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Friday, June 11, 2010

Gentle survivors leave indelible impressions

WEEKS after returning from Cambodia, I still dream each night I'm sleeping on a boat that drifts aimlessly across the Tonle Sap.

Beside me are the landless people who tether their vessels to the shifting edges of this vast freshwater lake, the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

I wake confused, certain I will find a sleepy family squatting before the fire, stirring the morning soup, readying themselves for a new day on this body of water that is more welcoming for them than solid ground. So immersed have I been on my journey into this country that even in my sleep I am visited by its gentle souls.

It's a journey that begins in relative luxury: guests at Phnom Penh's Golden Gate Hotel, my fellow travellers and I sip cocktails at the Foreign Correspondents Club, straining for a view of the Mekong River. We have sealed ourselves off momentarily from the deprivation of this city, lingering over our cranberry mojitos and Singapore slings as motos rush by like fireworks on the street below.

But we haven't come to Cambodia to gawk from a distance at the flotsam washed up from decades of civil war and the unspeakable brutality of Pol Pot's regime. Under the guidance of the SeeBeyondBorders foundation, we will seek out the beauty of this place, build connections, target development initiatives and channel support to marginalised communities. In short, we will try to make a difference.

During several days, we are introduced to the complex Cambodian narrative: at Phnom Penh University, where we pair up with students desperate for English conversation, and at Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng prison, redolent still with incomprehensible evil. There's the non-government organisation-funded school at which we apply termite control and play shriek-inducing games with village children and the Khmer Rouge killing field transformed by Jesuit Services Cambodia into a vocational training centre for the disabled. The wares of the Mekong Wheelchair Shop are custom-designed for the country's robust roads and rice fields. The wheelchairs are as utilitarian as bicycles in a country still paved with five million landmines.

Thus initiated, we buy fish-stuffed baguettes for breakfast and board an early-morning bus to Battambang. Provincial Cambodia opens up like a storybook: ox-wagons heaving beneath clay vessels, a new highway arching optimistically above the morning bustle, the curiously titled Ministry of Cults and Religions building tucked into a side street. We stretch our legs at a roadside market where a Cambodian expat now living in the US offers me a bite of her whole fried chicken. I settle for a bag of dried jackfruit instead.

We are staying at the Arrupe Welcome Centre, run by Spanish Jesuit Kike Figaredo and a cohort of young volunteers; here, farmers rake mounds of rice set out in the sun to dry and wheelchair-bound youngsters zip about, shaping for themselves a destiny never imagined under Pol Pot.

SeeBeyondBorders has organised a three-day intensive maths workshop for 70 village teachers, many of whom are barely out of school themselves; they register bright and early on the first day, hungry for knowledge. The five Australian teachers in our group unfurl Khmer number charts and unpack wooden blocks, practising their counting. "Muoy, bir, bei," they chant.

The rest of us spend two days with Dhammayietra Mongkol Borei, a local health and development NGO. Our job is to construct salas, meeting places for elderly Cambodians. Dhammayietra founder Arlys Herem, an American nurse who came to Southeast Asia to work with refugees in 1983, says old people, always well respected in Cambodian society, are central to the country's social reconstruction. "There's [also] great potential for them to monitor what's happening to orphans and vulnerable children in the village," she explains.

Forming a chain gang with the villagers, we haul stones, pass buckets, lay bricks and concrete, and eat communal meals. Alex, a young Sydney-based Canadian, converses with the man beside her, she in English, he in Khmer. "We somehow understood one another," she says later.

As we're about to farewell the villagers, they present us with bowls of milky, purple brew and watch us expectantly. "You really should try some," SeeBeyondBorders founder Ed Shuttleworth whispers, noticing our hesitation. And so we tuck in, for if we don't at the very least accept our hosts' generous hospitality, what would be the deeper purpose of our visit? The dish, as it turns out, tastes much like a pudding my grandmother might have served.

Made with "chicken blood" potatoes, coconut milk, sugar and sticky rice, it's a parting gift as sweet and warm as the people who deliver it.

We travel by van to Siem Reap and settle in at the Reflection Centre, run by Denise Coghlan, Australian-born director of Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia and member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. The centre has a peacefulness that even the traditional sleeping mats and bucket baths can't dislodge. Indeed, these authentic surrounds only deepen the impression of our daily encounters.

We join a group of women who run a village nutrition program and set to work hacking the rinds off pumpkins, cooking soup in a blistering lean-to kitchen, dishing it out to rows of hungry, bright-eyed children.

When we gather each evening to reflect on our days, I feel increasingly impotent in the face of such overwhelming hardship.

While the teachers run another round of oversubscribed workshops, Adam, a landscape architect from Sydney, works on a gardening project with refugees from Sudan and Iraq, and the rest of us prepare parcels for destitute families living on the Tonle Sap. We visit disabled villagers with their wide smiles and agonising stories: in one home the grandmother has lost her legs, the father his arms and eyes. He has gone for a walk, his wife tells us; he feels his way with his feet.

The lake is wild and inaccessible the morning we are to deliver the parcels, but the day after, as we squeeze in some last-minute sightseeing, we get a call from the priest who runs the outreach program: the wind has subsided, he's off to the lake, would we like to join him? Angkor Wat or the people of the Tonle Sap? There's no contest.

The floating villages bob about in their soupy waters, wooden vessels flanked by waterborne pens in which livestock and vegetables flourish. "You must hand over the rice with two hands," Ratana Som, our translator, instructs us. "You must also sit because it makes you equal."

I clamber awkwardly aboard a boat, settling into an incense-scented space occupied by a woman, her daughters and grandchildren. The ceiling is pasted with bright pink lace and images of the saints; a cat slinks casually by, a baby slumbers in a hammock. I hand the package to the grandmother, sceptical of the long-term effect of this gesture.

Perhaps she has sensed my despondency for as I leave she hugs me tightly and reassuringly, as a mother would.

And in that moment I have an unexpected, liberating epiphany: my world has expanded while I wasn't looking, stretching its boundaries to envelop Cambodia and its people, transforming the hungry, damaged faces on the evening news into the warm, flesh-and-blood people sitting before me. Leaving my shoes at the door, I have allowed a whole new consciousness to stream through me. I haven't saved the world, but I've taken an important first step.

We offload our remaining cargo against the backdrop of a lavishly setting sun, then float back towards Siem Reap and our own privileged lives.

Tucked into my metaphorical pocket are the mementos I wouldn't have found for love or money at Cambodia's markets and souvenir shops: the indelible stories of the people I've met along the way, and the profound cross-cultural acceptance that came with that motherly hug on the Tonle Sap.

Catherine Marshall was a guest of SeeBeyondBorders.

The SeeBeyondBorders mandate is to empower communities living in developing countries by supporting specific partners and projects.More:

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