On My Own In Asia/7
Greeneville native Marshall Harbison, 25, has returned to the U.S. and is now in Greeneville after a four-month solo backpacking journey, self-financed and self-directed, through several countries in Southeast Asia.
A daughter of Steve and Sally Harbison of this community and a 2010 graduate of Wofford College, she has been living and working in Atlanta for the last two years.
At various times during November, December and January, she shared highlights of her unusual journey with Greeneville Sun readers through a series of e-mailed columns sent from the countries to which the trip took her.
Now back at home for a while, she is continuing her series of columns based on notes and photos from her trip.
BY MARSHALL HARBISON
My first spell of illness began the day my friends Nico and Diego left for Vietnam, which also happened to be two days before Thanksgiving.
After the running water stopped working in the guest house where we had been staying, I decided it might be time for an upgrade -- to a place with air conditioning, cable TV and hot water. SCORE.
All of these things were very helpful, as I was stuck in the room for about five days. I'll spare you the details, but as it turned out, my affliction turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Once I was able to stumble out into the light of day, I found myself at a home-made noodle shop across the street. After all, I'd been ill. I didn't want to stray TOO far from my room -- just in case.
What first caught my eye about this noodle shop was the man at the stand, shaping noodles with his fingers. It reminded me of the Smoky Mountain Taffy shops in Gatlinburg -- so enticing!
As I sat down, I noticed that the walls were covered with pictures of happy children and signs that read, "Volunteer at Palm School of Tom Village. Ask Mr. Sombath."
I had been searching for volunteer opportunities during my time in Cambodia, but hadn't been able to find one that required less than a three-month commitment. Palm School, however, asked that English speakers help as long as they could.
So I decided to spend my final week in Cambodia as a volunteer to help teach English to the children of Palm School.
Mr. Sombath is from Tom Village in the Takeo Privince, which is in southern Cambodia, but now lives with his wife and two sons in Phnom Penh. Two years ago, he started a school in his home village that allows children from ages 5 to 18 to take English classes every day for free.
The school is made up of five classes of 180 students (from five different villages) and three teachers, all of whom speak minimal English.
He is trying to build up his volunteer program so the children have a better chance at learning the language and, therefore, have more opportunity to find jobs and potentially escape the cycle of poverty.
He has a few sponsors overseas who have allowed him to build three bamboo huts for classes (with two fans in each) and buy second-hand desks. Other than the few sponsors, Sombath advertises his charity in his restaurant and by word of mouth.
I decided to stay in the village to volunteer for only five days, since my Cambodian visa would end in one week.
The only people in the village (besides Sombath) who were able to speak some English were his niece, Xing Xing, and three of her friends.
Xing Xing rides her bicycle for 45 minutes to her high school every day, where she studies history, math and science. In addition, she takes English and Chinese lessons in order to become a tour guide at the Angkor Temples.
Xing Xing has only left her village on a few occasions when she was a young girl to attend the annual water festival in Phnom Penh. Though she has never had the luxury of visiting Angkor, I have no doubt that she will achieve her goal.
When she isn't studying, she helps her mother with the food stand her family runs outside their house.
The day after I arrived in Tom Village, two other volunteers joined me. Daniella is from Sweden and Steven is from Germany, but they met while working in Australia in 2011.
I was glad that they came, so we were able to teach every class; they taught two long classes together, while I taught three short ones.
My classes ranged from very beginning English to about intermediate English. We worked on vocabulary and sentence structure, but always ended with a game or a song. They especially loved Hangman and "If You're Happy and You Know It."
All of the students were involved in class activities and eager to read and answer questions. I even received notes from several, thanking me for teaching them.
My Thanksgiving was changed forever.