Lost in translation...

My three Push Pull co-workers (Leigh & Kongkea) and I were discussing our expenses at our village office today. Since we just opened this office there are things we need to buy so that the weavers can work. Kongkea, who is Khmer, was running down the list of needs. His english is pretty good, but...

He says to Leigh and me, "I need money for a ho."
Leighs responds, "A what?"
Kongkea, "A ho."
Leigh and I give him a weird look.
Kongkea, "You know, a ho to bring the water from the well."
Leigh, "A ho-SE Kongkea. Ho is a bad word."

Cambodia I’m here to stay (for a year)

I left the good ole’ USA on December 31, 2009, set on exploring Southeast Asia and hoping to make a difference by volunteering in Cambodia. Who would have thought(well, some of my friends actually predicted), that my gig volunteering for the Ikat weaving project would turn into a full-time, paid job, that requires me to LIVE in Cambodia! (Yes folks, my 4 month trip has now turned into over a year-long stay.)

My work on the Ikat project involved developing the brand strategy, marketing plans for selling the product into the US, creating website plans, and helping a bit on product development and sample making. When the donor (my new boss), Dan, came to town the end of March I was able to present my plans to him. We also were discussing how we could launch the product in the US Market by May 2011 amidst production issues—weavers in Takeo (hub of weaving in Cambodia) are having some troubles transitioning to weaving in cotton versus their normal silk.

Through all of these conversations Dan said he liked my work and what Leigh (the current AMAZING project manager) and I had done to push the project forward. He then made me an offer to join the team (and be paid).

At hearing his offer I was extremely excited at the opportunity to contribute my skills for longer than 3- months and gain more experience—I mean, one of the sole reasons I set off on my volunteer expedition was to do some soul searching to discover if working in a developing country was something I could really do long term.

On the other side however, I was scared out of my wits! An opportunity was thrown my way that I would dream about, but now that it was reality I was stressed to the max because I wasn’t sure if I could handle living in Cambodia for a year.

So being who I am, I had to toil for days in making a decision. My tics went haywire—they had pretty much been dormant, sleepless nights, a dozen pro and con lists, and numerous conversations with family and friends. My brother reminded me that it would be like investing in a master’s degree without the $100K debt. My sister Jodi said of course you should go for it; it’s an amazing opportunity (all the while saying of course she would REALLY miss me!). My parents were sending me lots of prayers and support. And my friend Elizabeth reminded me during one of our ritual Sunday poolside conversations at the Golden Banana, that my favorite social philanthropist and hero, Greg Mortensen (Author of Three Cups of Tea), would just jump in and do what needed to get done because in the end it was a for the purpose of helping others who really need it.

So for one more sleepless night, a conversation with my parents and sister, I decided that OF COURSE I would take the job. I’d been fantasizing about creating businesses for women in developing countries forever. And now, here was the chance!
Now I’m jumping in, not just feet first, but with my whole body and mind. It will be a crazy, amazing, frustrating, exhilarating, tiresome year, but the pay-off is worth it!

I am now an official employee of Push Pull Cambodia. My mission: To launch a social enterprise in Cambodia providing long-term, stable employment to weavers in Takeo Province and seamstresses in Siem Reap.

Ready, set, GO!

Here's my new home/office.

22 Kids and Me

Besides volunteering my time at CFI, I spend a few days a week at the Missionaries of Charities Orphanage. It’s a fabulous, lovingly run orphanage by the Sisters of the MOC order (the same order as sainted Mother Teresa).

The children range in age from 6 months to 6 years old, with one 12 year old as the exception. Most of the kids are 1 to 3 years old. There are 22 kids, of which two have cerebral palsy. They bring a special brightness to the orphanage. Sokha is a 12 year old girl with a big heart who LOVES to take walks with me and wear my flip-flops; Samna is a 6-year old boy with a severe case of CP. He cannot walk and talk, but his eyes light up with love and recognition.

While there, I try to spend one-on-one time with Samna, doing exercises to stretch his tense muscles and feed him his lunch or dinner. One of the most wonderful things about Samna is his smile. He lights up when other kids come and touch him or say his name. His smile is enough to brighten anyone’s day!

One thing I learned working at the MOC with Samna and Sokha is that there is a high rate of cerebral palsy in Cambodia. During child birth many women in remote villages do not get to the hospital and there are complications at birth that cause CP. Samna has a twin brother that was not affected during child birth and now lives with an adoptive mother in Bali. My friend Hassan, who volunteers at the orphanage too, told me of a family that has 4 kids with CP! Since this is a developing country there aren’t programs or even hospitals that have extensive knowledge about CP. Luckily there is an American woman with a big heart who is working on starting a center for kids with CP. It’s in its infancy so more to come…

On the flip-side of the calmness of Samna is the craziness of an orphanage that is 75% babies/toddlers. New York City rush hour has nothing on these kids! The sisters and the caretakers are so wonderful and full of love and patience. However, the kids are still craving attention. Many volunteers come and the kids flock to them to be hung on to and hugged. There is always madness in the playroom! You try to teach the kids to share (which is hard when you don’t speak their language), but toy “stealing” inevitably occurs and outbreaks of tears start everywhere. As a volunteer and westerner you have to learn to be patient. It’s key to remember that these kids have it VERY different… they don’t have their own toys as we did growing up. So when they are using a toy at that moment it is THEIRS.

I will admit that I started some madness on my own… Chaos ensued today when I brought fun coloring sheets (that my dad drew for the kids) and crayons. What I thought would be a fun afternoon of coloring quickly turned into crayon havoc! You can definitely tell that I am a “girl from an office” who didn’t even think of what would happen when you give toddlers crayons. Let’s just say that they started off coloring (aka scribbling) on the drawings. Soon there was crayon hording, while others decided to show their artistic capabilities on the floor and wall. Some crayons were even mistaken as “candy”. By the end, of the 48 crayons I brought, about 5 were usable in the future. The kids had a BLAST and I learned a lesson: color time with toddlers’ means sitting at a table in an organized fashion, not randomly in playroom. Taking responsibility for my actions though, I dutifully got the mop and bucket and cleaned the floor and walls until they sparkled like new again!

Want to know how you can help?
The orphanage is always in need of donations of money or supplies (kid’s clothes, toys for toddlers, medicines, etc.). If you would like to help them out just let me know.

Sorry no pics… they don’t like photos taken at orphanage. It only exploits the kids.

Weaving in Takeo

As part of my volunteering with CFI, I took a trip to the Takeo Province in southeast Cambodia to visit the weavers who make all of the fabric. Takeo is a poor province south of Phnom Penh. It’s a flat, tan countryside, with strokes of green from rice paddies and coconut trees. Driving along the bumpy, dirt roads you are welcomed by Cambodians waving hello from under their bamboo stilted homes. As you look closer at each home you’ll notice that there is at least one loom, many times two or three.

Takeons are famous for their Ikat weaving. Every little girl and sometimes the boys know how to weave. While I was there I went from house to house to visit many of the weavers and dyers who make the fabric for our project. They are truly artists! They don’t use electrical machines at all—everything is done by wooden looms, the old fashioned way.

The process of making Ikat is very labor intensive. It’s not until you actually see it being made that you truly appreciate the skill and love that goes into each piece of fabric. You quickly realize too that these women are undercutting their profits in the market! They put many days and hours into the fabric and barely sell their work for anything. That’s where CFI comes in.

CFI is working with the weavers in Takeo to create cotton Ikat fabric (versus silk that they usually make) to be sold into the western fashion and home d├ęcor market. The goal is to sell modern, quality fabric, where the profits are fed back into the community—the weavers themselves will make a fair profit that actually accounts for all the hours they put into their work, as well, monies will be used for community projects around the village. We also want to train them in simple business practices that will allow them to understand how to account for their expenses and make a profit from what they sell. These are skills that many did not learn as they stopped going to school around age 13.

We are very lucky to be working with the AMAZING and INSPIRING Elizabeth Keister, owner and fashion designer for Wanderlust. She designs her apparel and has it all made here in Cambodia by various NGOs. She is the creative director for our project, helping CFI to create the fresh, bold designs. (Read more about her inspirational story…)

Here’s a little about the process, but it doesn’t BEGIN to capture the full scope.
- Buy cotton
- Dye cotton with natural or chemical free dye

- Weavers tie the cotton with the Ikat design (think tie-dying)

- Dye cotton again
- Sometimes the cotton goes back for another round of tying and then back for dying
- Set up the warp on the loom (about 3 days)

- Spin cotton

- Begin weaving on the loom—depending on the design and length it can take anywhere from 1 day to weeks/months to finish a piece of fabric.

VW Mania in Laos

Spotted in Vientienne... Vintage Bugs and other snazzy VW's.

Ancient wisdom discovered thru Tug-of-War

Kids on a field trip at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Ancient wisdom says that Tug-of-War is essential in learning the ancient Chinese script.

Hanoi Frogger

I had heard about the infamous Hanoi traffic even before arriving on the bus. The words of advice bestowed on me were, “Never look back, only move forward, then they won’t hit you.” When I first saw the millions of motorbikes, all whizzing by our bus, beep, beep, beeping their horns I thought, there is no way I’m NOT going to get hit here. It was chaos like I’d never seen before. Traffic lights meant nothing as moving objects moved at free will and drove on either side of the road. Pedestrian crossings were rare—all were advised to cross the street at their own risk.

I realized when I got off the bus that I was going to have to brave this traffic as a biped. So I held my breath, looked forward, and took my first step into oncoming motorbikes… Moto bike 1 passed , phew, pause, EEKS!, almost hit, keep MOVING, phew , OH NO, bike coming from other way, hurry forward, deep breath, only 5 more bikes to clear, the sidewalk is in view… REJOICE! I made it across! The feeling was exhilarating. I conquered Hanoi traffic—I was a real-life “Frogger”.

After my virgin street crossing I felt confident. I had an instant high, knowing that I could defeat any traffic coming my way!