Note: Here is the follow up from Cry Baby in Cambodia. Sorry it took so long. Darn you real life for getting in the way of my blogging.
You would think that as a teacher, I would choose to spend my time on vacation in any place other than a school with kids. Well, most of the time you would be totally right, but I have to say that without a doubt the best part of our trip to Cambodia was volunteering at a school just outside of Siem Reap called Savong’s School. After several communication barriers, we only ended up spending one afternoon there, but I wish we had passed on the second day of temples viewing and headed straight for the school earlier, because it was an experience that we won’t ever forget. (without any tears at the end of the day!)
The school was started by a young Cambodian guy who wanted to create a way for rural children to learn English, Korean and Japanese in hopes of one day getting a job in the ever-growing tourism sector in Cambodia. Savong began in 2005 and really has shown remarkable growth in the short time it has been open. It has backing from several foreigners and support from people all over the world, which allows the school to provide free education to its students. There is no standard curriculum or compulsory attendance. In fact, I’m sure if Lucy Calkins walked in, there would be something wrong with their writer’s workshop, reading centers, and all that education jargon that people like to throw around these days.
And that was part of the charm for me.
The school is all about a guy who saw a problem in his community, boldly created a plan to fix it and courageously acted on that plan to make things better.
Take a look at our pictures from the day which give you a small glimpse into the lives of these children. (Some pictures were taken with the iPhone and others with the “good” camera, hence the difference in picture quality.)
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s, the infrastructure of the entire country of Cambodia was ripped to shreds. It is only now that they are beginning to pick up the pieces and fill in the holes that have existed for so long. I’m not even sure all of them can be mended. It hurts my head to think of all the things that need to be done in this little southeast Asian country, but this school was one teeny, tiny step forward.
Looking back, I think the reason I didn’t cry when we left the school was that it was the most hopeful thing I saw while we were in Cambodia. I remember waving good-bye and watching the dirt from the road swirl around our van. I remember taking a deep, jagged breath and being so overwhelmed but at the same time knowing that I had just witnessed a little bit of amazing at the school.
You could close your eyes and actually envision the school growing and helping more and more kids, in turn helping an embattled nation get back on its feet again.
And no matter how far down you have fallen, the process of getting back on your feet is never, ever anything to cry about.
I’ll be honest with you. As much as I loved Cambodia, I cried every day we were there.
And as long as we are being honest, when emotions get the best of me, my automatic default is to cry. Getting yelled at? Cry. Lost in a new city? Cry. Overcome by the raw emotion of the Biggest Loser? Yup, you guessed it…I cry. I wish this wasn’t true and that I wasn’t quite such a cry baby, but after 32 years, I have come to accept it’s just the way I am, and I even let myself cry it out without feel too bad about it.
At first glance, the utter poverty and apparent hopelessness of Cambodia is enough to make my tear ducts start to water. Throw in children following you around temples begging you to buy their postcards for a dollar, and mothers begging for formula on the street for their baby? I never had a chance…let the waterworks begin.
I know, I know. You are going to say, “What did you expect? It’s Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world!” I have traveled enough and seen enough poverty to know that it’s not all sunshine and unicorns everywhere, but all I can say is that it is different when it happens to you and you actually have to look at the child or the baby or the person that is standing before you begging another human being for money or food, and decide what you are going to do to help or not.
Now, I know these kids at the temples had my number from the get-go. I don’t pretend to blend in over here and I’m sure from the moment my blond little head popped out of the car we were being driven around in, they started calling dibs on me. I hesitated after the first ten times they asked me if I wanted to buy a postcard from them. I did a double take when they asked where I was from and upon finding out it was America, started reciting the capitals of all 50 states! I added a “No thanks, sweetie” to help soften the blow. PLEASE! I was toast.
But the thing is, I didn’t care that I was toast because all I could think was that these little girls should be in school, jumping rope, giggling and playing. All I could think was: THEY SHOULD BE IN SCHOOL. If they are doing this when they are seven or eight, what are they going to do when they are 14 or 15?
Of course, the American politician in me just wants to take all of my money and throw it at them to help fix the problem. But if you start handing out dollars at the temples of Angkor Wat or at your local community center in Ohio, you have a different problem on your hands and have you really helped anyone over the long haul? There’s that whole adage that comes to mind about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish… But then you do the math and realize there aren’t even enough “fish” to give out in the first place to fix the bigger problem. And yet, you cannot just walk away and do nothing.
We did finally buy some postcards from a little girl at one the temples. Actually, I don’t think we took the postcards, we just gave her the dollar and I cried all the way to the next temple. When approached by a teenager with a baby, asking for milk, we followed her to the store and bought her formula for her baby. But for everyone we helped, as much as it hurt my heart, we had to turn away ten more just like them. Sigh.
Click Here for Part II of our stay in Siem Reap (Savong School)
Finally, on the last day of our trip, I had a breakthrough when we volunteered (teaching English) at a school for rural children in the afternoon. It was an incredible experience, especially when I realized while driving away from the school, that…I didn’t (believe it or not) cry. Why? I’ll tell you all about the experience tomorrow. After I go grab a box of tissues.
Click Here for Part II of our stay in Siem Reap (Savong School)
I am making good to my pledge to go back and blog about some of our adventures that I didn’t quite have time to do in real time. Some of you may have seen pictures on facebook, but I’m going back and adding in the good parts (aka-my thoughts) on the entire trip. I’m going to start working my way backwards, starting with the last big trip we took in December over the holidays. We wanted to do a bit of a “Farewell Asia” tour and hit some of the spots that we hadn’t had a chance to do yet. Using two weeks of my Christmas break we headed out to Siem Reap, Cambodia, Krabi, Thailand, and Hanoi, Vietnam.
The first place we went was Cambodia and out of the three places, it was my favorite without a doubt. It was the poorest country I have ever been to and is recovering from an amazingly horrible history, but the people we met had a quiet determination and seemed so genuinely nice and kind in a way that I’m not sure if I would be if I was in their place.
The Siem Reap airport was surprisingly modern and nice and our driver picked us up right out front, which is always a relief when you are very clearly a tourist in country that is unknown to you. He took us to our hotel, the Golden Temple Hotel. As cheesy as the name is, it was one of the best hotel we have ever stayed at. Not the fanciest, not the most expensive, but the nicest people, a great location, lovely room, spa treatments, THE WORKS! If you are ever in the neighborhood you should forgo the Holiday Inn and stay at the Golden Temple Hotel instead. For breakfast our driver took us to a local hang out for a traditional Cambodia breakfast of meat, rice and some cucumbers on the side.
After breakfast we headed to the temples. Over the next two days, we saw lots and lots of temples, each with their own unique story and symbolism. The coolest thing about them temples is the fact that they are from the 12th century! Having lasted as long as they have, through all the conflicts that Cambodia has had, to still be standing is pretty remarkable. Here are a few of my favorites:
At the end of the day, as we were having dinner at a french restaurant overlooking downtown Siem Reap and we saw the mother of all motorbikes. We have seen a lot of things and people on motorbikes since we have been in Asia, but this was a new record-six people on one motorbike!!! Count carefully! It was the perfect way to end the day.
So, have you ever seen six people on a motorbike? Or, dare I say it-MORE? What is the most bizarre thing you have ever seen being carried on a motorbike, domestically or international?