A day in Phnom Penh

9 Jul

The White Building on Samdach Boulevard 1

From the shelter of my guesthouse’s covered rooftop I look out over the street below. It is in chaos – pelting rain has sent all the street sellers into hiding.

I think back to the hostel I was at this morning. Two kids were rifling through the open garbage dump just opposite the hostel. I think they were looking for cans, like the woman who hovered over me last night. She was waiting for the remains of the 50c beer I was enjoying by the riverside.

I was in the company of young Frenchman who’d just ridden a single gear bicycle from the province of Kampot to Phnom Penh. I remember blowing her off in my desire to continue our heated conversation on the status of France.

That garbage dump would be floating down the street now, in the torrential rain.

I wonder about the families living in the kilometer long building the Frenchman took me to this morning. “My building” he called it. His building was so dilapidated it looked like the whole front had been ripped off.

He’d been spending his days photographing the families inside –  families packed in like sardines – playing cards, minding children, cooking food, going about life.

I mentioned his building to another man I met this afternoon. I was told that legally the families should have title to the land2. Legally they should be able to make repairs, patching the leaks that I’m sure are letting in the rain right at this very minute.

But they don’t have the titles. So they don’t make repairs.

Before the rain had settled in I’d headed out to the Olympic Stadium for a run. The place was packed. Around the outside boys playing football on every square inch of space, girls filling in the rest with games of badminton.

On the inside of the stadium there was row after row of dancers, busting out synchronized moves to Rihanna. This is where I usually run, weaving in amongst the dancers, looking over the the Phnom Penh skyline, watching yet another spectacular sunset.

I learnt today that there are rumors the stadium will be demolished. The land is apparently too valuable to leave to public space.

On the way home I see another near miss on the road. I have seen just about as many motorbike accidents as number of days I have been here. My record refuses to break – I return to the hostel  to yet another Frenchman, this time with injuries and stories of yet another collision.

Perhaps it is only the fragility of a hangover, but it would seem as if today is a day for open eyes, a day for being affected by the world.


Image: License: Some rights reserved by Jonas Hansel

1 “Cambodian architect Vann Molyvan designed this building, intended as a housing project for the booming middle class that emerged after Cambodia’s independence in 1953. The project was halted after the Khmer Rouge take-over in 1975, and never finished. Nowadays the decaying building is inhabited by hundreds of families, plagued by poverty, crime and prostitution.”

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, “the Vietnamese made a bold, perhaps brilliant move: they rendered all prior property claims in the city null and void….Phnom Penh was opened up for settlement on a “first-come, first-serve” basis

Lovings of the week: Two countries which have done amazing things at scale

5 Jul
  • The national utility, Vietnam Electricity, estimates that in 1975, electrification among poor households in the country was no more than 2.5%. Yet in a little over 3 decades, Viet Nam was able to connect millions to the national grid. By 2009 the country had electrified 96% of its households, bringing modern power to the Vietnamese people in both urban and rural areas.

Image credit: Some rights reserved by henrikj




The West Wing – pushing on the ocean

2 Jul
I have just about finished watching all 7 seasons of The West Wing, which is a fair investment of time for someone who almost never watches television.
One thing I love about good art is when it stops you in your step, when it makes you think differently. The show is one of the few that has reached deep – one of the few that made me really stop. Months after watching an episode I would often still be thinking – even dreaming – about the themes it explored.
One thing the show really opened my eyes to was just how hard it is to be, or work for, the leader of a country. How hard it is to campaign, to negotiate legislation, to get just about anything done. If you think your day gets interupted…! If you think you have a lot on your plate…!  The show gave me a lot more respect for the profession than I had had previously. My brother once said to me that he had great respect for Bob Brown – for the years of service he had given to Australia.  One of the shows main themes echoes that very sentiment.
I love how the show has so much going on in it – but still manages to squeeze in character development. Like life really – we might have too many balls in the air, but somehow we still manage to fit in friends, families, personal growth. As part of this, the show considers why people in these high stress positions continue to be there – what it is that drives them to be on call at all hours, to sacrifice their families, their health and highly lucrative jobs outside of civil service. Ryan Adam’s song “Desire” plays poignantly in one of my favourite sequences of the series – showing staff members at the end of a long day – reflecting on what they have to come home to.
The show also made me laugh about some of the ridiculous causes out there – like the special interest group focused on getting the world map turned upside down and the alternative energy lobby group who couldn’t decide on a single positive group message that would represent all their interests. And then the negotiations about debate negotiations during an election campaign.
The show reminded me that existential crises I might have are “neither great, nor unique” – as a friend once put it. One of my favourite lines from the show is “Sometimes I think, what if I were at UNICEF or United Way pulling together the AIDS fight, or back in New York turning the public school system around, would that be a more effective use of my 24 hours? Not this. Not pushing on the ocean.”
Pushing at the ocean – a sentiment I’m sure we’ve all felt at some time or another. It’s of some comfort to me that others, even those with great power and ability, have felt the same, and have found it within themselves to keep going.

Lovings of the week: Killer Apps

28 Jun

Some apps that I use a lot or have recently discovered:

  • Every time I am about to go “into the wild” I download the latest posts from my favourite blogs to Mobile RSS. It is great for random 10-20 minute stops where you don’t really know what is going to happen next and can’t pull out a book to read.
  • I use Intl Meeting Planner to plan hookups between different timezones.
  • I open World Map at least every other day to check out where exactly certain countries are in the world. This ties into a hobby of mine – studying country statistics to try and understand how each country fits into the world. Both The Economist World in Numbers and The World Factbook are great for this.
  • What’s app allows you to message other people over the internet from your phone. It is suprising how many people are already connected.
  • Nike Training Club provides great facilitated workouts – a great way to train if you are on the go and can’t regularly attend a training club or gym.
  • I use The Economist and BBC World to get an overview of what is happening in the world
  • And finally emoji is quite silly, but there’s something about being able to send someone an emoticon of a ghost that always makes me smile.

Street scene, Birtamode, Nepal

25 Jun

Birtamode, Nepal

Cows are standing in the middle of the street in front of us. Chewing on cud as the road traffic swerves around them.

We arrive by motorbike, and chat by the roadside before moving towards our favourite evening hangout. Most of the vehicles that past us are human powered – people walking trailers, bicycles, rickshaws.

We move across the dusty courtyard, taking up our seats our seats on the bench outside, waiting to be called in for dinner.

There is a dusty courtyard between the restaurant and the road, and as the sunsets the random assortment of students, grandmothers and dogs move about in a kind of dance, sometimes interacting, sometimes not.

I see the man who is Nepali, but looks so much like a foreigner that I tried to speak to him in English when I first met him. I am reminded how much people here look like members of my own family.

Baby goats scamper around feet. They are waiting to be fed left overs – and the owner of the restaurant happily abides – patting them affectionately on the head, like dogs.

The restaurant is family run, the wife always speaks directly to my face in Nepali. It is amazing to me how much I can understand what she is saying. I love that even though I have been coming there on and off for 2 months, she still does this – continually refusing to give up and talk to me through a translator.

The sun is setting behind the trees covered in red flowers. “Not native” I am told.

Like me I think.

Totally out of place, and yet not out of place at all.

Lovings of the week: Nepal – flailing not failing

21 Jun

The deadline for the Nepali constitution recently passed – it prompted my move from the east of Nepal to the capital, and then finally out of the country to Cambodia. Given the political vacuum the country finds itself in now, there has been a media storm this week over whether Nepal should be considered a “failed, or flailing” state.

  • First there was this piece in the New York Times – “If the culture of impunity is not uprooted, neither the elections nor a new constitution can deliver Nepal from slipping further into civil chaos, poverty and lawlessness.”
  • This was counted by a letter to the editor from Nepal’s permanent mission to the United Nations: “We categorically reject the notion that Nepal is on the brink of collapse. We are on the verge of restructuring and institutionalizing the state within a democratic, republican and federal structure.”
  • And finally , then finally the hitback from the Kathmandu Post: “Nepal looks like a failing state from outside because this country has not been successfully coping with the challenges of the modern times. My own feeling is that Nepal is not heading towards being a failing state. The problem is we have short historical memories. What is happening so far is debate, peaceful albeit heated discussions about the structure and modus operandi of the political process, elections, reviving the CA or holding fresh elections. This is a very democratic process. The “ferocious” guerrillas have worked hard with the ‘parliamentary’ parties and disarmed themselves; together they have solved many complex problems. People from different origins and geographical setting are not fighting with each other. They are putting fresh ideas about equality and harmonious state restructuring. A democratically minded President is making calls to parties to work together and find a way out of this impasse. Equally, the other subject of great importance is that Nepal’s big neighbours India and China want these political parties to find their own solutions. They are not putting trade embargos or supporting any groups with money or arms. They are encouraging a return to normalcy. “
From my own limited experience it was very interesting to see how a country operates from one day to the next, with and without a constitution. On the surface everything still worked. The sky did not fall in. The roads were full. Electricity and water supply limped along as normal, business opened their doors for yet another day. I hear of cracks below the surface – the inability to push much needed reform through, a friend who can’t get a work permit despite having worked in the country for 8 years, an NGO who has had more days closed than open for business this year. And yet, Nepal seems like a country that is continuing to limp along, finding a way through the political turmoil, the same way their ancestors found a way through the rugged Himalayas in the past.
Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

On having a mission – 8 months on

17 Jun

8 months ago I wrote about having a mission for my life. I wanted it to encompass “contribution”, “global”, “sustainability” and “poverty”. I didn’t know what this meant or how it was going to work.

I met a woman who was 67 who was working on a vocational training centre in the far west of Ghana. I realised that in around 40 years time I would be 67. So I decided to make my mission 40 years – to have it focus on the long term. As Bill Gates famously put it – we overestimate what we can do in 2 years and underestimate what we can do in 10 (or 40 for that matter).

I wanted my first step to be to begin to understand. To begin to understand what it means to be poor. To begin to understand what has been done so far. To begin to understand why this has not been enough. As part of this I wanted to give a substantial sum ($10K) to charity.

It is hard to say how I have progressed on the true knowledge front; and yet easy to show how I have progressed on the money side. This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a development practitioner  – “people in aid complain all the time about the report writing – but how else can we show our progress? It is not as easy as showing money in an account. If a business is successful the money will be there. If it isn’t, it won’t be.”

So first to the money. In the end I was more creative with accounting for the $10K than I originally thought I would be. I found it hard to part with my own money, but my goal meant that I stopped thinking about whether or not I should give away away the money and started thinking creatively about how I could overcome my own barriers and make it happen. I first managed to turn a relatively small donation into a significant amount through a very generous matching scheme I was able to access. After much deliberation I also decided to include my expenses for my India trip last year, where we initiated a pilot project, bringing light to one community. For the remainder of the sum I asked that all my Christmas and birthday presents from the last year be donations to a charity (as pre-selected by GiveWell).

On beginning to understand, I have certainly learnt a lot during the past year in my role with Good Return. For the next period of time however, I would like to be more focussed in my learning, spending more time reading and trying to understand concepts which are well researched and difficult rather than the easy one line answers (read this Study Hacks post on deliberate practice versus achieving flow if you want to understand more about what I am talking about).

Some key learnings I have written about previously on L+L have been:

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