The Perfect Day
Just one epic of a post to depict a day in the field:
Only after experiencing the lows can you fully appreciate the highs. While everyday in the field is an incredible experience, some days are absolutely exhausting- mentally. The 8 hours in 90 degree sun dressed like I’m observing purdah is fine… off-roading on a moto… dodging trees and making u-turns in 6 “lanes” of traffic… breathing like I’m on a ventilator through my helmet when sand storms of dirt cover the air… all fine- I actually enjoy these experiences. But some client interviews can be like pulling teeth… with my hands tied. When a loan officer accompanying me is rusty on the English, getting one solid answer can take a good 15 minutes. (It will come only after I’ve rephrased 12 times, used vivid hand gestures, given two to three examples, written out the words on paper, and asked 15 round-about questions that eventually lead to the golden concept. The Khmers are a special breed too: they always appear to know what you’re asking – e.g. the tuk-tuk driver that swears he knows your street, but takes you down one-way roads for a solid 20 minutes. For this reason, I often sit through 5 minute explanations translated from totally unrelated questions… and practice as much self-control as possible to appear engaged and interested, while trying to keep my train of thought and simultaneously search for ways to reword my original question.) Patience is an **invaluable** virtue in Cambodia and I recognize its value regardless of how frustrated I get. After all, any translation at all is a thousand times better than the data I’d have otherwise, and it’s my own dumb fault that I’m interviewing Khmers without knowing Khmer. I’m indebted to any loan officer that has the patience to sort through it all with me, and I have no doubt it’s equally- if not more- exhausting for them. To make matters more complicated, for both the loan officer and me, some clients will share their life stories, while others prefer yes/no answers, or vague and indeterminate ones that leave you right back where you started.
The first few weeks were a challenge. Some told me business was great (the price for their goods had shot up so they were making more money) but when I pushed further, they’d say the contrary (their costs had also increased so they were struggling to turn a profit or break even). I’ve finally figured out the best questions to get the best answers, and with the help of a few colleagues, got a survey form in Khmer.
Today– the form wasn’t even necessary. My loan officer, Lux was incredible, and the work was so effortless. The answers were golden: partially because of his translation, partially because the entrepreneurs we met were full of success stories. One had figured out a brilliant market opportunity for selling $100 dresses in rural Cambodian villages:
Another had made a business investment to double production and now makes 40% more per month- even after loan repayments:
On top of this- the people were PHENOMENAL. While all Cambodians thus far have been a joy to meet and hospitable and doting beyond belief—the clients today, and even the random villagers we met along the way, were icing on the cake. We went an hour out of Phnom Penh long national road 6A to visit villages of Khmer Muslim communities. Around 95% of Khmers are Buddhist, so these communities are rarities—and complete gems!
When we arrived at the first house, our client was just getting back from a shower, so she asked us to meet her around the back of the house, in the common area between all the homes. Lux and I found a congregation of 6 already there, and joined them on the slated wood platform in the shade. Immediately, more and more villagers and children flocked around to watch and listen to our conversation. Lux explained two of them were Kiva clients as well, and when I replied “Ohhhhhh!” and quickly found out, in their language, I was saying “Nooooooo!” Despite this, they were still excited to have me, and as I spoke, the kids got a kick out of repeating “Ok,” “Ok,” and every English word they recognized. Then I looked to my side and saw a group of dozen women and children huddled over pots. When I asked what they were doing, I was told preparing for a wedding- the cooking alone takes 2 days. They saw I took interest, and within 10 seconds, had a bowl of the sweet cake and mint tea ran over.
The interview started when the client appeared, with each pause between questions there was a new comment from the crowd for Lux to translate:
“He wants to learn English so he can talk to you.”
“He’s staying to stare at your face. He wants his daughter and son to have the same. ‘Sa-at na,’ he says.” (I heard this three times throughout the day, to which I replied, “No- I want my children to look like yours!”)
We got in two more interviews before lunch, and I had one client “beg of me” for my nose. Interesting. Over lunch, Lux and I talked about the village leaders and their plans for the community. He says, “Right now, they’re trying to work on gender… like Hillary!” (Translation: gender empowerment.) Then he asks me if I like to go on walks with my roommate at night. (The office has found out I have a – brace yourself- male roommate, another Kiva Fellow. When I say he is my friend, they interpret it as “friend.”) I’ve discovered this is a way of asking if my roommate’s my husband (what all boyfriends are referred to as) and I’m assuming long walks at night is the thing to do if you’re a couple. I respond, “I go on walks with all my friends.” And now, he probably thinks I’m a prostitute.
When we got back on the road, before we could find the last client’s home, three ladies sitting on the side of the road invited us to sit down and talk. The eldest lady, sweet as can be, couldn’t stop rubbing my arms, as if they were a good luck charm or the feet of St. Peter statue. ( I know the St. Peter analogy doesn’t work really well bc she’s Muslim… at first I was going to go with a Buddha belly, but that wasn’t much better either…) They insisted, “Svai, svai” and brought me sweet mango to eat, not forgetting water either. We were wrapped up in conversation (read: they were impressed with the 10 khmer words I know and teaching me new words from their own language) when we heard a loud commotion. A boy had crashed his bike on a rock, fallen off with his food, and was picking it back off the ground when a bystander explained what happened. Evidently the Muslim villages see “Europeans” even less than the others, so the poor boy had been distracted staring and it caused him to wreck. So not only do I eat them out of house and home, I cause road injuries now too!