Our Favorites

15 10 2013

Since we’ve decided to stop blogging for now, we thought we’d leave a post at the top of this page with some of our favorite entries from our time in Cambodia. Please feel free to revisit old favorites or check out any posts you might have missed along the way.

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Posts by Katie

Reflections on the Kingdom of Wonder

A day in the life of a Community Health Volunteer

Why art education has the power to transform the country

How one delivery can represent the entire development process

The challenges of health care services

Posts by Tim

A look at the devastating ways poverty can perpetuate itself

Lessons learned from one year in the public schools

The view from our porch

The landmine situation throughout the country

Once again, thanks for reading and– more importantly– supporting us while we were away. This blog served as a great outlet for processing our experiences and sharing a little piece of our world with friends and family across the globe. We’re glad you enjoyed it. Cheers!

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The Cycle

21 05 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Tim





Chiang Mai

15 04 2013

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second biggest city, with a decidedly laid-back college feeling to it. It has a huge old city in the center of town that still has some of the old gates and walls from ancient times.  Much of the old city now is populated by guesthouses, moto rental shops, and restaurants for tourists. Between the cool coffeehouses, though, are some pretty interesting pagodas. There seemed to be more than a dozen wats within the old city walls, all of which had slightly different styles and historical significance. We rented bikes and saw eight or ten of them, thoughtfully comparing them to each other and to Cambodia’s. We thoughtfully discussed the pronounced Chinese influence in Chiang Mai’s pagodas vis a vis Cambodia’s pagodas, then hurried off to lunch.

After a couple taste bud-awakening days in Bangkok, we were slightly disappointed by the food in Chiang Mai. Having a guesthouse in the main tourist area certainly didn’t help, but a near-constant flow of fresh smoothies kept appeased us between less than spectacular pad thai and curries. The Saturday walking street offered enormous crowds, great Chinese dumplings, and greasy crepes.

One of our favorite temples

One of our favorite temples

Chiang Mai is known as a jumping off point for elephant trekking in the north of Thailand, and Katie and I had to choose between cooking classes and elephant riding. Knowing we can ride elephants in Cambodia, we decided to stay focused and make this vacation about food. We went out to an organic farm outside the city for an all day cooking class. We each made five dishes including, marinated chicken in pandanus leaves, papaya salad, tom yum kung, chicken coconut soup, pad thai, yellow curry, green curry, chicken cashew stir fry, pumpkin pandan custard and mango sticky rice. We had a blast cooking and eating for six hours, comparing different recipes and spices.

Making pad thai

Making pad thai

Our last day, we headed up to Chiang Mai’s most well-known attraction: Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The temple is situated on a small mountain overlooking the city. The winding road up the mountain in the back of a pickup truck was enough to give us wobbly legs as we started up the temple steps. The wat complex was impressive with a smoggy view of the city below.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Overall, Chiang Mai was a relaxed place to hang out and ride bikes for a few days. We were able to meet up with some other PC Cambodia volunteers and compare traveling stories. After a few days, though, we were ready to hop on a plane and hit the beach.
-Tim





Tim’s Index Debut!

27 02 2013

Tim took a turn writing an article for my hometown paper, The Index. It was printed in this week’s edition, but you can also check it out below.

Education has no doubt been on the minds of many in Homer over the past couple months with the opening of the new Homer High School. The new environment, technology, and facilities are certainly exciting for students and teachers alike. With these changes in mind, it seems relevant to share our experience with schools here in Cambodia.

In Cambodia, the school system is still trying to bounce back from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge. After the systematic killing of educated Cambodians in the late 1970s, the reestablishment of public schools proved to be difficult. Villagers became teachers with no specialized training and often less than a high school diploma. With a storage closet full of weapons and ammunition, the teachers held classes in the mornings and defended the town from Khmer Rouge raids at night. This continued in our area until approximately 1995 when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge fled further west toward Thailand.

 

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Eighteen years later, the Cambodian school system has improved at a breakneck pace. New high school teachers are required to have completed either a 2 year teaching program or a 4 year bachelor’s degree. Additional schools are being built regularly, school libraries are flourishing thanks to international NGO (non-governmental organization) support, and professional development for teachers is on the rise. It is truly remarkable how far the school system has come considering all the work and money needed to completely rebuild it nationwide.

This fact is often cited at the local high school where I teach 9th, 10th, and 11th grades as a Peace Corps volunteer. My job here is to teach collaboratively with the English language teachers, helping them improve their English and to better develop student-centered techniques. Cambodian culture holds authority figures such as teachers in very high regard so many classes consist of a teacher lecturing for two hours with little student input. In all classes, but especially in English, this isn’t an effective method.

Culturally, teaching in a Cambodian classroom looks very different from Homer High. Uniformed students stand up for teachers as the instructor enters the class, when they are asked questions, and when teachers leave the class. If students need to ask permission from a teacher or if they come to class late, they politely raise their hands to their chin in a praying position and ask for forgiveness. When students walk near teachers outside of class, they will lower their heads to show respect. Showing respect in these ways is hugely important and students never fail to follow these customs.

 

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Overall, students are very motivated to learn. Many financially-able students attend private classes in addition to public school, making for a 12-13 hour school day. Students in our area also travel up to 25 miles to attend high school, since many areas still do not a school available. These students generally stay in a shared house near the school with 25 other people, all sleeping on the floor. Public school is technically free, but families must pay for uniforms, transportation, food, and monthly exams. For this reason, many students from poorer families drop out of school after 9th grade due to financial constraints. Adding that the consensus that public school is largely ineffective due to large class sizes (50:1) or absent teachers, the dropout rate is staggering. It is simply not expected for Khmer teenagers to study beyond the 9th grade in many villages.

The physical environment of the local high school can also prove challenging. There are six classroom buildings for the 1250 students between 7-12 grades. Although there are some newer classrooms with ceiling fans, and a quickly aging computer lab, there is no electricity to run these items. Each classroom is filled with wooden desks for 40-50 students and a large blackboard. The buildings themselves are relatively open in order to make studying tolerable in the Cambodian heat. The open windows and cement walls make noise a constant issue, especially with younger students. In the back of the school there is a small pond and a plot of land for the students to plant corn for their class in agriculture.

As any teacher knows, being in the classroom is both frustrating and inspirational. It has been rewarding over the past year and a half to see my co-teachers become better instructors despite the challenges facing them, and the students have been inspiring models of perseverance through their desire to learn and make a better life for themselves.

-Tim





Cooking Class

19 02 2013

As part of my ongoing hospitality class, we’ve been cooking some basic meals to practice proper hygiene in the kitchen. While cooking under a house on a dirt floor without running water isn’t an ideal environment to teach about hygiene, the students are quickly picking up on the basic ideas of making good, safe food. More than that, they’re having a ton of fun cooking (and eating) some western dishes they’ve never seen before. Thanks to all who donated to this project!

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-Tim





Happy Chinese New Year!

11 02 2013

This weekend marked Chinese New Year, which is celebrated by some in Cambodia, although it’s not an official holiday. Usually Cambodians with Chinese ancestry will throw a small party both to ring in the new year and to pray for their deceased relatives. In the process, they offer gifts for the ancestors through burning items such as fake money, fake gold pieces, cloth, and other symbols of necessary goods for the afterlife.

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Burning money

We spent the day with my coteacher’s family for the second year in a row. Chanthou and his wife, Kunthea, are always so welcoming and Saturday was no different. We had a great time talking with Kunthea’s father who loves to tell us stories from the 1940s and 50s. They are always well thought out stories blending history with mysticism. For example, when the Khmer militia was fighting Thai forces in our area, he saw many forest people who were born without elbows and knees. It’s great to learn about a time other than the Khmer Rouge and it’s great Khmer language practice for us to listen intently to stories that seamlessly mesh Khmer history and politics with mermaids and dragons.

The great storyteller

The great storyteller

With Chinese New Year over, we only have one more New Year to celebrate before ending our Peace Corps service. Our sixth and final new year in Cambodia will be Khmer New Year in April. With three weeks off from school, parties at the wat, and a huge migration of people from the cities to their hometowns, Khmer New Year is the biggest and most important holiday in Cambodia.  (More on that later.)

-Tim





The impending darkness

9 12 2012

As the weather changes at home to include some cold weather and snow, things are changing here as well. The weather is getting to be the coldest it gets all year, leaving students and teachers alike complaining about “the cold.” For me, December weather is great for a few reasons – better sleep, less sweat, and less stinky clothes. It marks the end of the muddy market and the beginning of the blowing dust. Better for the bottom of your pant leg, less great for your eyes.

With winter approaching, I can only imagine Michiganders are stockpiling hot cocoa, snow shovels and rock salt in anticipation of the changing season. For most Michiganians (let’s see how many of these I can use), the coming solstice marks the last few days until Christmas as well as an end to the hopes of a 50+ degree day. In Cambodia, however, the buzz around December 21st sounds markedly different. Many people over the past few weeks have been talking about the “three days of darkness.” I first heard of this about a month ago from a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap who told me the sky would be dark around the 21st, 22nd, or 23rd of December. Due to a distinct lack of astronomy words in my Khmer vocabulary, I assumed he meant there would be a solar eclipse and he wasn’t sure of the day. Instead, he really meant that the sun wouldn’t rise for three days. No amount of context clues could have possibly led me to that conclusion.

Apparently, the story has been on the news here and everyone I talk to about it cites the “science” behind it, although they insist it’s too complicated to explain. Even my uber-intellectual math teacher friend insists something will happen. My no-nonsense English co-teacher isn’t hearing it though. No one can quite explain what’s going to happen or why, but they ensure me it will be dark. All of this is said without a touch of concern: “Yep, so the sun won’t come up.” As farmers, I would like to think that the idea of ZERO sun for three days would concern them.

black sky

I’m told it will look something like this.

Some may call it defeatism, fatalism, inaction, etc etc, but I can’t help but find this classic Khmer reaction endearing (most of the time). Things are going to happen, we don’t have control over them, and that’s it.

Me: So the sun won’t come up for three days?

Teacher: Right.

Me: The giant ball of fire in the sky that has lit our world for 5 billion years is just going to take a few days off for the first time ever?

Teacher: Right.

None of the Internet doomsday talk is happening here. The sun will go out. It will come back in three days. Typical weekend.

-Tim, Michiganite