Things have been a bit quiet on the writing front for a few months but we now feel that we have settled into a sustainable and enjoyable lifestyle here in Kep. The irony of having achieved a work-life balance precisely when paid work is not necessary is not lost on me.
Not the first but not the least of the reasons Cambodia was the choice for our trial retirement was that we thought we possessed a skill set, that would enable us to contribute to the local community in an area where there was a need.
Having spent the first six months of this year in travel and holiday mode we arrived in Kep ready to put down roots and test that theory. The urgent business of finding suitable accommodation and getting ourselves established took precedence at first but the pressing need to do something productive and engage gave rise to making the effort to put ourselves out there and research the possibilities for volunteering in the local community.
On the very first visit to Kep Gardens Association the vibe felt right. Coincidently the owners, Janine and Andrew are Adelaidians and have almost ten years of experience. They have a proven track record with volunteers in all kinds of capacities and offer a wide range of training and education programs. Janine was quick to see exactly what we would be able to do within the framework of her English teaching program and took us up on our offer to volunteer immediately. By the second visit we had established starting times and doubled our commitment as she had realised the kind of assistance we could provide.
Starting at the beginning of November, when she had no other volunteers arriving, gave us the time we needed to make a flying trip to Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Therefore now, for the first time since leaving Thimphu in January we have all our possessions either stored in Adelaide or with us, not scattered across several countries. It also gave us time to mentally prepare for the fact that after almost ten months we were heading back to work, albeit in a nonpaid capacity.
We cycle out of town in the worst heat of the day to arrive at Kep Gardens for a 1:30pm start on Mondays and Wednesdays. The place is alive with the sounds of kids playing and learning well into the evening and we make the small contribution of listening to individuals read aloud and providing them with opportunities to build their confidence in communicating orally. The final class of the day includes older and more capable high school students and adults and we attempt to facilitate conversation and assist with preparing them for debating.
Of course we have also found other ways to contribute and have already supplied photos for what will become a regular monthly display showcasing Kep Gardens events and activities. Perhaps less successfully we have also contributed food for the newly established canteen struggling to instill environmentally friendly eating practices and make a profit.
By 8.15pm we are ensconced in a tuk-tuk with our bikes tied to the back and heading home. The routine is still new and we still marvel at how different everything looks after dark. Lights illuminate the roadside stalls and community gatherings abound and we get a glimpse into an aspect of Cambodian culture we would otherwise not be privy to.
You can find out more about the programs on offer and the opportunities to volunteer at – http://kepgardens.com
At about the same time as we had confirmed our yearlong commitment at Kep Gardens to Janine another exciting project presented itself to us. The owner of the beautiful Bamboo House, where we lived for the first three months, arrived terribly excited one afternoon with a request. Madam Yary has become a friend and she is both visionary and tireless in her effort to help less fortunate Cambodians.
She is a benefactor of many local projects and she had come directly from a very poor monastery in a fishing village outside of Kep. She had that morning decided to fund a well digging operation and several other projects at this “pagoda” as they call them here. She wanted us to visit the monastery- no I can’t bring myself to call it a pagoda, the next day and commit to teaching the young monks English.
We agreed almost instantly and actually meeting the young monks on a rare festive occasion the following day sealed our fate.
Despite having no resources at all and no real concept of exactly how to teach a group of monks of widely divergent ages and with no shared language, we were hooked. Thus our quick trip to the capital en route to Bangkok became a mission to find and purchase books, flashcards, posters and as many other resources as possible.
Now we also have our own personal project. Unlike most other overseas teaching positions we have filled, we were completely on our own with this. It’s somewhat daunting given that we know little or nothing about the Cambodian education system or the protocol of how to behave in the ‘temple’ or interact with monks, somewhat challenging in that the need is great and the funds non existent and somewhat exhilarating in that having never approached anything like it before both we and the little monks are having so much fun together.
We returned from the capital loaded with all we thought we might need with one notable exception – a whiteboard or blackboard. We thought the latter would be more appropriate, cheaper and less likely to be damaged but that meant we had to construct it. Once again, Yary to the rescue. When we next saw her she was keen to find out how our project was going and immediately stated that we needed to do a quick sketch then and there so that her carpenters could make us a board.
Due to their religious duties our little monks- I try not to call them monkeys tempting as it is, are also scheduled for afternoon classes, so Tuesdays and Wednesdays involve cycling off in the heat of the day and along another well rutted and dusty unsealed back road. We chose to begin with Kep Gardens in November since once we start consistency is essential. Now after a grand total of just three sessions we can see the beginnings of writing and recognizing the alphabet and a few simple words, counting confidently to ten and several simple rejoinder conversations that they are able to retain.
We know so little about early childhood education that it is a trial and error process but we are eager to do what we can and they are delighted with the writing, chorusing and attention generally. Sleepy little faces emerge as soon as we dismount and they start setting up low tables and mats just as we did on the first session. It is the active learning activities, with cards, relay running and balls that they love the most. I wonder if they even have play time.
They have amazing powers of concentration and attention given that they do not eat after twelve noon and we arrive mid afternoon. Their earnest little faces and endearing mannerisms have already won our hearts and inspired us to do as much as possible to help.
Janine has been generous with the resources she has accumulated over the years and we have a growing client relationship with a local print shop due to the volume of material we print.
This seems to have become an epic update but I will end with a few anecdotes from the first few classes:-
1. One of the youngest among them was painstakingly tracing and writing the letter “d” while muttering under his breath “Here you are. Thank you” like he was a chanting a prayer. We had been doing that just before the letters and he obviously wanted to remember.
2. Another of the older boys was colouring with such care and attention and repeating to himself “good boy, good boy” in exactly the tone I use.
3. After having lined up all the cards and realia they can recognise at the opposite end of the room, Ian and I tried to demonstrate the idea of hearing the word and racing to get the object nominated. As we took of running they ALL did too and returned with every single item!!
It would help to be able to explain and give instructions in a language they already know but we are getting by and its all part of the fun.