Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why Cambodia? Why Now?

Corina wrote: 
As a long term reader of your blog I have to say I wondered what are your reasons to visit these countries. As an immigrant from one of those (but much less, comparatively) impoverished countries, I was interested on what you will find out when you get there vs what you imagined through your research. I think it's hard for a person who grew up in Canada, presumably in a middle class family, to understand how people live the way they live and still manage to carry on with their lives. It is not very difficult if this is the only way of life you know. For them, It is hard to imagine they way You live. Also I think you can't change a country/nationality/tradition from the outside. It has to come from the inside. No matter how foreigners try to help - it won't make any difference, unless it's processed and regurgitated from inside their collective conscience. my 2 cents...

I chose Cambodia because when I think of Southeast Asia, Cambodia comes up before Vietnam, Laos or Thailand.  From a travel perspective, I was ready to brave those long flights.  On a personal level, I felt prepared to experience some harsher realities.  I had already progressed to part time work and I could more easily give of my time again.  So it kind of came together that way.

Volunteering in Canada is pretty easy.  You can call up an organization like the Red Cross, get invited to an orientation, get assigned to an area and off you go.  It's pretty clean cut and you aren't going to encounter any gruesome stuff.  You would have to get some specialized training and work your way up to something larger like community wide disaster relief to see any real action. 

Once I started working, I didn't have time to give so switched over to monetary donations.  One of the highlights was sponsoring 3 kids through Foster Parents Plan and World Vision.  I regret never taking the time to visit them in Sri Lanka, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau.  I now know those visits had the potential to have changed everything for me.  

My easy answer for wanting to help?  I work in health care, it comes naturally to want to ease suffering.  I get paid well for it here and am looking for more difficult challenges, tougher cases that will test my creativity and at this point in my life, have the time to do it for free and pay my own way. 

Giving back is a very personal thing.  If we could all do so in our own way, towards what moves us most, the world will be an even better place.  It doesn't have to be dramatic to make a difference.  The most giving people I know, do so within their communities.  With steady steps over time, have accomplished things and created legacies that have astonished me.  I tip my hat to all those unsung heroes living among us.

In Cambodia, disaster can be found lurking everywhere.  It's just a matter of time due to traffic chaos alone.  People just drive around people who are bleeding and hurt because calling an ambulance costs money most people don't have for themselves, much less a stranger.  In the smaller villages, starvation, illness is apparent all around.  There is no safe place unless you lock yourself up in a 5 star hotel room.

I chose to see for myself first if life there resembled what I had read.  To observe if the systems in place were actually effective.  I had learned enough to have some strong questions and doubts.  Also assumed things to be far more complex than I could realize.  With the significant level of corruption, you have to be careful with which organizations you support.  I was advised not to express my views about politics and the current government in public.

Was also protective enough of my time and mental emotional well being to not want to commit to a placement before I knew it was the right thing to do, the right place to be and if my contribution could make a direct difference.  I questioned my ability to handle things emotionally and the subsequent effects of working there.

I am very fortunate in having B as a resource.  He'll be the first to tell you that the majority of foreign based organizations should just leave the country and go home because they are tripping over each other needlessly replicating actions based on their own best practices.  However, there are a handful of them who are doing some great things and those ones inevitably have a strong local tie. 

The few NGOs I encountered were started by local people and they went about things differently. They know what would work for their culture and sourced things out locally, often significantly simpler, less expensive, more environmentally sound e.g. effective homemade water filtration systems using paper fiber vs. imported plastic units. 

Like you said, it is difficult going up against engrained cultural beliefs.  It will only burn up a whole lot of time and money.  That might help explain why there are around 3000 NGOs in Cambodia.  Concepts toward change need to be presented in a way that would make sense to the people you are trying to help.  It doesn't matter what we think and how effective our action templates work here.  It's not about us.   Great organizations will be very specific about needs from potential volunteers and donors.

I found the mental emotional hyper stimulation exhausting at the time.  Consequently the first thing I noticed during the car ride home was just how sterile everything felt to me.  The silence, space and orderliness shocked.  I actually live here?  I've since found myself not rushing around like I used to.  What's there to really get worked up about here?  Even the cold didn't phase me at all.  I did however drive around like a mad woman the first few days like I was still in Phnom Penh...

For some insight, I called up a girlfriend/colleague of mine who has been to Haiti twice as a volunteer.  She told me the second time (2014) "messed with her head" and it took her a good month to get back into the swing of things, which disturbed her deeply.  I could hear it in her voice.  And this is someone who has a more baseline positive outlook than I. 

So much so, she wasn't sure when she'll be returning though she'd like me to accompany her when the time comes (Stronger as a team -- I agreed -- It's almost been a month since I've returned too.).  It wasn't the work there that did it.  It was the feeling of dissociation upon her return.  She wasn't exposed to the same types of inputs that I had.  Security was the biggest issue for her mission.  They had to have armed guards accompanying them everywhere and theft was rampant.  All her stuff got stolen.

My nerves haven't completely calmed down yet.  I'm currently collaborating on a couple of cases that are beyond frustrating so that's keeping them revved.  On some level, I'm not sure I want them to do so all the way because I don't necessarily want to be exactly the same as I was before.  I don't want to lose the expansion I've gained from all the tension and stress.  My capacity has grown although I'm still feeling the frays, both calmer and more emotional if that makes any sense.

Part II:

Without turning this post into a novel, my upbringing is a good example of how things don't seem so abnormal when you are in it.  My family wouldn't have been considered middle class by Canadian standards until I was entering university.

The first 6 years of my life was spent in a bachelor apartment with 3 of us sleeping on the lower bunk and my dad on the top.  A tape recorder was my toy.  I loved that thing.

My grandparents lived in the country and had no indoor plumbing nor a whole lot of heat and I remember being bathed standing in a bucket.  They had a pig and would slaughter chickens for meals (I helped).  Had a great time running around in the fields and picking wild flowers with my cousins.  First time I held a rifle.

Then we moved into 2 rooms on the 3rd storey (deadly hot in the summers and freezing cold in the winters!) of a Victorian semi in what is now known as a trendy area of Toronto but back then, it wasn't.  My room was actually the kitchenette but thought it was so cool I was the only one who had my own sink for teeth brushing.  We had to share the downstairs bathroom and kitchen with others.  My brother slept on a sofa bed in my parent's room. 

We were on social assistance while my dad went back to school and my mom worked at a factory.  The social worker who visited my brother and I at the babysitters was a wonderful woman.  She, as opposed to our babysitter, really cared for us.  We got donated winter coats and were given tennis balls to play with.  I still have the picture of me holding that tennis ball, just beaming.

Years later my mom bumped into her and she was so pleased to hear we were doing so well in school (I was at my piano lesson).  My mom thanked her again for being such a great advocate for us.  Unfortunately, I never did have the opportunity to tell her myself.  Never underestimate the impact kindness, not matter how fleeting, can have on someone. 

Later on, when my dad got a great job, we moved into a townhome.  Not too long after I met D and told him about those years of my life and my memories of how great it was being able to walk to the best community center in the city, the best library where I used to run the summer reading program for the kids, the best pool, the best public school, I had to drive him there and personally show him around my old hood. 

You can probably imagine what happened next.  My adult eyes took in what I now know as a "low income housing" development and he saw me tear up.  It looked far worse than I remembered.  Poor D didn't really know what to do with my very apparent devastation.

It was my projection of difficulty and suffering based on the gap in my mind that created the sadness. But my younger memory was I got my own room and it came with pumpkin and brown coloured wall paper, orange carpet and space for a desk.

A number of years later, my family moved to a detached 4 bedroom home with a 2 car garage.  I didn't live there long before I went off to build my career and life.

Obviously this is just a "Coles notes" version of one facet of my life and doesn't include the more emotional aspects of the eventual realization of the disparity between my experiences and those of my friends.  And why, for a long time, despite the naïvely positive memories, I found myself feeling less happy and carefree compared to others.  But that is another tome and not for here.

Wow, all this just to say I agree with you Corina. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.


  1. I am sorry I made assumptions about your background - It was unwarranted and I apologize. We need a lot of water under the bridge to wash away all our sorrows...

    1. Hi Corina;

      Please, no apologies necessary!! How would anyone have known from just reading and viewing pictures of what my life looks like now?

      I know how I must come across like on this blog (because it has been deliberate) and wanted to reveal that the road to now wasn't so regular. And that is a huge reason why I feel so strongly about helping those who are in difficult/dire situations.

      I am sincere when I say "Thank you" for sparking more thoughts. I know I would not have otherwise volunteered the info but in this context, felt it was necessary to round out the picture a bit.

      Yes, it hasn't been the easiest road but fortunately I live in Canada and with enough work and determination, we can create the life we want. I don't have serious corruption to deal with.

      I saw a lot of bright kids and adults in Cambodia who have such a strong spark. And with the right support, they too can heal and come to build great lives.

      A couple of my guides started out as street kids selling stuff. The manager at the boutique hotel I stayed at in Phnom Penh was educated by an NGO and now volunteers a couple months a year to give back and does his best to hire students from the program.

      During my time at the NGO in Siem Reap, a student was shadowing us. She was one of the school's "shining stars". Even though schooling ends after high school, they will do their best to find sponsors for those who have enough aptitude to go on to university. She had just completed her first year paid for my her entire community coming together with the money (300 USD) but it was not sustainable.

      The school did find her a sponsor for the remaining 2 years tuition just recently and you should have seen her face when she told me her story! Literally was like winning the lottery! Her written and spoken English is excellent. Such a bright sweet girl.

      She wouldn't have known it as my being a foreigner would automatically label me as "rich" compared to them, but her account deeply moved me as I could honestly relate to her elation.

    2. Now I feel I threw you off with my comment - I really enjoy reading your blog and even though I rarely comment , I do follow it for a long time now. Please continue to write, do not let people like me [ :-)] unbalance you and your flow. I do wonder sometimes at the parallels between rich and poor countries. You mentioned for example nutrition - is the McDonalds/Coca cola diet any better? Another example is family - rate of divorce and lonely people ( no community spirit) much higher here than there. Another is hoarders - having so much you basically don't have anything. Another is stress /commute - 8 h work plus 3-4 h commute to the suburbs. It's hard to present the life here as "beautiful". But I do think, like you , that education is key - the more enlightened the people , the more resourceful. And shame on the system for even one person that's illiterate in North America. Is there such a saying in English?- "Work ennobles people" (sound very nice in my language)

    3. No, I saw your comments as enhancing overall understanding, rather than hindering or confusing, so no worries.

      For sure our typical North American diet is not better. One thing about food in Cambodia, you're not going to find artificial preservatives, additives, herbicides, insecticides because they cannot afford to farm or process food that way! Ironically, you are getting organic food for very low prices. The only issue being water source. Agree with your train of thought with respect to our typical nuclear family set up.