Food: the universal language

Delicious home-cooked lunch

I was fortunate share a home-cooked Cambodian meal with friends this past weekend, probably the most memorable meal I’ve had so far. One of our friends invited us for lunch in the morning and of course we all wanted to bring something, but the couple kept insisting that we don’t bring anything.

This is my first time being at a Cambodian person’s house so it was a great experience. They offered us a drink as soon as we arrived in the scorching hot weather and they provided us with more than enough food for lunch as well as a Cambodian dessert, which looked like green noodles (see pic below).

What also makes this experience so memorable is that we can’t communicate in depth in English or Khmer (Cambodian language), but just spending time with people over food is something that overcomes all language barriers. We can still joke and laugh together.

Even though all of the food and drinks were out on the table, we all waited until everyone was sitting at the table before we ate. I will make sure to do this more often when I get back to Vancouver.
While I am a pescotarian (eat fish, but no beef or chicken) 95% of the time, I did eat meat for this meal so I wouldn’t be rude since they were in all of the dishes. It was delicious and my tummy hasn’t been angry at some of the meat I’ve had so far.

One of the guests was telling me that he is studying information technology but the education quality in Cambodia is not good. He looked frustrated. He said, “In Phnom Penh, there are many more choices, but not in Siem Reap.” As I meet more people, I’m hearing more and more stories like this. I have read several statistics about the poor quality of education in Cambodia. You feel a whole other level of frustration when you hear the impacts directly from Cambodians of all ages.

I did want to try the meat since I am traveling just to at least taste it and I think the meat is likely fresher than the factory farmed meat in Canada, which is a big reason why I usually don’t eat meat. I’m more likely to try locally raised meat and I have in Vancouver.

Generous food customs

Generously hosted by our friend as his house

I’ve noticed the following food customs both from Cambodian people and people who come from other countries around the world since I’ve been here that I really appreciate:

  • Everyone waits until all the food is cooked before eating a meal. One time, one of my friends was really hungry and the food was still an hour away from being ready. I told her she could eat one of the dishes as an appetizer because for most of us, if we’re hungry, we’ll eat something small. But she said, “No it’s ok, I will wait.”
  • If someone didn’t cook, they will take it upon themselves to clean everyone’s dishes. While I find many people in North American often have to be asked or “trained”, the people I live and dine with do this automatically.
  • If people are in the same room, rarely do they make something just for themselves. Most of the time they don’t ask and make either a dish or drink for everyone. If someone is making a fruit shake, they will count the number of people in a room and make it for everyone. My first week here, I bought ingredients for myself but quickly found myself using them to contribute a dish since we were eating and cooking together most of the time. Every day is a foodie day!

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What we have in common

Support has no geographical boundaries thanks to the interwebs, particularly instant chat. To be honest, while I’ve been immersing myself in the beautiful Kingdom of Cambodia, I have thought very little of Vancouver with the exception of my family and friends.

I started to miss people more a few days ago and the instant chats with my friends when needed. I wanted to talk about something specifically and of course, as the universe works in funny ways, someone I didn’t specifically reach out to messages me after we haven’t been in touch for a month and she said all the words I needed to hear.

She reminded me that no matter where we are in the world or what state we are in, we are loved by the people in our lives. And when we carry them in our hearts, nothing else matters. Just remember to focus on what you have, no what you don’t have.

What we have in common

In the few weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve met people in rural areas, tourists from very wealthy families, volunteers from many countries and entrepreneurs with big dreams. My interactions with them exemplifies that we all have the following in common no matter where we are in our lives and where we live in the world:

  • We cry when our grandparents pass away
  • We cry when we learn a loved one has cancer
  • We want our children to be healthy and be educated
  • We want to be loved and accepted by family and good friends
  • We need support when we are suffering or down
  • We hurt if we are not accepted for who we are by our family

What people deserve

After seeing how much people, particularly women and children, have to struggle to survive both in Cambodia, Vancouver and other places in the world, I hope to make my contribution in any way I can see people getting what they deserve, including the following:

  • To have a holistic education in school and in life
  • To be able to explore interests and further build on their talents
  • To be able to be mobile within their city, country and the world
  • To be loved my family and friends
  • To be able to learn about anything
  • To have the freedom of communication and sharing ideas
  • To live in a healthy environment
  • To have access to healthy food
  • To have the freedom of choice
  • To have the freedom to be themselves
  • To have the freedom to love who they wish

One wish

As I interact with more people, I’m going start asking them, “If you had one wish, what would it be?” I want to see what people’s wishes are around the world and see what common themes come up if they do.

So far between myself and one of my Khmer friends, our wishes are:

“To travel the world!”

“To have enough money to build social enterprises around the world and live comfortably.”

What’s your wish?

“Don’t hide your stomach”

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I often laughed when people traveled overseas and seem surprised by how generous people are when they have fewer material things. I would always think, “Why wouldn’t they be generous? I believe most people are giving and collaborative by nature.” We in the West have been distracted by stuff and instant gratification and socialized us to keep things to ourselves.

But now after meeting so many generous Cambodians and friends around the world since I’ve landed, I see what people are talking about.

Make sure you are fed

One of my Khmer (Cambodian) friends was so kind to take me on her scooter to 60 Road, one of the local hangouts to meet her friends. I just mentioned I was hungry and just bought enough to be full. She kept asking me if I had enough and said, “I’m worried that you did not eat enough. We can go look for more food.” Her kindness is very typical Cambodian hospitality.

My other friend said, “We have a saying: don’t hide your stomach. If you are hungry, keep eating until you are full.”

Cambodian vs. North American eating habits
Thanks everyone for your dish contributions

I am very grateful for my friends and family in Vancouver who practice subtle but very considerate habits of serving people first, helping clean up and making sure everyone has what they need. It’s surprising how often in North America, people don’t do that.

I’m actually growing increasingly irritated with self-entitled tourists. My friend and I met a Canadian guy and since I’ve landed, I’ve been so in the habit of always offering food as people have with me that when he got a big piece of pie and didn’t at least offer if we wanted to try, his lack of consideration was noticeable. I know no one is obligated to share food, but it is, I wouldn’t say a cultural difference, just a different level of consideration.

Since I’ve been here the last few weeks, I’ve done a lot of cooking with people I have met here and it has happened so naturally. It’s been nice that where I’m volunteering, we have one hour lunch breaks. And because we work where we live, it’s plenty of time to cook a meal.

One of the biggest differences I’ve seen in work and life habits is that no matter how busy things are with work, people still take the hour to eat and contribute a meal if we plan a group lunch.

Here are just some amazing home cooked food the last few weeks:
Egg salad, yep, still home food

Amazing home made lunch again!

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To feed the child or not feed the child . . . that is the question

In 2009, my good friend and I were getting ready for the PEPY ride, a bike ride across Cambodia to raise money for local development projects in the country.

We were fortunate enough to meet past riders who did the trip. One of the important tips they gave us was, “There will be many children who come up to you and beg for money. I know it is hard to say no, but that is why you are doing the PEPY ride so you can invest in long term solutions like education. When tourists give them money, their parents will send their kids to beg on the streets instead of sending them to school. It feeds the problem.“

I’m really glad he told us that beforehand so I kept running that in my head.

When my friend and I landed, we spend two days in Siem Reap before we joined the rest of the group for the bike ride. Our first night out, sure enough, there was a young girl who came up to us and gestured with her hands that she was hungry. Of all of our activities and the many people we met in Cambodia during our trip, this girl has been stuck in my head ever since we first saw her.

We said no to her but then I thought, “I won’t give her money, but what’s the worst that can happen if I just buy a meal for her and she eats it in front of me? Or will she give the food to an adult she is working for?“

After a minute of following us, the girl left. I decided, “Ok, if I see her again on our way back, I will buy her a meal.“ After we had a huge meal, we walked back to our guesthouse. I was keeping my eye out for her, but we never passed her again. She has been in my memory ever since. I often thought, “I should have just bought her a meal.“

Three years later, as I am back in Cambodia now and reading more articles on Responsible Tourism and other related topics, I am glad I did not end up perpetuating the system.

The article, “Street Children, Free Meals & Lessons Learned“ shows how giving free meals to street kids often keeps them there, especially in poorer countries. Feeding them fuels the cycle of poverty when we should really be collaborating to get them out of the cycle so they can be self‐sufficient.

Fortunately, there are a variety of social enterprises in Cambodia that are investing in people and contributing to long term solutions. We are proud to support businesses such as Soria Moria, a hotel we ate at recently, that enables disadvantaged youth to gain life skills and an education in addition to giving their employees to move up within the business among other programs.

Instead of giving money to a child on the street, I feel much better putting my dollars towards a healthier future with a greater impact for more people.

Fantastic drum performance by a girls’ group from Madagascar

I enjoyed a great performance by this group Bloco Malagasy, a samba percussion group of teenagers trained at the Center of Art and Music of Bel Avenir NGO in Madagascar. They are promoting women’s rights in Cambodia and performed at the social enterprise restaurant Marum. The restaurant works with street children and other marginalized young people since 2005 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

This was their last day in Siem Reap so I was lucky to catch them. They’re on their way to Phnom Penh today and performing this weekend and next the following dates:

  1. Saturday, March 16 at Le Jardin restaurant (#16, Street 360, Phnom Penh) at 6 p.m.
  2. Sunday, March 17 at Meta House (#37 Sothearos Boulevard, Songkhat Tonle Bassak, Khan Chamkarmon, Phnom Penh)
  3. Saturday, March 23 at Friends the Restaurant (#215 Street 13, Phnom Penh)

You do not have to buy tickets for this show, just a drink or meal at the restaurants. Well worth the performance!

Enjoy the show!

Couple cycling around the world for their honeymoon (video)

I was fortunate to meet Zita and Arpi at SmallWorld in Phnom Penh and learn their amazing story. To date, they’ve been cycling for 20 months from Budapest, through the Middle East and now in Southeast Asia. This is the first time they’ve been outside of Europe and what a way to see the world!

They’ve met among the most generous people along the way. In this clip, they mention how the news only tells a fraction of the story of the world. They want to experience the world for themselves and get the full picture beyond our fear-driven TV screens.

Follow their inspiring adventure at www.cyclingthe360.com and their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/cyclingthe360

Please forgive me for the poor quality, I just used my digital camera and obviously not a trained videographer. I will improve as I go.

The black line in the picture below marks the countries they’ve cycled to so far


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We went cycling for a few hours in Phnom Penh and visited two pagodas. We were fortunate to have a monk join us for breakfast at the pagoda and learn about his life.
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So cute!

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I know it’s free, I still don’t want it

I’ve read a couple articles today on some of the most ignorant and harmful donations that have been given to countries after a disaster or from people who have the intention of “helping.” There’s a really good site called Good Intentions Are Not Enough that provides readers with the knowledge, tools, and resources they need to ensure that their donations match their good intentions.

Some explicitly ignorant and dangerous donations, even with the best intentions, include:

  • Dog food donations to feed children in Kenya. Needless to say, the government rejected the “aid.” A Kenyan spokesperson said, “Kenyan children are not in such shortage of food to resort to eating dog food.”
  • Winter hat, coats, and gloves donated to southern Thailand after the tsunami
  • Canned pork and skimpy clothing donated to Muslim communities

That’s just the start of it. Some of these are pretty funny and other cases are very dangerous. In one case, people dropped baby formula in a country. After disasters, baby formula mixed with contaminated water can lead to severe diarrhea and potentially death due to dehydration.

Useless free things is a global problem

How many times have you received gifts for your birthday or other holidays that you tossed or re-gifted? It’s probably because people didn’t ask, “What would be useful for you? Do you need anything?” I know people have good intentions, but often many things we get are wasteful.

In in the 10 years I’ve been working in Canada, I’ve seen a few projects that been implemented as badly as some development projects. The problem and uselessness of free stuff does not just happen in other countries. Just because we’re allegedly  “educated,” doesn’t mean people know how to implement projects effectively. These are some of the same problems I’ve seen in projects implemented in Canada as international development projects:

  • Decisions being made by people from higher levels who are completely disconnected from what’s happening from the ground
  • Lack of time and initiative spent learning from the people they are attempting to serve and what resources already exist
  • Language barriers
  • Complicated instructions
  • Measuring success with numbers alone over actual impact
  • Wasting loads of money no the wrong promotional channels
  • The assumption that free things are useful for financially poorer people

The right language and reading level would help

I worked for an organization that was implementing a project where policies and complicated instructions limited the number of participants. The application forms were complicated and the target audience were people who read at a grade 2 or 3 level. In many cases of international aid or development, instructions were in a language that was different than the people they were trying to “help.” How are people supposed to know how to use the product or know what the product is?

Measuring numbers, not impact

The project measured their so-called success by the number of free kits they distributed to their customers. However, when we talked to the people, the repeated feedback we got from them was, “The instructions are confusing and complicated.” We went to some housing buildings and there were boxes of kits just sitting there being unused. Numbers say very little about the actual impact on people.

Similarly, with many international development projects, the number of schools build, books distributed or clothes shipped say very little about effective impact for people. How are empty schools beneficial for children if there are not teachers to teach them? How are the 10,000 books shipped helpful for kids who can’t read them? How are the clothes useful for people who now don’t need to buy them from local merchants because they are now getting them for free?

More dollars does not always equal more effective promotion

I don’t even want to know how much the organization we were working with spent on mass media advertising, including bus ads, radio ads and promoting the website. A few problems:

  • The ads were cluttered with all of the other ads on transit and the radio. Awareness does not equate to action. The target audience were very busy in their daily lives, will they go through the long complicated application form after being exposed to an ad for two seconds?
  • The application was put online but many of the people went to food banks, did not have easy access to a computer or were too busy to go through the long process.

One of my past professors was a communication consultant. He was given a very healthy budget to do a do not drink and drive campaign to high school students. He could have used the money to do a campaign, stage events and so on. But instead he chose the most effective and cost effective method: having a victim of drunk driving tell their story.

We need to learn before we can help. I feel like the most effective projects are based on at least 75% consultation and 25% execution. It seems like many projects are 90% execution based on 10% presumptions.

In sum, before accepting or giving something for free, find out if it will actually be beneficial.If not, you can simply say, “No thank you.”