Chnam kala

February means the half (kala) way point of my year in Cambodia, which is a little bit ambiguous. At the end of every day we get overly excited about crossing off the day on the homemade calendar plastered across our bedroom wall, with six months feeling like an awfully long time and England being a faded memory. But, at the same time, six months?! I’m pretty sure it was only a couple of weeks ago that I was excitedly telling everyone about my plans to volunteer in Cambodia.

Lexi had a family visit this month and was away in Sihanoukville for a week, whilst I stayed at group home. This was strange after doing practically everything so far with Lexi this year, right down to brushing our teeth together in the morning. I realise that although I have developed massive amounts of independence this year, it has largely been gained through and with Lexi. She has given me courage, motivates me when I feel like I literally can’t get up off the floor, and really, most of the discoveries I have made in Cambodia have happened with Lexi at my side.This is turning into a bit of a Lexi appreciation speech, but some things need to be said!

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Things at group home are going well. We face challenges on a daily basis, but we understand that these problems are the ones we signed up for…. And also that we weren’t being lied to when they told us that our project would be hard! At the moment, I think it’s fair to say that we feel quite out of our depth with the older children. Being a teenager is difficult in ordinary circumstances, but to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood when you live in relative poverty, have no parents and are HIV positive is on a completely different level. Mostly it is behavior, with teenagers being rebellious in attitude in both lessons and around the house, forming ‘gangs’. However, our charity Magna has just formed major plans to move the older children to a house in Phnom Penh. If this happens, it means that they will be able to live fairly independently and close to job opportunities, which is brilliant. We’re not sure what this means for us and our lessons with the older children yet, but for now we are focusing on conversational English skills with them.

Even though we have low points very often, the little things such as a child coming on massively in English lessons, getting pulled into a tickle fight, or someone knocking on the door to give us a drawing makes me feel like I have the best job in the world. Even if we are just a small part of the children’s lives and are simply observing their daily routine as they grow up, there is a big sense of privilege in being among them.

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We had a nice group home tribute to pancake day earlier this week. Despite the swarm of children following us around all day asking for ‘nom cake’ and the usual baking chaos (I might have lost my temper when a particularly naughty seven year old threw a twig into the batter) we had a lot of fun.

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It has been Chinese New Year and even though Cambodia is relatively far away from China, the children off school, closed shops and firecrackers perpetually sounding throughout Kampong Chhnang would make you think differently. The other morning, Lexi and me walked out of our bedroom bang into 3 monks giving a blessing to the landlady, and we had an impromptu party at group home with green tea and various parts of a chicken. It has been stressful trying to organise and entertain 43 children, but their sheer ecstasy when they were watching late night fireworks from a neighbouring house in their pajamas was definitely wonderful to see.

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Even though January started off as a bit of a whirlwind, our life at the group home is feeling normal again (as much as it can be when you are spending a year living in Cambodia).

It makes sense if I talk about teaching first, because that is what makes up the majority of Lexi and mine’s time here. We have come across two main problems of late, discipline aside. Firstly, because we live with the children and play with, tickle and tease them every day, both of us have found it hard to get the children to see us as proper teachers and respect our authority when in the classroom. Saying this, having regular timetabled lessons and star charts etc has helped to improve behaviour. The second problem, which seems to be a less significant issue now, is children not showing up for their lessons. Being in Cambodia, both them and us know the importance of education and English as a language, so sometimes their attitudes have proven to be disappointing. After making an attendance chart and a sort of contract that the older children have to sign when they miss a lesson, things so far are getting better. We are trying to focus on the children that do turn up and put effort in, because it is easy to forget them when your attention is turned elsewhere.

Actual English lessons are pleasing though; Lexi’s children have recently been coming up to me saying ‘washing machine’ and ‘I am getting dressed’, and whenever they are near a clock, my younger ones grab my arm shouting ‘7 O’clock!’. Citizenship sessions, or ‘rien nityay’ (study talk) are slowly turning into an achievement for Lexi and me. So far, we have covered issues such as bullying and safety, making a paper clothes line with hygeine do’s and dont’s, as well as turning the class into a web of string to discover what the children want to be when they grow up. And lastly on the work side of things, we are impressed with our new educational and finance officers. Since they began work at group home, we have been having meetings with all of the caregivers where Lexi and me can share our ideas; this is amazing for us. And a real push has been made to get the children who haven’t been to school or have been suspended to return, which is brilliant too.

In ourselves, Lexi and me are happy. We are increasingly relying on a lot of coffee, bananas and chocolate to get us through the day, but when we aren’t completely burnt out or consoling each other huddled on the floor, we still manage to have fun together and do things that we enjoy. More often than not, this involved wild nights reading our books until we fall asleep at 8.30 pm.

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Happy new year

After taking two weeks off from volunteering at Group Home, looking back at my previous blog post it seems that the feeling of tiredness that I described is now almost unrecognisable. Our Christmas travelling, although really busy, has completely refreshed us and left us with smiles in our faces for our final weekend in Phnom Penh before we head back to Kampong Chhnang on Monday. I’ll try and give a bit of an idea of what we’ve been up to and how we celebrated Christmas and the start of 2015, which marks a sort of ‘home-straight’ for Lexi and me.

We began in Bangkok, a brief acquaintance with such a baffling explosion of a city. Although we only really had one full day there, it formed my first impressions of Thailand, which could not be more different to Cambodia! The language, food, people and behaviour was so foreign in comparison to what we are used to, and this was emphasised in the big lights and scenery of Bangkok. In this time, we managed to get lost in Chinatown, see the city from the skyrail, go up and down the Chao Phraya river and Lexi ate the best Pad Thai that she’s ever tried.

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From there we experienced the best bus ever (films and drinks included) to Southern Thailand, where we boarded the ferry to Koh Chang. I think we both fell a little bit in love with this island, with its jungle clad hills, amazing sunsets and beaches that I can’t really compare to anything else. Our time spent here was comprised mainly of lying horizontally in the sun and aiming to spend the smallest amount of time possible moving in the day. Saying this, we did some good swimming in the sea, met up with Tara and Phoebe who are volunteering in Thailand which was really nice, went canoeing and on an elephant trek (amazing to be close to a beautiful animal but not so amazing when we realised that we had the most uncooperative elephant ever, leading it be hit, very sadly, by its master many times). We also had Christmas here, which didn’t feel like Christmas at all, because we tried to make it a ‘nice day’ rather than highlighting the fact we were missing out on everything going on at home. It was actually a lovely time, made special by a beautiful sunset and some presents from our friends and families.

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We practically had to drag ourselves away from Koh Chang to go to Sihanoukville in Cambodia for a whistlestop new year celebration. Despite the hostel we were staying in being better described as a questionable hut, we had such a memorable evening! Instead of spending the night with travellers, we ended up with loads of dancing Cambodian people, who were crazy but incredibly friendly.

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Sadly on new years day we were back on the bus to Phnom Penh, but for the wedding of a caregiver from the Group Home’s sister. Phearun, the old manager of Group Home, kindly agreed to take us, and we were so grateful to be able to see a Cambodian wedding, which is the most important event in a person’s life here (besides birth and death). After a very long moto ride and spontaneous ferry river crossing, we arrived to the bride’s family home looking windswept in comparison to the beauty of everyone there. We learned so much by being there; for example most ceremonies throughout the day are for the benefit of the dead and the wedding party usually changes outfit eight times in the day. When some of the ceremonies were over, we were lead to the neighbour’s house and given blankets and pillows for a nap. Obviously unable to sleep like our Cambodian counterparts (the bride was wandering around in her pajamas in the afternoon), we were taken for a tour of the families’ fruit farms and spent a lot of time talking to Phearun. Then we were subjected to an eight course meal, but luckily (or not so luckily depending how you look at it) we had to leave after the fish course which was I think the 3rd. We feel so privileged to have been allowed to be a part of this interesting day, and it was really touching to hear from Phearun that it was such an honour for Bopha, the caregiver, to have us there. It means that her family are proud of her for bringing westerners to the home.

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Wedding 3.

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For four months, Cambodia has been our life, our work, our children, our friends, our food, and increasingly our home. In many respects this fact is incomprehensible, but it is true that our lives in England seem breathtakingly and impossibly far away.

December has slipped through our fingers, and we think that this must be down to our constant business now that the new timetable is in full swing. Teaching is something that both Lexi and I are quite proud of, regarding the progression of the children as our own achievement as much as it is theirs. It seems to have become evident that just being a caring and interested presence around the children is also equally as important.

On the 14th we had our group home Christmas party. We tried to begin the celebrations with watching Home Alone with the older children, but in classic Cambodian style the DVD was dodgy so we ended up watching the incredibly festive Finding Nemo with the little ones. After plastering the house with masses of lovely decorations we have all been making through Advent, Lexi made an appearance as Father Christmas to give each child a present, we held a ‘Santa hunt’ in the garden, sang some carols and conformed to Khmer culture by dancing the afternoon away. We saw smiles on the faces of some children I haven’t seen genuine happiness in for a long while. The day ended with watching Frozen, of course, huddled around the small TV. By now, the children have seen the film so much that they know all of the words to every song which is hilarious to hear.

Working and being with people for literally all of our time is exhausting, especially for three weeks straight. Now Lexi and I are being punished with a couple of days where we have felt under the weather due to extreme tiredness. But today we made it to Thailand, and feel a sense of relief that it our holiday, wondering how we would have coped if the Christmas break hadn’t come at this time to save us. I hope that we are more aware of the importance of taking regular breaks to prevent us crashing and to make is better teachers; self preservation means that we can handle most things that are thrown at us (mostly energetic little children).

Sihanoukville

If you think of a seaside town in South East Asia, packed full of little bars, restaurants and gift shops, with sand that squeaks under your feet and transparent water, Sihanoukville or Kampong Som pretty much fits the description. In fact, whilst there, it would be easy to forget that you are in Cambodia. It is the persistent tuk tuk drivers, grilled prawn sellers and children perpetually asking you to buy a bracelet on the beach that perhaps give it away.

Lexi celebrated her 18th birthday here, and her family very kindly arranged for us to stay in luxury for a couple of days. This meant, to our unadulterated excitement, hot water, a toilet that flushes, and being able to switch on the t.v and watch CNN at any time of the day.

We had a brilliant and memorable trip; most of which was spent lying on the beach, relaxing for the first time in a long while and taking in the views (which I can’t compare to anything that I’ve seen before). I think that we will both remember our day of snorkeling for a long time.

One day, we found a derelict patch of beach at the end of an upmarket hotel resort. Wondering why this idyllic white sand and a spot on a sun lounger was only $2.50 for the whole day, we soon realised that, with irony, this beach was shunned by the resort due to a shore line slum being partly visible. Us, on the other hand, were grateful for a little reminder of the real Cambodia.

We are back at work now, busy as ever with our children, joining in with their anticipation for Christmas. We even have advent calendars!DSCF7399 DSCF7460 DSCF7547

Sabai Sabai

November has come and gone; in Cambodia, this has meant that the children have finally returned to school, the mangoes are getting sweeter and it has become noticeably breezier. On many mornings there is a beautiful dappled sunlight as I sleepily walk across the sand to take the bins out.

For both Lexi and I, November has also been quite challenging. 43 children who are at school at different times of the day, with different timetables and in different grades has meant an awful lot of head scratching to come up with a compromised timetable that allows the children to benefit, but that is also fair on us. Our gap year: a.k.a. the chronicles of being flexible. However, our time is much more organised now; since the revelation that the older children would be going to school for the whole, rather than half, of the day (meaning we teach them at lunch times and evenings), we’ve got some golden time to do things with the 11 or so children that are left behind in the day. This includes taking them to the park (where a monkey stole one of our two remaining shuttlecocks), setting up ‘tutoring’ where the big children help the younger ones with their homework, and introducing citizenship sessions alongside the usual arts and crafts fun.

As Lexi said, alot of it is down to going with the unexpected, and sometimes we should give credit to the surprises. These aren’t always pleasant; e.g. we had a nightmare with our visas resulting in a snap decision with Lexi having to deliver our passports personally to the office in Phnom Penh. But sometimes they are wonderful. After airing our concerns about the children’s hygeine at the home, we have since spotted a new hand washing rule, as well as some thorough ear-cleaning going on: this made us both unbelievably happy! In the last couple of weeks, I’ve also had a bit of trouble trying to shake off my upset stomach, although I’m feeling much more normal now. It was difficult to see a girl at the group home have similar problems, except it resulting in her cd4 count being lowered, and ultimately have to be put on ARV medication to prevent her HIV from progressing to AIDS. Life can be unfair in so many ways.

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‘Who just powed?’

For a couple of reasons, Lexi and I have found ourselves spending a long three weeks at the group home; whereas we would usually venture to Phnom Penh or further afield. This has meant that we have both found ourselves settling in and feeling properly rooted for probably the first time here in Cambodia, in addition to becoming closer to the people that we spend every day with. Working and living in such close proximity has meant that we have found ourselves talking to Phearun, the home manager, a lot, somebody for whom our admiration stretches very far. We have also seemed to forge a good relationship with the older children in particular: a balance between a joke-sharing friendship and being there for them when they open up.

Some pretty extraordinary things have happened since I have last written on my blog, which I hope are as amusing for you to read as they were for me and Lexi to experience…

We had a housewarming party to fend off unwanted ghosts from the home; (in a sense, similar to the concept of Halloween) which entailed some monks giving us a blessing, lots of food and drink, and plenty of dancing.

If you remember my raving about the floating village close to our house, well a simple Saturday morning trip to buy fruit from the market escalated into an unforgettable boat trip around the (mostly Vietnamese) floating villages. We were especially impressed by the floating temple and school!

One evening, as I entered our room, Lexi was standing on the chair screaming about something wedged in her bed. I assumed it was a gecko because I am now used to Lexi’s over-reactions, but her fear was totally founded because there was an actual bearded dragon in our bedroom. All of the children piled in to try and get rid of it, and now the ‘Tok dy’ incident is a massive source of amusement among the children.

And when we were in the park one hot afternoon,┬ádespite Lexi’s warning I sat near a group of innocent monkeys mooching around beside us. This led to one creeping up behind me and literally grabbing either side of my head!

Nevertheless, in the last few days of October, I started to feel quite unwell. When today we should be in Siem Reap, where the prospect of setting our eyes on Angkor Wat has been keeping us going for weeks, we instead have had to pursue a wild goose chase of clinics and are now in Phnom Penh. It is much better to be in the city, with a nice room and a resolution only to eat Western food, after spending a good few days cooped up in a room that felt impossibly far away from the care of my mum and some beans on toast. It was difficult to be ill in our place of work; I was effectively being completely selfish when I have been trying to learn more about self-sacrifice. However, things do look more positive now. I’ve been tucked under the wing of Lexi who has been the perfect mother hen, and we are both enjoying some respite before we begin work again.

Rien Anglais, grape freshies and experiencing the ordinary

At the moment, life in Cambodia is still as surreal as the moment we stepped off the plane, but this strange feeling has embedded itself in our everyday routine, and only creeps up on us at certain times. As working and living at the Group Home is becoming the ‘ordinary’, we are finding that teaching is going well. At 7 in the morning we are often sitting on the floor of our office, brainstorming ideas to find inventive ways of keeping what the children have learnt in their heads. Although we’re biased, we think we have got a good system going where we each teach 3 classes, and we are hoping to create sets and a proper timetable when the children start school in November. It has been interesting finding ways to deal with the problems we were encountering last week with behaviour, but it helps that we’ve got a great management team who are willing to listen to our ideas or give us important information about the children’s backgrounds. This┬áreally puts everything into perspective.

I’m also learning about flexibility. I have been discovering that I am quite a rigid person that has effectively been thrown into an environment of chaos. A few days ago, for example, we found that our computer containing all of our files had been taken to a village an hour away without our knowledge. However, after taking some time out and getting a Khmer iced coffee, we managed to sort out the situation and now we have the computer back. It seems that the happiest and most fun times happen with spontaneity. My favourite time of day is just before dinner, where we sit playing games with the children as the sun goes down behind the palm trees and crickets.

Meanwhile, Lexi and me have been enjoying our weekends off, both away and at home. With our trip on the bamboo train, steep climb to a temple and moto ride to a mountain-top Wat with stunning views over Thailand, it is safe to say that we loved Battambang a couple of weeks ago. And last weekend we also discovered a postcard worthy floating village. Did I mention that it is a fifteen minute cycle ride from our home?

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Same same but different

A month since we arrived in Cambodia and my perceptions of this strange, incredible place are always changing. Friendliness is the unwritten overarching national principle. This was demonstrated the other day when we stopped off on our daily cycle to the market to get our bicycles pumped up. When we asked the way to the internet cafe, a woman abandoned what she was doing, ordered her friend to start up her moto and insisted that she lead the way. There seems to be a ‘don’t worry’ and ‘just stay happy’ attitude here, which is certainly influencing my own view of what it really means to be happy. Lexi and I are getting to grips with our project, and we often find ourselves discussing how lucky we feel to be there. We are no longer seeing the children as a mass of faces, but as interesting individuals with their own approach to things. However, this blog also deserves my honesty, and it has been tough trying to deal with the children’s behavior (Including getting scratched, hit, averting a potential classroom fire and being barricaded into the classroom during a lesson with a skipping rope). Despite the naughty chair being full for most of last week, teaching has been wonderful. Even if this sounds cliched, there is an immense feeling when someone remembers something that you have taught them.

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Ma Lexi and Ma Malexi

Arriving at the group home on Monday has brought what can pretty much only be described as an emotional rollercoaster of a week. As we got out of the jeep after a journey driving at 100mph on the wrong side of the road, all of my nerves were washed away as a sea of children jumped on us, each of them telling us their name and attempting to carry our rucksacks to our new room. This week was intended to be an observation week for us, so that Lexi and I could learn about the characters and behaviour of all of the children (all incredible), and get to know the running of the home. Although at first I think we were both daunted by the fact that we are here with these people for an entire year, and we want to do something progressive without imposing ourselves on the organisation, we have had so much fun in the past few days. From doing playground games with the younger children to teaching a couple of informal lessons to gauge how much English the older children know, it has been great to be allowed to have an input at Magna and have so much freedom in what we can do there. But I would be lying if I said this week has been without some harder times, most we can put down to sheer tiredness. The children wake up at 5 and by 6 in the morning they are playing with skipping ropes outside our room. This means that we are both in bed by about 9 o’clock, exhausted and moaning like old people about the boundless energy of the children. At about 4 every morning, Lexi (I manage to sleep through it) is hilariously woken up by chanting Buddhist monks playing instruments at the temple next to the home preparing for P’chum Ben, the festival at the end of September. Nevertheless, we are slowly getting used to the rural lifestyle, the toilet without a flush, cold showers and having rice three times a day.KC2