Nine students from Years 10 to 12 were joined by Mrs Anne Gawith and Mr Luke Werner on a volunteering trip to Cambodia in December 2018. Read about the trip in three parts below. These stories appear as they were published in the Hilltop News.
November 29th 2018
Tomorrow afternoon, Mr Werner and I, and nine DMSC students, will depart for our much-anticipated overseas trip to Cambodia. We will be staying in Ballarat tomorrow night, in readiness for an early flight from Tullamarine on Saturday morning. This will be an eye-opening, life-changing experience for our students and I am sure they will benefit tremendously from it. Thank you to the staff who will cover Luke and my responsibilities in our absence, and a special thank you to all those in the community who contributed to our fundraising – money that has been used to purchase the building supplies and materials that we will use on site. Next week, I will post my Principal’s report from Cambodia and I hope to share some photos with our school community too. We return to Australia on Monday December 10.
December 6th 2018
Hello from Cambodia!
Well, we made it. After a very long day on Saturday December 1, we flew into Siem Reap from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, landing at approx 8pm. (Midnight our time and we’d been up since 5.30am!) After a late - but delicious Cambodian tea - we made it into bed by about 2am Australian time!!
Day Two (our first real day here) was spent touring three of Cambodia’s most famous and beautiful temples. We visited, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and the famous and most impressive, Angkor Wat. (The temple represented on the Cambodian flag) A couple of our girls had a tough first day, finding it quite challenging to adjust to the very hot and humid conditions. But, being tough DMSC girls, they didn’t whinge, nor did they give up and they made it through the entire first day. Fortunately, our hotel in Siem Reap has a great rooftop pool and all Dimboola and Birchip students spent considerable time in there that evening. Dinner tonight was a traditional Cambodian feast - as it was when we arrived late on Saturday. One of our boys thought it would be fun to load up his soup with lots of fresh chilli - you can imagine the end result!! (Everyone laughing and his head looking like it just might explode!) Some very tired students headed to bed after dinner, keen to rest up before our first day on site.
Day Three was our first day on our building site. The school is located an hour’s drive out of the city and we piled on a large coach at around 8am. A quick word about our breakfast, our boys loved the butter and cheese soaked toast that was served, as well as a myriad of other delicious choices!
The school building itself is already constructed and our first task was to spread some soil over the entire front yard. We were provided with shovels and little buckets - however someone did find us some 9-10 litre buckets which hastened the process a little. Students took turns in shovelling into the buckets, while all others were part of a fill - carry - spread circuit. With the oppressive conditions, we took regular drinks breaks and also topped up on electrolytes. All agreed that they had never sweated so much! (Gross) Our lunch was delivered in beautiful little handwoven baskets - lined with banana leaves. We were all starving, and thoroughly enjoyed the traditional Cambodian food. The highlight of the day was when many of the local children joined us and helped with the spreading of the soil. They are so hard working and happy and they brought a wide smile to our tired (and filthy) faces. After dinner this evening, we took all the students to the night markets! The main markets are a short walk from our hotel and students were able to wander around and haggle for some bits and pieces. With the retail fix out of their systems, we walked home, again keen for some rest after a long and hot day.
Day Four began with Danni Haebich joining me for an early run along the river. Mr Werner also went out, but he runs too fast for us! As we headed home along the other side of the river, we came across a public aerobics class! While both of us agreed that we weren’t huge fans of the traditional gym class, we joined in with a sea of locals and had an absolute ball! We were the only westerners there! In between laughing (and dripping with sweat - temp was already 25 degrees at 6am) we managed to slip into the routine. We were made to feel so welcome by the locals, that we committed to returning to the class every morning that we are here. We hope to drag a few more along as well. (PS - Dan Polack joined me on Day Five and as we approached the venue, the power went out all along the river - meaning no music, so no aerobics. Alas in countries like Cambodia, power outages are not uncommon. We just had to settle for a 4km run.)
Again, we headed to the school site at 8am. Knowing what was ahead of us, we paced ourselves a little better today and made sure that we stopped every 30-40 minutes for a drink break. Dan brought along his portable speaker today which meant that there were lots of tunes to motivate the troops. Again we were joined by at least 15 little local helpers and they grew in confidence with their interactions with us. Lots of laughs certainly took our minds off the task that we were undertaking. (More dirt moving!) Another delicious dinner this evening followed by a Tuk Tuk tour around Siem Reap. This was a highlight and enabled our students to get a feel for how incredibly alive this city is with locals staying out so late at night and they enjoy the wealth of street food on offer. None of us were tempted to try any of the unusual food offerings from the street vendors - but the cooked snakes, ducklings, flattened chickens, some bugs and grubs and all manner of skewered whole fish, certainly looked amazing.
Day Five and we were back to work, dare I say, a little less enthusiastic than the days before. It’s not that our desire to help these wonderful people had waned, but rather, we were all aching from the past two days of lugging buckets of gravel about. However, I should confess that the great thing about our hotel is that it has a built in massage area and I think all of our students have had at least one visit. For just $9 USD (approx $15 Aust) you can get a one hour massage. Considerably cheaper than we would pay anywhere at home and a wonderful way to relieve some tired muscles.
On site today, we had an exciting new task - digging fencepost holes with crowbars and very little shovels. We then had to secure the posts with sand and some water. There were many conversations and laughs about how the parents of our students who are farmers would be just astounded (if not appalled) with how we constructed this fence. But, we followed local instructions and it was erected like all the other fences we saw. While many were fencing, some of us were lugging large rocks from one place to another! It was pointed out to us by a local volunteer that she had moved this pile about six years ago and here we were doing it again! Still, it was a job that needed to be done and it also provided us with our first encounter with two very angry and impressive looking, black scorpions! Rest assured the locals stepped in and relocated the scorpions post haste.
Two of our most precise girls scored the only indoor job of our project! Danni and Rebekah were given “permission” by the fastidious owner of the school to assist with the laying of terracotta tiles inside the classrooms. For the first time we saw a spirit level, with all other measures outside being done with the naked eye. After some expert tuition, Rebekah and Danni did a great job and will continue on tomorrow.
Tonight we are heading out to another local restaurant, we are really being spoilt with some amazing food. A couple of students have had little moments of an upset tummy, but nothing that has prevented them from participating in all activities and events.
Tomorrow is our last day at the school site and we are expecting to be joined by approximately 120 students and potentially, 50 or so of their siblings. We will finish the fence posts, cart some more sand and soil and then celebrate with the local school community. I will include some photos of this celebration day in next week’s Hilltop.
For the next few days, we are hoping to visit The Landmine Museum, a floating fishing village on Tonle Sap Lake and we will hike up a sacred mountain to see a huge reclining Buddha - a very special place for the Cambodians. (The vast majority of Cambodians are Buddhist, with only about 2% Christian and a similar amount of Muslims.) I am sure that we will also squeeze in some more market shopping, our students are loving the “bargain hunting”, however parents, I can’t vouch for the quality of the “gifts” that they are buying! (May I say congratulations to one of our students who has as yet, not spent a cent! He tells me that he hates spending money on things he doesn’t want! I think I should stick with him and not be tempted by shoes!!)
As I have mentioned many times before in a wide range of scenarios, I am always so proud of our DMSC students. It is an absolute privilege to be with these nine excellent ambassadors for our school and watch them learn and develop a deep cultural awareness in front of my eyes. On behalf of Mr Werner and I, I want to acknowledge: Charlotte Ball, Danni Haebich, Jess Revell, Rebekah Albrecht, Jorja Byrne, Teo Haines, Dan Polack, Olivia Lehmann and Jake Smith for embracing this adventure so whole-heartedly and giving their absolute best to those who are so incredibly less fortunate. I am sure that they will remember this experience for ever.
We fly out of Siem Reap on Sunday December 9, touching down in Melbourne on Monday December 10. We are again flying via Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and we will have another short stopover there before boarding our final flight home.
December 13th 2018
We have made it safely home – tired – but content with the knowledge that we did something positive to help others. Our last few days in Cambodia were action-packed, with us finishing on the school site on the Thursday. Approximately 100 primary aged students gathered to thank us for our efforts at their soon to be completed school, and all students quickly made some special friends and spent much of the day playing. Our students taught a group to play “Duck, Duck, Goose, Goose” (the chasing game) which the Cambodian children quickly learned and absolutely loved! Pictured below is Bill Morse from the Landmine Relief Fund in Cambodia, an organisation that not only sends teams out to find and defuse all kinds of munitions – still littered throughout the countryside, but they also contribute significant funds to the building and support of schools. Bill had the honour of cutting the final section of ribbon (we all had a turn) to celebrate the tasks that we completed whilst at the school site. Bill and his wife Jill – expat Americans – were truly inspiring, using their wealth, connections in the US and passion, to support the Cambodian people. They permanently relocated to Siem Reap in 2009, after spending six years commuting between America and Cambodia. A documentary has been made about their project work called, “Until They’re Gone”. (You can find it on Amazon.)
On Friday December 7, we spent the day visiting significant sites in Siem Reap. Students were given a brief insight into the horrors that took place in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot. We visited a Buddhist temple which also has a stupa containing hundreds of human skulls that were retrieved from the killing fields, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of us also received a blessing from a Buddhist monk, involving the tying of a band around the wrist and some quiet “prayers”. Mr Werner is pictured receiving his blessing.
On Friday night, we attended a dinner show, featuring traditional Cambodian dance and costumes. The precise movements of the dancers were very impressive and the costumes were very intricate and beautiful.
Saturday December 8 saw us head out for a very long and VERY bumpy road trip to Kulen Mountain. Considered a sacred site and one which many Cambodians make a pilgrimage to, it is one of the few mountains in an otherwise quite flat country. Half way up the mountain (after climbing hundreds of steps) there is a Buddhist temple. We had many drink stops on our way to the top, but the going was easier when the path became a sandy track, shaded by jungle.
Before we left the mountain, we also walked to the beautiful waterfall, made famous by the Angelina Jolie film, Tomb Raider. While the locals were swimming in the cool water, we were advised not to, for fear of picking up a bug or two!
For our final day in Cambodia, we took a boat cruise out onto Tonle Sap Lake. This massive inland lake stretches right across Cambodia, actually linking Siem Reap with the capital Phnom Penh. We observed the floating fishing villages and there were also schools, shops, etc – all out on the lake. Many of the families spend their entire lives living out on the lake, with no real need to come to shore.
After our final traditional Cambodian lunch – we were ready to head back to the hotel to shower and then head to the airport. We had a short flight from Cambodia to Vietnam, then only a short wait before our flight to Melbourne. Some were able to get a little sleep on our overnight journey; however a few of us arrived back in Dimboola with no shut-eye for 36 hours! A huge thank you to Mr Werner who drove the bus home from Melbourne. Well done to the nine DMSC students who went this year – you represented your school with pride and I know you will remember moments of this experience for the rest of your lives. This was a wonderful opportunity for our students and we are definitely hoping to offer this trip again in 2020. It will be open for students in Years 10-12.