Monday, March 7, 2011

Friendly Faces at Rainbow Orphanage

Today we left the guesthouse early with a driver to visit a small village I had learned about online before our trip. Since doing a little bit of fundraising for an orphanage while TJ and I lived in Moscow, I've been curious about how orphans are looked after in different countries. (If anyone is up for a difficult but inspiring read, There is No Me Without You tells the story of an Ethiopian woman who starts caring for orphans by chance and ends up running a large institution in Addis Ababa). So when I found Rainbow Orphanage just outside Siem Reap, I was eager to give the kids this experience, and also impressed by the orphanage's savvy business strategy. By encouraging tourists to take an extra day to tour their village and learn crafts with the kids, and charging a fee, the orphanage director drew foreigners' attention to his program and gathered a steady revenue. After riding thirty minutes off the pavement along a deeply potholed dirt road, we arrived at the small orphanage. Two dormitories and a few outbuildings, brightly painted with the names and years of various donors, and the director, on crutches, loped out to meet us.
Mr. Pean explained that he had injured his spine and needed the crutches and a brace, but then proceeded to lead us across the dirt yard and into the gardens. I suggested that he take a load off, but he explained he was only one running the place, and giving the tours. He led us past the mango and jackfruit trees, lemon grass and vegetable gardens. We saw their hens and chicks, laying eggs around a lightbulb wired to a car battery (there is no electricity in the village). He showed Ernie and Yosh an outbuilding lined with smelly sandwich-sized bags of dark soil-- they are cultivating mushrooms for sale. He took pride in showing off the manure pile and manure-burning stoves used for cooking and heat in the cool season. Ernest was impressed to see biofuel in action.
We crossed the gardens onto another dirt road and were followed, we noticed, by a growing number of kids Puck's size. They were returning from the morning lessons at another village school (a distance we later found was about about 7 km down the road) to eat lunch. In various one-room elevated shacks, Pean introduced us to women weaving baskets and roof thatching out of banana leaves, weaving fishing baskets from bamboo, tending pigs. Yoshi and Tika found the local water well and enjoyed squirting water all over themselves for some relief from the heat. Of course, everything we did made me feel even more like we must be space aliens to these people. Big, sweaty tall folks taking so many pictures, drinking bottled water, smiling and saying hello over and over and over. Tika and Puck wanted to hide sometimes. Yoshi said he didn't like people staring at him.
When we returned to the orphanage, the children were all arriving from the village school to the orphanage classrooms for special English and math classes. For a while we were celebrities to the kids. They swarmed around us, running into classrooms and urging Tika and Puck to follow, showing them their papers on the walls, trying to touch them. Ernest made his best effort to play it cool, and even kept up a reasonable Q&A with a few kids and a teacher about school and America. We took loads of pictures, and the kids laughed when I gave Puck the camera and let him snap away.
Pean explained that he houses 28 kids, now teenagers, and takes all these additional kids during the day from the village for lessons. We spied them kicking a ball around, washing clothes and preparing food in the outdoor kitchen. Ernest watched the math class from the back of the room--trying to measure himself up against these students. Pean showed me his two enormous water tanks. We compared notes on purifying drinking water. He said he doesn't have the means to boil all the water that his kids drink, but uses a purifier that an NGO has provided for him. He said his kids' number-one health problem is diarreah, and many of them have it now. He said that now that most of his kids are teenagers, they are too old to go to the Siem Reap children's hospital, but that the clinic is too expensive--US$70 per week of in-patient care. Instead, they treat many of their problems right there in the village using herbs from the garden and patiently waiting through a lot of illnesses. By our third day in Siem Reap, the kids and I were already complaining about the miserable squat toilets, the absence of sinks and soap to wash hands, and (for me) the pain in the neck of having to carry everyone's water all day. It's hard to imagine those conditions as permanent.
I paid our "tour fee" plus a donation to the orphanage, and was impressed when Pean wrote out a receipt and asked me if I intended to tie the funds to a particular project; he had learned the ropes of not-for-profit accounting, and had to keep records for his auditors, he explained. I said he knew better than me where the funds were needed most. He wants to improve the well head and water storage, he said.
We said our thank-you's and good-byes just as the sky ripped open with a flooding rain, thunder and lightening that made Tika start to cry. Shutters crashed open and shut, and thunder boomed over our heads for about twenty minutes, then quiet again. A group of young men pushed our van through the muddiest part of the yard back up to the elevated roadway. Our driver produced colorful umbrellas from his trunk and we felt again like weird alien royalty as he escorted us from a classroom to the van under umbrellas and worried over our wet feet. We watched through rainy windows the village pass behind us, then the landscape bouncing up and down as we slowly rolled up and over each muddy hole in the long road back to the highway.