by Sallie Poet, forPEACE Volunteer
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Riding across the countryside of Cambodia I was refreshed by the patchworks of greens—the yellow greens of new rice shoots against pale shining waters, swaths of palm greens like large brushstrokes, and blue greens growing grayer as the checkerboard fields receded back and back. Our air conditioned Mercedes minibuses shared the road with three wheel carts led by sinewy white cows and uniformed school girls doubled up on bikes riding home for lunch as well as the ubiquitous motor bikes freighted with baskets, pigs, branches and families.
As we turned off to the country roads of Battambang, we began to see small rectangular houses on stilts in villages. Constructed of green corrugated metal siding, each house boasted individualized “home improvements”—a thatched awning here or a brick porch there. Families clung to the posts and stared at us. As we debarked, we were met by a village of mothers, fathers, elders and beautiful children with their hands peaked together bowing and smiling to welcome us.
Ten framed structures waited for us. We went to work right away, first pounding nails to secure the floorboards. “Let’s race to see who can drive the nail in faster,” I said to my daughter. She put in three nails by the time I had finished one. All of us wore plaid krama scarves, the traditional Cambodian cloths used like bandanas, which we drenched with water to keep us cool.
Some of the 6’5 college boys were under the direction of the 5’2 Cambodian master builder, Mr. Luong, who taught them how to drive a nail through metal. A representative from Tabitha Cambodia did quality control, and though we did not speak the same tongue, we knew she insisted that we take off the siding and realign it correctly and straighter. We ate lunch under the palms with French bread, peanut butter, mangosteeens, bananas, salty chips and icy water, and by the end of the day we had completed all 10 structures.
Fathers were nailing the TABITHA plaques on the outside and children were hanging out the square windows before we left. We returned the next day to dedicate the houses, and took pictures in front of the houses we worked on with the family who was to reside there. Then we went to see the wells.
We walked on muddy berms and causeways to see the field wells. Fresh water pumped into partitioned fields and flooded the patties. The skilled farmers could control the flow and location of the water, literally giving them power over life and death as the water gushed out of the wells. The family wells also brought life.
We visited one woman in another village who had received her Tabitha house a couple of years ago. She showed us the thatched shack where she had lived before, and then proudly showed us her new green stilted home and its improvements. Because she had this fine edifice, she was able to start a noodle business, feed her family of 7 and take in 2 kids that would have been orphans. I was so moved that the effects of these houses and wells are so far reaching.
Our accommodations were much nicer—we stayed in old hotels with beautiful dark wooden stairs. We crooned to Karaoke at night and ate omelettes made to order for breakfast. We made new friends from Australia and neighboring communities. We rode the tuk-tuks and ate amazing salads of lemongrass, cilantro, fruits and glazed chicken, fish, noodles, rice—and a few brave ones among us even ate fire-ants, tarantulas and crickets!
We went to the UNESCO World Heritage sight—the giant temple structure of Ankgor Wat. We marveled at the amazing hydrolics, the concentric structures, and a spirit of sacred space pervaded the whole huge complex.
Back in Phnom Phen we marveled at the Buddhist temples a and the Royal Palace and bought beautiful silk souvenirs at the night markets. We toured silk farms and breakfasted every morning under a shaded green canopy courtyard. Our final activity was one last morning with the amazing children at the CIFO Orphanage. Sharing music, Red Rover, dancing, games and sports made us love the kids even more.
Returning to the hotel we planned our reunion, made pledges to Facebook and each set off for different adventures. Several stayed to research microlending in Cambodia, some went off to shop the silk tailors of Vietnam, some planned to stay longer and work at the CIFO orphange, some went back to schools, families and jobs. All of us were changed by the profound exchange of love and service: we had given them new houses to live in, they had given us a new way to understand living.