Upon settling myself in Kampot I had mixed feelings about my new placement, sure I had friends, a place to unpack my bag and a room to call my own, but I wasn't sure if I really wanted to stay. I toyed with the idea of breaking my contract and leaving early but decided that it was just my first-week jitters and that I should really try to stick it out. As I arrived the previous volunteer was saying her goodbyes and I could see tears forming in her eyes, I gave the situation a slight eye roll and thought that won't be me. The whole time my focus was on the yoga classes I'd be teaching while I gave little thought to the English lessons that would soon fill my days. The English lessons which gave me countless hours of bonding time with the girls, time I would learn to cherish.
There's always an adjustment period when you enter a new job, apartment, or city; lucky for me I had all three changes wrapped up in one. It took about a week but I finally found my groove and felt at home in my new surroundings. I began learning the girl's names (8 forms of similar names), routines, personalities, and attitudes, everything became easy and I was enjoying myself. For my first two weeks I was alone but soon joined by a volunteer receptionist and the second yoga teacher. To be honest, I quite enjoyed hogging the attention for a while, but it was nice to have an extra set of hands around, even if they weren't always helpful. (common sense really is getting harder and harder to come by). With the new volunteers my schedule allowed more time for English lessons, now spending three hours each afternoon in the girls' bungalow (classroom) I began feeling at home there.
It took me a little while to asses where they were at with previous English lessons and abilities but I soon set a plan for our lessons, diving into the body parts and working towards descriptive adjectives. I broke down barriers while stumbling over Khmer words I asked the girls to teach me, proving that we all make mistakes, especially when learning a second language. As the weeks went by the girl's personalities really began to shine and I could see friendships forming, friendships I would not want to say goodbye to.
I really shouldn't have been surprised that these girls would be the highlight of my stay at Banteay Srey, after all it was the same story in Korea, Indonesia, Laos, and the myriad of other places I've floated around as an English teacher. Not only were we able to bond stumbling through English lessons but I basically lived with these girls for two months. Sure we didn't share the same room, but we saw each other each and every day, except Tuesday when the spa was closed and we all relished in our day off.
As my departure quickly approached I decided to inform the girls, rather than springing it on them the day before. With a bit of a communication barrier, it took a little while to get the message across but once it was understood the protests began. Some girls told me I couldn't leave while others simply inquired when I would be back. I didn't want to be a downer with my bad news but I also knew that some of the girls would be gone visiting their families for Khmer New Year so I didn't want to leave without them knowing. That afternoon we took loads of pictures since my camera was doing a good job at hiding in my bag until then.
We had a few more normal days together, pretending things weren't about to change before half the girls left for their New Year holiday. I do regret that I didn't get a proper goodbye with this bunch but things were a bit crazy on their last day and I think their minds went simply to the holiday. The day before I left was ridiculously busy causing me to wear multiple hats: yoga teacher, receptionist, cook and cleaner. The girls found it hilarious as I moved from one position to the next but I was rather enjoying myself, trying to help wherever needed. Sheryl, the other volunteer commented that it was only natural to have a crazy atmosphere as I was preparing to leave, but I genuinely enjoyed it.
I was impressed Thursday morning at the end of yoga class when the girls asked, "Teacher what time do you leave?" remembering it was my final day. I spent the morning teaching my final yoga class, packing my life back into my two small backpacks, and sorting out my plans for the next few days of travel. As I made the final preparations for leaving it hit me that I was really about to go, and I started having second thoughts. I actually called to see if I could change my bus ticket and stay for one extra day, but the woman was stubborn so I guess I was meant to leave. Thankfully we weren't busy so the girls had free time and were offering to give me a few final spa treatments, making sure I left in style with a fresh pedicure and henna tattoo.
As 3 o'clock approached I went to round up the girls and say my final goodbyes, Srey Pov was the first to give me a hug and as I saw tears well in the corners of her eyes I knew I was in trouble. I grew up laughing at my mom as she cried at any opportunity she was given; goodbye's, sappy movies, greeting cards, touching commercials all were fair game, I, on the other hand, got my father's genes, the non-crying type. Honestly in the last few years, I could probably count the number of times I've cried on one hand, and this day made the cut. After Srey Pov, it was Srey Jin embracing me and trying to laugh the tears away, but this one surprised me, this young girl with a bit of an attitude, even she was crying? I wasn't in full out cry mode yet, but I still had to go find Srey Pich.
Since the beginning I could sense a connection with this girl, she was something special, motivated, hard-working and owner of a big heart. Early on in my stay, she had told me "Teacher, I like you" and from that moment on we shared many genuine smiles with each other. As we hugged she asked when I would be back and it was hard for me to answer with an I don't know however as I spoke the words I knew that one day I would be back. I told her if she stays at the spa, continues learning and training, I would come to find her there. Until my final weeks, I hadn't given much thought to my return but as I had to say goodbye I realized that I had once again placed roots and would someday have to revisit them.
When I first arrived at the Spa I couldn't have predicted the relationships I would build and bonds that would be created, but I shouldn't be surprised what I walked away with. After all, my first visit to this country taught me that the people have big hearts, warm smiles and loads of appreciation for their friends, so these new relationships were only natural. I appreciate, value and will cherish the memories I created during my two-month stay at Banteay Srey and can't wait to return and can't wait to see what changes, improvements and advancements have occurred during that time.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.