Saturday, July 2, 2011

Living on Stilts

I recently arrived in Cambodia to work with a group called Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC).  For the next month, I will be living in a small fishing village on the island of Koh Rong.  If you want to do a virtual flyby, then you can go to Google Maps or Google Earth and paste the following coordinates: 10.711382,103.309227.  Zoom in to see the village.  I'm in the second to last house on the boardwalk.  Today I'm on the mainland, so I thought that I'd take advantage of the internet access and make a quick post about my first week and why I am here. 

Fishing Village on Koh Rong
The island of Koh Rong has a few small villages; I'm living in the largest village, which has about 200 people, most of whom live in houses on stilts.  Cambodia sold the island to a developer from China and it is destined for development.  The village lacks plumbing.  Water comes from rain and a few wells on the island and all waste, human and otherwise, goes directly into the sea.  Some people have generators and have power at night.  The power is probably most obvious in the 3 bars in the village and we use a generator at night to provide some light (it's absolutely deafening, however). There are probably 8 stores on the island (most people seem to be selling something from their home), but many of the people fish for a living. The island also has cell phone service and almost everybody has a cell phone. I guess with 4 billion cell phone contracts in the world, the chances are pretty high that folks on a remote fishing village in Cambodia would also be connected.  
View from MCC house
Toilets here are the squat type and showers are with a bucket of rainwater. (On the mainland the toilets are mostly the same, but they have a sprayer similar to your kitchen sink instead of toilet paper).  I didn't expect bars, stores, and cell phones on the island or that the island would be anything but peaceful.  Despite its small size, it is the noisiest  place that I have ever lived.  Dozens of fishing boats start up at 4am (many of these boats are fishermen that come to the village to dock, but do not live on the island), roosters crow all of the time and dogs fight throughout the day (yes, there are dogs and cats all over this village on stilts -- no, they are not exactly house broken...).
Regional fishing boats tied together waiting out an oncoming storm
 Needless to say, I wake up very early.  I wake up early because it's nearly impossible to sleep through the noise and in part because our local cook begins lighting a charcoal stove in the kitchen right next to my bed.

Our Kitchen
Around this time, my room fills up with smoke and I have to climb out from my mosquito net and escape to the outside for some air.   In case you didn't know, according to the World Health Organization cooking with charcoal and similar materials is thought to be the fourth worst health risk in developing countries and the cause of millions of deaths from resulting respiratory disease.

There are currently 5 people on the island working with Marine Conservation Cambodia, but there are many more living on a nearby island working on a project that has been running for a few years.  On Koh Rong, there is a German intern, a Canadian dive instructor, a British math teacher, an Italian student, and myself.   Our house has a bathroom, a kitchen a room for our local helpers, and three bedrooms, two with bunk beds. 

The MCC House (we climb down the ladder to get into our boat)
It is the rainy season and I was expecting a lot of rain and very hot and humid conditions.  It's definitely hot and humid, but I thought it would be much worse.  It has not been raining too much.  Most of the rain has come at night, but there have been a few storms that lasted all day. 
Village in a rainstorm as seen from my bedroom window

Outside of the village, most of the island is dense jungle full of snakes (cobra, king cobra, vipers, etc), so there has been very little development until recently.  The owner of the island has started building roads and there is a plan to put in an airstrip.  The oncoming development, if not done properly, will lead to considerable environmental degradation and severe disruption of the village and the villagers' culture. The goal of MCC is to encourage this development to be environmentally friendly, culturally sensitive, and beneficial to the villagers.


Marine Conservation Cambodia has been working to preserve the villages, the culture of the villages, the reefs and the jungles on and around the islands.  They have been working on an island nearby for a few years, but the project on Koh Rong is only a few months old.  A number of goals have already been met by MCC.  For example, the villages on the islands were registered with the government, so that the people could not be evicted by the developers.  In addition, a number of rare and threatened species (e.g. sea horses) have been documented on the island, which has helped build a case for conservation. Data have been collected by volunteers regarding the reefs and seagrass beds around the island and areas have been designated for preservation.  Ultimately, the goal is to set aside some portions around the islands as marine protected areas.  Furthermore, on Koh Rong Samloem, the inhabited island nearby, the villages have evicted fishermen that were using destructive fishing habits and who were unwilling to stop.  In addition, the villagers now patrol their own waters and fine or kick-out unauthorized fishermen (e.g., Vietnamese fishermen) or boats using destructive fishing methods.  The island that I am on has not been investigated nearly as well.  The locations of the reefs and seagrass beds are not well known and the diversity has not been well-documented.  My role on the island will be to help collect data on the reefs and help identify areas that may need the most preservation.  I may also try to help document birds that are on the islands.  Plus, I will train other volunteers to collect data (in fact, although I don't know the local reefs, I had to start training other volunteers as soon as I arrived because there was no training in place).  Both islands are also involved in teaching local children some English.  Teaching English to the kids is something that I was initially uncomfortable with because it seems to be disrupting the Khmer culture and a classic form of Westernizing the population; however, the reality is that these islands are soon to be developed and overrun with tourists.  There doesn't seem to be any way around that.  For the locals to have a chance at getting jobs as their island changes, they will have to be able to speak English.  It is an unfortunate reality and the change is coming fast. Fortunately, the kids really love learning English!  They show up early and they stay late.  It's pretty amazing how fast they learn.  By contrast, I'm picking up Khmer at a pitifully slow pace. But, it is a real challenge to teach a language to someone when you can't talk to them in their own language first. It would be like walking into a Spanish class where the instructor could not speak any English. 

I have made a few dives since I have arrived to get familiar with the reef and to train other volunteers how to recognize sponges, hard corals and soft corals, etc. The visibility has been pretty bad (4-5 meters), so pointing out fish to identify has been challenging.  Most of the divers here blame the trawlers in the area, but there is a lot of waste entering the water too, so I think that may be contributing to algal blooms.  We hope to begin forming a plan this coming week to collect preliminary data on the health of the reefs near the villages.  From what I can tell, some of the reefs are very nice, but others are in rough shape. I haven't seen a seahorse yet, but I hope to see at least one before I go.  I'll end this long-winded post with a few pics of what I've seen on my dives so far. 
A nudibranch next to a long-spined urchin.  Is this the front or the back?
Another tiny nudibranch
A couple of curled up Crinoids
Coral Clams (very common on the reefs here, but new to me)
An Anemone Fish in an anemone (this was a first for me to see!)
A large anemone.  If you know me, then you know I like taking pictures of anemones. There were fields of these on one reef.
A sea cucumber on a barrel sponge.  They are often found on these sponges here.

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