In Chanleas Dai
Anyways, I definitely got what I was looking for. Despite being a short distance, the dirt road, the zerogear secondhand bike, and a windy afternoon made for quite a workout. I even thought about turning back after the second bridge, but a few kids out walking their cows shouted their hellos and I realized I wasn’t ready to look like a wimpy barang (i.e. foreigner).
With planting underway, the whole place is a sea of green. It’s pretty amazing, really, the transformation the rainy season brings. In May, it was still dusty and brown. At the end of the month, a group of us had come on none of other than Royal Ploughing Day (yes, a real holiday, signifying the start of the rice planting season). It was slowly changing, and there were only a few bright patches in the middle of the sugar palm trees. Now, it’s simply vibrant. Everyone is out on the scene…plowing, tilling, and doing other agricultural things I couldn’t properly name; or walking cows, and catching fish and insects in the flooded ponds.
It’s been a while since I’ve gone on a longer ride in a rural area here. I’ve forgotten how strangely motivating the stares and hellos are. I feel slightly more like a part of the community when I’m biking in the middle of it. I stopped to buy bananas and rambutan and made friends with the women at the market. The first question they always ask is “where are you going,” followed by “are you married yet?” What I love best is that they never neglect to ask “yet,” as the choice of remaining single is completely unfathomable. In fact, the correct response in Khmer is “no, I am not yet married, I am still single,” reinforcing the cultural idea that it’s something that just hasn’t happened yet. I suppose the same mindset is probably present in western society, but we don’t necessarily incorporate it into our sentence structure. They said I needed a Khmer husband to stay in Chanleas Dai with me and couldn’t stop laughing when I said that husbands were more trouble than they were worth (something I don’t necessarily believe but a comment that women here get such a kick out of that I can’t resist). She gave me free mangosteen, and I felt like I was slowly being accepted into the club.
It’s relaxing and calming to be here for a few weeks. Usually my trips are so rushed that I feel more overwhelmed than refreshed at the end of the trip. With a full two weeks here, and probably two more in July, I’m getting a chance to settle in and am really appreciating the opportunity to become more fully immersed in the community.
I’ve been spending the last few days doing parent interviews around the villages, with several of the child educators conducting the interviews. My comprehension of Khmer is getting better, but I struggle with rural pronunciation. One of the women who has been helping pegged this from the very start, and she has become a pro at recognizing when I am having a hard time understanding, repeating parents’ answers for my benefit. I learn so much when I am here. I am also reminded why we are here, and why we are making the decisions to slowly expand out of the schools and into the community.
In the past two days, I’ve crossed paths with so many different people… from single mothers with TB to the guardians of orphaned HIV-infected three-year-olds, to amputee men, 33-year-old grandmothers, victims of domestic violence, and everyone in between. Most of the conversations (centered around education, of course) confirm things we already know; that parents want to send children to school as long as possible because they recognize the financial and social benefits of education, that they do indeed value education but have little involvement in the education of their children, and that poverty drives all choices.
This morning, I biked to Preah Lean (one of the feeder schools to Chanleas Dai) for the first time. It’s not so far, but on a dilapidated dirt road, its nearly impossible to get to school when there is rain. Without a bike, it would probably be an hour’s walk or more. In Preah Lean the village school only goes up to grade 4, at which point the kids come to Chanleas Dai. Those without bikes stop school and head to Thailand instead, where they can earn 100 baht (3-4 dollars) a day for their families. With this money, they can often help their families build wooden or cement homes, buy bicycles for younger siblings to attend school, and keep their families clothed and fed well. It’s rare to find families that don’t have some kind of connection with working in Thailand. We randomly selected 27 students’ parents to interview—3 from each grade, chosen from different ability levels (one each from the top, middle, and bottom of each class). I’ve interviewed 13 so far, and out of those, three had parents in Thailand. Another three had one or more parents that had died.
Most of the community has a brother, sister, uncle, aunt, child, or parent in Thailand. One exception is one of the child club educators we recently hired. Sak is 22, and incredibly bright. She is the youngest of 10 children (yikes!) and she went to school the longest of anyone in her family, until grade 10. She had to bike the 9km to Kralanh twice a day from 7th grade until she quit. Finally,a combination of needing to be in the fields, not being able to pay school fees, and her bike breaking led her to quit. None of her brothers and sisters have been to Thailand as her father forbids it. Unfortunately, this means that they don’t have the kind of financial help that many of the other families get from remittances.
Though it’s a potentially well-paying investment, migration to Thailand is also quite dangerous. Going illegally now costs about 2,500 baht (over 70 dollars), which is a great deal of money for most villagers. While they can earn good wages working in the pineapple farms and other agricultural sectors, they run the risk of being caught by the Thai police at any point in time, leading them to be deported with all of their earnings confiscated. They return with nothing and often have to call family members from the border or borrow through networks to even return home. One orphaned student’s aunt told us that his father had been killed at the border, though details are sketchy at best. Unfortunately, this is just one of the all too common daily questions/choices that folks here face.
I know this isn’t the most heartwarming post. But these are the things I see and hear and I feel like realities should be acknowledged. And these are realities I often fail to recognize fully, even while stationed here at the school. When I walk through the school, I see smiles and improvement and my heart smiles back. There is so much laughter and singing and joy (both at the school and in the villages) that sometimes it’s easy to forget the realities of disease, poverty, and constrained choice that are ever-present. I’ll be here for another few weeks, so look for more posts on “In Chanleas Dai” in the coming days. One of the best things about being here (especially by myself) is the opportunity for a little reflection, both personally and on PEPY projects, so I’m looking forward to having a bit more time for updating.
Best to all from Chanleas Dai!