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Waking up in Cambodia

I'm not gonna lie to you - I struggled to get out of bed today. Teaching in the morning and again afternoon, then working into the evening to prepare blogs and plan the next day is hard work, especially when it's done in stifling temperatures.

But the passion for what we are achieving here, coupled with a healthy dose of adrenaline keeps our attitudes positive and our energies high. Still, I'm up before the rest so I decided to walk to explore the food market around the corner.

I may have said this before, but a walk through the market is like a stroll through a Nat Geo documentary. The colour and sounds may be possible to pick up on camera, but there is no way to capture the rich aromas of the market.

I suspect most of the produce would have still been in the earth or hanging off trees until a couple of hours earlier and this is the reason, I suspect, why we are all losing a little bit of girth around the midriff in spite of shovelling copious amounts of food down our gullets.

Absolutely nothing here is processed the way it is in the west. It's all crispy fresh and full of whatever nature intended.

Coconuts, papaya and mangos the size of melons are piled up in little pyramids and the mysterious giant durian fruit which, I am told, stinks to high heaven is chopped up into manageable portions for sale.

I bought a couple of bright red dragon fruits which I absolutely love. If you've never tasted this exotic delicacy, it tastes like a cross between a kiwi fruit, a honey melon and a prickly pear.

The market is not for the faint hearted and as an avid animal lover myself, I've had to gulp down my instinct to set random animals free. Live chickens, for instance, are tied by the foot in bunches and lie hopelessly clucking on the ground waiting for the inevitable.

Huge amounts of fish, eel, crab, langoustine, lobster, and miscellaneous crustaceans struggle to breathe in little puddles of water. The saddest sight perhaps is seeing frogs peeled alive and chucked, still twitching, into a plastic basin.

There are mounds of exotic delicacies such as deep fried crickets, cocoons (which I can confirm taste like ful), red ants, small snakes and other reptiles. Thankfully, no dogs or cats. That apparently is a Chinese or Vietnamese thing, and the Cambodians are as appalled at the thought of eating man's best friend as we are.

The cuisine in Cambodia is absolutely delicious and the national meal, amok, fish or chicken in a coconut sauce with ginger served in a basket made from banana leaf has become my favourite dish.

Back at VCDO, the volunteer residence, and everybody is finally awake. Almost. Chiara and Emma just crossed each other, one eye shut, toothbrush in hand, as they head for the shower.

VCDO is by no means luxurious, but as far as no-frills accommodation goes it ticks all the boxes. There is a miracle kitchen downstairs and the large entrance hall has been transformed into a dining area - it used to be rented out to another NGO which focused on HIV prevention and the benefits of safe sex to young girls working the streets and bars at night.

One flight up the unnaturally steep steps and the sleeping quarters begin. One or two massive beds that sleep two people comfortably have been squeezed into rooms which all have a basic shower/ toilet en-suite.

The top floor has another two bedrooms and a living area where we plan our days and download the day that was.

The staff at VCDO is what makes us call this place home. The wonderful Nan and Lakli are the life line of the residence, they double up as janitors, cooks, security and are at the beck and call of the residents to ensure we're all comfortable and sorted.

Sreyneth is in charge of administration and oversees the kitchen. Most evenings Paany comes over to cook for us. By day he works in a 5-star restaurant so we are really spoilt when it comes to dining at VCDO.

....

Just got back from a fabulous afternoon at Sfoda where the children performed a full-fledged play: a Helen O'Grady Academy favourite called The Magic Carpet which we retitled The Magic Tuk-Tuk which transports the children on a lightening trip to Italy and, of course, Malta - the two countries that support the orphanage most.

I have to say, I got a bit emotional watching these kids performing with gusto in English for the first time in their lives. Drama and music as teaching tools transcend nations and cultures and nobody does it better than the Helen O'Grady Academy of which I happen to be principal. For more details on how to enrol your children, fire an email off to info@helenogradymalta.com. There... plug done.

In spite of all this joy, there is an underlying heaviness of heart within the team. Tomorrow is the last day for the first of the DO Cambodia groups and there is that sadness that comes from knowing we won't be seeing the children we have bonded with for a good long time.

On a more positive note, on Monday the second team of volunteers will continue with the magic of drama, song and dance.

Alan Montanaro

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