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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Week Eleven in Review

It is Thanksgiving evening and the mangroves are full of insects and birds call out in the night. A breeze blows those of us resting on our decks, and Wes, Seavyi, and Karlee play in the river. The waxing crescent moon marks another new moon’s passing and the quieting into this evening is a further indication that another day has ended, and December will be here soon.

A week ago we were attending a performance alongside His Highness King Norodom Sihanouk. We arrived underdressed to a gala show of “Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia,” a multi-media show created to honor those whose lives had been lost in the atrocities inflicted by the Khmer Rouge 40 years ago, to heal those who have experienced conflict or suffered at the hands of others’ power, and to create a space for celebrating, memorializing, and voicing. As we shared space with the King of Cambodia, and listened to the voices and instruments of these incredible musicians and watched a film full of footage from Cambodia’s history, we sat together yet apart, and in our own ways considered the complicated, beautiful path that took us to be in that spot on that Friday.

This was a major moment in our group’s X-Phase. We learned the importance of briefings (so we knew not to wear athletic Nike shirts to a black-tie event) and debriefings (so we could reflect upon history, human rights, humanity). The next morning we took time to have that conversation, and used it to re-frame the days to come.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, was the location of the final days of our expedition. In the mornings we went on runs at the nearby Olympic Stadium. Our days were spent meeting with NGO’s like the Cambodian Coalition for Human Rights, visiting Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (known as the Killing Fields), shopping at the Russian Market, and listening to life maps. In the evenings we went out to the movies, had pizza parties, and soaked in hot pools. We had daily check-in’s, gave each other feedback, planned lessons, and did not write Yak’s. And like that, X-Phase drew to a close.

On the 26th, the last full day of X-Phase, we drove south to Kampot and just as our student-led section began on the water, it ended there too. Trapeang Sangkae, an eco-tourism community focused on restoring mangrove forests and supporting and repopulating fisheries, rests on an inlet from the Gulf of Thailand. Bungalows on stilts stand in the brackish water alongside deeply rooted mangroves at different stages in their lives. In the golden evening light we sat and Joya & Brit led a final debrief, during which we shared our favorite moments and things we learned. Sitting and listening to everyone reflect, I was impressed by the way in which this group took on their expedition. Sure, not everything fit together smoothly everyday; there were missed opportunities for briefings, stress to meet everyone’s needs, exhaustion at having to be on at inopportune times. But there was spontaneity–making impromptu breakfast picnics on the roof, drinking kombucha at an evening cinema outing–and routine—making relationships with noodle sellers and visiting them on a daily basis, spending time coloring and crafting, hiding secret kindness gifts in peoples’ rooms and bags. The students created a beautiful adventure that showed their awareness of travel and the intricacies involved in immersion has grown, and continues to do so.

So now we sit here in the mangroves. We will spend four nights among them. We have had the chance to meet with Bo Him, the head of this community, to learn about the challenges they have faced from the government–he himself is currently black listed by the provincial government, and he does not tell anyone when and where he travels for fear of being targeted–and the growth they have made since beginning this project: fishermen now make $10-25 a night, when they used to make a maximum of $2.50. Twenty-five new hectares of mangrove forests have been planted along the gulf shore. There are development projects they have successfully stopped, and their group membership has grown.

This is our last opportunity as a group of 16 to be together and to dive into discussions about right versus wrong and intentions and actions and consequences. After arriving at Trapeang Sangkae, we had a discussion aimed at considering different perspectives on service; we examined scenarios and definitions that led to asking: What is service? Who serves whom? When and where and why do we serve? Conclusions were not drawn, but new impressions spurred, and as we put mangrove seeds into mud, and seedlings into the sea, we asked ourselves: Is this service? What are we contributing? What are we gaining?

I believe some of the most impactful moments in life and conversations we have are ones that we do not process until after they have passed and we are on to new experiences. It is in those new moments that we realize how the things we pondered before, the people who pushed us in challenging ways that led us to feel frustrated, the conversations we had with those we disagreed with, all prepared us for this moment in time, this reaction, this interaction. We are always pushing forward, even without awareness of outcome.

Bo Him put it well:

“The plan might be stopped for now, but not forever.
Our voices might be heard for now, but not forever–we as a community accept that.”

And that is life; we work to be heard until we no longer are and then we reevaluate, change, try again, try anew. Begin again, begin anew. And as a Dragons community, that is what we have been striving for.