That’s a Captain America T-Shirt

There’s a lot of really mundane, but funny, things that happen in Sihanouk Ville every day.   Most of these things are too inappropriate with an audience that includes my father, grandfather, and potential employers.

Last night, I was sitting at one of my favorite bars, Above Us Only Sky, with a Scottish “bloke” known in these parts as “Lovely Allen.”  He’s a peripheral character in the Tavie narrative, making guest appearances whenever I’m at Sky and sipping on a Mango Magic.  I complimented him on his shirt: “Nice.  Captain America.”

Lovely Allen: “Why does everyone keep sayin’ that?”

Tavie: “Dude, you’re wearing a Captain America shirt.”

Lovely Allen: “What are you talking about? I thought it was Converse.”

Tavie: “Hey, Ben! What’s on Allen’s shirt?”

Ben, being from Northern England, said in a nearly indecipherable accent, “Yeah, that’s a Captain America shirt, mate.  Cool shirt.”

Lovely Allen: “I can never wear this shirt again.”

For your reference, this is a Converse shirt:

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 4.29.31 PM

This is a Captain America shirt:

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 4.09.25 PMLovely Allen wouldn’t let me take a picture of it, because it was too mortifying.

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The Dreamer, The Bubble Burster, and the Wrecking Ball

One of the most detrimental things that can happen to a non-profit is having a person in power who is fueled by nothing except a bleeding heart.  I know this because I used to think a deep sense of compassion was all I needed to do my job. What normally happens when a person like this is suddenly faced with the actual responsibilities required of anyone who works for others, excuses start to be made.

What happens is that he is so blinded by the way things should be, that it’s easy to forget the necessary steps that need to be taken to achieve those results. We’ll call these people the “dreamers.”  If a dreamer doesn’t have a partner with non-profit administrative experience, he’ll be in for a rude awakening.   We’ll call that partner the “bubble burster.”
Working in non-profit requires a lot of paperwork.  A LOT.  Every conversation, every personality, and every action needs to be recorded and filed away, knowing full well that no one will ever look at it again.  Dreamers normally don’t like paperwork.  On the rare occasion that they do, they make headlines for quitting their Fortune 500 job and/or win a Nobel Prize.  An NGO can’t work without a bubble burster or a dreamer. Without the dreamer, a bubble burster will get bogged down and forget why they’re looming over a computer all day.  Without the bubble burster, the dreamer will blow a bubble around himself and float farther and farther away from reality.  Unfortunately, most bubble bursters are working to make rich people richer.  They’re pragmatic and don’t think it’s financially viable to go into non-profit, leaving the business of helping people in the hands of dreamers.  In that case, you get what I’ve come to know as “Bleeding Heart Syndrome.” It’s a very frustrating ailment that keeps good organizations from receiving funding because no one knows how to do accounting, manage a staff, or implement a structure that could qualify for decent grants.

For the sake of brevity, I’m over-simplifying this.  There are many other roles in nonprofit that are necessary for it to be successful.  Conversely, there are arbitrary roles that are filled which can make the organization go bankrupt. Rupert Scofield, CEO of FINCA, one of the world’s largest microfinance institutions, calls these people “Wrecking Balls.”  We’ve all met them. We’ve all worked with them. Maybe, we’ve even been the wrecking ball (lord knows I have).  Unlike the other players in an organization, however, it’s easy for a wrecking ball to be confused for the dreamer. More often than not, he believes he is doing the right thing and is working within his own capacity to fulfill what he thinks is necessary. Unfortunately, he is unaware of what his own capacity is and never bothers to find a bubble burster. He’s not fueled by a bleeding heart. He’s fueled by ego.

If you’ve worked in this industry for awhile, you’ll know what is possible and what simply isn’t right now. Nothing is impossible, but without the proper management and team, you’ll be spinning your wheels with the big picture looking very small because it’s so far away.  You need the bubble burster to drive the car, with the dreamer in the passenger’s seat with a map. The wrecking ball is the backseat driver who claims to have been there before, but can’t remember landmarks.

When I climbed my first 14er, I remember being just a few yards from the summit with every fiber of my being telling me to turn around. I was gasping for air, my legs were cut up and bruised, and I thought, yeah, I’ve made it impressively far enough.   But then my friend, Kyle, started yelling at me, “COME ON, THE VIEWS ARE GORGEOUS.” So I thought, Ok, 10 more steps.  I counted aloud as I took them. Then I sat down, “TAVIE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” I counted 10 more steps. Then 5 more. Then 3 more. Then, finally, I was there.


On the way back down, a snowstorm was rolling in and we ran into a guy who wanted to make it to the top before it did.  We said, “That’s probably not a great idea.” He said, “Nah, it’s cool.” That man, my friends, was the wrecking ball.

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My Little Sister

We all play favorites. Whether you admit to it or not, you can’t come to a children’s center and leave without creating a connection that’s stronger with at least one child than the others. For me, it’s a girl named Ally*.

She’s about 12 years old (no one knows their actual ages), and is the oldest of five. When someone first meets her, she’ll throw her sass at them, convincing you that she hates you. I think it’s a defense mechanism that comes from spending her days in a place that has a revolving door of volunteers. Of course, if she wants something, she’ll hook arms with that person and put on her best pair of puppy dog eyes. When answered with a defiant “no” multiple times (sometimes, the first one doesn’t stick), she’ll give the Cambodian sound of “I don’t like that”: “OOOOOWEE!” Then storm away in a huff.

During my first months here, I played lunch lady. After the kids finish their first serving, they come around for seconds. Ally would come back for fourths and fifths. I noticed this trend during my third week here. Her siblings would have two or three, but she finished each bowl at lightning speed, then hurried back into line until the food officially ran out.

Later, I visited her house on a routine home visit. She lives in what some here call a “nice house.” It was funded by a sponsor and is a one-room shack with tin paneling, measuring about eight square meters. Her mother and littlest sister were asleep on the floor next to an empty double bed with disheveled bedding and a mosquito net, probably because it’s much cooler than a mattress. The walls were lined with clothing and pictures of their family. In the corner was a single gas burner with a rack of all the condiments one would find in any self-respecting Khmer household.

Her mother is chronically ill and her father is a known drunk. Her little sister even went to the province for several months with their grandmother and didn’t want to come back because she didn’t want to be around their fighting. We learned that their father normally abstained from hitting their mother as long as the kids were around. At any given time during the day, one of the siblings is sleeping because it’s likely they didn’t sleep through the night. This happens more so during rainy seasons because of the midnight thunderstorms.

One day, her youngest brother (about 6 years old) threw a tantrum – a common occurrence because he’s comparatively spoiled — and tried to leave the center during lunch. I ran out after him and had to physically bring him back. One of our teachers came over to talk to him and when he kept struggling, she called for Ally. Ally immediately put her food down and ran to his aid. All I could do is think that she’s missing her lunch. Her other siblings soon joined, and finally got him to calm down. The rest of the day, he was near her side, holding on to the back pocket of her over-sized jeans.

From what I can tell, the reason she eats so much is because, like a lot of our kids, it’s her only meal of the day. Her family is part of our food program, but I believe that she gives her dinner portions to her siblings. After realizing it, I acted like any human who’s picked out a favorite: I started giving her larger servings during her daily lunch rounds.

I often see her and her siblings on Serendipity Beach Road. If it’s past 9, I ask them where their parents are. Normally, their dad is on his way to get them. After a few months, they’ve finally started trusting me with knowing their whereabouts because I’ve sworn I wouldn’t tell my higher ups – which I don’t, unless I see them carrying bags of plastic bottles.

It’s that trust that lets them know I won’t pass judgement or ridicule them for not being at home. Every morning, Ally runs over to me to have a conversation and practice her English. Today, I sat next to her while she drew a picture of a flower and spoke to her like I would any student in the United States. She could converse just like any of the 5th graders I taught. In fact, it’s better than most English teachers in this country, allowing her to translate what I say to other kids.

If she had been born anywhere else, she’d be Ivy League bound. Unfortunately, like most people here, the only thing holding her back is that she were born in Cambodia.

I imagine if I had a little sister, she’d be exactly like Ally. She reminds me of my older sister in that she’s fiercely independent and will attend to her younger siblings at the drop of a hat. However, she has my attitude,which, like her, got me into a lot of trouble while I was in school. I feel protective of her. If anyone in this town gave her trouble, I’d kick their teeth in. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure she has the opportunities I had; pulling strings, taking advantage of every relationship in this city, and facilitate after-hours tutoring sessions to make sure she can go to university.

Our favorites are our favorites for deeply personal reasons. It’s favoritism that’s given these children their meals, sends them to school with a new uniform, and pays for their higher education. Granted, we’re walking a thin line that if crossed could alienate the other children who come from similar (if not worse) backgrounds, who just might not be as cute or personable. All we can do is pour our hearts into our jobs, ignore the cynics who will use their energy to discourage us, and put on a smile and share a laugh with the kids. Because, their right to happiness is far more important that our overwhelming feelings of doubt. Making our hearts open to them gives them the opportunity to find their place inside.

*My lil’ sis’ name has been changed for her protection. And yours. Like I said, if you mess with her, you mess with her older sister.

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Bang Out of Order

I’m flying back from Chiang Mai today and I have about 7 hours to kill in Bangkok before the 1 hour trip to Phnom Penh.  I was here five days ago, taking in all of the sights, sounds, and smog this mega-city has to offer.  It’s like that inconsiderate boyfriend you keep getting back together with because you just don’t want to be alone. Yeah. It’s whack.

Maddi and I spent four days here under the impression that we’ve never really experienced Bangkok.  She was here on a semi-horrific hospital trip, and I just wanted to go shopping.  Four days is far too long.  The sun doesn’t shine here.  The light you see isn’t sunlight.  It’s the excrement of the perpetual brown overcast that’s had its fill of human souls, that there’s hardly any room for it to fully absorb sunshine.

For what it’s worth, there’s an infinite amount of wholesale fashion malls.  Put it this way, I spent less than $150 on clothing and wore outfits that I brought with me just twice in the last 10 days. Maddi had to leave a few clothing items behind to make room for her new stuff.

There’s also a Starbucks on every corner.  I’m sitting at one now. They have two options for internet: 2 hours or 1 day.  Yes, I’ve come from the land of free wifi to the land that charges to use everything from public restrooms to taking a picture with a lady boy.  Everyone’s really clever with how they charge for wifi.  They’re all hotspots that require a username and password.  And, to put it in perspective, a full day at my guesthouse: ฿30.  Two hours at Starbucks: ฿150.  But I’ll be damned if I don’t have a Pumpkin Spice Latte whilst complaining about Bangkok whilst in Bangkok.  They even give you a plastic-wrapped cardboard envelope that contains your username and password.  And it’s my username and password forever.

On a lighter note, I had a lovely cab driver bring me here from the airport.  He didn’t speak much English, but I told him I wanted to go to Starbucks, and said, “café.”  He didn’t fully understand and took me to the first coffee shop off the highway.  He did a little, “TA DA!” and said, “CAFÉ!”  Of course, he swindled me out of ฿50 when he finally dropped me off.  But, he was lovely for awhile.

Ok, lunch time. Peace out, Bangkok.

*Editors note: Dad would tell me that I’m lucky  that I get to travel and I should be more positive. To that, I say that yes, I am very lucky to be able to complain about this place.  Many people will not get to complain about it in their lifetimes*

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Travel Tip: Get a PayPal Account

Before I unleash some serious love on a Chiang Mai post, let me you travelers and potential travelers on the single greatest, must-have tool for your globe-trotter utility belts: a PayPal account.

When I was 18, I set up the account just so I could buy clothes from Ebay.  That’s the only purpose it served until I turned 25 and set up an Etsy shop.  Receiving regular payments from strangers qualified me for the PayPal Business Mastercard.  Now, I’m really sorry to the rest of the world because I think it’s exclusive to users in the United States.

Once money is sent to your PayPal account, it’s available to be spent immediately.  However, until I got my card in the mail, I had to transfer payments to my checking account, which could take 3-5 business days. Being young and broke in Denver, you can imagine my anticipation as I’d reload my bank details on my iPhone outside of Biker Jim’s, crossing my fingers that this vegan dog didn’t just cost $40 in overdraft fees.  True story. My phone chimed that the transfer had finally gone through, so I sprung for some deep fried mac & cheese, .

Man, I really miss deep fried mac & cheese.

I digress.

Once I got to Cambodia, I started using my PayPal card more than my check card — so much so that it was a hassle to put money in my checking account and my bank said, “Hey, jerk. You’re clearly not in the country anymore, we’re going to close this account.”

There’s a dark side to all of this, however. My wallet was stolen at the weekend market in Bangkok a few days ago. Along with a decent wad of cash, the thieves got my card.  After standing there about 30 seconds, wondering how I could’ve made the rookie error of not zipping my purse, I walked out of the market and lit a cigarette (sorry, Dad. I was stressed), pondered a bit more about why I was even in Bangkok and how my life, education, and work experience had come to this point, then got in a tuk tuk.

Canceling the card was as easy as one click of the mouse. Since PayPal emails me receipts for every debit card transaction, I knew no one had used it within the 30 minutes between the market and our hotel.  However, I could no longer get immediate cash since my check card is now useless.  I didn’t come to Bangkok with a back-up plan. Another rookie mistake.

Since it’s the 21st century, I sent money via PayPal to my song saa, who then sent money to me through Western Union, which had a branch right around the corner from the hotel. It was closed. I had a few baht leftover for dinner, then went back first thing the next morning.  Total time between the crime and the bank withdrawal? 15 hours.

Now, I’m not traveling alone. Some may ask, “Hey, Tavie, why’d you bother some dude in England with this when you could’ve asked Maddi” Well, reader, Maddi doesn’t have a PayPal account.  And transferring from bank to bank would’ve taken 5-10 business days — not including currency exchange fees between USD and AUD. And to that, I say, GET WITH THE TIMES, MADDI.

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Tourist Fatigue

Anyone who has lived here for over a month will have one sentence answers to a series of questions that every new person will ask, without fail:

  • Where are you from?
  • What are you doing in Cambodia?
  • What brought you to Cambodia?
  • How long have you been in Cambodia?
  • How long will you be in Cambodia? OR When are you going back home?
  • What’s fun to do around here?

As time goes on, our answers to these questions become more finely tuned as to avoid any further interrogation.  The holy grail of these interactions is one-word responses that leave a frustrating amount of ambiguity for the question-asker, overly enthusiastic to make new friends, and a retreat to the nearest expat bar for the question-receiver.

When you find yourself huddled in a corner of your apartment in the fetal position, you’ve reached critical mass, also known as Tourist Fatigue.  The term was coined by the one and only Sara Roxy who has spent most of the last 10 years living outside of her home country.

Cambodia is awesomely foreign for people who have never been to Southeast Asia.  Especially in Sihanouk Ville, the expats are laid back, the locals are friendly, and food selection includes fried crickets. You get great traveler’s stories of this strange, exotic land and share them from the comfort of your 4 star hotel.  But don’t get too comfortable, the fact that you could get robbed at any given moment creates an air of danger that goes along with any adventure story.  And, more importantly, contributes to great Facebook status updates.

But yeah, the people who live here are over it, dude.

We’ve met people. We’ve eaten crickets. And we’ve been robbed.  Several times.

We just want to make sure the staff doesn’t destroy our business.  We get excited when the local theater finally has a decent copy of Dark Knight Rises. And every day after work, we need to figure out what we need to get at the grocery store because our roommate came home stoned last night and ate all the food.

Don’t get me wrong, with cultural complacency comes brand new stories.  However, they’re not in the realm of “Look how weird Cambodia is, man!” They’re more like, “Did you see the new manager at Above Us Only Sky? He’s smokin’.”  or “Is Lionel at the police station?”

Sure, it’s up to the permanent fixtures to make sure visitors have a good time and tell their friends all of their adventure stories to come visit us in return. But tourists in Sihanouk Ville aren’t the rare unicorns their friends have been telling them they are.  They all have the same questions, and leave with the same stories.  Unfortunately, their take on the stories relies very heavily on us.

Next time, I’ll tell you about a run-in with a backpacker who was giving out flyers for one of Serendipity Beach Road’s more seedy establishments, wouldn’t leave me alone, and how I verbally owned him.

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The Secret Lives of Western Men

Here’s an email I wrote to a friend a few months ago.  He told me to post it as a blog, but I didn’t think it was appropriate.  However, enough time has gone by and I’ve witnessed enough unsavory behavior in this town (mind you, not all behavior is unsavory here), that I feel comfortable using this as the paragon of all things unsavory, and can now back away from reporting anything else that may be deemed…icky.  Names and circumstance has been changed to protect the [questionably] innocent.

I think the strangest thing about Cambodia is witnessing the secret lives of men who, at their homes on the other side of the world, are very straitlaced.

Case in point: my new friend, Honda, is the bartender at Mustang Ranch.  He’s 19 years old, which actually means he’s 19. In Cambodia, you’re 1 year old when you’re born. So, technically, I’m 27. You’re age is a reflection of the current year you’re living.

Anyways, Honda is gay. He’s not what we call a “lady boy” here, but he’d be at home at an interior design convention hosted by Lady Gaga.

Honda has a 35 year-old boyfriend who lives in Austria.  I said, “Bull shit.” Then the owner of Mustang Ranch and his girlfriend quickly confirmed this claim.  This man not only sends Honda a substantial amount of money every month, but buys him extravagant gifts. A frequent sight around here is Honda watching a Thai movie on his iPad during the bar’s downtimes.  The iPad is complete with a cover that has a built-in keyboard.

During his last visit, Honda took the Austrian to the airport to say good-bye. The Austrian’s final words to Honda were, and I quote because I had him repeat it a few times because it was so disgustingly cute, “Honda, remember that all of those other boys are just using you and are only temporary.  My love is forever.”

I asked him, “Why doesn’t he just fly you out of here to live with him?”  He answered, “Because I am too young to get a passport and visa.” Or something like that.  Then, after a pause, he said, “Plus, he still has his wife and kids.”

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The Land of Flip Flops

The first difference I noticed between Sihanouk Ville and Phnom Penh is that the flip flops aren’t the footwear of choice in Phnom Penh. People are wearing legitimate closed-toed shoes that are conducive to their outfits.

I have a friend who runs a few businesses in Cambodia and always wears perfectly fitted clothing and hair that never moves from it’s neatly disheveled arrangement. However, he pairs his tailored duds with flip flops while in Sihanouk Ville. I give him proper amounts of grief in Phnom Penh because he’s wearing the exact same thing, but with black leather square-toed loafers that click when he walks. Once, I tried to wear real shoes in Sihanouk Ville, and every single person I saw noticed. “Oooo Tavie, you’re wearing lady shoes tonight.” I ended up with blisters and vowed to never do it again.

Last night, we went to a bi-weekly event in Phnom Penh called Nerd Night at a sports bar called Score.  I looked around and saw no one was wearing flip flops except for me and Leah. In fact, they were all wearing…wait for it…socks. SOCKS?! In this country?!!

This might be indicative of the very clear professional and cultural differences between the two cities (among expats). Sihanouk Ville is one of the few places where you can go to a business meeting wearing flip flops and a t-shirt. Even at a place like Nerd Night, where we all share in light-hearted banter on subjects that are only interesting to a handful of people, everyone is on their game. Everyone wants to get ahead — find a better job, find funding for their NGO, find a husband — and they make sure to look the part.

There’s a Nerd Night in Siem Reap, as well – another place in Cambodia where you don’t have to be a prostitute to sport 4 inch pumps. I wondered why there isn’t one in Sihanouk Ville. After giving it 2 seconds thought, I realized it’s because the kind of individual ambition it takes to pull off not just one, but two Nerd Nights a month is something that doesn’t really exist in Sihanouk Ville. If one of us were to stand in front of the other expats with a presentation on 3D printing, we’d be like, “Dude? Really? Sit down and order a beer.”

That was my moment of clarity of how great it is to live in Sihanouk Ville. Yes, we all work hard. Most everyone in town is a business owner. If you’re not, then you’re thinking about opening a business.  If you’re not, you’re a transient. But, we also play hard.  We really don’t have time to impress anyone with matching socks and polished kicks.

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Happy Halloween!

I rocked it last night.

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Ben is missing his cat, Bob.  He was last seen at Above Us Only Sky:

My boy Bob Marley Jordan has been missing now for 2 and a bit days. If anyone out there is feeding him food to make him fat so you can eat him PLEASE DON’T. If there is one hair missing from his little head I will go Donkey Kong on your arse. MASSIVE REWARD if found…….. 100r or a free cocktail

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