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A different story every day Irene!

That’s what Stephanie (in charge of Ganesha resort this week) said when I returned this evening!
It’s the Water Festival time in Cambodia and everything is closed including Hope School so I have had a ‘quiet week to myself’ in Kampot.

So let me begin with Monday…I went into town and spent a few hours looking around Kampot. It is the sort of place where you come to have a look but end up staying and it’s been described to me as ‘one big village’.
I had arranged to have my hair done by a local lady who was recommended to me after I made enquires, she wasn’t a hairdresser but has had some experience. There are no hairdressing salons here. I was apprehensive but I was desperate! It’s the one thing that I almost can’t do without. She was just as nervous and I was taken upstairs, separated from her massage and nail clients. Although she had her own way of doing hair she was diligently paying attention to detail and we were both very happy with the end result which for me was all that mattered!
As dusk was looming I decided that it was time to go back to Ganesha and took a tuk tuk for the four kilometre journey. After driving past the usual left hand turn he went a further half a kilometre over a small bridge and took a right hand turn onto a small track which was simply a mud bath. I said this isn’t the way and he said in broken English that the other way was flooded and unpassable, (it wasn’t of course). He then stopped and said I should walk as it was only ‘short way’! I am not sure what I was thinking of when I paid him. As he was turning round and looking at my bemused face, he very kindly pointed his finger to direct me where to walk so I thanked him and to be honest you couldn’t see him for dust. Never one to be beaten I set off determinedly, after a few minutes I took off both shoes which were now covered in mud and walked barefoot which was better as I could check how deep it was as I went along literally inch by inch at some points but by now it was getting dark. I passed a few local houses with the dogs barking at me. I grabbed a couple of branches of bamboo to steady myself which were dry and split so I gave that up as a bad idea as I almost fell! I slipped and lost my balance several times as it was the kind of wet clay that a potter uses. It was eerie amongst the mangroves and I won’t deny that I felt scared. There was a moment when I realised that there was no going back and eventually I felt gravel under my feet arriving in the dark, dishevelled but totally relieved!

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I ventured back this morning to take this photo but imagine total darkness and probably a good six inches more rainfall and you might be near to experiencing it with me…

I had tried twice to go out on the ‘relaxing sunset cruise’ but the weather was against it. Third time lucky? I had spent a lovely Tuesday with two guys from Medicines Sans Frontiers. We hired a tuk tuk and went on a tour to Kampot pepper plantation, the secret lake, the salt fields and Kep visiting the famous crab market with lunch overlooking the sea.
We made it back to Ganesha just in time for the cruise. It was an interesting looking boat but not particularly steadfast and so we sat in a line. Before we reached the river he somehow overshot a bend and we careered into the bank which was hilarious and I was grateful that Majel was in the front! It was beautiful in the river with a gentle sunset, not dramatic, just soft and calming. We had just turned back into the mangroves when the engine stalled and we again headed for the bank! We offered to help but there was only one oar and no light so we were now in darkness. Luckily Majel had a torch and after several attempts the engine restarted managing to get us almost back before it died!

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Now Wednesday was quiet as I did not venture out but Thursday’s story makes up for that! I thought that I might take a short stroll. I mentioned this to Stephanie who said how pleasant it was to walk to La Champa, another resort through the paddy fields. She gave me a map and took the trouble to make sure that I knew where I was going telling me to come back on the canal path this time. What could possibly go wrong?

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It was hot so I put my umbrella up but the rice that is nearly ripe is tall and again it was muddy in places with only a small channel between each field, a tad overwhelming and it was further than it appeared to be but all was well until I reached the houses in the photo and realised that I had to walk through someone’s property to reach the road! I took the photo in a nano second before the dogs realised I was there (I think they were eating). I took a deep breath as they started barking and coming at me. By now I was swinging my umbrella at them and calling for help like some kind of demented or eccentric English lady. A woman came out shouting and when they took no notice she threw sticks at them, the tiny puppy was the fiercest! She came over to me, we held hands like long lost friends and she called her husband to sort the dogs out!

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I had a cold drink by the river in La Champa and then it was only a five minute walk to the nearby Pagoda. I could hear very loud taped music and wasn’t sure if there was a ceremony going on. The young monk was nineteen years old and he has been a monk for three years. The Buddhist nuns loved having their photo taken and were all laughing at each other looking at them but note the serious pose as the photo was being taken despite my efforts to make them smile!
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I looked at the map and ended up by the muddy path, map reading has never been a particular strength of mine so I turned back on myself. Needless to say it all became so confusing that I wasn’t even sure which way I was going. I tried a few different options but couldn’t get my bearings. As I was heading back down a track I had taken, a man stopped on his motorbike. He hardly spoke English but when I said Ganesha he nodded and as it was pitch black now I hopped on his bike! We got back onto the road and I knew after a few minutes that we had gone too far but when I tried to say he just said ‘no English’ so I asked him to stop which he did immediately and as I was about to go walkabout again, a guy called to us from across the road. He could speak a few words of English but couldn’t read the map so here I was playing charades doing buffalo impressions and trying to be a river! I asked him if his friend was a good guy and he said that he helped everybody so between us we worked out where we were, more importantly where we were going, and we set off again. On the way his English seemed to have improved somewhat as he asked me if I was married! Bless him is all I can say as he took me safely down that difficult road, he was simply a hero to me.

Check out time on Friday and as the couple who moved into my old room were going into town we shared a tuk tuk enjoying our conversation. No prizes for guessing what happened next but yes…the tuk tuk suddenly came to a grinding halt so we got out and never one to miss a photo opportunity these days…she was laughing as she was calling for one dollar I pointed and said what for the buffalo?

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Fifteen minutes later, by joining a couple of wires with a pair of pliers, the problem was solved. A group of children had gathered to wave us goodbye, perhaps a fitting end to my stay at Ganesha and my final story!

The Penguins and the Gryffindors

On Monday a new class was formed of pupils from various classes and some who have not attended for a long time, being named The Penguins which was a name previously used but not currently. This was because they were moving up to the secondary school, consequently the timings clashed and I was asked if I wanted to teach them.
Within the class of nine, three of the thirteen year old girls were extremely confident, the three boys who had not been attending were very quiet and there was also Raksmey who said he was twenty two but in reality probably twenty one, looking absolutely shell shocked, and he appeared to be unable to speak. It felt as if we were all being thrown in at the deep end and although I was outwardly appearing in control I was just as scared! I had no books for them and no handover from their previous teachers (I did access some information later in the week) but I did have Lena, my interpreter for the Gryffindors.
So I started with my name is, what’s your name, how old are you and proceeded to try and find out more about them. When I asked how long have you been learning English, one of the girls said a year and as I went round the class it was always a year so I laughed, then we all laughed and so off we went hopefully on the right foot!
On my third lesson with them I decided that I wanted to use the outside area and despite the lively girls preferring the classroom we are now settled.
My worry is Raksmey but he has been coming every day and I have created more of a balance now between the different personalities. Slowly slowly seems to have worked and he will now repeat words if I say them first. So my biggest challenge is to keep stretching the girls whilst not leaving the boys behind.
This is a photograph of the Penguins, taken by Lena, and when I looked at it I was worried as they looked so sombre but it has since been explained to me that unless you make them laugh they will always be serious for photographs as they automatically perceive a photograph to be formal. My hand is on Raksmey’s shoulder.

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The Gryffindors are continuing to make progress, for one of the conversation homeworks every hand was up to speak in front of the class, myself and Anna were euphoric! They are also taking it in turns to read the story books that I have given them and are now happy to attempt words that they do not know and they are definitely more confident in asking the meaning of words. There is no doubt that working with Anna is advantageous, we improvise and change content if it is unsuitable. No one had heard of James Bond but I have asked Martin if it would be possible to show them a film on a laptop, I am not sure if it will be practical but we will see.
Some of us recently sat round a laptop and watched The Killing Fields with Jason adding to the commentary as several of his family were killed at that time (which is how I came up with the idea).
I wanted to try the outside area for lessons, explaining to them that after the lesson we would take a vote and go with the majority. They did not understand what a vote was so it was a useful exercise. Although it is dark towards the end of the lesson and all the mosquitos come out to play, the majority voted to stay outside so that’s where we will be from now on. To be honest the light inside was no better anyway.
This is a photograph of the Gryffindors working and with the mini bus driver who arrived early for us on Friday evening! He speaks no English but is a lovely man, I asked him if he wanted to learn English via Lena and he laughed and said that he had just wanted to come and say hello!

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This week and Kampot

This tropical heat is energy sapping and it’s like being in a battle that you are never going to win but of course I do with push on through tactics!
I have changed my routine slightly, I now play my pipes before 7.15 as the locals are up and making their way to the paddy fields. I have found the secret to making friends with the dogs! They follow and sit watching me, one of the puppies howls and now the others have joined in so we are a combination of me piping, the dogs howling, the cow mooing (I have only heard one) and the cocks crowing! If I said that we sound tuneful would you all think that I have lost the plot?
Otherwise a steady week, I think I am more accepting of the living conditions here but of course still striving to improve them discreetly and overtly when few are doing chores. There are a lot of volunteers here this week which makes it difficult to manage in terms of housekeeping but somehow it all works and there are many leaving in the next week. Most are young backpackers just stopping on their way through wanting to give something on the way.
I am in the minority, in fact I know that I am the oldest volunteer in town, past or future but whenever has that stopped me!
The Gryffindor’s are wonderful and I look forward to each lesson with them.
Janet left this week and as the new volunteers arrived I was watching to see if there was anyone who fitted my criteria to take her place and so I grabbed Anna with both arms and I had asked Martin if she could work with me before she knew it! So we are a complete team, teacher Irene and teacher Anna, she is a primary school teacher, here for six weeks to gain experience before going to work in Dubai. She was impressed with The Gryffindor’s and the relationship that I have with them so it will be brilliant to have this amount of continuity until December.
Our lessons have been interactive and fun. She has brought new ideas to the table and we are bouncing off each other. Attendance has been slightly down but the pupils that come are eager to learn and slowly gaining in confidence with regards to speaking English, in fact one of the boys has asked me if I will start teaching him French! I’m always positive and praise their achievements. On the back of that when no one had done their homework I gave them double and that seemed to do the trick!
So here we are at the weekend…I found Greenhouse on trip advisor and booked online. Luckily everyone was going in this direction so I was able to take the minibus with them although none of us had a clue who was being dropped off first. I had given the driver my address on leaving Hope. Heading out of Kampot, about five kilometres, the driver spotted the Greenhouse sign at which point I was ready to jump out as I didn’t want to delay the bus but he insisted with his body language although he had never been here, that he would drive so we started down this track that was unbelievably narrow and had huge potholes. At this point I was wishing that I had been last! It was never ending, almost a kilometre and we were all laughing so much, several ideas were forthcoming as to where we were going…a country house or perhaps straight into the river! I assured them that there was no mention of the access difficulties on trip advisor. Finally coming to a gate and a point beyond that where there was barely enough room to do a three point turn.
I was very grateful as I am not sure if I would have walked that far into the unknown in the dark…or would I?

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Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, the temples of Angkor are scattered over four hundred square kilometres, although the most famous are clustered close to Siem Reap. Each is as diverse as the Kings who built them and they have their own distinct appeal but still seem to be part of everyday life.
The visual impact of Angkor Wat is awesome and is the centrepiece of any visit here.
The majority face east to catch the rays of the rising sun, symbolising life but Angkor Wat (below) faces west, the direction of the setting sun and death.

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The giant stone faces of Bayon (below) have become one of the most recognisable images of Khmer art and architecture. The Bayon temple consists of thirty seven towers with their massive faces of Lokesvara (more than two hundred in all).

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Within the temples are small Buddha shrines where if you give a contribution it will ensure that you have good karma in the next life.

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Siem Reap was a honeypot of surprises; great hotels, markets and restaurants. It even had a King’s Road and a Pub Street! It had the best infrastructure that I have seen in Cambodia so far.

A typical day’s activities

As part of the bigger picture at Hope School we rise early to do ‘gardening chores’ this involves clearing the land for further basic building works. This morning we were moving rocks which had been dumped in a random pile to the back of the land, being careful to avoid scorpions and red ants, who have a nasty bite.
This was followed by a cold bucket shower and reapplication of 100 per cent deet and sun cream. This is an ongoing necessity in this tropical heat as we are still in the rainy season. We are having torrential showers at times although mainly at night now with temperatures averaging 30 degrees and today reaching 34 degrees, it was very humid.
Next I washed my sleeping bag and sheet, a good day to do this as I am staying on site today.
My current reading book is Red Lights and Green Lizards – A Cambodian Adventure by Liz Anderson. It was a gift from my friend Maxine which I am throughly enjoying and it is giving me good background information regarding Cambodia and it’s culture.
Jason’s sister works in the kitchen area and cooks a limited menu if requested. So far I have only tried the egg baguette for one dollar if I am really hungry for lunch. The Cambodian’s use a high amount of oil in their cooking.
There are paddy fields across the road from Hope School and this is where I go to play my pipes at four o’clock each day as there is a thirty minute break between classes, although I think that I am far enough away to not cause any disruption!
After piping It’s time for lesson planning and then teaching. The Gryffindor’s are working really hard and I know that I am pushing them but still my numbers are up! I am really encouraging them to speak in class and I get the feeling that this is new to them. They much prefer being given exercises to copy and complete. So it’s onwards and upwards for all of us and luckily there is always banter to fall back on!
We have supper at half past six and it is traditional Khmer cuisine. It always feels much later as it is dark around six o’clock. Bedtime is usually around ten o’clock before the rain starts, if we are lucky…

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A weekend in Paradise

The ferry from Sihanoukville (aka Costa del Cambodia) is an hours speed boat ride to Koh Rong Island. We came as a group of volunteers but two of us wanted a more luxurious experience (surprise surprise) than the local youth hostel and we found it in Paradise Bungalows.
It has an amazingly chilled atmosphere and great music, managed by Chris, a very amicable German guy and for only ten dollars more.

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This is our bungalow with a great outside private shower.

There’s a bungalow on site where a local family live and offer massage and other basic beauty facilities. I had thought that I would have a lovely aromatherapy massage with local oils to ‘reduce stress and aid relaxation’ but on returning I decided to try the Khmer massage. What an experience…I actually wasn’t sure where my body ended and her’s began. I should have realised when I was given the Karate type suit to wear!
It’s meant to aid blood circulation and detoxification. She put me into positions that I could never perform on my own without professional assistance and one hour later, I think that I have regained the inch in height that I have lost over the years!

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All in all a most pleasant weekend.

The Gryffindors

On Monday during the day, I sat in with the younger children. At one point as I was in a classroom alone, several children arrived, sat down and opened their books! I looked outside and couldn’t see anyone so I began teaching them and I asked them individually to write one spelling from their last test on the board. They were so attentive and happy, I was really enjoying myself. Twenty minutes later, one of the volunteers arrived to take the class and it was just that they had all arrived early, so they all trundled out to the other classroom!
In the afternoon Martin (second in charge) during our induction, asked me if I would like to sit in with The Gryffindors -Jason (director) had been teaching them but had passed the class to Lena, an interpreter, who did not wish to teach. I knew at that moment that this was the class for me as they were an older group and I thought that I would be able to utilise all my skills with them.
It was torrential rain early on Monday evening and only three pupils came, apparently they work in the paddy fields if it’s raining as it is the best time to replant the rice. The average mark from the previous Friday spelling test was 4/20 so I knew that I had my work cut out. Lena was pushing me to do the next ‘grammer point’ which was tenses but I explained that I would spend some time getting to know them and assessing each pupils level of ability.
On Tuesday ten pupils came to class. I asked each one to write their names on a coloured card that I now produce each lesson and it helps me as I know if there is no name card that they are new (to me).
I felt inspired when I spotted a clock on the wall as I had been racking my brain wondering where to start! I asked one of the boys to tell me the time in English and he couldn’t so that’s where I began…how ironic that we should start with time as I told them that I was going to be their teacher for three months and that we were going to make the very best of the time, concentrating on their confidence and helping them to speak English so that they could get jobs in the future.
Each pupil came to the front of the class and I asked them simple questions, one of the questions was what work does your family do? It was answered that their families are farmers (they have been taught by the school that although they are subsistence farmers, growing enough to feed themselves, they are farmers and not (‘doing nothing’). It has aided their self respect.
The age range, so far seems to be between thirteen and seventeen years old, some do not know their birthday; they just get one year older at the end of every year. They were all interested in how old I am but they ask everyone that question (or so I am told!).
It was obvious that they found it difficult speaking English and that their understanding was at different stages. Instinctively I knew then that I had to earn their trust to enable them to let go of their fears.
So bravely we moved on together and started to tackle the ‘grammer point’.
On Thursday I had thirteen pupils, an assortment of previous and new. We reviewed the ‘grammer point’ – present simple, present continuous and other verbs. Headway is not the easiest of programmes to follow.
Lena asked if I could manage without him as he wanted to meet his father, but now I had Janet to assist me and we worked on the lesson plan together.
I was apprehensive as to how it would all come together but there was no need to be as it was brilliant. They had all done their homework and were so joyous. It was a pleasure for me and I had a real feeling of purpose.
Humour, I have discovered is their forte and we already have a banter going on!
Finally today we have had a storm almost overhead prior to the lesson but I had four pupils come. It went well and I gave them a test with a promise of games next week, although it’s almost dark at half past five here!
Well that’s about it for my first teaching week folks!

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Hope school

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Hope Agency was founded in 2010 by Jason Han and recognised by the Royal Government of Cambodia. He purchased two hectares of land in Bakod village in Takeo Province. On this land an open air classroom was built for 50 children. As the number of children increased he raised funds to develop another building with two rooms completed in December 2010.
There is now a new village school completed in 2014 which is three kilometres from here.
Early in 2011, the Hope Agency Organisation began it's Volunteer Program and began attracting local and overseas volunteers.
Volunteers help by teaching English, sport, art, healthcare and assisting with project development which includes visiting orphans and homeless children living in and around the towns of Takeo province as part of a wider outreach strategy.

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Phnom Penh

I unexpectedly spent the weekend in Phnom Peng which was a great opportunity for me to absorb the history of Cambodia and to understand how the atrocities that occurred here have impacted on the people. It is incredibly difficult to comprehend that almost three million were tortured and killed between 1975 and 1979 during Pol Pot’s regime. At The Choeung EK Genocidal Centre whilst I walked around the lake at The Killing Fields I listened to A Memory from Darkness by Him Sophy.
Tuol Sleng or S21 prison was equally disturbing but I did speak to a survivor who wants to be a part of the experience that visitors have when they go there. The only reason he survived was because he could type and meticulous records were kept.

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The Royal Palace dominates the skyline with it’s classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding. It is the official residence of King Sihamoni and visitors are only allowed in The Silver Pagoda and it’s surrounding compounds.

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The Khmer’s have a great demeanour and infectious optimism, their smiles intact!

The scene is now set for the next step of my journey to Hope School.

Hanoi

The old quarter, where I am staying is vibrant, colourful and bustling. Life is literally lived on the streets. People work, play and eat on the streets with a population density greater than Manhattan. My biggest challenge though was to cross the road! There are no traffic lights and the mopeds never stop coming. If you stand and wait you stand out like a sore thumb. One lady said to me, as I was hesitating, ” walk slowly and they will be able to gauge your speed and avoid you!”-

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My boat cruise to Halong bay was simply magical. The Bhaya number 4 small, authentic junk boat was a delight. I met lovely people and had a wonderful time whilst gaining valuable information from those who have been to Cambodia. I enjoyed watching the film Indochina made in 1992 en Francais under the stars! It is a very poignant time here as it is the 60th anniversary of Vietnam’s liberation from the French.

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