A Linguistic Shift

2 12 2012

Not too long ago, something changed for me, linguistically-speaking. Previously, when someone asked how long I had been in Cambodia, I’d say “more than a year.” Recently, however, my wording evolved. When people ask me now, I reply with the barely distinguishable, “a year and a half” (or, more often than not, the Khmer equivalent for that).

Although this tiny shift may seem insignificant to many, it got me thinking. You see, “a year and a half” is also my reply when people ask me how long I spent in Latin America, meaning that the time I’ve been nervously awaiting has finally arrived. In the upcoming weeks and months, the scale is going to tip and I will have been in Cambodia longer than I was in Latin America.


I loved Nicaragua's volcanos

I loved Nicaragua’s volcanoes…

...its cultural festivities...

…its cultural festivities…


…and the street food!

The tipping of the scale is something I’ve feared since arriving. I can remember riding my bike through the rice paddies in training, speaking to myself out loud in Spanish in a desperate attempt to reserve territory in my brain for the language, even as Khmer started to conquer more and more brain space. I remember clinging to mental images, smells, songs – anything to remind me of my time in Latin America. Spanish was the first language I studied. My first solo trip abroad was to Latin America. I did so much learning and growing in the region. Latin America had a special place in mi corazón. And when I arrived in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to it.

It played out in my head like a bad romantic comedy, where I had to choose between my high school sweetheart and the new guy who showed up, inevitably driving a motorcycle (or is it a moped in this case?). Would my love for Latin America grow as I realized that Cambodia’s novelty was enough to grab my attention – but not to hold it? Or would Cambodia win, leaving me to realize how silly I was to ever like Latin America in the first place? Was our history enough to keep us together? Would I even remember my Spanish at the end of all this? Quién sabía?

Well, it might be too early to say for sure, but I think I might have overreacted. (Shocking, isn’t it?) Yes, I love Latin America. It invigorates and inspires me in a way that no other region has. But I also love Cambodia now. It balances and grounds me. Yes, I speak Khmer every day, but I can also speak Spanish (although, admittedly, I do have to stop and think more than I’d like). There are things about each place that I find beautiful, amazing and unique. In my book, the two are equals.

The scenes from Chile, Nicaragua and Argentina have certainly faded with time. Living in this reality can make it hard to imagine any other – including my previous life in Latin America, but also the life I had in the States for 23 years. And, truth be told, my year and a half here has been spent consecutively and in a single country; whereas my time in Latin America was strewn between three countries and across four years. It makes sense that Cambodia is at the center of my thoughts. It makes sense that I have moments each and every day where I give thanks for being here above anywhere else in the world. It makes sense that Latin America has been put on the back burner for now.

Latin America will always be there waiting for me with los brazos abiertos, but until then my heart is here. ខ្ញុំស្រលាញ់កម្ពុជា!


Back to School

1 10 2012

Happy October! Today is officially the first day of the academic year, which means all of the students line up for a procession to the school. Knowing this was the case, I took my camera along with me to breakfast so I could get a couple videos of the ritual.

First, have a look at what I was eating. Yum! Pork and rice. My usual breakfast if I get up in time.

Then, check out the videos. (Prepare yourself for some top-notch narration.)

But, be warned, just because today is the first day of school doesn’t mean that classes start. As I was telling my parents on the phone this morning, it’s typical for students and teachers to come to school every day for weeks before classes actually begin. It may be a while before the teachers get their schedules – and the drive to get in the classroom and start teaching. Until then, both the students and the teachers will come to the school everyday, but the students will sit in the classrooms while the teachers sit in the teachers’ lounge – the two groups never to meet.


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.


Madame Secretary

13 07 2012

This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a meet and greet with embassy staff and Peace Corps Volunteers at the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh. My name was drawn to get to attend the event so I made the long bus ride in yesterday.



Regardless of political views, Hillary is an important figure in current politics – and a role model for many working women in the United States. It was an honor to hear her remarks. EDIT: Watch the following video to see Hillary encourage audience members to “keep focused on the people of Cambodia.”



7 06 2012

This weekend, Tim and I are heading to Phnom Penh for a Tedx conference. If you’ve never heard of Ted, and their thousands of TedTalks, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The website describes it like this:

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader… We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers.

There are two official Ted conferences each year but there are hundreds of affiliated events every month, referred to as the Tedx program. The second annual TedxPhnomPenh is being held on Saturday. This year’s theme is “Aspirations. Inspirations. Generations.” and features talks on ARTrepreneurship, the importance of language learning, building rule of law and much more. You can see the complete line-up of speakers here.

Can’t attend a Ted conference? No problem because the brief, accessible and inspiring talks are online. Check out some of our favorites below.

Katie’s short list

French artist JR turns the world inside out through public art.

Another Frenchy, Esther Duflo is a brilliant economist who lists three evidence-based ways to improve development. (Hey fellow PCVs, you should watch this).

Tim’s short list

They’re not the best presenters, but  Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche are doing really cool things with food.

Sir Ken Robinson explores the question, “What if creativity were valued as much as literacy?”



The View from the Porch

20 05 2012

Since we just had some friends visiting (thanks Adam and Jenna!), I’ve been imagining what it would be like for other close friends or family members  to somehow be transported to our house for a day. What would we do? What would we have to see? More than exploring, I can’t help but imagine lounging on the porch with someone from the States, just watching the world go by.

With this idea in mind, here is something for those of you that wish you could be transported here for a day, if only to drink some iced tea and watch the world go by. (Iced tea not included.)

So sit back, sip an iced tea, and imagine that you’re in Cambodia with us.

Just to give you an idea of how unexciting the view from the porch is, I originally took 739 pictures over about 7 hours. These 112 had something worthwhile happening. In order to keep you click-happy, app-multitasking, hashtagging people engaged, all the frames with nothing changing were removed. Should anyone want the full project; moving clouds, shadows and nothingness included, let me know.


Vietnam Vacation: The Best of the Best

22 04 2012

Since we skimped on the details from our trip in the earlier posts (who wants to be blogging while on vacation?), Tim and I are going to post several new entries about our trip now that we’re back at site. Today’s topic: the five most memorable experiences from our journey through Vietnam.

 1. The Crazy House

Officially known as the Hang Nga Guesthouse, this structure, located in the highlands of Dalat, has been termed the “Crazy House” because of its unique design. Conceptualized by Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of Vietnam’s second president, much of the house is built to look like a giant banyan tree. When you enter the front door of the property, it feels almost like walking into a Dalí painting, with spiraling staircases leading you through the massive tree trunk, past rooms filled with statues of bears, eagles and kangaroos. At the top, you’re rewarded with a lovely view of the city of Dalat, but don’t look too long or you’ll surely miss another one of the house’s quirky details. There isn’t one predominant style throughout the house so in a matter of moments you can walk by a stark, cave-like room with an oversized built-in counter, only to be greeted steps later by a gigantic, glitter-bombed wall that’s the color of the sunset. The part of the structure that actually resembles a house would still be considered strange on its own. It, too, is covered with glitter, and adorned with a large yin yang symbol and a giant buffalo head. The Crazy House was a wonderful stop for us, transporting us to a place full of imagination and creativity—and perfect for photo ops. It’s most certainly worth a stop, particularly if traveling with children.

 2. “The Original Taste of Hoi An” Food Tour

Before leaving for Vietnam, Tim and I knew our one splurge item would be a tasting tour. When we arrived in Hoi An, we realized that it was the epicenter of these kinds of activities so we took to the internet to research our options. Almost immediately, I came across a page of reviews for “The Original Taste of Hoi An” tour, based out of Family Restaurant, and it received some of the highest praise of any tourist activity that I’ve ever seen so we signed up right away.

The food tour had two parts. The first consisted mainly of a walking tour through the main markets in town, paired with some samplings of dishes sold in the streets. Having come from Cambodia, this part was a little underwhelming. Much of the first hour was used to describe produce and ingredients that, although might have seemed foreign to us nine months ago, had since been incorporated into our daily lives. Luckily, the rest of the tour made up for the slow start. In fact, this might be the one experience that will most stick with me from our trip.

All in all, we tried over 40 dishes, ranging from cassava and peanut cakes (one of my favorites!) to a sesame seed elixir to Hoi An’s version of nachos. We sampled spring rolls, several noodle dishes, a silky smooth tofu porridge, dumplings, rice wine and, of course, the ubiquitous pho. We tried unblended smoothies, sticky rice treats and Hoi An’s chili sauce. I loved almost every one of those forty dishes, proving that Vietnamese cuisine truly is superior to Cambodia’s uncreative and rather bland food (sorry!).

Taking the tour gave us the tools to find cheap and delicious meal options on the street for the rest of our trip. From that point on, we ate very little Western food, sticking instead to the dishes we had sampled on the tour and, at times, venturing out to try new ones based on our new knowledge. I would highly recommend this tour to anyone, with the small caveat that the tour guide, Neville, has such an immense amount of passion for Vietnamese cuisine that it can be difficult to ask questions or muse on the flavors of your last dish. Overall though, a resounding success!


 3. Paradise Cave

Based on a recommendation from a friend, we decided to spend a couple of days around Phong Nha National Park. So for two nights, we stayed in the town of Doing Hoi, located on the long stretch between Danang and Hanoi. From there we went exploring, ending up at Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in the world. Compared with the other cave we visited on our trip, this one was much more exciting. It was beautiful and, thank goodness, relatively untouched in the world of Vietnam’s tourist trail. There was virtually no one else there when we visited and, believe it or not, the neon lights had yet to reach it. The cave itself was impressive but the scenery en route was just as stunning, with narrow roads winding through the hills, almost eerily blue river water, and shining green rice fields. The entire day was a wonderful reminder of how beautiful this planet is.

 4. Halong Bay Cruise

While I’m writing about beautiful landscapes, I have to mention our two day/ one night cruise on the gorgeous waters of Halong Bay. A UNESCO Heritage Site, Halong Bay features more than 1600 limestone islands jutting out of the green-blue waters. The small, beautiful islands are simultaneously home to jagged cliffs and bright green vegetation. As we left the dock, I was a little disappointed by the scenery but at some point later in the evening, as we were surrounded by these islands in every direction, the magnitude and the majesty of the site really hit me.

Included in the cruise was a trip to Dau Go cave. Unlike Paradise Cave, this was not a very enjoyable experience. Dozens of tour guides led drunk tourists through the cave, lit up with weird neon lights, as they used their laser pointers to show the crowds how different formations looked like footprints, dragons or faces. The cave itself was actually pretty awesome, if only the tourism industry hadn’t taken away from its natural beauty.

After the cave visit, we were able to take kayaks out on the bay, weaving in and out of the limestone islands, under archways and through small caves. Then the last activity was an evening dip in the chilly waters, swimming alongside the jellyfish. (I passed.) We spent the rest of the evening on the deck, enjoying the cool air and brushing up on some cribbage.

The cruise included transportation to and from Hanoi (around 8-9 hours roundtrip), four sizable meals and all fees so we didn’t have to worry about anything from the moment we got on the bus. Tim and I had a nice cabin, complete with a hot water shower and a small balcony where I did some early morning yoga. The trip was an incredibly relaxing, the cave visit notwithstanding, and was a great chance to recharge before hitting the busy streets of Hanoi for our last week.

5. Water Puppet Performance

The very last tourist activity we did on our trip was to see a water puppet performance in Hanoi. The art of water puppetry is unique to Vietnam and has been around since the 11th century. Instead of a traditional stage, the wooden puppets perform on top of water, controlled by long sticks underneath the surface, while the puppeteers themselves are hidden behind a rice screen.

The performance we saw featured around a dozen short skits, many centered around fishing and agriculture. Most did not contain dialogue, rather they were accompanied by a live band, playing and singing traditional songs. One of the highlights of the performance, in fact, was a really moving performance on the Don Bau, an instrument with only one chord. The two primary female vocalists were also very impressive, adding moments of beauty to an otherwise slapstick-based performance.

Seeing the water puppets was a chance to see an art form that doesn’t exist in any other part of the world. It was mostly funny and lighthearted, but it gave a lot of insight into Vietnamese traditions and culture as well. Again, this is something I would recommend to anyone.


Vietnam Vacation: Week One

9 04 2012

Tim and I have recently finished the first week of our vacation in Vietnam. We’ve been skipping from place to place rather quickly, in hopes of seeing as much of the country as possible in our 18-day visit. In the first week we managed to see three different towns: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Dalat and Nha Trang. During this leg of the trip, there were four of us traveling together, but one of our fellow volunteers is heading back to Cambodia for Khmer New Year so now we’re down to three.

We’ll post more about our impressions later. There is much to say about the ways in which Cambodia and Vietnam differ and about what it’s like to be in Vietnam as an American. For now though, here’s a quick rundown of what we’ve been up to.

Ho Chi Minh City

Population: 7.4 million

Fun Fact: There are 4 million motorbikes within the city limits at any given time

What we did: Tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels created by the Viet Cong during the “American War;” the War Remnants Museum; the night market

Loved: Seeing an old propaganda video at the tunnels and, more generally, seeing how Vietnam presents information on the war; fresh spring rolls; things like garbage trucks, public parks and separate moto lanes (We’ve been in Cambodia for a long time, okay?)

Pictures: Click here

Bustling street in HCMC

Just doin' guy stuff


Population: 206,000

Fun Fact: Often referred to as the “French Alps” of Vietnam

What we did: Rode a cable car through the mountains; visited a pagoda; sampled Dalat’s wine; rode on swan-shaped paddle boats; visited the so-called “Crazy House”

Loved: The views from the hills; the giant tulips and windmills; the availability of produce such as strawberries, mulberries, avocados, artichokes and asparagus; the crisp, cool morning air; the Jacuzzi in our hotel

Pictures: Click here and here

The view from the top

Giant tulips, of course!


Nha Trang

Population: 300,000

Fun Fact: Home to the Miss Universe 2008 competition

What we did: Took a day trip to Cam Ranh Bay, where Tim’s dad was stationed during the war; met up with some fellow PCVs for a couple of meals; visited the Long Son Pagoda

Loved: The microbrewery(!!); gelato; exploring the secluded beaches en route to Cam Ranh Bay

Pictures: Click here and here


Big Buddha at Long Son Pagoda

Near Cam Ranh Bay

The beach

More to come!

Party at the Dragon Bridge

28 11 2011

Last week, the Angkor-era Dragon Bridge in our town was the center of a three-day celebration that much resembled a small fair. The streets were filled with people playing games, admiring the lighted boats in the water, sampling chicken kabobs from food stands, and watching Khmer movies projected on big screens. Periodically, a single firework would explode in the sky. Apparently, the celebration was to help raise funds for the wat that’s being built outside of town.

Here’s a short video of the traditional music and dancing that took place:

Click here for more pictures of the event: Dragon Bridge Party Pictures


Yinz Second Khmer Lesson: Khmai-burghese

13 11 2011

This is what happens when you teach a yinzer Khmer. I know they always say to remember your audience, and after some calculations, it seems that exactly one person reading this will understand. But we think it’s funny anyha. Enjoy, Paulie!

(Can you tell we’ve been on vacation and have WAY too much free time?)