Inspired Words

These are the experiences of our volunteers in Cambodia.

June 30: First Day of Work

Posted in Cambodia on June 30, 2014

The USAFA volunteer team spent one week in Phnom Penh visiting cultural attractions and various military institutions. On June 28th they met with their team leader Dan Couture and volunteer coordinator Vy from host partner, Equitable Cambodia prior to arriving on the volunteer site.

We all met for breakfast at 0700 at the hotel and were on the road to the village of Oudong before 0800. IT was about a 20 minute drive through some very pretty countryside. Along the way, we stopped for a big jug of water with a spigot on it so that we could fill our water bottles throughout the day. We turned off the main road down a red dirt trail and into the village, arriving at about 0810 to meet Mr Senh (Sing) who is the local leader of the project. The village itself is very poor with very few improvements. There's a pump for ground water (non-potable) and several homes along the dirt road main street. Dogs were every where as well as cattle and preschool age children. Dan and Vy told us that we would divide up into two teams of four to do the work, so I picked a number between 1 and 100 and the losers were Dan, Annie, and Winston. Vy led the others across the narrow road to their project and we surveyed the two big piles of raw materials that were deposited by where the van stopped: small granite boulders (about a foot or so in size), a stack of bricks, a pile of sand, and four half-meter length concrete cylinders about a meter in diameter each (maybe a little less).

Mr Seng led us to the back yard area behind one home and we met a Cambodian guy that was leading this construction. He had staked out wand strung the outline of the latrine--it was to be about two meters square. Just inside the lines/wire, he was using a hoe to rip up the ground and dig a ditch about one foot deep and the width of the hoe (about 8"). Our first job was to haul all of the boulders back to the muddy yard, then haul the bricks and restack then, then carry buckets of sand and 50 kg bags of Portland cement. We then carried buckets of water back and mixed the sand and cement in an open pit next to our project.

The leader (actually a skilled worker) had, by this time, completed the foundation trench and was lining it with the large granite boulders. As the concrete was mixed, buckets full went into the trench on top of the rocks and he and Mr Senh used tampers to level the foundation.

Once that was done, the first bricks were laid and we joined in doing the same. About this time, Dan also started digging a big pit next to the latrine that would house the concrete cylinders (turned vertically).The original goal was to dig a two meter deep pit and then stack the cylinders on top of each other to make a two meter deep septic tank system.

Dan got to work as Annie and started laying brick and Winston helped with hauling and mixing more concrete. That was the division of labor for most of the day, though I did dig some in the pit--enough to realize that a flat front edge shovel wasn't going to the the job when we started hitting dense whitish-colored clay as well as some buried clothes and other trash. Did I say the ground was REALLY muddy, too?

We took short breaks for fresh coconut milk (a good benefit of the job, since they came directly from the trees around us and were cut by the neighbors) and some regular water as well as taking photos--Dan with his Nikon and me with my Canon and 16-35 f/2.8L II lens. Kids watched us and we learned a few words of Khmer There also short breaks as we were hit with intermittent rain showers much like the "pineapple rain" one sees in Hawaii.

The work went quickly, though, and Dan dug quite a bit. Winston was a machine in the hole, too, but we started running into water issues. The water table is just so high here that even at one meter depth in the rainy season we had water seeping in. Mr Senh and Vy quickly decided that we would be changing plans for the pits and decided to dig one meter deep, but put the cylinders stacked two high next two each other. The adjustments were made, we found a pointy-ended shovel and Winston went to work. Meanwhile, Annie and I were laying bricks and actually having a good time doing it.

Did I say it was muddy? We were all covered in mud from the knees down pretty quickly. We also noticed that our work was being carried out only 10 feet from the family's covered pig sty, so that added a little "atmosphere" to our work. (It was a healthy looking pig, too) It was clear that the "lawn/work area" was well fertilized, too, as the grass was growing quite well.

We worked until about 1130, doing much more than we or the project leaders thought we'd accomplish, then took a lunch break. We drove about 10 minutes away to a place call "The Vine," a combination bed and breakfast, restaurant, and peppercorn farm. Dan told us that it was owned by the head of Equitable Cambodia and they would provide our lunches in each of the weekdays that we worked. We took off our shoes at the door and climbed to a second floor deck that overlooked a pool below, the peppercorn fields, and the Cambodia countryside--it was beautiful and the breeze felt wonderful. We also took advantage of the facilities to do a little personal clean-up.

Lunch consisted of and excellent sour fish soup, rice, and something that was the Cambodian equivalent of Egg Foo Yung. All of it was good, accentuated by the hunger brought on by a very tiring morning. We lingered a little while, but we were back to the work site by about 1330 to get more done on the latrines.

Progress picked up in the afternoon and the walls of our latrine were getting high enough that we could work standing up. Also, our work leaders had earlier installed framed doors into each latrine and we were now bricking around those. The other team's latrine was going well, too, with Hansena doing much of the digging in the morning, followed later by Dylan and Luke, plus a few of the locals.

Back at our latrine, Winston was singing (and inventing) work songs to laugh about all of the muck he and Dan were digging out of the hole as they continued to make progress and get muddier and muddier. Our walls continued to get taller and we enjoyed the work. I found it very calming, structured, objective, and logical--like laying tile.

We had a few more rain showers, but not too much in the afternoon. We continually recharged the concrete/mortar pit by hauling more sand and water, but ultimately decided to call it quits for the day at about 1630. I took a set of "after" photos to document where we were for each project. The cylinders were set for Team 2, while we were close to doing so. The doors looked solid and both latrines had about the same total number of bricks laid. We wondered if by us leaving the real experts might actually get it done quicker than if were there and they had to take the time to fix our mistakes.

On the way back, we stopped at a small convenience store and the cadets bought soap for doing sink laundry and a few other sundries. Back the hotel, Luke, Winston, Annie, and Hansena immediately ran to the beach and umped into the water wearing their Equitable Cambodia shirts. They were having fun and they waved to Dylan an me as we watched from the balcony of the Beach House.

We weren't going to dinner until 1830, so Dylan and I decided to try out the trail behind the hotel that led into the national forest. It was called the Stairway to Heaven and it had small yellow signs telling us the distance in meters to landmarks along the trail. We started at 1714 and decided to hike until 1725 and then turn around and return to clean up for dinner.

The trail started with about 100 stairs and then transitioned to a single track dirt trail that had about a dozen switchbacks through the jungle before arriving at a small Buddhist Temple on the side of the hill that overlooks Kep Beach and the water. It took us almost exactly 10 minutes to get to this point and we were encouraged by signs pointing out reasonable distances to the summit of the mountain and other landmarks. We'd climbed 129 meters in altitude (0ver 400 feet) and were again covered in sweat.

The hike down was quick and uneventful and we were both back in our rooms before 1740. I used the time to do sink/shower laundry, download files, and process some of them.

We departed the hotel with Vy and Dan at 1830 and went to out for seafood to a local place that had great grilled fish, shrimp, and squid, plus cheap beer, but horrible service. We enjoyed dinner, though, especially the fact that you could get about 12 BIG grilled shrimp for $5. We were back in the hotel by 2030.

I'd like to pick out a few photos to show here, but it's getting late and the easiest way to do this is to just link to the zenfolio gallery and slideshow, so here it is!

All the Best,

Marty France
USAFA Faculty Chaperone & DWC Volunteer
Kep, Cambodia: June 2014

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