Global Service Scholar: Jacob Ortiz
Country: Cambodia

My time in Siem Reap has so far been indescribable. Volunteers at our project site, Treak Community Centre, work Monday through Friday. On each of these days, I wake up around 6:45 a.m. This gives me enough time to get dressed and brush my teeth before my roommates, Jonny and Nick, and I head out of our room and down to the first floor of our guesthouse. This floor consists of an open-air dining area, a reception desk, and numerous seating areas. Our guesthouse is run by a small family, who have been incredibly kind and hard working. We are fortunate to receive a free breakfast each morning, and the woman who takes our orders has mine memorized.

Between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., the remainder of our group ventures downstairs to eat and socialize with one another before we leave for work. Cambodia is 14 hours ahead of California, so most of my family and friends are home from work and eating dinner. This is the perfect opportunity for me to catch up with them before my day gets busy.

The ride to work is always entertaining. Jonny, Nick, and I ride with the same tuk tuk driver each day, an 18 year old man named Dong. He is a very cautious driver, which is a necessary trait for survival in the traffic of Siem Reap. To us foreigners, it seems as if there is no order to the traffic at all. One of my first impressions of Siem Reap was that drivers simply do whatever is most convenient for them at the time. The roadways are filled with Tuk Tuks and motorbikes. Cars are rare and trucks even more so. Buses of tourists are common, though I am convinced that the bus drivers must be some of the bravest people in the world.

At 8 a.m., we arrive to our work site. Treak Community Centre has two sessions, morning and afternoon. The morning session runs from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., and the afternoon session from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Students will attend only one of these sessions, where they are primarily taught English.

Upon arrival, we break into smaller task forces focusing on one of three fields that need improvement, as identified by the teachers at Treak. These fields are General Studies, Testing, and Hygiene. I belong to the Hygiene group with three other students from my cohort. Our task is to develop curriculum that can be implemented by the teachers to educate the students on the importance of washing hands, brushing teeth, showering, and so on. We primarily work on our own, though we do meet regularly with a woman named Rhonda, who is a retired teacher from Australia that volunteers regularly for Treak. Rhonda helps us focus our curriculum and prepare lessons as my group has very little experience in teaching.

Around 11 a.m., the first session of students is released and the teachers and volunteers take a break until the next session begins. During this time, some volunteers may nap, eat lunch with the teachers, or call family back home (since it’s 9 p.m. PST). This is a great opportunity to socialize with the teachers about their life experiences, family history, and Cambodian culture.

During the afternoon session, we volunteers are split up among the classrooms to provide assistance to the teachers. Nick and I work with around 25 students in an intermediate class taught by “Cha” Chhlat. He tells us that the Khmer people like to shorten words; when the students say “teacher” it sounds like “tea-cha,” so the students refer to him and the rest of the staff as “Cha.” Our youngest student is around 7 or 8 years old and our oldest is 15.

The classroom interactions have by far been my favorite experience as a volunteer. We are helping the students learn English words and phrases, and in turn they are teaching Nick and I how to translate them into Khmer. They are far better at speaking English than either of us are at speaking Khmer! They love to joke with us and tease us when we mess up Khmer phrases. For example, my name, Jake, sounds like the Khmer word for banana, so the students across the entire school call me “Cha Banana.” The class lasts until 4 p.m., but before that time the students get to take a 30 minute break to play outside. I like to join them in playing soccer or watching the games that they have created, which are very different than the ones I played as a kid.

At the end of the day, we say “joom reap lea” (a formal goodbye), to the kids and receive high fives and fist bumps as they exit the class. We ride the same tuk tuks back to the guest house and relax before we go to dinner. Jonny is adept at finding excellent eateries around town so we tend to rely on him to tell us where to eat. Some nights however, the rain will start falling suddenly and we will have to eat at the guesthouse rather than going out for food. We are almost always in bed by 11 p.m. in order to get enough sleep for the next day. Those kids really take a lot of energy!