When you put yourself out there to experience all of the good things travel has to offer, you also put yourself at risk of unfortunate events as well. We have had only minor ailments but no accidents, loss of luggage or had anything stolen to date. However, Christmas 2008 in Cambodia will be memorable for an unfortunate event that we we witnessed.
We ended up spending Christmas eve in Battambang and Christmas Day on the bus to Phnom Penh. We usually try to get the seats at the very front of the bus to minimize motion sickness and because it is easiest to get Kasenya to those seats. We were late booking tickets though and ended up half way to the back of the bus.
It was turning out to be the first bus or train trip in SE Asia, where we had some hope of being on time. About an hour from Phnom Penh, as our bus slowed done through a town, two men on a motorbike came out of a side road on our left at high speed, crossed into the wrong lane and collided with the front of the bus. Neither man was wearing a helmut and only the passenger survived the crash.
The bus driver had seen them coming and the bus was nearly stopped at the time of the accident. None-the-less the sound of the motorbike colliding with the bus was audible and the bottom of the passenger side windshield cracked.
Unfortunately Dave had moved to a seat that had been vacated at the fronf of the bus to take pictures and witnessed the whole event. Being seated in the middle of the bus spared Devin, Kasenya and I from seeing the accident and the aftermath. The bus driver was visibly shaken and a crowd gathered quickly around the front of the bus to see what had happened. It was likely someone from the community that was involved and we could see from the side windows that several people in the crowd were visibly distraught. A Buddhist nun was brought to scene presumably to provide a blessing for the deceased.
It is easy to read too much into the fact that we were on the bus when this happened. Should we have gone home earlier? Should we leave now? Is this a bad omen? In the end it appears to have been an unfortunate coincidence and also a reminder of how fragile and sacred life is. Perhaps in an odd way it was telling us how important seizing the opportunity to make this journey really was.
The last month of our trip will be spent in Cambodia with the final three days in Hong Kong. As we are not returning to Canada until January 12th, we will be spending Christmas in Cambodia. Thank you to Aunt Loretta for asking about our Christmas plans.
We expect our Christmas celebrations to be very low key since Cambodia is 95% Buddhist. There are a few signs of Christmas in some restaurants and stores but those are clearly for the benefit of tourists. It seems that all faiths are accepted and there is no indication that as Christians we should feel at all uncomfortable. On Saturday we were invited to watch a Buddhist religious celebration at the monastery where we are currently teaching English and we felt very welcome and comfortable being there. Our experience in Cambodia has been typical of SE Asia: foreigners are welcome and society is secular.
Buddhism is a very passive and peaceful religion. Some say it is not a religion at all because instead of believing in an external god, Buddhist believe like the Mystics that God and all the answers are inside of us. Buddha was merely a man and is not believed to have had any special powers. Meditation is central to Buddhism. Meditation is merely a method of focussing the mind and although it is a spiritual practice it is not at all in conflict with the practices of other religious faiths. In fact it can be practiced by any one of any faith without accepting the teachings of Buddhism. There is no attempt on the part of Buddhist to convert members of other religions. In fact, the Buddha said that we should explore fully the faiths we were born into before turning to Buddhism.
Back to Christmas, though. We will likely be on the Cambodian coast, teaching English in another small town as volunteers. Although we may enjoy a special dinner on Christmas day it is more likely to be seafood than turkey. We will attend church on Christmas Eve at a Catholic church if there is one. Christmas will not include gifts this year as we have decided to donate our gift allocation to a charity in Vietnam (see Kids Can’t Wait page). Besides we will have been on “holiday” for four months of the current year. The many incredible personal gifts and experiences that we have received in SE Asia have negated any need for physical gifts.
Its seems like the quintessential charitable act - volunteering at an orphanage in a less developed country. Yet, what ever our impact was on the orphanage it pales in comparison to the impact the people at the orphanage have had on us. By allowing us to come to their home for a few days they shared their culture, their food, their lives and their friendship with us. They gave us memories and stories that will last a lifetime.
When we first arrived at the orphanage to volunteer we were greeted by the head nun who speaks no English. We had been to the Pagoda the week before to meet her and see the program they have for special needs children. The head nun was very kind and served us tea. She has been recognized by the Vietnamese government for her work. Since arrangements for our volunteering had been made by a third party, we sat their awkwardly wondering if the message had gotten through that we were there to volunteer or if she thought we were just there for tea.
In a while a younger nun who speaks some English arrived. Although the Pagoda Orphanage does receive tourists it seems that they have not had volunteers before so they were uncertain as to what to do with us. We sat there for quite a while having tea and chatting. At this point our cultural differences became starkly noticeable as I had to suppress my urge to get started, while the nuns were happy to let things unfold as they would.
Some of the children who live at the Orphanage attend public school, so when they arrived back for their 2 hour lunch break we naturally started to play games and chat with them. This gave us a very smooth transition into the daily activities of the Orphanage. Dave, Devin and Kasenya continued while I went to the special needs classroom to see if there was anything I could help with. Meanwhile Lacey made her way to the kitchen to help with lunch.
We had intended to spend more time helping out with the special needs class, but language was a definite barrier to any meaningful participation. The staff at the special needs program are very organized and professional. Since there was little I could do in the classroom I helped feed lunch to one of the children who is unable to feed herself and then I helped the staff do the dishes by hand.
Shortly after this we were called to lunch. We arrived to a fully laid out table set for us in a dining room reserved for guests. It was an absolutely amazing meal consisting of special Hue rice cakes and a variety of other vegetarian dishes. This was real Vietnamese food at its absolute finest. We asked about eating with the children or teachers the following day, but were told that we were honoured guests and so we would be served our meal as honoured guests.
After lunch we found where the dishes were being done and so we helped with them. The 200 children at the orphanage create a lot of dirty dishes and all are done by hand. When dishes were done we were informed that it was nap time. We were shown to a small room with a bed and a couple of couches. The bed was of the Vietnamese style: a wooden sleeping platform covered with a colourful straw mat while the couches were also made of the finest tropical wood without any cushions or upholstery. The orphanage was almost silent as everyone went for nap time - including the nuns and teachers! Later one of the nuns would ask us in disbelief why Canadians don’t have nap time.
Following the obligatory nap we went to the nursery to cuddle babies. While in the nursery an American tour group came in. I was standing beside Kasenya holding a baby and someone asked if she could take a picture. We had been told pictures were permitted. To my surprise the woman started taking pictures of Kasenya!
When we arrived the second morning, we asked the head nun what we could do, feeling that our services had been underutilized the day before. She replied that there is lots of work to be done but nothing suitable for us. We let her know that even though we are from abroad, we eat and go to the bathroom like everyone one else at the orphanage so we should work like everyone else at the orphanage. She agreed to let Devin and Dave clean several of the classrooms. All the desks and chairs were also taken to the central courtyard for a thorough scrubbing.
Meanwhile Kasenya and I went back to the nursery to see the babies and helped with all that laundry from the nursery. Having quickly figured out where we could be useful and the flow of things, we followed the same routine as the day before: helping with lunch in the special needs class, having lunch ourselves, helping with dishes and then nap time. Nap was again followed by cuddling babies in the nursery. As much as this might sound like easy work, 10 children are cared for by 3 woman. With next to no toys for the babies, extra hands are always appreciated.
Another tour bus arrived and came to the nursery while we were there. I was holding one baby when one of the young nuns nudged me to indicate that I should stop hogging the babies and pass some around. So I took babies out of their cribs and gave them to the “visitors”.
Since it was apparent that I spoke English, the visitors had a lot of questions for me. They wanted to know about the babies but they also wanted to know about Kasenya and I. They asked where we were from, if Kasenya was my daughter and if she lived at the orphanage. Not quite sure how the logic of that one worked.
The head nun learned quickly, so on the third day of volunteering she met us at the front door and pointed in the direction of the courtyard where there were still desks and chairs to clean. This time all four of cleaned. One of the young nuns came by and seemed concerned that we were making Kasenya help. She was worried that the splashing water would make Kasenya cold even though it was at least 25 degrees outside.
When the children who attend public school came back for lunch, I was asked to do haircuts. I gave three boys haircuts. I think they also wanted me to do some of the girls but I since I have no training I was too slow. Dave, Devin and Kasenya helped with lunchtime in the special needs class which is on the perimeter of the courtyard where we were washing desks and cutting hair.
We had lunch earlier this time and so we ate while prayers were going on in the temple adjacent to our dining area. The sound of chanting and the accompanying gong provided a calm and pleasant accompaniment to lunch.
Lunch was again followed by dishes. But this time there were a lot more dishes because a tour bus had come and lunch was included with their tour. Squatting around the huge aluminum dish basins, the young nuns doing dishes began to ask Devin questions and giggle a lot. Finally one blurted out “you are very handsome”. How often is a 15 year old told he is handsome by a group of Buddhist nuns?
After nap time, Kasenya went to the nursery by herself while Dave, Devin and I finished washing desks and chairs. This time we had lots of help as the teachers and students from the special needs class helped us out. Some of the kids were so enthusiastic about it, they rewashed the chairs we had done that morning. We didn’t bother to stop them.
Even with only a few common words, we quickly formed bonds of friendship with the nuns, teachers and children. The work we did will not change their lives, but perhaps they will be as affected by the experience as we were. Leaving the Pagoda on our third and final day of volunteering was very difficult and Kasenya cried all the way back to the hotel. The image of the all the nuns standing and waving to us as our taxi pulled out of the lane will be forever burned in our memories.
I just thought that I would write about nothing in particular about SE Asia.
In the village teenagers were like any other teenagers.
In the village, everyone knows where you are at all times.
The plumbing is backwards. For example in the shower, you can turn it to cold but it really comes out hot.
Sleeping in hard beds isn’t very comfortable and the pillows aren’t as comfortable as you might imagine.
A lot of the food in SE Asia, especially in Cambodia is made with lemongrass.
The Laoation food is spicy but not too hot.
Sometimes the power goes out.
Elephants aren’t that common in cities but we saw one in Phnom Penh and it was just trucking down the street in front of our hotel. Boy that was cool and it a little bit scary.
Exotic locations such as Vietnam conjure up images of beaches and islands. Although we have been in some pretty exotic places we have had very little beach time. Phu Quoc Island is our last major stop in Vietnam and only the second time we are staying at the beach. We have discovered that perhaps it has all been for the best that we didn’t plan a lot of time at resorts.
This trip has been all about discovering ourselves; like one long self-directed family counseling session. One of our discoveries is that we are not really a beach family or at least not a beach resort family. Not that we don’t like the beach, but it is probably more accurate to say that we like seeing the beach and walking on the beach but not lying on it. I prefer the beach in the early morning and in the late afternoon, but not so much in the heat of the day. Other than to catch a little sun, none of us would spend hours playing at the beach or reading. To some degree we all have problems sitting still and would rather be doing something active.
I prefer rugged undeveloped beaches with few or no tourists. Little pockets of delight that show up in small villages, wedged between rock cliffs or behind public bathrooms at roadside bus stops. Accidental beaches that have been ignored because their access is poor, location is less than ideal or they are too small. Not that there is anything wrong with the miles of perfect sand beaches dotted with grass huts at resort areas like Phu Quoc Island, but sometimes they give you pause to think.
In some ways spending some time in a small village and at an orphanage in Vietnam has ruined us for resort life. We have met and stayed with real Vietnamese people. Now we see their individual faces not just their collective distinctness from us. I look into their eyes and smile at them now, instead of just looking at what they are selling. I know where they live. I know that their lives are very different from ours, but that at our core we are all the same.
At times on this trip I have gone for days without seeing other foreigners, but resorts are odd places where westerners congregate. We look so big, white and scantily clad compared to the Vietnamese. I notice that the Vietnamese work very long days in the sun at the resort, doing laundry, cleaning rooms, giving massages and selling fruit on the beach while I relax and enjoy myself. I feel odd sometimes walking around in my swimsuit and I see them avert their gaze. They smile appreciatively at me when I am fully clothed and wearing my cone sun hat on the beach. Sometimes they point to their own hats and say “same same!”.
I know that resorts bring money and money brings jobs, education and development. The beauty of this tropical place is indisputable and the climate along with the beaches are an asset to be exploited. But I have also seen places where Vietnamese people have been relocated from their homes on the shoreline so that resorts can be built. Places where cemeteries have been uprooted and moved to the mountains so a golf course could be built. You can move the people (dead and alive) but you can not help but lose their story. The story is attached to the place. Something is lost forever. I watch the sunset and I wonder about my self indulgence ...
Bissky Dziadyk Family
Travelling the world as a family since 2008.
In September 2008 our family embarked on a four month journey through South East Asia. Traveling with a child who uses a wheelchair presented its challenges, but following the Mekong River through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with a wheelchair was truly an adventure.
When we move beyond our fears and embrace our dreams, the Universe has an odd way of not only supporting us but giving us more opportunities than we ever imagined. Embarking on a journey with an open heart we can not help but be changed forever by the experience. Indeed it would be a waste to return untouched in the spiritual realm.
September: China (Beijing, Xi’an,Kunming, Yuanyang)
October: Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay) and
Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane)
November: Southern Vietnam (Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta)
December: Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville).