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18 Sep 2011

Chhlong and Back

Gilly is in intensive training for a 100km charity cycle ride around the Angkor temples in December.  That's 62 miles, further than the London to Brighton ride, in tropical heat, but slightly more scenic.  (More info here, sponsor her here.)

I am a sucker for punishment and thought I'd join in with the training.  Session 1 (for me), a 73.6km jaunt down to the next big settlement South of Kratie on the Mekong.  The furthest I'd done in the 12 months previously was the 0.4km commute to work each day.

Here is a little map showing the start and end point, taking us around the sharp bend in the river.

View Kratie to Chhlong in a larger map

A typical scene en route, boats replacing scooters as the most effective form of transport due to the widespread seasonal flooding.

Four palms, or the tops of them at least.

Still smiling after 45 minutes in the rising heat...

I put on a brave face, despite my aching legs and arse.

Right now is a festival particular to Cambodia called Pchum Ben.  Each day people take rice to the pagoda as an offering to their ancestors.  At this time of year this often requires the use of boats to get there from the road.  Here they are queuing for the next boat in the Khmer equivalent of Sunday Best.

As we get closer to Chhlong there is a large Muslim community and two mosques.  Once again, reaching these religious buildings means a short paddle.

In Chhlong there is one street with a strip of old French colonial buildings.  Some of these are falling apart, while others retain some practical function, either as a shelter for a shop, warehouse or small factory.

You can just imagine how grand they would have been when the paint was fresh.

This one is gradually being reclaimed by the forest.  (Gilly says, "It's not a forest!")

Feeling the heat and wiping her brow as we stop for a much needed intake of sugared water a.k.a. a Coke and a Sprite (or Co-ka and Spry as we say here).

Somehow I'm still smiling, even though I know full well that we're only half way.  Every pedal must be repeated on the way back.

One more stop to check out this restored building which we are told is a hotel and restaurant in the tourist season.  If we get the energy to do this again we can stop here for the night and go back the next day.

Road kill, Cambodian style.

Thankfully schools are closed until after the rains stop.

Not sure what this says but it is probably some form of milestone rather than a gravestone.

It's 11.30am and the heat is really pounding, not for these buffaloes though.

The heat and my pace-making in the home straight led to a loud pop as my back tyre exploded.  However, in Cambodia, you're never more than a few hundred metres from a cycle repair shop and for £3 we had a brand new tyre and were back on the road in less than 15 minutes.

Gilly takes over the pace-making after my mishap.

Without the stop for repairs we might have made it home before the dark clouds descended.  Poor cows, out in the heat, out in the rain, no respite whatsoever.

We could see the rain in the exact direction we were heading.  When we hit it there was also a headwind, making riding slightly more challenging for our aching legs.  However, the rain itself was pleasantly cooling.

Safely back home, literally soaked through.  Our new landlord took this photo, preceded by the following exchange:

Gilly (in Khmer): We have just cycled to Chhlong and back.
Landlord: What?
Gilly: We have just cycled to Chhlong and back.
Landlord: What?
Gilly: We have just cycled to Chhlong and back.
Landlord: Oh, that's a long way.
Gilly: Yes, very far.
Landlord (baffled by our stupidity): Why didn't you just take your motorbike?

All in all a good experience, and proof that you don't need any training to deal with this long distance cycling malarky.  Good luck to Gilly for her ride, you can sponsor her here.

17 Sep 2011

Jumping, Jar Wine & the Bumps

Those who know me well will be aware that I love jumping and diving off things into water.  Holidays in France were full of this type of action, and I was back at it again on a recent visit to the Yeak Loam lake in the Northeastern province of Ratanakiri. (Keen readers will remember that this is where we took a holiday in November last year, and where Gilly was recently in August.)

The lake is of huge importance to the indigenous Tampoon tribespeople who live in the villages around its perimeter.  They hold various ceremonies at the lake and its spirits are featured in many of the stories within their belief system.  A VSO volunteer in Ratanakiri called Tania is working with these communities to protect the area against aggressive attempts to deforest the land and initiate construction projects.  It really is a magical place and might be my favourite spot in all of Cambodia that I've seen so far.  Later in this post you can meet some of the Tampoon people, but first some more jumping and diving...

 The Cannonball, defined by a head first (no hands) entry into the water.  (If trying this for yourself, ensure that you have deep water, and nothing close to the edge to bang your head on, as the movement upon entry in head first and circular back in the direction you came from.)

 Straight dive, looks like those lessons back in 2006 did improve my technique.  The judges scored this one a 9.46.

 And the classic Double Leg Grab, refined over many years of practise.

 All these photos were captured by another VSO volunteer, Saahiel, and he invented this new move, coined La Grenouille which is French for The Frog. What can I say, I thought I'd seen them all but this one took the biscuit.

 Saahiel's camera had a nifty feature which allowed underwater photography and video.  A massive thumbs up from me for that...sound too!


Just in case you thought that it was looking a bit too much like a holiday, it's worth explaining that we were in Ratanakiri for the Livelihoods Sector Workshop, taking to the lake in our lunch breaks.  This was an opportunity for volunteers across Cambodia to get together, share experiences and learn from each other.

I led a session (see above) called 'Walk the Line' which explored the tension between helping to develop skills among local staff and actually causing harm by performing work that should be done by those we are working with.  Our objective is always to leave our organisations stronger than when we arrived, and not leaving holes in areas of responsibility that we have deliberately or inadvertently taken on during our time here.  It's a thin line and we had some great discussions.  (And yes, we did have some Johnny Cash playing to accompany parts of the session.)

I'll soon be posting a bit more about what I'm doing in my placement and how I am helping to develop new skills among the team that I'm working with at CRDT.  But now back to Ratanakiri.

 One of the sessions moved me into a state of deep thought, probably contemplating the many problems faced by this community and Cambodia in general...

On the final day of the workshop Tania invited about 40 of the Tampoon community along to share some of their activities, including details of their arts group and some of their weaving and basket-making skills.  Perhaps most memorable was this guy, 86 years old, who arrived chugging on his pipe, and continued to do so for the next four hours, stopping occasionally to repack it.  He has been a basket weaver since he was 20 and he learned his skill through necessity.  When he was young you couldn't get a wife unless you had mastered basket-weaving!

After meeting the community we indulged in a traditional bout of eating and drinking which is part of us all becoming one family.  This involved piles of tasty beef and drinking this jar (rice) wine.  It comes in these vases as a sort of dried cereal or grain.  Water is added and then, as demonstrated above and below, the wine is sucked through straws fashioned cleverly out of bamboo to allow the intake of liquid but avoiding blockages caused by the grains.  It is quite tasty, and you just add more water when it starts running low.  Before the drinking starts everyone uses a small green twig to stir the wine, while voicing a wish for the future.  It was strange to hear everyone talk at once, I wished for a good future for the Tampoon and their lake.

Not too tipsy to squat, note the beef on a bed of lettuce too.

 Due to us sharing the same name, I hit it off with Sam on the left of this picture.  And, on the right, it's Mr Basket-Weaver himself, the pipe was taking a rest to allow him to enjoy the jar wine drinking. 

The final night was the day before my birthday so the volunteers all gave me a card and some lucky nuts from the rubber tree.  Pizza and beer was just the ticket before moving on for more beer.  (The scarf I'm wearing was bought from the Tampoon community as a birthday present to myself.)

It hit midnight and I succumbed to demands to give me the birthday bumps.

They only managed 10 out of the required 33, shame on them!

All in all it was an educational and fun experience.  I love the lake and its surroundings and truly hope that the Tampoon people can maintain its beauty and role in their lives.  I also hope that they see more of the benefits of tourism in the area and that they are involved more in political decision making that affects them and their lives.

Considering the role of development work in the context of indigenous and tribal people is a complex subject and this picture book gave me real food for thought when I read it again after visiting the Tampoon.  Some of the ideas can be more widely applied when thinking about whose agenda is being served by our efforts to 'develop' some parts of the world.

15 Sep 2011

Mud, mud and more mud

Last week we had a workshop to introduce some new resources into grade 1. It lasted four days and went really well with lots of participation and laughter which is always good.

The workshop started on a Tuesday which is the day to wear purple. Me and Soknan, my counter part from the POE who lead the workshop.

The Grade 1 teachers and school directors practised using the new resources of books, posters and sequencing cards.

There was time for a few games to keep everyone's concentration levels up and some role play:

A group picture on the last day

Yesterday, I visited one of my schools to deliver resources from the workshop last week. The normal road that we take looked like this:

So we had to go the long way round past another of my schools on a not particularly good road. The school director came to meet us on a push bike as he lives along the flooded road and needed to use a boat to get from his house to dry land with his bike.

Today, we had to go to the other school that we passed yesterday on the not very good road. Yesterday it had been quite bad but over night two things had happened: someone had put down a lot of soil onto the road persumably to fill potholes; and it had rained a lot. The result was this:

A whole lot of mud

Lots of other motos were also using this road but a lot of people on the back kept having to walk. On the way going to the school, I got off to walk at this particular bit but on the way back I decided to stay on. This was a bad idea. Recently I've been thinking a lot about riding side saddle and whether it is actually all that safe. While maneuvering through all this mud, we fell off the bike (my first fall off the moto and I wasn't driving, I'd just like to say). Luckily as I was riding side saddle, as the bike fell I did an elegant jump and landed on both feet. However, nothing else was very elegant. My feet sunk into the road and I was quite literally stuck in the mud. I managed to squeltch my way to the side of the road by dragging my feet through the layers of mud to where a man and his son were watching the commotion. I was happy to add to their days entertainment as they let me wash my feet in their rain bucket and they were more than happy to spend a few minutes to enlighten us on how we should have driven on that road.

There is a very good reason why schools are closed during the rainy season!