Recollections by P.C. Piilonen
Chickens, cases of Angkor beer, cans of Pringles, emaciated cows, smiling, waving Khmer children, and death-defying driving carried out under a set of rules that Westerners certainly cannot understand: no road trip in Cambodia would be complete without all of the above. As we start off on the road from Phnom Penh to Kampot, this leg of the journey looked not to disappoint!
As our two vans head south towards the sleepy Cambodia seaside towns of Kep and Kampot, I ponder the task that lies ahead of us – building ten houses for deserving Khmer families on behalf of the Tabitha Foundation. I think back to Janne’s very blunt words two days previous – “If you cannot do these things, do not participate” and “this is not about you, it’s about the families you are here to help”. The litany of rules that Janne recited to us during our orientation flits across my mind: the 5-minute nail rule; don’t eat food given as a gift; don’t share food with the villagers; don’t compliment a family’s baby; no touching anyone of the opposite sex. A firm thought plants itself in my mind: we’re not in Thailand anymore, Toto.
A Different World...
After a month in Thailand , the last six days in Cambodia have been a shock to the senses. Cambodia is a different world. Although it’s an easy, scenic 6 hour train ride from Bangkok , crossing the border at Poipet was like stepping back in time, stepping into a world that is trying to emerge from a horrific (recent) past which has left the entire population scarred, scared, and fighting to regain their culture and sense of self. Before coming to Asia, I did my homework: I read books on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, I watched documentaries and Hollywood films. I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. The minute I stepped out of the taxi in Siem Reap, the objective, scientific thought pattern which can be maintained when reading a book comes crashing down. The horrors of the Pol Pot regime are ever present and unavoidable. I find myself having to deliberately vanquish thoughts of pure evil and genocide from my mind as I wave at these smiling, happy people. My mind keeps flashing back to the stories that Janne told us of her staff at the orientation. I will never fully understand what they have gone through, but I think I can learn a lot from these survivors.
We’re a diverse group headed to Kampot for the build – Muay Thai students and their Kru (teacher), friends from Ottawa , Tabitha Foundation members from both Phnom Penh and Ottawa , a lone cyclist from New York , and a young engineer from Singapore. Whatever our personal reasons for coming to the other side of the world to spend two days building houses in a remote village, we are unified in our wish to do our part, to help out those who need help to get back on their feet. The ironic thing is, although the villagers have less material possessions than we soft, pampered Westerners, I think they possess more than we do when it comes to family and emotions.
Our “home” for the next three days is the N4 Guesthouse in Kep. The four hour van ride and our first supper as a group offer the opportunity to get to know each other. Even though I know quite a few of the team members that we’re traveling with, I know that this will be a chance to get to know them in a more intimate way. A foreign country is often a great leveler. Traveling within a group which has been thrown together can often be a challenging experience, but I think we’ll do fine.
The First Build Day...
The next morning, we’re up bright and early for a very French breakfast – baguette, fruit and an “omlette”. Loading into the vans at 7am, we’re off on a two hour journey towards Kampot and the village where our house frames are waiting for us. Although not quite the “road from hell” as the highway leading from Poipet to Siem Reap, the final stretch of dirt road headed into our village made many of us consider stocks in Gravol! As always, the ubiquitous cows, chickens and kids on bicycles followed us the entire way.
Arriving in the village, we didn’t waste anytime. Although the hardwood frames and tin roofs of the houses were already in place, put up earlier by professionals, we had a long, hot, dusty day ahead of us. Hammers in hand, gloves on, we were quickly split into two work groups and set on our houses. Without too much talk, each work group naturally broke into a floor and wall fractions. Either way, we all quickly realized why Janne enforces a “5 minute nail” rule – after hitting a stubborn nail for five minutes, you must simply walk away before frustration sets is. Cambodian nails + Cambodian hardwood = many bent nails and frustrated workers! The solution? Put aside Western ideals of perfection and get the job done.
Our first day, we complete an amazing six houses by 3pm! Falling into a rhythm was the key – grab a sheet of tin and hand it up to Srei on the inside, scamper up the ladder, slam in three top nails, three mid-line nails, back down the ladder and start the process again, leaving the bottom two rows of nails to the person on the ground. Working in a bit of a trance, I was amazed at how fast the walls went up. Inside, our team quickly put in the floor boards and moved on to the next house. At one point in time, I found myself balancing the ladder away from the house like a pair of stilts, hanging on with one hand while someone slipped a piece of tin up underneath me. None of the hang-ups and safety concerns one would find on a build site in Canada ! Just get the job done.
Janne’s statement that this build is not about us is correct. But standing there on a rickety ladder banging in nails all day long while 25-30 villagers watch your every move in anticipation and fear, it’s hard not to turn at least part of the experience inward. Academia and research often feel like the most self-centered way of making a living, something I’ve never quite come to terms with. I was amazingly at peace, for the first time in many months, and happy to be working with my hands, swinging a hammer and doing work which would bring such happiness and comfort to a family later that day. Yes, volunteer work is about those who you are helping. But it’s also about personal growth.
After completion of six houses in record time, Srei performed a ceremony for the families, thanking our team and Tabitha, and welcoming them into their houses. It was quite a touching moment to realize that, possibly for the first time in their lives, these families would be living in relative comfort, safe and dry. We quickly loaded our gear into the van and took off back to Kep to rest, relax, clean up, and get ready for supper out with the team. When on the ocean, eat seafood. On the menu for the evening: crab, squid and shrimp, all in mass quantities!
Build Day Two...
Our second day of building was much smoother than the first – a bit of experience makes the job quite a bit easier! With only four houses to build, we could relax and not worry about rushing to finish. Back to wall-duty, grab a piece of tin, hand it up to Srei, scamper up the ladder, pound in three nails, and jump back down to complete the process a couple of feet further along the wall. At one point in time, while doing all the middle nail rows, I looked around and the only people present were myself and an older man from the village who was spotting my ladder, looking up at me and smiling nervously. He proved to be an excellent helper and we got the last nails done together in a timely fashion.
As with the first day, at the completion of the 4th house, Srei held a ceremony for the families and they were welcomed into their new houses. What an emotional time it must be for the families to watch a group of strange Westerners build your house all day long, then to be essentially handed the keys (handed the quilt?), so to speak, and allowed to move in. During the build, the villagers were alternatively watching us from the next lot, or hanging out underneath the house itself. I would like to know what they are thinking while watching us. It’s difficult to put myself in their shoes when I cannot fully understand their history and what it was like to live in terror for so many years. Unlike Tabitha, I believe this is where a lot of NGO’s and government organizations go wrong: trying to impose Western ideals and concepts into a culture which is so far removed from Western life and a Westerner’s understanding. I’m impressed and humbled by Janne’s work in Cambodia. She and her staff have worked within the bounds of the culture, and are teaching the Khmer families to be survivors, to be independent and self-sufficient.
Back at the ranch, the N4 Guesthouse, a trip to the beach prior to supper was in order. After a hot, sweaty, dirty day of work, what better way to clean off then a jump in the ocean to play with the jelly fish?! Upon returning to the guesthouse refreshed and showered, I had an opportunity to get to know the Tabitha staff a bit more, one of the highlights of my experience. After approaching Srei to make a reservation at a restaurant for supper, I was invited to sit with her and the van drivers and share their cockles and dried fish over a beer. Everyone was amazingly friendly and eager to share knowledge of Khmer history and tales about the local caves, including Animist/Buddhist tales about giants and kings of old. Although I found having discussions with the villagers a bit difficult given the fact that we had a job to do and were in and out of the area so quickly, sitting and talking with the Tabitha staff was easy, relaxing and very enjoyable.
The following morning, many of our team headed back to Phnom Penh to continue their travels or fly home. A few of us stayed on in Kep to explore the surrounding caves and islands, relaxing before continuing on our respective journeys. A few of the main topics of conversation: where are we building next year? how many houses are we building?
Back in Canada, staring out the window at the most snow we’ve had in a decade, I’ve already started to look for airplane tickets to put me in Phnom Penh on January 19th, 2009. Why go back? Aside from the obvious, the fact that +35˚C and sun is much more tolerable than -20˚C and snow, I’m not done doing my part. I’m not done getting to know the people I’ll be traveling with either. And there’s certainly a lot more of the country to explore and experience.