We woke to hear the chants in the temples emanating from loudspeakers across the city from first light. A dusty haze covers Battambag’s mornings like a veil, slowly lifting as her inhabitants begin their work. Our quick breakfast on the roof gave us the opportunity to see the city from above – narrow laneways flanked by French townhouses; the crisscross of haphazard electrical wires; cats elegantly tiptoeing along the roofs.
The road to Prek Norin school is like many of the surrounding streets of Battambang – dusty, bumpy, and slightly chaotic with bicycles, motos, cars, trucks, mobile vendors and buses all competing for space. There are no gutters – shops spill in to the dirt streets – so those who stop to buy something must be avoided. It’s like going through an elaborate obstacle course.
The driveway to the school is long and flanked by rice paddies. The contrast of the green against the brown of the landscape beyond the school gate makes it seem like an oasis – and for many of the children it is. Surrounding the paddies are yellow cement buildings – the classrooms. One looks particularly tired and worn, and this is where we will be doing our work.
The building is only eighteen years old, but seems much older, damaged by a severe storm several years ago, ripping off its roof. The extremely limited resources of the school and community meant that it could not be fixed, so it went to the wild and was overtaken by plants and mould. In the wet season the cement cracked but without a roof there was no point in fixing the floor.
The roof has since been fixed, the plants removed, and the walls pressure cleaned leaving us with a clean and protected surface to do our work – cementing and painting. Megan and I are assigned to the end classroom to paint the walls.
A clean warm white has been chosen, the most expensive paint available purchased, and a contractor engaged to complete the high areas which require a scaffold. The task is still a challenge – the walls are pitted with nail holes and large chunks of cement which have fallen away, stains from the mold, and the dark colour of cement which has been used to patch large cracks. The rollers paint on too thinly, showing all these flaws and making the holes even more obvious. The paintbrushes’ bristles are all different lengths and are as rough as basting brushes, but they paint on thicker than the rollers, get into all the nooks and crannies, and hide more sins. We use baby baths to hold our paint – an innovative solution in using what is available to hand.
Phill, Chris, David and Byron are in charge of cementing another room’s floor which has cracked so badly patching will not do. They collect gravel in pails and pour it over the surface. They collect sand and gravel and mix it with cement and water by hand on the front porch before bucketing it in to the room. It’s hot, humid, back-breaking work. Progress is painfully slow, but the men soldier on, determined to finish as much as possible. After mixing two lots of cement and completing a quarter of the room by mid-morning, they are told by a translator that they have already completed what a Khmer team would do in a whole day. This energizes them as they are sure they will have the room complete in a couple of days.
The painting work is slow and hot but we can see progress. By lunch time the bottom half of the room is nearly halfway complete.
We stop for lunch which is served in one of the classrooms. The community have come together to prepare our meals as thanks for our work. It’s a Khmer feast. Beautiful authentic Khmer cuisine is laid out in front of us – an array of vegetables, fish, rice, banana fritters. Battambang province’s speciality, fish amok, is steamed in banana leaves and really satiates our hunger. It’s all delicious and you can taste the appreciation.
After lunch we hear the distinct sound of a moto riding in to the school – except this time it is towing something…
A cement mixer!
In-country Community Liaison Officer Reasmey has sourced a mixer and the boys’ faces fill with relief.
The work is still hot and hard, but now it’s so much quicker. There’s a real motivation and teamwork happening between the ISIS staff and the community – everyone’s getting involved. We continue working well past 4pm, our “knock off” time.
By the end of the day we have completed almost two coats completely around the bottom half of the huge room. We’re exhausted and need a cool shower, but we’re satisfied.
We spend the evening at Café Eden over a cold Anchor beer reflecting on the day and celebrating our success – and preparing to do it all again tomorrow.