Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Things Happen

Ta Prohm
Well - of course things happen, but here they often creep up on you and take you by surprise. Like the three-day holiday last week to celebrate the birthday of the King.  To be fair, we had been given warning of this holiday, but we didn't realise that it would be for three days.  This gave us a chance, however, to do our regular trip to the Temples though this time we thought we'd cycle, even though the entrance fee to Angkor Park is still $20 per person.  We set off bright and early (well, I thought so - though Loll was muttering 'I thought we were going to have an early start' as we cycled away from the house at 7.13 am.) and soon found ourselves cycling around Angkor Wat and into the grounds of Angkor Tom and then to the mysterious temple of Bayon.  A little more puffing and panting, and we had almost completed the circuit and headed back via the overgrown temple of Ta Prohm, before picking up the road back to Siem Reap.  As it happens, if we'd taken a left turn before this main road, we would have found ourselves on the road to Kurata and Spitler Schools: they are very close to the temples although I would guess that very few of our children have ever visited them.

Another change - and this was really unexpected, so early in the year - was the sudden onset of torrential rain.  This began almost immediately after the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, so there was clearly a connection - but the roads both here and in Phnom Penh were no better prepared than last year for the downpour, and flooded almost immediately.  As it happens we haven't been too hard hit yet in Siem Reap, but we know that if we get much more rain, and if it is sustained for a day or two, then it will be very difficult to get into Spitler School.  Last year during the rainy season a sandbag bridge was built, with funding from the Foundation and help from the villagers and school staff, and this bridge is still there.  But we wonder whether it will survive another rainy season.

CPP Parade
The biggest upset to our daily routine was caused by yet another change to the tranquility of life here: the start of the Commune Election season. We set out on our bikes on Saturday morning for Kurata School, only to find our way blocked for some considerable time by a convoy of Cambodian People's Party supporters heading for a rally in town.  The CPP is the party of the ruling government, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and it is expected that his party will receive a resounding majority at the polls.

Turn off for Kurata School
The long, straight road
We finally managed to fight our way onto the main road (the road that eventually connects with Angkor Wat) and then cycled to the turn off for Kurata School.  This crossroad is on about the only hill in the whole of Siem Reap, as it's where the main road (route 60) crosses a dyke, and it's along the top of the dyke that we cycle in order to get to Kurata school. At the turn off are a number of stalls seeling food and drink, but because they are on the main tourist road to Angkor Wat their prices for water are double what we normally pay: 1000 riel rather than 500.  We usually show righteous indignation at this blatant attempt to fleece tourists - and then realise that we are actually being required to pay 25 cents a bottle rather than 12 cents, and we may find ourselves in for a shock once we return to the UK! From Route 60 we have another incline up to the top of the dyke road, and many tuk-tuks get to this point and then require passengers to dismount and walk the five yards up the hill before setting off again along the long, straight, dusty (at present) road. Obviously we sail straight up the hill on our bikes leaving the water-sellers looking at our dust.

Vebol fixes the footballs
Things have been happening at Kurata school as well.  Since the start of the English programme there has been a sense of increased energy partly, no doubt, the result of the incredible enthusiasm of our two new teachers as well as the lively activity afternoons which also involve the whole school during their break times.  But the new play equipment is also helping - and Vebol is doing a great job in distributing and maintaining the equipment.  We saw him surrounded by a gaggle of anxious little boys as he checked for punctures in their football and then blew the ball up so that they could continue with their play.

The final 'happening' of this particular day was the English lesson for the Kindergaten children.  We haven't tried rolling the programme out to the youngest children before, but the two lessons a week they they are now getting from Ratha are proving a great experience.  The children are exceptionally shy and Ratha is still feeling his way with how to work with this age group.  However, he has the support of their lively young class teacher - Thierry - so the children are beginning to respond to this strange experience.  We joined in this week and began to teach them the song Five Little Speckled Frogs.  We're not entirely sure they understood all of the words or ideas (though frog is an important part of the rural diet), but they seemed to enjoy jumping off the 'log' into the 'pond' we had created out of coloured paper - and occasionally shouting 'YUM-YUM' and 'GLUG-GLUG' when they had built up a bit of confidence.
Five rather uncertain frogs: glug-glug.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lotte and Luce

Lotte and Luce - two young travellers from the Netherlands - write about their experiences of volunteering with SSF:
Sarin with Lotte and Luce.
It was Luce who came up with the great plan to volunteer in Siem Reap for a couple of weeks while we were staying in an adorable blue bungalow in a small village in Laos. Lotte had already been travelling for four months, and had seen beautiful things in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. But the Khmer people from Cambodia had the most effect on her. After seeing so many things it is nice to settle down and give something back to this beautiful country.

It sounded like a terrific plan: to help the children take one step closer to a better future, and learn more about the country and the people in our spare time by being a part of the city. The only thing that held us up was the short time we were planning to be in Siem Reap and we  hadn’t  planned anything. Luckily, the first day we arrived we stopped by at ConCERT Cambodia, a bureau that helps people volunteer at  schools, hospitals or other places. After some talking they told us to come back the next day, there was a chance they would find a place for us. The next morning we met Loll in the office of ConCERT. She told us everything we needed to know about the Spitler and Kurata schools and invited us to come with her and Nick to the afternoon activity. A few hours later we arrived by tuk-tuk at the sandy playground of the Spitler  School. In no time we were surrounded by those lovely kids: "Hello miss!" "What is your name?" "How old are you?" asked the daredevils of the group.

Lotte works on a mobile with two children.
The class began with the ABC.  We were surprised by how clever these kids were. With the age from 8 till 12 they were already so good in English. They listened in silence to the story about the Hungry Caterpillar, were making their own paper butterflies with such patience, sang so happily and loud the English songs about the Wheels on the Bus, and the coloured butterflies. After these two hours watching these children with so much happiness, we were sold.
Actually, we were already sold the first moment we stepped on the playground of the Spitler School. This was exactly what we wanted to do: helping teach the children English in a fun way.

Luce works with one of the children in the library.

Now, one week later (we have three left) we have been helping Loll and Nick during the afternoon activities, and decorating the library by drawing and colouring pictures with the children to hang on the wall and the ceiling. During these hours the kids let down their shyness and make jokes with us, sing songs - and the best, they have a good time!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Royal Ploughing and a Holiday

Prince Norodom Chakravuth carried in state during the ploughing ceremony.

It's always rather nice to be caught unawares by a holiday - so we were pleasantly surprised to hear about the Royal Ploughing Day on Wednesday and a day off school to allow everyone to look forward to next year's harvest.  The King, or his representative (in this case Prince Norodom Chakravuth) cermonially follow two oxen who spend an hour ploughing some sand in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, after which various offerings are made to them, and the nation waits with baited breath to see which dish they will choose.  There was some jubilation this year that the beasts ignored the wine (which would have portended disaster for crops) but went instead for beans and corn.  This will clearly please the bean and corn farmers, but might give a moments pause to the rice growers. There was a hint of some flooding to come - but everyone earnestly hopes that it will be less severe than last year.  

Vebol and his pump.
Working in Kurata garden.
Hard work carrying water.
We were back in school bright and early (-ish) on Thursday morning and delighted to see everyone engaged in minor agricultural work.  A major difference between schools in developed countries and those here is that here the children are expected to make a major contribution to the upkeep of the school.  This might include sweeping the compound for leaves and litter, and spraying it with water to keep down the dust, cleaning classrooms and offices or - as in the case here at Kurata - planting and tending flowers and shrubs in the various garden areas around the compound.  The Principal, teachers and Vebol, the administrator, were all busy with the children, and Vebol has created a rather sophisiticated irrigation system which pipes water from his recently renovated pump to various parts of the school compound.

Children rush to claim their play things.
Playing in the shade of the building.
The new donated playground equipment is proving a real hit in the compound at Kurata school.  As soon as the wheel-bell sounds for play time, there is a mad dash from the classrooms to the Library/Office where the equipment is kept.  The shaded areas under the trees and around the buildings are soon bustling with children playing with hoops, knocking shuttleckocks into the air and skipping.  Play times have been totally transformed, thanks to this gift.

Expert ball work from two girls.

Luce works with Dara.
Panni and Rotha with their 'new'names.
Another first:  we have arranged for the Kindergaten children to have two English classes a week as we think this should give them all a head start.  Ratha was very keen to do this, but was a little hesitant at first as he had never taught children this young.  However, he need not have worried.  The children are proving very receptive - although some of them are exceptionally shy.  Thierry, the kindergaten teacher comes in with them, and today we all worked on creating 'monster' names, with their names written on paper and then cut out and coloured.  Our two Dutch volunteers, Lotte and Luce, also joined in, so the children got plenty of attention, and even began to respond to 'What's your name?' without diving in fright under the desk.
Lotte helps with the name monsters.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A lively afternoon at Spitler School.

Continuing our energetic extensions to the English programme - The Very Hungry Caterpillar made a lively appearance at Spitler school this Friday.  Thank you to the children and staff of Saltburn Primary School, UK, for producing the Story Sack with all the goodies in it for the children to play with.  It's a great way to begin to understand a story and the Spitler children loved them.  They also loved the parachute - of course.  (Though we do need a smaller one so the younger children can use it.)  Looks like fun - but there's plenty of learning going on, too!!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Activity at Kurata

Kurata School
We've been running an Activity Afternoon for about a year now, at Spitler School. It's a very simple concept, but you wonder how successful it would be in the UK (or States.)  We invite students from the morning session to come into school for one or two hours in the afternoon, for activities, fun - and more English.  The very first time we tried it at Spitler we were overwhelmed.  And, although we had quite a few volunteers on hand - Jim, Loll, Nick, Jule - it was difficult to cope with the numbers who turned up.  We have become more selective over the months, and usually just invite one grade at a time.  We try and provide a theme and then introduce a few activities to go withe the theme.  Last year we managed a successful couple of weeks with Jack and the Beanstalk.  Nick and Jule taught the children some songs, Jim forced the smallest in the class to become a giant, and they acted out the story, and Loll did some practical art work with one group.  This Monday we introduced the idea to Kurata school with much more success than we could have imagined.
Vebol supervises the construction of the garden.

Kurata School, as you can see from the photographs, is also remote and reached only by dirt track.  It's smaller than Spitler and has some way to go in its development.  Vebol, the Administrator, is very keen to see the place develop and grow.  So we found him proudly directing the construction of a walled garden at the entrance to the school when we arrived.

We had invited the Grade 5 students, who normally come in the morning, for the Activity Afternoon.  As this was an entirely new venture we weren't at all sure how many would turn up, but were pleasantly surprised to find that pretty well the whole class had arrived, and were hanging about in the compound waiting for Phouem to finish his Grade 2 class before they could start.

They piled into the classroom at 2 o'clock, and Nick began his old routine: a warm up (stretching and relaxing) followed by the full-action version of The Wheels on the Bus.  Luckily for Nick, this was all new to these kids, and they began to join in enthusiastically doing their best to follow his rather ludicrous movements.  It helped that they could also see the bus on the computer monitor - though goodness knows what they made of this strange vehicle, which, unlike most Cambodian buses had a windscreen without cracks or holes in it, and a bell to sound to make it stop. And probably some tread on the wheels that went round and round. (There is no public transport in Cambodia, so the idea of a local bus service would have been alien to these children.) They were probably more familiar with the horn, and the baby that went 'wah-wah-wah.'

School bell
Our theme today was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, so we read the story and made lots of strange munching sounds and then, when the bell (a car wheel hanging outside, and hit rythmically by a small child with a metal beater) sounded, we went outside with the parachute. 

 The parachute:  generously donated by Northlight School, Singapore, and beginning to show signs of wear from frequent use at Spitler School, is guaranteed to please the crowds.  And it did.  Loll is an expert in parachute games, so she kept the children busy - running under and over the fabric, bouncing bean bags on its surface, playing a very energetic game of cat and mouse and finally everyone disappearing into a claustrophobic and incredibly humid mushroom.It is very useful for teaching prepositions but is also very heavy. We might look out for a smaller and lighter version for our little students.

The wheel-bell rang, and we all moved back into the classrooms.  Luckily, temperatures on this day were not too high.  Recently they've reached 38C, which takes some of the fun out of parachute games. And cycling. And walking, for that matter. The final activity was the creation of their very own butterfly using the scratch cards that had also been donated by Northlight School.  The children work quite slowly on these sorts of activities, and completely lack confidence in their skills in free-hand drawing.  Loll showed them her design for the cut out, said, 'Right - get on with the drawing and cutting', and they all sat staring at her.  So we had to go round and draw the outline for each of them.  These are skills which they will no doubt develop in the future.  It's not just Kurata, however.  We have had difficulties in the past with kids in Spitler school, trying to stop them using a ruler for all their drawing and writing.  Anyway, the results were pretty good in the end, and they all looked very proud of their multi-coloured buterrflies.

A walk around the grounds of Kurata School can be very morally uplifting as the place is dotted with words of sound advice. We have no doubt that the children ponder these words of wisdom on a daily basis.

After you leave the school, through the rather imposing gates, you find yourself back in the heart of Cambodian countryside, with a variety of simple houses dotting the surroundings and one in particular which, at first glance, has something of the English Cotswolds about it: half-timbered and thatch-roofed.  It's only on closer inspection that you see that the walls are made of polystyrene lids, and the owner is sitting quietly in front of his home mending a fishing net.