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I thought it was about time to update on all the goings ons in Vietnam. What a place it has proven to be, when we finally made it out of Cambodia….. Let me just tell you that little tale first of all.
So Alice and I boarded the night bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City at midnight, having been told we would set off at 12.30am. The bus actually left at 1am. I, couped up like a hippo in a shopping trolley, endeavored to make myself a little comfy and ‘bed down’ for the night in anticipation of our 8 hour trip ahead. Having managed some intermittent dozing, I shuffled up in my seat around 6am and said to Alice “do you think we are in Vietnam yet”….completely forgetting we had the whole border crossing fiasco to contend with – well it was early!!!) We both looked out of the coach window as the sun had come up and found the place to look remarkably similar to Phnom Penh. After a few rumours traversed throughout the bus, we cordially deduced that we were in fact in Phnom Penh and pulling up at the exact same spot we had left five hours before. The fabulous thing about Cambodian bus companies is that nobody speaks English and when one has the audacity to ask “why are we not in Vietnam?” you are looked upon with utter disdain. Its obviously perfectly normal, appropriate and within the terms and agreements of our bus ticket travel to spend five hours circling and then return at exactly the same spot to set off on our ‘real’ bus journey to Ho Ch Minh ten minutes later. Yep, so needless to say our 8 hour journey morphed into a 14 hour epic. We never did find out where we went on our five hour magical mystery tour……………
So safe and sound we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, a little bleary eyed and ready for a shower and snooze at the hotel. No sooner we stepped foot off the bus, we were accosted by a seemingly friendly Vietnamese taxi driver who, upon perusing my accommodation booking invoice, happily agreed to take us to our hotel. I asked the fee and was advised that taxi’s run on meters here. No problem, we will only pay for what we travel so I assumed! We drove across town for a bout 20 minutes and finally arrived at our hotel to the demands of a $25 fare from our driver. I think he clocked the disgust in our face and settled for the $15 we finally gave him…still and exorbitant amount for the time spent in the car. Anyway, having ventured out of said hotel room a short while later, we walked less than two minutes up the road only to stumble across the place where our bus had dropped us off. Oh yes people, Alice and I got FLEECED big time!!!! Ha ha, we read about in the guide books but still managed to fall prey to the ‘nice Vietnamese taxi drivers’.
So Ho Ch Minh was a bustling metropolis to say the least. The place is crazy and you gamble with your life every time you cross the road. There is no such thing as a pedestrian crossing or traffic lights and basically, you just have to walk and hope that some of the 5 million mopeds in the city (yes there actually are 5 million of them) will swerve around you!!!Funnily enough they do.
Done quite a lot of culture in Hochers as I have affectionately named it…..Our visit to the war remnants museum was most sobering. Its very sad to know that people are still affected by the legacy of the Vietnam war even now, with babies born with severe disabilities and mutations as a result of the deadly ‘agent orange’ sprayed across vast areas of land by the US army…..very sad indeed. War, why do we have war???
On a lighter note the Mekong Delta cruise was fun and handmade coconut candy proved moreish…I was not tempted by the array of snake, squirrel or crocodile offered on the menu at our lunch stop though. I have felt very smug to be vegetarian since arriving in South East Asia despite not managing to avoid dodgy belly on more than one occasion!!!!
So, next stop was Nha Trang. The flight was 45 minutes and altogether a very pleasant journey, well done Vietnam Airlines - plenty of leg room, which is ironic since the general population are so ickle!!! Nha Trang is a beautiful beach resort mid way up the coast. The sand is white but sea very choppy. One has to make a calculated guess when venturing in, whether you will be able to leave it with bikini still in tact or lost at sea!. I managed to maintain modesty at all times, but was not impressed with waves crashing on my head leaving me resembling a drowned rat…albeit a brown one. How did Ursula Andres ever look sexy walking out of the water…..
One day, Alice and I had a smart idea to visit Vinpearl Island. A friend had told us about the place where you pay one fee ($20) and basically spend the whole day on fairground rides, playing computer games and frolicking in the water par. Sounded lovely, until I saw the cable car…….. To get to Vinpearl, you need to take either a ferry or cable car across the ocean. I say ocean and not sea to help you visualize the enormity of our journey. Basically, the cable cars are suspended about 100 mtrs above sea level, and span a distance of about a mile. Lovely idea for the wishing to take in the beautiful scenic views of Nha Trang bay on route to pleasuredom….not so great for people like me who appear to have developed a large dose of vertigo over the years! It was soooooooooooo scary, perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things I have done in a while! But hey, it would all be worth it when we got there and the pictures I did manage to take are pretty special. Vinpearl lived up to all its expectations and more….I basically spent the whole day in a state of frenzy and/or mild sickness from putting myself through all these thrill seeking exploits, water slides which propel you at about 50mph through darkened tubes and rides which leave you hanging upside down overlooking the sea with nothing but a cross brace holding you in. Oh yes, if there was a definition of going out of ‘one’s comfort zone’, I would say that I experienced it at Vinpearl. I was most gutted to miss the comparatively sedate monkey and dog show, but did catch the end of things when the monkeys and dogs were de-robing their brightly coloured custom made outfits…..I’m sure they love their three daily performances and ride in an open back lorry thereafter. Greenpeace would have a hernia!!!!!
So all in all Nha Trang was a fab place to be, hot, lively not to mention cheap. We ate most nights at a little place called ‘Same Same But Cheaper’ and it really was that. A full blown meal for just under two pounds cannot really be sneezed at! And the three pound manicure, pedicure and nail art combo was simply ludicrous. My nails do look lovely after two hours of steady hand painting by a very patient young Vietnamese girl.
And here we are in Hanoi. Arrived yesterday, did not get skanked by a taxi driver as have now taken to ‘calling ahead’ to our hotels for transport to be arranged. We are off on a three day junk boat cruise round Haling Bay tomorrow. One night is spent sleeping on the boat and the other in ‘bamboo huts’ on Castaway Bay. Needless to say I am a little nervous about bedding down with the frogs, gecko’s and mozzies, but there goes that ‘comfort zone’ thing again….Bring on Saturday for some Thai tranquility or a large dose of Veitnames rum!!!!
So I have now completed my time of volunteering in Cambodia. Time has flown by and the past two weeks have passed in the blink of an eye. Tonight, I will close my Cambodian chapter and head off onto the next page of Vietnam which I am sure will bring more excitement and challenge.
I must admit that the volunteering experience was not what I imagined. I thought I was destined for two months at an orphanage caring for children. I’m sure this would have been rewarding albeit tiring and most emotional. However I have been incredibly fortunate to encounter contact with a diverese range of Cambodian children, families and social workers. An experience which I am sure only few volunteers have enjoyed. To this end, I must say a big thank you to Riverkids for allowing me to join them as a social work volunteer.
During my time in Phnom Penh I have learnt so much more about Cambodian culture, the traditions, attitudes and expectations. It is country so different to England and I am sure that anyone who visits will find themselves in ongoing states of amazement (necessitating closure of the mouth on occasions…). In some ways, it feels that Cambodia is functioning about 100 year behind us . The place is a complex abyss of social problems, pressures and hardship yet tempered with a sense of determination and resolve amongst the Cambodian people. I must often remind myself that Cambodia is only 33 years in recovery from a civil war that took the lives of so many. Surely the country is still bound to be in some state of suffering and chaos?
Through my visits to the slum communities, I have been able to witness the problems that Cambodian people are facing on a daily basis and their struggles to live in such impoverished circumstances. The experience has made me feel blessed about my life in the UK and has served as a sobering reminder to never take even the smallest thing for granted! Some families eat just once a day and a bag of rice must go a long way……
Despite being an experienced social worker in the UK, nothing could have prepared me for the some of the things I have witnessed during my time at Riverkids. The standard of living amongst families, the lack of basic amenities, the poor health of some individuals and the tragedies which many have undergone is most saddening. However, I can also see that as a staff team Riverkids is really trying to bring about positive change and improve children’s lives.
The past two months have been a true éye opener’. I have not ceased to be amazed by the plight of families, the resilience of children and the commitment of Cambodian people to ‘keep going’ during incredibly tough times. There is real strength of character amongst the communities and Cambodia must work to preserve this. I realize that Riverkids is working in very difficult circumstances with a considerable lack of resources to meet growing needs . However, I have always felt reassured that staff are doing their very best with the limited provisions. I can see through shadowing the work of Mr Chea and Mr Theany, that they have established trust and respect amongst community members. Their input is not only accepted by parents but clearly embraced and valued by all. Social Workers are touching the lives of many people in need through the delivery of support, empathy and much needed resources. You can see that social workers really are ‘making a difference’which is a beautiful thing.
Next blog from Vietnam……………….
Serious stuff done..........On a completely unrelated note:
1) My day of solitude at the Himawari Pool was fab
2) Blue Pumpkin Ice Cream Sundae's really should be shared
3) I saw a load of live chickens today hangin off the side of motorbikes tethered bytheir ankles
4) My ruck sack is too small for all my belongings...........
5) I am actually going to miss cold showers
6) I am frustrated by the half glasses of wine served in ALL CAMBODIAN ESTABLISHMENTS
7) I look like a drag queen in Khmer photos.
8) Vietnam is supposed to be 39 degrees tomorrow
9) I spent 30 mins on my balcony yesterday watching a tied up puppy stare at a trunk of wood, who is more sad me or the puppy?
10) I am sooooooooooo over rice
I have now done half of my time away and must admit that the past few weeks have flown, which is nice in some respects as I have many lovely things to come home to and sad in others because there will never be a trip like this again. I am beginning to wrap up my time at placement and set dates to deliver some of the training which I will be facilitating before I go. This should be an interesting experience given that I only speak English and most of the course attendees speak mainly Khmer with a little English intertwined! I am sure it will be fine but the role play will certainly be interesting’…..
I have continued to spend time out in the communities visiting people and observing the social workers provide support and assistance. I have got used to hopping on and off Mr Chea’s moto and making our way through busy little town areas. One visit we went on the other day was very saddening. The families were boat people who had moored down a quiet part of the river. There was a mother, father and two children age apprx 8 and 10. When we arrived, I could see that their boat was upturned and on the river bank. It had broken and would take about 3 weeks to fix. The family was living on a wooden platform of no more than 6 foot square, sheltering under the makeshift roof of their boat, which again, could be no more than 6 foot long and two foot wide. They were exposed to all the elements, no privacy, their belongings stacked up under the makeshift shelter. The little girls was poorly with a fever and resting on the platform out of the sun. She was asleep and did not look well. The flies kept landing on her face and once again, I had another moment of thinking how well indulged and cared for most of us are when we get sick. What a different life……
I am looking forward to this week as we have a community dental programme taking place over two days. Basically an international organization of student dentitions comes over every year offering dental checks to the children registered within Riverkids school programmes and also to children resident within the slum communities who do not access our programmes. This has been taking place for several years. The dental hygiene of most children ion Cambodia is pretty poor. Many never clean their teeth and dental care isn’t really encouraged. As a result, I have seen many children of just a few year s old with completely rotted blackened teeth. It is a sad sight when they have such beautiful little faces but little or no teeth! I have been told that the dentist visits are always a little frantic, with children escaping when they hear tales or cries of other children having extractions. I guess I should brace myself for some ‘crowd control’ over the next couple of days. I am going armed with some stickers and toys to encourage brave behaviour! I was told that children have been known to bite the dentist or escape out of the building so cameras at the ready!!!!!
So moving on from work and my next favourite subject of food. I must admit that but I am finding myself officially bored of rice (it has taken six weeks)! My tum continues to ache every few days and my longing for a hot water bottle remains. Rath,our cook, is lovely but she is appears to struggle with understanding the true concept of vegetarianism. Every vege meal is infiltrated by some random piece of meat and whilst she does really try to make effort in catering for our preferences there is only so much variety you can achieve using a wok and two rings!!! This is part of the reason we look forward to weekends so much, when one can shove a bit of western cuisine down one’s palate! Life in the apartment continues to be good. Quite a few of us are getting ready to move on in the next few weeks and we have already had to say bye bye to others. One girlfriend Alex left on Friday and she is missed already. You really do build quite intense friendships over here, living in such close proximity. The other day I did a whole load of washing up on the roof (which I love!). I left it all out to dry which takes no time at all. However, silly me made the mistake of leaving it on the line overnight, on the first night we have had a real rain storm in Phnom Penh. My clothes were soaked and had to be hung out (again to dry). The reason I am telling you about the rain is because, the next day when I left the apartment, I noticed that the whole place was crawling in baby frogs. For those of you who do not know, I am absolutely petrified of frogs and so an invasion of tiny ones was really quite traumatic for me. They still haven’t left completely, as I almost stepped on another one when I left out this morning. This has got to be the one down side to being here so far…… (oh and missing my friends and family too).
The last two weekends have been pretty good. I travelled to Siem Reap on Friday just gone. We took the overnight sleeper bus and I loved it. Forget about seats, you get a whole little bed to yourself! It was fab, even though I didn’t sleep for any of the journey (maybe too excited….) We stayed in a lovely guesthouse called the Golden Banana and enjoyed spending time wandering the markets in town and sleeping in a room with A/C woohoo!!!. We also went sunset Quad Biking through the Paddy fields which was just amazing. The instructors take you out on a little mock driving test before we set off; I passed ok but was gas happy as ever! Anyway, the dirt tracks we rode on were amazing, the sights I saw on route were fab too. Little old women tending to their rice fields, young children rounding up water buffalo at sunset and bringing them back home. It was just brilliant.
I got up at 4.30am on Sunday morning to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. That was pretty special too, although my camera will never do justice to the lights and silhouettes….. However, by about 11am Sacha and I were flagging so we decided to quit the temples at noon. We did get to visit the one where tomb raider was filmed and we were also lucky enough to see some monkey’s on route back to our guesthouse. Ok, I did get a little scared when they came right up to the tuk tuk and thoughts of contracting rabies whilst trying to get a pic of a cute little chimp crossed my mind! Had my usual pedi and mani in town and am now wondering how my nails will survive when I get back to England cos I definitely wont be able to finance this little luxury long term!!!
We have birthday celebrations next weekend for Michelle’s 26th . We will be toasting her celebrations on a private boat which we have hired to sail along the Tonle Sap for four hours! It has a sun deck to boot so I think it’s gonna fab…… my tan could do with a little topping up!
So, I think that’s just about all for now but a few little shout outs to end
- Happy Anniversary mum and dad (another year of wedded bliss you two are doing very well)
- Hello to all at work, I do think of you all
- Ju, I love you, Paulie and Leo and cant wait to see you all.
- Clare, happy belated birthday, has baby made an appearance yet?
- My girlies, look forward to seeing you all at Kat’s birthday bash once I’m back!
- Lucie Grace – Happy second birthday my darling, sorry Auntie Cal could not come to your party on Saturday but will give you lots of kisses when I am back!
- Chloe Mae – miss you too lots of kisses for my big girl also (mummy and daddy can have some too)
- Nan, make sure you and granddad take care and get rid of that nasty cough.
- Si – Easy on the curries and cheer up
Well it’s been a while since I last ‘blogged’. Apologies to anyone who was waiting in anxious anticipation! I have now been in Cambodia for almost five months and have to admit that time is beginning to fly. It’s amazing how the days roll into one and before you know it another weekend is upon me. The heat is climbing and it is harder to sleep at night now my rock hard bed is not helping either. I think that the temperatures have safely climbed into the 30’s and for once I must say that I am glad to not feel compelled to venture out into it every day. My one hour sun fix on the roof of our apartment every lunchtime suffices until the weekend when I might hit the beach, or a hotel pool in the city.
I have spent most of this week in the office as the social workers are undertaking training around the Chab Dai Charter. This is basically a collaition of various NGO’s committed to stopping child trafficking. Chab Dai is seeking to put in place some standards which all affiliates can work towards in order to ensure consistency of good practice. It is times like these when I really wish I spoke Khmer as I could join the training, but instead I have been working on drafting various training courses and other learning/development materials to assist the social workers in their future role. This is normally ok, except for the fact that this week we have had an excessive amount of power cuts this week which can last anything up to three hours. During this time there is little which can be done.
Last week, I spent more time out visiting the local community. We followed up some families whose children had not been attending school and tried to determine the reasons for their absence. It would seem that lots of the older boys want to spend time with their peers at the local gaming arcades or else they simply can’t be bothered to commit to learning, which is a shame is given the fact that education appears to be the only key to breaking this abject poverty and destitution all around me. The more I talk and walk and visit places the more the country amazes me. Over here, you cannot get health care unless you pay for it. Considering that it costs about $30 (apprx one week’s salary) just to get an ambulance to take you to hospital in the event of an emergency, there is little hope for many of meeting the prices for treatment once they arrive there. I cannot believe that ambulances will leave people at the front entrance of a hospital and if you don’t have the funds then you don’t get a bed or any decent treatment.
The other day, I met a woman and her son (about 17 yrs old). What struck me about the woman was the fact that she had terrible scarring on her face and a very uncomfortable looking brace/pin contraption holding her left leg together. It looked like a breeding ground for bacteria given the dirt and unsanitary environment in which many people live and work. I asked how she has sustained her injuries and was told that she had been hit by a car crossing a busy road opposite the slum area where she lives. I have crossed this road CAREFULLY several times on visits to the slums and can totally understand how she may have got mowed down. Anyway, it turns out that the woman did not have the money to pay for her treatment. Riverkids was able to support in paying the fee to get her to hospital. But once she arrived, it took a further day before the head of her already poor slum community could mobilize financial support from other (poor) community members in order to raise the finances for her treatment. Yes it is ironic how even people with nothing, will pool together to help their neighbours during times of crisis. During the 24 hrs which elapsed between her reaching hospital and the funds being forthcoming, the woman was left on the floor at the front doors of the hospital building. It’s such a far cry from the service we get back at home. People may moan about the NHS but come and visit Cambodia then you will realize that you have never had it so good! Another thing I leant whilst talking to this woman was the sad reality that victims of road traffic accidents are rarely helped by the person who knocks them over. It is commonplace and relatively normal for (young) drivers to simply drive off after an accident. It does not matter if the victim is an adult, child, injured, maimed or dead, they still wont stop and offer assistance. For many, this stems from fear of reprisal or being accosted to finance hefty medical bills. Oh my gosh, I just can’t believe that the value on human life is so low.
Anyway this blog may sound like doom and gloom but I really want people to understand that things that are happening over here and have your eyes opened in the same way mine have been over the past five weeks.
Cambodia still has many amputee victims of people who are so severely disabled that they cannot walk or really even mobilize themselves alone. They are viewed as social degenerates by wider society. On Sunday afternoon, I saw an elderly man, who was very badly paralysed laying in the gutter of the road. He could not walk, had no wheelchair and his only means of transport was to tether himself to a makeshift skateboard and journey along the road (a very busy road I would like to add), maneuvering himself with frail arms, whilst his redundant legs dragged along the ground behind him. Sights like this really do break my heart and knowing there is little I can do as one individual to remedy it is even more frustrating. The sad reality is that old man is one of many. …..
Child begging out here is also rife. Women with new born babies in grimy makeshift papooses will come and beg open handed for money. Small children of no more than three will wander aimlessly along the road looking for a compassionate foreigner to drop them a dollar or so. It is amazing to think that in such a developed day and age people still have to face such grim social pressures and injustices. For children, childhood innocence does not appear to exist, they are born into a world of poverty and survival. Once again however, I must stress that even the most impoverished families whom I have visited always make room in their homes and hearts to greet you with open arms. I can understand why so many people visit Cambodia and want to help effect change because the Cambodian people are so gra teful for anything given to them. We visited a Vietnamese boat family a couple of weeks back and they were just so welcoming and appreciative of the few clothes we took and the opportunity to be visited and have someone enquire after their welfare. Sometimes, these kinds of visit feel like true social work practice. Who needs to write along report about it afterwards? Who cares? What matters at the time is touching someone’s life…….
Ok, so as you can guess this place really does move me. But I will be moving on shortly in another direction. I am travelling on from Cambodia to Vietnam in just under four weeks time. Myself and another volunteer will be setting off to Ho Chi Minh City, then taking a flight to Nha Trang for some chill out time at the beaches. We will then be flying on to Hanoi and journeying to Halong Bay to check out the gorgeous crystal waters and tiny islands which make up the place. I am really looking forward to seeing some outstanding natural beauty. Much as I love Phnom Penh, the traffic and pollution is doing nothing for my lungs or hair! ( I had a haircut the other day too. A dry cut is a costly $4 but I pushed the boat out and paid $8 for a shampoo and set (ok maybe not the set, but the shampoo was nice!)
A group of us took the 5 hr journey down to coastal Sianhoukville a couple of weeks back. It was lovely to spend time on the beach and just generally chill out. But I have to admit the beach was nothing on Thailand….Sorry Cambodia but despite your white sand and clear waters, it still only came a close second. Whilst I enjoyed the trip there, I did get caught by the wrath of the dodgy Cambodian belly. But hey, everyone says that you get it at least once whilst you are here and if that was my dose then I am glad it happened sooner rather than later! I don’t know how Cambodian people function without toilet paper though!!!!!
I am off to Siem Reap next weekend, to take in Angkor Wat and go quad biking. Should be much fun, just hope the bus journey is not too unbearable. Whilst I love the Cambodian people, their penchant for hard boiled eggs in very confined spaces was not appreciated, nor the scent of eau de toilette emanating from the very compact and unappealing toilet cubicle stationed in the undercarriage of the bus!
So what else can I say to summarize me time so far….
1) I still love rice, but prefer it hot to cold and had a sticky variety last night which was quite palatable if a tad chewy
2) I am tool old to stay out partying in nightclubs until 3.30am! But can say I have done it at least once this trip.
3) I am completely accustomed to cold showers and will be switching off my hot water supply upon return to England.
4) I am no longer surprised by anything I see on the back of a motorbike
5) I spend far less money here than I do in England
6) I love my mum for sending me some hair serum and a big bar of galaxy chocolate!
7) Whilst I am most enjoying my time away but gutted to have missed the first cuddles with my best friends Julie and Paul’s brand new baby boy Leo. Auntie Cal love him from afar though….always remember that!
Anyway, over and out for now folks.
So I have now done two and a half weeks into Cambodia and am still finding the place most fascinating, hot, saddening at times but overall a good experience! It’s funny how quickly you get used to seeing random things, like a motorbike laden with dead pigs or 50 live chickens or enough bananas to keep a gorilla zoo happy, parents candidly picking the lice out of their children’s hair by the roadside, little girls wandering along the riverside at night, begging money a tiny baby puppy in tow (to really pull at the foreigners heart strings), skinny cows (and by skinny I mean borderline emaciated – not much beef on those babies!), sex workers dressed for a nights trade at five in the afternoon. It all forms the Cambodian way of life! I could never say I would want to live here, but can understand why people visit and why some people feel compelled to stay!
I am settling into my placement and have begun to start helping the social workers consider current practices and think about how they might improve or develop current porjects. I still cannot get my head around the fact that a country with such immense and crippling social problems (including domestic violence, severe human trafficking, one of the highest rates of HIV in South East Asia, child sex abuse and abject poverty-bringing drug misuse, corruption and debt) does not have a strong social work task force. I could not believe that formal professional social work training has only been available within Cambodia for about three years and so the first generation of graduates still remain up and coming! Previously, people who trained in subjects such management or psychology assume ‘social work’ positions and the title. There are soooooo many Non Government Organisations (NGO’s) operating over here. Many are doing very good work and reliant on overseas funding, but it just feels like everyone is taking a very fragmented approach to massive social issues, which can never be fully remedied or even challenged by the efforts of NGO’s as one unified approach and strategy is clearly necessary. I know I may seem to spend a lot of time reflecting on social issues but they are soooo rife and strategies to manage them are often absent, antiquated or abhorrent ! Even though I may only be able to offer alittle heolp whilst I am here it has got to be better than nothing! But my goodness, help is definitely needed!
Last weekend was a somber one in some respects. Friday night was fun, a meal out celebrating other volunteers last night – I would never recommend a mushroom lasagna by Riverside though….it tasted like stodge city, tapioca-like consistency, with no cheese and some ominous looking mushrooms. I was sooo hungry and had to eat some but the happy hour cocktails were a welcomed palate cleanser! Went to a few bars in town and was shocked by the amount of Western faces, I really didn’t know much about Cambodia before I cam out and was ignorant to the Mecca of travelers it is attracting! One bar was soooo packed we just had to leave and proceed elsewhere!
Took a trip to the Russian Market on Saturday, which was good but oh-so-hot!!!! The stalls are all crammed in together no ventilation or space and just a throng of people milling in an out. I hade to don my sunglasses and hold my breath when I unknowingly ventured through the food market section. So much meat carcasses everywhere, animal body parts I would rather not see and smells which definitely turned my normally-hardy stomach!!! The glasses helped but in true squeamish style, I could not resist half opening an eye as I galloped through, much to my distaste!!! Didn’t buy anything much, but have learnt to only ever offer half the price of what is being asked for and then proceed to walk away when your offer is rejected, it will soon be accepted and everyone’s a winner!!!! Visited the night market by Riverside on Saturday evening. A slightly more civilized affair. We chose to go éthnic’and eat where the locals eat. I always think I am a safe bet being vege, but it was really hard to identify anything devoid of meat or fish!! I opted for some noodles and tofo (I have come to eat a lot of tofu whilst here…it is coming a second close to rice, as one of my most frequently consumed food stuffs!). When the tofu arrived it was soaked in some kind of cod aroma/taste and promptly relegated to another volunteers plate …..oh the taste still traumatizes me now!
Sunday was the tough day. We journeyed to S21 prison in Phnonm Penh and then took a trip out to one of the many killing fields. If you never read anything else about Cambodia, please read up about the Khmer Rouge and mass genocide under Pol Pot’s regime. Visiting the prison and seeing the cells where people were kept, the tools with which they were tortured and the many pictures of people who perished here really helped me put my life into check. I am blessed and so very lucky to have the life I do. So many innocents were captured, imprisoned and then shipped off blindfolded to a mass area where they were killed by some of the most inhumane methods comprehensible. I wandered through the killing fields in a numb like state, it was so hard to imagine the land I walked upon housed so many bodies. I stood on patches of earth where human bones were protruding through the ground and saw rags and clothing which victims were buried in, having rose to the surface through recent rain fall. The experience was indescribable and to think this all happened during my life time (1975-1979) is the scariest part of all.
I have survived week one and what a lot I could say about the experience. Cambodia is a place of ups and downs, there are rich and poor areas, there is sun and rain, there are Riels and US dollars, there is moral conservatism set against a dominant sex industry workers.... the place has left me scratching my head and from a social work perspective compelling me to find out more, but left me start with the more trivial aspects of volunteer living.
FOOD - Yes my number one priority. We are fed three meals a day, breakfast in the form of sweet tasing bread left out for us and a baby banana, but that's as far as it goes, hence my mad dash to the supermarket to stock up on tea, coffee, milk, marg and peanut butter....who eats dry toast and can survive without a morning cuppa! Lunch consists of several hot dishes (vegetraians catered for) and the ususual accompaniment of rice. I am sure that I will leave here resembling a rice grain (a little darker though I hope!) but I am ok with it for now...ask me again in a few weeks. Dinner is pretty much the same as lunch again. I am glad to be a vege as much of the conversations at dinner centre aroudn the question 'what meat is this?'. I joked and suggested 'dog' one day,before I was informed that they do in fact devour our canine friends..... We sometimes eat out and about around town and there are mnay places catering for the western palate but you may need to pay a little more....I MISS CHOCOLATE AND GRANOLA and am hoping that my food parcels arrive soon!
LIVING - We now have another volunteer moved into our apartment, making it a grand total of four of us. We generally eat in another apartment down the way with six or so more volunteers whch is nice. Night times are a mare as my single room has no air con and the fan really does just circulate hot air....I comfort myself by the prospect of weight loss through profuse sweating. I dis a load of washing the other day which was an experience. Two buckets on the roof and Carolyn with very wet feet, still it's good to do new things and at least I have (semi) clean clothes. We had a rain storm yesterday which was needed as the temperature was creepign up soemthign silly and I have been told that it is only gonna get hotter.....oh my poor room!
SOCIALISING - I have met a good bunch of people but am generally about 13 years older than most! Still, it gives me a chance to 'reconnect' with my youth! There are lots of things to do in and around the cuty at weekends, including trips to the various markets, a visit to the Killing Fields, a weekend away at the coast, journey to Siem Reap, the list goes on. I will get it all done in due time.
PLACEMENT - Perhaps the most enlightening part of my trip so far....I came out under the beliefe that I would be working with chidlren in some kind of caring context, but I have actually been assigned to volunteer within a social work team and help assist in the development of good practice by four social workers based at my project. I wish I spoke Khmer, it would make life soooooooooooo much easier but thank goodness for the fact that the social workers also speak English and so they have been acting as amazing translators for me. Basically, the programme seeks to identify children and families at risk of trafficking, child labour or sexual exploitation within the community and provide services mainly in the form of eduaction (with additional assistance) in order to increase future life chances. I have spent time out in the slum communites and on Friday was taken around each of the four area which the project serves. What an eye opener that was. I saw things on Friday which I didnt think I would ever see, including abject poverty, non existant sanitation, rubbish everywhere, families living in tiny cramped shacks, rats I could go on but dont have time right now.....It made me realise how very lucky I am to have the things which so many of us take for granted and so many families here will never have. The problems here stem form poverty, debts, divorce, domestic violence, drug misuse and the lure of children into the sex industry with high prices being paid for young girls virginity and newborn babies. It is difficult to know how to tackle these issues from a social work perspective, as there are such limited reosurces and eliciting change will reuqire a change of mindset and attitude amongst communites which have become very entrenched in a certain way of life.....I have some ideas about how I can help the social workers think about issues and develop their understanding of certain situations and if I can help improve even just one aspect of practice I will feel happy. I must say that despite me being an alien (western) face in their local neiighbourhood, people have been so gfracious and welcoming, they may have little material posessions but their hopistality is rich and for that I am grateful and honoured.
Anyway, I could write forever but must close off now to eat some rice, will be back on again soon.
So, I have now been in Cambodia for three days and am already feeling quite at home. Was a little freaked out by the fact that I saw a choice of various different frog dishes on the menu in an internet cafe yesterday. I just hope they were dead in the kitchen, well cooked and kept safely out of my eye shot.....but then I also started thinking would I prefer frog in salt and chilli or frog stew if I really had to?????
Life here is pretty much what I thought, the place in heaving contstantly. The roads are eternally congested, motorbikes loaded with four people or the contents of a house whizz by me on my journey to placement (Me being in the safe hub of my tuk tuk, as I REFUSE to ride moto on these busy roads.....) It's such an amazing culture shock to find that people happily craddle their newborn infants on the back of a motorbike whilts the driver careers along weaving through the traffic.....If that happenend in England we would have a public outcry. In fact I think I remember and atricle in the Sun a while back about a man who did exactly that with his three year old child and the wolrd was aghast....how different places can be! How good it is to open our eyes to the world and cultures around us.
I started my placement today, thinking I was going to care for kids.However, havign met the (apparently under resourced) social work team at the Riverkids office, I now appear to have procured myself a social work volunteer/consultancy role advising the practitioners on best practice in relation to social work practice and re-designing lots of their assessment tools, policies and practice notes. Apparently I am considered an 'expert', I have never been an expert in my life but hey, lets embrace the sentiment!!! I will be workign from 8am - 11.30 am collected and taken home for a two and a half hour lunch break then back in the office from 2-5pm. Yes a TWO AND A HALF HOUR LUNCH BREAK really does make up for the many years I have foregone mine whilst working in the UK!!!! I will be visitng the families in the slum areas tomorrow, where the main porblems appear to stem from poevrty, debts through gambling, domestic violenmce, drug misuse, child traffiking and women working in the sex trade (pretty hard end stuff!). I am goring increasingly intrigued to learn more about this place and how social workers even begin to tackle just one of these social problems!!!
I have so much that I want tos ee now that I am here. Am off to the Markets on Saturday and a general mooch around. Everything if so cheap but I must remember that money does not last forever and it all mounts up! Food is fab, loving the rice and veg at the moment and was very very happy to have my first cup of tea in three days this morning!!!!
Over and out for now.....and pics to follow at some point in the future!
Most of you will know from my e mails that I have made it to Cambodia. It was touch and go for a minute, really thought that seperation anxiety would take its toll and prevent me from getting on the plane. If nothing else, this experience has taught me how much I love my friends and family and how hard it is to leave them behind. But I have done and so now the next three months await......
I am going to try and keep this blog as somewhat of a self diary, so excuse me if you find its content a little irrelevant at times....I'm sure it has much meaning to me! (oh and escuse the typos, not worked out how to activate the spell check on this site yet!).
So flight out was looooooong but at least there were no irritating little people to inccessantly kick the back of my seat of snoring men to sit next to. Food was a bit mediocre but I am trying to loose weight out on this mission anyway. Managed to sleep about 6hrs too!
Stopped over in Hong Kong last night with my cousin Jo Jo who looked after me amazingly when I rocked up at the airport a bit teary eyed and emotional. Jo, your little place is amazing and if I ever change from social work to banking, I'm coming to be your neighbour. Love the fact that pizza express delivers too!!!! I only saw HK very breifly on the express train back into the airport this morning but looking forwrad to doing more exploring when I stop over for a few nights at the end of my trip before heading home.
I underestimated how much of a leap this whole experience would be, but now that I am here I am going to embrace it with open arams and treasure each memory that gathers in coming weeks.
My flight into Phnom Penh was ok, breakfast consisted of a dried banana and blueberry compote muffin style thing which didnt go down too well orange juice was good though and so was the nice man next to me who gave me another copy of my declaration documents when I somehow managed to lose mine (plane seating areas are a vast metropolis!).
I was met by staff at the aiport and my apartments are only about a 20 minute journey away. One other young lady from Holland has started today with me and its nice not to be the first newbie. I am living in apartment five which is currently empty as more volunteers coming in this week to fill up bed space. Have managed to secure my own room (cannot bare to subject others to my incessant snoring!) and unloaded my meticulously packed rucksack which weighted a svelte 17kg. Now the place feels like home (well temporary home anyway). I just have to commence operation 'keep the bugs ouuta my bed' tonight. Mosquito's you will not beat me!!!! There are lots of other volunteers here some mid way through placement and others coming to an end. Most seem a few years younger than me, but its good to be youthful! I will be 'orientated' tomorrow, shown around town and then taken to my project to meet staff and the children......can't wait!!!
Well I guess that's all for now folks until the next update!