We have been on the road for 2 ½ months and have met some interesting travelers and local people in every location.
While seeing the historical sites is life changing, when we think back over the last few months, the things we remember most are those interactions and magical encounters with people along the path. Our intention has always been to not be tourists, but really get to know the culture and people as much as our time would allow. While in Siem Reap, Cambodia we were able to do just that by joining a few other travelers to spend the day helping a local village and specifically two families.
We were in a village home, helping a 39-year old mother and her five children prepare a traditional Cambodian meal. It was lunchtime and we watched as a 10 year-old girl expertly cooked a pot of rice over the fire used as the stove. She obviously had done it many times before.
We cut and chopped ginger, lemon grass, garlic and peppers. The smell was fresh and clean. Next came the two main ingredients – fermented fish (a real delicacy that didn’t smell so fresh) and live, red fire ants.
The ants were in a pile, immobilized from being in cold water. We were invited to eat them, raw and alive. Uh oh.
There were eight of us there with the family, along with our guide Honglee and our driver Sary. This adventure was a project of Beyond Unique Escapes, an incredible company doing great things in Cambodia. We signed up to experience a day in the life of a Cambodian village.
That morning at 7:30, Honglee and Sary picked us up and brought us to Kompheim village to help two Type 1 families. Type 1 families are those who struggle day-to-day to find food, sometimes only having one meal a day. Type 2 families usually get 2 – 3 meals per day, but not much more. Both types of families are a part of a HUSK for Communities project, a non-profit organization based in nearby Siem Reap, Cambodia, partially supported by Beyond Unique Escapes.
Shortly after pick-up, we climbed into oxen carts, pulled by brahma bulls, and rode to our first work site. We saw families doing their daily chores. Cows were tied-up with thin ropes to trees, and one cow gave us a good laugh by running out to the street to watch us pass by. A parade wave felt appropriate.
After a bumpy ten-minute ride, we joined the first family in reaping rice. Rice is a staple of their economy. They had completed about a quarter of the field and we were there to help them complete at least half.
Each of us was given a very sharp scythe, and after a quick demo on how to reap rice without slicing off our fingers, we were set loose to cut as much rice as possible. It looked easy enough, but within a few minutes it became monotonous and back-breaking. I couldn’t imagine doing it each and every day for 10 – 12 hours, for about $3 – $4 a day.
Our job was to cut the rice and pile it neatly for the family to tie up in small bundles. In two hours, with 8 – 10 of us working, we managed to reap about another quarter of the field. Our hosts seemed very happy for our help, and after some high fives, we left for our next stop to help a nearby family prepare a meal, which brings me to where I began this tale.
Eating fire ants was not in our known realm of possibility or desire.
There we were, helping prepare lunch, and suddenly the chance to eat fire ants was in front of us. Would I have the courage to do it?
I can tell you firsthand the hard part is picking them up from the bowl and actually putting them in your mouth. In case you’re interested, they are a little sour at first bite.
With ants in (some of) our bellies, we then chopped the fermented fish until it was like a paste. We mixed the remaining red ants into the paste, and combined them with the vegetables and spices. We carefully wrapped the mixture in a banana leaf and put it over the fire to cook for fifteen minutes.
They served the fish/ant/veggie mixture with stalks of Morning Glory and snake beans to use as dippers, as you would dip celery into hummus as an appetizer. It was spicy (a little too spicy for me) and very flavorful. Riley loved it, John didn’t like it and Alli was a little too nervous about the spice, and we all were happily surprised (relieved?) when they surprised us with some good old-fashioned deli sandwiches and fresh fruit.
After lunch, we cleaned up and made our way over to a clearing under some banana trees. There, we would weave as many thatched panels and roofs as we could in the time available. They would be used to build new homes. Before us, in neat piles, were four-foot bamboo sticks, palm leaves half-folded and cut to match the length of the sticks, and palm leaf spines trimmed to become the thread for weaving.
We were well-taught by the villagers. If built correctly, the thatched panels can last up to 15 years. It takes about 60 panels to create a 10 x 10 wall. In the two hours we spent weaving, the eight of us wove about 32 panels. We were slow at first, but improved with time. The locals could punch out 2 – 3 for every one of ours.
As we wove, Honglee and Sary – who are both locals hired by Beyond Unique Escapes – told us more about the culture and traditions of the village and acquainted us with the history of Cambodia and their recent violent past (I will tell you more about that in coming blog). It was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon, and as we said our good-byes it felt really good to know we helped in such a tangible, long-lasting way.
We we walked through the village and made our way through the back roads, we were greeted warmly by villagers. The children would run out to greet us with smiles and “hellos.” Allison would raise her hand for high-fives, and they would flock to her to accommodate with lots of laughter. The kids go to school four hours a day because most of their time is required in the fields.
Many of them lived in homes HUSK has built for them in the traditional Cambodian way, with locally-sourced materials, and with the help of volunteer groups and local villagers. I was amazed at the impact HUSK has had in improving the lives of these Cambodian families.
I’ve seen how being hungry and cold can blind you to thinking long-term. It reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy. When we are threatened with physical survival, staying alive is our focus. Dreaming of what is possible long-term, much less working toward it, is not realistic. We have spoken with families who can’t fathom our nine-month trip because they are needed right where they are every day in order to survive.
HUSK helps villagers with their immediate needs so they can begin looking to longer-term needs like education, health, and safety. Which brings me to our next stop, the HUSK English School.
In Cambodia, speaking English and sewing are two valuable skills. Through donations and contributions, HUSK has built two buildings to teach English and sewing. But wait until you hear the novel way they constructed the buildings.
HUSK used water bottles filled with garbage to construct the two buildings! Litter is a problem in Cambodia and other Asian countries, so HUSK enlisted the help of the locals to pick up used water bottles, fill them with litter, and bring them to HUSK where they would exchange the bottles for cooking oils and other food items. It helped clean up the village, supply villagers with needed food, and got the community involved in creating something of long-term benefit to their community.
Best of all, they are helping villagers increase their earning power. When a person speaks English, they are highly-sought employees. And local women who learn the art of sewing are selling their pieces in the city, becoming self-reliant instead of relying on begging for food and money.
Our final stop of the day was at the local monastery. Monasteries are a hub for the community and very integral to their lives. Monks help the villagers in times of trouble and the villagers help the Monks in other ways. The Buddhist religion is very sacred to Cambodians, and the monasteries are very important places in life and in death.
We fell into bed that night, exhausted and filled with gratitude for all we had learned, for the people we had met, and for the chance to experience their lives and give a little help. I laid awake thinking about the novel ways HUSK comes at the good they do, how inventive yet true to the culture.
I tip my hat to Beyond Unique Escapes for the way they are thoughtfully empowering locals and offering very cool ways for average people to make a difference. It was a beautiful day none of us will ever forget. We wish they were in all the countries we are visiting.
Learn more about HUSK for Communities at www.HUSKCambodia.org. Study up on what they’re doing and see where you’d like to fit. If you are headed to Siem Reap, contact Beyond Unique Escapes and take their tours. www.beyonduniqueescapes.com. We recommend their “Day in the Life” tour. You will love it! Tell them we sent you and please say hi to Dean and Anthony for us.
No, you don’t have to eat the fire ants. (But it’s pretty cool to say you did.)