The Sprawling World of Information Management at WCS (Phnom Penh and Seima, Cambodia)

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I came to Cambodia for a summer to do work. Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes people don’t realize it. Sometimes people say: you’re on holiday, why aren’t you acting like it? To which I reply with exhaustion and/or fatigue and/or confusion, for I have been working, and I continue to work, and I continue to explore what I’ve come here for.

The job: working for the Wildlife Conservation Society. The position: working as the Information Management Specialist. Similar to my work for Open Development Cambodia, except this time with a touch more confidence, a bit more experience, and two lovely sidekicks to keep me even-keeled during my journey.

The opening of this position was unique and intense: working under significant leadership/supervision within the WCS, it was determined that I help to hire two Cambodian interns. How? Find out where to advertise, get the job posting circulating, and then interview them. I had only a little bit of interview experience under my belt, from the last time I was in Cambodia. But so be it: the show had to go on! With the help of the Phnom Penh office’s lovely admin, and some support for the interviews from two other staff, we hired two young women who started working abruptly (and continue to this day). All told, there were six interviews, four of which I conducted alone.

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The work has been mostly analysis at this point. The Phnom Penh office, where I’m based, has an internal library of a couple thousand books (we actually haven’t counted them straight through, as we are still weeding the collection). There are an uncountable body of digital documents on hard drives and servers as well. The Phnom Penh office is setup with a Synology server, and the organization just implemented Google Drive, which has been fairly troublesome to work with, as the bandwidth on the local WiFi system cannot handle the eight or so people using Google Drive simultaneously, and not many people even know how to use it, and individuals are using it on both Mac and PC.

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We’ve gotten the main library under control. A lot of the documents were damaged (from age and general decay, or from termites) and have to be scanned so we can throw them out. Weeding is challenging. Many of the documents are absolutely not in any capacity available online because they are very old, and when we can only find the catalog record or a broken hyperlink, it’s more than frustrating. We have been keeping records of what we get rid of, if we cannot find digital replacements. The potential to seek out these documents from other NGOs exists, though I’m not sure we will actually get to do that investigative work.

The interns have been mostly helping with organization and scanning. They are not by any means librarians or trained in information management, but they seem to enjoy that. I try and compensate them (above their monetary pay) with cupcakes and jokes. It usually works to break the monotony. Additionally they’ve been on data retrieval missions and in the near future will be helping other team members with photography classification, and metadata enhancement for some indexes that were created by staff for previous projects.

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One of the joys of working for an NGO that operates mostly out of the field is being able to go out in the field for different events and functions, similar to a couple of my experiences working for ODC. In the picture above, I am visiting the release event of the Royal Turtle in Sre Ambel. Seeing the work that the information within this organization does so well to capture, seeing it in real time, provides a lot of significance to a job that could be mostly PDFs and wiping away dust.

The NGO is in the field and I already got to visit the one non-Phnom Penh office I will be helping out in: Seima. Seima, located in Mondulkiri Province, is a protected forest that is at risk from deforestation/land development, as well as illegal logging of rare trees. Seima has a plethora of diverse wildlife, including gibbons and doucs (which I saw during my visit). It also apparently has more types of hummingbirds in one space than any other forest in the world (21 was the count).

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When I was a graduate student a couple of years ago, I actually fantasized about going out into the jungle in search of rare documents. I’m not exactly doing that, but I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to consider this short-term gig one of “jungle librarianship” proportions. The office in Seima literally sits right on the edge of a dense forest. Whether or not it’s officially a jungle or not is aside the point, but it’s humid, and the creatures that fill the forest are wild and unlike any I’ve ever seen (especially the insects).

Fortunately my brief trip this one time for two days was not the only trip I will take there, and I will be able to go back with my interns-cum-translators, to work there again. Doing what, you might ask? Transforming the Research Center, which needs some deep cleaning, organizing, and general improvements, and capacity-building with the Cambodian staff who are responsible for heaps of information.

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So far, my experience working with the WCS has been one of independence and intensity. I have been responsible for a lot, and the expectations are high. It’s easy to “go up” in organization here because the offices have been disorganized for so long. Just being around and shuffling papers has been a symbolic act of change and optimization that (I think) most people at the organization, Cambodian and Barang, both understand I’m around to provide support and assistance where needed, though nobody really know what the image of that is going to be at the very end, and that’s probably a good thing, because it means we are all open minded and working together to achieve what will be a better future for the internal information landscape.

I realize I haven’t provided a lot of details about this position: types of documents, file formats, technologies, etc., and content related specifics. It’s been hard to write about this because there is so much I can say. I think I will contribute more details in the future, if things appear like they are getting settled down around here. Which they probably won’t, because Rath and Phalkun (the interns) keep me on my toes, and Simon and Alex and Sarah and Matt and Kez (the WCS staff) keep me on my toes, and Heng and Claire (the other interns) keep me on my toes, and Veng and Solita and Pheap (the IT and Admin team) keep me on my toes, and all the other people I’ve worked with throughout the organization . . . everyone has been enormously fun to work with, and yet the entire process has been one of overload. Jeff, who is helping with REDD and GIS and the IT infrastructure here (he’s been here since last year) has been an amazing support, but I think he can see me slowly getting more and more burnt out. Maybe it will happen. It probably will. But this is Cambodia. Burnout happens, and we move on, go forth, drink coconut smoothies, and enjoy the rush.

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A Return to Koh Dach (Silk Island), Cambodia

Koh Dach hasn’t appeared to to change in any significant ways since I was there last year. But it remains a strange, well-traveled, well-visited spot just outside of the city where the breeze is strong and the fruit is cheap, and the roads are endlessly waiting. There’s even a significant lack of restaurants on both the main island, and Koh Chbhal, or “Head Island” (which sticks out of Silk Island like some tumorous growth). JESUS SAVES still sits in a huge banner at the top of the ramp leading onto the island. There is still a lot of chaos and dust and family dogs roaming around. Everything is at one with the silkiness of the island.

It’s still easier than ever to get over to the island. Just drive about 20 minutes outside of the city, wait for the regularly-occurring ferry to arrive, and wait for everyone to load up. The ride across the Mekong is only fifteen minutes or so, which is just enough time to get pictures and not feel uncomfortable in waiting.

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One of the two ferries is multi-level.

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All manner of vehicles board the boat to go to the other side.

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Our fearless captain, who did not care one bit for my picture-taking.

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It had been a while since Yenda, my friend who graciously drove me and the others (Pinkie, Nicole, and Ema) from the center of the city to the island, had visited. For him, Silk Island is a source of nostalgia. From the random plants (vegetable, fruit-bearing, and otherwise), to the style of houses, Silk Island was a magnificently filled with stories and a sense of living memory. We joined along, ate watermelon, took photos, and coasted through the breeze and the dust.

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View of the Mekong

Unfortunately it was very hot and we had some form (presumably) of fatigue. Sun stroke, perhaps? It was brutalizing and returning to the aircon of the car was a welcome activity. We cruised the island with no intentions other than general exploration. We saw families spending their Sunday seated together, traditional poses and huge sets of eyes upon us on the street as we cruised by, seeing pot holes, examining vegetation.

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Even the dog looked hotter than us.

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A little boy on his big bicycle.

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Silk Island had its moments of decay.

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The Cambodian equivalent of bubble wrap.

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Nicole eats some watermelon. 1,000 riel for a whole melon.

No trip to Koh Dach is complete without a visit to the tourist beach at the northern point. Having been there before, I was well expecting the swaths of trash and the local tourists who spent their time getting away from the city–or other parts of the island. The heat kept us from any relaxation, however.

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A man fishing with a net near a rent-able covered platform.

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A woman talks on her phone next to an inner tube, while the fairly disgusting trash landscape sits in the distance.

Regardless of the landscape, there was a lot of beauty to see here. Mostly in the youths who flocked around and played in the sun, the river sparkling nearby.

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We were (are) a troupe of adventurers but seeking what?

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Yenda fought me, in the shadows.

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Despite its close proximity to the city, Silk Island often felt like being back on the coast, where the carefree, stressless attitude sank into the corners.

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Following our visit to the beach, we slowly headed back to the ferry and went on with our day, visiting the Sokha Hotel (just completed, and gloriously empty), and other nearby destinations, including some good seafood. It was an enjoyable adventure. I do have some other pictures but they are not uploading correctly. I will try and upload them through another network soon. And videos: be prepared for some glorious, glorious videos of streetscapes and nightlife.

A Tale of Dust and Sidesteps (Phnom Penh)

A street scene near the Royal Palace

A street scene near the Royal Palace

I have been here now nearly one week. Phnom Penh’s streets are still dusty, still cracked, and still beautiful. The motos buzz by with their rattling, the tuk tuks not far behind. The heat is everywhere, is upon everything.

What will it take to get to the ATM?

What will it take to get to the ATM?

I live in a building that is under renovation. The manager of the building, a man named Roshan, lives across the hall from me, with his friend, another man, both from northern India. They are friendly. There is no one else in the building, which stands in the center of the Duan Penh neighborhood. The building is four stories high and will have 8 apartments once it is completed. I am the first one. I am on the ground floor, but will be moving to the top floor soon, where there will be breeze. There is a Cambodian restaurant called Meng Meng next to my building. Early in the morning the charcoal seeps through the window where I sleep and makes me ill, gives me a headache. It is the same type of headache as when you wake up from being next to a campfire the night before. It will be good to move to the top floor. Even though it will be higher and harder to get to at the end of a long day, it will be worth it, to be away from the charcoal. I will continue to pay $200 per month, and it will include WiFi and the occassional cleaning from Roshan’s friend, who is apparently the de facto house cleaner.

The sun goes down behind the Royal Palace

The sun goes down behind the Royal Palace

I write this sitting in My Friends Cafe eating a raisin pastry while a wedding blasts music from across the street. The pastry is underdone despite the place being owned and run by a French man and his Cambodian wife. I will not complain. It is still tasty, even in its doughy state. I drink an Americano with ice and milk, probably overpriced, but I don’t care, I will indulge. Cambodia, for the visitor, tourist or worker, is still cheaper, even if the prices are getting more and more inflated with every day. Having spent time in Vietnam, now, it’s so easy to see how ridiculously expensive things in Cambodia have become. Whereas most snacks in southern Vietnam cost between 50 cents and a dollar, here you can expect to always pay more than a dollar–even when the food is worse. I was at a Vietnamese restaurant getting a Vietnamese coffee for a dollar fifty the other day, and looked at the food menu: $7.5 for certain Vietnamese dishes. Seriously? How does the market get this way? Is this what the “middle class” of sellouts and the corrupted buy? Or is it marketed toward tourists? How long will an empty restaurant like that, with so many staff, stay open? Who will be happy? The Vietnamese coffee was good, by the way.

More uncanny clouds (from Wat Botum Park)

More uncanny clouds (from Wat Botum Park)

I start work in 45 minutes. I am working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). I am based in their Phnom Penh office. I am going to be working at one of their sites, Keo Seima, a protected forest, soon. My first visit will be in a week and a half–arguably one of the greatest adventures I will have encountered as a solo traveler in Cambodia.

A new coffee seller (this wasn't here during my first time in Cambodia)

A new coffee seller (this wasn’t here during my first time in Cambodia)

I stir in liquid sugar. I look at the tile floors. I see the breeze upon the ferns outside.

The work itself is quite difficult, quite challenging. It is not over my head but nearly so, a situation where one has to stand on their toes to keep from drowning. I have seen many different jobs with many different responsibilities in my life. This 8-week information management contract might be the most independent I have been in a role, despite there being a significant support network within the organization. Cambodian rules still apply: I have to get on everyone’s side. I am still the outsider.

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Natasha will be coming at the end of the month, if she can raise money. It is so hard to be anything for anyone. From personal life to work life to romantic life. I struggle. I look at the sky and wish for it to rain, to cause me some constraint, to relinquish its long arms of endless heat. I know everything will work. I know everything will be significant. I know everything will be. I sit and wonder how I can share this place. I have shared it before. With loves, with friends, with strangers. I have taken people and shown them. My body, hot, knows it can happen again, but where is the energy I had two years ago? Where is the spark? Where is my engine, my internal machine, to keep pushing me forward?

With my friend and old coworker Pinkie, at Motor Cafe

With my friend and old coworker Pinkie, at Motor Cafe

I have done an okay job meeting friends from my previous time here. I have met with James whose photography once inspired me. I have met with Pinkie and KC, who were some of my closest friends. I have met with Antoine for a dip at the Teahouse pool next to my apartment. I have met with Tana, for an exchange of gifts. I have met with Sokunthea, my previous collaborator. I have met with Scott and Warren, my current collaborators. There are many friends left to see, but I have so many weeks left to see everyone.

As I continue to write here, I will try and focus on new aspects of life in Phnom Penh that I hadn’t thought of before. I certainly have stared to think in many new ways about what it’s like to live here, especially short term, especially with a pre-established relationship to the city, and my romantic relationship in Seattle. Before I arrived, I had many questions about how I would spend my time here. I divided time between: work, friends, travel, photography, reading, and watching movies. I brought too many books. I brought too many movies. I have to take a course while I am here, as well. Life is packed, taxing, challenging. Busy. Some people don’t understand this. But I don’t need them to. I will live my life with the gains and the losses. There will be beauty, creation, suffering, destruction. Let us think of accountability.

The Great 2015 Return to Cambodia!

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I hardly know who is still tracking this blog, but I have good news! I happened to luck out on my schedule this year, and on June 22 I will be boarding a plane in Seattle and heading to Ho Chi Minh City, where I will be spending six nights (technically a few in Dalat), and then heading back to Cambodia for the summer break.

How did this happen? It starts with being a librarian. As I work for two community colleges (North Seattle College (NSC) and Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech)), I am working on the quarter-based system. I am technically a librarian at the latter, and their contract for me, a part time contract that will be renewed in the fall, does not cover summer quarter. North Seattle College’s contract does cover summer, but the summer quarter is incredibly limited. I ended up getting my good friend Molly Mac to temporarily (and potentially permanently) take over the North gig and my amazing room mate is letting me keep all my stuff in my apartment at a very small rate. And so I’m off to ‘Bodia for a few months until I resume work at LWTech!

Once in Cambodia, I will have a lot of catching up to do. It should be easy from my relatively-centralized apartment in the Duan Penh area of Phnom Penh, near the TeaHouse Asian Urban Resort:

I look forward to bringing this blog back to sharing everything that is going on with my life. I will have a job, I will reconvene with old friends, hopefully meet new friends, and, of course, enjoy my fair share of swimming pools. Also, it will be monsoon season, which will be a drastic (and welcome) change from the relative mild heat of the Pacific Northwest. Here are some things I will be doing:

  • Spending time meeting up with my dear friend Dede in HCMC.
  • Exploring Dalat for the first time.
  • Meeting up with all my old friends who are still in Phnom Penh.
  • Working an 8-week information management contract in Phnom Penh (and hopefully a field office in Mondulkiri) for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
  • Holding a poetry workshop on collaborative writing for Nou Hach.
  • Holding two workshops for librarians and library staff for the Cambodian Library Association.
  • Working with sound producer Warren Daly (of Invisible Agent) and poet Scott Bywater on a two-night epic performance to be held at Meta House.
  • Getting back into the vibe of going to pools, enjoying fresh food, and feeling the pulsations of air conditioning, and watching the streets flood and the lightning flicker on the horizon.
  • Enjoying the return of my American friend Tanya and the first visit of my American friend Hailey in late August/early September.
  • Potentially traveling throughout Laos with some good friends in September before heading back to the USA!

When will I return? I’m scheduled to fly back on the 26th, to start work on the 28th. Let’s hope everything goes to plan!

As for updates along the way, I plan on using this blog for my primary means of documenting my travels, work, and pictures. However, I am now a contributing writer for Queen Mob’s, and plan on writing about pools and weekend adventures there. I will also be using my Cambodian-based Twitter account for relevant tweeting. If you are in Cambodia and want to meet with me, send me a message to my email, or post on Facebook, or simply comment on this post and I’ll get back to you soon!

Living in Cambodia Part Two: More Reflections

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I’m safely back in Seattle, USA. White clouds loom over me thickly. Green trees are in every corner. The air is brisk and biting. I have to wear layers. I have to squint to see through the brightness. There is no sweat. There is noise, lots of noise, in the restaurants and bars. There is space and quiet outside. The roads are smooth. The hills are steep. The cars are many, and they are orderly. It stays light out until 9 or 9:30 at night.

It has been a difficult transition back to this town, this place I called home for three years. In many ways, I sincerely and severely miss Phnom Penh. I miss the heat, I miss the crowds, the busy streets, the regular cycles of day and night. I miss the dust. I miss the dirty streets. I miss the constant movement, the constant activity. In some ways, I miss the lack of shade and the unbearable lightness of urban sunlight. I miss the friends I knew, and the many faces I didn’t. I miss the fruit and the meat and the fish and the strange vegetables. Obviously I miss the cheap food and the cheap cost of living.

But here I am under the many conveniences of American life. I’m once again back in the landscape of the fancy, where I can get Starbucks 5 minutes from every location, where I can get in a friend’s car and just drive. There’s freedom here. But there’s so much more, so much more uncertainty.

When you first live abroad, you think, “Wow, there are all of these things I took for granted where I come from.” You’re not only surrounded by the perspectives of the majority (in my case, the Cambodians), but also the perspectives of all the other minorities–Australians, Europeans, South Americans, Canadians, other Asians–and everything comes together into a new range of perspectives, a new melting pot, that is absolutely fantastic as it is horrifying. The “island” of your homeland, of your home country, becomes one that is fantastically strange. “Oh, wow, Americans are loud, and we use credit cards to buy almost everything” are a couple statements you might make when you get into the superficial contrasts in culture.

When you return home, you start to see the deeper differences in the world around you. You start to project everything you came to value in the foreign experience onto everything that surrounds your homeland. You start to realize the gaps between the two. You start to think about what was missing from your previous life. In Cambodia, for example, collectivity and community and individual sacrifice is normal under professional, family, and personal contexts. There is a degree of “giving” that is unmatched by many people in many subcultures of America. Though there are certainly “giving” people here, and very, very kind people, that they are not the norm makes them stand out, sure, but makes them seem flanked by the majority ideology in a landscape of supreme individualism and, to be drastic, selfishness.

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Even the language of “I” (using “I statements”) was completely different over there. Among Westerners and Cambodians alike, talking in conversations was normally inverted. Statements involved commenting on others before commenting on yourself. The “you” statement (“You actually talked to him?”) versus the “I” statement (“I can’t believe you talked to him”) seems simple but is foundationally different, and of course I grew completely self-conscious of my own linguistic behavior and adjusted accordingly. And since being back I’ve constantly noticed the self-centrism in communications. It’s a good thing, because it means I can continue to make myself less self in an attempt to translate my previous comforts of community into the communities I previously known.

There is something maddening about the face of despair and disease in the USA that I don’t remember “seeing” as clearly in Cambodia. From the drunks standing in and around bars, to those pour souls screaming on the streets, to the silent, defaced individuals working at the cafes, there is a distance between individuals here that unnerves me. Some of these elements of mental health and social behavior are greater in Seattle than other areas of the country, I realize that, and it’s hard to make blanket/generalized statements, but they are visually noticeable and, in many cases, difficult to deal with. I’m sure most of my friends in Cambodia, and myself too, had extreme disparities in mental health, but there was a general concern for happiness and connectivity, even desperately, but still normal-seeming, that kept me and my crew together in an act of energy, trust, and reliance. Did that exist for me in Seattle, before? Perhaps it simply wasn’t as obvious to see, even if it did exist. Certain illuminations occur when we least expect them, make us turn over stones and reflect on previously-hidden realities of life.

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Cold in the night, it’s been a bit hard, clutching my blankets, to not think of the smiling faces of those who were in my life, both temporarily and consistently, during my time in Cambodia. Penhleak, Kakrona, Yenda, Daen, Andrea, Stephanie, Antoine, Jialing, Eitan, Kristina, Borey, Sok Lak, Vongseng, Sros, Linda, Heng, Khiang, Kara, Tana, Nary, Sokunthea, Ratana, Huy Eng, Saren, Naro, Seila, Try, Emanuel, Eric, Terry, Margaret, Kolap, Wanna, Dana, Chheangly, Chakriya, James, Phally, Soknea, Sok, and all the others, these were the people who allowed me to rediscover myself by leaving myself and entering their lives. The invitations were gradual and amazing. And unforgettable.

It’s difficult thinking about how experiences are different out here. It’s only been 48 hours and I’m not working and I’m living in a moment-to-moment space. I can’t imagine how it will be interacting with my family when I go back home, or how I will interact in working environments, but one of my major skills I’ve learned has been patience. There is so much patience required to switch from the Western to the Cambodian way of life: from tasks at work to meeting up with friends to enjoying a meal. There’s a reason lunch breaks are two hours long rather than 30 minutes. There’s a reason no one expects people to be exactly on time in any given circumstance, for a date or for a casual meeting. So many factors go into “barriers,” where barrier shouldn’t be considered a negative, but rather simply a push and pull keeping people from being so abrupt, so rigid in their daily lives. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve already faced difficulties with impatience, with promptness. I foresee them continuing.

Over the next five days I’ll be perusing Seattle and, when I can, posting new thoughts about new differences I’ve encountered. Then I’ll be in Maine, where my goal will be to write significantly about my many friendships and interactions in Cambodia. I hope to write something, a long essay, or book, that can accurately illustrate what life in Cambodia is like today, something most people probably haven’t a clue about. (I already had to deal with more than two Pol Pot references since being back, which confirms said suspicions.) After a month in Maine, I’ll be driving across the country. All of these activities are so starkly different from my life in Cambodia that I hope they don’t overshadow the past 9 months completely. And yet, Cambodia instilled a sense of humbleness, sincerity, joy, and compassion within me that I don’t imagine will be easy to shrug off anytime soon.

Garbage Collector, #PhnomPenh

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I don’t usually take pictures of the poor. I think the famous ones you see in magazines are enough as it is. Also, after you live in a place for long enough, you take for granted the more grotesque realities that surround you that you are not directly working with.

This is a picture of a worker, a garbage collector, taking a lunch hour rest near Koh Pich, otherwise known as Diamond Island, in Phnom Penh. This type of scene isn’t only related to the lowest-paid workers in the city. You often see tuk tuk drivers sleeping in their tuk tuks or on a hammock connected to the environment.

One thing I do think about a lot is the lack of park space in the city. I am used to go the parks in the USA where the public, poor and rich alike, go to enjoy themselves. Rittenhouse Square comes to mind, in Philly. Cal Anderson in Seattle too. I wish Phnom Penh had more parks, and maybe someday it will.

I’m Hosting Another #Poetry Night at Java Cafe Tonight

If you’re in Phnom Penh, you won’t want to miss the poetry night I run at Java Cafe on Sihanouk Boulevard. There are a couple amazing featured readers (one from Australia and one from Cambodia), and as usual, we have the writer’s meet-up preceding the event and the open mic following the main reading.

Here’s a taste of what I’ll be reading, a poem for an upcoming e-book (see more poems on my other site):

Phnom Penh and the Turbulent Examination of Spirals

It’s true, you can get a lot of things in Cambodian pharmacies.
Just make sure you check the date on the packaging,
as some drugs might be years out of date.
And be sure to check out the cute employees who work there.
Even if they aren’t that cute, though someone might find them so.
After the pharmacy, you might consider stepping out into the heat
and feeling like the strongest character in any game ever imagined,
until you start getting weak and needing a cool drink.
So hop over to your favorite place and get that beverage.
You’ve earned it. You deserve to be happy.
You deserve to put the liquid in your mouth and swallow.
Just be careful you don’t choke, because everyone can choke.
And when you choke in Cambodia, you can die in Cambodia.
Just like you can choke and die in any other place in this world.