Last weekend saw yet another beach trip for me. It’s a hard life being an expat in Cambodia! This time I was accompanied by about 70 children however, as Sovann Komar headed to Sihanoukville for their annual community retreat.
Every year the families within the orphanage leave their busy lives behind and escape to the quiet and solitude that the coast has to offer. Well Sihanouvkille offers these things until over 110 people descend onto one restaurant! This annual trip brings both children and parents closer together, encourages friendships between the families, and gives everyone a chance to unwind as the play in the sea and lie in the shade.
The bus picked me and Sovann Komar’s accountant up at the ungodly hour of 6:10am – I didn’t even know that existed on a Saturday! But it does. And apparently by 7am, karaoke is an acceptable bus journey activity. And Khmer people don’t take karaoke lightly. Not only is there a tv at the front of the bus with the words (I presume that’s what the scribbles are), but the volume is cranked up to earsplitting heights and microphones are produced from somewhere. So for four hours, I was serenaded by children and parents alike as we trundled down the ever familiar road towards the beach.
I have neglected to mention thus far that I was on this trip not only as a longstanding member of the Sovann Komar staff, but also as a surrogate mother. It came to my attention on Friday that one family was not going to the beach – this just happened to be the family to whom my favourite kid belongs. Yes I know as a teacher you’re not supposed to have favourites but the connection that Lucinda and I share has been apparent since the day we met, almost six years ago. There’ll be a blog about her soon. Lucinda is almost 14 so I decided that I would ask her mother if she was willing to let me take her, provided I was responsible and made sure she was fed, watered, and alive – you know, parent stuff! And amazingly, she agreed!!! Lucinda’s uncle brought two of her brothers as well and we ate meals together as a mini family, along with the accountant and the administrator and her son. In the evening, Lucinda and her brothers hung out in my hotel room, watched Maleficent on my laptop and ate pringles. It was great to spent time with all of them outside a classroom and the Sovann Komar village in general.
Our days on the beach were spent predominantly in the sea. The first day found the water full of baby jellyfish! You couldn’t swim one stroke without hitting a see-through, surprisingly hard, lump. But they were so small, about the size and shape of a date, that they didn’t sting and instead the children collected them in plastic bottles. Despite the water hazards, the kids all seemed to really enjoy splashing around. Most of the older children could swim and those who were less confident wore life vests. As a nation, Cambodians don’t really swim much, somewhat strange considering the country hosts two huge rivers and a significant coast line. However, I have done numerous swimming lessons with the older Sovann Komar children over the past few years and their confidence and experience was evident. The second day was jellyfish free and much quieter on the beach in general. There were races, swimming lessons, underwater handstand lessons (I’m rather good at them if I do say so myself!), and wet sand fights (not something I encouraged).
On Sunday I organised a sandcastle competition. By organised I mean I bought two bucket and spade sets in the market that morning and then held them in either hand, up in the air, at the shoreline. This, and a brief call of “who wants to build a sandcastle?”, prompted about twenty children to crowd around me where two of the older children promptly nominated themselves team captains, picked teams in the blink of an eye, and grabbed the buckets out of my hands. Within seconds one team was creating a sprawling sand metropolis whilst the other team became fixated with creating one perfect sandcastle with four perfect towers – needless to say, this is a notoriously difficult task! Take a look at the end results of the two teams:
One unusual thing happened to me during the trip. I was reprimanded over my (and the children’s) conduct by a sexpat. A sexpat is the colloquial term for men who come to countries like Cambodia and Thailand in search of a young local woman, whom they pay for … their company. Some of these “relationships” become more long term and Sihanouvkille is awash with older, usually rather large and unattractive western men accompanied by a much younger, and often rather depressed looking Khmer woman. On Saturday the children had found some polystyrene and were using it as floats in the sea. I had already scolded them for doing so and for breaking it up into small pieces, explaining the environmental consequences (“if fish eat this, they die”). Whilst I was sitting on the shore however, a large, hairy sexpat came up to me, asked if I was their teacher and complained that the polystyrene was washing ashore and spreading down the coast. As I didn’t want the actions of the children to reflect badly on Sovann Komar, I apologised immediately and went to the shore where I instructed the children to bring all the remaining pieces back to me where they were piled up to be cleared away during our litter pick the next day. What confused and annoyed me however was that, for once in my life, I was agreeing with a man who, under normal circumstances, I would consider repulsive and devoid of any morals. The world is a strange place sometimes!
Overall however, the weekend was one of the best I have had since returning to Cambodia, coincidentally three months ago today. My usual trips to Sihanoukville are spent at the westernised end of the beach, drinking copious numbers of coconut shakes, followed by literally buckets of pina coladas in the evening. This trip was definitely different but it was no less amazing!