Lessons From A Photo A Day

Those that are my friends on Facebook know that for the year of 2017 I posted one photo a day for 365 days. It was inspired by two events during the holidays in 2016.

Event 1: After living in Cambodia for almost a year Alyssa and I decided to head home for the holidays. We already had discussed that we might be heading back to the US before the end of 2017, so at Christmas I talked to my parents about it. My mom, besides being happy that I would be back in the US, expressed that she was a little sad because she wouldn’t get to see what my life was like on a day to day basis.

Event 2: When I left my parents, and went other places in the US for a few weeks, a friend posted an article (I think this one) about a man who took one Polaroid a day for almost 20 years. They weren’t amazing photos, just photos about the man going about his life. And I remember thinking: “That’s a cool idea. I could probably do that.”

I started thinking that I could take a photo and post it to Facebook bringing my friends and family along to see what I saw.

After a year of doing it, here’s some lessons I’ve learned.

  1. People Yearn For Personal: This activity quickly became a conversation piece with a fair number of people. Not just friends and family in the US when we were back, but friends who lived in Cambodia and saw many of the same things I did. I was showing them my day by posting a photo and they loved it. Both of our parents liked this new activity because it allowed them to know we were safe and what we were doing. Our friends from the US liked it because they could see something that was personal to me. The photo with the most people engaging was one of Alyssa I took early on. We had gone to the Women’s March in Phnom Penh, and I had been watching her all day. As she was talking to a friend I took a quick photo as the sun set and simply stated what we were doing. It’s not the best photo from the bunch, nor is it the best photo of Alyssa, but looking at it today, I know that it is personal to me on many levels, and it seems to be one that resonated with lots of people. As I was about to end the photo a day someone I am not even friends with on Facebook mentioned how the photo a day was something they looked forward to seeing as others like and comment on the photos. They liked it because it offered a peak at a different life than their own and that was something they didn’t get to see often.


    Alyssa looking amazing.

  2. People Want to See the Small, Overlooked, Or Problematic: As one friend put it three or four months into me doing it: “I love it. It’s like a montage of the small and overlooked things all around us.” And it’s true. People liked seeing the construction that was happening around my office (making it almost impossible to work sometimes). They enjoyed the pictures of piles of trash that I took next to Wats. Pictures of graffiti and random rooms of my apartment became things people called me on the phone to talk about. We often see big events posted on social media, weddings, births, graduations, promotions, but we rarely see the little stuff around us everyday. Yet this activity caused others to want to see the small things people around them too.

    Wat Trash

    Wat “Trash”

  3. Everyone Takes Too Many Travel Photos: I did this during a year of travel to be sure. I lived in Cambodia. Traveled to and from the US twice. Went to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Laos. Traveled to 10 states in the US, and multiple provinces in Cambodia. And because I had a reason for my photographs I found out I actually began taking less of them. I am definitely someone who took hundreds of travel photos only to delete them or forget about them. Each photo I take, I do in theory to remember what I was looking at. But photos never fully capture the moment, and if you have 1,000 photos, you’re never going to use them for anything other than filling a server or hard drive somewhere. Sometimes during the year I’d kick myself for not having my phone on me to take a photo I thought would be a good photo of the day. But really, the activity made me want to take less photos, as I saw that people really only want to see one or up to three photographs from your travels (except for parents, they will always want to see all of them).


    Travel photo example

  4. People Like Scheduled Engagement: Another thing that people enjoyed was that I would post almost every day. They knew that if they went online they could see it. I had many friends that told me they enjoyed my scheduled activity because they could go back if they wanted to, but they knew that everyday there’d be something new. One of our parents stated they worried about our safety less because if I was posting a photo, then we were not in any trouble. If I ever posted more than three photos at once though, almost all of them were not engaged with (in the form of comments or likes). It was, to me, a fascinating example, of either Facebook algorithms or people themselves. Either way, having a schedule and sticking to it made people more interested in engaging with it.
  5. We All Spend A Lot Of Time On Social Media: I started the activity, in part, to let friends and family see what I was seeing one photo at a time. The problems is, they can’t see everything, and even the one photo, no matter how personal, doesn’t tell the full story. Posting it online made me go on Facebook even more than I might have otherwise, much to Alyssa’s dismay. But we are all online more, like a lot more than even when I lived abroad in 2008-2011. Whether we are less engaged with the immediate world around us, either because we are taking photos with our cameras, or looking at photos others have taken with theirs, is something to be argued else where. But I can say that for me, it became a part of my mind instead of seeing the world out there in front of my face.

So will I do this activity again? Probably not. If I do take a photo a day, it will either be saved somewhere personally, or e-mailed to a few people instead of posted online. It was an exhausting exercise, and at times lead me deeper down the social media rabbit hole than I liked.

I enjoyed that the Black and White photo challenge happened near the end of my year, which for 7 days made many people do what I was doing, as it made my Facebook feed feel a bit more personable and less political.

That being said, I’m glad I can take days, possibly weeks, away from social media now and not feel under any self-inflicted stress because I haven’t kept up a promise I made. Actually, it’s what I’m giving up for Lent this year.*
*edit: I didn’t succeed on not looking at Facebook at all, but did cut out looking at it on my phone.


An Ode For The Traveler

I am a part of every where I’ve been.
Every heather, river, and glenn.
I’ve seen the sights and heard the sounds,
And left my footprints on hallowed grounds.
I’ve swam the lakes and climbed great trees
And breathed my air out by the seas.
I am a part of everywhere I see,
And they in turn a part of me.
So thank you rocks birds and fleas,  who have all combined to make me me.


The Luxury of Travel

Recently in our travels I found an anthology of female travel writers, starting in the 1700’s going through til today. Early on in the book, one of the authors writes “A Plea For Women Tourists”. It’s a good overview of the stigma that female travelers had in the 1800’s, and her plea is that more woman “of means” should travel. This plea was a great read and made me think about something.

Living abroad is an experience I’ve now had multiple times in a variety of countries. It is always a crash course in humility as you struggle to understand and be understood. You try to create zones of comfort in areas that are foreign. You have to deal with the positives and many negatives of standing out and not having a space that is really yours. And though I still support everyone and anyone who wants to travel or live abroad,  travel is still for those who have means.

True, you can “travel on a shoestring” if you really wanted to. But for many people in the world, more focused on day to day survival, and struggling with many of above situations in their own communities or countries, the ability to travel (instead of say flee or immigrate) is something that only someone of means is able to do.

Though you may travel and say to me, “Hey, I don’t have much money!”, you do have the means to not worry about your day to day survival long enough that you could hop on a plane, get on a bus, fill up your car with gas, and go somewhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s a few hours away from where you live, in a country where they speak the same language as you, and or a place that might hold some if not many of the same beliefs, or a place that is none of those things. The ability to travel means you have “means” and that means it is a privilege to travel.

I am not suggesting that people give up traveling, far from it. I am simply saying that it is important to remember that what you are doing is a privilege and a luxury as you travel, be it as a tourist, a traveler, or what I call a foreigner (also known as an ex-patriot [expat] when you aren’t in a “Western” country). There for it is important to make sure that the way you travel is supportive of the communities you go in and out of. It is important to know about the history and culture of where you are going into. And it is important for you to be grateful that you are one of those with the “means” to travel and respect the privilege you have in traveling. Not everyone has this ability.

Not everyone has hot water (or running clean water). Not everyone has enough money to think past the end of the week (if they can even think past tomorrow). So remember when traveling, that traveling is a privilege not an entitlement, and treat it with the respect that deserves.

Refinding My Creativity

I sat on the stage of the bar as the Irishman screamed to the right of me: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

A friend walked up and whispered, “What are you writing?”
“A poem”
“Didn’t know you were a poet,” he responded and sat down to watch the rest of rehearsal.

I thought to myself, “I haven’t been one for 10 years.”

On a human life time scale 10 years may not seem like a lot.

The age 22 to 32 though is almost as different as the age of 12 to 22 (though I guess there is more legal drinking in those 10 years, and other behaviors you probably don’t want a 12 year old doing). And yet, upon reflection that Sunday, I realized that I had finally reengaged my creative side this last year of living in Cambodia after 10 years of ignoring it.

I work hard and read. In the US, that was basically the main thrust of my days.
Here in Cambodia I am also active in theater, I write short stories and poems in my journals, and I play Dungeons and Dragons. These are each something that were big parts of my young life that I remember consciously deciding, “Let me put away these ‘childish things'”.

It started first with Dungeons and Dragons. When I was in my 20’s, it was hard to get others interested in playing, and I was never one to lead the game. At the same time I thought, girls won’t like me if I play D&D. So I gave the few books I had bought to my brother and went on with my life. In part because I had the outlet of theater and writing still.

Next came theater. When my undergraduate studies ended I found myself for the first time in 10 years having to seek out a theater community. I was at the time performing with friends in a sketch comedy group and got a lot of satisfaction out of that. So I decided, I won’t look for community theater just yet. Then as my time in Boston moved on and the sketch comedy group ended, I found myself surrounded by work, and I never quite picked up theater again.

Last to go was writing. I always have had a writing bug of some sort. I love how people interact with each other, and part of what I love about theater and D&D is to see how different personalities interact without real consequence. So I still wrote some, but not a lot, and as the years passed and I moved from country to country, moved from first jobs to graduate school to more intense job, I made myself believe that I was still getting my creative energies out else where. I really, truly believed it.

Then I moved here.
One of the things Alyssa and I talked about was finding creative spaces when we moved to Cambodia. I agreed, and then went looking for a job. Alyssa had laid the ground work unintentionally though for me to refind my creativity by choosing the place we ended up spending our first month in. The day we showed up the main person for the house was spray painting something.

“We’re making a giant dildo for Rocky Horror!” he said gleefully.

Instead of being shocked or put off, I asked earnestly, “When’s the show?”

I worked and hung out with the few friends I had made. Then one of them, someone from the house we first lived in, messaged me: “Sam. You going to auditions for Streetcar Named Desire?”

I paused. This was a creative thing I could do. I knew I could do this… I think… lets see. What’s the worst that could happen? So I auditioned.

And was cast as 1 of 6 people. I worked hard having forgotten how difficult it is to memorize lines. After being cast we had 5/6 weeks to put on the show, so it was a lot of work. I was rusty, but as time went on I remembered more and more of what friends and former teachers had taught. We put on the show and it was amazing.


Me during rehersal for MacBeth

Near the end of the show, another friend from the same house asked, “You want to play D&D?” I asked Alyssa if she’d like to try and she said sure. I got so excited and knew that this was the right decision.

Alyssa was at first hesitant as D&D is a fairly complex game, but due to the creativity of the DM and the semi-regular play schedule, it’s become a great creative outlet for me, and a great place for me also do some self-inspection.


Friend draws his character in DnD session

Then this year began and the dam broke. Since I’ve returned from my trip home in December and January, I’ve been in two plays and played probably a weeks worth (collectively time wise) of D&D. I’ve had 1000 ideas for stories and poems. I’ve only been able to write a fraction of them down, but when I do I’ve found that what I was missing for the last ten years was this release. I’ve also joined an online writing community as well as blogged a lot more often than before this year.

What I found was, by putting my creative activities, no matter how silly they seemed, to the side, I had stopped being completely me. By putting them to the side, I was embracing a childish idea that because these weren’t serious pursuits, ie pursuits that made me money, then I shouldn’t partake in them so I could become an “adult”. Moving here has helped me pick up those “childish things” again and realize why I loved them so. For the release, for the effort, and for the camaraderie that is gained.

5 Lessons From Giving Up Speaking

On November 7th, 2016 after calling my fiancée, I hung up the phone. I went inside our apartment, checked out Facebook and shut down my computer. Then I stopped talking for 48 hours.

As an extrovert and self-titled political junkie, I had given up my voice during the 2016 U.S. election to help bring awareness to those who have communication difficulties in Cambodia and raise funds for the organization I work for here in Cambodia, OIC Cambodia. OIC Cambodia is working to help grow services for those with communication difficulties here in Cambodia.

So what did I learn by turning off my voice, and social media, for 48 hours? 48 hours that saw the end to the 2016 Presidential election come and go?

  • People are uncomfortable with silence:

When I was silent, many people didn’t seem to know how to react. Some reacted by simply ignoring me. If the person didn’t know that I had given up my voice they might move slightly father away from me without realizing it, or in one case have a look of horror on their face for a second or two. As an extrovert, I kind of understood this reaction as one who might briefly think, well then how am I supposed to communicate with you if you aren’t talking?

Trying to get food

Trying to get food

  • People will start to copy whatever form of communication you are using:

I went to lunch with one of the people who was volunteering with us and part way through lunch I asked her why she was writing a response to a question I had written. She had taken to writing in silence like me, instead of talking, even though I could hear just fine. I noticed that other people did this as well, including myself (as others in my office have given up speaking on other days). I know that I did this in an effort to help the person feel welcomed, but that’s not always the case.

  • I got frustrated quickly:

Not being able to fully express my ideas or thoughts in a timely manner was frustrating. The ability to communicate lots of information at once or in a quick manner is important. If, like me, you don’t want to waste other peoples’ time, you can get frustrated with how long it takes you to communicate simple ideas. Especially if there is any misunderstanding the process has to be repeated. Be it through writing, drawing, or pantomime, these take time, and it is sometimes difficult fully explain everything. So I found…


  • I stopped trying to communicate:

As I got frustrated with myself, and frustrated with people copying me or being really uncomfortable, I simply felt the need to stop trying because it was a lot of work. I simply sat there and listened, surrounded by everyone else, not even trying to engage as I knew it would take too much time to explain. To me, it was surprising how fast this happened. It took all of 15 hours before I reached that point, and it stayed with me in some ways for the rest of the 38 hours.

Getting annoyed

Getting annoyed and deciding not to even try to talk.

  • A supportive community is important

The most important thing I found was how important the people around me were. Because I work at an organization that helps bring services to those who have communication difficulties, my coworkers had lots of patience to try to get me involved in meetings, my friends who knew what I was doing made sure I would come out for lunches or invite me out for drinks/trivia. They took the time to see how I was feeling or if I wanted anything. The need for a supportive community became much more important to ensure that I was still involved and that I was included. This isn’t easy to do, and takes a very engaged community. As challenging as giving up speaking was for me – and it was! – I had this amazingly supportive community around me. Due in part to a lack of awareness and lack of social services in Cambodia, many Cambodians with communication difficulties don’t have this.

There were other lessons to be sure, but these are the main ones I learned last November. Now, as I leave my job at OIC Cambodia and take a few months to travel, I will be giving up my voice again, this time it will just be for 24 hours.
In part, to remind me of the important work OIC Cambodia is doing in helping create a supportive community in Cambodia to grow speech therapy, and in part to help explain to family and friends what I’ve done the last year and a half.

I am hoping to give the organization a parting gift. Will you join me in creating a community of support here in Cambodia?


Happy New Year, Cambodia style

“This champagne shore watchin’ over me
It’s a sweet sweet life livin’ by the salty sea
One day you can be as lost as me
Change your geography and maybe you might be…”
-Zac Brown Band & Jimmy Buffett, “Knee Deep”

We recently had a few days off work for the Khmer New Year holiday (Buddhist New Year) and wanted to take the opportunity to travel somewhere we haven’t yet been in Cambodia. Since work and life have felt busy lately, our top aims were unplugging and relaxing. Thank goodness for islands!

Two of the most popular island destinations off Cambodia’s coast are Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. If you ask people in Cambodia about these islands, most will say that Koh Rong is the “party island,” where all the 20-something backpackers go to drink and dance all night, and the smaller Koh Rong Samloem is the island to go to if you want quiet beaches and, you know… sleep. So when we waited a bit too long to book things and realized most places that looked good on Koh Rong Samloem were taken, Sam & I were a bit bummed. Not to mention we had asked two friends if they wanted to do a group trip, so we were now also responsible for other people having a good vacation, not just us.

After a little investigation on Booking.com, we found a place on it’s own secluded beach on Koh Rong (“party island”) that was a long trek from party beach, and looked like a low-maintenance paradise. We had to take a 4-hour car ride from Phnom Penh to the coastal town of Sihanoukville, and then a 2-hour boat ride from the Sihanoukville port to Koh Rong. When we arrived, I knew we’d booked the right place. A beautiful beach, quaint bungalows, a beachy, open air bar/restaurant, and plenty of hammocks and beach chairs. What more do you need?


The view as we arrived on the boat

Koh Rong 6

Beach bungalows

I can’t pick a favorite part of the trip because it was all pretty wonderful. I loved the 2-hour boat ride, but I am biased because one of my all time favorite places to be is on a boat. It was sort of a medium sized fishing boat or ferry, with a lower deck that had benches around the outside, and an upper deck that had nothing but a railing to make sure you don’t fall off. Sitting barefoot with my feet hanging over the side and occasionally getting splashed by waves = immediate transition to vacation mode!

Since the bungalows were the only lodging on their section of the island, they have their own ferry boat, and automatically book it for you when you book a room. It also means you don’t have to cram into a crowded ferry with a bunch of people going to the main part of the island. The Palm Beach boat makes the trip to mainland once per day, leaving the bungalows in the morning with the people who’ve checked out, arriving at mainland around lunchtime, and then heading back to the island with new guests around 1:00 pm. What was fascinating to me was that since the island isn’t very developed, they bring a TON of food and supplies on the boat trip every day. Noodles, fruit, milk, soda, beer, ice, bottled water. I have no idea how much they stock up and what happens if a boat trip gets cancelled for inclement weather or some other reason.


Giant rectangles of ice ready to get offloaded into a cooler on the boat & brought to the island

One favorite part was scouting out a perfect sunset spot on the first day. The sun sets on the opposite side of the island, so we didn’t see it set on the ocean, just behind the trees. But even that was gorgeous as the colors radiated out into the sky and then were multiplied by their reflections in the water. Growing up in Florida, you realize there is such a thing as TOO many sunset photos (do you really need to photograph EVERY beach sunset?) but views like that make it really hard to not want to capture the moment. Our spot consisted of a big shallow inlet that was basically an ankle- to knee-high tide pool depending on the day. So you could walk out, pick a favorite sand bar spot, and sit with your butt and feet in the water, a camera or a drink in your hand, and just soak in the view.



View from our sunset spot

People tend to publicly recount only the best parts of their trip, so to be fair, there were a few downsides. Most of the bungalows don’t have a/c, and while it’s slightly cooler on the island than the mainland, not by much. For some reason, the windows also don’t have screens. Some had shutters but no glass or screen and the large window had just a giant piece of glass that doesn’t open. So sleeping in the heat with only a fan was a tad uncomfortable. We gave in and opened one shutter window and luckily didn’t end up with any critters in our bungalow. Speaking of critters… sand fleas are apparently a thing on some beaches here. They live in the sand and love to bite you all over when you sit or lay in it. We were told about these before our trip, and that coconut oil can help deter them. But we still all ended up with mosquito and sand flea bites, despite being diligent with our bug repellent.

Overall, small prices to pay for 4 days in island paradise. The boat ride back to mainland on the last day was quite rocky. Even having grown up around boats, there were a few rocks where the angle made me a tad nervous. And a few people seemed to be fostering their inner will to fight getting seasick. But everybody’s lunch stayed down and Sam and I just ended up really salty from all the waves that splashed up on us. (Yes, we could have not sat on the benches with our feet hanging over the edge, but where’s the fun in that?!)

My last favorite memory I’ll share right now was the sunset snorkeling trip. The resort organized a 4-hour trip where you take a 45-minute boat ride to an inlet on another part of the island, jump off the boat and snorkel for awhile, then watch the sunset from the boat. (Again, for me any excuse to be on a boat is a good one). I’ve only been snorkeling two other times and I think this was my favorite. The coral was beautiful and there were lots of fish swimming around. Plus it was deep enough where I didn’t have to worry about my long legs scraping the coral which was a problem the two other times I went snorkeling. Snorkel masks never seem to fit my face without letting in water so I spent half the time trying to find a mask that wouldn’t let in water, and the other half of the time just holding the air leaks of the mask shut against my face while I swam one-handed, but it was worth it!

We also got to see the fiery red sun set over the ocean while enjoying some fruit and drinks on the boat! The last part of the trip was boating back towards the bungalows but stopping once more to swim in what was now pitch black night. Why would you jump into the ocean at night? To swim with bioluminescent plankton! This was super cool because the plankton only light up when agitated. So from the boat the water is black, but once you jump in and move around, the plankton light up the outlines of your arms and legs and sparkle in the water as you swim. I had convinced Sam to take a really long walk earlier that day down the beach and partly through waist deep water, so after that and snorkeling, my body was really tired, but I still savored every second of swimming with the plankton and only climbed back onto the boat once we had to depart.

The trip to Koh Rong reminded me: (1) how much I love the ocean; (2) how much I am not a big, cement city person; and (3) how important nature is to recharge me every few months.


Fisherman in the sunset


Sunset view from the boat after snorkeling


At least I’m consistent. I think every time I travel or move to a new place I take up blogging. For a few months, I am really consistent with it, and then as I become more settled into a routine, things get busier, and I seem to have less free time… and then crickets on the blog.

But I would like to revive it after somewhat of a hiatus during my time here in Cambodia (Sam, however, has been a bit better than me about updating). It’s funny because a lot of the reasons for my blogging hiatus are closely tied to lessons I’ve learned about myself over the last few years. I’m ambitious: I don’t like to start something and not see it through, and if I’m going to do something I like to give it my all. But usually that means stopping to think it through, making a plan, considering what the cracks in my plan might be, doing some research to make my plan stronger, etc. Even with blogging, sometimes I feel like every post has to have a clear point or lesson or story arc. Sometimes (most of the time) life just isn’t that tidy.


Sometimes I don’t blog because I’m busy having fun with Phnom Penh graffiti.

I can be a procrastinator: Why do something now when I can just enjoy the present moment and leave the task to future Alyssa? I have all those saved articles to get through on Facebook, plus respond to and clear out emails, plus keep reading this super interesting book, plus make plans with that friend I’ve been meaning to see again, plus Netflix, plus there’s always the option to just lay down and do nothing (particularly when it’s nearly 100 degrees fahrenheit and you basically don’t have air conditioning).

I get lost in thought easily: I mean, I do have a Philosophy degree so this isn’t surprising. But Sam & I have also been asking ourselves lots of big questions lately which involves lots of thinking through what we each individually want and talking through what we want together. Planning for “what’s next” after Cambodia (more on that in a future blog!), processing how living in Cambodia has shaped us now that we are one year in (Yes! It’s actually been just over a year – we were in the air en route from the U.S. on St. Patrick’s Day last year. For non-Irish and non-heavy drinkers, that’s mid-March). So sometimes I’m mentally exhausted, usually in a good way, which is not conducive to writing.


Phnom Penh moves pretty fast.

I hate screen time: My favorite thing about my current job is sometimes I get to go out and do fascinating fieldwork, talking with people in communities about their experiences and hardships. But the vast majority of my time is actually sitting at a computer screen. I subscribed to a few magazines back in the U.S. just because I love reading off cold, hard paper, and get tired of reading news online. But it’s a bit hard to get those magazines delivered to Phnom Penh, so I read all my news online now. I even have a Kindle which I bought just before coming to Cambodia. I actually really love the Kindle, and I still have some hard copy books. But most of my reading for pleasure involves a screen now too. So I really love to give my eyes and my mind a break from the screen. Again, not conducive to blogging.

But for all those excuses, I really do love: (1) connecting with people I care about who want to know what’s going on in my/our life this side of the world, and (2) I really enjoy writing and reflecting and it often helps clear my head and process thoughts

Soooo… I have a backlog of ideas of things I should post about, and hopefully will start posting much more regularly. And post some shorter blogs, or just a few photos sometimes. To keep it consistent even when I am not in a place to write a full/long post.


And sometimes I don’t blog because I’m busy playing with puppies at the dog cafe.

Since you just read all this and I still didn’t tell you anything about our life, here are a few short updates on life in Cambodia:

  • It’s currently Khmer New Year, or Buddhist New Year in Cambodia. It’s a 4-day long holiday where people celebrate with families, visit temples, and ring in the start of a new year. Most expats use the holidays to travel. Below are a couple photos from our trip to Koh Rong island with friends, an island off the coast of Cambodia.
  • I just finished writing my first big piece of research at my job here. Most of my work consists or writing small reports, but my team did a fairly large piece of research about education in Siem Reap province (one of Cambodia’s 25 provinces, where my organization is based). The research identifies examples of good collaboration between schools and local government, and makes recommendations for schools and local government officials to enhance collaboration. It consists of interviews with principals, School Support Committee members (like Parent Teacher Associations), and education officials in local government. It was A LOT of work, but also really interesting and exciting to be a part of. I don’t expect you to read it, but you can find it here: http://www.thislifecambodia.org/research
  • Speaking of writing, I also write for the Move to Cambodia blog, a friend’s blog that reviews everything and anything related to how to live, eat, and travel in the Kingdom of Wonder. I unintentionally became a resident vegetarian blogger so that’s what a few of my posts are about, like this one. I also wrote last year about all the cool new places popping up in our neighborhood of Phnom Penh, and just wrote a piece recently on all the vegetarian-friendly restaurants there are in Phnom Penh (hint: there’s a lot!!).
  • Big things are happening with loved ones back home. My sister is 9 months and 1 day pregnant, so I will be an Aunt any day (or any hour!) now. I am so incredibly excited, and while it’s really strange to be far away during this time, Sam & I will be home in August so I will get to meet the new little one soon. Sam & I are coming home for the weddings of two different couples we consider awesome, dear friends. So it will be a whirlwind trip of celebrating weddings and babies and seeing family!

The Evolution of Birthday For Me

Today is the day commonly celebrated by those around me to mark my arrival into the world. And yet it is the day I commonly think about and celebrate those I am close to the most.

Some cultures celebrate name days instead of or along with. Some cultures don’t celebrate birthdays at all because they believe the tradition is pagan.

In the culture I grew up in this normally means I get cake and ice cream. Sometimes I get presents (though this year I asked for something different). Most of the time at least one person wishes me a happy birthday.

I’ve lived in many parts of the world, and because of that I commonly start getting birthday wishes once Australia falls into the day and lasts until the sun sets over Hawaii.

And so it is that I’ve received a million happy birthdays already (one cake, one gellato, and one Japanese lunch). All of this could get to my head, and it used to for sure. But roughly 8 years ago that began to change.

At the time I was living in Ukraine. I was a teacher at a small school in a small town (roughly 900 people). The day before my birthday, I went to school as if nothing was all that different.

Part way through the day one of the teachers came up to me with a serious expression and said in Russian, “Sam, you need to go to the library.”

So I followed the teacher to the library where I found almost the entire school staff there with candles in the cake. I remember them all trying to sing happy birthday in English. Clapping, smiling, and eating of cake.

In that moment it hit me more than any other time before: Birthdays are not celebrations persay, they are the way we thank someone for being in our lives.

These teachers hadn’t known me a mere 7 months before, nor were they the sort to thank anyone for their mere presence. Yet, here we all were talking, joking, eating, and celebrating. All of them wishing me a “С днем рождения”.

Some may have been using it as an excuse just to eat cake true, but others were genuinely glad to have me there with them. They stayed well after school was out to continue talking with me in simplified Russian. They told me all about the different styles of cake (mostly sheet cakes). They wanted me to know that I was not alone. That I was part of their group, and they were happy for me to be there.

Later, on my actual birthday, I went out with other people who lived near me and we also had fun. They also had not known me the birthday before and I was so glad that I got to know who they were! I thought of my parents who I had a phone call with, my siblings, friends back in the states, and those I had known but briefly during my time up to that point.

So now, 8 years later, when it is my birthday, I tend to think of those I love. Those I am glad to have spent the last year with. Those who have always been close to my thoughts. And when people wish me a happy birthday, I hear them saying “Thank You”.

To which my thoughts are simply, “From the bottom of my heart, thank you too.”


Strangeness of Being “Away” in Difficult Times


I am 12 hours different from the East Coast. As news begins to slow down in America, I am usually up and working hard. As I begin to go to bed, the news from the US picks up again.

For my job as fundraising manager for a small NGO that means late night and early morning phone calls. When I want to talk to family, we usually have to plan on weekends, or just stick to e-mail with delay in the conversation.

So it has been little difficult as I see friends and family protesting in the streets. Reacting in real time to what is going on. All the while I have time to sit, read, and process the news coming out of Washington. As I feel like I am separated from the actual actions on the ground, I sometimes feel a lack of ability to affect change.

I donate to be sure. I talk with friends who are foreigners who have questions on what exactly Executive Actions are. I try to read and learn more about areas of America I’ve never experienced. I try to self examine. I call offices late at night to leave voice mails because no one is there usually at 12 am when I have my lunch break (or even 8pm when I can call in the morning). Yet it all feels removed and I feel, for not the first time in my life of living abroad, a lack of agency.

I feel almost helpless, watching from the other side of the world. And though I may do small things here and there, it sometimes feels like I can’t protest or offer assistance like I could back in the states.

And suddenly I am reminded of a family I grew up with.

The child was in my brothers grade and the mother was a certified bad ass.

She was from Yugoslavia and as it broke up in the 90s and things turned violent she went back and riding horses over mountains. She went and got her family, still in the country, and brought them out.

I remember reading an article written about this family in the local newspaper at the time. I had literally just realized newspapers were a thing that could have people I knew in them. The appearance of this woman I saw at the grocery store on the cover was shocking.

I can’t remember much from the article (it was from 92/93). In my memory though, at some point she was asked why she had gone into a war zone to get her family our, at great personal risk with children at home in Saratoga. She responded with something I remember as: “The pain of doing nothing became to great to sit in comfort. I had to do something or it would have been too painful. Even death would have been less painful.”

To this day this quote has sat with and in me. I freely admit this quote may have come from somewhere else and I just jammed it into another memory. But the power this quote has had on me is very real.

From time to time though I contemplate if I am merely sitting in comfort waiting for the pain to become too great. Did this woman sit and watch as a country, with those she loved in it, slowly dissolve into war? Did she think, “Oh I can’t do anything except call my family and make sure they are ok”, until one day she woke up to the birds outside and the almost always 70 degrees of San Jose, CA area and thought… it’s gone too far, get going?

Now as I sit in Phnom Penh, away from the protests (and in someways afraid to protest for fear of arrest). Away from the immediate ramifications of political actions (both because I am a white male and because I am not in the country). I still try to do what I can.

I bare witness from afar. I sit and read, educate myself on histories I never knew or thought about. Open my mind up to other thoughts and ideas. I share information with friends in the US. I talk with friends here who are endless in their supply of questions.

Not because it’s become too painful for me not act, but because I’d rather it not let it get that bad.

What I Like Most About Cambodia? The Mirror it Holds Up

When I was home I was asked on an almost consistent basis if I liked Cambodia. I would nod and says yes. Knowing the whole time that the answer wasn’t as simple as that. I would then get asked, well… what do you like about Cambodia?

For some reason I would always talk about the Tuk Tuks. Tuk Tuks for those that don’t know are simple open air rickshaws that are pulled by mopeds (or Moto’s…).

And then, as I was taking a Tuk Tuk ride from the airport back to my apartment in Phnom Penh, I realized it wasn’t the Tuk Tuk I liked. It was something else that I’ve grown to love in Cambodia, that Tuk Tuks help me experience. The ability for me to see all aspects of life around me. The good and the bad, and use that as a mirror for myself.

To be fair, I am looking at this as a Westerner. Thus I have ample amounts of privilege. That being said, in Cambodia I have been forced to look at my own country and myself, and found both wanting, sometimes drastically so. All because of what I see around me.

This vibrancy and unvarnished aspect of Cambodia rubbed me the wrong way when I first arrived. I actually remember getting really angry at people throwing trash out on the sides of roads. I remember the disgust at the open air sewer that some refer to as shit creek. The dramatic side by side comparisons of wealth can sometimes be astounding as a child not wearing any clothes having just been playing in trash on the side of the road, runs past a brand new Bentley (I’ve seen more Bentleys and Rolls Royces in Cambodia than in any other country I’ve visited. Ever.).

What this made me realize though, and going back to why I like Cambodia, is that I may not like every part of life here, but I at least see it. In the US, I may believe it doesn’t exist, but it still does. I just don’t see it. Its been scrubbed from my interactions with the world (talk about privilege).

Take the trash issue. To be sure, there is a lot of trash in Cambodia, and Cambodia has a severe plastic addiction. That being said, it is obvious to many that the way they consume increases the problem. They have garbage dumps here, but the streets also have trash in them. So as someone who lives here, I can see a visual connection to what I buy and the trash it produces. This has lead me to change a few of my purchasing habits to minimize more than I might have otherwise done in the US.

In the US I would have two garbage cans full of stuff at the end of the week for a house of four. Most days people weren’t in the house, and yet we had two garbage cans full. One was recycle, one was trash. Now recycling is good, and I try to do it the best I can when in the US. But the best part of the three R’s I learned when I was younger? (Recycle, reduce, reuse, and cllooooose the loop) Its reduce. You don’t have to recycle anything if there was nothing there to begin with.

This happens constantly to me. As someone who isn’t from Cambodia, it can be tempting to say, “Oh this is so horrible, but it’s not like my country! Things are better there.”

But then I take a step back and look at the problem I am getting upset at. Usually the same problem exists in my country, it is usually just much more apparent and in your face in Cambodia.

Is there severe poverty in the US? You bet.

Wealth inequality? Again yes.

Problem with trash and consumption? Yessem.

Problem with services for those with disabilities (what I work on here)? Boy Howdy

Problem with keeping kids in school and working with those who have been involved in the prison system (what Alyssa works on)? Of course.

These problems exist at “home”, and they exist here in Cambodia. It’s just more apparent here in Cambodia because there hasn’t been as much of a sanitation of people’s day to day life and interactions.

Does this make me love Cambodia? Yes.

Does this mean I don’t love America as much? Not at all. But it just means that I need to work harder to see the problems that I want to address back home.

So to all those that asked what I like about Cambodia when I was home? I guess you have my answer, and also why I plan on returning home.