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Writer learns what life is really like 'in the field'

By Andrea Perera

Estela Estoria is a program officer in Oxfam America's East Asia office, located in Phnom Penh. Four times each year, she visits what we call our partner organizations. These are the groups Oxfam funds and provides with technical assistance so they can work to improve the lives of poor people. Sometimes Estela travels to offices in small towns like Cambodia's Banlung. But more often this small woman with a carefully pressed wardrobe, fills a backpack with a couple pairs of cargo pants, a pack of handiwipes, a hammock, a flashlight, and mosquito repellent, and sets off for the field.

Now, "the field" may sound like an exotic place, full of adventure and intrigue. As a Boston-based writer for Oxfam, that's usually what I've experienced during visits to mountain villages in China, rice farms in Cambodia, and coffee farms in Guatemala. Then I spent a week with Estela in late January, traveling to the northeast highlands of Cambodia. The trip gave me a whole new understanding of the sort of challenges Oxfam's dozens of program officers face.

People like Estela work full-time while finishing their PhDs. They leave their home countries—the Philippines, China, Australia, Vietnam—to live in poor communities. They develop not only specialized knowledge but also the people skills to share it. But beyond the impressive credentials and the wealth of experience, theirs is hard, hard work – and it requires a good deal of patience and flexibility. Luckily for Oxfam, program officers like Estela seem to genuinely enjoy what they do. In fact, it's the messy, uncomfortable, generally stressful work they like the most.

The journey

It was a Monday morning, and we were flying north in a chartered plane no bigger than a minivan. Estela was chaperoning photographer Brett Eloff and me during a trip to interview the indigenous people who live near the Sesan and Srepok rivers. We were on our way to Ratanakiri and Stung Treng, Cambodia's least populated provinces, which sit along the Vietnamese and Laotian borders. Brett sat in front with the pilot, Estela and I sat in the middle, and two other passengers sat in the back.

We passed over the snaking Mekong River, the source of life and livelihood for so many Cambodians. Dry rice fields blanketed the ground below.A thick expanse of trees gave way toa patchwork of square fishing plots on the Srepok River.

As we climbed higher, the small plane caught the wind under its wings, skidding a bit atop the clouds. Clutching my seat, I looked over at Estela who gave me an encouraging smile. It was frightening and exhilarating all at once.

Two hours later, the plane touched down on a red-dirt runway doubling as a playground. We loaded our sleeping bags and backpacks into a waiting SUV, and traveled a few miles to the local office of our partner, 3SPN. After a quick PowerPoint presentation and lunch, we were back in the SUV, four of us crammed into the backseat for the two-hour ride to a village in the Taveng District. As we nodded in and out of sleep, our driver artfully navigated the dusty roads, slowing down to maneuver around holes and bumps. By the time we arrived at the village, it was late in the afternoon and the sun was dipping in the sky.

The village

Like many Cambodian villages, Taveng Lou was overrun by livestock. Roosters, chickens, pigs, and water buffalo wandered freely. Giant stilts held up wooden homes with thatched roofs. Children huddled in clusters and stared at outsiders, the smallest kids running around in the buff. Dirt was everywhere, except in the homes, which mothers and daughters meticulously swept clean.

With the light fading and the mosquitoes emerging, we set out on a trek to interview and photograph the villagers. I wanted to talk with the indigenous people who are struggling to maintain their lifestyle despite the construction of a dam upstream in Vietnam. The dam has polluted their drinking water, decimated their fish catch, and wiped out their rice fields.

We hiked to the Sesan River, crossing a suspended bridge rickety enough to test anyone's sense of balance. But when we got to the water, we couldn't find any fishers or farmers. The local people used to depend on the river for their livelihoods. Now, many villagers have simply moved away. Others are spending more and more time trying to supplement their incomes, going deep into the nearby forest to collect honey and rattan to sell.

Kim Sangha, the executive director of 3SPN, told us we'd have to look for people by boat. Getting to the boat, however, required scaling the muddy banks of the river. Estela and I held hands to make it down together. As we stepped into the small fishing canoe, we worried aloud about capsizing it. Before we knew it, though, we were in and on our way. The sun reflected off the water as we motored past sandbars and fishing traps.

Spotting a riverside gardener, we brought the canoe ashore and got to work. Sangha, Estela, and I interviewed the woman, who depends on the natural flow of the river to irrigate her vegetables. The water flow has been erratic since the dam construction. Her gardens have sometimes been flooded and destroyed.

After the interviews, we headed back to the village chief's home to eat and spend the night. When we got there, covered in dust, I remembered what Estela had told me before the trip. No running water in this village. No wells. No pumped water of any kind. We'd have to bathe in the Sesan River.

We walked down to the water. As I leaned against a canoe to balance myself while changing into a sarong, I realized that Estela had no intention of getting in the river. The villagers had told her too many times how dirty the water had gotten since the dams were built. Some reported getting skin diseases.

Given that this was my only source of water, though, I felt like I had no other choice. As I entered the water, Ame Tandem, another 3SPN staffer, warned me that the rocks were slippery, covered with the algae growing uncontrolled since the dams had changed the water's flow. I grabbed her hand as I slithered in. Estela watched us from the shore, using her handiwipes to clean up.

I was cold and feeling ridiculous. Then I looked up. Before me, a sky full of stars. Behind me, the sunset cast an orange glow over the horizon. It was a good way to end a very long day.

Our pocket flashlights guided us back to the village chief's house. We were tired and ready for our beds – sleeping bags under mosquito nets. But Estela informed us that the district chief and his deputy were waiting to speak with us. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But it was the culturally appropriate gesture. So, I did what Estela does every visit. I sat down and listened.

The bumps in the road

The next couple of days were more of the same, long car drives to dusty villages. Somewhere along the way I ate something I shouldn't have, maybe an undercooked vegetable, maybe something else. It was my second bout of food poisoning in five days. On top of that, I was exhausted and irritable. I told Estela I didn't know how she did this all the time.

That Thursday, CEPA, another partner organization that works with river communities, took us on our next trip. By this time, I'd had plenty of experience with the rough, unpaved roads we'd need to travel to get to the next village. So I was surprised when our driver showed up not in a four-wheel drive, but a 1980s Toyota Camry with no air conditioning. As the driver flew down the road, much faster than felt safe, we sat quietly in the backseat, sweating through our clothes. What else could we do? In these situations, Oxfam staff have to just go with the arrangements made for them.

Finally, our driver's recklessness led to the inevitable. While trying to cross a dried-up riverbed too fast, we got a flat tire. We were 11 miles from the village and in the middle of a forest. The driver had a spare, but after changing the tire, he announced that he was leaving us and would like to be paid for the gas required for his trip back home.

My patience exhausted, I started to argue. But Estela stopped me. There was nothing else we could do, she explained. It was better to just pay the man and move on. We ended up laughing in disbelief at our situation as we waited a few hours for another car to pick us up.

And, making the best of things yet again, Estela pulled her hammock out of her backpack, tied it to a tree, and took a nap.

The payoff

By the time we made it back to Phnom Penh on Friday afternoon, I was cranky and feeling weak. All I really wanted to do was stumble into my hotel room, take a shower, and go to bed.

It took the weekend to get over my food illness. When I arrived at Oxfam's Phnom Penh office Monday morning, I was still shaky, and quite itchy from mosquito bites. But there was Estela, bustling about, neatly dressed in a pretty linen skirt and blouse.

She told me she was getting ready to leave for Vietnam the next day. Watching her run around the office, trying to secure her entrance visa and finalize last-minute details, I was astounded. A week in the rough had worked me over. Estela seemed invigorated by it, and eager for more.

"Going to the field keeps me energized," she explained. "I love talking to the local people, hearing their stories and experiencing their culture. No matter how difficult their situations, they always seem to not only survive, but live happily. The trips inform my work – and they remind me why I came to Oxfam in the first place."