January 2011 - Cambodia
This is a country of so many paradoxes and our journey has been an uplifting experience for all.
Unsteadily, we walk down echoing, grey tiled corridors towards a row of tall hats peeking over the visa application counter in the arrivals hall at Phnom Penh airport. We are expected to hand over our passport to have it whisked away, trusting that it will be passed down the line and returned for the price of $20. There is something different about this place. Outside, we are greeted by the low buzz from flocks of motorbikes weaving around chugging lorries and there is the hint of cooking fires wafting in on the breeze. “Hell-o Mister, you want TukTuk?” with an unsettling emphasis on “Hell”. At the hotel, there is a fellow squatting over a mass of wires protruding from a dark hole. The beaming receptionist seems delighted to confide in us that the rats have eaten the telephone wires. My compass realignment is complete – this is Cambodia. How can I respond to this apparent naive honesty? “Ah well... we must make sure they don’t get so hungry” is the best I can come up with! The 20 in our group gradually arrive at the Golden Gate, looking pale and a little disorientated. Pizza on the roof in the evening provides something vaguely familiar and a few beers ease the throat. Next day it is up early and onto bicycles. We split into two groups, the more ambitious taking on the traffic of Phnom Penh – something like being in a giant snowball fight where the snowballs are bigger than you and made of steel. No time to think too hard, live in the moment and go with instinct – no room for hesitation. One of our members is out of practice it seems, as we are waved off down the first bowling alley – Oh no, was this in the risk assessment plan? Fortunately our guide, Smey, has her into the van before a snowball gets her, and she is off to join us later on safer byways. Our first few days are about orientation. Cambodia now - where the context is dominated by the bestial brutality that has so badly scarred all those who today may be no older than 20. There are encounters with students at the university and the staff at the vocational training school and the first of our many visits to the villages that make up rural life and account for 85% of the population. Only 15% of people here live in urban areas. In this village we have our first encounter with the Cambodia that we wish so desperately, could have more choices. The village includes one of the mini-schools and a number of families we are supporting through funding repairs, teacher costs and rice scholarships. The Aussie teachers take some time to do some planning while the rest of us, armed with scythes and rakes, get to, clearing the land around the school to be used as a playground. Next is the early morning bus to Battambang. Twenty foreigners plus their baggage loaded for a 6.30 departure presents its own challenges, but we make it unscathed and six hours later are again checked into a hotel. That afternoon comes the serious business of getting ready for the first workshops. There are to be 99 teachers and we need to split them into four groups and prepare their stationery packs and materials. Our Australian teachers are looking a little apprehensive as they talk through the programme with the translators whom they have just met for the first time. Fortunately, the translators’ English is fantastic and they put the Australians at ease. That evening the dancers come to perform in a greeting ceremony to mark the arrival of all the teachers who have come to participate in the workshops over the next three days. It is a time for everyone to learn. The Australians begin to relax into their roles and start building relationships. Meanwhile, the Australian non-teachers go out to more villages and try their hand at construction, Khmer style. More of an amusement value to the onlookers, it is the children who are a real hit, chasing the little ones who soon lose their fear of these giants and sit in their laps to draw and colour. We also visit the school SeeBeyondBorders has funded the construction of, now just complete. From under a wooden house to a solid brick building, the transformation is incredible and we are all a little tearful. The teacher and his son are in the workshops and they talk to us about their own amazement and sense of thankfulness at the opportunity for their village. We can only be humbled by the sincerity of their gratitude and commitment to their own community. Their journey is one of years of hard work to secure the best possible future for their children. There is a break on Sunday to do the cooking course and visit the local sites. That afternoon it is goodbye to all those who have worked so hard to make the workshops in Battambang possible. A three hour bus trip and we are in Siem Reap, third centre of activities in our programme. The nerves about doing the workshops are replaced by a sense of expectation – we can do this! Nearly another 100 teachers, mostly from rural schools where it is difficult to encourage city trained teachers to settle, are to be with us. Their education levels are poor, but their enthusiasm is contagious. The non teachers help with constructing a house that we have funded for a family where the father is a landmine victim. A missing leg is no impediment to his sitting on the new rafters and nailing down his roof. We also visit a floating village – well not exactly floating – just on very tall legs so as to clear the highest water levels. With the water levels currently quite low, these houses are now a severe hazard for the young children and temporary shelters at ground level currently house many whole families. The stories of their lives are harrowing. One father tells us how there used to be eight children in his family, but there are now only four after the others all died from gastroenteritis. What can you say? None of these adults we talk to have had an education beyond grade one, if they even attended school. The deprivation is heart wrenching. The final closing ceremony for the workshops has many of us in tears. The Khmer teachers bring up flowers for their Australian teachers in a gesture of thanks and appreciation which moves us to the core. It is us who are so grateful for their gentle and enthusiastic presence, as well as for their laughter and sense of fun as they participate unreservedly in the songs and games for later use with their own students. Who would have guessed that they could all be gone so quickly and peacefully? And then it is the final day, a day in which we make time to watch the sun both rise and fall in all its splendour over this bewitching country. There is time to marvel at the majesty of the Angkor temples as well as the cost of their construction and the legacy they have embodied in the minds of subsequent rulers. This is a country of so many paradoxes. Our journey has been an uplifting experience for all, rich with hope and yet marked by the sting of the reality behind the gorgeous smiles. We know now and we cannot stand idly by.
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