Clara Herrero, a program assistant at Oxfam America, recently visited an Oxfam project in Cambodia. She traveled as part of Oxfam’s travel lottery, which sends two employees – who don’t get to travel outside the US as part of their jobs – to see our work on-the-ground in developing countries.
I recently went to Cambodia, accompanying my colleagues from Oxfam’s Humanitarian Response team as they learned more about a project teaching local communities how to adapt to climate change. It was my first time visiting one of our regional offices and my first “in the field.”
Early in my trip, I went to the Tuol Sleng Museum. During the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, the museum was a prison where millions of Cambodians (and many thousands of foreigners) were starved to death, tortured, and killed. It’s now a monument to that history and a place, which lists all the crimes of the regime. One stood out in my mind. In Cambodia, families place great importance on eating meals together. During Pol Pot’s reign, they weren’t able to share meals with their family.
I thought a lot about this tradition as I traveled with my Oxfam colleagues, Latif, Kheng, Jacobo, and Miriam. Over the three weeks I spent in Cambodia, we began to feel like a family.
We traveled by SUV together for hours on bumpy, dirt roads to reach the project in Battambang province. And, with our partner, Save the Earth Cambodia, we visited communities prone to drought and flooding. With limited resources, these communities are tracking which months are best for planting certain crops. They’re also mapping out areas at risk for flooding and developing contingency plans for how to respond.
In between the field visits, Latif, Kheng, Jacobo, Miriam, and I ate every meal together: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I remember one long day in particular. We stopped at a roadside stand with a couple of small bungalows. We took off our shoes and sat down on the straw mats on a thatched floor.
Food in Cambodia is typically served family-style, so we ordered to share. The menu was in Khmer, and through our interpreter, Miriam asked what the specialty was. Frogs and eel, as it turned out. Without hesitation, she said: “Yeah. Let’s try that. Sounds good.”
I admit, I didn’t share her enthusiasm at first. But I was with my colleagues, and we had shared every meal together. I wasn’t going to miss this one. I thought to myself, “It’s not every day I get to eat something like this,” and decided to go for it.
Soon after that meal, I left my colleagues to spend a week traveling around Cambodia on my own. While I enjoyed my day trips to Phnom Penh’s Russian Market or the fishing communities of Kep, I missed my travel buddies. At the same time, the more time I spent on my own, the more I thought about my family back home, my co-workers back in Boston, my parents and brother in Nebraska. I wished they could be there with me sharing pieces of the experience-trying new foods, visiting incredible sights and meeting amazing people. By the time I started packing to leave, I was ready to see them all, and eat together, as we so often do and share with them stories from my trip.