Cambodia, Ecuador, Peru

March 14, 2017

Today is my seventh day back in the United States after traveling for six months. My group Thinking Beyond Borders will be meeting with various development organizations such as World Bank, the United Nations Foundation, USAID, etc. which we have been studying to learn more about their different models for creating international change. As I re-immerse back into my home country, I see many things with a new understanding and critical perspective. A new chapter in my learning about the world has just begun. Since my last update in Thailand, I’ve been studying multiple facets of international development, from education to post-colonialism, in Cambodia, Ecuador and Peru.


Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, with its thousands of motorbikes, towering Parisian-style buildings, and dazzling Buddhist temples is a collision of Cambodian tradition, French colonization, and Twenty-First Century westernization; most visible, however, are the corruption and poverty resulting from the devastating Khmer Rouge government, which killed more than a quarter of Cambodians in a four year period. I studied the Cambodian Genocide by visiting Tuol Sleng Detention Center (S-21) and the Killing Fields, and hearing the personal recounts of a Cambodian-American survivor. Many Americans are unfamiliar with this genocide, which is why I find it necessary to briefly explain its history:

The Cambodian Genocide occurred when Pol Pot, a radical communist leader, fatally attempted to construct an agrarian utopia in Cambodia between 1975–1979. All Cambodians were moved outside the cities in less than a week to the countryside to live and work on giant rice plantations. Intellectuals, foreigners, and Cambodians of mixed blood were targeted and often murdered by the Khmer Rouge Army, who were primarily uneducated and poor youth from the countryside. The government sought to brainwash the population by keeping them in poor health and physical exhaustion, eliminating the family structure along with ancient traditions and cultures, and creating complete “equality” of the people. In four years, the Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population, approximately two million people, through starvation, disease, exhaustion, or brutal murder through axes, batons and guns.

“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”- popular phrase of the Khmer Rouge

In Phnom Penh, I had the opportunity to visit Cambodian Living Arts and meet Arn Chorn-Pond, a man who survived the genocide in his teens by playing music and entertaining Khmer soldiers. Today, Arn lives in Phnom Penh and runs Cambodian Living Arts, which is preserving and celebrating Cambodia’s artistic history that was almost eliminated by the Khmer Rouge.

Learning about any genocide always makes me ask questions. How do human beings reach the point of ultimate intolerance for individuality and other ways of life? Why was Vietnam the only country to fight the Khmer Rouge, even though it was in the process of reconstructing its own war-torn country? Where are fanatical organizations seizing power today and what are WE doing to stop these atrocities on our fellow human beings? It is easy to ignore injustice when it is not in your immediate life, but understanding the situation and taking action is what makes differences.


Please listen to my podcast to learn about my home stays and experiences in Ecuador along with my research project of how geography intimately influences Ecuadorian culture! (Podcast attached to email)

Additionally in Ecuador, I studied education’s role within international development; shadowing English teachers enlightened me on the correlating issues that exist within the American education system and in developing countries. First, lack of funding for public schools in Ecuador has especially led to dilapidated school buildings and under-educated teachers, both which make it more difficult for students to see the value of an academic education. Similarly in the United States, poor quality schools in economically-poor communities fuel a continuous cycle of poverty. Failing education systems continue to fuel poverty across the globe. Additionally, an Ecuadorian teacher’s primary job is to relay information from a textbook to the students; this style of teaching along with the expectation for students to sit in straight rows, copy information and ask NO questions serves a small niche of learning styles. Students who prosper in this oppressive system are considered the model for intelligence and success in the United States and Ecuador. Seeing the challenges that this standard classroom structure creates has made me conclude that perhaps it is not that education is not for everyone, but the way schools are designed do not stimulate people’s desire to learn. Most importantly, I’ve been inspired to learn and see how education has the potential to develop communities and individuals and promote cultural understanding. I feel incredibly grateful to my many teachers who have guided me to think critically and independently and open my mind to infinite possibilities. Next year as a first year at Occidental College, I plan to continue studying international education.


My sixth months abroad concluded with an unforgettable four day backpacking adventure on the Inca trails to Machu Picchu. Gazing at the breathtaking stone cities in the midst of thick jungle on steep cliff sides, I am reminded of humanity’s profound drive to overcome obstacles, work together and create changes. Let us not forget all that we have accomplished and all that we still have to learn!

As always, I am incredibly grateful for the support you have given me in my mission to learn about the world and work toward positive change. While my emails cannot convey all of my emotions and experiences, I hope they do convey a sliver of the extensive amount I am learning and the inspiration that I feel from each of my experiences. Thank you for your support in these final two weeks of the program!

All the Best,

John Hammer

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