Posts tagged ‘reasons’

Conversations with Foreigners

June 9, 2010

I’ve noticed that this page still comes up when someone searches for CWF and I wanted to add that in retrospect, my memories of volunteering with CWF are very positive. Since my time with them, they have updated their webpage to include more accurate information about where the money that volunteers pay towards the house may also go: “This fee also covers the costs of running the volunteer program and improvements to the house. If there are less volunteers than expected, you won’t have to pay more, and if there are more volunteers than expected, the extra money will be added to the money raised by the school.” They have also purchased a computer with internet access for the volunteer house, which is pretty awesome!


I’m officially free although i’m still in the house. On Monday i’ll transfer myself and belongs to a guest house although i have still to find one. I have gone back and force in my decision to discuss the school and i have decided that i will just provide a summary.

If you are a potential volunteer at Conversations with Foreigners (CWF) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia feel free to reply to this message and i can clarify further on my experiences with them.

Conversations with Foreigners sounds like a perfect project. An English school run by locals, providing inexpensive lessons to young adults, and using the profits to develop the Cambodian countryside. CWF was founded in 2006 by a graduate of the progressive Maharishi Vedic University, the only rural university in Cambodia. Several years earlier, other graduates of the university founded the Cambodian Rural Development Team in an effort to develop the countryside which is largely ignored by government and public policy. Unlike most NGOs in Cambodia that rely on foreign expertise, CRDT hopes to bring Khmer experts to work directly with their countrymen. The intended purpose of CWF at the time of its inception was to generate funds for CRDT.

CWF works on the premise that its teachers are volunteers and work for free. Since 2006, it has had 10 groups of volunteers from all over the world (although Australia is home to the majority). Unlike many other projects that seek international volunteers, CWF does not require its volunteers to contribute financially (meaning pay to volunteer). Out of the 14 volunteers in group 10, at least half had chosen it for this reason alone.

Volunteers may choose to live on their own or in the volunteer house provided by CWF. The cost of living in the house is $850, which the website and CWF staff confirmed many times over goes towards living expenses. My group of volunteers is the first group to pay $850; the living costs for previous semesters were only $650. The 23.5% rise in price is attributed to inflation and rising costs.

Upon arrival, volunteers are greeted by the volunteer coordinator, Sopheap, who will remain a source of support to volunteers throughout their stay in Cambodia, even after they’re done volunteering. Teaching at CWF is highly enjoyable. The students are enthusiastic and appreciative. Teaching is informal and the relative closeness of age of students to teacher allows volunteers to better understand Cambodian culture.

However not everything is so rosy about CWF. When we requested to see the financial data we discovered that the fees collected from volunteers living in the house were viewed as profits and combined with the earnings generated from students. After much anxiety and several meetings, the management confirmed that volunteer money is used to pay staff salaries, marketing costs, and a “buffer” in case of a rise in food and rent costs during future semesters. So despite having nearly $50,000 in savings after 2.5 years of running, the management considers it appropriate to allocate volunteer money for the running costs of the school.

Putting the burden of these administrative costs on volunteers (who live in the house) without our knowledge and consent is deceitful. And yet, CWF refuses to acknowledge misrepresenting or taking advantage of us.

Volunteer 1: “Has CWF done anything wrong?”
Director: “Me personally, I don’t believe so.”
Volunteer 2: “Did the $850 go towards living in the house?”
Director: “Yes but it was spent towards other things too…”

Some of the volunteers, feeling betrayed and exploited, requested a refund for money that was not directly spent on them. They calculated that over $300 had been taken under false pretenses. But the board of directors rejected the plea for a refund. Instead they have decided to allocate the money left over towards “capital investments” in the volunteer house. Surely we should feel honored that CWF is going to make such a charitable contribution on our behalf? Here we are: living two to a room, without air-conditioning, hot water, a microwave, and study tables; shouldn’t we feel satisfaction knowing that future volunteers will have some of these things because of our (involuntary) contribution?

The goals of CWF are admirable and maybe one day it will live up to them. Volunteering with CWF has been bittersweet. I loved teaching and my students surely benefited from the lessons i provided them. In some ways, the management of CWF is even like a family. But I leave CWF feeling exploited and dissolutioned. On their website, they write of their commitment to sustainability and in my personal exchanges with the staff they often spoke of their desire for transparency and integrity in business. But what of it?


February 21, 2009 at 6:34 pm 20 comments

February 18, 2009

I saw the date on my cell phone.

Three months have passed since I last thought about dates so acutely. When I was traveling I paid very close attention to dates. I remember the day of each arrival to every country: Aug 22 Thailand, Sept 21 Laos, Oct 20 Vietnam, Nov 11 Cambodia. I remember the first full moon I saw on Sept 14. I was in Pai. And the second full moon on Oct 13. I was on the island of Don Det of the 4 thousand islands in Laos. It was very dark on the island at night and my guest house was several kilometers away from the bars. I was very grateful that the full moon coincided with my second night because it gave off enough light for me to find my way home as I rode alone on a bicycle with the Mekong and Cambodia to my left and rice fields and sleeping buffalo to my right. And the next full moon, on Nov 12, my birthday in Phnom Penh. But I don’t remember the full moons of December, January or February.

The past 3 months are quickly turning into a blur. I’ve been stagnant. When I traveled, every day was special because I thought that I may never return to this place again during my trip. I wanted to witness something unique in each place, maximize the quality of my visit, and doing this I could never forget the calendar. Every day was different and I used dates to label each day.

Have a look at the pictures I’ve taken throughout the past 3 months. They are boring. There are still times when I see an interesting view or character but I am too languid to take out my camera.

I vividly recall mid Nov… going to Siem Reap and getting the email from Pheap, the volunteer coordinator for the school where I volunteer, telling me that a volunteer has dropped out and offering me an opportunity to join the program on Nov 26. I felt so uncertain about this decision. I talked about it to everyone who’d listen. Was it worth it? I want to say yes, and maybe the answer is yes, but I also feel like 3 months of my life has been excised from me.

The feeling is familiar because I’ve felt it most of my life. From second grade on (when I started school in America) every day was the same. There was nothing to look forward to besides repetition and before I realized it, I was an adult living in my own apartment in Spanish Harlem. There’s something deadening about repetition. Even our brain cannot maintain superior function under repetition. Our brain would stop perceiving most images had our eyes not evolved a mechanism for deceiving it by vibrating slightly and sending new signals requiring the brain to process these signals as if they brought something new. The consciousness process is similar. I am excited about hopping on…

Sending love to my mother and Kot. Thank you for taking care of him. Does anyone know anything about kitty hemorrhoids? I want him to be healthy. I think of him every time I see cats here. I’m fairly sure that even when I am an 80 year old cat lady, I’ll still think of him. The most poignant moments of my teenage life were spent beside him. I love him… and I hope his little rectum gets better.

February 18, 2009 at 2:31 pm 3 comments

Please share

It was during my 18th year when i read Rand, Sartre and other existentialists that i became more preoccupied with accommodating my own desires rather than compromising and blending them with those of others. Ever since, i have been more honest and comfortable with myself but i have also alienated myself from many. The problem is that i don’t want to alienate myself completely. I want to remain receptive and warm, not hostile and unapproachable.

The virtue of traveling is that there are so many people to choose companions from and so many settings to aid you. Living with 10 other people in a house imposes on these freedoms. I have not amended my ways and i have had 2 months to witness the growth of my isolation from nearly everyone in the house. I feel stuck in an environment with people i don’t relate to and where doing my own thing is perceived as hostile.

A factor that contributes to my isolation is my dislike of bars. I don’t drink and I need an activity (like dancing or games) or a conversation to keep my interest, otherwise i feel bored. I have a need that cannot be satisfied by going to a bar or participating in similar social activities, but when i don’t go i further alienate myself from people i am surrounded by on a daily basis.* So what’s the solution? “Take one for the team” and bore myself engaging in generic time-consuming banter? I feel so much pressure to compromise and i rebel against it by prioritizing my desires over those of the group.

What do you do? How do you deal with people (you can’t simply part with and have no desire to gain anything from) who have different interests from you without appearing hostile, judging, or alienating? Please share.

*this can be generalized to participating in chit chats with neighbors who gather outside the building to gossip together, or co-workers sharing a table in a cafeteria, etc.

January 25, 2009 at 3:18 pm 1 comment

table matters

I came to Yejj cafe to get do some research for my paper on Cambodia. Instead i spent the last hour on facebook and

She who did not come, wasn’t she determined
nonetheless to organize and decorate my heart?
If we had to exist to become the one we love,
what would the heart have to create?

Lovely joy left blank, perhaps you are
the center of all my labors and my loves.
If I’ve wept for you so much, it’s because
I preferred you among so many outlined joys


I need to find a space to work in. This cafe isn’t good. It has internet and that distracts me from doing research. In theory i could do two things at once here, practice self-control and write the paper – but the former just doesn’t temp me enough to try it.

I can’t work in the volunteer house because there’s no table there. There’s the table we eat on but it’s sticky regardless of how well it’s cleaned. There’s the couch and coffee table but i can’t sit comfortably and write there. And there are always too many mosquitoes near this couch. I go to bed later than all the others and at night when i sit there with my books the parasites attack me. Or maybe they just want to be friends?

The paper i am writing is about Cambodia, its history and the present. The first part is a research paper on the history, the second an informal summary of discussions i will hold with young Cambodians about their opportunities and perceptions of the country. I look forward to writing it and the books i’ve read thus far have been extremely interesting.

I hypothesize that my informants will tell me that in Cambodia their opportunities are limited and that they want their country to be more like America…. In contrast, i feel that at the present time i am experiencing more in Cambodia than in America, and that it is here where i have the opportunity to do things i cannot do in America like work informally, actively, do things that are interesting and stimulating for me and beneficial for others. What else do i need right now?

January 11, 2009 at 4:52 pm 3 comments


When i was a child and student in P.S. 101 in Brooklyn, November and December were always spent preparing for the Holiday show. I wasn’t enthusiastic about anything back than so i never got a leading role. I didn’t stand out vocally so the chorus did not want me. Despite my enthuisism for moving to music now i’ve been a hater of dance step instruction since childhood. And so not only was i demoted to dancer, i was made to dance in the back! If my parents had come to watch the performances, tickets for which were sold to parents in order to gather money for school activities i know not which, they would not have seen me on stage. We wore red and green skirts made out of the same fuzzy material school kids use to make Christmas tree decorations. I enjoyed the rehearsals only because they provided opportunities to escape the monotomy of the class but they also made me feel less confident in myself. I wondered, what will i be like in one year? In 5 years? In 10?

Last night as the Christmas tunes chimed through the Phnom Penh lounge and i sipped my bear Lao i thought how surprised my childself would be to know this future. 

I am so happy with all the choices i’ve made in my life. Those who are still in my life, thank you!

And here i am approximately half an hour before/after the moment of when i thought these thoughts.


December 20, 2008 at 7:27 pm 2 comments


I’m a mediocre writer. I just want to tell you that i know i am no poet and that i know my writing is lacking and that i do the best i can with the time i have and the abilities i have… I am a pessimist by nature so please forgive the lack of “fun” and good feelings in my journal, because i tend to focus more on the negative and the unhappy…

Last week, my father wrote me an email urging me to return home. I don’t understand why he’s so ashamed of my traveling. He assumes several things; that i’m biting my nails in boredom – that i’m not coming home because of “pride” – that i’m loosing precious time for making a career to worthless traveling – & so on. My mother also wants me to come home. She wants me to be more similar to her friends’ children – working, with boyfriend, and a normal schedule. She also worries a lot for unrealistic reasons. Both of my parents are from the former Soviet Union where travel outside the Union was nearly impossible. However, my mother was quite active in her youth, kayaking through Belorussia and Lithuania, skiing and hiking through the Caucas, Azau, Cheget, Elbrus mountains for weeks at a time and so forth. She says these were the best times in her life. None of my American friends (except Asya) travel. Some have been to Florida and California and Mexico, but never as backpackers or for longer than a week. In my extended family, a few have been to Europe but only as tourists staying in hotels in the major cities and returning home within a week. So my choice to go off by myself, to unfamiliar southeast Asia, and for such a long period of time is a strange one for many of the people close to me. Some of them accuse me of being immature, unpractical, and unwise, while others aloofly remark “i wish i could…”

So i feel recurring pressure to justify my choice. Sometimes the pressure comes from within. I wonder if i am really enjoying myself and learning and whether the hardships i deal with on a daily/weekly basis (loneliness, finding places to sleep, transport) are worth it. I have been a vagabond for nearly 2.5 months, am i tired of it? I am, but i don’t want to go home.

Thus far, i have not spend a long time anywhere and my experiences with the locals have been superficial and short. I want to see deeper into their lives but i remain a foriegner. To get access i’d need to invest more time and more energy. So this is the choice i’ve made. I’m going to look for an opportunity (not in Vietnam) to stay for a month (or more) and volunteer, possibly staying with a local family.

November 2, 2008 at 7:37 pm 6 comments

On companions and more reasons

I’m reading a book called Practical Nomad How to travel around the world. It’s written by an American who’s been traveling for decades and now works as a travel agent for

Had i read it earlier i might have made some better decisions. But there are so many things that had i done them would have made me better prepared for my trip that to regret any of them is futile. One of the most shameful truths is that i know almost nothing about the countries i am going to visit. If i had more discipline i would have gone to my college library and spent a few days browsing histories of the various countries, and then a few more nights on wikipedia learning about current events. One of the questions i ask myself, is what can i get out of trip to a place i know nothing about? How can i appreciate the present if i know nothing about the past? Partially, i feel like a fool with some money and a passport.


In one of the last chapters E.H. suggests that women are more likely to take on traveling companions primarily because they don’t feel confident enough to travel alone. The problems with this are that (unless you get lucky and share many similar interests) you will end up feeling resentment because you’ll feel that a) your partner is holding you up or b) your partner is abandoning you to pursue her own interests. YES!

Then he express what i’ve known since my first hour of traveling alone, before i even left new york city, when i waited at the gate in JFK to board my plane to Spain, that if you travel alone but wish to travel with someone else during your trip (for safety or conversation or to save on hotel costs etc) you will easily find other single travelers who feel likewise!

I am often asked about why i don’t just go on a prearranged tour. I haven’t been generally successful at expressing my reasons, but here are some of them (verbalized with assistance from E.H.)

Prearranged tours:

– limit interaction with locals
– you are STUCK to everyone in the group
– are planned trips and have almost no flexibility
– are designed to maximize your comfort and fulfill the expectations you came with when you booked the trip, often at the expense of locals and their environment
– are almost always designed to last no more than a few weeks
– are expensive because the prices are inflated to compensate all the middlemen involved

Another question i am asked so often (and with such serious and worrisome intonations) is whether i’ve found a place to stay when i get to where i’m going. I wish i could show how easy it is to go (at least in the global south) and find a place to stay. For example, if i arrive in Bangkok and my cs host cancels, i may end up spending $20 instead of the $10 i hoped to spend if i feel like taking one of the offers of the dozen or so touts i’ll come across at the airport trying to sell rooms in their hotels, but in the end it won’t make any difference. I’ll have shelter.

From the book:
“Experienced travelers rarely worry about finding a place to sleep, not because they’ve learned any special room-finding skills but because they’ve learned that it’s not really that hard to find rooms on arrival.”

I feel that the people who worry about such things are not confident enough in their ability to persevere amidst uncertain and stressful conditions. And if you wish to argue that it’s better to limit as much stress as possible you’re denying yourself some very pleasurable, stimulating, satisfying, astonishing experiences.

August 15, 2008 at 2:37 am Leave a comment

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