How a Teacher and a Therapist Took Their Family Around the World for Four Months.

In 2017 we did it.  Our family of four spent four months travelling around Southeast Asia, we called it “Four for Four – Cheeseburgers in Asia.”  We communed with elephants, we soared across the Laotian jungle, we licked the most delicious peanut sauce from our fingers, we laughed with faces that spoke no common tongue to ours.  Four months away from work and regular life.  Four months exploring different landscapes and cultures.  Four months of intense togetherness.

Many people have asked us how we did it.

This post is such a description – how we managed our jobs, our money, the kids’ school, and our attachments back home.  If you want to read more about what we did, I included some links to adventure blogposts at the bottom of this post.

Also, this blogpost is an invitation to my new blog project.  I am back in Bellingham, Washington, and I have been building a new business  called Trail Financial Planning.

TRAIL

We do financial planning and investment management for regular people.  Primarily, we work with families like us.  People with kids, with businesses, with values; people who care about life, and they way they live it.  As part of that endeavor, I blog about financially related matters that matter to me and my family – paying for college, retirement, taxes, our investments, etc.  My blog posts include:

Risk and return in the stock market

What I did to secure my credit

Should I request a refund of my Washington GET units? 

If you are interested in following that blog, you can either:

This blogpost is also a taste of financial planning.  It describes how we set a goal, and set about carrying it out.  We needed intention, money, time, and a bunch of logistics planning.  I’d be lying if I said it was easy.  But, I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of us.  I usually don’t like to make “brag-media” posts, but I know a lot of people are interested in doing something like this with their own families.  So, this post may get a little braggy.  Hopefully, this post will inspire others to reach for their big goals in life.

Here is a description of how we pulled off “Four for four.”

Step 1 – We built intention.

In 2013, Amy and I went out on a dinner date.  Our dinner dates are infrequent, and often careen into existential conversations like, “What the hell are we doing with our lives?”  While I was looking at the bill, sipping the last of my wine, we started talking about travel and trips with our kids.  At that time, Mia was in 5th grade, and Porter was in 2nd.  We had several trips we wanted to do, including a longer overseas travel experience.  On the back of the restaurant receipt, we listed the places we wanted to go, and the time available.  We figured we could pull off a semi-big trip every other year.

Travel goals – Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, Mexico, Central America, and a longer travel experience.

Time resources –  Seven summers before Mia would finish high school.

Oh crap.

Step 2 – We planned the time.

We decided  a four month trip made good sense for our family, and for Amy’s business.  We identified Mia’s 7th grade year as the right time – after she had a full year start to middle school, but before 8th grade and high school when school might feel more academic.

We circled the year on the receipt, and told the kids about our plans.  They took the news as kids often do about something totally incomprehensible:

Mia, our 11 year old, looked at us thoughtfully, “Uh, ok.”  Then her brow furrowed, “I guess so, but like when?  Which grade will I be in?  Where will we go?  How will we get there?  What would I do for school?  What would I eat?  What about Josie (our dog)?” She is her mother’s daughter.

Our 9 year old boy, Porter, responded with “Uh, sure.”  He is his father’s son.

We started telling others of our plans.  By writing down our goal and saying it out loud,  we gave the trip a certain destiny.

We went back-and-forth about what time of year to travel.  Amy and I decided on December through April, mostly because the window offered the best weather in Southeast Asia.  In addition, we could leverage the kids’ school holidays.

In the Spring of 2016, I wrote a letter to my school district asking for the time off (without pay of course) from my job as a high school teacher.  My principal was completely supportive.  So was the head of human resources.  It was as if these people read my request, and wanted the same thing for themselves.  They enthusiastically endorsed my plan.

Amy’s time off was a bit trickier.  She is a mental health therapist in private practice. Six months out she began telling her clients that she would be gone that winter.  At first, it seemed okay.  But then, the election result came in, and many of her clients seemed to experience re-traumatization.  Challenging.

Nevertheless, we left for the airport on December 11, 2016.

Step 3 – We planned the money.

How much?

I did some research.  Major research.  Meaning, I googled “How much does it cost to travel through Southeast Asia with a family?”

Turns out, there are many people who have written about this.  The “Indie Traveler” site was particularly useful (see note [1] for web reference).  Costs were reported as between $30 – $50 per day, per person, depending on the country.   I budgeted about $150/day, or $20,000 total, for our family.

This turned out to be a pretty close estimate.  At the end of the trip, I totaled our expenses: $19,262 for everything except flights to and from the USA (We used frequent flyer miles for those), or about $156 per day.  Wow, pretty close!

How to pay?

We paid for our trip out of savings.  We didn’t have the money saved before “the receipt,” but once we had committed to a dream, it was amazing how good we became at saving.  For about a year and a half before we left, we examined our monthly cash flows, and took a knife to our expenses.  We skipped a couple ski trips, and we cut down on restaurants.  We aimed to save about $1,000/month.  After a year and a half, we had about $25,000 in savings.  We didn’t want to use all of our savings (an emergency fund is important), so we also pulled some money from one of our Roth IRA accounts where some stock investments had done well.  Thanks to Apple and its iPhone!

Our actual travel costs

Although we tightened our belts before our trip, as travelers we lived well.  We did everything we wanted to, basically without regard for cost.  Of course, one’s travel style will be important here.  Our style is sort of the Do-It-Yourself, but without the cooking.  The major categories of expenses (listed in order of fun), were activities, food, accommodation and transport.

Activities and adventures were about one-third of the cost.   Some adventures were cheap (hikes or public museums), some were expensive – our guided trek in Nepal cost $2,700 for seven days.  I included some links to written up descriptions of our travel at the bottom of this post.

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Fresh spring rolls on the street

Food was about 20% of our budget.  We ate good food every day, at restaurants or on the street.  The hotter and fresher the better we discovered.  We could eat on the street for about $2/meal per person.  Restaurants and cafes were more – around $4-5/meal per person.

Accommodation was about 25% of the budget.  We stayed in lots of different styles of accommodation, from gritty hostels to fancy hotels.  Our favorites were moderately priced home stays, where nice, clean, rooms cost between $30-$50 per night.  We loved the individuality, the people who ran such places, and the other travelers we met there.

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Mia with Dung, the owner of one of our favorite home stays in Hoi An.

Transport accounted for about 25% of the cost as well.  We traveled by plane, train, bus, taxi, motorbike, tuk-tuk, song taew, long boat, bike, foot, and the back of a few trucks.

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Amy and Mia buzzing around Ninh Binh, Vietnam

 

How we accessed money overseas

During our trip, we paid some for some things with a VISA card, but mostly we used cash.   We took out $300 – $500 from an ATM every few days; the machine delivered local currency of Baht, Dong or Rupiah.  The fees were modest, and well worth the saved hassle of needing to carry a lot of cash, travellers checks or some other method.  The machines were ubiquitous in popular tourist areas.   Sometimes I got a little stressed if I knew we would need a bunch of money to pay ahead.  For example, at “BEES Elephant Sanctuary” (see [3] for link), we needed to arrive at a remote location with over $1000 for a several day experience.  We planned ahead and hit the ATM a few days in a row, so it worked out.  There were other issues – border crossings usually required US dollars instead of the local currency of the exiting country.  If I did it again, I would have figured out how much US cash we would need, and just brought it in a hidden pocket.  We could have used around $500 US total for travel visas and other miscellaneous costs.

At first I kept track of our expenses with a detailed travel budget app.  But after some time, it became annoying.  I just wanted to experience the time and reflect upon it;  at some point even I, a spreadsheet geek, didn’t want to analyze it.  However, I persisted, because I knew I wanted to write this post.

US-based expenses

There were some US expenses that we had to cover, notably our home mortgage and health insurance.  Fortunately, we found a family to live in our house.  They paid for most of the mortgage payment and utilities while we were gone.   Health insurance, on the other hand, was just flat-out expensive.  , and we bought travel insurance.   But, US-based health insurance was pricey.  We paid nearly $1,200 per month for Amy’s policy and a COBRA policy from teaching for the kids and me.  Ouch.  Luckily we didn’t need to use it for any real ouches.  We did not want to skimp on keeping access to good health care.

Here are a few things that I learned about medical care and health insurance.

Medical care overseas was excellent.  We went to a doctor or other medical provider several times on our trip, and we received excellent care each time.  The needs were minor, so we just paid for it.  Total expenses for three visits:  about $100 including some prescription costs.

Travel insurance.  Travel insurance was relatively inexpensive – about $150/month for the entire family [3].  We wanted it in case we needed emergency evacuation.  Travel insurance companies specialize in working with systems overseas.  We never needed it, but well worth the peace of mind.

Our US-based health insurance.  We decided to keep our US-based health insurance while we were gone, in case we needed to come back to the US for care.  Fortunately we never needed to.  Although very expensive (we paid about $1,200/month for our family), we would not have done anything differently.  We wanted to keep access to a medical system we know and trust.  That said, the manner we kept US health insurance was a little clunky, and we probably could have done it better.  Amy has her own plan as a self-employed person.  We just kept paying the ~$350/month.  That was fine.  The kids and I are on a plan offered through my employer (Bellingham School District).  I was informed that I could sign up for COBRA.  I did, and it cost about $900/month.  What I did not realize was the “COBRA” is considered a new plan.  So deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses reset.  Even though the health insurance was the same exact plan, with the same exact benefits, offered through the same exact provider, and I paid the same exact premiums, we ended up with a “reset” on deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses twice in 2017, once when COBRA kicked in, and once when we switched back to my non-COBRA plan (when the 2017-18 school year began).  Grrrrrr.  Next time, I will research this a bit better.  There are bound to be more economical options than what we did.

Step 4 – We figured out school for the kids

For many families around the world, leaving school for four months is difficult.  Some European citizens are even assessed fines for for taking their kids out of school.  As a teacher, I know how difficult it can be for a student to be gone from school for an extended period.  Fortunately for us, the US school system is more lenient.  Officially, we un-enrolled the kids from school.  That turned out to be pretty easy, though Mia lost much of her electronic cloud-based work in OneDrive when her account was deleted.

Our kids’ teachers were incredibly supportive.  Porter’s 4th grade teachers, in particular, were hugely helpful.  The amazing Ms. Herndon prepared four months’ worth of math curriculum for us to take as home school along the way, arranged in travel-friendly packets including assessments!

At first, I didn’t intend to do much formal home school.  We used challenges like, “You have $10 US to go buy a gift from this Indonesian market for your secret santa person.  How much Rupiah is that, and go buy something.”  The kids loved that sort of thing.

Here is a youtube link to Porter carrying out some “homeschool travel math.”

After a couple months on the road, we could tell that the kids needed some structure.  So, we designated a couple days a week as “home school days.”  The kids would be required to do some math and some writing, plus another activity they don’t do on their own.   Mia would be required to do some sort of PE, while Porter would read.  We started doing some more formal math lessons and practiced using the supplied curriculum.  I really enjoyed being my own kids’ teacher, and Porter commented that he thought he was learning a lot since there was a single adult holding him accountable.

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Porter doing some arithmetic racing in Hoi An

Step 5 – Plan the logistics

Amy is our travel planner.  I could go on and on about how much work she did.  But, this post is not about that substantial effort.  In short, she planned the first 3 weeks including transport and lodging before we left.  For the rest of the time, we basically figured it out as we went.  We found out that with kids, we liked having places booked ahead, rather than just showing up and figuring it out.  The internet is amazing for research.  There are a myriad of excellent sites to find accommodation and travel.  Trip Advisor and individual blogs gave us lots of third-party reviews.  Generally, once a week we would sit still, preferably near a beach or pool, to plan out the next one or two weeks.

Reflect, and celebrate

Although $20,000 is a pretty big price tag, in retrospect it seems a bargain.  We experienced so much, yet saw only a few other families traveling with kids.  I kept asking myself, “How many families are at Disneyland right now, and how much would that trip cost?”   A little more Googling finds some answers – about $1100 per day according to Hip Munk [6].  I have nothing against Disneyland, but we lived with real elephants [3], we ziplined hundreds of feet over the tops of a real Gibbon-inhabited forest [4], and we met real people around the world [5].  And we did it for about one-tenth the price.  Just sayin’.


Links.  We do not receive any compensation for externally linked websites.

[1]  “The Indie Traveller” – A good site with lots of detailed information about costs of travel.

[2] Nepal trekking.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, April 2017.

[3] Bees Elephant Adventure.  Blogpost written by Mia Chesbrough, February 2017.

[4] The Gibbon Experience.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, February 2017.

[5] People are People.  Blogpost written by John Chesbrough, January 2017.

[6] World Nomads Travel Insurance.  We never needed to use the services, but they got pretty good reviews.  This company was fine for us, though we never needed to use their services.

[7]  https://www.hipmunk.com/tailwind/how-much-does-a-disney-vacation-really-cost-v2-2016/

Garbage

Ugh, the garbage/plastics situation is not good, in fact it feels dire.  As my friend Lisa said, the longer you live in Asia, the more hopeless the garbage situation feels; efforts that we put forth in the states can not even begin to make up for the amount of plastic used here. But don’t give up, there is hope. Shifting the collective subconscious from dispose to reduce reuse recycle takes time, patience and persistence.   There are some people making changes in select communities.

If John were writing this, he would have some useful statistics about plastic use and production, plastics in our oceans and what it’s doing to the planet. But, that would require some additional research so take my word for it or look up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Okay, I did some research.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a plastic mass twice the size of Texas, 9 feet deep.  There are 5 major ocean patches on the earth.

7 billion pounds of non recyclable plastic are produced every year

only 7% of the plastic in the US is recycled.

The issues I witnessed in SE Asia are two fold:

In some areas, garbage disposal is a problem.  There are not well executed systems for collection and disposal. Insufficient systems lead to people dumping or burning their garbage, which is of course toxic for the people and the planet.

The other issue is plastic production.  ALL THINGS COME IN COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF PLASTIC.  The packaging situation is out of control.  Most drinks, even if it is not take away, is put in a plastic cup with a straw or two, then put in a plastic bag or a special plastic strap holder so you don’t have to hold your drink.  I’m not sure the purpose except maybe so your hand doesn’t melt the ice?????  Even plastic water bottles can be purchased with a straw and a bag for carrying the plastic with water in it.

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In Indonesia upon first encountering the garbage, I had mixed feelings.  On one hand I wanted to be at a clean beach or clean jungle path free of garbage while on my vacation.  On the other hand, I knew it was important to see it and be in it because that is the reality.  The clean swept beach is an illusion and the garbage that was removed for your viewing pleasure in paradise, is piled up at the end of the beach, ready to be burned.

Mia has been vigilant about not accepting bags for our purchases and bags and holders for our drinks.  We have not been so vigilant about straws.  Our friends, the Mangelsdorfs order drinks with no straw knowing that it will always arrive with with one.

We have seen some recycling efforts.  In Cambodia – recycled art.  John got a rubber tire belt, we all have paper wallets, I have a necklace of beads made from wrapped paper.   We saw people going through garbage pulling out plastic bottles, indicating some sort of reuse or recycle.  Les Manguiers guesthouse in Kampot had recycling bins set up.  The Green Umbrella school had a garbage compressing machine that makes garbage bricks to be used for walls.

I don’t know very much about the problem world wide.  I’m certain, like all things, the problem is complicated.  Introduction of fast food, westernization of production without infrastructure for disposal and transport, lack of refrigeration but increased production of transportable foods.  The banana leaf, although still used as a bowl, bag, wrapper, plate etc, just isn’t keeping up.

So, the garbage situation is bleak but let me leave you with this little nugget of hope and good times. One morning while at breakfast on Sriboya, a french expat invited us to join a trash clean up effort partnering with the local school.  Great, we were due for a project and a give back.   He started the Sriboya chapter of Trash Hero, an international community based program focused on education and cleanup efforts.  They have a facebook page if you want to check it out.

We met the next morning at 8:30 and walked the beach 1 kilometer to meet up with the students age 8-11.  We divided into groups and headed out to do the clean up.  What ensued was the same group dynamic with a large group of kids in a loosely organized activity that I have witnessed everywhere I have ever worked with kids.  The separated groups immediately became one large scattered mass of friends, loners, hard workers, slackers and defeated adult volunteers.  Most of the girls were picking up garbage, the smart studious boys were picking up garbage and then there were the packs of naughty little boys destroying things, turning plastic bags into wind kites, hiding in the trees.  Ant and I got a few packs of the naughties to engage and fill some bags.  One boy communicated clearly to me through body language that he simply did not pick up garbage, it was below his pay grade.  I stuck Ant on him and he filled a whole bag with Styrofoam.  In the little packs there was usually one girl, you know, the girl that runs with the boys.  Who do you think was doing the job when the group was approached?  She was.

There was one pack of girls huddled up in the tide pools so I checked up on their progress.  They were smashing shellfish attached to the rock and scraping out the tiny slimy animal inside.  TO EAT!  I thought that was Badass and left them to it.

The whole group gathered to sort the garbage and have a snack. Mia and Porter worked hard.  Mia jumped right in despite the searing heat, sorting the garbage until the job was done. We played games with the kids, tried to communicate, took selfies.  At one point, Mia started quietly singing the cup song with a water bottle.  At first the girls became quiet to listen, then the boys were silenced with curiosity, then the girls all squatted down to see more clearly what she was doing.  Her voice got stronger and a pack of 20 kids were silently listening.  It was Awesome and Brave, everyone cheered when she finished.  After that Mia had a few little cuties that wouldn’t let go of her hand.

 

A job well done, hopefully some education about the problem and for us, some fun connections with kids.

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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