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The Saga of Heather's Travels ... the story of a dream come true

Wat Opot

CAMBODIA | Tuesday, 26 January 2010 | Views [1951] | Comments [1]

At last I am able to access the internet, and tell my story! Such a special one about an amazing place. I have spent the last week at Watopot, a very special health community in rural Cambodia, about an hour out of Phnom Penh. I am volunteering here for a month this time, but know I will be back and back to this wonderful place. The best way to describe it is to copy my notes from this first week into here, to give readers a feel for the place.....

Day 1: Culture Shock... This is the most amazing, and humbling place and a day that will never be repeated, ever. What was I expecting? I had no idea what to expect, but never in my wildest dreams.... a community of children and adults living with AIDS, not an orphanage as such, though there are many orphans here. It is a Health Centre and community for those whose lives are affected by AIDS. So many have watched their parents, or brothers/sisters, aunties, uncles, grandparents die. Wise and traumatised, old beyond their years, wanting to be touched and cuddled, held and played with, or just plain ignoring the world around them. 63 children, around a third are HIV positive, at different stages. Those who are negative still come from backgrounds of AIDS and loss. Some miracles like the negative 4 month old baby, with both parents positive, the ones who have teetered on the edge, then come back. Their stories are related to me by the other volunteers. There are 4 and 5 year olds on 2nd line medication, all lining up with "Papa Wayne" to get their meds in the evening. But despite all this it is such a happy place. Children who are too self sufficient for their tender years, older kids who look after younger ones, playing running, squealing with glee. The names are so difficult to my 58yr old english speaking tongue, that they have gone from my head moments after being told. They speak mostly Khmer, a few have a bit of english, and some are quite fluent, more the older ones. The youngest is 4 months, through to adults, all here for the common reason - a life touched by AIDS.

Day 2: The tour today, the different enterprises that are happening, fish farming in big ponds, craft and art work, a school for the wee ones, while the rest go off to a local school just outside the compound. Chickens, ducks, frogs, gardens, hydroponics being set up, an office/nerve centre, the kitchens, people working, supporting each other. The hospice for people to die with dignity, and the crematorium, where the bodies are burnt. And the photos......just some of the 500 who have died here - every photo has a story, and has pain in the telling. Grubby, happy kids, reaching out, wanting affection, giving cheek and always knowing that you won't be staying, people come and people go, volunteers always here but always leaving. Great food, cooked by the the kitchen women, fresh fresh vegetables, bountiful fruit, and good conversation over meals in plastic cups and plates, on concrete tables. No airs or graces here, just very real people with heartbreaking and heartwarming stories. The Volunteers house, currently 4 people in the women's side, sharing 2 rooms, with a toilet plonked in the middle - cold water running sometimes, power that comes and goes . Bodily functions not so private here, but noone pays any attention. Hot water, privacy, mirrors all sweet memories, but who needs them really? Early starts, the children start school at 7am, afternoon siestas, a quiet lazy pace to life during the day. Then the evenings, adults dinner at 5.30 (the kids have already eaten) more conversations, talking talking talking, and then prayers/chants to the dead, everyone has lost someone. Love and support and compassion. Papa Wayne is much beloved, his life devoted to the children. He doesn't even have a room, just sleeps on the porch of the men's end of the volunteer's house, in case any babies need him in the night. A selfless, deep thinking, endlessly giving laidback superman. My emotions run raw. I am gobsmacked, overwhelmed, incredulous. How can one place have so little yet give so much? No official funding, relying on private donations, yet it is free for me to be here. "Just be part of our community, share yourself, and be with the children" is basically all that is required. Any talents or gifts you wish to share are so welcome, but just being here is your biggest gift and priviledge. Dry dusty hot grounds, feeling constantly dirty, and the need to shower 5 times per day, but restraining self to one before bed, and maybe in the moning if water running. Priorities so shifted as to be unrecognisable. Life will never be the same.

Originally started by Wayne as a partnership between Christianity and Buddhism, Watopot is now non-denominational, and has an amazingly spiritual feel. The monks from the neighbouring temple are involved, and support Wayne in his endeavours. He has been let down badly by so called christian churches in the States, for not following their dictates. A deeply spiritual and deep thinking man, who has journeyed from fundamental christianity to his present state of spirituality and partnership with Buddhism he has my complete respect and admiration. His love for the children, each and every individual is palpable and unconditional and his life is completely devoted, he has nothing else, no money or possessions, a truely good man.

Day 5: Settling into a gentle routine, starting to recognise the children and remember a few names, and they recognising me, starting to trust me... establishing friendships with other volunteers, and still listening to the endless stories - each child has a complicated story and has endured so much. Little sign of this in their daily lives, I'm sure they draw strength from each other. They certainly have a sense of family, and a knowledge and acceptance of their place within that. Such different personalities, bright smart kids, not too shy to ask for a hug, or to crawl into your lap. You're walking along and suddenly feel a grubby little hand in yours, it'll stay there for a time, then just as suddenly let go and run off.... or demand to be picked up, to play, to tease, for some rough and tumble, or just to be held for a time. No words, but the language barrier doesn't seem to matter, the communication is clear. Like any other kid in the world, they just want to be loved, and they certainly have that here, never were children so loved and cherished. In the evenings, on hard tiled floors, or a hard wooden bench they sit to watch tv, play, chatter and tease each other. I sit down on the wooden bench and within minutes have 5 children vying for position on my lap, one on each side, and one even behind where he can hug me round the neck. After 5 days I recognise the same ones coming back to me, in fact watching for me to arrive, though new ones each day try me out. I love them all, and just hug and cuddle and rock, whose needs are being met here? We establish small conversations, "What's your name" they ask me again and again, it seem my name is as hard for them to remember as theirs is for me. The "th" part of Heather is not part of Khmer sounds, so they trip over it, and say Hevver Hevver. It is good to be communicating, and we start to do counting, one two three four five, they mostly know, but when they give me the Khmer numbers, I am lost, they leave me for dust!! But I am learning, and will continue to learn from these precious wee ones, my teachers



Oh Heather!!Your E-mail is so wonderful!!Real,live imaginative and descriptive. I feel i'M there with you experiencing all your daily experiences. My spirit is for sure.Such a precious time in your life,I wonder how our Mum would of reacted to it all!!Wonderful to read+reread. Amazing!! A life changing experience I would say!! Take care. Stay safe.Keep up the great dream.All my love always. Carolynxxxxx

  carolyn Bisley Jan 26, 2010 7:29 PM



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