This past weekend, our long and winding road came to a brief halt when we put down temporary roots in a hostel in Northern California in order to learn about our ultimate destination for 2010 – Cambodia.
While the purpose of this two-month trip has been to experience the U.S. from the road, our travel schedule had a timing element to it since the day we left Marblehead – to be here by April 8 for the VIA orientation program.
The original plan had been to drive all the way here but, due to the unexpected halt in our progress in Las Vegas, we left our car with friends there and flew into the Bay area.
For the past three days, we have been immersed in information and introductions to an overwhelming volume of details…the coordinators and management of VIA (Volunteers In Asia), the other volunteers travelling with us this summer, our posts in Phnom Penh and the places we’ll be living in once we leave the comforts of home.
It began on Friday afternoon when we arrived at the hostel and were directed to our respective living quarters – Skip with the other seven men and me with a roomful of 16 women hunkering down in bunk beds – then proceeded to cook together and churn out mountains of pasta and sauce which could have fed the entire population of Mae Sae.
There’s nothing like food to break the ice among people who don’t know one another and, during the cooking process, we discovered that everyone was from a different part of the country and that we were in the company of an extraordinary group of (mostly young) people who were keen, bright and engaging.
There was Philip, a burly chap from Dallas who’d been living in Vietnam for several years working in IT; Mateo, a San Francisco native who had the mind and wit of Robin Williams; Caroline, a spunky, attractive blonde from North Carolina; Ingrid from Massachusetts presently attending Stanford University; Kaela from Wisconsin who’d just flown in from Hong Kong with her unicycle, Meghan from Colorado (pictured) planning on doing a Masters degree in international studies….and many more.
We also spent time with Lillian, a VIA employee, who will be our coordinator in Phnom Penh and who flew in from Cambodia for the week to conduct the training along with Anjali and Jon from the San Francisco head office.
While much of the weekend was spent learning about the nuts and bolts – What will be covered by the provided health insurance? What inoculations may we need? What is the goal of VIA in Asia? What do we pack? How much money do we need? How much do we get paid? What’s involved in our post? – a lot of time was also spent in ice-breaker exercises and interactive games which were designed to teach us about foreign cultures and how to integrate ourselves in a new country.
On Saturday, we met the founder, Dwight Clarke, who told us how he started VIA 47 years ago when he was Dean of the Freshman Dormitory at Stanford University. It initially began as a small group of his friends who felt they wanted to contribute their services to developing countries and then, in 1963, during the Vietnam war, became a popular way for young men to avoid the draft by donating 2 years of their time doing voluntary service overseas.
By the time we wrapped up on Sunday afternoon, our heads were reeling from a plethora of information but our souls were soaring. We kept pinching ourselves that this was really happening and that, within 10 weeks, we’ll be using our one-way tickets to step into a new life.
So what were the main elements of the weekend? I’d say we both feel several things:
· We’re really happy to be going to Phnom Penh. From the conversations we’ve had about Cambodia, it seems to be a wonderful country and the capital city is culturally diverse. While we want to be immersed in a new way of life, we get the feeling that we’ll also be able to experience some of the familiarities of home – such as finding English-language books, eating in diverse restaurants and meeting other expats if we want to have conversations in our native tongue.
· We are also happy to have been assigned to posts with non-profit organizations. Since most of the posts are English teaching positions, we feel our work environments will be more suited to our backgrounds and expertise. And for me, the sentiment was endorsed when I heard that most of the classrooms are not air-conditioned! (in temps of 90 degrees plus, the idea of working without cool air is not my idea of fun)
· We received a lot more information about our posts. The volunteers presently working in our positions provided us with detailed reports about their experiences and Skip’s predecessor was very upbeat and provided lots of creative details about life in the city. I was also told my post comes with a motor bike! However, since I’ve never ridden one in my life and hear horror tales about the dangers of Phnom Penh streets, I don’t intend making use of this “perk”
· We found out that there is no urgency in finding a place to live. When we arrive in Phnom Penh, we will be put up in a guest house for the first 4 weeks doing intensive training in our work roles then doing language training (yes, we have to learn Khmer!). During the language training we’ll have a lot of free time and can also get help from a realtor about finding the ideal living accommodation.
· We know more about what to pack. This cross-country trip has been a great dress rehearsal as I’ve discovered my entire wardrobe for 4 weeks has consisted of two pair of jeans, one pair of boots and about 8 different tops. Going to Cambodia, we’re told, will not require much – particularly since the humid climate tends to destroy clothing – and we can get clothes made there in the local (climate-ready) fabrics that will be a fraction of the price.
So, we’re a few steps closer to being prepared for the next steps. We’ve met our colleagues, had many of our questions answered and even ordered Khmer language CDs on Amazon so we can practice as we drive across America.
Not sure if they’ll appreciate our words of Khmer in Montana.
But we’re determined and raring to go!