New Blog

Hello, followers.  If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re signed up for my email list.  First, thanks!  Second, you’ll have to re-sign up.

I transferred TavieCrockett.com to Blogger because I prefer that interface.  However, it was taking days — DAYS — to import this blog’s content to that blog, so I finally threw up my hands and resolved to starting over.

I don’t want to assume any of you want to stay on my email list.  For all I know, you’ve put the emails into your spam filter because you couldn’t be bothered to unsubscribe.  If, however, you like what you’ve been reading and would like to continue receiving emails, then…

CLICK HERE

I’m mostly talking to Grandma and Grandpa.  I love you guys and I hope you guys keep reading.  I didn’t want you to be shocked when I signed you up and you got an email saying you’re now subscribed to a blog that you thought you were already subscribed to.  When you click that link, it will take you to the new blog.  On the right hand side, type your email address into the little box under “follow by email.”  Ta-da!  If you’re still having trouble, ask Dad or Steve.

Love,
Tavie

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The Ashes

bs1The Ashes is a biannual cricket tournament between England and Australia.  Americans might be familiar with the humorously small trophy awarded to the winner, but you probably had no idea what that trophy is all about.   The answer is national pride.

But I’m not here to get into the rules of cricket, the history of the Ashes, the break for tea, or how both teams wear the same color sweater vests.  Yes, sweater vests. Every sport has it’s own rules, and I have no room to criticize because I played golf as an adolescent.  No, this is about an ongoing debate between me and Lee over how the tournament rules make absolutely no sense.

Americans are familiar with the “best of” rules.  For example, the World Series is best of seven.  The Ashes, on the other hand, is five matches.  Not best of five.  Five matches full stop.  If England wins the first three, they still play all five, knowing Australia has no chance.

To understand the next rule, you need to know a tiny bit about how a match is played.  Teams take turn batting and pitching.  Each gets two turns to bat and score runs.  But what happens if it rains? Tough luck, princess. The match is five days long, no exceptions. If it rains and one team hasn’t finished batting, then the match is considered a draw, or as Americans call it, a tie.  The Aussies could be 500 runs ahead and England could do a rain dance.  It’s still a draw.

This brings me to the most frustrating aspect of the Ashes.  If it rains for all five matches, then the winner is the team that won last time.  Back in May, during the Ashes in England (currently, they’re playing again in Australia), England won the first two matches, and the third was rained out.  Englishmen far and wide were celebrating like they successfully invaded a developing country.  They had RETAINED the Ashes! It’s not about winning or losing…it’s just about not losing.

Luckily, England won the fourth match fair and square, making it a “true victory.”  I brought up the issue of “morale” to Lee.  Maybe the Australians had low morale following the draw.  The only explanation Lee could offer was something to the effect of “now they’re playing to keep from embarrassment.” So, there’s that.

Ultimately, our differing ideas of sportsmanship is negated by an over-arching, absolute fact: the Australian team is a bunch of jerks.  If they win, it’s because of unsportsmanlike conduct, and if they lose, they deserve it.

Gentlemanly, indeed.

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The Nerd Night that Never Was: Nonprofit Product Development

For the past few weeks, I’ve been humble bragging that I’m going to present at Nerd Night. To update everyone who doesn’t live in Phnom Penh (so, probably, everyone), Nerd Night is almost exactly like Ignite Denver. A few brave souls stand up in front of a packed venue and give a Power Point presentation on anything they want. The catch is that the slides are on a timer. In Denver, there’s 15 slides with 15 seconds each, and in Phnom Penh it’s 20 slides with 20 seconds each. Both are based on some Japanese idea so they follow the same principle.

I had been working on my presentation for the last two weeks: Nonprofit Product Development. For 14 days, I was patting myself on the back, writing points down that became progressively more profound. The problem, however, is that I didn’t confirm. I thought I had confirmed, but my “nappy brain” let it slip by. (Note: my computer hasn’t been connecting to the internet properly, so I’m convinced I sent it but it just didn’t go through. WHATEVER).

So I didn’t get to knock this one off my Cambodia bucket list pre-baby, but that doesn’t mean I’m locking it into a vault until a future date when I’m not wearing a muumuu covered in baby spit-up. I’ve adapted my notes to blog-form for you to read, praise, and criticize (but probably praise). I’ll include a few necessary pictures, but I styled it in a way that the slides served little purpose besides telling the audience I was moving on to the next point. Enjoy!

solerebels

Nonprofit Product Development is how I describe when nonprofits decide to make stuff to earn an income. If you’re working in the finance department, you’d list it under “earned income” or “income generation.” It can also be called the “social business” or “enterprise” branch of the organization. If you’ve worked for an NGO, you’ll know the best thing about earned revenue is that there’s no strings attached to it. You don’t have to fulfill impossible grant requirements and please ignorant donors. Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s crap someone will buy and never use again.

I was inspired to do this presentation after a comment I made in a Facebook group about how an organization in Sihanoukville could bring in some cash. I had a very specific vision of what I wanted with the most important point being something people would use when they’re back home.

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I have two personal fashion rules that I strictly follow:

  1. I won’t wear anything that has any writing or a company’s logo on it unless I’m A) sweating profusely or B) hungover. I think it looks cheap.
  2. I won’t wear or buy anything that looks handmade and/or I could make myself. My style hero, Tim Gunn, made my point in this interview when he said artisans should focus on perfecting their craft without being “crafty.”

First Rule: Put the Product Before the Mission

I’m not saying to compromise your mission for the product. If you work for a children’s center, I don’t think you should sell earrings from Bangkok that were likely made with tiny, dexterous slave labor hands. However, living in Cambodia, it’s easy and cheap to make stuff from scratch with fair labor, so there’s no excuse to not use some design sense.

My first example is a totally-not-at-all grassroots social business called People Tree, based in the UK, whom I’ve mentioned in this blog before. The founder’s mission was to make sustainable, ethical fashion that is fair trade from the cotton seed planting, growing, and harvesting, to the seamstress who constructs the clothing. One reason they’re so successful is that she learned marketing your mission above the product is distracting to your consumers, who just want a cute dress.

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Another, small example is Senhoa (whom I’ve also mentioned before). Their jaw-dropping statement jewelry is made by survivors of human trafficking. Their champion is Coco Rocha, one of the world’s highest profile supermodels, and they’ve received amazing publicity in People Magazine, Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and other publications in that realm. Not bad for an organization with a staff that I can count on two hands. To me, one of the most striking of their publicity is that there MIGHT be a blurb about how it’s for a good cause. Like People Tree, the fashion comes first.

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Rule: The phrase “It’s For Charity” does not work

A harsh, kind of sad, fact of reality is that most human beings do not consider the moral implications of a purchase. If they did, then there wouldn’t be a substantial market for TOMS shoes knock-offs. (Side note: I don’t endorse TOMS as an example of a social business. They’re an example of brilliant marketing, but their business model perpetuates indecent labor practices and poverty).

Georgetown University did a study and found that slave labor is a “morally flexible” subject. That means if a product is highly desirable, on sale, or cute, then most people will find a justification to purchase it. Think about how many high and mighty NGO workers own an Apple product. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a moral hypocrite, since I’m typing this on a MacBook and have lost not one, but two iPhones in the last year. (I’m not allowed any more iPhones.)

Here’s a quote from the study:

The strength of a brand and consumer loyalty may also influence reasoning – causing consumers to view companies such as Nike and Apple as subsidiaries that are not directly involved with the labor conditions.”

You may be wondering, “But what’s your point, Tavie?” My point is that if nonprofits want to sell stuff, they can’t rely on the fact that it’s for charity. No one cares. Appealing to someone’s sympathy can work in the short term with a small donation, but it’s not sustainable.

If you want to really get the money flowing through your doors in the long run with repeat customers and donors, create a unique and recognizable brand and quit trying to make people feel sorry for you and your clients.

Rule: Create Something of Value

There’s a place on Koh Rong, off the coast of Sihanoukville, called Monkey Island. Yes, this is a shameless plug because my husband-to-be owns it.

Their best-selling t-shirt doesn’t say “MONKEY ISLAND” across the chest…at least, not in English. It’s just bold Khmer writing that, for all tourists know, says “I’m a stupid White person.” It still goes against one of my fashion rules, but visitors love Khmer writing. I’ve lost count of how many volunteers came through Let Us Create and got a tattoo that may or may not have said “courage” or “poop juggler” in Khmer.

Conversely, Let Us Create sells children’s paintings. Lee has told me that the backroom of Monkey Republic was always full of these $4 paintings that backpackers left behind. This means people valued extra space for other cheap souvenirs more than the product the NGO was selling. Yes, the money still went into Let Us Create’s bank account, but what’s going to be more beneficial in the long run? A t-shirt that might say “Table Dance Master Crusher Champion” in Khmer and can start conversations in a lot of countries, or a finger painting that’s sitting in a backroom in middle of nowhere Cambodia?

Rule: Think Like a Capitalist

This is, by far, the hardest thing for most NGOs worker to do. There’s a reason we majored in social policy instead of marketing, and Don Draper types aren’t about to quit Sterling Cooper to work the same hours for $500 per month in a third world country.

Thinking like a capitalist means you must think of everyone – EVERYONE – as a potential consumer instead of a potential donor. This is why I love nonprofit restaurants like Sandan in Sihanoukville, Friends Restaurant in Phnom Penh, and Green Star in Siem Reap. They all score pretty high on TripAdvisor, with people commenting on the quality of both food and service.

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Some people might disagree with me, saying the food is mediocre and the service is spotty. But what those complaints mean is that these restaurants are being held to the same standard as for-profit restaurants. I wish nonprofit retail stories vied for that same level of quality. Just look at what the girls at Senhoa can create. There’s no reason an NGO can’t invest their resources into training a seamstress like a waiter, or hiring a fashion graduate like they would hire an executive chef.

Simply, if you want to make a lasting impact on the lives of the people you work to serve*, train them. If you want to keep making that impact for a long time, position your organization to compete with for-profit businesses.

Last Rule: Know Your Abilities

If you suck at spreadsheets and don’t understand the terms “ROI” or “Profit Margin,” then ask for help or buy a book. It’s near to impossible to have a social business branch if you can’t analyze hard data on where you’re losing money, what sells, and when you need a marketing push. Hopefully, you have volunteers who have these sorts of skills and are willing train you. If they’re not willing, then they’re volunteering for the wrong reasons.

I can’t stress this point enough: NEVER! EVER! Make up or assume statistics based on “what you see.” If you don’t keep records of your sales or don’t look at the records, then you’re digging yourself into a hole that will be very difficult to escape. First, your co-workers won’t take anything you say seriously. Second, you won’t know what works and what doesn’t, so each expenditure turns into a shot in the dark.

To Sum Up

You will make more money if you offer people something awesome in return for their money.
You give Apple $300 and you expect an iPod in return. You give Jimmy Choo $1300 for a pair of black stilettos. You give a charity $120 and what do you get? A post card? A plush animal? Self-satisfaction? That eliminates a huge market of consumers who don’t part with their money for what is, ultimately, nothing.

There are university degrees on this subject, so I know I glossed over or completely missed a lot of information. Leave a comment if you’re thinking, “Yeah, Tavie. I get what you’re saying and would like to contribute something of value to this dialogue.” You can also leave one if you completely disagree with me and think you have a valid point to why I’m wrong.

If anything I’ve said inspires you to learn more, I encourage you to check out these NGOs and Social Businesses:

And a great book:

The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook: How to Start, Build, and Run a a Business that Improves the World by Rupert Scofield.

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*I don’t think NGO restaurants are infallible.  There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to help their graduates adapt to a fast-paced environment with real world consequences for not performing the job properly.  The day I see on-call job transition coaches is the day I say I have no criticisms.

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The Sihanoukville Crime Wave

There’s a group on Facebook just for Sihanoukville expats.  Most of the content is some kind of complaint that starts a huge argument between competing businesses.  Sometimes, someone will praise a restaurant or guesthouse on their food and service, but more often then not, it’s a venue for mud-slinging and pissing contests.

Recently, there’s been a series of posts about moto thefts.  A moto theft is defined two ways:

  1. A moto carrying two people (usually boys) drives by you while you’re walking and tears away your bag.
  2. A moto carrying two people (usually boys) drives by you while you’re driving a moto and they tear away your bag.

These normally increase before holidays when families are expected to give gifts of cash to each other.  It’s a little strange for them to happen so often without any obvious cause.

After looking through the descriptions of each crime, I’m starting to think that this crime wave isn’t caused by an increasing number of delinquent youths, but by a higher number of tourists carrying around really expensive things.  Hear me out on this:

I don’t condone thievery and I know it’s a symptom of much bigger issues like poverty, access to education, parental involvement, etc.  We need to teach these boys to behave appropriately, but for the moment they’re very much part of life in Sihanoukville and you need to know of the risk when you visit.

Having said that…I firmly believe that 99% of robberies (outside of the home) are due to victim stupidity.  Here is a post from the expat page (with names and pictures removed) that exemplifies my position on this:

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  • If you’ve never been to Sihanoukville, the locals will tell you to not drive back from Otres Beach after dark.  The road between Otres and Serendipity is completely unlit with no houses or businesses.  If you find yourself out there after 7pm, get a tuk tuk.
  • Don’t travel with your valuables.  What are you doing with an iPad on the beach? Besides the high likelihood it’ll get stolen, you’re in Cambodia!  You don’t need to be checking Facebook or perusing Pinterest.  Once, I saw a woman sitting feet away from the perfectly clear ocean on a perfectly clear day, with her back turned to the water, watching a movie on her damn iPad!
  • Take only the cash you need.  I can’t stress this enough: leave your valuables in the hotel safe.  Your ATM card doesn’t need to go to the beach, and it would take 10 minutes, max, to run to the ATM, then put the card back in your room.  I know this because, if you remember, my card was lost in Bangkok with nothing but my own stupidity to blame.
  • This isn’t a low season problem.  This has been an especially fruitful low season with a lot of guesthouses being solidly booked.  No one can explain why, but with more tourists, comes a higher incidence of crime.

When I was working at Let Us Create, one of the first lessons we taught volunteers is how to carry their bag when they’re walking around.  Despite what most guidebooks and websites will tell you, don’t carry your bag across your body.  As scary as it is, a thief is going to steal your stuff no matter what.  It’s up to you whether you’re dragged along with your bag.  In fact, don’t take a bag.  If your stuff doesn’t fit into your pockets, get a small wristlet.  If your stuff doesn’t fit in the wristlet, don’t carry around so much stuff.  You wouldn’t walk around West Baltimore after 10pm, chatting on your iPhone and carrying a heavy bag full of Apple products and cash, would you?

The single most cringe-worthy story of tourist stupidity that I’ve heard made my eyes hurt from rolling so far into my head.

A guy in his late twenties came into The Big Easy to pick up some stuff one of the owners found on the street.  I didn’t ask nor did I care how this stuff ended up in the street, but this man offered up his story anyway.  He went skinny dipping on Serendipity Beach and while he was 20 meters into the water, a boy grabbed all of his stuff — clothes, phone, wallet — and hopped on a moto, speeding away.  Without looking up from my computer, I said, “So, the obvious happened?”  There was a dramatic pause and he said, “Yeah…I guess, yeah.”  You’re not getting sympathy from me, naked man.

Serendipity Beach is the most crowded place in town at any given hour.  During the day, there are bracelet sellers and beach kids scavenging.  At night, there’s taxi girls and drunk backpackers…and beach kids scavenging.  The chances of your camera and/or iPhone lasting more than one night there is slim.

I know this is a stretch, but if people would stop walking around with really expensive electronics and more than $20 in cash, not only would they not lose those expensive electronics and more than $20 in cash, but maybe thieves would stop seeing unknowing tourists as potential targets.

The fact is, it’s not more dangerous here than it is anywhere else. As long as you’re cautious, you can still go out and drink buckets of cheap liquor while enjoying the beach.  And what could make your trip a little nicer is if you can do these things without worrying about your valuables.

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One last note.  I don’t want anyone to get the impression that only Cambodian people steal.  Something that made me love Lee a little more was witnessing him in the throes of a heated argument with some disgruntled Monkey Republic guests.  Their iPad went missing from their room and they were convinced the cleaning lady took it.  Now, earlier in the day, the cleaning lady pointed out to them that it was on the bed and asked if they wanted to put it in the locker.  They said, “No, it’s fine.”  When they realized it was gone, they started berating Lee to search the cleaner because she knew they had left it there.

My head was moving left to right like I was watching a tennis match.  Finally, Lee said, “Look around you.  There’s a lot of people in this bar who aren’t brown and are far more likely to steal your stuff.  That’s why we give you lockers.”

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Voluntourism and Getting Banned from DenverPost.com

Maybe a better writer would call this poetic irony.  Last week, I was banned from posting comments on DenverPost.com after I read an article about a company in Colorado that hosts “voluntourist” trips for high school students that a Facebook friend posted.

Looking through my blog archives, I noticed that everything I’ve written on voluntourism were half-written drafts that developed angrier and angrier tones as my narrative progressed. I quit writing them for fear that I’d lose my job and/or be completely unmarketable to any future employer in the nonprofit industry.  It’s not okay to dislike voluntourism, and it’s only recently become acceptable to be critical of the idea of charity.  The reason for the latter is that microfinance is leading the way for social business to solve all of the problems that charity can’t. You can’t point out a problem without offering a viable solution.  You’ll just look like a big grump.

It takes being a paid employee of a nonprofit to see the darker side of do-gooding.  That Denver Post article perfectly illustrates the relationship between voluntourists and the community they come to help: the volunteer walks away with an “amazing” and “eye-opening” experience and resume builder (which will be documented on Facebook) and the community gets little to no mention at all.

It’s rare that anyone considers how volunteers affect the places they’ve chosen to go.  Employers who ask about volunteer work are always impressed with the personal sacrifice students make rather than the actual impact they have on the organization.  From the NGO’s point of view, that impact, more often than not, is the volunteer is required to make a sizable donation to work there.  In my opinion, volunteer experiences should be treated as work experience and interviewers should ask, “What was the organization like when you got there? How was it different when you left?”  Most volunteers — especially high school students — might use some flowery language about a school they helped build.  Keep in mind, there’s a difference between work and impact.

The work they did was build a school.  The impact they had was taking jobs away from local people who are are finding their skills less and less marketable as more and more foreigners travel across the world to work for free.  Nay, to pay for the opportunity to work.  The most damaging effect I’ve seen in Sihanoukville is on children.  Volunteers love documenting their experiences on Instagram and Facebook, and what better photo op is there than with poor kids?  They will come to children’s centers and, despite every warning not to, hug and rough house with them.  Most children don’t receive this kind of affection at home, so getting hugs from the revolving door of foreigners makes them very trusting of foreigners — of all foreigners.  Several months ago, there was news story about a Dutch man who was arrested after he was caught in the act of sexually abusing three beach kids who willingly went with him to a remote area of Otres Beach.

Nonprofits who use these volunteers and host gap year groups always — ALWAYS — have one thing in common: they’re underfunded and understaffed. They’re in a catch-22 where they desperately need the funds, but those funds are attached to volunteers who are frightfully inexperienced and take up a huge chunk of the staff’s time.  A volunteer coordinator — if an organization has one one — has the responsibility of being an 24 hour on-call counselor, tour guide, and nighttime entertainment coordinator.

Conversely, financially stable nonprofits will only allow people who are highly qualified in their specific fields to volunteer there.  Depending on the organization’s needs, those fields can range from social work to fashion design.  In addition, these types of volunteers tend to be older and are more comfortable traveling to far-away places, so they don’t require as much hand-holding from the staff.

One nonprofit that does a great job with this is Senhoa.  Their volunteers aren’t required to pay fees and go through an interview process where a job description is developed and the volunteer is assigned them a very specific project — health classes, jewelry design, administration, etc.  If the volunteer stays for at least 6 months, they pay the volunteer $100 a month.

I went to Walking Tree’s website, the company mentioned in the Denver Post article.  As I guessed, it’s very volunteer-focused, emphasizing the life-changing experiences that high school students will have abroad.    Their fees begin at $2,690 for 10 days in Costa Rica.  Here are the testimonials from that trip:

Michelle’s trip to Costa Rica was life-changing, from the friends she shared the trip with to the amazing family that hosted her in Las Brisas. She has a real feeling of accomplishment from the community service they did.

I cannot begin to describe the incredible life-changing experiences Casey has shared with our family. I know her time was well-spent – a perfect blend of fun and service. Not only did she learn and live the culture of Costa Rica, she also has made some special friendships that I have no doubt will be lifelong.

My experience in Costa Rica was amazing in so many ways. It is impossible to describe how rewarding it was to overcome the various challenges we faced, but I know that the trip has forever changed me and the way I view the world. I’ll never forget it!

Maybe it will inspire them to pursue careers in international development, but I guarantee that if they end up following that path, they’ll soon understand how detrimental voluntourism can be on a community.

I wrote a one-paragraph version of my opinion on voluntourism in the comments section of that Denver Post article.  When I went to publish it, a page came up saying they don’t tolerate spam and they’ve permanently banned my IP address from posting anything on their site. If I wanted more information I can email them, and they provided an address.  So, of course, I emailed them saying that I think their was an e-misunderstanding because I’m posting form Cambodia.

I haven’t gotten a reply from them which is why I mentioned poetic irony at the beginning of this piece.  Why would you ever consider the opinion of a person who really lives and works in a developing community?

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Baby Psychics

It’s a mere 7 weeks until we get to meet the newest addition to the Meier-Verlander house, and my body’s temperature regulation couldn’t be more thrilled.  It’s rainy season in Cambodia right now, which means that nighttime gets a bit cooler, but I can’t find the happy medium between shivering under the A/C, or sprawled out in a puddle of sweat.

That’s not the only thing that’s making me a little antsy for the next 7 weeks.  Yes, yes, there’s that whole “impending motherhood” thing, but what I’m REALLY looking forward to is the nonstop speculation of whether we’re having a boy or girl, and what that boy or girl should be named.

From the very beginning, I was adamant on knowing the baby’s sex. But, as time went on, I was talked out of it by both Lee, and some hippie midwives who said “if ultrasounds were necessary, we’d have a window into our bellies.”  They also scared me a little by linking the rise in diagnosed Autism to the invention of the ultrasound.  I said, “OK, OK FINE,” and Lee got his way.  Afterall, we’ll find out when the baby’s born. 

Little did I know that every person on Earth is a baby psychic.  If I had to estimate, ONE MILLION women have, at some point in our conversations, claimed to be really good at “telling.” They can just tell.  Their friend was pregnant and they looked at her belly and said, “GIRL” and it was a girl.  Then another friend was pregnant and they looked at her belly and said, “BOY” and it was a boy.  If you ask me, these women are clearly underestimating their powers of prediction and are, actually, willing the babies’ sex organs into place.

Of course, some people are a little more scientific.  Am I craving sweet or sour food? What’s the baby’s heart rate? When did your belly button poked out? When you spit into laundry detergent, which direction did it fall?  Southeast? IT’S A BOY!

This is my official declaration: if I’m ever pregnant again, I’m finding out the sex of the baby just to shut these conversations down.

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Election Day

Today is the national election where Cambodians vote for who will run the country for the next four years.  Yes, it’s the one day where each citizen gets their say in a free and fair system.

Yeah right.

After the Vietnamese brought down the Khmer Rouge, they put in place a puppet government run by Hun Sen, an ex Khmer Rouge soldier with a third grade education. He’s been the country’s Prime Minister for the last 28 years and, at 60 years old, plans on staying in office for another 10 years.   Let’s play a game where we think of other world leaders who held onto power for a really long time:

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Fidel Castro

President and Prime Minister of Cuba
December 2, 1976 – February 24, 2008
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Kim Il-Sung

Supreme Leader of North Korea & Eternal President of the Republic
9 September 1948 – 8 July 1994
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Saddam Hussein

President of Iraq
16 July 1979 – 9 April 2003
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Muammar Gaddafi

Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya
1 September 1969 – 23 August 2011

Hmmm. . . I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I THINK all of these guys have something in common.   Oh, that’s right. They’re all tyrannical, fascist dictators.

In the early 90s, the United Nations decided to inject $3 billion into Cambodia to help stabilize the country.  It was kind of like the international community’s pet project, and part of it was to have the country’s first free and fair election.  As you can imagine, Hun Sen wasn’t thrilled.  He had everything to lose since he was already in power.  Why would he want to put that in jeopardy by having an election?

His opponent was one of King Sihanouk’s sons, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who represented the the FUNCINPEC party, which is an acronym for the French translation of “National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia.”

Over 90% of Cambodia showed up to the 1993 election, and the Prince’s party won the majority over Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).  According to Hun Sen, this clearly wasn’t a free and fair election and he demanded a do-over.  After some kicking and screaming, they settled on being co-prime ministers.

To avoid a major history lesson, I’ll simplify what happened over the next several years.  Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh didn’t like each other and, eventually, stopped speaking to each other.  This lead to a stand-off that came to a head in the form of a civil war in the late 90s.  Since then, Hun Sen has been Prime Minister.

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My friend, Sara, and I used to sit around her apartment and vent about all of the frustrating aspects of Cambodia over a glass (or three) of wine.  Once, she asked our Khmer friend, Marry, why Hun Sen keeps getting elected.  Marry said that “his pockets are full.”  If someone new is elected, his pockets will be empty and he will take from the Cambodian people.

Later, I was talking to Lee about that conversation and he told me Hun Sen said that in a speech.  Yes, that’s right.  Part of his election platform is that he is rich and does not need to take any more from the people.

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Seeking the Old World

When my Etsy shop was up and running 2 years ago, there was a go-to strategy for making a sale: make it French.  Etsy buyers love anything that has to do with travel, but Paris has a special, noticeable draw.  London is a close second, followed by any Italian or Spanish city, then the rest of Europe.

I’ve started speculating about why there’s a uniquely American fascination with Europe, but I can only think of specific examples that embody the obsession, not a point of origin. For example, those ubiquitous “Keep Calm and _______” sayings.  If you search “Keep Calm and” on Amazon, it comes up with 137,547 results in nearly 40 categories. Any child born after the new millennium will have no idea the original saying is “Keep Calm and Carry On,” from the WWII propaganda littering the London Tube.

Another example is the Google Super Bowl commercial from a few years ago that touched the hearts of even the most brutish football fans.

So, of course, I asked Lee what he thinks the deal is.  After all, I was charmed by his English accent and the cute little quirks of English society.  He hypothesized that Americans desperately seek connections to the Old World.  We’re a nation of immigrants who fought for independence, but held tightly on to our ethnic backgrounds.

One of the first things I noticed about the different people you meet abroad is that Americans are the only ones who can tell you their families’ ethnic backgrounds through several generations.  For example, I’m Cambodian (50%), German (25%), and Swedish (25%).  However, I’m laughed at by actual German and Swedish people, and the only reason I can get away with being half Cambodian is because my Mom was born here.  My children will be grasping at the ethnic identity threads I’ve thrown their way.

Every other English speaking country ethnically identifies with that country.

“I’m English.”

“I’m Australian”

“I’m Irish.”

“I’m Scottish.”

“I’m Canadian.”

Do not, EVER, confuse those first four.

It’s finally time for Americans to follow suit. You’re not Irish just because you dusted off your Irish ID badge and put on a green shirt for St. Patrick’s Day. You’re American.  You share more in common with the Spinelli family next door than the O’Malley family in Dublin.

If you can’t accept that you’re not a special flower born out of a melting pot, then you’ll get a really rude awakening when you go abroad, tell a real Polish person your family is Polish, then be laughed at when you say it was your great great great grandfather who crossed the Atlantic to the New World.

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An Accidental Enlightenment

Right now, I’m in a Phnom Penh hotel, waiting for my boyfriend to return from a business outing.  As he was leaving, I opened up a book I had just purchased, and he said, “I’ve never seen you read before.” There’s a lot of things that you stop doing when you get to Cambodia (exercising, vegetarianism, reporting crime), but I never thought I’d stop reading.

The book I picked up is called Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land By Joel Brinkley.  Within the first 10 pages, I rummaged around my bag for my never-been-used pen and started highlighting passages.  The sentence that inspired this new-found academic ambition was from an interview from a man who was able to flee the country before the Khmer Rouge took over:

To be Cambodian is to be a warrior, the creator and builder of Angkor Wat…More accurately, to be Cambodian is to be a descendant of a people that produced architectural masterpieces of the Angkor era which rival the achievements of any ancient nations.  [Now though], people are passive. The one who survives is the one who is skillful at being deaf and blind.”

A thousand light bulbs turned on in my head.  I made connections to every single person and event that made me disenchanted with this country that I had been so excited to live in — and write about. But I had quit writing when I quit reading.

I quickly realized that lazing around all day with zero intellectual stimulation has been the most debilitating thing I’ve done to myself since I went one-for-one on tequila with a US Navy master diver  —  a story that doesn’t need re-telling.

When I first started this blog, I was determined to record every nuance of Cambodia culture that found.  I was going to overload my brain with books and research papers on social enterprise, poverty, and everyday life in Sihanoukville.  Then, rather indignantly, I’d write about them so the world could be in awe of my noble life and how living in the developing world has expanded my worldview, enhanced my empathy, and given me hands-on experience in third world poverty. You know, all of that bull crap employers like to read in cover letters. 

In the harsh reality that is Cambodia, if you don’t have a daily reminder — like, let’s say, a book and a pen — about why you’re here, then you lose that inspired and ambitious part of yourself to cynicism and depression. You will tirelessly ask this country WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?! and if you don’t seek out the answers, then you’ll be immobilized by intimidation and, ultimately, passivity.

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Third World ER

Where do you go when you’re sick in Cambodia? In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, there are Bangkok hospitals that give you first world treatment.  In Sihanouk Ville, it’s a bit more precarious.

Recently, Lee and I witnessed a pretty serious crash where three idiots on a motorbike tried to speed through a red light, passing between the median and a large steel truck, not wearing helmets. You can probably guess that they rammed into the back of the truck with such force that they flew forward, bounced backward, and pushed the truck forward,  thanks to Newton’s Third Law. I buried my head in Lee’s back and said, “Oh my god oh my god oh my god,” while he said, “Don’t look don’t look don’t look.” I glanced and they weren’t moving. I asked, “Do we call someone?” But every other witness was a step ahead.  The way the emergency system works here is that if you report an injury, the ambulance crew who picks them up will pay you a $10 commission.  They charge the injured $100.

Most everyone will go to a place called CT clinic, where their diagnosis could be on par with rolling some dice and clicking that number of WebMD links.  From there, they’ll either transport you to Phnom Penh, or tell you the default problem in this town: You’re too drunk, go to sleep. 

There’s also a Vietnamese clinic where the clinic staff are fumbling cartoon characters who have somehow made it into the real world, not much different than Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  My co-worker and I once yelled at them for laughing about a swollen, infected IV entry point. Then that had to be translated to Khmer, then translated to Vietnamese.

Locals here are stuck with three options.

The first is if you’re broken a bone or sustained a life-threatening injury: Get in a cab and go to Phnom Penh. I know a few people who have done this and they didn’t die.  However, I also know of one person who died in transit. Even when the roads are clear at 3am, it’s still a 3.5 hour ride by taxi.  

The second is to call your insurance company immediately.  We had a volunteer who had an infected abscess from a mosquito bite. She sent pictures of it to her insurance and they organized a flight to Bangkok the next day, transport from the airport to the hospital, and a several nights at a 4 star hotel. This was all for a 10 minute drainage procedure.

The third is to go to Dr. Yen.  Who is Dr. Yen? He’s a French-Khmer Doctor who moved back to Sihanouk Ville to “help the Cambodian People.”  After the Vietnamese clinic royally screwed up treatment for our friend, we took her to Dr. Yen, where she stayed for a few nights at a fraction of the cost. When one of our volunteers needed stitches, she was taken to him where he mumbled comforting phrase in French while he stitched her up.  A few days ago, I had an abscess and I went to see him since it wasn’t “call my insurance company” serious. Of course, by not calling them, I subjected myself to tearful cries for mercy, but it healed and it cost me $10.

If you’re stuck in Sihanouk Ville, need a doctor, and have somehow found this post, you can find a cab at any travel agency, call your insurance company from Skype, or find Dr. Yen at his practice just before Apsara Printers on the left if you’re coming from Samudera.

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