Today felt like one of our more relaxed days, but by the time we got back to the hotel, I still crashed hard.
We started by driving 5 hours from Phnom Pehn to Sihanoukville. Along the way, we had lively conversation and saw a bit of the Cambodian countryside. Dotted between the trees were dozens of hand-built huts, often raised on stilts to protect against flooding and pests. We passed through a palm oil plantation, where they just recently built a plant to manufacture the oil, allowing them create jobs and keep more profits within the country. (Previously, they had to ship the harvested palm to Thailand for processing.)
You could tell when we were approaching the beach-town of Sihanoukville, because the buildings were suddenly larger and painted in brilliant colors. My first impression was that this city was much nicer than Phnom Phen. It was certainly clearer and the buildings were often in better repair. We stopped briefly at the hotel, then went directly to Stronghold Cambodia. Jesse gave us a tour of the facility. We saw the children in their classrooms. They were so excited to see us. Some of the braver children practiced their English with us, asking "how are you?", "what is our name?", and "How old are you?".
After the tour, we went out to meet some of the families of the students. That is when I realized that poverty looks the same, even when the city is cleaned up for tourism. These families lived wooden, tin-roofed huts just behind the school or out in fields just far enough away from the tourist areas to go unnoticed. Some of these families rented the land and built their own homes. If the landlord raised the rent too much, they would dismantle their homes and leave, in search of a more affordable location where they could rebuild. Most of the families moved to Sihanoukville in search of work. Sometimes, the grandmother was caring for her grandchildren, because the parents couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them. In every case the child attending the school was eager for the chance to supplement their learning, particularly with English, which means better jobs in this touristy town. Teachers in the standard schools offer English as an extra class (with extra fees) to increase their income to a livable wage. The students at Stronghold would have had no way to pay those fees.
We met the girl whose arm was healing from a much needed surgery, One mother in particular was beaming with pride at her son, was top of his class every semester, often first or second place. She brought out the laminated certificates sent home by the school. He wanted to be a doctor, because all of his three older siblings had died from illness. Another student would come home and teach his younger sister the English he was learning. All of the families were surprisingly candid and out spoken. They were working hard to find every resource available to their children. Every family expressed gratitude for Stronghold Cambodia and the opportunities it provides.
From there, we went to the Bible College to make sure all of our projectors and technology were working for the Staff Development. Then off to a calm dinner by the sea. (I fell asleep in the car on the way to and from dinner.) Even though the day took more out of me than I expected, it was so uplifting to see the faces of the people we are serving and know that I was taking action to make a difference, even in a small way.