by Lola Akinmade
A sharp right hand turn off the paved main road, and we find ourselves trudging through muddy, unpaved back roads dozens of miles towards Krang Yaw, Cambodia. Bustling city activity and buildings are quickly replaced with seas of lush green rice fields. Worn out street bicycles replace motorbikes. We crane every which way, taking in the tall palm trees that rise starkly from the rice fields. It is early morning and farmers are already tending to their crops. A few fishermen are spotted on long canoes wading across shallow swamp lands, attempting to catch fish. Glancing starry-eyed at each other, we take it all in.
We were visiting the only primary school for miles. Crafts in tow included balloon animals, face painting, Easter egg shakers, and a couple soccer balls for impromptu games. Eager anticipation filled our modest van. We were looking forward to working with the kids, ranging in age from six to eight years old. Our prayers were laced with hopes of connecting with them through crafts they had probably never seen or heard of before.
The road becomes more challenging to navigate. Straw huts and homes on wooden stilts begin to emerge as we near our destination. Seconds from the school, a faceoff ensues with the kids. In the smallest little blue and white uniforms, they dot the landscape. They stare at the van as if it were an apparition, and then dart into their school yard once they realize what was happening. Small scampering feet welcomed us with giggles as we stepped off the bus. They epitomized cuteness.
Meandering from classroom to classroom, I observe volunteers at work, making balloon animals and painting little faces. Furiously shaking their new musical instruments shaped like plastic Easter eggs, the kids begin to sing and scream in the tiniest yet shrill voices. I beam and scan each child until I finally spot him. He grins at me with a smile that takes up half his small face with a little gap between his two front teeth. He is absolutely precious and instantly becomes my son.
A stroll into the village and a wave of life and smells overcomes us. We step back into a time where just living simply was all that really mattered. Beneath their stilt homes were pens of livestock. From sows and piglets, ducks and ducklings, to chickens and chicks, animal husbandry is one of their main sources of sustenance. Cattle sit lazily under tarps and observe the approaching intruders. Vegetable gardens emerge as we press on deeper, and enormous heads of the freshest lettuce grow from fertile land.
”Or Kun”, we thank the elders gleefully as permission to explore their village. They sense our excitement and lower their heads slightly in response. Sound of children’s laughter fills the air and we gravitate to the source only to arrive at the edge of the lake.
Wooden canoes lined its banks. The kids swim with reckless abandon in its murky green waters. Some use their balloon animals as flotation devices. They had been at our morning sessions. The little boys did back flips and cannon balls off the stern of canoes, making splashes as loud as their little bodies could. I spot my son. He peers out at me, neck deep and gives me a wide grin before disappearing beneath the surface like an alligator. I beam proudly.
We stroll by village women playing a card game, men swinging lazily in hammocks, and older villagers trying to decipher why we were here and how we got here. It was time to head back to the school and we leave the village like pied pipers with a swarm of kids trailing. They are still eager to show us every inch of their village.
More balloon animals were made and faces painted that afternoon. The little boys began exchanging their balloon swords for balloon flowers. Norm meant nothing here. Appreciating the simplest things in life summed up their existence in Krang Yaw. We quickly realized the unlimited bounds of energy first and second graders possessed, and keeping up seemed futile.
When it was time to go, the air felt denser. Our bags seemed a couple pounds heavier. Tiny pattering feet shadow large, heavy ones as we stroll back to our van. The ride back to Phnom Penh was somber. The lush green fields didn’t seem as captivating anymore. The beauty of the gorgeous floating lotus flowers seemed to wane.
A certain sadness filled me. I had left my son behind.
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Lola Akinmade is a photojournalist and writer whose work has appeared in various online and print magazines such as Vogue, Sherman’s Travel, and Travel Channel’s World Hum. She is also an editor with the Matador Network.
Cambodian girl: reeveb
All other photos: Author