Last week we had a group of students travel to Cambodia with us from the U.A.E. They are all students at a top women’s university which has branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. As we prepared for their arrival, many gave us advice to prepare easier work for the girls, less exposed transportation, and be prepared that the girls might be overwhelmed by the bugs/heat/work/poverty. We approached the week with trepidation wondering how the students would fare when they arrived.
Off the plane they came, nearly all covered in their shailas with little but their faces and hands exposed. The visible faces were adorned with bright make up and their clothes sparkled as they each waited to purchase their Cambodian sim-cards at the airport mobile phone counter. I was overwhelmed with how beautiful these women were, how different their lives must be at home, and how in the world we were going to facilitate a week-long learning and building project with them in a very rural part of Cambodia.
As I got final waivers signed and we determined which girls were allowing us to photograph them and which weren’t, I was repeating in my head over and over Please let this week be successful… Please… with a few Inshallahs thrown in for good measure.
Rather than turn left on the main road out of the airport, towards the Disneyland-esque town of Siem Reap where new hotel monstrosities line the roads and poverty is hidden from view, we turned right and took the girls straight to Kralanh to a house we had rented a section of for their 5 day stay. Our orientation discussion that first evening was interrupted by very strong winds blowing dirt and dust into our outdoor eating and meeting area. I kept pausing and asking the girls if they wanted to continue inside (probably because I myself was getting nervous that we might get blown away), but they were smiling and loving the impending rain and had no intention of moving in. These are tough girls, I thought for the first of many times that week.
Our first evening, the generator broke just as everyone was going to bed, so there was no electricity and no fans. Girls were squealing and running out of their rooms afraid of the gekkos they could no longer see or the bugs which were attracted to their flashlights. Others were unable to sleep because of the heat. “Yes, it’s hot in Dubai,” some said, “but we have air-conditioning EVERYWHERE.” Hmmm…… I see, I thought. Perhaps it will be a long week ahead…
Two more hours. Power still out. The girls who are awake start chatting. “I didn’t think I was going to make friends here…… I rarely speak to anyone at university and here we all are in this foreign place and I’m making friends at school. I wouldn’t have thought…” “You’re such a sweet girl. You should be more brave and speak to people. Who wouldn’t want to be your friend?” Shy smiles and blushes shadowed by the dark as friendships blossom over shared worried. Some girls pulled their mattresses outside to sleep on the porch as their rooms were too hot. “This is the first time I have ever been on a plane,” one said. “This is the first time I have ever been away from my family in my whole life,” many chimed in. “And now I’m sleeping outside for the first time. Many firsts.”
The firsts continued the next day. “This is the first time I have ever held a shovel.” “The first time I have painted.” “The first time I have realized how hard it is for the workers who build all day in our country. They work 12 hours a day in the heat. This is very hard work.”
The second evening seemed like luxury – power on, fans running, everyone smiling at the small stroke of luck a fixed generator brought them. We should make sure the generator goes out on the first night on every trip, I realized. No one was complaining about the lack of airconditioning which they might otherwise have noted when fans seemed like a luxury.
The previous night had been too packed to fit a long discussion in so the second night we all talked about our fears and then the girls clued us in on what their commitments would be for the week to reach the goals they set for themselves. “Learn some of the language.” “Make new friends.” “Prove that I can work hard.” “Learn about myself.” To get there, they committed to journaling, sharing and asking questions in discussions, forgiving anyone who didn’t remember their names, learning a new word every day, sitting next to someone new at dinner each night, and much more. Smiles all around.
Magic. It was like magic how fast the group jelled. We do an activity called “roses and thorns” on many of our trips, sharing the highlights and challenges of our day in a group forum before or after dinner. It typically takes a group a few days to get into the idea of sharing their day’s successes and worries, but this group started off sharing and working together as a group of friends from the start. “I liked how we didn’t have to restrict our roses and thorns to our work, it could be about anything we were feeling,” one girl wrote in her reflection form at the end of the trip.
They talked about their fears of going home, what it is like to be a girl growing up in the U.A.E., degrees they had wanted to pursue in other countries but as women had been unable to travel to do so without someone to protect them. They talked about “independence” and what that meant to them and how proud they were of themselves for doing this on their own – surviving the bugs – digging all day and still smiling. They projected what it would be like to return home and what things would change in their lives. “I want to have my family do roses and thorns each night at dinner,” one said.
They learned the names of all of the kids who joined us in the construction project at Preah Lean Primary School as the kids were off for the Khmer New Year holiday. Some borrowed student’s bikes and rode for a quick second for the first time in their lives (shhh!). They all engaged the community and our Khmer staff in meaningful conversations – wanting to know what it was like to grow up here, about the Khmer Rouge, about Cambodia’s education system. They read the articles they were presented with at night and challenged us during the day with questions about begging, poverty, and development. The worked so hard in the heat of Cambodia’s hottest month, showing April that they couldn’t even be stopped by the sun. There I was, sweating away in my t-shirt and capri pants as they dug a new road to the school covered from head to toe.
And they cried. Oh boy did they cry when they left. And so did we. On many trips I have led, I am sad to see the guests go, but my fingers are itching to get back to “work”, to the hundreds of work emails piling up, or to get some solid sleep in my own bed. But this time it was different. When the girls left, we all stood outside the airport for a bit, feeling glum, hoping they would come back announcing their flight had been canceled. They learned so much and taught us to much in 5 days, what if we could have kept them for 1 more week!
The past week of emails, reflections on their trip “I learned more about myself in the last week than I have in the last 20 years,” and their insight about Cambodia have set a bar for us which will be very hard to reach. For me, it has reminded me how lucky I am to have this job. On more than one occasion during the week I dropped a text message to someone back in the office who was inquiring about the trip saying “I have the best job in the world.” And I do. It has reminded me that PEPY’s impact on our tours is of course felt in the work done during any service portion of the trip and the funds raised by the travelers, but even more so in the lives changed and inspired along the way, including our own.
It has also reminded me how much I love teaching and how PEPY’s trips are most catalytic when operated as facilitated learning trips. We are going to look into more school groups (JHS, HS, university) so if you know of any groups looking to come out to Cambodia, let us know
I’m so glad to have met these fabulous women, and to know that I now get to follow along on their paths in life to see where they end up. How will this trip affect them? And how with their influence in Chanleas Dai and on our team affect us? It has already done a great job of reminding me to not judge a book by its cover and to be open to the friendships and opportunities presented to you life. I’m so glad these girls choose to join us, many having worked very hard to convince their families to allow them to do so. I think there are more friendships and smiles in the world because of it.
I keep thinking, as some bright young ladies reminded us last week during their goodbye and thank you speech to the community on their final day in Chanleas Dai, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I’m smiling ladies! Thank you for a fabulous week!