Scurrying into El Hormiguero…(The anthill)

From our first week in the bustling metropolis that is Santiago, we were ready to get ourselves back to volunteering in somewhat more sedate surroundings-and the El Hormiguero in El Monte proved to be just that! Another placement that we had found through the HelpX website, with the simple yet tantalising description:

In the midway between Santiago and the surf-paradise Pichilemu, we have our creative centre “El Hormiguero” (the anthill).

We are exploring in eco-building, natural pools, aquaponics crops, arts, music and any interesting expression of new lifestyles.

With our eagerness to find alternative lifestyles, building methods and my much coveted ‘life skill acquisition’, on the face of things this place looked like it could tick all of the boxes-and so we had three weeks or so to find out-El Monte here we come!

So then….where to start? Well as always, the adventure begins with a journey, in this case a mere 1 hour bus into the unknown. We managed to get on the right bus, we just had a little hiccup with getting off in the wrong spot-probably a twenty minute or so walk from where we should have been. In theory no problem, but with your backpacks on and the midday heat beating down on your head, that twenty minutes takes on a whole new significance! Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an empanada and fresh juice stop-and so our first introduction to the charm and friendliness of El Monte washed over us. Yes that’s right, you wouldn’t expect a vendor of empanadas and fresh juice to be a significant meeting, but the man in the square of El Monte was an absolute ray of sunshine and he would continue to shine for our entire time at the anthill! At this point it’s worth pointing out that El Monte is not exactly a destination for tourists, or for want of a better word, Gringos! As such we kinda stick out like a sore thumb, but that only served to encourage kindness and warmth from pretty much everyone we met over the following three weeks or so.
I digress, back to our journey…once we had located the main square, we had basic walking directions that would take us to the anthill and so we hit the road for another twenty minutes or so until we saw the palm trees-the significant landmark that would signify our arrival at our destination. You see, the anthill, aside from the description as given above, is a palm tree farm!

Well baked, slightly sweaty and reddened in the face, we negotiated our way to the entrance to find our hosts for the build up until Christmas, and for sure what we found was both intriguing and bewildering. Soon enough we were offered a beer and set about getting to know Vicente and Martina, some German guys that were already there volunteering, and also the various animals that we would find ourselves growing to know and love. Alpacas, emus, a donkey, a peacock, two peahens, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats-to say there was some variety is an understatement! And all of this in the setting of a traditional adobe farm, albeit it with some wonderfully quirky design features. Impossible to describe effectively with words, a montage seems most fitting to give you an impression of the location:

As I’m sure you can see, this place was quite special, and it would only get more magical. It turned out that our period of volunteering coincided with Martina and Vicente’s wedding, which they were going to be having at the farm! So it was up to us all to landscape and decorate the grounds in readiness for 400 guests to celebrate their union-and what a fantastic few weeks it turned out to be. Initially we had to clear the palm tree forest of all debris as that was where the ceremony and meal was to be-and this was the worst job of all! It may surprise you to know that palm tree leaves are pretty damn sharp, and all of us suffered greatly with significant punctures and lacerations caused by these pesky leaves! Fortunately for us we were there at the tail end of this job, the German guys had been pretty much focussed on the forest for their entire stay, and it was really starting to take its toll on their enthusiasm!
Still, once the forest was cleared there was more varied work to do, and luckily for us it was the period of time where you could really see the transformation taking place.
After a few days of us being there, we were also lucky enough to welcome the arrival of a couple from Leeds, Rob and Charlie, a couple who happen to have extremely similar ideals and plans as ourselves-albeit they are a little further down the line than us. This proved to be amazing, we shared so much, and I would say that they have became close friends. They were both extremely knowledgeable about various alternative farming methods and construction ideas, and it was fantastic to just sit and talk about hopes and plans (not dreams, plans!).

Back to the work, Martina and Vicente have a booming landscaping business work on projects throughout Santiago…reason that their business is booming? Well, they’re pretty damn creative, that’s why-and so we were tasked with the job of implementing their creative ideas, on their property, for their wedding…No pressure! Working with Rob and Charlie was brilliant, and in our time there we managed to build two beached areas, a water garden, some mighty fine gates, got involved with some adobe walling, and an immaculately decorated venue for the wedding-as well as Rob and Charlie getting to grips with a number of bridges, sprucing up a gypsy caravan, relocating the aquaponics and generally being open to our constant questioning!

In addition to all of the work at the farm, we were blessed with the wonder of El Monte, for here we would find warm and friendly folk who would fall over themselves to make us welcome. The daily Christmas market in the local plaza, and free capoeira lessons at the wonderful local community centre. Despite the fact that there was no common ground in terms of language-it turned out to be possibly one of the most friendly martial arts clubs I have ever been to, they even started having lessons in the town plaza for eveyone to watch. We loved it, and soon enough Rob and Charlie were hooked as well-a welcome distraction from the work at the farm for sure!

Twice a week we would get our capoeira on, and the rest of the week was dedicated to graft, and the occasional two litre bottle of El Gato wine!! The work was full on, after all there was an immovable deadline to meet-so it wasn’t as if we could leave it to the next volunteers if we didn’t finish-so finish we did…Culminating in a spectacular wedding!

It was a fantastic ending to our time in El Monte, after three and a half weeks we had made some special friendships and enjoyed a magical time at the farm…Now Christmas was upon us, and the grafitti laden streets of Valpairiso awaited!

Advertisements

Volunteering in San Rafael-wine country!

Following our injection of tourism, it was time to settle for a volunteer placement once again-this time spending 6 weeks in San Rafael, Mendoza region, wine country!
Quite the different proposition to Aldea Luna, here were volunteering at an Argentinian finca and boutique hotel-as we had arrived during low season there weren’t too many guests to tend to, and so we spent a lot of the time preparing the hotel for high season.

While we had the experience of organic farming in isolation in Northern Argentina, here we found ourselves tending to horses, llamas, chickens, dogs, cats and geese in the shadows of the Andes. Daily duties were simply to feed the animals and tend to any odd jobs around the hotel, and to sort out lunch for Nicole, the owner, and her parents, Hugo and Carmen. Once again we found ourselves in a predominantly vegetarian environment, and to be honest I thoroughly enjoyed adding a number of delicious vegetarian recipes to my repertoire…Including the taste sensation of beetroot, carrot, ginger and garlic gyoza!

Overall it was a super relaxed and thoroughly social placement-Nicole, Hugo and Carmen were absolutely brilliant, and we had many a laugh and good night!
As with all of our placements, even though the work didn’t exactly fall into the ‘life skills’ category-it was invaluable to work with someone like Nicole-who has an keen eye for detail and impeccably high standards. Not surprisingly there are a number of awards from TripAdvisor proudly displayed in the lobby of the hotel.

San Rafael itself is a quaint little town full of bodegas and, more importantly, delicious ice cream parlours. Obviously it wouldn’t be acceptable to be in Mendoza region without some wine tasting, and so we indulged in the local favourite of Jean Rivier to whet our appetites-an appetite that would be fed quite regularly during the remainder of our time in Argentina! Here we also finally broke our duck on Argentinian ice cream, and what an experience that was. Cheap and delicious gelato, with a list of flavours as long as your arm, ice cream is something of a passion in Argentina, and now we truly understood why!

Other highlights from our time here came from interaction with the guests and Nicole’s friends-particularly the opportunity to attend, and then conduct, Argentinian BBQs-or asados as they are known. Unlike the British equivalent, where you go to the shops grab as many burgers and sausages as possible before rushing to a gas powered BBQ to cook them before the sunshine disappeared, an asado is a much more considered event. Obviously the fact that you have glorious sunshine certainly helps-so great big hunks of meat would be slow cooked over a couple of hours on wood coals made from burning local hardwoods…Certainly no gas powered BBQs or bags of coal to be found here! Chorizos, morcillas (black pudding), chinchulines (cow small intestines), mollejas (sweetbread), and other organs, are served first while the larger cuts of beef are left to slow cook over the coals.
The result is a wonderfully tender and smoky beef sensation, including the salty deliciousness of small intestines (chinchulines), a delicacy that, prior to tasting, I would have definitely turned my nose up at!
Obviously it helps that you get to use Argentinian beef, regarded by some (mostly Argentinians, obviously!) to be the best beef in the world…Why? The beef’s quality apparently comes from the grass the cattle feed on. Unlike other countries, most Argentine cows are not fed on grains, but are raised eating grass in the pampas, the biggest beef producing region of the country where open flat plains dominate the landscape.
All of this washed down with wonderful red wine-obviously!

For sure it was an unexpected injection of some luxury into our volunteer journey-and we did get pretty comfortable there-but by the end of the 6 weeks we were ready to continue, a bus journey across the Andes awaited, Chile was calling!

 

Argentina and the moon-Aldea Luna

Having had a ‘holiday’ from our travels back in the UK, we excitedly boarded our next long haul flight to Buenos Aries for the South American branch of our adventure. Having been the perpetual tourist in South East Asia, this leg of our journey is something of a different proposition, not least because of the expense. The plan for South America is very much to do more volunteering, try to learn Spanish, and be more of an intermittent tourist.

During the end of our time in Asia, and throughout the summer in the UK, we scoured HelpX for different opportunities to plan out our time in Argentina. Being blessed with a UK passport, we have a 90 day VISA on arrival throughout the South American countries, and so plenty of time to get settled at various projects. Our first confirmed opportunity, a month at Aldea Luna-a private nature reserve and organic farming project in Jujuy Province, Northern Argentina.

And so we arrived-ARGENTINA!

Yeah that’s right, we were in Buenos Aries!

We landed at Buenos Aries and literally had 24 hours before having to make the 1000 mile, 24 hour bus journey to Jujuy-so what do you actually do in that time? Well we paid a visit to the cemetery of course! As per our guide, TripAdvisor, the grave of Evita is one of the must see things to do in Buenos Aries, and given the fact that it was free and relatively easy to find-we decided that would be the best use of our time. From being in predominantly Buddhist countries for the last 8 months, and spending a lot of our time visiting sites of worship, it was quite ironic to now be visiting Catholic sites of importance-given our own apathy towards religion. The cemetery in Buenos Aries certainly is ‘up there’ in terms of the grandiose and bizarre-with rows and rows of mighty funeral chambers for the families of the wealthy and influential in Argentina. You’ll see from the pictures that this was like no other cemetery that you would find in the UK:

Streets of death...!

Streets of death…!

Grand monuments and palm trees!

Grand monuments and palm trees!

Don't you open that Trap Dooooooor.....Cos there's something down there!

Don’t you open that Trap Dooooooor…..Cos there’s something down there!

Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether there was some element of humour?! Or perhaps alluding to the fact that they were poisoned!

Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether there was some element of humour?! Or perhaps alluding to the fact that they were poisoned!

Certainly we didn’t give ourselves enough time to explore this vast capital, but that was down to our own miscalculation in thinking that our upcoming journey was only going to be 8 hours, rather than the 24 hours that it actually was. Still, it gave us an immediate opportunity to gauge the standards of the much lauded long distance bus services in South America-and first impressions certainly were positive. You choose from a number of seating options, from which we chose one down from the top where you enjoy a fully reclining seat and some sort of food for the journey. The seat was comfortable enough, the food was lousy, and we ended up with a bit of cabin fever due to the fact that the driver wouldn’t let us leave the bus! Still, nowhere near as terrifying as the various land transportation that we encountered in Asia, and pretty much bang on time we arrived in San Salvador de Jujuy. Weary and hungry, we soon found ourselves a hostel for the evening-and hightailed it out to a restaurant recommended for llama steak! Yes, that’s right, we ate llama and it was delicious!

All of this was just a precursor for our destination proper-Aldea Luna. This was our first true experience of ‘off the grid’ living for a little while, solar energy, cold showers, organic gardens providing the majority of our meals-and a chance to really learn some of the life skills that I always bang on about. With some difficulty we eventually managed to get in contact with the hosts to inform them of our arrival, and got ourselves an early night prior to our 7AM bus into the unknown. All we knew was that we would be getting off the bus at Tilquesa, and someone would be there to meet us and take us on the 3km hike to our home for the next 4 weeks. This time our bus journey was a much more ‘local’ experience-dusty winding roads taking us through the mountains before eventually dropping us in the middle of nowhere-just a sign to signify the fact that we were at our desired destination. We were met by Annabella, a long term volunteer at Aldea Luna, and she lead us off on the surprisingly challenging hike-fast forward one hour and we had arrived, breathless and sweaty, ready for action! First impressions were breath-taking, as I’m sure you would understand:

Aldea Luna 'clubhouse'!

Aldea Luna ‘clubhouse’!

Aldea Luna in all its glory

Aldea Luna in all its glory

The month that followed really is difficult to describe-it was absolutely incredible. In our hosts, Martin, Elizabeth, Matias and Ana-we found inspiration, warmth and a wealth of knowledge. We learned about organic farming, construction, cow conflict, life and laughter-and thanks to Matias we also learned a little about philosophy! Martin and Elizabeth bought the land that Aldea Luna sits on about ten years ago, they spent a couple of years walking the cow trails and through the forests-really getting to know the land, before deciding on a spot to build their home and a couple of extra cabins for volunteers and guests. Since then they have shared their knowledge and enthusiasm with countless volunteers-and I feel honoured to now count myself as one of the lucky few to have benefitted from their hospitality. To give you the ‘official’ Aldea Luna description:

Aldea Luna is a family enterprise, financed only by tourism and volunteers, without any financial contribution by the government or ecological organization or NGO.

The family members include Martin and Elizabeth and our son Matias and daughter Anna.

We are open to other people that want to live in our village (Aldea) for long periods of time or permanently…. We listen to propositions…

The experience that we chose is certainly not for the lazy or workshy, we had opted to be full time volunteers-and as such we committed to seven hours of work per day….And the work was tough, extremely rewarding, but tough! We were not looking for a holiday resort-here we really learned what it is like to live in a different way-to be as self-sufficient as possible, and to have to meet problems and challenges on a daily basis. We lived in a house in the forest made of clay, no electricity and no hot water-which in itself presented a shock to the system. Not to mention the fact that we were in bunk beds….Albeit bunk beds in a wonderful clay cabin in the forest!

Our Aldea Luna home

Our Aldea Luna home

Not a bad view to wake up to each morning!

Not a bad view to wake up to each morning!

I'm sure you'll agree it's a 'strong' look for cementing!

I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a ‘strong’ look for cementing!

Then the paving just got a little crazy!

Then the paving just got a little crazy!

Sam took me on as his apprentice, and this is what we made!

Sam took me on as his apprentice, and this is what we made!

And then there was the washing up, oh the joys of the pots!

And then there was the washing up, oh the joys of the pots!

For those that read with interest but do not fancy volunteering, they do host guests, and do a part time volunteer course where you can also learn Spanish. In hindsight we would have loved to have taken advantage of Elizabeth’s excellent language classes-but for sure we came away with a lot more than what we arrived with.
Not only does Elizabeth teach Spanish-her gardening and cooking ‘seminars’ are brilliant! Often we would find ourselves tasked with a job in the garden, and with no idea how to complete said task-queue a gardening master class from Elizabeth. Usually accompanied with a pressure relieving assurance that everyone makes mistakes-it’s OK that you thought the garlic was actually a leek! From the garden to the kitchen, again under the tutorage of Elizabeth, and more often than not Annabella too. Very much a group activity, the vegetarian fare was incredible, so much so that I can honestly say that over the month I really did not miss eating meat at all! We had revelations in peanut soup, and something of a collective addiction to chilli-and bread, oh so much bread!

For the times that you weren’t in the garden or cooking, you may find yourself filling your time collecting cow poo…invaluable manure for the vegetables. Or you would be with Martin and a team of people trying to ‘cow proof’ the garden with ongoing fence repairs. It doesn’t sound like something that would be too taxing, cow proofing a garden, but seriously-there was one cow at Aldea Luna that had skills like no other! Deftness of foot, dexterity, astute fence breaking skills-the bane of our existence for four weeks. It was funny how these things bring people together, together we built up an entire persona for the animals and together many a laugh was had with the cows as the central characters!

Martin and Elizabeth taught us how to lay concrete floors, repair chairs, cement crazy paving and build tables-but it wasn’t all work, work, work….For come the weekend something quite spectacular would happen in the mountains of Aldea Luna-the generator would be powered up, the disco lights would spring into life, the glitter ball would start to rotate on its axis and you will see Martin bouncing in front of his laptop entertaining us all with banging tunes on a fantastic sound system! Never would I have believed that just twelve people could create such an atmosphere! As we would be gluttons for punishment, the party was usually on a Saturday night leaving us in a right old state to tackle one of the many hikes on the following day. The forests, rivers and mountains that make up the reserve offer some wonderful treks with plenty of food for the soul-perfect for soaking up the excesses of the prior evening.

Our final walk, the most challenging...(the biggest hangover)

Our final walk, the most challenging…(the biggest hangover)

Mountains, forest and river-we had it all!!

Mountains, forest and river-we had it all!!

The many hiking trails to explore during your free time, each one offering something different.

The many hiking trails to explore during your free time, each one offering something different.

While we were there we had the good fortune to be accompanied by some fantastic people who we worked, cooked, danced and hiked with-we shared in the joys of success at finishing various projects, as well as some frustrating defeats at the hands of extremely wily mountain cows. All of whom we can now call good friends-who knows, perhaps sometime in the future we will call upon them to help us with a project of our own!

Aldea Luna Dream Team!

Aldea Luna Dream Team!

And that’s just the people, I haven’t even begun to wax lyrical about the dogs, woodpeckers, fireflies, chickens, many wonderful birds of prey or the toucans! Everything working together in its natural environment to make this a truly wonderful and special place.

Toucan play that game....

Toucan play that game….

Spot Woody-the woodpecker!

Spot Woody-the woodpecker!

Tree, mountain, cloud-repeat

Tree, mountain, cloud-repeat

The gardens!

The gardens!

Ever seen a 'moonrise' like this? Me neither

Ever seen a ‘moonrise’ like this? Me neither

Some of the local bugs were spectacular

Some of the local bugs were spectacular

Possibly the most photographed tree in Argentina!

Possibly the most photographed tree in Argentina!

It was hard to leave at the end of our month there, but I do not think that is the end of this story-we may well return to Aldea Luna at some point….

Adios amigos!

Adios amigos!

If you want to get in contact with Martin & Elizabeth, check out their website Aldea Luna

Teaching in Taream

And so it began, our teaching placement had finally started and we were now living and working in a school in a small Cambodian town called Taream. We were 5 hours from Phnom Penh, 3 hours from Siem Reap-and we were the only ‘barang’ in the village! (Barang being the Khmer word for French-but commonly used to describe all foreigners)

At this point it’s worth describing the school, the schedule, and the accommodation-I’ll try to cover this off now so as not to constantly repeat myself throughout the post:
Classrooms – Two classrooms upstairs, one downstairs, one outside the school at the front…Then later we built one at the back of the house next to the kitchen.
Lessons – The provincial Sols 24/7lessons at Sols from schools are additional schooling options, somewhere where children attend voluntarily to further their English language speech. During the day those of school age go to state school, then they attend Sols English lessons at 5-6PM and 6-7PM. After a couple of weeks we introduced advanced lessons for the trainee teachers throughout the day, but this was outside of the norm for the school-and was just a good use of what was a lot of free time. There were a number of additional lessons throughout the day for the younger local kids to get a head start on their English speaking development.
Sleeping – We had a private room at the front of the school, our ‘bed’ was a wooden platform with no mattress and no pillows. We hung our own mosquito net, had one power point and a single light bulb
The trainees slept in a dorm, on the floor. Never have a group of people made a hardwood floor look so comfortable. (We slept on the wooden platform ‘as is’ for just two nights before seeking out some form of cushioning to appease our cravings for comfort-we eventually found a thin duvet in Kampong Thom market and its modicum of padding sufficed!)
Bed time was around 9PM as we were up at 5.30AM every day, from day two we started kickboxing lessons at 6AM, this would continue throughout our time at the school.
Washing – there was a well at the front of the house which was the source for all of our water, as well as where we washed ourselves and our clothes.

The morning 'shower'

The morning ‘shower’


Eating – the trainees cooked all of the meals over a fire in a small kitchen at the back of the house. We had rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner-with various different sauces to flavour the rice. (My favourite was green mango, garlic, chilli and fish sauce…My ‘nemesis’ was the various assorted dried fish!) The garden was a plentiful source of much of what we ate-there were mango and coconut trees, a mushroom growing bed, and an assortment of unknown vegetable and fruits. The array of meals that the trainees managed to produce was staggering, and a huge relief following our experience at main centre.
Every meal would be eaten together, and no-one would begin their meal until everyone was sat at the table-it was wonderful.
Imagine cooking all of your meals here every day!

Imagine cooking all of your meals here every day!


Toilet – a squat toilet at the back of the school, not a place to be after dark!
Play – a well-kept garden at the side of the house for volleyball and football-when the heat of the sun wasn’t too searing!

Rewinding to our arrival, we were presented with our first task; the following day the school was putting on a concert and so they needed to build a stage-our inaugural lesson in Cambodian practicalities and building skills was upon us immediately. The construction was simple enough, a couple of felled palm trees, some wooden planks, a shed load of bamboo from the garden and some graft. Wanting to prove our usefulness we both threw ourselves into things, much to the amusement of the trainees that we had just met, before long the sweat was pouring off us as we struggled to adapt to the high noon heat of the Cambodian dry season.
It was a great way to break the ice with our living companions for the next two months (Veshna and his wife Chantan-the centre leaders, Heng, Meng Kong, Lida and Sopheak-the trainee teachers; and a number of ‘second home’ students who live at the school because their homes are too far away to travel each day) and before too long we had something that actually resembled a stage, although the finishing touches would take us well into the next day.

Sawing bamboo is a two man job!

Sawing bamboo is a two man job!

Jo using her stick fighting skills to good effect!

Jo using her stick fighting skills to good effect!

Bamboo prep-the 'wonder' construction material!

Bamboo prep-the ‘wonder’ construction material!

Introducing Heng-something of an inspirational character and someone who taught me a lot!

Introducing Heng-something of an inspirational character and someone who taught me a lot!

It was a great first couple of days, we didn’t do any teaching-but we were learning ourselves and relishing the opportunity to gain some practical skills in helping to prepare for whatever event they were planning. Little did we know what the evenings’ concert was to have in store. It turns out that they were expecting around 100 kids from the local area, and they would be hosting an extravaganza of entertainment from dance troupes, singers and drama productions, all to be followed by a bit of a party. If we were in any doubt as to their serious intent, it was soon dispelled when we saw the truck arrive with the sound system. That’s right-the sound system was MASSIVE, more like something you would have seen in a disused quarry in the 90’s at an illegal rave! Having had the security of our fillings tested during the sound check, we were soon informed that we were expected to be central to proceedings for the evening-Jo was to be Mistress of Ceremonies with Teacher Heng, and I was expected to sing….On stage, in front of loads of kids. Gobsmacked, gutted, petrified, terrified and nervous are all words that spring to mind-I don’t mind being centre of attention every now and again, but generally I do so under my own terms!

The completed stage, and the accompanying sound system!

The completed stage, and the accompanying sound system!

MC Heng and I having a 'shirt off'

MC Heng and I having a ‘shirt off’

Heng and Jo get the show started, I am skulking around nervous about my upcoming performance

Heng and Jo get the show started, I am skulking around nervous about my upcoming performance

It was amazing to see the confidence in these kids getting up on stage and performing

It was amazing to see the confidence in these kids getting up on stage and performing

Two of the 'second home' girls who lived at the school with us

Two of the ‘second home’ girls who lived at the school with us

The evening was a fantastic introduction for us, they partied and danced from six until about half nine(obviously all without any alcohol) and we did not get a moment to sit still. Unfortunately they didn’t have time for me to sing my song, I was due to close the show-but hey ho….I can’t say that I was too disappointed! After the performances finished they carried on with some booming basslines, people from all around the village came to join in and enjoy the festivities-as we would learn over and over again, Cambodians absolutely love a good knees up!

This was just the start of what would be a wonderful, but tough, couple of months at the school. The evening classes that we were teaching proved to be quite challenging, we don’t speak Khmer and the students were level 1 English students-so we had to get creative in our approach. (Especially when the senior teachers went to Phnom Penh for a meeting and didn’t return for over a week-without letting us know their plans!)
Often we would find ourselves having to teach in the dark because of the oh-so-regular power cuts.
The classes throughout the day weren’t without their challenges either-with the searing heat of the daytime sun, and the multitude of daily chores that had to be completed around our teaching timetable.
The kickboxing classes that we ran every day went down a storm with the lads. Meng Kong, Rathenor and Heng proving to be naturals-and their eagerness to learn was an absolute joy. When the ladies of the school did join us they too demonstrated a natural ability, our challenge with them was to overcome their shyness-which is much easier said than done.

We remained a constant source of intrigue and amusement for the locals-every day at the market they would ask the trainee teachers how we were doing and what were we eating. They found it hard to believe that we were eating rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner-they thought that we needed to have bread and milk in our diets! We couldn’t walk down the road without a cacophony of hellos, goodbyes, blown kisses and general wonderment from kids, adults and grandparents alike-for a couple of months we felt like we were celebrities!
One evening we were invited to go and see a wedding celebration, little did we know that this would cause so much of a fuss as people clamoured to dance with us; we featured alarmingly frequently in the viewfinder of the official wedding video-although I fear more for comic effect than anything else.

Over the weeks that we were there, as you would expect, we formed really close friendships with the trainees that we were living with-they taught us so much about Cambodian life. If you were to compare a 19 year old Cambodian with a 19 Year old from the UK, you would initially notice how young the Cambodians appear in respects to their emotional maturity-they are really playful, very shy, and have an air of innocence. However, when it comes to real life living, they soon show their maturity as they catch, kill, butcher and prepare your dinner; or they build a table that seats 16 people out of bamboo; or they just lower themselves into the well to dig it out because it’s gone dry and there is no available water. Their resourcefulness and adaptability was astounding, and displayed a very different type of maturity-one which exceeds mine.

It was an absolute privilege to live with these guys, and there are so many stories that we have to share that this blog post could go on and on and on.
I fear that would bore somewhat-so instead I shall share a few annotated photos-after all each one is worth a thousand words!

Perren-one of the second home students-displaying his grasp of English

Perren-one of the second home students-displaying his grasp of English

Transport to and from the school wasn't exactly 'conventional'...Often just the back of a truck!

Transport to and from the school wasn’t exactly ‘conventional’…Often just the back of a truck!

Our next door neighbour was a 4 year old football genius, he would play at the school on his own from 6AM every day

Our next door neighbour was a 4 year old football genius, he would play at the school on his own from 6AM every day

From left to right: Sopheak, Lida, Jo and Heng

From left to right: Sopheak, Lida, Jo and Heng

One of our other 'housemates'

One of our other ‘housemates’

DSC02463

DSC02468

Watching the football match, the crowd was gripped!!!

Watching the football match, the crowd was gripped!!!

The local hairdressers...Not I had any need to pay a visit!

The local hairdressers…Not I had any need to pay a visit!

The always smiling Rathenor

The always smiling Rathenor

Examples of my new found handiness-new wall and bamboo table!

Examples of my new found handiness-new wall and bamboo table!

DSC02492

So many sunsets-so many memories

So many sunsets-so many memories

Perren, Anna, Lisa and Uwe

Perren, Anna, Lisa and Uwe

The school!

The school!

One day I mentioned how it would be nice to have a fire pit-that evening they organised one!

One day I mentioned how it would be nice to have a fire pit-that evening they organised one!

DSC02534

If this were 'heat cam' EVERYTHING would be red!

If this were ‘heat cam’ EVERYTHING would be red!

See these ants in the mango tree?! These ants are the ones that you put in a mango salad....

See these ants in the mango tree?! These ants are the ones that you put in a mango salad….

Big pineapple?

Big pineapple?

One of the classes hard at work!

One of the classes hard at work!

The 6-7 classes always had to contend with their lessons finishing in the dark!

The 6-7 classes always had to contend with their lessons finishing in the dark!

Man on a bike, great big engine-what is it for?

Man on a bike, great big engine-what is it for?

Oh, so you just put some rice and sugar in it....Why?

Oh, so you just put some rice and sugar in it….Why?

...Because that's how you make rice cakes!!! Of course!

…Because that’s how you make rice cakes!!! Of course!

Music, cheering, people waiting on the roadside with offerings and water....Can only mean one thing...

Music, cheering, people waiting on the roadside with offerings and water….Can only mean one thing…

The monks are coming and they're blessing the new road....As well as those who wish to be blessed!

The monks are coming and they’re blessing the new road….As well as those who wish to be blessed!

The first rain of the rainy season-a joyous football moment

The first rain of the rainy season-a joyous football moment

After the unforgiving heat of the previous weeks-everyone is overjoyed at the arrival of the rains

After the unforgiving heat of the previous weeks-everyone is overjoyed at the arrival of the rains

DSC02610

DSC02637

DSC02628

DSC02647

DSC02644

On our final evening everyone grouped together to present a banquet in the garden, an opportunity for us to sit together and feast one last time. Everyone contributed something to the final meal, the general attitude of sharing and caring is profoundly humbling-these are people who have comparatively little, but give so much. Considering that we went to Taream to be teachers, it seems ironic that we came away having learned a huge amount from these couple of months, I hope that the guys we were with learned something too-certainly we will not be forgetting our most magical of times in Cambodia anytime soon.

And so the sun sets on our time in Taream

And so the sun sets on our time in Taream

A bewildering beginning…Teaching in Cambodia

Spoiler alert: This post is a bit of a whinge/moan-not everything is fantastic and wonderful.

It was with a certain level of excitement and nervousness that the next chapter of our adventure began-now we would be teaching English for six weeks in a Cambodian province. As we arrived at the main centre in Phnom Penh, I have to admit that I was particularly apprehensive about how I would fare given my lack of experience.

Our experience at main centre didn’t do much to reassure us about expectations moving forward over the following six weeks. The management team seemed completely disorganised when it came to welcoming in volunteers to the organisation, and there was no clear plan for training, induction or even our final teaching destination. The next three days proved to be difficult, we had arrived at a time when the team at Sols 24/7 were fasting, and as such our days would start at 5.30AM with breakfast, and then we would not eat again until the evening. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were not for the fact that the food was awful, consisting of rice and a green leaf soup, and one other dish usually consisting of elements of chicken that we wouldn’t usually eat…Admittedly you have to take into consideration that the food was prepared by the students, and they have to cook for 300 people on an extremely low budget. Part of the impressive program of ‘life skills’ that are taught throughout the program. In addition to these nutritional challenges, we were getting eaten alive by mosquitos and it was HOT!

With no clear plan about our daily activity, we ended up joining a class and following their daily lesson plan-this proved to be quite reassuring, with some extremely bright and engaging young adults displaying a refreshing eagerness to learn. They aim for students to be speaking English after just three months here, and many of them were super keen to get some practice in with some native speakers while they had the opportunity. They even managed to get us both singing for our respective classes-I’m not sure how many times they will hear the Welsh national anthem again, but I can pretty much guarantee that they won’t hear it sung like I did again! As well as the enthusiasm of the students, the teachers that we met were wonderful, many of whom are exchange teachers from Sols organisations in other countries. All of the teachers in the Sols program get the opportunity to travel with the schools and gain international experience, both Jo and I were shadowing teachers from East Timor.

On our second day we were informed that they had found a school for us-we would be heading to the province of Kampong Thom the following morning. Again at this point the lack of information or support was a little concerning, no-one really knew what time we would be leaving how, long it would take us to get there, how many students there were, or any other pertinent information about what lay ahead….My excitement and optimism was waning, and I was concerned about what lay ahead-but as we have discovered so often on our travels, sometimes you just have to let things play themselves out. And so we did, the next morning we got up, tackled our breakfast and patiently waited for our exit from main centre to materialise. Eventually we were ushered into a car, and our next jaunt into the unknown was upon us. Little did we know that the car was just taking us to the local bus stop, and we were turfed out onto the street with some pretty vague directions about making it to the province, where we would be welcomed by our host and everything would become clear. We were to take the Phnom Penh to Siem Reap bus, but we needed to negotiate with the bus driver to get him to drop us off in Prey Pros; at that point we would call the provincial teacher who would come and meet us and take us to the school-simple!

As it turns out, not really. Our first bus broke down around an hour into the journey, and so we just sat on the side of the road awaiting a replacement bus-finally this arrived and we settled in for the rest of the journey- this bus only took us to another rest stop where we would once again be changing buses! Eventually, after 6 hours, we were ushered off the third bus in our trilogy, we had finally made it…..Only that we hadn’t, the bus driver had turned us out at Kampong Thom town-and upon my appeals that we were going to Prey Pros we were just waved away with a grunt, our bags left on the street and the bus rattled off into the distance….ARGH! Feeling somewhat bemused, we booked ourselves into a guesthouse and resigned ourselves to completing the journey the following day.

A new dawn, a new day and a fresh outlook on our situation, we were waiting for the main teacher, a guy called Veshna, to come and pick us up and to take us to the school where we would be staying. Standing outside the front of the guesthouse and I had my eyes peeled for Veshna and his car…..Of course he eventually turned up on a battered old scooter, the logistics of how we would be getting back to the school all of a sudden becoming quite perplexing. We don’t have a lot of luggage, but two hefty rucksacks, two day packs, the two of us, one teacher and once scooter do not exactly equate! No problems, we managed to get another motorbike taxi and soon found ourselves having to balance precariously on the back with our rucksacks overhanging the back wheels. 20 minutes later and we were at what would be our home for the next couple of months….And what would turn out to be one of the most fulfilling times of our travels.

DSC02342

DSC02344

DSC02347