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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.