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Getting MAD about making a difference

It's not just tourists who travel around the world to visit Cambodia. In an odd mix

of altruism and cash, more people are paying to come here and, among other activities,

pull weeds out of the rich soil of Kampot.

"It started a couple of months ago," said Linda McKinney, director of UCC

(United Cambodian Community Development Foundation), "and now there are almost

more of them than we can process".

The volunteers come from various backgrounds, ranging from a British banker ("He

seemed a little disaffected and was thinking about giving up banking," said

McKinney) to a commercial artist from Slovenia ("We had to tell her we weren't

really sure where Slovenia was.")

McKinney traced the recent swell of volunteers to US citizen Craig Murphy. While

teaching English in Japan two years ago, he volunteered at UCC's agricultural site

for his spring vacation. He is now back in Denver working on a graduate degree in

International Studies.

"It was incredible," he said. "Not easy, as I expected, but exactly

what I was looking for: a challenge, an opportunity to contribute. It was an interesting

way to see rural Cambodia by working among the people and living like they do. It

always helps understanding the culture when you are not viewed as a tourist."

When he returned to Japan, he helped set up Go MAD (Go Make A Difference), a free

internet-based service for people interested in international volunteering. Murphy

believes that "adventure altruism" will replace the eco-tourism of the

1990s.

The website, www.go-mad.org, lists information about volunteering opportunities at

several NGOs, including UCC. In the past two months, eight volunteers have arrived

in Kampot after reading about UCC on the internet. Some contacted McKinney in advance,

others just turned up.

Other than the benefit of free labor for NGOs, the website also asks volunteers to

donate money. One week costs $100, four weeks will set you back $200. All the money

goes to the NGO concerned. McKinney still finds it amusing that visitors pull weeds

for a week, then give her $100.

"However, UCC just lost its core of funding, so the income from the volunteers

is helping," she said. Her NGO runs several projects in Kampot including child

development centers, a vocational school for the disabled, road-building, digging

wells, and an agricultural center for the local community.

"It was a great experience, and [UCC] are very good people," said Anna

Dominkobic, 33, a town planner from Sweden. She and her friend Angela Tyrhannar,

33, a psychologist, discovered UCC on the internet. Each paid $150 to work for two

weeks; they also taught English every evening.

"My knees hurt, and Angela can't sit down because her back hurts," said

Dominkobic, but added: "We enjoyed it very much. It's an excellent program."

UCC's open-door policy also takes in travelers passing through town.

"Although it takes an investment of time because they don't speak any Khmer,

it does help us," said McKinney. Most importantly, she concluded, the volunteers

go home to become "a cadre of advocates [at a time] when Cambodia is slipping

off the radar screen".

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