Posts tagged ‘volunteer’

volunteering in Salasaca day 2

Day two of volunteering went a lot better than the first. I have only positive feelings about the Katitawa school, the 20+ children who attend look really happy, and the volunteers all appear well-intentioned. It also seems I’m the only sour apple on the tree. Most of all I love being around the Salasacan people, who smile often and offer their help earnestly when I’m lost, who wave from trucks and greet me joyfully. I love the mountains, the views, the farms and the animals that surround me. So I will stay… at least until the weekend and see if I can find some way to feel productive. If you’d like to read more about the school see this blog, written by a previous volunteer along with excellent pictures.


March 15, 2011 at 7:29 pm Leave a comment

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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

finding and loosing focus

The worst thing about my housing situation is that my room has hardly any air circulation. On the exterior it looks like a fine house, inside it’s spacious with very high ceilings, and our room gets enough sunlight. However, I am one of those who opens windows in the winter and sleeps comfortably only when there is a breeze against my skin. So sleeping in a room without air circulation has been an unpleasant and depressing challenge.

Another challenge has been having to structure my days according to my teaching commitments. I can’t wait for freedom – from this house, from the time constraints of teaching, from the quietness, solitude and mosquitoes at night. Although i will miss teaching. One of the things I really enjoyed was being surrounded by my peers. I doubt I would have enjoyed teaching this much had my students been younger because then my job would have been that of a disciplinarian (which doesn’t come naturally to me and is pretty boring in my opinion)


Sopheap, the volunteer coordinator and me

Last night I went to a gay night at one of the night clubs. There were a few good beats but mostly the music consisted of electronic remixes of 90s pop songs I didn’t like. I jumped, shook my hips, all that fun stuff. Sometimes dancing is meditation, mysticism, a frenzied reaction to the music, an expression of desire… this night it was simply exercise.


Motos and tuk-tuks outside Revolution bar

These are tuk tuk and moto-taxi drivers waiting for customers to leave a bar… Western music is playing inside the bar and people are dancing. It’s a funny and sad scene, these men who are of the same age as the attendants of the bar are pressed into the role of observers because of their economic low. There’s something in the way they greet us that suggests an interest and desire to participate in our fun. Yet they remain outside, grouped together, isolated from us, watching, and bobbing a body-part of two to the rhythm while we ignore their existence until we are ready to go home and need a ride.


Jammin' & dancing at Revolution bar

Lately many motorbikes have been getting stolen. My friend’s was stolen two days ago. He attributes this wave of theft to the economic recession that is beginning to affect Cambodia.


Saturday afternoon along the Sisoway

I’ve started to think a little more openly about globalization. Back in New York, I gave preference to things grown and made in the USA because of a faith that these things were created with less negative impact on social environments. But living here and having more access to Asian news, I see how eager people are to get jobs in factories set up by foreigners because these jobs pay better than any other job available to them. I read about garment factories laying off employs who in desperation return to their home villages which are unable to sustain them. In Cambodia, at least, garment factory workers do strike. Although the actions from the management that lead to these strikes are often disgraceful.

Economists have suggested that there is a correlation between a strong economy and consumerism. I want to help the economy… but I just don’t care that much for attaining material things or the social stratification that it precludes and allocates. So which way maximilizes good and for whom? Buy local, organic? Limit our spending or maximize it? Eat more vegetables, eat less meat? I don’t know!

One of my ways of “solving” this dilemma is to pay more respect to my emotions regarding these issues. Reasonable reactions are harder to come by because facts always change (environments are fluid, statistics are incomplete) but emotional responses are always true (if only because the source of them is you).

February 13, 2009 at 7:15 pm Leave a comment

“Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.” – Wilde

While most people i know run their lives in correlation with the job market, i’ve generally sheltered myself from thoughts about the necessity of employment. The possibility of working day after day with the same people, putting up with their expectations and insecurities, is a very bleak prospect…

I lack a “democratic” character. I’ve always been attracted to Plato’s idea of an “enlightened monarch” because i worry that too many participants in a thing will corrupt the quality of its outcome. It’s this desire for the best that keeps me from seeing anything as “just work” to be completed and forgotten.

Nothing is more means than end for me… I don’t just write a paper for class because it’s an assignment to be graded – i write it because it expresses some part of me that i want to express; I don’t go to college just to get a degree for a job – i go because i think education will make me a happier person; I don’t go to work simply because the job pays well – i go because i enjoy working. I am aware that this idealism is not always beneficial to my mental health (the # of school assignments i’ve handed in late simply because i couldn’t write them in accordance with my standards and the immense stress this caused…) or fruitful (i have yet to get my BA because i still have an incomplete on my record).

Co-teaching for the past 3 months has only re-confirmed my inability to compromise and work with others fruitfully. The frustration of having to share the work with others who butcher it (in my mind) makes me dizzy and weak. And so i anticipate participation in the working world with angst.

I guess i can choose to be like these Khmer women instead…


…tame and unenthusiastic about work.

Here are members of other species who also don’t work…


Seriously though, i want to work. But i want to do something that is satisfying in itself without compromising its quality.

February 7, 2009 at 5:26 pm 1 comment


Ever since I returned from Siem Reap last week the mosquito population in the volunteer house has multiplied and become more aggressive. Maybe the geckoes have died or this is a generation of mutants!

There’s a lot of discussion about dengue. Unlike malaria there is no antidote to dengue fever. I had a friend in the beginning of my travels who caught it in Bangkok and spent three months debilitating before I met him (still weak and emaciated) in September. It’s endemic among the rural poor, especially young children in Cambodia. Combined with malnourishment and lack of vitamin supplementation many youngsters do not recover. I doubt that this would be my fate but I have become more worried about the possibility of loosing 3+ months of my life to feverish debilitation (although I’m sure for some, the prospect of 40% weight loss in three months sounds enticing)

I remember a retired biologist I met in Chiang Mai, Thailand who spent most of his life researching mosquitoes and malaria. Not only did he express affection for these vampires, he respected them! He even fed them willingly by sticking his arm for them to munch on while breeding them for study! It was in his quirky museum I learned that only female mosquitoes feed on blood. Males are vegetarians satisfied by tree sap. He also had a theory about the beneficial affects of mosquitoes… He suggested that mosquitoes became infected with certain pathogens/antibodies as they fed on one animal after another and that they transmitted these to the next animals they bit (which may have saved them later in life) He called it nature’s way of vaccinating.


An interesting condition about teaching here is that most of my students are my age. This makes it difficult for me to become distinctly “teacher” with them because a part of me also wants to be their friend. And so when I notice that one of my students is blatantly flirting with another, it’s the three of us that end up blushing… which I imagine must be a very funny site.


There are some observable differences between Cambodian men and women. In the company of men, women seem shyer. In my classes, pairing up a male and female student for conversation practice always creates a different kind of exchange than pairing up two male students. The conversation will usually turn into a procession of questions, but the girl will rarely counter the boy’s question by asking “and you?” Another peculiarity is that all students regardless of gender rarely pursue the answers deeply in a conversation. For example, if one student says he wants to be a doctor, the other is unlikely to ask about the student’s motivations or interests. I don’t know if this preference for generalities is cultural or simply due to their fear of making mistakes if the subject gets too complicated.

During a practice conversation yesterday it was ascertained that both students were the same age. “Find out which one is older” I suggested. My female student rejected the suggestion, sweetly and shyly announcing that if the boy would tell her his birthday she’ll have to buy him something and that she doesn’t want to.

One of the volunteer’s I live with likes to say that her young students “are starved for romance.” She determined this from all the questions they ask about dating and sexuality, in class and privately.

Access to education is a major disparity between men and women in Cambodia. My informants into Cambodian culture say that it is much more difficult for a girl from the countryside to complete high school or go to university than it is for a boy because her family doesn’t see value in her education. If they have limited finances, they refuse to support her schooling and pressure her to marry.

February 5, 2009 at 2:42 pm 3 comments

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