Monday, 3 December 2012

Article - Volunteering in Siem Reap Cambodia

Locked in a tiny room with over 20 children in 35 degree heat, they speak little English, I speak no Khmer.   Like all children, they require a lot of entertainment or their attention wanders and they start irritating each other.    This would be many people’s worst nightmare.  

Not only did I survive two weeks of this, but I loved it so much, I am already investigating the possibility of repeating the experience.   And once again paying for the privilege of being exhausted every day, being fed mediocre food, and living in very average accommodation!

The volunteer/tourism industry can be controversial.    I did some research before choosing my ‘volunteer organisation’.    I asked friends about their experiences, and found that most preferred their ‘charity experience’ to be limited to donating funds.   But I wanted to be more involved than just writing out a cheque.  I wanted the benefit to go both ways.

So without personal references I relied on the internet for my investigations.   In preparation I listed out my non-negotiable requirements:
  • ·         An organization that said it was ethical
  • ·         Close enough to home to minimise travel expenses
  • ·         Reasonable accommodation (I am way past backpacking!!)
  • ·         Allowed stays of two weeks
  • ·         Contributed to the local economy

I ended up with two candidates and I approached both.   One was super-organised and efficient, the other chaotic and disorganised.    The super-organised was too efficient for me.   I felt slightly uncomfortable and concerned that my contribution would go into the efficient infra-structure rather than improving the well-being of the local community.  

So I went with disorganised.   And yes, it remained chaotic throughout my stay.  Lack of communication was the biggest problem.   This was a small family affair, run by Dad who was the entrepreneur and wanted to expand into multiple locations, Mum who was actually trying to separate herself from the business and make her own life, and daughter, who definitely wanted to make her own life and was moving countries in an effort to do so!   The family dynamics were fascinating.
There were a few downsides.  Like when they almost forgot to pick me up from the bus station.   And there was the morning we woke up to find that there was no milk or bread for breakfast, and we returned from an exhausting day at the school to find that not only was there still no milk or bread,  but we were out of drinking water as well!!   Although this could be resolved easily at the local shop, it highlighted the lack of communication.  Everyone thought someone else was doing the shopping!

The upside was that in such a small organization,  I felt closely involved in what was happening.  My suggestions were listened to.   I didn’t feel like an outsider, some-one who was only there for the short-term.  I could make a difference and I believe that I did.  This wasn’t a super-organisation that had a set way of doing things.   Volunteers were an essential and vital part. 

We worked in a village the government had recently relocated from the banks of the Mekong River to a newly built development on the outskirts of town.   I really loved working with the village children.   We had two classes a day, made up of children aged from 14 to 2 years.   It was a challenge to keep them all engaged and attentive.  Those who were already keen to learn were easier to reach, but I didn’t want to lose sight of those who just occupied the chair.   We wanted them to come each day and we wanted to them to benefit from our efforts.

Our school house was one room on stilts, with no windows.   We had a back door to no-where for ventilation.  Unfortunately it let in more sun than breeze.   We had a leaky roof and a very rickety floor.   No electricity and no desks.    So the challenge was to find activities that made learning fun, but didn’t include computers and did include sitting quietly on a chair!  I am tone deaf with little sense of rhythm, so usually avoid singing in public.   But when you are desperate, you will do anything!   At least I made the children laugh, and my fellow volunteers nearly fell through the rickety floor boards!

My two weeks came to an end all too quickly.   I think three weeks is the optimum time for volunteering.   One week to settle in, one week of enjoyment, and one week were exhaustion sets in!  I’m looking forward to next time.   I’m going to my second choice ‘super-organised’ for comparison purposes!

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