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Saturday, July 21, 2007

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.

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