The road to Taom is surely a long and trodden one. Taking the highway south, our journey lasted 2 hours, half of which was spent on rocks and stones! The bumpy trail led us to figure that Taom would be barren and far from civilization. Looking out, I remembered how the tour guide described Cambodia to us: 80% of its population was farmers who lived on less than US$2 a day. Was Taom going to be stripped and naked of basic necessities and resources? To myself, the sight of great expanses of farmland was also vastly different from the common environment of Singapore, where the jungle is a concrete one, and the grass is only inches tall.
First impressions do tell us a lot about a place! Despite the picture that I know I had in my mind about the collective “Less Economically Developed Countries”, what I was seeing of the people contrasted my original thoughts of Cambodia. Whilst their hair was brown with dirt and sand, their smiles were shining and ever-present. Such a heart-warming sensation would pass through you every time children waved at our passing van. Indeed, the project of Building Libraries for Siem Reap would be more than stacking wood, but would be the vast development of our selves and persons.
Bouncing along the gravel and speeding by the unending grain, it was a relief to alight from our vehicle in the Learning Centre of Taom. The mid-afternoon sun blazed the stable ground we welcomed. It was blatant here how opposite our cultures were. Even though the temperature left us drenched in sweat, some locals donned jackets to my shock and awe. They lives seemed so comfortable, so pretentious they were in their glee that it was not only joy but jealousy that hit me when I saw them. So content were these people with lives which were deceptively simple and silly people like me complain endlessly about the heat and the troublesome mosquitoes! Definitely, the first thing I realised from coming to Cambodia is not to judge people. Worse still, the poverty that governments so often talk about and seemingly seek to solve was created none other than by themselves! It was not hard coming to the realisation of this by entering Taom, which had all it needed for self-sustenance but was apparently in need of our aid in order to break out of this “Cycle of Poverty”.
In the end, we shared a meal with the locals, munching on delicacies like fried snakes. Beyond the serious discussions concerning the library, we were able to share laughs and smiles with the Khmer-speaking people of whom a minimalistic level of communication passed between us. Not knowing what to do, we were split into a group of Labourers and a group of Planners, of whom the Labourers began to sandpaper large planks of wooden boards about 4-5 metres long in an attempt to ensure no splinters were left behind. The Planners, on the other hand, stood around and, essentially, planned. They designed the layout of the library – deciding where to place the cupboards, tables and chairs etc. There was also a need to take measurements for the shelves and the tables (and chairs), since the furniture could be customized to fit the library, thereby maximizing space! Whilst we planned, we also had to take into consideration the age of the children, for this determined their size and therefore, how tall/short we could make the tables and chairs and stools. The labourers, other than scraping the stray particles off wood, also had the opportunity to paint them a very deep red colour, for these planks would be the façade of the library we were completing!
Time passed quickly; it always does when you’re enjoying yourself! An observation I made was how the locals lived their lives and passed their time. It was interesting to see them idling and chatting with one another. Little do we come across this sense of community in Singapore, for most of the time the community we hang around with is nary our neighbours but more of the online, virtual meetings we have with our friends or classmates. In a Kampong-like manner, the communal activities like meals and school seem so much friendlier, and were that much more homely than we are used to. They surely weren’t shy in polishing up the insufficiently shaved wood that some of us had attempted to render proper! Their open arms and friendly demeanor made me feel quite at ease with them.
As we worked on building our library, there were children upstairs in the learning centre, having lessons. When we finally started to clean up, the children too had ended school. Though I am a tad disappointed that we did not manage to interact with them – because we were busy with our task at hand and because they were shy – they do seem happy; it’s a simple kind of happy, one where you’re contented and grateful for what you have. And they smile and laugh and prance around, despite the fact that many of them don tattered clothing, with some even with swollen stomachs. Our speculation was that they had kwashiorkor, a protein-deficiency disease, but according to a Japanese volunteer there, it could be because of the presence of worms in their stomach that was in turn due to unclean water. This made us realise the state of their poverty. Here we are, downing mineral water, and yet these children don’t even have basic clean water and sanitation facilities! Knowing this spurs many of us to want to do our best for the children, for the community.
There was a need to leave the village by 5pm, because the roads would be pitch dark thereafter, and that would make for a dangerous journey home. Hence, we all had to wash up – some with turpentine to get the paint off our skin and clothes – before boarding the van to prepare for yet another 2 hour journey to the old town for dinner. Overall, one could say that we had an eventful start to our endeavour to build a library for the village of Taom. As long as we stick to our schedule, I believe we are able to have fun, work hard, and change lives. I honestly cannot wait to see how the next few days will pan out!