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Enrolling Poun & Sampohan In Rabbit School

We were handed the baton.  Which lap in the contest was unknown nor did it matter.  Ash and I were going to finish this race.

Many volunteers before us had tried in vain to locate a school catering to children with disabilities.  We had been warned about the difficulty and told it was OK if we failed.  But after falling in love with the two children in need of a daily routine, personal attention from trained staff, and simply a chance, we were determined.  It also helped that a former colleague of mine, Anne MaRous, had spent a week at Palm Tree months earlier and had some solid leads to kick start our search.  This was our primary goal during our stay at the orphanage in Phnom Penh’s Daclaw District.

Sampohan Poun and His Duck Sticker

Poun & Sampohan came to Palm Tree by way of the orphanage where Angelina Jolie adopted her son, Maddox.  After this high profile event, America banned adoptions from Cambodia as a result of the consequential black market fetching up to $12,500 per child that incentivized destitute women to have unwanted offspring.  All the children were adopted from this orphanage before being shut down except for three; all of whom had questionable development abilities.  Enter the open arms of Palm Tree Orphanage.  Sophi (enrolled in basic school already), Poun, and Sampohan found a true home where the family of orphans operate as their sincere protectors.  It really is something to see a group of 90+ kids open their wings and insulate their special brethren.

Poun and Ash Poun Playing Air Guitar

Poun Pushing Greg on Swing Rumored to have been found in an alley amongst trash and living with dogs, 8 – 11 year old (hard to pinpoint DOB) Poun became a dear person in our lives.  Ash and I talk frequently about him, even scheming ways to get him to our June 2011 wedding.  Most mornings, Poun would wait quietly near our wooden door for us to emerge.  From that time forward, he was never too far from one of our sides.  He colored, played, and ate like a typical child.  However, just by looking at him it was obvious he was developmentally challenged.  The only word he would utter was “Mike” and I patiently taught him not to hit for fear that as he grew, people would be frightened.  Sampohan (15 – 17 year of age) may or may not be his biological sister, but the two are an unmatched duo.  Quiet and sweet, she bathes Poun and generally looks after him like a mother would.  She did not attend school either on account of her undiagnosed learning disability.

Greg and Hun Touch of Rabbit School Poun's Pipeline Hat

Cambodia has multitudes of problems, not the least being its educational system.  Considering this fact, it should come as no surprise that children with special needs are currently left in the dust.  Palm Tree did all they could by providing them with a support system within a safe home.  Neither Poun or Sampohan had ever sat down with a qualified professional to diagnose their troubles.  While the other children their age went to school, they would aimlessly wander around the confines of Palm Tree.  So our mission was two fold: have them evaluated and find them a proper school.

Poun Learning Poun & Sampohan At Rabbit School

Sampohan At Rabbit School We met people at Mike’s Burger House whom taught English at local schools.  Those leads became dead ends.  While watching monkeys pluck helpless sparrows from the trees at Wat Phnom I met a women who was volunteering at a settlement atop a trash dump.  Her educational connections proved worthless.  We were chasing our tails.  Anne had dug up a promising lead during her short stint in Cambodia, yet we had not heard back regarding emails and a few voice mails.  At last, Hun Touch from the Rabbit School replied to an email and after several lost in translation messages and Skype conversations, a date to meet was set.  Ash and I were exhausted, overheated, and drenched in sweat after roaming the streets of Phnom Phen hunting for Hun Touch’s elusive office.  A second meeting was set after he provided an exact address rather just a general area.  He provided a thorough look into his past experiences, educational background, and his leading role prodding the Cambodian government to provide a framework for children with disabilities.  May he have the wind at his back.  Two hours later, we left mightily impressed with Hun Touch’s mission and passion to give these special kids, who are otherwise forgotten, a fighting chance.

Group Photo With Teachers At Rabbit School Sampohan's Teacher Looks So Genuine

Poun and Ash Say Goodbye During our last week at Palm Tree, Poun and Sampohan visited the Rabbit School to undergo a proper evaluation.  Score!  We urgently awaited their return.  The excitement in their eyes was palpable.  They were going to attend school like the other children.  Their elation made us weep.  Next, we sorted out funding for their daily round trip moto ride to Rabbit School.  They were set to attend school for the first time in their lives after the Khmer New Year.  Score!  It brings tears to our eyes and grins to our faces to write that they have been not only been going to school, but showing signs of development as well for over five months.  The photos seen here are recent shots taken at Rabbit School.

We crossed the finish line, but the race for Poun and Sampohan has only just begun.  And for that, we are thankful.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Determination can do wondrous things.  If you are patient, tireless, and unyielding, goals have a way of being realized.
2) Success in business after a long slog makes you feel good, but succeeding in changing someone’s life is a high like no other.

Internet Just Being Discovered In Africa

Jambo from Tanzania!

Our overland trip across East Africa is proving to be a nightmare for Internet access.  Al Gore’s invention is slowly taking hold here.  We are still writing and racking up amazing experiences.  Our apologies for the lull in blog posts.

- Ash & Greg

3…2…1… Action: Hilarious & Adorable Kids of APCA Orphanage

Located 60 kilometers outside Phnom Penh, APCA Orphanage is set amongst stray cattle, rice paddies, and rural shacks. We had the pleasure to partake in a unique Friday night dance party before a raucous beach weekend with the kids.

Ash and I have watched this video no less than one hundred times. Just as “Back That A** Up” puts Ash into hysterics and Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River” makes my two left feet tremble, these Cambodian kids can’t get enough of “She Got That Boom Boom Boom”:

The timeless and classic “Chicken Dance” has made it to Khmer Country:

This precious moment took place on the way back from the beach at Sihanoukville. During the five hour bus journey we heard this little voice singing “You Are My Sunshine” and we finally captured the adorable culprit:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. A typical Friday night in Chicago would involve an “all you can drink” $30 deal. We discussed this as the orphans brought the kid back in us. Oh to be young. Cherish it little ones.

3…2…1… Action: Outside the Gates of Palm Tree Orphanage

Though located within Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, the main thoroughfare fronting Palm Tree Orphanage isn’t your typical street.

Between Greg’s daily runs for iced coffee in a baggie and our use of local transportation, we became friendly with the moto drivers outside the orphanage. Watch Greg and the moto drivers observe the resident cows dine on trash in the nearby alley:

Wanting a taste of how the Khmer live, Greg paid $1.50 for a barber’s straight razor to eliminate his patchy beard:

Always an adventure riding around Phnom Penh, check out the mayhem as we avoid a massive slum fire (rumored to have been set by the government) riding in the back of a tuk-tuk:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Some of our best times in Cambodia occurred while interacting with local people with whom we had very little in common. Get out and meet people with different backgrounds. This can be done in any city, domestic or international.
  2. You may watch the videos of trash heaped alleys or the barber shop with questionable sanitary conditions and think to yourself, “No way would I be caught dead there.” Sometimes defecting from your comfort zone and living like a local pays immense dividends in the form of unique experiences.

42 Nights in the African Bush!!!

From the beginning moments of dreaming about traveling the world, Ash and I were focused on an African safari. That focus has given birth to 42 nights of camping in the Africa Bush. Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana will be deeply inhaled.

ItineraryWe set out this evening on an eight hour flight from amazing Istanbul, Turkey for Nairobi, Kenya. Upon landing, we will have reached our sixth and final continent. My fingers fidget with excitement as I type. After hours of YouTube, books on our South African friends’ Kindle, and Internet mining, we are going to see the real thing. The Big Five: lion, buffalo, rhinoceros, african elephant, and leopard. And all the other animals only seen in a cramped zoo: giraffe, warthog, zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, cheetah, wild dog, hyena, baboon and hippo among others. Before relishing a comfy bed one last time, we completely emptied our bags and repacked in anticipation of living like a real minimalist. It felt like starting our RTW anew. Such an incredible rush of emotions.

Pumba Truck Fresh Kill

Our home will be in the African bush within a cozy tent. After hours of searching Istanbul, we found suitable sleeping bags and strange camping utensils. Our overland adventure is about as cheap as they come considering we pitch in with cooking, runs to local markets, and protecting the 4×4 truck. Ash is admittedly nervous regarding six weeks of tent living. She really has no choice, her only escape being a life amongst a lion pride. Our transportation will be aboard Pumba, a custom made 4×4 overland truck with 28 like-minded adventurers from Europe, South America, Oceania, and Asia.

Watering Hole Great Migration - Zebra

Great MigrationThe highlights are ridiculous: Great Rift Valley, The Masai Mara, Nakuru National Park, Lake Naivasha, Hells Gate National Park, Maasai Boma, Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, The Giraffe Park, Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, Zanzibar Island, Lake Malawi, Kariba houseboats, lion walks, rhino trek, Victoria Falls, white water rafting on the Zambezi River, Chobe National Park, and finally the Okavanga Delta.

First stop: Kenya’s Masai Mara and the Great Migration! Hakuna Matata.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) We both always thought that African safaris are for the rich and famous. However, many operators offer camping excursions of various lengths that cater to the budget traveler. Make no mistake, it is not cheap, but the dream is attainable.

3…2…1… Action – Killing Fields & S-21 Torture Center

In between sobs while visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S-21), we were able to capture some self explanatory video.

Take a step into the former secondary school turned interrogation and torture center code named S-21. The video captures the rows of small prison stalls where enemies of the revolution would be chained when not being tortured prior to their inevitable murder:

Amongst the hardest places we have visited, the Killing Fields speak volumes to mankind’s ability to perpetrate pure evil. The video begins on the “killing tree” where the Khmer Rouge would rip children from their mother’s clutch and smash their tiny skulls:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) If you are interested in learning more about the Cambodian hardship, may we suggest a spectacular book?  First They Killed My Father written by Loung Ung is a firsthand account of one family’s wretched experience during Pol Pot’s “Great Leap Forward.” Her depiction of evacuating Phnom Penh, life in the collectives, family members disappearing, and living amongst the paranoia is nothing short of heartbreaking yet is quite informative.

Cambodian Genocide: 1 In 4 Killed

Pol Pot, Brother #1 as he called himself, was not insane. Evil incarnate? No doubt. His brutality defies explanation or understanding. Americans, Ashley and I included, are not educated on this hideous man from the 20th Century. That is about to change.

A Young Pol PotBorn in the Cambodian village of Prek Sbauv in 1928 to a farming family with connections to royalty in Phnom Penh, Pol Pot was educated in France where he joined the French Communist Party, just as Ho Chi Minh had done. After returning to Cambodia, he then traveled to China and witnessed the beginning of Mao’s Cultural Revolution; class warfare designed to empower the poor. By 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge had seized control of Cambodia and following their Chinese mentors, began to install an agrarian society. The “Greap Leap Forward” envisioned rice being the holy grail, everyone wore black pajamas to remove cultural identity, private property transferred was to collectives, families were separated for fear of conspiracy, modern health care replaced by traditional healers, and Buddhism was curbed. Pol Pot even abolished money noting that development of Democratic Kampuchea was of no importance. Educated people, city dwellers, and even those wearing prescription glasses were seen as threats to the perfect society that was to be free of outside influence. They were forced into work camps in rural areas that were managed by teenagers where “enemies” met their fate through disease, malnutrition, or execution via club to the head. Most accounts suggest one in four citizens of Cambodia perished by the cruel Khmer Rouge hands.

S-21 Buildng C Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - Interrogation Room

Pol Pot never faced a war crimes tribunal like the Nazis nor once uttered any regrets. After his own Khmer Rouge group sentenced him to life in prison (house arrest) after ordering the assassination and murder of a party member’s children and grandchildren, he died of a heart attack at his jungle home. His body was cremated over a blaze consisting of car tires and wooden scraps.

Mother & Child Victim Photo Victim Photos

Barbed Wire to Prevent Suicide By PrisonersAsh and I somberly visited two ghastly locations in Phnom Phen where Pol Pot’s “Great Leap Forward” history is showcased. Knowing the emotional toll would be heavy, we prepared ourselves prior to touring Tuol Sleng, code named S-21. This former secondary school turned prison, interrogation, and torture center is found amongst the hustle and bustle of Cambodia’s capital city. Over 14,000 lives were snuffed out at S-21. Strangely, most of these were Khmer Rouge loyalists from the army, works camps, or ministries who were accused of conspiracy. The victims would have their pictures systematically taken, tortured into a signed confession, then summarily executed with all the necessary paperwork in order.

Blood Stain Next To Chain Building C Barbed Wire

S-21 GallowsWe skulked the halls of Tuol Sleng and saw the still present metal beds outfitted with leg irons for torture perpetrated by young boys wearing Mao hats. Where once a room meant for learning stood, its walls are now filled with tiny prison stalls barely big enough to lie down. Blood stains still blemish the tile floors. Not wanting the prisoners to commit suicide from the three story hellish jail, the Khmer Rouge encased the school buildings in a fishnet of razor wire. Perhaps the worst room on display housed the thousands of victim’s snapshots. Elderly men, women with young babies, terrified girls, young boys – their images haunting. After three hours, we emerged from the barbed wire lined fence. Dumbfounded, outraged, and distraught were among the myriad of emotions.

Choeung Ek - Human Skull Killing Fields - Cracked Skulls

Respect SignThose who did not perish at S-21 were blindfolded and sent to Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. We hired a tuk-tuk for the twenty minute dusty ride through rice paddies to where the Khmer Rouge turned an ancient Chinese cemetery and orchard into a mass grave. Lighting incense and saying a silent prayer, we bowed in turn below the fifty foot memorial stupa housing 8,000 skulls and countless articles of bloody clothing that have been exhumed from the grounds. Each skull had the tell tale sign of a Khmer Rouge style execution: cracks. In order to save money and ammunition, the Khmer Rouge would club the victims to death with ox-cart axles. Then their bodies would be tossed into a shallow grave and doused with dual purpose D.D.T. designed to reduce the smell of petrifying human flesh and kill those buried alive. Some mass graves have been exhumed while others remain untouched.

Greg Outside Stupa Bones and Clothing Emerging From the Ground

Killing Fields - Collection of Human BonesThe dirt paths are strewn with decaying bones penetrating the soil alongside fragments of clothing. Here and there piles of teeth would set, never to be identified. If the whole scene were not upsetting enough, we came to the “killing tree” which, even now, is hard to write about. Here, babies were torn from their mother’s grasp, stripped, grabbed by the ankles, and swung into the tree until their skulls were satisfactorily smashed. The mother having watched this gruesome display, would be stripped then clubbed over the head. It was nearly too much to absorb. Two silent hours passed, the only sounds coming from our sniffling noses.

Respect the Mass Graves Mass Grave

Khmer Rouge UniformToday, Cambodians value their multi-party democracy, though it may be rife with corruption. They appreciate their ability to speak out against their government, a right not known in neighboring Laos or Vietnam. Ironically to us as Americans, Pol Pot’s attempt to start civilization once more under his “Year Zero” machine ended in 1978 when Vietnam’s invasion began on Christmas Day. Despite the horrific acts of the Khmer Rouge, the West and China supported Pol Pot during the Vietnamese occupation using the strategy of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. After a ten year occupation, the Vietnamese departed under pressure from America and yet another tragic civil war was waged by the Khmer Rouge. The UN then supervised elections in 1993 which resulting in having to name a First and Second Prime Minister. The First Prime Minister was overthrown in a military coup four years later by the Second PM. In 1998, election results reunited the adversaries, this time their positions switched. Needless to say, the Khmer people alive today have experienced immense hardship and turmoil. And it continues to shape the destitute country.

Killing Fields - Memorial Stupa Cambodian Men Waiting for a Fare

Seeing the war ravaged beggars, walking the Killing Fields, numbly visiting Tuol Sleng, and scarring stories of beachfront unexploded ordnance, it is easy to understand the fragile Cambodian psyche. When looking at the orphan’s, caretaker’s, and cook’s faces at Palm Tree, it was hard not to imagine their individual histories and what the future may hold. In contrast to America’s Baby Boomers, Cambodia’s middle aged folks have been decimated in numbers and spirit.

- Greg and Ash

Note: On July 26, 2010, the “curator” of S-21 who admitted his role in the death of 14,000+ innocents was sentenced to 35 years in prison. He is the first Khmer Rouge official to be convicted of crimes against humanity… three decades later.

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Understanding and respecting a country’s history, tragic or uplifting, is always part of discovering a new place. Cambodia’s citizens are still reeling from its recent past, making this history education of paramount importance while volunteering for one month.
2) Never forget. Wasn’t this the message after September 11, 2001? There are those among us who will try and say that awful day never happened, much like the deniers of the Holocaust. Thus, Ash and I feel the obligation to write and tell stories about the horrific things we have seen while on the world road.

Faces of Palm Tree Orphanage

Whenever Ash and I feel down, our first resort is to reminisce about our time at Palm Tree. The slideshow below shows you why.

- Greg & Ash

3…2…1… Action: Palm Tree Orphanage’s Multi Use Recreation Area

Below are three videos shot in the main common area where dance parties, volleyball, tag, and everything within a child’s imagination take place at the Palm Tree Orphanage.

Our main man, Poun, playing soccer with Ash:

On just our second night at Palm Tree, a party was held in honor of Ben Justus’ departure. Watch the child acrobats in action:

Before the party got rocking, the children performed a traditional Khmer dance:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Feeling in the dumps? Watching kids being kids will always lift your spirits.

Life As A Cambodian Orphanage Volunteer

Purposely, we kept our expectations of living amongst 90+ Cambodian orphans to a minimum. All we really knew was this: Ash and I would pour our hearts and souls into the children yet we would depart having learned more from them.

Sugan Cane Being Processed For Sugar WaterUpon attaining our thirty day visas at the antiquated Phnom Phen airport after a convoluted process involving an army of immigration officials, we were met by Ben and Mike (volunteers) with two tuk-tuks waiting curbside. Turning off Russian Boulevard kilometers before the riverfront hustle and bustle, the motorcycle driven carriage rambled down a narrow street full of sugar cane juice makers, shopkeepers sitting on low slung stools, and scraggy dogs running amok. Walking through the gates of Palm Tree Orphanage, we were greeted by a host of smiling Cambodian faces. It was one of those moments that you relish to relive a thousand times. From that instant, we felt at home and wholly determined to do all we could for the disadvantaged youth.

Palm Tree Orphanage Entrance Group Shot with Lang Dy and Da

Meat, Tomato, Rice DinnerOur digs were simple, yet had its own bathroom, a mossy net, and most importantly, air conditioning. When the mercury hits 100 degrees Fahrenheit on most days, our American blood boils. The kids however, set up camp on the tile floor beneath a blue protective net each night, their bodies acclimated to the choking heat. Feeling constantly dehydrated, our crowning possession was a twenty liter crystal blue distilled water dispenser, which cost $1.00. Our daily intake of white rice would make Uncle Ben proud. However, while the kids had a sparing helping of vegetables or fish, the volunteers had a healthy portion of protein alongside the nutrition-less ashen kernels. When I was rather hungry, I would eat Ashley or Lindsey’s (another volunteer) helping of meat or fish. But mostly, I would fool my stomach by loading up a bowl of rice with orange hot sauce. Despite the cook’s best efforts, we both left Cambodia much slimmer.

Our Room Complete with Mossy Net Greg Deep Cleaning Bathroom

8 Shirts, 1 Pair of Pants, All Cusom Fit - $53Getting around town cost a song and the chauffeurs waited adjacent to the Palm Tree gate. $2.00 per person would get us the comfort (and slowness) of a tuk-tuk to any desired location. Or $1.00 for a thrill ride of sorts on the back of a motorcycle that disregarded traffic signals. For the most part, we opted for the tuk-tuk driven by a lovely Khmer man with a wooden arm, a disfigured face from a bullet wound, and a smiling face riddled with gold teeth. Though we used his services at least twenty times, he would always ask for an amount well above market price and a laughable negotiation would ensue. This dusty street is also the set where we purchased toothpaste, barbecued mini clams, iced coffee in a baggie, cheap custom made clothing, and assorted fresh fruit. Here, my beard experienced a straight edge razor for the first time at the hands of a local barber.

Street Barber with Straight Razor Odom, Bory, Greg Riding Tuk Tuk

Every morning began at 5:30am when the kids would join Dr. Boo for calisthenics. As they stretched, there seemed to be an unspoken competition as to whom could count to ten the loudest. Adjoining the girls dorm indoor common area, our room was a beehive of noise once the orphans rose from their tile floor slumber. After tussling and turning for two additional hours, our wood door would swing open with the kids’ delirious excitement and a rush of baked air slathering our bodies. By morning, we tutored three boys who were falling behind with their studies. Playing games such as “PIG” aided their ability to spell, but more importantly, the personal interaction with native English speakers for one hour each day proved beneficial. We would then switch gears and corral the smallest children requiring additional attention into the shade beneath the girls dorm. In one month at Palm Tree, Ash and I colored more than ever before. More often than not, we had double the kids than the eight we were assigned to help. It was a blast working so closely with all the unique little personalities. Reviewing the rainbow with these special orphans will forever make us fond of the color purple. The children pronounced it “purpel” with an emphasis on the latter syllable. It melted our hearts.

Greg Teaching Little Ones About Colors Coloring

Teacher's Copy of Middle School ExamAfter lunch of, you guessed it, white rice, Ash and I would look high and low to locate a local school for children with learning disabilities. In America, almost every school district offers this specialized education, but Cambodia has its focus elsewhere. More on this subject and effort in a later blog post. Almost every child attends the public Khmer school for half days and the other half is spent in Palm Tree School. Ash and I acted at substitute teachers on occasion, mainly instructing students of various ages on correct English grammar, both written and spoken. Thus, our structured time with the orphans focused on development of English skills. Ashley and I did not speak a lick of Khmer, so even our free time spent with them pushed along this agenda.

Ash Teaching English Professor Dietz

VolleyballAs night would fall, the older boys – men really – played competitive volleyball, females approaching womanhood took turns removing lice from their scalps, boys kicked a soccer ball, and girls sitting in tight circles competed in a Khmer form of rock-paper-scissors with plastic trinkets being the victor’s spoils When dinner of white rice and a form of protein would become monotonous, we would join the two other volunteers at Mike’s Burger House. Located in a Sidexo petrol station, the food was mediocre, but Mike had indeed perfected the rootbeer float. With the night air still stifling, the children were as active as ever. But when 9pm rolled around, the steel gate separating the boys and girls dorms would lock and calmness would follow. Defeated by the heat and non-stop energy of Palm Tree, a retreat for R&R in our air conditioned room was sounded.

Girls Playing Rock Paper Scissors for Plastic Dinosaur Pieces Greg with Mike of Mike's Burger

Indeed, we gave our full selves to help the noble cause of Palm Tree Orphanage. Just by living amongst the family of 90+ orphaned children imparted perspective, taught us lessons about relationships, and proved that happiness does not discriminate by social class. Thirty days later, we left with tears in our eyes, rips in our hearts, and experiences that will continue to shape us for years to come.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Volunteering your time internationally is usually more costly than one would think. Want to help prevent bush fires in Oz? Dig wells for an African village? Build homes in Southeast Asia? Most organizations charge each volunteer some form of fee for items along the lines of materials, lodging, and food. This is in addition to plane tickets. We have met multitudes of international travelers who desired to help a specific cause and were rebuffed by the prohibitively high costs. Finding a “free” volunteer opportunity abroad, like Palm Tree, is tough, yet incredibly worthwhile.

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