Some blunt questions from Cambodians

30 August 2010

Cambodians can be direct (although, yes, so can other people.)

On my recent trip in the countryside, a twenty six year old female passenger asked me about my marital status (divorced) and if I was thinking of finding a new wife in Cambodia. I replied (quite honestly) that I just hadn’t thought about it. On reflection the answer should have been a straight no, because i think that cross cultural marriages can have their problems and I haven’t thought about what would be involved in one. I came here to teach English, not to get a new younger wife.
The lady in question commented on the number of western men who come to Cambodia for this purpose. I didn’t know if I was being sounded out, or if she were sounding me out for an older friend of hers that I had met. Normally in Australia I might only discuss that subject with someone I’ve known for a time, or someone I had met on a dating site, where the assumption is that you’re looking for some kind of partnership or you wouldn’t be there.

I’ve also had a couple of  Cambodians tickle me on the tummy while telling me I look overweight. They did It in a humorous way, but it takes a bit of getting used to – people I’d only met two or three times did this. I noticed when I was in Seam Reap, people standing quite close to me a couple of times held my upper arm upper arm in what was meant to be a friendly way when talking to me. They seemed to do it when they were earnestly trying to convincing me of something.

On a better note, I’ve been offered some evening work at a large university here, starting about the 15th. This leaves time for me to fit a trip to Vietnam into the last part of this week.

And I’ll be able to fit a trip back home in November without disrupting their teaching schedule. They have strange term dates here: exactly 60 teaching days per term, so if there’s a public holiday (they have about twenty a year here) the term just gets extended and the next one starts late, so they don’t on the same days each year.

In the meantime, I’ve joined in the exercises classes that are held in the park opposite the royal palace each late afternoon. (I don’t know what they do when it starts raining- I  haven’t been there when that’s happened so far.)

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A Drive in the Country

24 August 2010

I went for a drive in the country side over the weekend with some Cambodian acquaintances. There were rice fields full of light bright green crops, white, pink and purple lotus flowers, geese ducks, dogs and cows wandering everywhere, including on a national highway. The only animals that seemed always to be on a leash were the water buffalo. The drivers here constantly honk their horns to let motorbike rides bicycle riders and kids on the side of the road know they are here.
The Cambodians stuff vans full to the brim and beyond. One van was so full the back hatch door was up and half a motorbike was poking out. And it had a guy sitting on it. In another van about a meter of flooring material was poking out the open rear door and there was a guy sitting on that.
Unfortunately one dog was standing in the middle of the road staring into space. Our driver honked, it didn’t move and he hit it. I instinctively looked out the right window to see if we’d killed it. It took a few seconds to realise we could still hear yelping, and since we were still moving, the dog must be under the car. We were dragging it along. The driver stopped, reversed, the dog ran out, with a visibly raw patch on its rump,  and ran away. Everybody laughed. I felt quite shocked. I guess in rural Cambodia there’s no point in doing a door knock to find whose dog it is, or offer to pay the vet bill, because there are probably no vets.

Another strange thing about this place: with a population of 14 million, there are 40 – yes – 40 psychiatrists. 30 of them live in the capital, Phnom Penh, which has 2 million people. So the other 12 million have ten psychiatrists between them. This in a county where 10 per cent of the population show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder! It’s a strange place. For more on this read:

http://www1.voanews.com/khmer-english/news/Mental-Health-Crisis-Strains-Cambodia-91069979.html

Bike riding in Phnom Penh: driving on the wrong side of the road makes sense.

I’ve discovered that Phnom Penh traffic isn’t as dangerous as it looks. All you have to do is ride very slowly and if in doubt stop. I managed to get quite a distance today to deliver a job application to an American School. I also discovered that this habit of driving on the wrong side of the road but keeping to the very edge is quite handy. If you want to turn left from a right hand lane into another right hand lane on the far side of the road, but the traffic is too dense, you just turn left into the wrong side of the road, and go very slowly so that people have a chance to avoid you. It seems to work, since everyone expects people to do it. I’ve noticed that the police are pulling people over and fining them for driving motor bikes without a helmet. So the law is beginning to be enforced.

I also went to the central market on the north edge of the business district and bought myself some shoes for $16 and some business shirts each for $8.

A French organisation has offered me some work leading discussions in English and doing some editing of publications to check the correct English. I should meet them in the next couple of days.

Getting around by bike in Phnom Penh

Wed 11 August

I noticed for the first time today that my tuktuk driver wears a helmet (to comply with the law), but it’s just a thin plastic helmet of the type that office fire wardens might have. It has no padding or anything protective about it. It looks like a toy helmet.

Sat 14 August.

I went out with the Hash House Harriers, a running / walking club. They meet near the railway station in the north of the town centre. the staion looks deserted and i’m not sure if it is actually in use. We went to the country side, I think north of Phnom Penh. Afterwards we went to a restaurant, as they usually do. Nice food, nice conversation. The next run is in Siem Reap.

16 August.

I moved into a new hotel: Spring guest house. Even though I inspected the room first I failed to notice it doesn’t have a fridge. That means I can’t store fresh milk for the mornings. I got adventurous and bought myself a bicycle. One of the hash people helped me. I feel a bit unsafe riding around the streets here since the traffic is chaotic and a lot of people don’t seem to give hand signals. I ‘m not sure what the road rules are about giving way and no one else seems sure either, or at least not able to explain them to me. One of the tuktuk drivers from the school says he can take me home for two dollars a day, so that saves me the trouble of haggling out on the main street with a new driver every day.

17 November

I discovered I can buy small cartons of long life milk –without added sugar- at the Lucky Supermarket (a big one near the intersections of Sihanouk Blvd. and Monivong Blvd., two of the biggest streets in town.) Negotiating them on a bicycle was a bit difficult, but I got there and back without killing myself.

First week in Phnom Penh: school, cops and submachine guns

Friday 6 August 2010

I arrived in Phnom Penh. The airport has a fixed tuktuk fare from the airport to the city of $7, so that saves the hassle of negotiating (haggling) with a driver when you don’t know the right fare. I had forgotten this since my last trip in April.

Because of the greater traffic congestion here, many main roads have concrete barriers down the centre of the road to stop people swapping and driving on the driving on the wrong side of the road as they do in Siem Reap. The hotel is quite comfortable. I went for a walk round to familiarise myself with the main streets nearby, bought some soap and shampoo, but didn’t find a place that sold shaving cream or dental floss.

 The hotel serves breakfast for two dollars. It includes toast, cereal, watermelon, banana and juice tea or coffee. 

I had an interesting conversation with a western film-maker. He is making a documentary about the destruction of the forests in Asia and how it’s affecting orang-utans. He said sometimes animal rescue organisations will find orang-utans which are being held as domestic pets, and the animal has copied human habits to the point where the animal has learned to smoke cigarettes, drink beer, and use the remote on the TV to change channels. I had heard of the destruction of forest causing these creatures to become endangered but I didn’t realise people kept them as pets and let them learn human habits like this. I was actually quite shocked.

On Sunday (8th)

 I went out with the Hash House Harriers for a walk in the country side outside Phnom Penh. They were a nice group of people. Apparently there is one of these groups in Seam Reap, but I was never aware of it when I was there. Afterwards we had a multiple course dinner in a restaurant for $4 each.

 Monday 9th.

I went to my new school. The tuk tuk driver got lost going to the school.  I met Lisa, a volunteer who is an Australian Goodwill Ambassador, Sokouhn, one of the teachers, Sokien, the guard, and Boray, the school administrator. Everyone seemed very nice and friendly.

Tuesday 10th

I went out this morning and met three of my pupils. We were up on the second floor balcony studying some newspaper articles. Their English is good: they could read and discuss newspaper articles about election violence in the Philippines and deportation of asylum seekers. There was a lot of noise outside our building.   The girls went over to the edge of the balcony and I followed them just in time to see a couple of police motor bikes speed past (which is not easy on a dirt road with potholes filled by broken bricks and masonry). One of the cops had a sub machinegun on his back. The girls could hear the locals in the street saying the police were chasing two thieves on a motor bike. The cops had fired three shots into the air. Then there was silence for a few minutes. Then the sound of motor bikes again. The cops came back, and on one motor bike they had a cop at the front, a guy in hand cuffs behind him and a cop sitting behind him, i.e., three guys on one bike. (This is quite common here to have three or four people (which usually include a kid or two) on one bike. The kids could hear the locals saying the cops got one guy but the one with the bike got away.  So that provided an instant essay in which they could practice past tense verbs + ing (were studying, were riding, and were shooting. But next time I’ll stay away from the edge of the balcony if I hear banging noises: as someone reminded me today, “what goes up (bullets) must come down.”

Teaching English in Siem Reap Cambodia

 This post is a consolidation of emails and notes I made while teaching English as a volunteer in a village just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, in June and July 2010

Saturday 5 June.

I got into Cambodia today. Seam Reap airport is small. In the airport I filled out the forms for a business visa, and they scanned my passport photo because I’d forgotten to bring a couple of spares with me. There was no one at customs to search my baggage, and people just left their customs declarations on a tray that’s marked for this purpose. It seemed strange to me. Outside I met Tom, from the agency that’s arranged my teaching placements here. We went in his car out of the airport and were soon on the road to the city.

One of the first things I noticed is the amount of broken bricks and masonry on the sides of the roads. It seems there’s a lot of construction going on, but there very slow to clean up afterwards. There are an enormous number of motor bikes on the road, as well as motorised tuktuks. We headed into town and get to my hotel.  The place I’m in is nice. There is a swimming pool out the front, three computers in the lobby for guests to use, and the room has air conditioning, which you need here because it’s hot and sticky.

I decided to spend Saturday and Sunday just getting familiar with the town.

Tonight I went to the old market. It’s full of crowded stalls, vendors sitting on their benches next to stacks of vegetables and it smells really strongly of something I can’t identify: like mould or fermented something. Later on I learn the smell is from a fermented fish paste. Then I went for a walk around the town. Most of the buildings are only two storeys, and the town seems full of bars, restaurants and internet cafes. One of most important streets is Pub street. It runs east-west through the centre of town. At the end nearest my hotel is the X-Bar corner, so called because the top story is a bar with giant neon Xs on the roof. You can see them from three of four blocks away.

In the centre of town on a corner half way down Pub Street there is a bar called the Red Piano. Around the top of its second storey is a line of horizontal red fluorescent lighting tubes, so you can see it from three or four blocks in any direction. I’ve been told that people giving me directions will refer to these two corners, so I need to know them. The two streets opposite the Red Piano have a row of food stalls that spring up each night under canvas awnings. A meal of wokked vegatbles and white rice only costs me $1, and banana shakes cost 3,000 Real, which is only 75 cents. So the meal with two shakes only costs me  only costs $2.50.

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Saturday 7 June

I went to my school: the one I’ll be at in the mornings. The school principal’s younger brither, Dy, will drive me to school on his motor bike, and take me back for three dollars a day. The school turns out to be well outside the town: down a highway, down some more streets, past the children’s hospital and off onto dirt roads. Most of the roads have deep ditches on either is, sometimes up to 10 feet deep. When the rainy season comes, the water can fill up the ditches, rather than flooding people’s houses or the roads. We pass through some of the village around the school. People are living in thatched huts, with geese and hens wandering around the houses. People are asleep on hammocks. Brahmin cows are tethered by the side of the road. The road immediately outside the school has recently been remade with a red clay surface, and raised up a foot or so above the surrounding land level. This newly made road runs off at a right angle to the school to connect with a made road. The American charity that made the school has paid for the road to be made so the kids can get to school and the village can operate normally and get goods in and out in the rainy season without their access being washed away or reduced to a trail of impassable mud.

The motor ride makes a bit uncomfortable: I have bought boots with steel capped toes in case I come off, and tom has helped me buy a motor bike helmet for $16.

At the school I met the Principal, Sarin and had a look around. The school is built in hollow rectangular U shape. The middle of the U is the playground. In the centre of the cross-bar of the U there is an administration building consisting of one room, which doubles as the library. On the either side of that are two classrooms, each separate to the admin building. They are painted in tow-tone: a deep orangey pink up to about four feet off the floor, and then a paler shade of pink above that. The roofs are corrugated Iron. There are steel bars on the windows and the windows have iron shutters painted black. The two long sections of the U shape are each made up of longer buildings with two classrooms on each, making six classrooms in total.

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Friday 11 June.

I’m at the end of my first full week in Cambodia. I was warned that in the wet season it would be raining large parts of the day, and I’d be riding through mud roads to the school. The wet season hasn’t been so wet: in fact it’s been less wet than an average Melbourne winter. We haven’t been motor cycling through mud as I was warned.

The biggest shock to me so far occurred when I sat in on a third grade English class only to find that the teacher and only 3 students had copies of the text book, and it was English-only with no explanations of the words in Khmer (the Cambodian language). It used words like engineer, doctor and nurse. I’m not sure how the kids were supposed to pick up the meanings. The school has no electricity, and therefore no photocopier, no CD player to use with the English text books, or anything else you and I take for granted.

I’ve started teaching the third grade class, making up the topics each day. We started with food. I used google cartoons to get pictures of melons, pineapples, tomatoes, apples and put these up on the board. Then I would teach the vocab, and then get the kids to come out and touch the picture of the food I had named. Then I’d put up the food names with some missing letters and get the kids to come out and fill in the missing letters. I drew pictures of smiley faces and frowning faces and taught the verb “like”. The trouble was finding a food the kids would say they didn’t like!

The lady who works here long term has been very helpful. She suggested a type of bingo game where the kids have to randomly write 9 words (in this case food words) in a grid, and I select words form the vocab we’ve been studying. The first kid to get all nine is the winner. I make each of the three rows of desks a team and put points up on the board for each row as they get things right. The kids seem to go for that.

One hard thing to get used to is the road rules or lack of them. In theory people are supposed to drive on the right hand side of the road, but its Ok to drive in the wrong direction if you stick to the very edge of the road, thereby turning a two lane road into a 4 lane road of alternating directions. How do accidents not happen? Every just goes very slowly and gives way. There’s none of this western agro “I’ve got right of way here so I’m going to push forward and you just get the hell out of my way.”
The poverty is confronting. If you’ve seen slum dog millionaire you’ll have some idea. Naked two and three-year-olds play on the street-edges just feet from passing motor bikes. I do get tired of being harassed by tuktuk drivers, pimps, and as of last night, directly by prostitutes. (Did I become more handsome overnight?) One advantage of hiring a bicycle today was that I didn’t get harassed in the streets.
The lack of hygiene is amazing. I was told second-hand that at one orphanage all the kids had head lice and they didn’t know it could be treated. So a volunteer paid for head lice treatment and then discovered they hadn’t washed their pillow cases and bedding for three years since the orphanage opened. So they did.

It is difficult to pick up even small phrases in Khmer, because they have 24 vowels compared to our 20 in English the pronunciation is very difficult.
There are free Khmer lessons in one place at 5 pm but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to them based on my schedule. I hope I can.

The biggest shock to me so far was when I sat in on a third grade English class only to find that the teacher and only 3 students had copies of the text book, and it was English only with no explanations of the words in Khmer (the Cambodian language). It used vocab like engineer and doctor and nurse and I’m not sure how the kids were supposed to pick up the meanings.
The teacher just wrote the passages up on the board and got the kids to recite them parrot fashion. In fact, when I tried to ask a question, the kids began to recite my question parrot fashion, with no understanding that it had been a question. 

I have to say  my first week in Cambodia  was a mix of things. Making up a lesson topics on my own is OK, as long as I don’t run out of ideas. Still I can always ask the other volunteers, the other teachers or folks back home for ideas, and there are websites for these things. This first six week stint was always going to be the hardest part of the learning curve: the ones where the basic mistakes would be made. Hopefully I’ll learn a lot and will be better equipped for my second stint in Phnom Penh.
One hard thing to get used to is the road rules or lack of them. In theory people are supposed to drive on the right hand side of the road, but its Ok to drive in the wrong direction if you stick to the very very right edge of the road, thereby turning a two lane road into a 4 lane road of alternating directions.
How do accidents not happen? Every just goes very slowly and gives way. There’s none of this western agro “I’ve got right of way here so I’m gonna push forward and you just get the hell out of my way.”

The local language is difficult to pick up even small phrases in, because of their use of consonants we don’t have” things that are a tdl sound rolled into one, or something that sounds to me like a pbr rolled into one. However there are free classes at one cafe at 5 pm every night so I’ll try to get to those.

The poverty is confronting. If you’ve seen slum dog millionaire you’ll have some idea. Naked two and three year olds play on the street edges just feet from passing motor bikes I  do get tired of being harassed by tuktuk drivers, pimps, and as of last night prostitutes directly. One advantage of hiring a bicycle today was that I didn’t get harassed in the streets.

The lack of hygiene is amazing. In one orphanage all the kids had head lice and they didn’t know it could be treated. So one of the volunteers paid for head lice treatment and then discovered they hadn’t washed pillow cases and bedding for three years since the orphanage opened. So they did. There seems a lot of ignorance on basic hygiene here. 

There are free Khmer lessons in one place at 5 pm but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to them based on my schedule.

I have found three second-hand book shops in the town. Most book are about Cambodia and south east Asia, the temples at Angkor Wat, and travel books. There are several book outlets in town including D’s Books on Pub Street, Blue Apsara and Siem Reap Book Centre in the Old Market area. Several roving book carts prowl the Old Market area, particularly ‘Pub Street,’ offering a good selection of the most popular Cambodia related titles. Book stalls on the riverside of the Old Market sell temple guides and Cambodia-related books, as do small vendors near the temples.

Friday 18 June.

I haven’t mentioned that I’ve been teaching an English class each day for the teachers. For that I’ve used some material from the New headway books that I bought from Australia.

I’ve also been teaching in the afternoons at the new National Youth Centre. Here the students are mostly high school kids who come along with their own text books and problems they want to discuss.

 23 June

I’ve now found a fourth second hand bookshop in town, but not what you or I would think of as a new bookshop. Having joined an on-line book club, I’ve got to get someone to post the books from Australia: Amazon won’t deliver to Cambodia because they don’t use zip codes/postal codes and Amazon insists on having a zip code or post code.  Book Depository in England just won’t post to Cambodia at all. I’m currently reading “The Girl Who Played with Fire”. Larsson certainly knew how to create a character. It’s a pity he died. He would have been interesting to have as a speaker at a writers’ conference.

29 June

As for getting books posted over here for my new-found on-line book group, one expat told me not to bother: there’s so much corruption in the Cambodian postal system that anything of value doesn’t arrive unless you send it by UPS or someone similar.   
Fortunately in a few weeks’ time I’ll be Phnom Penh (a “real” city with 2 million people, and real bookshops.) Hallelujah!

8 July

I’m almost at the end of my fifth week here in Cambodia and will be coming home on the 21st, for a 2 week break before I head of to Phnom Penh. I have to say it’s been mentally exhausting.

I’ve gotten used to riding to school on the back of a motor bike, and I gotten used to the rural poverty. It’s actually very lonely being in a tourist town where 98 per cent of the English speaking population are just tourists passing through for 3 or 4 nights. I miss being able to sit down and have a conversation with anyone I know. Skype and email have kept me partly sane, as have the Stig Larsson trilogy and a copy of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife”. Since I’m leaving on a Tuesday I’ll probably go out and visit the temples again on my last Monday.

Fortunately Phnom Penh has a bigger population of expats so I might be able to find some social groups there.  I want to do some serious catching up with people in the two weeks I’m back.

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9 July
No hand grenades in my hotel!

For the last five weeks I have been walking past  a sign on the wall of the lobby in my hotel, but not really looking at it. It’s in Cambodian but it has little pictures on the bottom. I finally stopped and looked at it. The pictures tell you there are three things you can’t bring into the hotel: syringes, hand guns and hand grenades!

13 July 2010

Am I really this stupid?

I spent Sunday looking at the ancient temples around  Angkor Wat – near where Tomb Raider was filmed. It’s 35 degrees C (about 100 Fahrenheit) so  I took  a bottle of sunscreen lotion, a hat, and an umbrella. As the day goes on I’m getting more and more sunburnt on my face and feet (I’m wearing sandals because of the humidity). I can’t figure out what’s going wrong. I stick on more sunscreen. I’m getting redder and redder. At 6 o’clock back in internet cafe I look at the plastic bottle I been using to stick cream on my face. Turns out in my rush to get out of the hotel  I picked up the shampoo bottle instead of the sunscreen bottle: the bottles are the same size both have the same looking white cream. So I’ve been putting shampoo on my face neck and feet all day and wondering why I’m being roasted. Aaaaarrrrrggghhhhh!!! My face is still peeling.

15  July

The local dentist visited our school today, and all the kids got free tooth brushes and toothpaste. The average Cambodian earns about two dollars a day, and the average farmer about 50 cents a day, so buying tooth brushes and tooth paste isn’t going to happen unless someone gives it to them for free. I watched a demo by the dentist with a giant set of teeth on hinges  and a giant teeth brush as the kids were taught how to brush their teeth. For most of them this is a new concept. They just regard tooth decay as part of life and most of them don’t realise there is anything you can do about it or prevent it. One of the British long-term volunteers here paid $800 out of her own pocket to get one kid’s teeth fixed, because he had good English and could get a job eventually on the tourist industry, e.g. on the front desk of a hotel, but no one would employ him with a mouth that’s full of black holes. I’ve taken toothbrushes for granted all my life, and it’s never occurred to me that there are people who can’t do that.

Considering the conditions in the village (thatched huts that look like Europe in the middle ages, dirt roads, no electricity, kids who might only have one or two sets of clothes etc)  I’ve come to realise these guys are really working miracles in appalling conditions. The charity just paid for a road to be built into the school and raised up a foot or so from the surrounding ground level , and put culverts (underground pipes crossways to the road) in at key points to let water drain away from the houses into deep ditches on the side of the road, so the road to the school doesn’t get washed away each rainy season.  I’m looking  forward to two weeks back in Australia before I go to Phnom Penn. I’ll be working there is a school which – and I’m serious here – takes kids who live scavenging recyclables off the municipal rubbish tip and puts them in schools: No doubt that will have some other challenge.
 

18 July. End of Week 6.

I arrived at school on Monday morning to find they had started work on a new classroom which will be just for all the English classes. It seems to be going up quite quickly.

On Thursday night I was passing a tuktuk on the way back to my hotel, when the driver asked me “You wanna get high?” and another asked me “You want some weed?” the younger guys tell me they are offered drugs all the time. It’s taken six weeks for it to happen to me.