Friday, February 27, 2009

Walls Go Up at ‘Muskoka School’ Site! -- Phnom Penh, Elephants, Tarantulas, Snakes and Bicycles!

It’s been a busy 2 weeks for Muskoka residents Jay and Linda Harrison and I. We’ve been out to the ‘Muskoka School’ site twice, spend afternoons teaching at the Voluntary Development Poverty Children School – Jay & Linda rebuilt the library shelves there, spent 3 days in Phnom Penh, failed at our attempt to climb Mount Chi So, gave out 5 bicycles to needy students, and had our first encounter with a large unidentified Cambodian snake out in the countryside of Bakong district.

Last Tuesday’s visit to the ‘Muskoka School’ construction site at the school grounds in rural Ta Trav village found progress well ahead of schedule. The cement is pouring and the walls are going up! The school children are pitching in during their free time and they’re having a great time working together shoveling and hauling fill. We found out the hard way, when we started to pitch in, that the work these kids were doing is not that easy. It’s hot work too, as now temperatures are daily between 35-40 degrees Celsius.

Thanks to Chris Coates from the Trailblazer Foundation, Contractor Von Rotha, and Trailblazer Project Manager Ung Chanrattana for giving us the ride out to the ‘Muskoka School’ Site with them. Khmer men and women from the surrounding villages are working hard and fast to get this school built. I’m sure that when I return to Siem Reap the last week in March that I’ll be walking into classrooms with a roof overhead!

Back in Siem Reap, Jay, Linda and I have been going out 5 days a week to the Voluntary Development Poverty Children School (VDPCS). There’s lots of happy news to report from there! Jay and Linda have successfully and cost-effectively revamped the existing library shelving resulting in double the shelf space! The books all have cards and pockets in place, and 3 days ago, the first students borrowed books to take home. They are allowed to borrow one book each, with a lending period of three days. A few students looked at us in disbelief when we explained this to them – they could not believe they could actually take one of these precious books home! Thanks again Robena Kirton!

Jay and Linda have also continued teaching several more classes in health, first-aid, electricity and engineering. As well as giving these kids valuable education, they have also widened their scope by introducing them to some different professions to choose from for their future. They’ve given these kids some real inspiration.

We took a three day respite to go visit Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. My dear friend Un Vanthon, and his family took good care of all of us. Vanthon is a tuk tuk driver who was a victim who survived the harsh brutality that the Pol Pot regime inflicted on so many Khmer people his age. He took Jay and Linda to the Killing Fields, Camp S-21, Wat Phnom, the Royal Palace and the markets. Jay and Linda also rode on Phnom Penh’s most famous resident – 47 year-old Sambo the Elephant! Not only had Sambo survived the Khmer Rouge era, but one can see her bravely plod through morning and evening Phnom Penh city rush hour traffic on her way to her place of employment at Wat Phom, where she daily gives many joyous elephant rides to tourists, who in return feed her bunches of bananas and many other treats!

Phnom Penh is a city with many beggars on the streets. We encountered numerous beggars every time we walked out the front door of our hotel. Many are victims of landmines or disfigured by disease. There are many mothers with children who sleep all night with their naked babies on the sidewalks. Some are begging because they honestly have no other way to make money, and there are some that you wonder about…and I have encountered many beggars during my past 4 winters over here, but none left more an ‘impression’ on me than the following young ingenious little entrepreneur: This young, maybe 11 year-old boy, was walking up and down the streets with two huge live tarantulas climbing all over his face and body. He would walk up to an unsuspecting tourist and grab him/her by the shirt sleeve, pull him into the nearest shop, and ask the tourist to buy him something to eat or drink. I watched him for a while. Finally one tourist bought him a can of ‘Red Bull’ (that’s what the kid pointed at!). Then the kid put one tarantula in his pocket, opened his mouth and placed other one on his lips. The tourist snapped numerous photos of the tarantula crawling into his mouth! Lucky for Linda she was not with me at the time… we’ve had a few Huge Spider Encounters at the school where we volunteer, and one night there was a huge one in my room!

On our last day there, we made a 2 hour tuk tuk ride south of Phnom Penh to Mount Chi So. It was our goal to climb the 412 steps to the top to see the fabulous temple up there. It was a sweltering day, and we tried our best, but just couldn’t make it to the top – just too hot! So we came back down, sought some shade, and happily ate a wonderful Khmer picnic lunch that Vanthon’s wife and daughter prepared for us.

A few days ago we also made a trek out to Bakong district where the first few Bicycles were given out to some very needy students and families. Three of the bikes were purchased by generous Muskoka donors, and two were purchased by Peg and Keith Wheeler. There is enough money now to buy a sixth bike from the money left over, and through a donation by my dear student friend Khemra! They are the first five bikes given out under a new ‘Bicycle Loan Program’ that Project Enlighten Team Member Ronnie Yimsut and I are working on. Ronnie is a professional landscape architect, author and survivor of the Khmer Rouge era. He commandeered the successful cow bank and micro-loan projects in Bakong, and is now in the early stages of building a huge technical college for the rural people there – the Bakong Technical College. We had an informative day visiting these projects.

In the past, Ronnie had implemented a bicycle project which resulted in hundreds of rural students receiving bicycles. With his expert help, I know that we’ll be able to help hundreds more! The fabulous bikes that you see pictured here were only $32US each, and will provide life-changing opportunities for the kids (and families!!) that get them. Giving out those first five bikes has inspired me to dedicate a couple of thousand dollars from this year’s annual Giant Muskoka Garage Sale towards providing more bicycles for students here. I should add that all this could not have been done without the help of my good friends and ‘Khmer Family’ here – Naret, Yarann and his wife Saeng. Saeng and Naret work tirelessly out in Bakong running the micro-loan project for the rural people there. Currently there are 84 families in the program. Yarann and Saeng know well the needs of this district and were quick to identify families in need of a bicycle. Two of the bicycles were given to a couple of university students in Siem Reap. The one girl will be able to attend VDPCS now for free supplementary English Classes, and will have a chance to get a job too. The other girl desperately needed the bicycle to get to school. Successful Bicycle Programs have been implemented in many developing countries – resulting in a way to gain education and employment.

I’m writing this in Bangkok, as tomorrow I make my way up to the border town of Mae Sot on the northwest border of Thailand. There is lots of great volunteer work awaiting me there. I’ll be teaching English classes to the new IT students at the All Burma I. T. Student’s Union (ABITSU). As a Team Member of Project Enlighten ( ) we are in the first stages, along with ABITSU, in fundraising for, and implementing a Capacity Building Program for these students which will result in Certification In Information and Communication Technology (CICT) . This I.T. Scholarship Program will give many Burmese Refugee students the certification required toward a future job in the field of computer technology. More about this program in my next blog update. I’ll also be teaching English to young women from the Kayan Women’s Organization, and I’ll spend a short time in Camp Nu Po as well. It will be good to see my dear Burmese friends again, and to make some new ones too!

Oh Yes! - I forgot to tell you about the Cambodian Snake Encounter!...During our visit out to Bakong, at Yarann’s family homestead, we saw some men furiously shoveling away around the bottom of a tree. They had seen a snake, and were in the process of unearthing it before it got away. There are numerous species of poisonous snakes in Cambodia, so it’s not too nice knowing that one is living right beside your house! Sure enough the men unearthed it, and one of the men picked it up so he could have his photo taken with it! The men then proceeded to do it in, and then left it out in the sun…to be eaten for dinner later that day…yes…this is true!

Let me know if you can identify this 4-5 foot snake species!