Four Weeks In…

Bricklaying on the new fence

3kms to go. My legs burn with every rotation of the bike pedals. Time is slowing with each passing metre as I will myself to push on. 2kms to go. I approach the hill that takes me past the village temple, signalling the half way point of the last bike ride for the day. Sweat runs across my brow as I lift myself from the seat to drain the last of the energy from my tired legs. 1km to go. Around the last corner to the village on the red dirt road, dust from a passing motorbike swirling chaotically all around me and settling on my face and in my eyes. Almost there. I dismount the bike and push it through the soft sand, ready to park it behind Grandma Black’s hut and hope I never have to sit on a bicycle again. I’m home. Time to cook dinner for the volunteers and hopefully get some sleep tonight.

As I write this I am sitting in the comfort of our Phnom Penh hotel, drinking a latte and eating my french breakfast of croissants with jams and chocolate pastries. I have air conditioning, a bed, lights, electricity and this morning I had a hot shower. These are the small luxuries which I no longer take for granted. In fact, after the week that’s just been, I am making a point of consciously appreciating all of these things, because tomorrow morning we will be on a bus back to the village where none of them exist.

Last week was tough. In fact, it was one of the biggest mental challenges I’ve had to overcome in a very long time. The weather is getting hotter with each passing day, the work is getting harder and more intense as we push to meet our deadline of February 27th to complete the school, and now that the group of volunteers has dwindled to only 6 of us, there is far less down time as we all pick up extra responsibilities with cooking, cleaning and running workshops. By Wednesday this week I was exhausted. Physically, mentally and emotionally and I really wasn’t sure how I was going to make it through the rest of the week.

We are now 4 weeks into the school build and the lack of protein in our diet, lack of sleep and the physical toughness of the work has really started to catch up and take its toll on all of us. There have been times this week where I have wanted to say “I’m not working today, I’m staying in bed”… We can’t do that of course, as we are only a small team and we all need to pull together and work as one if we are to complete the school on time.

I never expected this to be easy. Living off $3 a day was always going to bring challenges and up until last week I feel that we revelled in it, knowing that we were getting the “real” experience of how the villagers live. Of course in reality we are not living how they live, we are still guaranteed 3 meals a day – even if it is the same rice and vegetables over and over again – whereas many of our neighbours don’t have that level of food security. I felt bad for feeling sorry for myself this week, but that didn’t stop me from doing it.

It really hits home hard when you put things into perspective here about how we are struggling to live like this after only 4 weeks, when most of the villagers have lived their entire lives this way. It’s an injustice of the highest level that people go hungry while we in the western world waste so much food every single day. Indeed, all you have to do is look around the village to see the kids with one set of torn clothes and the very real possibility of no food on the table that night and it makes one feel like a royal arsehole for ever complaining in the first place. But this is the flavour of the medicine we have chosen to take, and whilst it’s not always tasty, it’s always very humbling.

Week 4 has been hard. And week 5 will bring it’s own set of challenges. But as I sit here now and look back on the week that was, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride and achievement in pushing through it. One of the best things about this adventure is experiencing just how far outside of your comfort zone you are being continually pushed. A friend once told me that your comfort zone is your dead zone, I agree whole heartedly and I feel already after these four weeks I have grown more than I ever could have imagined. My challenge to all of you this week is to do something which forces you to be vulnerable or uncomfortable – even for a few minutes. Think about how it makes you feel and then appreciate the fact that you will still be eating dinner tonight, and hopping into a comfortable bed under a roof after your shower. I don’t want anybody to ever feel guilty for these things, but just take a few minutes to reflect, be present and to truly appreciate them. It’s a great feeling…


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