Oof, not a good night’s sleep. I woke with terrible night sweats as the air condition had turned itself off around midnight. I think it’s because I put it on ‘sleep’ setting which I wonder if is equivalent to hitting ‘sleep’ on an alarm, it just turns itself off after a set period. I don’t want to get into the habit of having the air con on all the time because I dread to think of the bills and the environmental impact. On the other hand, I felt like I had a fever, so gave in, air con back on, and also I had quite a choreographed night trying to position myself on the double bed (which is actually huge and quite comfy) in the hope of finding the one sweet spot in this room which the air conditioner actually hits. It will take a while!
I then woke pre alarm, and lay still – wondering why time seemed to be passing so – I checked out my alarm clock and realised to my horror I’d turned alarm off not on last night, and I needed to be out the door in about 5 minutes flat. No worries, bag packed and breakfast at the project, and it wasn’t a long way to walk.
I left the apartment with some hesitation. My god, I have never seen anything like it. It was nigh on impossible to walk to the place, and I quite literally nearly chickened out. It isn’t just that pavement and road merge, it’s that the pavement has become part of the superhighway, with motorbikes so tightly packed you can’t even squeeze between them. There has to be a better way to get to the school, I felt like I was taking my life in my hands. I took a surreptitious photo at one of the quieter sections, it’s impossible to convey how tightly packed this traffic is. Think vacuum packed motorbikes and you may come close, but even then I’m not sure. You do have to eventually just step out and in a zen way just pretend it’s not happening. Mostly the traffic is moving slowly enough that chances are it can take evasive action. At one stage, marooned between motorbikes as far as the eye could see, a couple of drivers sort of hopped their bikes sideways so I could squeeze through, but it made a packed tube train in london seem positively capacious! The motorbikes pictured are not on a road my people, they are on pavement, and in the photo of the right approaching a bottle neck where a roadside stall means they need to get back onto the road, before resuming their passage along what we westerners quaintly and hilariously like to regard as the pavement!
It was all a bit eye-popping, it’s hard to imagine ever comfortably walking in this traffic. We are not talking about the odd bike mounting the pavement, but monopolising it 6 motorbikes abreast on the side-walk. It was breathtaking. YOu have to just squeeze through on foot, and hope for the best. It was quite terror-inducing. Takes an age to get anywhere, thankfully I have done the Endurer Dash so obstacle courses don’t defeat me, though I can sometimes get a bit spooked along the way!
I arrived at the CWF building at same time as another volunteer living independently who arrived by tuk tuk. I have rarely felt such relief or triumph at having reached my destination. It wasn’t more than 700 metres but took 20 minutes to get there. My strava readings are going into reverse free fall.
The premises themselves are calm and light, the staff friendly. It was reassuring and fun to meet my fellow volunteers and key staff for the project. There were hellos, introductions, all a bit of a blur, but a friendly one. First impressions are that this will be a great crowd, we all seem ‘up for it’ with varied nationalities and backgrounds represented. There is a very tall Canadian, a much older woman from Stratford on Avon who turns out to be standing in for her son as he is on a human right corse today and couldn’t come. I have never previously considered the possibility of outsourcing an induction programme, but why not? She took notes to pass on to him later. Some experienced travellers, using this project as a sort of stopping off point. A few people like me on a career-break of sorts or having a mid-life crisis depending on your point of view. We are a mixed bag, but all have our own stories. I also got to meet the two other volunteers who are living on my corridor in the serviced apartments where I am staying. It is reassuring to do so. Two guys, one of whom is here with his girlfriend who is not volunteering but doing her own thing. It turned out as they only have one key for their apartment, she is effectively marooned in it all day as he came out taking the key with him! I hope she didn’t have any plans! Both of my neighbours and fellow volunteers have a couple of days head start on me and have promised to help me find a kettle amongst other things. Yay, networking, always a boon!
We were offered a breakfast of fruit and those deep fried rice dumplings that I’ve had a few times now and which are much nicer than they probably sound. We were served this on light polystyrene plates which had a habit of flying about like randomly operated remote-controlled controlled frisbees every time they were caught by a blast of air from one of the fans in the room. All quite entertaining. I also met the guy who had advised me by email prior to my coming here. He gave great advice, he sat slightly apart from the group. He has been here for so long now, he must be weary of welcoming yet another set of volunteers. Still, he was friendly, and said he’d heard my accent and wondered if it was me. I think I may be one of only two brits (me and the guy who sent his mum in lieu of himself today); but it is possible I didn’t get to speak to everyone as we are around twenty in all. Other nationalities are Canadian, Australian, American and one woman whose nationality I haven’t established – she is fluent in English but not as a first language from her accent. Essentially the people seem nice, eclectic and outgoing bunch, 11 living independently I think and 8 in the CWF house. My two neighbours both seem very switched on, competent and friendly, so that is reassuring.
There was much posing for photos – group shots – which I hope we will get to see at some stage because that would be fun. We also had to pose for individual photos for the staff notice board. For most of us they took a shot of us standing, but for the tall guy he had to sit on a chair as the poor Cambodian taking the photos would otherwise have got nothing but an up his nostrils shot which I’m guessing isn’t the look CWF are seeking for promotional purposes. I was quite surprised not to have to stand on a box for my photo, but my height was OK.
We then had a guided tour of the school building – or more accurately a collective explore. It is a building that gives and keeps on giving. It extends upwards and further back than you imagine. Smallish classrooms with air con and posters – including some with Khmer translation of useful English phrases ‘Work together,’ ‘discuss’ etc, English Language only zone, so this seemed to be a neat way around the fact that beginner groups may otherwise have not the faintest idea what is being asked of them. I snuck a couple of photos to give you a taster, will take more later on. We also have a staff area with our own pigeon holes and shared resources. It does seem well organised and super friendly. The vibes are good, and enormously reassuring after something of a rabbit-in-the-headlights exposure to Phnom Penh yesterday!
Next on the programme, we were whisked off on tuk tuk tour in a convoy of tuk tuks. I was again with Mr Lucky. To be honest, it wasn’t so much of a tour as a drive by. We sped through Phnom Penh with one of the CWF staff vaguely gesticulating in the direction of key landmarks. Honestly, it was a bit rapid to get much of a sense of things, whizzed by water front, royal palace, genocide museum 21 and had a stop off at the Independence Monument or more specifically the statue of the (former) king. I asked if this was the rendezvous a running club had mentioned to me and was told it was the king’s statue – monument is further back, but oh joy, another volunteer heard me ask and she too is a runner of the slower order and keen to get out and about together. Add in our Sydney friend who is mega organised and already sussed the gym and this could be the start of a training plan. Yay! She (our CWF guide) again reiterated that they all love their king (this seems to be genuine, but the affection is for him and not the prime minister) but all are worried because he is old (65-70 maybe) and not married and with no children, so who knows what will happen in the future. Our intrepid guide also told us about this, hence one of my travel companions there had set her sights on being the future queen), it seems it is truly a universal worry. Though how he has avoided being tainted by political history and current political corruption I have absolutely no idea. Anyway, more group photo ops at the Kings statue with the Independence Monument behind.
Other stops included the Post Office, where I purchased a postcard to send home more in hope than expectation. There are no post boxes around other than here apparently, which seems odd. Oh well, a building easy enough to find, huge french colonial, rather beautiful. I helped myself to water in the foyer there, this is great opportunity to top up. Weirdly, there seemed to be another post office round the back. What the? One is for collecting parcels and letters, and one for despatching them. Post restante maybe? REally didn’t get a sense of how that would work at all. STill enjoyed the building, and it is near to the riverfront area, so that was good to see, not having made it down there when I was in PP a couple of weeks ago. I think that you could run down there, but whether that will be compatible with my teaching timetable I really doubt. Still, I will have weekends so we’ll see…
Off to purchase books from a stationers sporting christmas decorations which was very bizarre. I got a couple of notebooks, one for lesson planning and one for my Khmer lessons. Resisted temptation of much novelty stationery, I was overwhelmed with the choice on offer. I have a bit of a thing for stationery shops anyway, the giddy range of post-it notes, pens and notepads was most alluring. I consider that in the circumstances I was relatively restrained. It is hard to know what we will need, but a couple seemed a good compromise. They have Cambodian scenes on them. Lovely!
Coming past one place all our tuk tuk drivers were pulled over, and made to complete paperwork and pay a fine of about $4.50 for not wearing their helmets. Mr Lucky is apparently not lucky by nature as well as by name. He was resigned about it. The police were pulling over everyone, some cunning motorbike riders took swift evasive action, one at least pretended to pull over then did a U-turn disappearing entirely. Sometimes the police literally grabbed at bikes to get them. The CWF staff passengers laughed at the situation. They said this particular block money would go to the police as receipts were being issued, otherwise it just goes in the pockets of the officials
Onwards to the volunteer house. It is ‘ok’ but I’m mightily relieved not to be staying there. There is complicated access with a padlock on the inside of the entrance gate, so volunteers keep being locked either out or in, which seems nonsensical. Although food is done, the communal area was small, and rooms are not spacious for two. I’d have absolutely hated it. So happy with my decision. We had a very good lunch, Khmer style food, rice, noodles, vegetable curry with sweet potato. It was excellent.
Lunch over, and then there was some two hours before our next talk, and there is bugger all to do in the volunteers house, it’s not somewhere particularly relaxing or conducive to hanging out. So me and a couple of others headed to Russian Market for various purchases. Me a kettle and mug, one other a fan for her separate accommodation which is further away and independently sourced.
En route, topped up my mobile with $10 credit a little side stall. The guy selling did some magic number inputting which gives me extra free credit apparently. Yay! I don’t understand how this works at all, but I think it’s essentially free credit offer. Now I have been spammed with lots of texts about music downloads and all sorts – no use to me with my non-smart phone, but hey ho, who doesn’t want their $1 to equal $30!! I’m sure this falls into the category of too good to be true, but we’ll see. I am happy because have successfully texted a fellow volunteer who was also wanting to test her phone, it worked, things are looking up communication wise. I also found out later, that in order to get a new sim for your phone, you are supposed to show your passport. I had no idea, that isn’t what happened at central market when I first handed over my phone. Things do work here, but it is a leap of faith. They were also selling some bizarre ‘lady pills’ I took a photo for your merriment. The stall holder was bemused that I wanted to do so but had no objection to me taking one. So, quiz for today, are these contraceptive pills, and if so, would you chose to buy them from a specialist side-stall purveyor of mobile phones and sim cards?
Into market the Russian market, again it is so dark and labyrinthal, it is better going with others though, it makes if fun rather than scary. There were few tourists, or people at all. I passed place I bought my watch, but went in much deeper, there are stalls selling anything and everything, huge piles of nuts and kampot pepper, stalls selling nothing but fans. I was able to get my kettle. The first one I saw was $6, I walked away as a fellow volunteer had seen one on an adjacent stall, the first stall holder called me back, I could have the kettle for $4.50, a bargain. I also bought a mug, for which I think I probably over-paid. What they do though, which is handy, and they also did for my compatriot who had a fan. Is make a thing of plugging in electrical appliances on a handy extension lead, so you can see the light come on and be confident it works. ‘Look, look’ said the stall holder, as I gazed on nonplussed. I thought she wanted me to watch that there was really a kettle in the box she had got down for me, not just an empty box, but no, it was to demonstrate it works. Good idea. My mug was wrapped in paper and all put in a plastic bag. Too many plastic bags really, but I want to gather a few for rubbish. I paid in a mix of dollars and reil, which was complicated. In the end the frustrated stall holder just peeled off the notes she needed from the wad of Riel in my hand. I trusted her actually. I do believe traders will try to get you to pay over the odds for things, but when it comes to collecting money or payment, everyone I’ve encountered has been absolutely meticulous in counting it out with real care. Anyway, the main thing is I have a kettle. Albeit I may have instigated kettle wars between the two adjacent stalls in the market. Oh well.
Our next destination was to purchase a fan. For the princely sum of $12 my Australian friend got a huge red fan. The stall holder asked her to cut it from its plastic tie and invited her to plug it into the power point to test. It spun spectacularly, ballooning out the plastic wrapping. Only when she came to pay did I realise our stall holder could not use his arms. I wonder how he manages day-to-day. His English was very good – though granted he probably does specialise in conversing about fans! He must have someone else to help him on the stall though, otherwise how is it possible. His life must be hard, again it makes me remember I should appreciate what I have.
There was time for us to return to our apartments for a bit, and then walk back to the volunteer house again for 2.00 p.m. I was able to put my mug and kettle to the test. It was strangely comforting having a cup of coffee at the table in my own little flat. Perhaps it is the equivalent of a cat licking butter off its paws. I felt much happier. I think the only thing I am still lacking is a decent alarm clock. The travel alarm I have does work, but is so small I can’t really read the numbers or tell easily if it is on or off.
Back to the volunteer house. We had a briefing about safety precautions. There were many references to ‘last semester… ‘ such and such a terrible thing happened. Someone nearly setting light to the kitchen by wandering away from a saucepan that therefore boiled dry, thieves getting in and stealing a laptop and phone; prowlers at night. No wonder they keep padlocking everything with such vigour. I was even more pleased not to be at the house. It’s too crowded even with only 8 people, and the house is supposed to accommodate 12. We also surrendered our passports so that CWF can register us as present and organise our visa renewals. ($47 for a three month extension, but it will not allowed re-entry into Cambodia so I’ll have to stay put for the duration – no nipping out to rendezvous with Smiley Paces buddies in Vietnam in January!). We als handed over $100 for the 4 day trip to Kratie to see the Cambodian Rural Development Team project in action. I’m a bit vague about what this will involve, homestay of sorts I think, but FOMO will obviously ensure I go.
From here, we went on what was supposed to be a tour of the neighbourhood, but in reality was a somewhat frustrating mass meander to first a photo shop, where those who needed to could get passport photos needed for visas, and then to a phone shop for people to buy phones and sim cards. That got really tedious. This is the photo shop by the way, not sure you could entirely tell by looking. This is where local knowledge really counts!
My fan-buying friend suggested we abort the rest of the tour, as it was then going to a bank to get cash before returning to the volunteers house for an evening meal, which really didn’t appeal. I’d been hoping a few more amenities would be pointed out, good places to eat, local supermarket whatever, but it was more focused (not unreasonably) on immediate practical needs. My new friend had found an air-conditioned restaurant a couple of days back where she had salad and humous. We went there and it was indeed a little sanctuary of cool, calm and familiar food. I had a roasted vegetable and humous wrap which was absolutely delicious, and an iced cocoa. We had a chat about different stuff we’ve done, and initial impressions. Turns out she actually went so far as to do a recce, visiting the project a few months back and sitting in on a lesson. She also told me, in response to my observation that it was inevitable there must have been some hiccups along the way with volunteers etc…. that she’d heard (strictly off the record) that there was indeed an incident with a volunteer who unwisely took some drugs (definitely forbidden by the project as well as being bloomin stupid) and (didn’t deserve this though) died, in the volunteer house no less! That is pretty bad. It reminded me of when I arrived at Chipangali to volunteer, and found out that a former volunteer had been killed by a lion! Just unexpected, and somewhat freak circumstances leading to it in both instances. Sad, also. I wonder if this calamity also coincided with the time when my application was sat in limbo for months and the organisation was in some sort of chaos. It can be a research project for me to find out more.
The restaurant was Joma Bakery Cafe by the way. Excellent, looks like you could take the laptop and sit all day working and drinking coffee, spacious and clean. Not massively cheap, but not super expensive either. I got a pack of 4 bagels to take back to the flat with me as emergency rations.
As I left, it was dusk. I was completely disoriented all over again. I did manage to walk home alright, but it seems different by night. Stalls that were shut in the day burst into life in the evening. Side stalls disappear in some areas, and impromptu other stalls pop up. It’s like being in a different place entirely, even the landmarks I thought I knew were unrecognisable. I just walked with my heart beating faster and faster, ignoring tuk tuk drivers and just putting one foot in front of another. I was pretty sure I ought to be correct, and decided that I’d keep going for another 15 minutes, and if my apartment block hadn’t come into view, then I’d just get a tuk tuk home and be more careful next time heading out. Maybe I need to take a ball of string with me wherever I go, so I can tie it to a suitable landmark and just reel it all back in again when I want to return to that base. I suppose I will get to know the place in time, but it will take time. I was greatly cheered by today though. There are enough volunteers I think I will find some semi-kindred spirits somewhere. I already have a slow-running buddy, gym buddy and helpful neighbours. CWF is legit, the staff helpful and I have a kettle, what more could a gal want?
I’m typing this up in my flat, in the sweet spot where the air-conditioning hits. I heard a lot of noise outside, and peeked out to see torrential rain. I wrestled open my balcony door in the hope that the rain would bring with it coolness, but nope, it is as hot as ever. How is that possible. I also have mosquitos in my flat. Not many, but enough to bite me. This is a battle I need to win!
So that’s all for now. Summary, all good, progress made, feeling more settled, but the learning curve is not just vertical but a double helix to boot!