On Friday morning a taxi picked us up right on time. It was all but easy to book a taxi for this day, because the Cambodians celebrate Chinese New Year, even though their own New Year is not until April. There are some 30 public holidays in Cambodia!
Packed to the rafters, the drive took us to Koas Krala, the last settlement that still has a driveable road before entering jungle territory.
There, we provided ourselves with water and bananas and then continued into the jungle on a road that resembled a crater landscape on planet Mars. I was truly worried if the car would hold out, and felt sorry for the driver who had volunteered to drive us to the next little village. We reached that, relieved and without major breakdowns, after an hour of bumping up and down. Sopheap, a young teacher from Bech Khlok (where the jungle school is) was already waiting for us together with Heang, our guide, who had arrived earlier (his motorcycle had proven to be faster than our car).
The journey continued on a small two-wheeled tractor with a trailer attached. With a normal car there would have been no chance to get through in these conditions. The drive on narrow and bumpy dirt paths felt like an eternity, but finally after a 3 hours journey we arrived at the Bech Khlok school house.
The first thing I saw was the big new rainwater-tank I had been so curious about. Not only did the villagers indeed buy this tank from the money we gave them two months ago, which is a huge proof of trust and reliability for our relationship with them, but they had even written my name on it as a token of gratitude!
Sopheap organized a provisional storage area for all the materials we had brought with us in the house of a family who live close to the school. Unexpectedly, the journey then continued to the village Sopheap lives in, which is yet another 45 minutes drive on the same roads as before, at the back of Heang’s and Sopheap’s motorcycle. He took us there because he wanted us to meet his mother, who had prepared a generous and delicious meal for us all. The tasty food did fully compensate for the bothersome travelling! After the meal Sophleap took us to his own house, where he lives with his sister and their quadriplegic brother.
at Sopheap's house
Back in Bech Khlok, we visited some of the families who live in close vicinity of the settlement, to get a better insight into their living circumstances. The mere state their “houses” are in almost already told us enough about the situation. To call it “tough” does not even start to express it. There is no electricity, no sanitary facilities and no fresh drinking water. They told us that the access to health care had just become a little easier because a road had been built about 45 minutes away from Bech Khlok that leads to a doctor, but whilst they can now get to help a bit better the medicin is still utterly unaffordable for most of the families. The public health care centre in Koas Krala is no option for them either, as it is way too far away too reach in case of a medical urgency.
The families then showed us the tiny little fields on which they try to grow some rice in the rainy season, fields which provide barely enough rice to feed themselves. A few of them also had small vegetable gardens with pineapples, mangos, papayas and bananas, which they try to sell in front of their houses to earn an extra buck. Other, less fortunate, families led us to poor huts, roofs mended with plastic bags, on land made available to them by the big corporate Thai agricultural company who dominate the labour market here. They say they earn a little money working on the fields for the company. Quite a lot of the men and women work in Thailand, illegally. Even the children, when they are old enough, get sent to Thailand to work there. Or better said, they are dropped at the border, from there they have to find their own way to a place where they can work!
In the evening of that first day, utterly tired from travelling and from the deep and lasting impressions of the misery these people live in, we were spoilt and surprised with another delicious meal made by Sopheap’s mother. Sopheap had made the 90 minute trip home and back just to get us dinner! The way these people took care of us touched our hearts, and we almost felt a little embarrassed to be treated so royally by people who have nothing. We had planned to stay the night in the school house, but the locals had deemed that too dangerous and had decided we were to stay at the house of the family who had also stored our materials. Florian installed our hammocks and we tucked in hoping to get a good night’s sleep.
Our host family
At 3 in the morning, the family’s mad rooster decided the night was over and his enthusiastic crowing woke up the ducks, chicken and dogs which were also under and around the house. Sleeping was not an option anymore after that, and so I tried to just relax a bit and wait until it got a little lighter on the horizon. At 6 am we then proceeded to the school house to wash at the new rainwater tank. The muesli and bananas we brought with us served as breakfast, which we enjoyed under an absolutely stunning sunrise. At 7am, the children started arriving and we started work.
It took a while until students all had arrived, because of the sometimes vast distances they had to walk to school. During the wait, the kids were playing, Florian was filming and I was taking photographs.
Half an hour later all kids were present, and they lined up to sing their national anthem.
We then all went to the assembling area where we introduced ourselves and Florian explained (with Heang translating) that the children do not need to be afraid of the camera. As soon as they had understood this, Florian almost always had a child looking over his shoulder and into the camera. Children are truly curious, and universally so!
There were many adults at the meeting too, and I explained to them and to the school staff that it is not I who donate the money for the help we are providing to them, but that indeed the money comes from lots of people all over the world, who donate generously and who love to help. But I also made clear that sustainable improvement in their circumstances can only be achieved by themselves, with hard work and dedication, and that they must not just start to rely on foreign funding, which they definitively understood.
After all this talking, it was finally time to open the box of donated school materials we had brought with us. A moment the children had been anxiously awaiting all along. Books and pencils were distributed, the “box-library” was opened and the books in it shown, all writing material unpacked, toothbrushes and toothpaste and other hygiene items unpacked and demonstrated, and the toys and play things to be used in the school breaks given out. The teachers were given a map of Cambodia, a Geography book, and a book about dental hygiene. The children will start brushing their teeth, at school every morning, with the teachers watching over this. This way we can be sure they actually stick with it, and we will also know when to replace brushes and replenish toothpaste.
Two of the girls are happily receiving my daughter's old school uniform
Joining rubber bands for playing French Skipping
One class then had a short demonstration-lecture with Sopheap, while the other kids were enthusiastically playing with their new toys on the square outside the school. I gave out printed out black and white mandala drawings for the kids to colour, and in no time dozens of kids had gathered and were frantically colouring. Most of them had never held a colouring pen and it was touching to see their happy faces.