Sunday, September 14, 2008

My research and how you can help me continue it

The paper I am writing about my experience in Cambodia now has a working title, "Using Information and Communication Technology to Improve the Quality of Primary School Education in Cambodia: How the Internet can Help Cambodia Train its Teachers, Improve Grade Promotion Rates, and Produce Better Cohorts." It sounds complicated, but the concept is simple: it is a look at how ICT, specifically the Internet, can help Cambodian teachers to improve themselves and therefore make them better teachers, producing better students. And that, my friends, is a one-sentence summary of a 35-page paper!

For those who have never tuned in to this blog, here is some background to get you up to speed. This past June, I worked with primary school teachers at Wat Bo Primary School in Siem Reap, Cambodia, teaching them how to use the Internet and email, among other things.

I would like to return to the Wat Bo Primary School in the summer of 2009 for at least two weeks to do more research and continue where I left off. I need to show the teachers the Interactive English Language Lab software I built (we simply ran out of time before) as well as a host of other things, such as where to find teaching materials on the web. I would also like to provide the school's teachers with a printer, so they can produce output for the children such as worksheets.

I need your help to go again. I saw another person who raised over $4000 for her work in Cambodia through ChipIn, so I decided to give it a try myself. I am trying to raise about $6600, here's my budget. Here is how I am doing:

For more information about me, or my goal to help the teachers of Cambodia improve the quality of the education they provide, or to see the detailed project budget, see the special web pages I set up for it. You can also contact me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

To My Students (Wat Bo’s teachers)

To My Students (Wat Bo’s teachers),
I had a lot of fun in Siem Reap. Your gifts were very kind. The shirt, the scarf, and the Apsara dancer statue were all very nice. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I miss you all very much. Please tell your students, the kids, in the English classes that Mr. Tom says hello and misses them, too!

I appreciate all your email letters. It is a good way for you to practice your English. Keep your messages coming. I like getting messages from friends.

This is me, at my desk in my office, getting back to a 'normal' life.
A few of you have asked about my job. I work at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Virginia (America). For my job, I build web pages on the Internet. I am including two pictures of me at work for you to see. The first one is me at my desk, and the second is me working with Ruth, the Assistant Webmaster. Together, we are a department called Web Services. Ruth deserves a big “thank you.” Without her running the department while I was in Cambodia, I would not have been able to leave my job to teach you about email, and the Internet. This is me talking to Ruth. Ruth deserves a huge thanks for running the department while I was abroad.
My job is at a school, but I do not teach students. I am part of the staff that makes the school run, like the Director and Vice Director at Wat Bo. Also, Tidewater Community College is a college, which is different than Wat Bo School. At Wat Bo School, you teach students in kindergarten through grade 6. Tidewater Community College teaches grades 13 and 14. From Tidewater Community College, students can go on to University, or grades 15 to 20 and beyond.

I told some of you that I am a student studying at University. My University is the College of William and Mary. I am studying for a master’s degree, or grade 18. I will graduate in December of 2009, hopefully!

Dr. Don Rahtz, my professor, handing out bread at the Shinta Mani Village. He wanted to be certain the two oldest ladies in the village were fed.The College of William and Mary, and my teacher Dr. Don Rahtz, are who you should thank for buying the Internet connection for Wat Bo School. The Internet connection at Wat Bo School costs US$ 150 per month you know! It is very expensive, so be sure to thank Dr. Don and the College of William and Mary, too.

Also, you asked about my dog. I told you all how much I missed him. You know my dog is like my son! I posted his picture here so you can see him. His name is Caesar. He is three years old. I had him since he was a little puppy, just 5 months old. His birthday was 30 June. I was with you in Cambodia then, so I missed his birthday this year. It is okay. We celebrated it this weekend.
This is my dog, Caesar
Keep practicing using the computer. If you have questions, see Tong So Chea! He can help you because he is very good at computers. You can also email your questions to me.

Do not forget that I showed you how to chat with me, so in the morning in Cambodia (between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m.) you may see me online in the Yahoo! chat. We can even try to video chat using the web cam I set up for you.

I hope that I can see you again someday. Please take care of yourselves, and stay in touch with me.

Kind Regards,
Tom Feist

A bit about my return and my final blog entry

Sorry it has been a while since my last post. After I left Cambodia, I went for a week-long tour of northern and central Vietnam. That tour was not part of this course, so I will not cover my Vietnamese adventures here.

No sooner had I shaken my jet lag, but I caught a cold. I am sure glad my health held out until I got back! In any event, I am finally coherent enough to collect my thoughts for my last entry.

My final entry will take the form of a letter to my students, or the teachers and staff of Wat Bo who I taught to use the computers. Yes, I am aware the letter is written in very elementary terms: simple sentences, simple concepts, and simple language. I had to remember my audience—they are just learning English, and do not understand how our educational system works. I wanted to write a note they could comprehend.

The lesson traveling teaches: “Why do you…?” versus “Why don’t you…?”

Me and our guide in Kompong Kleang. It is through his brother that Ponheary is able to purchse brand new bicycles for only $40 for the children who graduate and want to go on to secondary school.When traveling, fortunes change on a dime--and, ironically, some of those fortunes-gone-bad end up costing small ones! Traveling encourages you to keep an open mind.

More importantly, traveling opens for you--if you allow it to--a wider perspective on life. With this new perspective, you more often softly ask “Why do you…?” to seek understanding than boldly blurt “Why don’t you…?” to belittle. This wider perspective teaches you to appreciate differences and embrace rather than shun them; to stand back and simply say “huh,” while admiring a different technique rather than to scorn and accuse someone of doing something “the wrong way,” or “not how I would do it.” Finally, the wider perspective encourages you to less often use the extreme descriptors “right” and “wrong,” and more often use a subtler descriptor--“different.”

Me riding on the bow of the boat in Kompong Kleang, so I could get a good view of upcoming shots. The trade-off was it was in the beating sun, but the hat really helped a lot more than I thought it would.
Enjoy a couple of photos of me taking photos, being a tourist, and otherwise absorbing the Cambodian culture.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

“Tank yoo, tea-chea”

Practicing the -sh sound, here with the word fish.
This entry comes a few days late, because I am now touring Vietnam and have a very tight schedule. Nevertheless, it's better late than never.


Today, I took a break from teaching of the teachers. It was time for me to give teaching the students another try. My first short experience was so exhilarating that I was nervous with excitement. I taught four hour-long sections, one each of third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Since the teachers were all familiar with me from having attended my internet classes, it was a smooth experience. They were all comfortable to just take a seat and let me lead the classes.
Without seeing the word, kids had to recognize a color and point to it on the board, and say it out loud so everyone could hear.

I brought candy to reward the students who tried hard. Since many of them are very poor, any type of food is a tremendous motivator. Noting that their texts are complicated and sometimes irrelevant, I created my own lessons—one about colors, and one about special sounds. The colors were aimed at the younger children, and the special sounds aimed at the older ones. The special sounds lesson I built with some basics, and as I noted other letter difficulties, I adapted it for each class.
We played a game where I showed objects and they had to call out the name of the color.

English pronunciation is very difficult for Asian mouths, particularly the “l” sound, as well as “x,” “z,” “sh,” “f,” “th,” “thr,” “b,” any word that ends in “s,” and others. I worked with the older children on these difficult sounds, and they were riveted. I transformed their “feesch” to “fish,” “powpo” to “purpule,” and “bock” to “box.”

Here, we are matching the color to its name on the board. If I look sweaty, that is because I was--it was at least 85 degrees in the classroom.
For the younger children, we worked on colors. First, I showed a flash card with a color on in, and worked with them on the pronunciation. First, we said the color
names as a group, then I called on them individually to come up in front of the class and practice it where I could hear them better. They all sang along in unison and it was evident that they were all trying very hard. Next, we played a color game. I asked them to find objects in the classroom that were the color we were More pronounciation practice. The word blue was esy for them, and there was no shortage of volunteers.saying. They had a hard time understanding what I was asking them to do, until the teacher explained in Khmer. To each child who found an object that was green, yellow, orange, red, black, brown, pink, etc. I gave a piece of candy. They were so excited about the game that we actually went past the bell in my first two classes.
Here, I am working with kids individually, practicing the words. For their effort, they were rewarded with a piece of candy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Kompong Kleang

A family of kids watches us walk by. This happened frequently, as they don't see tourists often here in this remote village.
Today a few of us took an excursion to the floating village of Konpong Kleang. It is Cambodia’s biggest floating village, with a population over 10,000. What an awesome time we had! The people there don’t see a lot of tourists, and they were very curious and very friendly.

So what is a floating village? Houses on the “mainland” are connected to a dirt street, which is nothing more than a big pile of clay soil. Other homes, stores, and even schools, float on the water. You see, the water level of Cambodia’s central lake, the Tonle Sap, rises 30 feet in the rainy season. It is just the beginning of the wet season, so the houses are still dry underneath. In a couple of months (September or October), however, the street would be the only dry land in the entire town.
Kids on a ladder outside a house. The amazing thing is that all around town, kids who can barely walk are climbing ladders!

A somewhat below-average house that is common in many areas of the floating village.
There are a fair number of Vietnamese who live in the village, too
We walked for a couple of miles down the road, stopping to take pictures of the kids (who almost all sout “hello”) and artisans. I took lots of pictures, a small fraction of which I share in this entry.

Within minutes, a man who runs a tour boat found us, and we made our way to his boat and out onto the lake.

A glimpse down the main street of the mainland. The plastic contraption on the right is a cricket trap. Cambodians eat crickets.
A house boat

18 email accounts and an English lesson

Yesterday I continued working at Wat Bo, teaching the teachers how to use the Internet. I had 18 students, the most ever. It was exhausting, but they were so engaged it kept me energized. I cut them loose a half hour early, so they could beat the rush that comes at the day’s final bell—some 2,000 kids running into a street that is completely clogged with motorbikes and cars waiting for the students.

I wandered over to Alice’s English class, where she was trying to help the kids through an awkward English lesson while the teacher fussed with a cassette tape. If only his lessons were on a CD, he would be more effective. If Alice and I were not there to fill the dead air, it would have been a real waste of instructional time. It was not the teacher’s fault things were disorganized; he was doing the best he could using a shared classroom. The workbook the kids all had told us to ask them if they had objects. Simple enough. The objects, however, were not intended for this audience. It wanted us to ask them if they had credit cards, cameras, or mobile phones. We both decided that was pointless, and ditched it in favor of a more fun and interactive lesson.

We looked around the room, and called out objects the kids had. For example, I saw one boy had a hat, so I asked, “Who has a hat?” The boy raised his hand, and stood to say, “I have a hat.” I instructed him, “Show us your hat.” He held it up for everyone to see. “Very good,” I said, giving him a wai which he returned and sat. Alice called out, “Who has a watch?” There were lots of children with watches, so hands flew up. One by one, they waited to be recognized and stand to say they had a watch. We got them all involved, and gave lots of praise and The kids were so engaged and they stayed after the day’s final bell!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Good things come to those who...persist

Waking up at 4 a.m. to catch sunrise for the last seven days straight has paid off. Well, almost seven stright days. My driver overslept once and so did I, so I missed two chances. On day 7, the very last day of my temple pass, I was fortunate to have a fantastic sky behind Angkor Wat. How is that for a nail-biting finale?

On this fateful day, there was a massive thunderstorm brewing to the southeast, which is why the right side of the sky is dark but it dissipated as sunrise progressed. Sadly, although there was lightening in the thunderhead cloud, none of it happened near the front of the storm. If I had arrived about 15 minutes earlier, I would have caught some of the lightning in the cloud behind Angkor Wat, but the park does not open until 5 a.m., so I am not sure it would have been possible to get there in time. Oh, well, it is a neat sunrise shot. I am content with it.

Of temples and waterfalls

I have not blogged in a couple of days. I have been busy right up until bedtime, not to mention exhausted. Hauling 45 pounds of camera gear around the temples is no easy task, and combine it with 100-degree heat and air thick enough to take a bite out of, and that’s a recipe for exhaustion. Tiredness aside, these past two days have been brimming with activity.

School in Cambodia runs six days a week. On Saturday I should have gone to the school, but since my temple pass expires on Monday, Ponheary convinced me it made better sense to wait to return to the school until I had seen all the temples I wanted to see. I think that was good advice.

I called Vanney, the young man I hired to be my driver while in Siem Reap, and had him take me to all the remote temples. I saw Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup. I drank about 3 liters of water. I didn't go to the bathroom once, but I was drained from the sun and drenched from head to toe. We were done by Noon, and while I was waiting for my pictures to transfer from my memory card in my room, I laid down. Big mistake. I woke up at 7 p.m.

A photo of the main falls. I used a neutral density filter to reduce the light so that I could turn the water to silk. I like how the people in the photo--especially those in the distance, close to the falls--give a sense of scale to the photo.
Sunday I took a trip to Phnom Kulen waterfall deep in the Cambodian jungle atop a mountain. For those who had temple passes, we stopped at Banteay Srei temple, which is on the way. I went with a group of students from the U.S. who are staying at Ponheary’s guest house and working as English teacher volunteers at another local elementary school in Siem Reap. They are young, but what a great group!

Me photographing the waterfall. I traversed slippery rocks and endured humid temperatures to get to my spot. It took me about 30 minutes to reach 'the spot.'
Phnom Kulen was a glimpse into Cambodian recreational culture. We were the only Westerners who had a pavilion. Phnom Kulen is a popular Sunday destination for middle-income families, who rent bungalows and have a picnic while the kids swim and play. We had a picnic with Ponheary’s family, and got to explore the waterfalls. I made my way along the slippery rocks to a good vantage point where I was more interested in taking pictures than swimming. I managed to snap a couple of good ones, and Ponheary got one of me.

The first photo of Phnom Kulen (at the top of this post) shows some monks visiting the falls. In Cambodia, every family sends the eldest boy to serve as a monk for three months at some point in his life. Some families send them young, and some wait until the boys are older; that is why you can see monks of all ages. Some monks remain in the monastery permanently, but most enjoy the time and go back to their families. I say enjoy the time, because being a monk has some cool perks for an otherwise poor Cambodian boy. Monks in Cambodia are very highly regarded, and get everything for free. They ride for free, they eat for free, and people give them food and money every morning to take back to the monastery and share. Monks also get to travel to other monasteries, the temples, or, in this case, the waterfalls of Phnom Kulen. I saw a busload of monks unload at Preah Khan. They were swarmed by tourists wanting photos, and a couple of photogs stalked them quietly like paparazzi. Out of respect I did not join my compadres in their pursuit of the monks, instead I let the monks be tourists in their own country. They came to visit the shrines, pay homage to the resident monks (if any), and to gaze in awe at the fruits of their ancestors’ labor. I simply could not resist the shot above, however. I justified it because they actually walked in front of my camera, so I assumed that was them giving me permission.

At the mountain’s summit, a reclining Buddha was carved in the 16th century, and a platform temple was constructed around it. It was a lot of steps, but very worth it!

Here is an interesting picture from the walkway to one of the temples I visited. A massive tree--bigger than any tree I have ever seen in my life--had been cut down. To understand just how gargantuan this stump is, consider that I have hung my hat on the left hand edge of it. Yeah, that tiny speck on the edge of the stump near the center of the photo is my hat!

Wish me luck, as I have one more chance with my 7-day temple pass at a sensational Angkor Wat sunrise. So far, there has been only one spectacular one, and I missed it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Preliminary research findings

Part of our purpose here is to learn about life in Cambodia. Ryan and I are researching quality of life, specifically looking at how foreign direct investment and tourism have changed life over the past few years and what Cambodians expect in the near future. Early last week we spent a day interviewing in a remote village. We have spent the past few days interviewing people in Siem Reap — mostly shopkeepers and hotel receptionists.

A trend we’ve noticed among many of our interviewees has been a reluctance to talk about the future. When we ask where they expect or would like to be in five years, people typically respond with a combination of shyness and embarrassment. Frequently, they seem confounded by the question, as if it had never occurred to them. Few of the people we’ve talked to have plans for themselves or their children. Most parents we’ve talked to have been reluctant to talk about their kids’ future beyond the general goal of sending them to school, including English lessons if they can afford it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Alice, Tom, Professor Rahtz and I recently took a trip to a small remote village about 30km outside of the city, down a long dirt road that was bumpier than anything found at Busche gardens. We went with a Shinta Mani group who wanted to check out the land to determine what types of facilities it could hold. As you will see, the village is in dire need of proper school buildings.

We were greeted with a grand reception of all the village's women and children. These two women are the oldest in the village, 79 and 77 years old. We offered them packages of clothing before entering the school.
The one-room school house was constructed out of old wood and dried banana leaves. There were holes in the walls, and the children were packed inside very tightly.

This is only the morning session, mind you. More children will come to school in the afternoon.

The children were all very well behaved, sitting bewildered, trying to recite the English greetings they had learned only hours before, clapping very mechanically as if they had never done so before.
We passed out candy to the children, each politely saying "thank you" and taking only one piece that we placed in their small, grateful hands.

Professor Rahtz had bought loaves of bread to hand out the the villagers. Some of the smaller ones were so hungry they devoured the bread before we could leave. They were very thankful for our gifts; not often do you find a loaf of bread winning so sincere of a "thanks".

Eventually we said our goodbyes and made the long trip back home. Not to sound cliche, but it was certainly an eye opening experience. Not only did we witness the dynamics of the country Cambodian culture, but we got to see first hand the poverty of the Cambodian people. It is amazing how little can make such a huge impact on the lives of these people. Sometimes just a smile is enough for these people who have seen more fighting and killing in their recent history than loaves of bread.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ready or not, here they come!

In Cambodia, because there are so many children and not enough schools, at most schools, school days are split into two shifts. Students attend either morning or afternoon school. Teachers usually only teach for one shift. At Wat Bo, this is no different.

When the teachers heard I was at the school this morning to hook up the Internet, several could hardly wait to learn. They approached me and immediately began working out a plan for when they could learn and how many could come.

It took a couple of hours to determine what was going on with the computers, the Internet, and what our priorities were. By their nature, Cambodians are very big planners and quickly get so bogged into minutia that nothing ever gets done. A planner myself, I recognize (and appreciate) this trait, but Cambodians really do take planning to the next level! We had to sit around and discuss, through only a rough interpreter, what had been done, what was to be done, and what we needed to do. I am confident that by the time our planning meeting was over, nobody had an earthly clue what was going on--myself included!

Another aspect of Cambodian culture I am getting used to is a siesta-like midday break. From 11-2 it is hard to get anyone to do anything. School breaks from 11-1, and so we left for lunch at 11:30, not very much farther than where we had been to start the day. To my surprise, after lunch there were four teachers waiting in the computer lab. I had said at the planning meeting we would not be ready to train until Monday! The computer was set up in a makeshift place, arranged in such a way that we could test the Internet cable’s function. The teachers did not care. Neither should I, I thought. There will be plenty of time to get this all hooked up.

We spent four hours covering Google, Yahoo!, and YouTube. YouTube is a fantastic resource for learn-to-speak English videos for kids, it turns out. They were riveted. Next, I showed them how to sign up for email at Yahoo! They had no idea, so I showed them first, and then let them do it themselves. In the photo (thanks, Laurie!) I am explaining how to use Yahoo! to search for things. Later, I turned the mouse over and let them explore a bit on their own.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rainy season?

The thunder head I am watching build while I write this entry, and the street scene outside the guesthouse.
The past two days, massive thunderhead clouds have built, but no storms have come. There has been no rain. As I type this entry, I am watching a massive cloud build. I have a feeling our luck may be over with this one! It has not rained in 4 days, which is quite rare this time of year. The lack of rain has allowed us to explore places that we otherwise might not have been able to if it were raining.

You simply can not imagine the condition the rain leaves the roads in. If no government officials live on the road, it never gets fixed, and some stretches are very bad. Not only is a vehicle reduced to a crawl by some drive-down-into-them-deep potholes, the ride is so bumpy that you will lose your lunch if you’re not careful! At some points on the road, it is lined with cement posts. This is because when it rains heavily, the road is under water for days or weeks at a time, and the markers tell people where the road is!
The TARA boat I had all to myself
Last night I had dinner at the floating village’s Tara Boat. It was not bad. I was the only one on a 100+ foot dinner boat. (This is the off season, after all.) Needless to say, we stayed anchored. Oh well, I really went along mostly for the pictures of the floating village anyway, and I did get a few although not all the ones I would have liked. My Tara Boat shuttle driver joined me for dinner, and it turned out she was Thai. We talked Thai and watched the sun set behind a massive thunderhead. Not exactly the kind of sunset I was expecting, but a very unique experience to be sure.

Kind of an unconventional sunset, but magnificent nevertheless
Floating Village: a floating convenience store
Another general shot of the early evening floating village activity.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Temple field trip

On our first full day here, Ryan and I accompanied Ponheary and Lori on a fieldtrip with students from one of the Foundation's schools 150 kilometers away. They attend a tiny school in what is less than a village — this visit was their first time seeing real buildings. The trip was funded by a woman from Texas who was in Cambodia for a few days and accompanied the students. Because they are very poor and rarely have much to eat, especially now that the price of rice has increased by nearly 50 percent, we stopped for breakfast before continuing on to the temples. We spent the day touring Angkor Wat, Wat Bayon and Ta Prohm (better known to Westerners as the Tomb Raider temple). It was an incredible experience for the kids, who had never seen anything like these temples. They also spent some time in town where they experienced the novelties of ice cream and escalators.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Wat Bo exam week

Who would have known this is exam week at Wat Bo Primary School? Oh well, like so many other things when you're traveling, you just roll with the punches... I am going to have to wait until after exams to do any work at Wat Bo. This is fruatrating on one hand, because I am anxious to reveal the language lab, but on the other, there is not much I can do because a vital suitcase got lost. So, even if I could get in to the school, I wouldn't have everything I need. The lost suitcase has been found in Calcutta, India, and is due back by Wednesday. It was one Ryan was transporting, not me, FYI.

Uh-oh, this way

One of the two little girls I taught to say 'uh-oh' and 'this way'.
Back at the farmhouse, I grew impatient waiting for the tractor to take its maiden voyage down the path to the farmhouse. The sun was beating down, and the sky was perfect for pictures in the rice fields. I finally decided to just wander off down the trail. Ponheary said it was only about 1 km down the road. I hadn’t gotten very far when two little girls--two and three years old--ran after me. At first, I thought I was crazy to be walking along with two hyper little girls that could not understand a word I said. It turned out to be a blast—and I learned how much communicating a person can do without talking.

The cutest thing was seeing them like curious kittens, stopping to look at bugs, zigzagging across the path and chasing butterflies. I pointed at one and said “butterfly” and they repeated it a couple of times but it was too difficult a word for their mouths.

After not too long, we came across a huge puddle. “Uh-oh,” I said, to be followed only moments later with a chorus from the girls signing “uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh.” Shortly thereafter, we came across the mother of all puddles. To my surprise, they both said “uh-oh!” It was cute, but there was no way of easily getting over this one. So, we backtracked until we met up with the tractor, and hitched a ride on it.

I also taught them to say “This way,” and I would often change directions and say, “this way.” I made a game of it, and before you knew it, the two of them were calling to each other (and me) “This way.”

“They are my bank”

Dara's son. He is 10 and attends an all-English school
Two girls load gas into bottles. These mini gas stations are meant for people with motorbikes.
The tractor we bought for Ponheary's cousin
I miss my dog!
My "plan" called for me to spend a day at the temples, but I found it hard to resist Ponheary’s alternative offer: a ride into the countryside with her family to an area close to the Thai border, about 118 km away. She promised adventure, good times, and all the rice fields I could handle. I was in love with the proposition. Until the moment, that is, the moment I saw the minivan we were all supposed to fit into.

Dara, himself playing the role of tourist, pauses for a picture beneath the charred remains of a jungle tree that was burnt to make way for a rice field. The full picture is better, but I cropped it to make it easier to see his face.In no time, we were off. Here I was, a lone American mixed among 12 Cambodians, packed in a van, and riding into the countryside. It turned out, though, that Ponheary is a great influence on the family. She speaks English, as do her brother Dara and a family friend who joined us for the trip. Dara’s children attend an all-English school, the Cambodian equivalent of private school in America, to the tune of $50 each per month. To a Cambodian, with an average income around $200 per year, a $150 per month expense is proportionately huge. We talked about it; he is not rich, so how could he afford that? He works as a guide, one of the best-playing professions in Siem Reap. “After I pay their school, there is not much left,” he said, continuing after some thought, “They are my bank.”

Our day’s mission was to purchase a tractor for her cousin (who has a large farm) and to look at a small farm that was for sale near the Thai border. Both farms were in Kampuchea Province, most renowned for being the home of the Khmer Rouge. We passed the home of the deceased Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s leader, along the way. It was difficult to see from the road and we did not stop, although lots of finger-pointing and chit-chat was noticeable inside the van as we passed. To this day, Kampuchea has the highest concentration of former Khmer Rouge soldiers. Ponheary is not concerned, but must have seen the look of concern on mine. She whispered in my ear, “It’s OK, they have forgotten how to kill.” We made a very notable stop, that taught me more about Ponheary and the work her foundation does.

In Cambodia, a thumbprint is commonly used in leiu of a signature.  Here a thumb is painted with lipstick and a man will press it onto the paper, declaring he intends to pay back the money he is being given.Our most notable stop, aside from the farmhouse itself, was a village family's house. Among her may humanitarian efforts, one thing Ponheary Ly does with her foundation is give people no-interest microfinance loans. She will give $200, $300, or $400 to a family to help them get the things they need. There is a catch. She has to know how they will spend the money, and requires the loanee to devise a plan for how the money will be used to increase the family's wealth and not just satisfy the immediate problem. And, they have to promise to repay the original amount of the loan. Ponheary does not charge interest, because her goal is merely to help people off their feet. She used to just give the money away, but found that the people never got any better off, and instead continued relying on her financial gifts. Now, taking a loan from Ponheary has to be part of a bigger plan to get yourself out of the hole you're in. She drafts a handwritten contract that parties sign in Khmer fashion--with their thumbprints.

Notes about the flight

Until this most recent trip, if you asked me the difference in planes, I would have had no clue. Now, the differences in plane types is becoming very apparent to me, and reflecting on my flight I have some mental notes I would like to share.

Note to self: Airbus 330 is better than a Boeing 777 for its legroom in the “steerage” area of economy. The seating in a 2-4-2 format (instead of 3-5-3 on a 777) is also much better for those who like windows, as I do. The 6+ extra inches of legroom were all that kept me sane, and there are not massive black TV circuit boxes that chew into ¾ of your feet space on the underside of the seats in front of you as are there are on the 777.

Note to self: 17 straight hours is an INSANE amount of time to fly. Do not do that again: make at least one more stop along the way. Had I been on any other plane than the one I lucked out to get, there would have been no way! First, you have to understand that I fly what I call “steerage” economy, so I usually get packed in the back of the plane like a sardine. Unpleasant, yes, but I am a miser like that, so it suits me fine. I would have needed an asylum, though, had I booked a 17 hour flight on a plane like the 777 I flew when I came over for the Southeast Asian Practicum last winter. My luck aside getting a roomier (yet physically smaller) Airbus 330, the non-stop flight from John F. Kennedy in New York to Bangkok, Thailand was excruciating pain in the legs, restless leg syndrome to the extreme, and butt-falling-asleep kind of discomfort. You know, the kind where you’re shifting positions every 30 seconds.

Waiting for my flight at JFK

An adventure a-waits, and it’s a good thing, because all I do is-wait. Wait to check in, wait to x-ray bags, wait at the terminal.

I ran into a group from Trinity College who were traveling to Bangkok, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh for three weeks as part of a history and photography course. They were in the same boat I had been in—Thai Airways canceled our return flight. Unlike them, however, thanks to Jeff at Legends of Siam Tour Company, I had a confirmed return flight in my pocket, and none of them knew how they were getting home. Could you imagine the stress of getting onto a plane knowing that your return flight no longer exists?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A big “thanks” to some special people

I would like to thank my Facebook friends for their support and kind words. Also, I would like to give a special thanks to Visualzen, Inc. of Norfolk, Virginia for its $500 contribution to our cause in Cambodia. David Morales (CEO of Visualzen) and I first met when I was a student at ODU studying for my bachelor’s degree in information systems. He has taken a passion and aptitude for designing customized Internet software solutions for government and education and built a fantastic little enterprise. I have worked with Visualzen on a number of projects in different professional capacities, and although sometimes I feel its growing pains, Visualzen is always a pleasure to work with. Thanks again, Visualzen!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

About the Interactive English Learning Lab

This trip is part of a self-study course I am writing for my MBA, called “Integrating Technology into a Developing Economy’s Educational Curriculum.” One of my major objectives is to leave the school with some resources for teaching the kids to speak English. Understanding English is an important skill to have, as it often leads to some of the best-paying jobs in the country—tourism. The city of Siem Reap is the home of the famous Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, and about a million people come to see them annually. To get a job in one of the luxury hotels that are popping up all over the place, the kids need computer experience and knowledge of English. I want to Establish an Interactive English Learning Lab there in Wat Bo, which offers basic conversational English learning with computer-based software I am writing, complete with audio instruction and commentary in Khmer.

To get jobs in the tourism industry, kids need two skills: computer proficiency, and basic conversational English. The interactive English Learning Lab accomplishes both of those missions. Here is a screen capture of the Interactive English Learning Lab:

Interactive English Learning Lab
All the words, as well as the individual letters, are clickable, and take advantage of the fact that .wav audio files will play directly inside Internet Explorer without any plug-in, visible controls, or delay. So, when someone clicks on a word or a letter, the sound plays instantly, creating an interactive, self-paced learning tool. The sounds are preloaded and embedded in the page, which makes the pages load slowly. There has to be a better way: if any fellow techie out there knows of a better way to play audio interactively on a website, please let me know. Maybe version 2.0 can correct the slow load time...

I realize, as you may, too, that the view you are seeing above is not going to be much help to someone who cannot speak English. I will have a Khmer speaking person translate the directions and those will be provided as audio files as well. The “def” feature you see next to some of the words will be expanded so it appears after every word, and when clicked it will play an audio file that provides a Khmer translation for the English word. I dabbled with printing the words in Khmer script, but that was scrapped when I realized that to turn on Khmer is to turn off Roman letters; the two don’t mix on a computer. (A lesson I learned in a most heart-dropping manner when I attempted to install a Khmer font on my system and all of the sudden I had boxes all over the place instead of English characters! Good thing I am so familiar with Windows dialog boxes and icons because if I wasn’t I would have had to re-format my computer.) So, unless everything is Khmer, it turns into a big mess.

The Interactive English Learning Lab is a web browser-based software, but it runs without Internet connectivity. Ideally, I would have liked it to be a website, but I didn’t want to miss my delivery if the school did not get the DSL connection in time. Furthermore, even if Wat Bo gets the Internet we may not give it to the kids right away, at least not until we can devise a plan to keep them safe from predators. Future editions may run online, but this first edition runs on the computers in the lab at Wat Bo.