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.
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!
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:
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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!