In December 2014 I casually asked a workmate what he was doing for the Christmas holidays. "I'm flying to Siem Reap tomorrow to teach at a school for the next six weeks" was his response. And thus crystallised the plans for the last stage of our 2015 adventure. We have visited Cambodia twice before; in 2008 with our youngest daughter, as part of a package tour of Vietnam and Cambodia, then on our own in July 2012 as our school holiday break from the dreary Melbourne winter. We love Cambodia and wanted to return to do some volunteer work, to contribute something to this very poor country and connect more closely with its people. I asked Dermot to let me know how things went, and based on his experience, we might make this school our destination in October 2015. Dermot sent me regular photos, videos and emails about his time in Siem Reap and he came over to visit us after he returned. Both music teachers, Dermot and I could work closely together on a program to offer these children some music education and a cultural experience otherwise not possible. This did indeed eventuate, as when Dermot visited us at home in March 2015, he announced his intention to write a musical that the whole school would put on in January 2016. He would visit the school again in July and September, to start teaching the songs, then send me the music to continue teaching his songs in October/November, and he would return in December with some assistants to put together the final rehearsals and performance in January.
We flew into Siem Reap on Tuesday October 20th, having spent one night in Kuala Lumpur after our overnight flight from Kathmandu. Malaysia airlines put us up in a hotel in KL, because they had changed the flight schedule, preventing us from making a direct connection to Siem Reap the same day. The hotel was very nice, but it wasn't in the city, instead we were driven from the airport for around 45 minutes through the countryside to a town outside of KL. The smog from the Indonesian fires was still very thick, with no sun visible at all, so we were glad to only be there for 24 hours.
Having visited so many new places this year, there was a sense of comfort and familiarity in returning to Siem Reap, which we know quite well. The driver who picked us up from the airport gave us his card and told us about other day trips out of town that he could take us on, as we have already visited all the temples in the vicinity of Angkor Wat.
That afternoon we set off on a walk to find the school, using the map the school had provided. We walked down a long, dusty road, past other schools marked on the map, but could not find the one we were supposed to start teaching at the following morning. We asked a couple of people, including staff at one of the other schools, but no one had a clue. It all seemed rather odd, and we wondered how we were going to turn up for work the next morning if we couldn't locate it. We returned to our hotel and I emailed Dermot and Tom, our contact at the school. By the time we returned from dinner, both had emailed back to give more specific directions. We had almost found it! There was just one little side street we needed to turn up, which wasn't on the map. Tom explained that the school is not sign posted in order to protect the children; they don't want strangers just dropping in.
In Cambodia the safety of children has become very important and very difficult to guarantee. Some orphanages and schools can be irresponsible in their obligation to protect children from abuse and emotional distress caused by tourists visiting with misplaced or more sinister intentions. It is for this reason that we have had to go through an application process, with detailed documentation to be volunteer teachers, proving that we have passed police checks in Australia, supplying detailed information about ourselves, and reading and signing comprehensive documentation on the do's and don'ts of working with children in Cambodia. They are all the usual things we know and do as teachers already; no personal friendships outside school, including social media, no favouritism, no gifts for individual children, fair and appropriate discipline. In addition are Cambodia specific requirements such as wearing appropriate clothing; no sleeveless clothes (no bra straps showing), clothes must cover from neck to knees, two adults must be with a child at all times, and vigilance about child abusers must be maintained at all times.
We arrive at 7.30am on our first day; Wednesday October 21. The school consists of a row of simple huts, the walls open a foot below the ceiling, an open doorway, wooden desks and a whiteboard at the front with a fan above. The staff room is a shed housing the library, a desk, a few chairs and all of the school's teaching resources. Long, the Cambodian head teacher, shows us around and explains the school's history. This school ABCs and Rice, was established around ten years ago by a Canadian woman, for children whose families are so poor they normally keep their children at home to work on the farm, or send them out to beg. Many children come from abusive, dysfunctional families, and Iive with a grandparent or some other relative. The school provides all the children's educational needs, breakfast, lunch, medical and dental care, and gives each child a bag of rice to take home once a month. This is payment in food for the family so that the child can continue to come to school. As a non government school, it relies on fund raising, donations and volunteers, although the regular classroom teachers are Cambodian, and paid a salary. But they rely on people like ourselves to volunteer, to provide specialist programs such as Art, PE and Music, to help with English acquisition and to donate resources during our stay.
We are pointed in the direction of our first classes; I will take Music classes, continuing to teach the songs that the children started with Dermot when he was here in September. When there are no music classes scheduled I will work as an English assistant, helping with reading, pronunciation, grammar, spelling etc. David has the same job description, only his specialty is PE, so he is working outside in the hot sun for a lot of the time. My first class is tricky; Dermot has sent audio recordings of two songs he wants me to teach, and the idea is that I plug my iPad into speakers they have at the school. What we haven't factored in however, is that I have an iPad mini, so the connecting plug is too big. I end up singing unaccompanied without the recording. The song is about Australia, and I have downloaded some images to show the children; kangaroos, emus, wombats, penguins, koalas, and the opera house, to name a few. Five minutes into the lesson, their Cambodian teacher, Houk whispers in my ear " Speak slower!". Of course, I should remember I am gabbling away instructions and information in their second language. I slow down, and take care to show pictures and explain things clearly. I show them YouTube clips of Australian rules football, cricket, an Aborigine playing a didgeridoo, penguins at Philip Island. Fifteen pairs of eyes stare unblinking at my iPad, riveted by these amazing scenes of Australia. What did we do before the Internet?
After the first lesson the ice is broken, and I get into a pattern; teaching the same lesson with each class. I gradually add more songs to their repertoire as they quickly learn each one. For the most part the children are enthusiastic and fast learners; attentive, focused and excited about learning. Some classes are more engaged than others, and at night David and I discuss the teachers who work well with the children to create highly motivated and disciplined learners. I show the children a YouTube clip of a boomerang being thrown, as the chorus of the song about Australia is "Like a boomerang I'll be back" and I show them some photos of a range of boomerangs, with different colours and designs. I then hand each child a piece of paper with an outline of a boomerang and tell them to colour it in with their own design and colours. This activity is very popular, and almost immediately the class is silent while they all intently create their boomerang design. All the teachers are called "Cha" (short for 'teacher') and as they finish I have children tugging at my skirt, grabbing my arm and tapping my shoulder; "Cha, I am finished", "Cha, look at mine!". At the beginning of every class the children stand with hands together, prayer-like, and chorus "welcome teacher, how are you going today?". After I respond, they chorus "Teacher, may we please sit down?". At the end of each lesson they stand again to chant "Thank you teacher for teaching us today. Please may we go to break?". And always a child stays behind and offers to carry the song sheets back to the library.
We teach from 8am - 11am each day, then the students have their lunch at school, and go home. In the afternoon they go to government school. We go back to our hotel for a shower and lunch. The afternoon classes run from 2-5pm. The days are long and it is hot work as the temperature is 32 -34 every day, and the humidity is high. I am grateful for the fans in each classroom and the staff room, but I still finish each day hot and sweaty after spending all day singing and doing actions to help the children learn the words. In the regular classes where I am assisting with English learning, I offer to teach songs to tie in with the topics, and to help with their vocabulary acquisition. Old Playschool favourites come in handy, such as "heads and shoulders, knees and toes", and "this is the way we sweep the floor" (etc.).
ABCs and Rice school
Classrooms at ABCs and Rice
We spend our first week staying in a very nice apartment hotel, where we have a kitchenette, living room and separate bedroom and bathroom. Unfortunately when I booked it, I thought the price was in Australian dollars, but it is in U.S. dollars, which makes it a lot more expensive, and really outside our budget. On Tom's advice, we check out a cheaper hotel that is closer to the school, and after a week, we relocate there. There are a lot of public holidays during our time here; one each week, which gives us a four day week. On our day off during the second week we bundle up our hiking shoes, jumpers, raincoats and long trousers and take them to the post office where the assistant helps us cram them into a cardboard box and posts them to Australia. Now, I will have some room in my suitcase!
One afternoon it starts to rain. By break time, it is pouring. Large puddles quickly form in the dusty stretch that forms the play area between the classrooms and the library. The children head straight through the puddles to a large slab of concrete on one side of the library/staff room. Here they throw themselves onto their tummies, body surfing along the wet concrete in the rain. They have a ball, their clothes and hair saturated. After fifteen minutes of this, they return to class after the break, tramping their muddy footprints across the simple lino floors of the classrooms.
PE class on the 'oval'
On sunny days, which are the norm, many of the children spend their break time in the staff room/library. They choose picture books and climb into our laps, demanding that we read to them, or they sit on the floor playing games. Small children constantly run up and wrap their arms around us, burying their heads in our tummies. At first it is a bit of a shock; coming from a culture where physical contact is banned between teacher and student, for obvious reasons. But as Tom explains, many of these children are starved of physical affection at home, and school is the only place they get it. They are constantly tactile, and fascinated by us, touching my watch, my rings, my necklace, the skin on my arm, my face, and holding hands as we walk around the yard. It is refreshing and quite delightful to receive such open and innocent affection and enthusiasm. As I walk past children in the yard they sing snippets of songs we have learnt at me, and grin cheekily. It is lovely to have such positive confirmation that I am giving them something they appreciate and enjoy.
On the playground
One of the youngest students at ABC's and Rice
Often out in the yard the children will grab your hand and tow you to the playground. "Cha! Play with me!" It reminds me of when my two daughters were little. So there I am, climbing up the jungle gym, down the ladder, across the wooden pole. I suspect that school is the only chance they get to play with an adult on a playground.
Girls playing with their barbie dolls
In the playground
Our first weekend in Siem Reap; Saturday October 24, we hire bikes and cycle out toward Angkor Wat. We don't want to visit the temples, as we already did this on our previous visits, we just want a bike ride out in the country, away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. Unfortunately it soon becomes clear that all roads lead to Angkor Wat, as each one we try eventually leads to a checkpoint, where we are asked to show our $20 ticket to the archeological park. The park is around 6km out of Siem Reap, so by the time we have tried each road, and then cycled down a few turn offs, just to see what is there, we have actually cycled quite a way. Despite the heat and humidity it is pleasant cycling, with a slight breeze created by the motion. Eventually we cycle back into town and I am amazed to be asked if I want a tuk tuk as a ride past a driver. They never give up!
On Saturday October 31 we hire a tuk tuk to take us to the ancient Angkor Temple of Banteay Srei. It is around 35km from Siem Reap, so the journey takes over an hour, but it is a pleasant ride through the countryside, past verdant green rice fields, small pockets of jungle, and villages selling hand woven baskets, hand dyed fabric, yams and timber. Although the road is quite bumpy in sections, the breeze is refreshing and we enjoy our escape from the traffic and chaos of Siem Reap. As we near Banteay Srei our driver pulls over to a road side stall and asks us to stand up while he retrieves a small eski from under our seat. He disappears, then returns with the eski filled with ice and bottled water. This is greatly appreciated when we wander around the temple which dates from the 12th century, as in the sun and without the breeze, the heat and humidity are relentless. The detail in the carvings of some sections of the temple is extroadinary. Of course there are the usual children and adults following us around trying to sell us postcards and clothing,, and the exit predictably takes us through the market where we have to say 'no thank you' to every stall owner who wheedles "You want buy dress Madame?"
Lake near Banteay Srei
Trip to Banteay Srei
That day an email arrives from my music teacher friend Dermot. He has cc'd me on an email to Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly. Dermot and I teach with Paul's sister in Melbourne, and she has told Dermot that Paul is visiting Cambodia, so his email is suggesting to Paul that he come and visit the school. A couple of years ago one of the teachers wrote new lyrics for Paul's famous song 'From little things big things grow' to make it an inspirational song for ABCs and Rice students, about striving to improve and doing their best. On Monday Tammy, the school director tells us that Paul is indeed visiting that afternoon, and asks if I could teach the children to sing the ABCs and Rice version of the song. Luckily she has a copy of the altered lyrics, so I work the chords out on the keyboard, then spend the day going from class to class, teaching the children how to sing the song. At around 3pm Paul Kelly and his partner Sian arrive and we assemble the children in the shade, in front of one of the classrooms. They perform the song, with me somewhat drowning them out in the verses as many of the younger children are not able to learn so many English words in such a short time. Never-the-less it goes down well, Paul joining in the chorus, and then producing his guitar and singing the original version of the song, as well as a few other of his songs. Later one little boy stands up and sings a Khmer song on his own which is very special. Then it is playtime, and Paul and his partner Sian join in playing ball with the children.
Paul Kelly performs at ABCs and Rice
Paul Kelly performs at ABCs and Rice
Children listening to Paul Kelly with another volunteer
It seems there is always something happening at this school. A few days later we are asked to attend a meeting with all of the teachers and the volunteers. Also present are a British film crew who work for National Geographic. They are going to be filming a documentary at the school the following week, so we are filled in on the details of this, but asked not to reveal them.
Now we are in our new hotel, closer to the school, we walk to school in the morning, when it is still relatively cool. At 11am we catch a tuk tuk back to the hotel, then return to school at 2pm in a tuk tuk. By 5.15pm when we are heading home, the light is fading and it is cooling down again, so we walk home. Most days our return tuk tuk drops us off in the main road, as they seldom know where the school is. One day i get out of the tuk tuk and face the usual barrage of traffic in both directions; many vehicles travelling down the wrong side of the road, as is the norm here. As usual David is already across the road, but I am much more hesitant and concerned for my safety. Getting run over in Cambodia is not on my list of life goals. Suddenly the tuk tuk driver walks over, takes my arm and escorts me across the road! Another day when we are returning from lunch, a small crowd is gathered at the end of the road, beside a bike lying partly in the ditch beside the road. David goes over to see what is happening and tells me there is a dead body beside the bike, but no one speaks English, so he's not sure what is going on. I run down to the school and tell Tammy and Long. Tammy jumps on a bike and heads down there while Long runs. Ten minutes later they are back saying it was indeed a dead man; the local drunk who had possibly been there for a few hours, but had only just been noticed by locals walking past. Fortunately all the children were already at school by that stage, so I don't think any of them saw him.
In Cambodian culture people remove their shoes before entering a house and many shops. This also extends to the classroom and school office, so out side these buildings there is always a collection of thongs and other footwear.. On Friday November 6th it rains, and large puddles form throughout the playground, with a large one outside the office/staffroom/library. It requires a great balancing act to remove my sandals to enter the office, and then replace them when I leave. A couple of times they have been dislodged by little feet, and are too far to reach; on the far side of the puddle that sits right outside the door. One of the girls kindly picks them up and positions them for me to insert my feet. At the end of the day I enter the office to collect my bag, removing my sandals as I do. As I near the rear of the office where my bag is I feel something sharp enter the underside of my bare foot. I lift it up to see a huge wasp-like insect on the floor. Tammy and David quickly sit me down and take turns getting the sting out. It is like a thick barbed splinter, and it's entered my foot in a couple of spots, but there is no poison on the end of it, so I quickly realise that I haven't actually been stung. However it is quite sore, and I can feel there is still something in there. So instead of the usual walk home, Tammy insists we share a tuk tuk with her and her children. When we get back to the hotel David removes the rest of the sting. I decide I may revise my decision to be culturally correct and remove my sandals in the staffroom from now on!
David teaching PE
David's class 'The Eagles'
Each night we get a tuk tuk into the centre of town for dinner. Our hotel, 'Motherhome boutique' employs a small group of tuk tuk drivers who seemingly live right outside the hotel in their tuk Turks. So for us, a trip to town costs $US1 instead of $US2. Each night is a marvel of bad driving on the part of everybody; in this right hand drive country, everyone turns left into oncoming traffic, drives on the wrong side of the road, weaves around pedestrians and other vehicles rather than giving way or stopping. The only time this practice is waived is when there is a bus involved. Somehow it all seems to work, and to date we have not seen an accident. Motorbikes are the most common form of transport and they are often crammed with entire families; cute little babies clutched to a parent's chest with one hand, while they drive with the other. Usually the driver wears a helmet, but only rarely do you see one on a passenger. On one of our days off we hire bikes, intending to ride out of town on a different road to last time, to explore the countryside. This becomes tricky as it involves a few left hand turns; something I am not confident doing in this land of no rules. Also we cycle for a long time past industrial areas, on narrow roads lined with large puddles from the previous night's rain. Again we are constantly trying to avoid the large buses and trucks that pass, whilst staying out of the puddles. It seems open countryside is much further out than we thought. Eventually we give up and head back to town for lunch at our favourite cafe. This cafe, 'Sister Srey' is owned by two women from Geelong. It is very hip Australian, just like being in a North Carlton cafe, but with Cambodian prices and background music emitting a fantastic 70's playlist.for around $12US we can each have lunch, fresh lime juice and a latte or even a soy milkshake. This is our favourite destination on the weekend and other days off. We end up having quite a few days off, as there are a lot of public holidays in November. Also the filming is going to take place on Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 November, and they only want Kmer people on those days, so volunteers are given the day off.
Being such a poor country, there are many street beggars in Siem Reap. I ask our work colleagues about the do's and dont's of dealing with street beggars. Their advice is to donate money to amputees, who are the innocent victims of the many thousands of land mines still dotted around the countryside from the war, but never to give money to children, as that is perpetuating their parents' belief that it is better to send them out begging than to send them to school. They also explain to me the 'milk baby scam', which a couple of women have tried on me. This occurs when a women with a baby in a sling approaches you, carrying an empty baby bottle and asks you to go to the mini mart and buy milk for the baby. If you offer money, they always refuse, because they have a scam going with the operators of the mini mart, who will drastically overcharge you for the milk, and after you have gone, the milk will be returned to the shelf; the baby getting none of it. Children are used in this way, and once they become too big for the milk scam, often discarded by their mother, and left to beg for themselves on the street. Three of the children at the school have been adopted by Tammy, as they were milk scam babies, who were then dumped by their mother. They started sniffing glue, which represses their appetite, and coming to the school to sleep on the staffroom floor. A lot of negotiation with the authorities took place to rescue them and place them in a foster care situation with Tammy and her husband, which ended up being an adoption. They are lovely children and it is heartwarming to see how their destinies have been turned around by this incredible gesture.
Monday November 9 is a public holiday for Independence Day and so we book a tour to Kulen mountain, which is a sacred site for Khmer people. There is one other couple on our tour, and we have a very pleasant day enjoying the jungles, the beautiful clear river, Budddist temples and waterfall.
Waterfall Kulen mountain
Waterfall Kulen mountain
On Tuesday November 10 David is asked to accompany a group of students to the Angkor golf resort. The American owner wants to start up a golf squad, so he has invited 13 and 14 year olds from different schools to come in for a session to learn to play golf, while he looks for potential talent. The children are overwhelmed by the resort; the luscious greens, the electric buggies and their personal allocation of a caddy each! It is a rare taste of luxury for such underprivileged children and they have a ball.
ABCs students at the Angkor golf resort
That afternoon I take some photos of the school assembly which occurs twice every day; one at 7.45am and the other at 5.-15. This is because two groups of children attend the school each day; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Their other half day is spent at the government school. At each assembly they sing the Khmer national anthem and their school chant 'I know I can be what I want to be. If I work hard at it. I'll be where I want to be". This is repeated three times, each time louder, so the last time they are shouting. It is very amusing to watch and also inspiring.
A little one in school assembly
Student from Badger class
Student at ABCs and Rice
Wednesday and Thursday of that week are days off for us, as they are filming at the school. We wander into town, but it gets very hot walking around in the sun, and we are harassed about every two metres by tuk tuk drivers, which gets a little wearing. If you try to politely ignore them they become narky. We witness one European explode in anger at the constant badgering, and a lot of swearing and shouting ensues. This is not good form in Cambodian culture, as they find shouting means 'losing face' and very bad form. Always the Khmer are polite and smiling, even when you tell them something they don't want to hear. Laughter is often their reaction if they are told off.
Friday it's lovely to be back at school. At playtime a group of girls in my class are sitting in the doorway of the classroom, enjoying their morning snack of spicy snails. They offer me some, but I can't really bring myself to try this delicacy, so I take a photo of them instead.
Spicy snails for play lunch! Yum!
I spend the day teaching the Badger and Eagle classes to make pirate hats with old newspapers, and then we paint them black. One of their songs in the musical is about pirates, and I would like to get the whole school singing it on Wednesday, our last day, wearing their pirate hats!
Painting their pirate hats
Friday is also the day of the monthly rice bagging. Each child is given a 4kg bag of rice to take home. This helps these poor families to keep their children at school and avoids them having to keep the child home to work on the farm. 85% of Cambodians are farmers, who live on less than $1 a day.
Bagging the rice
Student taking home his bag of rice
It's good to keep casting an eye around the school at the limited facilities, and reminding myself of the contrast between this school, and the school I teach at in Melbourne. They are a universe apart. In particular the staffroom/ office/ library that we all share, squeezing past one another to get things, making room for the ten or so children who pour in at playtime to read books, colour in, or cuddle teachers.
Inside of staffroom/office/library
ABCs and Rice school
David and the girls
Me with one of my students
On Saturday November 14, in the wake of the Beirut and Paris terrorist attacks, we attend a presentation at a children's hospital in Siem Reap. The presentation is by a Swiss paediatrician, who has been working here in Cambodia since 1991. In that time he has built five hospitals for children and pregnant women, mostly with donations. All patients are treated for free. No one is turned away.
During his presentation, Dr. Beat Richner performs a number of cello solos, saying that this was his way of representing the voice of Cambodian children. It is so very moving and humbling to listen to this man whose career has been devoted to free health care for all Cambodian children. As Dr Beat Richner says: 'A child only has one life. And every child's life is of equal value'.
Now it is November, peak season for weddings. Cambodian weddings go on for two days, starting around 6am and continuing late into the night. On Sunday November 15 we move into a cheaper hotel that is also closer to the centre of town. A wedding reception is in full swing just down the road, and both the music and many speeches are very loud. All the guests are dressed up in beautiful silk outfits, which are hired for the occasion.
Our final week at ABCs and Rice is only three days, as we finish on Wednesday November 18, but it is eventful. On the weekend David comes down with a cold, and by Monday lunchtime he has developed a fever, so I convince him to spend the afternoon in bed, while I return to school in the tuk tuk. He works all day on the Tuesday, but teaching PE out in the tropical heat is not doing him any good, and that combined with the air conditioning we need to have running in our hotel room each night, perpetuates the blocked sinuses and runny nose that were his first symptoms.
I spend Monday with each child painting a skull and cross bones on their pirate hat, using a stencil David made out of cardboard. I bring each child into the art room one by one to do this, and the expression on each little face as we lift the stencil off together is just magic. It's such a simple thing, yet it gives them so much joy, and in turn brings me so much pleasure to see their excitement. A new volunteer, Lee arrives that afternoon, as she helps me do this activity. The children are fascinated by their pirate hats, constantly dropping into the art room all afternoon to look at the different hats, find their own and compare it with the others.
On Tuesday afternoon at school, a boy falls off the swing and breaks both of his wrists. Tammy calls her tuk tuk driver and the two of us transport him to the children's hospital, his wrists resting awkwardly in his lap, with us trying to support him and hold him still to guard against any further pain from the extremely bumpy dirt road. We constantly remind the driver to go slow, particularly over the crater-like potholes in the dirt road outside the school, but the boy is very restrained; he doesn't cry or even wince in pain, although Tammy asks him in Khmer if the pain is bad enough to make him cry, and he replies that it is. Eventually we reach the children's hospital near the centre of town, and he is attended to immediately. While Tammy completes the registration forms, I accompany him to Emergency, where a surgeon examines his wrists, asks me a few questions, then sends him off for an x Ray. He is put in a wheelchair and I accompany him through to the x Ray room. We walk through ICU, where children and babies lie on beds, connected to machines, their distraught mothers beside them. Eventually the boy's mother arrives on her motorbike, and Tammy tries to explain to her in Khmer that she can't take her son home on the motorbike. His arms are put in a cast and he is scheduled for an operation the following morning. Tammy arranges for her tuk tuk driver to follow the mother home on her motorbike, then bring her back to the hospital so she can take her son home in the tuk tuk. Once this is arranged, around 6pm, Tammy and I can leave, and we walk back through the town together, discussing how brave our student was, and how difficult life will be for him until his wrists mend.
Wednesday November 18 is our final day at ABCs and Rice. I cannot believe how fast the month has gone, and I dread the final day, as so many students have asked me when we are leaving, and said they will cry when we do. I spend the morning going from class to class practising a number of songs, then at the start of the final period I bring them all together and we practise the pirate song en masse, then they perform the song wearing drawn on pirate eyes or pirate hats.
Singing the pirate song
David films the performance on my IPad, then afterwards the children play some games and have a fun period, as part of the whole dressing up as a pirate activity. First they have like a piñata activity, where lollies and talcum powder are put into a claypot, which is suspended from the basketball ring. A child is blindfolded and handed a stick with which to smash the claypot. Eventually she succeeds, and there is a writhing mass of children on the ground scrabbling for lollies, covered in talcum powder.
Smashing the claypot
After this the children are lined up in rows, and the head of each row given a water filled balloon that is passed down the row, overhead, then between the legs. The balloons have been soaking in a bucket of detergent filled water, so they are slippery, and frequently dropped, splattering water on the ground and surrounding bodies.
The children shriek with excitement and enjoy the water spray in the heat. Eventually some pick up balloons and play 'throw the balloon at the teacher', so an all out water fight ensues, with one of the Khmer teachers getting in the huge bowl and splashing water at everyone. In addition some of the children have been in the face paint that was used to paint their pirate faces on, and they run around with bright green hands, covered in talcum powder, rubbing their hands on the teachers' faces. It is lots of fun and everyone ends up wet and covered in face paint and powder.
Then it is time for the final assembly, and David and I are summoned to the front. Soky speaks to the children in Khmer about us leaving, then the children serenade us, first with 'Yellow' by Coldplay, then the song about Australia that they learned as part of the musical. Somehow I manage not to cry, but it is all rather overwhelming. They all stand there, clutching a drawing they have made for us, and after the singing they stampede toward us, for hugs and to give us their picture. The force of so many children at once nearly knocks me over, and one small child becomes buried under the scrum, at my feet. I pick her up and continue to say goodbye and hug each child. So many ask me when are we coming back? I say I don't know, I cannot promise something that may not happen. Even one of the teachers gives me a drawing he has done of me with dark hair, playing the piano, David beside me. Houk says it is a picture of when David and I first met. Perceptive bloke!
Reflections on teaching here; it has brought me back to the grass roots of teaching, and re invigorated my passion that began over thirty years ago with a love of children and spending time with children. These are children as I worked with in the seventies and eighties, who love singing, have no sophisticated toys, none of them own a phone or computer, and many of them do not even know what the Internet is. They have almost nothing and enjoy the simple pleasures. Their clothes are handed to them from a cupboard in the staffroom, and they have no particular care what they are given to wear, as long as it fits. They enjoy every activity, and they particularly love to sing. For the past month they have wandered around the school singing the songs I have have been teaching them. They are happy, loving and innocent. Very tactile, open and generous with their affection. Their wonder and excitement at little things, such as painting a pirate hat, singing a song, and learning a new game, are just magic to witness, and it has given me so much pleasure to see this every day, and feel welcomed and loved by these children who tell you they love you regularly, and have no inhibitions whatsoever. It is heart warming to participate in a return to the simple pleasures of life, and be reminded that happiness is not about money; these children have nothing, yet they are the happiest and most open hearted children I have ever met.
We hire a driver to take us to Battambang the following day. We are both exhausted emotionally and physically. David still has the flu, with a fever, aches and runny nose. All of these things have prevented him from sleeping, and I have not slept much either, being aware of him frequently getting up in the night to turn the air conditioning on and off. Living in a tropical climate is not helping his fever, and the air con just perpetuates the runny nose, but we have no alternative as the windows of our room do not open, and we have no fan.
We are travelling to Battambang to visit a child we sponsor through World Vision. The World vision staff collect us at 8am from our hotel in Battambang on Friday November 20, and drive us around 80km to their office in a rural community where our sponsor child lives. She is eight years old and she is the youngest of a farming family with five children. When we arrive at the World Vision office we meet all of the staff, and then I ask to use the Ladies. When I emerge, our sponsor child and her sister are sitting at the table. Opposite them is their father. They say hello to me in Khmer, and the World Vison staff tell me they have just called me 'Mother'. The sister is twelve and both girls are very small for their age. I get out the gifts we have brought from Australia; a t shirt for each of them, which are both way too big! I show the father the gifts we brought for the other three siblings; t shirts, a hat and a pen. Then I pull out the other bag of items we bought the previous night at the supermarket; a bag of rice, toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, and two boxes of coloured pencils. The father is overwhelmed and close to tears. He tells the World Visons staff this, and they translate, but I can see this for myself. We also brought some leftover pictures we had created for the school; join the dots kangaroos, and other Australian animals for colouring in, all drawn by David. I get some of these out and give the girls their coloured pencils, and they busily colour away. They are both very quiet and shy and it's hard to break the ice when they don't speak English, we only have four words of Khmer, and so the World Vison staff have to translate. Frequently I sense our sponsor child staring at me, but when I look at her she quickly looks away. Occasionally I get a lovely smile, such as when I show her the t shirt we brought for her, but we never manage to catch one on film. We spend three hours together, including having lunch of traditional Khmer food, and throughout this the girls remain very quiet and very patient in what must be pretty boring for them. I am glad we brought the pencils and pictures, as they continue to draw and colour in pictures, presenting me with each one as they finish. I wish we had thought to bring a ball, so we could go outside and do something more active, and possibly break the ice a little more. The project manager, Rasi, explains the details of World Vision's work in this community, which covers education, health and creating a more connected and mobilised community. Part of the education strategy is to run afternoon clubs for children, providing educational games and teaching them about good hygiene. After lunch we say goodbye to our sponsor child and her family, and as we drive off she gives me the most beautiful smile.
We drive to a community centre where two volunteers are taking activities with local children and their families. They begin with some fantastic educational games, all in Khmer, improving their literacy by matching words and pictures. Then they talk about hygiene and run a session on hand washing. The children and their mothers come up and wash their hands in a large bowl, with soap.
Hand washing program
Look at my clean hands!
one of the World Vision team, Saveth asks if we would like to teach the children a game. David teaches them palm trees and elephants, which is no mean feat, as they do not speak English and have to make the appropriate shape according to whether he is saying palm trees or elephants. It seems to work, as there is lots of laughter and happy faces.
Playing Palm trees and elephants
Playing palm trees and elephants
Finally we have a couple of group photos with everyone, and we climb back in the car to be driven back to Battambang.
The whole community
The whole community
In the car we both struggle to stay awake. We are still not sleeping, as the hotel bed and pillows are like a rock, and David is still suffering with sore muscles and a slight fever. That night we dine out at a lovely restaurant in Battambang which, like many in Cambodia, trains young Khmers in hospitality. This one is sponsored by Vittoria coffee. The food is beautiful, but when David orders a whisky and coke, his ice is delivered in a separate glass, then substituted for another glass of ice five minutes later. We cannot understand what the waiter says, but later that night he develops diarrhoea, and wakes up with a shocking headache.
We depart Battambang by private car for Thailand. We are spending the next six nights on Koh Chang, an island off the southern coast of Thailand near Trat, then four nights on Koh Samet, which is closer to Bangkok. From there we will travel to Bangkok airport on December 1 and fly to Singapore to pick up our return flight home. Despite my emailing the hotel about a driver to the Thai border, and emphasising that we wanted a safe driver, who didn't drive too fast and talk on his phone, that is exactly what our driver does. Fortunately it's over in 90 minutes, and around 9.30am he drops us at the Cambodian side of the border. We have overstayed our Cambodian visa by one day, so have to pay $5 each. Once this is done, we walk through the border where we go through the Thai arrival border section and have our passports stamped. We have organised a driver to collect us there and take us to Koh Chang, and he is there waiting. It is a relief to sink into the comfortable seats and relax with a sensible, sane driver. The contrast with Cambodia is immediately obvious in the quality of the road, which is mostly a two lane carriageway, the number of cars, rather than motor bikes, the more sophisticated middle class houses and towns lining the road and the petrol stations and supermarkets we pass, which look just like we are in Australia. Our rest on Koh Chang can't come soon enough; we are both suffering from no appetite and feeling exhausted. Time for a real holiday!