Touch a Life

Mon 20 June 2011

My friend Michael asked me what was the most surprising thing I'd seen in Cambodia.   The thing that made the deepest impression on me was to see what  hunger and poverty really looks like.  That's not surprising - hunger is one of the oldest problems - but it was very humbling.

On one particular afternoon I visited to Kulen Mountain with three other people from the hospital.  Kulen Mountain is a half hour drive from Siem Reap. The top of the mountain was carved into a statue of a reclining Buddha, and further down the river flows over 1000+ carved fertility symbols.  The mountaintop is also home to  everyday people. We walked past their houses to climb up to the statue.

Kulen is a popular picnic spot with families.  You can rent a shady platform, and buy lunch from several vendors.  We ordered a good-sized meal, and bought coconut drinks to go with them.  The coconut sellers two children were with him. His son, maybe 10, helped him out, while his 3 year old daughter charmed everyone in sight.

We ate most of the food we ordered.  We could have brought the leftovers home, but it wasn't worth it.  After we got up, the coconut seller's son very carefully packed up the wreckage of our meal to eat later. I've never felt so humbled.

In April I met Mavis from Touch a Life. She runs, effectively, a soup kitchen for the trash pickers and cleanup ladies in Siem Reap.  The trash pickers are ubiquitous. I'd guess their ages are between 5 and 12. They comb through trash cans for cans, bottles, cardboard, and anything else that they can redeem for a little money.  The cleanup ladies, in their green smocks, sweep the streets and riverbanks every day.  Touch a Life feeds them lunch three days a week.  On Saturday, TAL delivers food packets to a village near Angkor Wat. They serve about 70 people per weekday, 310 each Saturday.

I spent several pleasant Saturdays in TAL's outdoor kitchen helping prepare the food.  There's a group of regular volunteers every week, as well as friends or travelers passing through Siem Reap.  I met people from all over the world: Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Netherlands, England, and the US.

The menu is always rice, an omlette with vegetables, and some soup.  The soup changes.  Kosal, the Cambodian manager, sometimes makes his own recipe and sometimes cooks favorites he learned from his mom.

The omeletts take longest, and are started first. Everyone peels, chops, and cracks eggs.

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We used 150 eggs, about half of this stack, every week.  Here's half of the omelette station:  a frying pan over a charcoal stove,  the giant vat of egg mix, a trusty spatula, and the ventilation fan.  Each omelette is cut up into 6 pieces, so we make about 50 in all.

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While the eggs are being cooked, the soup is prepared over propane burners. I never captured Kosol's recipes but they usually included ...

image2 ... chopped winter melon...

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... pineapple ...

image4... chilis ...

and tomatoes.  Meanwhile, batches of rice are cooked in the biggest rice cooker I've ever seen.  It takes three batches to cook all 40kgs.

By lunchtime, all the food is cooked or simmering.  After a break we wrap a bowlful of rice with a piece of omelette in a piece of waxed paper, like a burger.    Soup is doled out into baggies and tied shut.

Here's what 310 dinners looks like:

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A local company lends their jeep for delivery. The food takes up so much of the back that someone usually goes on a moto as well.  We make several stops in the village. TAL has a list of families it assists, each of whom they've met and confirmed the need.  We hand out 3-10 packets to each family, one per member.  Delivery takes about 3 hours, a little more if we sit out a rainstorm before going.  It's a long day, but worth it.

Category: Volunteering

Tags: cambodia / good causes / siem reap /