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!
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