It has been a week since I first stepped foot in the Kingdom of Wonder, and I often find myself in a state of disbelief that I am really here. From the very first moment Cambodia terrified and challenged me. Even though I had a seventeen hour flight to Singapore, a thirteen hour overnight layover, and another two hour flight into Phnom Penh to begin mentally preparing myself for this move, nothing could have fully prepared me for the heat, traffic, and culture shock that was to come.
While I plan on writing more extensive posts later about my flight and layover experience, my volunteer placement, living situations, and other topics, I wanted to begin the first of twenty-four “weekly rewinds” where I give a basic summary of what I have been doing, how I have been feeling, and what revelations and takeaways I might have had from the previous week. And so goes week one…
This week felt like a whirlwind. I felt like I was thrown into an overwhelming vat of uncertainty and despair and left to find my way out of it all on my own. Even though I was SO excited to come to Cambodia and begin my volunteering journey, the majority of this week was spent crying and wondering how on Earth I could make it twenty four weeks in this place. I had read so many incredible stories of people coming to South-East Asia and having the most beautiful and transformative time; so when I found myself depressed and unhappy, I felt a bit cheated. Luckily, I have the most wonderful family, boyfriend, and new friends at my volunteer house, who helped me through this time and resist the urge to call it quits early and book a plane ticket back home (Yes, this travelsmith almost closed up shop – it can happen to anyone, and it is a normal emotion that should be vilified). So after a full week, I can report I am still feeling quite nervous and extremely uneasy, but the confidence in my decision to be here has returned and I think it might be here to stay.
And on to the weekly rewind…
I arrived in Phnom Penh around eight in the morning, feeling exhausted but thankfully not in the jet-lagged way. After navigating my way through the airport, I purchased my visa (where they spelled my last name wrong… HOW? It is just “Smith”), collected my luggage, and cleared customs. As promised, a man holding a green “IVHQ” sign was waiting for me just outside the arrival gate. He greeted me with a big smile and a firm handshake and then guided me, and two other volunteers who arrived around the same time, to a van and drove us to our accommodations.
When I walked into the volunteer house, one of the staff gave me a quick tour and then showed me to my room, which I would be sharing with a girl named Elena, from Belgium. He then left me to unpack, relax, and do whatever I pleased. After settling in and having a slight panic due to the cockroach infested bathroom, I went back downstairs where I met Ann. Ann was, and still is, a godsend. She is the most wonderful woman from Australia and feels like a second mom to me already. I don’t think I would have made it through the first day, let alone the first week, without her. Ann talked to me and told me all about the other girls staying in the house, who I would meet later, and all about Cambodia. She had been there for eleven weeks already and would be staying for six months in total like me. Learning some of the ins and outs from her put my mind at ease and helped settle me into my new situation.
Later that day I met many of the other people who would be in the volunteer house. Most of them were from Australia, with a six exceptions: France, England, Estonia, Switzerland, Spain, and Belgium; all other fifteen people in our house were from the land of kangaroos. I made fast friends with three girls, Sarah, Lauren, and Bianca and we chatted for a while before going to sleep around eight o’clock due to our jet lag. I slept in my room with the fan on all night, and prayed that I would feel more confident about everything in the morning.
Waking up Monday morning, I was determined to take on the day. I took a shower, which was a feat in and of itself. The volunteer house has “wet room” style bathrooms, where the shower, toilet, and sink are all together. Showering in that type of environment for the first time was interesting to say the least, and it has taken me a full week to get somewhat used to it. After, I went down for breakfast where I met some of the girls who had been here longer; Mei, Adele, Annika, Claire, Joanne, and Rebecca. They were, and of course still are, such lovely girls who made me feel right at home.
Later in the day we had our new volunteer orientation, where I met all the thirty five other volunteers who also began this week. The staff gave us house rules, guidelines for volunteering, and taught us some basic Khmer words and phrases, which have already come in handy. We were then brought to the Genocide Museum, to learn about some of Cambodia’s history, and to the Russian Market, to get SIM cards and also shop around. The Genocide Museum was a deeply moving experience, and I will be dedicating a post to it later on. The Russian Market on the other hand, was a much lighter experience. Trying to find my way inside a dark and crowded area made me feel claustrophobic and extra hot, but I came out of it with two pairs of pants for $8. We then were brought back to the volunteer house for dinner, and then I crashed out for the night to go to my placement the next day.
On Tuesday, I woke up more terrified than previously. I would be Teaching English at a place called Happy School, which was just around the corner from the volunteer house. Two other volunteers, my new friend Lauren and a guy named Paul, would also be teaching there, though only for two weeks. We all ate breakfast and then climbed in a tuk tuk to begin volunteering. I will write a full post later on my first impressions of the school and teaching there, but for now I will say that what they are doing is incredible.
After three hours of observing teaching, a lunch break, and three more hours in the afternoon, I left stressed and confused. I learned I would be teaching the younger kids, but I had not observed any of the younger children’s classes. The next day when I officially began, I would be going in blind, needing to teach four separate grades requiring four unique lesson plans. When I arrived home, I tried so desperately not to break into tears when I heard other new volunteers talking about how much they already loved their placement, because all I felt was confused and an overwhelming desire to go home. Ann kindly guided me, and some other girls, through a meditation on the roof of the volunteer house (our favorite place to hang out) to calm us down. It helped a bit, and was a lovely experience, but I still went to bed tossing and turning.
My first day of actual teaching began with lots of other volunteers wishing me luck and sending me positive energy. They all knew I was nervous, and it was clear on my face I was beyond afraid. When I began my first lesson, not having had a chance to prepare, I learned I would be teaching Grade 1 the letter “I.” For an hour I taught the letter “I.” How does one do this? I have no idea, but somehow I survived it and so did my class.
Then I went to Grade 2, where I taught words that began with “N.” For an hour we learned “Nose” and “Net.” Again, don’t ask me how this lasts an hour.
After that, I went to Grade 3, where I taught “A” versus “An.” This is where things started to feel better. The little kids, while adorable, provided an unforeseen challenge because they did not understand my directions and constantly talked and cried through the lesson. The older kids understood when I asked them to repeat after me, and understood when I asked them to fill in the blank. When I had finished when Grade 1 and 2, I felt like I wanted to run away, but after Grade 3 I felt like I had the willpower to stay the whole day.
After a lunch break, I went back to teach Grade 4 and 5, a mixed class, who were also learning “A”and “An.” I am still confused how this works practically, having two grades learning from the same text book and same lessons, but somehow the school directors think it makes sense.
I then finished my classes for the day, and I thought I would be able to go home since I was not teaching. Instead I was sat down by one of the school coordinators and told I would be helping develop a new curriculum book. While I now see this as a really unique opportunity, my first thought was one of sheer terror and dislike. I sat calm while he explained what he wanted me to do, but all my brain could think was “get out.”
Needless to say when I came back for the day, I felt like I would be sick and ended up having a good, but accidental, cry with Mei. I was reassured that everyone felt overwhelmed their first day teaching, and that tomorrow would be better. I hesitantly agreed, and managed to pull myself together and join the other volunteers for a soccer game. For the next two hours, I made a much-needed fool of myself, running around trying to kick a soccer ball, but failing miserably. However, I still had a great time and it helped relieve some of the stress from the day.
I woke up grossly early Thursday morning, unable to sleep from anxiety for the day. I did not want to go back in to teach, and spent most of the morning texting such to my family.
Ultimately I did go in, because I had to, and everything went just fine. The kids listened, my lesson plan went well, and I left feeling slightly more confident about everything. And since on Thursdays I only teach Grades 3 and Grade 4 and 5, I had a day of children understanding me, which provided a great deal of relief.
Later in the evening, I went to go meditate with the monks with some other volunteers. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope to write more about it in another post later on, so keep an eye out if you are interested in that sort of thing. Afterwards we all got dinner, and then went back to sleep and prepare for the next day.
On Friday I went to placement feeling a bit excessive. Since the younger grades do not have English class on Friday, I was there just to lesson plan… However, I had already been given two hours on Thursday to lesson plan. Feeling a bit useless and wanting to explore Cambodia rather than “desk warm” in an office, I asked the school director if on Fridays I could leave early, and he hesitantly approved.
After lunch, I went back to the volunteer house and ventured to the Central Market with my friend Bianca. I bargained in the market for about an hour, and came out with a small day bag that I am in love with. I then joined some friends for dinner, as it was another of of the volunteers, Joanne, last day on Saturday. We had a delicious dinner for only $3.50, and then went back to the house for a cheeky glass of wine and some chocolate. I went to bed feeling happy and content.
The house was very quiet on Saturday. Most of the new volunteers had gone to Siem Reap for the weekend. I elected not to go since I had plenty of time to get there in my six months here. Instead, I joined some of the remaining volunteers at a childcare placement.
Going to the childcare placement was a lovely experience, and I found it so rewarding, hauntingly beautiful, and heart breaking all at the same time. We helped prepare food, feed the children, and even wash them if they were particularly dirty. For most children, the meals we serve are the only ones they would eat that day. It was a incredible way to start my weekend, and I will definitely be going back at some point during my time here.
The second half of the day was spent relaxing, which felt a bit selfish and wrong after just coming from volunteering where I had fed children living in extreme poverty. However I was persuaded to come out, and I joined some volunteers for foot scrubs and massages, and reached a new level of calm and contentment. Needless to say, despite my guilt, I slept incredibly well that night.
On Sunday it was Laura’s, a volunteer from Spain, 20th birthday! She and I spent the day seeing some of the main sights of Phnom Penh. We went to the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, and stopped for lunch at Backyard Café. Backyard Café is a lovely little place with the most delicious vegetarian and vegan style food. I will write a post with more information on all of these places later on.
At the end of our day, Laura and I had become fast friends and had also walked eight miles. Our feet were ruined, but we felt so happy with all that we had accomplished.
And that, even long one of the longest blog posts I have written, is the short of what happened this week. It started out as an emotional roller coaster that I desperately wanted to get off of, and ended as something that I could muster up enough courage to stick out. Cambodia remains an intimidating place, with challenges that force me to find unknown strengths. However, I now feel a bit more prepared to handle whatever the Kingdom of Wonder plans on throwing my way.