Sunday, August 9, 2009

Goal: better listening

My "goal of the week" is to improve my listening skills. By really focusing on what the person talking is trying to say, I think I'll be able to better understand what they're getting at. Anyways, if you catch me sort of "half-listening" to you any time in the next month (or anytime, really), give me a little reminder to pay attention. Thanks!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Single-axis achievement

After a deep and thoughtful conversation with Ben (which lasted a few hours and made us forget about lunch plans), I came up with a few realizations about myself and the life path I'm currently following. For one, I was relieved to hear that Ben also feels a strong pressure to achieve, and that he often feels that when he is not actively contributing his energy towards either furthering his goals or building his ability to achieve them, he feels anxious -- as though he is not performing to the maximum of his abilities. I feel exactly the same way. When he described the anxiety as possibly the greatest barrier to his individual happiness, I was so happy to realize that someone thinks the same way I do.

We discussed the topic for some time, and a few points came up that really helped me dispel some of my anxiety. I pointed out that I'm not very good at understanding the exact actions that will lead me to optimizing my ability to achieve my goals, yet I act and work as though I do. For example, I force myself to read things about my "industry," study intensely, work hard on reducing my interest in "distractions" and entertainment, etc. In reality, I have no idea whether my current mix of effort is actually the maximal way to achieve -- maybe by engaging myself in a broader set of social activities, my ability to achieve will be enhanced in ways I can't even imagine (like making connections, etc.). Still, because the timescale for feedback on a "life method" is so large, I'm unable to make any rapid adjustments, so I cling to the arbitrarily defined mix of activities I just described. Worse, -- and this relates to Ben's concern -- when I take time away from that mix, I feel an anxiety that I'm not doing the most I can to achieve, which is definitely not conducive to my feeling of equanimity.

But perhaps I'm making a more fundamental mistake. All of my achievement-based efforts are directed towards accomplishing a single measurable goal. Because "helping people be happy" is so broad, I am forced to narrow my goals to something more easily measured, like "helping create a company that delivers badly needed services to those in need" (just an example). This is much more measurable (and thus conducive to competition/achievement), since I can say "we delivered X units to Y people." As Ben and I discussed, we're well aware that the way to achieve such goals is the 'traditional' method of diligence, study, and hard work. In that sense, the anxiety I described previously is a valuable asset, because it urges me to build myself into a high-achiever. However, my fatal flaw is that I'm only measuring and maximizing my success on a single axis (# of units delivered to the poor), when in reality, I affect the world in countless ways, particularly through my daily actions and my apparent happiness.

Through our discussion, I was reassured that we have an even more valuable contribution to make by showing others that we can accomplish our goals (perhaps to a slightly lesser degree) and be happy. We agreed that we could much more effectively maximize our contributions by showing others, through our personal philosophies and everyday lives, that working hard doesn't have to mean unhappy/tiring/empty. Otherwise, if we focus too narrowly on our arbitrarily defined single axis of achievement, we might act in a way that would hurt people and spread unhappiness. I'm sure you can think of at least a few people who are extreme achievers yet are unpleasant to be around: power-grabbers, ambitious "jerks," sycophants, etc. Even if it didn't go that far, people would not want to learn from our working/living philosophies because it would seem as though we weren't enjoying life because we didn't develop ourselves in other ways.

I'm very happy to think that I can work on improving myself in several dimensions at once without worrying too much about the loss in accomplishment towards the primary goal. In fact, I feel a lot more confident now that I can make an even greater overall contribution by developing my happiness and sharing my methods and ideas with others. All things are interconnected, after all.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Power

Some pre-reading for MIT on power, by Pfeffer (sort of irrelevant for this blog, but whatever). Basically, he's defending the idea that one should build a network of "allies" through unsolicited favors, regardless of how it may appear to outsiders.

It is easy to see the building of a network of support, either through the appointment and promotion process or through personal favors, as activities that are somehow illegitimate or inappropriate. Such a view would be incomplete at best. The development and exercise of power in organizations is about getting things accomplished. The very nature of organizations--interdependent, complex systems with many actors and many points of view-- means that taking action is often problematic. Failures in implementation are almost invariable failures to build successful coalitions. Although networks of allies can obviously be misused, they are nevertheless essential in order to get things done. And, allies must be put in place through whatever practical means are at hand.


Wow. Pretty bold.... I'm shocked he just outright said that

Friday, July 10, 2009

Overdue

I'm definitely a bit behind on posting, and I'm not sure that I'll catch up, but I'll at least try to tell you a bit about my travels at the end of my trip.

Before I left Cambodia, I made a quick side trip to Malaysia (to visit my girlfriend, who came from Shenzhen).

From the airplane, the dark olive-green oil palm fields looked a bit like an old computer monitor (where the pixels were still visible). It was an odd mixture of artificiality and nature. I didn't really know what to think, but it was definitely beautiful. I then arrived at the very modern airport, and met Julia. When we headed into town in a taxi, we rode over clean, well-paved highways and watched as more and more glassy, tall buildings came into view. For me, it was a big shock -- after unconsciously accepting Cambodia's level of development as the norm, seeing such well built infrastructure and buildings made me realize how underdeveloped Cambodia is.

The mall was particularly shocking. We went in search of late night food (since nothing else was open after we arrived), and ended up heading to the mall food court. Going inside that building and feeling the cold AC, seeing the seemingly endless glass and excessively pure white lights, and realizing that most of the colorful products being sold served "wants" instead of "needs" sent me down a spiral of negative thinking. Is this what it's all for? Is this why we're all trying? Using the cost of building as a measure of relative importance, it's easy to see that the mall is an important part of people's lives in developed countries. But it doesn't fulfill lives, it just satisfies a want while simultaneously nurturing it so it arises again. Why was it all necessary when the Cambodian people were so happy? Will it really help the people of Cambodia to develop their country into a consumption-centered America-clone? When does development stop being necessary and start becoming frivolous?

The rest of the night was filled with that sort of internal thinking. But I noticed that as I spent time there, the thoughts quickly faded and turned to optimizing my enjoyment of the situation. It's so easy to let those thoughts slide.

Malaysia was a beautiful country with wonderful people, but it left me with a lot of questions...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reflections on the Jungle

A few weeks ago, my brother and a friend (Ulara) came to visit me in Cambodia. The morning after they arrived, we took a bus to a small town at the base of the Cardamom Mountains near the Cambodian coast. There is very little development in the region, which makes it a prime location for ecotourism. I chose Chi Phat (the town) because I saw it in a brochure when I visited a different town in the area, and the project seemed interesting.

The organization operating the tours was set up by a Dutch NGO, and was designed to help the poor village shift away from environmentally destructive ways of life like poaching and logging to providing services to tourists interested in the relatively untouched jungle that surrounds it. It’s a very interesting program, and it only just started, so it will be very interesting to see how it turns out.

After we got off the bus in the sleepy river town called Andoung Teuk, we looked for possible transportation to Chi Phat, which is about 15-20km up the river. The town used to have decent business activity until the Thai government funded and built a new bridge, removing the need for travelers to stop and cross the river in a ferry. After briefly wondering how we would make it up the river, a middle-aged man pulled up and asked if we wanted a moto (motorcycle taxi) up to the town. The cost would be five dollars. He called a couple more of his buddies, and each of us hopped on with our drivers.

The drive itself was an amazing experience. My driver was probably the best and most fearless moto-driver I’ve ever ridden with. We swiftly made our way over some pretty hairy dirt roads with potholes and mud, passing by verdant fields of sugarcane against a backdrop of pure, deep blue post-rain sky. Then he surprised me by leaving the other two motos and driving on to a tiny path into what seemed like the woods. The road was sandy and filled with puddles. I kept thinking we would slip and fall out, but each time he just stepped on the gas aggressively and took control back from the elements. We flew through terrain I wouldn’t dare try on my own, fording rivers and riding on loose sand, all without getting the least bit dirty. This guy was amazing.

We then merged with the main road again, and the others were nowhere in sight, although there were a couple of soldiers with AK-47s on a moto in front of us. We got to an area so muddy it was physically impossible to ride, so I got off and waited for the others. I waited almost 10 minutes for the others to catch up, which gives you an idea of how crazy my driver was. We walked through the mud along with some young Cambodian guys, a couple of whom were singing an old-time Cambodian song. Eventually we got to the river, saying goodbye to the moto drivers, one of whom kept proudly telling us that he’s ethnically Chinese, and one of whom kept shouting “Cambodia is happy, Cambodia is happy!” and then laughing heartily. We hopped on a small ferry powered by what seemed like a souped-up lawnmower engine. We were very much on a jungle river. Deep green palms and nameless jungle plants lined the river up to the water’s edge.

The town was small and very “underdeveloped.” It reminded me a lot of the villages I visit when I do client interviews, but maybe even a little poorer because it lacked a direct land route, and the nearest decent-sized city is a couple hours away. We arrived at the main office for the ecotourism organization, which was a small wooden house very similar to the houses that surrounded it. They helped us choose a tour, called over some guides to accompany us, and sent us on our way with our bikes and gear. We chose to bike because it was already late in the day, and we thought we might not make it to the campsite before dark if we walked. My pack was very heavy (I had about 18 water bottles in it) and was extremely uncomfortable when I rode because it put so much pressure on my “seat” when I sat on the bike. I knew I wasn’t in this trip for comfort though, so I stopped thinking about it, especially when I found out that our guide’s pack was probably 1.5 to 2 times heavier than mine. How he rode up that mountain with that pack wearing flip-flops…

Two minutes after we started riding, the sky opened up and it started pouring. We put on our ponchos, but they weren’t much use. Five minutes after starting, Ulara fell into a huge muddy puddle. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the ride. We climbed through what initially “didn’t feel like the jungle,” mostly farms and low, sloping hills. It alternated between rainy and stiflingly hot (especially with the ponchos on), and we took breaks often. It felt good to be back on a bike, but I realized how much strength I lost while in Cambodia.

Eventually, we entered the “real jungle.” Riding through the jungle wasn’t a very visual experience. There wasn’t much to see, just green-everything and one narrow, muddy track that comprised the trail. The sounds were incredible though. Bugs made sounds that reminded me of science fiction movies, birds sang with voices that made pure, piercing tones, and rain that sounded like eternity. We also used our sense of touch – we needed to constantly check for leeches, which seemed to find the smallest unprotected patch of skin to bite into. A little itchy and painful, but not as bad as I imagined. I do remember one visual experience vividly, though – passing through a “cloud” of 10 or 12 brilliant yellow butterflies bouncing sharply through the air. It sort of felt like a computer generated color show.

After a few hours of riding (I’m not sure, maybe only 3), we arrived exhausted, wet, and smelly at the campsite, which was at the edge of a natural clearing in the jungle. My first impression was “National Geographic African Savanna” (even though I’m not sure what a savanna is). It felt so unreal to look at something so untouched by human development, and to know that there would be no other people passing through the area while we were there. We saved exploration for the morning though, because we needed to set up the tent.

The night was pleasant with frequent showers, and we had a filling meal of rice and vegetable-egg stir fry. I ate so much, but still felt like I could eat more. Or so my legs told me. We slept in hammocks with mosquito-nets built in. We agreed it was the most comfortably we slept the entire time Aaron and Ulara visited. We slept so early I got up at 3:30 and wandered around, assisted by the full moon. At around 5 or 5:30, we walked out to the “pond” in one edge of the large (1km square?) clearing. The feeling was incredible. The purity of the light, the clarity of the air, and the absolute silence -- save the beautiful calls of exotic birds -- put me in a state of wonder. As the sky lightened and the full moon set, I told my brother that I’ve probably only seen one other place in the world as beautiful as this: Crater Lake at sunrise. With my poor writing abilities, describing it would only cheapen the mental image I want to create in your mind, so I’ll just leave it at a couple of adjectives: silent, verdant, blue, white, wet, pure.

After spending an hour in almost meditative contemplation listening to sounds, watching wild birds, looking at insects and spiders, and observing plants, we headed back, barely speaking except to remark on the beauty and awe of the place.

After breakfast, we got on our bikes again. We were still tired from the previous day, but our loads were lighter because we had eaten so much rice and drank so much water. Fortunately, even though the road was narrower and steeper than the previous day, it was generally downhill. We had to get off and walk several times because the path was dangerously steep and muddy (Aaron "endo-d" once). I started getting the hang of things after a while, though. After an hour or so, we suddenly emerged into a brilliant grassy clearing. It was a bit of a relief after struggling to make progress through the jungle.

We eventually came to a village, where we snacked, climbed trees to get local fruits, and talked to a crazy lady. She was definitely a bit crazy. Our guide said she was drunk, but I think it was more than that. Whenever she talked, she would suddenly switch into a high-pitched, slightly annoyed-sounding yelp mid sentence. I couldn’t tell if she was mad or just getting excited.
We went to a pleasant, rocky waterfall, where Ulara took a nap and Aaron and I swam in the comfortably cool water. Crazy lady followed us for a bit, but then walked back to her house via the river. We ate lunch and then headed back to the village.

We stopped at another waterfall, but at this point everyone was exhausted and just wanted to get back and take a shower. We found our guesthouse, and were invited to a dance party where Aaron and Ulara got to experience some genuine Khmer dancing – the type with the hand-movements and the dance steps and walking around the centerpiece slowly in a circle. The local manager of the ecotourism group was drunk and made sure we had a good time.

In the morning, we took bucket showers and had breakfast made by a very nice, skinny old lady. She made very good food, and seemed to enjoy hanging out with us, even if we couldn’t communicate so well. We then said bye to our friends, and promised we’d write (since we weren’t sure if we’d come back). We made it back to Andoung Teuk with enough time to drink some sugar cane juice with our moto-driving friend and chat about his Chinese heritage before we got on the bus back to Phnom Penh.

(Aaron and I enjoyed a durian on the bus on the way back. Hope that didn't bother anyone...)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Moto of the day


The coveted chicken-moto photograph. Well, actually, not quite. It's the even-rarer baby chicken moto! These chicks were tied at their feet in clusters and hung from a wooden contraption designed to carry them. As we drove by, all I could hear was a steady chorus of "peep-peep-peep"

Monday, May 25, 2009

Moto of the day

Using transportation to move transportation vehicles.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Thoughts on microloans

For all the debate that rages about whether or not microloans help the poor escape poverty, and whether they actually do more harm than good by over-indebting borrowers, I think the benefits of "forced trying" are often overlooked. When a poor person takes out a loan (or any person for that matter), they know that they must make repayments on time. This means that they must come up with a predetermined amount of money by a certain date. For a poor borrower, this "financial discipline" isn't something they've really had the chance to experience before. Furthermore, in the case of the poorest clients, loan repayments are often comparable to the entire family's monthly savings. This means that they must make a significant effort to earn more and spend less while repaying the loan, or "forced trying."

After spending a few months here and visiting dozens of microloan clients, I've begun to notice some larger themes in their attitudes. Perhaps they only pertain to Cambodian clients, but I think some hold true more universally. For one, although their situation often seems dire from our perspective, the poor are generally unfazed about their condition. Although they must deal with problems like complete lack of health care or wretched sanitation standards, they've lived like this their entire lives. Humans have an incredible ability to adapt to and then accept the circumstances in which they live. Nobody really feels outraged that they can't get running water or electricity, so they end up not making a big effort to get those things by working creatively. In essence they're satisfied with the status quo.

Furthermore, they live in an environment where effort is not always repaid with a commensurate reward. They are more susceptible to severe weather and disease. Even if they increase the amount of rice they plant, or buy more pigs to raise and sell, the rice could be ruined by an untimely rain, and the pigs could all die from a disease. The end result is that through repeated experience, they learn that effort should only be made in moderation, and that risks should be avoided.

However, when a poor person takes out a loan whose repayments are on par with her family's monthly savings, changes in lifestyle and work habits must be made. In order to continue with the current standard of living and make repayments for the loan, the borrower must find other ways to make and save money (particularly if the loan did not go towards an income-producing asset or investment). The borrower learns that she and her family are capable of saving more money by working harder and thinking creatively. By making repayments on time, the borrower is rewarded with permission to take out more loans, and avoids the loss of collateral. Essentially, the loan is providing a rare opportunity for the borrower to experience a formal, structured, rule-based environment that we in the developed world take completely for granted, one in which effort is consistently rewarded.

I think that the positive experience of being rewarded for their work helps poor borrowers believe that they indeed have some control over their situation, and that if they want to change it, they can -- if they make an effort.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Moto of the day


Serious stacking.

This moto has a 2-wheeled trailer attached, and was spotted on the ride back from Vietnam. It exemplifies the visually-boggling ability of moto drivers to pack their motos with poofy items that look like they should fall off.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

busy with vacation

It's been rather hectic lately, so there's really too much to talk about. Aaron and Ulara came, we went to the jungle, had an amazing adventure, met great people, came back and went to Siem Reap in the same day, and are now going around the temples. So many experiences. It's difficult to make a coherent summary on what's happened so far. I guess the biggest things I've noticed are that traveling with great people is more important than traveling to great places, and that learning a language, even if you only plan to be somewhere for a short time, is easy and makes things so much more enjoyable. Anyways, we need to sleep soon so we can get up in time for some early morning temple ruins.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ruminations from the back of a moto

In the past 3 days, I've spent 24 hours rolling over rough terrain on the back of a moto, talking to clients, and just generally being very hot. Each time we moved from client to client, I had a bit of time in between ruts and potholes to think about poverty, development, and life in general. Unfortunately I didn't manage to write it all down each day, so here's my best shot at a brain dump for all three days.

  • roads
Roads are just so important when it comes to convincing people that it's worth it to make a trip to the "outside" world. They're key in helping motivate people to step outside of their comfort zone. They're critical in determining the rate that a community can grow at. And they are so bad in the countryside in Cambodia. There were so many potholes and trenches that riding on the back of a moto required my full attention, as well as considerable muscle usage. From what little I saw of "muddy roads," I honestly have no idea how anything gets done during the rainy season. Pavement is truly magical
  • savings
Savings are critical when it comes to dealing with family emergencies. It was really surprising how many families I met that told me they had no savings whatsoever. When people in these families get ill, the have the following options: try to borrow from someone else, sell something like a cow (a productive asset!) to get money, or just don't treat it and hope it turns out OK. Amazingly, I think the last option seemed to be the most common amongst families without savings that I met, but I didn't get a very large sample size.
  • illness
I've started to become obsessed with food-borne illness after having a few of my own. I think the most amazing part is that some people have problems but don't even realize that their condition is abnormal. Interestingly, Siem Reap seems to have a ton of donated wells, even in the villages. Very few people reported problems with FBIs among those with wells. Definitely seems like something that works.
  • sad faces
The face-processing center in my brain noticed a lot of blank/bored/irritated faces as we whizzed by on the moto. Maybe this implications for the happiness levels of poor people.
  • slow people
I saw the way a lot of parents of multiple children handled the young ones. Usually the tactic was to distract the child or put it to sleep. I saw some that had bag-like mittens on their hands so they wouldn't do anything. I wonder if that's a good way to raise a child to be curious and always looking for solutions to problems (instead of just accepting them with a blank stare)
  • local economies
There was one village where some of the residents owned land that was bought out to create a golf course. The people who owned the land had somewhat serious-looking businesses with machinery and storage places and workers. That was a big contrast with the palm-frond house of the borrower I was visiting next door. Interestingly, the whole village seemed to have more activity compared to villages that didn't have a big influx of cash from the outside. It made me think about the self catalyzing nature of development, and that capital is so critical in "making it happen"
  • corruption
I talked with my Kiva helper about corruption. It's such a tricky subject because even if people have some idea about the extent of corruption in their government, they don't realize how much it stifles their country's development (and by proxy, their own). Without rules to disconnect the rulemakers from access to the nation's funds, the magic of that self catalyzing cycle will never start. Cambodia could be doing so much better....
  • NGOs
Back to the talk of donated pumps. I saw an unbelievable number of signs that said "this person from this country donated this pump through this organization" in the middle-of-nowhere countryside. It was great because most of the people that had the pumps didn't have stomach problems. However, I wonder how much it's related to the fact that they live less than 30km from Siem Reap, the tourist capital of Cambodia. (I think it has A LOT to do with it)
  • water
Clean water is so important! I think a big part of it is making sure that the people understand how important it is. If I were a poor rural farmer, I don't think I'd realize that the reason I was always getting diarrhea was because my water source was too close to someone else's bathroom. I'd probably blame it on spirits or something.
  • self-perception
I asked a lot of borrowers where they thought they ranked on the poverty scale among members in the village. People's first answer was pretty much invariably "we're pretty average." I found it really surprising considering some were obviously much better off than their neigbors, and some were much worse. It's an interesting bit of psychology that I'd like to know more about.
  • naked babies
There are always naked babies (or children) at the borrowers' houses. I realized that I didn't really know what a baby's genitals look like. Now I'm pretty familiar with it. It's just amazing how much we try to hide the fact we have genitalia in America. It's just kinda strange...
  • relativity
Poverty is such a relative term. It makes it that much harder to understand who needs the most help, and where energy would be most usefully applied. So many people seemed "comfortable" or at least "accepting" of their situations. It probably slows the pace of development when everyone is at about the same level (purely based on psychological reasons)
  • fruits
The fruits here are crazy. So many different kinds of amazing jungle fruits. I think we have the monkeys and elephants to thank for them.
  • other things
there are about 1000 other things on my mind, but I've already lost them. I'll make an effort to post more of my thoughts right after I think them. I'll probably put a part two to this post

Moto of the day

The coconut moto (props to Nate for the photo). I am incapable of expressing the feeling I get -- a mixture of profound respect for his balancing skills, and profound befuddlement as to why he doesn't buy a cart-- when I look at this picture. I never saw this phenomenon before I came to Siem Reap, and now I've seen it twice in a week. Maybe it's a "Northerner" thing.

(here's another I nabbed today)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Moto of the day


I've been remiss in my posting, so two posts in one for today. Here's a typical Cambodian moto-taxi driver calling you and asking "hello sir, moto?"

Actually, I'm lying. This is me pretending to be a moto-taxi guy. There are several flaws with my performance:
  • First, and most importantly, I'm wearing running shoes. Not only does the concept of running not exist in Cambodia (it's just too hot...), but the shoes don't either. A true "moto-dup" would be wearing old flip-flops.
  • I have stuff in my basket. No moto driver would ever actually use his basket (and most don't even have one)
  • I'm driving a CREDIT company moto.
  • I have one hand on the handlebars. I should be in a much lazier-looking position, and shouldn't look so ready to go anywhere
  • Just noticed this, but the 2nd-from-the-top button is buttoned! Fatal flaw. That and possibly one more button should be open, exposing my brown Cambodian chest
other than that, I think I did a decent job, especially with the single finger in the air, which instantly communicates "hey you foreigner, get on my moto so I can try to charge you more than the ride is worth!"

Well, they're not all out to rip us off (that much anyways), but the finger in the air is crucial to a moto-taxi driver's success.

Moto of the day

The classic pig-cage moto, a fairly common occurrence in the countryside. This one was spotted on the ferry crossing the Mekong river.

In this case, there were only two small pigs. I've seen up to 3 full grown pigs, both alive and dead (or just looking rather dead after being hog-tied).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Stomach things

Before I begin this post, I just want to mention that I'm forever grateful to the magic pills created by western medicine. For all the criticism that I may lay on big pharma and the pill-popping culture of developed nations, there is no questioning that without the hard work of some tremendously intelligent and dedicated people, most of us (all of us?) would be living well below our current standard of living, and would most likely "fail to thrive" (a phrase I read in a description of the symptoms/effects of giardiasis -- a phrase that nearly brought me to tears thinking of all those who have failed to thrive...)

Thanks to all those who continue to push.

More personally, I think -- I only think because no tests were done -- that I managed to get some giardia parasites in my GI tract. I have no idea where they came from; there are just too many potential sources. Some likely candidates include any of the food I've ever eaten when eating out (or sometimes even the stuff I make), a sandwich I ate on the bus ride back from Koh Kong, the jungle river that I sat in for a few hours, etc.

For all the horror stories I've heard, it certainly wasn't as bad as I had imagined. It began with general discomfort, lack of appetite, and constipation, then developed into a fairly strong fever with one episode of diarrhea. This is something I've experienced before (3 or 4 times already in this country), but the strange part was that the malaise continued even after completing the dose of antibiotics prescribed by a Khmer doctor (who originally wanted to give me an injection to lower my fever, which I politely declined...). He gave me Ofloxacin and Augmentin -- 3 days worth for the low, low price of $3.75. This sort of seemed to work -- my fever subsided and the diarrhea stopped.

However, I was still feeling weird in the stomach a week after the fever, and I started getting incredible bloating and the most gas I've ever experienced in my life. I also started burping a lot, and I couldn't help but think they smelled like the burps I get when I eat too many hard-boiled eggs. Foremost though, was the weakness. I tried to do a 5-6 mile run on the weekend, but that may have been a poor idea. Going out was OK, but the return leg was the most physically challenging experience that I can remember. I ended up walking for a good 10 minutes after thinking my legs were about to dissolve (this was exceptional because I typically try to never stop running, regardless of how tired I am. It usually works out OK). Eventually I mustered up a bit more strength and plodded home. I thought I would be hungry (as I usually am after some good exercise), but the hunger never really came. The gas and burping actually started after I tried to force some food down, and the following day I fell asleep at my computer from a complete lack of energy/blood sugar. I thought that this might be worth a visit to the western (aka "expensive") doctor.

The doctor was nice (although fairly laconic), but after a couple of questions and some stomach poking, told me it was probably either giardia or an amoeba. He said I could do a stool test, but it was kind of pontless since he had some magic pills (tinidazole -- and no, he didn't use that phrase) that would get rid of either one. I opted just to take the pills and come back if it didn't fix it. (I was particulalry struck by the spot-on description of my symptoms by this wikipedia article on giardia in the "gastrointestinal" section, minus the "vomiting" and "explosive." Really a perfect description though...)

I had four 500mg pills with my dinner last night, and I'm already feeling a lot better. I felt a bit of what I think was hunger in the morning, so I decided I'd carb up and try for a run, which went well. With each step, I couldn't help but feel amazed that I'm alive and capable of running. I'm not 100% better, but I think I'm getting closer. And yes, I do get the metallic taste in my mouth, and no, I don't care about the cancer risk if it means no more giardiasis (it's not like I'm taking the medicine for months...)

Now, take a moment to think about all the people who a) get these illnesses from childhood, b) don't know what they have and are never properly diagnosed, c) live with it all their lives and never realize their full potential, and d), can't afford the $60 to get a doctor with decent training to diagnose and dispense medication or simply don't even have access to that option.

Now, think about how you can effectively contribute to the elimination of this problem. (Donate to an organization committed to results, and not just the continuation of the status quo of the organization? Raise awareness of these problems among friends and explain what concrete steps they can take to make a difference? Commit your life to fixing one small aspect of the problem? I don't know...)

(sorry if that last bit sounds a little patronizing. It's just that I'm a big proponent of taking action instead of simply lamenting the problem and then forgetting about it an hour later, or using it to make myself guiltily-thankful that I can afford the medicines, etc., which might do my ego a bit of good, but not the net well-being of all people...)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Moto of the day


This is one of my favorite Vietnamese motos. It's hard to tell in this first picture (click on it to see a larger version), but the giant metal pipe things he's carrying on the back are directly attached to his moto. The additional wheeled carrying thingy is not attached to the moto at all. Here are some close-ups of the pipe thing.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Moto of the day

It's incredibly difficult to express how pleased I am with this photo. It might seem plain and simple to the untrained eye, but this is the perfect embodiment of the Cambodian moto, and is particularly "Phnom Penh" in style.

First, note the moto. The classic Daelim model from who-knows-when (looks like the 80s). This thing is so cheap and ubiquitous, any time I see a dull red moto I think Daelim.

Second, the driver: the cheap, untucked, collared, long-sleeve shrit made in a garment factory somewhere in the city; the drab pants; the sandals while driving a moto; the ill-fitting hat (in place of a helmet -- but in his defense, ALL helmets in Cambodia are of dubious safety value anyways).

THIS IS CAMBODIA

(can I get some confirmation from others who are in the know?)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Moto of the day

This guy has good form. Straddling large loads in front is a well recognized practice in the field of moto transport. Double points for having a big bag of cucumbers in the back. Good job.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Reflections on Vietnam

Spending three days in a foreign country isn't the best way to learn everything there is to know about its culture, but I thought I'd share my subjective observations, particularly things that were visually striking (since I don't understand a word of the language).

  • moto helmets
The Vietnamese really seem to like these small, thin motorcycle helmets that look sort of like plastic bowls. Although the thicker Thai-made helmets that predominate in Cambodia would surely fail to meet DOT standards in the US, you could tell just by looking that the Vietnamese helmets are useless.

I wonder why. Maybe it's a style issue? A heat issue? (sorry for the lack of picture, maybe there will be some in the "moto of the day" series
  • mustaches
Any man over the age of 35 is legally required to have a mustache. Or so it seems. A stark contrast with Cambodia, where almost no one has a mustache without an accompanying beard.
  • inventive motos
I was very impressed with the various moto modifications I saw in Vietnam. I imagine there are a lot of shops that will build you a hauling-moto to suit your needs. I don't think such an industry exists in Cambodia. This also motivated me to start the moto of the day.
  • pushiness
People love to push, even when it's obvious it's impossible to move any further. Definitely one of those cultural things. I'd say they are just as comfortable touching people in Vietnam as the are in Cambodia, but there's less of a "loving" feeling when they do it there.
  • chinese-ness
People had lighter skin and more Chinese facial features. Still, their look was definitely different from the Chinese I've seen in the US and China. I'm not sure how to describe it. Coming from Cambodia though, the similarities were more readily apparent
  • stylish face masks
They love the custom-design face masks used when riding motos in the polluted city. I saw many colors, patterns, and even cartoon characters or writing. Very interesting (and fun).
  • horn mods
It seems that a very large percentage of autos in the cities have special horn modifications. Rather than one loud, continuous burst, the sound will be oscillating and decreasing in intensity over about a 3 or 4 second period (with just one touch of the horn). My friend tells me that people take their cars to the shop to make the modification. It adds a strange musical element to the sounds of the city.
  • Rip-off attempts
It's difficult for me to asses this because I'm not a true tourist in Cambodia (speak a small amount of language and am comfortable here), but I was in Vietnam. People seemed like they were trying to rip me off quite often, and there wasn't such a friendly feel to it when they did it. For example, in Cambodia, when someone blatantly tries to rip you off and you call them on it, they just laugh it off and then agree to the real price that you suggest. In Vietnam they seemed to try to hold their position much harder, and would use feigned anger or disappointed faces when I tried to negotiate
  • development
Overall, Vietnam is a lot more developed than Cambodia. I saw electronics factories and organized government buses, decent-looking hostpitals, etc. that are just not present here. That was in the cities though. In the countryside, things often looked fairly similar to Cambodia -- similar building materials, shack houses, crude shops, etc. Still, the fields looked fairly irrigated wherever I looked, which isn't something I can say about Cambodia.


Well, those were the big things that I noticed. There were lots of little things that I've already forgotten or didn't notice at all. The trip was very fun overall, but mostly because I spent time with 3 other Kiva Fellows. I think any other trip would have been just as fun with that group. I also had a tremendous "happiness revelation" where I was stuck in an incredibly happy mood for several hours (triggered in part through meditation on love for all beings, and in part through the incredible beauty of the mountain scenery). Life is nothing short of wonderful when you feel an unconditional love for all people (even the "bad" ones). I think that feeling is beginning to stick more, since I had a similar experience later on during my trip to the island in Koh Kong, and because I generally feel more positive feelings towards people at any given time.

- Peace and love and all that good stuff

Moto of the day

This 3-wheeled Vietnamese moto seemed to be a fairly popular style in Saigon. I'm not really sure how it works, but it seems to have the handlebars attached to the carry box. I wonder why they would choose to put the carry box in front when it would obviously be much easier to drive with a larger load if it were placed in the back (because the view of the road wouldn't be obstructed). Maybe it's a steering/control issue. Any ideas?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fruit blog

Hi all,

I just wanted to show you the half-completed Cambodian fruit blog that Drew and I are working on called "Cambodian Fruit MADNESS"

Check it out for some entertainment. Also, please see the videos in the posts below for a glimpse of Vietnam and Cambodia. (I still owe you a post about Vietnam, I know)

Koh Kong

Drew (another Kiva fellow in cambodia) and I had a great time in Koh Kong, a small town in the middle of a protected forest area near the Thai-Cambodian border (on the Cambodian side). It's difficult to explain these things in words (you should also see my earlier post), so I'll put a video here. Facebook users should also check out my page for some pictures (if you're interested).



The final day involved a trip to the Tatai river waterfall. There were a fair number of Cambodians there on holiday (Cambodian new year), and we were the only foreigners for some time. We explored up and down the river, and floated gently downstream to a very peaceful area where the flow was so slow that I sat on a submerged rock and took a nap sitting up. The drop in body temperature was something I haven't felt in Cambodia without the aid of air conditioning. A truly refreshing and peaceful experience

(it has been extremely hot as of late)

After that we visited the mangrove, which had a mysterious staircase to nowhere. It was pleasant and beautiful (the mangrove). Drew got his "cane juice" and was slapped in the leg by a monkey.

Today we came back on the bus (after I took a bucket shower due to lack of water in the pipes at the $4/night guesthouse), and there was an incredible 1 hour thunderstorm. Drew's house got flooded because he wasn't home to close the windows. That's about it! (Don't forget to check below, this is the 3rd blog post I've made today!)

Moto of the day

After seeing so many interesting motos (100cc motorbikes ubiquitous in SE asia) in Vietnam, I decided to fill some space in this blog by posting an interesting moto I've seen. Some are quite ridiculous.

First, a Cambodian moto stacked so high, I have no idea how it makes turns or stops:



Eventually, you'll be able to sort using "tags" on the right hand side. Leave a comment if you like the moto

Sa Pa video

It seems like the Sa Pa video has started working again, so I'll repost it here for those who didn't see it yet:



Also, those with facebook should check out some more pictures here (sorry, connection is too slow to upload to somewhere public too)

I'll try to give my comments on Vietnam in general very soon

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Islands... and such

First of all, I noticed my Sa Pa video didn't work, so i'll repost later.

Since one vacation wasn't enough, I"m now out in Koh Kong by the Thai border with Drew, another kiva fellow. Right now we feel like tuk-tuk drivers at 1pm on a weekday -- lazy . We had a fantastic day wandering around a completely wild island (there are a couple people living there, but there were no other tourists). Every time I looked at Drew it looked like a scene from some movie. We also cruised through a mangrove and got stuck in the mud. We had to push the boat to get out.

Other highlights:
  • lazy french tour guide who spent less than 30 minutes outside of his hammock on the boat
  • fish and sea urchins
  • sunburn
  • feeling really connected to everything, love for everything
  • running on a long bridge
  • tasty thai food
  • busy market in the morning
  • amazing moto drive in the countryside
  • rain in morning
  • wonderful everything
Backtracking, yesterday was fun.
  1. went to bus place at appointed time, were told there were no buses
  2. showed guy ticket, were then let on crowded bus
  3. 5 hrs, scenic ride, tight space, chinese movie
  4. got $4/night guesthouse, $4/day motos
  5. had fun trying not to sound uncomfortable with ribald englishmen/germans
  6. checked out beach
  7. tasty thai food
tomorrow will be more of the same. The vacations never end. We'll check out a waterfall and relish in its relative coolness. Cambodia is a hot country. Yawning and burping are the two actions being taken by my travel buddy, Drew.

Sorry, no pictures until good internet. Trust me though, it's pretty ridiculous.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sa Pa

I had an amazing time in Vietnam.

Brief summary:

  • went by 6hr bus to HoChiMinh city and interviewed for Haas (Berkeley business school)
  • took a flight to Hanoi, mini-bus to the city
  • met 3 other kiva fellows
  • took overnight train to Lao Cai (by Chinese border)
  • took 1hr bus to sapa
  • did 10km walk around amazing valley of terraced rice paddies
  • watched lightning storm at night with Kiva fellows
  • meditated in morning, felt incredible amount of "love" for everything
  • walked more in beautiful countryside, met more local hill-tribe people
  • ate watermelon in natural hot spring
  • went running in extremely hilly area, loved cool breeze (after 2 straight months of "hot")
  • explored countryside on 100cc motorbikes with buddy
  • appreciated spectacular beauty, local people
  • crashed said motorbikes with buddy
  • had fun arguing over price of repairs with owner
  • took 1 hr bus, 10hr train, 1hr bus, 2hr plane, taxi, 6hr bus
  • back home in time to sit outside with local people and enjoy Cambodian new year festivities
what a trip. I'll post more soon. Please check this video for a short summary of my adventure.



Also, check out Nathan's album of our trip on facebook

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Cambodian new year, Vietnam

Hi all,

I'm off to Vietnam tomorrow for a business school interview and then a short trip up to the northeastern part of Vietnam to hang out with 3 other Kiva fellows (Katie, Bernice, and Nathan). Should be good fun. Apparently the place (Sapa) is known for its beautiful scenery and hill tribes. Will report back with some pics and videos.

I'll be back in Cambodia on Monday night, just in time for another vacation -- Khmer new year. I don't think there's much happening in the city, so hopefully it'll be a good time to get out into the countryside and go somewhere far away. Not sure where I'll end up, but I'm leaving that up to my buddy Drew.

In the meantime, check out this video I took from my roof on monday night. It was like that for a couple of hours. I couldn't stop staring, even though I had tons of stuff to do.



(and don't worry, none of your donation money is going towards the Vietnam trip! I'm using my own for that one)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Another visit

Today I made a shorter client visit compared to the typical all-day client marathons I get involved in. I went alone to one of the sub-branches in Phnom Penh (about 1/2 km from the airport), and visited a total of 5 clients. The clients were all in fairly rural areas, even though downtown Phnom Penh is only about 10 or 15 minutes from the branch office.

It rained a fair amount last night, so riding on the dirt roads was quite a challenge. My driver was fairly skilled, but at one point I had to get off and walk on the little separators of the rice paddies because they were the only place I could move quickly without slipping. See the end of the video for more on that.

There were no clients that were particularly outstanding for any reason. This time I felt like the theme was "these people are no different than the people who live right next door. They just happened to borrow from CREDIT (through Kiva)." Understanding that these people are completely "normal" for their situation (and not trying to seek out some little detail that I could twist into a dramatic story for the website) was the challenge for this visit. I was able to feel a bit more comfortable, and as though I was just "having a chat" with some normal people. It's nice to be able to lose the perspective that these people are poor and that you are here to rescue them through your magical organization that will solve all the problems they want rescuing from. Nothing is ever that simple...

Besides the visit, my GI tract is all messed up, as usual. It also seems to be something different every time. Details and whining aside, this is one of the key, invisible benefits of living in a developed country -- not having to worry about your stomach. It really is an amazing concept. To think that you can eat practically anything that is available to you in the form of food or drink (besides obvious things), and that you have an approximately 0% chance of getting sick from it. Incredible. The productivity losses from food-borne illness alone must be tremendous. Moreover, I feel that it's a self perpetuating cycle -- people get sick, feel less motivated, put in less work (that would help economic development), less development means lower sanitation levels, people get sick. Or something to that effect. Sorry if the logic is a little sloppy; I'm lacking motivation due to GI issues... :)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Company-wide retreat

I’m now sitting in on the 3rd day meetings at CREDIT’s company-wide retreat in Sihanoukville, a resort town on the coast of Cambodia. My (highly subjective) impressions so far are mixed: it’s great to be at a beach and spend time relaxing with my workmates, but sitting through hours of meetings on the world’s most uncomfortable chairs in a hot, overcrowded hall listening to people drone on in a language I don’t understand is probably a mild form of torture. At the very least, it’s difficult to stay awake. Good thing I was smart enough to bring my laptop and sit near an outlet.

The format so far has been a half day of meetings and lectures followed by lunch, then free time. Interestingly, CREDIT was founded by a Christian organization called World Relief, so there is a significant amount of prayer incorporated into the proceedings. There are also songs (with only the cheesiest of MIDI tracks in the background), and even a sermon in the mornings. The sermon is particularly difficult, only because the speaker enjoys changing his pitch and loudness at regular intervals, which makes it really tough concentrate on whatever else I’m trying to do. It’s hard to gauge the interest level of a crowd from a completely different culture, but I would venture to guess they are relatively uninterested, judging by the constant murmur from the audience (which, I think tends to be typical here, even if the topic is somewhat serious and the audience should be paying attention).

There have been talks on goals, the mission, strategies for dealing with the economic downturn, and this year’s accomplishments. In the afternoons, the main event has been the highly anticipated all-branch volleyball tournament. There was some suggestion that I would play for the head office team, but once they saw how terrible I am, they decided against it. As an aside, Cambodians seem to be particularly strong at volleyball, soccer, and badminton. There’s a makeshift court where locals play for money in an abandoned lot across the street from our office.

Last night there was a singing contest, which you should check out here. Really amusing. They really are conservative here; the CD jackets (and the clothes they wear when they dance!) look like they’re straight out of the 1940s US pop scene.

(you can see it around the middle of the video below)

Besides the organized activities, the general theme has been “bonding,” which takes the form of drinking and acting stupid on the beach (amongst colleagues my age). Lots of silliness (and attempts to get me to drink), but nothing worthy of mention other than the “dinner” incident. On the first evening, the guys from the head office (where I work) spent the afternoon drinking and acting silly on the beach. I had lots of fun just messing around with them, even without drinking. They all decided to jump in the water, but several of them were unprepared, and went in wearing their underwear. Sothea happened to be wearing “tighty-whities” which are fairly see-through when wet. He was the butt of many playful jokes, and had to tie a shirt around his waist for the sake of decency. After a bit, we rode back to the hotel in one of the company pickups (7 riding inside, 12 in the back). When we pulled up (shouting and blasting the crazy techno), all 350 members of CREDIT had already taken their seats for dinner at the tables set up outside. All attention was on us. A couple of us realized how improperly dressed Sothea was for the occasion, and someone removed his shirt-skirt and ran off. As everyone jumped out of the back of the pickup, poor Sothea was left alone and shouting for his clothes, drawing even more attention to himself. As a participant, it was one of the most hilarious episodes I’ve experienced in a long time. I sort of wish I had a video, but I don’t think anything short of a full-production movie could do that scene justice.

Hopefully we’ll get the chance to get out to an island today instead of just sitting on the beach (I’m never one for just relaxing – always have to keep moving!). Well, 45 more minutes of unintelligible lectures, and then it’s lunch time!

Here's a summary video of the whole retreat.



For those who didn’t get a chance to see them, please check out these videos of borrowers I visited, as well as their profiles (if you have the time). I think the first two or three videos are the most interesting, so definitely check them out (or just browse the videos in the lower-right section once you’re on youtube)



(to see more videos, please click here)

Updates about borrowers:

broom maker
fruit seller
grocery store owner
tailor
broom maker #2
renter
silversmith
repairman

Saturday, March 21, 2009

To Bangkok

Yesterday I got on a plane to Bangkok in preparation for a business school interview. I had spent about one month in Cambodia, and had gotten fairly used to the weather, lifestyle, and general atmosphere there. When I got to the airport, I was surprised by the relative cleanliness and sophistication of the facilities. I didn't realize the magnitude of the surprises that awaited me in Bangkok...

I stared out the window intently as we rose and headed west to Thailand. My general impressions were: dry, brown, and flat, dotted with intermittent solitary palm trees. Rising higher, there was little evidence of human development on the ground. As we passed above the Cardomom mountains, the scenery below changed to the deep green of unspoiled forest, shaded by surreal, towering clouds illuminated by the setting sun (I'll never cease to be amazed by the views afforded by a window seat in an airplane).

As we began the descent of our one hour flight, the clouds cleared and I looked down on the Thai countryside with amazement; the landscape was a deep green, and was neatly divided into long, rectangular plots. A closer look revealed that these fields were productive, despite having to combat the same dry climate that Cambodia faces during this period. What was different?

Infrastructure.

(Or so I suspect.) Without massive irrigation projects, none of the farms could have been producing anything in this weather. Case and point are the rice plots that lay idle to the east of the Cambodian-Thai border. The contrast was so dramatic, it forced me to think seriously about what it takes to get people out of poverty.

Given my recent infatuation with social entrepreneurship, I think I have enshrined the idea that one person can make a huge difference by creating innovative, scalable solutions to specific problems facing the poor. Kiva, a website recognized by many as one of "the best" in terms of social impact, only strengthened the thought that the best path for me would be to emulate other successful social entrepreneurs and form my own organization to address an unseen problem, or to approach an old one using new tools. But the contrast of the vast expanses of green and brown made me think -- would it really make a difference without a supportive infrastructure? Is old-fashioned economic development the most effective way to help? Especially considering the recent thoughtful conversation among the Kiva fellows through email about the ineffectiveness of microfinance at solving poverty, the argument for development has taken a strong hold in my mind. To make any real, sustainable progress, the people of Cambodia need clean water, irrigation, roads, freedom from preventable disease, and education -- the same things we take for granted every day in America.

Would it be more effective for me to work on development than to become a social entrepreneur? I'm not really sure. But I know that without the support of basic infrastructure, the poor will take a long time to work their way out of poverty if they depend solely on access to credit as a solution to their myriad problems.

So, what should I do?

(This is a bit of a tangent, but I always wonder about the balance between the environment and development -- if development allows the poor to escape the suffering imposed by poverty, but destroys the greater environment in the process, is it worth it? Is there even an answer to the question? Am I completely devoid of compassion for asking? Furthermore, is blindly pushing for economic development ignoring the importance of a happy life? Poor Cambodians don't seem terribly unhappy, despite their poor health and material poverty. Is there really a need to force development on people if they don't ask for it? Does anybody know the answers?? Please tell me...)

Check out this video of one of the borrowers we visited recently. The inside of the "kitchen" reminded me that poverty is very real. And still, the family smiled a lot and didn't seem unhappy... hmmm

Monday, March 2, 2009

A weak stomach

It seems that my stomach is not prepared for food in Cambodia. To make a very rough (and probably wildly incorrect) estimate, I’d say that I’ve had stomach issues for about half of the days that I’ve been here. The issues have varied a lot, but the end result is that I can’t operate at full capacity. It’d be nice not to have to think about the normal operation of my GI tract, which I guess is just one more thing I take for granted when living in incredibly developed America.

The latest illness involved diarrhea, followed by abdominal pain, followed by a fever in the evening. I decided that I didn’t want it to progress any further, so I let myself take some antibiotics (azithromycin) before going to bed (I learned that it’s OK to take a single dose of an antibiotic when dealing with stomach issues that involve fever. There’s no need to complete the course because the majority of the pathogens are still in the GI tract, and thus are eliminated in one dose). When I woke up in the morning, the fever was gone, and I felt good enough to go on a short run. I tried to eat afterwards, but it still hurts a bit. Hopefully things will get better after this.

Oh yeah, I picked up a bike yesterday for $35. It was a sweet deal. Apparently they import used bikes from Japan, fix them up (usually just involves removing anything that’s broken and then spray painting it so it looks new), and then sell them. My bike is from Saitama, probably from the late 90s. The guy at the bike shop put some sweet decals on it for me, including a rose and something that looks like a computer graphic made around 1989. My housemate Julie also bought a bike, but her brake cable broke about 10 minutes after we left the shop. Fortunately, the guy at the bike shop felt bad and replaced it for free. Other than that, I’ve been trying to study, but it’s tough when it’s hot and dark in the apartment. There’s just not enough light in there.

I also picked up a durian, which cost about 2.5 dollars per kilo. That’s still not a great price (I was offered $2 before), but better than the $3 I got when I bought one a week or two ago. I think the season is coming…

Work is slow because my Kiva coordinator is out today. Apparently he injured himself playing soccer on the weekend. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to put off my visit to borrowers for some later time.

Sorry for the lazy post. I don’t have too much energy today.

I leave you with a video of an interesting snack I bought off the street.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

As promised

Another quick post to tell you what's been happening here lately.

Recently, I've been working on trying to increase the efficiency here at CREDIT. Sometimes the guys are a little lazy with the work, so part of my efforts are directed at trying to manage without micromanaging. It's tough to keep my Kiva Coordinator focused when his boss is out visiting sub-branches. He'd rather chat on Skype or read newspapers. I can't really blame him though. His job primarily consists of translating page after page of borrower profiles and updates from the field. Eventually the stories start to look the same, and it just becomes drone work.

I think that's one of the most difficult aspects of the whole Kiva-MFI relationship. Kiva needs talented bilinguals to work with them on getting information about borrowers on the website. By nature, those who are very good at other languages tend to be more curious and creative than those who don't make the extra effort needed to learn a very different language. However, the work that we want them to do is outright boring, and becomes nothing more than an endless grind of translating handwritten documents and inputting the information into the website. No wonder the turnover rate for Kiva coordinators can be so high.

Anyways, I've been focusing on figuring out ways to take the load off of the coordinator so he/she can focus on other work. I had a couple of ideas, but none seem to be perfect, and one was rejected by the crew at Kiva headquarters.

  • let the kiva coordinator just translate forms word for word, and have native english speaking volunteers in America create well-written profiles out of them. In web 2.0 speak, crowdsource the creation of the profiles and journal updates from the basic info. This would prevent burnout because a lot of effort goes into trying to craft grammatically correct sentences.
  • Use various programs to reduce the amount of useless, repetitive work that is required to upload a user profile or journal update
  • For increasing the journaling rate of the field officers -- create a program that will automatically collect the comments generated in response to each post that was created from a field officer's journal update information, and send it as a printout (because of lack of internet) to the sub branches. This means that field officers see other field officer's posts and resulting comments, which would hopefully generate some competition and drive people to get more and better information. It's pretty fun to read comments that people write in response to your stuff...
  • other random ideas that are still brewing
I also figured out a process where my coordinator and I can create about 8 journal updates per hour without getting completely burned out. It just involves being clever with keyboard shortcuts and making him do the minimum amount of translation work as possible. Using that method we've done about 55 journals in 3 days, with plenty of time for other work.

I've been trying to plan a visit to the field, but it's a bit difficult to coordinate, but I'm being very pushy, and have scheduled two visits to nearby areas next week. Hopefully we can go farther afield the week after that. Angkor Wat, anyone?

I think I had the most delicious meal I've eaten here for lunch today. I made a video, sorry for the shakiness. Just believe me when I say it was incredibly satisfying, and that the onions in the stew were heavenly.



And with that, it's time for a weekend! My plans? Get a bicycle, soak my clothes in insect repellent, buy some socks, and study study study.

(I forgot to mention that we were blessed with the presence of Alex, a member of the Kiva board and an absolute riot. He reminds me of some 70s rocker, but with a razor sharp wit. Hanging out with him means laughing every 30 seconds or so)

A quick week

Things seem to go a lot faster than I want them to here. There doesn't seem to be anywhere near enough time in the day to do things I want and need to do. This probably also stems from not having internet access at home, which is something I'll have to get comfortable with.

I like to consider last week to be a "warm up" of sorts for my fellowship. I wasn't living at my real apartment (I was still at a guest house with the number of rats at least equaling the number of human guests), I had the flu and then some strange stomach thing where I couldn't eat or it really hurt, I was still getting used to the heat, and I went to a conference for a couple days which was not worth my time.

I moved in to my apartment last weekend. It's a great place, and has more locks than are probably necessary. Although I guess you never know in a country like this. More to come on the apartment and the old deaf-mute who lives downstairs in a later post.

I've finally settled, and have been able to cook for myself, at least for breakfast and dinner. I think that's really saved me, because my stomach couldn't really manage to adjust while trying to maintain some semblance of a vegetarian diet (I admit to eating bits of fish and meat on several occasions, partially out of necessity). I found a great marketplace near my apartment where I grab vegetables, tofu, and fruit. I'd love to show you a video when I get the chance. The markets are like some crazy, sweaty, smelly, overheated labyrinth. More to come on that later

I have an established running route, and the heat is not so bad in the mornings. I think I'm starting to get the protein (or some other nutrient) I need to be able to exercise thanks to my cooking, because before about today, anytime I went running, my legs felt incredibly weak, particularly my quads. I just need to get up about 5 minutes earlier to make it on time to work, which starts at 7:30 here.

The water that comes out of the shower smells terrible, sort of like it's been sitting in a rusting iron tank. I suspect this might be the case. One of the few things I miss about home is not having to worry about not getting the water in your mouth when showering.

I started getting lessons from a Cambodian tutor who tutored a friend from Stanford a few years back. She's a great tutor, and really knows how to tailor her plans to the particular student. Best of all, lessons are $5 an hour, an absolutely amazing value. I try to go 5 days a week, sometimes for more than an hour. Side note - I have to go to her family home in the residential area because both of her legs are broken. This happened because her dad was drunk when pulling the car into the house, and hit her. It's been about 6 months now, and she had to get one leg "fixed" in Vietnam because it wasn't healing properly.

I'm getting used to riding on the back of motoscooter/cycles. It's still pretty frightening though if you think about what would happen if you fell off. Accidents are very common, and I saw one right in front of me. My friend got thrown from his moto-taxi in an accident after being here for only a week!

There are lots of little things that have taken some getting used to, but they're not really worth complaining about because they are just that -- little things. I'd rather talk about the more interesting stuff with you.

Most interestingly, yesterday was payday at the MFI (microfinance institution) that I volunteer at. The guys were giddy all day, and barely did any work. As soon as the clock hit 5, it was time to go to the pool hall. I forgot to take a video, but it basically looks like pool but with larger tables and smaller pockets, and a whole bunch of red balls. The game is called snook-ah or something to that effect. I played at the losers table because I suck.

Here's a video of us getting in the car, which is exciting because I've been riding on the backs of "motos" for the past 2 weeks. Cars feel safe.



Next, we went to a local restaurant with a beach sort of theme. They had delicious food. My buddies started drinking and were on my case about it, so I had a couple of beers to appease them. I haven't had a drink in quite a long time, and after the two beers, I remembered that I wasn't missing out on anything. Anyways, they proceeded to get really drunk, and I took lots of video that you would find wholly uninteresting. The restaurant and drinking was what they called "step 1." After everyone had their fill, the bill for the feast/drinkfest came -- less than $10 a person.

Step 2 was the highly anticipated Karaoke bar. I was excited, because at least there would be some singing involved. However, there were a lot of suggestive comments made by the guys before we went, so I was a bit suspicious. When we got there, there were maybe 20 dressed up girls waiting by the door, and it became clear that it was some sort of hostess thing, with possible shady inuendos (at least from my decisively western perspective). We got to the room which was a big thing with couches lining the wall and a big TV in the middle. Probably the most well-built room I've been to in Cambodia besides the casino (for the conference), which should tell you a little about how much money must be going through there.

I thought the singing would commence immediately, and I really wanted some water. Instead, the others waited excitedly, telling me that I have to choose "the most prettiest girl," and that I would be third in the order. It was extremely difficult for me to explain that I felt uncomfortable because I come from a different culture. They just wouldn't have any of it. I refused to choose, but one of the guys brought someone over who spoke English. I felt tremendously uncomfortable, especially when they suggested that it was "good to touch, ok to kiss!" and things of that nature. Perhaps the strangest thing to me was that half of the guys in the room were in relationships or married. BUT! I ask that you refrain from judging them, because as I came to realize, my discomfort stemmed only from the fact that the cultural perception of what's acceptable for America and Cambodia is simply different. Or, at least that's what I told myself to avoid overreacting and losing face with the group I'll be working with for the next 4 months.

Anyways, I was very fortunate because the girl they chose had agreed with her manager beforehand that she would only translate, and do nothing more than that. I was quite relieved when she told me that. I only felt uncomfortable when the guys would occasionally come over and try to mash us together or put my arm on her. Fortunately, she wasn't having any of it either, so they eventually left us alone (or fell asleep from the drink)

Watching the others interact was really strange. I guess it's "ok" to touch and kiss and do other things like that. I had to suppress any feelings about the terrible male/female inequality of the situation, but again, it's a cultural thing, and honestly, I don't know the right way to feel about it. I still think that acting antagonistically towards such a display as a visitor in a country is a pretty bad idea though, regardless of how I might feel.

I did manage to sing one song, "it's now or never." I did my best Elvis voice while the guys did some strange dancing, which was lots of fun. After that it was back to awkwardness, and eventually I decided it was time to go as things quieted down. My bag was in a friend's car, but I just left it there so I could make my getaway. Fortunately, my house was only 1/2 a block away, so I got home and went right to sleep.

So yeah, quite an experience.

This morning I had a bit of diarrhea, which is unfortunate since I know it was caused by the delicious food at that restaurant. I'm just glad it decided to wait until 10 seconds after I returned to my apt. from my run.

A funny side note, today I was told we were going to have a snack around 2pm. Something about eggs. A bowl of what looked like hard boiled eggs that were battered and fried were brought in, along with an accompanyment of pepper, lime, and some sort of herb. Here's what happened (please watch the video).



Yes, that was a half-formed duck embryo in there. Not what I expected at all. Still, I finished it. It's not that bad as long as you don't think about it or look at it too much. Learn more about it here.

Well, that's all for now. Time to go home. Thanks for reading, and hopefully I'll do another post tomorrow.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Phnom Penh Afternoon

(note: I'll be posting this to the Kiva Fellows blog in a little bit, which should explain the different style of the post)

Hi KF blog readers,

My name is Jeff Zira, and I’m a Kiva Fellow (round 7) in Cambodia. I’ll be working with the MFI CREDIT in the capital city, Phnom Penh, for about four months. I’m very excited to start my fellowship here, and am looking forward to meeting clients so I can learn firsthand how microfinance affects them.

I arrived at the tiny, one-lane-runway airport, where three guys from CREDIT were waiting to pick me up. The heat was intense, with the humid sunshine beating down on the dusty roads near the airport. I was taken to my guesthouse, and then my MFI so I could introduce myself. I felt immediately comfortable among the friendly, welcoming staff. I had my first taste of delicious Khmer food at CREDIT’s group lunch, which only cost one dollar.

However, after a few hours, I realized that the I aches I was feeling were not a result of sitting in uncomfortable seats on the plane, but were early symptoms of the flu. Not a great way to start my adventure.

I spent the weekend trying to orient myself and adjust to the heat (the heat proved to be the more trying of the two tasks). Not only was my body’s thermostat still set on “winter mode,” but the flu kept switching my sense of temperature from fever to chills and then back to fever. Sleeping was not easy.

I did manage to make it out to Wat Phnom though, one of the most important temples in Phnom Penh. Since I’m more familiar with very low-key Japanese Buddhist shrines and temples, the colors and music surprised me.



On Monday, I made my condition worse by eating something that made my GI tract hurt so much I couldn’t eat for 24 hours. Still, as I rode home from work on the back of an unsafe moto-bike in the rush-hour traffic, I noticed my mood steadily improving. Maybe it was the heat, the dizziness from the flu, or the lightheadedness from my fast, but I felt incredibly alive. I felt so in awe of the epic beauty of the massive pinkish clouds, so connected to the vibrant life emanating from the throngs of people and shouting children, so rejuvenated by the uniquely "Cambodian" pop music, and so warmed by the heat of the evening and the playful shouts of teenagers in the streets that I couldn’t help smiling all the way home.

This country is so full of life and excitement. I can’t wait to get to know it better.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Arrived!

After 16 hours in transit from Tokyo, I’ve finally arrived in Phnom Penh. My experience with the flights was surprisingly pleasant, despite a 7 hour layover in Singapore (from 1:30 to 8:30 in the morning -- nothing to see even if I left the airport). I managed to get four hours of very good sleep on some chairs in the airport, so I feel great. Well, that’s an exaggeration; I’m almost certain the body aches I’m experiencing are symptoms of the flu. Not the best way to start my trip, but my excitement overwhelms any self-pity I’m tempted to feel.

The airport at Phnom Penh was tiny. There were only two spots for planes to park, and the runway was a single lane. Fairly surprising for a capital city.
I met up with my friend Drew (another Kiva Fellow), whose flight arrived 45 minutes after mine, a fairly incredible coincidence since we scheduled our flights over a month ago without any knowledge of each other’s existence. The guys from my MFI, CREDIT, were waiting outside with a sign. It was hot. It’s still hot. I guess I expected that. We hopped in the truck, and I noted that it looked a fair amount like Thailand, just a bit dirtier and less built-up.

We stopped briefly at our guesthouse to throw my bags down, and then I was off to the office to meet CREDIT’s employees. Everyone is very friendly, and most people speak English beyond the level I expected. I was quickly invited to the communal lunch, which only costs a dollar and tasted great: white rice, a fish and green vegetable soup, and a spicy meat dish with green beans and bell peppers that was somewhat reminiscent of a Thai dish. The format works out well because I don’t even have to tell them I’m a vegetarian -- I just avoid eating the meat!



I spent the afternoon learning names and asking about work. The guys are very friendly and seem excited to take me out with them when they hang out playing pool or table tennis. I would have taken them up on their offer to show me around tonight, but I already arranged to meet two other Kiva Fellows tonight to celebrate our arrival!

Here’s a shot from the hot, dusty balcony, a good summary of my impressions of Cambodia so far.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ready to go

In the midst of all the traveling I’ve done in the past few weeks (LA, San Francisco, Sacramento, Michigan, Japan, and now Cambodia), I’ve hardly had any time to reflect on my situation or how I feel about it. Most recently, I spent a week in Tokyo after being away for about four months. It was an odd experience; I felt as though I haven’t been away long enough to have forgotten anything, but simply being there reminded me of all the details that once defined my life. To wax slightly philosophically, it was a vivid reminder of the ever-changing nature of the world. Many things changed imperceptibly, such as the crops in the field next door, the angle of the sun, and the look of some of the buildings. However, when taken together, these changes were enough to make me aware that my memories are not actual representations of what was once there, but artificial mental constructs that capture the narrow perspective I held at the time. It’s nice to be reminded sometimes.

I had a really great time seeing my friends and visiting favorite places. It was even more fun to have someone with me whose personality and tastes are so closely matched with my own to share the adventures with. My brother Aaron is setting off on his own adventure; he’ll be living alone in Tokyo while trying to find a job and clearing tedious legal hurdles to a long-term visa. I showed Aaron all of my favorite spots and gave him a crash course in navigating the idiosyncrasies of Japanese society. In the end though, he’ll have to discover most of it by himself (which is true for most things in life, I guess).

Japan also gave me the time I needed to find my balance through meditation. I occasionally skipped sessions or allowed my mind to be filled with busy thoughts in the hectic weeks up until I left, but with the chance to have uninterrupted time to myself in the mornings, I’ve rediscovered how wonderful life can be when I live in a heightened state of awareness.

As for the future, I’m not really sure what I should expect when I arrive in Cambodia. I think I’ve prepared myself (mentally) as best I could, so there is nothing left but to wait and see how it actually unfolds. I don’t really have any reservations about anything. Maybe the mosquitoes? The heat? But even those are nothing more than trivial concerns. I think the best way to describe my mood is cautious exuberance. I’m really excited to go and make a contribution, but I’m not setting any expectations that might hurt me later on if they aren’t fulfilled. I’m very, very ready.

In a few hours, I’ll board my flight to Singapore, where I’ll be from 1:30am to 8:15am. I think I’ll find a nice place to nap and wait it out. I doubt there’s much going on in the city at that time.

Here’s a shot of the dormant rice fields that shone so vividly green and gold when I last rode the train from downtown Tokyo to the airport, a reminder that even beautiful things don't last

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Halfway there!

I’m excited to announce that as of yesterday, I have officially passed the halfway point for my fundraising goals. After receiving my 20th donation, I’ve now collected $2540, over half of the $5000 I hope to raise. That covers my plane ticket and housing -- my two largest expenses!

It’s really amazing to witness everyone’s generosity firsthand, especially for someone who hasn’t done any fundraising since elementary school. Not to say that I underestimated my donors, but I really didn’t expect to collect as much as I have in such a short period of time. Thank you all so much!!

For those who are interested, you can see a list of donors on my page in the column on the right: http://kiva.jeffzira.com. Please note that I didn’t put full names or initials because I didn’t really want to make it into a competition or embarrass those who couldn’t give as much. I just put the first initial and the amount donated so my donors can see their contributions. (Am I’m going a bit far by hiding identities?)

An interesting tidbit -- I spoke to a former Kiva Fellow who just returned to Japan from Cambodia, and she mentioned that there really isn’t a way to fundraise for things like this in Japan. Apparently, it’s tough to ask people for money, even if it’s obviously for a charitable cause. I’m so glad you all were so willing to help me out!

I’m actually “halfway there” in more than one way; I’m also at the physical midpoint of my travels, Japan. Right now, I’m sitting next to my brother, Aaron, who is now living in the same apartment building I did when I worked in Japan. I stopped here to help him get set up as he tries to find an English teaching job. In two days, I’ll be off to Singapore, then Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the last I’ll see of winter until next year.

Finally, here’s a shot of Aaron in a mountain of broccoli leaves in the field next to his apartment.