On my way around the city the other day, I stumbled across one of the 'big' supermarkets in Phnom Penh, and although I knew it would be extremely overpriced, I decided that I desperately wanted to check it out anyway. Plus, the supermarket boasted some peace and quiet from the busy streets of the city. Door open, enter Maria.
I grabbed a shopping basket (I did consider taking a trolley), and began slowly scanning the aisles for anything familiar. As I had epected, everything was entirely overpriced, close to double the market price, but I thought, 'Hey, what the hell. I need some retail therapy!'. In went some Asian two-minute noodles, which I can easily heat up on the little gas cooker I had bought for USD10. The next aisle had dried fruits and funny looking Asian potato chips. Nahh. But around the corner, God behold, I was assulted with a large array of Moccona instant coffee. I was so happy with my find that I spent the next 10 minutes investigating the different varieties, eventually settling for the Classic Moccona. Ahh.
When I reached the baby food aisle, my phone beeped - Nika. She was sad and wanted to have a drink and dinner. Ok, I said, come and meet me at the supermarket.
We headed off down Monivong Blvd to the same Chinese seafood restaurant I had visited with Eva and Helyna a few months ago. Things hadn't changed - the food was still great. Over dinner and Angkor Beer, Nika started telling me of her crazy day. She supports her family of 11, yet she was having a lot of difficulty with one of her young brothers, as her was not pulling his weight. Ok, I thought, sounds normal. But the plot thickens... her mother likes to gamble, her father is a heavy drinker and is making trouble with her neighbours, and they are all steeling her money when she is at work. Wow, I thought, this is pretty unbelievable considering they would be out on the streets if it weren't for her. I had always assumed that people in need are more than grateful to those who help them, but I found I was seriously mistaken when Nika told me of her troubles. It doesn't seem entirely fair that this happens to someone who lives their life for other people, especially the people who are abusing her generosity.
Anyway, I figured it best to distract her, as she looked like she had done enough crying for the day. We started talking about life in the West; she asked me lots of questions about Western relationships and why I had broken up with my boyfriend. I asked her about her life her in Cambodia, and the things she was doing. We chatted late into the night, and it was really nice to have a connection with someone over here.
This morning, we got up bright and early with the stirring of the first traffic, and headed south towards the Happy School after a quick Khmer noodle soup and a sweet milk coffee. I hadn't seen the kids in a few months and was eager to distract myself with some work. We sat in her breezy office and started going over the report she had received back from the Happy School clan in Melbourne. She was having some trouble with the teachers and guards, lack of funds, apparently the usual problems of the many NGO's in this world. Western management meets Khmer management, women vs men, basically politics.
In talking about the Happy School and what had to be done to improve its facilities, enrolments, funding, etc, we ended up deep in conversation about the project which Nika so passionately wants to do - build a second school in the small, poor province of Kandal, one hour's moto drive south of Phnom Penh. A mother of one of the Happy School students wants to give Nika a parcel of land to duplicate what she is doing in Phnom Penh; reportedly, the province has no free education, and for poor families, there are no schooling opportunities. The mother wants change and a better life for her fellow residents. At present, she is sending her three daughters and son to Phnom Penh to live with her sister, so that they can attend the Happy School. But this is a difficult situation for her and her family, as the children are needed at home to farm the land and keep them all alive. Most families do not have the ability to send their children away to school.
We began putting together an action plan to build the school, and decided that it would be a good idea to get a second opinion on the idea from one of Nika's Australian friends, who works for the World Bank as some sort of lawyer. Back on the moto, off to meet Daniel.
Over Khmer omelette, fish, tofu and rice, we quizzed Daniel over our idea of building another school together. He said, 'Great, but why don't you get the current one running properly first, then build another one.' Hmmm. Much to think about. Both are huge projects, which will take time, dedication and long term committment. The main shortfall at the moment is the severe lack of funds for even the basic costs of the school, such as the monthly rent, bicycles for the kids to get to school and home, etc. And of course, the Happy School is 'owned' by the guys back in Aus, and they need to get behind whatever it is that Nika wants to do. But this would take more time and committment on their behalf. Not sure where we will go with this, though at the moment, I am learning lots regardless.
Not much time for feeling homesick, no time at all for thinking about boys (hehehe), and not even much time for decking out my unit. But all will come with time...
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