2 09 2013

This is the last in a series of articles I’ve written for my hometown newspaper, the Index.

I’ve been agonizing over how to properly sum up the past two years of my life in a concise, yet meaningful way. Like any two years, my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia has been complex: full of personal milestones, frustrating challenges, and moments of boredom. In that way, it doesn’t feel much different than any other two years I’ve lived.

Yet, these two years took place on the other side of the globe in a context that was completely different from any I had known. Because of that, there’s an expectation that I have neatly-packaged insights that I can easily and eloquently relay when others ask, “How was Cambodia?” or “What was it like?”

I have no shortage of anecdotes I can share when asked these questions – mice shooting out of our toilet, getting bitten by the town’s infamous three-legged dog, running a half marathon through ancient temple ruins. However, interesting anecdotes only touch the surface. In the same way that the pizza you had for dinner last night doesn’t define how your week has been, the ant soup that I ate with my host family, while perhaps an amusing story, in no way represents the experience I’ve had here.


Although I know most people are not looking for anything but a brief response to their questions, I feel great pressure to give a more complete message about my time in Cambodia than a simple anecdote or two will allow. Crafting my story feels like a heavy responsibility because in telling my story, I also tell Cambodia’s.

However, this kind of in-depth reflection is difficult. How do I make sense of an experience that is so tangled up in who I have become that it’s nearly impossible to separate it from myself?

When thinking back on my Peace Corps service, and other formative events in my life, it becomes easy to slip into a rut of self-absorption. After all, living in Cambodia was life changing, so it should come as no surprise that I want to explore the wide range of emotions I’m feeling now that I’m faced with leaving it.

I feel heartbroken, for example, having to say goodbye to people who have become my closest friends and sources of inspiration.  I feel gratitude for all those who took the time to teach me a new word in Khmer, to share their stories with me, or to work beside me on projects. I feel pride for the effort and thought that I put into my service. I feel unbridled excitement to share my experiences with others when I return.


However, if I’m honest about my emotions, I also feel disappointed for the days I chose not to leave my house, for finding excuses to avoid studying the language when I had free time, for not trying harder to achieve equality in my workplace relationships.

And then there’s the doubt: doubt about whether, after countless hours of chatting and sharing meals together, I ever meant anything more to my host family than the 100 dollars of rent money I provided each month. I doubt whether my projects did more good than harm. I doubt whether the lessons I’ve supposedly learned over these two years will stick with me once I step foot back in the States.

If dwelling on my own feelings seems too self-absorbed — and it certainly does— shifting the focus to the many brave, resourceful, and open minded Cambodians I met throughout my time in country feels trite. The often cited idea that “they taught me more than I could ever teach them” undoubtedly rings true, yet appears so empty when written on a page for the millionth time. How do I shine a light on individuals like Hoan Hoak, who has become a leader in her community and begun to create a safe and just environment for women and children? How do I recognize Vanna, my student who is brave enough to teach older women about health, even in a culture where age equals respect? How do I give voice to these stories, and so many more, without it seeming forced or formulaic?

I imagine returning from an experience like Peace Corps is one of the only times in my life when I will be asked to summarize two years of my existence, including the place I lived, the people who influenced my day-to-day routine, and my emotional response to it all. It overwhelms me to try and make sense of it.


When I return to the States next week, I want to feel prepared to tell a nuanced account of what I’ve witnessed and experienced in the past two years. I haven’t figured out exactly what this story will sound like as it plays in my head and comes rushing out of my mouth. After all, some of the most powerful insights come long after an experience is over.

However, as I begin what I imagine I will be a long process of making sense of this journey, I hope never to forget the beautiful complexity of this country or my time in it. I will try to remember that this experience is more than an accumulation of anecdotes, self-righteous reflections, or formulaic stories of local heroes. I might not yet be able to supply neatly-packaged insights, but I can attest that it was two years like any other: messy, beautiful and finite.


Saying Goodbye

20 06 2013

This week is our last one at site, meaning it has been filled with countless goodbyes. I’ve been on my bike every day, riding out to the villages to say farewell to my project volunteers, my students, and the friends I’ve made during this wonderful two-year journey. There have also been several special events that have helped us say goodbye to our community, moments that I’m sure will stick with us long after we step foot on US soil again.

Our farewell tour kicked off at the school. The local high school had a ceremony to celebrate Tim and all the hard work he’s put in as an English teacher and teacher trainer.

Tim and his coteacher

Tim and his co-teacher

Then, we rented a van and took a big group of friends to a nearby national park, where we spent the day hiking, picnicking, and swimming near an impressive 50-foot waterfall.

Me and Vary at the base of the waterfall

Next, the staff at the health center organized a party where I ate countless bowls of curry and grilled chicken.


This weekend, I’ll be saying goodbye to some friends in Siem Reap before heading back to site for a special dinner with our host family. Then, on Tuesday, we’ll pack up a taxi and say goodbye to Kampong Kdey.


Invisible and Unrestricted in Bangkok

22 05 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. It all started when I visited Bangkok in April. One day while sitting on the outdoor staircase of a luxurious shopping mall, I became fully absorbed in watching people pass me by. I was energized by the vast number of people on the street and, in particular, their diversity. I felt instantly as though I could disappear into the masses, not to be noticed sitting among the Thai business men and women, the university students, the international bankers, the tourists, the “lady boys,” the street vendors. There was nothing noticeable about me, nothing remarkable. I hadn’t experienced that feeling since I left the States a year and half earlier. It was such a relief.

The busy streets of Bangkok

The busy streets of Bangkok

Living in a small Cambodian town, I am a spectacle, always on display. I tower over the Cambodian women, my short brown hair adding to my visibility. My skin is whiter than my Khmer friends’ and my nose more defined, and they are sure to tell me so every day. Physically, it’s impossible to blend in. Socially, too. Despite having solid language skills, there are still loads of miscommunications, awkward situations, and times when I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on. These things make me stand out, and although I am generally embraced by the community, sometimes I just want to disappear into the background. Unfortunately, that’s not an option since I’m the only foreigner in town (excluding Tim, of course). The anonymity in Bangkok felt like an escape from my life in a metaphorical fishbowl.

Bangkok also made me realize how limited my life in rural Cambodia is. I’ve fallen head over heels for this country, but it remains true that my existence here is very narrow when compared to life in the US. Living in such a traditional setting means that in order to be effective in my work, or be accepted socially, I need to adhere to as many of the local customs as possible. For instance, in the past two years I have never left my house with my shoulders or knees showing. In fact, I wear a collared shirt out whenever my laundry pile will allow because that’s what women my age generally wear. I’m also restricted in who I can spend my time with, as it is not customary for men and women to spend leisure time together in public, let alone by themselves. I have been advised to avoid alcohol, some say even coffee, because good women do not drink these things. Furthermore, my social role is seen primarily – if not exclusively – as being a wife and a future mother, and much judgment comes from the fact that I do not do the daily cooking and that we do not yet have kids.

Showing off my shoulders in Bangkok

Showing off my shoulders in Bangkok

These limitations regarding the way I look, spend my time, and am viewed by the community are only part of the story. Operating in a foreign language each and every day is probably the biggest limitation. I rarely feel like I can express myself fully, due to both the intercultural element and the language barrier. It’s very difficult to maintain even the basic threads of identity, like humor or intellect, in a foreign language, which can result in feeling isolated.

Sitting in Bangkok though, observing what seemed to be a large middle class walking through the streets, I realized that some of the restrictions I feel also stem from the economic situation of Cambodia. In the US, I’d spend my weekends going to a baseball game, catching an art flick at the local movie theater, dining out at the newest restaurant, baking a favorite cake recipe. These, in small part, were things that defined me. It’s difficult to have leisure activities like these in a country where so many live below the poverty line. It’s difficult to act on my individual preferences and tastes when the market stalls all sell the same variations of factory-produced clothing gone awry or when the nearest concert venue is 250 kilometers away. If I am defined, at all, by what I do in my free time, rural Cambodia leaves me the same as everyone else, taking naps in a hammock and watching the same soaps on TV.


Naps: Cambodia’s favorite leisure time activity

The pressure from these restrictions, somewhat self imposed as they may be, built up slowly. Before going to Bangkok, I would not have even been able to articulate their existence. But in Bangkok, I felt more me than I had in a long time. It was a relief, a release. We spend our lives figuring out who we are, what we enjoy, where we fit into our world. To then be transplanted to a new world where we are unable to maintain the same sense of identity we worked so hard to create, is exhausting.

Coming back to my small Cambodian town after Bangkok was easy. I wasn’t so sure it would be. I effortlessly slipped back into the routine of shapeless dress shirts, half-understood conversations, and lunchtime naps. Truth is, realizations about my somewhat stifled identity were not enough to overshadow the things I’ve come to love about living here. They do color my experience though and, until now, had been missing from my stories. Living in Cambodia has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, but I did have to give up a part of myself to make room for Cambodia to come in.


Warm Fuzzy Feelings

30 04 2013

Time has been racing by since we got back from vacation. It’s impossible to believe that we’ll be leaving our site in less than two short months. Exacerbating our warped perception of time is the fact that our schedules have been packed recently, with no real indication that things will slow down before we leave.

Last week was the first full work week since Khmer New Year. My week was a varied one, a reflection of what my life at site has become. It included weighing sessions, meetings with my girls’ club, preparations for Camp GLOW, planning sessions for the domestic violence project, English classes, and a refresher training for village health volunteers. Tim was back at school, teaching a full schedule for the first time in about six weeks. In addition to work activities, we spent a lot of time catching up with our host family and friends, who we hadn’t seen in some time. We had been feeling like vacation marked the beginning of the end, so it was encouraging to kick off the last stage of our service with such productive and fun activities.

Our host dad playing with his grandson this week

Our host dad playing with his grandson this week

On Saturday, we went to Battambang to celebrate the marriage of our very first Khmer teacher. Sothearith introduced us to Cambodia’s language and culture during training in Takeo nearly two years ago. He has proven to be one of the most effective teachers and friendliest guys we’ve encountered in our time here. We were excited to be able to join in his wedding celebrations, especially because we had been hoping to get back to Battambang one more time before heading home. In addition to the wedding festivities, we were able to sneak in a show at the circus (the second time, for me) and a quick swim in a brand new rooftop pool. Clearly, when I describe my busy schedule, I’m using a loose definition.

These kids are AMAZING!

These kids are AMAZING!

Overall, it was a really fun weekend, that had us regularly reminding ourselves how good our lives are here. There’s been an awful lot of warm fuzzy feelings about Cambodia lately, not to mention dozens of new thoughts I’d like to share as our time winds down. Let’s hope I can find the time and energy to do so, even as my schedule continues to gain momentum in the upcoming weeks.




So Many Reasons to Celebrate

22 03 2013

What a fantastic week it’s been! Tim and I have been bombarded with reasons to celebrate all week long. Here’s a taste of some of the events that have kept us smiling this week despite the hot, sticky weather.

Workshop participants practice teaching about the various types of domestic violence

Workshop participants practice teaching about the various types of domestic violence

Domestic Violence Awareness Workshop

So many things to be thankful for under this heading! First of all, I received the list of funders this week. I am completely overwhelmed by the generosity of my friends, family, RPCVs and even complete strangers! What a wonderful feeling to have so much support. You should all expect a thank you message this weekend! You are all amazing!

Then, of course, we actually held the workshop. All week long, I was so impressed by the great facilitation skills shown by my counterpart, Sothin. I am also thankful for all the ways that Meghan, a fellow PCV, helped me out during her stay. Most of all, though, I was in awe of the bravery, optimism and commitment to equality shown by all of the project participants. They were a wonderful group to work with, and I can’t wait to see them in action in their villages soon! I’ll write more on this training later, but for now I’ll revel in all of the positive energy.

Tim’s Birthday

This week, Tim had his 27th birthday! I was swamped with the workshop, so we didn’t get a chance to celebrate properly, but there are plans for a fancy dinner out soon. Happy, happy birthday to the best site mate I could imagine! :)

The new HC building on the day of the ribbon cutting

The new HC building on the day of the ribbon cutting

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

This week was the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new building at the health center. Although I am still skeptical about the need for a new building, the ceremony was the talk of the town. More than 1,200 people attended, including a slew of government officials and bigwigs. With the excitement and pride surrounding the new building, I think there’s also a chance for me to influence the quality of the services offered there. The staff already has to change their routine to adapt to the change in scenery, so it is the perfect time to offer a few suggestions of my own. They also received a lot of new education materials with the new building, and I’m excited to start using them with patients!

Attempting to dance at the wedding

Attempting to dance at the wedding

Another Wedding

This time of year always brings a lot of weddings, and this week was no exception. This wedding was particularly fun though because of the sweet village health volunteer who invited us. She is a younger volunteer, maybe around 30, who has always been very friendly and fun. At the wedding, she showed true Khmer hospitality by looking out for us at every step: making sure we had enough to eat and drink, saving our shoes from the giant pile that accumulates during the chants, teaching me to dance, and riding her moto home with us to make sure we arrived safely on our bikes. She just has a fantastic energy, and I always like spending time with her.

Becoming a Quaker

Another big event this week was that Tim officially accepted his spot in University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. He will be getting his Master’s in Social Work in Philly starting this fall! He received a nice financial aid offer, but also had an interview for additional fellowship money this week. For those of you in the States, please keep your fingers crossed. In Cambodia, we’ll have to figure out another way to send good luck to him because crossing your fingers is considered vulgar.

Here’s hoping you all had as good of a week as we did here!


A Note on Cambodian Language and Culture

11 03 2013

I can remember sitting in my high school Spanish class, listening to my teacher explain the idea that a culture and its language cannot be separated. As a 14 year-old who had never left the US , I remember this sounding cliche. It was one of those things that teachers were supposed to say, like how my math teacher would insist that I would someday need trigonometry for the “real world.” (Yeah, right.)

As I got older, I began to realize there might be some truth to the Señora’s claim. I began to learn about foods, customs and events that existed in some cultures, but not my own. After all, I realized, how could we have an English word for quesillo if the vast majority of native English speakers had never tasted one?

As my understanding grew, I began to fully grasp the idea that, as a culture, we only name things that are important to us. We’ve all heard about the Inuit people having many different words for snow, right? It’s the same here with rice, which is the center of rural life in most of the country. The Cambodian people have one word for rice when it’s still in the field, another after it’s been husked, and yet another for after it’s been cooked.

After having spent close to two years immersed in the Khmer language and culture, it’s easy to see that the two are connected to an even higher degree than that. The ways in which Cambodians construct sentences, the words that they use — these things are a direct reflection of their deepest value systems and traditions. Since I haven’t studied the history or evolution of the language, I can’t guarantee that all of these examples are truly connected in the ways I’ve inferred, but below I’ve listed some of what I’ve found to be the most interesting and apparent links between Cambodian language and culture.

Emphasis on personal relationships

Generally speaking, Cambodians are much more community- or family-oriented than Americans. This plays out in daily activities, as well as special events and, of course, linguistics. When Cambodians speak to one another, they rarely use the pronoun “you.” Instead, they call you a familial term, based on your age as compared to theirs. For example, I would call a high school student oun, which translates to “younger sibling,” while I would call a 30 year-old friend bong, or “older sibling.” There are many words to choose from, including a couple of different words for “aunt” and “uncle,” which are dependent on the person’s age, as well as grandmother and grandfather. This means that when speaking to an elderly woman, I would literally say, “How is grandmother?” instead of “How are you?” It’s a constant reminder of the close-knit relationships people have and the emphasis placed on our connections to others.

"How is grandmother?"

“How is grandmother?”

Personal identity defined by relationship to group

Similarly, when talking about themselves in Khmer, people only occasionally use the pronoun “I,” choosing instead to define themselves based on their relationship to those around them. This means a mother speaking to her child would say the equivalent of “Mother loves child,” not “I love you.” Or, a teacher would say, “Teacher wants to go with student,” instead of “I want to go with you.” Based on my experience, this isn’t just a linguistic quirk either, it truly is a reflection of how many Cambodians view themselves and their identities: always part of the larger group.

Respect for hierarchy and authority

Working in a public school or health center, it doesn’t take long to notice that there is an unwavering belief in authority figures. Anything an authority says is unquestioned, and there are clearly defined lines between authorities and their subordinates.  Generally, at the top of the hierarchy are older people, men, and those with a great deal of money. The emphasis on hierarchy can be seen in the language too. Take the verb “to eat.” If we are talking about animals– or children even– there is one word used to mean “to eat.” When we talk about adults, there are a pair of different words we use. The words have the same meaning, of course, but they convey varying levels of respect. There is yet another word for “to eat” when talking to elders, and one more for royalty. So when Cambodians talk to one another, they are constantly reminded of the social status of the people they are talking to based on the verb used.

Indirect communication and saving face

It is well known that many Asian cultures place a greater emphasis on saving face than Western cultures. This can be seen in a number of ways. For example, as a foreigner, it means that sometimes Cambodians pretend to understand my heavily-accented Khmer instead of asking for clarification because they don’t want either of us to be embarrassed. Teachers say that “maybe” they will teach tomorrow because directly saying that they won’t is frowned upon. The indirectness is not only limited to the content of a message though, it can also be seen in the structure used. Cambodians use passive sentence structures very frequently, thus distancing themselves, or others, from direct responsibility. Instead of saying that a mother did not show up to the feeding sessions, they’ll say “I haven’t seen them come,” which softens the message. Instead of saying,”I didn’t teach today because it was raining,” they’ll say, “The rain made it so I could not teach.”

"Maybe we weigh babies tomorrow..."

“Maybe we weigh babies tomorrow…”

Relaxed sense of time

The Khmer language is largely tenseless, and, as such, allows a great deal of ambiguity. In English, a verb changes based on when the action happened– go, went, will go, am going, have gone, had gone, etc — but Khmer does not have this level of specificity. Not having tenses (which is an oversimplification, but mostly true), leaves the listener to infer when the action took place based on the context. However, as tempting as it is, it’s hard for me to say with any certainty that this linguistic ambiguity is a direct reflection of the loose attitudes toward time found in Cambodia. Cambodians do tend to value punctuality much less than we do in the States so at first glance, there seems to be a link between the language and the attitudes. However, many other developing countries have lax ideas about time while still using highly-structured tenses similar to English, so I’m not sure.

Predetermined destinies

One frustrating element of working in Cambodia for volunteers is that many times Cambodians see themselves with less agency than we see ourselves in the United States. By that I mean that, as a generalization, Cambodians don’t believe they can change their own lives to the extent we are taught to believe. Once poor, you will always be poor. Or, once your child is malnourished, she will always be malnourished. Many Cambodians seem to believe they do not have the power to change these things, perhaps for reasons related to certain aspects of Buddhism. There is one phrase in Khmer that seems to fully embody this idea though: awt jeh, or “s/he doesn’t know (how).” Any Peace Corps Volunteer teaching alongside a Khmer counterpart will hear this phrase a dozen times every week. For example, Tim will call on a student to answer a question, and his counterpart will immediately jump in and say, “He doesn’t know how. He’s from the village.” The connotation of this word, at least as I interpret it, is not that the student doesn’t know the answer. No, there’s a different phrase for that: awt dung. Instead, it implies that the student doesn’t have the capacity to know. He doesn’t have the answer today, nor will he ever have the answer. We should, instead, call on someone else. Once a student awt jehs, it is often believed he will never “know how.”


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!


A Linguistic Shift

2 12 2012

Not too long ago, something changed for me, linguistically-speaking. Previously, when someone asked how long I had been in Cambodia, I’d say “more than a year.” Recently, however, my wording evolved. When people ask me now, I reply with the barely distinguishable, “a year and a half” (or, more often than not, the Khmer equivalent for that).

Although this tiny shift may seem insignificant to many, it got me thinking. You see, “a year and a half” is also my reply when people ask me how long I spent in Latin America, meaning that the time I’ve been nervously awaiting has finally arrived. In the upcoming weeks and months, the scale is going to tip and I will have been in Cambodia longer than I was in Latin America.


I loved Nicaragua's volcanos

I loved Nicaragua’s volcanoes…

...its cultural festivities...

…its cultural festivities…


…and the street food!

The tipping of the scale is something I’ve feared since arriving. I can remember riding my bike through the rice paddies in training, speaking to myself out loud in Spanish in a desperate attempt to reserve territory in my brain for the language, even as Khmer started to conquer more and more brain space. I remember clinging to mental images, smells, songs – anything to remind me of my time in Latin America. Spanish was the first language I studied. My first solo trip abroad was to Latin America. I did so much learning and growing in the region. Latin America had a special place in mi corazón. And when I arrived in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to it.

It played out in my head like a bad romantic comedy, where I had to choose between my high school sweetheart and the new guy who showed up, inevitably driving a motorcycle (or is it a moped in this case?). Would my love for Latin America grow as I realized that Cambodia’s novelty was enough to grab my attention – but not to hold it? Or would Cambodia win, leaving me to realize how silly I was to ever like Latin America in the first place? Was our history enough to keep us together? Would I even remember my Spanish at the end of all this? Quién sabía?

Well, it might be too early to say for sure, but I think I might have overreacted. (Shocking, isn’t it?) Yes, I love Latin America. It invigorates and inspires me in a way that no other region has. But I also love Cambodia now. It balances and grounds me. Yes, I speak Khmer every day, but I can also speak Spanish (although, admittedly, I do have to stop and think more than I’d like). There are things about each place that I find beautiful, amazing and unique. In my book, the two are equals.

The scenes from Chile, Nicaragua and Argentina have certainly faded with time. Living in this reality can make it hard to imagine any other – including my previous life in Latin America, but also the life I had in the States for 23 years. And, truth be told, my year and a half here has been spent consecutively and in a single country; whereas my time in Latin America was strewn between three countries and across four years. It makes sense that Cambodia is at the center of my thoughts. It makes sense that I have moments each and every day where I give thanks for being here above anywhere else in the world. It makes sense that Latin America has been put on the back burner for now.

Latin America will always be there waiting for me with los brazos abiertos, but until then my heart is here. ខ្ញុំស្រលាញ់កម្ពុជា!


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.


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.