Time to say Goodbye

All good things must come to an end, right? Such is the case here. As of July 2010, I'm moving this blog to a new location with an intentionally similar http address, for maximum confusion: http://katepieper.wordpress.com.

I've enjoyed sharing my thoughts and photos here, but there are some technical reasons for moving, which don't really merit mention. So, while it's always a little difficult to change, even on the internet, it's inevitable. But this is a good change, at least from my perspective.

Please, head over to the new blog, and I'd love it if you'd share your thoughts on change, layouts, and web presence while you're there.


How Long It Takes

Two months. One year. Five weeks. Six months. Two rainy seasons. I occasionally feel like my life is measured in milestones, in the amount of time that has passed between one thing and another.

Volunteers want to know various things about my life, all of them measured in time. Unfailingly, someone in each group we host asks, "How long did it take you to get used to driving here?" The question used to irritate me because I'd answered it so many times, but now I just smile and explain: I started driving because I had to. Not much room for an adjustment process when you're handed the keys and told to go for it.

Cambodians want to know how long I've lived here. When I say, "Three years," they reply, "Oh, you can speak Khmer very clearly." Sometimes we have this exchange entirely in English.

People ask me about the last time I was in the US, and "how long before you'll go back?" I never know how to answer that one; the process of scheduling a visit can be tricky, balancing work and family visits, trying to leave and return when we're not so busy here.

A friend asked me yesterday, "How long did it take before you felt content in Cambodia?" I appreciated the nuance of the question. It's not "at home" or "comfortable" or "settled," things which I feel intermittently in varying degrees. Instead, it's contentment, something that I can (and do) feel now. For the most part, I have made a home here, I feel comfortable, and I am settled. Even after all of that, I still choose contentment, choose not to long for other places, things I can't or don't have.

At this point, the only question I can't answer is the one I'm asked most often: "How long will you stay in Cambodia?"

These days, I'm tempted to reply, "However long it takes."


Laos: Water & Waterfalls

I've done a fair bit of travel in the region recently, beginning with my trip to Southern Laos in April, but I haven't mentioned it much here, mostly because I've been distracted. Now, though, I'm going to post some photos from wandering around Cambodia and Laos, with a few thoughts. Then, tomorrow, I'm off again, this time to Bangkok for a weekend.

We'll start with Laos. The bridge above is from Pakse, the biggest city in Southern Laos, located approximately 90 minutes from the Cambodian border, and less than 100 km from the Thai border. We were astonished to find that it's much bigger than Cambodian provincial cities, despite Laos' smaller overall population. We didn't spend much time in Pakse, other than eating one night at one of the nicer hotels, and then staying another night on our way back to Cambodia at the end of our trip. Instead, we spent most of our time finding and enjoying waterfalls.

These photos are both from Khone Phapheng falls, on the Mekong river near the Cambodian border. We swam in the pool created by the water in the second picture. It was very cold, although the three naked kids who were also swimming there (and are not pictured) seemed to be enjoying it. We traveled to Laos during Laos (and Khmer) New Year, so at each of the places we visited, there were a lot of other people picnicking, swimming, or cooling off. April is the hottest time of year in Cambodia/Laos, so sitting near enough to the falls to enjoy some of the spray is a nice way to spend an afternoon. At Khone Phapheng, there was a fairly large market area, where we were even able to pick up a latte for the ride back to our guesthouse.

We arrived at Tad Lo, in what is called the Bolaven Plateau, at the height of Laos New Year, so the place was packed with people traipsing through the market area (and gambling on the street), swimming in the falls, and even perched at the top of the falls, eating. In the background, Laos music was blaring from the restaurant closest to the falls. There was also truly bad karaoke, fueled by Beerlao and lao lao and we wisely chose not to take part. The Tad Lo falls aren't very tall, so the attraction seems to be the various pools of water, as the falls start farther upriver, and finally end in the picture above. From there, the river is much calmer, and as we trekked over a bridge, through the market, and back to our guesthouse just as the sun was setting, we could see many of the residents preparing to bathe.

We had one truly bad meal in Laos (the rest were just slow to arrive), and it was in Tad Lo, at a restaurant recommended to us by the owner of our guesthouse. Unsurprisingly, the place was run by his aunt. I'm still not sure what they put in the coconut shakes (I suspect canned coconut milk, not fresh), but they were seriously greasy, which is unusual in this part of the world. Fortunately, the nephew ran his guesthouse much better, and although we 'roughed it' (as much as I'm willing to rough anything, that is), the only drawback from our stay in Tad Lo were clothes that smelled a bit like the wood fire our neighbors were using. The highlight was definitely the three Lao teens who decided they needed their photo taken with me. I've intermittently wondered where those photos ended up, and who those guys claim is in the picture with them.

After Tad Lo, we weren't intending to find any more waterfalls, but Tad Suong was on our route back to Pakse so we pulled off and trekked with a lot of other people to see this giant waterfall. We parked at the top of the falls, and then made our way to the head of the falls (above), which is also a huge picnic ground. Here's a tip: if you're planning to hang out with the rest of the Lao people at Tad Suong, you can buy a case of Beerlao and simply put it in the river to stay cool while you relax. In the dry season, you can walk around at the top of the falls, almost to the edge. The figures in orange at the edge of the photo are the monks, who have set up a small temple near the falls.

It didn't take long to realize that we could make our way to the bottom of the falls as well, so we hiked down what felt like two hundred stairs (carved out of the mountain) to get to this view. The falls were breathtaking, and I can only imagine what they look like now that it's the rainy season and there's more water. After months of dry, dusty Cambodian weather, spending time near the cool rivers of Laos and the green landscape was refreshing. We didn't venture into the water at Tad Suong, although we watched quite a few daring Lao youth dive in from rocks close to the falls. The rest of the swimmers hung back in calmer water, striking poses for their girlfriends or families to photograph. We all clambered for a foothold on the slippery riverbank as there were far too many people trying to go up and down the stairs, which ended on a cliff overlooking the pool.

Along with the tourists, it seems that photography is a brisk business at Tad Suong, with lots of enterprising photographers attempting to persuade us to pay them to take our photo. What was most entertaining was watching these guys try to keep their lenses dry when the breeze kicked up the spray from the falls.

Waterfalls, believe it or not, were actually a secondary pursuit. Our initial goal in visiting Laos was to see the 4,000 Islands (or Si Phan Don), which range in size from Don Khong, where we stayed for three nights, to really large rocks jutting out of the water. All of the islands are located in the Mekong river, which we traversed by boat quite a bit during our stay. At their southernmost point, Si Phan Don actually border Cambodia, and we spent a morning making our way to the south side of Don Khon island, where we took small boats to see Irrawady dolphins. We actually spotted the fins of at least a couple members of this endangered species, although snapping a picture was fairly difficult. We also traveled back to Don Dhet (just north of Don Khon) to go kayaking, and then spent a pleasant hour or two swimming in the Mekong. Sadly, the dolphins didn't join us.

We stayed a few nights at a "resort" along the Mekong, maybe 30 kilometers north of the border. Although they had great food, the main attraction was staying on the river, which lulled us to sleep at night. As we learned (or re-learned), sometimes "resort" doesn't mean what you think it means. In this case, it meant: "nice rooms, but keep an eye out for stray water buffalo."

One of our favorite adventures was the day we tried to find the market. According to the "concierge" at the "resort" there was a small market about 7 km away, where we could purchase a soccer ball, etc. to play on the grounds. We set off in the truck to find this market, and... ended up driving to Pakse (an hour and a half). However, before we trekked all the way to Pakse, we cruised some local Lao villages, where we tried out our (oh-so-limited) Lao language talents, tried to persuade people that they could speak a little Khmer, and then exercised our Thai. We also crossed a rickety wooden bridge (pictured above), which was probably ill-advised, but provided a little extra heart-pounding suspense and adrenaline. Even more so when, after crossing, we discovered there was no way back to the main highway and were forced to turn around and cross it again.

The worst part? The market that the resort staff sent us to was actually the dock for all the small boats over to Don Dhet island, which we found the next day when we went to go see the dolphins. It was packed with people, including other tourists, and there were lots of soccer balls for sale. We bought sunglasses instead.

All in all, it was a really great trip, with lots of time spent outdoors. The drive through Cambodia was also really beautiful, as it took us through Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, places I'd not previously visited. Of course, no border crossing in Southeast Asia would be complete without a little corruption, so our return featured some fast talking and negotiation, and then the obligatory rejection of romantic overtures by Kate.

Once we returned, many WR staff asked me if I prefer Laos to Cambodia (a totally loaded question). The answer: I had a lot of fun in Laos, but I prefer to live in Cambodia.


STM Freak Out Syndrome

I have recently come to the conclusion that there's a little control freak inside of each of us. Some people are better at hiding it, at living in a way that fools the rest of us into thinking they are incredibly laid back and easygoing, unfazed by the difficulties of life. I've also concluded that there is one great equalizer, something that exposes even the most well-concealed inner control freak. It's called "the short-term mission trip."

For the past month (and for the next month), World Relief Cambodia is hosting teams of Americans to teach ESL to our staff. We've been doing this for the past four years, and I like to think we're getting better at it every year. However, there is one thing that I just cannot figure out how to improve. I'm at a loss when it comes to dealing with Short Term Mission Freak Out Syndrome, or STMFOS.

Every person has a unique STMFOS trigger. For some, travel is what prompts stress. No matter how many times I say that arriving at the Phnom Penh airport three hours before your departure time is a bit extreme, or rehash plans for transport to and from different mission locations, some folks just aren't reassured. Others need to know that their living quarters are taken care of—that there is a bed, a bathroom (with an American-style toilet), and food and water. I once answered a phone call from a volunteer who was staying three hours away from the city and wanted me to do something about the power outage at his location. It was difficult to explain that I was not in charge of the main power supply for the country of Cambodia.

This is not to say that these anxieties are unjustified. I sometimes think that all of the worry and fear people express over these easily-controlled aspects of the trip is masking some deeper issues. It might be a long-standing belief that cross-cultural differences will result in embarrassing mistakes, fears of failing at completing the "mission" or facing the unknown in another country.

Many churches are sending multiple teams this summer, to different parts of the globe. Those who go often learn to trust in God's daily provision during the journey, amidst other faith-stretching experiences. Those who stay home have the opportunity to be a source of great comfort to people, to cover them in prayer and in love as they go. Perfect love drives out fear, after all. Even fear over what might be served for dinner.


Out in the Field

There are many days when my work keeps me behind a desk, staring at a computer. While those days are no less valuable than the ones I spend visiting our projects, they are slightly less inspiring. I've had the chance to visit a couple of our kid's clubs in the past two weeks, in two different provinces. Watching the faces of these kids as they focus on our staff and the puppet shows and dramas they perform is always a treat. It reminds me why I'm here, why our ministry is important, and what we're working for. Also, it's fun, and the kids are really cute. Here are a few photos from the last two weeks.


The Allure of Rural

I always have a moment, while visiting our work in rural Cambodian villages, when I think, "I would love to live here."

Then I realize there's no indoor plumbing, little electricity, and no refrigerators, and I amend that to something along the lines of, "I'm so glad to be visiting today."

Yesterday, I wandered around a picturesque village in Kampong Cham province with several of our staff, field testing survey questions. The sky was a clear blue, the trees have turned green after the recent rains, and the dirt road was a rusty red. Small houses stood amidst palm trees, in clearings where the forest had been cut back for people to make their homes.

As we walked, I marveled at life in this small community, the hushed feel of the streets beneath the canopy of green, the stares of children as they passed on their bicycles, even the hum and swish of the cows as they walked past. It seemed to be an ideal place to live, and for a few moments made me wish I could capture something of that peace in my own neighborhood.

Until we spoke with some of the villagers.

The first woman we met answered survey questions about the social networks in the village. "People here don't really trust each other," she told us.

Then we went to survey some children, and tried to speak with a six-year-old in her home. The smell of brewing rice wine drifted up from the distillery underneath the house. It was clear that several of the men working on the wine had sampled their own brew. It was 10 a.m.

When the little girl couldn't answer our questions—which was the point of our field test—we moved on. We found a house with a little boy who was willing to participate and the staff interviewed him while I hung back with the translator and another visitor. We quickly realized that too many white faces were doing more harm than good. This also gave us a good view of the drama that was about to play out when a man stumbled into the yard, obviously drunk, and began to wash his feet with water from the well. He bumbled his way around, lighting a cigarette and eventually shouting "AIDS! AIDS! AIDS!" as well as some other nonsensical words. Finally, an older woman dressed only in her shower sarong came to ask us to please leave; the man wasn't happy that we were doing a survey in his house, and as he was the head of the family, we needed to go. If we stayed longer, she told us, he would grow belligerent and possibly destructive.

It was a startling trip, with so much imperfection juxtaposed with what is a seemingly quiet place. Rural poverty is like that. It's easy to look at these villages and see a pastoral setting that is only in need of modernization. But there's so much more going on beneath the surface. In contrast to the gritty reality of urban poverty and struggle, rural need looks easy, simple, even quaint. It can seem much like a visit to a "historical village" where one can marvel at antique technology and the progress we've made to get to where we are now. As I was reminded today, it's not a sightseeing tour or a trip into the past. People in these villages have real struggles and real temptations, the same as in any major city. The settings may look different, but people and their needs are remarkably consistent.


Selfishness: Struggling with Myself

On Wednesday, I was in Kampong Cham province, where we're preparing to do a baseline survey for some new program activities. It's been a difficult week, with lots to do, and I've been trying to combat my innate feelings of needing to strive and take responsibility for everything with the truth that this is a team effort. Also, the temperatures are still hovering around 38C or 40C (that's around 100F), and it's hard to be reasonable when you're sweating and feeling gross.

On Tuesday, I woke up at 5 a.m. after a mostly sleepless night to drive three hours with our monitoring and evaluation team. We spent the day training staff on survey procedures, and trying to find cool things to drink. In Phnom Penh, it's easy to find restaurants with clean water; in the province, not so much. I had a desperate moment yesterday, staring at a bucket of beautiful ice which I couldn't use without risking illness. Until one of the staff told me to stick my very warm Coke can into the ice bucket, I was seriously considering dealing with the nasty consequences of drinking unclean water, if only to cool off for a few minutes.

It's situations like this that make me uncomfortable.

To be clear, it's not the choice between drinking or not drinking that's uncomfortable. It's that I have to make this choice in front of Cambodian staff. Because while I sat there debating how much I desired to jeopardize my fairly stellar record of good health, seven pair of brown eyes were watching. Yes, it sounds like I'm making myself the center of attention, but it's difficult to inconspicuously ask the waitress if the water and ice at her restaurant are clean. Especially because when I speak Khmer, people tend to look at me. I'm a novelty.

It isn't just the time in the restaurant that made me feel strange. There's one room in our whole, multi-story office in Kampong Cham that has an air conditioner. At 4 p.m. on Tuesday, it felt like a little slice of paradise to sit behind a desk (it's the accountant's office) and cool down. When the provincial leader, who is also a friend, offered to let me use a fold-out bed to sleep in that oasis of cool, instead of bunking with another female Cambodian staff member in a hot guest room upstairs, I wasn't sure how to respond.

Eventually, I said yes, of course, because I'm neither a fool nor a masochist. But I felt weird about my decision.

I feel like I have to constantly check myself in these situations, check my motives. Am I taking advantage of someone because I feel that I'm entitled to something, like better service, or a cheaper rate, or better living conditions? Am I trying to be comfortable at the expense of others' discomfort?

It's very easy to slip into selfishness here, when things that are luxuries in the US come cheaply, or are offered genuinely. It isn't necessarily because it's easy to feel better or more important than the Khmer people. I think it is something of a vicious cycle wherein the thought of what I've given up is enough to motivate a feeling of wanting to recapture part of the life that I left—whether it's having something that my peers have, or finding the comforts of "home" whenever possible. It's not a wrong motive, unless it stands in the way of relationships, or bleeds into entitlement, or whining, or being demanding.

In the midst of these moments of taking what is offered, even when it feels uncomfortable, I'm awed by the generosity of my Cambodian brothers and sisters. Whether it's mainly culture or mainly friendship, their willingness to give and serve is humbling, and inspires me to act that way more when I'm with them, and when I'm not.

And on Tuesday night, exhausted, hot, and preparing for another long day to come, I stopped feeling selfish, and started feeling grateful when I woke up refreshed and energized for what was ahead of me. So now I think that it's mainly a matter of decision-making, of what's right in the moment, and of living a life that balances out being gracious and serving others with caring for myself.

Of course, when I return to Kampong Cham next week, I'll probably have to fight the other Americans who will be with me for that air-conditioned space. I wonder how gracious I will be with them?


Your What Hurts?

I've been feeling sick the past couple of days, which isn't very fun when it's super hot outside. To combat the illness, on the way to work this morning I stopped at our local gas station/grocery store (I kid you not, this place has everything) for some beverages to get me through the day. I go in the store pretty regularly, so the clerk knows me by now, and this morning, we had a very funny conversation.

Clerk: "How are you?"
Kate: "Eh, my throat hurts."
Clerk: "Oh, is your backpack too heavy?"
Kate (not sure how this relates): "Um, no, it's not."

It wasn't until after I had paid for my drinks and was almost to the office that I realized what happened. We were speaking Khmer, and the words for "neck" and "throat" are the same. Another fine example of how it's possible to have a conversation using the same words, but be talking about two very different things.


Hands and Feet

Have you ever sat in a room and marveled at who is there with you? I had that experience a few weeks ago. There were no world leaders present, no celebrities in attendance, really, no one you’d know of from newspapers, magazines, or media. It was just a group of women, in a little house in the middle of Kandal province, Cambodia, meeting to learn about AIDS. And they amazed me.

The average age of these women was probably fifty. There were some women there who were in their seventies. When I think of what these women have seen, individually and collectively, in their lifetimes, I’m astounded. They’ve lived through colonialism, through civil war, through genocide, and reconstruction, things I’ve read about and never witnessed. They are a testament to the resilience of the human race, and they’ve done it all while raising families, living in poverty, and with little education.

Before we left the meeting, we prayed for these women. One of them asked me to pray for her feet. I have to say, when I looked at the dirty, gnarled feet she put before me, I was a bit disgusted. But then, when I thought about where these feet had carried her, what they had walked through during her 70 years of life, it was easy to put my hands on those limbs and ask God for healing.

One of the women at the meeting was named Chel. She is 65 years old, and her story was pretty amazing. When she was 62, her husband died. For the next two years, she was constantly sick. Her son and daughter spent all their money on treatments and medicine, even selling their property to pay medical bills. She didn’t get any better. Finally, with nowhere else to go, her children brought her to the church. There, the believers prayed for her. She went home that night and came back again on Sunday, when she became a Christian. After the church members prayed for her, she got better, without any treatment or medication. Now, her whole family are Christians, and she says, “I continually pray to God for strength, and thank him for good things He provides, like my harvest.”

When I sit in meetings like this one, with sweet and honest women like Chel, it’s easy for me to see how the Scriptures about the meek, the humble, the poor and the lowly receiving the Kingdom of Heaven are true. Because a room full of world leaders or media superstars wouldn’t have shared with me their stories of heartfelt transformation. They wouldn’t have teased me about how young I looked, how white my skin is. And they wouldn’t have asked me to put my clean hands on their dirty feet and beg God to do something only He can do.


An Intentional Siesta

Every March and April, I wonder why I live in Cambodia. It's the hot season, so it feels like the whole country is an oven set to preheat, slowly warming as the sun reaches its zenith. By the afternoon, we're well onto the broil setting, and it's uncomfortable to be outside, to move too much, and sometimes even to sleep.

My life has felt this way a lot in the last month as well. I've been back in Cambodia for nearly three months now, and it seems like the hectic pace that existed when I arrived has only escalated. The gears of my work and life are turning faster and faster, there's more to do, and more to worry over. I'm sure many of you feel it, too, maybe in relationships, your children's lives, or your own work.

In a job where it's easy to feel essential to "serving people" or "helping others," it's hard to stop and rest sometimes. I have trouble during these times taking the Father at his word: Be still, and know that I am God. How am I supposed to rest when there is so much to be done? Of course, God is faithful in His response, and I have to learn to trust that as well: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord will accomplish His purposes—with or without my help—and my responsibility is to pursue stillness, rest, and trust.

In Cambodia, it's common for people to take a siesta after lunch, which is typically the hottest part of the day. When things are most oppressive, that is when it is time to stop and rest. It's a lesson for me to take to heart, that when my life feels like it is too hot to handle, then it is time for a brief rest. It's also the time to remember the end of Psalm 46: The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. We really can trust the Lord with our times of rest, to be our protector, and to work everything out.

I started this reflection before my vacation, and since coming back, it has felt even more true. Before I left, I was tentatively planning on having a volunteer here to help with a lot of the busyness that always comes up in May as we prepare for the ESL teams that come in June. But while I was gone, I received an email saying that she felt that God had other plans for her, and was directing her away from Cambodia.

While I refuse to be angry at someone for being obedient, it's still a bit difficult to accept on my end. I took my rest this month thinking that God would provide for me in ways I expected, and that His will perfectly coincided with my own. I'm a bit at a loss now, both wondering why it is that the Lord would not provide something that would allow me to rest more easily, and struggling to choose to rest in Him when I feel like things just got much harder for me. It would be very easy for me to believe that God doesn't want me to have any help right now, to be shortsighted in how I regard God's ability to provide what I need in the next few months.

A good friend prayed these verses for me yesterday: "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength… Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!" (Isaiah 30:15,18). Today, I'm taking comfort in the truth of these words: that my strength comes in trusting a just God, in waiting for His grace in this situation. And that only by truly resting in Him, can I witness his compassion and provision in my life.

I guess, in a sense, I'm choosing to take my siesta, my rest, even while the hot sun is beating down on me.


A Worthy Cause

True confession: I watch American Idol.

I've only started watching it since I've lived in Cambodia, which seems a little paradoxical, since it's not actually televised live, nor can I text in my vote from this side of the ocean.

(As an aside, no one voted for this blog. No one voted for Tim either last week, so he got kicked off. See what happens when you don't vote?)

Anyway, this week was a Very Special American Idol; it was Idol Gives Back, which is a giant fundraiser of a show, replete with heartwarming stories of global and local change, spotlighting worthy organizations and international issues.

(As a second aside, not once did anyone on the show mention Asia. That made me sad.)

At the end of the show, they announced that something like $15 million (US) had already been raised for their causes. There were some great organizations spotlighted on the show, Save the Children; Malaria No More; The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Each one of these groups is doing great work to meet physical needs around the world, to help children, and to keep people in developing countries (and the United States) alive and healthy. They are, as was repeated multiple times this evening, saving lives.

There's nothing wrong with saving lives. I'm all for it, obviously. But the longer I watched the show, the more I wondered: who gives money through American Idol?

Here's why I'm curious: if you're a Christian, what's the allure of giving through a TV show?

(If you're not a Christian, I totally get it, and way to go you. I'm not so concerned about how much or why you give. But you should keep doing so, if you can.)

If you are a Christian, and you attend a local church, do you feel as happy, as excited, as gratified by giving to your local church, by tithing?

(Perhaps your answer is yes.)

If not, why?

Do you really feel like you're a part of something bigger by texting in a gift to American Idol (or a celebrity telethon to help Haiti)? Does that matter to you?

I'm not trying to come down on campaigns like these; I really respect how groups are able to mobilize and raise money, to help people care about something they might not worry over otherwise. They do good work, and that work means people in need have food, shelter, medication, education, a whole host of things they might not have without these groups.

And I'm really not trying to give anyone a lecture. Whether you give, how much, and to whom you give it, that's between you and God. I don't want to get in the middle of that, and I'm not concerned with your giving habits. I have enough to worry about with my own. I just want to explain something that I've come to realize in the last few years.

This is what I've discovered: if you give to your local church, you are a part of something bigger, a cause, an international issue.

No one stands up in a tuxedo on Sunday mornings and says thank you. Not many celebrities get up to the pulpit and tell you it's worth your time to support the local church. It's far less sexy to tithe to your church than to text in your donation to Idol Gives Back.

But the church has something to offer that a glitzy fundraising show doesn't. And church-supported organizations (like World Relief, World Vision, IJM, Food for the Hungry, etc.) have something to give that these other major organizations don't.

We don't just care about saving lives today. We care about saving them forever.

Yes, in some cases we do the same things: we're working on making sure people have malaria nets, or AIDS education, or to prevent trafficking. But we're also sharing with people in need that we believe they should be healthy, educated, or safe because Jesus loves them and their life is worth something, both on earth and in heaven. We are building up local churches that can meet the needs that will be there when we can't be. Needs like compassion and companionship, prayer and support.

I say this because it took me a long time to realize that there are two kinds of poverty: financial poverty and spiritual poverty. We can give, and give, and give, host telethons and bake sales, send all that money to big charities and never once address the issues of spiritual poverty. A malaria net doesn't ease a broken heart.

But local churches can meet these needs. They can meet them in rural America, in inner cities in South America, in slums in Asia, in the deserts of Africa. Your local church, the one that you attend every Sunday can do this. So can mine, here in Cambodia. And our tithes are worth something then—and believe me when I tell you that it multiplies, maybe even on a crazy scale.

Here's how: you give $25 to your local church. Other people give $25, too. Let's say that money goes to a church-supported organization, somewhere else in the world. It pays a salary to a national worker, who passes out bed nets, or teaches children, or rescues women from brothels. Hopefully, some of them come to know Jesus Christ as a result, start attending a local church, and share their faith with others. Meanwhile, the original worker goes to his own church, and tithes a portion of his salary. That tithe goes to grow his local church, helping them to reach out to other people in need in their community. Those people join the church, share their faith, and the cycle continues.

Your gift has just saved lives, on a temporal and eternal scale.

(And this doesn't even consider how offerings you give to your local church can help build your own communities, or how gifts like your volunteer time in mentorship or service can be a blessing to others.)

Individual transformation, community transformation, national transformation. When we give, these things become possible, for ourselves and for others.

And these things are so much more exciting than a night of good television.


The Busy Life

I'm not sure that it's entirely appropriate to thank globalization for my slow Monday morning, but I'm going to anyway. There's a volcano in Iceland, with a very Icelandic name (and I thought Khmer was difficult to pronounce), that has freed up my week. We were supposed to host a team from the UK, but their plane couldn't take off, thanks to volcanic ash, so now I'm sipping a cappuccino, catching up on emails, and reviewing photos from Laos. It's disappointing not to have the team here—I was looking forward to meeting them—but there's quite a few other things that need doing as well, so it's great to have time to focus on them.

There was a lot going on in the weeks leading up to our trip, and then vacation itself, which wasn't really a time that I used for writing any kind of reflections. Mostly, we played in the Mekong River, in various waterfalls, drank fruit shakes, and laughed. Which was a pretty good way to spend a week.

In any case, since I'm not feeling very reflective at the moment, I've decided to put it to a vote. I'll list some things I want to blog about in the next few weeks, and you (various readers) can indicate which you want to read the most. It feels pretty democratic, and ensures that I won't forget things (which I'm likely to do). Here we go:

  1. Laos Travelogue: What we did, where we stayed, fun things about our trip (including a bonus Lao corruption story!)
  2. Field Trips: People I met and stories I heard when we recently visited some villages where WR works.
  3. Celebrating Easter in Cambodia: Why it's different and what I learned this year.
  4. Hot Season Reflections: While I'm sweating, what I'm learning.
  5. Staff Retreat Pics and Stories: Kampot is a cool place, and the things we learned there.

By the time I write five new blogs, I'm sure lots of other things will have happened that I'll want to share. So… vote now, so I'm motivated to start writing!

The picture is of sunset on the Mekong River, only a few kilometers into Laos. Just to prove we really made it into Laos, with the car, even.


Lost in Translation

Everyone was confused by language today. I started learning the Khmer alphabet (yikes!) and our staff translator brought me yet another translation riddle. How would you describe the following phrase?

"Affordable Kitchen Solutions for Quality Living"

When I told him that the phrase was essentially meaningless, and correctly guessed that it was a slogan of some kind, he said, "But how do I translate it into Khmer?"

Our best effort was:

"Not Very Expensive Ways to Solve Problems in Your Kitchen That Will Make Your Life Better"

Of course, there's no literal Khmer translation. And I have a sneaking suspicion that those "affordable solutions" are not really affordable at all.


Over the River

I'm traveling to Laos next week. I visited Northern Laos in 2007, but now I'm headed with friends to Southern Laos and a place called Si Phan Don (literally "Four Thousand Islands"). We're all pretty excited about the chance to get away for a week and see somewhere new. However, we've had to get visas into Laos, which took some effort-- photos, applications, cash, dropping them at the embassy-- and we ended up with a 3 month visa (not a 30 day visa like we thought).

The other hitch in the plan is that we want to drive a car over the border. We asked someone who did it before, and he told us they would allow only three days for the car before it had to come back into Cambodia. Which is great, but we're staying for a week (hopefully, with the car). So that wouldn't work so well for us.

Someone else said that he was only allowed to drive a certain number of kilometers (mainly into the DMZ, or No-Man's Land) before having to turn back. Also not great, since we want to go a lot farther into Laos than 8 km. Namely, we'd want to stay in a hotel. And actually go into Laos.

When I asked at the embassy, I was told that it was no problem to drive the car across, and we didn't need a permit. Which flew in the face of all this other advice. So today, when someone picked up our visas, I sent him with an official letter requesting permission to take the car across. He came back saying that the embassy staffer told him it would be no problem. Somehow, this seems too good to be true.

I must have looked chagrined over the whole episode, because the staff member next said, "Kate, it's okay, I'll tell you what you should do." He continued, "You find the Cambodian guys at the border and you talk to them about what to do. You just bribe them, and they will help you."

So I guess this is the new plan. But, if I'm not back and blogging by the end of the month, I might be checked into a Laotian jail on corruption charges. Or cruising the Laos highways in our car, putting my 3-month visa to good use. We'll just have to wait and see. A little suspense is a good thing in life, right?


Traditional yet Fresh

I always used to wonder, when I read the Biblical accounts of Holy Week, where all the people came from. Surely they weren't standing around, waiting for a donkey to come down the street with Jesus on its back. Of course they didn't hang out around the palace, hoping for the opportunity to cause a mob scene. I've come to realize that I was mistaken.

I was in a car accident last May, and at the time of impact, the street was deserted. Two minutes after the crash, a few people had wandered near the scene. Five minutes later, there were fifteen people. Twenty minutes later, trucks pulled over and people stepped out. Thirty minutes later, the friends of the man driving the motorbike I hit arrived en masse. A huge crowd had gathered, because they knew that something had happened, and they wanted to know what was going on.

This is so foreign to American culture. We schedule our political protests and fit them into our calendar. We have a day to remember AIDS, and a day to tell our mothers and fathers we love them. We live by the calendar, so when something important happens, we don't have time to stop and be a part of it. In fact, if someone came up to us today and said, "Hey, you should join in with this amazing thing that's happening at the church right now," we would probably respond by saying, "No way, I have things to do to get ready for Easter."

Imagine if the disciples, when Jesus invited them to dinner said, "We'd love to, but we have some preparations to take care of, Jesus." Or if someone asked them to go to the cross and they answered, "In a minute, I have this big project I'm working on."

This is a week when we immerse ourselves in tradition and remembrance of a very significant, world-changing event. We symbolically walk the path that Jesus took, his steps to the cross, charting his last days as a way of honoring his sacrifice and examining our own hearts. But let's not forget that the first Holy Week was not scheduled, or planned, and no one was given a time to arrive for the Palm Sunday parade. Instead, people were in the right place at the right time, were able and willing to respond to the invitations they were given. They were drawn to walk with Jesus because they recognized that something was happening, something rare. We're a bit cheated, aren't we? We've read the script. It spoils the big reveal on Easter Sunday, when what should be unexpected is instead a celebration of what we knew all along would come.

This year, let's not only carry with us the traditions of Holy Week, but the spontaneity and response that those first crowds exemplified. I think then we will truly shout with joy at the Easter tomb—when we can arrive there with those who mourn and see the miracle of our salvation demonstrated anew.


Land of Expertise

It's an easy thing to do, pretending to be an expert. Sometimes it happens to me intentionally, when I give the "Welcome to Cambodia" lecture. Other times, it's accidental. When I bump into other tourists and they ask questions, for instance. But it's a dangerous place to be in too long, this land of expertise. Especially when you aren't an expert at all.

I was in a café with a friend, drinking coffee, and doing some work the other day, when a group came in and sat down next to us. Four of the people were visiting Cambodia, and the other three lived here, though I'm not sure how long they've been in-country. We picked up their conversation in snatches, always coming in at precisely the wrong moment.

"Cambodians really don't work very hard," one of them said.

"Yes," agreed another, "if you go into their shops, you never see them cleaning or doing anything. They always have time to sit and talk with you."

(cue startled gasps by Kate)

"It's pretty clear that those who are really poor are that way because they drink or gamble," said one of the women who lives here.

"Well, not in the countryside," one of them corrected.

"No," admitted the first speaker, "but in Phnom Penh, it's certainly the case."

I was appalled. These are the kinds of claims that come from deep-rooted cultural assumptions and thought patterns, from drawing conclusions and asking questions later. They're exactly the kinds of things I fear will happen to our teams, or worse, will happen to me.

Today, I gave a talk on cross-cultural ministry challenges to a bunch of NGO partners. I'm by no means an expert. This fact was reinforced when I spoke with some World Relief staff last week about my upcoming talk. I was trying to clarify what their expectations were, and we chatted about their culture and mine. I'm continually surprised at how much I still have to learn.

We always tell people to take the "posture of a learner" when they visit Cambodia on a short-term mission trip. It's good advice, and often pays big dividends, when they leave with a better grasp of God's heart for the world, and how the church can—and does—respond to poverty.

But it's only good advice if we follow it ourselves. I worry that one day, I'll think I know it all. I pray that my natural inclination to answer questions with definitive statements does not mean that my experience or someone else's is biased. I'm counting on two things to save me: the grace of God, and overhearing more conversations like the one in the café.


Hot Season Lessons

Once, a long time ago, I posted a list of tips for surviving the rainy season. Today, I present:

10 Things That Hot Season Has Taught Me.

10. Defrosting your freezer doesn't take very long, but if you leave the doors closed for two days before you open it, you might end up thinking it would be more pleasant for someone to have actually barfed inside.

9. Three showers a day is not as excessive as you might otherwise think.

8. Deodorant should be provided free to everyone.

7. There is no good time to go outside. People will tell you that morning or evening are the best, but these are lies.

6. Seek out air conditioning whenever possible.

5. Apparently, motorbike helmets provide sun protection. At least, they provide enough protection that one of our staff members wore a helmet when we had to walk outside for five minutes last week.

4. Laundry dries much faster in the hot season than any other season. This is perhaps the only benefit of hot season.

3. Learn your temperature conversions. You should do this so that when you drive past the airport and the digital temperature sign reads "39C," you can easily convert this to 102F.

2. Fans. In the absence of air conditioning, they are your only hope.

1. Your body can sweat in more places than you think it can.

Hot season lasts until (at least) June. Think of all the lessons I can learn by then!


Smoke and Ash

Here are some photos of the fire. Credit goes to Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia (EFC) who distributed these images.


The Superhero Complex

I went to Bible study tonight, which is a normal Monday night activity for me. The other women there chatted a bit, and we talked about how hot it was today (over 100°, according to the internet, which can always be trusted). We settled in, and had a time of worship together. And then my phone rang.

My roommate, Kerstin, was calling, which was rather odd, since she knew I was at Bible study and had an idea of when I'd be home (and we don't have roommate separation anxiety issues, so that wasn't it either). Of course, I answered, and she informed me that there was a giant fire on the next block, and could she come over to where our Bible study was, in case it spread to our street.

Thus launched a great deal of speculation. We headed up to the rooftop to look for the fire, and found a blazing red sky and a giant plume of smoke. This, of course, meant we had to try to figure out where the fire was actually burning—and there are a lot of houses in this part of town, built right next to each other. It's a scary, scary thing to watch your city go up in flames, especially when you know that the response of the fire department is contingent upon things like corruption, pay, and their ability to navigate crowds of spectators.

We watched, and we waited, and slowly information came in. The fire was not on the next block, but was very near to a temple which is only a few blocks away from my apartment. There are a large number of small wooden houses behind the temple, and many of them have now burned. We smelled smoke and listened to sirens in the distance. And we prayed.

By the end of the evening, the fire had been contained, if not extinguished. We heard that several of World Relief's cell church members had lost homes to the fire. We found out that one of our staff members had lost everything (and was searching for his family). We discovered that others were safe. We learned that it was an electrical spark that started the fire. We wondered how people would find somewhere to sleep tonight. Still, we prayed.

It's a strange thing, to have your neighborhood go up in smoke. I've gotten used to living near poverty, to living near oppression. I hope I've not grown passive, but I'm sure my reaction has been blunted, the more I've seen, the more I've become accustomed to the wrongs that are perpetrated only a few meters away from my front gate. It's a consequence of doing something like this, of living in hard places. We end up seeing things that we might miss otherwise, having stayed in comfortable locales, surrounded by things we've long known.

But I'm not used to fires, and I'm not used to feeling so unsafe, so unsure. I'm not used to being grateful that my passport is in the hands of the government for processing, and that it can't be lost to a fire. I'm not used to wondering if my apartment will be there when I get home. I'm not used to a bright red sky and a plume of smoke.

I think part of it is that I have something of a superhero complex. So often, I hear that it's so great that I'm living here, working here. Even my colleagues think I'm different; sometimes they tell me I'm special. It's a real ego boost. And it has weird consequences. Like making me feel that I'm invincible. Or positioning me on a slippery slope where I think that bad things are what happen to other people, and what I'm here to prevent, or to fix.

The reality is that I'm no superhero. I'm as human and as vulnerable as the 350 families who have lost their homes tonight. It could have been me, sleeping outside, picking through wreckage, treading on ashes. It almost was, if the winds had blown differently, or a different transformer had sparked the flames. And while it's good that I'm here, good that I'm working, good that we're making a difference, bad things are not only what happen to other people. And even if I'm here to help fix bad things, and right wrongs, well, it doesn't mean that I'm indestructible (or that my house is).

So tonight, I'm praying, still, for families who have lost everything, the neighbors I don't know and haven't met. This time, it's not just another problem to be fixed, or wrong to be righted. It's not something with a cause that can be analyzed or complex cultural issue. It's a tragedy, and it happened just a few blocks away.


Stay How Long

A second location of my favorite coffee shop (The Shop, as you may recall) opened near my apartment about a month ago. I go there quite a bit, and the staff know who I am by now. I popped in for lunch today, and one of the guys asked me a question that's pretty familiar. Here's our conversation:

Dude: "You stay in Cambodia how long?"
Kate: "Nearly 3 years."
Dude: "But you cannot speak Khmer?"
Kate (confused): "I can speak Khmer."
Dude: looks at Kate strangely
Kate (in Khmer): "I went to America for four months. Now I forget everything. But I will study."
Dude (looking unconvinced): "Oh."

Apparently I need to get back to my language lessons. Or start lying about how long I've lived here.


Patron-Client Process

Cambodia's culture is often described as being patron-client oriented. Life is arranged with a series of benefactors, who provide job opportunities, finances when needed, and serve as "patrons" to those below them. Clients feel indebted to their patrons for their generosity and giving, and patrons are able to take advantage of these clients, sometimes bribing them for services, etc. When something goes wrong, clients can lean on their patrons for assistance. This means, in the words of Irving Berlin (as sung by Bing Crosby in the classic film, White Christmas)"There's always someone higher up where you can pass the buck."

In reality, the situation is quite complicated, and perhaps Bing is not the person to describe it. It's easy, though, to get caught up in a patron-client relationship without even realizing it.

For instance, you might hire someone for short-term labor, say, driving for a program. When that person later has trouble finding work, or they know you might be hiring again, they call you, trying to find out if you will hire them (even when the position is gone, or filled by someone else). Or, you could experience what happened to me today: someone came into my office and requested that we hire a family member for an extremely short-term position. It was difficult to know what to say. The woman is a good employee, and I really like her, but we had worked out all the details for this position already (really, we were contracting the service from a different company), and then she presented this family member option, which is cheaper, but more complicated. And really hard to decline.

I don't know how to say no in these situations. A lot of times, it's easier to say yes, and then deal with the consequences later. But sometimes, I feel constantly like I'm being put in these "patron" positions, and immediately my relationships are transformed from being someone who is on equal footing, to someone who controls purse strings. They aren't even my purse strings-- I'm often trying to use the organization's money for one of our programs. Which makes it extra difficult to turn people away, when cost is an issue and even a little will go a long way to help someone.

Navigating these complex relationships is one of the reasons I'm jealous for the situation I left in the US. When you want something done, you send out a bid, and you take the best, most cost-effective option. When there's a problem, and you need something fixed, you don't call your driver's cousin's husband, you call a professional. Of course, you pay (often a lot) for these services, and there's little relationship behind the delivery. But there's typically no worry, no questioning whether or not you've unknowingly inserted yourself into a situation you shouldn't have, no occasionally feeling taken-advantage-of, no instance of the same person coming back later and asking you to hire him or her again.

It's equally hard to explain this to Cambodians, who feel that it's perfectly all right to approach me (or anyone who clearly has more money) for these kinds of things. And it's true that I love to be able to help, and feel really good when I can use resources at my disposal to do more than just meet our organizational needs. But I seem to be missing some middle ground, some really important cultural piece, and instead of feeling like I'm blessed to be a blessing, I feel as though I've been marked for my generosity. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, and it's going to take a lot more than me simply discovering what makes me so uncomfortable to fix it.

In the meantime, I'm trying to be wise in the ways I use what's been entrusted to me. I'm trying to understand what motivates people to approach me for things I'm not ready or able to give. I'm trying to figure out how to be a patron without becoming patronizing. It's turning out to be trickier than I thought.


Not a Sneeze

I haven't formally re-started my language learning. I'm going to venture into the dangerous waters of reading and writing Khmer, so I'll probably hire a formal tutor, and the person I've asked is checking her schedule. In the meantime, I'm taking an ad hoc approach to learning Khmer (or re-learning, as the case may be), and trying to find ways to make myself understood. It's always most difficult on the phone. Here's an example, from a phone call this afternoon about an evening get-together:

Kate: I want to know if you can bring some things for the party tonight.
Staff Person: Yes, yes, of course.
Kate: Great! Can you bring charcoal and ice?
SP: Chocolate? Ha, yes.
Kate: No, not chocolate. I mean, yes, if you want, but we need charcoal.
SP: I don't know this word.
Kate: Um, you put it on the grill, I mean barbecue. It's what you light on fire. It burns.
SP: Cha-coal? No, I don't know it.
Kate: It's black, it's made from wood... I don't know the word in Khmer.
SP: I don't either.
Kate: Um.... I'll ask someone.

At this point, I walk out into the main office to ask someone. It goes like this:

Kate: Do you know the word for charcoal?
Other Staff Person: Charcoal?
Kate: Like, for a barbecue. Charcoal.
OSP: Oh, yes. Kchung.
Kate (wonders if he has just sneezed before realizing it's a word): Kachoo?
OSP: No. Kchung.
Kate: Kchung.
OSP: Yes.
Kate: Thanks!

So then I try it out on the phone:
Kate: Kchung. We need some kchung.
SP: OH! Yes, yes, I know. I will bring.
Kate: Great! Thanks! Oh, and don't forget the ice.

We'll see if the right stuff actually shows up. If not, we'll just have to eat chocolate, I guess.


Women in Cambodia

As most of you know, I spent the last few months working on a dissertation, and as part of that, spent a lot of time writing and researching the topic of women in Cambodian society. Gender and culture are significantly tied together here (as they are in many places), and being female profoundly impacts choices and opportunities.

Instead of going on about theory or culture, though, I wanted to briefly share an article about this woman, Mu Sochua, who is an interesting example of the politics surrounding gender and, well, politics in modern Cambodia. (It also features a slideshow with some lovely images of rural Cambodia.) I first heard about Mu Sochua last year, when she was being sued by the government, and there was fear that she would be sent to prison. She has done a great deal for the situation of women in Cambodia, particularly around issues of domestic violence and human trafficking.

As an American woman living here, it's often difficult to really understand some of the gender issues that exist here; after all, I grew up with much different ideals and influences. For me, it's both inspiring and hopeful to see a Cambodian woman working to improve the lives of her countrywomen while acknowledging the culture, and its values. She is trying to work within the system, and is a voice for freedom and equality-- it's a voice that deserves to be heard.


Pluses and Minuses

I'm in my second week of being back in Cambodia, and it's remarkably… normal now. The homesickness is still there, but it's at manageable levels, the kind of lingering feeling of knowing that I'll always be missing out on something, somewhere. It's a feeling I'm used to, even if it's not entirely comfortable. However, in honor of my friend, Susannah, who is currently living in Munich, I've decided that the best way to ease back into life (and blogging!) is to make a list. So here they are, the good and the bad (but not the ugly) things about being back in Cambodia.

+ My favorite coffee shop opened a new branch only 5 minutes from my apartment.

- There is a severe shortage of bagels in this part of the world

+There are tons of cute Cambodian kids running around.

- None of them are my niece.

+ I haven't had to take a snow day since I arrived and the weather hasn't been unbearably hot.

- My sojourn in the US was during the winter, so Cambodians everywhere are commenting on my clean, white skin.

+ Driving a moto again is pretty fun.

- Driving a moto again is downright terrifying.

+ Coming across foods that I forgot I really enjoyed.

- Food poisoning, and being ill for 24 hours last week.

On the whole, it's pretty balanced, and I forgot to include things like, "Spending time with friends I'd missed" and "Being back to work," so maybe it's a little more in favor of the positive at this point. I think there are always good and bad things about relocating, even when it's somewhere you want to be. And life isn't about balancing the equation, is it? We'll always have some negatives in amidst the positives, and sometimes one won't outrank the other. I'm growing more and more accustomed to living in between the bad and the good, and learning which of these values really carry the most weight in my life. In the meantime, I'm drinking coffee and trying to get some work finished. Five months is a long time to be away.

(Oh! And I've now caved to peer pressure joined twitter, so you can follow me there: http://twitter.com/katepieps. I'd love to follow you, too, so let me know if you're there!)


Heading for Home

Have you ever felt yourself wishing you were somewhere else? I don’t just mean wishing to trade work for the beach or sitting in traffic for a seat on the couch. I mean a heartfelt longing for a different place.

I’ve arrived back in Cambodia after nearly five months in the US, and it’s a bit strange. Cambodia, and life here, is quite familiar after all this time, despite how long I’ve been away. However, I’m more homesick on this re-entry than I’ve been after other, shorter visits to America. Perhaps it’s because I spent a lot of time with family, or fell into a comfortable routine. Whatever the cause, though I’m very happy to be back, I still want to be somewhere else at the same time.

I think it’s within each of us to want something different, usually something better. We’re waiting, hoping, maybe even working toward some situation that we deeply desire. For me, right now, it’s somehow uniting the purpose I feel for my work in Cambodia with the comfort and security of ‘home’. For others, it might mean a better job, marriage, achieving social justice in a fallen world. There are lots of possibilities, and they’re unique to each of us. At the core, though, it’s a divine longing, isn’t it? We want to be away from the frustration, the discomfort, the pain of this life and to be somewhere infinitely better. We’re all homesick travelers on our journey with the Lord. We’re heading for the joy of heaven, we desire face-time with our Father.

It’s one of the blessings of our Christian faith that we can acknowledge these feelings of homesickness, of longing for somewhere else. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after applauding some very faithful people, the writer of Hebrews says “Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11: 16). Today, I’m taking comfort in the fact that no matter where my feet are planted, Christ has understood my longings for somewhere else and prepared a heavenly home for me.