Deirdre Ryan from Dublin is working as a volunteer in Cambodia. She writes about her new life at the Xavier Jesuit Project, Cambodia.
In May 2015 I made the decision to volunteer overseas. I applied for a placement through Viatores Christi (VC), with no particular destination in mind. I did however, have a wish list.
I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and experience a new culture. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be engaged in work I found meaningful and worthwhile. I also wanted to work with people who have not had the same opportunities I have had and by my presence hopefully contribute to positive change.
I knew very little about Cambodia or its people then.
To embrace the unfamiliar
Those first few weeks were all about getting to know the routines, the geography of the immediate environs, adjusting to community living and battling with the Khmer language. But now, when I feel like my progress is at a standstill, I remind myself that back then, many conversations in English left me baffled – strange sounding place names, references to other communities, other projects and even people’s names.
I have been very happy here in the village of Phnom Bak from the start, but looking back I see that the settling in has been a gradual process. And that the process speeds up the more open I am to embrace the unfamiliar.
The town of Serei-sophon is 7 kms away, a long walk in the afternoon heat, attempted only once and a more manageable, enjoyable cycle. Apart from the beautiful wooden church built on stilts, I initially felt it hadn’t much to offer. I saw only the rubbish that is scattered almost everywhere. At some stage, I stopped seeing the rubbish first and began noticing the people, the beauty in the buildings, and appreciating the liveliness and busyness of the streets. Now to me Serei-sophon is a town full of life, full of character that I am enjoying slowly getting to know.
Cambodian days and nights
Living here alongside our international community, I work in the community building with them and with the Khmer staff that includes teachers, office staff, our cook, our cleaner and our guards. Early on, I spent a few days working from my room planning, evaluating and studying Khmer. It was possibly the most challenging time I’ve had since I arrived.
When I think about how relationships have developed and how colleagues are becoming friends, I am grateful for the advice given during our VC training—in development work, there is little you can achieve sitting on your own, at your computer. These days I tend to do most of these things in the teachers’ room, in the company of others.
The evenings are quiet. The sun sets around 6.30pm now, it was before 6pm when I first arrived. The Cambodian sunsets are amazing. Like everything you have on tap, it is now something I expect every night, but it never fails to take my breath away. And when there’s a full moon, it hangs in the sky like a giant golden bauble. At night the sound of children is replaced with the almost deafening lullaby of crickets and geckos.
“Where are you going?”
Once you walk outside the gates and set foot in the villages, you realise immediately that there is no isolation here, unless it is self-imposed. The people are curious, a greeting is often in the form of the question: “Where are you going?” Smiles are given readily—laughter even more so—particularly at this volunteer’s poor attempts at communication, a good natured laughter.
I knew very little about Cambodia and its people before I came here and I still have a lot to learn. But I have started the journey.
Author: Deirdre Ryan, Volunteer at the Xavier Jesuit School, Cambodia