Life in the Village

It is early on Wednesday morning.  Rob is getting packed up and ready to head out to the village to capture two blessing ceremonies.  I have chosen to stay in town today to scout out some art supplies and do some shopping.  

Yesterday was a big day.  We were on the road early, doing some shopping at the big market.  We sometimes take tuk tuks, small little people carriers pulled by a man on a motorcycle.  Other times we rent a car and a driver, when we have enough people and supplies.  Yesterday Kent opted for a car and driver as there were three of us and we were loaded down with bags of equipment.  Using the PassApp (an app for booking vehicles - similar to Uber) we enlisted Geo to be our driver for the day.  He was very happy, as business has been super slow with the coronavirus and downturn in Siem Reap tourism.  With three young children, it is really hard to make ends meet.  His English is exceptional, so we may hire him several more times while we are here.  He mentioned that while school is free, after school tutoring is paid out of pocket.  Because fares have been so scant, he has been unable to come up with the cash this month.  Geo drove us out to the village, about 30 minutes to the west, dropped us off, and spent the next six hours trolling for customers.  Other than a short $5 fare, his day, without us, would have been empty of revenue.

I share all this, not to invoke any pity or worry, rather to paint a picture of a community and country, and what daily life here really looks like.  Tourism was down considerably before the virus.  After the virus, it has plummeted even more.  That economic impact trickles down to the poorest of the poor, which are some of the people we are trying to help.

Two homes are near completion and a third is just getting started.  Our primary focus yesterday was House No. 3 for Lin and Chea and their three children: Chiva (13), Charlie (11) and Chiaya (4).  

When we arrived, Lee and the crew were busy putting the concrete pillars in place.  This is a process that takes time and effort, as this truly becomes the foundation of the home.  Everything needs to be level by the end of this phase or it would mean lots of trouble later on in the process.

It’s amazing to watch these local tradesmen as they climb up to the top of single beam and begin nailing things together.  They are both nimble and precise.  

While they get things in place, Lee and Rob were busy getting the pieces cut to size.  By mid-afternoon, the floor had been planked and ready for the frame of the walls to go up.  

The remnants of the old home had been used to create a temporary shelter with a single light bulb, a small dusty television attached to a makeshift antennae up on the tin roof.  This is where the family enjoys some relaxation time during the couple of hours around midday when it is too hot to do anything else, watching television and contemplating their new home that was rising quickly. The electrical service coming in is very spartan and doesn’t inspire confidence in terms of safety.

Lin and Chea’s property is surrounded by farms and farmland.  Within view are cows, water buffalo, chickens, and roosters.  

There are also luscious gardens being tended by hard working neighbours.  I was struck at the intense green of the rows of lettuce being grown nearby.  In a small slough right behind the makeshift shelter, fish jump throughout the day.  

A fishing net hangs in the tree near the well, which gets thrown out onto the water to gather its offerings that arrived during the rainy season.  As the water recedes, the fish stay behind and provide sustenance during the dry months.

While the guys were working, Lin cut up several mangos and had a small dish of red chillies mixed with oil and salt.  The combination of the two was delicious, or, at least I thought so.  I was the only non-local to dive in and give it a try.  

The children arrived after their morning schooling and were absolutely delightful.  Shy at first, they quickly became playful as each of us, in our own ways, helped them become comfortable with our presence.  They have a great sense of humour and are eager to communicate.  I was able to share pictures of my son Ben with Chiva, sharing that he is close to his age, just a little older.  They particularly enjoyed helping us learn a little Khmer, simple words that provide a strong bridge of understanding and connection.  Smiles are in abundance by everyone.

We often talk about the differences between building a stick built home, which takes four or five days, and a prefab home that goes up in a single day.  The latter provides a much richer experience.  “We have learned that this is not about building houses, “ observed Lee Chandler, co-founder of Bracelets For Buildings, “it is about building relationships.”  

The hours spent on a site, working in harmony with the local labourers and the families, breaks down barriers and creates authentic moments of human connection.  Here are some pictures that illustrate that reality.

Our portion of the work day was all about the shitters, or to put it more politely, the latrines.  A forest of outhouse structures had been prefabricated at Heng’s house.  Our job was to strap them, one at a time, to the new trailer purchased by B4B and deliver them to each of the home sites.  

Heng is the local construction manager, a marvellous human being with a fantastic demeanour and work ethic.  He sports a Hollywood Elvis-like smile and has a tender heart.  It was lovely to visit his new home (which went up at the end of the last building season) and meet his wife and adopted daughter.

Nothing works out perfectly in terms of the construction process.  Doors have arrived that don’t quite fit the frames.  The latrines don’t quite fit into the concrete bases that were pre-constructed.  But Lee, Heng and Kent (the other co-founder) just roll with it and find solutions.  

By noon today, two homes, complete with their new latrines, will be gifted to their families.  Blessing ceremonies will be held, monks will be in attendance, as will neighbours and village elders.  Feasts will be enjoyed and lives will begin to be changed.  While this is the pinnacle of why we are here doing this work, the blessing ceremonies are just part of the bigger journey of human connection, kindness, compassion and understanding. 


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