obama-rama Cambodia style

December 10, 2008

Here are some choice photos from the Democrats Abroad Election Day Party.  It was an INCREDIBLE day, full of light, noise, buzzing with people.  There were even a few tears…… I was in charge of the face painting :*)

My flatmate Alison and I (wo)maning the face paint table

My flatmate Alison and I (wo)maning the face paint table


Gettin’ Out the Vote- Elections in Cambodia vs the US

December 10, 2008

Cambodian American? 🙂

Upon arriving here in Cambodia in mid-September until the elections November 4th , I’d been spending the bulk of my sunny Saturday afternoons and scattered weeknights helping Americans of various political leanings register and mail in their absentee ballots.  It was a great way to engage in this very important election and fulfill my grassrootsy cravings I can’t seem to shake.  It has been great fun— I met all sorts of interesting people- from lawyers on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to backpackers, to English teachers to Fulbright scholars, Cambodian Americans who escaped the wars, the young, old, and even a few shabby, lone wonderers (not to mention both republicans and democrats—the republicans do not have an organization assisting their overseas voters).

We also screened the debates, showed political films and stirred up the crowds— many of which weren’t actually American—just interested foreigners from all over the world.  Everyone’s got an opinion about this election, it seems, and watching it all unfold from afar is just another reminder of how the US has an incredible stake and responsibility to the rest of the world.  It is a small world —indeed— and living in Cambodia where democracy sometimes plays out like a political farce clarifies this incredible responsibility we Americans have.

While Cambodia is technically a constitutional monarchy, it struggles with political integrity.  Corruption here is basically built into the system. It is commonplace, expected, and an understood part of life and work here, stemming into all parts of ordinary living.  It is rare to see the police or an ambulance, hospitals sometimes deny patients who don’t lay their money out on the table first, if price is right you can even pay for your college diploma, and though public school is technically free, the teachers are paid so little that students can only attend class if they bring some money each day to contribute to the salary (this is similar to other civil servants who are inadequately paid)… Corruption itself has a crippling effect on the growth of a country, it’s ability to serve the people efficiently and make decisions with much long-term vision or strategy.  So while Cambodia is a democracy, so long as corruption abounds, politicians and government workers will continue to (and in some cases must) place higher value on the dollar and power than the vote or the greater good.

Cambodia had its own elections this past summer, though it was not a surprise when the current ruling party struck home yet again. It was interesting hearing a few of my Cambodian friends compare their election experience to ours. A few of them came to the debates between Obama and McCain and were more engaged in it than some Americans.  They loved the idea of the two opponents laying out their ideas on the table, hashing out political arguments and taking questions from audience members. This is quite a contrast from the typical election scene of their country where the weight of your vote is commonly seen as useless against the powers that be. The collective power of voting often fades when the chances of political power changing hands is low. It isn’t necessarily straight out force or fraud that keeps these people in power.  Driving through the countryside, you see that almost every small and large town has Party’s offices and hubs.  Come election time, representatives set up shop to give out free rice, reminding uneducated farmers who they should be grateful to come election time. Typically, most of the supporters of the party come more from the populations in the provinces, not the cities.  But the members of the ruling elite do sometimes retain a mofia-like presence in Phnom Penh due to their depth of power, money, influence and, sometimes lack of consequence for breaking the law.  They drive around in huge black SUVs sans license plates, their teenagers go clubbing at the bars with a constant cloud of bodyguards closed in around them, their kindergarteners know that mommy usually keeps a gun in the trunk of the car.  They live in a world of incredible privilege, wealth and isolation. It’s a fascinating (and tragic) dichotomy to unravel.

So…while we American’s may complain about our system of government, our political leaders decisions, vetos and appointees, we ought to take a step back.  Our system isn’t perfect, and I’ve definitely done my fair share of criticizing (and will continue to).  But the beauty is that we CAN criticize. We can challenge our government and when it doesn’t work for us, we CAN use our votes and voices as leverage.  Our system allows for evolution.  Our elections CAN change things.  Our leaders CAN be held accountable, IF we hold them to their deeds.  It’s possible so long as we don’t get complacent and take our privileges for granted.

Cambodian Man who helped with Democrats Abroad and his kids on election day

Cambodian Man who helped with Democrats Abroad and his kids on election day

CALL+RESPONSE=A New Film On Trafficking

October 29, 2008

Ok all you Americans– Call+Response is a new film about Human Trafficking and it is coming to a theater near you.  I got to go to a sneak preview for trafficking professionals in DC this summer and was pretty impressed.  It is a great educational tool and intro to the issue– using the talents of esteemed musicians, the passion of leading experts, social activists and even a few feisty historians to lay out a great foundation understanding this complex issue.  It’s part documentary, part concert. There is also a lot of talk about SE Asain and organizations working in my neck of the woods, so definitely try to catch it when it comes! PLEASE CHECK IT OUT— and let me know your thoughts when you do

Click here for the trailer

Click here for ticket/city info

P.S. This film is GRASSROOTS– relatively normal people like me and you made it possible.  Pretty cool, huh?

October 29, 2008

trade that guitar for a sitar!
trade that guitar for a sitar!

If my name were Maria and I were twirling with abandon through these hot, grimy streets as if they were my towering Alps—I’d shamelessly sing you a sensational tune about my favorite things. I might even wear my green drapery inspired dress (but it would have lots of tacky sequins) and romp about with my sitar case, balancing on the yellow and black striped medians with motos swooshing by, tuk tuks in tow, dodging the skinny, suspicious cats with crooked tales and the avid (though usually nocturnal) badminton players.

Lately, Fruits are a few of my favorite things here in Phnom Penh. Why?  Because they are just plain odd. And tasty.

The fruits are SO surprising and so strange.  They have the most bizarre shells and outer layers.  You can never really guess what is going on inside until you just get dirty and crack it open.  It’s a wondrous feeling—like discovering tiny, secret worlds over and over again.  Here are a few I really enjoy-

hearts and everything!
hearts and everything!

Silica– kind of nutty, creamy colored smooth “meat” folded around a hard center seed.  The outside shell is this rusty red-brown flaky armour that sheds all over everything.  It is like something between a medieval beast and a pinecone

not the fire breathing sort
not the fire breathing sort

Dragon Fruit—this one is gorgeous—everything about it is simple and alluring.  It has this flaming, blistery hot-pink peel with these delicate little leaf like fronds that kind of whisp out the sides of its full, round shape- usually the size of a large orange. This outer peel is reminiscent of a pomegranate, but thicker, smoother and easier to peel.  But once you open it up, you find the fruit bright white, juicy and dense, speckled with a million tiny black seeds.  When you bite into it, the fruit is refreshing and mild and all the tiny seeds pop in your mouth, like those of a kiwi.  It’s delightful.  I love dragon fruit.

Rambutan!! (this one just has to have exclaimation points after it!!) Now this one is kind of like a Lychee, if you’ve ever spied one of these before. Besides sounding like a jungle conquistador, they are small and round but covered in these soft, curving spikes. Rambutans tend to be redish in color but once you peel back the spikies, you find this translucent pearl of fruit that is about the size of a large gumball—ooo—it’s sweeter than the others and so good ☺

mmm hmm

mmm hmm

I love fruit.  I also love things that are unpredictable or contradictory in nature.  These fruits tend to just that.  It’s a nice combination.  Perhaps we should all strive for a bit more contradiction in our lives– just enough to keep things interesting.



October 24, 2008

Hafiz was a Sufi mystic poet who was well known throughout Persia as a man

Apparently Hafiz was also akin to Snow White, befriending smiling animals and prancing through forests in perfect soprano

Apparently Hafiz was also akin to Snow White, befriending smiling animals and prancing through forests in perfect soprano. I love this picture 🙂

devoted to the contemplative life.  But he was no ordinary devotee, as his poetry reflects.  Hafiz possesses an incredible wit, honesty, playfulness and is at once simple and complex when reflecting the overwhelming joy, pain, beauty, confusion and fury of faith, life and love. Because his musings and metaphors were sometimes uncouth or delightfully bizarre,  he was branded a heretic by many in the establishment during his time and went through spells of exile.  But his poetry outlasted exile and he is now considered a great Persian classic– beloved across the world. For me, Hafiz is like my most favorite secret to drop into the lives of people I love.

Mystics exist in all religions— they are bonded together by their attraction and quest for unity with God–one that often subsumes and perhaps even transcends definition, distinction, or religion as we know it.  Whatever your leaning– be it a Christian base or Judaism, Buddhism, Atheism, Humanism, or perhaps no -ism, I’d say Hafiz has many beautiful words for you.  I’m sure I’ll be sharing more of these with you…

Before drifting to sleep, I was sifting through my tattered copy of The Gift when I came across this poem. It’s rather simple, and may not really be that representative.  But for whatever reason, this meant a lot to me earlier this week.

A Hunting Party


Hunting Party

Sometimes has a greater chance

Of flushing love and God

Out into the open

Than a warrior



Skirmish At The Border

October 17, 2008

Apparently there has been a bit of bickering at the northern Thai-Cambodia boarder this week, right at my month benchmark.  This is just one example of the many complexities of Cambodia I have yet to dive into deeper. Apparently this particular temple, Preah Vihear (and some others) have been hitting the nerves of Cambodians and Thais for many years.  It’s a touchy topic, especially in a country where, I am learning, there can be limited (or very subjective) consequence for those who break the law. 

Disputed Grounds

Disputed Grounds

The BBC does a pretty good job of summing things up. If you have a minute, definitly check out all the articles here.  Reading in between the lines, there seems to be some unmistakable “he-said-she-said” going on.  Threats that are seemingly idle, given a little background and context. The picture is kind of murky, so I’m still trying to make sense of this conflict, and keep pestering everyone around me for explanations.

But so far none of it has really affected they rhythm of Phnom Penh.  It centers around a the disputed temple at the northern Thai-Cambodia boarder, where some Cambodians and Thai’s in the area are spending their weekend elsewhere.  And some Thai’s in Phnom Penh who prefer not to take any chances are also getting out of town, but this is mostly due to an uneasy history of anger between the two groups that might be waiting for any excuse to flair. 

The moral of the story is:  Things are ok (dare I say normal?) out here in Cambodia today.

Lights Out!

October 14, 2008

Tonight as I was leaving the Hagar office, I discovered the street blanketed in a present calm.  Everyone was up to the normal— cooking over a heavy iron cauldron, playing in the street, sniffing and pawing at the garbage, fixing a greasy moto, pushing a rickety cart full of snails doused in chili peppers… But something was missing.  It was the light.

A power outage tends to be a simple and regularly occurring thing here in Phnom Phenh, though I am still



getting used to the “TWWWEEEKTWEETAH” that is signal of our generator’s motor bursting forth into motion, like a trusty, lumbering giant turning a huge crank. Imagine five impatient little kids with cheap plastic whistles trying really diligently to “TWWEEAKKK!” in unison, but without much luck. And so the generator lurches forth, pouring out filthy pockets of smoke that waft up to the second floor where I can see it from our window. Most of the time it does its job and all is well—we continue with our work unscathed. Though every once in a while we too must remain patient and powerless.

Any business that means business must have it’s own generator here, otherwise nothing would ever get done. They take are huge heavy, metal boxes staked out front, about the size of the boxy white VW Vanagon of my childhood (no, not the, cool-kid retro VW bus, but the awkward, obtuse beast we regularly bought the cheap plastic four-packs of hubcaps for).  They’re so obvious that you don’t even really notice them.

Hop on!

Hop on!

The electricity here just isn’t reliable. It’s not an outrageous fact, just a fact of life, and so most of the world around here just keeps moving.  I found this fact to be quite true as I hopped on my bike towards home and entered the swarming traffic. Now, the traffic is pretty much always in some state of swarm, but tonight the few traffic lights were out and even the police were trying make some sense of things. I actually think this may have been the first time I’ve ever seen a policeman here… (and it’s almost been three weeks! Such is Phnom Penh).

On a normal day, the traffic patterns here are a borderline farce.  It’s kind of like a relatively slow moving circus minus the friendly monkeys in tutus.  There are lanes and general sides of the road to stick to, but as most of the traffic consists of motos and tuk tuks, it’s just too tempting to scoot on down the wrong side of the road waiting for the right side to clear out. Making a left turn simply means pulling into oncoming traffic and plugging along before the median keeps you from crossing over.  Nobody ever really stops for anyone, they just slow down a bit as you ease yourself in the oncoming wave of vehicles…

That’s a normal day.  Today wasn’t quite normal.  It was like the absence of two traffic lights gave everyone

Tuk Tuk Vision

Tuk Tuk Vision

permission to drive as badly as they ever wanted, like when you have a substitute teacher in elementary school.  At the intersection of two very wide, busy roads (Monivong and Sihanouk) EVERYONE was going. EVERYONE from EVERY side of the road. There were even a few diagonal side-shows dodfing around with frogger- like agility. I would have laughed, but I was in the middle of it, running on instinct and a few choice profanities I didn’t have time to utter. When the traffic gets hairy, I often take my survival tips from those tiny little fish that swim alongside Great White Sharks.  They get a little protection, way more street cred than they’d ever get on their own, and the benefit of the draft making their swim more like coasting comfortably. I wasn’t quite coasting comfortably, but I did make it to the other side.  Where the lights were working. Then I laughed.

First Things First

October 8, 2008


Greetings from Phnom Penh! I did indeed arrive here safe and sound and have just finished up my second week of work.  The time has turned in a stealthy manner… it is hard to believe that October has come upon us already!

My life here in Phnom Penh still feels rather preliminary, though I am beginning to make sense of the chaotic numbered streets of no particular order.  When I first arrived I was overwhelmed, delighted and confused by the sights, sounds, smells, the traffic, the trash.  I know I still am, though now just a little dulled to it, probably for survival’s sake.  But this city is one full of contrasts and I have much to learn.

While I’ve been feeling like an unbearable novice at everything, as I sit down to write this I realize I actually have learned a few things since my arrival. Aside from beginning a new life in a very different part of the world (which is perhaps a million thoughts in itself) I’ve also begun a new job… and have finally met the likes of Hagar International my whole reason for this side step into life in Southeast Asia.

Hagar primarily serves women and children who are survivors of sex trafficking, domestic violence, and sex sexual exploitation, though it doesn’t really stop there.  We have preventative measures touching a wide range of vulnerable populations through education initiatives, a country-wide water filter and nutrition programs, “The House of Smiles” for children with various mental and physical disabilities, career development, literacy, catch-up schools, community foster care, two restaurants, a five star catering business, a soy milk factory… and the list goes on…

The Hagar International office, though small, is quite ambitious and rides on the waves of the successes of the expansive programs Hagar Cambodia has fashioned in its 15 years in Phnom Penh. It is now our job to plant these promising seeds of social programs and social

enterprise into India, Vietnam and Laos.  My job as “social program coordinator” (yes, I have an admittedly giddy and rather sophomoric excitement with my first true job title in this field!!) is to facilitate the implementation of the social programs in these countries.  I’ll also be doing many other things, like working with stakeholders to raise funds, as these things must happen in order for social programs to exist.  But after this week, I am finally beginning to get a grasp of my role here and the work I will be engaged in Phnom Penh (and beyond!).

Ox or Mule?

Ox or Mule?

Life in general is good

I am searching for an apartment (currently living in a guest house where a rather small and grumpy disabled

gaurd rooster + pooch comrade

guard rooster + pooch comrade

rooster patrols the entryway, often accompanied by his very lazy pooch comrade that looks like a tiny version of Atreiu from “Neverending Story”).

I finally got myself a bike (it’s purple and I’m considering naming her after my old Dutch bike, Wilhelmina). My independent spirit relishes in freedom and relative anonymity it brings (and the delights in turning down the eager Tuk Tuk drivers who basically function like public transit, except it often involves haggling and takes the form of a motorbike rickshaw). So now I can get around fairly well on my own and am getting used to my sorely obvious “barang” status (think gringo but Khmer style).

I am meeting new people everyday from Finnish humanitarian workers to Nigerian nurses, to Cambodian-American’s running NGOS and writing dissertations, to Kiwi Art dealers, Swiss financial officers, Korean missionaries, Vietnamese Foster parents and even a rather business savvy Australian dairy farmer.  I recently began volunteering with the Democrats Abroad and did indeed help

matching umbrellas

a nice Republican American man register to vote for John McCain… (my dad would be proud).  And of course, I’ve met a few lovely Cambodians as well :*).

So, in between the power outages (our office has a generator, thank goodness), the swarming motodups, monk sightings in their bright orange robes (often with matching umbrellas), the skinny cats with crooked tails, the Cambodia toddlers playing in muddy puddles, the crowded sidewalks where you’ll find at once 10

Wat Toul Tompoug

Wat Toul Tompoug

motos for sale, a crowded Cambodian eatery, a barber, a mom squatting over her family’s dinner in a bulky black iron pot, a wedding processional (if you are lucky) and the occasional team of bony mules peddling pottery…. you’ll find me here as I sort through building a life here in Phnom Pehn.

Please feel free to say hello anytime! I’m only halfway around the world for most of you :*) It is GMT +7 where I sit in the world.  So post a comment, write an e-mail and if you want to brave the 11/12 hour difference (Eastern time/Central time), of course Skype!! (my Skype name is betsybramon).

BUT above all, I am overwhelmed with gratitude at the generosity and vision many of you have had in your decision to support me in my work with Hagar International.  Without you, I would not be here today.  So, I am eager to share and learn along side you in this journey.  We shall see where it takes us together.

With love and great thanks!!