- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

KAMPONG CHAM, Cambodia — Munching on their first hamburgers in weeks, the Americans traded tales of eating deep-fried tarantulas and adapting to a society where people live on less than 50 cents a day.

These were some of the rural realities that greeted 29 Peace Corps volunteers who left behind the comforts of home to teach English for two years in the Cambodian countryside.

It is the 46-year-old Peace Corps’ first program in the poor Southeast Asian country, which was bombed by American B-52s during the Vietnam War, ravaged by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and further weakened by a civil war in the 1980s.

Political instability and security concerns kept the organization out of Cambodia until now, but both sides felt it was “the perfect time” to introduce the Peace Corps to the country as it strives to develop and expand its economy, said Van Nelson, the group’s country director. The group’s arrival makes Cambodia the 139th country where the service organization has worked.

The 13 men and 16 women, from New York, Wisconsin, Iowa and elsewhere, fanned out recently to villages in seven rural provinces after two months of training that introduced them to life in Cambodia, where the average civil servant earns about $25 a month.

About a third of Cambodia’s 14 million people live below the national poverty line of 50 cents a day.

During an eight-week orientation period, each volunteer was lodged with a Cambodian family in Kampong Cham province, 50 miles east of the capital, Phnom Penh, where they eased into their new culture and downsized lifestyle.

Luxury-free life

Used to driving cars on American freeways, they became accustomed to maneuvering bicycles along bumpy country roads, where traffic rules don’t apply.

They lived in shacklike wooden homes on stilts overlooking dry and empty rice fields and slept under mosquito nets to keep away the malaria-carrying mosquitoes that are a major killer in this country. They hand-pumped well water into buckets and boiled it for drinking, and many said that for the first time in their lives they showered three times a day — the only way to cool off from 100-degree heat in the absence of air conditioning.

They did have some luxuries, like dim lights at night powered by car batteries — a rarity in rural areas.

“We have different routines now. We go to bed earlier and get up earlier. We wake up when the dogs wake up,” said Sam Snyder, 24, of Buffalo, N.Y. He came with his wife, Kara, 22, who said the couple wanted “to experience life outside the box.”

Dogs aren’t the only other early risers. Colin Doyle, 23, from Baltimore, said he is awakened regularly by roosters.

“They crow at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m. Very annoying,” he said at his temporary home in Kampong Cham before the group was posted across the country.

Over the course of two years, the volunteers are expected to teach English to about 60,000 Cambodians as part of efforts to increase job opportunities, particularly in the booming tourism industry, organizers said.

Tourism is one of the Cambodia’s biggest moneymakers, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, mainly from the crowds of visitors who flock to the famed Angkor temples at Siem Reap. The government also is developing some white-sand coastal areas in hopes of building Cambodia’s image as a beach destination.

Corps’ changing face

Peace Corps officials said they plan to increase the number of volunteers in Cambodia each year. The initial group ranged from young adults just out of college to a married couple in their 40s.

While the Peace Corps’ image remains that of a youth service, the organization has been attracting more Americans like Mark Stilwell, 46, a former computer network administrator in Denver. He and his wife, Kristine, 41, a high school teacher, joined the organization because they wanted to travel but “in a way that is more than just tourism,” he said.

Mr. Nelson, the Peace Corps county director, said the agency has been attracting older volunteers for years and has found they bring special skills such as patience and “a different way of looking at the world than young volunteers.”

“We find people coming to Peace Corps when they retire. They just realize that they’re not getting any younger and that they should get out and see the world and expand their horizons,” he said.

Young and middle-aged, the volunteers were equally bemused to learn how Cambodians regard Americans. They shared impressions at a cultural training class, where a Cambodian instructor informed the group that Americans generally are viewed as selfish, materialistic, rich and casual about romantic relationships.

One Cambodian said his countrymen think American women are promiscuous — a common perception in Southeast Asia, where such opinions are shaped by Hollywood movies and the skin-baring fashions of visiting American women.

“Uh-uh, think again,” said Molli Barker, 21, of Bettendorf, Iowa, provoking laughter from her colleagues.

Women were advised during the class not to wear tight clothing or skimpy tank tops, which Cambodians consider inappropriate, and instead to wear shirts that cover their shoulders and ankle-length skirts or pants.

One common perception is that “Americans are all white,” Mr. Stilwell said. “That was really a surprise.”

On the flip side, the group said it perceived Cambodians as skinny, short, overdressed, poor and selfless.

Many said the brief orientation made them realize all they took for granted in the United States, like washing machines and dryers. Doing the laundry involves squatting outside over a bucket of water and scrubbing each item with bare hands.

Eating offered new and sometimes stomach-turning dishes, said Chris Rates, 25, from Oshkosh, Wis., who suffered diarrhea after sampling fried tarantulas.

He confessed to being “freaked out a bit” when he bumped into two of the creature’s living, breathing cousins in the toilet at his host family’s home.

“I’m used to living with them now,” he said, as he devoured his first hamburger in weeks.

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