Between the Cambodian mangroves

Phnom Penh, literally "the hill of Penh", is our meeting point with the rest of volunteers. From there we will leave for two weeks in order to work camp in the reforestation of mangroves in a community in the south of the country. We walk until a bus station of an unknown transportation company, that nobody seems to be able to find... Marco and I look for it like fools, but we can find it eventually! Five minutes more and the group would have left without us...good start!

In the group we are 3 Japanese, 2 Taiwanese, 3 French, Marco and I and our Cambodian camp leader. Our partner organization is CYA, Cambodia Youth Action. After some hours of travel, we get off on the national road to Kampot and we walk through the village, besides the fields, until we reach the host community. We are in Trapaing Sangke, a muslin community of fishers and rice-growers. The community is build on some starlings and a wood bridge joint all the spaces: the kitchen, the wharf where we can wash the dishes and cooking pots, the toilets, 2 meeting rooms, 5 triplet bedrooms and the wharf.

The first day we are free in the afternoon so we start immediately to take a bath in the river and with some kayaks we start to discover our new place. We are really near to the mouth of the river. The community was born thanks to the efforts and desire of a group of locals, who wanted to live fishing and seeding but with a very particular attention to the fragile ecosystems around them. In particular, they detected in the mangrove plant the main element of the local nature. Mangrove let the fishes reproduce themselves beyond its roots, creating the perfect conditions to help replenish fish stocks. It's therefore a precious resource for a fishermen community. The community was born also thank to the economic and logistic support of some NGO and above all the Italian organization Action Aid.

The only English speaker in all the community is Roset, the 16 years old son of the leader of the village. He is in high school and wants to became a doctor. The village's leader and his family are living on the starlings of representation. Several rice fields and saltpans divined us by the houses of the village, where there's also a mosque. The work schedule during the work camp is diverse and this allows us to do always different activities. We start with 2 days of reaching the mangrove seeds; they look like green and long haricot beans. To arrive in these places we need 30 minutes by boat.

At the beginning I am scared, the seeds merge between the leafs and I can't see them at all; in addition walking on this mud that sinks it is not a good help! I understand that who is walking slowly and without putting so much weight has best results. As we say "Slow and steady wins the race". And I'm wondering: Am I alone in this mud or there will be some meetings with local animals? It's better not to think about it...



During the first afternoons we learned another essential skill in Cambodia: to cultivate rice. No, the tree with the white rice boxes doesn't exist, the rice is pain. First of all the rice has to be planted in a field with the plants next to each other, after it has to be ripped away with all the roots. The rice is going to be planted in another "flooded" field with a distance of 50 cm between the plants, after it will be gathered with a machine and each grains of rice has to be naked of all their protective layers. One can clear understand why the workers in a rice fields had the back so bowed! The work is hard but we are cultivating the filed of a woman hospitalized that otherwise could lose her work and blow over the opportunity to seed rice for this semester. So we feel all really useful in this activity. After two days we change activity: we start to produce the pots with plastic bags and mud where we put mangrove's seeds and these baby plants go to the mangrove's "nursery", where they are always in the water. They will stay here for about 6 months. In the afternoon we stop with the rice and we start to prepare us for the English lesson for children and teenagers of the village. Lina, our camp leader, divides the kids in three age-appropriate groups. We split up in groups of 3 or 4 persons as teachers.

I am in the classroom with Ting (Taiwan) and Miki (Japan) in the 10 to 14 years old group. How difficult this is to teach a language in another language! The beginning is hard, mostly for Florant, Chaiki and Hèléne who have the kids form 6 to 8 years old. Some of us are a little disheartened ..Is this gonna do anything? 12 years of scouting and an incorrigible optimism taught me that at the end of the work camp we are going to laugh about this situation, but it isn't nice to see some volunteers so negatives. Anyways, after the second/third lesson everything starts to run, we understand how to capture their attention with games that may be interested to the kids. We don't know any word of Cambodian so we draw or we mime all the words that they don't understand...I have the impression to be at a theatre or creative drawings course! During the weekend the group is divided in two: Florent and Hèléne want to go the near Kampot and we (nine persons) decide to go to Sihanoukville beach and to visit the national park of Ream, unfortunately under the rain (we haven't to forget that we're during the raining season).

Coming back from the weekend we found at the community two Australian girls who they are going to stay with us for 5 days, so we propose them to collaborate with the group belong the different activities. In these days besides the English lessons during the afternoon, we continue with the mangrove pots, we repair the nursery's roof, we prepare the sign with the name of the group, our names and the number of planted plants. Moreover, the phase 2.0 of the mangroves is starting: to keep the 6 months old plants that previous volunteers had planted and to go to put them to the sea. Always by boat, we go next to the final destination but the grounds isn't deep and the boat has to be parked before. We have took with us a kayak and we put all the plants on it, we though away the plastic pots pointless at this stage and we walk for 15 minutes to reach the place. The mangroves have to be planted with a distance of 1 meter to each other. We have always to keep 2 lines free to let the boats or kayaks pass. The first day everything is ok, but the second day the tide came in and the water that was at level of the ankles today it has arrived to the level of my belly bottom (yes, I'm short).

Planting mangroves I'm almost with the head under the water! You plant mangroves..but you can's see them, at the beginning it's a mess, two mangroves one above the other, we walk almost on them..after we start with a logical method. We line up and we plant staying in the same place until nobody is behind us, so nobody can trip over, and after that we can go on..finally it works. Two weeks go fast, the end of the work camp is soon arriving, now I get up at 6.30 a.m. without any problems, I cannot image my breakfast without noodles, I eat more chilli of everyone from Calabria, at 12 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. I'm really hungry..but most of all I get used to this place, to this times, to the shooting starts sessions lying on the wharf in the night, to the other volunteers, now we' re a very tight- knit group. One day the CYA Ngo organizes another event with guys of different provinces of the country, at night we are in the middle of a party on a starling with Cambodian pop and a strange pudding that send everyone to the toilet! The last days we deal of maintenance of mangroves planted by previous groups of volunteers, we control that they are curved, that the bamboo support is always there tied to the plant and we clean them by the sea grass.

In addition we start the construction of a wood platform to let fishermen rest, a kind of "truck stop"; the fishermen have crazy timetables (I never get why the best moment to fish is during the night or in really early morning) and they can use these platforms to have occasionally some rest. We built one with some enormous bamboos and Marco and I we use the knowledge of bindings and nodes, used in so many scout camps! It is sad but it is time to leave, to say goodbye to this place, but so many faces, colours, smells, foods, habits are in my mind, I have the impression to have catch more then I have given. And so many questions: Who is going to plant our 3096 plants after 6 months? Will the lady came back to seed her rice-fields? Will Roset become a doctor? Will "my" students learn to have a conversation in English? We will see!