Two weeks in Siem Reap

I would love to tell you that the lack of substantial updates was because I have had an NGO-superhero lifestyle for the last two weeks. I would love tell you how I saved a pod of river dolphins from nets in the Mekong, or how I built and started up an orphanage from scratch, or how I saved a whole city from debt to evil foreign corporations. First, however, I am no superhero. (If I were a superhero, I would be Sweatman. I would sweat so profusely that the villain would feel repulsed and be compelled to stop whatever villainous activity they were undertaking.) Second, I don’t think NGO work is ever that glamorous. I do want to write a post on voluntourism and why what I’m doing hopefully isn’t that but that’s for later. In this post, I will concentrate on the “work” that I was doing while is Siem Reap; I will save the fun and adventures for another time.

I wrote in my previous post that I had taken a coach to Siem Reap (on which I had my encounter with the cricket). Like I said, it was great to meet other members of my organisation. Some of them I met on the coach; some of them I would meet later. There are people working all over Cambodia in the organisation, some are based in Phnom Penh, some in Siem Reap and others in Takeo province. But it was great to have most people in one place at once. Later in the week, we even had some of the Thai team join us as well as visitors from Singapore and Brazil. That exemplifies one thing I love about the organisation: how international and diverse it is. There was at least one representative (if not two) from every continent (barring Antarctica, of course). The other thing that I love about this organisation is the unity. There is a vast spectrum of people within the group, different nationalities and different temperaments. I’m a British introvert, who shared a room with a Brazilian extrovert; you’d be hard to find two people that were such polar opposites. And yet, there was a sense of cohesion and care that everyone had for one another. Everyone was welcoming and kind, you quickly fell into the team and you felt like you had known the group for years. It was a real blessing to have spent those ten days with such great people.

However, as well as welcoming you into the team, they also wanted you to play a part. Despite being a newbie, I still had jobs to do. I was on the minute-taking team (as I’m a native English writer); I also ended up looking after the children of families that were there. Both of these were valuable but humbling experiences.

Being a minute-taker meant that you had to quickly learn the processes, acronyms and key terms of the organisation and this particular team. You had to listen carefully as to what was being said and, although I felt thrown in at the deep end at times, this helped to feel a part of the team. Also, it meant that, as I had to keep track of what was being said, I often had a good grasp of the direction the discussions had taken. This meant that I could play a part in shaping the meetings and decisions (I would often be saying things like, “The question about the thingy has not been addressed yet” or “we probably need to clarify such and such a bit”), and, despite being the newest person on the team, it felt like they valued my contributions and my thoughts. So, that’s the valuable part of the minute taking.

The humbling part is when it came to reviewing the minutes. The whole team checks the minutes just to confirm that they make sense, especially as people not at the meetings will be reading it and it will have to be understandable for them. However, the emphasis was on brevity. This meant a lot of my work (and that of the other minute-takers) was brutally axed. I heard “that can go,” or “that needs to be reworded” a lot. Probably less than a quarter of the original material was left as it was.

Working with the children was also rewarding, and also humbling. There were only a few children, and they were all so brilliant. They all had different characters and it was great to get to know them. They were also open to interacting with you, even if they didn’t really understand what you were saying (most of the children did not have English as a first language). It was just nice to be silly, play games and do various craft activities. (I learnt how far the basic principles of cutting and sticking could go- very far as it turns out.) Take a look at some of the fantastic artwork produced.

But there were a few experiences that were pretty humbling. I had to cut strips of coloured paper for one of the craft activities. One of the children, who is around six years old, looked up to me and said, “You know, it would be easier if you folded the paper and cut along the folds.” Yes, little six-year-old boy, yes it would. This wasn’t helped by the fact that English is his second or third language, and he was still able to advise me in it. This boy is already winning at life more than I am at 28.

Later that week, I discovered that this boy spoke French at home. Trying to regain some credibility as a functioning adult, I thought I would use some of the few French phrases that I know. After I uttered some French sounding words, he looked up at me baffled. Then he sweetly smiled and said, “I do not understand what you are saying,” and then continued with his colouring. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll just crawl back into the monolingual hole from whence I came.”

Cambodia afternoons are either hot or wet and rainy because it has been hot. This meant that the parents thought letting the children have a time of wet-play would be a great way to help them cool down. The parents all knew about this, so they came prepared with changes of clothes for the children. I, however, was not prepared. So the children all got changed, while the parents set up a paddling pool and a wet-play table, filling them up with a hose. As the children came out, the parents uttered something like, “we’ll be inside if you need us,” which can be translated to “good luck.” I hoped that as the children didn’t know me that well I might stay reasonably dry. I was wrong. (Did I mention that there was a hose?) When one of the parents came out, she didn’t actually realise I was soaking. I was so uniformly wet, she thought my clothes were that colour, whereas they should have been a number of shades lighter. When I pointed this out to her, she just said, “oh” and looked a little guilty, carrying her child off to get changed into nice, dry clothes.

This experience reminded me of a time earlier this year. I was at a training session, run by the UK branch of the organisation, for people going to various parts of the world. One of those on the session told me, “You know, you’re one of those people who are really easy to mock.” I thought at the time that perhaps he meant that I quickly put people at ease and they feel like they’ve known me for years; people feel comfortable enough to have a joke with me. No, he meant that I’m really easy to mock. If there is anyone that is going to be teased, soaked with water or otherwise humiliated, it’s going to be me. Even despite the language barrier, the children were able to sense it. Fortunately, teaching has ripped any sense of ego out of me, so it was like water off a duck’s back (pun intended).

After the first week, we had four days of training. Although, perhaps, not immediately applicable in what I will be doing for the ten months I am in Siem Reap, a lot of the principles I will be able to return home. I’ve already started thinking and planning about how I’m going to apply the ideas.

As I hinted at earlier, it wasn’t all work for ten days. There were opportunities to explore Siem Reap and the surrounding area (including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom). I will write about these in my next post, so watch this space.