Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Centers and Wats

It's bright and early here on Thursday afternoon. My roommates and I have managed to get in a full night's sleep after a very full day yesterday.

Our first stop yesterday was the Kompong Speu Orphan Center. It is about an hour's drive from Phnom Penh on paved roads. We arrived to an enthusiastic reception from the children - - all greeting us in English, showing off their skills learned at the English language school. Since this was my first time there, it was not as emotional for me as it was for my two traveling companions who have personal relationships with the children and the director. But, it was pretty amazing to see the connection that they have with the center.

For me, the real thrill was seeing the school building in person! The classrooms are bright and cheerful, and the teachers are very proud of their space and their program. I stood next to the big (too big) sign with our name on it for the photo op. Thankfully it has already started to patina nicely and soon it will be a faded memorandum. Perfect.

We met with the director for a couple of hours and tried to get a handle on what the needs were at the center as we move forward. She is a shrewd woman, that director. This is best for the needs of the children. She's a stalwart subscriber to the "never put your eggs in one basket" and in these times when NGOs come and go at their whim, this makes perfect sense. So, she has quilted together a few sources of funding. Go her. But, still, we need to make sure that she's getting what she needs for the kids overall. Today we will meet with another NGO who is supposed to be funding the basic needs for the children (food, rice, clothing) and find out why they have cut her funding over the past months. They are blaming it on us. We feel we have a different agreement with them. Could be that the director is just hedging her bets. No matter, we will straighten it out today. And, for the uninformed, it's not like we talking about loads of money. In Cambodia, the difference between being funded $11 per child and $13 per child can be the difference between enough rice and not enough rice.

Our next stop was a loooong, buuuuumpy ride down a dirt road. The trip was only 30 km (about 15 miles), but it took about an hour plus of bone jarring driving to finish. The rains have been exceptionally bad this year and had we tried to make this trip even last week, it is doubtful that we would have been able to finish it. But, beyond the travel comfort, I can honestly say it was some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The end of the rainy season means unbelievable green and blue skies with huge clouds. For the most part, the farmers look like they are doing well. Lots of cows (albeit skinny ones), lush rice fields and cisterns filled to the brim with water. Of course, this will not last and it mostly a lovely optical illusion.

Where we were headed was a Wat where an impromptu orphan center has been operating. It was heartbreaking. There are about 50 children there from baby to teen living under the most basic of conditions. Rough wooden shacks with wooden palates for sleeping. About the size of a double bed, four palates for 26 girls. We brought them some fruit and drinks. I have some photos of the little ones trying to hold their stems of longan fruit, their bananas and their canned drinks all at once. They didn't want to give any of it up so their hands would be freed to be able to eat one piece of it. I finally convinced one of the littler ones to let me hold her bananas while she ate her longan fruit. She was wary, but then realized I was just going to sit there and wait while she finished. Later she came over to see if I would also open her drink for her. A short-term trust pact, so to speak.

We spoke to the director, an ex-monk that takes care of this group. He gets some meager funding from a local NGO, but nothing else. We're not sure what this means and so we will tread carefully over the next few days to find out more. Every fiber in you wants to just start putting together some kind of sponsorship program to help. Sending clothes, sending money for rice, buying 6 bikes so that older kids can get more easily to school. But, there may be a reason why they aren't getting recognized by the authorities and we need to know that before we do anything. It's heartbreaking, but a stark reality. Certainly we will end up doing something - the question remains, what?

As we were leaving they children came over to give us pictures that they had painted. Beautiful chalk drawings of fruits, and interesting collages made of tamarind and other local leaves and shells. We discovered that the art teacher was trained by World Vision and comes to teach the children for less than $15 dollars per month. One idea that we had was to scan some of this artwork in when we get back and design some note cards to earn money. We will see.

For now, the morning has begun and we are heading off to the best-damn-breakfast-buffet in all of SE Asia. George the Elder is sad to be missing the noodle soup and the boys would be dismayed to know that I am eating dumplings for breakfast. I will keep that to myself!

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