Sunday, May 4, 2014

I love my new job.

I've been a real slacker on this blog, and for that I apologize. In fact, I apologize for my last post complaining about apartment hunting. I'm embarrassed that I sound like an American brat, but it seems to be tradition on this blog to bitch about apartment hunting when I move to a new city.

I ended up finding a great place with a wonderful landlady. She often welcomes me home at the end of the day with a snack and, most recently, a whole bag of mangoes. While she doesn't speak a word of English, her children (who are about my age) speak English fluently and have even studied and/or worked abroad in the US and Japan. One of them studied in Boston on a Fulbright! We sometimes hang out on the ground floor of the building. They are wonderful people.

So, what am I doing in Cambodia? I work for an NGO transitioning into a for-profit enterprise (or are they just starting a for-profit wing? I'm a bit unclear on that). My organization approaches water and sanitation challenges with market-based solutions. Basically, we sell toilets, water filters, and handwashing devices to rural consumers. (People tend not to value--and thus not to use or repair--a product they receive for free.*) Therefore, a lot of our work involves creating demand for water and sanitation products; we are actually among the leaders worldwide in what is called "sanitation marketing."

*I recognize this statement is an oversimplification and not always true but I don't feel like getting into all that right now.

The products we sell were designed in collaboration with a famous design firm in San Francisco, but now my organization wants to build an in-house design team rather than rely on external consultants. I was hired to build and lead this team. I'm in the middle of recruiting Cambodian engineers, and it's really weird to be on the other side of hiring so soon after going through the job hunting process.

I will be working on a number of products. Our flagship product in Cambodia is a simple pour-flush pit latrine, since approximately 80% of rural Cambodians do not have access to toilets and must practice open defecation. We've already sold over 70,000 latrines nationwide. However, the primary obstacle to widespread toilet adoption is the high price of the latrine shelter that is attractive to consumers (cheaper shelters are available but people don't want them and prefer to have no toilet than a toilet with the cheaper shelter). My first challenge is to come up with an affordable latrine shelter that meets the consumers' needs and desires. In the future I will be working on "infant and young child feces management" products (a.k.a. potties), a larger version of our handwashing device for schools, health clinics, refugee camps, etc (our current device is household-size), and a household rainwater harvesting kit.

I love my job. I get both the engineering and the social science, the physics and the field work. I have already been traveling a lot. I've been out in "the provinces" three times (people say "the provinces" when they mean anywhere but Phnom Penh; usually it refers to rural areas) and to Vietnam--and it's been only 5 weeks. I will be working closely with manufacturers, which is the biggest hole in my experience, so hopefully I will learn a ton and gain new useful skills. And my coworkers are lovely. I mean, how could I not love a job where my boss pretends to poop?

This is my boss.

My life is a little boring outside of work, because I don't have any non-work friends yet. To be honest though, I'm really enjoying the alone time right now, burying myself in books about Indochina and watching my favorite TV shows. But I think soon I might go a little stir-crazy, so I should probably start trying to meet people. I learned about a Hindi/Urdu conversation group recently, so I might join to meet other people interested in India (I would be lying if I said I didn't miss India every day) and of course to brush up on my Hindi.

Speaking of languages, I have started Khmer lessons. In some ways the language is difficult--the pronunciation is pretty much impossible for my American tongue--but in other ways it's not so difficult. For example, there appear to be no tenses or verb conjugation. So vocabulary is hard but grammar is easy. My tutor is fantastic and classes are pretty fun.

And now for some photos:

The edge of a market in Kampong Cham province

The infamous fried spiders. Cambodians started to eat spiders and other bugs to fend off starvation during the Khmer Rouge when there was no other food available. I'm not sure why people still eat them. Apparently the legs are the tastiest part.

Adorable family in a village in Kampong Cham province.

Another adorable family in Kampong Cham province.

This guy climbed a tree to pick some coconuts for us to drink.

Volleyball is the most popular sport in Cambodia. This surprised me, since I didn't realize volleyball was popular anywhere.

A typical village home in Cambodia sits on stilts.
A typical poor family's home is made of palm leaves rather than wood.
Rural households typically store their water in giant jugs like these.

In rural Cambodia, iced coffee comes in bags. Lindsay (pictured) and I love Cambodian iced coffee. 

This is where village women give birth--if they come to the clinic at all. It was even more terrifying in person.

Napping in a hammock is a favorite pastime in the hot season.

Children play on a mountain of scraps from the nearby garment factories in Kampong Speu province.

Mai, Lindsay, and me with our host family in a village in Kampong Speu province

In Vietnam we held meetings under the watchful eye of Uncle Ho. (That's Ho Chi Minh, in case that's not clear.)

More posts coming soon. I have so much to catch you up on!


  1. I almost intend to turn off computer to sleep, then i see this post, and i cant help myself but keep reading. Nice post and the photos.

    Last photo's caption:
    HCM: Im watching you all.
    Emily: im watching you watching me
    :D :D


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