Desire Paths

You know them – they are the paths (lines) across the campus quadrangle grass that people wear in, when they don’t want to follow the paths the University has laid out in concrete or stone.  The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. The width and amount of erosion of the line represents the amount of demand.

I wonder, in terms of microcredit, if you gave a $1000 to a village and said this money is for you to use for the people of the village for 2 years and at the end of 2 years, you must return the $1,000 and tell us the story of what the money did,  would we see ‘desire paths’ that we couldn’t imagine?

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Khmer Ingredients

I just found this page of Khmer herbs and vegetables quite intriguing.  Good pictures, they enlarge when you click on them.

Lemon Grass

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ABC+Rice – new website

Just got word from Tammy Durand at ABC+Rice that their new website is now up and running – here’s the link:  I have changed it in this blog’s links as well, so you can just click away.

It was nice to catch up on news from that project.  They are doing some amazing stuff.

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Kids are smart

In talking to Reaksmey (that’s her far left), Mom’s oldest daughter, about dreams, she got around to saying that she dreams of being a doctor.  When I asked her what she could do to achieve that dream, she said “Study hard.” and almost as an afterthought, she said, “and study French.”

I was curious but didn’t ask.  Then I began to do a little research on medical schools in Cambodia.  Turns out that the only medical school in Cambodia is associated with a University in France as it’s program provider, etc.  So, while the medical program is taught in English, a tremendous amount of residual opportunities are tied in with the university in France.  Speaking French looks to be a good thing to succeed as a medical student in Cambodia.  So, did she know that already?

Anyway, Reaksmey took her first French lesson this past Monday, at the French Cultural Society center.  Conveniently, it’s about a 15 minute bike ride from their house.

Adventurez-vous, Reaksmey!  (I think that’s how you say it?)

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Good news!

Been a while since I blogged, but certainly not due to the lack of activity relating to Cambodia efforts – actually quite the opposite – lots happening.

Anyway, the good news is that this past Monday, Paul Franks delivered the $1,100 for the reconstruction of Pisey’s house to Sovantha at AAD and Sovantha, in turn, delivered the money to Pisey yesterday.  She will proceed with the reconstruction immediately.  However, she is still short nearly $700 to complete the project.  I decided to guarantee that she gets it, kinda makes sense to finish what you start, huh?  Hopefully I will get a little help from my friends along the way.

I figure this was a Human Development project – nothing more, nothing less.  In part, the United Nations defines Human Development as:  being about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests.  Along with the money, Pisey got the message to ‘pay it forward’.  I am sure she will, in spades.

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My friends and I first ventured into Cambodia back in September 2008 from southern Vietnam. Motoring up the Mekong River, I did not know what to expect, and had met only a few friendly people that could offer some insight as to what I might see there. I had heard of the magnificent Angkor society and Angkor Wat and Cambodia’s terrible modern history, but knew nothing beyond that.

We spent 5 days in Phnom Penh seeing the grisly Killing Fields and S-21 Prison and our tuk-tuk drivers took us to an orphanage and we met the unfortunate children combing the streets for extra change; all the things that smack you in the face when you arrive in Cambodia from the east. These different sights got my emotions flowing, and I didn’t know how to handle it.

We left for Siem Reap naively expecting to see a change and get our emotions back in check but quickly realized that although we could romp around the beautiful temples of Angkor Wat and Thom during the day, we were still going to witness the grisliness and the poverty associated with Cambodia. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings running through my head: frustration, pity, wonder, shock, all the things that come with your first impression of Cambodia.

Then it started to rain. And rain and rain and rain. We continued to explore the ruins, and Thank Goodness we did, because it made them more beautiful. It rained for at least three days, and by the time we had been there 5 days, the Siem Reap River had flooded the two streets running parallel to it’s banks and then some. When we exited our hotel, we’d be up to our ankles, and then our knees and thighs, in water. All the homes on our street were severly flooded; at least a foot of water in these peoples’ kitchen/living/bed rooms. Sometimes we’d wade through the water and sometimes we’d take a tuk-tuk (ashamed face) which propelled a wake of water even further into peoples’ houses. I hid my face in shame at first but when I decided to actually look up, I saw gigantic smiles were I expected scowls. I saw kids and adults waving where I expected some sort of vulgar gesture. I was amazed!

It was at that moment that I realized that I loved Cambodia and that I wanted to come back.

The moment where I thought these people were down and I felt sorry for them, they were really on top and teaching me a lesson. Cambodia isn’t the in your face poverty and the grisly history, or even the ancient history, it’s the smile and the wave that you get from people on a daily basis, even as they’re stacking sand bags and bailing water.

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A letter from Mom

Below is an excerpt of a letter I just received from Mom via her oldest son’s email account.  I share it as part of my learning journey – nothing more, nothing less.  Her son would be the translator here, as she doesn’t speak English – I think the dictionary was nearby.

“Rick my most grateful person in my mind I always keep and remember,
never forget ones day, who have supported and helped my family so far to become
well also, make to be value person in society and happiness like others…
different from the past time .
  Before, I lived in a worried situation about shortage in daily living standard

but now, my living standard become better have enough clothes ,food.

  now I always thought that I want to support my parents to become more

Thanks for reteaching me about the power of freedom of choice in our lives, Mom.

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Saviors or Allies?

Anna McDonnell posted this on a website called 5forfairness.

Certainly helped me sort through some conflicting thoughts I have been mulling over for the past several months about ‘helping/making a difference’.

“The good guys  go somewhere awful where something horrible is happening and save a victim. The issues are, of course, compelling, but the stories themselves are dramatic, well-constructed and best of all, often have “happy” endings.

These “raid and rescue” narratives tell us stories about things that happen, but they also tell us a story about ourselves. When we read them, we are moved. This means we’re empathic. We are outraged. This means we’re righteous. We want to do something. This means we’re efficacious. We see saviors in action. This means we can be saviors. We like that. It makes us the good guys. It puts us in white hats and we think we look really good in white hats. We’re the ones who can help people out of their misery, put a stop to their pain.

But here’s the problem. The minute you’re a savior, you put yourself above your victim. You’re more capable than, more powerful than, better than. It is perhaps the subtlest form of oppression.

I believe we need to somehow wean ourselves from our attachment to “savior” narratives and find ways to engage in a different kind of story-telling around the need for change.

But how do you do that when it is so hard to get people’s attention? How do we move from short, sharp, shocks of attention to the engaged, persistent and committed attention that is going to be required to actually make change over the long haul?”

Anna M. goes on to suggest that rather than as saviors, if we can place ourselves in the picture as allies, then we are onto something good ~ engaged, persistent and committed attention – hmmm.  Correlates for me with Daniella Papi’s consideration for Investing in People

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Just a Story – A Lesson for Shoeless

It’s coming to the end of the school year in Cambodia and Mom’s two oldest – Pisie, the oldest boy will be moving into grade 11 and Reaksmey, the oldest girl will be moving up to Grade 10.  (A story for another day is the heroics Mom pulled off to keep those kids in school on $3-$6 per day gross income – jaw dropping for sure).

Mom's Kids

Anyway, one of the fundamentals in human development is enabling choices and education is a pretty potent choice in breaking the cycle of poverty in a population, if that choice is available.  So, some time last winter, this conversation occurred by email. (I am abbreviating the actual back and forth.)

Me: So are your kids interested in going to University?   Mom:  University?  My kids will never have the money to go to University  Me: Well, maybe I can help some.  What do you think about opening up an education savings account for each of the kids?  Alcedia Bank has a really cool set-up for that.  But maybe they aren’t interested in University.  It’s up to you.  Mom:  I think that is a great idea, Pisie and Reaksmey are very good students and I am sure they would love to go to University.  It sounds like a dream.  Me: Well, let me know and I will send some money to start those accounts if you want.  Mom: Okay, send the money.

So I sent $1,200 dollars and suggested that she open up accounts something like this: oldest – $400 (1 year tuition), next – $300, the two younger boys – $200 and the baby because she is 14 years away from University and we have time – $100.  With this special savings plan, if the kids decide not to go further in school, they can cash the plan in but don’t get the accrued interest, so really no risk.

Along the way, I was also sending Mom money to help her kinda stabilize and get the younger kids in school and occasionally I had a fat overtime check and kicked some extra her way.  Oh yeah, we had set her up in a small pig raising venture and there were some on-going expenses there until the first batch went to market.  So over about 4 months she got a moderate chunk of cash (by my standards) to do stuff.

When I arrived in January, her first communication was “I have something important to tell you.”  Me: What’s that?  Mom: I didn’t put the money in the bank for the kid’s education.  Me: I see.  Mom: I bought a piece of land with the money, but I still owe $200 for it – it cost me $2,700, but I only had $2,500.  Me:  (scrambling to be cool)  Well, I will give you the $200. Wow, now you own some land, that’s great! When can we go see it?   Mom: (World class smile and sparkling eyes)  Let’s go tomorrow.

So off we go the next day to see the land.  It’s right on the major highway to Phnom Penh at a relatively important intersection about 20 kms. out of Siem Reap.  Hmmmm, good location  – what’s that they are building on the other corner?  A new bus station, huh?  Hmmmm.  So, at this point I ask the translator who knows real estate pretty well – so how much is this land worth, do you think?  He said, “At least $4,000 if she sells now, but it will go up.   This is on the way to the new international airport the Koreans are starting to build this spring.”

I looked at Mom and thought, but didn’t say, “You just made enough on the stroke of a pen to fund at least 3 years of university for one of your kids.  How the heck do you know how to do this?  You have owned so little in your whole life.  Boy, do I have a lot to learn!”

It is said that there are no mistakes in life, only lessons and if you don’t learn the lesson the first time around, it will come back again and perhaps a little more painfully.  It is with a red-face that I admit this aforementioned lesson was on it’s second visit to me.  (I may get around to blogging about the first visit some time.)  So what’s the lesson?

1A – I should never assume that I understand enough about things in Cambodia to create a plan.   1B – The money enables the choice, it shouldn’t also make the choice. Giving people autonomy, dignity and real choices about their futures is probably a best practice.  Ideas are okay I think – “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” but then ask “How would you do it?”, then shut up and listen hard.  I was given a gift one time in a conversation, a chap I met for a brief 2 hours said to me “Ah yes, listening.  The better you listen, the better the questions you can ask.”

Thanks for the lesson, Mom.  Now what will it cost me to have you manage my investments?

End note:  What may be the greatest obstacle that poor Khmer have, in changing their lives for the better, is the lack of access to capital.  They have nothing to secure a loan with and they sure can’t save enough, when daily survival is knocking on the door asking to be paid.  Interestingly, they really aren’t looking for a handout either – they are proud and want to pay a hand-up back.  When you suggest that paying it forward would really make the most sense (help somebody else), they are pretty adept at getting on with that.  Mom has since employed a single mom, of 3, to work with her and has scratched enough together from my subsidies to add another room to her house to shelter that family.  I love the sound of echoes.

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One memory

A couple of years ago I took off for a mostly solo adventure which was to include several weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. I could write pages about this trip but for now am just going to focus on 36 hours of it.

After spending a few days in Phnom Penh I joined an adventure travel group which took me to the amazing Siem Reap. I had planned to make my way back to PP independently, with a three day stopover in a small town between the two.

The bus driver kindly ordered me off at the correct point, and after some adventures with the local moto drivers I arrived at the retreat, which promised good food, lots of idling in hammocks and a back to basics  lifestyle.

People often tell me I’m brave, daring and open minded. In reality I am more probably way too gung ho and and OCD afflicted control freak. Neither of these things are desirable qualities when you are laid on a mat in a sweltering wooden shed, dying for the loo and knowing that outside there’s no lights to guide you, or help you avoid the endless bugs and boogie men you fear.

I made it through the night, but couldn’t shake the incredible feeling of frustration that was creeping up on me. I had felt connected to this country and it’s people in both PP and SR. I had made relationships with beggars, tuk tuk drivers, cafe owners and more, the way I do. I had fallen in love with Cambodia, but now began to doubt the reality of my feelings. Had I been conned somehow?

Lying around in a hammock, having people wait on me and be told how grateful they were for the opportunity isn’t the way I want to travel. Perhaps it’s because I have lived abroad for so long, I am used to being part of the scenery (at least in my head.) I couldn’t enjoy a minute of this Cambodia, until a chance encounter with another guest turned it around.

Fate led me to get chatting with a group of people from Singapore, who were long term supporters of local charities, raising funds for schools to be built in surrounding villages. They invited me to tag along when they went to visit the newest one to open, as well as to celebrate the start of a campaign to feed the pupils at least one decent meal a week.

The journey took us to remote communities, with battery generated lighting and very basic housing. The school itself was amazing, and it was wonderful to be able to walk around outside and peep into the classrooms, seeing rows and rows of beautiful children looking very happy and studious.

The second stop was at a small village where the next school was to be built. It seemed deserted as I took a seat on a wall while my hosts chatted to some people. I guess word spread that there were visitors, as people began to appear from every direction. I’m well used to staring of course, but this was something else. (I was later told that I was the first ever non Asian foreigner they had ever seen, so I understand the reaction.)

Some men, mostly woman and their children, gathered to hear news on the school and to check out this strange woman, haha. Me being me I ended up gathering the kids and teaching them “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. tag and ‘red light, green light’. They had zero English skills but were valiant tryers.

This was the moment that I felt a point to this breakaway trip. Meeting kids who will have an education, food, a future which involves choices. Learning that severe malnutrition makes your hair go golden or orange. Trying to imagine how it must feel to have to put your kids into an orphanage because your husband has died, and you can’t feed them. Understanding that love and effort overcome language when we communicate.

I left the retreat a day ahead of schedule, knowing that the piece of my heart those children took will be kept safe for me, until I return.

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