Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Just Like Kindergarten

Exactly one month ago I experienced a day much like my first day of kindergarten. I was at Vancouver International Airport about to embark on the trip I had been dreaming about and planning for so long. Much like my 5 year old self I was anxious, a little scared and really didn't know what was in store for me. I held back tears as I hugged my mom goodbye knowing that, unlike kindergarten, I wouldn't be seeing her at the end of the day. 

Amidst all the nerves I also felt confident and prepared to begin this next chapter in my life, and I like to think that 5 year old Alex did too. Sure she was probably going to miss preschool but I bet, on some level, she knew that she was ready for a new challenge. I see this trip as the kindergarten-equivalent for my 23 year old self.

I know 5 year old Alex was scared to go to kindergarten at first but I don't think she felt that way for long. I'm sure she quickly realized that it was where she needed to be. Big changes and new stages of life are always a little scary whether you're 5 or 23. It's not by any means easy to leave behind things and people you know and that are familiar in exchange for the different and unknown. All you can do is be brave and hope it will be worth it. This trip sure has been so far.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Rose Coloured Glasses

I haven't even been in Cambodia one month and I've already written several posts about how much I love this country. Sunny weather, kind people and cheap food-alcohol-transportation-massages-clothes-pretty much everything... in the words of Coldplay, "this could be para-para-paradise".

As much as I love it here, sometimes I see things that remind me I'm in a developing and very poor country. Today for example, I saw a dog (probably a stray) with a leg so injured he couldn't even walk on it and when I stopped to offer him a cracker, he was so scared he ran away without eating it; A boy in my new grade one class that I'm almost positive has some sort of mental deficiency pretty much just sat there the whole time because I could only give him so much attention and obviously the school can't afford extra one-on-one support; Several kids today were scolded in ways I think are wildly inappropriate (nothing terrible, but still).

As much as these occurrences may bother me, I also feel that there isn't much I can do about them. I can't grab the dog and take him to a vet (to be honest I don't even know if vets exist here), I can't pay for a support worker for the potentially mentally challenged boy in my class (again, I'm not even sure such a job exists) and I can't tell Cambodians how to run their school/treat their students (provided they're not actually abusing them). I may disagree, but I also have to respect how things work here and not expect everything to happen as it might in a more developed country. Too often does the Western world try to impose their views and and ways of doing things in other parts of the world only to end up aggravating the situation and doing more harm than good.

The things I saw today are really only the tip of the iceberg for what I would consider to be concerns in Cambodia. It's a country still in recovery from the atrocities it suffered less than 40 years ago under the rule of the Khmer Rouge and problems here are numerous. But I think that all I can do is what I'm already doing: Be the best English teacher I can be and hopefully contribute in some small way to a brighter future for some pretty awesome kids.

I haven't changed my mind about Cambodia. I really do love it here. I write this post not to bash Cambodia in any way but simply to remind myself of where I am and to not always look at things through rose coloured glasses.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cambodian Halloween

It's the weekend before Halloween and all the Westerners in Siem Reap are in full celebration mode! Roxana, another volunteer teacher from Mexico, and I decided to go out and embrace our beloved North American tradition. The night started out with a pit stop to buy some light-up devil horns for make-shift costumes (which most Cambodians seemed to think were either cow or water buffalo horns, more relate-able here I guess!) and then it went something like this...

Trying the famous fish massage, drink in hand!

Definitely screamed when I first put my feet in

They eat dead skin off your feet... it tickles!

Our fish massage friend

Then this guy showed up and scared the crap out of me

Roxana and I

One baaad Cambodian

My not-so-intimidating face

Ridiculously creepy clown


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Yesterday's Dream

Each day at the end of class, all of the children at school line up and sing the song "Yesterday's Dream". To hear the kids sing it in unison, especially when you consider how little most of them have, well... it's pretty touching stuff. They are so sweet, bright and motivated to learn.

"We are the children of yesterday's dream
We are the promise of the future we bring
Waving the banner of love to all
To every nation the rich and the poor

We are the world of the restless and young

And we need a hand to guide us
Helping each other, build each other
As long as we're together you and me

For together we stand, divided we fall
Together we climb to the top of the world
We can be what we want for the world to see
That we are the children of yesterday's dream

We have the yearning to do what is best

Be someone special from all of the rest
Nation and brothers in unity
Building tomorrow for you and for me" 



The lovely grade twos!

Kimhang and Srey Pov

The kids singing at the end of class

Teacher Alex and Cheanang

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Day At The Lake

Sandra, Teacher Zuzana, Christina and Teacher Margerida

Swimming in Tonle Sap

The "dock"


Floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake

Hiking up to Phnom Krom

Sunset from Phnom Krom

Group Cambodian-style picnic at the top!

It was a good day.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Splendor of Angkor (Part II)

Today was my third day visiting Angkor Wat (when you buy a three day pass it can be used any three days over the course of a week) and I had another tiring but incredible day exploring these magnificent ruins.

Making friends

Preah Khan

View from Baphuon

Preah Khan 


Incredible intricacy

Butterfly landing

Angkor Wat

Sunset at Angkor Wat

Monk at Angkor Wat

Friday, October 19, 2012

When in Mourning

A few days ago, Norodom Sihanouk (the former King of Cambodia and a major icon for Cambodian people) passed away at age 89. Shortly after receiving the news of his passing the country went into mourning that was to last one week. I knew about this of course, but it didn’t stop a fellow volunteer and I from going out and trying to enjoy our Friday night (we have been at school all week after all!) Well, we soon found out that when Cambodia is in mourning its nightlife comes to a screeching halt. Even on Pub Street, which is lined with restaurants, bars, clubs and is arguably the most lively street of Siem Reap, there was no music to be heard whatsoever. I don't mean that to sound insensitive, I’ve just never been in a country while it's "in mourning" and didn't really know what that would entail; I certainly didn't expect all music to stop playing! It's actually quite interesting to be here during such a major occurrence.

(P.S. The lack of music did not stop us from having a fun night out: We ended up at a bar playing drinking games and eating birthday cake with Chinese acrobats. Only while traveling I tell you!)

Sharing a bucket with new friends

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

First Day of School

As most people reading this probably know, the main reason I came to Cambodia was to teach English at a primary school. I am volunteering for About Asia Schools, a non-profit organization that aims to make education accessible for all children in Cambodia, especially those in rural areas, primarily by providing supplies and volunteers. (For more information about the organization click here). Well, today was my first day back at school in over a year!

The school I'm teaching at is called Smiling Hearts Association for Children (SHAC). It is located in a small village within the town of Siem Reap, only about a 10 minute bike ride from my guest house, but it's in such a rural setting that it feels much further away than that! It would almost impossible for someone to just stumble upon it as it's quite tucked away. The school is not run by the government in any way and receives no funding from them; it's actually situated on the property of the school's "principal", a woman named Ally who basically opened the school out of the kindness of her heart. The children do not have to pay anything to attend but they do need to have a uniform.

The school's curriculum focuses mainly on learning English, as other subjects are taught at "Khmer" school which the children attend in the morning, and then attend SHAC in the afternoon (or vice versa). The school offers classes for kindergarten - grade four. Today I taught grade four in the morning and grade one in the afternoon - was I ever impressed with the kids' level of English! There were a few rambunctious ones but all in all the kids are extremely polite and well-behaved. At the beginning and end of each class they must all stand, hands together as if in prayer, and say "thank you teacher". Even though some of them are quite young they all seem to be aware that learning English is essential for them to get a good job and enjoy a higher quality of life.

It's only been a day and I have already been hugged, offered flowers and treats, and have met some very inspiring kids. I can't wait to see what else they have in store for me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Splendor of Angkor

Siem Reap, the town I will be volunteering in for the next six weeks, is most known for the temples of Angkor Wat. I have spent the last two days exploring them and I only got to about five (and there are... well, a lot more than five). I had no idea how massive this group of temples was! Apart from the lack of signs pointing you in the right direction, too many tourists wearing completely inappropriate clothing and humidity that just wouldn't quit, it felt really special to be in such an ancient and sacred place.

Angkor Wat


Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

Ta Prohm

Kids jumping into the lake in front of Angkor Wat

Monkeys at Angkor Wat

Monday, October 15, 2012

Smiles Among the Horror

As most people know, Cambodia has an incredibly tragic history. From 1975-1979 the country was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a regime that attempted to create an agrarian-based, self-reliant and Communist society. "Enemies" of the Party (professionals, intellectuals and even people who wore glasses as this indicated that they were literate) were tortured and/or killed in the most horrific ways imaginable. One of the regime's main mottos was "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." An estimated 2 million Cambodian people died under the Khmer Rouge, and it is generally considered to be a genocide.

One of the mass graves at The Killing Fields

While I was in Phnom Penh I was able to visit two sites that are linked to this dark era: The Tuol Sleng Prison (also known as S21) which is an old high school that served as a torture center, and The Killing Fields, where trucks full of people would be dropped off and executed shortly thereafter.

Remnants of the victims

Both places were incredibly haunting: I saw mass graves of children, farming tools used as murder weapons, articles of victim's clothing and more skulls, bones and teeth than almost seemed possible.

Rows and rows of tiny cells at the Tuol Sleng Prison

 Considering the terrible events this country suffered through not even 40 years ago, I'm constantly amazed by the kindness of its people. Kids constantly greet me with an enthusiastic "hello!", adults have welcomed me to wander around the pagodas where they worship... tonight an old lady actually cupped my chin and just smiled for a moment, as if to pay me some kind of compliment. Their history is stained with horrors I can't even fully wrap my head around and yet, somehow, they manage to smile.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Be Invited In For A Meal, Check!

One thing on my Wanderlist that I was really hoping to do on this trip was be invited in for a meal with locals. Well, this evening it happened! I was strolling along a dirt road not too far from my guesthouse and I passed a yard filled with a large family. "Hey", they shouted, "You like beer?" For anyone that doesn't know, I do like beer, so I went in with the intention of just saying hello. I ended up staying for about two hours drinking beer, eating chicken (it would have been rude to refuse!), rice, boiled banana peels, some kind of delicious lemon poppyseed sauce and chatting with some very lovely Cambodian people. I was told that this is a meal they only eat on Sundays and special occasions (it's a Buddhist holiday right now in Cambodia) so I felt pretty lucky that they welcomed me in!

Although the "setting" was pretty different (dirt floors, pieces of wood for seats and chickens meandering near my feet) it really didn't seem that different from a family gathering we would have at home. It was comforting somehow, knowing that people halfway around the world do the same thing we do back in Canada. I am falling more and more in love with this country everyday!

Friday, October 12, 2012

When I Look Out the Window

I see the Mekong River, source of life, lined with houses perched on rickety wooden stilts,
A landscape covered with lush green flora, and
People lounging sleepily in hammocks.
Pagodas standing tall and proud, blazing with hues of red and gold,
Wandering cows, chickens and water buffalo alike,
Playing children who stop and stare, responding to my gaze with beautiful smiles, and
A hazy sky, the same one seen by people all over the world.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Tuk-Tuk Love Story

On our first full day in Phnom Penh, Zuzana (a fellow volunteer) and I woke up ready to see the city. As soon as we stepped outside our hotel we were approached by several men asking if we needed a tuk-tuk, which for anyone who doesn't know is basically a motorized rickshaw. We decided to go with the man that asked us first, and this is how we met Wan.

Now Zuzana and I weren't planning into getting involved in anything serious. We had just arrived after all, and we wanted to keep our options open. But it wasn't long before we realized that riding in Wan's tuk-tuk was going to be more than just a one-time thing. 

It started out pretty casually. We asked him if he could take us to the airport (to get extensions on our visas) and he did. He turned out to be so lovely that we asked if he wouldn't mind driving us around the rest of the day and he happily agreed. We were thrilled when at the end of that first day he asked if he could be our driver for the rest of our stay.

Wan really was like our boyfriend for the week. He gave us his number so we could call him to come pick us up, and he was always on time to meet us. When we would leave a museum or restaurant and start walking towards where Wan would be waiting for us, we had lots of other tuk-tuk offers to which we would reply "sorry, we're already with someone." We even took him out for dinner on our last night!

Over the course of the week we realized how much our steady business meant to Wan. He's married with one son and another on the way, and he is the sole provider for his family. He told us that his wife used to work in a factory but that he encouraged her to quit because it was difficult and dangerous work. Because they only have one income they rent a small apartment, but he hopes to one day be able to purchase a house. He seemed so grateful to us but we were just as grateful to him, because he knew the city like the back of his hand and he could not have been more nice, patient or helpful.

As we leave for Siem Reap tomorrow we are most definitely going to miss Wan. But if we're ever in Phnom Penh again, we know exactly who our tuk-tuk driver will be.

Zuzana, Wan and I

Monday, October 8, 2012

Love At First Sight

I've only been in Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) for a day but I'm completely head over heels.