Last week was Khmer New Year. It is arguably the most celebrated holiday in this country as mostly everyone closes down their businesses, takes time off from work and travels home to spend time with family. TGC followed suit and was closed for 1 and 1/2 weeks.
The first part of this time off was spent traveling with the TGC family on the annual school trip. Each year the students vote on where they would like to travel to. The students individually save money to pay for their portion of the trip and look forward to the departure months in advance. This year's trip took us to three provinces: Kampong Speu, Kampot and Kep (Rabbit Island). We departed at 5:00am on April 10th for the long drive to Kampong Speu. From the minute we left Siem Reap the adventures began. Here are some highlights:
-Hiking to a waterfall in the pouring rain, many of my students were dressed in new clothes they recieved for Khmai New Year....this did not stop them.
-Home Stay at Chambok Mountain
-Visiting a salt, pepper and durian fruit plantation
-Music on the bus...lots of singing.
-Windy drives up the epic Bokor Mountain
-Walking in the clouds
-Empty churches and casinos (abandon)
-Boat rides on the beautiful ocean
-Bungalows on Rabbit Island
-Delicious seafood, seafood and seafood
-Nerf football on the beach
-BBQing food under the stars
As you can see, the trip was pretty incredible. In four days we covered a large amount of distance and saw some absolutely wonderful things. More importantly, it was the perfect way to spend some quality time with my students and other staff members at TGC. These different locations and experiences were so much more enjoyable because of the people I was with.
When the trip came to an end it was time for me to embark on my own journey. A few months back I got together with 10 of my friends here and road 170km to a nearby province called Battambang. The ride was spectacular and a truly fantastic way to see more of Cambodia. After that day I had the idea to organize a bigger, more epic ride through parts of Cambodia I had not seen. The result of this idea proved to be one of the most rewarding and worthwhile experiences I have had here.
To sum up the trip (so I can move on to some other important stuff) here is a timeline (with distances) of my trip.
April 13th, 2013- Arrive in Phnom Penh after freaking out because the delivery company didn't drop my bike off and would be closing in an hour (before I could get there). Thankfully, a tuk-tuk driver friend in the city was kind enough to pick the bikes up, and guard them at his home. Meet up with traveling and riding partner Clem in PP, eat some lunch and attempt to figure out how to travel from Phnom Penh to Kratie Province. There are no buses available. There are no private cars less then 100$. Maybe the trip won't happen...
April 14th, 2013- Wake up early, eat breakfast and ride over to the Central Market in PP to try and find a shared van that will takes us with our bikes. Miracuosly, a van is found within ten minutes and Clem and I have decent seats. Let me re-iterate what the phrase shared van means: This is a 10 person van with 20+ people in it, two bikes and a ton of luggage and bags. I sat the entire way across from a Khmai man with our knees interlocked. It was awesomely uncomfortable but a great experience none the less. Eventually, we arrived in Kratie province where we road our bikes 30km to see the river dolphins!
April 15th, 2013: Set out on 70km ride to explore the area. See many pagodas, people dancing and celebrating the New Year and eat some delicious noodles. Prepare for tomorrow's ride.
April 16th, 2013: The fun begins. Clem and I set off on ride from Kratie to Kampong Cham. The estimated distance was 110km, which ended up be very estimated. However, the ride was one of the best cycling days of my life. We rode along the Mekong River through villages on awful dirt roads that took a lot of concentration to navigate. The highlight was getting my face and body talcum powdered numerous times by drunk Cambodia people in the streets. The ride took 9+ hours and covered about 130km. Covered in sand, powder and sweat the ride came to an end with a hot shower and delicious afternoon lunch.
April 17th, 2013: Said goodbye to Clem. Going solo for the rest of the ride. Today would be from Kampong Cham to Kampong Thom. This easy 120km would take me through some beautiful country side. A bit of a hill climb for the first 70km challenged my quads a bit but the downhill on the other end was well worth it. It only took me 5 hours to reach Kampong Thom but I got stuck in an awful storm 5km away from my hotel that caused me to camp out at a gas station for 45mins and wait for the sheets of rain to die down. That night I stayed at the Sambor Villa Hotel and enjoyed their delicious food, wonderful service and hot shower. I took a wonderful nap.
April 18th, 2013: There is not much to say about the final leg of my ride. On a map, it looks daunting. In person it was way worse. Following a major highway, I biked 150km from Kampong Thom back to Siem Reap. The first 70km were alright. The other 80km were a different story. At around the 75km mark I started to hear a crunching sound in my left pedal. I stopped to have a look and realized that something was wrong that I would not be able to fix. (I found out later at the local bike store that one of the bolts inside the pedal was snapped...I guess I was going a little too hard). For the rest of the trip I had to deal with this awful clicking sound that many people passing me on moto's stopped to investigate. Other than this, my body was extremely fatigued. I had done a lot of riding recently...maybe too much. My quads were saying "stop" and mentally I was starting to shut down. I even started singing the songs on my iPod so all could hear....then my iPod died. Eventually, I did make it back to Siem Reap and was welcomed by my wonderful friend Deb with a toliet paper finish line. I rode through like a champion...and then ate a lot of food.
Total Distance: 500km+
Now that I am all recovered, I am extremely happy that I did not give up. I pushed through and completed a fairly epic ride. I was lucky to be able to see more of the country before I depart.
Speaking of which, in 4 days I will be leaving Siem Reap and Cambodia to return home to America. Yesterday, I started the process of packing. It was weird to begin organizing my stuff and going through papers, receipts and clothing. In a way it was almost like re-living the last nine months. I found all my medical documents from my two illnesses, the receipt for my first bike purchase, business cards from restaurants that I tried the first week I arrived. Each item sparked a memory and reminded me of how far I have come since I stepped off the plane in Siem Reap back in July 2012.
Interestingly enough, about a year ago, I sat through numerous training sessions as part of my Minerva Fellowship training. Each one focused on something different. The training's did a good job at teaching us how to appropriately handle our arrival in to our respective countries. But, not one session prepared us for saying goodbye...
Leaving this place, and saying goodbye, is going to be hard. It will arguably be one of the hardest things I have had to do so far in my life. Over the last 9+ months I have created a wonderful life here. I have worked hard at my job, built relationships with some incredible people and tried to make the most of each and every day. I have tried my best to teach effectively and in return learned a lot about myself. I have explored towns, villages and temples. I have run a half marathon and biked 100's of kilometers. I have been sick, really sick and then awfully sick. I have started new programs and watched them flourish. I have started new programs and watched them bomb. I have succeeded and failed. I have also found myself in that grey area between success and failure. I have grown as a person, discovering so much about who I am and the world around me. I have stepped outside my comfort zone. I have laughed, smiled, played. I have acted silly and been serious. I have been frustrated, let down and confused. Over the last 9+ months, I have experienced life in Cambodia and all the wonderful things that come with it.
Maybe they don't teach you how to say goodbye because they can't....
So, it is time for me to say goodbye. Time to say goodbye to smiling children, hardworking staff and close friends. Time to say goodbye to dirty streets, friendly strangers and delicious food. Time to say goodbye to bicycle rides, temples and pagodas. Time to say goodbye to tuk-tuks, cheap beer and yummy fruit shakes. Time to say goodbye to the city and country I love.
This experience will never be forgotten. I will hold the memories, the people and the work I have done here close to my heart forever. As I finish up this post, the words to explain my true feelings escape me. I am not sure that I could ever properly do justice to my emotions on this blog. For now, I leave you with this:
Sometimes in life things don't always go as planned. Sometimes students don't want to learn or people don't want to cooperate. Sometimes bicycle's get flat tires or tuk-tuks break down. Sometimes the power goes out for a while when you need to finish a big project. Sometimes a student decides to move on from school and try something else. Sometimes you get sick. Sometimes friendships don't last and relationships breakdown. Sometimes you can't make a student smile. Sometimes homework doesn't get finished. And sometimes you have to say goodbye...
If I have learned anything while living in Cambodia it's this: Things don't always work out the way they are planned but eventually they WILL work out.
I am not sure where my life will take me next. What I do know is, no matter what, things will somehow work out...
See you later Cambodia.
I must take a minute to thank all of the people who have helped to support me over the last year. From the very moment I found out I received this fellowship I have been lucky enough to have supportive family and friends who truly care about my experience. A big thank you goes out to all those people (you know who you are) that have taken time to invest themselves in my experience by talking with me regularly and being there for me when I needed a familiar person to chat with.
Moreover, I need to thank all of the TGC staff and students. All of you, undoubtedly, played the largest role in my experience and without each and every one of you it would not be so hard to leave.
Finally, to my close friends in Siem Reap--thank you for welcoming me with open arms. You are some of the best people I know and I will never forget that times we have shared. Much love to you all.