So, today I have arrived at the place I will be staying the next 3 months for the project. I said goodbye to my new friends from the tour at the hotel this morning. Then at 10.00 a.m. prompt, a lovely woman from the project came to collect me all smiles. She had a tuk tuk driver with her Mr Lucky – who is a fan of Aston Villa in Birmingham (or proclaims to be as his professed connection with the UK). We bounced along through the heaving streets to another part of Phnom Penh. It is REALLY busy here. Tuk tuks and massive four wheel drive vehicles compete for limited space, it’s quite dizzying to behold. I’m very glad to have had a couple of weeks to acclimatize a little bit. It is still overwhelming, but I’ve had enough interactions with local people to know that the majority are friendly and will try to help. Also a smile and my stumbling attempts at Khmer go a long way! I’ve only got three words really ‘hello’ (Suas Dia); ‘thank you’ (Ah konn) and a sort of universal greeting ‘soksabai’, well, it’s a start, and seems to genuinely delight people when I use it. ‘You speak Khmer!’ they exclaim, and then fall about!
I am excited, but also nervous. The woman who met me though was a wonderful ambassador for the project, Lyda (pronounced Leader) it is part of her role to support volunteers, although she actually studied banking at University. She is from rural Cambodia, where she still has some family in a province around Siem Reap. They grow cashew nuts apparently. She moved to Phnom Penh about 6 years ago, I think to study, and lives here with her sister. She said it was a shock to her too when she arrived, it took her a year to learn to cross a road safely. I have only 3 months, I shall have to progress with caution! Her English is pretty good, and her welcome really helpful. We stopped off at a bank for me to get cash out to pay the first months’ rent and deposit for the apartment where I will be saying. This was a good wheeze, as it’s $5 a time to get money out of an ATM (plus whatever currency conversion fee I’ll be hammered with AND you can only get a maximum of $250 at any one time, which sounds loads, but I needed $720 for month’s rent and deposit up front The bank, staffed by uncharacteristically unsmiling, blue uniformed staff, charge 1% or $7 which works out a lot cheaper, plus I could take more money out in one go. It’s based on my card and what is in my account rather than my card daily limit I presume. I had to complete some paperwork in English, and hand over my passport. They weren’t friendly, and I’d have been very intimidated on my own. A guy on the door offered us both a bottle of water. I declined, having loaded up at the hotel earlier, and being unsure if we’d have to pay but it turned out to be complementary. Initially when I went to the counter (which was empty) I was shooed away. Not my turn. No idea how you are supposed to read the body language in this place. My new host took charge though, and all fine and dandy. I left clutching $700 and nervously reboarded the tuk tuk. My host was keen that I kept my bags close. I asked if she’d ever had anything snatched ‘of course’ she said. Gulp. I was very glad to be able to hand the cash over to my new landlord as soon as we arrived.
The apartment is serviced, there seems to be a security guard there 24/7 and you pass through a narrow gap in a tall iron fence, to an open parking space below. Lots of massive vehicles and an office area with lots of glass. Inside my new landlord – or more accurately landlord agent/ property manager, who was all smiles, very efficient and welcoming and seemed to have pretty good English. She had everything ready. I counted out my dollars and she gave me a beautifully written receipt for both my rent and month’s deposit. I was also given a code for wi-fi and warned it’s not very good. Actually, it’s been useable. I’m so relieved to have any – and to have discovered that google on a whim has once again allowed me to access my email, my standards re speeds of upload etc have clearly dropped. Mind you, I have been desensitized from my shockingly bad internet connection in Sheffield, I’ve had to resort to cable connections once again. No idea why – external device interference from an adjacent property is the official line. I’m just feeling it’s all a bit personal. Here, I can flirt with wifi. It’s sometimes on, it’s sometimes not, but I can keep on trying and sooner or later probably something will get through. Yay!
I’m here now and it seems fine. Though HOT, even with air conditioning. I suppose I will eventually get used to it. I have a double bed which is made up with sheets and a thin duvet, I don’t know if I have to wash that or they will. There was no water, but I was able to buy a 20 litre container for $6.50 – $5 of that is the deposit for the container. For me this was a massive relief, as you really can’t drink the water here and I get through gallons of the stuff. It is a pain if you have to go to a shop every time you need another litre – not to mention the waste of plastic bottles. The manageress of the apartments seems to have excellent English Sue-Ian is her name I think, and she was very helpful in settling me in. Producing the most enormous fan I’ve ever seen to keep me cool, which is kind, but somewhat superfluous as the apartment seems to seriously lack any power sockets. Well it has a couple but one looks dodgy and the other I’m using for my laptop. I took a tuk tuk with Mr Lucky to go and see the volunteers house (eight of them are living together in a project run house, but it’s a bit grim apparently – though looks nice enough from the outside). The tuk tuk then took me to the CWF premises, just to say hello. I got a warm welcome, and had a brief chat. There are 19 new volunteers arriving today – two of them are also in my apartment block, which is reassuring in a way, one is my next door neighbour, the other diagonally across. Not heard a peep from either of them, maybe they are lying low too. I’m pleased they will be around. It will be reassuring, the culture shock is approaching like a tidal wave. Here is the view from the balcony by the way. It may be the only time I see it, you definitely want curtains closed and windows shut in this heat! Interesting view though, much potential for people watching if I do ever acclimatize! No idea why this particular street looks quiet! Maybe it is because it leads to a dead-end, or maybe it’s currently inaccessible. What I did notice wandering around was a couple of marquees. One with yellow and white flower garlands around it is actually for a funeral, the ones with red are for weddings. As space is at such a premium, the only way to create space for such large gatherings is simply to erect a tent in the midst of a street. Traffic is resigned to finding a way through. Today a column of motorbikes came past me clipping the sides of the tent with one wing mirror, and the precariously placed panels around the catering staff busy cooking outside on the other. It really is quite something. Another photo op on my to-do list for later!
After saying hello at the CWF premises – where they were really friendly and checked I had everything before giving me directions back to the apartment. It isn’t far, but it’s quite an obstacle course to get there. I just don’t have a vocabulary for the challenge presented by thick, unpredictable traffic. You can’t take sanctuary on the pavements as these are parked up with motorbikes or laid out with little stalls. Because all the shops at the minute look quite similar, and I don’t like to stop and linger because if you do immediately you are assailed by tuk tuk drivers and moto drivers angling for a ride. It isn’t hostile, but it is relentless. Mr Lucky had fortunately drummed into me I was street 432, thank god, I’d never have found my block otherwise, even though it isn’t more than a km away. The address, in case anyone is curious enough to look it up on Google is below, I have my own flat within it, on the first floor. Don’t send post, pointless exercise I am told in Cambodia, and anyway, I’ve not included my flat number.
Sangkat Tuol Pm Pong 2
Khan Chamkar Morn
This afternoon I determined to go out and explore. My goodness it was a bit frenetic. I will be out of my comfort zone I think, it is busier than I have a vocabulary to describe, and I did feel a bit on my guard. Obviously I stick out like a sore thumb, so there are endless attempts to get me on a moto or tuk tuk, but to be fair it is people trying to make a living, it’s just unnerving on day one. I had a list of things I needed to help me settle, basic things like coat hangers, washing powder, soap, a kettle, a watch (mine broke about two days in). I managed to get everything on my list apart from a kettle. This made me feel better. I will get the hang of things, I just have to get stuck in and sink or swim. I was also starving which didn’t help. I’d thought as it was a tourist area (I’m within a hundred metres or so of the famous Russian Market) there’d be loads of suitable eateries. There probably are, but I couldn’t locate any. I am wary of street food – though some corn on the cob looked fabulous, I need to check if it’s OK. Our intrepid guide told us not to, but he is probably being over cautious
Tomorrow, we are meeting at the CWF premises to start an induction proper. I will meet the other volunteers and be shown around Phnom Penh together. This will help. So, as I said, the area I went to today is called the Russian Market, it is just a couple of hundred metres from where I am living. It is a labyrinth of tightly packed market stalls, you seemingly can buy anything and everything (except a kettle), and it is in pitch darkness which is somewhat off-putting. However, when you show an interest in something – as I did in a new watch – a light is turned on to assist you. I paid $10 for a basic one (I could have got a fake Rolex but that didn’t seem entirely practical!). You are supposed to haggle, but the stall holder said I’d asked for cheap and he didn’t discount his cheaper stuff. I took that as fair enough really, it is probably worth $10 and he did ruffle through his products to get me one that I could actually read – White background, black hands. Because the area is full of tourist trinkets, I expected to find somewhere to eat, but was defeated. It was too hot to venture further, so I got some salted cashews and a baguette and iced coffee at the only place I did find, and that will have to do me. That had ice cold air conditioning, and friendly staff. All their offerings had meat, but I was able to negotiate for egg and vegetables, which was basically a fried egg in a baguette with a quite nice herb that I couldn’t identify and a side order of pickled miscellaneous veg – cucumber maybe? The stringy one I couldn’t identify. It was very much like breakfast i had when in Vietnam, and I was slightly fearful it would similarly just pass straight through me! NOt to worry, I was heading home anyway.
I’m not going out again after dark, way too intimidating until I’ve got my bearings. It wont kill me to miss a meal tonight and catch up on sleep instead. I really hope I do sleep. I need to, but so much is spinning through my head, it’s hard to concentrate.
I also stumbled on a sort of supermarket, with an odd medley of western products. I got some Dove soap, shampoo and conditioner – it’s actually cheaper than at home, and the soap is particularly described as ‘white’ so I hope it doesn’t have skin lighteners in it. I did technically need these things, though maybe not absolutely today, this minute. HOnestly, I think I wanted something familiar to smell and experience. It is such an assault on the senses. I’ve said before I have experienced a sort of sensory overload. Well, I clearly hadn’t there was more still to come. My head is spinning. I wonder if this is a bit like the sensation some autistic people experience in what the majority consider to be benign environments? I remember reading that book from the perspective of someone with autism, was it ‘the curious incident…’ anyway, there was a section in that describing how frightening it was on public transport I think because so much was happening it all seemed scary, unpredictable and impossible to make sense of. That is what it is like here. I know I need to get out there and just become habituated to it, but it’s only manageable for me in small dozes. The heat is just extraordinary. It hits you like a wall, and I feel vulnerable too in my stupid tourist had and burnt pale skin. I didn’t take photos because I didn’t want to get my camera out, but I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities once I become a Russian Market native.
The flat does feel like a little sanctuary. There is a 24 hour security guard outside, and I have keys for my bedroom and bathroom as well as the actual flat. I know if someone really wants to get in they could, but I’m not stressing about that, I’m on the first floor anyway. In a corner, I do have a balcony, though in reality it would be too hot to venture out on it, nevertheless its very presence pleases me. The place also feels pretty quiet, which is a massive relief. You need a sanctuary from the bustle outside. I daresay it will become navigable in time, but it will take a little while to adjust. It’s not the same apartment as the one I originally got pictures of, this one is a bit smaller, with no living area, just a kitchen. The kitchen has no equipment, no kettle, not plates, nothing, so I need to decide if I can be bothered to fork out for such things. I’d like a kettle, that would cover most needs. The fridge is also potentially useful. We shall see.
So there you have it, I’m here, I’m a bit shell-shocked, but all went according to plan, the apartment is fine. I’ve worked out where the CWF base is, and it is indeed walkable. I have water, I’ve even managed to do a load of washing and unpack fully for the first time in two weeks. I’m already able to identify stuff I wish I hadn’t brought along for the ride. Oh well, it’s here with me now! Washing powder choice was a hoot, never has marketing and product design been so relevant to me now I can’t read any of the labels. I have a feeling what I bought may be for hand washing. I had no real idea how to operate the top-loaded washing machine either. I went for the fuzzy wash option. No idea what that was, but you have to try these things do you not. I’ll say this for it, it all came out so dry if I hadn’t seen the water pump in myself I’d have thought it didn’t get wet. Very quick cycle too. This is progress!
Tomorrow, well, we rendezvous at 7.30 at the CWF offices, and I am glad to say they provide breakfast, good. It would be a mission to locate unaided. I’m going to try to sort my bag for tomorrow. I think they might need to see my passport and things like that. So far though, I’m massively impressed with the organisation. Everything has happened as it should, and that bodes well. From the sounds of things there should be a reasonably full complement of volunteers, so hopefully no stupid hours of teaching. I was also sent a newsletter that says the class times have been extended from 45 minutes to 90 minutes, so you do fewer classes, but longer ones. For me this is great, it is much better for my teaching style, and effectively halves the amount of preparation whilst hopefully increasing the likelihood that I’ll learn names more easily.
Oh, and the picture at the top, well, me outside my new front door! Eek. Obviously!