Wednesday, December 29, 2010

PEPY Bike Tour - 23 Dec 2010 to 25 Dec 2010

Day 4 – Chanleas Dai to Samraong
After a 5:30 am breakfast, we headed out on a long, bumpy ride to Samraong. It was an uneventful day beyond Ania and I figuring out the words for “thousand” and “hundred” on our own while running errands in the market (pon and roy). We were quite excited as knowing the numbers 1-19 is insufficient when shopping in Riel (4000 Riel = $1 USD). Ania also managed to find a triple chocolate ice cream after much searching in the afternoon. And again at night. So we had a nice time in Samraong!

Day 5 – Samraong to Banteay Chhmar

This was my worst ride by far. I still made good time but my knees didn’t want to have anything to do with it. The road was extremely bumpy, long and there were long stretches of inclines (nearly hills by Cambodian definition. Flat based on a Toronto long-distance cyclist definition). But the end was that much sweeter and the very well organized Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism project (CBT) nearly made me forget about the pulsing pain going through my legs.

We met up and drank coconut water in the Tourism Centre while the president of the CBT  project explained it to us. It was initiated by a French NGO, Agir pour le Cambodge, and is now assisted by the Global Heritage Fund. It is extremely well organized with a detailed map of the town and many local activities that tourists can partake in or observe that showcase Cambodian rural village life, from traditional silk weaving, to seasonal agricultural practices, attending religious ceremonies with host families and traditional music and dance.

The only way to stay in Banteay Chhmar is in a homestay organised by CBT. Everyone was a little apprehensive on the way there, not knowing what to expect. Once again, CBT impressed by setting us up with not only comfortable accommodations, but also families generous enough to welcome us into their homes and their lives for a night. Most homes did not have electricity or, if they did, only enough for a light bulb or two. Showers were out of buckets. Ania, Jam Lucky and I stayed in a large spacious wooden house with a two bedroom loft on the second floor, where we also had the company of the family’s adorable children and pet cat.

Soppain tells us about Tomb Raider Magic at the temple.

We had a shortened itinerary because we’d have to leave early in the morning to beat the sun the next (Christmas) day. First, our guide Soppain took us to the Banteay Chhmar temple. We were all pretty wiped from the bike ride, but he told us interesting facts about the area and described the detailed scenes and symbols carved into the stone. Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Global Heritage Fund is working with the co­mmunity to ensure it is preserved. The crumbling ruins are mystical, beautiful and inspiring, particularly with the natural environment’s partial encroachment; trees grow on and through the walls and flower petals blow through the air as you walk through the temple complex.

After the temple tour, he brought us to the Soieries du Mekong Silk Centre. The step-by-step process of creating silk products was well labelled and described orally by a guide. We got to see the whole process from cocoons to scarves. I bought Mama Cruz her Christmas present: a beautiful red silk rose pin.
One of Ania's many gorgeous sunset shots
The rest of the group took a bumpy bike ride to check out the sunset. I decided to end the punishment of my knees and stayed back with Jam and Maria. This ended up being a great decision not only because the sunset ride was over very tough terrain but because I got to help set up Christmas Eve dinner.

With the help of the CBT staff, we set up a table and chairs beside a 13th century temple. They put up torches a la Survivor around the table. Jam and I spread flower petals all over the table. He made a funky centerpiece and set out candles. Maria and Jam put out stockings, one per participant, that included a personal card from the leaders, a PEPY book of inspirational quotations, a PEPY t-shirt, a PEPY pin and candy. The CBT chefs brought a delicious Khmer meal. And, the best part, a local group played traditional Khmer music.

Vi and Jessie scope their stockings
From the sunset, the group arrived to the scene already set up. Jam, Maria and I sang ”We Wish you a Merry Christmas” as they approached the temple. Everyone was surprised and touched by the effort the leaders had gone to in order to make Christmas special.

After excitedly opening our stockings and stuffing our faces, Jam brought out dessert. Smores! Ania literally screamed with delight when Jam made the announcement. A North American delicacy, smores are marshmallows melted over a fire (in this case, over a pot that we lit a fire in) on sticks (chopsticks) and then sandwiched with a square of chocolate in between two graham crackers (vanilla cookies). The North Americans did some capacity building, teaching our Khmer, Australian, Belgian and Indian team how they work.

Making the night even more memorable, we then danced with some of the CBT staff to the traditional Khmer music. They taught us some moves and Jessie showed us all how to boogie like we have never boogied before. Under thousands of bright stars, I knew I would never forget this Christmas as long as I live.

Day 6 – Banteay Chhmar to Sisophon

Christmas Day was much like every other year. Waking up already sweating because of the heat at 4:30 am, using a squat toilet and hearing Christmas carols in Khmer as I biked through dust and dirt ...same old, same old. At one of our first breaks of the day, Ania commented that usually when people are drinking out of a coconut on Christmas, they’re at a resort and it’s full of booze. We were chugging coconut water in an effort to replace the nutrients we had sweated out all morning.

Christmas was the worst day for many of us over horrible roads and with bright sunshine. It was my favourite day. Maria loaned me her extra pair of bike shorts and it changed the rest of the trip for me from then on. Ah, sweet relief!
I gave Maria the 4 Classic Bad Christmas Gifts: 1) "romantic" coupon (5 hugs), 2) healthy food (an apple), 3) socks and 4) underwear
Once again, a day of difficult riding was alleviated by  a great afternoon in Sisophon. For Christmas dinner, Jessie organized a Secret Santa gift exchange. Our budget was one American dollar, which proved to be a challenge in the market. Walking away from an item because it was 25 cents over budget without being fully able to explain why was an awkward experience. Nevertheless, the group came up with several great finds including a hammock, the CD of an up-and-coming Cambodian pop star who happens to look like a hybrid of Rithy and Justin Bieber and an inflatable toy donkey. Ania picked the donkey from Kayla which, lucky me, makes a squeaking noise. The rest of the night involved Ania making the donkey both dance and squeak. It’s going to be a long rest of the trip. Jessie boogied once more to a live karaoke band with some of the restaurant staff and other drunk patrons to top off the night’s entertainment and finish off a crazy Christmas in Cambodia.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

PEPY Bike Tour - 20 Dec 2010 to 22 Dec 2010

Day 1 – Siem Reap

Ania and I joined the Global Agents for Change trip on a whim. Friends of ours did the cross-Europe trip and while we didn’t want to commit to 3-4 months of long cycling days with strangers, we did like the idea of fundraising for vouched for NGOs and exploring a country in a different way from the backpacking we’d be doing for the four months previous. As a bonus, Mama Cruz agreed to train and join us! So two weeks of biking in January were arranged.

At the last minute, our plans for the end of December changed. Ania decided to add another dive trip and headed to the south of Thailand and I ventured through Laos, trekking, socializing and breezing through Canadian literature in buses and on hammocks. It was a relaxing time for both of us, doing what we both love to do most while traveling.

PEPY, the organization receiving the funds from the Global Agents for Change trip, sent a message to the participants in the tour offering the possibility of joining a 10 day trip through the north of Cambodia before joining up with the second trip.  Wanting to get rid of my Thai food baby and get a few days’ head start on Mom with the biking (she is in better biking shape than I am after months of training), I signed up. Ania jumped on board, as well.

We had no idea what we were getting into. We go off the beaten track, visiting schools that PEPY supports with programs and funding, community-based tourism projects and hidden temples. PEPY’s approach tries to mitigate the problems of voluntourism: we’re encouraged to put our cameras down (and are only allowed one photographer when we’re with the kids to avoid turning them into a ‘human zoo’), given a lot of information about cultural differences, do Khmer language lessons every day and three out of four of our guides are Khmer.  As international development studies graduates, this trip was looking like much more than just a good 10 day workout to raise cash for a good cause!

After meeting the cast of characters who would form our riding team on the evening of the 19th, we were off bright and early to the PEPY offices Monday morning. Ania and I ate breakfast with Kayla, an English teacher from Wisconsin who has lived in Japan for the last 3 years, and Jessica, a grad student who is becoming a guidance counsellor. They both offer a special perspective on PEPY’s education projects and I’m eager to see them interact with the children at the school and hear their thoughts along the way. At the PEPY offices we were fitted for our bikes, got our equipment together and took a quick tour of the office. Another special thing about PEPY: if you work for it full-time, it will pay for full-time studies (half if you work part-time). Education truly is the centre of this organization, collectively for children in Cambodia and individually for its staff.

We took a quick first ride around town, maybe 20 minutes, before stopping for a surprise good-bye lunch for Mary Ann, a staffer who has been with PEPY for the last three and a half years. We ate delicious salads and curries with rice and got to meet PEPY staff from the school in Chanleas Dai.
The monk and Rithy

Then the trip really took off. We biked to the Jedey wat and pegoda where we got to speak to a monk who survived Pol Pot’s regime. Jam, a kindergarten teacher in Siem Reap from Toronto who is cycling with us, and Sela, a logistics coordinator at PEPY, came across him one day while they were taking a bike ride. They stopped to speak with him and ended up learning about his life and the history of the temple. This temple is not visited by tourists and we never would have found it without Jam and Sela’s bicycle explorations!

During the time of the Khmer Rouge, religion was illegal, pushing monks underground. He was forced to live as a farmer for a few years in the 1970’s before returning to the temple to continue to practice Buddhism. For a time he was the only monk in Cambodia. He answered our questions about life as a monk, surviving the regime and inner peace and then performed a water blessing. We were doused with large quantities of water by him and another monk, a special experience that I will never forget. While I was being drenched with refreshing agua, I could not help but think about all that this man had gone through and his determination to live without anger. He is still fighting while refusing to let go of his inner peace –the government is doing nothing to preserve the temple and surrounding pagodas and will also not allow him to take any action to preserve the structures. His worry for the future is that these buildings will be lost.

From the temple we took an idyllic bike ride through the city, heading to the outskirts. Through the day we had biked through city streets, highways, dirt roads, gravel roads, sand, mud and grass. I’m pretty sure our 3 hours of biking covered any terrain type that we will have to encounter on our journey! Everyone in the group was up to the challenge and besides some sore legs and some bruises on Ania’s bum, we’ll be in great shape for the rest of the journey.

For dinner, we had the privilege of going to Jam’s cafe/art gallery/chill space, Art Deli. It is the coolest bar I have ever been to in my life. They offer drinks ($2.50 for a cocktail!), food (from nearby restaurants who, in turn, get their drinks from Art Deli), wi-fi and lounge space to chill and either read or watch movies from the large selection of titles. The atmosphere is relaxed and ambient. I kept catching Vi, a woman from Melbourne who develops language teaching software, staring into space, just taking in the delicious dinner, comfortable seating and wonderful atmosphere.

Currently Khmer artist Savann Oun is exhibiting his Adoration project in the upper floor of the cafe. He joined us for dinner and told us how he has made a career out of teaching art in Siem Reap and about his work. The table our incredible food was laid out on was actually a bathtub full of photos of people in his life with a sheet of glass on top! I’m trying to convince Jam to open a similar place in Toronto.

Full of Cambodian nutrition, Maria, a Cambodian-Australian who is an intern with PEPY and is biking with us, and Rithy, a Cambodian who works for PEPY on education-related issues and is also biking with us, taught us how to count to 10 and buy coconut water in Khmer. After an interactive lesson, Ania and I crawled back to the hotel, hoping to pack and get a long night’s sleep.

Day 2 – Siem Reap to Chanleas Dai

Day 2 was less packed with activities and packed with butt numbing cycling! Fortunately, most of it took place on the highway, so it was smooth roads. There is enough of a cycling lane that we were mostly able to ride two-by-two, so it was a good day to get to know our fellow riders. It was hot (over 35 degrees Celsius) and sunny all day. Dhana and Michael, IT people who work in Dubai (and who brought computers and are helping to fix PEPY computers!), were able to handle the heat easily, compared to the 50 degrees they usually cycle in. The rest of us, on the other hand, were melting in the December (?!) heat. Any relief from the wind was offset by how much harder we had to pedalling. In total, we cycled about 68 km.
Coconut water!
After stocking up on snacks in Siem Reap, we headed west to Chanleas Dai, the location of the first PEPY school. We had a rest stop about 18 km into our trip, getting whole coconuts to cut open, drink, and eat. Lunch was after a heavy 5 km of biking, which I loved and everyone else hated. Knowing that lunch was only 5 km away inspired me to speed up and with my heart race racing and endorphins pumping, Rithy and I motored our way through it.
Flat as a pancake and that's how we like it!
We stopped at Wat Phnom, a temple about 20 minutes before the PEPY school. Located on a hill (of which there are few in Cambodia, lucky for us), there are 5 giant Buddha statues overlooking the area. If there was any doubt that Cambodia is the flattest country in southeast Asia, it would be dispelled by standing at looking at the beautiful view of rice fields as far as the eye could see.

Exhausted after the long day of biking, with our lungs full of dust from the dirt road we had to take for the last hour or so, we took turns taking bucket showers and lay around the PEPY house reading, snacking and chugging water. The house is shared by PEPY staff and government teachers, with people coming in and out as they need lodging. Some teachers live in the area, so they do not reside at the house. Currently only 2 staff, Lot and Lida, are staying in the house so Jam, Lucky (a competitive Khmer cyclist who is our main leader for this trip) and Rithy are sleeping on the porch while the rest of us take bunk beds in the two bedrooms inside.
Ania and I crashed early after covering our bodies in soothing Tiger Balm while the others watched an evening English lesson at the school.

Day 3 – Chanleas Dai
(Dec 25, 2010: as we chose to only have one photographer, any video and photos from Chanleas Dai will be posted later)

After a hearty breakfast, Rithy organized a “getting to know you” exercise of life mapping. Basically, you draw/write out your life in more or less chronological order, listing the most formative events/activities/places until now and what you want for the future. Presenting these to each other definitely brought the group closer together and taught us a ton about each other, probably more than we ever could have each learned over the course of this trip.

Daniela, PEPY’s founder (check out this interview she did about voluntourism), joined us to take tours of schools that PEPY supports. First, we went next door to the junior high, where PEPY is involved not in the running of the school itself but in its Creative Education and English classes. Beyond the government education and curriculum, the students have a few hours outside of their typical class time per week that they spend in the PEPY room.

We got to watch Lida do a science lesson about chemical and physical changes. When we entered the class, not a single child stopped paying attention to her, enthralled with her experiment. On the other half of the room, we got to see XO laptops in use. (These are the famous “$100 laptops, 1 laptop for every child” computers.) These laptops have microphones and webcams. Jam explained that one activity they did recently was have the children write a story, record it on the computer and present it to their families. The children could even take the computers home and use the webcams to take pictures of their houses to include in the stories!

After lunch, we went to the primary school, right where the house where we are staying is located. Daniela showed us the well stocked library, where the passionate librarian, Srey Touh, has made a great learning environment for the students. When PEPY arrived at this site, the library was locked, damp and had rats. When it reopened with a fully stocked library from PEPY, only 50 books a month were signed out. After creating and finding training for the librarian about fostering literacy and getting 1 hour a week of library time built into the class schedule, it spiked to 2000 books a month. Today, about 1500 books a month are signed out and for this school year, completely independent of PEPY, the principal decided to increase the library time to 2 hours per week.

Finally, we took a short bike ride (though much of it through deep sand), to the Runn school. Dubai Cares, an organization seeking to foster volunteerism in Dubai, came to Cambodia two years ago wanting to help build schools. They asked PEPY to work with them and built three sites. Unable to sustain all three, PEPY chose the one with the greatest leadership, Runn, to implement a new program, SAS, with. PEPY helps to set up a group similar to a PTA and works on plans each year to outline goals for the year and reflect on the year passed.

Daniela shared with us a lot of her thoughts on development and NGO work. Basically, the problem with the big NGOs/international organizations (e.g. Asian Development Bank, World Bank, UNICEF) is that they are looking for quantifiable results. The number of schools built, enrolment numbers, etc. But the reality on the ground is often that these organizations try to achieve these numbers so quickly that the actual human beings who should be helped lose out. Organizations want to buy the water pumps and filters, hand them out, leave and send reports to their donors listing how many were given out. People like Daniela see these pumps and filters break down all the time, with no money to fix them, no parts available if there is money and no one with the expertise to repair it even if there are parts and money. They also see populations that aren’t educated about keeping water uncontaminated –keeping the taps clean, not using dirty glasses, etc- getting sick from dirty water regardless.

PEPY excites me because of its investment in the communities it is serving. Its primary goal is not one that can be plugged into Excel in 1 year, 2 years or even 3 years. It is in the truest sense trying to built capacity so it doesn’t need to exist in Cambodia. It wants to help create leaders and empowered children to go into Cambodian society and make things better. I truly believe that its motivations are genuine and its methods, having communities invested in the projects, working with the government and revising its approach based on how things are operating on the ground, should be replicated the world over. 

Please donate if you have the means to help children in Cambodia have an opportunity to have an organization which listens to them and their communities.