‘Cool Heart’, Fresh Start – From Connemara to Cambodia

‘Cool Heart’, Fresh Start – School in Cambodia

Waiting to do things you are unsure of for people who are unsure what they want you to do or why you’re even there to do them has got to be one of the most unsettling feelings in the world.
I’ve neglected to write until now because of the massively, massively contrasting feelings and rollercoaster of emotions that we have experienced this first week. School in Cambodia is tough.

It was our first week of experiencing life as intern teachers at the schools, and while I can’t speak for anyone save the three girls that I am living with, I know myself personally that I was completely and overwhelmingly under-prepared for the lack of organisation and gaping holes left in the planning on all sides of the programme.
Neither the school we were due to stay at, the TEFL organisation we have booked through, nor the school myself and Cathy have been placed at seemed to have been able to inform us of anything, be it what time the school day started and finished, information regarding timetables, free time, transport to and from the school (we have to get a tuk-tuk there and back everyday), or much else really about what was expected of us. All we kept hearing was ‘I will call someone and find out’, and ‘I will check this out for you’. These may be considered minor issues at home in Ireland or the UK where a little bit of messiness would be balanced out by the fact that our surroundings would be in some way familiar, but when you’re left standing watching 4 grown adults babbling away about you in a different language and clearly debating what to tell you to do in a foreign school where nobody speaks the language and the kids run around eating battered fish and squid-flavoured crisps for ten minutes every hour, it’s difficult not to get a bit frustrated. It was all just so alien to us, and I feel this culture-shock element of the transition wasn’t really taken into consideration by anyone.

I don’t know if it’s just in the Khmer culture to under-inform and not properly plan or allow room for questions, but as we were disorderly shipped from one location to the next and directed towards different members of staff to pose the same questions, the answers to which nobody seemed to have or make any effort to find out, we couldn’t help but get a bit distraught and begin to doubt the decision to ever come on this trip.

 That was the negative side.
The positives were equally as strong – the kids are adorable, so willing to learn, and absolutely fascinated with us. Their chanting in unison as you step foot inside the classroom, and respectful bow of welcome every time they set eyes on us gets me everytime, and although even many of the teachers’ pronunciation and language accuracy is dodgy at the best of times, there is no denying the will to learn and dedication to progress that underlies everything. While I find language barriers to be one of the most frustrating social constrictions of all time, the fact that this is in a school-setting where the focus is actually on trying to reduce the extremity of such a barrier really helps and serves as a constant reminder that steps are actually being taken to help improve the communication between staff, students, and new clueless and naïve intern-teachers.

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To be fair I don’t think the blame came could have been placed on any one party or individual in particular, the problem instead being a general lack of organisation and failure to supply some basic and obvious information within the first few days and hours of becoming interns.

-All of this is what was going through our heads for the first few days this week, and until I managed to sort a few things out and take a step back from the initial problems and look at them rationally, I didn’t want to write anything too judgemental or harsh. I’m used to dealing with and working in a chaotic environment – it’s just that this paticular one is also exremely foreign, operates through a language derived from Sanskrit and with an entirely different alphabet, and is in a continent where I have never step foot before– I feel it was quite understandable that I got a bit flustered!

As the week progressed it has improved slightly, with an introductory meeting eventually being scheduled at the end of the third day, and a few classes spent sitting in silence at the back of the room as neither the teacher nor we knew exactly what we should be doing.

I get the impression that Khmer people are just too nice! They come across too timid to make any definite assertions of decisions regarding us or any other visitors, yet it’s difficult to feel comfortable and accepted in a strange situation and country if nobody takes the reigns and makes some definite moves or plans. If I weren’t so wary of offending the culture and their way of going about these kind of assimilation periods (which I get the impression they don’t do often), I would have had no trouble taking the bull by the horns and re-structuring the entire system but, as you can guess, that’s not exactly an option.

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As it stands it was a relief to reach the end of the week, and we were finally provided with a full itinerary and timetable to begin the following Monday. Indeed, a lot of our concerns about correct teaching attire and how satisfied the principal was with our progress were deemed irrelevant as an ‘important meeting’ he called with all staff at the end of the week was spent planning a Halloween party for next week!

Things can only go up from here, and I feel with the right attitude, a bit more patience, and keeping a ‘cool heart’ as the Khmer people say, we will settle in a bit more this week.

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Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them

From Connemara to Cambodia

Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them

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The Royal Palace of Cambodia

It’s funny that as soon as I finally have something and somewhere to write about regularly and keep people updated with that I find it difficult to get the right headspace and time to sit and actually write it. I think the main and most important difference is that I’ve been so busy, no longer having the time to spend thinking about travelling and being elsewhere and doing something different, seeing new things – I am now finally living those thoughts and wishes, and no longer stuck in the repetitive cycles and mindset of not being in the moment – because I am all here. I am doing the something different, I am seeing the new things.

I’ve never been so fully engrossed in a place or trip or country as I have been this past week, and it’s only starting to hit me that this is actually my new home until Christmas. As the ‘holiday’ mode wears off and we begin to settle in to our new surroundings, there’s a sense of identity and self-sufficiency that comes along with it unlike any I’ve experienced before.

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Floating lilypads outside the Royal Palace

The confusion over tuk-tuk prices, haggling at the markets, getting lost down unfamiliar streets and tasting all kinds of new and strange foods I swore I’d never even take a whiff of before is all part of the excitement of learning to live a new lifestyle, and accepting and appreciating things as they are in the moment. I’ve come so far out here – travelled over 16 hours, saved up the money and challenged myself so I have time to spend growing accustomed to and experiencing a new way of life, to shake up my own and prove to myself that there are other ways of being, thinking, and living than the stagnancy I had become so accustomed to. Even though it’s different, and I’m enjoying every second, I’m not going to limit myself to it either – we must always keep moving.

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New friends!

There are so many things to experience, so many places, people, and routes to take, that has made me realise that ultimately the only thing keeping my head clouded and in the darkness before was my own negativity and inability to appreciate the light in the world. That’s easy to say as I sit in the shade from a glorious 34 degree ray of sunshine in South East Asia, but I’m talking figuratively here aswell as literally!

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Spotless grounds of the Palace

Our visit to the Genocide Museum of Phnom Penh was eye-opening to say the least, and shed some light on the dreary history of Cambodia which we’d heard about, yet failed to understand in detail before. The rows of cells and torture mechanisms still in existence (some fully furnished) and barbed wire on the outside of the buildings to prevent suicide attempts as the innocent prisoners suffered under the Khmer Rouge really shook me to the core and reminded me that all is never what it seems.

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Block of Prison Cells in The Genocide Museum, many still containing the locks, chains, and torture instruments which bound prisoners

The “Land of Smiles” which we’d been introduced to the country as suddenly seemed all the more powerful as a title, as we considered the hardships the Cambodian people have been through in such a short space of time (it has been a mere 40 years since the prison was in use). To have the resilience and strength as a population and city to recover from such horrors and progress onwards after any growth of the sort being stunted for years is admirable, and even though they seem to struggle still with poverty and wellbeing, the general standard of living around here seems to be simple, yet sustainable.
In the end, isn’t that all we want? To be able to sustain ourselves, in an uncomplicated and easygoing way, without getting too caught up in trivialities and superficial worries that are ultimately damaging to our beings and make things harder on all around us?

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“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime”

The young monks we observed around the Royal Palace of Cambodia and Wat Phnom on our final day as ‘tourists’ before starting teaching placements embodied this peace of mind and simpicity of lifestyle, their brightly coloured orange robes informing the world of their devout nature.

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I found it interesting to discover that there are 3 main reasons a young Buddhist enters the monkhood, the first being an obvious devotion to the religion, and need to shorten the distance between himself an The Buddha in a personal vocation to search for Enlightenment. The second occurs only if a family is too poor to send the son to school, or to afford to keep providing for all children in the family. Any young boys who find themselves at an age suitable to entering the practice are morally required to do so, to lessen the strain upon the family and expand potential for their own futures. The third and probably most surprising reason a monk enters into the practice is as an element of the recovery process from addiction, mostly drug-related in Cambodia, but also involving alcohol and other ‘soul-damaging’ practices within the Buddhist community. While all young monks have the choice to enter into the practice, not all monastic undertakings are definitive, with a ‘temporary’ Bhikku (young monk) merely taking the robe for a few weeks, months or years of his life to dedicate some time to a monastic and detached life.

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Young Monks at the Royal Palace

I tried taking a picture of a small group of monks from a distance, and was taken aback as one laughed, raising his own iPhone in response to take a picture of me!

It really just proved in a very peaceful and lighthearted way that our cultures have so much to learn about one another, and that exposing ourselves to them can only lead to a further understanding and acception not only of ourselves, but of the world around us and our space within it.

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Buddha….

The traditional meals of Cambodian Banh Cheo, a sort of flour pancake served filled with broad beans and a peanut sauce, and another containing tofu and stir fried vegetables were interesting to experience, and really added to the shift in our mindsets from being mere backpackers and tourists to working ‘citizens’. It’s strange to think that from today onwards we will be contributing to society and sharing knowledge necessary for our young students to expand their own horizons in the future, and hopefully understand a bit more about Western culture.

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Sideview

While the main tourist attractions served as a great way to further our knowledge of the city we are about to take up a lengthy residence in, there is a certain reassurance in being on the way to a more settled environment and day-to-day structure, even if it will be interspersed with various national holidays and days off! We’re excited for the next stage of the journey and to meet the students and staff of our school.

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Interns on the steps of Wat Phnom!

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