Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas in Cambodia

If I had to characterize this Christmas in one hyphenated word it would be non-traditional.  Christmas Eve was spent down by the riverside and then waiting for the 1:30am night bus to Sihanouk Ville. Since it didn't arrive until 3am we had a lot of time to think about the little town in Bethlehem but mostly Chris and I watched with fascination the comings and going at the Mao's Club which was next door.  I was thinking that STDs might have been the most common gift exchanged on that night.

Our waterfront restaurant

The night bus, which is a sleeping bus, (no seats just double decked padded kind of beds) got us into Sihanouk Ville around 7am.  Instead of looking under the tree, we looked for our island.  There are two Koh Rungs and two resorts, one Songsa the other Songsaa.  My contact person must have been sleeping in because there was no answer when I called and the Christmas spirit was fading fast.  Finally a call, meet at the port island marina, we leave at 10.  There is a Buddha.  In a little restaurant we waited and met Michael from the UK and Maria from St. Petersburg (not the one in Florida).  They too were hoping to go to the right island and resort.  Another phone call "maybe 10:30".  We were having a good time getting to know one another and watching the antics, like a moto driver coming down the pier across the gang plank and right into the restaurant, no one bats an eye.  And then after a cup of coffee, where is the bathroom? around the back, two sheds with boards missing and the beautiful green tropical water below.  Did it say employees must wash hands after using? not sure.  Another call "maybe 11:30", then we hear it is too rough to cross.  About noon the boat driver comes over with his daughter to say no crossing today, too rough.  OK. Michael and Marie had been in Sihanouk Ville for a couple of days so they suggested we go to a little resort close by and then hope the boat would go tomorrow.  The resort had a pool and open air restaurant, a bar and rooms and bungalows, $18 a night.  We were so tired that it looked great and it was.  That night they had a Christmas party and we had fun.  The next morning we got a call before 8 and once again the boat was leaving at 10.  We met Michael and Maria for coffee, "where were you guys last night?" we asked.  Oh we went to a Go-Go bar.  Well, I was pissed.  All I could think of was Goldie Hawn in those white boots. I didn't ask why they didn't tell us because I was afraid that their answer would make me feel old.
Merry Enlightenment
    Back to our port side restaurant (I made sure I used the bathroom in the resort before I left)  it was still really windy and we thought our trip today would be the bus back to Phnom Penh, but no.  More Koh Rungers arrived and soon were were motoring across the harbor and out past the breakwater.  John, dad, Denise,mom, two daughters in their twenties from Australia, Chris and I, Michael and Maria and a German woman, Leven.  Well the weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was rocked, if not for...................anyway I couldn't help but go there because  John put on his baseball cap and written across it was SKIPPER. Michael look oddly like Gilligan. Ok, I want to be the professor, Maria, who resembled Ulma Thurman, was the movie star, Leven, Maryanne, Chris, who left all his money back at my apartment was the anti-millionaire so lets just leave it like that.
The tiny ship was rocked
It really was rough, so much so that we had to land at a little fishing village on the other side of the island and all jump in the back of a pick up truck to get to the jungle trail to hike into the resort.  Our journey together made us all fell friendly and familiar.  The resort, wish I had another word for it, was just a bunch of bungalows on the beach, a covered deck with a long table and some lounging chairs. Nice but not Club Med.  John (Skipper) thought it was the nicest place he had ever been but I think he says that about everywhere he goes.  His daughters, Zoey and Catherine, have been traveling in SE Asia for the last 6 months and now Mom and Dad are catching up with them.  A really nice family.  Our two days there were fun, swimming, hiking in the jungle, a fire on the beach at night, playing cards and talking with our new friends. I have really gotten to like the international flavor of being in Cambodia.  What's going in in Russia Maria?  What do you think about Putin and Obama?  Michael had lived in South Africa.  Denise went to Antarctica twice. Perth is a boom town with all the Chinese money pouring in for mineral resources.  Zoey and Catherine had great stories about Laos and Vietnam. I chimed in to say that I have to cut my grass once a week in the summer.   Leven got sick and we all took turns checking on her and trying to help her figure out what to do next. 
Leven aka Maryanne
Gilligan hanging on for dear life
Michael and Maria
The beach outside our bungalow
Leven got sick and we all took turns checking in on her.  She ended up returning to Sihanouk Ville with us but she was still sick.  Chris and I took her up to our Christmas place and got her a room where at least she would have AC and could get something to eat.  I hope you are ok Leven. Our trip back to Phnom Penh was uneventful and it was good to get home.  I've enjoyed having Chris here and  showing him around.  We've been doing a lot of walking and sitting on the balcony catching up the last 30 years.  Off the Siem Reap and Angkor Wat for New Year's weekend. Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Khmer Wedding

The happy couple
Weddings in Cambodia are a big deal.  Ever since I arrived I've wondered about them and seen and heard them and wanted to get invited to one.  Most of the teachers at school who have been here any amount of time have been to at least one because some Khmer (pronounced Khmei) staff member has gotten married.  So I thought my chance might come from school,  little did I know that my landlady's daughter, Leng Mouy Teang (goes by Pov), just got engaged and yours truly got an invite.

Thanking her relatives
First, the seen and heard.  Almost every weekend some street is blocked off and tents are set up and decorated and food is cooked out and music is played.  It is very elaborate, but until I got a little closer, I didn't know that really meant.  Oh and heard, the music is really loud.  Second, I really haven't been to the wedding, its in January, but to the engagement party.  Get this, it was today, Saturday, from 7am to noon.  The music started at 5:45am.  By 6:30 I had had it and wandered out to my balcony with my view of cultural diversity being reduced to three initials  "WTF".  The music is hard to describe, it is really loud,  some of it sounds kind of ancient and Indian and then morphs into the worst of soft rock.  All the words seems to say "sometimes when we touch, the honesty's too much" repeated many times.  My upstairs neighbor, Claude, a friend and teacher from school was also up and we decided we would go down at 8:30.  When we got there, the downstairs was transformed and it was crowded.  Everyone turned our way and directed us to a good spot to sit.  They were pleased and honored by our presence. Such a nice feeling and I felt so privileged to be there.  Just then, Pov arrived.  Wow, I really am in Kampuchea.. 
This is the down stairs where they park their cars

Elizabeth Taylor would be jealous
Claude, who is much more inquisitive than me, found out the story two weeks ago.  Mom and Dad are not here all the time.  Pov kind of runs the place and Kea and Leung (a story for another time) do all the work.   Pov is a really modern girl; tiny, looks 16 but is 26.  Always has her phone out and wears angry bird t-shirts and jeans.  Her English is good but she has funny word choices, like she refers to the day after her wedding day as Happy Day.    Well she had a young Khmer boyfriend and he used to come around and stay on the 4th floor.  I hadn't seen him in a while but wasn't really looking, then Claude comes in two weeks ago all primed with gossip.   Pov is getting married and we are invited, but that's not the best part (he can't wait to tell me this) not to that good for nothing hip hop kid but to a 30 year old engineer.  Mom got rid of the boyfriend and arranged this wedding.  Well in thinking about it I've decided that Mom  probably knows best (right Mom?). 

Right after the ceremony
Dad, me, groom,bride, Claude and Mom
I always sit at the fun table
The music is now off and a priest, minister, monk, not sure which, is leading the ceremony.  He is kind of chanting and gifts are exchanged and candles lite and rings put on fingers.  Lasted about a half in hour.  Finished with a prayer. Oh yeah, the bride and groom to be, have to go through motions of gratitude to their parents and to relatives.  Pov is kind of a brat and pouted a couple of times when prodded to do her part their way.  Fun to watch, but she was really lovely and fun to look at, the dress and hair and spiky shoulders and golden snake ankle things.  When it was over there was tons of picture taking and then out to the tent to eat.  I tried to see if they would whip up some eggs benedict, but had go with my second favorite breakfast: fish with its head still on, a whole chicken that looked like it got stepped on, lots of gelatinous difficult to describe food items in a sauce that my girlfriends at my table seemed to love and encouraged me in Khmer gestures to take more of.  They were also trying to tell me something, don't want to jump to any conclusions, but does anyone know how you say aphrodisiac in Khmer? At this point Claude spilled a glass of water into his lap and we all got a kick out of that.  I said to him, now's our chance; I'll tell them all you had an accident and I have to take you to the bathroom.

We did leave soon after and said our goodbyes and aoukuns (thank yous) in an appropriate way.  The wedding is in January and I'm buying a new shirt (and ear plugs) and I'll tell you all about it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Students

First let me say that I have a bias when it comes to the students in my class, I have always thought that they either were pretty smart (or have the potential to be) and that they were good looking as well.  What does Garrison Keeler say about people in Lake Wobegon?   "all the women are good looking and the men above average".  I remember many times standing outside of my classroom watching other classes being dismissed and thinking where did they come from?  I say this all because my description of my students this year at EWIS might sound a bit over the top, but that would be true, to a certain extent, about any class I have had.
Por making up a quiz at my desk
The boys, not enough room to say who is who
      Fair to say that my default setting is that like my students but getting to know them  has not been all peaches and cream.  The hardest part has been their names.  Just a sample:  Tithpich Panhehapor, Kheny Keomony, Sann Puthdeborah, Mok Mengsrent.  How about easier ones: Ye Shin, Youbin, Ye Jin, Subin, Yun Jin and Jin Hee, oh, I forgot Hyang Yu and Ju Eun.  Back to the hard ones: Dolin Phennyreach, Thun Molika, Chea Sapanharith, Chum Magiret, Brun Rizponhakol, hardest of all Kwanhanok Suwandey (who thankfully calls herself May).  Some, like Eang Muyly, I am afraid to call on again in class because the first time I did I butchered her (yes she is a girl) name so badly that all the students laughed.  The other thing about their names is that it is hard to know what is their first name and their last name.  You would think that Lee In Kyu was related to Choung Min Kyu, but not so, In Kyu is his first name(s) and so is Min Kyu.  In Kyu's brother is in a different grade and his name is Lee Song Kyu.  My favorite, I kid you not, is Yes Bright Winner, and he is all three.  Ok Mom and Dad (I am sure you are reading this Dad) in the next life name me Rich Handsome Guy.  One more name, Ly Kimny, she is Vietmanese and a 9th grader (goes by Ny).  I bring her up because she has one of the most powerful personalities in a student that I have ever met.  She is very nice, funny, smart, speaks Vietnamese, Khmer, English, Mandarin and is a natural born leader.  I mention her because when she takes over the world I like you remember that you heard it here first.
Por, Por's older sister, and Muyly
     My classes are not all peaches and cream either, I would like you to know that I work hard and earn my 480,000 riel a month.  I get into school every morning at 7am, check my email (how come you never write, I wonder), make coffee and then try to find something to eat. The school starts at 7:40 but my classes never start until 8:30 or, on Thursdays and Fridays, 9:20.  I am trying to follow the established curriculum but really don't like it and have talked with Sandra about it and she has given me free reign to change and develop whatever I want providing that I join in on these curriculum meetings on Wednesday morning at 7am (rats).  Ok, I said but only if there is coffee.  I digress.  The classes have become more and more fun for me.  The kids like their teachers and listen, well, most of the time.  Let's just establish some base lines, no one has told me to f'off but there are times that my almost poetic description of filtration of the blood at the nephron's capsule is not greeted with the enthusiasm I expected.  My students are nice kids but kids are kids.  Brilliant, good looking, distracted and knuckle-headed too.  Language and culture and ethnicity are barriers. Some of my standard jokes have actually fallen flat "What is the difference between ignorance and apathy?" (punch line below).   Of course the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a mountain range in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and no you can't see it; let's turn our attention now to the continental shelf (for Eddie and Danielle).  What is sunburn?  Oh, I guess you wouldn't know, that's what happens when ill adapted northern Europeans-Americans turn red because they are not this beautiful copper color.  Ok class, what happens in genetics when you cross a blond straight haired male with a red curly haired female, or a blue eyed female with a green eyed male?  I look around and everyone except me has black straight hair and brown eyes.  Yes class, baldness exists and is inherited and, by the way, I think I look like Sean Connery.     
     Teachers put a lot of time and energy into there class because they want to share what they love, its not about he money.  They want to change the world one student at a time.  I have this opportunity this year and I want to  bring all these things that I know and love to them.  Our school's mission is pretty incredible and I want to be part of it, to say I influenced the future of  Cambodia is worth more then my 5,760,000 yearly salary.
A Grandmaster in the making
     Lastly we are required to run an activity after school two out of four quarters.  I have a group of 14 chess players this quarter.  Most of the kids who signed up are from the lower school and it has given me a chance to get to know them. First of all they love playing chess.  I don't know if this applies across Cambodia, but these kids really play.  I used to play and have enjoyed getting back to it but I am really not very good and some of these kids are and surprisingly they are trash-talkers.  No apologizing for winning, little respect for elders. Its kind of ha-ha in your face chess. I try to set a good example when I lose but on more than one occasion I found myself saying to a 8 year old "I don't like you anymore".   Next quarter I am doing volley ball.
    I don't know and I don't care

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Transition

No more yellow walls
My Kitchen
I am starting to get my bearings after almost three months, so let me describe where I am or where I think I am.  First my apartment is a nice, the building is brand new has everything that you could want or need.  I'm on the second floor so I have a little bit of a view from my balcony and it is my good fortune to have the Hatha Khmer Massage by Men across the street because they have a dense stand of trees and bamboo preventing a view of what really goes on in there.  This all means that I have nice green tree tops to look out on and these are attractive to birds as well.  So far only sparrows, mynas and something called a minivet, but I am hoping that as the winter comes up north more birds will perch above the men.  Just a half a block away is my school.  It is a nice place to work, very kid friendly and a good group of teachers.  Being close means I can go back late in the afternoon to swim, I've given up jogging and have replaced it with laps.  I've also taken on two tutoring jobs and do about six hours a week which is good spending money.  I live in an upper middle class neighborhood that is safe and relatively quiet.  I like it here, my neighbors are nice and friendly, there is an Australian guy who fixes motorcycles up the block but aside from him everyone is Khmer.  The women next store sells cold drinks and I stop sometimes and she tries to teach me a little bit but I am a total failure. After a rather long and painful lesson on counting, I forgot how to ask for two and can't even remember one, she laughs and laughs.  There is a man who is always out washing his car in the afternoon and I have commented in my own stupid sign language way how nice and clean it is.  Penny Lane.  There are two small restaurants on my block and I've tried eating at both but I really didn't like the food and never went back.  I walk by now kind of sheepishly but they always give me a nice smile.  Most of these little Khmer restaurants are kind of dirty, plastic chairs, lots of napkins on the ground and the certificate of health in the cooking area not clearly displayed.  I did find one about four blocks away and it is really nice, it is clean with a charcoal grill and bird cages.  It is off the beaten tourist path and its get few westerners.  My arrival, I've been there three times, always seems to quite an occasion, like they never seen a pasty bald guy before.  They are really very gracious and because the menu is only in Khmer, they act somewhere between apologetic and overly helpful in trying to tell me what to order  Then they tend to hover. The food is good, cooked over the grill (very little chance of cockroaches or worst  falling in) and they have a really spicy chili sauce to put on it, that, a beer, tea and dessert for under $4.  Also with in walking distance is the church I go to on Sunday morning (a lot of singing, good people and really good AC), the Boddhi Tree, the AK and a really funky move theater call The Flicks.  The first row is air mattresses, the second, blow up chairs and then wicker couches: seating and lounging=54.  They just use a computer and a projector. 
The ktichen of the Khmer restaruant I like
           Phnom Penh is a funny little city, more Brooklyn than Manhattan. I am so glad I am not here as a tourist because I know I would be disappointed by the city's major draw which is the river side.  Lots of bars and restaurants.  People just wandering around looking for something.  I went down there for three Sundays in a row to watch the Rugby World Cup and really had fun in this open air place called Patty Rice crowded by crazy fans from New Zealand, Ireland, France, England and Wales (you wouldn't think there were many Welsh in Phnom Penh) all cheering for their teams.  I  haven't done any real sightseeing in the city.  Over the Christmas break my lifelong (I'm advoiding the word old)  friend Chris Walsh is coming and we will spend a couple of days here and see the Royal Palace and tour a silk farm (did you ever wonder how silk is made?).  I have really enjoyed and appreciated the other teachers, mostly youngsters, inviting me to places they know about.  When we all first got paid we had to walk to the bank to set up a pin for the ATM.  After that we went to the Beer Garden, a real Khmer outdoor place where we ordered a tower of beer= 5 pitchers with a big frozen tube of ice floating it it.  I also went with them one night to a karaoke bar and we all had a great time.  And thanks to Gayla and the crowd at the AK I have been to a lot of nice places to eat that I would never have known about if I was here for a week.  I actually love telling people, "No, I live here."  What I don't like about Phnom Penh is that is not a good city for walking (or jogging) and that it really smells bad.  All the street drains empty into these open canals and the whole system literally stinks.  I especially dislike walking along the canal which is called the Black River and I am sure worse. 
Route 1 just outside of Phnom Penh
           I've only been outside Phnom Penh twice and it really feels like a third world country.  Although I've heard that the roads are much improved, they still are a mess and dangerous.  The garbage thing is really a shame.  Only when you get pretty far away from "civilization" do you see the beautifile tropical forest and mountains.  I wonder what the fate of this country is?  An ancient culture that maybe peaked with Angkor Wat a thousand years ago and then was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and now it is changing quickly.  Cambodia is incredibly young and it feels busy and on the move.  The west with all its money and conviences has a strong pull.  Lucky's supper market is like any in the US (except Skippy peanut butter costs $8) but its shoppers are mostly westerners.  The open air markets, with crawling crabs, and squirming fish and live chickens waiting to be separated from their heads are jammed with Cambodians.  I think of farmer's markets in the US replacing the preservative infused and hormone injected foods of the supermarkets at home. So I guess I don't see the bigger picture very clearly.  I would like to comment more on Cambodia's direction, the role of women here, my students and their role in the future, corruption, the environment, but it will just have to be for another time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steppin' Out

Friday nights begin with a walk to the AK. On the way I think of Walt Whitman taking the ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan excited about what is ahead and enjoying the trip.  If he were on his way to the AK he would be tipping his hat to the drivers, "you the man" he might say. He would stop and laugh with the fireman who are always out in the evening playing badminton, each point seemingly funnier then the last.  I am sure he would see the beautiful smiling faces and feel the energy of the rushing motos and tuktuk, sounds that might have him think of a song   "I Hear Cambodia Singing.......
Gayla and Sambath

Your table is waiting at Le LiBan
      The AK is a small speciality shop that has a free wine tasting on Fridays from 5-7 and has been my destination the last couple of weeks.  Even though I call the usual suspects a  gathering of cheapskates, the crowd that shows up is really nice.  Australians, Indians, Cambodian, Italians, Americans and more.  There is cheese and bread and of course wine.  Its not really a tasting or it maybe starts as a tasting but then it just becomes a lot of people standing around with  glasses filled with wine.  Turn around and there is someone new to talk with and the conversations get pretty lively.  Gayla's friend Sambath is the manager of the AK and she is really stunning.  I think I have to say here that Gayla is really stunning too (she might read this).  Well by seven everyone is getting  hungry and its where to go to dinner?  We have been to some pretty nice restaurants, secret places, hidden away.  Myfavorite hasbeen Le LiBan.  Walk through the gate and it is just beautiful, so different from the gritty streets.  It was all but empty when we got there and the owner came over to greet us and he ended up staying for a while.  We took a tour and each table was surrounded by its own separate garden.  There is this tree there that is some kind of a palm that fans out from a sturdy trunk to maybe 12 branches each ending in one giant leaf.  A sweeping symmetric show of leaves from the front and back but almost disappears from the side.  The owner is Lebanonese and a real charmer, I say this because he had us buy a $35 dollar bottle of wine, and us well past our the wine tasting appreciating part of the night.  Next week is Indian and the next is Italian but somehow tonight is my suggestion.
Cecil, Gayla, me, Sambath and Giampaolo
    The Boddhi Tree is my Sunday morning breakfast spot.  I've never seen the garden lit up at night and our evening thunderstorm moved through with just enough noise and lightning to create an ambiance I can described in one word, magic.  Two weeks ago I bought some prints to hang on my bare yellow walls and then I went and got them framed.  They turned out really nice.  In the art shop I was struck by these original paintings that were kind of impressionistic oils of classic Khmer stone carving.  I asked how much? $50 matted and framed.  I was blown away and have been thinking of ways of getting these painting to the US and sell for $500 or more.  Anyway I brought this idea to the table because Giampaolo's company is  AsiaFutura Trading, he brings Italian food into Cambodia.  He liked the idea and said he would sign on, then Gayla said that everything she brings home to Colorado draws attention.  She really likes the fabrics here.  Cecil is an accountant and he jumped on board too.  A company was forming and we quickly realized that Sambath would be the perfect spokesperson.  We all agreed that she would beguile America and get them to love Cambodia: riches would soon follow.  Well it was really fun talking and laughing and dreaming up names and how a year from now we will have a big glassed in office on the 44th floor of the tallest in Phnom Penh.  "What are you some kind of a cooperate pig?" I think Gayla said.  (We might have to go without her).  The night continued with two bottles of wine and before we knew it the waiter asked us to settle up because they were closing.  We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.  Phnom Penh is different when is it late.  All the stores have closed up and the metal gates locked tight.  The streets, so crowded just a couple of hours ago, are all but empty.  The tropical breeze sways the palms with just faint notes of that song.
Potential millionaires
Where is Walt this morning?  Singing that Leonard Cohen song ".....I ache in places where I used to play..."?  I have to remember not to drink wine and where are all those clever name we thought up for our company?  I probably won't check to see if we have any orders because I have a stack of papers to correct for Monday.  And where did that magic go?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The People that I Meet

Always waiting in ambush
To say that Cambodian are a tolerant, easy going and happy group of people sounds about as dumb as saying the Irish are drunks or Italians hot headed, so I will say the Cambodians that I meet are just the nicest people.  Walking down the street I always get a nice smile from someone.  Even the moto or tuktuk drives who are always saying "Tuktuk", smile when I say no, and they will laugh if I say "Wakwak".
       As usual my life falls into routines and the Cambodians I meet notice.  I go the a Sunday service and stop in a really nice cafe and guest house called the Boddhi Tree.   I never have much time so now the waiter, Sopheak, a really nice kid in his twenties, asks coffee? as I walk through the garden.  Two weeks ago when he brought it over he said that he remembered that I don't take milk or sugar and I said how nice of you to remember, the only problem is that I do take milk but not sugar, but for two weeks running I have not had the heart to tell him.  Cambodian coffee is not that good anyway and I'm really looking for half and half so I decided to just have it black, just like he remembers.  One of my other regular stops is SuperCheap, a beer and wine store.  The names of these places that cater to westerners are kind of silly, Lucky is chain of grocery stores and sub shops and hamburger places,  Excellent Market is right around the block and its isn't really that excellent,  but SuperCheap lives up to its name in one respect, Beck's Beer for $4.20 a six pack. It is a modern store and has a glass front and sliding doors.  It is way over staffed, which is the case with a lot of stores, and there is a young man in SuperCheap who always spots me coming and I can see him head for the Beck's as the doors open.  I really don't think he sees me as incapable of finding the beer or unable to carry it to the counter, he is just nice.  One day in between walking in and paying at the counter (it takes three girls to ring up the sale and put the six pack in a plastic bag) a downpour started.  He came over and took my beer and put it aside and invited me into separate part of the store that is kind of like a wine cellar, super air conditioned and fun looking at all the labels, some over $200 a bottle.  He came back ten minutes later to say the rain had stopped.
The Beck's is on the right
  Samol has become my tuktuk driver and because I have been tutoring two or three afternoons  a week I am calling him a lot.  He is the nicest guy.  I feel like a cross between a rajah and a ugly American sitting in the back of his tuktuk but it is always fun seeing the city and taking note of the driving.  I've said this before I know, but the antics on the road here are really quite amazing.  Maybe they teach accelerating as you enter an intersection at driver's ed because everyone does it.  Even Samol who drives really slow, does it.  When there is congestion at an intersection, motos slip though the smallest opening to get to the front and a group always goes up on the sidewalk and then to the head of the cue.  No one gets mad.  I watch Samol watching them and I kind of get the feeling he is saying "Good move". Twice my appointments got cancelled at the last minute and Samol was down stairs waiting and when I told him he says "No Problem".  I used to ask him how much, some drivers are really a pain about money, but Samol always says "Whatever you think", so I don't ask him anymore.  Gayla told me that her first year here she was really broke and Samol would take her places for very little or nothing.  She trusts him and calls him a friend.  Every time she and I go somewhere he is always invited in and always declines.   He invited us to his homeland on the last holiday and we both had to decline, but made a little pack that we would go out to the country to visit with his extended family next time we get invited.  Now that would be a story I am sure.  As you might have realized by now I am quite taken by the people I meet.  Samol's quite dignity, the thoughtfulness and positive nature of him and others have become what I am most impressed with in this little backwater country.  If, as the beatitudes say, 'the meek shall inherit the earth',  I would think the Cambodian will own a lot of property.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Off to the Beach

View from back of the bus
Hard to believe, four weeks of school and a five day vacation.  A couple of weeks ago I saw it coming and looked around for someplace to go.  Thank you Dan for the guide book,  in it was a resort on an island in the Gulf of Thailand for $15 a day.  So I got a bus ticket from a travel agent, $5, and off I went.  This holiday is were everyone returns to their homeland (translate: hometown), so when I got to the bus station it was jammed and every bus was late.  All the announcement are in Khmer and I wondering if I just should have stayed home.  Anyway I found my bus, had a great seat, #3 and waited for the bus to fill.  A older French women  got on and had a fit because she too had reserved primo seat #3.  Well to placate her they asked me to move to the back, I said OK but I had to talk with the driver because I had to get out at Ou Chamnar, about half and hour before the bus's final destination of Sihanouk Ville.  The ticket guy seemed perfectly alright with me talking to the bus driver although I felt he didn't understand a word I had said.  So to the back of the bus now with extra people coming and sitting on stools in the isles.  I decided to wait two hours before I talked with the driver, Sihanouk Ville was about four hours away. 
     When I made my move it wasn't pretty, but this time aside from stools, people had strung baby hammocks across the isle and more than one sleepy head tilted into my path.  Excuse me, sorry sorry, I have to talk to the bus drive  Good natured tolerance would be how I would characterize the Khmer view of the maneuvers of a not so nimble big bald guy.  Making it to the front I could see some of the maneuvers of the driver, illegal and frightening would be the American view of his driving, but I felt that distracting him would make little difference, so I asked for help in talking with him.  Two older women seemed to understand that I was stressed out and when I showed them the map and my destination they told the driver I had to get off at Ou Chamnar.  He was in the middle of what I would call an licence revoking attempt to pass two large trucks but his response was that Ou Chamnar was an hour away.  Did he intend to stop?  I hope so.
Instead of running the gauntlet to the back of the bus I got a stool and sat in the middle of row 2, just a hair breath from the French women (did she say merci?), I don't think so.  Well my little stool put me very close to passengers on my left and right.  To the right were two French speaking teenagers who, I came to surmise, were the spawn, once removed, of the root of my problem.  I am sure now that she never said merci.  To the right was a young Cambodian girl who smiled and said hello.  She asked me where I was going and I said Ou Chamnar, she smiled and said where after that.  I took out the guide book that Dan gave me and showed her the island and then a written description of the resort.  I asked her where she was going, to Sihanouk Ville.  She was spending the holiday with the two older women who helped me talk with the bus driver.  We introduced ourselves, her name was Vannary.  When I said mine was Mike, I said to myself what a stupid sound, many people here have a problem with Mike, (at school I'm Mr C) I think it is close to a curse word.  But what a nice name Vannary is.  Well she was just a delightful young women, a university student studying languages.  If I were twenty or thirty or forty years younger, but I am not.  We had funny little conversations about snow and Buddha and Jesus and she helped my with my cell phone which is set on something called intended text.  It seems to want to figure what I intend to say (most of the time I'm not even sure), like happy birthday and puts it in even if you wanted to say harpy eagle.  Anyway she showed me how to change that and asked me if I learned any Khmer, I said no, so she put a couple of greetings on the messages section my cell phone and told me to practice.  Good Morning, how are you? and something else.  Before I knew it the bus stopped at Ou Chamnar and off I went.  Good bye Vannary.
      As I am getting off the bus a Cambodian guy grabs my bag and runs toward his moto with it.  This is the way you get a customer, so on the back of his bike I went and off to the town where I would meet the boat.  I hoped he knew where I was going.  Across rice patties on a road of red mud, through tiny primitive villages I went.  The towns people stopped and stared, like they had never seem a pasty big bald guy before.  All the kids say hello and waved.  I felt like the pope and waved back," God bless you my children, pray that this clown takes me to the right place".
Shoving off from the fishing village
      Down a long hill we careened and at the bottom the fishing village; think not of a little town in Maine.  This place was a mess.  Roads just rutted and muddy, I would like to think that they tried to solidify the mud with plastic because plastic bags and more trash was everywhere.  As we came to the water the houses were on stilts, sitting above the most disgusting water I have ever seen.  I found my boat and welcomed saying goodbye.  The boat was big for just me and it motored through a channel in a mangrove swamp.   Fishing boats of similar design were moving all about.  Shortly the channel open up to the Gulf of Thailand.  Above  were Fishing Eagles, a new species, and terns that I could not identify.  Islands all around, some quite mountainous, I was later to learn that the ones to the south were in Vietnam.  Wow, I had never been so far away.  The boat paralleled the coast of Koh Thmay and all you could see is beach and forest.  The island is part of a national park.  After about an hour waves began to break on reefs and then the boat driver pulled into a cove.  The resort of Koh Thmei. Six cabins and a bar and restaurant.  Pretty cool.
The beach at Koh Thmay
     My days at the resort were really nice.  The water was beautiful and so warm and salty.  My bungalow was just one room with a bed and a mosquito net, a nice bathroom and a front porch.  The other five bungalows were occupied by an Australian family having a reunion.  They kind of stayed to themselves and me to myself.  I had a book that I would read at breakfast and dinner, both of which I lingered to finish up the last cup of coffee or glass of wine two hours later.  Sometimes the owners, Kivita or Michael, a German couple, would come over to keep me company.  During the day they would invite me on walks on trails they cut in the jungle.  She liked birds so we talked birds and showed me things she had seen like hornbills and something called a chough.  The jungle was so thick and even tough going on the trails because it was so wet underfoot.  The beach was beautiful and went for miles.  I used their kayak and went out into the channel looking for dolphins.  The sun was so hot and wetting myself with 85 degree water didn't help much.  No dolphins but we all saw them on the way back the fishing pier two days later.  I have to mention the price, door to door, everything included, tip and transportation: $120 for four days.  I would like to go back, but I am learning about other places in Cambodia that are just must sees, like the town of Kep, which the French made into a beautiful sea side village and of course, Seim Reap, where the temples of Anghor Wat are located. 
      Back to Phnom Penh by bus, much less eventful than my trip out.  The bus had a flat, which seemed to be the best of the possible things to go wrong.  Everyone got out of the bus to watch the driver and an assistant change the tire.  No one seemed annoyed or impatient, but maybe mildly entertained by the delay.  Back to school tomorrow, what are those kids names again?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Phnom Penh

I am going to write about my new home even though I have not really come to understand it yet.  Flying in from Singapore, the plane circled the city and I got a great view of its entirety.  Somehow ever since I've landed I can't seem to orient myself.  For instance, I am sitting here on my balcony and am looking south but I could swear I am facing north.  Every time I go out I try to get the main streets down but I am still not able to find my way around very well.   Because I don't have a car or a moto (I might buy one) I rely on the tuktuk drives to get me from here to there
      Phnom Penh has about 2 million people  and is located on the Tonle Sap River which is a branch of the Mekong, infamous in the Vietnam War.  Vietnam is close and can't help think of the war and all those unlucky soldiers fighting in the cities and rice patties.
One of the many pagodas called Wats
I had heard that the Cambodia people (Khmer, pronounced Khmi) had a nice nature and I have found that to be true.  Except for tuktuk drivers always asking to take you some place, everyone greets you with a nice smile.  Very few poor, begging people, most people are on the go and busy.  The street are crowded with motos and tuktuks and big expensive SUVs, the most common is the Lexus.  In the back of a tuktuk it is a riot to see all the bad driving, cutting each other off and doing things never done in the US.  But traffic moves, maybe at 20mph, and those large intersection without a light don't get blocked up.  I have not yet seen anyone get angry, yell or pull a gun in traffic.  One of the teachers said that Cambodian believe in good Karma, so it is not worth being nasty. 
A view of the river from the Foreign Correspondent Club
The Genoside Museum
With this said, on Sundays I have been going to a service and walk past  Toul Steng Museum, the genocide museum.  In the 1970s, after the US pulled out of SE Asia, Pol Pot, Blood Brother #1, came to power with the Khmer Rouge.  They were communists who felt that Cambodia should become an agrarian society with no money or class or status.  In the Year Zero, the Khmer Rouge emptied out Phnom Penh and the other cities and moved everyone to the country side.  Over 3 million of its 12 million people were killed or starved to death.  Anyone with any education was put to death.  Wearing glasses was enough for a death sentence.  Outside of Phnom Penh were the killing fields where thousands were killed.  Just like in Germany, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of who they killed.   A terrible time and so different from what I see in the Khmer personality.  There is a movie The Killing Field that shows this period.  I have not been to Toul Steng yet or seen the movie   Sometime in the late 70s the Vietnamese invaded and drove the Khmer Rouge to the country side.  Pol Pot is dead and some of his generals are now on trial.  For the last 30 years the country has been on the rebound with all the construction I see from my balcony as proof.  
My street, I don't think it has a name
     Homes here are back from the street a little but instead of a front yard, there is a gate almost to the street.  They are metal with big locks, gated houses.  Everyone keep their cars and motos inside the gate, if you have many cars, part of the first floor is for car parking.  In my building sometimes there are two cars, a Toyota sedan and a big SUV and they take up half of the first floor.  When they are not there he family puts a couple of tables out and eats there.  No grease or oil on the floor, it is shinny tile, immaculately clean.  In fact although the streets are pretty dirty, the homes are very clean.   
      So that's my new town, about as different from New Lebanon as can be.  I am trying not to miss all those things about home that I love and look forward to getting to know Phnom Penh and
                                                                                   Cambodia better. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My New School

EWIS as seen from my apartment

My 6th grade science class

The lower school student where a uniform
I've now been working at the East-West International School for two weeks, a week of meetings and a week with the kids.  It is a K-9 school and next year it will have a 10th grade and then 11th and 12th, it is only 6 years old.  There are about 20 kids per grade so 200 in the entire school.  I am teaching science to 6th through 9th grades.  There are five of us who work with these grades.  We are on the 5th floor of a seven story building  The school has a basketball court on one of the roofs and a pool, so its not exactly third world, but with that said it is missing a lot of things that we take for granted in the states, like complete sets of books for all the students, microscopes, a defined curriculum and accreditation.  The kids are middle class kids that live in Phnom Penh, there are actually many independent/private schools in city.   I've been told that EWIS is unique in its approach and mission.  Strange, one man, forgot his name, owns EWIS and over a hundred other schools.  We are one of the few schools that he continues to support while it operates in the red.  The other school are for profit.  I went out Saturday with Gayla, a fellow teacher and she invited a friend and teacher from another school to come with us.  Tamile was not very complimentary about her school but all the teachers at EWIS say the nicest things.  This all seems to revolve around Sandra Chipps who is the principle and founder of the school.  She seems to have her way and defines the mission of the school.  The faculty are an odd assortment of teachers.  They all have unique stories and some have taught at international schools all their lives.  Many are young, in their twenties and seem to be reformed SE Asian backpackers.  A number of teachers have gotten married to Cambodian women.  I was asking Gayla about that and she said that if we went into a bar down by the river I, not she, would get hit on.  I didn't exactly know what she meant, but apparently it has to do with seeking a western husband, bald or not.  She also said that in talking with the husbands, they say their Khmer wives are wonderful, attentive, faithful, don't push back.  All very interesting but seems out of step with the way the world is going.   I'll have to find out more, so far no one is hitting on me and if they did I would probably start talking birds and that would be that. 
 A couple of my new students doing a lab
      The students are the last but probably most important ingredient in this mix that makes up a school.  Well they are not third world orphans, but middle class kids from families that can afford to pay what I think amounts to about one year average salary.  There are a few western kids whose parents work in Phnom Penh, but most are Cambodian and then some Korean.  The lower school kids are really cute in there uniforms.  They march around like ducks behind their teachers.  The upper school is made up of kids that seem happy to be there.  No real resistance to education and very friendly.  Teachers are placed in some importance here.  With that said these kids are also teenagers and not so much different from teenagers around the world.  Mixed in with the very bright hard working students are the knuckleheads who need to be reminded to stay focused.  My days with them demand effort and energy, but less so than in the US because there is not the resistance to learning.  I am having to use the existing curriculum and I really don't like it and don't understand how it jumps around.  I wish I had a set of PHS text books, believe it or not.  Well that's all for now.  I must write next time about he city, where just the other day I discovered my first loaf of sliced bread.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Going, Going, Arrived

Hard to believe that I am here.  My first post was going to be about getting ready, then the flight and then arriving.  The ties have been cut, the distance covered, all in an uneventful way, though it seemed eventful and stressful at the time, but it all pales compared with stepping off the plane yesterday.  To pick me up was Sambath, a teacher's aid at the school. .  Driving from the airport to the school, maybe 1/2 hour was terrifying.  The roads are crowded and there is very little order.  Motor bikes are everywhere with two or three riders and some pull little covered carts, like rickshaws, called tututs.  I met with Sandra she walked me to the hotel, very western and I took a shower and a nap.  Back to school that late afternoon and a tour and Sambeth walked me up to blocks to get a phone and on the way back had me look at an apartment, one bedroom, brand new, not my style but I think that might have to change.  By that time I was feeling like fainting, so I took the apartment, went back to nice AC and put on Moby on the computer, just perfect, right?  Well just about then it all caught up to me and I laid down and didn't get up to Sunday.  I felt paralyzed, weak, dizzy, chills and sweats.  Jet lag and the a bug.  I went to  service with Sandra on Sunday morning but had to go right back and collapse again.  I did move later that day but my only though was what am I doing here?  Made it to Monday morning meeting but had to leave early, Tuesday too but feeling better and ended up taking a tutut to faculty party last night during a thunderstorm.  All the apartments have balconies so standing out there with some others watching the downpour and lightning was kind of awesome.  The city is hot and gritty but feels safe so I walked home in the tropical.  The heat is difficult.  Morning are still and the sun really fierce but in the afternoon it gets breezy and downpours lurk.  Nights are steamy and I have been using AC but find it annoying too.  .