Almost 2 months to the day, and we are now on a rickety old long boat slowly cruising along the mighty Mekong River – the lifeblood of this region – towards our next destination, Chau Doc, Vietnam. We have the boat entirely to ourselves, and watching life float by has provided a welcome rest and time to reflect on all that has happened in the past 8 weeks.
Cambodia has well and truly exceeded every expectation I’d had, and in doing so has earned a very special place in both of our hearts. As with the first 6 weeks, it’s been a pretty non-stop end to our time in the village, trying to squeeze as much as possible in so that we could spend the last of our time with our new friends – the students, builders, teachers and neighbours – all the while trying to push the thoughts of our impending departure from our minds.
The school building has come an awful long way in the past 2 weeks, it now resembles a place of education far more than a construction site which has certainly enhanced the feeling of accomplishment for us all. The children have continued to embrace our presence and open up to us on a whole new level, and I know in my heart that they will miss us just as much as we miss them. It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever felt to form these incredible friendships with kids a third of our age, who don’t speak our language nor us theirs, yet we still seem to communicate on a far deeper level than I could have ever imagined.
Last week we held more events in 3 days than I think I’ve ever attended in a single week. On Monday night we hired a giant movie screen and projector and had it set up in the central courtyard of the school. When Louis and I were in Phnom Penh a few weeks ago we managed to get our hands on a copy of the Ice Age trilogy which had been dubbed into Khmer with english subtitles. All of the students attended with their families, and the local street food stalls all came and set up on the dirt road out the front of the school. The atmosphere was a mix between a street party, night market and moonlight cinema all combined. A cacophony of noise, laughter, smells and hyperactive primary school students. It was perfect. As I was sitting there with our little buddy Lung, his arms wrapped around my leg and staring at the screen with a sense of wondrous excitement I realised just how similar the nature of children is the world over. Despite coming from almost polar opposite sides of the poverty spectrum and having about as different an upbringing as is possible, the faces on my own younger brothers at home when I take them to the Jam Factory to watch the latest release are almost a mirror image. I suppose the main difference is that Lung has never seen a movie – or likely ever watched a TV – and will probably not get the chance again for a number of years. But the fact remains that the innocent beauty of children, the sense of imagination, joy and possibility is always very real. And that’s precisely what we need to try to keep alive in all kids, particularly in the developing world.
The following day Louis and I had the grand finale to our month long workshop with our grade 6 students – The Happiness Project. Essentially we asked each child to take one of our cameras home every day and photograph whatever it was that made them happy, select their 8 favourite photos and explain what it is and why it’s so important to them. We then worked with the builders to ensure one of the brand new rooms was finished so that we could hold an exhibition of each of their best photo’s. Louis and I had all of them printed in Phnom Penh and bought 40 frames thanks to our wonderful friends and families who donated money for the project. The room looked absolutely stunning thanks to the amazing talents of our students. Their images were all incredibly captivating and the day was a hit. See the Happiness Project page on our website to view the images and the stories and children behind them. Most of the students parents finished work early so that they could come and celebrate with their kids – this made the day all the more special as it was the first time most parents have been directly involved in a school project with their kids. The exhibition lasted for 2 hours before we got to the big presentation, where there were prizes for the first 4 places, and with a 3 way tie for 4th place it was a very tight competition. The kids all took their 8 best photo’s home and then it was time to really get the party started!
After the exhibition and a quick ride home to swim and get get changed, we made our way back to the school where we had hired a marquee and a DJ for a night of riotous dancing with the kids. What a night. We spent the entire evening switching between teaching the kids some “classic” western dances – the sprinkler was a favourite, as was the lawn mower – and learning traditional Khmer dances – all of which we were useless at! Topped off, of course, with the hourly “Gangnam Style” session. The kids loved it, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve danced for 3 hours straight without having at least a half dozen beers, let alone had so much fun. I also managed to start a water fight which was welcomed by all – initially – given it was 30+ degrees that night!
To top the week off we had the official school blessing ceremony, presided over by 4 Buddhist Monks from the local temple, which was a truly beautiful experience. The ceremony lasted about an hour, and we then had Koky, Cha, and the local government officials give a talk to the school and the teachers about the importance of what it is we have done there. It certainly made us all fairly chuffed and even a little embarrassed at the amount of time we were thanked by the government ministers.
This was all followed by a delicious lunch with the entire school in attendance outside where we then presented every student with a brand new uniform thanks to some very generous fundraising in Bree’s home town of Hamilton, Victoria… And to top it all off, a second movie screening that night in our village on the beach.
As you can see, it was just another jam packed week of fun with our students and friends. I won’t go into the details about how we are feeling now that we have finally said goodbye, or the impact we feel we’ve had on the students, teachers and local families lives in our short time in Cambodia in this article, I think that deserves it’s own piece so keep your eyes peeled in the next day or two. I will finish with this though, if you ever get the chance to make a child laugh, take it. If you ever get the chance to stop and listen to an elderly person’s story, regardless of where they are from, take it. The amount of things I have learnt in the past two months has done more to fuel my already curious mind than I ever could have imagined, and I think if we all took the time to be present a little more often and to actively participate in education through conversation, we’d all be richer for it.