Early Days as a Volunteer

Today the normally-clear, blue skies above us in Kampong Cham seemed to reflect the murky brown waters of the Mekong. As the sun slowly set, I cycled back from my afternoon teaching session surrounded by motos purring around me in disorganised politeness. A tourist riverboat slowly made it’s way out from the shore and cruised upstream, towering over small wooden fishing boats as I cycled past the resident crazy guy whose dirt-caked trousers are ripped from crutch to knee. He holds them up with one hand, laughing uproariously into thin air as he strides purposefully around town. He sleeps on a table at a street corner nearby and I often wonder where the old lady has gone, who was sleeping on the concrete near him when I left three months ago. Alongside the pink and white ribbon-adorned wedding tent erected in the middle of the road outside my home, my heart pounded in time with the vibrating music. The wedding party, dressed in matching diamante-studded charteuse gowns and suits, waited at the tent entrance to greet their guests. So you are the people who woke me at 6am with the reverberations of rock music interspersed with monks chanting you into a long and happy marriage? The street is in for a long, thundering night followed by another loud awakening, based on previous experience with Cambodian street weddings!

The happiest times of my days now are spent at Phter Koma where the twelve resident children spend their days in a steady and organised routine. The manager shares his time between administrative tasks such as calculating the budget and writing the annual report, both due at our Board of Directors meeting this weekend, and spending time communicating with the children affectionately. When I arrived this morning, the counselor/educator had already taken two kids to their monthly hospital appointments on the back of her moto. The “Mum” was perched on a wooden bench preparing the next meal to be cooked on an outside fire burning inside stone urns. Some of the children were at morning public school lessons. One of the older boys was outside burning off garden rubbish in preparation for the next vegetable garden to be planted. Two of the older girls were sweeping the front yard with brooms made from straw on the end of wooden sticks. The group of 4 whose English lesson was due grabbed a folding table and set it up in front of the whiteboard before sitting down on plastic stools, pens in hand waiting for me to log into my laptop.

As the lesson was coming to an end, the other children gradually trickled in from school on their bicycles and gathered around the desk to hear and talk in English about shapes, colours and national flags. Games time in the front yard inevitably collapses into shouting, yelling and boisterous laughter as a jumping race, hopping race, backwards race and blindfold tag all caused wild excitement to the detriment of the unfortunate but uncomplaining neighbours. Across the road, an outdoor classroom with rows of wooden desks and benches facing a whiteboard are frequently crowded with mainly orange-robed monks listening to an English lesson in apparent oblivion of the commotion a few metres away. These kids all come from homes overshadowed by extreme adversity, yet they smile and laugh readily, concentrate on their studies despite nearly all having lost months if not years of schooling due to their ill health, and take care of each other in a home which flourishes with warmth and good cheer.

This morning I met with the manager after English class to discuss the budget. I was astounded to learn that at the BoD meeting this weekend, we need to discuss the need to increase certain budget lines by amounts from as small as $10 per month, which is money we need to try and redirect from other lines in the same budget. He led me around the house to show me the dishwashing detergent, washing powder, soaps, shampoos and toothbrushes and explain why the amounts for these items need to be increased. He then showed me the market schedule as I arranged to meet the “Mum” at market early tomorrow morning, to do an assessment on grocery amounts and costs, in preparation for talking at the BoD meeting. It’s all another steep learning curve for me, and the “basket evaluation” as it’s called, in a busy market place without access to any translation, is guaranteed to be an interesting experience!

The last time I visited the toilet construction was on Monday morning with Chom. He picked me up in his tuk tuk and we stopped off at his brother’s home out of town to swap tuk tuk for moto. His three year old son stood at the handlebars inside Dad’s arms and I climbed on the back, alternating between holding the sides of Chom’s shirt, and grabbing the underside of the seat behind me. We bumped along the uneven, dusty, rocky roads for 15km, past many rural sights. On arrival Dara was protesting unsuccessfully as his 12yo sister dressed him in his little white shirt and blue shorts school uniform. He limped across to the bicycle and climbed aboard the carrier, they stopped for a couple of photos, then she cycled them up the dusty track towards school for afternoon class. Chom and I motored past as they pulled in to the school gate and Dara beamed widely as we waved and shouted farewells at each other. We’ll repeat the experience tomorrow, when Chom plans to make some cash payments to the workers (‘first I will see how much work they have done and then maybe we will pay them half, or maybe we will pay them less, but bring enough in case we pay half”).

Apart from all of that, between Board of Directors stuff and lesson planning, I also have about ten “hospital kids” waiting to hear that they can learn English with me – we may have to conduct their lessons under a tree as I’ve been unable to find a venue. The Global Development Group application remains outstanding and we are also applying to UNAIDS for funding, so there is not a lot of spare time at the moment.  Which is a shame because there’s loads of stories deserving to be told and I am likely to forget them before I have time to sit and write about them.

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