They say there are moments in life that help to shape and define you; I didn’t know it then, but optimistically choosing that 9AM chemistry class would change my life forever. It was then, the first week of my first term of my undergraduate career, that two chipper volunteer recruiters would utter the words that would spark a journey destined to take me half way around the world. Before that class I couldn’t have told you where Cambodia was on a map, what language they spoke, their history or their culture; I now consider Cambodia my second home. It was the first step in my new life, so it is only fitting that I start here: at the beginning.
Ten months after hearing of Cambodia for the first time, and more than twelve hours of flights, I arrived. It was hard to believe at first that I was actually half way around the world from the small town I had spent most of my life in. I often dream of those streets, the sights, smells, tastes, and languages. I often dream of fried bread and haggling over a mini Buddha or elephant. I felt it the moment I stepped off the plane, this was home.
Some of my strongest memories of Cambodia are the smells. Have you ever noticed how other peoples’ houses have a certain smell, and if you spend enough time away from your house you realize it too has its own smell. I have found this to be true of countries as well. The moment I stepped off the plane and into that humid summer night, the first thing I noticed was how everything smelt different. How I miss that smell. I miss the hum of the tuk tuk, the smell of its exhaust mixed with the dust it kicked up behind it. I miss walking the city streets at night and smelling the fried bread and bananas being sold out of small carts. To be honest, I even miss the pungent smell of the meat market at high noon in the middle of July. The best smells came from the kitchens, and the food that followed.
“It takes a village to raise a child: children first.” The school motto perfectly summarizes the purpose of my trip. It was my privilege to spend a week in a northern village near Siem Reap, where I built a schoolroom and taught English. To date, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I will be forever grateful for the people I met. They welcomed me into their world, and taught me the true meaning of happiness. These schoolrooms are used to provide education to village children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to go to school.
The first week I spent in Cambodia I helped build a schoolroom for rural village children. Along with a group of over twenty other volunteers, we accomplished this in less than a week. One of the volunteers, a local man named Bob the Builder, inspired us all as he led the way.
The reason I went to Cambodia was to build a school and teach English; I wanted to make a difference in the world. My wonderful students made this so easy. The way they treasured education was very inspiring and I am so thankful for everything they taught me.
I loved all of my students, but I can honestly say these three boys were my favorite. Each day they would come running to the school and greet me with a wide smile. They genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to learn and they made my entire experience amazing!
One of the things that all of the children seemed to enjoy was playing with all of the volunteers technology – phones, cameras, and in this case my iPod which had the game Temple Run on it. They had never played the game before, but in a matter of minutes the kids had mastered the game. I am always amazed at how intuitive children are.
Not only did I get the opportunity to teach English to the kids, but I was also asked to give a few lessons to the local teachers as well. I felt honored that they asked me to spend extra time to help them. The teachers were young, most in their early twenties, and they were very passionate about their careers. They felt it was their responsibility to help children in need, so that each would have the better opportunities in their futures.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable temples in the world, Angkor Wat is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The UNESCO World Heritage site is close to a thousand years old and being there was like a walk through history. There were many amazing sites to see, the various temples with their intricately carved walls; the monks, new and old, in their brightly colored robes; women who would give you a blessing; and of course the wildlife, everything from water buffalo, to elephants, to curious but pesky monkeys. After doing some exploring and climbing about a million steps that I swear were at a ninety-degree angle, I got to gaze over the surrounding temple lands and it was an absolutely breathtaking view.
Sitting by the lake at the center of Angkor Wat, I took a moment to reflect upon where I was now, and where I wanted to go from there. A fire had been lit within my soul, and I had developed a deep unquenchable thirst for adventure. I knew that Cambodia would just be the first stop in a long line of stops; the beginning of a wonderful adventure that would be my life. I think about that moment often, especially when I get discouraged. I had never been so sure of who I was at that moment, and getting back to that has acted as my anchor when the seas seem rough.
One of the reasons that Cambodia appealed to me over the other countries mentioned by those very chipper volunteer recruiters was the promise to get up close and personal with some elephants. Since I was a young girl, elephants have been my favorite animals. So when I heard it would be possible to work with elephants at a sanctuary, I knew Cambodia was the right choice. However, getting to the elephants was much harder than making the decision to see them.
The morning my group set out for the two-day journey to the southern jungles of Cambodia, I awoke feeling more sick than I had ever felt – more sick than I have ever felt since. I said nothing; I was determined to see the elephants no matter what. Over the next few days my health continued to deteriorate, but before I was hospitalized I fulfilled my dream and saw the elephants. Though it was an exhausting hike up one side of a mountain and down the other, it was worth pain. Seeing the elephants awakened a sense of wonder, a sense of spirit, a sense of adventure.
Cambodia was the first step in a journey I am still on today, a journey I will be on until the day I die. The land, the food, the culture, the people: I am forever indebted to it all. Thank you for welcoming me into your culture, into your school, and your home. Thank you for teaching me about the important things in life, and the secret to being happy.
Photos taken in the northern and southern provinces of Cambodia. Project focuses included construction, education, and reforestation. July 2013.