Nice Eclectic Mix

The Sandinistas had their incestual love affair at the revolutionary triumph celebration today. Thousands of people from all over the country made their way on buses, cars, bikes, trucks to pay homage to Ortega, who I consider at best a borderline dictator. While Nicaragua has been stable and open to more foreign investment and tourism in recent years, the government is using this to whitewash all of the shitty residue and sell the regime to the uneducated to remain in power for as long as possible. Interesting to see how long he can stay in office before power becomes too concentrated.

Nicaraguan politik is actually quite similar to that of Cambodia. Both had major civil wars/genocide in the 70s with unrest lasting through the 90s, have war-heroes-turned-politicians who have consolidated power to limit freedom of speech so that opposition parties have no chance, yet open the country economically to foreign investment and embrace capitalism- quite a Chinese-like policy of social repression amid economic progress. Both have adequately ticked off Western governments and aid machines but not enough to alienate them. Both are wild and undeveloped, especially compared to their more Western-friendly (yet arguably more touristy and thus, plastic) neighbors Thailand and Costa Rica, but have enough infrastructure for modern comfort.

Though no one is really sure when either leader- Cambodia’s Hun Sen or Nicaragua’s Ortega- will leave office, it’s encouraging to see that in Cambodia, the main opposition leader returned after 4 years of self-imposed exile to avoid a prison sentence for convictions pardoned last week in time for the country’s elections. Very interesting to watch! Cambodia had so much going on in the past year, with Petraus’ visit (which I covered!), Obama’s visit, ASEAN, the ongoing saga of the Khmer Rouge Trials, and now Sam Raimsy’s return. Pretty cool stuff.

Although I’m not rolling in the dough, I love what I’m doing. People’s perception of work greatly confounds me. After graduation from college, I got a job at a cushiony PR firm making a very respectable salary for a newbie. My family and friends congratulated me with impress. But at the end of the day, I could hardly look myself in the mirror knowing what I did for most of my waking hours had no meaning- I was writing press releases and tweets for insurance companies, banks, pharmaceutical companies. Why were people impressed that I had this “good” job? To me, it wasn’t impressive at all. After I was fired slash mutually quit (we left on good terms- both decided it was simply the wrong fresh-out-of-college job for me as management could clearly detect my apathy for what I was doing and could not force), and got the gig in Cambodia, I learned that happiness is so much more than money, security, or what is traditionally seen as a “good job.”

When I am interviewing and educating myself on a multitude of issues on the day-to-day as journalists do to write with authority, I am happy. In Cambodia, I didn’t care that I worked 12 hour workdays under deadlines and tirelessly worked on stories on my own time on weekends all for little pay- I loved what I was doing and was happy to put in the hours to get better or get a good story. To me, having meaning in my work is incredibly important to wellbeing; I love getting out of bed in the morning with a goal- a challenge- excited to engage my curiosity in the many issues to explore, and creativity and ask questions and learn and write and expose and educate. I think if you like what you do you’ll be good at it and go far.

Interviewing cool people definitely helps. For the most part, both Cambodians and Nicaraguans I worked with and lived beside were inspiring, lovely, hardworking and humorous people. A few days ago was the only time I felt really down in Nicaragua. After hailing a cab to bring me to the family’s house where I was staying, the driver went a very roundabout way and what should have been a 5-block ride turned into 10 minutes. I was alone and felt powerless and he demanded extra cash, which I gave as I had no smaller change on me (I always try to keep small bills for this sort of thing) to avoid conflict. But it was wrong and I felt violated and alone and sick of things being hard. I absolutely detest feeling powerless and I left the cab and cried for a few minutes enveloped in the white mosquito net around my bed before I stopped the pity party.

Things are definitely easier when you have someone by your side- and a car. In Cambodia, my world changed when I started dating someone who opened me to a different side of Cambodia living. It was nice to have someone I was attracted to, converse well and have fun with who also happened to have a car, his own pharmaceutical company and a lot of high-up connections. Life became much sweeter when I could explore the exotic countryside and jungle (or drive through the Angkor Wat complex in the middle of the night) without a bus, when I had a handsome guy picking me up after work and treating to everything from beautiful dinners at glamorous Southeast Asian/French restaurants to whatever luxury resort I wanted, or clothes, shoes, movies, music, drink. Life became more fun when my boyfriend treated my friends and I to nights out in Phnom Penh’s main nightclub that he helped build, where he and I chose the music and came and left through the VIP exit. Someone to share wine on the beach with, to explore and ride elephants through waterfalls with, someone to greet me/see me off at the airport, host a birthday dinner, cook and exercise and joke with. Someone who spoke the language, Khmer, and knew all sorts of people and places for all sorts of occasions.

Now I’m back to doing it on my own, but I’m OK with that. I learned the hard way that such dependency- even dependency you did not ask for- that sparkles can be dangerous, even toxic, and all the good and sparks and power you shared can turn a 180 and blow back all the more so the things that worked with you can work against you. Even if you think you are in the driver’s seat- deciding where to go when- the wallet is in control. It was good for what it was worth, but I’m glad that ship has sailed.

I’ve thrown myself into a new environment where I’m able to scratch at issues that fascinate me, and this is wonderful therapy. I’ve loved working with my editor in Nicaragua- a very talented journalist and editor who mainly preserves my pieces and is very encouraging. I’ve better honed what makes a good story vs not, and he has taught me how to face both good and bad criticism. As a writer, you open yourself to public scrutiny with your work. One little misstep in fact or number or misspelling of name or place in an article can have big consequences- when I first started out, I definitely had a few middle-of-the-nights where I’d awake thinking about whether numbers in an article were correct after the paper went to press. In the end, it usually is, but the sweat is a trip.

So far, I’ve had two incidents of negative reception to an article. The first was in Cambodia, where I reported on a United Nations conference where a migration committee was urging Cambodia to sign onto a migration and labor convention that protects workers abroad (many Cambodians are sent abroad as domestic workers and end up in slave-like conditions). The headline of our story read “UN Pushes Cambodia” to sign the treaty, and the UN shot back saying it would never push anything as it’s not their right. Sorry, UN, but a journalist’s job is not to use your nice PR lingo but tell it like it is. The second, and most recent negative feedback was with a story I wrote about a soccer organization teaching sex ed, filling a void in Nicaragua’s conservative society where sex ed is taboo and teenage pregnancy is sky high. Though the NGO’s staff provided me with all of the info in the article, the boss back in Boston headquarters apparently did not know much about the sex ed initiative and so slammed my piece as incorrect (her reaction highlighted the disconnect between on-the-ground field work and management a continent away). Sorry, but it’s a journalist’s job to find what is interesting and write about it, not tip toe around official statements what PR wants you to write. To me, the controversy makes the piece even better as long as quotes and facts are accurate. (Article here:

Many of my articles have been praised. But as my editor said, you can’t take the praise too seriously just as you wouldn’t the criticism.

I absolutely love journalism- the steep learning curve and work of art produced after lots of reporting that actually DOES something, even if it’s little (especially for investigatory pieces…my favorite). But I think I’m phasing out of it. I won’t cross it off the list, but it’s a great job for a young energetic person who can move around freely and not care about low pay. Looking ahead, I want a family, and deadlines, low pay, erratic schedule (news happens all the time…not in a neat 9-5 packet), make it not the most conducive for the kind of life I want. I’ll be studying international relations starting the fall, and hope to find more stable yet still interesting work in this field. I’m not sure exactly which focus I’ll take- labor rights, security, development, emerging markets and start ups, refugees, human rights (how can you know exactly what you want to do where there are a million interesting things that all tie together?)- but I think I’m heading in the right direction for honing in. I’m also super into wellness- just being in Whole Foods makes me extremely happy (I spent the majority of my 21st birthday in Whole Foods), vitamins, herbs, acupuncture, smoothies, wellness spas, etc, are my jam. I’ve thought of combining this passion with international affairs and starting some sort of business, but we’ll see. Few things on the drawing board at the moment but all exciting prospects.

For now, I’m writing on how a Nicaraguan canal might rock relations with Costa Rica, who recently called Nicaragua a “bad neighbor” (the two have a historic border feud), and Panama, which already has a canal and is completing a major renovation project. I’m writing about how offering Snowden asylum was bad for Nica, about crime and security, prostitution and milk, bamboo houses and a dump, baseball and gay life, evangelicalism and rallies. Nice eclectic mix.


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