Week 6: MPR

I apologize for the delay in posting an update – I assure you that it is not due to lack of commitment. The team went on a little  holiday last week, and when we came back Siem Bouk was hit with numerous power cuts so my blog post was being postponed and postponed until suddenly the week was in full swing and I couldn’t get a moment to breathe.

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Houses of indigenous ethnic groups, Ratinikiri

Monday

The week got off to a wild start as the team attended the cremation procession of the person who died the week before. My project assistant said she died from ‘sweet urine’ – diabetes mellitus – however having reached the age of 70 it seems she had received adequate treatment. We had been told to meet at 7am at the house of the deceased and so I rushed down the road desperate to be on time. People called from their houses after me as I thundered along, the rim of my wheel crashing on every rock, presumably telling me the obvious – that I had a flat tire. It was after several hours of waiting at the house that I recalled a lesson we had been given at In Country Orientation in cultural differences – nothing happens on time in Cambodia.

The family served everyone who came a rice porridge with meat; myself and fellow vegetarians grabbed food from the Riverside with our unexpected extra time. As we waited a number of monks arrived, some going to attend to the body and others chanting jarringly through a microphone in a language only known by the religious, who study it for a long time. Two carts waited in the road: one with a chair prepared for the highest monk to sit on, and the other with a white netting canopy prepared for the coffin.  The close family were dressed in white and the women wore veils; together they carried out the wreathed picture of the deceased.

I learnt that our Project Assistant Sreylet,a  hardworking lady from Ratanikiri, had never attended a cremation procession before due to being born in the year of the monkey. It is a superstition, held deeply by her father, that if your year of birth clashes with that of the deceased you will bring bad luck to the spirit. One of the women in white handed out incense sticks, held in paper shaped roughly like a person. These are held by those participating in the procession to guide spirits.

The coffin was brought out to its cart accompanied by chanting monks. The monk wagon led the crowd, with the highest monk sat on his chair. They were closely followed by the people, carrying both the wreathed picture and a white flag. Behind these the coffin on its cart sat surrounded by monks, who maintained their chant, then the rest of the procession including our team, clutching incense sticks. We walked together up the only, slight hill in an otherwise flat landscape, to behind Sre Krosang primary. At one point the white netting snagged in some low hanging branches- I was surprised to see people smile and laugh, including one of the young monks who was around 13 years old. The netting was hastily piled back on to the cart before setting off once more.

When we arrived the women in white strewed flowers as young men removed the coffin; together they walked around a pyre several times before the coffin was lowered on to the pyre, with the wreathed picture in front. Everyone, including our team, gathered bundles of twigs and branches and, each bundle with incense sticks, lay them on the pyre. The people in white then removed the white sheets from around their waist, so they were left in plain clothes from the waist down, and these were placed on the pile of wood. A few meters away someone prepared a small fire.

The monks chanted by the pyre, with the close family knelt in front with their hands in prayer. As the Khmer volunteers left, we stayed to satisfy our curiosity and so we awkwardly tried to copy the crowd in their actions. a bundle of cloth was passed over the pyre several times before lain to rest on top, and people began to gather bundles of wood, plastic and cloth which were set on fire and then tossed on to the pyre. The monks sat in the corner on a rug, and one took out a tablet and took a picture, first of them and then of us!

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An old picture of a boy outside the local Pagoda

It was at this point we left to return to the office, and I began my ACD! Active citizenship days are essentially presentations held by a Khmer and UK volunteer working together on a world issue they are passionate about.  With my partner I, unsurprisingly, covered the topic of global health. We examined the role of poverty and inequality in the impact of Zika in Brazil, and Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as some inequalities in healthcare in the Western world. It is no great secret that I enjoy public speaking and I enjoyed the chance to talk without interruption on something I am passionate about.

A particular highlight was the success of a game I developed to demonstrate the many factors which affect a country’s response to an epidemic. In threes, volunteers were designated a country and supplied with some statistics on that country – access to clean water, percentage paved roads, hospital beds per 1000 people, etc. I then talked them through a scenario in which their country was hit by a disease and they, members of the population, had to seek effective treatment. As they were presented with difficulties to overcome, those with more resources could take step forward, toward survival, and those with the least had to take a step back. Groups such as those designated Cambodia had regressed so far backwards they had left the office, whilst others, such as the UK, had reached the other end of the room. The feedback forms declared it effective, and some of the statistics surprised people.

Some statistics if you’re interested:

uk cambodia china sri lanka zimbabwe
health expenditure by capita 3,935 61 420 127 58
prevalence of undernourishment % < 5 15 11 23 33.4
paved roads % 100 6.3 43.5 80 20
access to clean water % 100 76 96 96 77
hospital beds per 1,000 2.95 0.7 3.8 3.6 1.7
adult literacy rate 99 72.2 96.4 92.6 84
rural population % 17 79 44 82 68

These are values for 2015, collected from the World Data Bank.

The rest of Monday was just another working day, and Tuesday much the same notwithstanding a visit by a member of Senior Management – we impressed her!

 

Mid Phase Review

Mid phase review (MPR), a three day trip to the touristy and urban world of Ratanikiri, saw us catching a bus at 6am on Wednesday. After promises we would sleep on the bus, the rattly roads of Cambodia had other ideas and we jolted our way for three hours to Banlung, the capital of our neighboring province.

Cambodia is only 181,035 squared km compared to the UK at 243,610 squared km

 

We met there with the Mondulkiri team, who we hadn’t seen since In Country Orientation, but it was only a brief hello before we set off for our sessions.  MPR was split such that the first day and a half we spent in sessions, each led by a UK and Khmer volunteer, which facilitated our reflection on the cycle so far and goal-setting for our remaining time. They covered the project goals, our personal goals, counterpart relationships and cultural challenges, to name a few. It was particularly useful to meet with the Mondulkiri sub-teams, and hear how the Community networks team had been operating in Mondulkiri.

The first day we were tired and moody due to some controversies over T-shirt designing, and we headed to lunch hungry and needing a break. The restaurant we went to first forgot our order, then ran out of chicken, then ran out of eggs – leaving nothing for vegetarians to eat. A vegan volunteer and I trekked off into Ratanikiri, sorely missing the two restaurants in Sre Krosang commune and desperate to eat. We turned around to find two Khmer volunteers had kindly followed us in, to make sure we didn’t get lost and help us talk to the shopkeepers. Lunch ended up consisting of Pringles and ice cream so that we didn’t delay the next session. I pushed away the fatigue, and buoyed myself up to lead a session on personal reflection. I hope I played a part in energizing everyone and dispersing our grumpy moods, because afterwards the atmosphere was much lighter.

The highlight of the day was the team meal in the Green Carrot – serving excellent Western food for reasonable prices. I had a Greek salad with bread and, to my utmost joy, a diet coke. Cambodia has mostly not heard of diet coke, and its the only thing  I’ve really missed from the UK. I can’t cope with normal coke and can only take a few sips before giving it away, so I don’t get the same satisfaction.

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Ratinikiri, a metropolis compared to Siem Bouk

After a lakeside breakfast of banana pancakes, we continued reflecting the next day until lunch time (fantastic Indian food, served after an hour and a half wait by a man who knew Hindi and English, but no Khmer) and then we made  a trip to a waterfall. There was a rope bridge across through the trees, and then a gorgeous waterfall. I sliced my foot crossing rocks within 5 minutes of arriving and spent the rest of the day cleaning it out with iodine and gauze, to everyone’s joy. We sat in the water in our trousers and t shirts and had to leave far too soon – sitting uncomfortably close and damp in the van on the way home. In mountainous regions there are many indigenous ethnic groups, which our beloved but flat Siem Bouk lack, and so around the waterfall there were interesting small houses.

The evening was spent foraying into the night markets and playing football against Mondulkiri, which they won. I was interested to learn from my counterpart that despite her fierce skills on the pitch she had never played football before as in her schools it was always seen as a boys sport. Later, I ate pasta and obtained another glorious diet coke as we were  hit with the first storm I’d seen in almost a fortnight. One of the most spectacular things to watch in Cambodia is lightening in the distance, lighting up the sky.

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The glorious waterfall 

On the last day we yet again had to say goodbye to our UK team leader as she took her week off (to Siem Reap). It was, typically, a delayed farewell as her original bus forgot to pick her up, and so she waited a few hours for a replacement.

Then began an idillyc trip to Lake Yeak Laom – crystal clear water in a 4000 year old crater, surrounded by lush forest. We set up camp in a hut by the side of the lake, and then headed down with life jackets to bob in the warm water for hours. Jumping in was like catapulting ourselves into a bath. There were tiny shrimp nibbling at our toes in the water. I managed to pick up a pair of shorts from a small shop and felt quite risqué revealing my iridescently white knees – it wasn’t long before they burnt in the sun. We ate a barbecue of vegetables, fish and bread by the lakeside and chilled in hammocks before returning to play in the water. Many Khmer have not learnt to swim, or ever tried – some, including my counterpart, were absolutely fearless; others were hesitant but bobbed for a  while with one hand on the side.

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Safety first

The weekend was spent in power cuts and naps as, despite ostensibly being on holiday, no one had had very much sleep. We celebrated a UK volunteer’s birthday by playing volleyball and relaxing at the riverside, and in general it was very peaceful.

A beautiful week!

 

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Week 5

I’ve been busy: the length of this blog post proves it. Between work, socials, and other commitments, it feels like we’ve not had a break. Luckily on Wednesday we will be travelling to Ratanikiri for our mid-phase review –  a 3-day holiday of sorts, filled with meetings, but also a chance to explore the area. It will be nice to have a break from our  everyday work and escape the small community of Srae Krosang commune for a few days. This week I lost my memory card; it turned up later in a pocket but I don’t have any pictures from the  week, and will be using pictures from previous weeks to fill out the post.

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Challenge yourself to change your world  // Together we fight poverty

 

The watermelon social

Last Sunday my team woke early to head over to the island to hold a sports youth club with the kids of Koh Krouch. Some kids were young enough to be running around half dressed, and others old enough to be playing with make up; together we played everything from British Bulldog to relay races. Upon our return, the whole Stung Treng team headed over to one of the host homes’ watermelon fields. We went by single axe tractor (quite different from what we typically think of as a tractor); almost 20 of us were piled onto the back, along with rice, speakers and an array of musical instruments, and we cruised along the road with the music going like a one wagon parade through Siem Bouk – quite the sight for the locals. Once there we immediately found a grove of trees and vines, perfect for climbing (and posing for pictures).

We cooked in a clearing – chips, vegetables and an impressive fish – as we talked about the political events of the day. A prominent opposition politician, famous for standing up for human rights in the face of the Cambodian government, had been shot. We discussed the restrictions on freedom of speech in Cambodia, something I’d discovered before when trying to plan a community event on human rights – if you talk about politics you must fear arrest. The latest president has been in place for 30 years and must not be spoken against.

We ate all together on mats in the clearing, sharing out the food amongst us. There was an incredible amount of food as well as copious numbers of watermelons that the group picked from the fields. When we were too hot to stay there any longer, we  took the tractor to a long awaited ‘waterfall’ – in fact a rather minor stream. Despite its rather anti-climatic presentation, it was a massive relief to paddle there. One volunteer had just got in waist deep when the rain began – and when it rains it pours. After hiding under the host family’s house for a while we went back by tractor in the rain – always ready to provide a laugh to the local community.

 

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There are cats and kittens everywhere, often heart-breakingly skinny

The working week

 

First thing on Monday morning, a member of my team had to travel to Phnom Penh clinic. As she was the only other UK volunteer in my group the cross-cultural communication challenges were ramped up to the max, just as we began one of our most challenging weeks: after a change of plan last week we suddenly found ourselves having to rapidly assemble and mentor election committees in four schools to carry out the student council elections according to schedule. My team waded with determination through meetings and session plans all week, whilst still carrying out youth clubs every afternoon. We managed on Thursday to have the teachers come to the office for student council training and fruit; and though there was reluctance amongst them because of financial and time pressures, we managed to answer their concerns and secure promises to hold elections.

On Tuesday it was a UK volunteer’s 21st birthday. Our project manager purchased a cake in Stung Treng iced with the words: “Indepandant. 12/07/97” – spot the mistakes. After failed attempts to stop her from getting stressed at work we chilled at the Riverside Café, and then… Karaoke! In a tiny room in someone’s house they have set up karaoke on their TV – complete with disco lights. We rocked out to several Khmer songs (our favourite is dop bpram-muy [16]), Avril Lavigne (I know every single to word to 95% of her songs, no shame) and Britney Spears. It was ridiculously sweaty and our voices were hoarse; we cycled back for dinner feeling like it was 2am.

Wednesday was incredibly exciting: the volunteer who had an accident returned! We waited for her at the office, eager to surprise her with a sign, but had to leave for the schools at 2. When I cycled back she was sat in her host home where I met her for an emotional welcome. If she had not returned it would have cast such a dark shadow on the trip; to see her come back made everyone’s week. I ate watermelon and biscuits on her balcony as she told me how desperate she had been to come back, even when she was very sick.

On Friday we visited one of the host homes. There was a death in the family and in the Khmer Buddhist tradition they kept the coffin in the house for 3 days, with music playing loudly for all to hear. The coffin was covered in money and fairy lights, and a money tree on top. A picture of the deceased, in a wreath, was at one end with an orange candle burning close by. White is the colour worn for deaths, but the family were dressed in colour. They brought us biscuits and water, and were incredible hosts. Afterwards we went to the riverside cafe and watched a storm rage over the island.

 

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The Riverside cafe, also know as The View (only by us)

 

Weekend feat. Jar Social

Our second community action day (CAD) happened this Saturday, and this time it was a talk on Children’s rights. We invited the District Officer of Education to speak, as well as designing a roleplay and activities for the participants to ensure the session was clear and interactive. Our role-play was a fantastic production examining comparing the lives of children with and without their rights being upheld. Two people played a house (excellently) and it featured hand puppets. It seemed to go down thoroughly well, and  the participants responded well, identifying problems in Cambodia and suggesting the possible solutions. A challenge was the heat! The CAD was held in a building in the pagoda, in which the monks take their meals. It was sweltering and I was yet again rendered useless by my lack of Khmer, so I paced the hall restlessly from start to finish, finding any task to make the time pass. As we ended we could hear thunder in the distance, but no rain fell for the third day in a row.

 

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Some student attendees holding up signs about children’s rights – including my host brother top centre

 

After almost a full day of work on Saturday, we were up again bright and early on Sunday for a 7 am bus to Stung Treng – aka the Jar social. After so many days of no rain it was 30 degrees by 10 am; the sun, sweat and doxycycline – which makes me a little UV sensitive – means that even if I diligently put on sunscreen, burning is out of my control. We paced through the markets, still a violent cacophony of smells and sounds and motorbikes, collectively in search of items ranging from personalised football shirts to peanut butter to leg wax. There was no luck on the peanut butter front, but plenty of fruit, football shirts and fish to choose from.

We then went to the somewhat misadvertised temple in Stung Treng (it was decidedly unassuming) before rapidly returning to Stung Treng town to eat at a western restaurant. I had a toastie because bread and dairy are some of the things I miss most (I’m also craving cereal). The next stop was the misnomered ‘Bird Resort’ which contained roughly 2 birds, but happened to have an incredible number of jars – jars in grass, jars in a museum, jars on bridges…

 

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a veritable sea of jars

 

Though fairly ridiculous, it was also a blissfully chilled eco-lodge with beautiful views of the Mekong and numerous places that we could all relax together. I paid an extortionate $1 for a can of coke to give momentary relief from the heat; by the end of our trip we were all dehydrated and half daft from the sun, cracking up together at all the silly things that had gone wrong. When we reached Siem Bouk once more we were grateful to be back in the quiet commune, where everyone recognises us and shouts hello. It’s funny how quickly you adapt to a place.

To finish off the week, we all gathered at a host home for one of the Khmer volunteers’ birthday and ate a traditional Lao meal – something similar to a hot pot (not in the Lancashire sense) but, instead of a stock, a very complex stew is kept at the boil. It tasted of coconut and coriander. As we ate the sun went down in a vivid blaze, and in the dark the UK volunteers cleaned all the dishes in a raucous assembly line.

 

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delicious

 

Congratulations for making it this far. So much has happened today that I could talk about, but I’m going to save it for next week’s blog so that this post doesn’t run on for another 1000 words!

 

So many things have gone wrong this week and I’ve done so much work and lost so much sleep, but it’s been amazing. If I’m learning anything, it’s how to take life, and mistakes, with a little humour for the sake of resilience. If it’s not life or death, there’s room to fix it.

Week 4

This has been the fastest, most stressful week so far.

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chaos

It began with a dramatic start on Tuesday: an accident involving one of the UK volunteers.

A heavy storm had cut out the electricity and I was dragged out of my room by my host mother speaking a stream of Khmer. Outside it was pitch black, and there was a huddle of people as well as many more rushing around. Everyone was speaking in Khmer, and in the dark and confusion, there weren’t many updates in English. I found out that the UK volunteer, neighbouring me, had an accident and there was blood. I began to panic, because I could not find out any more information, and people were trying to usher me into my room like a child.

I found a UK volunteer, finally, who told me that my neighbour had not hit her head, that she was okay but in a lot of pain, and she had been taken to the local clinic. When we woke the next day she had gone to Phnom Penh. We were all tired and somber at the office the next day, finding it difficult to concentrate on our work. After we went for iced coffee at the cafe we’ve called ‘The View’ or ‘The Riverside’, grateful that the day was over. My neighbour went through surgery, and over the week began to message us, and then Facetime us and, in an incredible show of strength, is set to come back over the coming weeks. We have given her counterpart, who is in Phnom Penh with her, a shopping list – mostly peanut butter and chocolate.

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Our session at Koh Sampeay Primary on Monday

Work-wise this week we have held sessions in the schools which gave a brief overview on the Child Friendly School Model, a government model to develop Cambodian schools, leadership qualities and student councils. 3 of the schools are primary schools, which are always great fun to go to. In these, we play a lot of games to break up the sessions and use role plays to explain our meaning. Some of the children are so shy that it’s difficult to coax answers to our questions from them. When we do get responses to ‘what will you be when you grow up?’ we find a lot of future doctors, teachers and translators in the classes. The secondary and high schools are more difficult to hold sessions in, as it is difficult to pitch the sessions at the right level, particularly for UK volunteers who lack cultural knowledge. In these there is a lot of mind-mapping, but all of our sessions end in heads, shoulders, knees and toes.

It’s very frustrating to not be able to speak Khmer, especially when you have given so much time and energy in planning the sessions only to have to take a background role in delivering them. My job is mostly to smile enthusiastically, say ‘la-or’ (good) a lot, and shush the chattier students. Many of the Khmer volunteers in other teams were away in exams last week, and so it is just now that they are truly experiencing the language barrier at work. This, together with fatigue and the work load, has meant often by lunch time we are all thoroughly worn out.

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The enthusiasm for learning and the attention we have been given by the children is a great motivator for work, even when we’re faced with a lot of forms to get money, prove we’ve spent the money wisely, and record our activities. The team of volunteers we have here are a very strong and tight knit group and there’s an amazing commitment to the work we are doing.

Week 2+3

So it turns out I’m pretty unreliable at blog posts – it’s hard to make myself write when there’s a million other things going on. I’ve been in the remote area of Siem Bouk for two weeks now, living a celebrity lifestyle in which everyone wants to say hello and laugh at me wherever I go. We’re the only white people in the area, and it turns out our muddled attempts at Khmer, mime (when Khmer is not enough) and hand washing our absolutely hilarious.

We spent the night in Stung Treng town, a place with a fantastic bustling market where they sell a million types of fish, so fresh it’s  killed in front of you. The old market burnt down in April, destroying livelihoods and resulting in a confusing disarray of vendors as replacement.

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Strung Treng market

We then drove down to Siem Bouk, about 40 minutes from StungTreng. This place is rural. If you search for it on the lonely planet guide, you are apologetically redirected to advice for the rest of the province, and the wikipedia page only contains the population according to the census in 1998. I’m living in a house right next to the office, in a small room under the stairs. My host mother seems fairly wealthy relative to the rest of the host homes, with a well furnished house, a working sink and an indoor, private shower. Its not exactly a Western-style shower, but a reservoir built in to the wall from which you can take a bucket shower. I have a lot of hair to be taking bucket showers and it can be quite a strenuous task, but dousing yourself in cold water each morning is sure to wake you up, and quite exhilarating.

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Siem Bouk

Over the past two weeks we have been completing our action plans and beginning to implement them. I am in the Community Networks team, in which I set up student councils (that are far more complex than those in England), support the School Support Committee (sort of like a parent teacher association) and establish youth clubs. I’m hoping to do a post on education in Cambodia, which will explain the importance of those particular activities. I am also in the Community Action Day committee. A community action day is a Saturday when the team supports the local community involved in fixing problems that local people have identified. This can involve fixing infrastructure, or raising awareness on a topic, or any other way in which you can help the community to help themselves. I’m very excited about the work, particularly since Beata, a long term volunteer in Cambodia, came to talk to us about our work. When she spoke it felt like she handed over the responsibility of Siem Bouk’s development to us: this is the problem, how are you going to solve it? She is also massively inspiring, and her experience in development has been a massive help in preparing our plans.

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work can be tiring

Last weekend we spent Sunday in the most heavenly place. There is a stream about 3km away, with rope swings and shade. It was absolutely glorious. Even though the heat has not been so bad, and it had been raining a lot recently, after the cycle ride there it was incredible to go in the water. We left the office at 8am – everything outside has to be done early here. By 2pm it is either too warm for anything strenuous, or its absolutely tipping it down.

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Perfect place to be

This past week has been more challenging, as we tried to fit all of the work we wanted to do into our calendar and our budget. 6 of the Khmer volunteers have been in exams and left us with reduced manpower. Then as we are shown the paperwork we have to complete, risk assessing every movement, I appreciated more fully the difficulties of development work. To make a difference anywhere, you must persuade a dozen different people that it’s a great idea.

It’s been a 6 day working week, as today we carried out a CAD in Koh Krouch primary school, which is on an island in the middle of the river. We took boats across the river at 7am this morning, which is one of my favourite things to do. The school is the smallest and least developed of those we are working with; The 3 teachers teach two classes simultaneously, in classrooms which are falling apart. The playground is a mess, and the bathrooms are not fit for use. It is also the school with the most dedicated students and teachers, who are filled with enthusiasm and eager to support the work of VSO ICS. Unfortunately when rainy season is in full swing, we will not be able to go there any longer because of the conditions of the river, and so we are focusing our energy there whilst we can.

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Befriended a pig (Penelope) on the island

In our CAD we picked weeds and litter from the playground. The awareness team had run a session on waste management in the previous week and we talked about making the activity sustainable with the members of the community too. It is even more important in a hard-to-reach place like Koh Krouch primary that the community takes responsibility for their own development and so our emphasis is very much on teaching the community how to make the school a better place, rather than doing it ourselves. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who turned up and their hard work whilst they were there. My fear is that if no one is designated responsibility for coordinating future efforts, it may not happen again.

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Working with the community

Over the last two weeks I have been more relaxed and stress free than ever before; despite work pressure and being away from home, the work has been enjoyable and important and has felt great. The only negative has been Brexit, and hearing of post-ref racism over social media. Perhaps only being able to view the UK from the platform of Facebook, Twitter and the news gives a skewed image of how things are happening, but it has felt like there has been a catastrophic change in the atmosphere. It is also peculiar being so far away when it happened, amplifying the sense that this district is a separate world from anything at home.

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Siem Bouk sunsets