That time I went to Cambodia and worked in the Best Job Ever, and then felt really sad when the time came to leave it and find less-good employment by Rosa Borg
Some friends just come to you fast, and in the case of everyone working at the Cambodian Handicraft Association, this was definitely true of our bonds. My three-month project with the organisation was flying by, and whenever I stopped to think about this, I was amazed by how normal the job had come to feel and how close I was to the staff. When did our relationships turn from the constructed small talk of first meetings to these genuine fun and easy friendships? I seriously couldn’t remember how or when it was that I had become a part of ‘the team’ but it had happened. The female artisans had accepted me into their circle so seamlessly that not even I (the acceptee) had noticed. And you really know you’ve made it when you become the butt of an open joke.
The jibes became a frequent part of our workday, which were always full to the brim with conversation and laughter. I feel the language barrier gave the artisans an upper hand – seeing as I was the only one in the workroom who did not speak their mother tongue of Khmer, I was a vulnerable and often ignorant target of jokes. But hey, I was happy to assume this role. It solidified the sense of being part of their crew, showing that we were completely comfortable in one another’s company. Humour is great like that. One of the ladies’ main gags centered around me being a thief (a ‘jow’ in Khmer) for constantly going in and out of the supplies cabinet to source materials. What can I say? That place was Heaven. The second was in reference to me being a ‘crazy girl’ for my in-work antics and love of dancing in public. Both these jibes were beyond hilarious to all the members. Let’s say they were an easy crowd.
It also became obvious that central to CHA’s aims as an organisation was simply to see everyone have a good time, volunteers included. So despite working on a bare bones budget (or maybe because of this), lighthearted fun was essential to the CHA culture. This meant directors Kim Tha and Thaily went to great lengths to give me a true taste of Cambodian life, ranging from extravagant birthday celebrations, the sampling of local foods, attending a wedding, and being given running commentary on the meanings of Cambodian pop songs. One such cultural experience was spending a day in the village where CHA’s weaving partners live and work. Fascinating, intricate stuff that really puts the price of silk into perspective. I (jokingly) asked the weavers if they could teach me to become a master of silk making, and they said yes, though that I would have to come and live with them for three months. They were jesting, I presumed. In hindsight, knowing the openness of the Cambodian culture, I am pretty sure one of the women is expecting me to move in with her shortly. Whoops.
The final extravagance shown to me at CHA involved my ‘graduation’ from the training programme. Being told of this pending event about two weeks before I was set to leave Cambodia, I presumed it was something comparable to what we New Zealanders call a ‘going away party’. But no, Cambodian equivalents are far more exciting. The graduation was organised for my final night at CHA, and I started to sense this thing was going to be big when I learnt that all associates of the organisation, people I had met once for one minute, had been invited. During the day leading up to the party, the ladies headed off into their rooms intermittently, returning to the workshop with a full face of make-up and braided hair-dos. The directors told me the CHA headquarters would take two hours to transform into the party setting, so I headed home to doll myself up to a level equivalent to my sparkling colleagues. I returned to find a feast of foods, decorations and giggling, excited partygoers. Finally the ceremony kicked off with director Kim Tha offering a really lovely, really long speech in Khmer about my time at CHA. Certificates were handed out. A million photos were taken. And the most delightful moment came when Kim Tha performed a popular Cambodian song in which he had changed the lyrics to include my name, Rosaria. Man, I have really made it, I thought. Eating, laughing and dancing ensued, and the tirelessness of the ladies’ inner party animals meant no one was allowed to leave the dance floor until the party officially ended at 10:30pm. A great rule, and something I will be enforcing at all future events.
And it is this crowd of joyous, tireless ladies who have left the most lasting impression on me since the product development project wrapped up before Christmas. My time with the Cambodian Handicraft Association was such a fun and humbling experience, which was only made possible by the warmth of the CHA staff and the generosity of Trade Aid. No superlatives fit the bill when I try to explain how much I have learnt from these outstanding people, not only in a practical sense but also (queue tears) in spirit. So thinking of the women of CHA, with their great attitudes and tight sisterhood, continuing to learn and work and generally have a ball is such a pleasure, and a clear demonstration of the value of Trade Aid’s partnerships. I am so excited to see where this organisation goes from here, and hopeful that my time with them has been of some sort of benefit to their invaluable and truly remarkable work. And there is absolutely no doubt that I will look back on this experience in years to come and continue to think ‘loy mehn tehn’ – “that was just so cool.”