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This is the TLC 1 Blog from Jenny Shepherd on the first of her two journeys with the crew in September and October.

I have been working as a TEFL teacher for many years and have made 3 previous visits to Cambodia. In 2006 I worked as a volunteer for four months with Mieko Morgan (Jon's wife) and Nhean Sakhem in the Capacity Building and Health Education Program alongside the Angkor Hospital for Children.

SEPTEMBER 22nd – 24th 2009
I awake to the sound of thunderously tipping water but I am not even out on the boat yet. It is 4.40am and a cool tropical rainstorm is battering its way onto the world around me. By 6.00am the rain has lessened and Sothot miraculously arrives to pick us up from our room. We arrive at the office where Sambon (Doc), Savann (Nurse) and Kim (Midwife) are waiting and we quickly load the plastic boxes of drugs and huge heavy blue diesel containers into the back of the land cruiser before setting off on a rainy road to Kampong Khleang.

TLC-1 looks a little different to how I remember her as she now has an extended top deck. This is going to make for more comfort and space for all on board. We unload and whilst I am deciding where to tidily dump my stuff, Aly starts up the engine which keeps misfiring. It takes a little time to put right. I am unaware at this stage that this is a common occurrence that is always eventually sorted out successfully – and with humour!

Aly is a very competent pilot and appears to know this part of the Lake well. She comes from the village where we are heading, Moat Klas (Mouth of the Tiger) which is 3 hours away and she knows the shortcuts to take when the weather is rough on the lake.
I am entranced by the vista around me, as we get further away from land. Rackemesque trees push their way up through the water and swathes of bright green plants float in untidy batches. This is where many of the wild birds breed and also where some of the lake snakes can be found. I feel like I have arrived in a lost world and I just want to keep looking and listening, drinking in the colours and smells; watching the shapes of branches, the silhouettes of small fishing canoes, the sudden swoop of a graceful two toned bird, and then I hear a voice saying lunch is ready! We are approaching Moat Klas where we will moor up alongside the Chief’s house.
Aly knows that I don’t eat meat and luckily she loves cooking fish in a variety of different ways. It is our first meal all together and she has cooked a delicious meal.
We are joined by two young VHV’s (Village Health Volunteers) who help Aly with the preparations and clearing up. My Khmer is hopeless and I am determined to learn more. Kim, who speaks little English, manages to tell me that my Khmer accent is very bad indeed and then bursts into merry laughter and I hoot along with her, knowing that my hearing was once much sharper and desperately watching her mouth as she speaks a Khmer word so I can imitate the sound better.

Srei Dai, the VHV who is acting Registrar moves fast after lunch to get everything that is needed off the boat and onto the large platform of the Chief’s house. He has the largest house in Moat Klas and it is certainly perfect for holding a clinic, though I am told that there has been an occasion when so many patients arrived that the house literally started tipping to one side and the Chief got rather cross and told those who had been treated to leave! Already many patients can be seen across the stretch of water heading towards us in their small boats, many clutching small babies who are wearing woolly hats. Women start arranging themselves on the floor once they have checked in with Srey Dai; there is little chatter amongst them though they watch curiously at everything going on around them.
photo one:
It is at this stage that I think I must get my camera, my books, pens, pencils, paper and paints and find a little space for myself, on the edge of the platform and gently see if I can entice any of the children to come and have a go at drawing, writing or learning some elementary English. The most immediately successful activity is the coloured chalk and black paper. Some want to show me how they can write one or two signs of the beautiful Khmer script, others want to show me that they can count 1,2, 3 in “Anglais” and then proceed to write the numbers. I notice a shy group of about 4 very stunning young teenagers who count very clearly to about 8 and can write 1 – 5 and they are certainly very keen to learn more.

Whilst the younger children are occupied with some cards, crayons and felt tips, I concentrate on these eager learners who copy, chant, repeat, write the words and numbers I am teaching them. There is so much fun and laughter that I don’t even notice till I try and stand up how very stiff my legs feel. I have managed to snap quite a few photos during the three hours; everyone seems happy about having their photo taken but I always ask just to make sure. The clinic is packing up and we leave most things carefully stacked up to one side, ready for our next morning’s work.
As I walk towards TLC 1, I notice the Chief’s daughter beckoning me to come and look at what is cooking in her tiny open plan kitchen. Small sardine like fish are smoking on a grill placed over the clay cooking pot that is full of glowing embers. On the floor is a large aluminium pot half full of a salty, stodgy whitish and very smelly mixture: of course it is prahok, the pungent Cambodian fish paste that is used as a seasoning on virtually everything. In fact, we eat some of this with our own evening meal at 6pm.

There is a wonderful tranquility. I love this time of day, especially after such a rewarding afternoon. Suddenly Srei Dai appears alongside TLC 1 in her blue painted canoe and beckons me, Mike and Sambon to get on board with her as she has something to show us. Good balance is necessary plus the right positioning for weight and with a cheerful grin and laugh from her, the propeller swings into action and we shoot down the lake towards what I am informed is the graveyard for those who die in the rainy season. It is a rather macabre sight: a wooden box wrapped in sheaths of shredding plastic which is roped to dividing branches near the top of a tree. When the water recedes, this sacred area becomes dry land and a proper burial can then take place. I think how difficult it must have been to have prepared and placed the coffin up there.
We speed back to our boat, chewing up clumps of the ubiquitous water hyacinths on the way, watching the sun begin its descent with a soft breeze on our faces.

Aly has prepared a feast for us all. There is much laughter around the table and Khmer joking. I am becoming deeply attached to rice and fish soup with lime and chilli. After supper we don’t go out on deck again because of the mosquitos but Savann has a meeting organized back in the Chief’s house with the 8 Village Health Volunteers. It is important to have this regular contact with them as Savann can monitor their work and teach them more about health education.

Wednesday 23rd September

At 5.45am we are up. It is another beautiful day. Kim hasn’t slept well and is like a cocoon under her mosquito net. Aly is already boiling water for the coffee and Sambon and Savann are up and dressed! They are expecting between 100-120 patients today so are tucking into a hearty breakfast of condensed milk sandwiches followed by packet noodles and the sweetest concoction of coffee. We skip the sandwiches but are delighted to have noodles. Kim is now up and showered and applying various creams to her face. I give her my new mascara and ten minutes later she looks gorgeously turned out and ready to start her work. Today, I place my gear beside the large rolled up fishing net and before I have even taken out the paper and pencils, a whole group of mothers with their children come and sit in front of me. An elderly lady whom I remember from yesterday’s clinic places herself firmly to my left. She remains there all morning watching with great interest and nodding frequently but does not want to be further involved.
Lots of children come and go, some clutching their small plastic packs of pills and accompanying card. The place is buzzing with activity: small children are sniffing, some crying, some quiet as they wait their turn to see Doctor or Nurse. Luckily, they are all rather happy when they get to me and they use the coloured pencils, felt tips and card with gusto. They sit around me screeching with laughter, (my Khmer pronunciation again!) as they learn their numbers and other useful words in “Anglais”.

We practise some writing and then they want to do some drawing. The morning passes quickly and with much enjoyment. I notice that Sambon, Mike and Savann have had a steady stream of patients to tend to. I have taken many photos, when I’ve been able to squeeze myself away from my spot and it’s good to see how happy the crowd seems by the medical care and attention.

There is a commotion by the moored up canoes and the three dogs are barking. The lunch boat is arriving, steered in by a Vietnamese lady. Huge pots of thick soup like mixtures are on offer today- probably everyday, as I know that there is not much variety in the diet here on the Lake.

We start packing up and re-loading onto TLC 1. Aly has food all prepared on the table and we are all very hungry; her cooking is once more a triumph. The VHV’s clear away whilst Aly starts the engine and we depart for Pecha Kraiy. This is about an hour away but there is talk of us stopping in deep water to have a swim. It is so hot and the lake looks incredibly inviting that by the time we have moored up to a half drowned tree I am ready to jump in. However, Sambon and Savann beat us to it and wearing red life jackets, they land in the water with enormous splashes having jumped from the top deck. The water is silky warm and exhilarating. We are squealing and laughing with the delight of it all and it is exactly what is needed after the hard work that Sambon, Savann and Mike have put in. I never think for a moment about the water snakes!
Thoroughly refreshed we are once more on deck, showered and dressed for the next clinic. This is a much smaller floating village with around 70-80 families and as we pull in to the now redundant school house, there are already quite a few men, women and children arriving around the edge of the small building.

The VHV’s are amazingly efficient and the clinic is set up in the tiny room where a sad array of unused, stacked up desks are rusting in the corner. It is stiflingly hot inside and I quickly search for a convenient spot where children can sit around me. Whilst I am getting myself organized, the medical consultations are already in action and Aly is grilling pork on a small barbeque just outside the room. A shy and charming little boy of about 10 comes to sit on my left and he wants to try everything. There are a few male teenagers who cannot quite manage to join me but observe every detail of what is being said, written, drawn or made. I get out my fabulous fast dye paints and paintbrushes and off we go. The young fellow is thrilled and the paints are clearly new to him. It is wonderful to watch him so totally absorbed in creating a beautifully coloured flower in a pot – so unlike the usual uniform way of drawing a flower that I am used to seeing drawn here. As more children come and go and the clinic is nearing an end, I notice an elderly looking man hovering and I gently gesture to him to come and sit with me. He laughs and then sits down and eagerly takes some coloured pencils (not the paints I notice), and very carefully he draws a flower. His wife stands beaming. When he seems happy with the finished drawing he looks at me and with a warm smile hands me his picture. I thank him abundantly and give him in return a large wodge of paper and some pencils. He is the village Chief.
Back on our faithful boat we are once more ready to leave for our next destination where we will moor up for the night.
It is that beautiful time of early evening and we sit out on the bow of the boat keenly looking out for birds. All is peaceful. We chat to Sambon and Savann until a rather ominous sound tells us that all is not well with the engine. Several new spark plugs later, together with a clearing of the filter, and we are able to reach our new mooring position at Steng Chroy.

We seem to be completely immersed in succulence! The thick glossy green leaves of the water hyacinth are laid out like a carpet around us. We are tucked away from the main part of the village, moored to a turquoise painted floating school house that is not in use any more. This village and Pcha Kraiy once had a teacher who taught up to third grade but the conditions of living on the lake, together with the isolation and low salary quickly put an end to a future career for teacher and children. It is obvious from the keenness and ability that the children have shown, that this is a need that deserves to be fulfilled. Some children from the wealthier families in Moat Klas are lucky enough to stay with relatives on land and attend the local school but for the majority, especially in these smaller and more inaccessible floating villages, this is not a viable option and without a resident teacher, even for a part of the year, their learning is greatly curtailed, though happily not their yearning to learn! The children here grow up learning other things though, like how to work the nets on the Lake. Like generations before them, these children become skilled at an early age at handling the small fishing boats or canoes and gain a knowledge, probably unparalleled, about the catch, the monsoon and the seasonal flow of the river.

Thursday September 24th
We sleep well once more under our colourful mosquito net, rocked by the gentle movement of the water. I slide out carefully from our bunk so as not to disturb Kim who is finally sleeping deeply. I head towards the shower and happily spray cold water all over myself trying to keep it off the closed loo seat. I have worked out a method for placing my dry sarong in the fold of the curtain but knowing where to put my towel is a different matter but I get more proficient each time I do this! Clean, cold water is a great way to start the day and I feel refreshed when I emerge and definitely ready for the steaming mug of coffee that Aly has already prepared. Kim is now stirring and I lay out a different cream for her to try. She is more interested in her own white cream for her face but happily takes my lavender oil and lavishly applies it to herself. I offer Aly some cream for her face but she shakes her head and giggles. I have been learning some Vietnamese words with her and she tells me my accent is excellent so this is greatly encouraging and I think I will learn some more! No doubt I will get fearfully muddled as I try and say “delicious food” to her in Vietnamese and then Khmer, especially as I will fail with my Khmer pronunciation.
I am enjoying my breakfast noodles when Kim suddenly calls me over to her and asks me to take some photos of her on her own and also with me. Certainly, I reply and get my camera to the ready. We chuckle away as I have to get Mike to help out here! Soon she is tucking into her condensed milk sandwich and looking happy. She will be with her family by the end of the day and she tells me she misses her children, and her husband.
Steng Chraiy, which means Deep River, is another small village of roughly 80 families. It is a very poor village and quite remote. There are a few floating houses alongside the old school house and I notice that on the pontoon nearby, there are several women pounding fish and generally chatting amongst themselves whilst something steams away in a large pot. Under the platform adjacent to us is the fish farm. They are fed on tiny fish caught in the nets and they snap angrily and competitively when anything is chucked into their contained area. Apparently they grow quite enormous and are then sold for a good profit. The VHV, Srey Dai, tells me that of course the wild fish from the Lake taste much better and I whole-heartedly agree with her.
I notice in the house adjacent to the kitchen, a mother sitting beside her disabled child. Kim goes over to see them. I know that there is not much that can be done to stimulate these children with disabilities and I ponder on the impact that this must incur when all the resources are geared towards maximum fishing productivity.
The old school house is fortunately slightly larger than that in Pchai Kraiy as it has two rooms. Sambon is afforded more privacy with his patients (mainly adults) as he sets up his table in the smaller of the rooms. Mike and Savann are positioned in one corner and so I place myself near the door where I can see who is arriving.

Today, the Clinic is not busy. We believe that this is due to the fact that the villagers are out making the most of the morning’s fishing, which is vitally important to them. In fact fishing is very much a family affair with no-one left behind as everyone has some part to play.
For this family, however, there is a need for some medical attention. Lee, the 11 year old girl in the picture, spends some time with me. She has never seen paints in her life before and I have to show her how she can use the paintbrush and the different vibrant colours in various places on the paper and not just on top of each other! She shows me first how she can write some words in Khmer and then to my delight asks to write her name in “Anglais”. I teach her new words, which she then insists on writing down in both Khmer and English. She writes beautifully. She wants to draw me a picture. I am astonished at the difference between her writing and drawing skills but am also humbled by her desire to give me her work of art once finished.

It is the end of the Clinic. We pack up and Aly has prepared another delicious meal for us. My favourite green mango, chilli and lime salad is on the table and I place quantities of it on my plate together with the steamed rice and a slice of the fresh large fish that is the speciality of the day. How lucky we have been to be a part of these three days. My head is spinning with all the sensations that I have incurred and I feel an addiction coming on to TLC 1.
I have enjoyed talking to everyone: somehow, even with the paltry amount of Khmer that I can muster, there has been hugely enthusiastic and humorous communication amongst us all and a great deal of fun and laughter around the table at meal times and in between times. Sambon and Savann speak good English and so this is easy for us, but Kim and Aly are still learning but know more English than we know Khmer!
I can’t even remember now if the engine faltered once more on our journey back as I am just infused with the memories of those Clinics, the grace and charm of the patients and their families, the hospitality of the Chiefs of the Villages and the abundance of dedication and hard work given by the staff on TLC 1. The amount of hard work cannot be under-estimated, nor the vision of setting this whole project up and putting it so competently into action. There are some of us who have good ideas and some of us who are good at putting ideas into action but very few people have the ability to know what is needed and act on that knowledge, and are prepared to slog for months fundraising, persuading the right authorities of the need of proper medical aid for its people in these far removed floating fishing communities, and actually finally achieve what they had hoped for. This is how TLC 1 was born and now, a year into its life it is remarkable to see the benefits that have been incurred for all.
I simply cannot wait to head out again on TLC 1 with its crew next week. Thank you for having me.

Jenny, October 2009