The sun beat down on the thirsty Spaniards as they pedalled their mountain bikes through dusty Banteay Meancheay province.
“If there had been tears, we would have drunk them,” said Berta de la Dehesa, one of three NGO workers who have spent the past four months biking around the Cambodian countryside to implement their “water art” project.
Without a drop of the stuff in their canteens, Dehesa and her companions slogged on, conscious that they were far from alone.
For many living in rural parts of the Kingdom, water and the shortage of it is a constant anxiety, especially in times of drought, whether it’s needed to make a living from fishing or to drink.
With this in mind, Dehesa, Maria Peñalosa, and Nolasco Marante from the Italian NGO Through Waters set off in February for a total of five months, intending to hold photo workshops.
Through Waters promotes water culturally and scientifically and this latest project, titled Artwaterness, has shared water-themed photography by global professionals with local populations and collected new images for a future exhibition.
After starting in Phnom Penh, the three bikers visited more than 25 towns including more remote areas, staying in villagers’ homes, guest houses and pagodas. They carried high-resolution photos in a long cylindrical metal tube attached to their bikes.
In each village, they passed out cameras for inhabitants to take pictures of anything that made them think of water. The results were printed and hung for everyone to see.
“Art is not accessible to [many rural Cambodians] in their daily lives, and to make it accessible with something that is so essential and close to them, it’s a good way to merge both things, which is the goal of our project, Art and Water,” Dehesa said.
An additional role taken on by Dehesa, who dreamt up the project, has been interpreting for her colleague Marante, who is deaf.
“I live in a hearing world,” Marante said, adding he is conscious that while he can’t hear, others communicate with sounds and words and he does the best he can through watching and interpreting.
“But I really enjoy discovering new things in this world that I haven’t discovered before.”
In March the three stopped in Siem Reap and the Krousar Thmey centre for the blind and deaf where they brought their photo exhibit and workshop to the students.
Marante was able to communicate well, as Cambodian sign language has many similarities with ASL and International Sign Language and he picked up their vocabulary quickly.
Students were asked to create a radio show, and told a traditional Cambodian tale that centred on water. While the teacher read it aloud, all of the students translated it into Braille, poking the paper to indent it with a pen and a needle.
A morning class had recorded noises and music to accompany the story.
“They want the world to know about Khmer music and they want to tape it in both languages [English and Khmer],” Dehesa said.
There have been trials: on difficult days the team has covered vast stretches of between 45 to 50 kilometres, where there have been no houses or places to buy water.
They have travelled in the height of the hot season, waking in the hazy early mornings to make the best of the cool air, but the warmth of the villagers and excitable children who call “hello” from the side of the road have made the trip worthwhile.
“I think this is the most welcoming country I’ve ever been in,” Peñalosa said.
They will finish in Phnom Penh in early June, bringing with them their photo exhibition and artwork from their trip.
See their work next month from June 7 through to 27 at the Canon Exhibition Hall, #146 Sihanouk Boulevard.