Saturday, March 15, 2014

WOW...Just Wow!

Many of you will recall that I taught embroidery to the youngsters at Honour Village two years ago. (If you click here, it will bring you to a blog that I wrote about that experience.) It was a huge challenge that proved to be extremely rewarding, and I was truly looking forward to continuing needlework lessons this year. 

In preparation, I joined the DMC Mentor programme, who sent me several mini-kits to teach beginner counted cross-stitch. I assembled 60 more mini-kits of two additional designs, and gathered a substantial amount of embroidery floss, aida cloth, several pattern books, and some larger, more advanced kits, all generously donated by family and friends. 

Not too long after we arrived, it became evident that my help was needed in Kindergarten. Sue, the founder of Honour Village, had been unwell for some time, and hadn't been able to teach. I've always said volunteering is not about what I want, it's about what they need, and so I set aside my plans to teach cross-stitch and plunged myself wholeheartedly into teaching English to 4 and 5 year-old Cambodian children. It's been a lot of fun, and a lot of hard work, and I've even succeeded at organizing the kindergarten teaching materials and introducing some different teaching tools and methods. 

In the meantime, a couple of new volunteers came on board who were willing to teach cross-stitch, even though they'd never done it themselves. I took some time to 'teach the teachers' and set them loose to work with the kids. From the results I've seen, a lot of kids started and gave up, and some did 'whatever', not the projects I'd planned. Of the 40 or more that made a first attempt, there were two that graduated though the three kits, and have gone on to do a further more complicated project. I'd call that success. I'm hoping the volunteers who taught those kids got as much pleasure out of it as I did two years previously.

I have to admit, a little part of me was bummed-out about not being able to teach needlework, and a bit saddened at seeing so many kits started, not finished and just wasted. I just kept reminding myself that there was a bigger picture I wasn't quite able to see yet.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance encounter with Glenys, the woman who heads up 'Women of Worth Cambodia'. When I mentioned I'd come here to teach needlework and ended up teaching kindergarten, she asked if I'd like to share my skills and knowledge with her ladies. Women of Worth has set up a 'collective' of eight ladies from a very poor village outside Siem Reap who make and sell items,through the WoW (Women of Worth) shop here in Siem Reap. Some items are also sent overseas or sold online. The women receive the bulk of the profit from the items which provides them with an income and helps them to better their lives. 

It worked out really well, because I could teach the ladies in the morning two or thee times a week, and still get to my kindergarten classes at Honour Village. On my first visit, I brought several bags of craft materials, yarn, fabric, embroidery floss, and more! I spent the first hour talking about some of the ideas I had for them, and the next hour we did a fairly simple, quick, and fun craft.

Teaching the ladies to make flowers with yarn and plastic canvas.

Five ladies out of eight caught on very quickly
and had their flowers finished before the class ended

We sent them home with enough materials to make another flower.
The following week, blooms were everywhere!

The next session, I decided to start cross-stitch.
It was a challenging session because we didn't have a translator.
It took a while to get some of the ideas across, and once they 'got it'
they were stitching up a storm.

The first cross-stitch project was a ladybug.
Only two colours - red and black
and many of them were well on their way to completing it
before the two hour session was done.

Intense concentration 

We sent them home with a whole sheet of plastic canvas
to cut out their own shapes, and several lengths of yarn
to make more flowers.
We also sent them home with two more mini cross-stitch kits,
featuring a butterfly and a bouquet of flowers

Cross-stitch was REALLY challenging
and for some very frustrating.
Not having a Cambodian interpreter made it all the more difficult.
To make sure they'd come back for the next session,
we enticed them with the prospect of learning embroidery!
I showed them my 'sample bag',
which is the project I did with the kids two years ago.

On the back is a project that I completed on my own afterward.
It's a sampler of many different types of embroidery stitches.

All the ladies were excited about learning embroidery,
and it was much simpler to teach.
As I'd done with the children, I showed them the stitches one-on-one.

Most of them caught on really fast and were excited to return
for the next session.

We worked together on embroidery for two sessions of two hours each. The second session was held on a Saturday morning, in the shade of a hut in the very poor village where these ladies live. Seeing their homes, and the meagre conditions they live in, made me so aware of how difficult their lives really are. One of the women who works in a restaurant in the city came home on her break to learn a few stitches. Now THAT'S dedication! By the end of that Saturday, I was confident that most of them had learned all the basic stitches, and those who hadn't could learn from the others.

There was only time for one more session, and we needed supplies to complete the project. Glenys and I met for lunch the next day (Sunday), so I could direct her to the 'sewing corner' in Old Market, which is tucked away down a very narrow, obscure aisle and hard to find. We were in search of some special items and particular fabric for a fabulous project I was goig to teach the following morning. Sorry folks, I can't reveal what it is, because that will ruin the surprise gift a few of you will be getting from me! Suffice it to say, we are hoping this item is going to sell like hotcakes and will net these ladies a ton of money!

Last Monday, we worked together sewing up this new article. Although not everyone was able to finish, they have the design well in hand. At the end of two hours, it was time to say goodbye, and wish them all good luck. I was overwhelmed and deeply touched when each of them presented me with a gift of their own handicrafts as a thank you!

Some of the beautiful gifts I received.
as a 'thank you' from the ladies

A big 'thank you' gift from Glenys,
who runs the WoW program..
a handbag made from sarong fabric
that one of the ladies has made.

Earlier on this year, I used to wonder what my purpose at Honour Village was. Perhaps It might not have been about Honour Village after all. Amazing how things turn out sometimes.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Whiter Shade of Pale

There's a disturbing phenomena in this country that I didn't become aware of until I lived here. It's the obsession with white skin. A pale complexion, especially in women, is considered beautiful, and for some, the desire to have it is all-consuming. The whiter one's skin, the more attractive that person is perceived to be.

Among Cambodians, there is a definite perverse racism about dark skin that is tacit and rarely verbalized. I've heard them mention 'black' people, only to discover later they weren't referring to people of the negroid race, but to their own countrymen born with darker skin. Once,a tuk-tuk driver was pointed out to me as 'the black one'. Funny, because to me he didn't seem more black than the other tuk-tuk drivers he was with. Apparently, there's something they know (or see) that I don't.

I won't deny I've noticed variations in skin colour within the population, yet it's never occurred to me to make a distinction. To me, they're all Khmer people, and quite honestly, I find them to be among the most beautiful people in the entire world, not only because of their stunning facial features, but  also because of their openness, goodness and trustworthiness. Still, I find it very alarming to hear remarks from Cambodians like: "Black people are bad" or "Watch out for black people in Phnom Penh. They are all robbers."

I will never forget my introduction to the Cambodian concept of 'white is beautiful'. On our first 'tour of duty' in Cambodia, while teaching children to embroider, a young girl of about twelve stroked my hand, and said 'Teacher, your skin so beautiful!' I looked at my wrinkled and gnarled old hand next to her smooth young skin, and said, 'Oh no. Teacher's hands are old! Your hands are so young and beautiful!', and she replied 'No! You white. Me black!'

I immediately asked my translator to tell the class that in my country, we think that brown skin is beautiful. I told him we even have special machines that we lay in to make our skin brown (tanning beds). Looking at their faces, I suspect they all thought I was ready to be committed.. especially the male translator. I've since learned that males apparently are the ones who drive this whole sick notion, because they want women with white skin and light hair. (Probably not much different than men who prefer blondes.)

Here in Cambodia, women go to great lengths to have 'white' skin. Even in 40C degree heat, they will wear gloves, long sleeves, hats, big sunglasses, and masks to shield their skin from the sun's tanning rays. They pile on light coloured make-up to appear whiter, especially when getting dressed up for wedding parties. Here are photos of four Cambodian women at a wedding party we were invited to two years ago.

The scary part is they use skin whitening products, which I've read may have toxic chemicals. Read this article from the Phnom Penh Post: 'Dying to be Pale'.  I'm not interested in lightening my skin (or risking toxic chemicals), and I've found it very difficult to find toiletries here that don't contain skin whitening ingredients. See for yourself!

Shower cream

Body lotion

Skin cream

Body whitening emulsion

Underarm Deodorant
(I need white armpits??)

More body lotion

Sun screen

Pore minimizer cream

Bars of soap

Body bleaching cream

Night cream

More antiperspirant

Bigger-than-life-size advertisement 
in a shopping plaza

Interesting to note that the women pictured on these products and in the advertisement look far more North American than Cambodian. Sadly, through unrealistic advertising, manufacturers in North America have helped create a generation of self-loathing females longing to be thinner and prettier. Sadder still to realize they're now conferring these bizarre standards on the women of Cambodia, and adding a little twist of 'white' to the mix for good measure.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Trip Advisor(y)

We've been in Cambodia almost 3 months now, and although we've had the occasional close call (or two), we've remained accident-free so far. Whenever possible, we walk to wherever we're going, which you'd think would be the safest mode of travel, yet this is where we've (I've) had the most near disasters.  

When I'm in North America, I seem to have have little trouble putting one foot in front of the other, yet all too often here I find myself suddenly stumbling and lurching forward. To onlookers, I must be a ridiculous sight ...arms and legs flailing gracelessly, desperately fighting gravity in an attempt to right myself before I leave my new dental work embedded permanently in Cambodia's landscape. 

So why am I such a klutz here? Perhaps when I'm at home the routes I walk are fairly routine, and I rarely meet anyone, so there's plenty of time to pay more attention to where I'm going. Here I am surrounded by new sights and sounds at every turn, and often forget to look down. When I'm at home I also wear proper walking shoes, and here I wear flip-flops that often 'flop' when they should be 'flipping'. One thing is for sure..the walkways at home are just plain safer than they are here. See for yourself....

In Siem Reap, walkways are typically tiled....

....or non-existent...

The road  that leads to the main road from our guesthouse
is a dirt road in desperate need of upgrading.
In the meantime, they use rubble to fill in pot-holes.
No problem if you're
 a mountain goat.

Often there are deliberate valleys built into the side of the road
which make walking a challenge....unless you happen to
blessed with one leg significantly longer than the other 

In places where the walkways are tiled,
it's important to watch for uneven areas that jump up and catch
the bottom of your shoe when you're not looking

In places where there are no tiles,
one section of concrete might extend out to be even with the road
while the next one drops off without warning

Sewer access portals are spaced strategically along the walkways,
providing yet more obstacles of varying heights and dimensions.
The covers are made of thick slabs of concrete. We NEVER walk on these,
since there is a very real possibility of accessing the sewer unintentionally.

Many areas of the sidewalk have been
cracked and caved in by cars parking on them.

A perfect example of a walkway dropping off at  an adjacent property

Most times, tiles are embedded in sand.
Occasionally they go missing.
Sometimes it's only one...

...and sometimes it's more than one

Even when tiles are laid over concrete
they somehow go astray

This year a Christmas light display was suspended across the road
on either side of the Siem Reap River for about four weeks.

They removed tiles and embedded sleeves of PVC pipe in the ground
support the poles. Now that the display is gone, the supports remain.
In some cases the PVC pipe sticks up about an inch above ground.

Sometimes there's an extra tile in the pathway.
This one is strategically located near a sewer cover
just to add interest to the obstacle course

Here, in front of a shop, several tiles are unevenly spaced
and placed at various levels, perhaps to ensure that only
serious shoppers will bother to enter.

In many parts of Siem Reap, large trees line the walkways.
Actually they grow up out of the walkways.
Here, a garbage bin is paced strategically next to the tree
to provide an additional obstacle.

Some property owners like the trees so much
they have planted little gardens around them,
necessitating pedestrians to walk in traffic.

Sometimes these trees die, and rather than fill in the tiles,
a gaping hole is left in memory of the tree that once grew there.

The roots of these trees often rise up from the ground in huge carbuncles.
When they are well camouflaged with sand, as these ones,
they provide the perfect impediment to unsuspecting hikers

Here a carbuncle has been enshrined
in the centre of a concrete and tile walkway 

This stretch could probably be named 'Carbuncle Alley'

Sometimes things other than trees
are in the middle of the walkway.
Easiest just to walk under this sign.

This signpost appears to be on a movable concrete block.
I didn't try to move it.

The trunk of a palm tree adds interest

I always wonder what happened to the other shoe...

Cars often park on the sidewalk
Unless you want to walk out in busy traffic,
it is necessary to find a way around them

Same goes for motos..

....and carts..

Perhaps the most ominous of all are wires that snake across the path.
Are they live?

This one, in a city park, looks as though it might lead to something..

This one is partly disguised by leaves, sand & shadows...

This one looks like a snare..
Watch out!!!

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is the big holes that are just 'there'.
This is one of those sewer boxes, which appears to have no lid at all.
Some very nice soul has tried to disguise that with plastic sheeting..

Here another one of those sewer covers has broken away.
I assume the stick with the plastic bag is the equivalent
to a red flag or 'caution' sign.

This hole is in the middle of a walkway
that crosses a narrow bridge.
When we first saw it, it was just a gaping hole.
Then one of our volunteers fell in on a dark night.
Fortunately, she wasn't seriously hurt.
Since then, they've wedged a huge tree limb into the hole.
Now only small children can fall through.

What you've seen here are only a few of the obstacles we encounter on our daily walks. Safely rules and laws just aren't a part of Cambodian life. I suppose they feel if you stumble, fall, or hurt yourself, it's just part of your karma.

Fair warning...If you come to Siem Reap, mind your step.... 
And if you do happen to lose your footing, have a good trip!