I’ve now had two days of coaching the Battambang and Kampong Speu teams here in Battambang, and it has been a phenomenal experience so far. It’s hard to believe I’ve only been in Cambodia for three days; it feels like it’s been three weeks given all the vibrant, amazing people I’ve met and wonderful experiences I’ve had coaching these women.

The Drive
My colleague, Didier, and I drove five hours from Phnom Penh to Battambang on Sunday after I’d registered zero minutes of sleep on my first night in the country (that after a 27 hour flight… ouch). In spite of my exhaustion, I was blown away by the endless beauty I saw on our trek. This is the greenest place I’ve ever been – and that’s saying a lot for a guy from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. From rice paddies to jungle trees to mossy bogs, vegetation blankets every square inch of visible space that’s not a road, a house or a cleared area of dirt. The only non-green things dotting the roadside landscape are skinny cows and chickens as well as the occasional massive water buffalo.

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A typical view of the Cambodian landscape on the road to Battambang

Constantly interrupting my nature-fueled reverie was an endless stream of frighteningly arbitrary traffic patterns on the two lane highway on which we were traveling. Cars, trucks and motor scooters (lots and lots of motor scooters) wove at random between the two oncoming lanes. One truck is passing another by using the oncoming lane while a scooter is coming straight at it? No problem, the scooter will just swerve off the road without slowing down, somehow maintain control, and veer back onto the pavement without showing a glimmer of annoyance at almost being obliterated in a head-on collision. When I commented on the fact that Cambodian drivers might be even crazier than their Afghan counterparts, Didier responded in his Belgian accent, “If you follow the rules of the road here, you are dead.” Good advice.

The Weather
I came into this trip expecting some pretty helacious heat and humidity, especially given that I’d be spending most of my days on outdoor basketball courts. I’ve been incredibly lucky, though, in that this has actually been one of the coolest few days of the entire year. It’s the rainy season, which means it rains at least a couple times per day, but we’ve only had one big storm; the rest of the time it’s been periodic light rain that doesn’t last long and dries quickly. It’s also been in the low-to-mid 80s every day – much cooler than usual here. The humidity is still crazy, and I’m sweating through a couple shirts each day, but given the alternative, I have no complaints. I have to assume this cool period is going to end at some point while I’m here and I’ll get indoctrinated into what a Cambodian summer is really like.

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One minute before this picture was taken, Didier and I were enjoying a pleasant and dry lunch on a restaurant’s (thankfully) covered patio

The People
The people here are extremely friendly and welcoming. I get a few curious stares from the scooter drivers of Battambang as they dart past me, but the looks are never suspicious or malevolent like I’m used to in some areas of Afghanistan (to be clear, Afghans are wonderful, welcoming people as well, but a bit wary of western strangers at times).

The expatriates I’m working with here are truly a cast of characters and also fantastic people across the board. Didier Coorman runs the ICRC’s orthopedic activities in Cambodia and is a very mellow guy who’s spent the last 15-plus years doing humanitarian work in a variety of very intense developing countries. He’s been in Cambodia for a bit over a year and loves it here – it’s understandable that it would feel like a paradise after years of operating in places openly at war. Didier is about to get married and his soon-to-be-bride, Rukhshona, is from Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan.

Chris Minko is the head of the CNVLD, the NGO that organizes the basketball teams here and has previously had great success building a standing volleyball league for amputees; one that eventually took a silver medal at the world championships! Chris is an Australian who’s spent the last 17 years working to establish disability sports programs in Cambodia. He’s also a professional musician who is the chief songwriter and guitarist in the up-and-coming band, Krom, which tackles heavy subjects like sex trafficking in Southeast Asia through hauntingly beautiful acoustic guitar and vocal arrangements. Chris is one of the more interesting people I’ve met in my travels; I’ll definitely be writing more about him in the future.

On the first day of training, I arrived at the court and everyone realized at once that we didn’t have an interpreter to help me communicate with the players. Luckily the team’s manager, Sochan, knew a woman who happened to be available on 15 minutes’ notice, and she’s been phenomenal. Her name is Mary and she’s originally from the Philippines, but is married to a Khmer guy here in Cambodia and has become fluent in the language over her 10 years living here. Given that she has zero background in basketball, she’s picked up the concepts incredibly quickly and made them easily relatable to the players, even instructing them on techniques without me being present at a few points. She makes my job a great deal easier.

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Mary and Chris pose with signed copies of Chris’s band Krom’s CD

The Players
I’ve had such a fantastic first two days working with the 28 players from Battambang and Kampong Speu (mixed into two groups based on experience and ability) that it’s hard to put into words how much their energy and enthusiasm is infecting me. I’m pretty exhausted after traveling so far and having very little recovery time, but the second I get on the court with these women and see their smiles and excitement, the tiredness fades instantly away.

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Learning to pass and having fun doing it!

Much like my experience with the Afghan women’s players, the Cambodians are dealing with a very challenging socio-economic environment that marginalizes women and people with disabilities and, also like the Afghans, they are pioneers in pushing for different lives than their culture expects them to accept. The main difference here, though, is that the players don’t have the same reticence at the beginning. A few are shy, of course, but by and large, they were laughing and openly enthusiastic from the very beginning.

Another new experience I’m having here is working with several players who have disabilities that partially or fully incapacitate one of their arms. This means they’re learning to play basketball in a wheelchair while pushing both wheels and controlling the ball all with a single arm. And they’re doing it! It’s a truly unbelievable display of human perseverance and I find myself staring open-mouthed several times each practice at the things they’re able to do. This afternoon, Chirap, one of the one-armed players, made her first free throw attempt during a scrimmage game and all the players on the court and watching from the sidelines erupted in cheers. The beaming smile on her face when I gave her a celebratory high five (another skill I just taught them!) absolutely melted my heart. The amazing thing is that was one of probably ten such moments in just the first two days. There’s still so much more joy to come.

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Helping Vichara, who only has use of one arm, tighten one of the straps on her chair

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Teaching Phualla how to pick up the ball while moving in her chair