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Thursday, 19 October 2006

The PEPY Ride: Changing Cambodia's Future One Mile at a Time - Page 2

Written by Alice Beban
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To spread the message of ‘Protect the Earth, Protect yourself (PEPY)’ to schoolchildren across the country, myself and five other cyclists pedalled our way through Cambodia’s back roads for an epic 1600km journey this year. The 2006 PEPY cycling team hailed from Canada, USA, New Zealand, England and Finland, and came together to represent the Non-Governmental-Organisation ‘PEPY,’ which was founded two years ago by two American women: Daniela Papi and Greta Arnquist.

One school that PEPY supports is only two hours from Cambodia’s cultural treasure, the Angkor Wat Temples, though none of the children had ever been there. They came with us on the back of trucks, bouncing around in their brand new ‘PEPY school’ T-shirts. I was teamed up with a twelve-year-old girl named ‘Chorn’. She kept out of my way at first, and stared at me from behind her friend’s elbow, but as we started up the steps to the temple gate she gripped my hand, tighter and tighter as we climbed, until by the top she had both hands clutched around my wrist. We emerged into the sunlight and saw the lotus-covered ponds ahead, with Angkor Wat’s dome rising into the distance. Chorn’s mouth dropped.

temple‘Sa-at naaaa,’she breathed.

I flipped open my dictionary. ‘Sa-at.’ Beautiful. ‘Na.’ Very. ‘Sa-at naaa’, I tried to repeat.

Later, through a translator, Chorn told me about her family. She has no father, and her mother works in the forest collecting plants and fruits to sell. When I asked her about her future dreams, she told me she wanted to become a teacher so that she can make enough money to support her family.

As we were saying our goodbyes on the last day at the school, I felt a tug on my t-shirt. It was Chorn. She stared at me for a moment as though she wanted to say something. I didn’t know what to say, so I took her hand and gave it a squeeze. She smiled, reached up and pulled a clip from her hair – a red sparkling butterfly – and fastened it to my fringe.

 

‘Sa-at naaaa’, she smiled at me.

The ride was not just about teaching; we also visited a number of organizations to learn about the current issues in the country. One experience affected all of us particularly deeply: the visit to Steoung Mean Chay, the Phnom Penh garbage dump, where hundreds of people eke out an existence by scavenging amongst the trash. We met kids who lived their whole lives in the dump and had open, infected sores on their feet and round, malnourished bellies, but they would still smile and laugh. The experience was incredible, not just for the horror of human deprivation and environmental waste, but also the spark of life that was still evident in the peoples’ eyes.

We also spent time in the field with MAG, a de-mining organization, and many other volunteer groups around the country. The de-miners go into the fields with only a protective jacket and metal detector, clearing land mines so that people can walk freely around their land. One of the de-miners told us that her family tried to escape over the Thai border in the Khmer Rouge regime, but both her parents died in the attempt. Now she worked full-time clearing landmines, and believed that there were still about six million to clear before Cambodia would be free of this legacy of war.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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