Monday, August 27, 2007

TravelAid - Water Well Testing

We’re halfway through our third week, am I’m amazed at how quickly it has gone. Being part of the well testing and scouting has taken up most of our mornings. The work we’ve done has been really interesting – always varied, and I feel we’ve accomplished a lot. By now we have tested 11 wells, in several different villages. On Sundays we have gone with the scholar Vorng, to scout new sites for wells. Both these tasks have been really fun, allowing us to get out of Siem Reap town and into the countryside, where you can meet “real” Cambodians going about their daily business. It helps that they’re always happy to see you!

Going to the villages has definitely been a highlight of my time here – the scenery is beautiful and all the people helpful. The icing on the cake is that you are doing something to benefit their lives.

Another of our tasks is slightly more mundane but just as important: inputting all the new well locations onto Google Earth. The goal is ultimately to create a more systematic approach to well building, testing and checking.

Our afternoons teaching at Wat Thmei have also been rewarding – getting to know the students and seeing them progress in both computing and English. We were invited by one teacher to go to another village and teach in an orphanage. The experience was great: new set of students, new set of challenges. It was fun to break our daily routine.

Our visit to temples of Angkor tomorrow will definitely break our daily routine. Can’t wait!!

- Ruaridh

TravelAid - End of Week 3

Week 3 is already over. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday we are going to visit the temples of Angkor. After 20 days in Siem Reap we will at last discover its major attraction!

Still, quite a few things happened in this very short week.

Sunday afternoon, JWOC held its second presentation on microcredit. We were able to organize it in a classroom of one of the schools around Siem Reap. Between 1:45 and 2 o’clock, around 20 women of all ages and a few men entered the school. At least 5 of them came with young children. Most of them dressed up for the occasion. The classroom quickly became full of life and colors (and even a little noisy with the children restlessly running across the room). People seemed excited about the whole happening and eager to learn what JWOC would offer them. As I do not understand Khmer, I could not understand a single word from the Scholars’ presentation. But from what could be read on the audience’s faces, it was very clear and interesting. In 45 minutes, they told the villagers about JWOC, its activities, the loans and the creation of a Business Plan. After that, the interested villagers were given the time to fill out their applications – and as most of them cannot read and write, they were assisted by scholars. I was truly impressed to see how well and easily the scholars, both the old ones and the ones that had joined the Microcredit team only a few hours before, helped the loan applicants. All of them took great care in going over what the villagers did not understand and in writing down what they were told. As a result, 30 minutes later we had 18 new loan applications (each of $100), which will be given out this week. And there is another presentation this Sunday!

As the weeks go by, we get to know the students at Wat Thmei a little bit better and we start to see some improvements in their understanding. So we decided to make one class sit a test, on the past tense: a great experience. First, most of the students actually turned on the day of the test. Then, they had all learnt their grammar and did a great job on the test. Buon Thoi, one of the youngest students in the class and Sok Mon, one of the monks, even got full marks.

Wat Thmei is one of the most touristy pagodas around Siem Reap. The classes are often disturbed by a group of curious Barangs (Cambodian word for ‘white people’), but Wednesday was exceptional. An entire bus of Japanese travelers entered the classroom, sat down at the tables, took photos, listened to Michael’s explanations on polite expressions… and gave out presents to the students. And indeed, the answer was very polite: ‘Thank you very much!’

A last piece of information before we go to the great temples of Angkor: one of the nicest places in Siem Reap to chill out after a day of work is Sidney Aqua. Very hard to find, but really worth it: they have a 15 meter swimming pool and a very welcoming - English - manager!

- Seb

Sunday, August 19, 2007

TravelAid - End of Week Two

Markus Wegelius and University Scholar Se in back with children from Dai Thmei Village, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Already the end of the second week! It is Sunday and we surprisingly were able to wake ourselves up bright and early to start another busy day of work at JWOC. I can’t even remember the last time I woke up so early on a Sunday morning but the beautiful turquoise sky coupled with the bright sun more than makes up for it. Our task for the day (as I specialize in Microfinance, along with Seb & Robin) was to explain to Narla, Piseth, Mai and several other scholarship students the changes that we had brought to the Power Point presentations of ‘How to construct a Business Plan’. These presentations will then be translated into Khmer (which is undoubtedly a lengthy process, as 1 page of English translates into 4 pages of Khmer!) and explained to villagers who have shown interest in the Microloan system. That meeting will take place later on in the day and we are confident it will be a success.

These 2 weeks have enabled us to understand how the JWOC Microfinance system works and to improve certain elements (with the advice of John) but more especially we realized the true benefit that the loans can bring to poor Cambodians. Cambodia has one of the worst banking systems in the world, with the private sector charging outrageous interest rates. According to the World Bank, Cambodia is ranked the 2nd worst country in the world for access to credit, outdone only by civil war-ridden Afghanistan! Microfinance was created in response to this, and has ‘changed the lives’ of countless Cambodians (their own words!). This is specifically why working with JWOC has been so gratifying and has enabled us to witness the difficult lives that most Cambodians lead; the lives that many tourists conveniently do not encounter traveling from their 5-star hotels to Angkor Wat and luxurious western restaurants. It really makes you look at things from a different perspective.

After 2 weeks of disciplined work, we finally allowed ourselves to go sightseeing for the first time! Yesterday, all seven of us left to ‘Tonle Sap’ which is the single biggest fresh-water lake in South-East Asia and a vital food source for the entire region. It has been designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, which basically means a protected natural conservation area. It was beautiful and is famous for its ‘floating villages’: there are thousands of ethnic Vietnamese who have built ‘boat-houses’ and live upon the lake. The interesting reason behind it is because of the monsoons during the rainy season (May - November) the Tonle Sap lake expands 4 times and in some places the water edge moves 50km! Thus the fishermen found a very ingenious technique to always wake up right by the water. Can’t wait for our next day off!

- Markus

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ari - Business Training Volunteer

I had the pleasure to volunteer for the Village Microfinance Fund project for about 3 weeks. I worked closely with another volunteer and both were encouraged to discuss any changes that we thought were needed. We also got to interview villagers with the scholars.

Early on, we realized that it was extremely important to provide a basic business & finance training for the scholars. As loan officers, the scholars are essentially business consultants, but don't necessarily have business training or experience. We created and trained the students on two modules. Major topics covered included:
  • Determining feasibility of business ideas
  • Refining business concept
  • Market and develop of products and services
  • Managing cash flows
  • Writing and developing business plans
  • Understanding your customer base and evaluating competition
  • Forecasting economic and seasonal trends
  • Risk Management
I was very nervous at first about training the scholars because I've never trained or tutored anyone in business/finance topics. But I realized that the little I did know was tremendous help. Scholars were very happy and grateful that we could help them learn something so valuable. It helped tremendously that the villagers' businesses were small and not too complicated (selling food in the market, recycling, sewing).

The real challenge came with creating an additional seminar for the villagers which - taught in a simple manner- would include most of the things students were trained on. Since they would be the ones to train the villagers (in Khmer), we needed to make sure that they had a good understanding of every topic.

I realized then that passing on knowledge to the local staff could potentially yield a greater impact because they will still be there to assist and train the villagers when I left. This was the first time that I was training/teaching practical skills in a non-hypothetical situation. I learned so such about myself on a professional level as well as personal. I can't wait to return and see how the scholars are doing and see any new developments in the villages. A piece of my heart will forever stay in Cambodia!

- Arisleyda Veloz

First blog from the Travelaid well team

It’s now the middle of the second week we’ve been working with JWOC, but already it seems much longer. This is partly because there’s been so many tasks and different types of work to do (from teaching how to print without a printer with which to demonstrate, to testing well water for arsenic and e-coli), but also because John and the scholarship students we have been working alongside have been so welcoming and helpful.

I feel grateful to Narlar and Sai in particular for always going out of their way and for putting up with my incessant questions about Cambodia. I now know that the reason older Cambodian women are bald (which really puzzled me) is that “they don’t want to look pretty any more” – in other words they have dedicated their lives to religion and shaved their heads.

Our most recent outing to test wells was to Kok Thnot, a village spread along the northern edge of a huge ancient Angkorian resevoir (1.5 by 5 miles!) and down one of the worse roads we’ve come across. At the first well our interviewee grabbed my hand and felt all up my arm, explaining to Sai that she’d never seen a foreigner before. Maybe she was checking if I was real? It seemed unlikely, being so old, that she’d never come across a foreigner, until I realised she was only in her forties – the shaved head really does distort things.

The second well we tested in Kok Thnot is shared by 32 people, pretty much all of whom gathered around while we were working, plus a few others. The interview turned into a sort of mass debate slash Khmer lesson, with all the women attempting to teach me the words for the animals around us, and at one point it got a little out of hand and the tests were kicked over.

I think what has struck me the most from the experience of travelling around the villages has been the openness of the Cambodian people. The immediate reaction of people you pass when they realise you’re a foreigner is to grin – so different from what’s typical in England! It’s HOT at the moment, so again strangely for an English person, I’m wishing it would rain.

Monday, August 13, 2007

TravelAid - End of Week One

It is now the end of our first week volunteering and I have been extremely busy. Splitting my time between teaching ever eager English students and sifting through applications for future scholars, there has been little time to reflect. The others in our group have been testing wells - some problems have been found such as low levels of arsenic (although I have been informed this is ok!!!) and e-coli – a result of the well functioning improperly.

Early in the week we went on a tour of a nearby village to see the work that JWOC has already carried out in the area. The village is essentially a squatter settlement with families living in houses they have built themselves on land set aside by the government for the construction of roads. On this trip we came across Pwet, a young boy who had a deep cut on his knee which could potentially have been very serious. The accident had happened a week before but the cut was still bleeding and there were signs infection. His mother had taken him to the hospital only to be deterred by an excessively long wait. However, Pwet was soon on Robin’s shoulders and on the way back to JWOC headquarters before being whisked off to hospital for some much needed stitches!!! A couple of the group saw him the day after and said a smile was back on his face!!

However, it has not by any means been all work! Thursday night saw our group (with the aid of John and Angkor Beer) win a local pub quiz. We now know what Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive!! For our endeavors we earned ourselves four free meals and boosted our egos!!

Friday, August 10, 2007

TravelAid 2007

By Michael Brodie – My First Day: 7/8/07

After a day of introductory discussion, where we got to grips with the way that JWOC works, today we began our four weeks of volunteering. My name is Michael Brodie and I am part of a group of seven Oxford University students, representing the charity TravelAid, who are working in conjunction with JWOC. After the first day, we decided to separate into small groups in order to give our full commitment to each of JWOC’s projects. I am concentrating on integrating the new scholars, who are to be selected this month, into JWOC’s programme and on creating brochure for the organization. I am also going to be teaching English at the language school at Wat Thmei.

The morning was spent beginning preliminary work on the brochure. We began to think about the layout and what we wanted to include – we think interviews with villagers in receipt of loans will be an interesting starting point. The afternoon was more eventful. I taught my first lessons at Wat Thmei – a Buddhist temple which doubles as a memorial site for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The number of skulls on display is a harrowing reminder of Cambodia’s tragic past. But the future appears much brighter, if my teaching experience is anything to go by! Despite being thrown in at the deep end in my first class (when I asked what I should teach, the monk who usually teaches the class simply replied ‘English’), the fact that the students were so dedicated and willing to learn made the class both enjoyable and rewarding (I hope on both sides!). I was struck by the smile of one student which beamed from ear to ear throughout the whole lesson and afterwards as he came up to thank me repeatedly for teaching him.

Of course there are problems to overcome. Try teaching a computer skills class when there is a power cut!! Also, Wat Thmei, because it is a tourist attraction, attracts a few street children, one of whom came up to me crying in hunger pains. This experience brought me back down to earth after the ‘high’ of teaching and made me realize the many problems Cambodia still faces.

However, despite sobering moments like the one above, I now have a great thirst to become more involved and I can foresee the next four weeks being a great experience.


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