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Introducing Aklile Mekuria – JWOC’s new Fundraising and Communications Manager

Aklile Mekuria

Here at Journeys Within, we are always excited to meet the new staff at our sister non-profit, Journeys Within Our Community, and share a little about them with our travelers who might pay them a visit on their next stop in Siem Reap. And we’re especially excited to introduce Aklile Mekuria, JWOC’s new Fundraising and Communications Manager, who comes to the organization with an interesting CV from around the world…

Coming from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Aklile has joined the dynamic JWOC staff as the Fundraising and Communications Manager. Born and raised in Kenya and Ethiopia, Aklile is no stranger to working with cross-cultural programmes. Having graduated from St. Mary’s College in Hyderabad, India with a degree in Mass Communications and Political Science in 2015, it was only a matter of time before she was back in Asia.

Journeys Within: Where were your born and raised?

Aklile Mekuria: I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. My family lived there for about 25 years. When I was about 7 years old we packed up and moved back to Ethiopia.

JW: What was your first memorable travel experience?

AM: Taking the train to Mombasa from Nairobi. I was perhaps 6 years old but I remember the commotion on the train so well. The trees rushing past the windows, the excitement of going to the beach! When we got there we had such a memorable time, from monkeys stealing our groceries, to camel rides along the beach, and delicious grilled fish by the ocean!

JW: What inspired you to get your degree from a college in India?

AM: India is such a melting pot of cultures, traditions, languages, and food! I could honestly think of no better place to learn how to work in a multi-cultural environment than incredible India!

JW: What did you study and why?

AM: I studied Mass Communications and Political Science. I’ve always been a lover of writing and I knew I wanted to work in the international field and these two subjects lined up perfectly for that.

JW: What other not-for-profits/NGOs have you worked with? And how were those experiences?

AM: I’ve always volunteered for NGOs, especially during summer holidays in high school, my parents would always encourage me to give back in any way, even if it was just one hour in a day. Well that grew with me and my first job out of university was the Programme Manager for Girls Gotta Run Foundation in Ethiopia, an organization that empowers young girls through running and education who are at risk of underage marriage in rural Ethiopia. It was such a privilege to work with these strong girls who have taken back ownership of their own lives.

Most recently I worked at the Sustainable Development Goals Centre For Africa in Kigali, Rwanda. It was interested to work at such a macro level and see the way policies were created and carried out after having worked at the micro level in communities. It was really cool to work alongside influential people that have been key to the development of Africa.

JW: When and why did you first visit Siem Reap?

AM: The first time I visited Siem Reap was in February 2017. For as long as I remember I have always wanted to visit Cambodia, but I never really acted on it. Then earlier this year I decided to pack my bags and go for a visit. I initially had plans to travel around South East Asia but I fell in love with the quiet town of Siem Reap and spent the entire month here.

JW: Why did you want to work at JWOC?

AM: The main appeal at JWOC was the solid stance on child protection in all their programs and operations. It’s unfortunate that children are sometimes used as bait to attract donations or guests, however at JWOC I respected the way in which the needs of the child is always prioritized. Additionally, I liked that this organization focuses on Cambodians working with Cambodians for Cambodia. The teachers, community leaders, and the majority of the staff are Cambodians. Who better understands the challenges of Cambodia than Cambodians?

JW: What JWOC projects/initiatives are you most excited about?

AM: I love the Community Support programs! They’re so specific to the challenges Cambodians in the villages face. I had the pleasure of joining the financial literacy training and was immensely impressed in the way Konthea, the Educational Manager, was able to relate and connect with the villagers and provide simple everyday tools that they can adopt.

JW: What’s your favorite cafe/bar in Siem Reap so far?

AM: The Siem Reap Food Co-op, the company is always great and it’s the perfect place to laze around and eat great food.

JW: What’s your favorite Cambodian food?

AM: I love love love amok curry with tofu! Oh, it’s just too good!

JW: What has surprised you the most about living in Siem Reap?

AM: It’s so interesting to view Cambodia through the eyes of someone living here opposed to being a tourist. Experiencing the everyday life beyond the Angkor Wat Temples and pub street has probably been my favourite so far. It’s the small comparisons that remind me of home and family.

JW: What other regions are you most looking forward to exploring?

AM: I have yet to see the Mekong River and I am so excited about it! I also can’t wait to visit Laos, it’s quite high on my list!

From the Ground-Meet Cambodia’s lifesaving-Hero Rats

It’s not every day that you get to meet a real live hero. Now at the Apopo Visitor Center in Siem Reap, Cambodia, you will have an opportunity to learn about and meet the countries infamous Hero Rats. These cute little rodents have been working hard at detecting live war mines and saving countless lives throughout Southeast Asia since 2010.

In October of 1995, Bart Weetjens, a Belgian native and pet rat owner, came across a published article, where gerbils were being used as scent detectors for scientific research. Knowing that rats are intelligent, cheap and widespread over the world, an idea emerged. Could these bright animals be used to detect landmines that long ago were buried and forgotten? By 1998, with support from the Belgian Directorate for International Cooperation, the initial financial support was developed and the non-profit, Apopo Foundation was born.

By 2000, Apope developed training methods for the rats and the team began ground workd in Morogoro, Tanzania.  Here, they proved invaluable at cost-effectively detecting mines and addressing some of the country’s most pressing humanitarian challenges.

Ten years later, the Apopo Foundation began work in the mine suspected areas, in the provinces of Trat and Chantaburi, along the Thai-Cambodian border. The Cambodian chapter of Apopo works in conjunction with the Cambodian Mine Action Center and the German Federal Foreign Office.

According to Apopo, at least 26 million explosive sub-munitions were dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War, mostly in eastern and north-eastern areas bordering the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam. The bombing is estimated to have left between 1.9 million and 5.8 million cluster munitions remnants. To date over 64,000 landmines and other explosive remnants of war have been recorded in Cambodia, since 1979.

With over 25,000 amputees, Cambodia has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world. A great hero was in need! It takes just one Hero Rat to search up to 200 square meters in 20 minutes; this would take a mine technician with a metal detector 1-4 days to cover the same ground.

The Apopo Foundation and these little rodents are dedicated to saving thousands of lives throughout Southeast Asia and the World. Now at the Apopo center in Siem Reap, you can join an hour long presentation and learn more about these little champions and the non-profits quest in making the World a safer place. Give us a call to book a tour or visit www.apopo.org for more information.

Guest Review from Kristine Janda and Kevin O’Grattan-Siem Reap is the perfect place to celebrate romance.

At Journeys Within, we are dedicated to custom designing memorable experiences throughout Southeast Asia.  We especially love it when we hear back from our guests who have had first class travel experiences, and are excited to share their photos and adventures.  This letter and these photos are from Journeys Within guests, Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan.  

We just returned home from our Asia trip. I just wanted to tell you what an unbelievably amazing experience we had with Journeys Within! Thank you for making our trip and anniversary extra special. We love the gifts, and we will be hanging the picture in our house as a memory of this great adventure.

Photo Credit: Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan

We loved all our guides. Mr. Sina and our driver were both wonderful. Mr. Sina is so kind, patient, attentive, and has such a great knowledge of Siem Reap and it’s many temples. He was in tune to our interests and made sure we had a great experiences. Our driver was also great, drove safely, and attentive to us. Our cooking class was a blast! We enjoyed every minute of it. We did not end up doing the bird watching due to the conditions, and we appreciated the change to ensure a great experience. Our trek on Mt Kulen was such an adventure! We’ve never trekked through a lush jungle like that.  Our guides were great, patient, very knowledgeable of forests plants and animals, and very attentive to our needs.

Photo Credit: Kristine Janda & Ken O’Grattan

We also had the most wonderful stay with Jaya House! Wow. They were so sweet and treated us like royalty. They made us feel very special in celebrating our anniversary with flowers and cake! The hotel grounds are so beautiful we didn’t want to leave. The entire staff was very nice and attentive to us and all their guests.

We are so amazed by Siem Reap and its people. Everyone we met was very kind and hospitable. We enjoyed all the food and loved all your restaurant recommendations.  Thank you again for helping us with our unforgettable adventure in Siem Reap. It’s become one of my favorite places in the world!

Sincerely,

Kristine Janda and Kevin O’Grattan

A Day of Introspection and Healing: Siem Reap Spiritual Tour

By Andrea Ross 

After a whirlwind adventure in Thailand, the kids and I arrived in Siem Reap this week. As always there was a sense of “coming home” as we stepped off the plane, but rather than home we have been spoiled with staying at the amazing Jaya House River Park Hotel.  This property has earned a well-deserved blog of its own soon and has already been an amazing partner for Journeys Within. After getting settled and catching up on work emails on the first day, I had a special morning planned with our new Siem Reap Spiritual Tour. While of course the ancient temples such as Angkor Wat are the main draw in Siem Reap, there are also some amazing modern temples here, with unique experiences only available in Siem Reap.

Taking a tuk-tuk with Sina, one of our top guides

I was met in the morning by Sina and kid-free (they had a fun day with their dad), we set off the for the Fortune-teller’s. I have to start by saying that I’m not the Fortune-teller type…I believe we make our own destinies and I’m always scared that a Fortune-teller will tell me something that then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. BUT, my team swears by this man and I’ve felt lately like I could use some guidance! We arrived for our 8:15am appointment and in true Khmer fashion, he wasn’t there! My faith in his powers was severely diminished when he informed Sina he didn’t realize we were there yet and would be back as soon as he could! He showed up a few minutes later on his moto and showed us up to his house…a typical Khmer home on stilts with walls covered in framed photos of his family, him with various military and political leaders and of course, some landscape shots.

The Fortune-teller with his ipad
The Fortune-teller and his son at their home

He immediately sat down and asked me for my birthday and then, using his iPad (Is there a Fortune-teller app?) started writing numbers on a piece of paper. And then he started talking and things got real! It was incredible and scary and emotional all at the same time. He is not a palm reader or a clairvoyant; he literally uses birth numbers to tell him the story of your life…past, present and future. So for an hour, a man wearing cargo shorts, a plain white button up shirt, and glasses like my grandpa’s looked at a piece of paper covered in numbers and told me things that he couldn’t have known! It was an eye opening and unique experience and I’m so glad I did it, but I have to admit, I’m still a little shook up. (Good news, I’m going to live a long life and will not only be happy, but will help others and make them happy. Bad news, I’m going to get sick in 3 years and have to go to the doctor a lot. This would all seem silly if he hadn’t been so right on with everything else he said!)

The Fortune-teller and I after the reading

From here Sina took me to a local pagoda in town. The truth is I’ve driven past this pagoda hundreds of times, but never been inside and it was stunning. Still reeling from the fortune teller this was exactly what I need to reset myself and feel calm. A beautiful sitting Buddha fills the main pagoda room, but behind it, hidden away, is a much older reclining Buddha. Beautifully maintained and tucked away as it is, this Buddha is one of my favorites out of the countless that I have seen!

The Reclining Buddha
The Reclining Buddha

From here we headed to Wat Pho, the largest Wat in Siem Reap. Tiny kittens ran throughout the temple and beautiful carvings adorned the entrance, windows and doors. We explored through the temples and then went to the back where an older monk offered a water blessing. Here a monk chants while sprinkling you with water. At the end he tied a red ribbon around my wrist for good luck.

Wat Preach Prom Rath
Local Stupas – the ashes of local Buddhist families are contained within them

Our last stop of the day was to Sophie’s Healing. I’ve known Sophie for years, from when she was Callie’s French teacher at the International School. Now Sophie runs her own business offering her healing services. Sophie can help with spiritual, emotional and physical ailments and again, as an original non-believer, I have been converted as over the last three years she has helped with various issues I’ve had…a hurt foot, migraines and Couper’s nightmares. This time I needed her help to find peace and with a really sore shoulder…she doesn’t mind doing a little of each as part of the healing. For an hour I lay on her table and I can say that I left feeling at peace.

Exploring the local temples with Sina
Wat Bo

It was an incredible day, experiencing the modern spiritual side of my Siem Reap. We offer all these experiences to guests and while I’m a little nervous about it, I’m also excited. This tour offers a deeply personal day, and is not your typical tour, but at the same time, it was a powerful day and one only possible here. Travel is supposed to open up us and show us new experiences, today it did just that for me.

Me receiving a water blessing

From the Ground: Makara celebrates 2 years on the Local JWOC Advisory Board

By Jay Austin

Last month, JWOC Scholarship graduate and Journeys Within Cambodia Country Director, Makara Put, completed two years as member and Chair of JWOC’s Local Advisory Board (LAB). Using his in-depth understanding of the local travel industry, knowledge of local opportunities and understanding of JWOC’s values and mission to promote equal access to quality education, he was able to be part of a team that helped JWOC’s ground team to pursue opportunities and avenues that would not have otherwise access to.

When speaking of his achievement, he said, “For me, it is really important to be in the LAB, because you will be able to learn from other members and from JWOC staff. Moreover you can speak your thoughts and turn your ideas into practice, sharing information that helps to develop JWOC as well. We never know if our ideas work or not if we don’t put them into action!”