Byron Bay resident and teacher Andrea Darvill recently cycled 445km in a fundraiser for the Somaly Mam foundation. This is her story.
I had not planned on a cycle tour, it was my first, I’d never been to Vietnam and Cambodia and hadn’t been on a group tour since the 1980s. But I was back teaching English at a high school in Hong Kong (again, unplanned) and knew the one way to cope was to get away for the 12-day Lunar New Year.
When I saw a poster for the trip, and the dates of the trip coincided with my school holidays, a big ‘Yes!’ went off in my head like an old-fashioned light bulb.
The trip was a fundraiser to raise awareness for the Somaly Mam Foundation for girls who had been brutalised and sold, sometimes because of dire poverty, by family members to brothels who treated them like caged slaves.
I’d never heard of Somaly Mam. I borrowed her memoir from someone on the trip so that what I was doing had meaning. I almost wish I hadn’t read the book and watched her Youtube videos instead (I highly recommend Stop The Traffik – Somaly Mam) because once gruesome details get in my head I can’t get them out.
But I thought, if she was brave enough to survive what only can be described as brutal torture, then I could be brave enough to read about it.
I knew what Somaly had been through and her determination and perseverance to help out every girl in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that was subject to the same torture. So, on day three when my bum went numb, and on day twelve when I almost collapsed with heat stroke and on day four when I almost careened into a tree, I knew why I was out there pushing myself to the limit.
Our group of Aussie, Brit and Canadian global citizens was out there connecting with the land and the people.
Our presence, with many of the cyclists wearing Stop The Traffik cycle shirts, in out-of-the-way places where we’d stop to chat with villagers and play with the kids (and suck back coconut juice and pour ice water down our tops), gave our guides the chance to tell them what we were doing.
The villagers were always so pleased that we cared about their people.
Our Cambodian guides were some of the most beautiful souls you could meet anywhere in the world. When we went to visit one of the shelters to meet the girls, we introduced ourselves, laughed with them, and sang and danced (of course Gangnam style!) and went on a tour of the facilities, buying some of the beautiful handicrafts the girls had learned how to make.
But at the end, the girls sang a mournful song in Khmer, the local language, and when one of our guides, Cham, was translating, he broke down because what they were saying, about being betrayed by their own mothers, was so heart-breaking.
As for what they had suffered at the hands of men, I think Cham, one of the sweetest most loving souls I’ve ever met, wept out of sadness that some males in his country would think it’s okay to treat women like this.
We were told to keep the visit cheerful, understandably so as these girls had seen enough pain and tears.
But it felt like the most natural thing in the world for us all to swarm in and start hugging as many girls as we could fit under our arms and cry and sob with them, stroking their hair and faces, some ravaged by AIDS that they’d contracted from the men who had brutalised them.
It was a life changing moment for many of us, a feeling of no separation as we told them over and over that they were beautiful, that they were strong, that we would love them and protect them.
We also told them that we would go back to our countries and ask our kind and generous friends and people of our communities to learn about their plight and to donate to our cycling cause so that they would have a safe haven, so they could learn skills to get jobs and support themselves.
One of the girls gave a speech to thank us for caring about them and it was full of such genuine gratitude.
This is the promise I’ll keep. One Billion Rising is all about these girls. A few of us on the cycle trip performed the One Billion Rising dance for the girls and told them that it was for them and all the women and girls around the world who are changing their destiny and being empowered.
Somaly Mam is always busy but she left her beloved girls at the shelter to come and thank us.
She said, ‘there are so many layers to this onion: corruption, poverty, ignorance, lack of education etc but all I can focus on is rescuing and giving a new life to one girl at a time’.
That is the only approach one can take for anything without going insane.
In Sarawak, I asked the guesthouse for two garbage bags and filled them to the brim with plastic that washed up on the beach every night with high tide.
I looked around at the piles and piles I hadn’t picked up and I almost had my first anxiety attack. It was comforting to go to sleep and know that at least, maybe one marine animal, one little turtle would not end its life choking on a plastic bag because I’d picked it up.
Maybe if we focus on one girl, one abused child, one turtle or whale, one SPCA animal while we tackle the underlying rotten structure that contributes to the problem, we will get there. Many of them suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
Anyway, it stuck with me. I call it the Schindler’s List Syndrome, remember at the end of the movie?
Fundraising has been harder than cycling 445km in humidity and heat.
If in the future you want to see changes in legislation, or the justice system because of Somaly Mam’s influence and love and determination, then follow her on Youtube. She will be speaking in Sydney soon. She is a hard-working warrior for change.
Light a candle and send out heartfelt healing to these girls. Remember: ‘there but for the grace of the birth lottery go I’, or our daughters and nieces.
If you’d like to help with my little square of the quilt of humanitarian work, the site is: www.simplygiving.com/AndreaDarvill