Since joining Peace Corps, Tim and I do everything together. We eat all three meals together. We lesson plan together. We work on projects together. We socialize together. We travel together. And, apparently, we get sick together.

Two weeks ago, Tim and I woke up with what turned out to be dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness that’s pretty widespread in these parts. We had muscle aches, sore eyes, nausea and neither of us could stay awake more than a few hours at a time. Although I’m not happy that Tim was sick too, the old saying rings true: misery loves company. We spent the better part of two weeks laid out in bed, groaning together, popping pills together, and feeling sorry for ourselves together. We eventually went into Phnom Penh on medical leave, and at that point, our routine changed just slightly, with us also watching bad TV together and ordering American food to our hotel room together. In fact, I think we may have broken a record for the most sub sandwiches eaten in a 6-day span.

The mosquitoes beat us despite our best defenses

The mosquitoes beat us despite our best defenses

We got cleared to go back to site and are definitely on the up-and-up, so no worries about us. I’m just happy I had someone to be sick with. Our lives have certainly never been as entangled as they are here in Cambodia. Now, Tim and I just need to make the transition back to productivity together. Good thing this weekend is a four-day weekend – the transition will be a slow one.


Celebrating the Highlights of 2012

31 12 2012

This year was the first full calendar year that I’ve spent outside of the US, so it comes as no surprise that there is much to celebrate about 2012.

January: In a Phnom Penh deli with AM

January: In a Phnom Penh deli with AM

A Special Visitor

The year started off with a visit from one of my dearest friends from home: Anne Marie. We spent a week or so hitting the major Cambodian cities, but the best part of all was definitely just spending time with her. It was a great start to what ended up being an equally great year.

April: Hanging out on Halong Bay

April: Hanging out on Halong Bay

Trip to Vietnam

During Khmer New Year in April, Tim and I headed off to Vietnam for three weeks of vacation. We made our way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, stopping along the way to see the hills of Dalat, the beaches of Nha Trang, the colonial architecture of Hoi An, and the caves of Dong Hoi.

September: Tim's hospitality students at a hotel in Siem Reap

July: Tim begins working on his hospitality project with this great group of young people

Hospitality Training Begins

With the support of a local NGO and all of you, Tim began managing an intensive hospitality training program for disadvantaged youth in the community. It was the perfect opportunity to combine Tim’s interest in cooking, available NGO resources and a expressed need in the community.

July: The current group of volunteers welcomes the newbies at the airport

July: The current group of volunteers welcomes the newbies at the airport

Welcoming the K6s

A milestone for those of us who had reached the one year mark, welcoming the new group of volunteers to Cambodia reminded us all of how much we had learned and how far we had come since arriving the year before.

August: Teaching project volunteers about childhood nutrition

August: Teaching project volunteers about childhood nutrition

Understanding and Embracing my Role

In August, my project work took off, helping me to see the results of all the hard work I had put in during the first year of service. In the course of a month, I took the girls from my health club to Camp GLOW in Siem Reap, I helped organize and lead a training that would kick off a childhood nutrition program, I started teaching “the monsters” and I got to share some of what I learned with the new volunteers at their training.

October: Visiting the beach town of Sihanoukville

October: Visiting the beach town of Sihanoukville

Hitting the Beach

For our second Pchum Ben, Tim and I decided to take a quick trip down south to visit the relaxed towns of Kampot and Sihanoukville.

October: back to school

October: Back to school

A Second School Year

Immediately following our trip down south, Tim’s second academic year at site began, giving him the opportunity to once again work in the public schools with his choice of counterparts. He was especially excited this year because he knew what to expect and had already developed deep friendships with several teachers at the school.

November: Seeing my parents for the first time in 16 months

November: Seeing my parents for the first time in 16 months

My Parents’ Trip

In November, my parents came to visit and we spent ten days hitting all of the tourist activities in Siem Reap, including the alligator farm, the silk farm, Apsara dancing, the floating villages, the Angkor National Museum, the ceramics center and, of course, the temples.


December: Ringing in the new year in style

The End of 2012

Here we are at the end of the year! Tim and I are celebrating all of the triumphs (and challenges) of 2012 in style in Siem Reap.

Thanks for all of the support and love this year. Wishing everyone a great 2013!


‘Maan kilo?

9 11 2012

Not too long ago, I posted an update on my PD Hearth project, but since then there have been quite a few new developments. First of all, we’ve completed the follow-up weighing events in the two villages with very positive results!

In both villages, all of the targeted children who attended both weighing sessions gained weight except for one who stayed the same. That’s 26 underweight kids who are, theoretically at least, healthier now. Many of them even jumped from one nutritional status to another (eg: from severely underweight to moderately underweight; or from moderately underweight to healthy). For the next few months, we’ll be monitoring their growth to make sure they continue to gain weight and that the mothers are implementing some of the new behaviors they learned.

‘Maan Kilo? (How much does he weigh?)

The other big news is that I’ve been approved to do the project in two more villages. I’m incredibly optimistic because I feel like I’ve learned a lot throughout the project and will be able to better manage the project this time around. We’ve made a lot of updates to the training curriculum, I know how to better identify communities and volunteers, and my language level continues to improve as time goes on. Hopefully next time we’ll see an even bigger weight increase! We won’t be starting the second phase of the project for a few months but I’m already looking forward to it!


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.