Highlights of the last month have included: a weekend getaway to the beach with TPC colleagues, watching a traditional Khmer shadow-puppet show and, pretty importantly… finding a good spot to go jogging in a city dominated by traffic.
It’s almost impossible to imagine jogging around the streets with earphones firmly plugged in and your mind wandering, as you might in Australia! But there is a green oasis (rare in Phnom Penh) where lots of locals go to exercise out at night in the open air. It’s a park next to one of the city’s most famous architectural landmarks, the Independence Monument (a lotus-shaped stupa built to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953). At night, the trees are lit up by blue fairy-lights, kids play soccer or hacky-sack and Cambodian grandmas take brisk walks around the statue of King Norodom Sihanouk which gleams in the centre. It’s places like this where you can find some moments of peace during the working week, amongst the chaotic surroundings.
Taking some time to go and see a traditional Khmer shadow-puppet show has also been a memorable experience. Accompanied by traditional music and using huge, leather puppets, the story of The War of Indrajit was told with changing coloured lights and actors using their own physicality to illustrate the narrative as well as manoeuvring the puppets in an expert way.
The other main highlight so far has been a social trip away with the TPC Operations team to Kampong Som (also known as Sihanoukville). It began bright and early on a Saturday when around 50 of us piled onto a bus at 5.40am, stopped for breakfast on the road (rice with pork, noodles with beef and meatballs, or rice porridge with offal), and drove six hours to get to the beach-side town. The weekend was spent paddling in the ocean fully-clothed (Khmer style), learning local card games and eating absolutely delicious BBQ seafood of every kind. Seafood is my favourite food so I was in a particularly bloated yet blissful state while staring out to sea…and really, is there any other way you want to be?]]>
You can read Bridget’s bio here.]]>
Like many people in Australia, I’ve been to Bali a couple of times on holiday. Across to the Gili Islands, Lombok, and as far as Flores in order to see the Komodo Dragons on a boat trip. And like many other holiday makers, my impressions of Indonesia have been of busyness, lots of tourists, and even more touts selling everything from taxi rides to t-shirts. It’s relatively easy travel as transport is cheap, most people dealing with tourists speak English, food is good, and accommodation options varied.
So in relocating my life to Sintang in West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, I had some preconceived notions of what to expect. However, the reality couldn’t have been further from expectation!
We are in an extraordinarily fortunate position to come to this town, which is accessible from Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan, by plane (45 minutes), car (several hours) or boat (several days). We are about as far off the tourist trail as possible in these days of globalisation, and that’s what makes us so fortunate.
After a couple of weeks here, I haven’t yet seen another foreigner, and their lack means no western-style restaurants or bars, no red light districts, and certainly no touts. Not a single person has tried to sell me something. Not a single driver of a taxi, angkot, bemo, tuk-tuk or any of the other forms of transport around has harassed me for business.
In a case of extreme role reversal, we, being two pale (or pink, depending on the heat) tall and very foreign-looking visitors, have become the attraction. I’ve lost count of the photos I’ve been asked to pose for, by my landlady, colleagues and members at CUKK, restaurant staff, and random people in the street. The irony is that I have never felt less attractive, as the high humidity tends to leave me coated in sweat and very bedraggled. Frankly, fame will not be going to this volunteer’s head!
Being such a novelty, the other benefit is the hospitality we are offered. Everyone is so friendly and helpful, they are happy to show directions if lost, offer rides, take us out for meals and patiently explain the intricacies of the Indonesian language. It’s astonishing to realise how fatigued other parts of the world have become to visitors, now that we have experienced this refreshing and generous hospitality.
In many respects, staying in Sintang is difficult due to the distance from anywhere else, lack of an expat community, English speakers or Western facilities (I do miss a sit-down toilet and shower rather than a cold bucket of water!), and public transport.
In other respects, living here could possibly be considered remarkably easy as it’s a safe location with a strong sense of community, relatively slow traffic and considerate people. Within a block of my house are small shops selling water and gas refills, fruit and vegetables, and a supermarket that even stocks spaghetti and cheese. No one tries to rip us off or offer us ‘tourist’ prices. Now I just have to hope that my glowing descriptions of Sintang don’t bring on floods of tourists!
You can read Heather’s bio here.]]>
A few of the moving in challenges included: fridge which does not keep cold (leading to vomit smell of papaya and off fish); toilet with a very slow flush – after several visits from the plumber, I found a DIY on the internet which seems to have worked; having to use the landlady’s washing machine which has to be filled with a bucket during the wash and rinse cycle; a gas stove with only one working element (cooking dinner was a real effort).
This week I got an extra special surprise when I got home to find that the painter managed to not only paint the verandah but also my Sheridan sheets (the one indulgence I bought with me from Australia).
But perhaps one of the biggest challenges was running out of gas while I was cooking Saturday lunch for some friends. How do you get a 13kg bottle of gas to your house on a pushbike? I did contemplate it for just a minute. Impossible! Thank goodness I spotted an expat I know driving past in a car and he helped me out. Lunch was saved and was delicious – curry fish and vegetables.
I walk about 15 mins to work each day which takes me along one of the busiest roads in Tongatapu. It could give Sydney a run for its money. I actually walk faster than the traffic. Unlike traffic in Asia though, everyone just falls in behind everyone else and patiently drives at under 10kms per hour. No horns, just polite waves and toots if you know someone. The occasional blast of music can be heard, usually from the local buses.
On Saturdays, I go shopping at the markets. I have had my bike fitted out with a basket, essential to carry all the groceries (which come only available in bulk size purchase). There is a central market which sells everything that you need and there’s a Saturday morning Fair which sells clothes and the oddest of things at good prices. The fish market is really busy and you can buy from the local fishermen or from the fishing co-op. Everything from whole tuna, clam, lobsters, cockle shells.
The night markets along the side of the road and the Chinese owned shops are open quite late on Saturdays. Every Saturday is like the Christmas Eve rush in Australia. There is food going out by the car load in preparation for the Sunday cooking of the umu and family celebrations. There is the odd coffee shop open on Sundays, but generally Tonga completely shuts down on Sundays. Sundays are about Church, family and eating. Actually every day is about eating, but Sunday is extra special.
During my first month I have cycled & walked, hitchhiked (“suto”) to the beach, participated in an art workshop run for youth, attended a pot luck dinner run by local hospitality students, attended the church service by the first Tongan Catholic Cardinal, and tried every flavour of TipTop ice cream. For an island where there is nothing to do, there is plenty to do!
At work, I have had the pleasure of travelling with the teams to the field and participating in training for both staff and SPBD members. I have 2 favourite days at work. Monday morning is devotion day and the team take it in turns to present a prayer and relate it to the work they do at SPBD. My other favourite day of the week is Friday, when there is a lot of activity in the office because it is loan disbursement day and new members “fillers” training day (all new clients need to go through financial education training before they can receive a loan).]]>
My first week in Cambodia has passed. My first impression was the heat, the second impression were all the peculiar noises. The constant traffic of motorbikes and tuk-tuks everywhere, people shouting to sell items on the street, the nightly calls of the geckos (which surprised me on my first night), and just general chaos.
For a nature lover like me, the lack of green in Phnom Penh is compensated by fabulous selection of fruit trees growing everywhere in the smallest pavement cracks: bananas, huge mango trees, durian, jack fruit, pomegranate, water apple, and ginger, are the ones I have managed to recognise so far.
I’ve started my work at the CMA (Cambodia Microfinance Association), trying to design apps and other technology solutions to help with the rural training that Good Return facilitates in rural Cambodia. There is so much we could do with technology, but we need to start small and work step by step. It’s going to take time to get all of us at Good Return, the local training teams, and the training participants to be comfortable with these new tools. I’m also trying to keep a focus on longer term goals, where these solutions we develop could be used with a wider audience in all of the countries where Good Return works.
Phnom Penh is a vibrant city full of events and activities. When browsing for any technology related events I came across an one which was promoting technology careers for women. I had no option but to attend, and it was probably the best things I’ve done so far. There were presentations and discussion (in English, lucky for me) from local women IT professionals trying to encourage more women to get into the field.
At the event, we were also presented with the results of a 3 month long technology program at a local girl’s high school. The girls were about 15, and had worked hard to first come up with ideas, then to draw up specifications for the solution and create a business model. Finally, they used simple programming tools to code up a function app to implement their idea.
I really enjoyed listening their confident presentations, full of proper business language, and their great app ideas on enhancing the livelihoods of rural farmers. The girls were very young, but were not afraid of technology and thought there was nothing weird about them coding. I really would like to work with them to keep it that way!
After collecting a handful of business cards from local IT professionals, University teachers, and students, I’m keen to start thinking about plans to involve more local technology talent in our projects as well.
You can read Salla’s bio here.]]>
My journey from Australia to Cambodia to begin my role as Good Return’s Field Support Officer turned out to be much more eventful than anticipated – full of heart palpitations and several pools of panicked sweat. So for your benefit and amusement, here’s a quick rundown of my departure day that hopefully will help you with any future preparations for overseas travel and save you from un-needed stress!
5 am: Wake up. Realise it’s 5 am. ‘Hey…it’s ok…’ I think to myself, ‘My bags are all packed… just need to zip shut my large suitcase…’
5.45 am: Attempting to zipper shut suitcase.
5.50 am: Still attempting to zipper shut suitcase.
5.51 am: SUITCASE ZIPPER EXPLODES IN A GLORIOUS SHOW OF FURY AND MANIACAL DESTRUCTION NEVER BEFORE SEEN FROM AN INANIMATE OBJECT!
“MUHUHAHAHA!” says suitcase. “@Z^Z#*@!” says I.
5.55 am: Get in car and drive to airport to buy new suitcase.
6.30 am: Buy new suitcase and re-pack in a sweaty, sweaty daze, checking watch every few seconds and feeling t-shirt get uncomfortably soaked with perspiration.
Lesson learnt: pack and CLOSE suitcase way before you intend to depart. If you leave it to the last minute, you may not have the time or wherewithal to know what objects to discard and the wrath of your suitcase will be swift and merciless.
… Fast forward many hours later …
3.55 pm Hong Kong time: Arrive at Hong Kong airport. Flight was delayed leaving Sydney and so causes me to miss my connecting flight to Phnom Penh. Get told no more flights until the following day. Checked-in luggage not accessible.
4.00 pm: Proceed on mission to locate underwear for sale at HK airport. ‘Surely this will be easy,’ I think to myself. Everyone wears underwear. We all love underwear. Underwear for all!
4.20 pm: Mission unsuccessful, even though I have said the word “underwear” to numerous, bewildered strangers. Moral of story: always pack spare underwear in your carry-on!
5.00 pm: Arrive at hotel to stay the night. Fall into an exhausted stupor and sleep for a blissful 11 hours!
Despite the frenzied beginning to my trip, my first few weeks in Phnom Penh have been excellent. The staff at our partner microfinance organisation, TPC, have welcomed me and taken me out to lunch around the city numerous times. I’ve witnessed the training of trainers for Good Return’s new Consumer Awareness and Financial Education (CAFE) program; I’ve eaten unusual fruit desserts at roadside stands; and I’ve gotten involved in defining TPC’s new mission statement to encompass social and environmental goals.
I’m really looking forward to what comes up next as I settle into my role as Field Support Officer and living in the bustling capital city of Cambodia.
PS – You can read Diana’s bio here.]]>
Although I have only been in Iloilo for a few weeks, it feels like a lifetime ago I was living in Melbourne, Australia. Now, rather than waking up to the sound of my phone’s electronic alarm and frantically cycling to work whilst attempting to drink a take away coffee, I wake up to the sound of chickens crowing and dogs barking and peacefully enjoy my breakfast of fresh mango and papaya whilst watching the cows casually strolling down the street. This change of lifestyle is definitely welcomed and refreshing.
My new morning alarm. Be sure to turn the volume up to hear the soundscape.
What brings me to Iloilo is to volunteer with Good Return’s partner here, St Elizabeth Community Development Program (SECDEP), for the next 12 months. My role at SECDEP is to assist with program monitoring and evaluation alongside data collection and analysis.
So far I have have been out to the field on numerous occasions to meet SECDEP clients at Financial Education workshops, and although my back is throbbing from the sometimes 6 hour commutes, it is certainly worth it to have the privilege of being welcomed into centre meetings and meeting women who are continuously interesting and funny.
Since arriving, what has become most apparent to me is the emphasis SECDEP staff place on providing responsible financial services and having sincere relationships with their clients.
With this ethos, the welcoming and inclusive nature of both clients and my colleagues is not surprising. So far I have already attended 2 birthday celebrations, been gifted plants for my new apartment, and been laughed at a whole lot when attempting to speak in Hiligaynon!
Next up in my new life in the Philippines is to attend the Guimaras Mango Festival and to break in my many newly purchased pairs of slippers (sandals to you Australians) suited for all different occasions (shops, office, house). Stay tuned…
PS – Read Catherine’s bio here.]]>
Malo e lei lei! Tonga is the only Pacific nation never to be colonised and the only monarchy in the Pacific. More commonly known as the “Friendly Islands”, and it is!
I arrived on the “red eye” from Sydney 2 weeks ago. Landed at Tonga International airport at 1.30 am and was greeted by Tony from the local guest house who picked me up in his luxurious people mover (an 80’s vintage 4×4 with air conditioning). Despite not being able to see a thing through the darkness, Tony gave a great tour on the way to my B&B, Nerima Lodge. Poor Asela had to get up to let me in. I thought it was funny that the first thing she offered me at 2:00 am in the morning was the password for the internet. Must be what most “palangis” (white people / foreigners) want!
The first thing that hit me was the humidity, and the second was that everyone wears skirts and flip flops (called slippers here). And I don’t know whether it is because it is so humid or because we are close to the international date line, but things move much slower pace here in Tonga.
The third thing I noticed about Tonga are the dogs, pigs (even fishing ones, but more on that later), and roosters ( who clearly don’t know that dawn is when the sun comes up, not the middle of the night). Black is definitely the colour of choice – not because it is slimming; but because it is worn for all occasions – when you are happy, sad, going to church, to work, etc.
The fourth thing I noticed is how important food is to Tongans. The first question in the morning is, “What did you have for dinner?” Life centres around food. The more the better. In 2014 The Lancet, a well known medical journal, reported Tonga as the world’s most overweight country. More on the diet of the Tongans in my future blog posts – tinned spam and why food is so important.
The fifth thing I noticed is the condition of the cars. If it goes, it’s roadworthy!
Last week, through the power of Facebook, I found myself a place to call home. Finding a place in Tonga is not an easy process. You basically look for a sign out the front, or someone tells you about a place.
A Tongan family lives at the front and the resident pigs are good for my passion for sustainability and recycling. Not quite beach front, but very convenient to work. I prepared a celebratory lunch with some new friends– fish from the local fisherman and kumera + fruits!
I am working as a Field Support Officer with South Pacific Business Development (or SPBD as it is known). This is a well respected microfinance organisation which also operates in Fiji, Samoa and Solomon Islands. SPBD’s vision is to create a network of microfinance development organisations in the South Pacific and neighbouring regions to give women opportunity through financial access and economic development to help themselves and their families.
During the last 2 weeks I have been travelling with the SPBD teams out to the Village Centres to participate in the village meetings and training. It is a great way to understand the logistics of doing microfinance in the villages and it is great to see the work Good Return supports in action. The women that receive the loans are so grateful for the opportunity to run their business and make a better life for themselves and their children.
I look forward to updating you on all the wonderful work being done by the SPBD team and stories from the field. Also, I hope to share with you some of the wonders and beauty of Tonga (and some of the oddities) over the next 12 months.
PS – You can read Deb’s bio here.]]>
Our recovery day started with visiting a local Buddhist monastery and learning about Buddhist traditions from our leader Vuttya, who was actually a monk for a time in his younger days.
After a short blessing by a monk we gave meditation a try!
Then it was time to hunt down a treat that we have missed over the last 10 days – good coffee!
Once the coffee was consumed we met with the TPC Siem Reap Branch Manager and Credit Officer to visit one of the microfinance clients in the markets.
This marked the end of the adventure! We shared our final good byes, promised to stay in touch and then rushed off to catch planes.
It was clear this challenge has had an impact on all. Some of the special moments mentioned by the group included:
Everyone mentioned they have a better understanding of the challenges that people face in a developing country such as Cambodia, and how organisations like Good Return can help be a part of improving daily life for locals.
Finally, the team wanted to extend a very big thank you to everyone who supported their fundraising for Good Return. We would like to echo that as well, because the $21,000 that these cyclists raised is a great help to making our work in Cambodia possible. Their fundraising pages are open for a few more days if you’d like to say ‘congratulations!’ with a donation.
Thank you to Jason and James for their blogs during the Pedal to End Poverty Challenge. And even more thank yous to Elizabeth, Tatiana, Dennis, Melinda, Anushree, and of course Vuttya for their hard work over the last few days! It will be an adventure to remember.]]>
We started out on the streets of Siem Reap but quickly found ourselves within the trees that surround Angkor Wat.
By early morning we had already knocked off our first 20 km and took a short break to explore the ‘tree temple’ (or formally named Ta Prohm).
After a quick explore around the temple and one last photo we geared up for the final stretch. Riding through the villages surrounding Angor Wat was spectacular - constant green fields, water buffalo sightings, and children running out to greet us.
Then the final count-down began. 12 km…. 5 km…. and then done!!! With a few cheers we cross the finish line and made it to the 400 km mark. Well done team!
Over a celebration lunch we reflected on the journey and what it has meant to each of us. We reminisced on special moments and discussed the work of Good Return and TPC that we’d seen in action, and what it means to the people of Cambodia. This is the last full day in Cambodia for our Australian guests, and a bit of time spent on reflection is well earned.
An update from Jason, who is accompanying the cyclists for the second half of the trip. Jason is based in Phnom Penh and is our Program Officer.
PS - If you’d like to support one of our cyclists, check out their fundraising pages here.]]>