By: Nick Branch
Since the summer of 2012 when I began training for the Peace Corps I have had many worldly experiences. I just recently have begun to feel nostalgia and want to recount my experiences all at once beginning with my initial training. I’ll just cover some of my experiences and what daily life is like in Cambodia to give you an idea of what I have been doing over here. The Peace Corps has been one of the most transformational times of my life. It has been a long time since I have been in the United States, and I still have six and a half more months left of service. There is a lot to look back on, but I guess the best place to start is with my home away from home.
When I first arrived in Cambodia, I was in the capitol city of Phnom Pehn for about 2 days. Phnom Pehn is a bustling city where no one seems to follow any sort of traffic laws. Transportation is disorganized and chaotic. Motorcycles are everywhere ignoring signals and driving erratically. I also had drugs openly offered to me, and experienced an overwhelming odor I can only describe as a mix of dried meat and durian (a large, thorn-covered fruit with a pungent odor, actually popular in Cambodia). It was impossible for me to handle the stench of that fruit.
I could see the industrial progress being made throughout the Cambodian streets my first few days there. They were constructing skyscrapers, roads were more often paved, and I-Phones could be spotted everywhere. As I left the city with my other eager, yet culture shocked Peace Corps volunteers, we began to experience the full extent of the poverty Cambodia faces. In the outskirts of Phnom Pehn, the road was not as maintained. Metal and wooden shacks could be seen everywhere. The abundance of trash everywhere made me feel ashamed I didn’t recycle more back in the United States and caused me to realize how lucky were are to have a waste system that keeps our streets and parks clean. As we left the modern bubble of Phnom Pehn we observed a country-side spotted with ornate temples on mountain sides and rice fields that went on for what seemed like forever. After two hours, me along with 59 other jet-lagged Americans arrived at our new home for the next two months: Takeo.
After a couple of days at a guesthouse in the provincial Takeo, we were off to meet our host families at one of the local pagodas (a tiered tower usually used for religious purposes) in our training district. Before I moved in with my wonderful training host family I knew three words in Khmer, “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Dragon fruit”…I was almost fluent. Moving into my host family’s house was one of the most difficult experiences I have ever had. It was surreal to me. A wave of doubt and uncertainty grew over me as I walked up to the door. “How am I going to do this for two years if I already doubt myself?” Upon entering, two little kids ran up to me (my two host brothers) speaking Khmer and I had no idea what they were saying. My lunch was immediately prepared, and I ate in silence with the family pondering to myself “How many times can I say dragon fruit for an answer to their questions?” To my relief, I discovered that my host mother knew a little English, so the debilitating awkward interaction became just an uncomfortable awkward.
Learning the language was one of the first challenges I faced. The Khmer alphabet is spelled out in script, and we learned everything through phonetics (which we sometimes made up ourselves), though we would use the alphabet frequently for proper pronunciation. There was an opportunity to learn how to write and read on top of simple communication, but I stuck to just learning to speak. After a while we successfully picked up phrases and were able to function within the community a little bit better. To improve my language skills, I went to the market, practiced with my family, and studied every night. Day by day it improved. Learning the language also made the volunteers closer by sharing what we knew and laughing about our daily embarrassing moments.
After two months of training, all the volunteers were about to be relocated to their permanent sites. Before placement, trainees had an interview and voiced what they would like out of their location and experience. Some wanted beaches or mountains while some wanted to be as isolated as possible. I wanted a more rural location that was close enough to a big town. I was lucky enough and got just that. I was stationed just outside of Battambang, Cambodia. Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia, and is a cultural and art hub for many Khmer artists and foreigners. It is located only about three hours away from Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, a temple complex and one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
My site is located about an hour outside of the provincial town and about two hours away from the Thailand border. I tried to bike to Thailand one time, but my tire blew out and I was stranded for a while, hungry and defeated. Oh well, I thought, next time.
When I first arrived in Cambodia, I came with the intent of initiating projects and being a hyper-productive volunteer. I immediately lowered my expectations upon entering the health center for the first time. The health center is where I primarily work and I continue to visit about three times a week. When I first went to the health center I had no real direction and lacked an interest for working here. Since working at this location I have tried weighing babies, educating mothers, working in the pharmacy, and helping with whatever I could. It was frustrating at the beginning and can still be now, but now I know what my strengths are and the full impact I can have here. I currently measure blood pressure for the inpatient population at the health center. I talk to patients and ask what their symptoms are. I ask a couple of questions about their habits (smoking and exercise) and then take readings and explain in Khmer what the numbers mean for the patients. On a previous vaccination run I took blood pressure cuffs and went to two different villages to measured blood pressure for about 60 women and kids. Some of these people had never had their blood pressure taken before, so it was rewarding to be able do them this service. Sometimes the villagers are so grateful that they will give me fruit or a hug. It gives me a reason to be at the health center and most of the time I really enjoy it. My work here can be difficult or repetitive; however it has caused me to be more creative in reaching people with lifesaving health instruction.
The next six months will focus on an important project I hope to complete before my time is up. I am currently working with 10 school students who will become peer health educators in their community. They will be taught valuable skills such as measuring blood pressure and constructive hand washing stations. In turn they are expected to teach the community members and younger kids. The hardest part has been arranging meetings with the kids and getting them to actually show up. It can be discouraging at times when this happens, but I am happy I was given this task and will be excited to see my hard work pay off. I have come to understand that work and progress just happens slower in Cambodia, and that is something I have to work around.
I am at a point in my service where I am looking forward to returning home. I have tried many new things, I have failed, and I have had successes. I’m comfortable in my everyday life here, but I am excited to see what is next for my future. Peace Corps life would have been very difficult had it not been for the support of my family, friends, and those other crazy volunteers in Cambodia that I made connections with. I know that it will be an emotional day for me when I leave Cambodia. I hope that my work will pay off and that I am able to change as many lives as possible. For all its ups and downs, it has become an experience I will take with me and remember every day.