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