On becoming Cambodian…

This morning I got up at 4.30am!  By choice!  It was a little earlier than the 5am I initially planned but allowed me to have a great FaceTime chat with a friend back home before kicking off my morning proper.

 

The reason for the early start was another planned Sunday excursion with the lovely Totie, this time heading to the Olympic Stadium to experience exercise classes Cambodian style.

 

It was still dark when I got up (I saw a beautiful sliver of the moon as I gazed out from the terrace) and for the first time since I moved in, I was actually up and out before the car washing ritual had commenced on the lane (so early in fact that the gate was still locked).

 

I walked through the slowly waking streets to Totie’s apartment where I loitered for about 10 minutes whilst she performed the ceremony of the locks.  Getting out of her apartment and onto the street involves Crystal Maze style unlocking processes which, if I had to go through them would no doubt be accompanied by copious mentions of the word f**K.

Finally out, we headed to the stadium and were welcomed by a group of dancers at the foot of the arena, elegantly twirling to music being blasted from an amplifier unit.

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We climbed the steps to the top of the stadium and the sights that greeted us were truly wonderful.  A group of youngsters were performing a paired routine using chopsticks  under  the beady eye of a very shouty man with a whistle.  We wandered slowly around the perimeter encountering organised and freestyle aerobic dancing (all be it performed extremely sedately), yoga, sword and fan dancing, runners, walkers and cyclists and various other locals performing their ‘moves’.

Food hawkers had set up their wares at various points and groups of exercisers congregated to enjoy breakfast together.

At 7am the activity started to slow and gradually the stadium emptied, leaving only the army of cleaners steadily sweeping the huge amounts of rubbish down the stadium seating to be sorted, bagged and removed by the recycling team waiting.

Totie and I wandered a little longer, discovering on our travels a swimming pool, tennis courts and outdoor gym before heading off to the Riverside.  Watching all of that exercise had caused us to build up quite an appetite and so we joined our friend Eve on the rooftop of her hotel for a sumptuous breakfast feast!

The morning continued with exercise of the retail kind as we mooched around the quirky array of shops that pepper the riverside.  We stopped for a reviving juice at about 11.30am but by this time I was flagging and so it was agreed we would head back home where I promptly partook of a nana np before continuing with the rest of my Cambodian day.

 

 

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Coming back to me

 

Yesterday I got lost.  Not literally lost – I knew exactly where I was geographically – but figuratively.  I lost my grounding, my sense of self – nothing made sense and I started to ask what the hell I was doing.

 

I was overwhelmed with emotions: anger, sadness, frustration, despair, loneliness and self loathing consumed me.  I lost the ability to be present, in the moment, experiencing the life I am living – instead swirling round inside my head thinking awful thoughts, beating myself up, not liking myself, my thoughts or my behaviour at all.

 

I’m currently attending a three day VSO Livelihoods programme review workshop in Battambang province 5 hours north-west of Phnom Penh and hiding this tornado inside me has been tough.  People here inadvertently pushed buttons (another cockwomble incident sadly), the smallest thing wound me up and at times I failed to hide how I was feeling.  All that served to do was to make me hate myself a little bit more, to beat myself up with a bigger stick and sink a little further.

 

Thankfully, I eventually took to Whats App to ask for help and as usual St Vicky was there as she always is just when I need her!!

 

With her support and encouragement, I turned to what I already knew would help.  I took myself away from the situation, initially for 5 minutes’ meditation and a good cry in the loo, and latterly by turning down an invitation to go with the group to the circus in the evening and retreating to the solitude of my room.  And there I chose the sensible route of distracting myself with TV before sinking into blissful, restorative sleep.

 

Fast forward 9 hours and the dawn was breaking over Battambang.  Rather than lying in bed, wasting the time mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, I decided to start my day right and head out for a walk.  As I wandered slowly through the streets (getting a little bit lost literally this time) I saw once more the beauty of my surroundings (and captured quite a lot of it in the pics below), I reconnected with what I’m doing, why I’m here and most importantly, the fact that I am okay and slowly but surely I eventually came back to me.

 

 

 

I’m knackered

This week it seems that fatigue is my constant companion.

 

The weekend was pretty hectic.  Not only did I undergo my epic visa run on the Saturday but I then spent the day at the Buddhist Conference on Sunday (not quite sure what I want to tell you about this hence the lack of a blog to date).

 

I did get myself off to bed early on the Sunday but my planned long sleep was rudely interrupted by the best storm of my tenure so far – a good 2 hours of howling wind, driving rain and enough electrical activity to power the national grid for a couple of days.

 

So Monday was a challenge.  I got by on caffeine and sugar and a couple of seated power naps when I was sure my office neighbour was out of the way.

 

At home on the Monday night a quick chat with mum, Emily and Grace was followed by another early night waking naturally at about 530am feeling more refreshed.

 

All was going well on Tuesday until I attended a meeting at the Ministry in the afternoon.  The meeting was to discuss budgeting principles for operational planning on EU programmes – yep, you guessed it, it was not the most thrilling 3 hours of my life and the concentration it took to get even a basic grasp of what the hell was going on left me knackered yet again.

 

And then we come to today.  It was a 5.30am start for a long (but thankfully comfortable and devoid of porn films) journey in a shared taxi to the city of Battambang (I don’t actually know where in Cambodia it is but it’s 5 hours+ from Phnom Penh) to take part in a range of meetings about the VSO Livelihoods programme of which I am part.

 

A great venue, a lovely crowd of people, but boy it’s knackering.  First there’s the odd lighting in the room to contend with, casting shadows and reflections that make reading the slides hard.  Then there’s my lack of understanding of what the hell is going on due to my limited experience of the programme and Cambodia in general.  The intense listening as I try to comprehend, firstly what language is being spoken as some of my colleagues switch seamlessly between Khmer and English leaving my tired brain struggling to catch up and the endless ‘being switched on’ as people are eager to talk to me, involve me and learn more about me.

 

A group meal last night, a slightly crazy back of a pickup ride there and back, a strange room in a very nice and un pink guesthouse, not enough sleep and another early start and here I am again.  Exhausted and facing, with trepidation, another long day.

 

Wish me luck!

Life on Lane 6Z

After a week and a half I’m slowly but surely settling in to life in my new home.  I’ve sort of nailed the stairs (although have yet to tackle them in the rain) and even managed to not implode on discovering a cockroach upturned on my bedroom floor (he was swiftly dispatched to the bin!)

 

My second floor (3rd if you don’t have a ‘ground floor’ in your language) idyll is on a little lane called 6Z which sits just before the intersection on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and Street 63.  Mao Tse Tung Boulevard is a main through road in the city and Street 63 is the centre of expat action in the district known as BKK1 and so, as you can imagine, it’s not exactly a peaceful area to be.  However, turn down lane 6Z and all that changes.  The noise of the traffic and the city dulls and you get a real sense of being immersed in the heart of Cambodian suburbia.

 

From my 2nd floor vantage point I’ve been observing the comings and goings of my suburban surroundings, some of which I’ll share with you now.

 

My landlord and landlady are old!  I know this because they have a 30 year old daughter (who looks about 12) and a very whiney podgy grandson (he takes after his very podgy dad – the son-in-law).  They also look slightly old – in a late 50s sort of way, which, judging by my total inability to correctly gauge the age of people here would put them at at least 75.

 

Mr Landlord (I have been introduced properly but fail to remember their names despite reciting them endlessly) is an early riser and a fanatical car washer and polisher.  We have 2 cars in our household (plus a 4 wheel drive of dubious ownership that sometimes appears).  Every morning, well before I venture out onto the terrace I can here Mr Landlord opening creaky gates, performing 27 point turns to manouever the family vehicles into their daytime positions (apart from the 4 wheel drive the cars have apparently not been used since my arrival) and then getting out the hose and beginning the, what appears to be daily, washing and polishing process.

 

Whilst he’s involved in this ritual, Mrs Landlord will either be inside trying to placate whiny Rotanok, or, if we’re lucky and he’s not yet woken, she’ll be doing the washing.  From my limited observations of Cambodian life I am going to declare the Cambodians officially obsessed with washing and cleaning.  Not only do Mr & Mrs Landlord engage in these pastimes, as I gaze down the lane from my heady heights I can see numerous neighbours out sweeping their front path, washing their car or both.  And even if I’m not gazing out it’s impossible not to hear the sounds of these activities floating through the air.

 

Speaking of sounds, as day breaks devil cat shuts up thankfully and the demented duck gecko chatter slows.  But that doesn’t signal the silencing of nature.  No, as the sounds of the night fade the birds start to sing, a lovely sound if only it wasn’t accompanied by them seemingly stomping across my tin roof wearing hobnail boots.

 

And still in noise mode, I have yet to see (or hear) my neighbours to the left as I look out, but to my right I know that they are a family who favour noisy ablutions and I’ll leave it at that.

 

Below me is an Aussie called Paul who plays guitar and wanders around half naked (not as thrilling as it may seem).  His Cambodian wife, Ay, engages in the national pastime of cleaning, the only times I’ve ever seen her she has a broom in her hand and is a little reticent about speaking to (or even looking at) me as everytime we meet she scuttles back inside.

 

Along the lane there are number of expats – most of them male and most of them married to (or living with) a Cambodian wife.  In the week very little is seen of these families, but at the weekend all of this changes.  Families come out into the lane – the men chatting to each other, women leaning against walls or squatting low on the pavement, idly watching as the children boisterously play together despite the intense heat.

 

No matter what the time of day or night, there’s a permanent fixture on 6Z – our own little gang of tuktuk and motodop drivers.  A couple of days ago I realised I’d finally become a resident when, instead of the usual ‘hello, tuktuk/moto’ English chatter as I walked past, I was greeted with a cheery hello how are you?  in Khmer.  A small result but a result none the less!

 

I think I’m going to like living on Lane 6Z – just enough life to keep me interested but at the same time a welcome sanctuary from the craziness of city life.

#Roadtrip part deux

When I left you yesterday, Amy and I were stranded ‘in Vietnam’ and so we resorted to gesticulating wildly to the bus conductor in the hope of getting some help.  A guy came running over and before we knew it he had our passports in our hand and was muttering ‘money!’ and ‘wait here five minute’ pointing to a patch of muddy ground at the side of the road.  He appeared to be something to do with another bus that was loading its passengers and so I initially thought we were going to board that bus back to Cambodia but snuck a photo of both him and the bus in case he did a runner with my passport.

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Dodgy passport guy

Oh no, that was not the case as that bus and our original both drove off and Amy and I were left stranded.  Amy tried unsuccessfully to get her passport back from the guy whilst I desperately called Pichchip to ask what to do.  His only words of advice were to not give the guy money which was all well and good but as I looked up I realised I had more of a problem as Amy and the guy were disappearing round the corner.

I quickly said bye to Pichchip and ran off after them and when I caught up found Amy getting extremely frustrated and angry with passport guy.  I very calmly said to thim, ‘we don’t pay money ‘and then in rudimentary Khmer said ‘I am a volunteer’.

 

That seemed to do the trick and before I knew it I had the passports in my hand.  Amy grabbed hers and wandered off!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And so I casually wandered in what I thought was the direction I should be going and before long arrived at a door.  On entering I saw more immigration desks and with Amy now back in tow headed towards them.

 

There was only 1 desk with a queue and so we waited.  And we waited and waited and then we waited some more.  The immigration officer certainly was in no hurry to do any processing, slowly taking a passport, gazing at it for a while before gazing into a corner (presumably at a computer) then up over the counter and then back to the passport over and over again.  To amuse myself during this long (and very hot and sweaty as there was no A/C) wait I set myself a challenge to take as many covert photos as possible whilst standing right next to a photography prohibited sign.

This entertained me for a while and then, just at the point that I was running out of things to photograph (there are only so many signs, officers and piles of passports you can take) it got interesting.  There had been two white guys in front of us in the queue and one had gone through seamlessly (if slowly).

 

The same could not be said for the second.  There appeared to be an extreme amount of looking back and forth going on and after a while the white guy (an American judging by his accent) said ‘I have another one’ and handed over a second passport.  This woke Mr Immigration up and he proceeded to lift the passports to the light and look more intensely between the guy, the passport and the computer.  Suddenly he signalled for the guy to follow him and they marched off into the unknown with the immigration guy returning a few minutes later – alone.

 

I decided at this point it might be an idea to be on my best behaviour, put my phone away and adopted a patiently waiting face whilst I waited for my turn like a good girl.

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My ‘waiting patiently’ faced (which also serves as my pissed off, hot and sweaty face).

Thankfully my turn came and went without incident (although the American did reappear just as my passport was being checked, denying all knowledge of the other white guy when I told him that he had come back looking for him!!!!) and I was soon outside again with no idea where to go until I spotted a forlorn looking sign lying up against a lamppost pointing the way.  Amy and I headed off and eventually found ourselves back where we started, at the border of Cambodia and once again reunited with Pichchip.

I queued and was duly granted my B visa marking me as an official NGO volunteer in Cambodia and after having both hands fingerprinted I was once again back on Cambodian soil.

 

This whole process, which basically involved walking in and out of one side of a building the size of a large barn before walking around to the other side and doing the same again, had taken approximately one and a half hours and I was knackered and sweaty.  And then, joy of joys, we had to walk back to the canteen where we’d had lunch to get the bus back to Phnom Penh.  Yes, that’s right, the lunch canteen that was 3kms away!  We plodded slowly along the side of the road being approached by endless motorbikes (sadly we didn’t have our helmets with us) but with not a tuktuk in sight.  In Phnom Penh you can’t walk 5 feet without being offered a tuktuk ride, but at the border nil, nada, nothing.

 

Pichchip bought iced cold water for us half way and some delicious fried bananas for our arrival which we gratefully wolfed down whilst drinking sweet, sugary, but ice cold Sprite.

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Fried Bananas coupled with sugary spice provided a much needed energy boost after the long walk in the sun

The bus finally appeared and we got on and headed home.  Thankfully the journey was free of porn this time but sadly the conductor decided to stop the tolerable action movie halfway through and replaced it instead with Cambodian Karaoke playing at full pelt.  I cranked up the volume on my music, choosing to play the most energetic dance tunes I had available  to try to drown out the racket (without success) and then to add to the cacophony the guy next to me started snoring – very loudly!!!

 

After what seemed like a lifetime (sadly my ability to find beauty and joy in the surroundings had upped and left by this point and I was plain old grumpy curmudgeonly Sara) Phnom Penh loomed onto the horizon and we again crossed the Ton Le Bassac bridge back into the city.

 

11 hours of mad, crazy, stressful bonkersness over I arrived back home exhausted but safe in the knowledge that my stay in Cambodia is now assured.

Here’s a few general pics from the day:

#Roadtrip

Today, exactly three weeks after I arrived, I left Cambodia.

 

It involved an 11 hour journey of which approximately 30 minutes was outside Cambodia, but never the less I left.

 

The reason for this bizarre adventure was the need to update my visa.

 

When I arrived in Cambodia I got a visa on arrival as the turnaround from me accepting the post to arrival was too short to arrange my official NGO visa.

 

With one week remaining on that original visa and the letter from the ministry now in our hands it was time to rectify this and hence at 7am today I found myself setting off on a bus journey that would take me in to Vietnam and back out again for this purpose.

 

The bus was an ‘executive bus’ and was actually very luxurious.  Wide reclining pleather seats, quality air conditioning, free water and wifi and a widescreen TV to boot (the latter would later become the bane of my life unsurprisingly but more on that in a bit).

 

We set off and it took us a fair while to get out of Phnom Penh itself as we stopped regularly to pick up more passengers.  After crossing the river, the city gradually faded away and slowly but surely a countryside vista emerged.  For a while I sat gazing happily out of the window as the Cambodian countryside flashed past movie like before my eyes.  The soundtrack to this movie was not quite as appealing though as the afore mentioned TV blasted out a dubbed Chinese film whilst the bus driver felt obliged to add in an accompaniment of air horn every minute or so – relaxing it was not.

 

Most of the passengers on the bus were dozing and a fair few had closed their curtains but all of a sudden there was a flurry of activity and Pichchip (a colleague from the VSO country office who was accompanying me) opened his eyes and explained to me that were crossing the Sky Bridge.  This is a modern bridge somewhere between here and the Vietnam border spanning the Mekong River, which I have to admit was quite a spectacular sight with the sun glistening on it.

 

After the bridge came the loo stop.  We all dutifully piled off the bus to head to a bank of loos.  If I have only learned one thing from my adventures today it’s that Cambodians cannot or choose not to read the signs which distinguish Male from Female toilets.  Every time I used public toilets today I was greeted by a man coming out looking slightly dazed and confused.  On the plus side, Cambodia public toilets are significantly more pleasant than their Chinese counterparts.  First of all they’re generally western style and even more importantly for me, miss funny bathroom phobia, they don’t stink!

 

Back on the bus I immersed myself in downloaded radio 4 podcasts for a while, settling on an episode of the Moral Maze discussing the ownership or otherwise of culture with specific reference to the Benin bronzes.  Very highbrow eh!?!  About half way through the podcast I glanced up at the front of the bus towards the TV screen and was met with a slightly less salubrious element of culture.  There on the screen was a woman, pert little breasts a bouncing as she straddled a rather scrawny but pleased looking guy.  Not an ounce of pixilation protected their modesty as the bump and grind continued.

 

I slid slowly back down my seat and turned to my book in the vain hope of erasing the image now permanently tattoed behind my eyeballs and before we knew it we were stopping again – this time for lunch.

 

As we ate a typical Cambodia pick and mix canteen lunch, Pichchip explained that we were approximately 3 kms from the border (remember this as it’ll become significant again later) and the bus would be taking us through.

 

Back on the bus and the gateway out of Cambodia loomed into sight.

 

Once through the gate we were all told to get off the bus which we did.  Pichchip held a protracted conversation with the bus conductor guy returning to us looking slightly confused.
As far as we could ascertain, we needed to get back on the bus and go with them to Vietnam whilst Pichchip waited at Cambodian immigration for us to come back.

 

And so we trotted off (I was with a Phillipino volunteer called Amy) back on to the bus.  2 minutes later we were off the bus again and filing into a large hall which apparently marked the entrance to Vietnam.  At the desk there was an immigration officer sat behind piles of passports and a number of slightly dodgy looking Cambodians milling around.  One of these dodgy characters picked up a pile of passports and started reading names out one by one and handing the passport to whoever responded.  Eventually I heard a faint sara loui and guessed that was me, so went up and collected the passport which thankfully was mine, now complete with a Cambodian exit stamp and a corresponding Vietnam entry one.

 

We followed the line of people snaking through the building showing our passports to a guy on the door before once again emerging into the sunlight with our bus sitting across the road.

 

Now Amy and I knew we didn’t have to get back on the bus as that was heading off to Ho Chi Min City but unfortunately, that’s as far as our knowledge went.  And so we stood scratching our heads and looking for inspiration (or someone who spoke English) to help us with our next steps.

 

And here is where part one of this tale ends.  This blog is already long and it’s way past my bedtime (up early tomorrow for the International Buddhist Conference) so I’ll leave you now and come back tomorrow to tell you how the story unfolded – it got bonkers in case you hadn’t already guessed!

Feeling thankful

Yesterday was my birthday – the start of my 47th year on the planet – and I had a wonderful day.

Today when I logged onto Facebook it kindly suggested I might like to thank al of my lovely friends for their kind wishes on my special day.

So I dutifully clicked on the link and Facebook headed up my post with Sara Perry is feeling thankful.

 

And that got me thinking about what I’m thankful for and, perhaps more importantly, why and a list started to form.  Which got me to thinking that I’ve not given you lot a lovely list for a while and from all of that thinking today’s blog post was born.

 

So here it is.  My 15 reasons to be thankful (and why):-

 

  1. I’m thankful for my new friends here in Cambodia. People have taken me under their wing and let me ask dumb questions and generally made it easy to be here in Phnom Penh.
  2. Those same friends solved the mystery of the deranged strangled duck noise for me and so now I am thankful for the odd sounding geckos (Here’s what they sound like) who apparently eat between 2-4000 mosquitoes each every night (a fact shared with me by my downstairs neighbour, Paul the Australian Audiologist and clinical Psychiatrist, on my way down the crazy stairs this morning).
  3. Special thanks must at this point be given for Totie Cabanas who has shared with me how to get one of the above geckos off of my arm should it decide to sucker itself there.  Apparently I need to get my cigarette lighter and waft it over the gecko at which point it’ll un-sucker itself and bugger off.  TBH I’m kind of hoping I never need to use this piece of knowledge but it’ll hang on to it just in case!
  4. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs over the last 46 years. Some of them of my own making, some at the hands of others but, regardless, I’m thankful for every last one of them as that’s what’s led me here on this stage of my bonkers adventure called life.
  5. I’m thankful for evil cat who stayed away last night, allowing me a peaceful night and no nasty standoffs this morning.
  6. Referring back to the afore mentioned crazy stairs, I’m thankful for them for 2 reasons: 1. They are helping me be less fat according to my landlady and 2. Any temptation to go out drinking is quickly quashed at the thought of having to negotiate them drunk. Here’s a little vid I made of me going up them (have not been brave enough to film the down journey yet!) Up the stairs we go
  7. I’m thankful for Wifi – I sometimes forget I’m 6000 miles from home thanks to this wonderful abbreviation.
  8. Because of number 7 I actually get to see my wonderful family (especially my gorgeous nieces Emily and Grace) and my good buddies on a regular basis rather than having to rely on a hit and miss postal service for the occasional letter.
  9. And the last wifi related thanks is because it allows me to continue to indulge my guilty pleasure – watching endless episodes of Real Housewives (come on, you didn’t really expect me to give it up did you????)
  10. I’m thankful for sunshine and for rain.  Sunshine because it makes me happy and rain because it cools me down.
  11. I’m grateful for Laughing Cow cheese – so wrong but yet so right.
  12. I can laugh at myself. Having fallen over on a busy street, mistaken a gecko for a duck, been told I’m fat and full of sh*t amongst other things this week it’s a bloody good job I can and for that I’m thankful.
  13. I now live in a land of smiles, a kingdom of wonder where every day brings a new adventure, a crazy twist or turn and generally a big old laugh – why wouldn’t I be thankful!?
  14. I’m thankful for all fish, Irrawaddy dolphins and other aquatic creatures for their existence as without them my job wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t be here in Phnom Penh doing my thing.
  15. Going back to where this post started – I am hugely thankful for all of my wonderful family and friends back home and scattered around the world, who (despite having their own stuff going on) take time, not only on my birthday but every day, to check in with me and make sure I’m ok. You guys are my lifeline and have made the transition to this phase of my life so much easier xxxxxx

 

Anyway, enough of this mush cookie stuff, tomorrow I’m off to Vietnam (for 20 minutes apparently) so that should make for an interesting blog eh!?