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Friday, 26 February 2010

All the Khmer ladies

If you’re female and ever go to Cambodia there is one activity that you should not leave the country without doing. Be proud and go Khmer!

As a birthday treat (yes, I’m that behind on my blog), for the reasonable sum of $12 each, me and my four girls (it would have been five, but Ilya was doing something productive) turned up at Apple photo-studio ready to be done up as Khmer as possible. Photo-shoots in Cambodia are a pretty big deal, you can get them done anywhere – family portraits, wedding photos or just for fun. You will be airbrushed to high heaven and look beautiful no matter what:

Quote: “You want me to airbrush you slimmer? No worry, we can do that”.

It took five hours, a LOT of make-up, fake eyelashes, fake hair and some sparkly dresses – but it was worth every second of it! It was even worth the disheartening realization that the dress was not going to zip up and would have to be pinned into place. It’s difficult not to laugh when you pinned into place, balanced on a chair, head up, chin down, look at the camera… and relax.

And the result? Well, you can be the judge of that.

Up, up and away...

Having spent the last month (or two) moaning to anyone who will listen, you will be pleased to know that I think the textbook six month slump is beginning to lift… I’m in the process of adapting a new found resignation for loud Khmer music and have had the busiest, most productive week of the last three months. And I even made time for six episodes of House, Season 1.

What’s caused this change? I think it’s a mix of things. Acceptance of what I can and can’t do in the next six to nine months perhaps, and the confidence to just give it a go – what have I got to loose? And whatever happens, at least I’ll go home knowing that I tried. In light of this I’m running two workshops and a study visit next month. Oh and my translator will be on paternity leave for half of it, so that should be interesting… still, it’s given me a bit more purpose and it’s nice to feel that I might actually being doing something useful.

The other big change I think is that I haven’t had to be anywhere else for the last week and half. Since Christmas everything has been so disrupted that I haven’t really known if I’ve been coming or going. I’ve been up and down from Phnom Penh for language training and workshops and with the house being broken into as well – it’s all quite unsettling. But now I really feel like I live here again. Even just being around and about makes a big difference. Going for daily coffee with Jan and Mary makes everything feel a bit more like team work, and zipping around on my pushbike or moto and doing little things like going to the money-change lady, or bike-fixer lady, makes me feel more part of the town. Oh, and I also cracked and hired a cleaner. You have no idea what a relief it is to not have to think about dusting everyday or about when I’m going to wipe up the new selection of gecko turds off the kitchen floor. She (Netta) only comes twice a week but already I feel more on top of my life and love her for washing my bedsheets (ever tried doing that in a bucket? Rinsing them out is impossible).

Anyway, so I’m feeling more spirited, and that’s what’s important. I have work to do for the next five weeks and that’s great. I’ve even made some time to go into my schools and play with the kids (in a vain attempt to stop them staring at me) – actually I did this a few weeks ago, but was too busy feeling sorry for myself to put it into a blog entry.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


And the joys just keep coming. Having been in Phnom Penh for two weeks, caught up with my girls, learnt some Khmer and generally had a nice time – I headed back home full of ideas for work.

It did feel a bit weird coming back. I’ve been surrounded by people for the last six weeks and now I’m by myself – and though I’ve got a small but lovely group of friends up in Sisophon, it was still my birthday and I’m really starting to miss my life back home.

So, as if by some special power – someone knew this and just when I was starting to feel better I get back from work and my house has been broken into. What worries me most is that is wasn’t opportunistic. Someone (or, judging by the footprints, several someones) thought it necessary to climb over my fence, onto my roof and to actually saw a hole into the wall of my bedroom. Fortunately I had my valuables locked up in a drawer in my wardrobe – so they didn’t get anything worthwhile. In fact, as I keep discovering things that they have taken, these include:

My bin liners (presumably to carry my stuff in)
A top
A skirt
Some pretty fabric I was going to get trousers made from
Some manky cushions
Peanut butter
Dried noodles
x3 yoghurts, x3 tins of coconut milk, x1 tin of sweetcorn
My iron

They left:
The TV
A collection of DVDs
A motorbike

I don’t know what to make of it to be honest. My landlady was great, she was round in a shot – she insisted on staying the night, the hole has been fixed and barbed wire now goes round the whole fence and on the roof where they climbed. It’s not as pretty as it used to be, but it’s secure. But the feeling that someone wanted to get into my house so badly un-nerves me. And they did it in broad daylight. On my birthday (although of course they didn’t know that, just bad timing I guess). I don’t know what to think anymore. I wanted to come here so badly, but now? Well, I just don’t know.


Looking back over my blog, particularly at the photographs, I can see just how easy it is to create an impression of luxury and paradise. And why not? Although I knew I was coming here to work, I also knew that this year would probably turn out to be one of the hardest, but one of the best years of my life. I expected that, no matter what, I would love it. I think everyone expected, and still expects, that.

So here’s what the photos don’t tell you. For the last couple of weeks (or, if I’m honest about it, the last month), I’ve been finding life in Cambodia very difficult. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that I don’t love it, and this is a very strange realization to have had. It’s like when you start university and everyone asks you how it is, and you just know that the auto-response to this question should be “Fantastic thanks!”. So what happens when it isn’t? I feel like the fact that I don’t love it is some big guilty secret – like there’s something wrong with me for thinking this. How could you not love it?

Well, the novelty of being woken up at 4am most mornings has well and truly worn off, and I’m tired. It’s hot. I miss my family and I miss my boyfriend. Maybe that would all be okay if I really felt like what I was doing was worth it. But I’m just not overly sure it is. There is so much built into the politics Cambodia, and it is so saturated with NGOs that you really do start to wonder what work you can do – and is it worth all the frustration and heart-ache? This is not a plea for people to tell me that my just being here is making a difference to peoples lives, because that really is not the case – I’m not even sure how much people actually want the help we are offering. And all this is very hard to come to terms with. Cambodia has surprised me in many ways, but I really didn’t expect to not like it all that much. Well, I mean – Cambodia’s great, but living it, working it and breathing it is something different entirely.