This is a personal site. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Wedded bliss?

As I write this entry it is 5.00am. There are two weddings in the local area. One is reasonably quiet, the other seems to me to be in the exact spot as the week before (I mean, why bother even taking down the marquee?) and started blasting music at 4.30am. It will not stop until 11pm this evening and will also go on all day tomorrow.

Khmer houses are not built to be sound proof. There is no glass in the windows, no double-glazing, only bars and mosquito netting. The sound is actually so loud that if I were hosting my own party, I would consider it anti-social, because the guests would not actually be able to hear each other talk. To top it off, it’s not like its even good music, just some loud form of Khmer/Buddhist wailing, truly designed to test the peace, serenity and goodwill of the surrounding community.

It just doesn’t make sense. On every other level the Khmer people are quiet, reserved and amicable. They are famous for their smile, will always agree to everything (this doesn’t mean it will actually get done) and are nothing but hospitable. Why then, do they insist on pushing everyone’s (well, my) sanity to its limits? I have considered buying earplugs, but what if they work, I oversleep, and accidentally forget to go to work?

Sadly, it’s all to do with a show of wealth. The bigger, louder and more annoying your wedding, the richer you are. The more of a street you can block the better the party. And what ever happened to tradition? Did they have loud speakers and bright marquees in the days of old Angkor Watt? I think not.


In all honesty, given that I'm now sleep deprived and grumpy - I don’t care how beautiful the Bride looks in her 16 (yes, 16) dresses. It just doesn’t make sense. I went to a Khmer wedding the other week, and yes it’s interesting to learn about the Khmer ‘culture’, but what really struck me is just how much everything is for show. There is, for example, a hair cutting ceremony. But no hair actually gets cut – they just pretend. The cutting of the cake (the most intricate cake I have ever seen, there were even bridges connecting different bits of the cake for god’s sake) is another one. They pose for the photos, but the cake doesn’t actually get cut.

And whilst I'm on a role - the photos! Ha. I think Cambodia must be single handedly responsible for success of Adobe Photoshop (or they would be if they weren’t all using pirate copies). Every picture is a) the same as everyone else’s pictures in any other wedding ever, and b) airbrushed to high heavens. The bride and groom are unrecognizable, as is the location of the swirly, mystic background they add in. If anyone’s reading from Serif – have we ever considered the Khmer market? PhotoPlus X3 would go down a treat! On the plus side, it’s actually possible to get yourself kitted out in the wedding attire and get some sample photos done in one of the shops in town. I wonder if the lovely Matthew would find this a fun activity during his visit?

And as a final note: who actually pays for this wedding? Khmer weddings cost an absolute fortune. The one I attended last week cost $7000 – and let’s remember that teachers will earn roughly $50 a month. So what happens? They borrow money, and then because they have to have this big party, they’ll invite 700 people, all of whom have to pay $10 for the privilege of having their ears assaulted, to pay for the party they have to have. The process of inviting people is also mad. Here everyone saves their wedding invitations so that you know exactly whose weddings you’ve been to, and who to invite. Just so you can get your own back. It doesn’t matter if these people are friends or not, as long as they can pay $10 (which, by the way, you don’t get out of paying even if you don’t go to the event itself. Once invited you’re obliged to pay). This unfortunately means that barang (foreigners) are a popular choice for wedding invitations. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for celebrating the love of people I actually know, but it’s one thing living in a house near a wedding tent. Can you imagine actually being made to sit in it?

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

Well, not exactly. It might be winter, but it’s still 30 something degrees outside – the sky is blue, the roads are dusty and the khmers are walking round in woolly jumpers. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that it is the festive season, and by this I’m referring to the odd christmassy remark left by those on facebook and the token (rather limp-looking) christmas tree that decorates the outside of the Golden Crown hotel.

So, in a vain attempt to feel christmassy (it’s hard to feel festive when it’s so hot) me and a fellow Peace Corps volunteer decided to introduce some festive cheer into this weeks art class.

Art class?! Yep – every Friday in Preah Netre Preah I help provide ideas, materials and the novelty value that only a barang can offer, to a class of forty students for one hour. Really, it’s more a club than a ‘class’, but I love it and the kids love it. I think they just enjoy the chance to do something a bit different, and I enjoy the chance to just do something, and what’s more, something that’s just for me – because I like it. Anyway, inspired by one of my numerous Serif
4 O’clock Challenges (there’s a group of readers out there who know what I’m on about), we decided it would be fun to make paper snowflakes (isn’t it great how the ability to make these is just ingrained from birth?). And you know what? It really was.








Thursday, 3 December 2009

A lesson in self-reliance and personal motivation

Warning: This entry is a little on the long side of acceptable. Perhaps I should have written a bullet-point summary at the end?

… I’ve been threatening to write about my job for a while – and so at last, here it is:

My official job title is Community Assistant, and as the job description for this role is three pages long, I wont bore you with it (there’s so many other ways to do that). Basically, I have been asked to work in the Province of Banteay Meanchey, in three districts: Mongkal Borei, Preh Netre Preh and Sisophon. I’m working at ‘District Level’, which is somewhere along the lines of the English Local Education Authority. I’m based in three District Offices and one Provincial office, but spend a lot of my time out and about in local primary schools. In short – I’m all over the place.

In a somewhat optimistic plan, the Cambodian Government have recently developed a policy known as 'Child Friendly Schooling'. This policy has 6 dimensions to it, all somewhere along the lines of inclusion, gender, effective teaching and learning etc. The basic idea is that if primary education is more child-focused (i.e. interesting, colourful and fun) then children are more likely to stay in school and actually learn something. Dimension 5 of this policy is ‘Community Involvement’, and this is where I come in. My task, in a nutshell, is to work with a small selection of focus schools in order to develop their understanding of community involvement and, in turn, the community’s understanding of education. If the community understand what is happening in schools and become an active part of school life, then this can have a positive effect on drop-out rates and inclusion (it also helps tick a few governmental boxes). At the moment people have no clue as to what their children are learning or why it’s important. Similarly, the school’s idea of community involvement seems to rotate around the basic notion of banging on doors and asking for money.

So that’s the task in hand. The next obvious question is how on earth I am actually going to do anything, especially when I’m spread across three districts and only have a translator two and a half days a week. Sadly, I don’t think my new found ability to discuss the weather in Khmer is going to get me very far in an office environment (although they do seem to enjoy talking about my boyfriend – maybe that’s a way in…).

The second, third, forth and eternal questions relate to the utter complexity of this whole situation.

Imagine this: The government wants Child Friendly Schools. To pluck at thin air, one example of this might be - group work. How then, asks the teacher, do you facilitate group work in a classroom packed to the gills with 90 children? (That’s a very good question, I said). As far as I’m concerned, it’s an achievement not to have children hanging from the termite ridden ceiling rafters – though I did go to a school where one died from the monsoon flooded school pond.

So then maybe you think about resources. But where does the money come from for these resources? And what’s more, who even knows what to make? Or has the time to make them? Despite numerous training sessions (which people are paid to attend) the whole concept is entirely foreign - and let’s not forget that the entire trained professional population of this country has been wiped out. With 50% of the population under 16, who does the teaching? Or trains the teachers? In Banteay Meanchey alone they are 1000 primary school teachers short. I have seen female teachers, nursing their children in hammocks, in their classrooms, whilst teaching! And of course, if there are no toilets in the school (or toilets, but no water) the women staff wont come to work for one week out of four anyway, because (and as a woman I sympathise) – who would want to do that?

Maybe then you think about lesson planning (PGCE flashback). People don’t like it in England, and in Cambodia, they don’t even have the luxury of not liking it – they simply don’t have the time to do it. To put it into a vague form of perspective, as a volunteer, I earn $354 dollars a month. An experienced teacher will earn $50 a month at best (less, after it’s been skimmed by higher authorities). This is not enough to survive. So when they are not teaching they are planting rice, driving motos, teaching private lessons, working on market stalls and worrying about minor things like, where’s my next meal coming from? On the general scheme of things, that puts lesson planning – and anything else for that matter - fairly low down on the list of priorities.

And yet people train to do it, and some of the teachers I have met are wonderful and do a great job in a difficult situation. But every time you even try to examine one problem and think about how to tackle it, you discover a thousand more.

On a day to day basis, effectively, I have no boss. That is, there’s no-one to tell me what to do. Or, if what I am doing is right. Here, I have got to trust my own instincts and judgment and do what I think is right, but in culture that I am only just getting to know. It would also be very easy to lie in my hammock all day. But then I’m not the sort of person who will let that happen, and I will go to the office without my translator because I like the feeling of at least being there - and you never know when someone might say something I understand. I’ve also started going places armed with props. Photographs are a great source of conversation – I think I might try baked goods next.

Don’t get me wrong, despite the little ball of nerves I have each morning before I begin, I feel like I’m chipping away at things and slowly shaping up my job. People are still speaking to me, smile when they see me and today I had meetings that went really well… I even have a poster on the wall! It’s just that when I step back and try to think about the situation as a whole, I just can’t escape how complex everything is. There is sooo much to know and understand – and I came here with the best of intentions and want so badly to do a good job, but on the otherhand – who am I to know what’s best?

VSO weren’t joking when they said it would take three months for me to get my head round what’s even going on.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Wildlife

Here's a quick insight into the better looking of Cambodia's wildlife. I've yet to be brave enough to photograph a cockroach or the great big spider I found under the lamp in my living room....



Saturday, 21 November 2009

A day in the life...

And so I’m in Sisophon, and I don’t know where to begin really. When I first arrived it felt like one big ball of emotion, one minute everything was great, but it would take only the smallest trigger (like someone trying to overcharge me for an apple, for instance) and suddenly I’d feel rubbish and wonder why I thought it was a good idea to come here in the first place. It’s a lot to take in: new house, new job, new language. And with no-one to tell me what to do… I’ve taken to just kind of doing something and hope I got it right and didn’t offend anyone. To be honest, it still is a lot to take in, but I think I’m slowly getting the hang of things. Slowly.

The first few days here were marred by the fact that my house, unfortunately, was stationed between two Khmer weddings. If you know nothing more about local Cambodia, know this - Khmer weddings are not a quiet event. It’s like having a radio stuck in your head that you can’t switch off. So, this - together with the three confused roosters that live next door to me – has taught me a very key lesson: I will never need an alarm clock again.

Anyway, the weddings finished and life continues – I’m getting into a routine and feel at home. I will tell you about my job, but first – in a Bridget Jones kind of a way, here’s a quick insight into a day in the life of Jen:


3.00 am:Wake up. Consider slaughtering roosters. Roll over and try to sleep.

5.30 am:Urge to pee forces self out of bed. Stumble downstairs. This sudden movement has caused a new layer of sweat, so I brave the cold water and have a shower.

6.00 am:Get dressed. Apply layer of DEET to newly formed layer of sweat.

6.30am:Sweep up the new collection of dead insects from floor, throw outside. Boil up water ready for water filter, have breakfast and water plants.

7.30am:Meet Vomit (my assistant and translator - and before you ask - that is his name and everyone finds it hilarious) at the Provincial Office of Education. Put on my sexy VSO helmet and light-weight moto jacket and head out to work.

11.00am:Hopefully, I’ve achieved something at work (more on this later). It’s now officially lunchtime, so I’m free until 2pm. Generally, I’ll go home, have another shower, create a sandwich and have a nap.

2pm:Head out to the office m’neck-eying (alone). Cross fingers in the hope that someone will actually be there, sit in office in an attempt to make friends and improve my Khmer. Have a couple of conversations that generally revolve around the themes of heat, family and food. I may also do some reading about my job, education and Cambodia.

5pm:Get home. Get changed. Flop on bed.

6pm:Invariably I go round to my friend Anne’s, or she comes round to mine.

7pm:Eat food. Most probably rice.

8pm:Talk to the lovely Matt on Skype.

9pm:…. and I’m all tucked up and ready for sleep!

Monday, 2 November 2009

Where there's a will....




What I love about Cambodia is the sheer ingenuity and creativity of its people. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the money or resources – if there’s a will, there does indeed seem to be a way. It might involve some string, sellotape, a wing and a prayer, but so what?
One of the most worrying aspects of life in Cambodia is the lack of rule and regulation. Who ever thought they would miss red tape? Cars and motos know no bounds - a vehicle isn’t considered full if there aren’t ten people and a pig inside with a truck load of luggage tied to the roof. Here, you haven’t got a leg to stand on if you accidentally fall down a pot hole, and the third floor ‘Emergency Exit’ is a window with a bundle of rope and a make-shift anchor (to stop the rope falling through the window, you see, they’ve thought of everything). England would have a fit. But on the up side, at least there is an emergency exit.
I once read about a floating school made entirely from plastic crates. The walls were crates, the floor was crates and the desks were crates. And so the children sat learning their ABCs without complaint. And why not? It’s better than having no school at all, and at least it wont flood during the wet season.
And so, ironically, this free-for-all (as crazy as it seems at times) is also Cambodia’s greatest asset. Nothing is too much trouble. You can carry pretty much anything you want on a moto and be as creative as you’d like. Moving house? We can do that. Taking your pigs to the market? We have baskets, so we can do that too. Don’t have a field for your cows? Not a problem, just take them for daily walks like everyone else.
It’s great fun, and really quite useful – as long as you don’t spend too much time thinking about what it is you’re actually doing. The photos above are two of my favourites so far and shows our Tuk Tuk loaded to the gills with sofas, cushions and people. Actually, given the amount of padding we had inside, it’s probably the safest road trip I’ve taken so far.
Oh and sorry for the depressing posts recently, they followed a bunch of lectures and seminars on all that's bad about Cambodia, so I thought I'd put them both together and then move on to more cheery things....

Friday, 30 October 2009

Bus trip

Yes, I am a geek. Yes, I took some video footage from a bus trip. Yes. I used MoviePlus to edit it.
video

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Landmines

To continue with the cheery theme of my most recent blog entry, I thought I’d follow The Killing Fields with an entry on landmines and unexploded ordinance.

Hopefully I wont put people off reading, but I very much want this blog to be more than just a day by day account of my life in Cambodia – I’d like it to provide a bit of context and background as well, so that you understand more why I am here and the work that VSO are doing.

Arguably, one of the most pivotal points in Cambodia’s development was when Princess Diana started raising public awareness by visiting countries effected by landmines. This is not to suggest that the Khmer Rouge was not a major part of Cambodian history, but to recognize the fact that it was this media attention that put the issue of landmines on the world map and finally brought them into focus.

In accordance with my trusty Lonely Planet and informed by a seminar we attended in Phnom Penh, my grasp of the landmine situation is Cambodia is this: Landmines were not a big issue in Cambodia until the mid-1980s and the Vietnam War. It was then that the Vietnamese laid the 700km long K-5 landmine belt along the Thai/Cambodian boarder. After the Vietnamese withdrew, more landmines were planted by the Khmer government to make boarder crossings and supply routes inaccessible – mines were also planted by the Khmer Rouge to protect areas of land that they had taken. Sadly, in the 1980s the British sent the SAS to the Malaysian jungle to train guerilla fighters in landmine laying techniques – skills that were to be later adapted by the Khmer Rouge.

Anyway, the long and short of the situation is that today Cambodia has the world’s largest number of amputees per capita of any country, and correspondingly one of the world’s biggest landmine problems. An average of 30 people are victim to landmines every month (an improvement on the 300 people in the 1990s). And if it isn’t the landmines, it’s the unexploded ordinance bombs - particularly plague to Eastern Cambodia.

Fortunately, Cambodia is awash with groups dedicated to promoting landmine awareness and clearing mined areas, the main ones being:
CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) -
www.cmac.org.kh
HALO Trust – www.haltrust.org
MAG (Mines Advisory Group) – www.mag.org.uk

What I think bothers me most about landmines is the level of intent behind them. They serve no purpose other than to maim or kill people. They are designed to harm, and unfortunately it is often children who will pick one up, simply not understanding what it is that they have found. In fact, some landmines are even specifically designed to look like children's toys. I heard a story about three children playing in a pond in a remote district of my own province. One found a landmine and threw it to the other two to catch. I’ll leave you to imagine what happened next.

Worryingly, Banteay Meanchey is one of the most heavily mined provinces in Cambodia – and I find that when I start thinking about it I suddenly have all sorts of images in my head that I really don’t want to be having. But I have not written this entry to scare people, least of myself, my parents or my boyfriend. Yes, landmines are a reality and are something that people need to be aware of. But at the same time, landmines are continuously being cleared and are now only found in remote areas of countryside.

To put people’s minds at rest, the chances of my actually encountering a landmine are tiny – Sisophon is a well developed town and the towns are clear, paths to schools are clear, and I wont be needing (or wanting) to walk over any uninhabited countryside. And I really don’t want you to get the wrong impression – Cambodia really is a wonderful place and I am very happy here and feel perfectly safe.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Killing Fields


The text on the board reads: Magic Tree... The tree was used as a tool to hang a loud speaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.
There seems to be something of a sweepstake in Cambodia as to how long you can go without mentioning Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge, and having just recently visited the Killing Fields - my lot is up.

Say the word ‘Cambodia’ and you hear the word ‘Genocide’, and that would be about right. For over 20 years Cambodia has been at the brunt of civil war, the Vietnamese war and the Pol Pot regime. Did you know that during the Vietnamese war the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia and neighbouring Lao than were dropped on Germany during World War II? Cambodia is also home to the world’s largest landmine belt, K-5 which stretches all the way from the Gulf of Thailand to the Lao boarder. And this is before we begin to even think about what happened during the years of the Khmer Rouge.

The goal of the Khmer Rouge (to give a brief history lesson) was to create an entirely self-sufficient and independent Cambodia that focused 100% on farming and the production of crops. In order to do this, Pol Pot ordered the immediate evacuation of all towns and cities. Within hours of his being in power, Phnom Penh was emptied and its citizens forced to walk miles into the provincial towns and work as slaves. But it didn’t stop there. As part of a cleansing ritual Pol Pot ordered the death of hundreds of thousands of Khmer – many of whom were tortured within the confines of S-21, an old school come prison that has since been preserved as a memorial museum. Look up, and you can still see blood stains on the ceiling and shackles on the floor. Bullets apparently, were too expensive.

Throughout Cambodia all trained intellectuals were killed, and as the regime gathered momentum this grew to include people that wore glasses, people whose names were too long and, of course, anyone that dared to question Pol Pot’s army. Indirectly, others died of exhaustion, starvation and disease.

The Khmer Rouge ruled for a total of three years, eight months and twenty days, between the years of 1975-1979. No-one has yet to put a figure on the exact number killed, but to give an idea – the Killing Fields of Choeung-Ek commemorate almost 9000 counted people. Only 43 of the 129 mass graves here have been exhumed, and the Killing Fields of Choeng-Ek are one of hundreds of sites found all over Cambodia.

It is difficult to describe the effect this knowledge has on you. Especially as you walk round the site of Choeng-Ek, which incidentally has been privatized so that a Japanese company can make some cash out of Cambodia’s tragedy. Choeng-Ek is very much a memorial garden, with the central focus being the Memorial Stupa which displays some 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age. There are also several other ‘points of interest’ – I wont go into too much detail, but I think the photo at the opening of this entry sums it up quite well. I felt quite awkward taking photos and only took two – I wanted to give an idea of what the Killing Fields were like, without being a tourist about it.

It is startling to think that every person in Cambodia over the age of 30 has a memory of the Khmer Rouge years. Many worked as slaves, others were soldiers, and yet no-one is openly resentful. My language teacher, for example, not only survived the Vietnamese war and the Khmer Rouge years, but also then spent the following 15 years in a Thai refugee camp. In total he has spent almost the sum of my entire life surviving, not living. But to look at him and to talk to him – you wouldn’t know. Everyone here has a story. Yet people seem to accept was has happened as history, and are just so relieved that they are living in fairly peaceful times that no-one is prepared to rock the boat.

For all its problems, for the country to have rebuilt itself as it has is really incredible. Even if I do keep having to have showers by torch-light.


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A very fine house

Somehow, I’m not entirely sure how – I have ended up with a fairly swanky Cambodian house that is $10 under our allotted budget, bigger than anywhere I’ve lived before and even has hot water. What's even better, is that previous volunteers have struggled to find accommodation in Sisophon - so I’ve been really lucky and actually had a choice of two.

The first house was an ex-volunteer house, a little like a small and cosy tree house. Unfortunately though, it also came with a neighbouring volleyball court and several 20-something Cambodian males and two ‘guard’ puppies. I was actually quite fond of the dogs, until I trod in pile of dog shit. After that, the novelty wore off. The house was very sweet, but I met the landlord and they weren’t keen to put any extra locks on the windows or even really clean the inside – oh, and they also tried to up the price by $100.

Meanwhile, just round the corner a family from Poipet (about 1hr from Sisophon) were doing up their house for rent and were very excited to see me. The family are lovely and couldn’t do enough for me. They asked me what colour paint I wanted, would I like this… would I like that… the house had previously had unwanted ‘wildlife’ (rats, I think) and so was being gutted inside and out. It’s not too big – I was wary of the size at first – and it’s nice and secure, whilst still being accessible and traditional. Its concrete downstairs and wooden upstairs, has mozzi screens, a great little balcony and even a bit of a garden!

That said, I do feel a bit weird to be living somewhere so nice when I’m in Cambodia. I really was expecting to be holed up in some form of shack, but I do love my house. It’s cosy and best of all, it’s somewhere to make mine. It’s also under the VSO housing allowance - a distinct advantage of living Sisophon. Should I be in a shack? Well, perhaps... but then I’m here for a year and I can’t wait to start nesting. Plus it’ll be great for putting up other volunteers when they come to visit. And having a house warming party.

So, if you’re ever wandering around Sisophon, my house is between roads three and four. The landlady was unsure of the address and so decided it was on road 3.5 (Harry Potter eat your heart out). It also has no number… so I’m not sure if the postie will be able to find it.

I'm just trying to upload some pictures, but the internet is having none of it. I'll put them up as soon as I can!


Ah HAH! Success!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Language Training

Looking back at my previous posts, I’m worried that so far my time in Cambodia is looking a little bit too much like a holiday. Having spent the last six (almost seven) months trying to persuade the lovely Matthew that it is not a holiday, I thought I’d tell you a bit more about what I’m doing at the moment.

Now at the beginning of week three, I’m almost half way through the In Country Training (ICT) and we’re in Kompong Cham because:
a) it’s cheaper for VSO
b) it’s cheaper for the volunteers and most importantly -
c) not many people speak English and we are thus forced to practice our Khmer.

There are twelve volunteers training at the moment and we’ve been split into two language groups – we each have four hours of lessons a day. Our teacher, Dara is brilliant. He is native Khmer and learnt English after the Khmer Rouge in a Thai refugee camp. Dara has been working with VSO for almost 15 years and works very much on a ‘need to know’ basis. He is by far one of the most effective teachers I’ve ever had and is very patient with our stuttering attempts at the language.

Fortunately, the Khmer had the sense to keep the language comparatively simple. They do not speak in tones, so as volunteers we stand a fighting chance at actually being able to communicate! They also have no plurals, past tense, future tense or masculine and feminine words – a lot of what you say is very much context dependent. Or vague. The language itself is good fun, my favourite word so far being ‘snacknow’ which means ‘to stay’, although ‘loo’ (to hear) and ‘tukdohkoh’ (milk, which literally translates as ‘water from the breast of a cow’) aren’t far behind. The only really complicated aspect of the language is getting the word order right and pronouncing things correctly and these are complicated… there’s a lot of chings, chits, chongs, dungs and dongs to get confused over, but hopefully it’ll come in time. Well, it has to really – as no-one will speak English in the District Office of Education. Oh and writing. I don’t think I have much hope of ever being able to read and write Khmer script.

The other surprisingly hard part of the language is quite simply getting people to want to understand and listen. As a barang (foreigner) no-one expects you to be trying to speak Khmer and so people aren’t tuned in to our stuttering attempts. It seems at the moment it’s very much luck of the draw in the market - you can get one person who understands what you’re trying to say and mime straight away, or you get another that will look as though you’ve sprouted a third head no matter how many times you mime the word for ‘razor’. The silver liing to that particular cloud is that nothing compares to the sense of achievement you feel when you return home with all the items you intended to buy. I refuse to be beaten and bought myself some bin liners and a broom today.

So there’s the language. There’s also just living. It’s hot in Cambodia, 30 degrees plus and lord only knows what the humidity is. I’ve never had so much sweat running down my face at one time! I permanently have humidity hair and a watery mustache. Doing the most normal of things is actually quite tiring, but I have now invested in a hammock, which is great for napping, and I am becoming very adept at washing my clothes in a bucket with a hole in.

Well, I don’t know if I’ve convinced you – but try to believe that I’m not permanently sight-seeing and fried spider spotting. I’m visiting my placement town next week, getting on a moto for the first time and finding a house. In the mean time, my brother Chris keeps implying that my photos aren’t quite ‘honest’ enough. I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to photograph the pig heads in the market, but here’s one of a pile of rubbish – something you get quite used to walking by and wading through when it decides to monsoon on you.

And as a final note, thanks everyone who has left a comment by the way, they make me smile and I find I’m liking the blog more than I thought I would, it’s a nice way to be in touch with home. Keep them coming!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A 'boat' trip




I think health and safety would have something to say about this one, although I’m still alive and had a good day – so it was worth it!

As recommended by a VSO veteran, we decided to go on a boat trip down the Mekong river with an English speaking, ex-Buddhist, Christian local guide. There’s a Muslim island that’s known for its silk and a famous wooden temple (its name, or why it’s famous I can’t remember – it was hot). He had a big boat. And I use the term ‘boat’ in the loosest possible sense of the term. To call it a raft would have been a compliment.
The ten of us turned up ponchos in hand and ready to go. So, putting all fears of drowning out of my head we got on the wooden board with a mat on it and set off. It was a little wobbly, but once I’d put anything valuable I had on me in my dry-bag and we all sat very still I began to relax and enjoy it. Alas, there were no life jackets, no coast guard, ambulance service or indeed decent hospital, but I found that if I stopped looking at the young boy who had been employed to bale water out of the ‘boat’ or at the width and browness of the water, it was actually very pretty and there were a few Khmer laden boats of a similar quality out on the water. And we hadn’t sunk or capsized yet. I also decided that in case of emergency I could tie knots in the arms and neck of my poncho and would have something that might float, to hold on to.

We spent the best part of the day on the boat, stopping at both the island and the temple. We even had a race against the monsoon on the way back – it was really surreal, we could see rain behind us and rain in front of us, but for the most part the one patch of blue sky stayed above us and we remained dry. The boat made it! I’m not sure what the VSO country director would have made of our ‘calculated risk’ but for the healthy sum of $4 each it was a great experience, not one I’d do again in a hurry. But I’m glad I did it!
Photos: The back of the boat and the driver and me and Ilja, a Dutch volunteer.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Fried Spider anyone?


Welcome to Cambodia. So far I’ve found testicular looking balls of something in my soup and have been dazzled by other local delicacies including the likes of fried spiders and grasshoppers. Much to everyone at Serif’s disappointment, I’m afraid I had to draw the line at both food stuffs. Quite frankly, the spiders look just a little too much like spiders for my liking, although fellow volunteer Simon said they didn’t taste too bad (having said this, he only ate one leg and put the rest in the bin). The photo above shows the spiders neatly stacked at a local service station on our road trip up to Kompong Cham – they were selling like hotcakes and if I ever wanted some extra income, apparently they aren’t too difficult to find lurking about in corners. I very much hope I NEVER find one, and am beginning to think that maybe I should have tried to fit a spider-catcher in my suitcase after all.

Spiders allegedly became a favourite during the Khmer Rouge years when almost everyone was forced to hide food and eat whatever they could find, spiders and lizards included. I appreciate I haven’t spoken much about the Khmer Rouge yet, I will do – I’ve lots to say already and have heard several personal stories, but I’m trying to think of a way to best put across what happened. Every person over the age of 30 in Cambodia remembers the Pol Pot years and quite openly has a story to tell, and I feel no less shocked every time I hear one.
Back on the subject of food, spiders aside, the food here really isn’t too bad, although I’m trying hard not to focus on the prospect of eating nothing but slimy vegetables and rice for a year. Generally, the food is nice and is as good from the market stalls as anywhere. I’ve also succeeded in buying my own vegetables, eggs, bread and tinned tuna from the local market in the hope of one-day fending for myself. Unfortunately the tuna wasn’t tuna but some other form of non-descript fish (with a spine) in a tomato sauce (not sunflower oil as I’d hoped).But still, it tasted okay. We were in a small village the other day as well and had some rice and banana concoction that was wrapped up in a leaf, which is a new personal favourite. I’m also a fan of sugar cane juice and coconut milkshakes – of which there are plenty.

I’m really enjoying Kompong Cham and learning the language and I look forward to the day when I say something in Khmer that isn’t met with a look of confusion. Already I’ve started to feel a bit more at home, which is being helped by the fact that my jet-lag has gone and I don’t need to go to the toilet as frequently as I did when I first arrived. Kompong Cham is a nice, small, manageable town. I can ride my push-bike and brave the roads (which aren’t actually too bad at all) and it doesn’t matter if I get it wrong and drive on the wrong side of the street because everyone else does too, and people are used to it. Here are a couple of photos, there’s one of the local three-legged, one eyed monkey and one of the view from the roof of the VSO house – and one of a shack, where a lot of the locals live on the river.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Ugly Duckling

This is just going to be a quick update - I've forgotten the flash drive that links my camera to my computer so I can't upload any photos at the moment, so I'll have to do that another day...

The reason behind the title of the post is that I have a growing and sneaking suspicion about my placement location. Every time (and it's a lot) we are asked to introduce ourselves and where we are going, everyone gives theire location and people respond with some gushy "oh - how lucky!" type comment. Unfortunately, when I inform people where it is that I'm going there's just this strange sort of silence and people seem to just nod politely and move on. I don't think Sisophon is going to be the most picture-perfect part of Cambodia. Oh well. Still, it's near a hospital so it can't be all bad!

We're in Kompang Cham at the moment and have just started language training, which was really good. Dara the teacher is great, he kind of reminds me of my dad a bit, quite loud and enthusiastic. So now I know 20 words in Khmer and can put together a few sentences. Unfortunately I don't know any food words other than bread and rice, so if I want a bit of variation I'm a bit stuck. Mind you, the way my stomach is at the moment, keeping to bread and rice isn't probably a bad idea...

Thanks everyone for all the comments, it made me smile to read them and it's good to know I've not been forgotten about. But Chris I'm afraid you'll be disappointed - I can count the number of amputees I've seen on one hand, I think Cambodia's moved on a bit since you were here! Although I haven't yet had the courage to stand and take photos of the piles of rubbish everywhere, and there is no word to describe some of the smells that waft around. Sometimes I think it's best not to think about that and to just keep on washing your hands and feet and having lots and lots of showers.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

First Impressions



Sorry it’s taken so long for me to post my first ‘proper’ entry. There’s so much going on and so much to think about that it’s hard to know where to begin. That, and one of the slowest internet connections I’ve come across!

Phom Penh seems pretty cool, I don’t know it very well yet but it’s definitely a lot calmer than I was expecting and the greatest part is that you can walk along the street without being hassled, which is a relief. It’s got some really beautiful buildings and the VSO program office is very close to the Royal Palace which is great, not a bad sight when you’re just walking around town. We’ve been around a bit, down the river front and out to some of the markets. The river front is being redeveloped at the moment, which is a shame because it ruins the view, but it’s great to see that some work is going on. Really, things are a lot better than I expected them to be. Apart from the odd family sleeping under a tarp and the amount of general rubbish everywhere, the city seems to be doing pretty well – most people are wearing moto helmets, this doesn’t stop them driving on the wrong side of the road or balancing a ladder on the back of the bike, but at least it’s a step in the right direction! I also saw an elephant walking down the street, that was definitely a first.

But it does keep raining. Actually the rain is a blessed relief, it’s not particularly hot here (I was half expecting to melt when I got off the plane) but it is very humid and sticky, and when it rains it’s a lot cooler - it’s all I can do to stop myself from having a shower in it. Hopefully I’ll get used to it, I’m trying not to think too much about the
fact that it’s actually remarkably cool at the moment. One step at a time I think!

In country training begins properly on Monday, so I’ll write a bit more then and hopefully I be feeling a bit more descriptive and a little less jet lagged! But rest assured, all is well. I’m happy I’m here, things are well organised and everyone is nice, but I think it will take a bit of adjusting to as well - I’m looking forward to when things start to feel a bit less crazy and a bit more like home. The photos by the way, show a few of the things I’ve seen around Phom Penh – I’ll update with a few more soon.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Rules of Motorcycle Training

1) A motorbike is not a push-bike. It does not operate in the same way.
2) Never, ever, grab the front brake in an attempt to stop suddenly
(see Rule 1).
3) Wear your wounds with pride (see attached photo).
4) If you are going to crash, try and do it somewhere quiet and soft (hedges work surprisingly well).
5) Always carry a tool kit.
6) Don't get so pre-occupied with your rear observation that you forget the obvious and don't look where you're going.
7) Don't get too carried away with the image of yourself as a 'BIKER'. Such attitudes can be misleading. Most mistakes seem to happen when your riding along thinking your The Stig, when evidently - you're not.
8) Wear the luminous yellow jacket with pride and smile.
9) Don't forget your sandwiches.
10) Go!