12,585 km so far.
Before you read this post, go get a glass of water. Hydration is important folks! Hop to. I’m waiting…
OK. How long did that take? 15 seconds? 20?
Great. Now look into that glass. I bet you’re staring into a lovely clear glass of water. You’re probably not wondering if it’s going to make you sick, either. Or if it’s going to kill your children.
Holding that thought in your mind, let’s begin.
10 Wells For 10 Families
Today, Mr Heang is driving us to a village to visit the 201st well to be built by 10 Wells For 10 Families (yup, they kind of exceeded their initial goal). A friend in LA introduced us to the project which was started by an Australian of Cambodian descent just over a year ago.
For Allan’s 29th Birthday, instead of splurging money on a party, he rallied his family and friends to raise money for 10 Wells for 10 Families in Cambodia. Within the first 3 days he was already sitting on 21 wells and in just 2 weeks the total number of wells was at 50 wells. Right before the clock struck midnight on his birthday-eve he reached a whopping 100 wells!
People are amazing. Right?
As we drive along the red dirt and gravel road, my eyes can’t get enough of the wooden houses teetering high on theirs stilts. In the shade of these homes, there are people working, playing, or just lounging in hammocks.
We get to see a lot of rural life on our riding days, but even so, what we’re seeing today is something new. Usually, we stick to paved roads which tend to be fairly main routes. This road is remote enough that the sound of our car lifts the heads of everyone one the roadside.
We wave and smile as we rush past, feeling like animals behind glass, strangely cut off from all that is happening outside our windows. Its unusual to be moving so quickly, so I try to speed up my brain so I don’t miss anything.
There is no sign of electricity at these houses. Some people, we know, will power their lights or a small TV for a few hours in the evening by means of a car battery. Many just do without, waking, working, and sleeping as daylight permits.
There is, of course, no running water either, and as we drive, I ask Mr. Heang how the people get water if they don’t have a well. One of the main sources is through rainwater collection, he tells us. We have seen the large ceramic pots for water collection all along our routes, so this is no surprise. But it’s dry season, and we have only had rain once in more than a month.
Some people drink from canals or irrigation ditches, and many dig their own wells. Without any specialist equipment or knowledge, the best they can dig are shallow, often open pits, full of murky water and easily contaminated.
Planes, Trains, And Ox Carts
After 40 minutes of red dirt road, we have gone as far as we can by car.
The man who owns the house where the well is being dug has offered to give us a lift the rest of the way. On his ox cart. Of course, we feel odd about this, since we’re sure the man and his oxen have better things to do than drive us around.
As we wait for our ride, we stand in the shade of a house by the road. The woman who lives here makes baskets and floor mats for a living. Her workshop is under her house, and I ask if it’s OK to nose around and take a few pictures.
When we spot the ox cart trundling across the dry fields toward us, a cloud of dust forming in its wake, I discover I am kind of excited to get my very first ox cart ride. The owner rolls out a brand new woven mat for us to sit on, and we climb aboard, leaving our legs dangling over the edge.
Turns out, riding an ox cart is harder than it looks. The bamboo mat on which we sit is slippery, the cart is completely flat, and every time we roll over one of the prodigious holes or mounds in the road, the cart teeters from side to side. As we rattle and bump along, I hold on with clawed hands.
I really don’t want to be the ridiculous farang who slid right off the cart into the dirt.
Can U Dig It?
At the well site, just outside another little house, the contractor and his small team are already hard at work, digging the shaft.
All of the 10 Wells projects are dug by hand, because it’s much cheaper than digging with machinery. It’s also a more nimble set-up, with equipment that can more easily be carted across the countryside via motorcycle.
The two men twist lift drop twist lift drop twist the heavy drill in the hot morning sun. It looks like thirsty work. By the time we arrive, they are close to breaking through to the water table.
They dig deeper and deeper, until they feel the final push through to fresh water. As soon as a stream of clear cool water shoots out of the small hole, they know they have gone deep enough.
Now, they’re ready for the next step.
The concrete platform will be poured this afternoon, and the whole well and pump mechanism assembled before the team leaves today. The hard part, Mr Heang says, is getting families to wait for three days until the concrete is set before they use the well.
Since we happen to be here today, this is “our” well. We have contributed enough for one well for one family, and it feels good to know that we have been able to help make life a little easier for a few people. We would like to do more though.
The family we visited today are a married couple with four children, three of whom have already moved from home.
It is amazing, if a little awkward, to be invited into their home and allowed to take pictures freely.
I am fascinated by the kitchen, which consists of two fires that sit near the back of the house and a small covered table where all of the food prep is done.
While we watch, the husband and wife prepare some green mango salad, fresh fish cooked in chillies and fish paste, and plates of rice.
All the while, dogs, ducks, and chickens scrabble around underfoot, vying for any fallen crumb.
Once lunch is ready, the kitten who has been sleeping in the shade of the main house jumps down and starts mewing, begging for her share.
We leave the group to their meal and wander around the surrounding land.
Along the river, men stand chest-high in the water, holding bundled-up fishing nets. They are absolutely still, waiting. When one spots a fish, he flings his net towards it. It spreads out wide, floating across the water, and then, quick as anything, he gathers it back in. Inside is a big wriggling silvery fish. Job done, the man pulls himself up onto the riverbank and heads for home.
We spy a woman walking along a ridge between two rice paddies. As she approaches the river, she hikes up her skirt and walks right on in. On our side of the river, her path continues, and after waving and sharing a joke with the guys who are fishing, she climbs back out of the water and keeps on walking.
At a little stand of trees, four boys practice their slingshot technique. They load up the slings with a small rock, eyeing imaginary prey in the trees, and then let fly. With a thwack, the rock hits a leaf or twig, and the boys shout with glee. One of them is more than happy to show off for us, but the others give us suspicious looks and wander away when I pull out the camera.
Nearby, a young woman sits in the shade of her house, weaving a shallow basket. A scrawny dog with four young pups shares the shade with her. When we come close, the dog stands up, a few pups still attached to her teats, and growls a warning at us. But one puppy is curious and comes running out to greet us. Stephen can’t resist giving it a little snuggle.
Each well built by 10 Wells is given to an individual family, instead of an entire community. This way, one family is responsible for well maintenance and fixing any problems that may occur. But, people from the surrounding community – the nun who lives near the road, the men fishing in the river, the boys with their slingshots, and the woman making baskets – will all be able to use the water from it.
Not only will it give them access to a safe source of drinking water, Mr Heang tells us, but it will also allow them to maintain better sanitary conditions and grow more food on their property. Most importantly, it will free up time for the families, so they can concentrate on work or school. Or maybe they’ll have a little time for fun.
One Well At A Time
Too soon, it is time to leave these friendly people and their little slice of rural Cambodia. When Mr. Heang asks us what we think of the house and the way the people live, I have to think for a minute.
“I know it’s a hard life,” I say, “but it also seems like a nice life. People here are connected to the earth and each other in a way we are not back home. They are much more a part of the land and the place they live.”
Thanks to Allan and Heang, and the generous donors who have made more than 200 new wells possible, maybe life will be a little less hard for a few families in Cambodia.