Monday, April 14, 2008

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.

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