Monday, 19 September 2011

A few days in Seam Reap

Hello again,

I’ve just started a break from PPS. The Finance Manager Neary is having some time off, so I’ve spent some time in Siem Reap, home to the Angkor Wat temple complex. A friend also visited me there, so we did all of the stereotypically touristy things. So I’ve now eaten a variety of reptiles (snake and alligator), spiders (big black hairy things that are very chewy and fried – I’d say the legs are like chewing on a twig with a similar taste)  and watched slightly aghast as Steve fired off a number of different types of heavy weaponry at the nearby firing range. An M60 is extremely loud.

Siem Reap has also suffered from some heavy floods whilst I was there, as these pictures will attest. Where I was staying the water was over knee deep and although it was amusing the first day wading through it, the novelty soon wore off after the best part of a week. Supposedly it’s like that once every three years, and four provinces here have been very badly affected with many people losing their homes, and in some cases their lives. It didn’t seem to bother the locals here though as the area by the river with the deepest water descended into mass water fights and crazy high diving competitions out of the trees lining the river. They were quite an acrobatic bunch.

This is the centre of Seam Reap. It was much deeper by the river and where I was staying

The temples were relatively unaffected, so I spent a couple of days out there. It’s my second visit here, the first being eight years ago, so it was interesting to see how the city has developed. There’s probably an order of magnitude more of everything, and as it’s monsoon season and therefore not busy with tourists, there’s a fair bit of hassle, especially from children selling pirate books and bracelets. No apparently isn’t an option. It’s well worth a visit though, although the monsoon certainly adds a chaos to the situation that many probably wouldn’t appreciate.

This is me at my favourite temple at the complex, The Bayon

I go back to Battambang and PPS in a couple of weeks time for a final fortnight there. The work is still great and a genuinely wish I could stay longer, and hopefully whoever follows will enjoy it as much as I have. There’s plenty of interesting developments in the pipeline for PPS and as it (hopefully) grows in size it will also become more complex with greater pressure on its accounting function to provide more detailed accounting information for the management team. There is a drive to make the entire organisation self-sustaining via income generated from its own activities, all of which adds to the complexity of the work done by the finance section. The Finance Manager certainly seems to appreciate this. 

This is my desk first thing in the morning at PPS. One of the great joys of being out here is the fresh fruit

So the next ten days will be spent in PP as it’s a nice city and also one of the drier places in Cambodia. I’ve been given list of various galleries and visual arts exhibitions to check out as well, so I’ve plenty of interest to look forward to whilst the Finance Manager is on holiday.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Working at Phare

During the last week or so I have done a load of Excel stuff and even found a couple of bars that stay open past midnight at the weekend. No TV though for the football although I did watch Liverpool pound Arsenal (well, win 2-0) at my hotel before I went out. The work remains as interesting as ever and I’m slowly getting through some of the tasks I have been set and set for myself. I suppose the slow thing is deliberate – as there isn’t really anyone else here who can check what I have done, I have to be really careful to avoid mistakes so I have to double check everything myself, which is quite tricky to do objectively. Hopefully I have been successful.

The music school. They practice from dawn until dusk. Dawn's pretty early, and seems especially so when someone's using the big drum in the background

Next on the list of things to do is an ‘organisational review’ where I go through a checklist of questions about the different aspects of the financial management and systems here. I’d normally have done this first, but as something fairly specific was requested (more user friendly financial reports for the managers here that can be produced quickly and easily by the Finance Manager), I have concentrated on that for the first couple of weeks. From the review I’ll check some of the information I am given (like an audit I suppose), and then focus on any areas that look like they can be strengthened for the remainder of my time here. This part of my work will form part of the basis for anyone else who follows from A f ID, a kind of checklist against which improvements can (hopefully) be measured in the future.

Practicing hard for the shows. Many of the people who learn here also attend the school that PPS run on the site

I still haven’t got to any of the shows yet, hence no photos of that, but they will follow. I’ve peppered this blog with the day to day goings on at the site. I guess they give a flavour of all of the different things that happen here. A bit of sound would be good, but never mind. I did ‘mislay’ my camera, which stopped me from photographing the sites I saw at the weekend (a few temples, a bamboo railway and a bit of wandering about in some fields), but my gross stupidity was followed by a bit of luck as I’d left it in the office where it remained safely for the weekend until I found it earlier this week. I suppose I should photograph the plate of fruit which turns up on my desk for me to nibble on during the day, courtesy of Neary, the Finance Manager. So far I’ve had a couple of different types of citrus fruit, dragon fruit, and today a big bunch of thumb-sized bananas. All of these grow in the local area, so taste fantastic.

This is traditional Khymer dance. They had an programme on BBC World about a couple of places in Cambodia where there is a renaissance in this and other local art forms. And I get to see them all when ever I go for a wander about

So for the rest of today I’ll recheck the reports and templates I have produced and make sure that the people who will be using them can understand them and update them properly. At the same time this has given me the opportunity to interrogate the accounting system thoroughly, checking some of the things that have been unclear to me, which has thrown up a number of potential ways to do things more effectively. The way I am suggesting that the information in the system is accessed and interpreted is new here (although the same as everywhere I have worked in the UK), so understandably the way data has been entered into the system isn’t entirely compatible with producing some of the reports. But hopefully when the benefit of what I have done is recognised (producing a report in 5 minutes rather than the half a day it took previously, and with a higher level of accuracy, which Neary can already appreciate!), the ‘new’ way of using data should become standard. I think one of the most satisfying things about this work is that it’s possible to identify an area of improvement, make suggestions about it and then implement it all within a matter of days. And then assuming what you have done is reasonable and understandable, it sticks, at least in the short term. I wonder what will happen to some of the things I have worked on in the months and years to come, which is the most important thing. Maybe I’ll come back and find out.

Finally some budding artists at work. They're really good

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Starting in Battambang

I’ve moved on from Phnom Penh now (see below for what it looks like when it rains) and I have begun work in Battambang (wow have the roads improved since I was last in Cambodia) for an organisation called Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS). They’re famous for the circus performances that they put on at the site here, and their purpose is to help Cambodian children and other young people. 

When it rains it pours. A view from my guesthouse in Phnom Penh. Some of these drivers live in their tuk-tuks

This is done through education and training in the arts and cultural fields. These fields range from drawing, playing musical instruments, theatre and various aspects of circus performance, and plenty of other things besides.
They also provide care to children who have nowhere else to live. This can be because they have been orphaned, abandoned, are victims of trafficking, or many different types of domestic abuse. They are housed on the site here where they are looked after, and many are amongst the recipients of the above training. The site is also home to a state run school, which is also supported by PPS in a variety of ways. PPS do lots of other things as well so check out the website for more details because I’ll have definitely missed things out:

It’s difficult to describe quite how pleasant the site is, set a little way outside the city, although hopefully some of the pictures will help. I stayed here on the first couple of nights, and it was really odd getting used to the sound of frogs and insects whilst falling asleep, the first wildlife of any description I have seen in Cambodia. You also get to hear early morning instrument practice as well. But as a city person, it took 48 hours for that to wear off and I am now living in Battambang and taking my $0.50 moto out here each day. Battambang is a very peaceful city, and the French influence is very noticeable both in terms of the numbers of French tourists and in some of the architecture. It’s also noticeable how everyone gets up early and everything closes early. It’s a very relaxing place.

The guesthouse where I stayed on the site. I guess I'm just not a trees person. And you need to mind the frogs on the way back at night, especially if it rains

PPS is much bigger than Meakea, and necessarily much more sophisticated. There are a number of foreign volunteers/workers, and they employ about 80 staff. They also get some money from the EU, which always makes things more complicated from a financial/management perspective. As well as doing a general assessment of the financial processes within the organisation as A F i D’s first volunteer here, I’m helping the Finance Manager, Neary, to improve the way that PPS uses its own (financial) information in its’ decision making. I think this will probably involve a load of Excel spreadsheet stuff, which is fine by me. I've already shown her a few little 'tricks' that Excel can perform, and it's really gratifying to see the response.

Another volunteer helping redecorate one of the buildings here. We haven't had rain for a couple of days and a guy at the hotel has promised it won't rain tomorrow if I go out on a tour. I asked if I could stay for free if it did rain and he agreed as long as I paid for his accommodation. My bill is bigger than his, so the odds are very tempting....

I’ve spent my first week getting my head around how everything fits together, and it seems very well organised with all of the right systems in place. Any information I’ve asked for has been given quickly, and you can’t really ask for more than that. The work I’m doing is also really interesting (all you non-accountants try not to laugh), so basically I’m really enjoying it, although of course I’m enjoying my first weekend and some nice lie-ins as work starts at 8am each morning.

The office. It's a bit different to working in an office block. If it's not obvious, it's much nicer

So there you have it, Battambang so far. Next time I’ll post some pictures of the performances. But first I need to find somewhere that’s showing the footie later. Until next time.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

A final word and some pictures from PP

OK. So only another few days until the end of my assignment here at Meakea. I’ve been going through the records with a fine tooth comb and will write my report with recommendations for what I think they could do to improve the way in which their financial activities are organised. Most things are here, it’s just all a bit confusing. Or as they only own one filing cabinet, records don’t exist for much of the past and are slightly incomplete. Still with a bit of organisation things could be made to be a lot easier, and I think considering the language difference one of the people I am training has improved massively on Excel. Hopefully that’ll be remembered when I am gone. Because of the size of the organisation, they do not need to produce annual accounts for the authorities, so I guess that makes things more simple. And I’m always being asked how to do things differently and better. Hopefully I’ll get some of the answers right and things will continue to improve.

Here's my typical healthy breakfast, pork and rice. I do miss my cornflakes every now and then.

I’ve spent most of the last week or two in the central office in PP. It didn’t rain for about four or five days which made the temperature noticeably higher, but it has certainly made up for it on the rain front since. I got caught for the first time the other day, and even though I was in a tuk-tuk, I was soaked to the skin. As an aside, the market near to where I live contains loads of weird and wonderful things to see, eat and drink, and I’m slowly getting through some of them. I still haven’t got ‘round to the insects yet though. The fruit and veg. are probably the highlight, and dragon fruit, mangos, lychees and rambutans abound, as well as the usual bananas.

All this tastes as good as it looks. I've managed to cut out the traffic chaos. The driving has to be seen to be believed.

As you can imagine, it all tastes great and costs very little, even if you are paying a bit too much as I’m sure I am. Sadly you can’t get the smells from these pictures, but I manage to find something different everyday, even though I don’t know what most of it is.

I know what these are. They're fish!! For those of a nervous disposition, I haven't included any pictures of the 'meat section'. Let's just say as someone with an interest in Biology, they're pretty educational.....

Anyway, next week I am off to Battambang, Cambodia’s second city to start a new placement. This NGO is bigger than Meakea, and I guess more complicated. I’ll keep you posted. Later on though, I'll go here for my tea.

I've worked my way across the back two rows, and so far so good. I normally manage to establish whether it is 'pig', fish, chicken or 'cow' before I tuck in. Not bad for $1

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Teaching in the countryside

So as I have an English teaching qualification (not particularly well used, but never mind), I said yes when I was asked to do some teaching at the school supported by Meakea, and Monday was the day. I did some planning, but that soon went out of the window as I eventually ended up teaching a group with a completely different standard of English to what I was told and became more and more curious as the class numbers grew further and further past what I expected. So the first class ended up being a question and answer session (Are you married? How do you pay to be here? What’s the difference between school here and England?) where the standard of English was surprisingly high.

Here I am imparting my pearls of wisdom. Surprisingly they listened very patiently. I don't think you can tell from this quite how much I am sweating, but my T-shirt shouldn't be as dark as this. It was very very humid!

After that were two more classes of even more kids, and then I noticed that some had different books from each other. So what had happened is that everyone wanted to be taught by a foreigner, and just came and sat in the class, so all of them were entirely of mixed abilities! It was all highly enjoyable, and although I am not sure how much anyone learned (the flat Northern vowels are confusing), they all asked when I would go back and really got stuck in with unbelievable enthusiasm. I also got to see what few resources the teachers and students have to work with and how it would really change how you would teach – no electricity and text books that have been recycled for years for example. It was a fantastic eye-opening experience.

There were 4 kids in here who decided that they wanted to learn English the day I got there. I hope I didn't put them off. It's difficult to describe quite how enthusiastic everyone was, but I guess it's seen as a way of getting on. I hope they're not disappointed.

After this I went out to look at some of the houses that are being built for poor families in the area. This poverty is of course relative, as no-one out there could be described as anything other than poor, but again it gives an insight into the homes that the kids at the school come from. A big problem is keeping the kids in the school as it places a big burden on the families who want them to either help in the fields or work in the factories in the city. A number of them drop out every year because of this. And the position people find themselves in certainly isn’t lost on them. When I asked one student what he knew about England, he said all he knew was he would never be able to visit. There’s not much you can say to that.

As you can see, the whole family have to help out in the housebuilding process. I think this particular one will house five people, although in another location the same size will provide shelter to a family of ten.

Other than this I continue to work on the financial side of things in PP and I am continuing to get to grips with the different issues you face here. There are loads of ex-pats here who all have a take on things, but obviously losing a generation of the population has really had an impact – those people would have been the leaders now. There is a massive willingness to learn amongst people I have encountered and I am constantly asked ‘how are things done in your country’, but the lack of resources are obviously a handicap. Still, it’s fun trying to get things done. It just takes longer. Much longer.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

My first picture (hopefully I'll work out how to edit it next time)

This is me and the Meakea team at the school where their work is centred outside PP

and here are some of the kids playing

                                      and waiting to have their health checked (eye tests, weight etc.)

Monday, 4 July 2011

Settling in

Hello from Phnom Penh and my first proper blog!

I flew in here from Thailand on Sunday, and the main change since I visited seven years ago is the volume of traffic. This is really obvious in the remork (a kind of carriage pulled by a motorbike) that I caught in from the airport. You can really smell the difference! I am staying in the Riverside area, a place of bars and restaurants where you can sit out and gaze at the river, traffic chaos and hawkers going about their trade. I must admit to finding it quite relaxing.

I have been working for a few days now, and it has been really interesting. I am working for a tiny charity called Meakea, who try and support very poor families in an area of villages outside PP. They do this by providing English language teaching, basic health education as well as other services like house building for very poor families and a small amount of micro-lending. My roles is to help them with the financial side of things such as how they prepare the budget, watch what they spend, and report this to the people who provide the finance. The main problem not surprisingly is a lack of money! My office is based in PP quite close to S21, the school where thousands of people were tortured during Pol Pot’s era before being sent off to the Killing Fields at Choeng Ek to be slaughtered. This very recent history makes PP a fascinating and somewhat poignant place to visit. There’s loads of other things to see and do here, but the lack of old people is very noticeable.

So far at work, it has been a case of getting used to the differences, the main one of which is working in extremely warm conditions. I also lost a couple of hours the other day because of a power cut caused by one of the fairly regular violent rainstorms. Apparently this doesn’t happen very often – I certainly hope not.

I have also been out to the school where most of Meakea’s work is based to meet the team and see what they did. Everyone was extremely friendly and seemed pleased to have the chance to speak English with a native speaker – they want me to go back and take some classes, so it will be interesting to see how that goes. I just hope they can understand my flat Northern vowels. Until next time, when I should have some pictures......