Let me introduce myself, I am Daria, I am 24 years old and I took part as a volunteer in the EurAsia 2022 project in Cambodia.
It has been a month since my return and I realise now more than ever, looking back, how lucky I was to have been part of this experience.
From the stories I find myself telling to those interested in my trip, from the photos I find myself leafing through, from the people I keep in touch with and the memories I cherish, I understand how lucky I have been.
It was my first volunteering experience and my first solo trip outside Europe, I was a bit scared and indeed my arrival was quite traumatic. After a whole day of travelling, between tiredness and the language barrier, I had a moment of total bewilderment, but once I reached the office of the host association, the tension gradually melted away.
Arriving at the head office of CYA, the host association, I was greeted in a familiar way and given information about the history of the association and the different fields in which it works. In particular, CYA works on the environmental front (reforesting mangroves) and in the field of English teaching in Siem Reap (GEC) and in Angkor Chey (CSD), my assigned location.
CSD consists of five facilities, three serving as kitchen and volunteer accommodation, and two for teaching (a library and a facility with two classrooms). Behind these facilities, there is the vegetable garden, to which the long-term volunteers have been devoting themselves for some time. Meals are prepared by the wife of the CYA president, Mrs Bong Lang, who is not only a very good cook, but also very close to the volunteers and does her best to make everyone feel comfortable.
During my stay, the centre had 7 volunteers (including myself) of which three German long term (1 year), two French short term girls and one or two local volunteers who generally stayed for a fortnight and made a valuable contribution both in teaching English and in helping us to understand many cultural aspects.
Our typical day began at 8 am with breakfast. From 9am to 12pm we would tend to the vegetable garden and maintain the teaching facilities, e.g. building wooden walls to insulate the classrooms from the rain during monsoons and repainting the classroom walls.
After lunch, from 14:30 to 15:30, the first two classes of the day were held, usually two volunteers took care of the youngest children 5-7 years old and two/three others taught the intermediate level children (9-11 years old). The classes were generally of 8/12 children. During the late afternoon, the last lesson took place 17:30-18:30 with the older children (13/16 years). The approach with the younger children was based on play, music and drawing, while with the older children there was a more substantial notional component, with the aim of giving them the vocabulary needed to describe basic needs, environments, people and everyday situations.
Thanks to the presence of the local volunteers, we were also able to receive ‘Khmer classes’ so that we had the opportunity to effectively express ourselves with the locals in practical contexts such as greetings and requests for information.
The atmosphere among us volunteers was very peaceful and collaborative, we shared a common openness and curiosity, so it was very easy to dialogue and share.
Although I was enjoying my time in CSD, after almost two months I considered spending the last three weeks in the learning centre in Siem Reap (GEC), so I asked for a transfer. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to my fellow European students, a little piece of my heart remained there with them, but I felt the need to see more, to test myself in another environment.
A week after applying for a transfer, I packed my bags and moved to Siem Reap, which is 400 km north of where I was.
In GEC, I found a totally different reality: first of all, a German long-term volunteer and I were the only Europeans; in fact, the learning centre thrives on local volunteers, who, being able to offer a permanent presence, constitute the roots, stem and branches of the system. All the young local volunteers I got to know go about their lives, their work, but do not fail to dedicate two hours of their time every day to teaching English.
The local young people call themselves support for the international volunteers but in their absence, they run the classes independently and provide valuable continuity; so much so that many of the younger volunteers (in their twenties) I met were themselves students at the learning centre.
GEC Office consists of a small facility just 5 km from the city centre, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a large outdoor area where volunteers sit to eat and spend their free time together. Unlike CSD, where classes and volunteer life took place in the same perimeter, in GEC the classes are located ten minutes by bicycle from the ‘office’.
In GEC, teaching also takes place differently, firstly because the students are on average older and their level of English tends to be higher, but also because as the base camp and the learning centre are separate, the students are able to take the lessons more seriously, understanding the volunteers as teachers, giving them more deference and respect.
In Siem Reap, being embedded in the local context, I had the honour and luck to attend engagement ceremonies, family dinners and birthdays, experiencing the immense hospitality of the people I met. Without prejudice and with a smile wherever I went, they never failed to fill my plate and ask me if I was comfortable. I promised to visit everyone again, both in Angkor Chey and in Siem Reap.
My stay was not always easy, I experienced moments of inadequacy, discouragement and frustration. I had to treat bug bites that became infected, I contracted lice and found myself mediating disagreements but it was in the bill. After 77 days in Cambodia, I found myself extremely grateful for what I took in and for what I already had. Grateful for experiencing another concept of time and realising that there is no hurry. I learnt not to feel behind a conventional clock and not to feel inferior to a supposed universal standard. I have learnt that detached from the usual context, with conscience and sincerity, I can reinvent myself and find myself capable of giving much more than what I thought I had.