In Kampong Cham province's Prey Chhor village Molli Barker, of Iowa, talks of her
fear of spiders. Sitting on the front steps of her new home, a traditional wooden
Khmer house in this tiny village about 30 minutes from Kampong Cham town, Barker
said the resident tarantulas unnerved her.
"I'm terrified of spiders," she said. "But then again, I've also eaten
them. So long as they're not moving, it's OK."
Barker, 21, is one of 30 US Peace Corps volunteers ensconced in villages across rural
Kampong Cham province, where they're now living with Cambodian families.
The Peace Corps volunteers - most in their early twenties - arrived in Phnom Penh
on February 2. The group is stationed in Kampong Cham to learn English language teaching
methods and the culture and language of their hosts.
After two-months' training, the volunteers will relocate to permanent sites in seven
provinces, where they will live with a local family and teach English to upper-level
high school students for two years.
Van Nelson, country director of Peace Corps Cambodia (PCC), said it has taken the
organization a long time to arrive in Cambodia and he's proud to head the first mission.
"To the Peace Corps, Cambodia is an unknown," he said. "For this mission,
we were looking for generalists. But all the volunteers have done some tutoring and
they've all come with a zeal. They've come here to serve Cambodia."
Nelson, who first volunteered with the Peace Corps in 1969, said Cambodian authorities
identified English education as their priority.
"Peace Corps doesn't say what we will give; we ask what is needed," Nelson
told the Post. "And we were repeatedly told that there is a real need for English
Nelson said the purpose of the PCC was cultural exchange, language teaching and community
"The objective is to expose Cambodians to typical Americans, and give Americans
an insight into everyday Cambodian life," he said. "We go in very much
at ground level and give Cambodians an idea of what an American is like. We also
help them when help is needed. We estimate that over the two years our volunteers
will touch over 60,000 lives."
Cheryl Turner, the PCC training officer responsible for setting up the village living
arrangements, said there were only three prerequisites. The volunteers had to have
a room of their own, the toilets had to be of a "decent" standard, and
there were to be no pigs. "It's hard enough for them to cope with the heat and
dust, let alone the smell of pigs," Turner said.
The PCC volunteers are paid a living allowance of less than $100 a month, roughly
half of which is given to their host family. The volunteers are not permitted to
take on paid employment or ride on motos - they've been given mountain bikes. Also,
they must live with their host family for the duration of their stay.
Turner said the organization's welcome to Cambodia has been "overwhelming."
"We thought we would encounter some resistance, given our history, but we haven't,"
she said. "People have only said, Why has it taken so long for America to come
According to Turner, the PCC will expand to about 120 volunteers by 2009. Eventually,
the volunteers will move beyond English teaching into youth development, health and
"We've been in Thailand for 45 years now," he said. "And we plan to
be in Cambodia a long time, too."
The PCC's arrival comes at a time of increased United States efforts to cultivate
closer ties with Cambodia.
In February, a US warship visited Cambodia for the first time in more than 30 years,
and on February 15 President George W Bush signed a resolution lifting a near decade-long
ban on direct aid to the Cambodian government. This follows the opening of a $60
million state-of-the-art embassy last year, as well as the establishment of an FBI
office. The US is a key donor to Cambodia and accounts for more than 70 percent of
Cambodia's garment exports.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said there had been "a broadening and deepening"
of US-Cambodia relations in recent times, and the establishment of the PCC was "symbolic"
"The Peace Corps was set up so Americans at a grassroots level can do really
good work," Daigle said on March 5. "But, on another level, also function
as unofficial ambassadors for the US. The volunteers can go into villages in far-flung
places where a Cambodian may never have met an American."
It's the volunteers' unofficial diplomatic role that has sparked controversy. Thrown
out of Russia in 2002, amid accusations of spying, the Peace Corps has long been
criticized as the "smiling face" of US foreign policy - and even a conduit
for the CIA. Although the latter claim has never been substantiated, the Peace Corps'
public relations function is integral to its mandate.
When former US President John F Kennedy established the organization in 1961, the
Soviet Union was sending teachers and technicians to developing countries and Cuba's
Fidel Castro had just come to power. To counter the spread of communism, Kennedy
popularized the notion of an "army" of young Americans acting as "missionaries
of democracy," and charged the Peace Corps with combating notions of "Yankee
imperialism," and "ugly Americans."
Some 40 years later, in his first State of the Union address after the September
11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US, Bush linked public service to the "War
on Terror." Echoing Kennedy, Bush appealed for all Americans "to commit
at least two years - 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime - to the service
of your neighbors and your nation." As such, he promised a doubling in size
of the Peace Corps in order "to extend the compassion of our country to every
part of the world."
In Prey Chhor village, the idealism is more tempered. Conscious of America's tarnished
reputation and the world's intractable problems, platitudes do not come easily to
Felicidad Garcia, 23, of Florida, said joining the Peace Corps was something she'd
wanted to do since she first heard about it in high school.
"I guess I wanted to save the world," she said. "No, actually, nobody
'saves the world.' I'm just trying to help."
As the volunteers struggle with the heat, and stumble over the sounds of Khmer, they
speak of the two years ahead and discuss criticisms of their organization - and their
"I had serious conversations about it and you have to come to your own conclusions,"
said Zac Child, 22, from New Jersey. "But for me, it's about learning why people
want the things that I'm able to take for granted. I'm not overly idealistic or romantic
about this. I know I will gain more than I can give. I guess I just want to make
myself a better American."
The volunteers did not choose Cambodia - the organization only allows applicants
to specify regional preferences - but they now speak of excitement, eagerness and
gratitude for the welcome they've received.
"All over the world the way people think about America is on a downward slope,
so I expected some resistance here," Barker said. "But the people are so
open and receptive. Given their recent history, and our history, you'd think they'd
be more closed."
Apart from the spiders, the language difficulties and stomach complaints, Barker
said she has had little trouble settling in. She'll spend her next 24 months stationed
in a sleepy village in Svay Rieng province, near the Vietnamese border and a site
of major US bombing raids. Between 1969 and 1973 the US dropped more than half a
million tons of high explosives on eastern Cambodia - more than three times the quantity
dropped on Japan during World War II.
"The biggest problem is that my family want to feed me too much and I can't
eat it all," Barker said. "And then I feel embarrassed about saying no."