I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

20 April 2009 ~ 0 Comments

A Trip to Cambodia: From the U.A.E. to Chanleas Dai

Last week we had a group of students travel to Cambodia with us from the U.A.E. They are all students at a top women’s university which has branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. As we prepared for their arrival, many gave us advice to prepare easier work for the girls, less exposed transportation, and be prepared that the girls might be overwhelmed by the bugs/heat/work/poverty. We approached the week with trepidation wondering how the students would fare when they arrived.

Off the plane they came, nearly all covered in their shailas with little but their faces and hands exposed. The visible faces were adorned with bright make up and their clothes sparkled as they each waited to purchase their Cambodian sim-cards at the airport mobile phone counter. I was overwhelmed with how beautiful these women were, how different their lives must be at home, and how in the world we were going to facilitate a week-long learning and building project with them in a very rural part of Cambodia.

As I got final waivers signed and we determined which girls were allowing us to photograph them and which weren’t, I was repeating in my head over and over Please let this week be successful… Please… with a few Inshallahs thrown in for good measure.

Rather than turn left on the main road out of the airport, towards the Disneyland-esque town of Siem Reap where new hotel monstrosities line the roads and poverty is hidden from view, we turned right and took the girls straight to Kralanh to a house we had rented a section of for their 5 day stay. Our orientation discussion that first evening was interrupted by very strong winds blowing dirt and dust into our outdoor eating and meeting area. I kept pausing and asking the girls if they wanted to continue inside (probably because I myself was getting nervous that we might get blown away), but they were smiling and loving the impending rain and had no intention of moving in. These are tough girls, I thought for the first of many times that week.

Our first evening, the generator broke just as everyone was going to bed, so there was no electricity and no fans. Girls were squealing and running out of their rooms afraid of the gekkos they could no longer see or the bugs which were attracted to their flashlights. Others were unable to sleep because of the heat. “Yes, it’s hot in Dubai,” some said, “but we have air-conditioning EVERYWHERE.” Hmmm…… I see, I thought. Perhaps it will be a long week ahead…

Two more hours. Power still out. The girls who are awake start chatting. “I didn’t think I was going to make friends here…… I rarely speak to anyone at university and here we all are in this foreign place and I’m making friends at school. I wouldn’t have thought…” “You’re such a sweet girl. You should be more brave and speak to people. Who wouldn’t want to be your friend?” Shy smiles and blushes shadowed by the dark as friendships blossom over shared worried. Some girls pulled their mattresses outside to sleep on the porch as their rooms were too hot. “This is the first time I have ever been on a plane,” one said. “This is the first time I have ever been away from my family in my whole life,” many chimed in. “And now I’m sleeping outside for the first time. Many firsts.”

The firsts continued the next day. “This is the first time I have ever held a shovel.” “The first time I have painted.” “The first time I have realized how hard it is for the workers who build all day in our country. They work 12 hours a day in the heat. This is very hard work.”

The second evening seemed like luxury – power on, fans running, everyone smiling at the small stroke of luck a fixed generator brought them. We should make sure the generator goes out on the first night on every trip, I realized. No one was complaining about the lack of airconditioning which they might otherwise have noted when fans seemed like a luxury.

The previous night had been too packed to fit a long discussion in so the second night we all talked about our fears and then the girls clued us in on what their commitments would be for the week to reach the goals they set for themselves. “Learn some of the language.” “Make new friends.” “Prove that I can work hard.” “Learn about myself.” To get there, they committed to journaling, sharing and asking questions in discussions, forgiving anyone who didn’t remember their names, learning a new word every day, sitting next to someone new at dinner each night, and much more. Smiles all around.

Magic. It was like magic how fast the group jelled. We do an activity called “roses and thorns” on many of our trips, sharing the highlights and challenges of our day in a group forum before or after dinner. It typically takes a group a few days to get into the idea of sharing their day’s successes and worries, but this group started off sharing and working together as a group of friends from the start. “I liked how we didn’t have to restrict our roses and thorns to our work, it could be about anything we were feeling,” one girl wrote in her reflection form at the end of the trip.

They talked about their fears of going home, what it is like to be a girl growing up in the U.A.E., degrees they had wanted to pursue in other countries but as women had been unable to travel to do so without someone to protect them. They talked about “independence” and what that meant to them and how proud they were of themselves for doing this on their own – surviving the bugs – digging all day and still smiling. They projected what it would be like to return home and what things would change in their lives. “I want to have my family do roses and thorns each night at dinner,” one said.

They learned the names of all of the kids who joined us in the construction project at Preah Lean Primary School as the kids were off for the Khmer New Year holiday. Some borrowed student’s bikes and rode for a quick second for the first time in their lives (shhh!). They all engaged the community and our Khmer staff in meaningful conversations – wanting to know what it was like to grow up here, about the Khmer Rouge, about Cambodia’s education system. They read the articles they were presented with at night and challenged us during the day with questions about begging, poverty, and development. The worked so hard in the heat of Cambodia’s hottest month, showing April that they couldn’t even be stopped by the sun. There I was, sweating away in my t-shirt and capri pants as they dug a new road to the school covered from head to toe.

And they cried. Oh boy did they cry when they left. And so did we. On many trips I have led, I am sad to see the guests go, but my fingers are itching to get back to “work”, to the hundreds of work emails piling up, or to get some solid sleep in my own bed. But this time it was different. When the girls left, we all stood outside the airport for a bit, feeling glum, hoping they would come back announcing their flight had been canceled. They learned so much and taught us to much in 5 days, what if we could have kept them for 1 more week!

The past week of emails, reflections on their trip “I learned more about myself in the last week than I have in the last 20 years,” and their insight about Cambodia have set a bar for us which will be very hard to reach. For me, it has reminded me how lucky I am to have this job. On more than one occasion during the week I dropped a text message to someone back in the office who was inquiring about the trip saying “I have the best job in the world.” And I do. It has reminded me that PEPY’s impact on our tours is of course felt in the work done during any service portion of the trip and the funds raised by the travelers, but even more so in the lives changed and inspired along the way, including our own.

It has also reminded me how much I love teaching and how PEPY’s trips are most catalytic when operated as facilitated learning trips. We are going to look into more school groups (JHS, HS, university) so if you know of any groups looking to come out to Cambodia, let us know :-)

I’m so glad to have met these fabulous women, and to know that I now get to follow along on their paths in life to see where they end up. How will this trip affect them? And how with their influence in Chanleas Dai and on our team affect us? It has already done a great job of reminding me to not judge a book by its cover and to be open to the friendships and opportunities presented to you life. I’m so glad these girls choose to join us, many having worked very hard to convince their families to allow them to do so. I think there are more friendships and smiles in the world because of it.

I keep thinking, as some bright young ladies reminded us last week during their goodbye and thank you speech to the community on their final day in Chanleas Dai, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I’m smiling ladies! Thank you for a fabulous week!

27 March 2009 ~ 0 Comments

My thoughts on Non-Profit’s salaries and excess


Some comments I wrote on the topic here.

21 March 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Thoughts on voluntourism and “fair trade”

I added some thoughts to the comments on this article:


There is a film by Daniela Kon called “Changing the World on Vacation” which explores these issues. The website is http://www.deedaproductions.com where you can view the 16 minute selects reel.

The film highlights the organization I run, called PEPY, and many of the mistakes and lessons we learned during our first year of running volunteer trips in Cambodia. Watching the film now, I see so many things that we have changed in how we operate trips to make them more learning experiences and more targeted towards supporting the communities and programs they are meant to be aiding rather than just catering to the volunteers themselves.

There is so much to consider with voluntourism – decades of development best practices, responsible tourism, educational facilitation, etc. Getting it right takes not only some trial and error, but also a commitment to monitoring and evaluating the impact of your trips knowing that you will indeed find that you have done things wrong…. which is a hard thing to accept when it comes to helping people and doing good. You want to get it right. So when you know that you wont and you know that in some cases you are harming the programs you are aiming to help, it is often times frustrating enough for people to either close their eyes to it and not accept it or walk away frustrated that doing it right takes a lot more effort than they thought.

I think both voluntourism and development work in general can be forces for good when so often they are not, but it takes time, self-criticism, and a discerning donor/client base. I think PEPY still has a long way to go in this regard, but I hope we are working towards doing it right. We are also looking to partner with other voluntourism operators to solidify our Voluntourism Effective Practices (VEP) self-checking tool to keep us aware of the positive and negative impact factors in our programs.

If there are voluntourism operators out there looking to be involved, we would love to work with you :-) info@pepyride.org

PS – Brian, I very much agree with your “Fair Trade” point. Yours is also how I define fair trade – looking more at the issues of dumping etc which cause economic imbalances and inequities which make it impossible for those whose governments are not subsidizing agriculture to compete. We need a new word for this area of discussion around fair trade as all too often, once those words are thrown out, people think of fair trade products and coffee. Those who oppose that arena of “fair trade” believe in the same economic principals which I do – that you shouldn’t be subsidizing something with the hopes of it becoming “sustainable” – as it won’t be. If those same people were made to understand that the same logic applies in reverse to what we are doing with agriculture being shipped abroad, they might still be staunchly opposed to “fair trade” products which are made competitive via subsidizes and be able to get behind fighting for fair TRADING practices among nations.

03 March 2009 ~ 1 Comment

“Changing the World on Vacation” – a film highlighting PEPY’s mistakes and lessons learned

It is sometimes uncomfortable to talk openly about the mistakes you have made, and definitely embarrassing when they are shown on a big screen for everyone to see, but that is exactly what we are doing at PEPY with “Changing the World on Vacation.” This documentary, by filmmaker Daniela Kon of Deeda Productions (http://deedaproductions.com/), reflects on the “politics of compassion” and the impact of volunteers and volunteering.

The film focuses on footage taken from the first year of PEPY Tours on trips in December 2005, March 2006, and December 2006. Now, over two years since the last clips of the documentary were shot, we look back on so many of the decisions we made and actions we took…. and it makes us cringe.

“What were we thinking?” is a phrase heard among our staff over and over while watching this film. What were we thinking, not having a strict clothing policy for rural Cambodia? What were we thinking designing our trips based around traveler ideas for education, not education coming from the local populations to the visiting guests? What were you thinking when you said “Cambodia has a limitless supply of fish”, Daniela? Ummmm…. I’m not so sure.

What I do know is that watching the film makes me realize how far we have come and how much we have learned, it highlights areas where we can still improve, and overall it is a vivid example of many things NOT to do in volunteer tourism. Our hope, by being part of this project, is that this film will prevent others from making the same mistakes we did and will act as a conversation starter around this important topic: “How can you best support positive change while you are in a foreign culture?”

For those who have watched the film, and even for those who haven’t but are interested in the topics of traveler’s philanthropy, voluntourism, and NGO work, we’d love to elaborate more on the lessons we have learned as they relate to the Daniela Kon’s documentary.

1) Poverty voyeurism is bad and can add to the problem. Johnny was right. We agree very much that Steung Menchey (Phnom Penh’s largest garbage dump) is not a place travel groups should visit, no matter if they are going with a NGO or not. We had brought our first year of PEPY participants to Steung Menchey with an NGO partner we were working with at the time and, as I state in the film, we thought the visits were justified at the time. The last trip we did to Steung Menchey was that trip shown, December 2006, as we realized that, no matter how “well” we thought we were doing the visits, how much money we were funding into groups working with children from the dump, nor how much learning it provides to the travelers, we would still be adding to a type of tourism we do not believe in. Tour buses now visiting Steung Menchey stop at the top of the site, allow people to get out and take pictures and then head off to lunch. People traveling with an average operator which is not funding development projects in Cambodia often feel overwhelmed at Steung Menchey and want to “help”. With no education on how best to do that, some hand out food (resulting the chaos like in the documentary) or money.

Consider that life on the dump means an average of ½ dollar in revenue for a family. Consider that many of the people working on the dump are children who have either been sent to the dump by their families to make money or, in many case, “bought” by someone, sometimes with honest explanation and sometimes under another guise, to work in the dump. If this is the case, and tourists start handing out dollars, double the expected daily income, it all of a sudden becomes that much more profitable to move and work on the dump. This makes the problem the giver set out to counter all that much stronger and further incentivizes parents to send their children to work in this dangerous and scary place.

Throughout the coming weeks we will be following up with other responses to the film. Starting tomorrow, click on the “Critical Views” tab on the PEPY Team Journal to see all of the posts. Stay tuned and please give us your thoughts.

21 February 2009 ~ 2 Comments

Assessing Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) and Traveler Philanthropy

I recently read a blog, one of many, which was striving to analyze how positive “voluntourism” can be. The questions tend to revolve around one core question, “If volunteers are unskilled or getting involved in unnecessary or low priority work, and they themselves are getting a lot out of the experience, are they really doing good?”

As I was thinking about this and trying to put my ideas into words, an image popped into my head: a spectrum of “positive impact” that ranges from 100% financial contribution to 100% volunteer contribution. This implies that if your volunteer time is:

a) necessary and high priority for the organization or community,
b) introducing locally unavailable skilled labor or
c) providing volunteer services that would otherwise be costly to the organization,

then financial support in addition may not be necessary. However, if none of the above applies, then there should be a donation requirement offsetting the costs of hosting volunteers. In either case, financial contributions help sustain ongoing project needs, thereby making the volunteer trip valuable beyond the activities taking place during short-term volunteer projects.

Does that make sense? If it doesn’t, perhaps this chart will illustrate the point. Based on my experiences, if volunteer tour operators or traveler philanthropy projects fall on or above the dotted line, they will positively impact their partner projects through the introduction of skilled and necessary labor on one end of the spectrum, significant funding on the other end of the spectrum, or a combination falling somewhere between the two.


At PEPY, participants volunteer time to a short-term project with the understanding that the most significant part of their contribution is the funds they provide to sustain ongoing projects. Additionally, they receive on-site education which, ideally, translates into future involvement. We believe that everyone, even “unskilled laborers”, has the ability to contribute. Even if volunteers lack knowledge about the issue or program, they can contribute by learning more and promoting awareness to others, and by providing financial support.

For me, the essentials for successful volunteer tourism are honest marketing (ie: being open about what portion of participant fees are going to the projects they visit and the relationships involved), setting clear expectations both for the communities/programs visited and the travelers, and an understanding of the diagram above. If volunteers are not contributing resources otherwise unavailable (i.e. high-skilled labor), then funding is needed to maintain an overall positive impact. Those organizations operating in the red area have a tendency to focus more on the needs/wants of the travelers, often conveying a false sense that their impact is extremely positive and necessary, without following through on the commitment to make that statement true.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think about this chart and these ideas? Please comment below.

* If you are a voluntourism operator and would like to contribute to the creation of a self-check tool on Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices, please contact voluntourism@pepyride.org. We’d love your input to help make all of us better volunteer tour operators and participants!

20 February 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Random tidbits about me, miscellaneously categorized info, and an unabashed plea

1) I now live in a Disney-esque tourist town: After three years in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s chaotic, growing, seedy, dirty, real, thriving, alive, dichotomous, crowded, NGO-filled capital I now live in Siem Reap, the country’s largest tourist town due to it’s proximity to the most famous temple in the region, Angkor Wat. It’s a small town. For variety at night, we can go to tourist restaurant A, B, or C and then rotate through them again in a different order the next weekend. Towns that are built around an average 2.3 day stay don’t need to provide too much variety it seems. We now know nearly every English-speaking expat living in the town compared with a much larger group in Phnom Penh so the rumor mill is now about the size of a cashew nut vs the size of a small mango. With PEPY currently hosting 10 foreign volunteer interns we contribute significantly to the expat population and social scene. In Phnom Penh I used to get “PEPY? Never heard of that, what do you DO?” with a raised eyebrow where as now I get “PEPY? Oh, I met Jam at the ‘Monk Talk’ event at Singing Tree, Karina at the bi-weekly educational meetings, I was dancing up a storm with Shannon one night at ‘Angkor What?’ and Lucky and Josh live just around the corner from me. You work with them?”

Overall, the move to Siem Reap has been a fantastic decision. a) we can get OUT of the city. In PP you are surrounded by an ever-growing expanse of suburbia which makes it difficult to get out into the country side by bicycle without inhaling an hour of exhaust fumes on your way. In Siem Reap, we can hop on our bikes and be in a rural area, or better yet the back entrances to the Angkor Temples, within 10 minutes. Fabulous. b) The main reason we moved: we are closer to Chanleas Dai, PEPY’s main target area. In the past, PEPY’s projects were spread around the country, but for the past 1.5 years we have begun focusing more and more on Chanleas Dai to the point where it makes little sense for us to be anywhere but near there! Now our Khmer teachers working in Chanleas Dai can come stay with us on the weekends when they come into town for their university classes and we can head to the school for even just a few hours if we need to. Fabulous again :-)

2) I might want to be a kite surfer if I grow up:
I went kite surfing for the first time a few years ago with Backroads’ friends in Hood River, Oregon, and last year I got to go twice: with PEPY friends, Michael and Peppi, in Vietnam and ATTA friends in Brazil after the Adventure Travel World Summit. ‘Tis the most fabulous sport in the world. You are at the mercy of both the wind and the water yet at times you feel in control of both (for me, still very much a beginner, I am well aware that I control neither and I’m glad when the elements treat me kindly!). If you have water skied or wake boarded it is similar, but it’s like you get to control the boat. I LOVE IT though, like all of my passions outside of PEPY these past few years, it is on the “to-do some day when I have time” list…. some day! Lucky for me, Peppi is starting up a kite surfing school in Mexico (shhhh… it’s a secret ;-)) so I have my next kite surfing destination all picked out for me.

3) Silk-making must have come from aliens. How could the human brain have been able to come up with unwinding a silkworm’s cocoon and then rewinding many together and then setting up an INSANELY complex loom and then making CLOTHING out of it. Have you seen silk being made from the silk worm stages? If not, come out here to Cambodia or buy an educational DVD, it’s amazing. I go to the temples of Angkor often enough and I see the monoliths around our city ranging from the 8th-13th centuries. I see stones laid upon each other, without mortar, which stack over 50m high which are made from stone which had to be hand cut from distant hills and then floated down human-dug rivers then pulled up dirt ramps by elephants and then intricately carved……. all while being fed from rice which was irrigated by more complex irrigation systems than available here now involving 8km long human-dug reservoirs. THOSE are near-impossible human feats, but in a way I can understand them. A king saw a building and said, “I want to make that building bigger, better, more beautiful, with more gold plating and more inlaid jewels and more this and more that – now all you, my people, spend the next 40 years making that happen!” It’s nuts, but I kind of get that. If you have a vision plus the power, money, and human labor force to make it happen, I guess nearly anything is possible (take Kim Jong Il and the North Korean synchronized dancing/stadium cheers. Should be impossible to get so many people to wear the same colors let alone do all those synchronized moves!). But SILK WEAVING?! Who was the first person who saw a silkworm’s cocoon and said “Hey! I’ve got a totally new idea which I think will be a great way to clothe the world. We take that there cocoon, boil it (so as to kill the worm before he eats his way out thereby cutting the single silk strand hence making weaving impossible), DE-THREAD the thing, wind it all together, and make shiny shirts.” Every time I see the process I find it so much more insane than building temples. Who was that enterprising risk-taker who must have first tried to take apart a whole bunch of other things to make clothing before creating the silk worm’s success story. I wonder what he tried to use first? “Let’s tie spider webs together! Nope, still look pretty naked, everyone’s gonna make fun of me at Adam and Eve’s wedding if I show up in these cobwebs! Tree bark? Much more chaffing than I would like.” Aliens, I tell you. Two thumbs up to the aliens though because I sure love clothing that feels like you are wearing air, and nothing is better for that than silk.

4) The economy is hitting us hard.
People have asked how the economy is effecting PEPY and our work here and we are just beginning to realize the effects I think. Tour sales are down to nearly nothing and our fundraising has dwindled to the point where we are not sure if we are going to be able to operate all of our programs through 2009. We had had funding committed to build the first Junior High School in the area where we work in Cambodia which was pulled at the last minute due to changes in the government agencies funding plans. That left us with a community school building committee waiting on a school which was promised to them and our recognition that we would loose the community’s trust if we pulled out of the project at that stage as the contractors had already been picked. Plus, the junior high school kids are being taught in a temporary structure which will not last through the next rainy season. We thought we would be able to raise the $68,000 to build the school in a few months as we hoped that all of the past PEPY travelers who have visited Chanleas Dai would be able to contribute to bringing a junior high school to the area plus we hoped we could get some larger donors to cover the bulk…. but that has not panned out yet. We have raised under $20,000 so far. If we are not able to reach the full $68,000 we will need to drastically cut back the rest of our education programs this year, so we hope that doesn’t happen. We are asking that anyone who is connected to PEPY who has even a few hours of time put on their fundraising hats and see if they can help. $10 each from a group of friends can get this school built…. heck, that was how we raised all of the funds for Chanleas Dai’s primary school in small chunks from thousands of individuals. Any help you can give would be amazing! www.firstgiving.com/pepybuildsjhs

So that’s me, my weird stories, and a little call for help.

Remember, next time you wear silk, tip your glass to the aliens who whispered in some Chinese person’s ear and told them the secret of the silk worms because humans can build temples and create frighteningly synchronized patriotic dances, but only aliens could have made silk.

10 February 2009 ~ 0 Comments

A scary dream

I had a dream last night that roles were reversed, that something bad happened to me and I was very poor, and I was waiting in line for handouts. I was dependent on others to give me food. I saw inefficiencies and problems, but I had to be quiet and wait my turn in case the people giving things away might change their mind and decide to support someone else besides me. People were yelling, there was chaos, but all I could do was wait, because I was no longer in control of my own life.

If we all lived entirely dependent on the wills, whims, or sometimes generosity of others for a brief period, what things would we do differently when we woke up in our real lives?