Cambodia’s ‘Rubbish Man’ schools children — for trash

This photo taken on October 1, 2018 shows students sorting out salvaged plastic water bottles in front of a Cambodian flag made from recycled plastic materials at the Coconut School at Kirirom national park in Kampong Speu province. (AFP / TANG CHHIN SOTHY)
Updated 12 October 2018
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Cambodia’s ‘Rubbish Man’ schools children — for trash

  • Cambodian student Roeun Bunthon jots down notes during an English lesson at the “Rubbish School” where tuition is paid for with trash instead of cash
  • In return, needy kids like Bunthon, a former street beggar, can take computer, mathematics and language classes

KIRIROM, Cambodia: Sitting in a building made from used tires, plastic bottles and old sneakers, Cambodian student Roeun Bunthon jots down notes during an English lesson at the “Rubbish School” where tuition is paid for with trash instead of cash.
In return, needy kids like Bunthon, a former street beggar, can take computer, mathematics and language classes — and learn the value of reducing waste in a notoriously polluted country where recycling is nearly non-existent.
“I’ve stopped begging... it’s like I have another chance,” said Bunthon, who paid for his enrollment with a bag of discarded bottle caps.
Located in a lush national park, the Coconut School is built almost entirely from recycled waste and is the brainchild of Ouk Vanday, nicknamed the Rubbish Man, a former hotel manager who dreams of a trash-free Cambodia.
About 65 kids are enrolled at the school, where classroom walls are made of painted car tires and the entrance adorned with a mural of the Cambodian flag made entirely from colorful bottle caps.
Most of that garbage came from students in the form of school fees.
“I use rubbish to educate children by turning garbage into classrooms... so the children will understand the value of using rubbish in a useful way,” the 34-year-old said at the school, which opened a year and a half ago about 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Phnom Penh.
He plans to expand classes in the poor, agricultural province of Kampong Speu to accommodate 200 kids, with a new kindergarten class featuring a wall made from plastic bottles set to open next year.
He’s optimistic the young minds are environmental ambassadors in the making.
“We hope they’ll become new activists in Cambodia, understanding the use, management and recycling of waste,” Vanday told AFP.
Vanday’s inspiration came after traveling around Cambodia and seeing tourist sites clogged with garbage. Troubled by this, he set up a pilot project in Phnom Penh in 2013 before expanding it to a second location in the national park.
Vanday’s vision for a trash-conscious Cambodia is ambitious in a Southeast Asian country where plastic bags and bottles are tossed out without a second thought, many of which end up in garbage-choked cities or smothering once-idyllic beaches.
Cambodia accumulated 3.6 million tons of waste last year, according to the country’s Ministry of Environment.
A mere 11 percent of that gets recycled, while almost half of it is burned or thrown into rivers, causing widespread pollution, said ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra.
The rest is trucked to ever-growing landfills and dump sites, where the piles of garbage emitting methane gas can lead to unexpected and dangerous fires, as well as add to climate change.
These grim scenes are what inspired Vanday to found the Coconut School, which is supported by donations and volunteer teachers, for kids who would get little in the way of environmental education at regular state-run schools.
It is also a chance to help kids who would not be able to afford the after-school programs that have become commonplace for most youngsters across Cambodia.
Public education is free by law, but “supplemental” lessons for English or other extracurricular subjects cost extra, ranging from $5 a class to hundreds of dollars depending on the school and its location. This could be a steep investment in a country where the average person earns under $1,400 per year.
For poorer families in remote areas, the children are sent to beg for money to increase their family income, making it difficult for them to justify paying for extra classes. At his school, Vanday wishes to put an end to this practice.
It has already worked for some.
“My English teacher doesn’t let me beg for money or gamble,” 10-year-old former beggar Sun Sreydow said.
“I’m glad. When I grow up, I want to be a doctor.”


Soviet-era motorcycle sidecars add to Cuba’s retro appeal

Updated 21 March 2019
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Soviet-era motorcycle sidecars add to Cuba’s retro appeal

  • Ranging from rusting relics to the pampered and the pristine, hundreds of old motorcycle sidecars rattle through the streets of Havana

HAVANA: Cuba’s love affair with 1950s-era American cars is still intact, but the communist-run island also has a lingering attachment to a stalwart of Soviet-era leftovers, the motorcycle sidecar.
Ranging from rusting relics to the pampered and the pristine, hundreds of old motorcycle sidecars rattle through the streets of Havana.
The retro appeal gets a lot of attention from tourists “but here it’s common, normal,” says Enrique Oropesa Valdez.
Valdez should know. The 59-year old makes a living as an instructor teaching people how to handle the sidecar in Havana’s traffic, where riders seem able to squeeze the machines through the narrowest of gaps.
And they’ve built up an intense loyalty among the mend-and-make do Cubans.
“They’re very practical,” according to Alejandro Prohenza Hernandez, a restaurateur who says his pampered red 30-year-old Jawa 350 is like a second child.
Cheaper and more practical than the gas-guzzling, shark-finned US behemoths, the bikes are used for anything from the family runabout to trucking goods and workers’ materials.
“A lot of foreigners really like to take photos of it,” says Hernandez. “I don’t know, I think they see it as something from another time.”
Cuba lags several decades behind the rest of the world due to a crippling US embargo, so the makers’ badges on the ubiquitous sidecars speak of a bygone world.
Names like Jawa from the former Czechoslovakia and MZ from the former East Germany, as well as antiquated Russian Urals, Dniepers and Jupiters.
Havana’s military acquired them from big brother Moscow at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 70s, for use by state factories and farms. Over the years, they gradually filtered down to the general public.
That’s how Jose Antonio Ceoane Nunez, 46, found his bright red Jupiter 3.
“When the Cuban government bought sidecars from the Russians in 1981, it was for state-owned companies,” he said.
Later, the companies “sold them on to the most deserving employees,” he said. His father, who worked for a state body, passed the bike on to him.
“Even if the sidecar gets old. I’ll never sell it because it’s what I use to move around. It’s my means of transport in Cuba, and there aren’t many other options,” said Nunez.
Valdez himself has a cherished green 1977 Ural.
“I like it a lot, firstly because it’s the means of transport for my family, and secondly because it’s a source of income.”
And it costs less than a car, still out of reach of many Cubans.
Settled on the island with his Cuban wife, 38-year-old Frenchman Philippe Ruiz didn’t realize at first how ubiquitous the motorcycle sidecar was.
“When I began to be interested, I suddenly realized that I was seeing 50 to 100 a day!”
Renovating a house at the time, he saw that many sidecars were being used to transport building equipment.
Through an advert on the Internet, he bought a blue 1979 Ural a few months ago for 6,500 euros.
“It’s a year older than me and in worse shape,” he said. “Soon he had to strip the bike down and “start repairing everything.”
With few spare parts available in Cuba, “people have to bring them in from abroad,” which slows down repairs.
But he has no regrets. An experienced motorcyclist, he’s discovered a whole new side to his passion by riding the Russian machine.
“It’s very funny, it’s a big change from the bike because we cannot turn the same way, we can’t lean, so you have to relearn everything but it’s nice.”
“It’s especially nice with the family because you can put a child in the sidecar, my wife behind, and suitcases,” he said.
In future he hopes to take advantage of the interest in the old bikes to rent it out.
“I think it will be a bit of a change from all the convertibles here.”