Phnom Penh

The Transition to Useful: Day 187


As often as one would see a road sign or a mailbox on the highway in America, in Cambodia, one sees the reoccurrence of signage displaying political loyalty: Cambodian People's Party, Funcinpec, and oodles others adorning the mouths of people's driveways. Besides these brilliant blue beacons, all the world is green. Families construct roadside eateries and offer a good meal to any motorist en route. On this stretch of road connecting Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the world looks to be a cross-pollination between tropical farm villages and elegant stretches of undisturbed patty fields. The TV on board the vocal little bus resonated melodious Khmer tunes along with karaoke music videos, which everybody seemed to love. I couldn't bother looking much at the screen with such a wonderland going by. It was a beautiful ride, aside from the sporadic, nonsensical horn usage, but I happily sat back and crunched on over-flavored Pringles and roadside spiral pineapple, enjoying strong tastes for the first time since the wicked gastro-spell.

Upon reaching the capital of Cambodia, I sat waiting in the misty spray of the open-air bus station. For the first time in seemingly ages, I was expecting someone. The relentless taxi drivers attempted to snatch me up for business and take me to a location I had vague and confusing directions to; however, I trusted the warnings of volunteer coordinator, Jennifer, and stayed put until they eventually came to find me.


Evan, Zan, a Palm Tree worker, and a Palm Tree child (both with names I'd rather not butcher by wrongfully spelling here) found me negotiating with a motor bike driver, and I was relieved to see my name printed on a sheet in their hands and hear the American twang in their voices. We rode to the orphanage and exchanged the initial conversation points (I being incredibly excited to be around people who spoke English and they looking forward to a new volunteer to enlighten the dynamic) before finally rolling up to the salmon-colored walls of the oasis.

The immediate hugs upon reaching the Palm Tree Orphanage warmed more than just my arms and legs. That kind of human contact was something my body and mind felt deprived of, without me being consciously aware of it. This establishment is often visited by Americans and Western volunteers, and the kids have learned what to expect from some of these visits. Some bring mad amounts of gifts to be distributed to those they connect with most. Others are there for the long haul to make a real impact in their lives, and vice versa. I came to make some friends, get a feel for the place (Palm Tree and Cambodia), and offer up my skills and services for the greatest amount of good. It was interesting to see how my relationships with the kids evolved after that first meeting.

I don’t believe in traveling the world to kiss babies. And I don’t immediately pity and coddle kids just because they are kids or because they are “less fortunate” than I. When I meet someone, I hold them to the same standards as I do any new acquaintance; if they have a good soul, they are a part of my circle. And even if they hide their character behind real angst, the gut instinct detects the good nature that allows humans to connect beyond language and cultural barriers.

Upon getting to my beautiful shared room with a bed and AC, there was an immediate concern to wash some clothing, seeing as I had absolutely no items ready for wear that wouldn't require a Hazmat crew to unfold. The ladies at the orphanage insisted that I fill a laundry basket and let them do the work. I refuted it a little before realizing it would probably be offensive to do it myself when they offered.

Our first meal in the little pagoda was a chance for Evan and Zan (real name Susannah, but none of the kids could swing that name around regularly) to explain how this place works. Out of the corner of my eye, I checked out the kids as they simultaneously gave me the once over. There was a definite dynamic and strong, preexisting relationships between the orphanage, the kids, and the American vagabonds, and I had to figure out how I would mesh into it without disturbing the "chi".

That night, as the sun set hard over the city, a busload of SASers pulled up to the gates. The fall voyage of Semester at Sea had docked in Saigon, Vietnam that week, and a select few students made the jaunt to Cambodia on a school-sponsored trip to see Angkor and the Palm Tree. My voyage (Spring 2007) was the first to frequent Palm Tree as an experience, which is how I came to find out about this place, and the odd sense of deja vu that swept over me upon seeing the next generation of globetrotters was more like time-travel than anything else. As most of the students came charging into the mob of children blowing kazoos and spraying silly string, one girl approached me as I stood to the side, under an overhang out of the rain, and asked if this was my orphanage. I laughed and told her I got here about four hours before she did. "I'm just getting into the swing here."

"You look so familiar! Have you been on Semester at Sea before?" "Yeah, Spring 2007. It's so weird to see you guys coming through here; I was you over a year ago!" "I SAW YOUR VIDEOS! I knew I wanted to do Semester at Sea a year before we left, and I did intense YouTube research on all the ports. I watched all your videos and remember you had two good friends: a really cute boy and a really tall girl." "Ha, wow, I just traveled with them in June in Europe! That's Alexis and Garrett. This is so odd that you know who the are..."


It's encounters like this, and the experience of actually going around the Earth's circumference ever so slowly, that constantly and continually inspire me to say, "It really is a freaking small world."

Upon day one, my purpose at Palm Tree was tested. The volunteer setup is completely based around what you want and are willing to do by your own initiative. I began by just hanging out with some kids and becoming a part of their dynamic. I sprawled across a table and started coloring something that would get them interested in me, but when my buddy, Sal, tested me in an effort to apprehend the community crayons for himself, I had to take the first-day-babysitter stance and show them I saw past the cute eyes and teardrops. I knew he was aiming to see how far he could go with my naivety to get what he wanted. I stood firm, and he wandered around the grounds crying to everyone that he “really loved crayons.” Later that evening before bed, he emerged from the depths of his dorm to sit by me, timidly before snuggling up to my side. He was my boy for the rest of the stay.

Scars and quiet faces. Burn marks and troubled pasts. One would never know what happened to these kids before they came to Palm Tree unless one of the administrators opened up the filing cabinet. These children don’t exude pity or anguish. They fall down, scrap their knees and get back up to laugh some more. They crawl up your leg as if you were a tree in order to give you the biggest hug and kiss they can muster. They play in the monsoon rains with their bikes, metal lids, and each other, and even though their diets don't consist of protein shakes or much calorie-packed sustenance, the energy levels never die from 5am when they rise to 9pm when their final giggles disappear in the air of Phnom Penh.

My arrival coincided with a major switch in the academic regimen, one that made me do an Austin Powers ankle-flicking jump when I realized the massive teaching manual I lugged around the world would come to good use. Cambodian children attend half-day government school, where they wear uniforms and speak in their local language of Khmer. The lucky kids at Palm Tree are also provided supplemental education for the other half of the day, where they attend classes on the grounds with teachers employed by the foundation.

These classes, once conducted in Khmer, were now being changed to an American school system and taught in English. Middle/high school textbooks printed in Kansas and the Great Plains were photocopied and dispersed to the children, the younger ones receiving the earlier chapters with the older students only getting the latter chapters of the book, without the introductions to vocabulary they didn't know. The teachers also understandably had a rough transition ahead of them, now challenged to teach subjects like math and history in a language they may or may not be fluent in. Evan, Zan, and I spent our days trying to offer as much support as we could possible give.

On the first day of the new system, Evan and I walked into a classroom filled with kids and lacking a teacher for that session. Seeing that their schedule said “Chemistry” and the textbooks went far above their heads, we created a dynamic lesson off the cuff by pouring water on the floor, knocking everything solid in the room, and squeezing ice cubes until they melted on their hands. While I tried to draw a propane tank on the whiteboard, Evan ran out to buy supplies on the street: powder for orange drink, a chunk of ice, a balloon, water bottles, and other teaching essentials.

By the end of the class, the kids learned that chemistry was about liquids, solids, and gases, and Evan and I were pooped, yet invigorated by the idea that we taught kids about science in a language they didn’t know. Those little successes every day, every hour made me feel so alive and needed in this world. I attended every class I could, eight a day, until the kids went on vacation.