I was excited about being able to finally help a bit organizing community activities, teaching kids, and singing songs while building relationships with professionals in a new country. The first thing that happened at the education center, which was one of about 60 in various parts of Cambodia, was for the director, Ms. Dany, to give me a tour around the grounds.
“Beautiful rice!” Ms. Dany called to the student, working the rice with a long hoe and using his whole body to get the momentum he needed to move it.
She introduced me to literally every person we passed, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the students and the teachers. Everyone seemed very young. I also noticed a lack of other foreign volunteers and found it really difficult to communicate with anyone.
The doctor who works across the street, was Argentinian, and I was able to have an actual conversation with him in Spanish. He introduced me to his office.
“This is my office,” he said, waving to a small room not more than four square meters large. On the counters that lined the walls were all his tools.
“I’m able to do my work here very cheaply. I do service for free– check-ups, and normal tests. I have all the tools necessary here.” I was in awe. “The only thing the students have to pay for is the medicine, which is also very, very cheap.” There was a plastic bin full of bottles of variously labeled medications.
“It’s incredible,” I said. I couldn’t believe a practicing physician could work out of these types of environments. I mean, I’m sure they do all over the world. But the difference between the pristine, sterile environment of a U.S. physician’s office and this dingy little room with paint peeling off of the walls and a fan that rotated depressingly slow up in the corner was sobering. It’s difficult to appreciate poverty until you’ve really seen it.
In the dorms for the students, which were free for them, nearly 200 were being housed on one floor without proper beds or mattresses. Their things lay below on the ground floor, and the students that were monks stayed in a separate, smaller building. One of the goals of the Khmer Rouge during their massacre was to totally destroy all religion in the country, so it was good to see some of it still surviving.
Ms. Dany then introduced me to the classes, which were small in size and led mostly by local volunteers. There was one Irish volunteer there, Katie, who was teaching her children a lesson on the lyrics of “Let It Go,” from Frozen.
A little store run by students sat next to a computer lab where they learned to use computers simply by playing around with them. It was here and a bit farther outside that I was able to get most of my food for the day, since the food within the facility was free for volunteers and paid for by students (for which I felt bad). Katie, and another volunteer that showed up later named Aysha from the States, showed me a food cart just outside the facility that had whole noodle meals for between 12 and 50 cents. I abused this food cart. There was also a place that was good for getting coffee, another for ice cream, and just further down the road we went to a whole food market where you could get other Cambodian specialties like fried spiders, crickets, and worms, roasted chicken, pork dumplings… the list goes on.
But towards the end of the day I was quite tired from the heat, the genocide museum, and meeting so many people. We had an assembly in which all the volunteers and teachers introduced themselves, including myself, before I finally ended up in bed, emotionally and physically exhausted.
I shared a bed that night with someone I miraculously had not met, but this forced another person who was sharing that bed to go out to someone else’s room. There was a fan to stay cool, but the lights stayed on incredibly late despite the 10PM curfew and the heat made it impossible for me to sleep. The restroom looked like the scene of a murder, or like the bathroom scene from the first SAW movie. It was perpetually flooded (and I’m not sure where the water came from, because), the water from the shower head was unreliable depending on water use throughout the camp, and there was no soap anywhere to be found, nor toilet paper.
I kept trying to convince myself it was all part of the experience and that it was something I could handle. After all, what kind of person would I be if I couldn’t work in the conditions these children had known all their lives? Not a very good one, that’s for sure.
I still hadn’t been assigned a place in Cambodia, and I hadn’t been told what to do yet. I asked around and no one seemed to know what was going on, until I was approached by a man with a book of lessons. He sat me down and tried to explain what I would be doing.
“The children in the province don’t speak English, so you will doing basic lesson with them. You say this sound, a. Ahhhh. Then they repeat. Do this many time. Then move to next line, just follow the book.”
“Where am I going?”
“Prey Veng province. Your manager will take you there on motorbike today, it takes about four hours.”
I was feeling really uneasy about this. I was hoping my manager would be outgoing enough to have conversation with me, because three weeks in much simpler facilities (in the provinces, toilets are just holes in the ground and services are much more basic, and I wouldn’t have a bed either) seemed like a difficulty for me. Then, things got worse. The manager showed up.
He was kind, and pretty quiet. A local guy who had just started his position after going through the school program for a couple years. I asked him what the city was like, and he just blankly stared at me.
“Yes, how is it?”
“What is the city like?”
I asked in every way I could think of with no response. Alright, this was enough. I’d come to volunteer as a teacher but this was clearly not going to be a successful endeavor.
Katie and Aysha helped me talk through my issues.
“Would I be a terrible person if I left?” I asked several times. “I feel really bad,” I said, legitimately considering leaving, “because I thought I could do this, but I don’t know. I’m not going to be able to help at all, the students don’t speak any English.”
“No, you know, you’re not a prisoner or something. I think they know it happens, and these facilities are not the greatest. But I’ve just come from Japan teaching, so this isn’t so bad,” Katie said. Aysha had a lot to say about it.
“I mean definitely honestly like, I wanted to give up for the first few days. I don’t know, it was like, if I hadn’t met my roommate Elsa from Madrid, I don’t think I would have made it. Elsa had even been volunteering for like, eight years in different countries, and then she came here for two weeks and left. She said this place ruined Cambodia for her. So she found out her friend was going to China, and she just booked a ticket and left.
“I thought you said she was headed back home or something?”
“Oh well, Ms. Dany was there and I didn’t want to be like, “Oh yeah, Elsa left because she couldn’t take it any more.” And this is my last day anyway. I’m kind of glad to be going home, too.”
“That makes me feel not so terrible.”
“You shouldn’t feel terrible! Also, have you seen their like, philosophy on life?”
“You grow up in different stages. Like, from 1-12 you’re in the child phase, and you’re not supposed to think for yourself at all. Then from 12-20 you’re in the adolescent phase, and then 21 and on you’re supposed to get married and have a family.”
“Oh man, that’s so young.”
“Yeah, all my students ask me how old I am, and when I tell them I’m 21 they’re like, “Wait, so why aren’t you married?”” Hah! She continued, “And when I asked them what old was to them, they said 50. They were like, “After 50, people go to the pagoda and wait to die.” This sounded terrible but at the time it was so off-the-wall funny.
Once we were over that, they invited me to stay until the afternoon so I could visit the pagoda (the one where people go to die after 50) with them and a couple other volunteers from East Timor. So I gathered Ms. Dany and the other guy and my manager to let them know I wasn’t staying. It was the most awkward conversation of my life. I tried to explain it to them in simple terms, but they were having a hard time understanding. I was fighting tears the whole time, angry with myself for not being good enough to stay.
Then my manager sighed and handed money over to Ms. Dany, who looked pleased with herself and pocketed it. They had made a bet about whether I would stay. Then, I didn’t feel so shitty when I got up and walked away.
That afternoon, we walked down the long street directly to the Peng Ek Pagoda. The houses, again, here, are made from scraps of metal, tied together with I-don’t-even-know-what, and the ditches by the road are filled with plastic bottles, bags, and all manner of trash. On the opposite side of the road, oddly enough, were mansions. Great homes built in French colonial style and even one modern home, all belonging to farmers as far as we could tell.
The Peng Ek Pagoda was in a state of disrepair. Monks still lived on the grounds, and took care of lots of stray dogs, but some of the stupas here had been broken open and contained trash instead of remains of important people. The temple itself was closed. One cool part of the pagoda area was the statue of the Buddha with the twelve Zodiac animals behind him, arranged in a rectangle around a man mounted on a golden horse.
There was a weird sculpture of a man with his guts hanging out, being attacked my maggots and his tongue limply hanging out of his mouth to symbolize people who try to make it big in this life and not in the next.
After we’d finished visiting, I’d had enough of this part of the city and took a moto (as children called, “Hello teacher, where are you going?” — “The city! I’m sorry! Bye!”) back to the hostel I’d stayed at my first night in the city.