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Green Umbrella School

My dad has already written about this. Or at least written an email. The school is in partnership with an NGO called Green Umbrella. It is run by a Buddhist monk named Sokrath. He is very caring. On a walk through the village, he stopped and bought little cracker snacks for the children.

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Everyone knows how to flex
The first day we dropped our stuff at the boarding house we were staying at, then went to the school. As soon as we got out of the car, we heard

“Helloooo, Helloooo”

We looked up to see all the kids on their way back to their classrooms after lunch, for a nap time. They all looked so cute in their little green and black uniforms, smiling, and waving. After a quick tour of all the buildings (kindergarten and English in one, then 2nd, 3rd, and library in the other. There was a football (soccer) pitch, and a playground. For the 4th graders, they had an outdoor classroom because they were only there for the morning. After that they went to the public school.), we had lunch with the other staff members. It was really wonderful to arrive at this school not sure what to expect, then get such a warm welcome from the students, sit down to a beautiful lunch, then go and play with the kids.

Every day was just about the same. We got up early, and had a tuk-tuk ride to breakfast. The same place we had dinner, and just about the same foods too. Not exactly my cup of tea. Which is kind of a weird saying for me, because I don’t really like tea either. Anyways, I don’t like savory breakfast, so I brought some strawberry biscuits that we had bought before we came. The family lived right by the restauraunt, which is more like some tables, plastic chairs, and a big kitchen and home behind. It is true that grandmas around the world are the same. This one was worried I wasn’t eating enough, so she went inside and got me a loaf of bread. It was very kind. She didn’t speak any English, but every day she came by and either got me more bread, or just smiled and hugged my head.

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Grandmas around the world are the same. This grandma was concerned Mia was not eating
When we got to the school I would head immediately to the kindergarteners who had English first thing, dad would go to the 4th grade science class, and mom and Porter went back and forth. On our first day, I learned how to count with the kinders. I can count all the way to 29 in Cambodian language. I love Khmer. It’s such a beautiful language. It is very throaty and guttural, which means it is hard to learn. For instance, the word for beautiful is sart, pronounced saa. Wait, there’s more. You need to say it thinking about the correct spelling, otherwise you say it wrong. If you say it incorrect, it means turtle farts. Just kidding. It is not a very beautiful word, on the other hand, the Indonesian beautiful, cantik, is.

During recess Porter raced the boys to the footballs, then out onto the field. On the playground, I taught some girls, kinders and 1st grade, clapping games. Another day mom and I started a game of duck, duck, goose. It was so great watching the squeals, and the smiles, and the laughing, as they called out dok, dok, dok, goo!!! Then they would race around the circle, laughing, and yelling. The last day we were there, I came up with the idea to lift and swing the kinders off the slide onto the ground with a whoop. They absolutely loved it. Soon they were lining up on the slide for their turn. Later, my arms were so sore I could barely move them.

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I probably shouldn’t have favorites, but I had 7. I don’t know all their names, so there are only 4 real ones.

  1. Mesa. She was my absolute favorite. She had curly hair and the cutest smile. She made the class laugh a lot. This is when I wish I could understand Khmer.
  2. Sokchan. He is mom’s favorite. He has the chubbiest cheeks, and a cuter smile even than Mesa.
  3. Efor. She was more quiet, but I loved her. She kept saying my name to get my attention. AAAHHHHH!
  4. Piscey. She was the smallest, and an equal smile to Sokchan on the cuteness scale.
  5. Piggy. I only call her that because she wore pigtails a lot. She loved my hand clap games.
  6. Damion. He looks like a Damion to me. He was the “bad boy” didn’t smile a lot, made some jokes, and I could tell that when he got older he would be very handsome.
  7. Thomas. On our first day, he was wearing a Thomas the train outfit instead of the uniform. He was just really cute.

Mesa reminded me most of myself. She was really stubborn, and kind of wanted me all to herself. All the kids were excited about visiters, and liked having us there. I don’t think that we made much of an impact on them, but they did on us. This school will stay forever in my memory, and my heart.

I miss Cambodia. I miss the way the girls fought to hold my hands at the school, I miss the language, and I miss the people. They were all so kind, loving, and giving. Everyone should be like that. Next time when you are complaining to your parents about how slow your iPhone 4 is, or when you don’t want to go to school or work in the morning, think about Sokrath. Think about how he started a school from scratch, how he buys the village children treats, and think about all those people, all those kids, who don’t have a job, who don’t go to school. Who later on will not have job because of no or little education. Think about that.

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I am not supposed to put pictures of the kids on here, so if you want more pictures, send me an email and I’ll send you more. mialou272@gmail.com

 

Teach this triple truth part 2: A generous heart

This is my second post about the Green Umbrella organization and KKS primary school.  In this post, I want to reflect upon our encounter with a deeply moving and inspiring man, Venerable Sokrath Hour, a Buddhist monk and social activist.  This post will surely swerve into the dangerous terrain of exalting a man I really do not know that well.  So be it.  His story and living life story are inspiring.  I could use some inspirational leadership just now.

At the end of our stay at KKS, we purchased a “Sokrath monk doll,” produced by Putsor community members working for a social enterprise project of Green Umbrella.  Although it felt a little like buying a celebrity bobble head, we were nonetheless excited by the doll. The doll is a little keepsake of a great story.  I chided Sokrath a bit about having a doll named for him.  He laughed, and said that he originally asked if it could be just called the “monk doll.”  No such luck said the project manager.  A cute doll is just cloth, but a doll with a story has sales appeal.  Good marketing!

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Sokrath with the “Sokrath doll”

We bought one, I love it.  It came with a little scroll filled with teachings from the Buddha.  I’ve been ruminating on them ever since, finding hearty food for thought.  I’ll pepper this post with a few of my favorites.  Saying that Sokrath lives by these teachings is a bit like saying that a songbird performs a commute from summer to winter.  Still my favorite:

Teach this triple truth to all:  A generous heart, kind speech, a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

– teaching of the Buddha

My understanding about Buddhism and mindfulness is about as deep as a kid’s wading pool, so I encountered Sokrath’s worldview from a beginner’s mindset, bordering on childlike naivete.  I’m not even very spiritual or religious:  when I jump up looking for a higher plane of existence, I rather quickly find myself on the other side of the parabola, landing with a thud on the very firm Earth.

However, I can be shaken by a generous heart, kind speech and deliberate action.  Sokrath shook me.  After school each day, Sokrath invited us to walk through the Putsor community with him.  He often walks, enjoying the movement, the fresh air, the sunsets, and the chance to greet people from all walks of life, and hear people’s stories.

Sokrath walking.

No one saves us but ourselves.  No one can, and no one may.  We ourselves must walk the path.

– teaching of the Buddha

I must admit I have a little bit of a foot fascination.  I always check out people’s shoes, their feet, the way they lay their pads upon the Earth.  Sokrath wears good flip-flops – as bright red as Lady Gaga’s lips.  His walk is all his own though.  His every step was deliberate and stretched out, as if savoring a visit with a long-lost friend.  He firmly planted his heel, then his weight glided onto his forefoot.  But before his toes made contact he would stretch them out in three directions – left, right and forward.  Like a yogi making space between his joints, he performed toe-mountain pose with every footfall.  And though every step was extended, maybe even slow, his pace was not.

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Walking the countryside

We walked the main street, the temple, and paths through the countryside.  We walked past shopkeepers, large flatbed trucks filled with workers returning from the factory (with an eerie similarity to trucked livestock), countless children, land owners, and the forsaken people living on canal, living on nearly nothing.

Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike, each has their suffering.  Some suffer too much, others too little.

–  teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath listening.

Midway through one of our walks in the countryside, in a ramshackle sprawl of shacks next to the canal, we stopped at the most permanent looking of the buildings.  There were some items for sale.  Sokrath spoke to a woman, and she went into the back room, emerging with a bulk order of little chip bags, maybe 60 or 70.  For the remainder of our walk, we distributed little packets of crisps to every child we could find.  Whether dirty or clean, homeless or homed, clothed fancy, poor, or not at all, every child was noticed, beckoned and instructed to say please and thank you!

While we distributed chips and greetings to gleeful, grubby and grateful hands, Sokrath spoke to the adults.  He spoke with the same concerned tone to all – the shopkeeper, a farmer, a grandma with stained teeth.  Always a few words, a pause and a listen.  Sometimes they would laugh gently together. As people spoke their minds, Sokrath listened and acknowledged their stories.  Afterwards he shared some with us – hungry children, a half-hearted explanation for why a child did not attend school, a tale of young child’s death when the local hospital would not see him because he was “too poor.”

Mia and Porter had stayed behind exhausted after a day with the kindergartners.  When we returned to the boarding house, Sokrath produced the last two bags of chips for them.  I was moved by his compassion for every kid.  But, I was also a bit embarrassed that they needed a firmer reminder of their manners than the canal kids.  Kids are kids!

True love is born from understanding.

–  teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath acts.

Sokrath’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty.  When he first arrived in the Putsor province, he told me that he thought this little slice of Cambodia was fine, no problems.  Then he walked off the main path and saw how the poor lived.  He asked about them, he heard their stories.  Then he acted.

An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.

–  teaching of the Buddha

He started Green Umbrella in 2013, one of the rare Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) founded and run by a Cambodian.  Through Green Umbrella, he started a school for selected K-4 kids, an English language school for all public school kids, football (soccer) teams for older kids, and a social enterprise project for community members.

His efforts are not without challenge and failure; he shared some of his frustrations with us.  One, for example, is with the community embrace of Buddhism.  Sokrath told us a few times that Buddhism is about action, not words.  But, he worried that people in the community treated the religion as a title, rather than a philosophy. According to Sokrath, this is a challenge because there is no social structure like church (or synagogue or mosque) for Buddhist people to study and practice Buddhism together, to align their actions with the teachings.  “I am a Buddhist” does not mean that “I live according to the teachings of Buddha” just as “I am a Christian” does not mean “I live by Christian values.” Too true, too true.  I saw the mirror in his words, reflecting on my own footsteps.

On one of our walks, I was marveling at how he could give so much.  “Didn’t he need time for himself?”  Amy, knowing a bit more about Buddhism than I, perhaps asked a more appropriate question,

“How do you have time to meditate?”

He answered (and I am fully paraphrasing here), “Yes, that is difficult, but necessary.  I do it in the evening before bed.  It helps me reflect on what I did well, and what I did poorly.  What else I can do?  Plus, it helps me clear my mind for a good sleep.  I try also to meditate in the morning, but usually I hear the alarm, and decide I am too tired!”  He laughs.

As someone who has recently been encountering sleeplessness, I should heed, no seek out, this prescription.

  If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.

– teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath the inspiration

In my normal American world of teaching and investment advising, I often look for the self-interest that drives behaviors and decisions.  I feel as though incentives and penalties warp the landscape so dramatically, that I doubt the motivation of anyone.  Sokrath seems to hover over this landscape, truly marching to an altruistic drumbeat.  I believe this is why he is inspiring others.

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Dinner with Sam, from KKS, and other volunteers Kim and Francie

He inspired his friend from university, Sam, to join his efforts to build a school.  Sam is the director of curriculum, and the English language school for all Putsor kids. Fourteen Cambodians are working at the school; the teachers earn less than they could at public school (a Cambodian public school teacher earns around $200/month).  His organization inspires volunteers from around the world.

 

 

Sokrath inspires youth.  While we were there, we met another volunteer named Kimcheong (Kim).  Kim grew up in Northern Cambodia.  She is amazing – filled with love, good humor, and thoughtful reflection.

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Kimcheong, or Kim.

When she was in middle school, she decided that she wanted more than her village school could offer.  So she studied for, and received, a scholarship to attend high school at United World College in Singapore.  She graduated last year, and has plans to attend university in the United States. Right now, she is taking a “gap year” to travel and serve in her home country.   For three months, she is volunteering at KKS to help build school programs, and to create a workshop (conference) for Cambodian youth interested in service and leadership.  Much of the reason she decided to stay at KKS was due to Sokrath.  Kim’s service was inspirational to us.  She seems to know much more than her 18 (19?) years would suggest.

Sokrath hopes to inspire more Cambodian youth to learn and give back as Kim is doing.  His vision is that KKS students will learn the skills and principles to go on to higher education.  They will want to give back, bringing new vision, ideas and businesses to Putsor.  They will help lift the community and break the cycle of poverty for many people.  Sokrath’s vision is lofty, but his path is tactile, and his smile is full of compassion.  His is leadership that I choose to be inspired by.

 Work out your own salvation.  Do not depend on others.

 

– teaching of the Buddha

 

 

Climbodia

In Kampot we went to this place called Climbodia, ha, get it?  It’s funny because it’s a climbing place in Cambodia. it was so fun and there were many things to do.

First we went up this small easy slope, then we got these two carabiners and two small lines of rope.  Hey, you know what?  I’m just going to give you a pic, for the visual.

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Anyways, with the rope thingy we put it on a wire cable and walked along a steep cliff connected to the cable and the cable was connected to the rock face.  It was called via ferrata.

When we were done on the cable, we did this fun thing called abseiling, which is another word for rappelling.  We entered into a crevasse in the rock.  It was like a tight man-made (it wasn’t actually man made) half hollow cylinder.

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At the end of the abseil, we went into a cave, and it was spectacular.
We clipped into the cables again and walked in the rocks. Porter narrates from the caves:

 

When we came out of the cave, we did some regular rock climbing.  I climbed up the spot where we abseiled.  One guy tried, but didn’t make it to the top. It was his first time climbing though.  It wasn’t my first time.  The climb was hard.  It was kind of scary, because if I took my hand off the rock, I would slip off the rock and be in the wide open universe.  Plus, there were not any handholds.  Halfway up, I kind of wanted to stop and go down.

The guide told me to keep going, and he got me to chimney up the rest of the rock.  At first I put my legs in the right position so that I felt like I wouldn’t fall, but I still felt like I needed handholds to pull myself up.  At last, I figured out that I didn’t need handholds, I just needed to use my legs.  So, I put my hands just flat on the rock, and used my legs to push myself up.

The guide said, “Good job!  Now do that one hundred more times!”

Once I figured out how to do it, I went up pretty fast until I got to the top.  I felt satisfied.  The journey back down was really fun, but not quite as fun as abseiling.

 

solidarity

On January 23rd we returned from an Island where we did not have electricity and therefore internet.  Upon returning I was overwhelmed by messages and information about the women’s march around the country.  The largest protest in US history.  It was emotional for me to read, I felt a longing to be there but also glad to be where I am.  I felt immense pride in my people, especially the turnout in Bellingham 10,000 strong.  You rock Liz Isaly!!!  I am inspired by the message of love and action. 

I am also emotional traveling through a country that was recently devastated by a narcissistic dictator.  It was only 40 years ago that Pol Pot wanted to make Cambodia great again.  The Khmer Rouge regime removed intellectuals, free thinkers and anyone who was in opposition to his narrow view.  An entire generation was wiped out or forced to slaughter.  There are so few people over 50 years old and the few who survived suffered so greatly.  The country is young, but healing, beautiful, kind, welcoming and generous.   The Epic Arts program in Kampot calls Cambodia, The phoenix of Asia – rising from the ashes.

We are trying to do our part by being open hearted Americans, getting to know people and spreading the love.  My comments below are not new ideas or revelations but still so important to say out loud.

We have met Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists.  Everyone we have met has offered a kind heart, generosity and openness. 

Islam is NOT Terrorism – Hate and ignorance is terrorism.  And Buddhism is not peace – loving action is peace.  My antidote for prejudice and judgement? Having a conversation, asking someone about their family, observing someone with their children.  Learning something about their culture, language, life. 

I will wrap up this reflection with my own story of facing prejudice.  While at Angkor Wat, visiting the temples I had some very judgmental thoughts and negative feelings toward one ethnic group arriving in great numbers on tour buses.  It happened two days in a row, I was annoyed, I was starting to overgeneralize and did not like how it felt but the stronger I felt it, the more true and justified it seemed.  So I outed myself and talked to john.  He pointed out first that the tour bus demographic in all cultures is not typically our cup of tea but even then, each of those people has a story.  I tried to keep perspective into the evening and look for counter examples.  At dinner, we watched a large family at first appear to be ignoring each other, all on cell phones including the very old grandma.  I judged again then realized that they were playing an interactive game and totally enjoying each other with  fits of laughter mixed in.  Mia and I fell in love with the grandma on her I-phone.  John asked me later, “did you dislike those people?” “no, not at all.”  The next day, Mia and I were climbing steep temple stairs at sunset and two older women got the giggles as they climb/crawled up the stairs.   We were so endeared to these women and the giggles were infectious, everyone around them joined in with the laughter and the struggle. I loved these women.   My tour bus angst began to fade as people became people again.  (but its still better to go early in the morning or at lunch before the buses arrive: )  Negative Judgement is a slippery slope, toward self, toward others.  It’s work to keep it in check.

Thank you to all the love warriors out there working daily to protect freedom, improve equality and protect the environment.  I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to be with my family and travel.  I think I’m learning to be a better person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OPM (over-parenting moment)

Classic case of over-parenting with consequences.  This most recent episode of over-parenting ended with me having a palm full of black urchin spines piercing my skin.

Over-parenting is something my family is familiar with and they have now coined the term OPM.  An example might be, warning too loudly about dog poop on the ground and then they do step in it even though they were totally clear of it before the warning.   And then there is the motherly involuntary verbal vomit “BE CAREFUL!!!!”  Never useful and totally over used.

We spent 2 days on a small island, Koh Ta Kiev, off of the coast of Cambodia.  A small, super chill, no  electricity, no cars, funky cool, tree housey, open air, bungalow island guesthouse.

On our second evening, I asked Porter to snorkel with me at a spot down the beach with good coral.  Our beach was known for the black sea urchins which are very cool and totally avoidable (unless you over-parent and lose your head).  We had a nice snorkel in the setting sun, held hands, pointed to cool stuff together.  As we approached shore, I showed Porter how we needed to aim for a certain point on the beach in order to make it to the sandy safe section and not drift into the rocky section of beach.  As we approached we hit the sand and let go of hands.  The story could have ended with me saying nothing and both of us happily swimming to the shore, but NO!  I couldn’t stop myself.  I had to issue more warnings about possible stray urchins in the sand and to not just walk out without looking and blah blah blah.  Meanwhile we had drifted, we were over the rocks, I yelled commands to Porter to the left, swept my hand through the water to the right and bam! spikes to the hand. More yelling, a little navigating and then assessing the damage.  6 bloody punctures stained black from the urchin spines.  I was able to remove one spine but made a run for the guest house to get tweezers for the rest.

Oh, how was Porter?  Just fine.   Just fine before I said anything, just fine before I panicked and just fine after I panicked.  I like to think I saved his life, I sacrificed my own for his safety but the reality is that he was fine and I had spikes in my hand.

Black Urchin spine attack looks pretty nasty.  We didn’t get a picture so I will include one I found online as an example.

I told john that from here on out, if it is not life threatening, get a photo (which he did today while mia was puking from car sickness just after we arrived to our new guest house in Kampot. img_9486 I wish I had a picture of him taking a picture.  One hand holding her hair back and one hand taking a photo from above with a sheepish look on his face).

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately,  there was plenty of local wisdom for dealing with the urchin.  It didn’t hurt very much but I had heard that it can get infected or make you sick from the toxins.  The first bit of advice came from Ozzy, the steampunk meets island hippy German who worked at the guesthouse.  He said to “smash a beer bottle over your hand many times.”  Hmmmm…. He went on to say that it will help to break up the spines.   I first thought he was making a joke that I may as well break glass over my hand because I’m screwed, but then saw that he was quite serious.   John finally clarified by asking “So break a bottle and use the sharp jagged end for what?”  Ozzy howled “Nooooo, I’m German but I’m not crazy! Hit your hand with the smooth bottle to break down the spines in the skin.”   Advice #2 came from TJ, full body tattooed ex-marine Hawaiian living in California, with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.  He recommended very hot water to draw out the toxins.  Advice #3 came from the Cambodian cook who said both ideas were solid.  By morning, it was sore but faded, a few days later still a little sore but it looks like it never happened.

I have included pictures of the cool guesthouse called Coral Beach.  It is owned by a French chef and the food was AMAZEBALLS!!!  Each meal was a choice of 2 meals that had to be ordered at a specific time.  Everyone gathered together to eat, drink and enjoy each other’s company.  We befriended an Aussie couple, Indigo and Laura, with whom we played cards each night.

 

 

 

 

Teach this triple truth part 1: “service and compassion”

Teach this triple truth to all:  A generous heart, kind speech, a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

– Buddhist saying, provided to me by the Venerable Sockrath Hour, buddhist monk and executive director at Green Umbrella

This post is part 1 (out of my planned 3 posts about KKS primary school).

Last week, we spent three days at at Karina Kumar School (KKS), a primary school for rural, impoverished Cambodian students.  I am tempted to describe our experience as “volunteering,” but that makes it sound as though we swooped in with our team America shirts and delivered ready-made MREs of American education.  Closer to the truth would be “we served and received, not in that order.”

This experience has been the most important and impactful one of the trip for our family.    I wish to thank the teachers, students and staff of KKS for welcoming us, involving us, learning our stories, and sharing theirs.

 

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The staff at KKS welcoming us to their communal lunch (nap time for the kids – so civilized!).

In this post, “Service and compassion,” I will focus on the school, community, and how Green Umbrella is trying to engage social issues.  Quick warnings:  I am a teacher, I am interested in educational structures and philosophies, AND this blog is my reflective journal/toilet/puke bucket.  Thus, this post may drift into the hows and whys of school.  For all those who want to tell teachers at dinner parties to shut their mouths, (I am talking to you Gil Laas), you are warned.

First, a little background:

The Putsor community

Putsor is a rural community, about 35 km outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  It has a dusty main road, shops, a big factory, and open-air plastic tabled restaurants.  It is part of a larger district of several small villages similarly composed.  The main industry is farming and factories.  There are about 4,500 families living in the area, about 35% are classified “poor” by the Cambodian government (meaning at least one person lives on less than $1/day).  Here are a few images of the village, countryside, and kids:

Sokrath, a buddhist monk, is the executive director of Green Umbrella, the Non-Governmental Organization that supports KKS.  img_9297His mission (and that of Green Umbrella) is to break the cycle of poverty in Putsor.  The primary project of Green Umbrella is the school, KKS.  Sokrath generously spent many hours introducing us to the village, its people, and answering our questions about running a school for change.  He was patient with our questions, and forthright about his challenges, successes and roadblocks.  I was struck by how similar the challenges in combating poverty are in the US and Cambodia.  A “culture of poverty” may indeed be exactly that, a culture.

There are many issues with poverty that we spoke about.  I will describe a few that I am familiar with, but highlighting issues is never as interesting as a story.  So, storytime!

Storytime

Chanda is thirteen years old and in the 4th grade at KKS.  School policy is to not publish personal student information onto public websites, so I won’t post a picture or use her real name.  She is tall with long black hair, with a big, bright smile.  She is self-assured, the first student in class to put a new concept into action, and very active in classroom discussion.

On the day we arrived, Chanda had a cut-up leg from a bicycling accident, so could not participate in physical activities or games.  Duck, duck goose was particularly funny:  picture Porter being chased by a 12 year old monk in training.  Bare-feet skittering across tiles, a blur of black shirt and silky pants followed by a tempest of flowy, bright orange fabric.  A blue-eyed, blonde with chased by a brown-eyed, clean shaven head.  Their dimpled smiles matched.  The other kids shrieked in delight at the Tom and Jerry chase scene.  While the class got to play games with Mia and Porter, Chanda sat on the side and cried.  Amy sat with her, and consoled her tears.

When we heard her backstory from Sokrath, she captured out hearts.  Chanda has three other siblings, but she is the only one accepted to KKS (intentionally, the school only accepts one student per family, in order to spread opportunity).  She is older than the average 4th grader because a couple years ago, Chanda had been a student at KKS when her family decided to move to Thailand for job opportunities.  The move did not work out, and they moved back to Putsor. She missed some academic work.

Shortly after moving back, her father left the family.  Chanda’s mother was left as a single parent, with four kids, and no job.  She could no longer afford her house, so lost it.  The family was homeless.  Chanda re-enrolled in school (a little behind now due to the move away).  Sokrath heard their situation, and sought out some funding and volunteers to help build the family a new house.  Their home is pictured to the right.

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Chanda’s house. Simple, but with a nice view, built by volunteers and Green Umbrella.

Chanda’s story illustrates many of the challenges facing the poor:  few skills to make a better life in their current circumstance, a lack of access to basic human needs like shelter, a lack of permanence, a single parent, and obviously very low income.

A culture of poverty

Sokrath spoke to us about many of the issues facing poor families in Putsor.  If you have worked with kids, families or communities from low socio-economic circumstances, I think you will recognize many of these issues:

  1. There is significant economic stress on families – when the next meal is questionable, schooling is secondary.  Sokrath told us that many of the impoverished kids pictured above do not go to school, but spend the day hunting snails and frogs for food.
  2. There is a problem with domestic violence.
  3. There is some problem with alcohol and drugs, although the cost made it less of a problem in Putsor.
  4. Many adults in poverty do not have jobs, and appear to have lost their motivation.  They sit in the shade and wait.  Their kids lack role models, or positive pressure to work hard.
  5. Health care is challenging, and has led many families to get over their heads in debt.  I don’t really understand the system, but I think the Cambodian government will pay for acute treatments for the poor, but not chronic ones.  For example, a child in need of surgery for an eye infection could get the surgery paid for, but not any antibiotic care.  As a result, parents are leery of entering government health care, and health problems can spin out of control.
  6. Banks and micro-financiers will loan people more money than they can afford to re-pay.  Sokrath warns people to beware the “man with the briefcase,” he may earn commissions off of every micro-loan he makes.  Many families have lost their land and homes as a result of taking out too much debt, often as a result of trying to cover health-care or housing costs.
  7. Post-secondary school may be prohibitively expensive.  I think it costs around $600/year for tuition at a local school in Phnom Pehn.  Most university classes are delivered in English, so students must be proficient readers and writers.  There are scholarships, but they are few.
  8. There are not many jobs that require post-secondary education in Putsor.   Students can work in a factory or on a farm.  Thus, parents and students do not see an obvious path to a better life.  A leader of NGO development, Irene, who stayed with us for a day put it well (I’ve tried to capture her thought):  “It may be that families are doing a smart risk/reward calculation.  They see an obvious reward for their child to work in a factory or in the field.  However, with the prohibitive cost of post-secondary school, and few visible careers needing such training, the risk of excess time studying over supporting the family is high.  With little chance of reward (few future opportunities), and a high risk of wasting all that time, families may push their kids to work rather than study.  The rationale, unfortunately, makes sense, even if it puts a harsh cap to the child’s future prospects.
  9. Many adults support their kids going to school, but do not support (i.e. require) their kids to do academic work at home.  There are many possible explanations:  parents may not understand how repeated practice reading/mathing/writing is important, parents may feel shame at not being able to read/do math themselves, parents may lack the discipline, parents may perceive that time spent working on school is a waste when college/university is prohibitively expensive.  This is a deep psychological issue that challenges the US educational system as well.
  10. Parents do not expect their kids to attain high levels of academic achievement.  There may be many reasons (similar to those above), but also there are very few Cambodian role models of rural kids making their way to higher levels of education and making a better life.
  11. Most students are willing to work at school, but do not naturally push themselves to higher academic achievement without a structure in place to support them.  I think this is natural for nearly all kids, and is why school exists!

There are local public schools that are free for kids to attend.  However, they are not structured to promote rich learning experiences.  I was able to speak to Samrong, a grade 7 public school teacher, at length.  He also worked at the boarding house where we stayed and had good familiarity with KKS.   Samrong told me that student behavior in public schools is a real impediment to learning.  With 50 or 60 students in a 3rd or 7th grade classroom, I can imagine.  Samrong thought that students attending public school were not going to get the kind of preparation needed to pursue higher levels of education.

Karina Kumar School (KKS) and the Green Umbrella project

KKS has only 82 students in grades K-4.  The aim of the school is to provide a high quality education for Putsor students.  It was a treat to play, read and speak with KKS kids. They are happy, enthusiastic, sporty, and loving. I have observed many classrooms and schools; I believe I can tell when the “bones” of a school are strong.  Within an hour of stepping foot in KKS, I knew it was such a place.  As I learned about the students’ backgrounds, I decided it had more than good bones, and I became enchanted.

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KKS school grounds

 

The school accepts only 16 new kindergarten students per year due to budget and space constraints.  Students are not charged school fees, all costs are covered by Green Umbrella, which is funded through donation.  You may imagine student selection is a contentious issue.  Very true.  Enrollment is highly selective, with students selected based upon their economic background (family must be impoverished), physical health and mental ability.

I asked Sokrath is the acceptance process was controversial.  He wasn’t sure what I meant.

Amy clarified, “Are people angry with you?”

He laughed and nodded.  “Yes, people are very angry with me.  They ask ‘Why do you not love me?  How can you be a monk and love some people more than others?’  I try to explain, but they don’t understand.”

Sokrath was not visibly moved by this conversation, but I was.  Of course, he trains to be unmoved (at least visually) – he is a Buddhist monk!  I can imagine the parent protest.  When it’s your own kids, rationality and equity takes a back seat to self-interest.

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KKS kids playing sharks and minnows

Wider impacts of Green Umbrella and the future

Sokrath started the Green Umbrella organization in 2013, with an aim of breaking the culture of poverty.  He recognizes that he will need to reach the entire community in order to accomplish his mission.  Green Umbrella is currently managing other projects, and has plans for more.  Other projects include:

  • An evening English language school for any school-aged kid from the community.  To keep costs low, they hire the best high school students as teachers, then train them.  We checked it out, probably 100-150 students were in class.
  • Two girls and boys football (soccer) teams, with kids from the entire community, coached by qualified coaches.  The boys team won their first match 15-4, much to the thrill of the community.
  • Sustainable industry.  There is an arts and crafts shop that hires community members to create products for sale.

Over time, Sokrath wishes to grow the school.  Green Umbrella has bought land to build a bigger building (did you notice the 4th grade had class outside?), and add one new grade every year.  The vision is for students to attend to KKS in the mornings, then public school in the afternoon, hopefully spreading the culture and learning of KKS further.  Eventually, they are hoping that KKS students will go to university or trade schools, and bring their skills back to Putsor, helping to bring better economics and a broader mindset back.

For more information about Green Umbrella and its mission, you can follow this link:

Green Umbrella in Cambodia

Service and compassion

I started this post out with one of the Buddhist sayings Sokrath introduced me to.  I’ve repeated it to myself many times, so I will repeat it here:

“Teach this triple truth to all, a generous heart, kind speech, a lifetime of service and compassion, are the things that renew humanity.”

One of Amy and my goals for this trip was to connect with people from many walks of life, from many different cultures.  Service at KKS allowed us a wonderful opportunity to connect.  I’m not sure I would have articulated a side effect as broadening our, and our kids’, capacity for compassion.  But, as I think about connecting with people, learning their stories, forming relationships, and I am struck by the connection to compassion.  It is easy to judge and rate cardboard cutout characters, people who seem only one- or two-dimensional.  But once you know their story, their complex lives, it is difficult to not have compassion.

The amazing staff and volunteers at Green Umbrella are living service and compassion.  Once again, I am thankful that our family was invited to be a part of this effort, it was truly inspiring.

A few more photos:

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Dinner with Sam, from KKS, and other volunteers Kim and Francie
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Grandmas around the world are the same. This grandma was concerned Mia was not eating
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Kim (4th grade teacher) and John

Silk Screening

In Siem Reap it was the choice between making five ceramics each using a pottery wheel and taking one home, or printing a design on t-shirts. We were a little worried about the ceramics making it all the way back home, but it’s all about the experience, isn’t it? Mom wasn’t completely sure what the silk screening was like, so on the way to the Angkor Thom, we stopped by. The people were so nice, and helped as much as they could with our design picking. Dad had the idea of making team shirts, with our Four4Four logo on them. Porter and I thought we should also have a design on them, and I of course wanted an elephant. Porter wanted the design he will pick if he ever gets a tattoo. A stick man backpacker.Mom and dad both liked the elephant design I had found, but it was way to complicated, because someone had to draw it on the computer. So they showed us a different elephant design that they had done before, and we all liked it. The problem was though, Porter still wanted the backpacker. I came up with the brilliant solution, if I do say so myself, and we decided to have the elephant on the front of a black t-shirt, and on the back our Four4Four logo inside a box, and underneath we put the stick man. Under the box was Cheeseburgers in Asia, because that is also part of our logo. Dad likes it so much, he is thinking of adding the backpacker onto our logo on the blog.

The next day, dad, Porter and I went back. Mom couldn’t come because she was sick. we think it was food poisoning. At the silk screening place, they took out our t-shirts, which we had fit to our sizes the previous day, and we picked our colors. I thought even though everything else was the same, we should have different colors.

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I picked turquoise, Porter chose green, and dad, brown. we had to guess for mom, but she loved the white grey I picked for her. Then they showed us how to scrape the paint on to the stencil, and from there to the shirt. It was really fun, and you really had to put some muscle into it. Between the scrapings, they dried the shirt with a heat gun. they did this three or four times. After that, they took the shirt and compressed it in this other thing. then we did the back. It was a very unique experience, and we all love the way our shirts came out.

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Stone and secrets in Angkor Wat

On either side of me, I could feel rather than see, the great moat of water.  It’s presence beside for hundreds of steps or more, there was no telling how far it stretched away into the dark.   Uneven flagstones kept my toes engaged while my mind wandered to the mystery of how such a water trench was cut by hand into the Earth over 1000 years ago.

The air was dark and thick, laying low below a canopy of stars.  Orion lay on its side, like some great celestial sacrifice. Ahead, a darker shape with a black rectangular center rose into our horizon of stars. A gate, a doorway into the ancient temple.  The five smallish fingers holding onto mine gripped a little tighter as we stumbled together, and she leaned into me – scared? excited?  maybe just sleepy.

With hushed whispers we moved through the opening and out into a great open space. The air vibrated with a hum of jungle insects and muffled birdsong.  Scattered about the grounds were a reflection of the stars – hundreds of small earthly cell-phone lights as others sought out an early morning encounter with mystery.  The sight was strangely beautiful.

As we wandered the next kilometer or so, dawn light began to massage tree tops and a magnificent temple into existence. Elegant, soaring, lanceolate temple spires emerged into our vision from the darkness of space.  We settled into a quiet repose next to a small pond, alongside a small town of other tourists to witness the daily unveiling of Angkor Wat.

When Amy and I decided to visit Angkor Wat, a complex of ruins in the North part of Cambodia, we knew it would probably be a tourist zoo.  The attraction is actually a collection of ancient structures, a sprawling complex built by the powerful Khmer kingdom of Cambodia between 1000 and 1500 years ago. Angkor Wat is just the most well-known of the temples.  Around 500 years ago it was abandoned and the hungry Cambodian jungle began to take over.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, explorers, French mainly, “re-discovered” the place and began clearing away the encroaching jungle.  Eventually the entire Angkor temple complex was revealed as the largest religious monument ever constructed on Earth.  As such, it has become a popular tourist destination.  Generally, Amy and I avoid such places, since crowds can really spoil a place.  Nevertheless, when in Cambodia…  We bought the three-day pass, figuring that our kids would burn out after day one, and we would burn our entrance fees.

We were wrong.  Sure, each day we all grew temple tired, but Mia, especially, was determined not to waste money.  She was going to visit temples each day, she was not going to waste money.  She does not want to make money.

We did not anticipate being captivated by the majesty of these great stone temples.  We did not hire a guide, we barely read about anything.  We just wandered, gazed and gawked. Some picture highlights of Angkor Wat:

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By 9:30 am we were ready to move on, so we tuk-tukked (I love this verb!) to Ta Prohm, the so-called “jungle temple.”  Here, the temple excavators opted to keep the encroaching jungle in place, to allow visitors to experience a unique state of deconstruction.  They selectively cleared jungle that had been creeping in on the abandoned structures for 400 years.  Plus, the management made tourists walk about a kilometer to the ruins.  As a result, the temple was free from motor noise, and the spectacle of giant Banyan trees growing over and out of crumbling stone walls and arches was spectacular.  Plus, we spent an additional hour seeking out the “dinosaur carving” in a wall that has some great internet fanfare associated.  Some creationists claim it as evidence of a young Earth, humans co-existing with dinosaurs.  Other theories seem a bit more plausible:  perhaps the ancient Khmer had found fossilized evidence for dinosaurs?  it looks a bit like a Pangolin (endangered Camobodian critter that looks like an armadillo)?

We loved Ta Prohm, here are few photos from there:

 

On day 2, we opted to sleep in and try to beat the crowds by visiting the temples around the lunch hour.  Our idea worked, as we walked into Angkor Thom, believed to be the capital complex of the kingdom, with hardly any other visitors.  We were able to stroll through the halls and doorways in quiet awe.  To keep the kids’ interest, I suggested we film a trailer for “Temple Run” since the video game sort of looks like this place.  I’ll attach it to the bottom of this post.  The movie-making was fun, but delayed our progress.  By the time we made it to the top where hundreds of enchanting Buddha faces are carved into the walls, the place was mobbed by selfie-sticks and chattering tourists.  We made a quick exit, then pushed the kids past their limit on a peaceful 3 km walk from one complex to another.  Meltdowns, begging for ice cream, and suggestions of child abuse ensued.  Our sweet Tuk-tuk driver with cold water was a welcome sight.

On our last day, I was inspired by our friend Lisa to go for a run.  She told us that she did the “Angkor half-marathon” a couple years ago.  Awesome!  I met our driver at 6 am, started running by 6:30.  It was lovely, but by 7:30 I had already drank my 0.5 liter of water, and was worried my sweat might short circuit my iPhone.  I bought more water, and kept going, running in the shade as much as possible.  I made it 12 km before my radiator blew. I asked a friendly ticket checker “how much farther?” He informed me “5 km further,” then laughed at my look of desperation.  He waved over a buddy (an on-duty police officer which seemed a little suspect), who motor-scooted me back for $3.  Ha!

For our final evening, we went to a more obscure temple at our tuk-tuk driver’s recommendation, and climbed to the top for sunset.  It was lovely, peaceful and reflective.

Photos from Bayon and sunset (check out the new T-shirts we just printed that day, cool!)

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We know that we are tourists, but we don’t really like it.  The crowds, frantic energy and the quest for the best selfie can kill a mood.  For our next adventures, we are going to look for nature and connection.  (Foreshadowing:  we found it, a couple days spent with a k-4 school in the rural countryside.  Those kids were insanely adorable!  We will talk about that experience another time…)

Finally, thanks for reading this long one (if you made it this far!).  Here is the trailer we made at Angkor Thom.

 

 

 

 

The Kids

The kids continue to inspire and delight.  There’s nothing quite like a day in bed with stomach problems, then a weak but able sunset temple visit to make me reflect on the love and gratitude for a great family, and creative, silly, tender-hearted and curious kids.

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We’ve been trying to connect with NGO’ and their affiliated “social enterprises.”  Services or shops that support the development and growth of disadvantaged Cambodian youth or those blinded, deafened or disfigured by land mines (that still exist off the beaten path).  The first night in Cambodia, we went to a Friends restaurant where all of the staff are former street kids training for restaurant work or to improve English and move on to higher education.  There is one teacher server and many student servers.  They also had a retrash shop filled with upcycled art, bags made from rice sacks, wallets out of rubber tires and beads made from wrapped paper.  The kids loved the whole concept and it really set the stage for looking for opportunities to support good causes while we eat, shop, and recreate.  On this particular night, Porter ordered grilled frog legs.  He was so brave, it looked like…well…frog legs up to the waist.  It was basically a Frog and Toad massacre disguised as 5-star cuisine but he powered through.  I tried to play it cool but could not watch him eat it.  John got a delicious steak salad sprinkled with red tree ants!!

The next morning after watching sunrise at Angkor Wat (kids willingly got up at 4:15am), we came upon a monk doing blessings.  The kids were eager to engage.  The monk was playful and kind.  It is amazing how quickly kids take to all of the cultural protocols.  No hang ups about using language, taking shoes off, bowing with hands in prayer, kneeling in front of a monk.  When Porter bowed in prayer pose, he had his shoes in his hands.  The monk giggled and said “bless the shoes, bless the shoes.”

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Porter found one of my trip highlights at the Angkor Thom temple.  He said, “hey guys, there’s something where you take your shoes off and it looks cool.”  We all followed and discovered at the heart of the temple, a small dark chamber filled with Buddha statue, offerings, candles and incense.  We took off our hats, packs and shoes, entered and kneeled together.  Even though the temple complex was filled with other tourists, we had almost 5 minutes alone in this sacred space.  We each lit incense and sat in contemplative silence.  I was so moved and filled with love.  We tiptoed out, bowing our respects.

In perfect kid form, 10 minutes later, I said how special that was for me and Porter asked, “what experience? What room? When? What candles? Ohhh yeah” I am going to just assume that the experience was so wonderful that it bypassed short term memory and went straight to deep cellular memory and a lasting impression.

Yesterday, we found another social enterprise, silk screen t-shirt making.  The kids will write more details about the experience, but mia and porter were so excited to participate and adamant that we had to do this particular activity because it was a “social enterprise”.  It was a group effort but the kids were in the lead with design ideas.  They both know exactly what they want and they are great at compromising and blending ideas.

Unfortunately, I did not get to join them for the actual screen process since I was laid up in bed all day with crummy tummy.  The bathrooms are well designed for this occurrence.  Most bathrooms are one multipurpose room, toilet, sink and shower.  So, if you fear expelling from both ends (which I did fear), no worries, because you can just hose down and shower up.  Fortunately, it never came to that, my system decided to take turns.

The kids of course were loving and tender when they returned with stories of print making, so proud of the family shirts they created.

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We ended our time in Siem Reap at Pre Rup temple for sunset, wearing our team shirts.  The kids got really into using the good camera and learning settings.  Then a beautiful tuk tuk ride home with the rising orange full moon.