Anth in Phnom Penh

Monday, June 20, 2005

Back to MVU

A group of 3rd years with me at Wat Bo Phnom for a 'beginning of rainy season' festival

Light years away from Java Cafe, the Heart and frozen mango daiquiris, I am deposited on a dusty, chewed up, quagmire of a road and excitedly greeted by my former students who wait for me outside the gates of Maharishi Vedic University. Everything is immediately familiar and comfortable. I will be staying in Ratha's house but Channat and Sokchea will come over to sleep (we all sleep in the one bed) and the rest of third year will be constant visitors. I am swept along on a wave of goodwill and sillyness back into their world of study, Curriculum Vitaes and playful teasing. I have a wonderful weekend.

The women prepare huge group dinners. We sit down on mats with our bowls heaped with rice. Meat and vegetable dishes are carefully spread out and arranged in the centre. Shoving huge forkfuls of rice into their mouths they tease each other incessantly with odd nicknames. I am used to hearing Sopheap call Thilda a 'pig' and Hull calling Chea 'small eyes', but I can't quite get into the spirit of things. It is common to comment on someone's appearance and attractive qualities are perceived rather differently. Last year, it took me a while to digest the fact that when the student's said to me 'teacher, you have such a long nose!' that this was meant to be highly complimentary. This year, Hull greets me with the statement "Nea Krew, you are more beautiful and fatter than before!"... urrmm, thankyou Hull.

After eating the women go outside and clean up. As the guest of honour I am encouraged to stay away from cleaning. Instead, I am to recline and talk with the boys about their worries and concerns of finding two month work-placements. After the first day, I denounce my guest status and pitch in with the cleaning. Forming a huddle, we squat, flat footed our knees approaching chin height. We use three tubs, detergent and our hands either rinsing or washing bowls and cutlery in the tin tubs. With 6 women working, dirty dishes for 20 are clean in no time.

I am constantly humbled by my inability to do basic things. On my first night, Channat has to show me how to take a bath. I hover ineffectually whilst she pumps water and arranges buckets. I am at least a little practised with the bathing thing, but am still not capable of doing it fully in public. In rural areas, women generally wash outside at the pump wearing a sarong. For the truly experienced, no towels are involved; one simply holds the tube-sarong away from their body and pours water in and after some scrubbing dries off with the dry-outstretched section of the sarong. I cannot tell you how much difficulty I have washing myself properly and remaining decent.

Everyone seems to tell me that someone else has a boyfriend/girlfriend but no one will actually admit to it themself. In a quieter moment when it is just Liev, Chea and myself, Liev tells me that she does have a boyfriend who is studying agriculture in fourth year. Chea who has no boyfriend spiritedly retorts that she has no time for boyfriends, she is busy studying! She points to Liev "for her, it is all over." it is a bit hard to gauge the full meaning of this statement given translation difficulties. But it seems, that in Cambodia you only get one shot at love. I talk with them about how they feel it is important for women at MVU to be careful as often boys will have 'university girlfriends' and then leave them for a girl in their village with whom their parents will have an agreement with. Whilst things are definitely changing in Phnom Penh, in rural Cambodia once a woman has a boyfriend she is meant to marry him. 'Breaking up' is not an option! Such a thing can seriously damage a woman's reputation and prospects... and don't even mention sex before marriage... over here, kissing before marriage is taboo. It once again brings back the fact that the world these women face is so different to the one I experienced at university! Yet there are similarities and whilst these women may not drink beer and pash boys, by going to university a much wider world of freedom and experience has opened up to them than that available with their families in their villages.

On Sunday afternoon we prepare a huge 'desert' party. All the women are busy, bent over vats of bubbling, simmering sweet stuff. The party is at Meath's (aka#1 DJ irrigation - as his eyes are often moist... go figure??) house. It is a straw and wooden hut which he shares with a first year student. Meath's family live in a nearby district. He built this house himself after his first year, as riding to and from his village each day was taking a toll on his studies and his ability to participate in extra-curricular work in the evenings. Meath used to be my interpreter and he is just wonderful, always greeting me with a huge smile on his face (aka#2 DJ smile). After three different types of traditional Khmer desert we all stretch out, our bellies full. It is at this point that I field the usual requests of "Nea Krew, sing to us!". They love to sing. I compromise and teach them "under the bridge" by RHCP (only because some of them know it already) and we all sing together. They love it. "Chupadum" (from the beginning again) they call as soon as we finish. We clap hands and smile. I am reminded of why I was so keen to return to this country.

On Monday morning I am awoken at 5.00 am to prepare for my journey back to the big smoke. It will take an indeterminate amount of time; dependant on passengers, the ferry at Neak Louen and a whole range of other incomprehensible factors. I walk to Cho, the nearest village, accompanied by a fare-well party of 9. The van/minibus is already obscenely full and my students look downright distressed at the thought of me having to cram inside. Chy Meath orders several people to move and demands a choice spot by the window for me. I take a deep breath and squeeze in. I am handed some traditional rice sweets from the boys and the girls give me a bag with water and a little tin of milk inside for my breakfast. I am very touched by their care and thoughtfulness. We sit, the engine running, incapable of moving even a limb for a further 20 minutes. An additional passenger turns up and jams herself into a space unfit for a small child by crawling through an open window. From this point, all other passengers pile on the roof. Finally, with much horn honking, the van pulls out of the market place and we begin our meander out of Prey Veng. I wave goodbye to my students and feel a bit teary. I settle in for a long ride and haltingly pendulum back to my life in Phnom Penh.

Nea Krew signing out.

Preparing dinner at Rotha's house

Saturday, June 18, 2005

My street

My house

Monday, June 13, 2005

On the Rails in Phnom Penh

And here I am again...

I am less than 200km away from Takeo, but in many ways a universe of distance. I am sitting in Java, hung over as a dog, fuzzy headed and completely sleep deprived. I feel crap, and am further depressed by how common this weekend experience is becoming. The soft jazz, aircon and delectably western menu is soothing, reassuring but ultimately nothing short of more panadol and an afternoon sleep is going to fully fix my problems. I hate sleeping away my weekend days it feels very wasteful.

It was a fairly typical weekend night. We started at home, I set up my ipod and speakers in the living room and Stew and I kicked back out front, drank beer and talked about how good 'Sambanova' by Pnau is. Andrew rocked up with a mate from Sydney and we graduated to G&Ts and dinner was ordered in. Post preparatory showers (gnt in shower), clearing of takeaway containers and helmet fetching we were on motos and off to Salt. Once inside, 6 of us nestle on two couches on an upper level with beers and cocktails littering our coffee table. We look down on the stark walls, measured use of neon lighting and discuss how this bar could be in New York; the framed and spotlighted Cambodian flag, rainbow flag and two pictures of the King are a nice Cambodian, yet distinctly un-Cambodian touch.

The night is waxing and for some reason unrelated to good sense or taste I am back on beers and in the Heart of Darkness. Yes, it is a club. And yes, it is actually called the 'Heart of Darkness'. Tonight it is packed to the gills. I am in the centre of the crush, beer in one hand dancing to Justin Timberlake. Yes, I am having a good time. I am surrounded by Khmers dancing with Khmers, bearded backpackers dancing with Khmers and expats dancing with all of the above. The women are scantily clad for Cambodia, yet this club is a fine balance of modern PP and sleeze. This is my second time here and I am semi-disappointed by the amount of good, clean, fun everyone is having. At least at Riverside Club you get frisked and run over with a metal detector on entry. 'The Heart' (as it is affectionately known) is notorious, but from my perspective very few foreigners or Khmer are totally off the rails in Phnom Penh, or if they are they are doing so in other establishments. The night is waning, and Stew and I are the last ones remaining of our original crew. I am drunk and the room, its lines and my lines start to waver and bend. Time to go home.

Free Agent Cambodia signing out.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

A trip to the Takeo office

scene of the Takeo shoe incident

On a quick viewing, Takeo leaves the newly arrived visitor with an impression of a dusty, forgotten backwater. A long time ago it was probably quite a charming provincial centre with all the trappings of French architecture and monuments that are accorded such a town. These days I don't think one could even honestly describe the buildings as holding a faded charm. Many are decrepit, crumbling shells filled with refuse and riddled with bullet holes; aging signs of destruction being worn away by neglect and the elements. Yet, somehow this depressing list of characteristics come together to be somewhat the opposite. The burnt out, shot out central edifice is now used as a market and is surrounded by worn, dark skinned Khmer swathed in checked materials, who sit and swat flies away from their limpened produce. The administrative buildings that checker the middle of town are either totally beyond use or just manageable. Many are covered in wild, verdant green bushes adding bundles of colour to the yellow and blue faded French walls and roofs.

I step out into the main roundabout in town, which is anchored by a large, red Angkorian modelled structure (rather reminiscent of the Independance Monument, except on a smaller scale). Immediately, I attract attention. It is nearing the end of siesta, yet still very hot. What is that barang srei doing? Where is she going? Does she need a moto? I am innundated with curious looks and offers of transport. A dude from the AQIP office cruises by, stops and pats the back of his moto seat. I decline and offer the implausible and bizarre explanation (to Khmer ears) that I want to walk. He smiles, shrugs and motos away.

I revel in my 20 minutes of freedom before having to return to work and potter a little further away so I can take a photo of the Independance-Monument-like structure. It is at this point that my new white sandals completely fall apart. Not just one strap breaks, but somehow two unconnected pieces of synthetic material (no leather for this animal loving girl) break at the same time. Crap. I limp over to a stone snake statue in the centre of a traffic island and inspect the damage. Pretty bad. But then, what does one expect for $3 at Psar Orsay? I throw off the other shoe and carrying my sandals in my hand I pad gingerly across the road; read broken crusts of asphalt and hardened dirt. If I hadn't attracted attention before, I certainly have now. At the entrance of my guesthouse the owners are chilling out still in siesta mode (some people seem to manage this all day). The lady owner is in a hamock and speaks to me in Khmer. I guess that she says something like "Why are you walking around barefoot in the heat of the day you silly foreign woman?" I attempt to say my shoe has broken but am flustered and forget the word for broken. I manage some muttered, incomprehensible words followed by a flow of embarassed words in english (equally incomprehensible to this woman). I escape upstairs.

Up in my room it takes five or so minutes to apply safety pins into the flimsy synthetic and secure the straps back in place. It will work, but I am not sure for how long. I smile wryly to myself. Working with limited resources was a key part of the selection criteria for this job and what better example then fixing shoddy footware in rural Cambodia with 2 safety pins? I walk downstairs and the owner, still in her hammock, calls me over. I lift my big toe to display the safety pin underneath. She makes a noise of displeasure and kicks of her shoes. "Use mine" She emphatically points at her shoes to back up the Khmer words.

I love it. How often in Australia would someone offer their shoes to a complete stranger without even a thought?

Ferry crossing at Neak Loeun: I am sitting beside my driver, in air-conditioned comfort inside one of works elephantine white 4WDs.