WHAT IS LOW-WASTE LIVING , REALLY? MAKING REALISTIC CHOICES IN A DEVELOPING COUNTRY.

Scrolling through social media, it is easy to find “Zero-Waste” or “Eco-friendly” labels and shout-outs. There are tips and tricks for how to reduce plastic in New York, Portland, or LA, photos of grocery stores moving towards organic packaging in many parts of the United States. What most of these companies and individuals have in common is this: a focus on Western and developed nations.

So what about those of us living in developing countries? We need role models for sustainability that are practical for the every day realities of our surroundings.

There are two big oversights I find in most Western-oriented no-waste programs, and I want to address them here.

First, potable water. Second, refrigeration. And within both of these, discrepancies in GDP and average incomes play a large role as well.

In Cambodia, the water is not potable. Unsafe drinking water is not unique to this region, either— according to the CDC in 2015, more than 663 million people worldwide lack access to improved water sources. We even saw this play out in the USA, when the toxic chemicals in the water in Flint, Michigan came to light.

What does this mean? If you can’t drink the tap water, you become reliant on bottled water. When I first moved to Cambodia, I noticed that the majority of my plastic waste came from bottled water—for one thing, the temp sits around 90 all year round. And most people live in traditional-style houses with little or no ventilation inside, and so spend much of their time outside, getting thirsty under the hot sun. But water is one of the necessities of life. So how can we deal with this paradox?

1- Buy big. Most shops offer large, 20-something-liter jugs of water. While still not ideal (there is a Plastic-Free movement in Cambodia to remove the plastic that currently wraps each of these jugs), these containers can at least be refilled from the manufacturer and resold, and last longer than a 500 ml water bottle. They are also more affordable — only 1$ for one jug.

2- If you have access to a filter, it can prove indispensible. Yes, it requires more cost up front: my current Steripen UV light filter cost around 100$. But it can purify some insane amount of water (more than 8000 treatments on one light). Another catch— it requires electricity to recharge the battery. But if you are trying to reduce your plastic footprint, it is an awesome option.

3- Invest money in systems like sand-filtration systems for rainwater. This is a very cool movement right now in Cambodia, with the added benefits of training local people how to design and implement these filter systems.

Okay, so the second problem: refrigeration.

As in, it doesn’t really exist in much of the country. Most refrigeration (if you’re not an expat) is done in a cooler with a hunk of ice you buy daily. And currently, the electricity across the country is quite unreliable, with long days of blackout in the middle of the hottest summer on record. This creates a problem for buying items in bulk — you can’t buy meat for more than one day or it will spoil; you can’t buy bulk items that can rot in the wet heat, or will attract insects, because people just don’t have the air-tight homes and nicely purring refrigeration systems common in the states.

However, a positive side to the lack of refrigeration— most families go to the market every morning to buy the foodstuffs for the day, which means they’re buying local, and supporting small families as opposed to giant supermarkets or international chains. Plus, Cambodians are very good at buying the right amount of food so no food is wasted, which is a good thing in my book.

And another positive aspect of buying in bulk—using recycled or reusable containers to store food— is still practiced here in Cambodia. The difference is, instead of mason jars, people here re-use plastic water bottles and 1 L soda bottles for everything from soy sauce to gasoline. Not as good as the elimination of plastic, but better than letting a single-use plastic get only a true single-use.

And finally, a staggering impact on plastic in the environment comes from the differing abilities of nations to successfully collect and process plastic waste. This is no small issue, either. Recent studies have shown that most plastic consumption comes from countries with the highest income per capita. (As seen in the 2010 statistic of 344,698 tonnes per year of plastic waste in Cambodia, compared to 37.83 million tonnes per year in the USA.) However, richer countries tend to have better systems to deal with those plastics after consumption, resulting in less leakage into the environment and damage to the ecosystem—87% of Cambodia’s waste was improperly managed in 2010, according to OurWorldInData.org.

Yet despite the depressing numbers about plastic trash, there are amazing projects underway in Cambodia and large swaths of the developing world. Check out Clean Green Cambodia, an initiative focusing on helping restaurants transition to biodegradable materials. Or Plastic-Free SEA, an organization doing the same, with helpful tips for those of us living in the Kingdom. Cambodians have until recently used their environment in lieu of plastic— bamboo and leaves for buildings, cutlery, straws…palm leaves or lotus leaves as organic packaging materials, and coconuts for hydration, sustenance, storage, etc. With a little prodding, and investment into the movements taking place, we are hopeful to reverse the reliance on plastics and start healing the earth. Check out all these organizations and see how life in a developing country can be shaped with an eco-friendly approach while working within the current society and restrictions.

Travels in the 1st person, singular

Sometimes it’s lonely to live with all the pretty images in my head.

To see the beams of the log cabin with the red corrugated roof, close to where the earth tumbles in sodden chunks into the seasonal riverbed

To see through to the tilted metal stove with a circle cut from the top, the perfect size to rest a cast-iron pot in.

The golden crunchy crust of the sourdough, a tang you smell even before pushing through the wood-and-aluminum door, the door always open on days when the sun shines.

You don’t notice the horizon of snowy peaks until, turning from the heavenly smells hovering on the stove, you look out the way you came in— unnamed mountains fade in and out of the blindingly blue sky.

Endless space can be dizzying, the freedom of nothingness can be terrifying and awesome.

There are a few bikes resting at seemingly random tilts on the grass, a few horses tied loosely to the clothesline, a few dogs lazing about, watching.

The sourdough taste still sticks to my palate and makes my mouth water. My senses put me in the damp grass, water-filled rainboots slowly warming as my feet cool. I wish i could share with you the clean smoke smell of a wood fire in a metal stove with the bread crisping on top. The thin sour-sweet smell of reindeer milk drying on hands, and the chill of the wind on the wet curly baby hairs that line my temples.

Let me take you there, where the road, such as it is, ends, and the water stands knee deep on the hill.

Close your eyes and I’ll take you there,

To the pretty spot in Mongolia I still see with my eyes closed

At the boundary

Rainy day today, feels about right. I miss Myanmar more each time: border crossings leave little time for reflection or a quiet parceling out of emotions, smells, things to leave or the things we carry forward.

No longyis, an immediate jolt

And faces without thanaka

As I am shepherded through narrow immigration channels and across a characterless no-mans-land and across that arbitrary line where Thailand begins, rising like a wall

Invisible in the air

Another day ticks forward and the distance between us and Cambodia shrinks down a little more,

Not that I’m counting.

After all, rainy days are for taking stock of the things

Before the rain,

And the things we carry after the storm.

Yangon, Myanmar

I love the city. You forget about the intransigent smell of betel nut until you touch down in Yangon and step out into the neighborhood. It permeates the street life anywhere people are talking, exhaled in fumes as grinning red lips part over red teeth. Ominous spatters on the sidewalk aren’t blood.
Yangon is different from other cities in Asia. Bustling but laid back, it feels like Burmese culture is not so much “preserved” as it is thriving. The longyi is still standard attire. It feels satisfying to glimpse a narrow-hipped man in a classic green longyi doing construction work, or someone in a white button-up, still crisp despite the heat, walking to tea or the office. People still stop in the middle of what is now a busy road to pay respects on their knees to Sule Pagoda. Palm sugar (with coconut!), tea leaf salad, beef in brown sauce, and plenty of veggie dishes. And milk tea morning, noon, and night.

In Yangon, visit Shwedagon Pagoda at night. Golden spires in builded light on every side. I walked circles around, tracing the days of the week. Wednesday in two elephants. A older novice in burgundy robes rests on one of the many ledges, cell phone in hand. A group of young novice boys chat animatedly near a stupa.

The sweaty day fades with the sun, and the mostly-dark streets show the movements of street vendors closing up and heading home. A few rat shapes dart between trash piles, and dogs take up their napping positions along the doorways.

Yangon is a city of change and tradition, and it has a different feel each time I return. I stare out over the low rooftops, waiting for this semester’s gap students to step out into the sense-rich city.

Living somewhere

Living somewhere is 80% a frame of mind. I’ve lived places though I’ve been there only two weeks, and I haven’t lived in places where I’ve spent months at a stretch. It’s about wanting to be somewhere, of deciding to “be” there, of investing in relationships and habits in the space where you are.

Right now, I live in Cambodia. I’ve only been there two weeks this time, true, and I’ll be gone with work for two-plus months before I’m back, but it feels like home.

I’ve rented a room in a house with a dope roommate, have a gym membership and am *besties* with some of the trainers, and feel comfortable jetting around the city via motorbike.

What a weird feeling! For most of the last three years, I haven’t had an answer to the question “where do you live?” I would reply here-and-there, or say where I’m originally from, or that I crash at my mom’s house when I’m not in asia. But I haven’t really lived anywhere since China, anyways, almost 3 years ago now. In that mostly-nomadic time since my college graduation, I’ve learned so much about myself through transience. From China I learned that outdoor space can be personal space; you can nap anywhere; and temples are a great place for some mental alone-time even when surrounded by people. From nomadic mongolia I learned the true importance of making every possession “do work.” From living in hostels and bungalows across southeast asia I learned to pack and repack constantly, streamlining the process and managing organization in the midst of chaos.

And it is with these nomadic skills honed, my possessions slimmed to the mostly-necessary, that I am excited to indulge in the act of hanging clothes in a wardrobe, of making or not making my bed and having it stay that way, of putting a buddha and incense in a small corner of the room that will be mine for _____. Even nomads stay in one place for a little while. My place, for now, is on a quiet red-dirt track off of National Road 6 just a few minutes from the temples of Angkor. Come and visit! I hope to stay a while.

For Fear Of

For Fear Of

Communism
How many lives have been needlessly squashed in the dirt for fear of

The Other
Different foods, clothes, customs
Where I lay my head is home but where you lay your head is
Different
Palates on the color wheel covering the same tongue
Kidneys
One or two

One heart
Blood red or blue

Self
How many chances have I held in my fingertips, running their unmade reels across the insides of my eyelids
As their paper-thin birth certificates slide soundlessly through to the dustbin of history below

Some of these caves hold ten thousands more
Glasses take years to decompose;
Bodies faster;
Ethics faster still

How many times will I let myself die

For fear

Of the other

We are the greatest Frenemy

We are the greatest Frenemy.

“American Exceptionalism”
I have it too, on the surface
But
When I have to think about it

Leading this trip across SE Asia.
Indochina, we once called it,
that green forest on the map between India and China,
unknowable in its own right

Unfathomably bloodied from American Exceptionalism,
Still working on making bootstraps to pull itself up by,
But bootstraps account for 90% of exports.
I guess US “support” wasn’t really supportive:

(Support of pro-Western leaders regardless
of the desires of the people.
Support of anti-communist leaders regardless
of moral fitness)

Support of weakened and dependent nation-states in the Pacific Theater.
Now Playing: With Your Unknown Lives.
You know what they say, knowing is caring and caring is bad business.

Protect and preServe our 1%.
Our bottom line
“No More American Deaths”
Outside of America, that is.
Carry on with the ones inside the border.

We are the Frenemy.

We whisper support to trusting minorities with our fingers crossed behind our backs
Holding out for the bell
Before sudden and complete amnesia strikes and we’ve had asian food once this week already, so find another friend at the lunch table.

Growing and moulding people like gourds in a garden, ready to be plucked and sent anywhere at the smallest justification.

(Thai paratroopers. Hmong paramilitary. Chiang Kai Shek’s anti-communists. Tibetans. Black American infantry.)

Perishable and expendable.
Perishable goods have a Use By date.

I want to save american lives too. But not at the expense of other lives.
Not “Except American-ism.” Not inperilism.