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Thursday, 19 October 2006

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

Written by Alice Beban
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teamTo 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.

The riders raised funds in their own countries to support American Assistance for Cambodia, Japan Relief for Cambodia, and to build The PEPY Ride School. Since then, The PEPY Ride has raised over $100,000 for organizations supporting educational projects.

childrenMost of the riders knew little about Cambodia when we began the ride, but by the end of the journey we had all fallen in love with the country and its people. We all agreed that meeting the local people was the highlight of the ride.

 

We encountered some quizzical looks from locals when we appeared in villagestraffic on our heavily-laden bikes, clad in lycra cycling gear, but the overwhelming memories for the riders were the encouraging shouts and waves we received from the people we passed. Hordes of children running by the roadside; shouts from people picking crops in the fields, and waves from young boys in coconut trees became our fuel as we spread the message of environmental and health education across the county.

We visited more than twenty schools and orphanages over the six-week tour to present environmental and health lessons to rural schoolchildren. The lessons involved games about the importance of protecting the environment, a bilingual book published by ‘Save Cambodia’s Wildlife’, and a bracelet-making activity that reminded the children about different aspects of the environment around them.

 

schoolWhen we first pulled up to a school, the kids would run around us giggling, not sure whether they should talk or run away. However, it didn’t take them long to come out of their shells. Soon they were helping us sand and varnish desks, paint a giant mural on the school walls, and build a greenhouse and garden as they sang us the latest Cambodian pop song. My highlight was watching a group of first graders brush their teeth for the first time in the health lesson. One little boy brushed his tongue continuously for three minutes!


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.


kidsThe team began our journey in Siem Reap, cycled up to the Thai border, back down the Tonle Sap Lake and down to the South coast region where we crossed the border into Vietnam to complete the ride. As we travelled south, the weather became hotter, and we started our biking days at 5.30am to beat the heat. Keeping hydrated in the tough conditions was a challenge, but luckily bunches of juicy, green coconuts were never far away, and the riders paused every few hours for a drink stop and a carbohydrate-loaded meal of rice and noodles.

Despite the rough roads with giant potholes that we had to negotiate in the northern part of the country, and the dust that could not be flushed out of chains and gears, we sustained only two punctures and some minor bike problems on the road. riding Most of the time the cycling was heavenly, the worst ailment to hit us was a nasty stomach flu. There were a couple of days I had stomach cramps most of the night and didn’t think I’d be able to get out of bed. That’s when it was incredible to have a team behind you – we all got each other to the end somehow.

 

The PEPY ride is one of a whole raft of exciting projects set up by the PEPY organisation, which has grown in leaps and bounds to become a centre funding and implementing health and education programmes around the country.

PEPY aims to raise awareness of the serious issues currently affecting Cambodia, both amongst Cambodian children, and also for people in other countries. They believe that problems of deforestation brought about by illegal logging, poaching, waste management, and health issues such as mosquito and water-borne diseases, and HIV, must be addressed so that the next generation of Cambodian children can grow up to appreciate the beauty of their country.

author and girlThe ride was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had, and I am definitely bringing my whole family from New Zealand for a volunteer trip next year. There’s something special about Cambodia. There are still the remnants of its horrific past, and you can still see the pain etched on some people’s faces, but they also have a great sense of humour and are incredible friendly.

Over 80 volunteers from 14 countries have visited a PEPY-supported school to work on educational and building projects since last year. The next PEPY Ride School Volunteer Trip will run from December 23-30, 2006. The volunteers take part in children’s health classes and English lessons, planting the gardens, sanding desks, and even constructing rainwater catchment tanks. There is also time for sightseeing on the volunteer tours, and the highlight is always a day spent biking around the Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap.

yogaIf you would like to take part in a PEPY volunteer vacation, or to donate to the NGO, please visit their website: www.pepyride.org

©Alice Beban

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012