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


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