After waking up at 6am, we walked downstairs for a quick but tasty bacon and egg breakfast. We met our Tuk Tuk driver Bunna, and left at 7am for Salla Lavalla school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The ride there took 45 minutes of crazy Cambodian traffic, in which motorbikes clearly outnumbered cars and people cut in wherever they felt like. On the way there, Bunna told us that the school backed onto Prime Minister Hun Sen’s property. His helicopter flight to work flew right over the school of lower class students – a contrast that I didn’t want to accept. The propaganda for Hun Sen and his Cambodian People‘s Party was everywhere – every 100–200m was a sign with his photo, and there were local roads and high schools that were named after him.
We arrived at Salla Lavalla at school at 7:45 and met Brother Tony, Brother Brian and Brother Michael Herry. They were all Australian brothers and were lovely and welcoming. They explained to us the history of the school. It was established as a primary boarding school around 20 years ago to educate disabled Cambodian children, who otherwise would not have had an education – either as a result of poverty in the family or rejection from their family and friends for being disabled. Students had either heard about the school, been sought out by the Marist Brothers, or been recommended for the school by the school’s partner, a Cambodian provider of wheelchairs and other resources for disabled people. One of the most common cause of disability at the school was from when children’s arms got sucked into a clay compactor oven, whilst they were making bricks – this had occurred to 5 people in the school. If that had happened even once in Australia, I am certain there would’ve been a different response to just accepting it as reality.
Our Lady of Sacred Heart, a Marist school from Alice Springs had been helping the school for the last week and they were still there for a few more days. It is also difficult time for Salla Lavalla, as Brother Terry, the founder and head brother of the school, died back in Australia only a few weeks ago.
To begin our day, we spent two hours sanding the metal rafters of rust with scrapers; a job that was much tougher than it looked. After we had finished our two hours of sanding, and everyone shoulders were aching, we went to play with the children. There were games of hockey, soccer and throw and catch going on at the same time – I played throw and catch with a little 13 year old boy who had a prosthetic leg – an experience that really inspired me, as we both just had fun and didn’t even consider the fact that an able-bodied person was playing with a disabled child. After our game, we were able to swim in the school’s pool. Unfortunately, the children had just been in, but the 10 boys had heaps of fun playing Marco Polo, underwater challenges and just relaxing in the water. After our swim, lunch was served at midday and each of the Pilgrims sat at separate table with 4-5 disabled children.
Something that struck me for the second time this trip was the value these children placed upon education – there were kids from as far as Siem Reap and Battambang who lived at the school in order to learn. The girls I sat with at lunch were great and they even taught me some Khmer. At the end of lunch I met a 17 year old boy called Somang. He came from a province on the other side Cambodia to stay at the school, as one of his legs was missing from the knee down and he was missing a few fingers. He and I talked for a bit over lunch then he took me back to his classroom to keep chatting. Over the next 30 minutes I bonded with him over our shared passions for swimming, chicken curry, mango and Ford Mustangs. My experience talking to Somang strongly reinforced my belief that there are no boundaries for building relationships and that everyone is entitled to a level of dignity that is equal to anyone else.
At 1:30 we left Salla Lavalla exhausted, but delighted we had the opportunity to visit. At 4:00, we headed to the Central market of Phnom Penh. This was a very fun experience, as each of us got the opportunity to bargain our way down to a good price for gifts. The shopkeepers were very stubborn, but I challenged them with equal force. I also found that using an accent slightly helped and there were a few times where I got shouted out of stores for being a tough bargainer. After leaving the market with a lot of shopping, we headed out to Dining in the Dark, the restaurant that we were having dinner at. We ordered our food, and climbed the stairs to the dark room. The restaurant is run by blind people, and provides people with the experience of what a blind person sees every day– darkness. The options on the menu were an international, Khmer, vegetarian or the chefs choice three course meal. As we entered into the dark dining room, I was shocked – I had heard about this restaurant, but was unprepared for such a pitch black room. You could literally not see even your own arms in front of you, and the only way to sense things was through hearing, touch, taste, and smell. The experience was surreal and unique – it was amazing to think that blind people experience this reality every day of their lives and are able to live a relatively normal life. My Khmer entree arrived and it was delicious. You could still tell to a degree what the food was by tasting it but you weren’t 100% sure about it. You could feel spring rolls and rice paper rolls. Next, main course came out and it was a fried rice with some sort of fried vegetables. We all ate with our hands, which was unusual for most but I felt quite comfortable with it, having done it before. Dessert then came out and it was a berry yoghurt topped with fruit salad.
After eating, we went back downstairs into the reception for the restaurant and discovered what exactly we ate. I was surprised how accurate we were at guessing and that sight of food may sometimes be unnecessary and deceiving, as it is the taste that ultimately defines a food. Eating in the dark is an experience that I will keep with me for a long time, and I feel lucky to be able to have a healthy lifestyle and body as a result of doing it. After dinner, we caught Tuk Tuks back to Alibi and had our nightly reflection- tonight’s was centred on how our faith had changed during the immersion. Personally, I have been challenged by the horrific past of Cambodia and the inequality and poverty that still exists today, but at the same time, strengthened by the power of relationships and hope that has been demonstrated by the most marginalised people.