Friday, January 28, 2011

PEPY Bike Tour - 26 Dec 2010 to 28 Dec 2010

Day 7 – Sisophon to Battambang

Finally back on paved roads, this was a pretty easy 60-odd km bike ride for us. Our last long bike ride, there was a celebratory feel to the day. We went to the Madison, Jam’s choice, which is a nice reminder of one of our favourite bars in Toronto. We got to relax with cheap, cold Anchor beers on the patio, playing Take (a speed game that uses Scrabble tiles that Ania and I are now addicted to. Thanks Jam!) while some of the others played pool. It was cool to be in a big city, Cambodia’s second largest, where you can go out past 8 pm and things are actually still open! 

Day 8 – Battambang

December 27 was our last full day of the trip together as a group. And what a day it was for a development nerd! 

First we went to Digital Divide Data (DDD), an education, job training and job placement NGO that targets the poor in Cambodia. It began with ten people in Phnom Penh in 2001. Today, there are locations in Battambang, Phnom Penh and Laos (Vientiane) with about 500 students in total. It offers scholarships to targeted students, usually from small villages. Most students already have grade 12 educations by the time they are selected for DDD, which provides accommodation, food, funding for school, English language training, job training and career planning. They are also partnered with the Centre of Enterprise and Technology, which provides 6 months of job training.

We were invited to their offices in Battambang to check out what they do. The downstairs is a big room that looks similar to a call centre where each person is at a computer, looking over a document of some kind. Currently, some of the projects that the trainees are working include archiving Dutch newspapers from WWII and recording the answers of American newspaper surveys (filled out by hand) digitally. Some are processing surveys of poor families for the Cambodian Department of Planning.

In the example of the Dutch archives, a computer program puts in word processing format scanned documents from the newspaper. The job of the trainees is to ‘spellcheck’, visually verifying the scanned newspaper and the digitally rendered word processing document match. When the newspapers put the scanned archives on the website, people can search for headlines, articles and even photo captions. 

Most trainees spend half a day working in the DDD office (which they are paid for) and half a day in school. In Battambang, most students study banking, finance, accounting, marketing and management. Phnom Penh focuses on IT. 

The goal is not for people to be doing , as another example of a current project, data entry in Greek. (As a former data entry clerk, I cannot imagine trying to wrap my brain around Greek –particularly while trying to learn English as a native Khmer speaker at the same time!) Ultimately, the goal is to get people out of the cycle of poverty by giving them educations, work experience and help finding a job. 

It sounds like a great plan. Of course one has to be critical. Greek and Dutch typing skills are not going to be practical for Khmer students. DDD gets the work for these people because universities, governments and businesses can outsource for rates much lower than in their own countries. But this is true for many students in Canada as well -we take on jobs that aren’t that applicable to our future careers and accept pay that is lower than what someone with, say, children and a mortgage would be willing to settle for. 

What I think is most bothersome is the projected explanation of helping “the poorest of the poor”. A commitment of a half day of school, a half day of work (plus weekend courses for some) and living in the city obviously limits the number and type of people they can reach. The students targeted are poor but also have grade 12 educations in nearly all cases, which the poorest of the poor students would almost never be able to achieve. While students do end up making about $200 a month on average from their employment following the DDD program (over double the average income in Cambodia), these students are already ones who have shown that they prioritize education and have had the opportunity to complete high school. DDD would be giving them an edge over their peers in similar situations but I am doubtful that those students would be part of the poorest segments of the population without DDD’s assistance. 

Something to stew on for a while, at any rate! 
Lucky really enjoyed the bamboo train.
Before lunch we got to be some of the last tourists to ride the Battambang's famous bamboo train! This blog does a better job explaining it than I will. We took it in both directions and it was lovely :)
This is a snapshot of a piece done by a student for the current exhibition in Phnom Penh with the theme of the new rich in Cambodia.
Later that day we rode to the beautiful compound of Phare Ponleu Selpak (“the brightness of art”). It was founded in 1986 in a Thai refugee camp by a French art teacher. She worked with the UNHCR to create an art school. Following the 1992 peace agreement, the refugees returned to Cambodia in 1993. In 1994, Phare was officially established by returned refugees.

From its art school base, it has evolved to become an NGO that seeks to help Cambodian children through culture, social programs and education. Many of its students and beneficiaries are dealing with issues stemming from the war, violence at home and other family problems. The location of the compound was chosen because of the high concentration of those in need and its long distance from public schooling.
Giant sculpture in one of the visual art buildings
I counted 13 different programs that Phare is currently running. It’s a busy place!

1. Visual Arts school:  Originally the only program Phare offered, the visual arts school has produced artists such as Savann (mentioned in the first PEPY post!). Its students are featured in exhibitions across Cambodia and the world.
2. Graphic design: This includes projects contracted by businesses.
3. Animation: NGOs and companies hire students of the animation program, as well.
4. Circus school: I’ll let this video speak for itself!
5. Theatre school: A break off of the circus school, it focuses more on educational theatre about issues such as HIV/AIDS rather than tricks.
6. Drum school: We got to watch some of the students in action, and they’re incredible! 
7. Music school
8. Dance instruction
9. Children’s house: There are currently 30 children living there, mostly orphans, victims of trafficking or from extremely poor families. 
10. 5-6 year training program for young adults
11. Food program for the community
12. Community library
13. Public school: Phare, similar to PEPY, helps to improve the quality of education in the public school located in its compound. There are approximately 700 students. They benefit not only from the proximity to the other programs Phare offers, but teacher income subsidies that increase attendance, a major issue at schools in Cambodia.

All of these are offered free of charge. Donors fund about 60% of the operations with the other 40% coming from tours, touring circus shows and art exhibitions. The school also helps its alumni to arrange shows, exhibitions and sales of their work, taking a percentage (30%) of earnings for the school.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay to watch a circus show that night. If you’re going to be in Battambang, definitely try to check them out! And if you have the means and the urge, donations are always appreciated. (I believe the donations page is only offered in French but Google Translate does a great job of translating it! And the actual form to put in your information to donate is available in English, once you “cliquez ici”.)

For dinner, we ate at the newly opened Kinyei Café. The café is operated by Kinyei, a one year old community development organization that supports local initiatives. It was created by a pair of Australians who helped with fundraising concert planning out of their home. Housed since May in its current location with free wi-fi, it provides work space, materials (such as a projector) and assistance using social media. Rather than financial support, it’s the human capital and office area that are most useful to assist local individuals and groups to bring their ideas to help Cambodia to fruition. The bottom floor contains the café, which is being used to support its efforts, and the upper floor is a large loft room that can be used as office space, conference space, workshop space or, for PEPY Ride VI, dinner space! 

Day 9 – Battambang to Siem Reap

We returned to Kinyei Café after breakfast to wait for our Soksabike Tour. My excitement was two-fold: it is not an easy task to find a soy latte, Fair Trade no less, in Southeast Asia and a bike tour of local life and production in rural Cambodia would be the perfect finale for the first tour! We were split into two groups to do the tour; I went with the second group so I could glug down two delicious lattes!

Kinyei’s other social enterprise is Soksabike a bike tour company. Student guides take you through Battambang to check out production of local foods, eat seasonal produce and learn about Cambodian history. It was one of my favourite things I did over my trip. The bulk of the day was spent seeing different types of production: rice paper, rice wine, fish paste and rice cakes. We didn’t interact too much with the locals who were working to produce these items, but our tour guides did a great job of explaining the processes and occasionally translated explanations from workers.
Drying rice paper
We first saw rice paper production, a process that prevents a lot of waste. Lower quality rice is used to create the liquid that becomes flattened into paper and rice husks are burned in order to cook the paper. Rice wine similarly uses lower quality rice. The “wine” is actually a spirit with over 30% alcohol content. Dangerous stuff!

We then went to check out fish paste production, which isn’t for everyone. Our tour guide was very enthusiastic about the fish paste. It is included in basically any food product you can imagine, from soups to curries to stir fries to rice dishes. He explained (to only Kayla and I, as the others couldn’t tolerate the smell) that during and soon after the war when food was in short supply, sometimes all they would have to eat is fish paste that they would dry out. The process is not a glamorous one, as women sit under a giant tent crudely cutting the skin off the fish that are then placed in giant tubs to ferment. Which, in weather over 30 degrees, smells exactly as you might expect.

We took a fruit break where we consumed many delicious local fruits and hung out, comparing Western and Khmer marriage traditions. The deliciousness didn’t end there! We then cycled over to a bamboo rice cake maker/vendor. Bamboo tubes, which must be of a certain quality ($2 a stalk), are packed with sticky rice (also high quality), coconut milk, sugar and little red beans to make a tasty roadside snack. Based on the cost of production, I don’t see how they make any money! I resolved to never barter with anyone selling this stuff. The profit margins are extremely low, selling a large tube (over a foot length of bamboo) for about 62 cents. 

Finally, we went to what was my first exposure to anything dedicated to the time of the Khmer Rouge. We visited a memorial in Battambang, which was heart-breaking. Piles of skulls were displayed on the memorial, which had carvings and explanations of different ways that people suffered during the conflict. Incense and water offerings had been recently left at the base, remind us of how recent and widespread the conflict was.
Delicious dinner at Khmer Kitchen. Amazing fish amok and decent, cheap vino!
After the tour, we split, with some of us returning to Siem Reap for a delicious dinner at Khmer Kitchen and others remaining in Battambang. Fortunately, V, Ania and I didn’t have to be too sad because the next day we would be starting the 14 day tour from Siem Reap to Kep!