Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Have I Got a Story to Tell!

Baseball and a Bottle of Red Wine

I got to the ballpark just in time to watch the end of morning workouts for the Cambodian National Baseball Team. The coaches were in the field hitting flies to the outfielders, the infielders were taking fielding practice, the water buffalo were grazing in the outfield, and Joe Cook, the man who brought baseball to Kampuchea (Cambodia) was standing behind the cage with a big smile on his face.

Joe left Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Wounded by a landmine and hiding from those who would have shot him on the spot, he reached Thailand and eventually made it all the way to Dothan, Alabama where he works as a cook in a Japanese restaurant. The locals didn't take to his Khmer name, so they just call him Joe Cook.

Joe fell in love with baseball and decided it was a great sport to bring home. He's spent everything he has made, and could borrow to develop this league. He has a few teams across the country and they play every day. 2-3 games a day take place at the rough field he built next to a rice paddy and behind a small village about 35 kilometers north of Kampong Chnang.

It wasn't easy to get there from where I work in Siem Reap. I took a 6 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, spent the night at my cozy little hotel on the water front and hired a driver to take me on the 2 1/2 hour drive north to find Joe and the Cambodian Boys of Summer. (Actually Boys of Summer is a misnomer, since you can play every day of the year here.)

It cost me $180 to make the trip. $10 for the bus and $170 for the driver, Mr. Ryvann. Now there is another story in Mr. Ryvann. As we left downtown Phnom Penh he and I were talking, exchanging our resumes so to speak, and he said he had another friend from California he drove all the time, and asked if I knew Asad Rahman. I was speechless. As many of you know, Asad and I work together helping Aki Ra at the Landmine Museum.

My mother was right. Always be on your best behaviour. You never know when you will run into someone you know.

Anyway, Mr. Ryvann is a also a major in the Cambodian Air Force. He flies small planes, Cessnas and the like. But the Cambodian Air Force is grounded. They don't have enough money to keep the small fleet of planes, including 22 Mig 21s in the air. But he does still get his pay. $75 a month. That's why he is also a taxi driver.

We got to the field at 10:30 and I finally got a chance to meet Joe. I also got a chance to meet a couple of really great coaches who came all the way from California at their own cost to help the team. Tom Dill is the coach of the Notre Dame High School Baseball Team in Sherman Oaks, California. (He is a USC fan, so I didn't have too big a heart attack when I saw Joe wearing an ND hat). Tony Rondinella is a friend of his who couldn't wait to come over here and help Joe. They brought over 5 bags of equipment including gloves, hats and bats and balls. I brought over 80 t-shirts from the Dodgers, 175 balls from the Angels and 24 from the Palm Springs Power.

I forgot to bring my hat, so Joe gave me an extra one they had laying around. It said ND in big white print on the front. I looked at the hat. I looked at the cloudless sky, and decided the sunburn would go away faster than any pictures of me in that hat.

The balls were a good idea. The ones they were using were missing covers and beginning to unravel. Joe's built a pretty good backstop and that helps keep most of the balls out of the rice paddy that stands directly behind the field. But these guys can hit. And they sure can foul them off. It's fun to sit and watch the little kids chase balls. It's just like at a PS Power game. As soon as that ball goes behind the field or into the nearby lake, the kids are off as fast as they can to bring it back. But they do it for a different reason. If they run out of balls here, they quit playing. Ain't no Big 5 down the street. The nearest place to get balls is Bangkok. Or from supporters who are traveling over from the states.

The ground rules here a little different. Time is automatically called whenever a moto (motor bike), water buffalo, or buffalo cart passes through right field (See the picture at the top of the post). The field encompasses part of the village road, you see.

I guess the main thing you want to know is can these guys play ball. Yep. They play pretty darn good ball. They don't have the arm speed that American kids would have, but remember, we play ball from the age of 6 or 7 in the US and Canada. Most of these kids hadn't seen a baseball until they were in their teens.

The pitchers are throwing in the 70's and low 80's (they had a gun on them at the All Asia Games last year in Thailand). And they've got a catcher who is really good. I never saw him miss a throw, he blocks the plate well and can make the throw to second as good as anyone I've seen. The infielders are handling the ball pretty well and these kids took to coaching like a fish to water.

Tom and Tony watched them play a bit and realized the pitchers had no pick-off move at all. And the kids thought you stole on every play. It was a pretty wild game. Tom spent the morning working with the pitchers on pick-offs and when they started the game after lunch, you would have thought they'd been doing it all their life. Even picking off a guy trying to steal second.

I had to leave at 4pm since highway 5 is not very safe after dark, and it being monsoon season, we had a good chance of getting caught in the rain. And in a monsoon rain, you can't see more than a few hundred feet in front of you. Not good on a 2 lane road with pedestrians, motos, trucks, horse-carts, water buffalo, and cattle headed home. Not to mention the occasional chicken crossing the road.

We got back to Phnom Penh just as the sun was going down, and I went through my pictures. I can't wait to get back to see these guys again. I'm meeting Tom and Tony in LA when I get back and I'll bring some more of their equipment over in August.

A Bottle of Red
Friday afternoon, taking the bus to Phnom Penh, I got another one of those phone calls that stop your heart.

We had just pulled over for our potty stop in Kampong Thom when I got a call from the CMAA.

As you know, we've been working with the CMAA for most of the last year to certify CSHD as a demining company. We completed our registration in May and have been awaiting completion of CMAA's review of our demining application.

I took the call.

The signing ceremony for CSHD was to be held on Monday, 23 June at 10am at CMAA headquarters in Phnom Penh.

They wanted to know if I could be there with Aki Ra.

We'd be there if we had to walk naked.

I wasn't really dressed for a formal ceremony. Khaki cargo pants and a khaki shirt. I'd spent a good part of Sunday trying to find a nice shirt and maybe some better slacks, but everyone had Khmer sizes, not barrang sizes. Aki Ra had the biggest smile I've seen.

We met with HE, Mr. Sam Sotha and his staff and he and Aki Ra signed our 'Provisional Demining Certificate". It's good for 6 months. By then we need to secure formal certification, which will come after field inspectors from CMAA determine that CSHD is following their SOPs and conduction operations 'the right way'.

Then we opened a bottle of wine and toasted everyone.

It only took 30 minutes to sign the documents and take the pictures.

It only took years to get there.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cambodian Self Help Demining EXISTS!!

Ever log on and look at your emails and your stomach drops? You see an email in front of you that you've been expecting but you're not sure exactly what it's gonna say?

I got one like that this morning. It simply said Accreditation Board Decision on CSHD.

It's what we had been waiting to hear about for almost a year. It said:

...the CMAA Accreditation Board ha(s) decided to provide the CSHD with the provisional Accreditation and from now the CSHD can start your activities in the fields...

Cambodian Self Help Demining exists.

As many of you know, Aki Ra had been deimining for over 15 years when he was requird to stop his activities and become certified. He stopped his demining activities a year ago. We've been working working with him to get his new NGO, CSHD registered (we got that on 28 May), and certified.

What does that mean, he got 'provisional' certification?

It means that we can start raising money, since we actually have a deminng company to fund.

It means we can start training deminers, since we actually have a demining company that can employ them.

And it means that we can start our demining program.

Aki Ra has letters from village chiefs all over the country asking him to clear their fields and villages. He has more than enough work to keep him busy for a long long time, I am sorry to say.

We'll spend the next few weeks buying the equipment we need, and training our deminers in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that we've developed over the last few months.

We will need to be inspected by the CMAA after we get into the field to insure that we are indeed following our SOPs and that we have all the equipment we need to do the job the right way.

We'll do it the right way. We promise.

I can't begin to explain how momentous this is. For years Aki Ra did his work 'under the table'. Then 2 years ago CMAA started requiring all deminers to be certified. Aki Ra wasn't and it didn't look like it would happen at all. Up stepped a dedicated group of supporters from all over the world, Bomber and Roy and the VVMCT from Austrailia, the CLMMRF from Canada, Project Enlighten from the USA, Phil from the UK, and the Landmine Relief Fund from the US.

I promised Aki Ra a year ago I would work to get him registered and certified. With the help of all the other groups, dozen, hundreds of supporters around the world, I came here in September to see how the process worked. After Aki Ra took his last bomb disposal class in the UK, I came back in 2008. Except for the months of February and May, I've been here all year. And we've been working and waiting to see this process through.

And there's been a lot of waiting. A lot.

We still have much more to do. No one will be satisfied until CSHD gets their 'final' certification. That will come only after the team is field tested by CMAA. That's what all the training is for now. To make sure we are ready for CMAA's 'cert-test.'

A little aside, if I may. I was riding down the main street of Siem Reap with Sao the other day and we saw an ambulance rush into the hospital just up the street. Sao heard later it was a 'bomb hunter' who'd lost both arms and a leg when he was trying to pull a UXO out of the ground so he could sell the metal for scrap. He did it wrong and it cost him not just his arms and a leg, but his life. He died the next day.

This is why we do what we do. This is why Aki Ra can't wait to get back to the field.

This is why we need your support!

I WILL be posting again soon.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Every 4 minutes for 10 years

A bomb was dropped on Cambodia every 4 minutes for 10 years.

Just think about that for a minute.

Whether that bombing was intentional, accidental, or simply a 'dump' is pretty irrelevant. The country is still suffering the consequences.

Many of the bombs dispersed what we call cluster munitions. Those are hundreds of small 'bomblets' that cover the ground and are supposed to explode on impact. Problem is they often don't. And they lay their for years and years until someone steps on it, picks it up, or hits it with rock or stick.

And don't you just love the name: bomblets. Sounds so cute. But they are landmines just as sure as the ones that are planted by hand or machine. And they are just as dangerous.

I met a 15 year old boy last week. He'd just lost his hand to a landmine he'd found in a field. It was Russian I think, and it was small enough that when he held it in his hand and it went off it only blew off one hand, injured the other and disfigured his face.

He didn't bleed out. He got some medical help quickly and now he lives with some friends of mine who are helping him recover and move on with his life. And this happens all the time, all over the country.

Well, enough of that. I've been traveling a bit the last week or so. I was in Phnom Penh for the last 2 days and it really is a busy place. It's the rainy season but it's only rained about 3 times the entire time Ive been here. And even then it only rained for less than 30 minutes. My friends tell me it used to rain so much that the river would overflow leaving fish flopping on the riverbank and in the road. Now the river seldom overflows.

For the past few years it seems to be raining less and less during the rainy season.

It's a beautiful country and the people are just amazing. They work like crazy. Stores are open seven days a week. I have to look at my calendar to figure out if it's the weekend or a weekday. But they are very family oriented. On holidays it seems like the whole nation is moving from place to another. It may just be from one end of town to another - to visit Grandma, or it may be from one side of the the country to another, to visit Grandma - but they are gonna visit Grandma.

And everyone is smiling. All the time. I've been in a lot of countries, first and third world, East and West where no one smiles. Life is a grind and everyone dwells on it. Not here. Life is certainly a grind, but people enjoy what they have. And that's a lot to say when you have so little.

Well, more to come soon.