Asking for your help one final time: Please donate

24 01 2013

First of all, thank you. You all have been incredibly supportive during our Peace Corps experience so far. You helped Tim’s hospitality project get (more than) fully funded in a matter of days, you tried your best to help us win the money for the geography club (we didn’t win, but still appreciate all the “likes” and shares) — and now, one last time, we need your help.


I’m currently fundraising for what will be my final endeavor during my PC Cambodia stint: a community-based domestic violence education project. In nearly every discussion I’ve had about community development with village chiefs, teachers, NGO staff members and secondary students at my site, they’ve all identified domestic violence as being a very top priority in our area. According to a recent report, half of Cambodians surveyed believe that a husband is justified in shooting, stabbing, or throwing acid at his wife if she is disrespectful or argumentative. I’m hoping to create safer communities for women by training volunteers on conducting community-based education sessions, mitigating conflict, providing referrals for victims of abuse, and assisting others in drafting personal safety plans.

To make a donation, please head to this site:

Any contribution would be greatly appreciated and would be used toward fostering well-informed, safe and just communities. (Not to mention, it’s tax deductible!)


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.



It’s not about the money, money, money

25 10 2011

There has been a lot of talk about money lately among the Peace Corps Volunteers and staff here in Cambodia. Two main conversations, which have been discussed continuously since the Peace Corps’ inception in the 1960s, seem to be going on. First, are we volunteers being paid enough to live—and “live well”—at permanent site? And second, are we living at the level of the local people?

In my limited experience, the answers to these two questions are straightforward. “Yes,” the first question, and “no” to the second.

Are we being paid enough to live at permanent site? This question is quite complicated and very controversial right now. All I will say is yes, Tim and I have been able to live extremely well on the money that we’ve received through Peace Corps. We’ve been able to save several hundred dollars in the short months we’ve been here. And we certainly have not been skimping. In fact, we hardly ever think about money. If I want an expensive tea, I buy it. If Tim wants to print 300 pages for his English club, he prints them. We have recently bought a hammock, a chair, speakers, a countertop stove and several DVDs. Plus, I’ve talked before about the clothes I’ve gotten custom made here. Not to mention that last weekend we took an air conditioned bus to Siem Reap, where I did all of my Christmas shopping (in October… pretty good right?). And in Phnom Penh last month, I’m pretty sure Tim and I ate everything in sight. And we still have money left. Plenty of it. This might not be the case for all volunteers, and I understand that. Some might be placed in more expensive sites than ours. Tim and I might be saving money as a couple. And, of course, people have very different standards for “living well.” But for us, the answer is easy: A resounding “yes.” Yes, in the months that we’ve been here, we have found that our stipend has been more than sufficient to cover our costs.

Our loot from Siem Reap - plus a huge pile of herbs and spices not pictured

On to the second question: Are we living at the level of the local people? Absolutely not. As volunteers, we each make $269 a month. This might not sound like much, but consider this: A primary school teacher in our town makes $60 a month. A secondary school teacher might make $100, while an administrator might come in around $150 or $170. Sixty percent of Cambodians live on less than $2 a day. We make 4.5 times that amount. And we make it on a regular basis. We are not affected by the fluctuations of the local market. Nor do we make all of our money in one or two lump sums a year and then have to ration it for months at a time, as do many. We make $269 a month. Every month.

Except the months when we make more. Like this month, for example, when we were given a hefty “settling in allowance.” Or any of the many months when we’ll have to travel to Phnom Penh for meetings or trainings.

And I haven’t even begun to describe the resources afforded to us by Peace Corps. Upon arrival, we were all given water filters worth several hundred dollars. We have brand new mosquito nets. New bedding, mattresses and pillows. A top of the line cell phone. Peace Corps gave us all bikes—some of us even got shiny new mountain bikes imported especially for us. Do my Cambodian neighbors have these things? Of course not.

Do my neighbors have a safe place to go in case of a national emergency or natural disaster? Do they have someone who arranges transportation for them if they fall ill or get injured? Are their medical costs covered? Do they own iPods and laptops and Kindles and digital cameras?

No, no, no, and no. We are truly kidding ourselves if we think we are living at the local level. I do not mean to paint all Cambodians as poor helpless villagers without access to any resources because that certainly is not the case. And there are undoubtedly Cambodians with obscene amounts of wealth. But I think volunteers are living in oblivion if they think that they are living like the average Cambodian.

We spend a fair amount of our money here too

I have heard Tim say it several times, and I could not agree more: “The idea of a living stipend in Cambodia is ludicrous.” It truly is. Seemingly all of the Cambodians in our community are working to live. They are not taking wild vacations or playing the stock market. They are working to cover the costs of food, shelter, medicine and, hopefully, an indulgence or two. Trying to explain the concept of a living stipend to our Cambodian counterparts has been met with blank stares. And if they knew that our living stipend was significantly more than their government salaries, I can imagine we’d be met with a different reaction.

We are an already privileged group of people in Cambodia, supported by a fiscally and organizationally strong agency of the United States Government. Yes, our title is “volunteer,” but we make a substantial salary when compared with those around us. So, as I see it, our title does not entitle us to lower prices in the market or being exempt from paying the full amount at a wedding. And we certainly are not in such a dire position that we need to rely on our Cambodian friends, coworkers or family members to purchase things for us. I know some volunteers do not feel like they are living well, but I can’t say it enough: Given the funds and the resources we have access to, we are living above the local level, regardless of whether we define that as “living well” or not.

We came to Cambodia as volunteers. And while we’re making a respectable amount of money as volunteers, hopefully the spirit of volunteerism isn’t lost. Being a volunteer isn’t about the money— it’s about a willingness to serve, a willingness to put others before ourselves, and a willingness to help those around us. If the amount of money we are bringing in isn’t enough for us, let’s not forget about the Cambodians we are here to serve, who are making, on average, substantially less.

I hope we can all remember why we’re here.

I’m guessing none of us joined Peace Corps for the money.


The future of the Argentine economy

23 08 2010

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I attended a seminar on the Argentine economy entitled “La economía argentina en un mundo a dos velocidades.” It was a brief lecture at the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires led by Andrés Borenstein, an Economic Officer in the British Embassy in Argentina. A self-proclaimed optimist about the future of Argentina, Borenstein began the event by introducing the current state of the country. As the world begins to either pick itself up out of a global recession or, depending on your viewpoint, brace itself for the dreaded double-dip, where does Argentina fall?

The recession, which was truly devastating in many places, has until this point only had a moderate impact on much of Latin America, including Argentina. One reason for this is that Argentina has a fairly closed economy, leaving it less vulnerable to economic shocks. However, Borenstein pointed to many other reasons that Argentina has been able to survive this economic downturn, including a sufficient amount in reserves, well-regulated banks, flexible exchange rates, low debt and the freedom to implement anti-cyclical policy. (This last one is something I wish he would have expanded on…) Because of these factors, Argentina, a country with a history of economic turbulence, has been able to avoid a crisis that it would not have likely been able to avoid in the past.

In fact, Argentina has actually seen growth in recent fiscal periods. But what is propelling the country’s growth? Some of the answers to this question are predictable across any range of successful countries: expansive fiscal and monetary policy, for example. Others, however, are specific to current social and political events. For instance, Argentina has a special relationship with Brazil, which serves as a constant source of demand for Argentine products.

Furthermore, Argentina is a country with an extensive natural resource base. Although these resources have long provided energy and food to the people living in and around Argentina, currently the demand for two of Argentina’s most abundant products, corn and soy, is soaring, making the fields of the countryside even more valuable from an economic perspective. Although agricultural production can vary significantly from year to year, Argentina saw a good harvest last year, helping to pad the effects of a possible recession. “La cosecha nos salvó otra vez (The harvest saved us again),” Borenstein exclaimed.

Additionally, Borenstein cited as a catalyst of growth, a national program that provides subsidies to families for each child they have. Presumably, this gives families the opportunity to consume at higher levels, thus benefiting the economy.

Based on these important growth elements, the economist believes that Argentina’s economy could prosper in the upcoming months and years. Other reasons he claimed Argentina could advance include its low levels of debt, its large skilled labor force and shrinking levels of poverty. Also, Argentina does not suffer from the debilitating social conflicts that several other developing and emerging societies face.

Of course, not everyone is optimistic about the Argentine economy. A few fundamental economic pieces are not currently in place. Investment levels have been low and capital flight has been high. Inflation too is remarkably high, hovering around 20 percent, while most other Latin American countries (Venezuela not included) see levels closer to 3-7%. Moreover, there’s a large proportion of the population working in the informal market. Plus, the general public has very little confidence in the government, meaning that the moment the exchange rate begins to move, everyone immediately tries to sell their pesos.

These problems should not be ignored. However, in the opinion of Borenstein, they are unlikely to prevent further growth. He claimed that inflation, for instance, while high, is under control and that low investment rates are 1.) more the fault of Western economies than of Argentina and 2.) would possibly increase as Argentina’s economy continues to hold steady.

Based on conversations I had with a couple of Argentines following the seminar, I would also add that the inaccessibility of credit is a barrier for growth in Argentina. Because people generally do not have access to credit to buy a house, for example, or start a business, they spend their income on things like MP3 players, cell phones and other gadgets. For many, high consumption is a way to prove they have risen out of the 2001 crisis, but this money could instead be invested in their homes and their communities to create wealth and grow the economy.

Looking at all the evidence, it’s hard to predict where Argentina’s economy will be in a few years. In order to succeed, the inflation rate needs to fall and well-regulated credit markets need to be opened. Corruption and a lack of accountability are issues that will need to be dealt with to secure foreign direct investment, eliminate capital flight and encourage citizens to trust the system so they do not rush to sell their pesos as soon as the market begins to fluctuate. But, Argentina has an expansive list of material and human resources at its disposal. And, as Borenstein said, “Es más fácil solucionar un problema institucional que un problema de falta de recursos (It’s easier to solve institutional problems than to fix a lack of resources).”