How does hard manual labour, intense introspection, and pushing one’s physical limits fit into a “holiday?” And why would you do that with 22 other women you hardly know? Well, it may not have been a traditional holiday, but I recently returned from a housebuilding trip to Cambodia, through the Tabitha organisation and UWCSEA, and it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken.
The people of Cambodia have suffered incredibly. One can safely assume that every Cambodian over 45 years of age carries memories of watching their parents, their siblings, their friends, who were tortured and killed under the Khmer Rouge. You can see it in their faces, in the way they avoid eye contact, in the way many seem to flinch at sudden movements or loud noises.
But, they survived. And they make the most of what they have with grace and kindness. Those survivors now have children, and grandchildren, who are struggling every day, to raise themselves out of poverty. The families that I met had saved up for years, often meaning they had less to feed their families each night, so that they could eventually contribute $25 to a new house. We, the Tabitha builders, contributed the rest of the cost of each house, and spent two days building them, 20 houses in all.
When we arrived in the village, it was often hard to tell who was the homeowner and who was just a member of the village, because there were so many men, milling about, there to help. Meanwhile groups of women and children observed from a safe distance, with sometimes bemused smiles on their faces. The sense of community was striking. In fact, we learned that often members of the village contribute their own meagre savings to help another family get their house, reasoning that "She is a widow so she needs it more than me," or "He has elderly parents so he needs it more than me."
That said, I spent one morning working on a house where it was very clear who the homeowner was. As soon as my team of four arrived, he jumped up and ran over, hammer in hand. His elderly mother, his wife, and several children squatted in the dirt the entire day, intently watching us build, and he worked, barefooted, with no gloves or eye protection, tirelessly. He rarely raised his head except to politely and solemnly answer our questions (all through an interpreter), then would return his focus to building. We worked alongside him all day, in a constant cacophony of banging hammers. But finally, the last nail went in, and silence fell. We watched him step back to admire his house. The look of pride on his face - a true ear-to-ear smile - brought our entire team to tears. And that shared experience bonded us – four women who hardly knew each other a week ago - in a way that could never be repeated.
This was no typical Girls Weekend. We all left Cambodia exhausted, both physically and emotionally. But I left knowing that those beautiful people have a bright future, and will continue to rebuild, despite the hell they've been through. Most of all I was struck with gratitude that I – along with 22 other women whom I now consider friends - got to play a tiny part in their recovery.
The Khmer language is a tricky one - even the phrases for “hello” and “goodbye” are several words long, and we spent much of the trip asking each other, “Wait - how do you say ‘hello’ again?” But there was one word that we all knew - “Akun,” meaning “thank you.” And somehow, that was fitting. As we boarded our vans and drove away from the village, waving to the children, and watching the little green houses we’d built disappear in the distance, that was the word that filled my heart. Akun.