By Hallebeth Jones,
“ You can hear the stories, see the pictures and know the facts but is not until you see it with your own eyes, when you put a name to the face and witness their living conditions, that it truly sinks in that this is an atrocity and there is so much more to do.” - Ingrid Monaghan, Cycle 2017
There is a moment in your life when you find yourself in this impossible situation where against all odds you confronted with a way of life that you could never imagine being born to. The July holidays this year, myself and a group of 5 other courageous Loreto girls were faced with the challenge of riding 415km’s in the sweltering Cambodian heat for the opportunity to have our perspectives on life changed forever. Project futures connects people to the issue of human trafficking, slavery and exploitation by creating meaningful experiences that raise funds, educate and empower our generation to take action. The funds generated support established projects in the Asia-Pacific region that help prevent, support and empower those affected, which currently includes Australia and Cambodia. We were privileged to be a part of the Project Futures cycle challenge where we met victims and survivors of human trafficking and sex slavery.
We arrived in Siem Reap at the La Residence Blanc Hotel. The group of girls and their mothers all met together for the first time with our guide Poleak to be fitted for the bikes that would carry us for the next eight days. That night we were all taken to meet some survivors of trafficking at their businesses where they have started their new lives. At one of the AFESIP salons, run by survivors, we met Somali Mam. She is an inspirational woman who works as a powerful figure for change in Cambodia.
We were all greeted with an early morning rise and 5 am as we all hopped onto our tour bus and headed to Cambodia’s very famous temple, Angkor Wat, for the most beautiful sunrise. We then returned to our hotel and prepared to cycle. This day we travelled 30kms on our bikes around various temples learning about the history of Cambodian temples. At the end of our day, we arrived back at the hotel complaining of tired legs and sore bottoms. However, we soon found out that the day wasn’t quite over yet. At 7:40 pm, we headed to dinner. Shortly after this, we went to the Phare Circus, a not-for-profit organisation working toward creating futures for the kids of Cambodia.
Another day of exciting bike riding. We headed to Battambang where we had lunch at a social enterprise for lunch called Jaan Bai. We were excited to taste the traditional flavours of the Cambodian people which were so unlike our western food back home. We had dished of rice and beautifully cooked fish that melted in our mouths. We then cycled 30kms to the bamboo train where we got to ride this little cart through the rice paddy fields with the beautiful view of the country streaming past. We then headed onto the bus to watch the sun go down and the bats stream out by the millions at the local bat caves.
Our biggest shock today as we woke up around 7 am and started our ride through the villages of Cambodia at 8 am. We were met with smiling locals all along the ride with the kids running out of their homes to yell “Hello!”. It was very hard. Even though this was our first 75km day, all we could think of was how lucky we are back in Australia with our houses of brick, Netflix and internet. All the houses we saw whilst riding were small wooden structures with hard dirt floors. At the end of this day, We were tired but we had such a new sense of humility for the things we take for granted.
Another 75km’s were ridden on this day through villages and paddy fields. We were confronted yet again with the lives that these people are living and felt that even though they have so little it is evident that materials are not all that makes a person happy. We stopped at the end of our ride at a pottery village. We learnt what it was like to make pottery the traditional way with no machines to make it easy just your hands and your resourcefulness.
Our biggest day of riding where all of the girls had to pull together as a team to make it through. We rode 80km in up to 44-degree heat with nothing but determination and a portable speaker to keep us going. It was such a delight to ride through the villages with our music up high, singing at the top of our lungs to the locals that came out of their houses to see what was going on. We stopped at a local’s house for lunch where we met the most beautiful children. We taught them how to play duck, duck goose which was one thing I will never forget. Not one of our hosts spoke a word of English and yet a group of 6 girls were able to enjoy playing with their kids despite all language barriers.
Our shortest day in forever it seemed with only 65kms to endure. We rode all day with stops along the way. After around 40kms we stopped by an old school building to rest before we started again. Suddenly, I looked to my left to see a young Cambodian girl poke her head around the building to look at us. Some of the girls and I went over to the young girls to find a large group of your kids that had come to check us out. It was such an enriching experience as they spoke a little English to us that they had learnt at school.
Our last day of riding was surely one to remember. We cycled 60kms with only a few hills, but that was enough to get us puffing. At during the ride, we stopped at Kampot Pepper plantation where we learnt about how pepper is grown and the tedious responsibility to sort each grain by hand. We then hopped back on our bikes to ride the last of the kilometres. We were all so relieved to see the end of the road when our last kilometre ticked away. We made a guard of honour for the last rider at the end and were met with the largest group of locals we had ever seen.
Even though we had finished riding our journey was not finished yet. At around mid-day, we travelled out of Phnom Penh a few streets over from a brother. We were met by Somali Mam’s friend Sinna who introduced us to a group of young prostitutes. We sat across from them as they told us stories through Sinna’s translation. We were all so moved by the women who against all odds were so strong. We then helped Sinna hand out condoms and noodles to the women, who were all so grateful and so kind. They had their children running all around them and we were told that through the help of Project Futures all had their education paid for. We found that even though the women had been trafficked and forced into the lives they were living they still lived only to care for their children.
After we said goodbye to the ladies, we then went to an APHESIP centre where the young girls that are saved from brothels and sexual abuse live until they can be integrated back into society. Girls were ranging from 18 months to 18 years who had all been either in sex slavery or raped by family members. We dined with the girls on traditional Cambodian food and were shocked by hot spicy it was. I remember sitting next to this young girl around 6-7 years old who was just piling chillies onto her plate and enjoying them to her heart's content. After our meal, we then danced with the girls for about 3 hours and by the end of it were all red-faced but smiling and giggling our faces off. We left the centre with warmth in our hearts as the young girls yelled: “we love you sisters” at the tops of their lung.
I can honestly say that l can never look at life the same after the Project Futures cycle challenge. I have never been pushed so far and felt the emotions that the challenge brought to me. Cambodian people and children are the happiest people I have ever met and yet they live with so little. It was a profound moment in my life as I witnessed the contribution that Project Futures makes to improve the lives of the victims of trafficking that have endured trauma beyond the world's understanding.