We rose at 4:45 and put on our anti-mosquito uniforms. It remains counter intuitive to fully clad our appendages in the sweltering heat; we fight the desire to pull on a billowy sundress. Our destination is a half hour out of town at the Bakong Primary School. We all are a bit nervy as have no idea what to expect. The changes over the course of months of planning have left me wondering if it will even all come together. Details would change with every communiqué and the length of time between emails at time disconcerting. Great flexibility and patience is required in nonprofit/charitable works. Getting annoyed at volunteers is neither admirable nor advisable. Besides, having a friend help me find this place that allows for kids under 16 to participate onsite was a rare find so patience…flexibility....and thanks WW. x
Our children made some significant sacrifices in their little lives and practiced their best spread sheeting skills accounting for every ounce of currency they saved and collected. I am so proud of them. My husband carried 70k of backpacks that were delivered to him like contraband as he skated through Heathrow then jetted across numerous continents elegantly negotiating oversized luggage fees. Our youngest carried cards with her for months from her class. They were tucked away like little treasures she would occasionally find then re-stow after a little smile of remembrance for the day they were written- one of her last at her school. I am sure she would think as she stashed them way under her packing cubes...some day I am going to be bringing these cards to the Cambodian kids...some day is here.
Our driver arrives at 5:30 am right on schedule and with a touch of trepidation we head out. His English is great so we chatter and he confirms all the scuttlebutt we have gathered to date on the current Cambodian political climate. The only other country on our trip thus far that we have encountered such political unrest is China. China and Cambodia- the masses are juiced up. Oh how I wish I could help them in their freedom quests. It's already high 90s, teetering on clearing 100F and not even 7AM. We drive by a pile of ruins labeled Bakong Temple then a sign indicates we have arrived at the school. We disembark from the van and sheepishly walk to the dusty dirt courtyard that lies in between four rust-painted block buildings. One of them is totally open air with long picnic tables. It is our first destination. We are directed part way there by a nice man; we are unsure of his role and communications are limited. A woman takes over as we near the structure and points us to two massive pots with some sort of congee inside and a ladle. Without words she schools us in technique- stir, stir, ladle. Stir, stir, ladle. The girls take the elongated serving piece and stir, ladle. She grabs it shaking her head and again demonstrates, stir, STIR, ladle.
The local kids start arriving on their bikes. Some of the bikes carry numerous children. They are skilled at balancing anywhere a hunk of metal sticks out perpendicular to the ground. The bikes begin to form a parking lot of their own as the kids leave them behind and walk to the cafeteria seamlessly dropping their sandals without even a break in their stride as they enter the eating space. There are chickens and wild dogs milling about. The kids go to a water area with two large basins and plunge their hands into the water. There is no soap. After refreshed, they grab their bowl and spoon from the nearby drying rack and approach the congee line. Stir, stir, ladle we go. The reciprocal action we are met with is a bowed head and elevated thank you. Almost all of the children meet our eyes as they form their strange tenor of a thank you. The words seem like something that would be produced by the deaf as the tone level and volume reveals a lack of modeling in its formation. This expression of gratefulness that comes like an outburst along with the accompanying eye contact grabs your heart.
Breakfast commences and our kids are stare stealing. They are not in full gawk, but nonchalantly try to steal glances- taking in the scene without being rude. By contrast, they are being stared at fastidiously. Awkward silence hangs in the air except for the clicks of my husband snapping photos like he is engaged in some sort of fantasy that he is on the payroll of National Geographic. He is oblivious to the paparazzi stare fest he is taking part in. I battle the awkwardness in the air with an attempt to pierce through its stratum by making friends with a little girl hanging out near the congee. It takes some work but I get a smile. Schwew. This makes a measureable advancement in releasing some of the clumsy in the air.
After breakfast the local kids re-flip flop and go to a flagpole for a flag raising and song. We don't get to enjoy this routine as have been directed towards a grass-roofed hut in the middle of the courtyard where paintbrushes and several bowls of rust colored paint await us. It's 47C now- that is 117F. I check in with my body and a mental list quickly spews out listing all of the places that are sweaty and sticking. My eyelids make their claim as the most offended by the heat. They stick with every opening and battle being pulled back away with every blink. Sergeant Kickass within me shuts down the whole inter-body symposium and scoffs at its very existence at a time like this.
Our kids dive into painting. They have LONG hoped to be able to exert their creative forces over large spaces. They splash on the rust paint and it drips and sprays; their smiles gargantuan. I know my limitations so plop myself down into the dust perched on my great asset. How do the non-westernized Asians squat so comfortably for such lengths of time? Their center of gravity in crouch is such perfection..and no fat deposits to force into displacement or fold. Westernized Asians don't seem to have retained this capability. Interesting. We are now fully into our project seeking and coating any raw wood with rust paint. The student population is now doing what I call the communist sweep. We have seen this sweep in Asia many times over by now. It is always conducted with a handmade broom- just a pole with some tied up straw. The sweeping motion is done at a relaxed pace and doesn't seem to catch anything under 3 inches in length. The only thing I can figure is it is really Tai Chi in disguise or some sort of wax-on-wax-off respect and discipline exercise. Clearly debris piles are merely a byproduct of the action for they are never really dealt with- they just re-assimilate into the area by breeze or step returning back to their starting points poised for the next day's communist sweep. CLANG! A tire rim hanging from a tree is beat upon and the kids all scramble into their classrooms leaving their sandals and us in the dusty courtyard.
We work a while then a group of young girls piled on a bike ride into the courtyard to check us out. They are not in the navy skirts and dust-clad white tops the others wear. They are in street clothes. Their little tan faces with dark features make them look like dusty little angels. They inch closer and stare. I urge my kids to take a break and go and play and toss out a litany of ideas for games or ways to start the interaction. My kids are nervous. The novelty of painting has surely worn off but it now affords them safety- somewhere to focus other than on the strangeness of this environment and constant stares. After some goading, my youngest breaks away from this safety zone and goes over to the girls to try to make something happen. This decision of hers to take this risk marks a significant turning point in the whole day and quality of the experience. From the mouth's of babes. She goes up to them; she towers over their little bodies. She finds a bean on the ground and starts a game of guess which hand the bean is in. They stare and don't know what to do. I am a lioness, she needs a lifeline so I urge one of the other cubs to go and help demonstrate please and NOW. My middle child steps up. We will never know the per centage of moving towards something altruistic versus away from hard labor that motivated this action but whatever the mix, it was a brave act that set her on an amazing path of discovery. The little girls catch on quickly once the game is demonstrated. Oh the smiles, and LAUGHTER. The contrast of immense awkward to colossal joy is sweet, intoxicating. It's an ice water bath on this hot day. Once the smiles began to pour they kept coming and my girls grew in confidence and risk taking. They shifted to hopscotch right around a break in class and a crowd began to gather. Boys and girls watched my youngest time after time throw the bean and hopscotch out to gather it and return to start. She encouraged one of the local kids to take a turn after each bean retrieval but no one would…until this brave little local girl in her giant navy skirt hanging well below her knees stepped up. Her face grew more bold and joyful by the second as she skipped amongst the squares towards the bean. Everyone clapped when she returned to the starting square and her smile widened, she grew 2 inches taller. I saw my girls sharing her joy in this moment and they all looked like they had just climbed Everest. The intermingling of joy...I think I have some dust in my eyes.
Duck Duck Goose was pulled out next from my girls' bag of tricks and quickly became a favorite. My middle daughter had shed her shoes by now adopting local barefootedness. I framed her white dusty legs near their tan dusty ones in a mental picture, my National Geographic husband caught it for us all to enjoy forever. Red light, green light was also a crowd pleaser. It took our girls quite a bit of teaching to impart the rules of this game. But such comfort and trust had been built by now they intuitively grasped each other's hands as they played. Moments to cherish continued to present like the presents that they were. We had traded Christmas gifts for this, and here they were. Our middle daughter was the traffic light and stood with her back to the masses at the end of the courtyard adorned with little Cambodian girls on either side of her clutching her hands and looking at her like she hung the moon. Our youngest had a crowd of boys and girls with her and their hands were also locked across a line of 8. She pulled them forward teaching them how to be stealth and stalk the traffic lights, freezing whenever the lights would turn to check for progress in the approaching predators. Our eldest dipped in and out of the fun. If she was needed to demonstrate or keep things going she would check in and play but always went back to the task at hand. We had a hut and several bins to paint and her sisters had quickly tired of this task. She has an amazing stick-to-it-ness to see things through. Everyone found their gift to give and way to make a difference on this day, and every gift brought forth was blessed.
After a while we were given some hot bottled water. It was so welcome. As I gulped it down I chuckled to myself at how back in the west heated bottled water is a news item. Its potential for plastic off gassing makes it something to avoid. It is one of many what you would call A+ health and safety concerns such as seat belts, soap and bike helmets. These things are so irrelevant here at this time when basic food and water for survival is still not a given.
During our water break some high school kids take us for a tour. They speak English very well and I sense being our tour guide is some sort of reward they have earned. The feeling of being each other's rewards is mutual. I ask on the tour as we pass by classrooms and peek in if any of the classes would be interested in us teaching them an English song. Our student guides ask and the teacher welcomes it. We belt out BINGO WAS HIS NAME-O then repeat it an additional time a bit slower so the class can sing along. Everyone is beaming. The teacher says something in Khmer that must have been a request for volunteers who want to come to the front of the class to practice their English. One girl and then another raise their hands and come up, shake my hand with a bold grip then begin a conversation looking me in the eye revealing the beauty and promise this generation will surely bring to this healing nation. Cambodia more than any other nation I can think of has such promise. A generation has been wiped out yet their offspring miraculously do not hold candles or grudges just open hearts on their sleeve as they carry around a clean slate. I guess that is what the day felt like to me, like we got to make a little picture on these slates as individual people as well as representatives. I do not mean to make inflate our importance in any way, but there is a feeling of responsibility that comes when you realize you are engaging in an encounter that is a growing movement but still quite limited. These kids do not hang out on Pub Street or in town at the shops where all the westerners hang out. They are trying not to fall into the begging trap at the temples. Consequently, their western encounters are limited to those who visit the school and those they see on TV. We quickly comprehend that our conduct for better or worse is part of something bigger than ourselves.
The principal arrives and it is time to hand out the backpacks we collected from the girls' school in the UK. So many people at the UK school embraced our cause and were happy to participate. Thanks to their generosity we brought science supplies, school supplies and oodles of backpacks. This generosity not gifted the Cambodian kids but also gifted us with the honor of being able to serve as the conduit, the Santa Claus.
A group of students that have shown exemplary effort and attitude towards their work are called forth to assemble in the courtyard. My girls make a speech acknowledging the good wishes and friendship of the donors and the local kids pick out their favorite backpack thanking us with the customary praying hands bow. They trot off back to class with their new pack proudly on their backs. My girls watch the bags walk off taking a moment to enjoy the memory of whose bag it was at their school merge with whose bag it is now thousands of miles away in this different time and space.
We go off to lunch and finally have a moment in the van to take stock of our exhausted sweaty states. We are spent emotionally and physically but peaceful, oh so peaceful. After lunch we drive to a building where a shipment of 4 large boxes of books have been received and set aside for our arrival. We were originally going to buy bikes but a donation came in that filled this need so we refocused our contribution where it was needed most. Our guiding criteria- make sure the donation was going right to the local kids and not into any sort of administrative bucket. We carried the books to the Bakong High School and again a group of students came out to accept them and interact with us. These kids were so switched on. I assure you, this generation of Cambodians is going to make this nation great again. If some sort of war breaks out here to derail this I know I will lose a part of my heart.
We learn that all the Khmer books at the school have been read and reread so many times. They are so genuinely grateful to have new books to read in their own language. The librarian was just as excited as the kids but my youngest kept reciting all the stages of readying books for display in a library stating she was concerned over how much work the librarian was now going to have to do. We asked a couple of the local high school kids what they wanted to do when they grew up. Both the kids we asked said they wanted to be tour guides. Tour guiding is one of the best jobs they can hope for right now. It positions them to interact with the outside world, affords them the potential for great tips, and allows them to become experts in their nations culture and history. It is a respectable career.
We go back to the primary school and dive back into playing and painting and my husband adds assembling and repairing to his to dos. The bright colored bins we build and paint cheer up the dust and rust and the tire swings ready for play are symbolic that we are leaving something behind that will continue bring smiles and that feels great. We are fading but are sure to complete our tasks and continue to treasure every ounce of interaction. My kids show amazing stamina on a very challenging, very hot day.
We are silent as we drive home, basking in the afterglow of our family experience. As talk slowly resumes a theme emerges from our kids. The Cambodian kids have more than they thought they would have. We ask them to describe this and it turns out one of the things the local kids have that our kids didn't think they would have is happiness. Being so poor yet still having the ability to be so happy is something my kids have not ever connected as compatible. Wow. That is an amazing lesson. There is much to be explored there, but for now we need some recovery time starting with a shower.
What anyone does, or fails to do, affects the rest of humanity….we are all connected. It was an immense privilege to take our own good intentions and offerings as well as those of others and for one day actually place ourselves right in this chain of affect in such an extremely tangible way. Thank you for this gift those of you who donated and/or emotionally supported us gave to us. We joined with you in a making a giving chain then stretched it right across the world to Siem Reap where they joyfully clasped our hands as well then gifts began to flow in every direction. You can see some of that here-
Full screen, volume up, makes me cry like a baby. I cant make a link work here so you need to copy and paste into your browser. http://albums.phanfare.com/slideshow.aspx?i=1&db=1&pw=pyV0w0Jn&a_id=6003793
Cambodia is a tricky country to donate to because the government is so corrupt and intercepts much of the foreign aid that comes at the government level. Organizations such as Caring for Cambodia are a great way to get money right to the people who need it. They are investing in the future by training teachers, teaching life skills and inventorying schools, and the present by making sure kids get at least two meals a day. You can learn more at http://www.caringforcambodia.org.