Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Win the lotto, become a US citizen (!?)


Word in the office is that our vice-director (at left) just won a lottery which qualifies him to move him and his entire family to the United States, where he'll be provided a job and a home and be able to become "American."

If you're looking a bit incredulous, that was my reaction too. I'm doing some recon to learn more, but the entire Cambodian staff ensures me that this is the real deal, and in fact, someone they all seem to know from the Provincial Department of Education won the same lottery recently. This POE man apparently migrated just last year and has spent at least one happy Christmas in the US celebrating in the home of new-found American friends.

Given how difficult it is to get a visa these days, and given the fact that our vice-director has very limited spoken English skills, I'm not exactly sure how all this works. I was just mentioning to some of the staff how a Canadian friend of mine at Google was turned away at the US border upon returning from a trip to visit friends and family because the occupation on her Google-issued work vis, "Computer Programmer" didn't match the occupation on her university degree, "Computer Science" (yes indeed, what is our country coming to?).

It's just another example of some of the hare-brained (and sometimes expensive or dangerous) schemes folks here seem to have to get out of the country to better things.


Update as of 4/24

Sean kindly explained the deal to me:

Apparently, there is a lottery under the Diversity Visa program, which as far as i understand, is meant to ensure randomness in the visa selection process: http://travel.state.gov/visa/immigrants/types/types_1318.html


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thankful for choices

WARNING: Reading any further may expose you to cliche & Jess-style angst. Watch out.

So I suppose it would be strange if it were otherwise, but in the past few weeks I've really noticed how being here makes me thankful 100x over each day for things I used to take for granted: to have an amazing education, to travel, to have brilliant friends who do amazing things, to be financially independent, to feel like I have the same opportunities as a woman as I would as a man, and to live somewhere where it's considered culturally acceptable (in our circles at least) to live with a significant other before marriage.

Recently, I've felt embarrassed about all the choices that I have available to me. More specifically it's difficult to explain to people here that I had the security and financial means that allowed me to choose to give up a comfortable (relatively well-paying) job and life to travel and do something simply because it moved me... because I was interested in learning about something and somewhere new... because I wanted to be challenged... because I thought I might be useful here... because I had an itch to travel.

This isn't something that people here totally get. Though people at the office are a bit more accustomed to foreigners coming to work (mostly volunteers), more often than not other folks want to know right off the bat: "why are you here?" To many, my title, "Technical Advisor," means "high-paid" and "important," and so many assume that I'm here for the money and it's commonplace for someone to ask how much I make. Foreign advisors make magnitudes more than their local counterparts, so relatively speaking, this job makes me a rich woman. From my perspective, of course, this job makes me no such thing. I haven't quite settled on an explanation that can satisfy.

Anyway, I have more thoughts but I'll spare you all for now.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Some finally: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2119484&l=1f299&id=201113

Here's a preview for the curious:

Our staff retreat

Last week, I headed off with our office staff to a 3 day retreat to Steung Treng, a city at the very Northern tip of Cambodia at the border of Laos.

The trip was a mix of work and play: a day and a half of presentations and then a full day boat trip to a large waterfall.

We left at 7am on Sunday -- piled into the minivans. The five-hour trip got off to a bumpy start -- right off, we had to make a couple of bathroom breaks, pick up some Department of Education folks who had come in from Ratanakiri, and rebalance ourselves amongst the vehicles after the drivers complained that we were so heavy that the insurance wouldn't cover us in the event of a crash.

Our organization is like a big family. Already, Cambodians call each other "bong" (sister) "om" (aunt) "boo" (uncle) and a plethora of other familial names regardless of blood-relation; then, on top of that, everyone is friendly with everyone else despite the fact that many of them work in difference offices, and this friendliness extends to new employees and the spouses and children who came along. It makes me so happy to see the seemingly complete lack of social awkwardness -- people seem to understand inherently how they fit in to the group which makes for everything quite harmonious.

We arrived in Steung Treng around noon in time for a big lunch at the hotel's restaurant, and then had time for a short rest before a half-day of meetings. Everything was conducted in Khmer, so I had to sit close-by one of the English speakers and nudge them every so often for a summary.

According to Kurt, this was the first staff retreat planned and run entirely by the staff. The first retreat 4 or 5 years back was run entirely by advisors, which demonstrates how far the staff has come. All in all, it was definitely an interesting introduction to the way meetings happen here. All forty folks were in a room around some tables, including the drivers and cleaners. The content progressed in three ways: either someone presented (think powerpoint slides filled with Khmer text), or there was opportunity for feedback (people passing around the microphone to give their opinion), or there was groupwork (folks writing down ideas on big sheets and presenting them back to the group).

One thing really surprised me. In the US, you hear that people rate fear of public-speaking above fear of death, so when you see every staff member happily standing up in front of their peers to talk (often at length) about what they think, it's a all a bit shocking.

On the second night, there was a big going away party for Brigitte with food and toasts and dancing! That night we were instructed to wait until everyone had arrived before starting to eat -- on other nights, everyone tucked in to the food so quickly that if you came 15 minutes into it, you'd see half the tables already starting to be cleared. We danced some traditional Khmer dances -- the Rovull and the Madison -- as well as some more Western numbers: the Macarena, and some knock-off Cambodian rap.

The next day was the boat trip, so we got up early to eat breakfast and headed out in our vans at 7am. We crossed the Mekong on a ferry and drove for about an hour to a small village on the bank of the Sekong. There, we piled into a bunch of powered-canoes, 3-4 per boat, depending on your weight, piloted by a crew of boys and men from the village who ran the service as a small village enterprise. We spent about 2 hours heading up the river, stopping a couple of times to clamber and sweat through the brush on the bank where the river got a bit dicey, and eventually arrived at a rocky bank where we got out and started the climb up to the waterfall. Preparation being as it is, some folks had on sandals, some of us were luckier in flip flops and a select few had on good shoes. We hiked over spiky rocks and through bushes until we finally arrived at a multi-part waterfall. I found a spot, plopped in my feet and scarfed down the lunch we had packed along, then took off to explore.

The more intrepid braved sharp slippery rocks and swift currents and went up to the "big fall," the ones with younger children just lay in the shallows in all their clothes. As it got hotter and hotter, with some encouragement from my boatmen, I decided to embrace life Cambodian-style and went for a swim in one of the bigger pools, longsleeve shirt, pants, and all.

On the way back in the boat, we stopped at a mini-island (about 100 ft sq), took snacks and watched a pod of Irawaddy dophins play in the river.

The next day, burnt, tired and happy, we headed back to Kampong Cham.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Saturday 3 in Cambodia

This morning, I woke up around 5:30 washed my face, brushed my teeth, arranged my mosquito net, and trotted over to my kitchen to put on a huge kettle to boil. While that started, I tidied up my living room table and picked up my flashcards (now growing to an appreciable stack) to take a quick look before my teacher arrived. Tiwon came over around 6:10 by which time I had already made us two cups of tea and memorized a couple of words from the previous lesson.

Around 8, we finished up and Tiwon took me to see her house and then to a tiny market (called "Market behind the pagoda") for breakfast -- again those delicious noodley things, this time also served with Chinese fried cakes which were made with green veg and some kind of flour. We each drank a glass of iced sugar cane juice and then headed off to meet our friend & my coworker Mary (pronounced Maa -- ree) who needed to buy some new cloth to make an outfit for some upcoming weddings. This is the wedding season, so weekends are rife with blaring traditional music, and garishly decorated awnings where well-coiffed guests eat and celebrate.

Mary lives with her father, and mother (both Cham muslims), her older brother, 3 nieces and baby nephew. Her older sister (mum to the kiddos) lives and works in Thailand with her husband. It seems pretty common that older folks take care of their grandchildren while their own children go work elsewhere (that's also the case with my landlord). Mary speaks the best English of pretty much any Cambodian person I know here (my Khmer teacher is comparable), she's independent and super-friendly and though she doesn't work in the same section as me, we've hit it off in the few times we've hung out together.

Mary, her oldest niece, Tiwon and I set off on two motos, deftly navigated the packed byways of the Big Market to a guarded parking area and headed inside. The trip was a success. Though they were disappointed that I didn't buy anything (too small!), Mary got her material plus accessories, Tiwon got a new t-shirt and Mary's niece got a brand-spanking-new outfit from the clothes-stall run by none other than her primary-school teacher (which she was asked to hide from her sisters for at least a little while). One of my favorite near-purchases was a pair of panties meant to flatter the wearer by way of some extra padding "help" in the behind.

The whole market experience was much more fun with the girls especially because they knew so many of the folks in the market. Though Kampong Cham has a decent sized population, I definitely get the feeling that everyone knows their neighbors and, consistent with what I've seen of the rest of Cambodian culture, people are super-friendly and helpful.

After the market, I headed to Caltex where I picked up some peanut butter and juice, then headed home with only a few false turns. At home, there were a few new faces, most likely relatives coming to stay for the New Year. The jackfruit and mango trees had been ransacked for the guests, and something delicious was bubbling over the charcoal fires on the back patio.

Back home, I puttered around for a bit, swept the floor clean from the flies I had Raid-ed the night before, then decided to cut my hair. Once I decided that I'd regret any additional scissor snips, I sat down to do some studying and write for a little while. And here I am now!

Pretty sweet life, huh?

Knyom roo nugh Kampong Cham.

Before I left for Cambodia, I asked a friend of a friend for some advice. When I told her where I was living she immediately suggested I consider commuting to Phnom Penh at least on the weekends -- "Kampong Cham? That's in the middle of nowhere!" In fact, some of my coworkers do live in Phnom Penh and do commute on the weekends, but I suspect it's more a question of the availability of employment for other family members than a desire to be entertained.

I guess compared to Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham could be considered a small-ish "nowhere" but in fact it is a provincial capital complete with three markets, three gas stations with air-conditioned minimarts, a governor's mansion, a bridge over the Mekong, an abandoned American airstrip, a couple of temples, a beautiful promenade along the riverbank, and two western-style bar-restaurants that serve fish and chips and spaghetti for $2.50 (expensive by most standards). To top it all off, we recently got two 24-hour ATMs, from which you can withdraw USD for a small finance charge. Apparently, there are also a few Karaoke joints in town, which I (unfortunately) have yet to explore.

The city was built way-back-when by the French and there are some lingering signs of the colonial architecture -- in particular, the main road in town is a broad boulevard with a wide paved center divider with lamps, punctuated by open spaces where the neatly arranged streets of the town run across (read: moto death trap). The area along the river also has a European flair with a broad paved sidewalk, lit by tall streetlamps, overlooking the steep bank down to the water and with a view of the bridge, built more recently by the Japanese.

In the "downtown" economic center of Kampong Cham, the roads are paved. We also have the recently built Highway 7 which goes direct all the way to Phnom Penh, but my street and many of the residential streets are uneven dirt. In general, people keep their own houses and yards very clean, but public spaces are a different story. I still haven't gotten used the habit of nonchalantly tossing an empty can, water bottle, or other random piece of garbage on the side of the road, or in a ditch, or under a tree, but I guess I can't expect all the cultural things to come to me quickly. With the litter and seemingly constant (mostly private) construction, Kampong Cham has the feel of a living, expanding town, changing to accommodate economic development in the province and in the country.

In general, the town wakes up around 5:30 and goes home a little after sundown. In the mornings, the markets are bustling with people and motos, but by noon, the shoppers, deterred by the heat and the flies, all retreat to someplace cooler. My first trip to the market was to the Bangkot Market with Brigitte to buy random house supplies & instant noodles. My second trip alone, I braved the fruit, veggie, and meat sections of the Big Market and left triumphantly with a huge bottle of fish sauce, some random veggies, a huge pomelo, some mangoes, duck eggs, a loaf of french bread, a half kilo of rice, and a whole chicken. The market is awesome -- just-picked produce and newly butchered meat in every direction -- all under a high metal roof. Stall vendors perch in the middle of large platforms with their wares neatly arranged all around. Depending on the set-up, you can often pick the best fruits and veggies from a couple of sections, pay just one person, and they split it accordingly. Everything is organized logically -- fish together, pork together, chicken together, eggs nearby, then all the veggies, and the fruit near the periphery. If you come early enough, you can watch as they expertly turn a whole pig into chops and loin and ribs.

The only place I've seen to buy refrigerated goods are the two minimarts attached to two of the three legitimate gas stations in town. Caltex (StarMart) and FreshShop have yogurt, milk, ice cream, and your occasional cheese, as well as some western snacks like Pringles and peanut butter.

All around town are small semi-outdoor eating establishments with tables and plastic stools arranged around a main cooking area where you can watch your food being prepared fresh right in front of you. My coworkers have already kindly pointed me to some of the best in town where you can wait up to 5 minutes (imagine!) to get the best sauce in town.

Some shops are easy to pick out -- for example, all mobile phone shops seem to have the same orange sign with white lettering but a different name -- but some places are not so obvious: houses often double as laundry services or keep small snack shops in the living room downstairs.

Last Saturday, Brigitte took me for a bicycle ride around town and we took some pictures of the fantastic signs advertising various services: wedding costume tailoring, bakery, moto repair, electronics, veterinarian. Each one with its own pictogram to cater to the illiterate (folks like us!) who can't make heads or tails of the Khmer script. We then rode down a few kilometers outside of town along the river to a more rural area. We saw some of the floating settlements along the river and returned many shouted "he-ll-os!" from the children of local farmers. Then we turned around in the other direction, back up past the post-office, "cinema," and governor's mansion to Highway 7, and rode in the blazing sun up to Wat Nokor, a pre-Angkorian temple which also houses a working Buddhist community. After paying an inflated fee to the police "guarding" the site, we wandered around with an unsolicited and unwanted guide who could only speak enough words of English to ask us "why didn't we love him." In one of the working temples, we tried to decipher the gorgeous colorful mural depicting Buddha's life, and in another temple with a reclining Buddha, we watched a fortune-teller deliver what must have been bad news to a teary girl and her supportive friend.

I'd like to start a little project to draw out a better map of the town to remember where everything is (e.g. the cheap bread shop, the best veggies, the place to buy my brand of mosquito repellent), but it's difficult because during the day I only want to go about on moto because of the heat (and the scary traffic trying to run you over) which isn't so conducive to taking notes.

That's all for now, folks. Miss you all and love you lots,


Saturday, April 5, 2008

One-week anniversary!

It's my week-plus-one-day anniversary of living here in Kampong Cham, and it's high time for an update...

So far, I've been settling in nicely. My first two nights, I stayed with Kurt, who I find is actually a volunteer and ex-advisor at my NGO, and not the director as I somehow got into my mind. He has a beautiful big house a little ways outside the main town on the new national route 7 (or big road to Phnom Penh).

Now, I've taken care of most of the basic necessities: shelter, water, food and even have a few other goodies like transportation, a mosquito net and a toilet brush!

I'm living on the top story of a 3-floor house "behind the old prison" (basically a small ruin of a wall) on an unpaved, unmarked road which also serves as home to a few other foreigners (mostly NGO workers, a few hospital volunteers, and a couple of Bible-thumpers across the way). Brigitte, the Dutch woman whose role I'll be taking over, currently lives next door, and the new volunteer Elaine will be taking over her place. My landlord is awesome -- he's a nice grandpa with 4 daughters and 5 grandchildren and he speaks some English. The house is a ruckus, with "servants" and family coming and going all the time. I also just found out there's a Korean girl (a nurse) who lives in a small room downstairs.

The apartment is 3x bigger than my place in San Francisco and quite nice. Outside, there's a big iron gate, standard for most houses, that gets locked at night. The front driveway is tiled with lots of potted plants. To get in, I walk back to their patio (where they're often cooking in big pots outside) and enter through their house to the staircase and then up the two flights to my pad. My kitchen has a refrigerator and running water and an ancient rice cooker that may work. Brigitte's been donating some house supplies to my cause, so I have some basic utensils and plates, and I picked up a couple of knives and other sundries at the market. I also had a water filter brought from Phnom Penh which makes my water taste like rocks, but hopefully does away with the girardia, etc. Obviously, the kitchen's most important, but as for the rest of my house: I have two bedrooms (so please, don't hesitate to visit!), two bathrooms, a living room, and an awesome balcony with a porch swing and a view of the small lake. I do have the option of air-conditioning, but so far, I've made-do with the ceiling fans and frequent showers as I hear a night with the AC can run $8.

Across the street from my house is a food stall with delicious breakfast -- these small noodley things and vegetables with an egg on top -- a Khmer specialty, or so I'm told. I've eaten there a couple of times, and sometimes make do with a cup of tea and some Hob Nobs. The food here has been awesome so far. My first meal in the country on the way from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham was tiny whole deep-fried eels with picked veg and rice, and a spicy pineapple & fish soup. I've also had the famous Khmer noodles twice: my third night, my coworkers got together at Brigitte's house and taught us how to prepare the dish which consists of a stock with ground fish, tumeric, lemongrass, salt, garlic, shallots, basil and much more, on top of noodles, on top of banana flower and tow gay. You top the whole shebang off with some lime (kroich ch'ma) basil and other fresh green stuff. Yummy!

My office was lovely enough to lend me a moto, and I bought a sassy helmet made in Taiwan. It's certainly a treat to ride around with the wind in your face, especially in the humidity and heat. The moto's an automatic, so I guess I can't qualify as "hard-core" just yet, but I think it's certainly a good way to get around and part of the Khmer cultural experience. Before I got the moto, I was bumming rides from office-mates on the backs of their motos, or paying $0.25 for a ride around town. Since very very few folks speak any English, my geographically challenged self had to quickly learn a few Khmer words, (Knyom roogh nugh kang krawee gook -- "I live behind the prison") and my way around town.

We had one day of relief from the heat when a big storm rolled in earlier this week. It was crazy to see the entire sky go dark, and then the deluge begin. There was lightening and thunder and everything cooled off for a brief while, then back to the sweat.

There are lots of things that are different, but on the whole, I've been pleasantly surprised with how easily I've been able to meet people, get what I need, and get used to squat toilets, roadside stands with sun-dried clams, and skin-and-bones cows wandering the road.

Tune in for more about the office, Khmer lessons, new friends, my first trip to the market (including my experience with Cambodian chickens), and KHMER NEW YEAR.