"From riding my bike to work and being chased in the street by smiling children screaming “HELLO!!!” to seeing those same children play in a sewage canal around the corner from my house, my experience in Cambodia was a total emotional roller coaster. Every day I would think that I’d seen it all, and the next day something else would happen that would make me say the same thing."
Cambodia is one the poorest, least developed nations in the world, with over a third of its population living in extreme poverty. Ravaged by thirty years of genocide, war, and foreign occupation, Cambodia is struggling to get back on its feet while faced with a myriad of social, economic, and environmental problems. Cambodia relies heavily on foreign aid, and NGOs have had a strong foothold in the country since the 1990s, working on issues such as education, child welfare, microfinance, and conservation. Their presence has been both a necessary and politically controversial one.
Lauren Dickerson, a Massachusetts native and graduate of Boston College, took a chance in 2008 and moved to Cambodia to volunteer with a grassroots organization and NGO. She recently sat down with inTravel to share the experiences of her time in Cambodia, covering everything from the heart-breaking: visiting the body pits at the Killing Fields and jail cells at Tuol Sleng, sobering reminders of Cambodia's violent and all-too-recent past, to the uplifting: experiencing the warmth, openness, and incredible generosity of the Cambodian people, many of whom had close to nothing, but shared everything.
INTRAVEL: Could you give me a brief overview of what sort of work you were doing in Cambodia?
I was volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, dealing with youth empowerment and environmental issues. I was given the illustrious title of “Advisor,” meaning that I helped out where I could — writing grants, strengthening reporting practices, reevaluating activities, organizing educational activities for young people interested in learning about the environment. I volunteered for six months before offering my services at an American NGO that incidentally was the main funder of the small grassroots organization.
I also conducted a research project for an NGO consortium on the accountability mechanisms for budget support projects sponsored principally by the World Bank and the British Department for International Development. This research project was a piece of a lobbying effort by the NGO consortium to engage international donors in ameliorating the way in which the Cambodian government used— or didn’t use — the money given to them for the purpose of conducting land reform and maintaining Cambodia’s natural resources — forests, mangroves, watersheds, rivers, etc. I was there for about 8 months and I lived about a hundred meters from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It literally was at the end of my street and I had to pass it on my way to work.
INTRAVEL: How did you get involved with your work in Cambodia? Is there anything that made you pick that country in particular?
I was working as a legal assistant in Paris and wanted a breath of fresh air from Parisian high society and the corporate law world. Also, I had always been interested in international affairs particularly with respect to developing countries and was becoming increasingly interested in environmental issues. I cast a broad net with all my contacts worldwide and was eventually invited to come volunteer in Cambodia by a friend of a friend of a friend. This was a huge risk, but it was also a huge adventure and I was ready to do it.
INTRAVEL: What were your expectations prior to arriving in Cambodia?
I really didn’t have any other than I expected to learn about environmental and political issues in Cambodia, as well as issues that I knew I wouldn’t be able to predict in advance. I don’t think I’ve ever been more right in my life.
INTRAVEL: Did you experience any major culture shocks?
Where do I begin? I couldn’t believe how people did not flinch at tossing garbage on the ground. A lot of the garbage was plastic bags, which are used for everything. When you go to a market for your fruits and vegetables, your tomatoes go in one plastic bag, your carrots in another, your mangoes in another, and another for your limes, etc. For such a poor country, I was blown away at the amount of waste with respect to plastics. I should add that Cambodians are amazing recyclers with respect to just about everything else, but plastic bags were totally expendable and consequently covered just about every landscape I saw in both urban and rural environs.