Monday, July 23, 2007

West Point Volunteers - Katie

For me, the most rewarding part of my experiences in Cambodia so far has been teaching at the schools of Wat Chock and Wat Thmei. Every day has been an adventure at Wat Chock. It is located about 15 minutes outside the village of Siem Reap, surrounded by farms and fields. The tuk-tuk ride there is a bouncing, bumpy, hang-on-for-dear life experience down one of Cambodia’s infamously bad dirt roads. Zach and I get a lot of smiles and laughs as we try to brave the road, bouncing around in the tuk-tuk as Cambodians sail smoothly by on their motorbikes, missing the potholes.

The school is located at the back of Wat Chock, in a building with only a roof, which serves a variety of other purposes beyond being just a school. The orange robes of the monks are hanging everywhere around the classroom drying after being washed, chickens walk by with chicks following them, people take showers by dumping a bucket of water over their heads less than 15 feet from my classroom. Occasionally some shirtless older men wander by and might join in the lesson, repeating after the teacher in English.

The best part of Wat Chock are the students, all of them are extremely dedicated to learning, very respectful and have great senses of humor. Bo-phi is a little girl who rides her bike to the school every day and is unfailingly the first one done with every lesson and assignment. Another student is studying to become an English teacher in one of the surrounding schools, many others are hoping to get jobs in the hotel or tourism industry, such as working as guides at the near-by Angkor Wat temples.
We are looking forward to another week of teaching, along with helping with the building of a new school at Wat Chock. The new school will have two sunny, well-lit, open rooms with computers and new desks, allowing for the expansion of the school. It would be very rewarding to come back to Cambodia in a few years and see the new school and what the students are accomplishing.

July 31

Looking back, I can’t believe how fast the last month has gone while we have been in Cambodia. It is really going to seem like no time has gone by when we board our flight for Bangkok. I think what I will remember most about being here is the time I spent teaching English at Wat Choch and Wat Thmei. Getting to know the students and finding out about their lives was what made it memorable, especially having the same students for the entire time.

Saying goodbye yesterday to the students was difficult, especially a few I got to know very well. I would love to come back in five years and check back on the students that I had in class. On the last day we talked about what we wanted to do in the future; Zach and I talked about our plans after we finished college. Most of the dream jobs for the students centered around the growing tourist industry in Siem Reap and education, two areas that provide decent jobs. Many wanted to be tour guides for sites like Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, some wanted to achieve management positions at hotels, a good majority were working towards becoming teachers. Going to university was a dream for a lot of students, but a difficult one to achieve without outside financial help or a scholarship, due to their poor backgrounds.

I was really touched by a girl in Wat Thmei class who took the time and money to go out and buy Zach and me departing gifts, to thank us for teaching us. She works very long hours at a nearby hotel and has to be away from her family in order to work, I know it must have cut into whatever free time she has to get us gifts. The scarves and bracelets she gave me are beautiful and will be a great reminder of my time teaching here. Another student who was difficult to say goodbye to was a girl named Bo Pea in my Wat Choch class. She is extremely bright; she finishes before everyone in the class on every single assignment, and despite starting to study English only a few months ago she has the best pronunciation and understanding in the class. She would love to go to university but cannot afford to do so; she will be finished with high school in two years and most likely go to work at a hotel in Siem Reap to support her family.

After three years of college, I have to say that I have learned more this month than I have in any of my classes, and definitely have gained a new perspective. I hope I can come back to Siem Reap in a few years and see the changes that have taken place as Cambodia continues to grow.

Desk Clean Up - Photos!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

West Point Volunteers - Kevin

Well, we just arrived in Cambodia and I could tell immediately after leaving Siem Reap International airport that we were in a developing nation. The six of our group piled into a taxi van with all of our luggage and the feel of the air conditioning blasting from the vents was such a relief coming from the hot and muggy weather outside. The cab drive spoke broken English, and we all found it very interesting trying to communicate with him across somewhat of a language barrier and ask him all about Cambodia and himself. Though the conversation was intriguing and we were all bursting with excitement after finally arriving from our two days of non-stop travel, our attention turned to outside the van.

The streets were very busy; motorbikes speeding by and an occasional car or van weaving through both lanes of traffic. Small little markets lined the streets of intersections with woman selling fruit and gasoline from makeshift storefronts. Little children road their bikes along side the busy streets; some carrying their school books in their hands and dressed in their school uniform. Other children had two plastic bags attached to the rear of the bikes and searched the sides of the road for recyclables. Cows walked along side the road; packs of dogs barked at passing motorbikes – it was an interesting scene to say the least.

Mesmerized by the passing scenery, it took me a second to realize we had just turned onto an unpaved side street. As we dodged potholes on the road, we began to see small groups of houses. These houses were small and raised above the ground on stilt-like structures, obviously to avoid the water levels of the country’s long rainy season. It looked like the entire family was outside – the children were playing right outside the house and the mother was washing clothes at a nearby well. We passed various other kinds of buildings, one that looked like a newly open resort/spa and another that appeared to be completely abandoned. Finally, we saw a sign for Journeys Within, which would be our home in Cambodia for the next three weeks.

Crossing the tiny little wooden bridge, we were greeted by an almost out-of-place villa surrounded by a Cambodian countryside. Once we opened the door, the rain started pouring down and several of the employees ran out with umbrellas and began unloading our luggage. We next met John, our host for our time here.

July 31

The past three weeks have just whizzed by. I have had such a great time and have learned so much on this trip. From teaching the students at Wat Tamei, to visiting the temples at Angkor Wat, to traveling down to Phnom Penh for a weekend, I am truly grateful for the many experiences and memories that I will take back with me to the states and that I will remember for a long time to come.

Leaving Wat Tamei on the last day that we would be teaching was a great deal harder then I had expected it to be. Somehow the students all knew that we would be leaving the next day and that we may never see each other again. They really did not want us to go and kept asking us when the next time would be that we would come back to visit and to teach. Many of the students had email accounts, and we all exchanged email address so that we could continue to keep in touch with each other.

Though I am leaving, I am really looking forward to sponsoring one of the bright young students that I had in one of my classes. He is currently in grade 10, at age 14 no less, and really wants to continue his studies at a local university. He is a diligent worker and strives to succeed at everything he does. When he completes high school, I plan to work with John and JWOC to sponsor him for at least one year of university. I also hope to involve my family in sponsoring him for the remainder of his education at university.

West Point Volunteers - Justine

Our trip to Cambodia has, in many aspects, blended smoothly into what I already know about the less developed countries of the world. That is unfortunate because it bears many of the hallmark plagues of such a country: rampant corruption, a young population that is growing rapidly, and a lack of infrastructure like roads and clean water. However, it has another thing in common with the rest of the less developed world, and this thing may offer a ray of hope. This thing is the ability to improve swiftly. For example, a decade ago, there was no road to Siem Reap, and the area immediately surrounding the small town was jungle. Today, Siem Reap is a major tourist center, with a paved road leading from Phnom Penh and many high-end hotels that generate job growth in the area. The temples at Angkor Wat have also been mobilized to the advantage of Cambodians. The entries fees and tour guides are another source of income. Furthermore, the development of the tourist industry, in my opinion, could help to decrease corruption. It also definitely leads to improvements in the countries infrastructure, which will enable Cambodia to make even more progress. Also, the fact that Cambodia has made all these positive changes in the shadow of a horrible war that killed 20% of the population.

While I have full confidence in the Cambodian people, and I think that the answer to their problems must largely lie in their own efforts if people are to have ownership over their progress, I do think that there are things that the outside world can do to help. Journey’s Within, with its smaller scope and consequently more personal operation, does a good job of this. For example, there is a squatter village a short walk from the Bed and Breakfast that is the pinnacle of what a third world village is: corrugated tin and straw make up the shacks people live in, green water is what the children drink, and a field next to the village is the collective toilet. It is no wonder that one in five children die within a few years of entering the world. In this village there are, I believe, 12 wells built by Journey’s Within that pump clean water. This is a direct way to help the Cambodian people without diverting any funds to middle men.

There are also many micro-financing projects in the village. This is where JWOC gives a $100 loan to someone who wants to start of expand a business. The best example that I saw of this was a woman who received a loan to buy a new sewing machine. Before the loan, because of the sewing machine she had, she could only make alterations to clothes, and therefore her profit was limited to just enough to buy food for her family during the day. She used her loan to buy a different type of sewing machine that could be used to actually make clothes. She could make substantially more moneymaking clothes that by just doing alterations. Therefore, after the loan, she made enough everyday that she could save money. With the money she saved, she started small kiosk selling food products and other items. Now she has even more money to save and invest in new projects.

Later on, as we continued our walk, I saw a group of small boys, playing by the water. It is the rainy season, and water is everywhere, after all. I held up by camera and motioned for them to get together, and they all smiled and waved and were happy to practice the few words of English they had learned. After snapping a couple classic pictures, they all circled around me and I showed them the picture on my cool, sleek digital camera. I do not think they had ever been shown a picture in a camera like that before. It is small incidents like that where I think of money in terms of what a Cambodian makes in a year- my $300 digital camera cost a year’s wages for the average Cambodian. A bag of tortilla chips cost what they might make in a days. A movie ticket plus a drink is what they make in a week. For me, this is one way I put things into perspective. I will add some of the pictures I took on the village tour when I can.

As for the temples, I have always wanted to go, and I was thrilled to finally find myself on the other side of the world, a short drive away from them. I can happily check Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm off of my ‘Places to Go’ list. At many of my favorite temples, the jungle is slowly taking back what is his. Huge trees crawl over temple walls, and roots strangle stone with the patience of an enemy whose victory is certain. They lend to the temples the faded magnificence of an empire that was once and is no more. As with all the dead empires that stretched from sea to sea, there was the palpable presence of a melancholic air that drifted around as I climbed piles of old temple walls and pulled myself up on vines and roots. This old glory adds another dimension to the tragedy and unfolding history of Cambodia.

During the week, we volunteer teaching English from 1 to 6 PM. We each have about 3 classes: Steve and I teach at Wat Tamay. Since corruption extends well into the public school system, kids are pretty enthusiastic about free English classes. This enthusiasm is furthered by the fact that English is such a useful language in the tourism industry. Many of the kids stay for more than one class, and our classes range form kids to middle aged adults. They are very good students- none of the idleness or complacency that I have seen in some American students. Today, instead of teaching like we usually do, we are sanding and varnishing the desks and sweeping out the school. The school itself is one large room with a roof, nothing extravagant. It is in a complex of buildings, set in the midst of a temple and a monastery. I always think about how the U.S. had one-room schoolhouses somewhere around 200 years ago. Is Cambodia that far behind us? Surely, with modern advances in technology and medicine, that time gap can be shortened. The day is often brightened by the entrance of a kitten or a pair of puppies into the classroom that belong to the monks that live in the area. One day a kitten that looked like it was starving came in and we took it in for the day, buying it chicken at a nearby road stall and letting it fall asleep in our laps.

July 31

As we prepare to leave Cambodia today, everyone would agree that is has been a valuable experience. Yesterday was our last day teaching, and all of our classes each said good bye and good luck. I am sure that everyone enjoyed teaching; the students were very good and seemed to learn a substantial amount during our three weeks of teaching. After all, many of the students started learning English a short year ago, and can already survive and converse in English.

This past weekend we all went to Phnom Penh. We hit many of the darker sites to Cambodian tourism, including an old high school that was used as a massive prison under the Khmer Rouge, and one of the larger killing fields. As you enter them, you see a sign that says something like 9,089 mass graves. I was reminded of the signs you see on a road when you enter a small town, you know, like “Welcome to Ghent, population 9.089.” And just think, those 10,000 or so where only a fraction of the people who died under the Khmer Rouge. It seems to me that how that kind of mass tragedy happens will remain both an eternal mystery and a simple fact of humanity. On the one hand, we question how it is even possible for an idea that is so crazy and radical could ever take hold like that over an entire country. Were there not far more ordinary people than Khmer Rouge soldiers? Could the populace not have shaken them off from the start once the general madness commenced? This is the aspect of eternal mystery. On the other hand, organizations like the Khmer Rouge and things like mass genocide and quite commonplace in human history. Is it really so unexpected and astounding? No, it is just how the world works; it is just how people are. This is the aspect of simple fact.

The thing that has surprised me and continues to do so is how far Cambodia has come in the short decades that have passed since those great losses. There are clearly many problems remaining. However, the progress from mass graves to a booming tourist industry and the construction of resort hotels is impressive. The distance between the dismal past and bright future is great. I would say that the next step is that eventually the country needs to wean itself off of all the NGOs and international assistance and stand on its own. Many of the JWOC scholarship students who I have spoken to about their lives said that an NGO run school affected the major change in their lives. I thought to myself that it was wonderful that outsiders could help, and make a difference in someone’s life, but I also thought it was so sad that their own government could not. Cambodians are not learning or building their dreams in any of the Cambodian schools. That is a problem. Additionally, the government is too corrupt to be trusted with international aid designated for education. The fact is, when NGOs do things themselves, like open a school, it is far more effective than funding a government one. Maybe one day that will change, and Cambodians won’t be so reliant on the charity of others. For now, while mass corruption still exists, we must continue to help, and I for one am glad that I have had a chance to do my part.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

West Point Volunteers - Steven

July 9, 2007 Tokyo

After seventeen hours in the air, I doubt hell is that bad. No doubt, the high schoolers (of which there was around 30) combined with those sitting next to me, made the journey nothing short of memorable.

July 10, 2007 Bangkok Airport

Well, the day started in the Hotel Inn Come, in the heart of Bangkok. Last night we arrived in the city around midnight, met up with Zach Booms and took a $15.00 taxi to our hotel where the check-in was quick and the sleep followed soon thereafter.

The weather here feels a lot like the humid South around the Georgia area. I have yet to see any dirt since the ground is usually covered with thick vegetation.

So far our trip has not encountered any major trouble. The only cause for concern we have deals with Katie’s and Zach’s flight to Siem Reap today. Apparently they were booked on later flights than the other four (we leave at 1110, they leave at 1600 and 1800). We hope that their standby status will work out.

Oh and Thailand has a king… I’ve seen his picture…everywhere

July 17, 2007

Cambodia, what can I say about it? What I expected, I did not find and what I felt would never have been here, I have seen.

I suppose a good place to start is from the beginning. No doubt, my expectations of this place reflected the common belief of this country resembling the poorer, dangerous, and somewhat backwards area of the world. My old vision of the country involved no roads, dense jungle, rice fields as far as the eye could see, and cities that had next to no resemblance of their Western counterparts. Yet what I have seen of this country has astonished me.

Journeys Within Bed and Breakfast has all the modern convenience of any hotel, motel, or Bed and Breakfast in the United States. I was thoroughly surprised with the swimming pool, services, and hospitality shown at the B&B. Certainly, it was a breath of fresh air since it meant that my stay here would be both comfortable and memorable.

The temples around this area are beautiful – to the extent that I have made it my goal to revisit them at a later point in my life. Their size, history, beauty, and depth are all too much to take in within a mere weekend. I still remember just looking at the moat of Angkor Wat.

July 18, 2007

Its my birthday and for the record, there was a lot more to the previous blog entry; however, a power surge/spike forced the computer to reboot and erase nearly half of what I wrote… nuts…

The staff at the B&B prepared a wonderful birthday cake for me at lunch. It was a dark chocolate cake, with rich chocolate frosting and even more frosting within the cake. Without a doubt, they are some of the most kind people I have met in a very long time.

Today, teaching at the temple went well. I enjoy reading the students “Oliver Twist.” We’ve just reached the middle part of chapter two (page 9) – it’s slow going, but I read the book, make the students repeat what I say, then we go over the complicated vocabulary. Today Vincent had to demonstrate what “clumsy” meant… it was a good time.

Tonight I’m going out to celebrate my birthday. John recommended a Cambodian BBQ place that we’re all going to. I hope to survive tonight’s festivities.

25 July 2007

Yesterday morning I biked six kilometers to a small village with my companions and our guide. Though we set off early in the morning, the weather quickly became warm and I had a thin layer of sweat after the first kilometer. We biked over roads that lacked any sort of maintenance or upkeep: there were pot-holes larger than my bike and more than two feet deep, no organization to how or where people drove, and of course… no restriction to the number of people that could ride on a single motorcycle. I like to think of traveling on any Cambodian street is an adventure in itself. Quite literally, you will never see the same thing twice when you travel on these roads – from upside-down pigs on bikes, to dozens of chickens hanging, to a family of five on a small motorcycle… its simply amazing to watch.

Nevertheless we eventually reached the village where our guide lived. As with most of the area surrounding Siem Reap, the homes were raised off the ground and all the fields had rice. The only roads nearby were dirt trails which were both sandy and not maintained. When we came up to the house, the simply construction of the home became apparent. The walls of the structure were either sheet metal or a layering of palm leaves. The roof also made use of palm leaves. Chickens lived under the home and a small rice field nearby provided food for the family. When we asked our guide about the home, he informed us that the home was built in a single day with the help of family and friends.

After our brief visit at the house, we traveled on our bikes to a nearby lake and proceeded to load the bikes onto a small boat which took us to the lake’s center island. This island had the ruins of, what I’m guessing was, an incomplete temple. As we expected, with any temple there are vendors and after spending time with these locals, we again boarded the boat and went across the lake to the opposite end from where we started. At this end, we thanked the boatman and drank fresh coconuts before beginning the trek back.

Following the bike rides, our next task was to teach English. As always, I love teaching my students – they are some of the most dedicated, good-natured, and agreeable people I’ve ever met. Though I am saddened at the thought of leaving them next week, I am reassured that this group of dedicated individuals will do well in the future as long as they stay focused, determined, and goal-oriented.

Finally, if someone ever makes it their wish to come and visit Cambodia… bring plenty of Pepto-Bismol… that stuff is a life saver.

West Point Volunteers - Zach

Describing a week in Cambodia teaching at a free school for area children and living in the heart of what was once dense jungle is a mountainous task in itself. As an American college student who has never traveled remotely near Southeast Asia before this, I hadn’t really anticipated just how much I would’ve seen and accomplished in such a brief time.

Teaching at Wat Chork and Wat Thmei has been eye opening to say the very least. The range of ages alone (of the students) has surprised me: we have very small boys and girls and men and women older than my ripe young age of twenty-one. What unites them all is their striking willingness to learn as much as they possibly can: planning to end early on a Friday, I said goodbye to the class only to watch as they all remained in their seats. This is partly due to the ever-present Khmer-English communication barrier, but it is symbolic of the students’ selfless attitude. In America students would be out the door at the slightest hint that class was to end for the day.

I’ve experienced quite a bit outside of class as well. Journeying to temples such as Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei, and Bang Mealea has been quite fulfilling and undoubtedly adventurous. A simple tuk-tuk ride by the different communities that make up Siem Reap is an education to foreign eyes.

I look forward to our continued time in this amazing country.

July 31

To sum up my experience in Cambodia during this month is to put together a mosaic of remarkably different experiences. The day-to-day responsibility of teaching in area schools was both inspiring and highly personal, and the same can be said for the work Kevin and I did with Angkor Hospital for Children. Cambodia is a country stuck in the old world but continually making strides toward the new. Our visit to Phnom Penh was a microcosm of this: spending time in the Central Market with its main building that reminded me somewhat of Grand Central Station in New York was coupled with strolling through walkways covered only by plastic garbage bags to keep the rain out.

What constantly impressed me about this country were its hardworking, dedicated, selfless, and caring people. For the most part, all of the Cambodians we worked with were unflinching in their wish to learn as much as possible, to get a job to support their family and themselves, and to improve their knowledge of the wider world that is slowly reaching them.

Tourism continues to be the most important industry here, and many of the teachers and guides we worked with rightfully took advantage of this by majoring in tourism and hospitality at area universities. Several of these people surprised me not only by their excellent English, but also by their dedication to their jobs. This especially lies with the teachers, as our interviews with the JWOC scholarship students revealed that education remains the single largest impediment and stepping stone to a successful career in their country.

To close, it’s been a whirlwind. I’ll miss many parts of Cambodia, not the least of which will be our group of bright students. I think that someday I’ll come back.

West Point Volunteers - Vincent

Since my arrival to Journey’s Within’ Bed and Breakfast, I have only been treated with the utmost respect and hospitality. The facilities are extremely nice and homely. The staff is warming and treats their guest like a close family. Throughout my stay, I have been afforded the opportunity to teach English, basic typing skills, Microsoft Word, and Excel to eager and underprivileged Cambodians. My volunteer work has been extremely rewarding. Siem Reap is also a nice place for visit and nightlife. I have gone out with the group that I am traveling with twice to enjoy Cambodian restaurants and lounges. The prices are extremely affordable for quality service.

11 July 2007

My arrival to Siem Reap, Cambodia was met with great hospitality through the warming staff of Journey’s Within. Our volunteer coordinator, John, briefed us on what we can expect to be doing over the next few weeks. Today was the first day that we taught at our respective schools as volunteers. My partner, Kevin, and I taught computer basic skills through Microsoft Excel, Word, Power Point, and basic typing skills. Currently, the students are utilizing a program named Mario typing as a means to enhance their abilities. Kevin and I have begun to evaluate the computers located at the school in order to recommend improvements and upgrades. Being around so many eager students is more than rewarding and I look forward to my stay.

13 July 2007

Since my stay in Cambodia, Kevin and I have been able to establish goals, standards, and general direction for our teaching plan with the students at our volunteer school. Once we teach a few of the students the basics to various skills (home keys for typing, spreadsheets for Excel, etc) they continually practice and improve on their own. We are able to provide a lot of hands on guidance as they learn these basic tasks and skills.

15 July 2007

This past weekend we visited the famous temples of Cambodia in Siem Reap. They were extremely fascinating and culturally enhancing. It is amazing to see the work of men from ages ago, especially considering that they did not possess the type of technology that we have today. There were many poor children around the temples that sold various items as a means to pay for their schooling needs. They were extremely aggressive and it was heartbreaking to see children have to work at such a young age just to get by. I made a habit of giving out a dollar or so at almost every site.


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