Volunteer Jaime first came to Wat Opot accompanied by Josh (a.k.a. Big Josh) who first came to Wat Opot in July 2015. As the unyet medically undocumented Wat Opot fever overtook Josh, as it has done with so many, he returned again and finally gave up and found a job in Cambodia so he could be closer to us – there could be no other reason of course… Josh and Jaime work together and as you can read below, Josh has infected Jaime with Wat Opot fever. And as many of our repeat volunteers know, with no cure in sight, the only treatment is to visit again and again.
Jaime wrote the below post after a few short visits:
I don’t believe in love at first sight when it comes to people, but I do when it comes to places. From the moment I stepped out of the tuk tuk which had rattled us for two hours from Phnom Penh, and looked around the big open spaces of Wat Opot, with its spread out clutter of dorms, tiny wats, ponds, dorms and eating areas, I felt almost immediately at home and at peace.
And that was before I even met the kids. The amazing, wonderful, boisterous, eclectic, life affirming kids.
My reason for being at Wat Opot was a huge stroke of luck. I have lived in Cambodia for a year now, working with two other children-focused NGOs, and we recently hired Josh, all the way from New Zealand. From the very first time we spoke to him, he had said one of the reasons he wanted to move to Cambodia was to be near Wat Opot, where he had volunteered three times and felt like one of their family. I knew I had to go and from the moment I arrived I knew somehow that I was meant to be there.
As I work full time in Phnom Penh and can only offer my time at weekends, I decided the best way to be of use was to try and train the kids in boxing. I took a punchbag down and some gloves, with the theory that this might channel natural teenage boisterousness into a more disciplined direction. Though I may just be teaching them how to punch each other more painfully.
The boxing was great, but the fun didn’t stop there. There were games of football, art classes, meditation, a weekly talent show, reading with the kids, climbing a local mountain to an ancient temple, running around gleefully in a deluge of rain and generally messing around with some of the most fun and lovely kids and young people you could ever meet.
I could talk about the kids forever. There’s the 3 year old, always hungry, and armed with a sweet giggle and polite English which ensures he can almost always get what he wants. There’s the ever grinning football fanatic, brimming with friendliness and enthusiasm. There are the three brothers, with angelic faces concealing occasionally demonic mischievousness. There’s the confident, swaggering young woman who quickly named me “baboo” for my freakishly hairy arms.
And there’s the remarkable young man who built himself a little house with little more than some corrugated iron, chicken wire, planks of wood he had found and his own ingenuity. When I realized he had also wired it up so it had light and a fan so he could sleep in it, I was gobsmacked. All of the kids are unique individuals and the fact they have been given the space and encouragement to become themselves is a huge testament to the work of the amazing staff and volunteer team.
What makes these kids and this place all the more extraordinary is that many of them have been HIV positive since birth, and others lost their parents to AIDS. Yet they are brought up together with kids who are negative and are fully integrated into the local community – many of whom kept dropping by all weekend long. In a country where I have already learnt in my previous work that HIV education is almost non existent and stigma incredibly strong, these kids are taught to accept and love themselves and each other. It’s a beautiful thing.
I didn’t always know which kids were positive and which weren’t (partly because they are all so boisterous and healthy due to the miracle of modern medicine) though if I’d wanted to know they’d have told me. They’ve all dealt with traumas and don’t face an easy life ahead, in all likelihood, but the spirit and strength this beautiful huge family has given them will surely help them as they wrestle with the difficulties of their past and future. And Wat Opot is itself a gorgeous and utterly peaceful sanctuary, a perfect place to be a kid, full of hidden corners and ponds and abundant wildlife. Perhaps one reason I fell so in love with it was because it reminded me of my own wild rural childhood, 10,000 kilometres away in the North of England.
For me, the most profound moment was a private ceremony at the beautiful temple next door. When Wat Opot was first started there were no HIV medications and it was essentially a place for people to come and die in as much peace as possible (it is now, more than almost anywhere I know, a place for people to live). The Buddhist establishment of the time shunned people with HIV and AIDS in those early days – except for one local monk who challenged this thinking, asked if this was what Buddha would do if he were here today, and won. He provided a hugely important role in helping through those original tragedies and is now back at the Wat. He led a simple but beautiful ceremony for the kids of Wat Opot (and Ben the dog) and it was an honour to be able to thank him for his compassion and bravery later.
I have spent just two weekends there but I know I will be back very, very often, right up until the point they tell me that actually they’ve seen enough of me, thanks. There is no other place like it in the world.
Thanks Jaime! And we are happy to have you!
Thanks for stopping in!