A teen service trip to Cambodia not only helps orphans there but does perhaps even more to help the student making the journey.
Children swirl around the Rustic Pathways visitors as they arrive in Sre Brey, a small village about three hours from Phnom Penh by boat. (JOSH FIDLER, Chicago Tribune / February 9, 2010)
The road that led me to Cambodia crosses just about every ocean. It's called Rustic Pathways, one of dozens of programs for teens that organize service-project trips around the world — from Fiji to Thailand to Tanzania.
The Rustic Pathways trip that jumped out at me was the 25-plus-year-old company's trip to Cambodia, a country rich with possibility and beautiful landscape. Through research, I learned of the 1970s genocide that no teacher had taught me or even touched on. And I saw an opportunity to help, to teach and, at the same time, to learn. The mission was to teach English to children in small schools and orphanages.
And so, in late summer I headed off for Cambodia by way of New York. During the next seven days, I came face to face with ancient temples, new friends, history and hope.
My introduction to this country begins in its capital. My Rustic Pathways group is small, just four of us. Two guys, two girls, all from the United States and all 16 to 18. With our RP team leader, we spend two days here and begin our sojourn with a visit to Tuol Sleng, now a museum. Originally, Tuol Sleng was a school. Then, after Pol Pot set out to return the country to a totally farming-based economy in the mid-1970s, it was used, paradoxically, to torture and murder anyone who was educated.
Large fences wrapped with rusted barbed wire still surround the school's courtyard. As I walk on ground where thousands of brutal murders took place, this past is impossible to shake — even in the beautiful courtyard. Inside the museum, photos of victims line walls.
The lesson about Cambodia's dark past then takes us to one of the dozen or so Killing Fields; at this one, about 17,000 people were murdered and buried in mass graves. An enormous memorial temple towers here, its windows revealing shelf after shelf filled with human skulls dug up from the graves, reminders of the staggering toll of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. Along the grounds, bones are piled, and old, withered clothes litter the ground. The constant rain increases, and we have taken in all that we can.
The floating villages
We haven't started really roughing it yet. This night, we stay in a hotel a lot like those in the States. But we're soon headed for a different way of life. The next morning we will travel by a small wooden boat with a tin top to a small village called Sre Brey.
The boat ride takes three hours and gives us our first glimpse of Cambodia's floating-village culture. It's one connected by stilted tin huts rising at river's edge and swaying with the wind.
When we arrive at Sre Brey, a Muslim village along the Tonle Sap Waterway, all the children are eager to learn our names and find out how old we are. Age helps the children determine where everyone is placed in "rank." They surprise us with how well they speak and understand English.
After our introductions, we walk with the kids through neat rows of green rice fields to a swimming hole where some of the boys jump in and splash. Everyone soon joins in.
Back at the village, we break up into smaller groups and play games. The hours seem to evaporate. It's dark and the villagers have made us dinner. For each of us, a big bowl of noodles sits steaming next to a large bowl of freshly cooked rice; a platter is filled with pork and some vegetables from the local market.
Finally, it's our turn to repay our generous hosts. It's time to teach. The kids gather their favorite books and their journals and get as close as possible so that we can share the light from a battery-powered lantern. I help 15-year-old Roni read a Bob the Builder book.
The ultimate hosts
We stay overnight in the village. David Goldman, another RP traveler, and I stay in a room that has been netted off so we can sleep mosquito-free. The wood floor is covered with a knitted blanket. It's hot enough to make my brow sweat, but there's no complaining: Strangers gave up their house to give us a place to stay; the family sleeps wherever it can in the village.
The next thing I know, the roosters are crowing. Goldman and I search for the village kids, itching for a soccer game. At nearly 6:30 a.m., we learn, it's blistering hot.
We play for nearly half an hour until sweat makes us look as though we've just come from a swim. The villagers, we notice, barely break a sweat.
The girls are up, and we gather our stuff to leave. The crowd that gathers to send us off is remarkable, for they are all our friends now. We drive on uneven dirt roads for a couple of hours until we arrive at another hotel and unload. After settling in, we head for a local orphanage.
Started by the French, this orphanage is home to about 50 kids, ages 9 to 18. At first, we teach them a little English and play a language game. They eat it up, not wanting to stop until everyone has had a chance to play. As the game winds down, we disperse into the courtyard and play volleyball and soccer, and the kids chase one another through a constant drizzle. Megan McAdams, our group leader from Rustic Pathways, sees an ice cream vendor and buys all the children ice cream. Most kids go back for seconds, some thirds. After nearly 40 frozen treats, the vendor tells her that the price is $2. She gives him a five, and he looks as though he has won a lottery.
The road to Battambang
Tomorrow we head for Battambang, a developing city where you can find a mall and even a few American cafes. We head to the open-air market before going to another orphanage, and we clean out our wallets to buy food for the kids. There have been times when they were surviving barely on one bowl of rice a day.
Together, the four of us are able to buy seven bags of rice and noodles (enough to last the orphanage three weeks) and even clothes for the kids. There is a church inside the grounds, and monks stroll as kids play soccer and "high kick," a Cambodian form of hacky-sack played with a feathery thing that looks something like a shuttlecock.
We watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat. This ancient and amazing complex of temples has become a magnet for travelers. Strangely, our group seems to be less wowed by this wonder than we have been by the people we have met and kids we have taught. You might chalk it up to any number of reasons — a not very glorious sunrise, the limited time we have to explore, and the emotions of this being our last day together in Cambodia.
Our work, undeserving of the word, is over, and it's time for us to explore the market in Siem Reap.
The market is sheltered and provides shade from the slumping sun. Shoppers begin bartering at half the asking price of any item.
For our last meal in Cambodia, where we've eaten everything from pad Thai to frog legs, we head to a multilevel restaurant called Dead Fish. Though the menu offers mostly Khmer (traditional Cambodian) dishes, they serve cheeseburgers too. We're advised to go to the bathroom and see the alligators in an open pool nearby. When we walk by it, the gators are motionless and seem almost unreal. But when the lights come on and we buy fish to feed them, there is no doubt. It's an intimidating sight to see a 400-pound beast voraciously attack the sushi we're serving.
After dinner, we flee, for the last time, tuk-tuks, the scooter-pulled carriages that line the streets, run into massage sellers, head for more ice cream. The end, we know, is near.
Waking up early in the morning, we say our goodbyes to the Rustic Pathways staff and Siem Reap. In Bangkok, we change planes and meet up with kids who had been on other Rustic Pathways trips in Asia.
I arrive home a changed person. While thinking about people stressing about the value of their 401(k)s (and understandably so), I also remember how four teens with pocket change fed 50 children in Cambodia for a month.