Monday, April 7, 2008

Smiles and Tears in Cambodia

In some ways, Cambodia reminded me of the United States. I used American dollars for all of my purchases, for example. Cars drove on the right side of the road. Lots of folks spoke flawless English.

Maybe I've been in Japan too long.

But I knew that I definitely wasn't in the United States -- or Japan for that matter -- when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on my first morning. My alarm hadn't gone off early; instead, the folks in the home next to my guesthouse were blaring wedding music through rented loud speakers. I peered out the window to see a dozen or so people congregated in plastic chairs, eating breakfast as they shooed the chickens running through the dirt yard. In Cambodia, weddings last anywhere from three days to a week and are truly all-day affairs. The volume of your party music correlates directly with the amount of money you have (or are pretending to have). Talk about keeping up with the Joneses...

Other than the very early starts on multiple mornings, my spring break in Cambodia was an amazing experience. I sojourned to the town of Siem Reap to volunteer as an English teacher at Anjali, a locally-run NGO (the name means "divine offering" in Sanskrit) that provides schooling for street kids.

Working in a desperately poor country, Cambodian teachers make dismal salaries, forcing them to "tax" their students to supplement their incomes. While this "tax" is usually about 12 cents per day, it means that many struggling families can't afford to send their kids to school. Instead, these youngsters get sent out to work in the street, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Anjali is working to fix that by offering free classes -- and lots of love -- to these kids. As Siem Reap is located just footsteps from the Temples of Angkor, a world heritage site and major hub for tourism, Anjali tutors these kids in English, in hopes to help them score a legit job in the tourist industry when they get older. The kids -- all 80 of them -- were amazingly well-adjusted and eager to learn, despite their rough backgrounds.

As much as I loved my time at Anjali, I was able to play both volunteer and tourist in Cambodia. Already awake at 4:30 a.m., I set out for Angkor Wat at sunrise on my weekend off. Built in AD 800, Angkor Wat is the largest of the hundreds of temples at Siem Reap -- actually it's the largest religious structure in the world -- and is beyond breathtaking. I loved it so much that I returned at noon to photograph it again -- check out the postcard-ready shot of the temple with the three pine cone-esque spires.

You'd think that Angkor Wat would be hard to top, but Cambodia kept outdoing itself. After the Wat, I visited Bayon, a temple with 200 mysterious faces peering out of the jungle, and Ta Prohm, which also served as the set for Tomb Raider a few years back (see: temple crushed under tree roots, above). I covered the 17 kilometers between the temples in a tuk tuk on the back of a motorcycle -- with a fun-loving, Japanese-speaking driver named Heng -- and on the back of an elephant.

Pretty spectacular.

Other highlights included chatting up some Buddhist monks (and scoring a phone number -- turns out they're just normal guys!) at the Wat across the street from my guesthouse; meeting the founder of a land mine museum (a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, he planted the mines two decades ago, and now is working to deactivate them); speeding on the back of a motorcycle to check out a village floating on a lake; and dining on Cambodian stir fry with the locals for a buck in open-air street stalls.

Warning: buzz kill ahead. While I've posted smiling pictures and have painted a happy picture of my trip, I feel compelled to balance the sunshine with the truth. Mixed in with all of this fun was a sobering dose of reality. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge-induced civil war ended just over a decade ago, and the economy and people are still recovering. At the Temples, I'd meet tiny children hawking guidebooks who spoke multiple languages flawlessly (if I told them I was from the USA, their sales pitch was in English; my lie about being from Spain was met with a pitch in perfect Spanish; my Swedish friend got the pitch in Swedish; and I also heard them speak pretty darn good Japanese). Had these kids been born anywhere else, they'd be well on their way to going to university and leading comfortable lives. But in Cambodia, they have nowhere to go.

Sadly, even the the kids at Anjali weren't immune from begging: after dinner in town one evening, I was absolutely heartbroken when I saw two of "my" kids -- the same kids I'd taught and laughed with and hugged during the day -- selling postcards in the street. Though Anjali has a strict "no begging" policy, these kids' parents were HIV positive and unemployed, leaving the family little choice but to put the children to work at night. I bought the kids a hot dog and told them that seeing them on the street made me very sad, that they needed to go home, but I know that they're probably back out on the street as a type this, just one week later.

So I guess that's where my Cambodia-United States comparison ends. In the U.S., I'd like to think that driven, motivated kids would have options -- at the minimum, some small chance to break out of the cycle of poverty. In Cambodia, that's simply not the case right now. But perhaps my week in Siem Reap at least made a few disadvantaged kids smile.

All in all, it was an eclectic, unforgettable week -- both inspiring and sobering -- one that pictures and words really can't do justice to. Though I went to Cambodia to work as a teacher, I learned far more than I taught, and I'm thankful for the experience.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your moving essay. You are an accomplished writer.