Thursday, April 7, 2011

sad news

Unfortunately the child who had been diagnosed with TB and HIV died today.  All the children, cooks and housemother  were sad and somber for the rest of the day.  The deceased's sister (age 13) returned with the body to their grandparents home where the body will be on display until the funeral.  All I know is traditional Khmer rites are being planned, but as of this point, I don't know what these are besides what I read on the internet.

What was surprising was that no one touched this child while she was sobbing.   I hoped it wasn't too culturally inappropriate, but I did hold her until the one staff mother took her from me and placed an arm around her shoulders.

This is so very sad and it has been a week of sadness with this on top of two other deaths in my social realm.  Maybe the touch was more for me than for her.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Updates -- Peaceful Children's Home II

The last two weeks at Peaceful Children's Home II have been a bit of a whirlwind with many exciting points and some challenges. I am beginning to know the children better and they are getting to know what to expect from me. We are developing deeper connections, and I am even remembering some of their names. (And as those who know me realize I have a disability in name recognition when engaging multiple people at one time.)

As we cease being strangers we are becoming less wary and begin exhibiting our true selves. This familiarity has led to increased comfort and some testing behaviors to my somewhat idiosyncratic, and at times situational boundaries. Some days I am exuberantly happy to have children hang on me, strolling togrther, singing and enjoying each other. Some days, not so much. When it is 105 degrees F. and I have had a bad meal and feel compelled to have a privy nearby, I can become cranky, and so can the children.

We continue having drawing studio two hours daily on weekdays and it continues to be quite popular. I also have learned to play several hand games and I becoming adept at rock jacks. In rock jacks one uses pebbles for both the jacks and the ball, similar to no bounce jacks, a game I couldn’t manage as a youngster. As the rocks are variable sizes and all different shapes, my only advantage is my larger hands, but certainly not my eye-hand coordination. They are beating the snot out of me even when they are giving me advantage to keep me playing.

I continue to have challenges learning Khmer, though I can now say no, stop, rice, 2:00 and thank-you. I was demotivated in terms of learning the alphabet when I learned it took children over three years to learn it and with over 30 letters and 40 vowels and my aging brain, not a chance for me. I have decided to use a transliterated/aural approach from now on.

The home runs on a shoestring and there have been some emergencies with the children recently which point out the challenges. One of the teens was having breathing problems and was hospitalized. She was soon diagnosed with TB and later with HIV (both of her parents died of this scourge). I don’t know whether TB is considered an opportunistic infection in this country and therefore I am unsure whether she would be considered to have an AIDS diagnosis.

Later last week a boy fell out of a tree while gathering fruit and lost consciousness for a little while. (While climbing trees is not allowed, the kids are hungry and don’t get much fruit or other sweets, making climbing an attractive nuisance.) Nonetheless, he fell on Friday afternoon, was put to bed and started vomiting (a sign of a concussion). He was not taken to the clinic until the vomiting became uncontrollable. The home just does not have ready petty cash and needs permission from the executive director to spend unbudgeted funds. He was unavailable. It was not until the general manager agreed to pay for the treatment that the child was seen the next day. The clinic recommended he stay for overnight observation, but there was no budget for that, so the child was returned to the home. I hope he is all right and I have not heard anything more about the situation.

As I compose this blog, children are banging on the library’s steel doors pleading for art studio to start. When they have been quiet for ten minutes, I think I will open it, but if not, they will have to wait until 2, or… ayh muon bpi, som.   

Good news, all quiet for awhile and now its time for drawing.  For more pics, click here

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Charity Fair - Peaceful Children's Home I

March 26 and 27th

Once every year the Khmer foundation sponsors a charity fair. The purpose of this fair is to highlight the talents of the children in traditional music, dance, and sports and to thank all those who supporters, friends, board members. Additionally it is a time for alumni to gather and to hopefully raise a bit of cash.

It was to my delight that the fair was postponed to March this year and I was able to participate in this gala event. The setting was reminiscent of a medieval carnival, albeit with large loudspeakers spewing ear deafening decibles. There was a large, colorful tent, festooned in streamers, with seating for one hundred guests. In the front was a sizable stage for performances. The soccer field sprouted another gargantuan tent. Both tents contained observation stands with VIP seating in front consisting of beautifully carved hardwood sofas and chairs. Much to Rich and my chagrin we were considered VIPs, too, and placed prominently in front of the activities.

One must feed such a large gathering, so booths were constructed where the cooking staff along with students prepared traditional foods such as grilled meats, curries, sliced fruits, soups, sandwiches on really baguettes, and amok fish, and as always plenty of rice to fill you up.

 A system of chits provided a cashless economy to purchase foods, drink and the various games of chance. One also could purchase handmade crafts from women’s cooperatives and I purchased a scarf and a nice piece of fabric to use as a sarong.
The weekend was action packed and as part of the esteemed staff, it was quite grueling. We were picked up from our hotel in Phnom Penh at 6:30 for a treacherous drive to home 1. As I have related before, Phnom Penh drivers are fearless and follow the assumed rule, if you are bigger you have the right of way. (Our driver took daring to a higher art form, passing on two lane curves and on hills, blasting the horn at regular intervals, and playing chicken with trucks and the ubiquitous motorcycle. I was fortunate enough to have a seatbelt but also the front passenger position.)  But I digress; we stayed at the home until 10:00 on Saturday night and were taken home early, 8 pm on Sunday. Both days consisted of multiple soccer games, traditional dance performances in costume which were choreographed by a gnome like, elderly woman, who was a former dance teacher for the royal family. There were multiple meals, gatherings to chat with those who spoke English, and consulting with the inner circle for discussion and planning.

 On Sunday, an archeology professor educated in the U.S. escorted us on visits to the local Wat (Buddhist temple) built on a prehistoric mound, and to some other mounds in the area where artifacts were surfacing from the soils due to animal digging and erosion. 

On Monday we returned to Battambang, a bit worn out, but full of wonderful foods, experiences, and memorable friendships.  For more pics, click here.

Sightseeing in Battambang province - March 19th

On Thursday morning, upon returning from breakfast, a tuk tuk driver propositioned us for a tour of Battambang province’s sights and wonders. He made us an offer we couldn’t refuse of a whole day of sightseeing for $15.00. Upon informing him of our work schedule, we scheduled a weekend day for the trip.

Early Saturday morning we met “John”, his own moniker, and began a day of activities. First we met the Bamboo train. The “train” is comprised of a metal 3’x6’ metal frame covered in bamboo slats and set atop two axels attached to wheels and spanning the railroad track. Affixed to the platform is a small two-stroke motor attached to the rear axle with a rubber belt. To complete the set up a stick is affixed used as an accelerator and a crude brake. Rich and I, along with our driver took a 7 km jaunt down the tracks. Though this conveyance is now primarily for tourists, it was a once used for transporting of goods. This was necessary due to the war when the Khmer Rouge destroyed the train system as it was considered a modern abhorrence to be rid of. 

Following an hour on the train, including fifteen minutes of waiting for our return, we got back on the tuk tuk and headed across the Sampor river to view traditional houses, and then to visit a vineyard, the only one growing wine grapes in Cambodia. We walked around the estate, and tasted some of the grapes. As it was a very hot day, I did not indulge in tasting because we were off to hiking and the idea of exerting myself in the heat while tanked up on wine was a bit off-putting. 

Upon leaving the vineyard we travelled a few miles further to a Wat (Buddhist temple) where fruit bats were roosting in the trees. These mammals are huge and at first I thought they were flying squirrels. A local man, who the driver described a crazy but may have been developmentally delayed, beat the trees to roust the bats, and later indicated he wanted funds for his services disturbing the resting bats. We watched the bats for a bit and then left for another wonder of the province.

About five minutes later we arrived at Phnom Banan, an Ankorian wonder built on top of a high hill (BTW – Phnom means hill). One could only imagine the majesty of the structure before the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to destroy any sign of Buddhism, bombed it. The remains themselves were spectacular. In order to visit them, we needed to walk up a very steep staircase of close to 800 very tall steps. I was unwillingly aided in my ascent by a small, very determined woman, who though I protested, kept waving fans to cool me and massaged my legs when I stopped. I found it quite humiliating at first, but later just accepted and let her continue her ministrations. She chose to show us around the ruins, and took several nice photos of us. She asked for a dollar for her work and we gave her two.

We continued on furled dirt roads, passing scattered inhabitations until we finally reached our lunch spot and embarking spot to visit Phnom Sampu. This location is one where the brutality of the Khmer Rouge becomes more visceral. The Khmer Rouge used the Wat on Sampu as a jail where they incarcerated the Cambodian citizens and later killed them by throwing them over a cliff into a cave. We later walked down to the cave where there were collections of human bones and skulls in glass cabinets and a monk who was saying prayers. I witnessed the results of this brutality and said kaddish for those who died.

Somberly we left the caves and slowly returned to Battambang for the evening. The tour was quite compelling and while I was saddened by the horrid history, I felt hearted by the resilience of the people of this country.  For more pictures, click here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Battambang - Peaceful Children's Home #2

It has been an amazing two weeks here in Battambang, Cambodia.  Rich and I are making ourselves a home at the Golden Palace hotel which is relatively cheap with a large room containing one queen and one twin bed, a good size window overlooking another low building and some palm trees, an excellent a/c, and fast, free wifi. While it is less than homey, and somewhat sterile, we are able to store all our clothing.  It includes a “dorm” fridge, and costs $12 a night. It’s a pretty good deal, and it allows us to skype regularly with those who are connected to the service.

But moving on beyond creature comforts, we are really here to work at the Peaceful Children’s Home II (PCH). The home is about a 10-minute bike ride from our hotel and the city center, but is really quite rural, though it is on a blacktop. There is no electricity in the area and all power is provided by solar cells and only switched on for evening activities from 7 until 10. Water is pumped from a well.

The “campus” contains several buildings all connected with cement sidewalks which I hear are overtopped during the rainy season. There is an open air dining hall and kitchen where all meals are prepared over wood fires and served three times a day. There is a repurposed brick kiln, which on the ground floor has a large inside multi-purpose space, a medical treatment room for visiting physicians to use, a storage room, along with a modest library and a playroom. On the upper floor of the kiln are some bedrooms for older boys and for visitors, and a meditation room where Buddhist nuns instruct the children in “moral education”. Other buildings include four- two story dorms, barns, and a visitors dorm with classrooms on the ground floor. 

The property also has chickens ducks, a pig, geese, and two fish ponds, and a vegetable garden. Throughout the campus are fruit trees; banana, jackfruit, mango, papaya and other fruits I do not recognize. With all these additional foods, the children are able to be fed on about twenty five cents a day per child.

It is amazing how well we are able to get along with the children without having a common language. At times it can be somewhat challenging, but the children are hungry for adult attention, and have become quite attached to my presence there. I feel as if I am a mother duck and the ducklings are following me wherever I go.

I have instituted an open drawing studio in the library for two hours everyday and this has provided me a wonderful opportunity to connect with the children, and to observe the themes in their artwork. My hope is to have some drawing prompts copied onto paper for the students to begin sharing their stories and experiences with me.

All in all both Rich and I are enjoying ourselves and love this assignment and the location in Battambang.  Here are my current pics.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Pictures Phnom Penh

Pictures of Phnom Penh here

Phnom Penh Khmer Foundation

Five of us from AJWS arrived at the Fairyland guest house, our hotel in Phnom Penh, in the late afternoon on Friday February 18th.  Though the name would not work in the US, there was nothing campy about the hotel.  It was clean, with great wifi and excellent air conditioning.  The hotel was centrally located, about 1/4 mile from downtown Phnom Penh, and close to several good street stalls, our favorite eating venues, so we were pleased and able to keep our food costs low, usually less than $5 a day for the two of us, if we were not having beers with dinner, or eating with our colleagues.

Rich and I spent the weekend exploring the city as my colleagues from AJWS, who were remaining in Phnom Penh, secured housing for the duration of the stay.  We explored several markets in town, the downtown, the national museum and several temples during our five days in the city.  The city is quite bustling with busy streets and no traffic signage except for a couple of lights.  The rule of traffic seems to be "the biggest vehicle has the right of way".  This unfortunately leaves pedestrians at the bottom of the hierarchy and so walkers need to beware.  This traffic pattern combined with the sidewalks being used for motorcycle parking, forced all to walk in the streets.  We were careful about staying aware to traffic coming from any direction, as vehicles did not necessarily keep to the right when turning or passing.

On Monday I went to the Khmer foundation, and I met the staff who was there, the financial manager, who was almost as new as I was having started two weeks before.  Dararoth, the volunteer executive director, drove both of us to Home # 1, a 45 minute drive from Phnom Penh.  The orphanage itself is located on a 4 hectare property which is located about 30 away by paved roads, and then down a rutted dirt road(which I imagine is relatively impassable in the rainy season).  The orphanage seems to share space with the founders’ farming concerns, and a solar energy group from Denmark.

The area of the orphanage consists of a kitchen with a covered, outdoor dining pavilion, a set of four non-attached toilets, four or five dorm buildings, and a central hall with two classrooms and a dance, performance space on the second floor.  There is no electricity, outside of some solar power for lighting the yard in the evening, and there is no plumbing for the site. 

The grounds are beautiful with ponds for fish, there is a chicken yard, scrawny cattle with protruding bones, chickens, ducks, and a host of flowering plants and trees.  Most of the children were away at school while we were there, but those who went to afternoon school were around and were a bit bashful, and very polite.

The next day I went into the office to prepare my plan for the assignent and then we went to lunch together.  The plan we developed is as follows:  Assess admission criteria, develop behavioral expectation for children living at the orphanage, and develop operational definitions, and descriptions  for the differing staff positions. 

I was told that I should take the rest of the day to work at the hotel as Dararoth would not be at the office, and that we would not get together until Thursday when we would travel to Battambang to begin the placement at Home # 2 in Battambang.