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.


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.


Halfway there

3 09 2011

Training continues. Luckily, the rigid schedule of the past few weeks has loosened up a bit. Two weeks ago, we had “Practicum Week,” which is a chance for volunteers to engage in more hands-on activities that mimic the kinds of projects they are likely to work on at permanent site. This means that Tim and the other education trainees were in the classroom. They taught mostly English lessons, pairing at times with other trainees and at times with Cambodian counterparts. For us health trainees, life was a little different. We observed one day at the health clinic, visited an NGO outside of Phnom Penh, conducted door-to-door surveys in our broken Khmer, learned to make the traditional weening porridge made by Cambodian mothers, and taught health-based lessons in both formal and informal settings. It was a nice break from all of the hours in the classroom– which is, of course, not a true classroom, but a small covered area outside of our teacher’s house, vulnerable to the rain and the wind that is common in rainy season.

This week we were back to classes, but with a couple more activities thrown in. For example, we had the opportunity to practice an assessment tool with the community youth. It was a great way to hear more about what they think could make their community better. Our group decided that drop-out rates were preventing people from getting jobs and making a living, and they brainstormed some possible solutions to these problems, including the creation of an informal learning club, the incorporation of more creative teaching strategies and the development of support networks to encourage students to stay in school. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to address these issues in any long-term way, so we will be passing on their suggestions to the school director and the future volunteer who will get placed here for their permanent site.

Even though we can’t address such structural-level problems in the two months we are staying in our village, we are still trying to find ways to give back. Next week, we have two days off specifically so that we can carry out community projects. The trainees in our town are contemplating ideas related to an opportunity fair, a market clean-up and education campaign, and a nutrition seminar for mothers with young kids. Parts of this week have been devoted to coming up with these project ideas and figuring out the logistics to carry them out. The challenge is of course finding sustainable projects that can be implemented in such a short time frame.

This week, we also had a session on religion that brought us the the wat. We were able to talk with the monks who live there and learn more about Buddhism– particularly the Buddhism practiced by the Cambodian people– and the lifestyle of being a monk. The wat near our house is beautiful, and it’s always a humbling and serene experience to visit, with the gentle chanting in the background and the views of the rice paddies in all directions.

Another thing that happened this week is that Tim and the education trainees traveled to the provincial town to do some teacher training exercises at the University. As time moves forward, we continue to get more practical experience that builds our confidence and skills as we transition to permanent site.

And, on the topic of permanent site, we have only one short week until we find out where our post will be. We have started to develop some preferences based on the information that has leaked about the potential sites for couples, but are trying to stay open and optimistic. We would both be happy anywhere, but are eager to be in places where our skill sets match the needs of the community and host organizations. The good thing is that we had our practice language exam this week, and based on that, we are both learning the language at the speed they expect. We were unofficially given the rating of “Novice High,” which is the level we need to reach by the end of training. We are starting to feel more and more like we are able to communicate with our host family, PC staff members and those people in the community who we interact with on a regular basis. It’s been encouraging, but there is much more to go before we will feel totally capable of successfully working in our sectors.

Other than that, the biggest news is that we finally got an Internet cafe in our town. So we should be able to update more regularly, and– gasp– finally put up some pictures. So plan to hear from us again soon.


Algunas cositas

11 09 2010

Nothing too exciting to report today, just a few quick updates:

1.) I’ve finally found yoga classes, and I’m loving them! It feels really nice to move a little after two straight winters and too many facturas (pastries).

2.) I’ve also found a place I’m really excited to volunteer at. The Fundacion Sotrali is a shelter in Lisandro Olmos for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. I’ll post more about it after I’ve been there a few weeks, but for now I will mention that it looks like FSD might start working with the organization, as well. It’d be a great placement for interns interested in women’s empowerment or youth.

3.) A new group of interns arrived today, which means I will be busy all week with orientation. Even though it’s disappointing that we have another small group (only three interns), I’m really looking forward to working with them, particularly the two who will be here long-term.

4.) And, finally, the new apartment is working out really well! We posted some pictures here (along with a couple of photos from a tango show I went to in BA last week): http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=76627&id=1355022833&l=da81ac0d30


The Comfort of La Plata

6 07 2010

I’m currently looking for a place to volunteer, particularly in the villas outside of La Plata. I’ve been feeling a strong urge to expose myself to new and uncomfortable situations, to confront head-on the challenges that accompany poverty and to meet new people. Thankfully, I am fortunate enough to be in a position to choose to deliberately expose myself to these things. I am lucky enough to get to put myself in these situations temporarily, use them as a learning tool, and then return to the luxury of an apartment in the city center when I’m done. And, hopefully—hopefully— I’m able to apply what I’ve learned to make a positive difference in the lives of the people and community where I decide to volunteer.

I was recently asked what surprised me most about coming to La Plata. At first, I couldn’t think of anything that had genuinely surprised me, but then it hit me. I was really struck by how comfortable, easy and, well, developed La Plata was. Having done FSD in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua, where there were two “paved” roads in the whole city and frequent water and electricity outages, I was constantly being thrown outside of my comfort zone, continually being reminded that I was in a world different from the one I had grown up in. Comparatively, La Plata seems like paradise, a walk in the park. With luxury home improvement stores, gyms and storefronts filled with the latest fashion on nearly every block, it doesn’t immediately seem like putting food on the table is a difficult thing for most people in the city. I just got a degree in international development, and THIS is where I’m working, I remember asking myself in disbelief when I arrived. While the overall standard of living here is certainly lower than in many places in the United States, most people seem to live in well-built houses with access to water, electricity, public transportation, medicine and education. There’s almost no homelessness and very little visible inequality.

Before we moved, I was clearly aware that the general level of development in Argentina was much higher than in Nicaragua, and than in many of the other places where we had applied for jobs. But there’s always a need, right? Even in the richest countries in the world, there are communities in desperate need of resources, training and hope. Of course this is true. It’s true in the US, and it’s true here. The communities where FSD Argentina works, often located in the outskirts of La Plata, are generally immigrant communities, where the residents don’t have access to the benefits offered by the government. Bolivians, Paraguayans and Peruvians work long hours for low wages in neighborhoods where they’re rejected and resented because they’re outsiders. And the Argentines we work with generally do receive the huge (and never-ending) welfare packages from the government; however, the strong history of clientelism here has lead to a culture where people lack the knowledge and the incentive to capitalize on their own skills, strengths and interests to improve their lives and grow their opportunities. So there is clearly a need, and I feel strongly that FSD’s partner organizations, with the technical assistance provided by international volunteers, are doing their best to address these needs.

The thing I struggle with is that I rarely make it to these communities. I rarely get to see firsthand the needs—and assets— found in the outskirts of the city where FSD volunteers work. I spend my days in the office, located in the city center, staring at a computer screen. I also spend a lot of time talking with the interns about the challenges they face as they implement their projects (which I love!), but I rarely find myself in their organizations or communities. And, unfortunately, that is just the nature of this position. It’s a project support position, which is primarily office-based. I knew that coming in, and I’m really happy that I’m doing it. I’m gaining valuable skills and meeting some great people, but it doesn’t allow me the direct connection to Argentine people that I’d like.

That is why it is time for me to find a way to plug in above and beyond FSD. I have this nagging voice in the back of my head, pleading to be “more in the field.” Begging me to make myself a little more uncomfortable, to expose myself to new situations that push my personal limits, and to meet those people who can’t afford the luxuries of the cappuccinos sold at Café Havanna or the leather boots on Calle 12. There are needs in and around La Plata, and providing support the interns is one way of helping to address those needs, but I’m ready to get my hands dirty and to get more directly involved.