The white Toyota pick-up truck bumps along the pitted dirt road and over several very questionable wooden bridges. That last pothole we cleared could have swallowed a Volkswagen. Later on we pass through a traffic jam of stubborn water buffalo.
My hands are white knuckled as I sit on the side of the pickup, clinging with all my strength. I am on my way to Tol Krol East village in the Pursat province of Cambodia.
I am part of a team of seven volunteers from across Canada and one from the UK who are in Cambodia with the Hope International Development Agency (Hope) Understanding Needs in Other Nations (UNION) program.
The goal of the UNION program is to immerse Westerners in the daily rural life of developing countries like Cambodia in order to learn the challenges people face and understand the causes of the poverty cycle.
Our team will help build a school for the children who have no access to education. In fact, most of the children spend their days working the land, walking miles to gather water, or earning a meager wage toiling in the local quarry breaking rock and loading dump trucks by hand.
An Auspicious Arrival
The road narrows and becomes more dilapidated as we pass a few small thatched huts, the only sign that we are approaching the village. I am told it is the rainy season, but all the fields are dry and the crops are sparse. As we round the corner I see the community Buddhist Pagoda (temple) perched on a nearby hill.
Shortly after we arrive at the school site to find most of the village there to greet us, including kids, parents, workers, and monks. I see a few children swimming in a small watering hole, likely the remnants of previous gravel mining in the area.
We unload the tools and supplies from the truck in a whirlwind of introductions to the village leaders and the local carpenters who will work on the school with us. There is so much I want to say, but my Khmer (Cambodian language) is limited to “hello,” and “my name is.” Luckily a warm smile and friendly handshake is all that is needed.
The team is immediately put to work using hoes to load soil into wicker baskets and hauling the baskets to the school site to level the floor. It is early morning and I can already feel the heat and humidity building. It’s going to be an inferno of a workday. I don’t even want to look at a thermometer.
I quickly realize I would do anything for a wheel barrow, and at one point the team considers trying to build one. Yet the children are strong and resilient as they help us carry the soil-laden baskets. I wear my heavy work boots while many of the kids make do without shoes and a smile ear to ear, happy and proud to help build what will be their school.
I teach them to count to three in English before we toss each basket of soil and soon all the children are counting out loud and trying to teach us to count in Khmer. This month will be full of hard work but it will also be a lot of fun.
After lunch I am recruited to help hoist the main sections of the wooden frame into place. The frame is tropical hardwood and it takes about fifteen of us to hoist each section. At the end of the first day I am surprised and delighted to see the school is already taking shape.
The sun sets while we play a game of Saiee with the kids. Saiee is like hacky sack but instead of a bean bag we kick around something similar to a badminton birdie. I end up kicking more air than Saiee but receive points for style.
Hard Work And Hot Sun
Over the next few days we haul large rocks with a small creaky wooden cart to further fill the foundation. Again the kids are more than eager to help us load and help push the cart.
At one point a small girl fell to the ground, knocked over by the group pushing the cart. My heart leapt to my throat as I rushed to check her over, while she cries in the arms of Odette, the UNION team leader. Luckily she is not injured, however the mishap reminds our team to be careful at all times.
Each day we break for lunch and walk up the hill with the rest of the workers and kids to eat at the Pagoda. I decide to carry Ruan, (a hyper and mischievous little tyke who likes to karate chop me when I am not looking), over one shoulder and give him a few airplane spins on the way up the hill.
We eat lunch on woven grass mats in an open air pavilion. Streamers of brilliantly coloured cloth strips of hang from the thatched roof and a small Buddhist shrine is located at the far end. Barang, the local woman who cooks for us, prepares a full lunch with spicy sour fish soup, chicken and green beans with rice, and fresh dragon fruit for dessert.
It is hard not to notice the contrast of our lunch with that of the locals: rice or raw corn eaten straight from the cob. Needless to say everyone makes sure to finish what is provided, and any remaining food is given to the monks of the Pagoda who live largely on the donations of others.
Afterwards the group relaxes in the shade of the Pagoda until the midday heat dissipates. This relaxation time, or Ã¢â‚¬Ëœsombra,’ is a great time to play games with the kids, and just sit back and observe life in Tol Krol East.
A card game of Ã¢â‚¬Ëœgo fish’ starts up and we instantly have an audience interested in learning the game. Darun and Simpa, two of the boys who live under the care of the Monks, learn the rules very quickly. Simpa even ends up winning most of the games.
The pavilion is situated adjacent the main temple building of the Pagoda. I watch from afar one of the older monks perform a blessing on several of the local families. The family members kneel in a row and the Monk sits behind them on a stool.
As the Monk recites the blessing he splashes a small amount of water on each of the family member’s heads, starting with the parents and then the children, and repeats until the blessing is complete. As I observe the blessing and the surrounding landscape I feel the energy of this land and the people.
I am filled with a sense of hope and I consider myself privileged to be a guest in their village.
Must Get Your Hands Dirty
By the end of the second week the school’s roof is finished and we are ready to compact the earthen floor area by hand. We are told by Peeyep, the project foreman, that we may have to wait a day for a water truck to arrive to water down the soil.
I notice menacing dark clouds are forming in the east — perhaps a storm? At the end of the workday the clouds arrive with impressive force. The winds drive the rain sideways, and the crew is forced to huddle under the newly constructed roof for shelter, hoping the new structure will survive the gale force winds.
Small rivers begin to appear in the previously dry ditches. The runoff floods toward the school and the quick thinking workers decide to divert the water towards the earthen floor. We would no longer have to wait a day for the water truck to arrive. Mother Nature was not about to allow us to have a day off!
In the morning we start compacting the floor by hand with elephant’s feet. To my dismay, we do not receive any help from our large tusked friends from the animal kingdom. Rather the elephant’s foot is a large heavy tree stump with handles that we repeatedly lift and drop to the floor.
By midday my arms are ready to fall off, and I whimper at the thought of more work with the elephant’s foot. Luckily the floor is done and we are ready to mix and pour the concrete.
The UNION team mixes it by hand in piles on the ground and carries the concrete by bucket to the school. The local mason levels and finishes the floor by eye with incredible precision. When he finishes his work, we are allowed to leave our hand prints in the concrete. I draw a small maple leaf in the corner, a symbol of the partnership formed between the Canadians and this village.
The next week is spent cutting the wall panels and nailing them to the exterior of the school. All the work is done by hand without power tools. The only power in the area is supplied by the car batteries each family uses to run lights or small televisions.
Painting the building a vibrant red is complete in two days. The school is officially finished in three weeks, one week ahead of schedule, allowing the team to work on other projects in the area for the final week: including a drinking water well, and learning to plant rice at an agriculture project.
On the last day a celebration is organised for the village children who will attend the school starting in October. We are guided into one of the class rooms where the children are lined up by gender and age group and dressed in their best clothing. Each team member is allowed to say a few words which are translated for the young audience.
As I step forward to speak I feel tears well up in my eyes. I manage to thank our hosts for our wonderful time as guests in the community. I also confess the friendships forged over the past month are as strong as the school building we stand in and will last in my mind forever.
The village chief thanks us for caring about the people in his village and for our dedication to travel so far from home.
With the emotional speeches over it was time for fun. Pop and cookies are handed out to the kids and we distribute a big bag of toys. I could not help but grin ear to ear at the sight of the children skipping, playing Frisbee, and running around in the school yard for the first time.
An immense sense of satisfaction fell over me to see many of the kids smiling and simply being able to laugh and play as kids.
The vehicle slowly pulls away and the team waves enthusiastically to the village. We drive onto the road that leads out of the village.
There are few moments in life when you can feel your heart grow in an instant. Without a doubt, mine swelled as I looked back to see the group from the village walking after the truck, smiling and waving until we drive out of sight.
To join an experience like this yourself, visit Hope International.