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!


The End of Training

1 09 2013

Pre-service training is coming to a close, meaning I have less than a week before I fly home. On Friday, I led my last technical session, and now I’m left with only a few small tasks to finish up before I return to the States. I know some people thought I was crazy for sticking around after my service ended, but it’s been a great couple of months and I couldn’t be happier with the decision to stay.

I’ve spent the past two months in Takeo province, preparing the community health volunteers for their first few months of service. Practically, this has meant a lot of lesson planning, facilitating sessions, and organizing community events. I’ve been fortunate to work with an outstanding group of trainees who have continually impressed me throughout the eight weeks of training. As I told them in our last session together, I feel complete confidence and overwhelming optimism about what they will accomplish over the next two years.

A trainee practicing health messages in the community

A trainee practicing health messages in the community

My favorite part of training was seeing the new volunteers in action at our community events. Throughout the duration of training, the new volunteers were expected to put their new skills to the test by conducting community assessments in English and Khmer, teaching formal health lessons to secondary school students, leading infant feeding and weighing sessions, building hand washing stations, and so much more. As a trainer, these were highlights because I had the opportunity to see the volunteers step outside of their comfort zones, use their ever-growing language skills, and start to build meaningful relationships with community members. As a former PCV myself, it was one last taste of village life, which I will certainly miss when I leave.

Throughout these eight weeks, I’ve been staying in a guesthouse in the provincial capital of Takeo. It’s a nice room with A/C and hot water, meaning it’s a clear step up from where I’ve been living the past two years even if it felt a little confining some days. There’s a TV with two or three English channels, although my new-found love of NCIS had me glued to Fox Crime most nights. The technical trainer for the English program roomed next door to me, and we would grab dinner together every night. Some nights that meant going to the lone Western restaurant in town for a pizza and a coffee smoothie. Other days we’d head to our favorite Khmer place with hammocks and beautiful views of the water. Most of the time, however, we’d stay in and cook pasta in a rice cooker or grab cheese and crackers from our mini-fridges.

My home for the past eight weeks

My home for the past eight weeks

Yesterday we moved out of that guesthouse and back to Phnom Penh, where we’ll stay until we fly out. I’ve got a few things to finish up, but most of the week will be spent relaxing, taking advantage of all that the capital has to offer, and preparing – mentally and otherwise – to go home on Friday!


Our plans after service

15 06 2013

With my last day of service looming just a few weeks away, I suppose it’s time to share my plans for afterward. As you may remember, Tim and I will be moving to Philadelphia, where he is starting a Master’s program in Social Work. He received a generous fellowship that will have him focusing on supporting veterans, including a 3-day per week field placement at Philly’s Veteran’s Affairs. He will be leaving for Philadelphia the second week of July; however, he will be heading back alone because I have accepted a short-term contract position with Peace Corps Cambodia and plan to remain in country until September.

On July 3, I will transition from a Peace Corps volunteer to a staff member. As the new technical trainer, I will be in charge of writing, sequencing, and delivering the technical training sessions for the incoming group of health volunteers. I’m excited for the position because I think the health program in Cambodia has so much potential, and I’m looking forward to shaping the expectations and goals of the new group. It’s a natural fit for me, having trained American community development volunteers in Argentina, as well.

Technical training session with last year's trainees

Technical training session with last year’s trainees

I’m thrilled about the position and about the opportunity to contribute to such a great program. However, it will be a little strange to see Tim leave and begin the transition home without me. As he busies himself looking at Philly apartments, cell phone plans, and course schedules, I’m beginning to prepare for a whole lot of lesson planning.

I’m scheduled to arrive in the States on the afternoon of September 7th. I am certainly looking forward to that day, but am equally excited about all that I’ll be doing in the meantime.


COS Conference

13 05 2013

This week, Tim and I are in Phnom Penh for our close of service conference. We’ll have two days of meetings that are meant to help us process our service, understand the nuts and bolts of transitioning to the States, and prepare us for closing out our projects at site. Despite the fact that it might sound fairly boring, the conference is a big deal for most volunteers, as it provides a sense of closure to the Peace Corps experience. This is the last official Peace Corps training before our service ends, and is therefore our last opportunity to see all the other volunteers from our cohort.

Good swing!

Good swing!

In order to celebrate the (near) completion of our service and spend some time with one another, the staff and volunteers have planned a few social activities on top of the formal meetings. Today was the first of those: a Sunday barbecue complete with swimming and a softball scrimmage. The weather was good and the food was better. However, the best part was seeing the Cambodian staff join in on the fun, learning to play America’s favorite pastime. All in all, a really wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

PC Staff watching the game

PC Staff watching the game

Tomorrow’s activity is a low-key trivia contest, but Tuesday’s river cruise is set to be a wild time. Most volunteers will head back to site on Wednesday, but Tim and I will stay here through the week so we can complete the medical and dental exams that are required before completing our service. It’s becoming more and more real with every day – our service is coming to an end quicker than we had ever imagined!


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!


Childhood Nutrition Training

23 08 2012

This week was the official kick-off of the childhood nutrition project I’ve been planning the past two months. The goal of the project is to rehabilitate malnourished children under the age of five who live in two nearby villages. The project is modeled off of a methodology called PD Hearth, which is used by international NGOs (and Peace Corps) in countries around the world. I won’t bore you with the details of the process now, but I will be updating on the project as it unfolds over the next six months.

Participants learn proper weighing technique

On Monday, we started with a three-day training for the village health volunteers who will be helping implement the project. A third-year Peace Corps Volunteer facilitated most of the training, with some help from one of the midwives from my health center. Although I helped facilitate a little, I spent most of the training behind the scenes, dealing with the logistics and organization of the sessions. Even without being the main facilitator, it was an exhausting week. We were pulling 12-hour days, spending hours each night debriefing about the day’s activities and preparing for the following day. It’s the first time that a PCV in Cambodia has done this training so it was a bit of an experiment. I think it went really well, but there is definitely room for improvement. Based on this week, I think we can make some important changes to the training that will benefit the other health volunteers who will be implementing this project over the course of the next year. Either way, I am really happy with how it turned out. Plus, I’m excited to be starting a new project, especially one that has me in the villages so often!

Reviewing Cambodia’s three food groups

Now that the training is over, we’ll move on to the first project activity – weighing the children in the villages to see how many are malnourished. But, in the meantime, I’m heading back to Takeo again to help out with K6 training some more. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s been hectic lately – but it’s also been fulfilling. I think I speak for both of us when I say that we are really hitting our stride. Our language skills have reached a point where we feel comfortable with meaningful project work and we feel a solid sense of community in our village. We are certainly looking forward to the weeks and months ahead.

I’ve posted pictures of the PD Hearth training here, plus some of K6 training in Takeo. Now that things have slowed down a little, we’ll try to update more often, but no promises!


In Takeo Once Again – Nearly One Year Later

13 08 2012

Today, I’m writing from a guesthouse in  the provincial town of Takeo, where Tim and I are staying for a week. After being away for approximately 11 months, we’ve returned to the only place in Cambodia that felt familiar as a trainee, although it feels significantly less familiar now.

Tim and I are visiting the province where we trained  in order to help with training for the new group of volunteers. It appears that we’ve come full circle, or something like that. Their training is about halfway done, which means that this week is practicum for them. You might remember from last year that practicum is a chance for volunteers to get more hands-on experience. The first few weeks of training are quite theoretical and knowledge-based, but starting with practicum, trainees get to practice for the jobs they are about to begin. For English teachers, this means spending some time in a Cambodian classroom, teaching students who are willing to study during their break. For health volunteers, it means a lot of surveys and focus groups, plus some informal teaching. Volunteers from both programs must also complete a community project.

The lake in Takeo

I’m excited to see the ways in which training has evolved, to better get to know the group of volunteers and, quite frankly, to be put up in a decent guesthouse for a week. Although helping with training takes up several hours of each day, it also leaves me some time for last minute planning for the big workshop we’ll have at my health center next week to kick off the childhood nutrition project.

There are quite a few more things I could update on, but I think this is it for today. I am going to leave you with a little video that makes me incredible happy (despite the fact that T-Mobile totally robbed us when we left the US for Peace Corps). It’s a video I used to watch often when we lived in Argentina, and it surprisingly showed up on one of my international development blogs today, just below an infographic about arms trade between the years of 1992-2010 and the problems of leadership succession in Africa. The video has nothing to do with either of those things. Hope it brings a smile to your face. My favorite moments are at 1:59 and 2:23.


Camp GLOW: Mission Accomplished

8 08 2012

Just as Tim’s hospitality project is taking off, one of mine is coming to a close. Last week, thirty-nine high school girls, two Cambodian teachers, four NGO staff members and five Peace Corps Volunteers gathered at the Siem Reap Provincial Teacher Training Center for a girls’ empowerment camp. The four-day camp focused on women’s health, rights and opportunities.

On Thursday, all of the girls, aged 14-20, arrived to the guesthouse. They came from three different villages, each approximately an hour or two outside of Siem Reap. This was the first time for some of them to ever visit Siem Reap, and the majority had never stayed in a guesthouse before. They excitedly settled into their rooms and then made the three minute walk over to the training center where we studied.

Group shot

For the first two days, staff from the Battambang-based NGO Our Strength led sessions about women’s health. One of the sessions that the girls cited as being the most informative and important was on menstruation and hygiene. Most of these topics are not taught in school, and the girls said they have never had an opportunity to ask such sensitive questions before. Other sessions touched on issues like sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, gender, Cambodian beliefs about sexuality, healthy relationships, etc. There were also several Q&A sessions, during which the girls demonstrated their complete trust in and respect for the presenters by asking a huge number of questions about their own health and bodies.

During a session related to gender roles

Group work

One thing that impressed me was how well the presenters integrated with the girls. When we would walk to a nearby restaurant together to eat, the staff would always sit and talk with the girls. They would call girls by name, take endless photos with them, and treat them like peers. Additionally, as I wrote in a recent email to the organization, the staff “modeled what it means to be strong, smart, socially-minded Cambodian women.” It was a real pleasure getting to know them and working alongside them.

The third day, we had an equally impressive speaker come from the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap. Having worked with the organization before, I knew that Pisey would do a great job. The third day, which started with a giggle-filled yoga session, focused on important issues like self-awareness, domestic violence and goal setting. Although they enjoyed all of the sessions, the girls really expressed an interest in the domestic violence part. In fact, two of the three groups of girls decided that they would teach their communities what they had learned about domestic violence.

Pisey facilitating a session on self-awareness

The fourth day was all about preparing the girls to be good community educators because each group is required to go back to their community to teach one aspect of what they learned at Camp GLOW. The girls enthusiastically prepared and presented mock sessions before diving into the plans for their real presentations. My group of girls will be coming over tomorrow to finish their lesson plan and to set a date for the education session(s). They think that domestic violence is an important issue in our community, and I whole-heartedly agree. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Overall, I think the girls were exposed to a lot of new information. The knowledge-based tests show that the girls nearly doubled their understanding of issues related to sexual and reproductive health. Compared to the first day, more girls at the end of the camp also indicated that they “have a lot of friends,” “are proud of themselves,” “have goals that they can achieve” and “are generally happy people.”

In fact, although the knowledge gained was certainly an important part of the camp, I think there was a lot more to be gained from the experience. It was amazing to watch how three distinct groups of shy, insular girls melded into one big, happy group of friends over the course of four days. One of the best activities we did was to have each girl decorate a paper bag with her name on it and hang it on the wall. Throughout the camp, the other girls would then write nice things about that girl and put it in her bag. At the end of the camp, each girl had a bag filled with compliments and the phone numbers of her new friends. This activity was one that definitely encouraged the girls to become closer.

Decorating paper bags

The beautifully decorated bags hanging from the wall

There were other experiences that were uncommon, or even brand new, for the girls. For example, they got to express themselves creatively as they decorated t-shirts, made bracelets and painted each others’ nails during the evening activities. They got to see a different side of their own country when we took a field trip to Siem Reap’s touristy night market and the town’s only shopping mall. They ate new foods at Lucky Burger, learned new ways to exercise through dance and yoga, and got to make real connections with the volunteers living in their towns.

First, we exercise…

Then we eat fast food

And THEN we eat ice cream. It’s the American way.

Just the experience of being away from families was a big deal for these girls, who often live in cramped quarters where they share a sleeping space with all of their family members. This culture does not allow for much independence so it was an interesting chance for them to examine themselves as individuals. This might all be very Western-slanting, but the girls echoed these ideas as well.

The camp culminated in a closing ceremony, where we gave each girl a certificate and a photo of all of the girls together. We also played a slide show of photos taken throughout the camp. While the girls cheered, laughed and blushed as their faces appeared on the big screen, it was hard not to get emotional. I thought back to all of the activities I did as a teen that I still vividly remember. These experiences – band trips, summer camps, Youth in Government – all played a part in my development. I can only hope that the students who came to Camp GLOW will look back on this experience with the same fondness and appreciation that I feel when I think back on my own. Either way, the most important thing is that they learned and will retain important information related to their health and well being.

The closing ceremony

Camp GLOW 2012 is over, but we’re already looking ahead to next year. In the meantime, I am eager to continue working with the girls as they plan and execute their community education sessions.

You can check out more pictures of the camp here.


Holidays, Trainings and… Cheese!

23 05 2012

Woah, May is coming to a close. How do these things happen without me realizing? This month, like the last, has flown by! As I mentioned before, the first half of May was filled with holidays: Labor Day, Visaka Bochea, Royal Plowing Day and, of course, three full days for the King’s birthday.

I took advantage of this time off to travel to Siem Reap. I spent two long weekends there doing intensive language training with a bright, sweet young woman who tripled my health-related vocabulary in Khmer and helped me to understand the much-loved comedy of Prom Manh, a famous Khmer entertainer, among other things. While there, I attended a few NGO events and met up with some expat friends. Plus, best of all, I bought a couch! We had been completely furniture-less for several months so I finally gave in and purchased a comfortable, wicker couch with a deep purple cushion. Having a comfortable place to sit, instead of on a rice mat on the floor, has made all the difference in our daily relaxation levels. Money well spent.

At the Banteay Srey Butterfly Center

During my second trip to Siem Reap, we got to spend some quality time with Tim’s former co-worker Adam and his wife Jenna, who were visiting Southeast Asia on their honeymoon. We went out for countless meals, visited the Ceramics Center, wandered through the butterfly reserve, and even gave in to the people in the streets shouting “Fish massage! Fish massage! No piranhas!” (For those of you who haven’t yet heard of Siem Reap’s famous fish massage, you stick your feet in a tank and little feeder fish eat the dry skin off of your feet. It tickles like nothing I have ever felt but was sort of relaxing after a while.) All in all, whether in spite of the fish massage or because of it, we had a lovely time and a very unique opportunity to get to know some fellow ‘Burghers.

Then last week, we headed to training in Phnom Penh. It was a busy few days but, fortunately, it culminated in a wonderful group-wide boat ride on the Mekong. Not a bad way to wrap up several jam-packed days. We got back to site on Sunday and, for me, it’s been nonstop ever since. Between teaching health, Spanish and several English classes, I haven’t had much time to breathe, let alone work on some of my longer-term projects. Tim’s week started off a little slower, with a sick co-teacher and monthly exams, meaning he hasn’t done much teaching since we got back. Tonight, however, he taught a few of our friends an invaluable lesson: how to make and eat pizza. These simple cultural exchanges are always a highlight for me. But man oh man, how I feel for those poor souls who tonight, at the age of 27 or 28, tried cheese for the first time!

Look at how eager they all look…


Beware the Highs of March

2 03 2012

It’s here. The day I was hoping would never come. The dreaded hot season is upon us. Several months ago, as a naive trainee, I was warned many, many times about this. “Just wait until March or April…” a current volunteer would say, leaving the sentence frighteningly wide open. Well, it’s finally happened. The Hot Season Monster is after us, and it’s not taking any prisoners. To make matters worse, a friend told us that this year has already been much hotter than last year. Great.

The weather at the time of blogging. The high for the day? Ninety-nine degrees, with a Real Feel of 103. Yuck!

Oh well, despite the heat, we have to continue on with our lives. (So unfair, right?) And our lives have been noticeably busier than they were the first few months at site. As I mentioned in the previous post, last week Tim and I had several days worth of trainings and meetings in Phnom Penh. I was really looking forward to catching up with people, especially some of those volunteers who live on the opposite side of the country. However, a nagging cold had me voice-less for much of our time there. When I did have a voice, I was too busy coughing to partake in any real conversation. I definitely didn’t have the energy to go out in the evenings. So that was disappointing.

The training itself was quite interesting though. Some of the sessions were split based on technical area (education versus health) and some were all together. Most of the health sessions involved guest speakers from local and international NGOs telling us about their projects and potential for collaboration. In the joint sessions, volunteers shared about their successful secondary projects, funding opportunities and brilliant new ideas. It was a great chance to hear about the work that everyone is doing.

While in Phnom Penh, we also got our visas and plane tickets for our April trip to Vietnam. My program manager has approved my time off, so now I’m all set to begin planning. It looks like a small group of us will be traveling together, but at least ten or fifteen other volunteers will be in Vietnam at the same time. We will most certainly share some dinners with others when we inevitably cross paths. There’s so much to look forward to in Vietnam, but I’ll save that for another post.

We got back to site on Sunday night, exhausted after a week in the capital, but things didn’t slow down. This week, I was busy working on a funding proposal for a girls’ empowerment camp that I’m planning with two other volunteers. Plus next week is International Women’s Day, so I have been spending a fair amount of time with my girls’ club coordinating a small project to celebrate. Add in education at the health center, reviewing proposals, project framework revisions, Khmer classes and teaching English– and my days filled up fast. The bittersweet news is that after next week, I anticipate that things will slow down once again.

My week is now officially over though and I’m expecting a relaxed weekend, complete with goodies from the US (thanks to Tim’s mom Barb for the package!), a movie or two, and lots of sleeping in (as long as the wat allows it). Look for more from us soon.