I went to Cambodia in January 2010 for one very selfish reason: To delay joining the “real world” after graduating from college. I volunteered as a teacher through Cambodia’s Hope, a wonderful nonprofit that is passionate about helping Cambodian children further their education. I was more interested in living in the countryside than Phnom Penh so I chose to teach English at an orphanage of 70 children located about an hour away — close enough to visit the capital from time to time but far enough from the chaos to stay sane!
The rain. It’s like a super-effective antidepressant during these times of drought. It was supposed to visit us a month ago, so its late arrival is very well received. The gigantic black clouds that can’t be missed are a welcome harbinger of the one-hour downpour they will soon let loose. On a 90-degree Sunday afternoon, when the kids are doing whatever they can to not move and stay distracted from the heat, these black skies are a promise that relief is not far away.
I’ve been at an orphanage run by the Assistance to Poor Children Agency (APCA) for a month but I’m still getting used to crawling out of my mosquito-net-covered bed at 5:30 a.m. each day. And I’ve already found myself craving two things: A drink of some sort that isn’t water (the water here leaves your breath smelling like you forgot to brush your teeth) and anything — anything! — but rice three times a day.
My mornings begin with 4-year-olds who know how to sing their ABCs and count to 10. When I arrive, they greet me with, “HELL-OOO TEACHA! How are YOUUU to-DAAAY?” Their favorite activity is coloring — they would color all day if they had the chance. Unfortunately, there’s a paper shortage at APCA, so I have to ration the pages from the coloring books I brought. The youngest kids definitely provide a different perspective on growing up. No real beds, dolls or stuffed animals. No snacks, desserts or birthday cakes. Only a few pieces of clothing. When one of them cries, it lasts for approximately 10 seconds and then they’re good to go. They can already ride bicycles, even though the bikes are adult-sized. All the big kids ride them and the 4-year-olds wanted to be just like the big kids so they taught themselves. They think saying, “Hello, yellow!” is the best thing ever. They are very easy to please, and their independence blows me away.
Next on my schedule are two classes of 9-12-year-olds. They are chatty and energetic — one patted my stomach and inquired, “Baby?” — but they learn quickly, are very eager and very curious about life in the U.S., peppering me with questions I do my best to answer: “Do you have stars in America?” “Why do everyone in your country have money?” “Is your country corrupt?” “Why no eat rice every day?” “Your country have roads a lot?”
A middle class of 12-14-year-olds follows. Every day they ask, “Ma-liss? Test today?” They actually look forward to tests, as well as the unplanned topics that randomly come up, like eating disorders, ovens and Google. We recently spent half a class voting on the name of the parasite that lives within me (a whole different story, but, yes, I suffered from amoebic dysentery for longer than I would have liked). The majority of the votes favored “prune ian” which means “shy parasite” in Khmer, Cambodia’s official language.
At the end of the day comes big kid class. These are 15-20-year-olds who seem to want to do nothing but study. This class is challenging to teach because of the huge range in their English-language skills. Some want to know about the different verb tenses while others are still having a hard time with basic English vocabulary. I’ve learned that an English-Khmer dictionary is my best friend.
Given the kids’ dedication, downtime is a rarity, but the extreme heat on a Sunday afternoon provides an exception. Most of the smaller kids are already lounging around in their underwear. And those who aren’t semi-nude strip down like it’s a race when the first drops hit their extended hands.
It only takes a minute or two for the rain to come down so hard you stop to wonder how it’s even possible. For the younger kids, this downfall means only one thing: Play time. Once nude, they sprint to the puddle-filled backyard to get as wet as possible; it only takes 20 seconds for them to get the dirt and sand… everywhere. For once, their imaginations are in full swing. Ten-year-old boys are pretend-fighting and it’s a bonus to get thrown down to the cool ground. Fourteen-year-olds are trying to teach the 5-year-olds how to do somersaults, but no one seems to have much luck since the rain makes it hard to see. Some boys have taken their scarves and folded them into little whips so they can play helicopter. Others entertain themselves by riding naked on a bike through the quicksand-like puddles.
The older kids are equally excited about the rain. But for them it’s not play time but work time. There are about half a dozen large cement basins that need to get filled ASAP. After that, they’ll use the buckets to fill the wash bins in the toilets. They occasionally stop to splash their face with the cool rain, but then they continue and don’t stop until the rain has ceased. Some of the older girls find the younger ones and use this opportunity to take a real shower (they normally use buckets). Shampoo bottles are passed around and soon half the children are running around with their heads covered in white lather. Many of them have just received major haircuts since the lice was so bad, so their washing takes only a minute before the rain has done its job and rinsed it all away.
Children are shouting, yelling, singing (“10 Little Indians”) and performing their own rain dances. The thunder and lightning sporadically make an appearance but no one pays any attention. Some start to wash their clothes under a rapidly emptying gutter; others get my attention by shouting, “Molly! Snake!” and then tossing buckets of water on me as I hesitantly turn the corner to see this non-existent animal.
When it stops, it’s very sudden, and things quickly return to normal. The naked boys find their clothes and go back to playing UNO. The girls wrap up the laundry and finish dispersing the water. The ground is now thick and mushy and every bike, classroom desk and piece of hanging clothing that was forgotten about before the rain hit is soaked. But it doesn’t matter. It’s still 83 degrees out and the sun is starting to set. By tomorrow morning, when classes resume, we’ll be crossing our fingers that we’ll get another dose of this wonderful rain. The sooner the better.