We’ve decided to spend 4 days volunteering at an NGO (non-governmental organization). The Samart School caters to teaching English and computer skills to rural area youth.
We spent this morning packing, heating hearty and stocking up on snacks (just in case). We weren’t sure what the food situation would be like at this place. Honestly, we’re not too sure what to expect on any aspect. We have a general idea of where we’re going but were sent directions in Khmer to show to whichever tuk-tuk driver we hire. The place has a website but we weren’t exactly sure what we’d be doing, when or what we’ll be eating or where we’d be staying (other than that it would be with a host family).
Okay, so after getting lost once, then twice, our tuk-tuk driver found his way out here. We met with Tom, the volunteer coordinator, and had our second lunch of the day while we learned more about Samart School and what we’d be doing. The school has a few “campuses” throughout this rural area. The one we’re at is the English teaching school, the other is the computer based education.
The owner, Song Samart isn’there yet,I guess he’ll be back tomorrow, but Tom has lots of ideas for this place and he’s not shy about sharing them. The goal is to use the surrounding land to make the school self-sufficient so they don’t have to rely on donors and sponsors. Tom wants fish, chickens, ducks, rabbits, aquaponics and maringa trees (also known as the miracle tree). Song has already planted several banana, papaya and dragon fruit trees.
Our job while we’re here is to weed the nearly 300 dragon fruit starters, re-tie the dragonfruit that fell over and to prep the maringa seeds so we can get some to germinate (even in the middle of Cambodia I’m doing tree work; I can’t escape it but I love it) . We’ve also been invited to join or help teach classes when the kids get here around 5:00 p.m. We’re told that some of these kids attend regular school during the day, the others help with chores at home.
Our room is just big enough to fit the bed and our bags. It has a small fan mounted on the wall and a light on the other. It will do for three nights. The room is attached to a house where a family of at least 5 live with 2 bedrooms identical to ours and small living area. Everyone is pretty excited about the new additions of two refrigerators. Until last week, they’ve never had one. One is off and both sit empty as i’m sure they haven’t gotten used to using them yet. The only thing scary about the living situation so far is the bathroom. There are two squat toilets and a cement basin of water in the middle that you can use to scoop water from in order to ‘flush’ the toilets. There are no showers, you just scoop and pour water over yourself. They are building a facility behind the school that will be able to house 8 volunteers and will have showers and running water, but we are a month early on that amenity.
We spent the early afternoon weeding and tying dragon fruit, getting nice and sweaty before class tonight. It was only about 10 minutes into the first class when the rain started.It didn’t take long for it to go from a drizzle to a downpour. Class was canceled after an hour as the straw roofs began leaking and the kids were bouncing off the walls.
Since we’ve been here, we’ve been told several times that there are two seasons in Cambodia: wet and dry. We were hoping to catch the tail end of wet season but according to most locals – November is the definitive end date. So far, the rain hasn’t been that bad, there seems to be one big downpour every other day and it’ll only last for an hour or two, tops.
When I think of monsoon season, I picture landslides, days of constant rain, flooding and especially that scene in Jumanji where Robin Williams just puts his hood up and laughs just before the house is completely flooded. Oh Disney, you’ve fooled me again, but probably not for the last time.
The rain is actually pretty refreshing and brings a much needed break from the heat. We’ve been told this is nearly as cold as it gets here. If that’s the case, we could never revisit in the hot, dry season. We wouldn’t survive, period.
Samart day 2
Apparently yesterday was a holiday somewhat like Labor Day where the farmers finish harvest or planting. The day and night was filled with music and loud conversation. We had just assumed that’s how they rolled out here in the jungle but i guess it was a celebration.
We took three shifts today working on the dragon fruit farm. I think the longest time we spent at once was an hour and a half; it’s just too damn hot to be out there doing physical labor any longer than that.
The dragon fruit is a pretty fascinating plant. They are a narrow cactus that climb and spread. Each here is set up with a post topped by a tire. The idea is that the cactus climb as they grow. They actually spread out roots from the leader to grasp onto the post and gather moisture from the wood. Several have grown above the post, through the tire and droop over. Once they get enough drooping over, they produce fruits and look somewhat like a tree. We even noticed a couple that had become detached from their connection to the ground but were still thriving while gripping onto the post. We’re told that most of these were planted 7 months ago, so even the most progressive of these will take another year to produce fruit. But still only, a month and a half? My inner tree nerd is just baffled by these crazy desert jungle trees.
We found out at lunch the teacher’s mom was sick. Tom asked if we’d be willing to teach class. “Uh…. Sure….” was all this soon to be English teacher could muster in response. The fact that neither of us had ever taught didn’t deter Tom at all.
“If you’re in there speaking English, they’re going to learn something, right?”
Hard to argue with that logic, Tom.
All in all teaching was a pretty cool and surprisingly exhausting experience. Each class ended with a well practiced (all in unison), “Tank you teacha for teaching us today. Bye, bye see you tomorrow.”
We started our day with a little manual labor. Actually, we started it with hot cocoa/instant coffee and Raman noodles. The lunches and dinners cooked by our hosts, Rea and Promm have been great, better than I could have hoped for (pork and veggies with rice, eggplant soup with rice, egg with veggies and served… with rice). But I just cant get into Ramen noodles for breakfast. However, here, noodles for breakfast are thee norm so we’ll smile and do as the Romans do.
Speaking of going along with the local culture, we did our best to relax and dodge the heat of the day from 11-2:00 pm. The heat, humidity and lack of A/C and showers have made for one of the stickier versions of myself. There seems to be no part of the day or night that we’ve stopped sweating. With that in mind, (damned if you do, damned if you don’t) we decided to take a bike ride into town (Phumi Ta Prak, I think).
The bikes at the school were in slight disrepair. I had a pretty flat tire, neither could shift gears and neither had working brakes. We headed east toward town not knowing if the bikes would make it. As we dodged potholes on a fairly battered red dirt road, we were greeted by the locals excited shouts of “hello!” I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so white, but it was great. Town wasn’t more than a few shops and a small market but it was more about the journey than the destination.
Again the teacher was out, it would be the Nate and McKayla class. Today we decided to focus a little more on word games. We played categories with the big kids yesterday, today we had races to find the word, races to write the word and Hang man, lots of Hang Man. Class went by a little quicker and felt much more comfortable. Again, our third and last class of the day was a little awkward when we paired up with the translator we struggled to understand. He tried to get McKayla to use ‘hop so’ in a sentence. We had to convince him first, that it wasn’t really a word or common phrase, then found out that he meant ‘hope so’ so we had to explain that you rarely need the ‘so’. We figured it out and again, the kids were great.