December 5, 2015
As soon as Dave and I stepped off the plane in Siem Reap, that recognizable smell and familiar humid, heavy air greeted us. It is too dramatic (and a bit presumptuous) to say we are “back home,” but this
fifth visit feels different. We don’t feel that giddy, anticipatory feeling of arriving in a new country, but rather, a bit giddy returning to a familiar sense of place where we look forward to seeing people we care about deeply.
After 13,000 miles, 30 hours of traveling and more airplane movie-watching than I care to admit, we were greeted by the welcoming waves from friends (and EGBOK colleagues) Osman and Kandara. I am reminded that no matter where you might be in the world, seeing old friends who are just as happy to see you as you are to see them is about feeling cozy on the inside.
And the students –- oh my, they look younger than ever! However, I know all too well their average age hasn’t changed, though mine certainly has. It was particularly heartwarming to be greeted at the EGBOK Learning Center by former students who ran up yelling “teacher teacher!” while the new students wondered who that gray haired lady was. These students shyly stood up and politely smiled as they bowed with the traditional sompeah greeting – hands held in a prayer form and raised to their noses.
Dave and I are here for only 17 days this time, unlike our past three-month stays of volunteering at EGBOK. We won’t do any sightseeing this time; we are ambitiously focused on our individual agendas with the best of intentions to be useful.
Dave is heading up his second Siem Reap Money Madness event –- a terrific interactive personal budgeting program where students learn to identify costs that are fixed (food, rent) versus those that are unexpected (medical needs, flat bicycle tire) or optional (motorcycle, smartphone, nightclub life), and how to still save and send money back to their families living in the rural villages. This is not easy for any person, but it is especially hard when life has involved few material items and then suddenly, the world is nothing but a big glitzy shopping commercial. Siem Reap overflows with flashy tourists, bright lights and lots of shiny objects. Resistance isn’t futile but it sure is hard, especially for a twenty-year-old young adult.
I’ll be hosting the fourth annual EGBOKERY, where the “child in the student” is encouraged and playing is the lesson plan. I shall once again show how we humans are hard-wired to build when given graham crackers (more practical baking pounds of gingerbread), icing and mounds of candy.
Our checked baggage, weighing in at a hefty 45.5 pounds, was packed with ingredients to make these creative construction structures. Marshmallows may weigh little, but let me tell you, gum drops pack a heavy punch on the scale.
But my real priority here is to provide support for the final phases of EGBOK’s forthcoming café that will help generate revenue for the school and provide on-the-job training for the students. In the past five years, restaurant growth here has skyrocketed.
In addition to new independent entrepreneurial ventures here, there is also the regrettable Western fast food invasion -– Burger King just opened two days ago and Hard Rock Café soon celebrates its one-year anniversary. Well-funded foreigners are grabbing both prime real estate and headlines from locals who have launched some terrific restaurants.
And, much to my dismay, The New York Times recently overlooked an opportunity to help the local Cambodian talent. In July, the feature “36 Hours in Siem Reap” mostly promoted non-Cambodian chefs. My letter to the editor never got published, but I felt it necessary to remind the newspaper of all the Cambodian talent they unfortunately overlooked. It is clear, we have a tough competitive landscape ahead of us but I know EGBOK is up to the challenge.
For the time being, we are staying with our friend Osman outside of town.
If you want to know what living a hospitality mindset is all about, reserve a stay at Chez Osman. The warmth and generous spirit of Osman was evident the day I met him 4 years ago and our friendship has continued to grow from that initial meeting.
Dave is happily riding a moto I’ve named the Green Hornet. And instead of waking up to the familiar sounds of chanting monks and bustling traffic, we hear grunting water buffalos and crowing roosters. It’s going to be a good stay.