[This is Part Five of Aaron's "Campus Division in Cambodia" story. Here's Part Four and look out for the subsequent tales in the coming week...]
Thursday January 3, 2008
Believe it or not, we again began the day with a phenomenal breakfast. We met up with a few Room to Read staff, and then took a van out to see the first school. Upon entrance, all the students were lined up and clapping for us. Similar to the fanfare of our first night, this was quite humbling; these students were so appreciative of Room to Read, and I was left feeling like I hadn’t done enough.
We spent some time doing Q and A with the teachers at the school, learning a lot more than we ever knew about what these schools and areas are really like.
We then got to meet the parents of the girls who were receiving Room to Read scholarships. This was a group of amazing people. I do not think I had ever seen true hardship before meeting these folks. Most of them labored all day as farmers, not even making enough to completely support their families. They had to sacrifice even more to allow their daughters to leave, not help on the farm, but instead go to school. But they were all willing to do so, to give their daughters a chance at a better life. I could see real love in all of their eyes.
We next got to meet the scholarship recipients themselves, again a heartwarming experience. They were all eager and cheerful and really loved school. It really made me want to do even more to help.
After the school visit, we again had lunch at the buffet, which sadly was no better than our previous excursion there. But our energy and spirits were so high from seeing that school, those parents, and the students, that I am pretty sure they could have fed us dirt and we would have been content.
The afternoon of January 3rd was probably the most astonishing, incredible, phenomenal, breathtaking experience of them all. We embarked to visit a remote village where we visited the homes of 3 Room to Read scholarship recipients
I used the word remote to describe that village, but I don’t think that begins to capture the real nature of this village.
We began by piling into the van, and driving far from the city, deep out onto an extremely bumpy road for what seemed like an hour. The whole time we were thinking “wow, this is pretty far from everything”. We were mistaken however, because by comparison, this dirt road was actually pretty close. At some points, the road was so bumpy we thought the van would overturn, our heads almost hitting the ceiling. We then stopped, thinking again, “ok, this is far out and remote”. We were not there yet, but rather we were just switching from our van to more of an all terrain vehicle, for the road had in fact become too bumpy to continue. Somewhere somehow some Cambodian must have gotten a deal from an army surplus dealer, because this truck was ridiculous. Imagine a mix between a pick up truck and a Tank. Well not quite a tank, it still had actual tires and not treads, but the tires were pretty huge. We all sat in the back on the bed of this truck like school kids on our way to a barn dance. Several times we felt like we might bounce out or tip over, and that poor van certainly would have ended up inverted had we not switched vehicles. On the bright side, there was no roof to bump our head into. At one point I peered forward thinking “there is no way any vehicle could every traverse that”. Well we did, and from that point on I decided it was better to not peek ahead. Some stretches of the road looked as if it had survived a meteor shower. I also noticed that the front part of the truck where the driver sat, did not technically have a floor, you could in fact see directly down to the road below. Since the driver did not seem too worried, I did not bring it up, but it certainly added to my experience.
The sun and breeze were both fantastic during this truck ride, and even with the bumpiness, it was one of the best journeys I have ever been on. You could even look out across the fields and see people working in the rice patties, exactly as you would expect it to look if you had seen it in a movie. I am also running out of synonyms for the word “surreal”. There was no “civilization” for miles in any direction. All we could see were beautiful wide open fields, mountains in the far distance, and a bumpy road that seemed to extend indefinitely in front of us.
Again we thought “wow, we are pretty far out here”, and again we were mistaken. After what again seemed like an hour in the back of this truck, we finally came to the end of the road. We were not at the village just yet, we were actually at a spot where the road dead ended… into a river. And so, it was time to change vehicles yet again. We climbed off the truck, dusted ourselves off, and made our way onto a large covered motor boat. The splendor of this area continued as we made our way through this river, alternating between patches of thick brush, and wide open areas with an amazing view of the countryside. After another long while, our boat emerged from a thick patch of brush, and we saw what looked like a large log cabin build up on stilts sticking out of the water. Our jaws dropped as we turned the corner and saw an entire array of these stilt houses. We had arrived at Broken Palm, the most remote village we had ever seen.
The village existed as a large number of these cabins built up on stilts, some in the water, others set along what was basically a long dirt alley that we could walk through. Most of the stilts were at least 12 if not 20 feet high. We were told that during the rainy season the river actually rises up above the stilts, and a boat is required to enter the home. Sometimes the water had even risen above the floor level, and the family would have to quickly build another level within their home.
Amazingly enough, in spite of the harsh conditions, this felt like a true community, I sensed true happiness around me.
We were welcomed with open arms into the home of a single Mom whose daughter was off at school on an Room to Read scholarship. The scholarship actually allowed the girl to board at the school, which makes a lot of sense after the ridiculous commute we just experienced. If the parents we had met that morning showed love in their eyes, this woman was beaming love out of every pore. She spoke with such pride and care for her daughter, and we had the most priceless of interviews. This same mother has also taken in a young boy (nephew?) who had lost his parents, and during our conversation with her, he was lying in the back room, working on his alphabet. We finally comprehended what it really meant for a young girl to be able to leave a village and go to school. This day will forever go down as one of the most amazing of my life.
The ride back was even more epic than the ride out, because by this time it was getting dark. I could look up from the bed of the truck and see stars, and I again felt that I could have stayed there for days and been happy.
Upon returning to town, we went to dinner with a couple of the Room To Read folks at a different buffet restaurant. Alas, this buffet had nothing amazing about it, but our day leading up to it was so incredible that again, we could have eaten dirt and been the happiest travelers in the world.
We went to bed this night in true awe of all we had seen: the landscape, the people, the community, the commitment, the remote village, the love. We smiled for having been able to have such a once in a lifetime experience, and I think it is safe to say we all felt a renewed vigor to work even harder upon our return, to do everything we can to aide the people we had seen this day, and all others like them around the world.