I was up at 5am today to head out to the school early. The taxi arrived at 6am and the journey took just over an hour. I am the only aid worker on the project at the moment (another woman is arriving on the 7th) and the school has its own Khmer teaching staff. The village is called Prey Chrouk and is predominantly ex-Khmer Rouge - this area being one of their main strongholds.
I'll be honest with you (and many of you know I am a bit of a softie sometimes) but I will never forget this day. The last day of 2007 - and I have spent it surrounded by hundreds of gorgeous children, who were so excited to see me, this 'barang' (the Khmer slang for a Westerner) who has come along to help them say their a,b,c's, paint their classrooms, and play games. They say that the Khmer smile is the most beautiful in the world and boy are they right. The children were running up to me all day (each class has a different playtime), with huge grins on their faces - the boys being cheeky and the girls giggling. During break time (which is sounded by one of them hitting the metal part of a car wheel hanging from a tree with an iron bar) their favourite game appears to be football, but as they only have one football (which is totally flat) they kick a flip-flop around instead. Note : Off to the market to buy some new footballs!
Many of the children cycle a long distance to get to this school, which has no electricity and no water. There are two 'shifts' - the first lot are from 7am-11am and the second from 1pm-5pm. Many arrive hungry because their families have very little food. I caught one little boy gazing at me as I drank from a large bottle of water. I so wanted to share the biscuits I had taken as my lunch, but knew there weren't enough for all. It would have been heartbreaking to give them to some and others go without. I spent most of the day painting a classroom and as the day progressed the children got used to me, so I must have had about 30 in the room with me at one point. All watching me paint walls! Helping pass my brushes. At one point I sat down on the floor to paint the bottom of the wall and when I stood up 2 young girls brushed the red dust off the back of my trousers. They all wanted to practice asking my name, my age, where I am from, where is my husband, how many brothers & sisters do I have . . . . So inquisitive and so bright. One cheeky 9 year old boy called Ravanha stuck out a mile. His English was good and he wasn't afraid to speak it. He asked my name, I told him, then he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote in on the board. He also serenaded me with 'London Bridge is Falling Down'. The full version. I don't think even I know the full version! Also three older girls - 15 years - came to talk to me. They were so incredibly pretty and yet they were telling me that I was beautiful - god, I don't think I've ever been called that in my life - and they told me how happy they were that I had to come to help their school. Before they left at 11am to go home, one of the girls, called Mary (middle in the photo), gave me a gift of a 100 Riel note made into the shape of an origami heart as a friendship gift.
I arrived back at the guesthouse, exhausted, at 5pm. Had a nap and then went to one of my favourite places for dinner - The Red Piano - for a couple of cocktails and a nice Australian steak (a treat seeing it's New Year's Eve). At 7.30pm I met up with a couple of friends - the couple who co-ordinate the project (Phillip & Conchetta), and my friend Andy, and a dozen of the Khmer guides he uses in his travel business - for lots of Angkor beer at the night market. Unlike in the UK where we say 'cheers' just the once, here they clink glasses with each new drink! At 11.30pm we moved to Bar Street for the final half hour & New Year countdown. I was so scared that I would be alone again, as I was at Christmas, but these guys really made it a special night. Straight after midnight one of them took me to my guesthouse on the back of his scooter (called 'motordops' here) as he refused to let me walk on my own!
Soo-sa-day Chnam Ta'mai! (Happy New Year!)