Monday, May 28, 2012

Helping Cambodia is like buying a beautiful broken mug

Last November, I was in Cambodia for about three weeks doing work for the Savong Foundation which I created to help a community in the northern part of that country. 

A few days before I made the long trip back home, I met a lady who was trying to make a business by selling Cambodian pottery.  She had a few samples for me to look at and I was very impressed at the quality and care that had gone into shaping each piece.  Since I love to drink coffee out of large mugs, I thought it would be perfect to have her make a custom design for my morning caffeine ritual. 

She was thrilled to have a new customer and I was excited about taking home a souvenir from a country that I had grown to love over the past couple of years.  We sat down and I told her everything that I wanted:

The size. 

The shape. 

The colour. 

And I wanted Khmer writing all over it.  I didn’t really care what the writing said.  I just wanted it to be covered in the beautiful Cambodian script.     

She smiled and nodded and took notes and I was convinced that she understood everything that I said.  I asked her how much and she told me $20.  It seemed a bit high (keep in mind that many Cambodians make $50/month or less) but I was happy to support her fledgling business.  I was told that it would be ready at least a day before I was scheduled to leave and we agreed on a time and place for the pick-up.  In my mind, everything seemed very clear and simple. 

A day before leaving, I contacted the woman because I had not yet heard from her.  Everything was fine she said but the mug wasn’t ready.  She assured me that it would be ready before my flight.  I was a little worried about this because I had other last minute things to do besides picking up a souvenir but Cambodians are such gracious and happy people, I told her that it wasn’t a problem and we would meet the morning of my departure. 

I couldn’t wait to see the mug.  The delay only increased my excitement.  On my previous trips, I had taken a few souvenirs back with me but this was something I could use every morning and in my mind’s eye, I saw exactly what it was going to look like. 

At the agreed upon time, I anxiously awaited the woman’s arrival.  She was late but not by too much time.  After spending three weeks in Cambodia, I was quite familiar with how fluid appointment times were and since I was still on Cambodian time, it really didn’t bother me.  She greeted with a huge smile and proudly pulled four mugs out of a large shopping bag.  I took a look at each one. 

None of them looked like what I had described to her.  None of them. 

I picked each one up.  There was no doubt that they were all beautiful.  Handmade.  Rustic stain.  And on the bottom was a Khmer signature.  They were large but not the giant size that I had requested.  I was disappointed but the woman was beaming with a smile and in some weird way, I felt like I couldn’t disappoint her

“I’ll take this one” and picked up the one that had an elephant head for a handle. 

“Would you like to take all of them?”

Did you ever read those books when you were a kid that gave you a choice at the end of the page?  If you chose one thing, it would send you off to a certain page and if you chose something else, you would flip to a different page?  The flow of the story would change depending on your decisions so you could read the entire book a couple of times and have several different versions. 

I felt like there were several different ways I could answer pottery lady and each answer would take me to a different outcome. 

For example: 

“You can take all your mugs and stick them where the sun don’t shine!”  Although this may have required some Khmer translation, the emotion behind the words would have gotten my point across. 


“Are you kidding me?  I gave you EXACT details on what I wanted for a mug and not only did you NOT do what I wanted, you are trying to sell me FOUR mugs that cost as much as a luxury meal in Los Angeles!”


“Well, I’ll take one but it isn’t really what I wanted so I’ll pay you $10 for it.”


“They’re all so beautiful but I only need one.  Here’s $20.  I wish you the best luck for your business.” 

I chose the latter and handed over my money.  She was thankful and she told me that she hoped she would see me again when I returned to her country.  I assured her that I would keep my eye out for her—and buy my pottery somewhere else.

Actually, I only thought that last part.  C'mon, I'm a polite Canadian.     

Despite my crappy packing skills (I just throw everything in and hope for the best), the mug managed to make its way across the Pacific in one piece.  I’m not sure if I was so lucky but I was at least happy to stuff fast food down my gullet once again and have a really long hot shower.  You have no idea how luxurious a hot shower is until you’ve been deprived for three weeks.    

Several days after arrival, I pulled my mug out of the suitcase, cleaned it up and poured some steamy hot brew into it while I was weeding through my morning emails.  Moments later, I noticed that the coffee that was supposed to be inside the container was now outside of it and dripping onto the floor.  I snatched up the mug and lo and behold, the beautiful souvenir that was supposed to be useful and meet my design expectations was clearly leaking from a defective seam in the bottom. 

The older I get the more patient I get.  I think it’s from all those years working with animals.  I have learned that the more upset I am, the worse it gets for me and anger really doesn’t improve a situation.  Ten years ago, I probably would have thrown the mug against the wall and stomped on all the pieces.  Instead, I calmly emptied the remaining coffee into the sink, rinsed out the residue, cleaned up my desk and poured some stain remover onto the carpet.  I dried the mug and contemplated its fate.  I wasn’t going to throw it away; I paid $20 for the damn thing.  In the end, I stuck some pencils and pens in it and proclaimed it my Cambodian homemade pencil and pen holder.

And actually, I kinda like it.  It is far prettier than the hazy piece of glassware that I used before and as a pencil and pen holder, it hasn’t disappointed me at all. 

Working in Cambodia is very much like the story of this mug.  The Cambodian people are wonderful and NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) such as The Savong Foundation want to see them succeed.  Yes, we can do lots of planning to make everything perfect but everything seems to cost more and take longer than what it should.  And the end result is usually not what was expected.  Should we be frustrated and angry and give up?  Of course not because that doesn’t help anyone.  A better approach is to be flexible, open and explore other possibilities within this unique culture and then something good will usually happen.  Therein lies the reward and everyone goes home happy even if it means using a big Korean Starbucks mug for their morning brew.

The Savong Foundation is dedicated to helping the communities of northern Cambodia.  Please visit us at our website for more information.  

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