Building Bridges… Or Toilets?

Challenging. Our ten days spent on Koh Rong have challenged our boundaries, altered our expectations and forced us to constantly question our intentions. We all know change is not easy. We all know change takes time. We all know change is a challenge.

The days crept by as we faced all these challenges head-on each and every day. Evaluating and re-evaluating what it is that we are trying to accomplish on the island. Do the islanders even want our help? Are we helping? All we know for certain is that we have ten days. Ten days to learn, do and grow as much as possible.

Time and again, these challenging questions are posed when embarking on a project. The project changes over and over again. You clear a site only to be told moments later it will be moved. You pick up garbage on a beach and watch more of it routinely roll into shore on the waves. You drag branches out of the forest in the pouring rain, the islanders watching half-interested while playing bingo and offering you whiskey. And just for good measure a stomach virus terrorizes a crew that have already been bearing the family of rats that routinely invade our dorm every night.

Yeah, we had our challenges.

Then something changes. The sun comes out. Some of the kids from the island come over and help you pick up garbage, learning the difference between a wrapper and a coconut shell. The Bingo connoisseurs have paused and are cleaning up the garbage surrounding their store. Better yet, we are all certified open water divers who don’t have to go through any more theory! In partnership with PADI Aware and Coral Cay Conservation we will dive back in with more knowledge about the reefs and eco systems we want to preserve. Small victories, yet all part of the bigger picture. This is what makes traveling as a crew of individuals who want to experience and engage with the world, rather than just tour it. Did I mention the stomach virus vanished?

The island of Koh Rong is one of the last of its kind- a dying breed of beauty and isolation. The size of Hong Kong, the island is home to roughly 300 locals. With plans for development in the not-so-distant future, the locals will be displaced in the name of tourism! Stretches of white sandy beaches with nothing touching their shores but the waves of the open ocean will be gone. After a hike to the other side of the island, the group found themselves in nothing short of paradise. Four shades of blue melted into one another until the ocean touched the horizon. Twelve kilometers of untouched, undeveloped and uninhabited paradise stretched before us and only us.

During our time here we discovered the development plans for the island and the displacement of the locals in the next 15-25 years. We learnt of the corruption on the island stemming from mainland politics and developers. As a result we came to better understand and appreciate the lack of ownership or incentive to develop or clean the area by the locals. We learnt Koh Rong was once primarily a haven for crab fisherman but after excessive catching and with the surrounding waters netted by commercial fishing, the islanders have settled for cleaning out the nets of the larger enterprises for a few dollars.

What else have we learnt? Well we studied the social dynamic of dog territories on the island. We have incinerated garbage. More importantly perhaps, we have taken the dimensions of the incinerator and its location with plans of further researching its benefits and vices in order to insure its use is actually in the best interest of the villagers. This experience has left us with more and more questions, and has hopefully left the locals with safer and more effective tools.

The main project on the island has been the construction of two new toilets. The toilets are – not incidentally – being constructed on the local policeman’s land (he determined that his land was the best place for the toilets). Yes, it took several meetings to filter through the social hierarchy of the village. Yes, we do need to be present almost constantly to ensure they are constructed. Yet, they are being built! The lack of enthusiasm surrounding a project that the village suggested is mind-boggling at best but to deem the project futile on account of this would diminish the small steps toward change. Or maybe we are missing part of the equation to understanding the situation…

Civilizations and societies can exist quite independent of luxuries or vanities. The construction of toilets, however, is one small step towards bridging that familiar gap of “us” and “them”. Often, coming into the dive shop to use the toilets here, the locals will now have their own! In fact, the toilets being constructed are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the ones being used by the dive shop. Now, the question is whether it is worthwhile to build the toilets when displacement is imminent. There is the possibility that these toilets will be used for one child’s entire life before he or she is displaced. By the age of 25, perhaps they will build new toilets in the new and improved village! I know I don’t like to plan too far into my future but 25 years is a long time to benefit from … just saying!

Idealistic? Naïve? Well, why not? Too often we approach challenges with a defeatist attitude, which is, in part, why they fail to improve or progress. Baby steps towards the changes we hope for while we are traveling and learning are better than no steps at all.

The most important thing I think we learnt is the need for change in our own societies. Our logging in North America, the commercial overfishing of our oceans above and beyond suggested quotas, our excessive ways of life and unlimited consumption habits are at the root of most problems on our earth and is often the source of our neighbor’s problems from around the world as well. Human development and environmental conservation go hand-in-hand on a global scale regardless of national boundaries.

Back on the pier now, the sun is setting and falling behind the hilly backdrop, where one tree stands much taller than the rest refusing to stop growing. A little girl in a pink dress is dancing on an old boat pulled up on the pier. Khmer karaoke music is blaring from the local hot spot. We hang on to the beauty of these moments and our lessons learnt as we head back home to where the changes really need to start – with ourselves.

I won’t even attempt to answer whether or not we are changing the world with our ambitions on Koh Rong. I will say that being here and wanting to do more is the sign of a step in the right direction. Grateful for the choice to be here, we will continue to face these challenges with resilience and a smile.

The SEA Eco Crew