Friday, June 27, 2008

Alice, Tom, Professor Rahtz and I recently took a trip to a small remote village about 30km outside of the city, down a long dirt road that was bumpier than anything found at Busche gardens. We went with a Shinta Mani group who wanted to check out the land to determine what types of facilities it could hold. As you will see, the village is in dire need of proper school buildings.

We were greeted with a grand reception of all the village's women and children. These two women are the oldest in the village, 79 and 77 years old. We offered them packages of clothing before entering the school.
The one-room school house was constructed out of old wood and dried banana leaves. There were holes in the walls, and the children were packed inside very tightly.

This is only the morning session, mind you. More children will come to school in the afternoon.

The children were all very well behaved, sitting bewildered, trying to recite the English greetings they had learned only hours before, clapping very mechanically as if they had never done so before.
We passed out candy to the children, each politely saying "thank you" and taking only one piece that we placed in their small, grateful hands.

Professor Rahtz had bought loaves of bread to hand out the the villagers. Some of the smaller ones were so hungry they devoured the bread before we could leave. They were very thankful for our gifts; not often do you find a loaf of bread winning so sincere of a "thanks".

Eventually we said our goodbyes and made the long trip back home. Not to sound cliche, but it was certainly an eye opening experience. Not only did we witness the dynamics of the country Cambodian culture, but we got to see first hand the poverty of the Cambodian people. It is amazing how little can make such a huge impact on the lives of these people. Sometimes just a smile is enough for these people who have seen more fighting and killing in their recent history than loaves of bread.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ready or not, here they come!

In Cambodia, because there are so many children and not enough schools, at most schools, school days are split into two shifts. Students attend either morning or afternoon school. Teachers usually only teach for one shift. At Wat Bo, this is no different.

When the teachers heard I was at the school this morning to hook up the Internet, several could hardly wait to learn. They approached me and immediately began working out a plan for when they could learn and how many could come.

It took a couple of hours to determine what was going on with the computers, the Internet, and what our priorities were. By their nature, Cambodians are very big planners and quickly get so bogged into minutia that nothing ever gets done. A planner myself, I recognize (and appreciate) this trait, but Cambodians really do take planning to the next level! We had to sit around and discuss, through only a rough interpreter, what had been done, what was to be done, and what we needed to do. I am confident that by the time our planning meeting was over, nobody had an earthly clue what was going on--myself included!

Another aspect of Cambodian culture I am getting used to is a siesta-like midday break. From 11-2 it is hard to get anyone to do anything. School breaks from 11-1, and so we left for lunch at 11:30, not very much farther than where we had been to start the day. To my surprise, after lunch there were four teachers waiting in the computer lab. I had said at the planning meeting we would not be ready to train until Monday! The computer was set up in a makeshift place, arranged in such a way that we could test the Internet cable’s function. The teachers did not care. Neither should I, I thought. There will be plenty of time to get this all hooked up.

We spent four hours covering Google, Yahoo!, and YouTube. YouTube is a fantastic resource for learn-to-speak English videos for kids, it turns out. They were riveted. Next, I showed them how to sign up for email at Yahoo! They had no idea, so I showed them first, and then let them do it themselves. In the photo (thanks, Laurie!) I am explaining how to use Yahoo! to search for things. Later, I turned the mouse over and let them explore a bit on their own.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rainy season?

The thunder head I am watching build while I write this entry, and the street scene outside the guesthouse.
The past two days, massive thunderhead clouds have built, but no storms have come. There has been no rain. As I type this entry, I am watching a massive cloud build. I have a feeling our luck may be over with this one! It has not rained in 4 days, which is quite rare this time of year. The lack of rain has allowed us to explore places that we otherwise might not have been able to if it were raining.

You simply can not imagine the condition the rain leaves the roads in. If no government officials live on the road, it never gets fixed, and some stretches are very bad. Not only is a vehicle reduced to a crawl by some drive-down-into-them-deep potholes, the ride is so bumpy that you will lose your lunch if you’re not careful! At some points on the road, it is lined with cement posts. This is because when it rains heavily, the road is under water for days or weeks at a time, and the markers tell people where the road is!
The TARA boat I had all to myself
Last night I had dinner at the floating village’s Tara Boat. It was not bad. I was the only one on a 100+ foot dinner boat. (This is the off season, after all.) Needless to say, we stayed anchored. Oh well, I really went along mostly for the pictures of the floating village anyway, and I did get a few although not all the ones I would have liked. My Tara Boat shuttle driver joined me for dinner, and it turned out she was Thai. We talked Thai and watched the sun set behind a massive thunderhead. Not exactly the kind of sunset I was expecting, but a very unique experience to be sure.

Kind of an unconventional sunset, but magnificent nevertheless
Floating Village: a floating convenience store
Another general shot of the early evening floating village activity.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Temple field trip

On our first full day here, Ryan and I accompanied Ponheary and Lori on a fieldtrip with students from one of the Foundation's schools 150 kilometers away. They attend a tiny school in what is less than a village — this visit was their first time seeing real buildings. The trip was funded by a woman from Texas who was in Cambodia for a few days and accompanied the students. Because they are very poor and rarely have much to eat, especially now that the price of rice has increased by nearly 50 percent, we stopped for breakfast before continuing on to the temples. We spent the day touring Angkor Wat, Wat Bayon and Ta Prohm (better known to Westerners as the Tomb Raider temple). It was an incredible experience for the kids, who had never seen anything like these temples. They also spent some time in town where they experienced the novelties of ice cream and escalators.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Wat Bo exam week

Who would have known this is exam week at Wat Bo Primary School? Oh well, like so many other things when you're traveling, you just roll with the punches... I am going to have to wait until after exams to do any work at Wat Bo. This is fruatrating on one hand, because I am anxious to reveal the language lab, but on the other, there is not much I can do because a vital suitcase got lost. So, even if I could get in to the school, I wouldn't have everything I need. The lost suitcase has been found in Calcutta, India, and is due back by Wednesday. It was one Ryan was transporting, not me, FYI.

Uh-oh, this way

One of the two little girls I taught to say 'uh-oh' and 'this way'.
Back at the farmhouse, I grew impatient waiting for the tractor to take its maiden voyage down the path to the farmhouse. The sun was beating down, and the sky was perfect for pictures in the rice fields. I finally decided to just wander off down the trail. Ponheary said it was only about 1 km down the road. I hadn’t gotten very far when two little girls--two and three years old--ran after me. At first, I thought I was crazy to be walking along with two hyper little girls that could not understand a word I said. It turned out to be a blast—and I learned how much communicating a person can do without talking.

The cutest thing was seeing them like curious kittens, stopping to look at bugs, zigzagging across the path and chasing butterflies. I pointed at one and said “butterfly” and they repeated it a couple of times but it was too difficult a word for their mouths.

After not too long, we came across a huge puddle. “Uh-oh,” I said, to be followed only moments later with a chorus from the girls signing “uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh.” Shortly thereafter, we came across the mother of all puddles. To my surprise, they both said “uh-oh!” It was cute, but there was no way of easily getting over this one. So, we backtracked until we met up with the tractor, and hitched a ride on it.

I also taught them to say “This way,” and I would often change directions and say, “this way.” I made a game of it, and before you knew it, the two of them were calling to each other (and me) “This way.”

“They are my bank”

Dara's son. He is 10 and attends an all-English school
Two girls load gas into bottles. These mini gas stations are meant for people with motorbikes.
The tractor we bought for Ponheary's cousin
I miss my dog!
My "plan" called for me to spend a day at the temples, but I found it hard to resist Ponheary’s alternative offer: a ride into the countryside with her family to an area close to the Thai border, about 118 km away. She promised adventure, good times, and all the rice fields I could handle. I was in love with the proposition. Until the moment, that is, the moment I saw the minivan we were all supposed to fit into.

Dara, himself playing the role of tourist, pauses for a picture beneath the charred remains of a jungle tree that was burnt to make way for a rice field. The full picture is better, but I cropped it to make it easier to see his face.In no time, we were off. Here I was, a lone American mixed among 12 Cambodians, packed in a van, and riding into the countryside. It turned out, though, that Ponheary is a great influence on the family. She speaks English, as do her brother Dara and a family friend who joined us for the trip. Dara’s children attend an all-English school, the Cambodian equivalent of private school in America, to the tune of $50 each per month. To a Cambodian, with an average income around $200 per year, a $150 per month expense is proportionately huge. We talked about it; he is not rich, so how could he afford that? He works as a guide, one of the best-playing professions in Siem Reap. “After I pay their school, there is not much left,” he said, continuing after some thought, “They are my bank.”

Our day’s mission was to purchase a tractor for her cousin (who has a large farm) and to look at a small farm that was for sale near the Thai border. Both farms were in Kampuchea Province, most renowned for being the home of the Khmer Rouge. We passed the home of the deceased Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s leader, along the way. It was difficult to see from the road and we did not stop, although lots of finger-pointing and chit-chat was noticeable inside the van as we passed. To this day, Kampuchea has the highest concentration of former Khmer Rouge soldiers. Ponheary is not concerned, but must have seen the look of concern on mine. She whispered in my ear, “It’s OK, they have forgotten how to kill.” We made a very notable stop, that taught me more about Ponheary and the work her foundation does.

In Cambodia, a thumbprint is commonly used in leiu of a signature.  Here a thumb is painted with lipstick and a man will press it onto the paper, declaring he intends to pay back the money he is being given.Our most notable stop, aside from the farmhouse itself, was a village family's house. Among her may humanitarian efforts, one thing Ponheary Ly does with her foundation is give people no-interest microfinance loans. She will give $200, $300, or $400 to a family to help them get the things they need. There is a catch. She has to know how they will spend the money, and requires the loanee to devise a plan for how the money will be used to increase the family's wealth and not just satisfy the immediate problem. And, they have to promise to repay the original amount of the loan. Ponheary does not charge interest, because her goal is merely to help people off their feet. She used to just give the money away, but found that the people never got any better off, and instead continued relying on her financial gifts. Now, taking a loan from Ponheary has to be part of a bigger plan to get yourself out of the hole you're in. She drafts a handwritten contract that parties sign in Khmer fashion--with their thumbprints.

Notes about the flight

Until this most recent trip, if you asked me the difference in planes, I would have had no clue. Now, the differences in plane types is becoming very apparent to me, and reflecting on my flight I have some mental notes I would like to share.

Note to self: Airbus 330 is better than a Boeing 777 for its legroom in the “steerage” area of economy. The seating in a 2-4-2 format (instead of 3-5-3 on a 777) is also much better for those who like windows, as I do. The 6+ extra inches of legroom were all that kept me sane, and there are not massive black TV circuit boxes that chew into ¾ of your feet space on the underside of the seats in front of you as are there are on the 777.

Note to self: 17 straight hours is an INSANE amount of time to fly. Do not do that again: make at least one more stop along the way. Had I been on any other plane than the one I lucked out to get, there would have been no way! First, you have to understand that I fly what I call “steerage” economy, so I usually get packed in the back of the plane like a sardine. Unpleasant, yes, but I am a miser like that, so it suits me fine. I would have needed an asylum, though, had I booked a 17 hour flight on a plane like the 777 I flew when I came over for the Southeast Asian Practicum last winter. My luck aside getting a roomier (yet physically smaller) Airbus 330, the non-stop flight from John F. Kennedy in New York to Bangkok, Thailand was excruciating pain in the legs, restless leg syndrome to the extreme, and butt-falling-asleep kind of discomfort. You know, the kind where you’re shifting positions every 30 seconds.

Waiting for my flight at JFK

An adventure a-waits, and it’s a good thing, because all I do is-wait. Wait to check in, wait to x-ray bags, wait at the terminal.

I ran into a group from Trinity College who were traveling to Bangkok, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh for three weeks as part of a history and photography course. They were in the same boat I had been in—Thai Airways canceled our return flight. Unlike them, however, thanks to Jeff at Legends of Siam Tour Company, I had a confirmed return flight in my pocket, and none of them knew how they were getting home. Could you imagine the stress of getting onto a plane knowing that your return flight no longer exists?