One more sleep

5 09 2013

My last week in Cambodia has been one unlike any other. I’ve spent it tying up the loose ends of my contract work, but luckily that hasn’t been too difficult, leaving plenty of time for fun and relaxation. Throughout the week, I’ve spent countless hours in expat coffee shops, gotten multiple massages, had my hair and nails done, and eaten at several wonderful restaurants. It’s been lovely, and the best part has been the company. I’ve gotten to spend much of this week with some of my colleagues and mentors, which has been a blast.  I am incredibly grateful for the time I got to spend with them.

Relaxed after a week of pampering

Relaxed after a week of pampering

Tonight, my last night in Cambodia, the Country Director hosted a reception for all of the current and incoming volunteers. I really couldn’t ask for a better last night in country, surrounded by the staff and volunteers that have made my service meaningful. Only one more sleep for the trainees before they swear in as volunteers, and only one more sleep for me before I get on that plane to fly home. Unbelievable!



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.


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.




Water Festival in Bangkok

19 04 2013

The last stop of our trip was Bangkok, which mostly served as a way to break up the travel from southern Thailand back to Cambodia. However, the timing of our overnight in the capital made it one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. You see, earlier this week both Thailand and Cambodia celebrated the new year. In Thailand, they refer to the holiday as Water Festival (or Songkran), whereas in Cambodia it is simply called Khmer New Year. In both countries, the holiday officially lasts for three days, with celebrations spilling over for most of the month of April. It is the most anticipated time of the year, much like Christmas for many Americans.

In Cambodia, the new year is marked with relaxed afternoons spent with family in the countryside, drinking beer with buddies, and playing traditional games at the wat. The overall feeling during these three days is happy, but relaxed. In Thailand, however,  the vibe is anything but relaxed. Water Festival is an all-on party, where the tradition is to soak anybody and everybody with water and cover them in a floury paste.

Celebrating Water Festival in Silom (not my picture)

Celebrating Water Festival in Silom (not my picture)

We had been told that Bangkok would be empty during this time because most people would return to their families’ homes in the countryside. Bangkok, we were told, is not known for its songrkan festivities. So we booked a room in the same guesthouse we had stayed in two weeks earlier and prepared ourselves for a quiet day of catching up on emails, reading, and wandering around the neighborhood where we were staying, Silom. Much to our surprise, we found out that Silom is one of the two main centers for Water Festival activities. When we left our guesthouse in search of a late lunch, we were greeted with huge crowds of people, many of them children or college age, armed with buckets of water, super soakers, hoses, coolers of ice, and flour paste. We walked a few blocks to the restaurant, and by the time we arrived we were soaked.

Fallen prey to the festival antics

Fallen prey to the festival antics

The part went well into the night

The party went well into the night

After shivering in the air conditioned restaurant for a half an hour, eating our last Thai meal, we decided to brave the crowds and head back to the guesthouse. As soon as we stepped outside though, it was obvious that the party was just getting started. The crowds we had seen 30 minutes earlier had multiplied in size, making it nearly impossible to move anywhere. The streets were packed, the sidewalks were packed, the Skytrain entrance was packed. We could barely move, leaving us vulnerable once again to the ice cold buckets of water being playfully tossed by nearly everyone around us.

It took us hours to get back to the guesthouse, which was about an 8 minute walk on a normal day. There were moments of pure joy and amazement as we watched what seemed like hundreds of thousands of people all celebrating together, strangers laughing together as they covered each other’s faces in paste. There were also moments of frustration and panic, as we were caught in a massive mob, physically unable to move, cold and cramped. Overall, though,  it was a truly unforgettable experience, accidentally getting caught in the middle of it all, just thinking we were going out to grab a bite to eat. It was a great way to end our Thailand vacation. Now, we’re back in Cambodia ready to get back to life as usual.


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.


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.



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.



Weekend in Siem Reap

24 06 2012

Tim and I had a great time in Siem Reap this weekend. At least 50 Peace Corps Volunteers flocked to our provincial town  to celebrate birthdays, mark the end of the school year, and, for some, begin saying goodbye to Cambodia. Unbelievable as it is, the group before us has started packing their bags and preparing to return to the US after two years of service here. This weekend was almost certainly the last time that we will see many of them.

On our way to the hockey game

So it was a weekend of catching up and saying goodbye. A weekend of packages and indulgences. A weekend of dance floors and… floor hockey. One of the highlights of the weekend was heading to a nearby village where, believe it or not, they have a court for floor hockey. A team of PCVs challenged the Cambodian students to a game, unsure of what to expect. Well, after piling 15 people into a caravan of tuk tuks and heading out of the city, the game began. And it turns out that the Cambodian students were really good, crushing our team 25-5. Although I didn’t play, I am sure that everyone had a great time despite the loss, especially during those twenty or thirty minutes when it was pouring rain on the players.

The teams, jerseys and all

After three days of splurging on more food or drink than anyone should consume, we’ve returned to site. Tonight, the feasts continue though, as Tim tries his hand at some oven-less lasagna at the request of our host family. Tomorrow, however, life returns to normal and we’ll be back at work, trying to determine how our summer schedules are going to play out.


The Sweet Spot

14 03 2012

Three things happened today that, alone, were great, but that together might have pushed me off the cliff of happiness and gratitude. First, I got an email from my parents saying that they had booked tickets to come visit later this year. Incredible! Second, Tim received a message from a friend of his saying that he and his new wife will be in Cambodia in May. Unbelievable! Then, as if those two things weren’t great enough, my friend who was here in January told me she is planning on returning for a few days in the fall. Unimaginable!

Add onto all of this that two of our best friends have committed to meeting us in Bali next year (they’ve bought the Lonely Planet, that’s a commitment, right?) and that several others have mentioned trying to come, and I am left utterly speechless. Oh, and have I mentioned that a friend of ours from Pittsburgh lives in Siem Reap, only 60 kilometers away?

These people bought tickets to come to Cambodia! Shocked? Me too! But excited!

As I excitedly processed all of this information with Tim, I realized something: We’re in the sweet spot. We are at a very unique time in our lives when most of our friends have steady incomes, yet no major recurring costs or small children. My parents are young enough that they’ll still be able to make (and enjoy) the trip, but old enough that they aren’t financially supporting any of their children. This is the perfect storm that has never happened before and that is unlikely to happen again. The sweet spot.

We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to see so many important people during our service. I admit that not all of them are coming (or came) just for us, but still– we sure are lucky!! And even if some, or all, of these visits fall through, it still makes me happy to think about the love and support coming from our family and friends back home. Thanks for all the visits, letters, packages and messages.


Champagne Problems

11 03 2012

With all the “hardships” we Peace Corps volunteers endure, it is easy to get caught up in the difficulties of our time here rather than the good stuff. When it’s 95 degrees and there isn’t any water, it’s easy to furrow your brow, let your heels hit the floor a little harder, and groan about the terrible misfortune that has befallen you.

I’ve come to think about all the little frustrations of service as “Champagne Problems.” Back home, you may think of them as “Living in a Developing Country Problems” or “Duh, you’re in Cambodia Problems.” But for Peace Corps Volunteers I think these truly are “First World” or “Champagne Problems.” Look how we got here. We are privileged to be able to travel to another country, let alone live here. This is an experience very few in the world have the opportunity to do; we should enjoy all the “privileges” that we can while we’re here. After all, it’s not this hot in the US, the spiders aren’t nearly as big, and it’s awfully hard to find a good bowl of ant soup there. We should be so lucky to get giardia in the States. Do you know how hygienic restaurants are there? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, folks.

Not to mention while we’re complaining about dogs barking in the middle of the night, the weather being too hot, and cockroaches walking away with our food, Cambodians are the ones living here. Not for a two year culture experiment, but a lifetime. And the Champagne Problems we complain about are the least of their concerns.

So not only am I a little skeptical of complainers (including myself), but I’ve also found that for me, it’s been much easier to have those otherwise rare feelings of intense happiness here than in the US. So, yeah, the water might be out for a few days, but you know I’m the one enthusiastically yelling “Waaaaatttttttteeeerrrrrrrrrr!” when it unexpectedly comes back.

How can this not make you happy? Every time I see it, I think, "Silly tree, that's not where your fruit should go."

There seem to be a couple thousand ways to get quick bursts of concentrated happy in Cambodia:

  • Adorable kids yelling hello (or screaming and running away) when they see us.
  • Getting the hammock swinging just right.
  • A cold drink after a long bike ride.
  • A student saying hello on the street and calling me “Tim,” “Mr. Tim,” or “Teacher,” but not “’cher.”
  • A seller having our usual purchases ready for us as soon as he sees us coming.
  • Hearing the calming end to a long day of wat music.
  • Finally hearing the difference between four Khmer words you used to swear were exactly the same.
  • Killing mosquitoes with our electric racquet.
  • Cooking food you thought was previously uncookable due to a lack of oven, cheese, yeast, crème brulee blow torch, liquid nitrogen, etc.
  • Mango season.
  • The deep green of the rice paddies during rainy season.
  • When a student or coteacher uses a word or grammar point that you taught them the class before.
  • Actually lesson planning with a coteacher.
  • Getting a project idea that you’re passionate about.

Cute kids are everywhere, but not all wear suits.

So, just off the top of my head, there are 15 happiness-inducing Peace Corps moments. The list could be 10 times as long, of course, but then it would be even more boring than it already is. The point is that there are things here that make you curse and smile, but you wouldn’t smile nearly as big without the cursing. Being grateful of our minor annoyances helps keep the whole experience in perspective.