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Living Small—Getting By on $3 a Day

Peace Corps Volunteers are notoriously midgey. The V for Volunteer in our job description is a clue that we aren’t paid for the work we do. Of course, we do get a living allowance, which covers rent and supper with our host families. That leaves us with about $3 a day for expenses.

When you live in a rural area you quickly learn how to recalibrate the value of things. Walking through the market with a couple of site mates I stopped to buy a small bag of roasted peanuts for about 25 cents. One of my PC pals observed that was expensive. He could get peanuts in his village for 12 cents. A sobering thought. I considered biking 45 minutes away to stock up. Actually, our allowance is usually sufficient for daily expenses in the village, which is where we spend most of our time. I can get noodles for lunch at the market for 75 cents. A bean bun costs 30 cents. When I leave my village the price of poker goes up. In Phnom Penh I will blow two days allowance on breakfast just to have real coffee with fresh milk, and toast and eggs that have not been murdered.

I have tried to live within my monthly allowance while serving as a PCV. For one thing, I wish to stay within the economic scale of my family and counterparts. (Although as an American I have built-in privileges with my education, travel experience, and health insurance. My neighbors rely on their families—hope for their children’s future is their insurance plan.) My room is small, my needs are few. I have lost the urge to buy things for sport. I have learned to walk away from tuk-tuk drivers who ask for a dollar more than the going rate. At the market I will bargain for 12 cents less on that dragon fruit, partly because it’s expected and kind of fun, but partly because 25 cents here and there adds up to a dollar saved, and then another.

Those photos you see of PCVs visiting neighboring countries on annual leave, zip-lining through Malaysia or waving from cruise ships in Halong Bay in Vietnam? They are traveling on savings, not Peace Corps wages. And why not? Since you are in the neighborhood, go see what’s on the other side of the mountain. Tickets out of town are usually inexpensive. When family and friends come to visit, my midgey budget is quietly tucked away and I enjoy the thrill of being a free glad spender. From an outsider’s view everything here is pretty darn cheap. It’s all in your perspective, though. A $20 hotel room is deluxe accommodations in this part of the world. When viewed from the standpoint of a high school teacher’s salary, that $20 equals two day’s pay, maybe three. Context changes our sense of worth.

Which brings up another realization, a self-awakening, really. In the United States shopping is recreation. We like to stock up. We buy in bulk, and worry when we are down to our last 24 pack of toilet paper. Here, we don’t even use toilet paper. Sorry, no sale. What seems essential in one place, like paper towels, for instance, is not even on the shelf in another part of the world. People in poor countries use every scrap. My host mother keeps my cast off printouts. (I suppose the printed English type looks as exotic to her as Khmer script does to me.) This is a country that just a generation ago was living on a few spoonfuls of rice a day. Every Khmer over forty remembers what it was like to do without. Here, you are expected to eat everything on your plate. Cambodia is growing stronger now, but abundance is not to be squandered.

An essential component of the Peace Corps credo is to work with what you have, to conserve, recycle, to live within one’s means. It’s not a bad idea. Now that I’m looking at the close of my service in a couple of months, I am thinking about how to bring the practice of living small back home to the Land of Large.

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