Birthday Thoughts After 1 Week Home

Today is my birthday. I am 58. The saying “today is the first day of the rest of your life” has never offered such promise and purpose. One week ago today, after four extraordinary months volunteering in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I have returned home. Drastic changes in climate from 90+ degrees to single digits feel just as extreme as my own internal shift.

During my first 4 days at home I sequestered myself – sitting in my office looking outside the window at my snow-covered garden or walking in the woods, always thinking, “What just happened?” Through a lingering fog of jet lag (compounded by midnight prowls for lunch or 3:00 AM email exchanges with friends halfway around the world) I realized, I have seldom felt so useful or fulfilled, except perhaps in my role as mom.

But I also soon realized that “what just happened” went beyond feeling useful. I had traveled to a third world country where culture and history are so diametrically different than my own; it often took my breath away. Cambodians have an indescribable genuine warmth and graciousness; the beauty of Buddhism with ever-present monks and towering wats create a daily reminder of a spirituality available to us all. The pain of the unthinkable past never goes away but on the flip side, nor does the profound hope for the future. Day in and day out, I was continually moved by what I saw and felt.

What I felt was a sense of belonging as I learned more about how to lead my own life, based on seeing how the Khmer (interchangeable with Cambodian) lead theirs. Like others in my generation, I’m a product of the “all about me” mindset, but here were people constantly displaying heartfelt appreciation for the smallest of gestures while facing the harshest of barriers to improve their own lives. From café workers to colleagues to corner tuk tuk drivers to friends who treated me as family, I felt a sense of acceptance while at the same time, was humbled by my own good fortune in life.

The Khmer don’t have the luxuries to be distracted beyond creating a sustainable livelihood. Having access to education (knowing English is paramount no matter your age) or caring for family, both immediate and extended are essentials. Life’s needs are pretty straightforward. Achieving those needs, however, are not as simple. A little context is needed to best grasp the enormity of the challenge facing Cambodians while also explaining my continual amazement at a resiliency and grace of behavior that goes far beyond anything I have ever witnessed in others or myself.

Cambodians are accurately described as kind, gentle people. Mostly Buddhist, Cambodians were traumatized and pummeled as collateral damage during the Vietnam War. But far worse than invasion or bullying by us, the Vietnamese, the Chinese or the Russians, was their fall under the cruel dictatorship of Pol Pot during the 1970’s. Pol Pot was the Cambodian man who orchestrated the killing of almost 20% of the population, annihilating (through executions or starvation) any “educated” Cambodians including teachers, doctors, engineers, artists and the whole middle class. A generation was wiped out. Even wearing glasses warranted execution – it inferred you were well read. This harsh regime created a disastrous agrarian society where illiteracy and isolated peasant life was attempted and momentarily achieved.

Fast forward forty years to 2013 and you have a young generation of twenty-year olds raised in rural villages, often by uneducated parents (formerly children living under the rule of Pol Pot). These parents, isolated in their villages, had no role models, as their parents often were the ones killed. They are now terribly poor with little access to healthcare and thus, rely on their children to take care of them. (Frequently children in orphanages have parents; however, the parents succumb to the reality they can no longer afford to raise their children, leaving the upbringing and care to others.)

Today’s Cambodians have an astounding work ethic with little free time, fortified by a determination to re-build their country and make a better future for their families and relatives. Appreciation for job options is palpable since job choices are often limited – work in sweatshop factories in Cambodia or Thailand; become hopelessly and horribly involved in the sex trafficking or scratch a living, like the parents, in the rice fields. Getting access to education and job skills is sought by many but afforded to few. This is where EGBOK Mission, my place of work for four months (an extraordinary nonprofit organization started by a former student of mine, Ben Justus), comes into play.

EGBOK Mission helps this younger generation develop the skills they need, both for entry-level hospitality jobs and their personal lives. Wages in hospitality are double the annual income for the “average” Cambodian with a 38% raise in income for our students over their first year of employment. The EGBOK Mission team (which has no religious affiliation despite the logo of crossed forks) includes a (newly hired) Khmer as well as a Western social worker, full time Khmer and Western staff and a crew of rotating volunteers, like myself. The goal is to have the organization Khmer run in upcoming years, allowing for a sustainable and thriving future.

My role, as I saw it, was to help students recognize how their entry-level job success was based on a smart (and hard) work ethic, good attitude, teamwork and being aware and alert to understanding the demands that their supervisors faced. Awareness (and support) of the “big picture” was the path to promotion in future years. My focus was to provide realistic hope and inspiration, backed with tangible skills that would help facilitate such opportunities. My biggest contribution was creating the EGBOK Mission Distinguished Speaker Series, where I found successful Cambodian hospitality professionals who shared similar backgrounds with our students. Watching students become captivated and inspired by the speakers’ stories was a highlight. Watching the speakers (often hesitant at the prospect of speaking to 25 students) become more animated in speech and body language, was equally as rewarding.

Volunteering as a “retiree” made me also realize how much my generation has to offer to the world, no matter one’s career. Quite often life experiences can be the best lessons one can offer. Loyalty, mutual respect, resourcefulness and resiliency are core values that only hold true when personally experienced. And in Cambodia, since my generation of adults was silenced, we have an even more poignant impact on those we might mentor. The gratitude shown by the people with whom we came to know at EGBOK and in the community, was constant and sincere. Often, we would hear “Thank you for helping the people of Cambodia” and when I said “Oh, no, thank you” I would be chided. This raw honesty was not to be taken lightly or diminished. Cambodians don’t want charity – they want opportunity in a country that has no support (only corruption) by the government. I can’t imagine not returning – a return visit is already on the calendar for December.

For several years, I have spoken extensively about etiquette and manners, but what I learned during my 120 days in Siem Reap, surpasses whatever I thought I already knew. Remember the book Everything You Needed to Know You Learned in Kindergarten? My version is Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Cambodia. I don’t want to forget these lessons as life back home resumes its own rhythm and course.

To best grasp and live what I learned, there may just be a book in me. I’ll continue to write about what I’ve learned (with more focus and less meandering). Some stories are hilarious (Dave and I lived the Exotic Marigold Hotel life during our time in a small, family owned guesthouse); some are heartwarming (thank you notes from students are lifelong treasures) and a few, a little heartbreaking (saving facing can have an enormous cost).

So that’s it for my birthday thoughts. No time for photo uploads as it’s time to get ready to go to the local pub and have a fish fry with family. Snow is falling and the house is quiet. As I sit here in my office, my heart feels full with purpose both for my work here and in Siem Reap. I can’t imagine a better birthday gift than that.

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2 Week Countdown For Home


No heat sympathy for me – ths is my place for daily morning swimming

When daily life takes over, blogging takes a back seat. 2 weeks from today I will be home, snug as a bug in flannel jammies, enjoying a cup of Gimme! That is hard to imagine at this moment, when midday temperatures tip 95 degrees F and my list of “to do” keeps growing rather than reducing.

med Ukelale vuthy and terry

Vuthy, brother of the owner, morning cook, evening bartender, tuk tuk driver and aspiring ukele player with guesthouse guest, Terry from Australia.

But more than weather or activity, life as I have known it for four months, will change drastically. Morning sounds will not be monks chanting or children excitedly yelling in the nearby schoolyard at 7:00 AM. Memories will soon fade of my daily bantering with the Horizon’s guesthouse staff – all of whom are somehow related to one another, living scenes straight out of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie.

What won’t fade are moments of awe when I’ve learned something new about my Cambodian friends, Socheata or Sokha – two women balancing demanding careers, motherhood, extended family life care (helping parents and other relatives) while still attending university classes at night.

Med Copy of me and Socheata

Me and Socheata at the waterfall at Kulen Mtn

There is no such thing as a day off for these women. Whenever I see them behind their desks (one owns the guesthouse where I stay, the other is a GM at a nearby boutique hotel), their genuine smiles light up my world reminding me why I love what I do here. The irony – they think I help them, but the truth is, they have given me far more in their friendships than I could ever offer them in advice or support.

Sokha and Barbara med

Me and Sokha at the market where her aunt sells rice and banana

Med srey na

Sreyna practicing her presentation on wearing a sarong and krama (Cambodian scarf)

Then there are the students at EGBOK Mission who work tirelessly at developing job skills, learning English, working at internships and finding their way through life, rarely visiting their rural villages. Two students come to mind – Panha and Srenya, who are now joining the ship of U. of VA’s Semester-at-Sea in Hong Kong where they are speaking to over 600 students about Cambodia life. For several months, I’ve helped coach them in public speaking, slowly building their confidence as they rehearsed their presentations on clothing, culture, protocol, language and agriculture.

Their spirits are best described from my Facebook posting this morning about Sreyna:  “Courage – leaving your village to go to school in Siem Reap. Soon later, leave Siem Reap and for the first time, fly in a plane (to Hong Kong). Board a ship with 600 college students and give a presentation (to them all) on Khmer clothing, showing them how to wear a sarong and krama (scarf). Meet Sreyna, one of our EGBOK students who has joined Semester-at-Sea as an interport lecturer.”

I won’t compare or rate what has been the best thing about my time here, but three other people have also contributed enormously to my experience – Dave, Osman and Ben. When I spoke about my reluctance to leave 3 weeks ago, Dave simply said “why not stay?” I hadn’t even

med dave

Dave on his last day in Siem Reap

considered it but when the idea settled in my brain, it was a gift of personal space and time; many thanks to my husband who lets me be me, despite the craziness I may often display.

Osman, another volunteer who started close to when we did, became fast friends and the friendship never slowed down. Sometimes it just clicks and you know the person will be in your life from this day forward and forever.

med Before the race

Me and Osman

med Ben Andrew and EGBOK Team LG

Ben and EGBOK students and former volunteer, Andrew

And then there is Ben. How did this young man, a college freshmen in my introductory hospitality class become a natural leader with a profound commitment to make difference in this world, and does so every day with a passion, compassion and dedication that never wanes. Like Socheata and Sokha, I don’t know when Ben slows down, even when days feel longer and fundraising is a never-ending uphill trek.

Photo shoot 3

Sopheav and me at work

I can’t imagine my future without this connection to people and place. I am fortunate my life unfolded in ways I never could have imagined or planned (and which weren’t always easy or fun), but that created this path that has brought me here. And like Arnold, “I’ll be back” in this wondrous, colorful, vibrant place of Cambodia. Jole Moi.


Floating prayers

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On the Road – Thailand and off to Laos

For 2 weeks Dave and I are on the road. We started from Siem Reap with a screaming Japanese man (furious at 3 young English women for being late to our van) and a band of Croatians who wanted to have a good time. The Japanese mancalmed down, the British gals left and the Croats saved our butts at the border.

The van tok us to Bangkok where we boarded the overnight train to Chiang Mai. We shared the berth with 2 Russians from Siberia -a professor in Eco tourism and a psychologist. We became fastt friends..this is what happens when you sleep together.

Chiang Mai-what can I say except we could live here for a few months out of the year. Easy to navigate..great street food and always outdoor activities from trekking, swimming, biking, elephant sanctuaries about walking through town. It is clean, cheap and easy living.we went to an umbrella festival (I couldn’t resist) and it did not disappoint. Just regret I did not see “pretty ladies with umbrellas riding bicycles” a featured event.

Every street in Chiang Mai seemed to have an ornate temple, one more golden and glittery than the next with Buddhas in varied positions (standing, sitting, reclining)with always serene expressions. (a few had a bit of an amused smiled, but most were meditative). We went to the Doi Suthep mountains top where the gold leaf covered temple seemed to touch the sky. I bought 4 jade bracelets that were blessed by a monk for Rachel, Sophie, Susan and Julia.

But it was in Chiang Rai ( our next stop) that the temple took the cake. Looking glittery and gaudy and spectacular stood the infamous White Temple by Chalermchai Kositpipa. The temple compound won’t be done for another 60 to 90 years and has so many themes and contrasting images, it’s hard to take in without context. What was a drawing of George Bush and Osama Bin Laden riding a missile doing on the mural within the gorgeous temple with Buddha? Good question.

That wasn’t the only contrast of worlds in this small town. By accident we discovered a local “a la” American idol competition for high school kids (girls imitating Brittany spears and boys, well, they were a mixture of Michael Jackson and boy George) and then in the night bazaar, we watched elegant traditional Thai dancing. Among all this were hill tribe people selling their wares of traditional clothing.

Yesterday, we travelled to Chiang Saen, where you can see Burma, Thailand and Laos from one vantage point, called the golden triangle.
Over 6 hours in old busses tok us through the countryside to Chiang Khong, the place in northern Thailand where folks (us included) take the slow boat (2 days)to Luang Prabang, Laos. Today is our first down day, overlooking the Mekong river from our deck.

Food notes for foodies….I want every eating moment to be exceptional and when it is not, I pout like a petulant child. I say this as a confession to all and apology to Dave. Stret food is the best..restaurants tend to disappoint. I took a fun cooking class in chiang Mai and can’t wait to cook panaag curry for all. I am the only person who has busted the pestle made of granite when making the curry paste. I tend to be over enthusiastic on such activities. I want to eat everything while Dave is more conservative. More than once he has watched me eat fiery food with unfortunate results but to me, it’s worth it..most of the time

For photo seekers-I left my cable in Siem reap. So sorry!

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Our Mini Vacation In Kep on the Gulf of Thailand

Crab market in Kep

Crab market in Kep

med Goddess from front

This gal was imposing

With only 2 weeks to go before we depart, time to post a well-written blog entry isn’t looking likely. So once again, excuse the “off the top of the head” posting but enjoy the photos. Dave and I hopped in a van and then a bus and after 10 hours, arrived in Kep, a sleepy coastal town on the Gulf of Thailand. Resorts are slowly inching their way here, but there is still a funky quality about the town, which is nothing more than a carb market and some restaurants on the water. Oh and a goddess of the crab.

On the ride down, we chatted with Jean-Luc, a gentleman who worked for Apple for many years and now trains scientists in communication. Jean-Luc offered an insight into the “save-the-face” culture of Cambodia that totally shifted my way of thinking how to help our students become sucessful in hospitality when “losing face” is so often the case with international tourists who are rude or dismissive.

Looking down at a pepper plantation where dried palm leaves creat a canopy to protect the peppercorns from the hot sun

Looking down at a pepper plantation where dried palm leaves creat a canopy to protect the peppercorns from the hot sun

But back to Kep. We visited a pepper plantation at the Vine Retreat (a remote retreat we read about in the NY Times last March). Black peppercorn (or unripe red peppercorns) from this region are exceptional and coveted by chefs. Pungent, spicy and absolutely addicting when made into a sauce with lime juice and a little salt.

A most beautiful pepperocorn. These are tossed in dishes and are delicious as is.

A most beautiful pepperocorn. These are tossed in dishes and are delicious as is.

We rented a moto (note Dave’s helmet, showing his more feminine side) and traveled all around the region, including Kampot, a town 15 miles away, but with the awful, bumpy, dusty road, felt like 100 miles away. (The Chinese are building the infrastructure of Cambodia and the road from Kep to Kampot, is one such project).

med narrow roads

Narrow, dusty roads, often under constructions and what looks like reckless passing of vehicles makes your heart skip a beat, again and again. (we are on the moto for this photos)

The roads are narrow and harrowing when people past one another on motos, trucks, buses, bicycles and cars. We did witness one terrible accident, reminding us that this crazy driving doesn’t really work all that well.

Dave on the moto, looking smashing in pink.

Dave on the moto, looking smashing in pink.

But the food -oh my lord, the food. Crab is king here. Crab with green peppercorns – well, that is heaven. I ordered a large plate and ate it all – much to Dave’s astonishment.

I am as excited as I look. Yes, I ate the WHOLE plate of crab.

I am as excited as I look. Yes, I ate the WHOLE plate of crab.

Good thing the man loves me – I was not a pretty sight sucking and crunching these babies, trying to get every last bit of flavor out of the crusteaceans. I had grilled fish for breakfast and squid for a snack.

A woman taking crab cages out of the water

A woman taking crab cages out of the water

Throughout the day and early evening, women are heaving cages in and out of the water, harvesting blue crabs that are cooked on the dock or sold by the kilo to anyone and everyone. Shrimp, squid, and all sorts of fish are also abundant, constantly being grilled for eating any time of day.

Women pull in crab cages until the sun goes down

Women pull in crab cages until the sun goes down

We headed to Kampot, a larger town that didn’t have much going for it BUT it did rever the Durian.  I have to give the town credit for that.

The Durian fruit is the center sculpture in the town.  I guess we were in the international hub of the Durian.

The Durian fruit is the center sculpture in the town. I guess we were in the international hub of the Durian.

We were only gone a few days, but like all of our getaways, it felt much longer. Dave packs our days with side trips so books are rarely read and sleeping is done in buses and vans. It was a great time. And now, just 2 more weeks here. Doesn’t seem possible.

Our pool at the little guesthouse we stayed at. Took all the dust off of us in the late evening. A full moon was just icing on the cake.

Our pool at the little guesthouse we stayed at. Took all the dust off of us in the late evening. A full moon was just icing on the cake.

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Seasons Greetings

Typically, I write and re-write and then revise again. I’m going on a limb and just writing and posting. Dave and I have 3 more weeks at EGBOK Mission and then off to Northern Thailand and Laos for almost 3 weeks.  On January 31st we fly home.  Our time here has been nothing short of extraordinary.  We have gone to some of the villages of our students to meet families and see their homes Chilld in hammock love this photoBelow are photos of a student’s little sister waking up from a nap; a typical scene in a village and me meeting a student’s mom.  Med  Nots Mother

With a little help from my friends, I was able to do my graham cracker construction event (along the gingerbread house concept) to EGBOK Mission.  The students caught on immediately and made awesome creations that we titled THE EGBOKERY EXTRAVANGANZA.  

med  egbokery 7 med egbokery 3 med Egbokery 5 med egbokery 11 med egbokery 12 med group picture  1 med Egbokery 5 med egbokery 6 med egbokery 7 med egobkery 11 Med holiday card

AnotherP1310699 side project has been helping Chanthou and Socheata, our guest house hosts, with marketing their business.  Hospitality really does come from the heart and this couple personafies what that means. Authentic graciousness with a genuine warmth is hard to describe but easy to feel.  Dave and I are so fond of this couple.

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A Trip to Battambang

Statue that greeted us in city square

Statue that greeted us in city square

Final Finally, we got away for an overnight trip and off we went to Battanbang, a 3 hour bus ride to the 2nd largest city in Cambodia (Phnom Penh is #1). For a large city (by Cambodian standards) Battanbang still has a sleepy feel, growing at a manageable rate without the feverish explosion that Siem Reap has experienced in recent years.

Our impetus for visiting wasn’t for temples but to see the phenomenally talented and charismatic students (formerly street kids) being trained in acrobatics at the French run NGO – Phare Ponleu Selpak School.

Look closely, that is no arm pulling that arrow!

Look closely, that is no arm pulling that arrow!

On par with Cirque du Soleil (a destination for some of these performers), the evening was fun, spellbinding and a lesson in staying limber. Prior to the show, was an art exhibit showing work by equally talented students. I am convinced that when given access to resources that includes mentorship, a person’s potential can soar to unexpected heights. When so little has been given, the hunger to achieve when given a chance is nothing short of a miracle. I see this every day at EGBOK but experiencing it in the arts, provided instant proof for the power of education and resources.

Pull the bamboo bark apart and inside is the sticky rice

Pull the bamboo bark apart and inside is the sticky rice

Besides the circus, another highlight was our fortunate meeting of tuk tuk driver, Bernie who heeded my interest in “all things food.” With that focus in mind, we got an unforgettable countryside tour where Bernie would stop along the roadside showing us local people making and selling sticky rice in bamboo; drying spring roll skins in front of their homes, and the

spring rolls drying on side of road

spring rolls drying on side of road

raking of recently harvested rice in their driveways. We also stopped at a shack where each woman cleaned up to 100 fish/hour, making the prime ingredient for Prahok, the fermented, salted fish paste. A last minute stop included a buffet of edible snacks including fried crickets, beetles, snake and frog. The ever popular tarantulas were not on the menu that day. Gosh,

Rice drying (and a baby standing guard) in a driveway

Rice drying (and a baby standing guard) in a driveway

too bad I wasn’t hungry or did I lose my appetite? Hmm, I can’t quite remember now.

Bernie insisted we see one temple – the Great White

Note the bird on the fingertip!

Note the bird on the fingertip!

Buddha. This statue was built in the last few decades and was never finished but it stood beside old ruins of another temple that was empty of tourists. But it wasn’t the temple that caught my attention or heart, but a young man, Dara who had, what seems to have been cerebral palsy. He first approached us in his wheel chair so I gave him some money and moved on. When I

Me and Dara

Me and Dara

was exploring the ruins, there he was, waiting in an interior corridor of the ruins, eager to explain the carvings and engravings. Conversation, not money, was his intention. The combination of my less-than-stellar Khmer and his difficulty with speaking, created a connection that fluency may never have allowed. As we chatted, Dara would crawl to one part of the temple to another, proudly pointing out features I would have otherwise overlooked. This young man’s gentleness had an innocence, sense of acceptance and survival showed me how some people move forward, no matter the difficulty. How Dara got in and out of the ruins without the ability to walk is still a mystery.

Dara is up in the ruins -his chair waiting for him

Dara is up in the ruins -his chair waiting for him

Upon my return to the tuk tuk, Bernie was surprised when I explained that Dara’s mental capacity was sharp as a tack; it was only his body that had been broken.

Heading home was the next high point of the trip. It began when we boarded a small boat that slowly meandered down the Tonle Sap River for a 7 hour boat trip. We traveled through narrow

Child on the river

Child on the river

river passages, passing water villages as we watched people going through their daily lives on the shores and in their weathered boats. The Tonle Sap River is the largest fresh water lake in Asia, providing an abundance of fish and water for the famous rice of Battanbang. The river ebbs and flows, often becoming so low boats cannot get through the river passages during the certain times of the year.

fishing net

fishing net

As we caught one of the last of the season’s river trips we gained a lifetime of an experience in just over 36 hours. This adventure just keeps on getting better in unexpected ways and in random moments.  Below are more photos!



temple ruins where I met Dara

temple ruins where I met Dara

buddhas inside temple

buddhas inside temple


med following a boat

Narrow passage. Did I mention we passed a crockodile?



Buffet of insects, snakes and frogs

Buffet of insects, snakes and frogs





Women cleaning fish for fish sauce

Women cleaning fish for fish sauce

House on stilts

House on stilts

Children always waving when we pass by

Children always waving when we pass by






Artwork by a student. I call it "revealing the world of possibilities"

Artwork by a student. I call it “revealing the world of possibilities”

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Halfway Through and Only Just Begun

Dave and I are approaching our halfway point here – hard to believe since I’m just getting into my groove of high gear.  And what, pray tell, is “high gear” for me? At EGBOK, everyone submits and posts a personal profile, including character traits coined “What Others Think of Me” – descriptors solicited from family and friends.  My traits of “hyper, obsessive, driven, single mindedness and intense” seem to be woefully accurate right now (thank you Susan and Marge!).   For the sake of those around me, hopefully, my more appealing traits provide some balance, but according to Dave, not so much.

A moment of “low gear” this morning when a monk visited during our Khmer lesson asking for offerings. We gladly obliged and were blessed.

However, with those traits comes creative productivity.  I’m launching several programs, including a Distinguished Speaker Series featuring successful, local Cambodians in hospitality who share similar backgrounds with our students. Their stories of humble, poor beginnings knowing no English with first jobs of cleaner, doorman and dishwasher, will now doubt inspire our students far more than anything I could say.  My “networking” mode has been at full throttle the moment I got here. (I met one speaker while cooling down from a run at 6:15 AM in the Royal Gardens.)

My lucky “cool down” encounter with Sambonn Lek, a celebrated retired bartender (34 years) at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

EGBOK students, Panha and Srey Na along with Liza (one of our terrific social workers) talk about the students’ Semester at Sea presentations.

Along with 2 colleagues, I am coaching EGBOK students, Panha and Srey Na as they prepare to join Semester-at-Sea as inter-port lecturers in February, 2013. Both students fly to Hong Kong (though neither have ever been on a plane or at an airport) before setting sail from Hong Kong to Cambodia, presenting cultural awareness sessions to over 500, predominantly, American university students. Each session, we build their self-confidence as we guide them through sharing their experiences as Cambodians.

Another program focuses on goals and career development – topics I’m presenting in the form of interactive games that combine dice, bingo and jeopardy.  I’ve written over 400 questions relating to Front Desk, Kitchen, Housekeeping and Restaurant Server that should provide fodder for many game iterations ranging from job tasks, problem solving and creating opportunities.

My first attempt at creating a board game tentatively called “THE GAME OF LIFE – The EGBOK Way”. Believe me, it is a work in progress! Game title suggestions most welcomed.


The students at EGBOK are so hungry to learn more skills.  They work, they go to school, they eat and they sleep.  They are so busy all the time that posting a flyer for yet another program, seems like too much. But better they have the choice than not.  Just yesterday I sat and spoke to two young men, both so determined to be successful in their jobs.  There were few (if any) role models from their early life, so just becoming aware of “being aware” is a concept many have never been exposed to, but once they understand, they get it. 

Kot playing the GAME OF LIFE – rolling the dice!

My challenge is to simplify the concept I want to convey (e.g. how to be successful so a supervisor chooses you to be promoted) and break that concept down into a singular idea that can be built upon, ultimately creating a path for behavior awareness and change. This is no easy task for me.

Last night, when I asked Quay, an aspiring pastry chef if he understood what I was saying, he politely said “80 percent.”  My high gear has to be downshifted otherwise I’m just spinning my own wheels and not going anywhere, fast. Clearly the students are not the only ones learning some lessons here.


Dara, our new Hospitality curriculum director, me and students playing our first game.


Speaker Series Poster

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(Attempting to) Learn Khmer

Weekly class with Socheeta (our teacher), Dave, me and Osman

Before leaving the U.S., Dave and I decided we would learn enough Khmer (Cambodian language) to have brief and polite exchanges with the locals. It seemed like a good idea, but one unnerving impromptu lesson with my Cambodian friend Maren made me reconsider.  Maren was trying to teach me to say “Hello” which is pronounced “sousady” but I kept saying “suicide.”    My effort (and the evident symbolism of my dismal attempt)  was discouraging and felt like a possible premonition for any future cracks at mastering Khmer.   

This is the look I get when I’ve not pronounced something right. I get this look often.

Then I met with Hannah Phan, the Khmer instructor at Cornell.  She recommended we watch YouTube videos teaching Khmer, which we did.  It was helpful (and amusing watching a pretty darn cute 12 year old demonstrate how to say “good morning”  or” sweet dreams”) but we still felt woefully overwhelmed with sounds and tones we just couldn’t imitate.

Our YouTube “go to” Cambodian instructor

Then, we met Socheeta, the co-manager of our guesthouse in Siem Reap.  Socheeta is a pistol. She goes to graduate school in English Literature, helps run the guesthouse and has a little baby boy.   Though hesitant at first (she has never taught Khmer before, though her English is terrific), her husband, Chantwo was very enthusiastic, insisting he would “let us loose in the market” after a few lessons.   We soon recruited our friend, and EGBOK colleague, Osman to join us, envisioning mornings and breaks at work as mini practice sessions.

Socheeta, our lovely, smart, good humored teacher


I swear we laugh more than talk.  Saying “I am good” sounds very much like “I am a microwave” so on good days, I am good –on bad days, I’m an appliance. Banana (“cheak”)  can mean wooden table if you don’t phrase it correctly – an awkward mistake if you want to buy a snack and not furnish a house.  Though tones are vital to getting the language correct, I’m clueless to what “tone” really means when speaking. I’m lucky if I get the coordination of tongue, teeth, mouth and back of throat to work in unison to pronuonce the word “name” (ch’moo-ah).  Say that 3 times fast.

The word “small” is another challenge for me. When I say it, Socheeta waves her hands and then covers her mouth hiding laughter with horror. It seems I am saying something that is rude; she refuses to tell me what I’m saying, but it’s bad.  I guess I won’t be describing or buying anything small anytime soon.  (I’m a large or extra -large for clothes anyway, so no harm done except to my ego.)   

Dave getting an impromptu, friendly lesson from our corner tuk tuk driver

And telling the ever-persistent tuc tuc (but overall, quite friendly) drivers “otay awkoon” (no thank you) with a

I see this tuk tuk driver everyday and everyday he asks me if I need a ride. I get to practice “otay awkoon” (no thank you) often.

smile and eye contact, is met with an appreciation that is palpable. Most foreigners just walk by, ignoring the calls for hire.   The courtesy of responding, and responding politely in their language, goes a long way.

This is my imitation of Socheeta’s look when she is less than impressed with my accent!

Most people working in hospitality, anywhere in the world, know English. This makes life easy for us “English speakers,” but that’s not the point.  I am not going to learn very much Khmer in 3 months but when the staff at our guesthouse gets a kick quizzing me on speaking their language (and not the other way around) that’s enough of a reward for me.    

When you teach, you don’t give a student an “A” for effort, but here, it does earn a passing grade that feels great.  “So ben la’aw, lee hi!” (Sweet dreams, good bye!)

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A Visit to Sokha’s Food Market

Me, Sokha’s Aunt, and Sokha in front of the banana rice stand. (Aunt wants to make us dinner – yes, yes!!)

My friend Sokha, invited us to meet her family in the countryside, but first, a stop at the market to  say hello to her Aunt (banana grower and rice seller0 and buy her mother some dried fish. What an afternoon. Below are just some photos of the market.  Soon, I’ll post the visit to her family’s home.

Sokha buying fish for her mother. We insisted on purchasing the fish as a gift – her mother was quite pleased!

We were the only foreigners in the market and watching Sokha do her shopping with her regular sellers was great fun.  The sounds, smells and motion kept our senses on alert – a good thing since motos drive quickly down the narrow pathways. 

The market in full swing

I call this series “woman of the market’.  Admittedly, the
“Meat lady” is my favorite

The Meat Lady of the Market

The Fish Lady

The Egg Lady

The Chicken Lady

The Elder Rice Lady

The Offal Lady (selling various organs – nothing is waste here)

Catfish Escape (note fleeing catfish on bottom right – it didn’t get far)








Man carting baskets – a mesmerizing sight in front of a wat

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The Story of Ben & EGBOK (a personal perspective)

My career aspirations never included being a university lecturer; I wouldn’t have imagined how fulfilling it would be working with college-age students with the added bonus of staying connected years later. It’s been like the gift that keeps on giving.  And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s evident when a young student shows a spark, making you wonder where life will lead them.  This is a blog about Ben, the founder of EGBOK and a spark that has been ignited.  

Ben at EGBOK

Ben was my student freshman year, first semester at Cornell’s Hotel School.  I distinctively remember thinking after the first few weeks, “that is one authentic young man with a good heart.”  Ben subsequently became be my teacher assistant the following semester, providing thoughtful insight when I could (often) benefit from a student perspective. That spring semester ‘05, was a tough semester for me but my relationship with Ben was a bright spot.   

Shortly after his graduation (’08)  Ben returned to campus with some black t-shirts bearing the EGBOK logo, explaining how he had left his real estate job in Chicago to start a NGO (nonprofit organization) in Cambodia.  A recent experience working and living at an orphanage in Phnom Penh convinced Ben he could make a difference here.  Armed with a social entrepreneurship spirit and business/hospitality education, Ben set out to help young Cambodian adults develop life and job skills focusing on hospitality careers.

EGBOK’s come a long way in 3 years!

His germ of an idea has blossomed into a highly efficient and cracker-jack staff of 7 (including 2 social workers, a full-time fundraiser and a program field director, all with master degrees associated with their disciplines).   A crew of talented and committed volunteers round out the team, each of us contributing something unique to the mix. (Dave and I at least bring an AARP demographic to the group!)   

Dave, Ben and Me

Last year, during our semester-at-sea voyage, I had the opportunity to teach a class to EGBOK students in Phnom Penh coupled with a dinner with Ben in Siem Reap.  At the end of this very short visit, Dave and I immediately agreed we would return. In the short time we’ve been here, watching Ben’s style of leadership (collaborative but directed) has been a highlight. Corporate directors could learn a thing or two about running an efficient meeting from this group.  

An EGBOK meeting – all business

Ben continues to guide and grow an organization that is becoming sustainable while avoiding the pitfall of becoming dependent on any one individual, including Ben. After three years living in Cambodia, Ben has returned to the States, seeking a bit of renewal while developing a fresh perspective on where EGBOK Mission should be going. EGBOK’s success (and garnered respect) from hospitality professionals has led to several exciting future opportunities, but rather than moving forward with full gusto at each prospect, Ben and the team continually challenge themselves to evaluate each proposal carefully.

Ben’s handy hand for writing his “to do” list

I believe it is Ben’s belief (my personal observation only) that if the students thrive – that is, if the students become confident in themselves as they continually develop life and technical skills,  improve their critical thinking and earn a good wage with career advancement opportunities, everyone (students, employers and guests) will benefit.  Now that’s a spark that can really ignite a bright future.

Ben’s “to do” list

Ben at his “bon voyage” party

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