Saturday, June 28th – Monday, June 30th

Saturday:

For our final full day in Siem Reap, we spent our time at Angkor Wat.  From Wikipedia, “Angkor Wat was first a Hindu, then subsequently a Buddhist, temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. The temple was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.  The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture.  It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.”

It was amazing.  Massive.  Hard to imagine how long it took to build.  To move all that stone.  To dig a huge moat.  Tremendous amount of work.  And Angkor Wat isn’t the only temple….it is one of many in a large complex of temples located over many miles square.

Luckily we had a tour guide to help contextualize what we were seeing.  We walked.  Climbed.  Imagined.  Listening.  Peered.  Touched.  By early afternoon, everyone was pretty wiped out from all the walking and hanging around in the sun.

But then, elephants.  Everyone rode an elephant!  That was the cherry on top!

Back to the Hotel, showers, and then out to our final dinner.  While eating we enjoyed some traditional Khmer dancing on stage just feet from our table!

Final night market shopping, and then Evening Meeting.  For our final reflection, we exchanged friendship bracelets, and everyone shared “what they learned from our trip that they will be taking with them on their next adventure.”  A sense of adventure.  Desire to look behind the scenes.  Embracing discomfort.  Openness.  Language.  Willingness to engage and listen.  And on and on.  It was a very moving and profound final reflection!

Sunday-Monday:

Travel day(s).  Big time.

7:00a departure from Siem Reap in minivans to Phnom Penh.  Road trip!  9 hours later we rolled into the airport in the country capital city.

7:30p flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok.  Dinner.

1:35a (Monday) flight from Bangkok to Dubai.  Lots of stomach upset and rumbling.  Everyone needing sleep and hydration.

9:00a (Monday) flight from Dubai to Boston.  And into the welcoming arms of the United States!

It is hard to describe how amazing this trip has truly been.  With a perfect balance of time spent in the “cities” of Cambodia, and the “villages” of Cambodia – everyone has really connected with modern day Cambodian culture.  We listened, learning, shared and connected.  We helped to build a fence and paint a mural.  We helped to build a house in the floating village.  We did so many things, but generally speaking we travelled outside of our comfort zones to a place that bestows gifts to those willing to look and feel with an open heart.

Thank you to everyone that supported our adventure.  It has been transformational!  Ask your sons and daughter to tell you their stories.  Don’t accept, “I liked it,” or “It was good,” or “It so hard to describe.”  Push them.  Listen to them.  Help them bring forth the rich memories from their minds!

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Wednesday, June 25th – Friday, June 27th

Wednesday:

After a relatively early start, everyone had some time to explore the tourist markets in downtown Siem Reap.  Around noon – during a downpour – we packed up the vans and made our way to a local wharf where Rustic’s boat was waiting for us!

Once aboard we pushed off into Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake.  From Wikipedia, “The Tonlé Sap is a combined lake and river system of major importance to Cambodia. The Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and is an ecological hot spot that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997.”

We drove along the northeastern coast line for two hours en route to the floating village we planned to stay in for the next couple days.  We passed a handful of other floating villages during our voyage.  The “seas” were a little choppy and the winds were blowing enough that people were actually cold!  First time on the trip!  We arrived in the floating village around 3:30p.

It really is hard to describe what these villages look like.  I certainly had never seen anything even remotely like them before.  When I post pictures, it will be easier to understand!  People live in floating houses on the water…on the banks of the lake.  One story – in some cases multi-room – houses made of some combination of wood, bamboo, aluminum and rope.  Most families in the village have a motorboat (VERY LOUD) of some kind to get around – and most families have smaller wooden canoes.

After arriving in the village, we got settled at our home stay.  The girls stayed in one house, and the boys another.  The houses were separated by a fenced in alligator pit with 26 alligators.  Floating alligator pit.  Pretty amazing setup, actually.  In addition to their home, most village families have an alligator pit.  They farm them, eat them and sell their skins in the market.

After a tasty dinner and reflection during Evening Meeting, everyone settled into their foam mattresses on the floor of our respective guest houses – rocked to sleep by the subtle waves from the lake just outside.

Thursday:

Everyone was pretty much up by 4:00a.  It was an early morning.  Just beyond the walls of our guest houses, the local farmers were revving their motorboat engines in preparation for the day’s harvest.  It sounded like someone had an engine blasting at full throttle just inches from our heads.  Endless.  For.  An.  Hour.  It sounded like someone was doing donuts in a motorboat.  And when one engine’s sound would tail off….another would take it’s place.  Right around 5:00a, it seemed we might be saved – and sleepy time could return – because most motors were in the distance.  But just as the motorboat sound drifted away, the local loudspeaker prayer (which would continue for 24-hours nonstop) began for the day.  Prayers, singing, community announcements – all day long.  Everyone in the village was held hostel – nowhere to hide – by this auditory stimulus barrage.  Many of us laughed at these cultural phenomenons.  Everyone was tired!

And so after an early breakfast, we boarded the boat again and made our way to the work site.  We spent the better part of the morning working to erect the structural foundation for a local family’s house.  Funded by our trip, Rustic bought the materials (wood, tools, nails) to build a home for a family in need.  A group before ours installed the wooden floor boards.  It was our task to build and erect the structure.  Many hands.  Lots of hammering.  By lunch time it was up!

After lunch the students taught English at the local (floating) Elementary School.  Fresh off their first teaching experience earlier in the week, the students did an amazing job!  Head, shoulders, knees and toes.  Colors.  Animals.  Numbers.  Duck, duck, goose.  Lots of laughter and connection.

After teaching, we ventured to land for the first time (in a couple days) for a boys vs. girls volleyball game.  In a few short weeks, all that “coastal” land will be submerged in 30+ vertical feet of rising monsoon rainy season waters.  Indeed all the local buildings in that area (on land and close to the Tonle Sap floating villages) sit on massive wooden stilts!

Dinner, Evening Meeting.  Goodnight to the crocodiles.

Friday:

We got some early morning loudspeaker again – and – some motorboat engine craziness, but it was a little more manageable.

Breakfast.  Thank you’s and goodbye’s.  Back on board and ready for the 2 hour boat ride back to our Siem Reap port.  Everyone was pretty wiped out for the sun and lack of sleep.  People took showers at the Hotel, caught up on sleep and did some early afternoon market shopping.

Dinner together and then we spent the evening at an amazing local circus/acrobatics show.  Check out this LINK for more information on the organization.  Amazing talent.  Awe-inspiring.  Energizing.  It was an awesome way to end the day!

Back at the Hotel and we finished the day with a profoundly reflective Evening Meeting.

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Thursday, June 19th – Tuesday, June 24th

There is a lot of ground to cover in this post, but I will attempt to be brief and informative!

Thursday:
Leaving the comfort of our Phnom Penh Hotel, we climbed into our two minivans and made the three hour drive northeast into the Cambodian countryside. One of the first things we noticed was Cambodia’s complete lack of topographical diversity. Everything was flat. Paved roads. Dirt roads. Hot temperatures. Palm trees. Rubber trees. Rice fields. Not a hill or a mountain in sight. About halfway into our trip we stopped at a road-side market and everyone had the option to try some cooked tarrantuals. Some did, most didn’t. There were also baby birds cooked in their shells, grasshoppers, silk worms and snakes. Personally, I had a hot tea and watched from a distance. We reached our village’s provincial town by lunch time and had a more appetizing set of choices. Afterwards we spent time in a local market picking up second hand work clothes, and then completed the 30-minute drive into the village.

The village we spent time in was poor, very poor – by Western standards. Dirt roads. No trash system. Half-naked kids. Wooden homes. Flies. Misquotes. No shoes. No electricity. Pigs, cows, chickens all living in close quarters with the village population. Stagnate water systems. Bucket showers. Holes in the ground for toilets. In many ways, our five days in the village were like living in the backcountry during a camping trip.

The people we met, however were warm, welcoming and always smiling. People constantly offered us food and hospitality. The village children were shy for about two minutes, but very quickly their curiosity got the best of them and we were all playing soccer in a village road.

After arriving and settling in (we stayed in two local homes – side by side), we took a walk to the local elementary school. We surveyed our work projects – cleaning up trash and completing a fence around the school – and then found some shade to get a break from the heat. After dinner, we met as a group for Evening Meeting and we talked about our hopes for the week in the village.

Friday:
Most everyone was awake by 5:00a because a member of the village community decided to play some very loud music to start the day with the rising sun! Anything that required electricity – music systems, lights, water pumps – all run off car batteries. There aren’t very many in the village, but they are there. And when they are fully used, their owners cart them into town for a re-juicing. In any event, after an early morning we ate breakfast (prepared by a local member of the community), and headed off the school for work.

The first step in the fence project was digging holes for the fence posts. We probably dug half the holes that first morning (25 of 50). Each hole was about a foot to a foot and a half deep by two feet square. It was tough, hot work with limited tools. Shovels, coconut shells, crowbars, pick axes. The ground was loose in places, but mostly rocky and criss-crossed with roots. Once some of the holes were dug, we started to mix cement. Sand, rocks, water and cement mix. Heavy, hot work.

Also that first morning, our group (with the help of the school children (100+) walked around their school grounds picking up trash. Our students were dismayed to realize that their wasn’t any place to put this trash – no trash system. The village children showed them (our students) their way which was to make a big pile and burn it. Plastic, paper, cardboard, tin – everything – all thrown into a big pile in the center of the school grounds and burned. The smell wasn’t pleasant.

After lunch and an extended siesta (it was very hot), we started back up at the school with the fence work – and we started thinking about painting a mural on one of the school’s outside walls. After some deliberation, we settled on painting a world map. We created a supplies’ list and a group of students went into town to pick up the paint, markers, paint brushes, etc to make this project come to life.

And then right around 3:30p it rained. Hard. The weather/heat broke and a cleansing downpour rained down on everyone. Work continued, in the rain – and our students and the local kids ran around like crazy people playing chase in the rain. It was a wonderful end to the work day.

Back at the house we all took bucket showers and went into town to watch some local students perform traditional Khmer dancing. Their dancing was delightful and smooth. After their “show,” they invited us on stage to dance with them. With the rain storm building in the back ground, a massive and electrifying dance party ensued! Back in the village for Evening Meeting, our group reflected on the day and answered the question, “Why are you here…?”

Saturday:
7:00a breakfast. At the school working by 8:00a.

Continuing to work on the fence project – digging holes, placing poles, mixing cement for the holes. Slow and steady progress. The world map project starting to take shape. A blue background was painted and latitude/longitude lines were drawn in permanent marker.

Lunch. Siesta. Hot. Back working in the afternoon.

Before dinner we walked to the local Buddhist monastery and met with their monks. Lots of bowing, praying, asking questions. Lots of just taking in the wonder of the place. After our chat, the monks (who didn’t speak any English) led us in a 20-minute mediation and chanting session. Very cool. At the conclusion of the ceremony, each member of the group was called forth and had a red string tied onto their wrists by the head monk. The red string symbolizes good health, peace and prosperity. As we wandered outside after the “monk chat,” they led us in another meditation exercise – this time it was a walking mediation.

We walked home through the rice fields as a tremendous wind and rain storm swept in. Beautiful. During Evening Meeting that evening we checked in about how everyone was feeling, and introduced our public feedback process which focuses on creating a space for group concerns and affirmations to come out, if need be.

Sunday: 
The group made tremendous progress on the mural, completed the bulk of the sketching and painting work. It looks amazing….a powerful resource for their school. Fence posts and chain link fence are just about complete – just a few remaining hours needed on Monday.

Another rain storm swept in during the afternoon – which is more and more common as Cambodia enters their rainy season. We had an early dinner and then went into town for some ice cream. Back at the village, we had Evening Meeting outside as the southern skies’ stars shined down on our group.

Monday:
Last full day in the village.

Finished up all projects. Fence looks amazing. Tremendous amount of work. World map is awesome. Students, teachers and community members all spending time looking at it and wondering about the world the live in. Very cool!

For our final evening, we went into town and the group was split up into 4 smaller groups to teach an hour-long English lesson in one of the local (larger) schools. Name game. Colors. Parts of the body. Animals. Stressful but useful….our students learning that teaching can be tough, but rewarding.

After teaching English we had our final dinner out in town, and had Evening Meeting at the restaurant. We reflected our the value of the work we did in the village, and each member of the group shared a “special moment” from their experience in the last five days. It is hard to do those vignettes justice here in the blog – in written form – but they were insightful, heartfelt and powerful.

Tuesday:
Got up around 6a, packed up, cleaned up and eat breakfast. Loaded into the vans and drove over to the Elementary School to say goodbye to the members of the village. And although it was tough to say goodbye to all the children, our group felt grateful for the time we spent in the village. It was transformational for many of us – in many different ways.

Turning our attention to the road, we started our six-hour drive northwest to Siem Reap. Dirt roads. Paved roads. Driving on both sides of the road. Trucks. Cars. People walking. Motor bikes. Development in progress. It was bumpy and sweaty over a flat Cambodian “highway.” We stopped for lunch at the halfway mark, and made it into our Siem Reap hotel around 3:30p.

Some downtime until a 6:30p dinner in town, and then everyone had a couple hours to shop in the local markets. During Evening Meeting we reflected on the transition from village to city-life.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) we head back into the village – a new village for us. Adjacent to Siem Reap is the Tonle Sap Lake. We are going to be spending two nights living and working in a floating village on the Lake. House construction and village immersion are our goals for the next two days….all while living on boats floating on the river. Should be a wild ride!

We will back in Siem Reap on Friday afternoon/evening….and I will update the blog again, then!

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Quick check-in Sunday night: June 22nd

Sitting in a cafe 30 minutes from our village.  We jumped in for the evening for a little ice cream!  Lots of details to share (since Wednesday), but only a limited time to update the blog.  On Tuesday night (coming) we will be in Siem Reap, and I will have more time to write a proper day-by-day update.  For now, let Sadie’s pictures do the talking!

Everyone is healthy, happy and working hard.  It has been hot, but also rainy in the afternoons.  We are just about done making a fence at the local elementary school, and recently started a mural project.  Again, lots to say….more update on Tuesday night.

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Day Four: Wednesday, June 18th

We awoke this morning to a mellow blue-skied Phnom Penh.  Most people slept through the night in an effort to battle the 11-hour time change – almost all woke up before 6a.  We were served breakfast from 6:30a-9a on the roof of our hotel – The Salita – which overlooks the city.  Tons of choices, all eaten with a smooth breeze.

We spent the morning and early afternoon immersed in Cambodia history – especially focused on the evil of the Khmer Rouge.  Our first stop was just down the street from our hotel, S-21 – a school turned torture prison in 1974.  We walked from room to room and building to building listening to our tour guide explain – in context – what each room’s purpose was 40 years ago.  We listened, imagined and shuddered.

The original torture tools are still there.  The beds are still there.  Blood-stained floors.  Pictures.  Descriptions.  It was painful.  Overwhelming.  During the course of our tour, we spent time with the only two survivors (there were 7 in 1979) of S-21.  So many questions to ask.  Both men were “spared” the full evil of the Khmer Rouge because they were tapped for indentured servitude…one was an artist responsible for making propaganda…and the other, a mechanic…responsible for fixing the very tools central in the killings.  Today, both were selling books, telling their stories and taking pictures – all on the same prison grounds.

Beyond the stories and the experience of being “there,” at S-21 this morning was the question….why?  Why did Cambodians do these things to Cambodians?  How could they?  What drove them?  And how could this of happened so recently?  Those questions brought up other questions…and we chewed on them as we drove into the countryside to spend some time at one of the 400+ Killing Fields.

Killing fields were mass execution sites – and then, graves.  Between 1974-1979, Cambodians were brought to these locations for one purpose – murder.  They were political prisoners, educated people, exhausted farm workers, dissenters, revolutionaries.  They were children.  They were sons, daughters, moms and dads.  They were Cambodians that the Khmer Rouge didn’t want alive – and therefore, killed.  No one escaped these fields.  No one escaped the prisons.  People were dropped off at night, counted and murdered on their knees on the edge of deep pits.  The executions were brutal.  Metal poles.  Bamboo poles.  Wooden sticks.  Knives.  Clubs.  Standing tree stumps.  No bullets, though.  The Khmer Rouge didn’t waste ammunition on herded non-enemies.

When we reached the Killing Field’s front gate each person was given a set of headphones and an audio player that set them on a 1-2 hour walking tour of the grounds.  Everyone took their time walking around and breathing in the truth of the place.  In the last 15 years, all of the mass graves have been exhumed, catalogued, identified and placed in a Memorial Stupa on the grounds.  But even though the graves are empty, they aren’t fully empty.  During the rainy season, bone fragments, teeth and pieces of cloth rise to the surface.  We stepped around some of these objects today.

In Evening Meeting tonight, we all checked in with reflections on the morning’s exposure to the past.  Sadness.  Overwhelm.  The power of unintended consequences.  Evil.  Gratitude for learning.  Violence.  Peace.  The power of love and compassion.  The consequences of wiping out the educated and skilled for what is possible for Cambodia by Cambodians today.  Generational setback.  Shame.  Resilience.  Forgiveness.

Returning to town from the Killing Fields, we had lunch at a local market and then had some time to go shopping.  After some successful bargaining, we had a little down time at the Hotel, and then we went back out on a Sunset Cruise – which culminated in a fireworks display on the riverside in honor of Cambodia’s Queen’s birthday.

And then dinner.  We celebrated Taylor’s birthday with a couple songs (from the restaurant staff), and a wonderfully tasty cake.  Back to the Hotel and we concluded the day with evening meeting.

Tomorrow we head into the village.  There isn’t any electricity, so it will be a handful of days before I can post again on the blog.

The content was heavy today, but the students were amazing.  We were all very impressed with their reverence and appreciation.  The quality of their reflections and insight this evening during our meeting was profound.  The group is bonding….their continued desire to learn and dig-in is impressive!

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In Cambodia

After many hours of traveling in the sky, we landed safely in Cambodia.  Paperwork, visas, customs, immigration, currency exchange, meeting up with Keegan from Rustic. We piled into two minibuses and traveled downtown through 70s-style-looking Phnom Penh.  Lots of shops, people, motorbikes, construction, western billboards advertising soda, gas and the World Cup.

Our group is tired, but delighted.  Curious and careful.  Eager to learn and listen.  Our trip has just begun.

After freshening up in the Hotel, we are going to travel to the riverside for some food and temple visits.  And then, later, evening meeting….and some much needed horizontal sleep.

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Tuesday, June 17th

Just landed in Bangkok, and picked up our tickets for our flight to Cambodia. Everything is going swimmingly. Bangkok Airport is bright, calm and very mellow. Seems like we have been traveling for days!

Looking forward to the next leg of the journey, and settling into Cambodia.

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