Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Bubble

They call it the "Angkor Bubble", those 95+% of visitors who slide into Cambodia, usually Siem Reap, stay at 5 star hotels (inexpensive), spend 1 1/2 days touring the Angkor complex, eat at the nice restaurants, have fun walking along Pub Street in the safety of their group and then go home. 

The guides I met who made their living from tourism were both happy and sad about that statistic.  Because not working 1 day basically meant starving for 3.  Most of them have families and extended families' children that they support.  There is no social assistance of any kind in Cambodia.

Secondly because the image most people have of Cambodia isn't real.  Those smiles you see from the people don't truly reflect how they feel inside.  And it isn't the peaceful, serene, happy place it might appear to be.  Inherently we all know this discrepancy exists in the world, for example, in a lot of the Caribbean, where compounds "protect" tourists from the truth and vice versa, the locals from all the gluttony. 

When Cambodians find out you are aware of the reality of their country and their plight, you experience a gush of emotions from their eyes and face for you are truly seeing them for the first time.  They have suffered immensely and do not normally have an opportunity to speak about it to outsiders.  In many ways I felt much weaker than the people I had a chance to meet.

It isn't easy to have to send your children out to sell so the family wouldn't starve.  There are a lot of ill adults.  Basic public health is pretty much non existent.  Forget about schooling where teachers are asking for daily fees in order to provide lessons as a way to supplement their income. Or Doctors demanding extra payment or else no treatment or treatment with expired medication.  Or having to sell your children, thinking you are providing them a way out when in reality it meant sending them straight into the sex tourism industry.

It's frustrating when people know that the future of the country rests on the education of its young people but so few are able to go to school.  I can't begin to express how sad and upsetting it was to see 5 - 10 year olds, looking much younger due to malnutrition, leaning right up against you, repeating the same 2 lines of English over and over again in efforts to sell you postcards, bracelets, bunches of bananas, all with dead looking expressions on their little faces. 

And even more shocking was when I spent time at a local NGO in Siem Reap, who is doing great work and seeing how children were behaving, now that they do not have to work the streets -- A condition of sponsorship.  A number of them were quite aggressive and violent with each other in the name of "play".  Their edge was extremely disturbing which made me immediately wonder how long will that take to heal? 

The volunteers there looked withdrawn except for one Australian fellow who had enough sunshine for the rest of us.  He takes it in stride and realizes the mountain the country needs to climb is simply too high for any one person or organization and he can only do what he can do.  I can totally understand why the maximum placement time is 6 weeks.  It doesn't take long to start feeling down.  I also saw some real successes which shone out that much brighter. 

Twice a year he volunteers as a teaching assistant for a month with the belief he is imparting a positive influence and that it will make a difference both in himself and for kids that happen to be around at the time.  He and his wife have been doing this for the last 4 years and they donate their bicycles to the kids each time they leave.  Lovely people.

Not having a bike is a barrier to getting an education for kids in further away villages.  They cannot even think about owning a bike, much less afford to get a flat tire fixed (25 cents). 

When I told him that I knew within a few minutes that teaching was not for me, he jokingly told the coordinator to definitely, for sure, throw me in with the kindergarten kids.

Please note that this is not an orphanage.  All kids there have families and travel daily to attend school.  Orphanage Tourism is not to be supported.  Decent places will not offer up children to be viewed and petted like a zoo.  Children in orphanages need to feel safe in order to grow and heal. 

That means consistency, not an assembly line of strangers coming in and out who add no real value.  Often causing problems such as accelerated tooth decay by giving candies -- These kids and families are not in the habit of teeth brushing.   

In many cases, the ones that will allow visitors, often house kids who aren't really orphans but are in the business of making tourists feel good about themselves and the money donated doesn't go to furthering the future lives of the children outside of reinforcing their sad acting careers.

Also, as incredibly difficult it is to say no, consider not buying stuff from the children.  Most of them work for touts and you aren't helping them one bit.  Read up on current scams (ie the milk formula scam in SR) prevalent in the area before you go so you don't inadvertently perpetrate the very thing that holds people back.

Bumpy ride to the NGO.
See his jacket?  It was 28 C at 7:30 am
and we were both freezing!
That's when I knew I had acclimatized.

Morning exercises

Snack time, for those who can afford to buy.

The NGO's humble beginnings.
Currently a Women's shelter.
A guard has been placed there at nights after
incidences of rape.

Across the way from the Shelter.

We take garbage pick up for granted.
There, they burn everything, including plastics.
If photos could show the smell...

What used to be the "Computer Lab".
The cordoned off fencing revealed 2 classrooms.
My host started here as a teacher.
He told me it was hard work running after kids who would just escape,
not knowing how to behave in class.
When the first volunteers came, their jobs were human fences...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Where To Start?

I was pretty unfazed by the length of the journey over -- 28 hours from door of our airport area hotel to completed check in at 11:30 pm Phnom Penh.  Didn't even watch more than 2 movies either.  Couldn't sleep but just rested as much as I could.  No jet lag the next morning when the action for me started at 7:30 am.

Sat in a row with 2 guys, both surprisingly religious (Christian).  One from Newfoundland who kind of creeped me out and the other was a journalist with the Asian division of the BBC and CBC in Canada.  Both gave me their Blessing and well wishes for a safe journey which was nice.  I was feeling really warm with the care and concern expressed by people who knew I was travelling.

Was apprehensive about the whole immigration process at PP airport having read about bribes being asked by officials.  D was worried I would make a fuss about it and get thrown in jail.  Causing a Khmer person to "lose face" is a no-no. 

The atmosphere there felt intimidating with officials wearing full military garb with more medals and decoration than I've seen before.  And deadly quiet despite a few hundred people having deplaned and people waiting outside (was open so no air conditioning) 5 -6 deep.  The heat and humidity was heavy and still.

As I had my e-visa, I went straight for the immigration line and practiced in my head my Khmer greetings.  Why not try and be friendly?  To my surprise, he answered even though he didn't immediately look up at me.  The process included a digital photo and complete set of finger prints and no mention of extra money, to my relief. 

(Incidentally my nervous anticipation on the way out of the country via Siem Reap, was much more heightened in light of everything I had experienced and I was very very concerned I would lose it if I was asked, to the point that the thought of it started to bother me 3 days before I departed.  Didn't want to be put in that position as a Woman.  Had my blurb figured out and practiced in my head just in case.  Confrontation had to be done in a way you can smile about it.)

Once I made it through immigration, I headed to the washroom to take off a few layers before looking for the driver my hotel was supposed to have sent for me.  At this point, I had yet to see someone female working there.  Be prepared to be stared at Hard. 

It felt like everyone was sizing you up.  The image I wanted to portray was of an Expat or someone that was just coming to spend a long weekend with friends.  My slash proof pack was only 25L strapped over my small travel purse.  Remember that doing anything solo there is considered unusual and uncomfortable for Khmer people. 

I was triply glad I decided on dressing very conservatively which meant I did not bother to bring shorts, skirts or even a swim suit.  I wore pants.  Sleeves were at least 3/4 and nothing low in the neck line nor too fitted.  I had to buy an entirely new set of clothes for this trip. 

Trying to find appropriate long sleeve, long pant clothing that will work in 40 C weather without turning you into an oven, in the middle of winter in Canada was a challenge.  During my stay, most days the humidex was in the low 40s. 

A couple of days in, I even did some emergency sewing of a couple of tank tops straps (wore these under a button up shirt) to shorten them further as I felt uncomfortable even though nowhere close to cleavage was shown.  Other female travellers I saw who wore shorts and tank tops or semi see through tops got a lot of attention in the form of blatant staring.

Considering that gang rape is a real problem there, I preferred not to be anywhere close to being tempting as a target.  What might work in Thailand doesn't always translate as appropriate in other countries of Southeast Asia.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

6 Things

  • Didn't know there was a whole series of these "Date a Guy/Girl" who does this/that...posts out there until a Facebook link led me to one of them.  No surprise why this post would leap out at me.

  • Last year I read with great interest this series.  Very much hoping she will continue with it this year.  Fascinating cultural learning.  Shows how amazingly malleable children are.

  • A different view on life and death:  On a recent flight, D sat beside a gentleman from Africa.  When a general announcement was made about a guest on board who had severe nut allergies, he leaned over and asked D to clarify what that meant.  In his country/village, if someone suffers a reaction to something and dies, everyone is sad about it.  People move on -- They have to.   He couldn't believe that an entire plane load of people were not going to be given snacks or were told to avoid eating their own nut based foods because of one person.  That would never happen where he comes from. 

  • D, who recently saw "Rush", raved about it to me and felt I ought to see it because Niki Lauda and James Hunt reminded him of our respective dynamic.  At first I was insulted as I was pretty certain they didn't like each other.  After seeing the movie, I saw he meant it in a complementary and playful way.  Found the film to be really suspenseful, fun and good.  Recommended.

  • Am as ready as I'm going to get.  Finished my final (utterly devastating and depressing) book (Cambodia's Curse:  The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Joel Brinkley), gotten almost every inoculation under the sun and have pretty much packed.  It is time for me to trade in my comfortable life for one that will be vastly different in many ways.  Back in about 3 weeks. 

Final Still Life Drawing for Art Class.  Graphite on Paper.