Apart from having a near miss with a bag snatcher en route to the Russian Market, and being horribly groped by the leary eyed, drunken, bloated owner of a bar on Riverside later on, today was a good day! Yay. Honestly, it was, you just have to put things in a kind of context.
So, what can I say about today, which was actually yesterday, and less than 24 hours ago, but is already something of a blur of impressions and memories. So many new things happen every day, its like living perpetually on fast forward. I think today was a really good day for geling the volunteer group, for all sorts of reasons.
I woke insanely early, so pootled around doing goodness knows what. Should I worry about my seemingly endless capacity to entertain myself in a basically empty room? I would hate to be forcibly confined, but yet have had years of training in high level procrastination skills from doing PG study mostly. I can find loads of important and urgent things to do where needed, and it seems this skill extends to pottering about in the mornings pre departure to CWF. I think I might have been trying to find the Amatrax Crossfit gym on a map, which was really hard, because I’ve only got a really shite map, and even if you have an address, a house number on a road is essentially useless, particularly when roads are long and numbers don’t necessarily run in sequence. Why would they? Where would be the fun in that?
We hadn’t made a formal rendezvous plan, but I emerged from my flat like a hermit crab from its shell to find me, and my too neighbours had apparently synchronised our departure clocks, so all peered out in unison. It is much more companionable walking in together, and I get confidence from watching the others’ techniques when it comes to road crossing. Walking to work is always full of surprises. Near death experiences; gridlock; dog casually crapping in the middle of the road whilst tuk tuk drivers and motorbikes skirt past. I suffer from bashful bladder if there is someone in an adjacent toilet cubicle, I could never graduate to having a crap on a highway. Oh well, perhaps I have other skills… like procrastination!
A few keenies were in and we chatted a bit, before heading up for our final intro Khmer lessons. It doesn’t get easier. Today it was restaurants, food and drinks. I’m not sure I made all that much progress. But I did learn ‘I’m vegetarian’ as ‘I don’t eat meat’ sort of explained as ‘knhom mun yam sa tay‘. Apparently. Not sure it will work, but we’ll see. Today, our teacher suddenly interjected with ‘I want to eat your meat!’ which startled us learners and certainly was an attention grabbing technique, albeit one I won’t model. This is not poor English, by the way. It follows on from yesterday’s session on buying and selling, when he similarly without warning announced ‘I’d like to buy your body!’ and then fell about laughing at his own joke. We have been told often about Cambodian’s ‘cheeky’ sense of humour, well, I’d say those interjections are positively risqué! Entertaining though. Definitely entertaining. I wish I could retain Khmer vocabulary with the same ease with which my working memory can absorb such moments of hilarity!
Breakfast today was rather donut based – I’m not sure if this is what Cambodians might conceivably have for breakfast, or whether it was for our benefit as westerners. There was also some strange (to me) fruits, which I think were rambutan, although the ones we had weren’t as hairy as the ones in wikipedia pictures. Very tasty though, you peel them to reveal a fruit that looks very much like lychee, but isn’t, and tastes nice, slight tartness maybe? I don’t honestly have the vocab to describe. Would recommend though, but possibly best consumed over a sink, and naked. Quite messy. I think there may be a knack to this I don’t yet have, as it shouldn’t have been quite such a performance.
The next part of the morning, was taken up with more ‘games’. Running through various exercises we might try. We did an ‘alibi’ game, where three suspects were interrogated regarding a stolen bike. The group having to ask lots of questions to check for discrepancies in their stories to identify the culprit. There were games with someone in a hot seat – e.g. the word ‘tarantula’ is written on the board, fellow students need to describe this until the student in the hot seat identifies the word correctly; disappearing words from a sentence on the white board. jeopardy (possibly yesterday), lots of words written on the white board, students ask questions to elicit correct answer – cash prizes were doled out to students who answered correctly. Giving fake money is used a lot as a motivational technique, and comes recommended. You can pick up fake money by the bucket load at the market apparently. (It’s used for offerings quite a lot). One volunteer last year apparently used this technique all term. Her students kept the money. At the end of the term before she left, she simply auctioned off all her belongings (wooden spoon, unwanted plate – whatever) to her students, and it went down a storm. Genius. Note to self, get some money! Real money would be fab, but fake money also of value here.
Lots of things. We did some practise of reading slowly and enunciating clearly, each person in turn reading a paragraph of the Cinderella story. As we progressed, our tutor, started to adopt the role of student, interjecting with questions that required clarification. For example ‘what is evening?’ or ‘What are step sisters‘. It was entertaining watching each other struggle to give visual explanations of this. It was supportive laughter, all of us will have to find strategies to deal with this. It was useful too though. I certainly gained confidence from trying things out and also from observing my peers. We all have different talents to bring to the table, but it will be OK. The group seem committed and mutually supportive on the whole. It bodes well.
I didn’t find today quite so tiring. I think seeing how other people perform is reassuring, most of us will admit to feeling apprehensive, but I look at them and think ‘they’ll be fine’ so logically, I will be too!
We also got to hear what groups we have finally. Actually I’ve got two level two groups (lowest levels are zero and one, so level 2 is OK, though I’d have loved a more fluent group). I’m teaching two sessions, 5.00 – 6.30 and then 6.30 to 8.00 p.m.. Most of us have been, I think only three people have morning sessions at all. I’m also quite pleased that both my neighbours are at the same time of me. It isn’t fun negotiating the streets round here. I will get more confident I’m sure, but for now, knowing we can arrive and depart at CWF as little convoy is great. As I have the same level of students twice, strictly speaking I can work off one lesson plan for each evening, though clearly it may require ‘tweaking’ depending on the dynamics and make up of each learner group. We got put in groups of people working with broadly similar levels to look at materials for a topic, and come up with relevant games to liven things up a bit. I was in a group looking at tropical fruits. Hilariously, I have absolutely no idea what many of them are, which should make vocabulary checking interesting. Longan and mangosteens as well as rambutan are all new to me. I’m not over-confident about guava and papaya either to be honest. I’ve eaten them, but not seem them growing. I’m an old hand with jackfruit now, thanks to Vietnam!
The morning session went on later than usual, but was useful. I went to volunteers’ house for lunch, which was OK, but not as good as previous days – the veg option being just veg and noodles, no protein as such. That’s OK, I’m not going to starve, but did make me think not worth traipsing round for once teaching is underway. It is a cheap way to eat, but not en route to anywhere really. I was originally going to check out the gym and join today, but had a change of heart. I really want somewhere I can run, and the gym with no air conditioning is not ideal. Maybe there will be better options revealed now I’ve signed up for bootcamp with Kettlebells Amatrak or whoever they are. I felt a bit mean, as it had been suggested we pair up for reduced cost membership, but at the end of the day I don’t want to be bounced into a club membership that isn’t right for me.
AFter lunch, just time to nip home, quick shower, and dump my stuff, before heading back to the volunteers’ house where tuk tuks were going to pick us up and take us to a picnic dinner on a boat on the Tonie Sap. I headed out in the heat of early afternoon. It hits you like a brick when you step out into the sun. I wonder if I will ever adjust, or even wake up one day and fleetingly consider it to be ‘a bit nippy out’ once cold season is officially here. Because the streets around the Russian Market are so difficult to walk through, I opted for an alternative route to the volunteers’ house, taking a parallel street which was practically deserted, before hooking back onto the main through road, off which the volunteers’ house is situated. Weird thing happened. As I was walking, a motorbike appeared from nowhere behind me and gently clipped my side. I looked up to see a guy on the back of a motorbike, way too close to me, sat behind his accomplice in front. I made eye contact and they sped away exchanging words with each other. It took a little while to process what had happened. It wasn’t frightening because it was so quick, and ultimately nothing happened, but no real doubt, they had made an abortive attempt at a bag snatch. If they had taken it, they’d have got my intrepid bag (which I like but has no intrinsic value); sunblock; a bottle of water; and yes my mobile phone (but it’s not a smart phone £14 from tescos I think) and my camera, which is similarly cheap and cheerful. I wouldn’t have liked to have lost it, but it wouldn’t have been a disaster. Did that really just happen?
I continued on my way, adding in a detour to check out the location of the Amatrak crossfit centre on 454. It is the other side of the Russian Market to where I am living, but is only a 20 minute walk really. It made me feel better having successfully found somewhere I was trying to go, it is the only way to learn how to navigate the city, and starting with my home patch is good. Also, en route, I passed loads of promising looking coffee bars and eateries, and even a mini mart, all of these things will come in handy. The constant barrage of tuk tuk and moto offers is wearing, but I try always to smile and be polite. Maybe one day I will need a tuk tuk, and these people are my neighbours, maybe even my students. We shall see!
I was thinking… about 10 minutes later I was back at the volunteers’ house, to be greeted by news of high drama. One of our number had actually had her bag snatched just within the hour. She was on her way to pay her rent for the duration of the course, so had $1000 in it, plus cards, mobile phone – everything basically. She had had all her valuables in the same place, and has been in the habit of carrying it all in a little strappy shoulder bag. She is on the minimalist end of the continuum in what she wears, so I suppose if you are of a criminal mind, there is a realistic probability that all her valuables were going to be in that bag, because there isn’t anywhere else she could possibly be concealing anything. I felt so, so sorry for her. What a horrible start to her Cambodian adventure. She is a younger member of the group too, which somehow makes it worse, I can’t say why exactly. I suppose because she has fewer travel experiences under her belt. I’d have been completely traumatised. Fortunately, she wasn’t on her own, and her room buddy who was with her and her get on really well. She was unhurt, and I think it took a few seconds to realise what had happened, by which time the perpetrators were long gone. CWF staff rolled into action, taking her to the police and organising lock changes and so on. She arrived back at base, tear-stained but somehow still smiling. She has a ridiculously large, expressive smile, her students will adore her.
I wondered if she’d be up for the boat trip in the circumstances, but she was soon persuaded out. In fact, whilst of course it would be much better if this hadn’t happened, one positive to come out of it was the way the whole group rallied round to offer support. Practical, emotional, reassurance. I was impressed. They seem so genuinely nice. The local staff responded quickly, and were of course very concerned. Alas though, bag snatching is ridiculously common round here. This wasn’t even the last event of the day. I began to think I’d had a lucky escape. It’s opportunistic I’m sure, thieves just cruising round on bikes snatching from anyone unwise enough to be off guard, or not even off-guard, just vulnerable. At the end of the evening, my neighbour had his phone in his hand to use, and a passing biker tried to grab it, but his hold was too strong. My neighbour instinctively tried to land a punch, and gave a passing blow and a tirade of expletives. The attacker got away empty-handed, but I’m sure undeterred, and no doubt continued cruising around in this way. It’s depressing, but a fact. That’s three of us targeted in one day. The local staff have all been got at some point too, it isn’t just westerners, though we are probably more vulnerable for being less streetwise. I am going to have to be so so careful. It’s basic things, only carry the minimum amount of money. Make sure you have back ups of anything important. Don’t use a shoulder bag, keep your wits about you; keep bags on the inside of you when travelling in a tuk tuk. Trust no-one. Phnom Penh is amazing, but I don’t feel safe quite. Not at risk of a physical attack as such, but robbery at any moment. It’s tiring.
Oh well. Off at 3.30 on our sunset cruise. Mr Lucky drove at the head of a convoy of tuk tuks, all the staff from CWF joined in the excursion, plus some brought their family members too, so it was quite a party. The kitchen staff loaded up the tuk tuks with containers of rice, salad, fruits and cooked up stew. The fruits of their cooking labours all afternoon. They do all the food preparation sitting on the floor really. It works, but it does seem alien to my western eyes. Surely their backs must pack up working like that, or do they get stronger from use?
We arrived at riverside to find it pretty busy. I was going to take some atmospheric shots, but some locals on the wall edge elaborately posed for me so why not! It feels like an adventure there, there is the wide riverfront promenade, with a multitude of touristy bars and restaurants lining the way. The actual river is lined with pleasure boats various, most of which offer sunset cruises or daytime jaunts. There are also other working boats, and a multitude of people. Are they living on the boats there? Plying their trade? I don’t really know. The wall, that must also be a flood defence, stinks of urine, at a certain point we could go through and down a rickety selection of planks across stinking mud and putrefying debris to board our boat, which was actually very jolly, and for our exclusive use. It’s not a peaceful, romantic cruise to the backdrop of a stunning sunset that you may hope for. It is an urban landscape, but seeing it from the water is fun. We boarded straight away, but almost immediately the wind really picked up, to a spectacular extent, I was amazed. It was because of that, we didn’t launch straight away. Most of us went at first on to the upper deck, but eventually it started to pour with rain, so we took refuge below. It was fine though, it is what it is, and the weather made it more of an adventure!
So, we started posing for photos on the boat, or course. I even took one selfie, which was quite advanced. I mingled a bit, talking some more to the director of CWF who looked even more youthful than usual as he in informal clothes. I tried to talk to a couple of people I’ve not really had a chance to chat to before. It was good. Meanwhile, we nipped up and down the waters of the river. It was pretty brief, and the weather meant it was not visually spectacular, though it was still of interest and a fun experience. I went down to the front of the vote, and got some (rather fine) shots of the staff on the boat. One of them offered to take a photo of me. In fact, he took two. Both though are/ were unflattering close-ups, that could have been anywhere. I was more hoping for me at the side with the glory of Phnom Penhs waterfront revealed behind. I was going to include one for comedic value, but have decided against. I had already turned up at the volunteers house so drenched in sweat that one of my new colleagues remarked ‘you look like I feel’ which was true, but not the look I intended to rock. My purple shirts are my most comfy ones, but they really do showcase sweat. How is it possible my pores just keep on giving?
The cruise seemed to end a bit abruptly to be honest. It was only 6.00 p.m.! I didn’t want a late night, but it was a bit soon to jump ship, I didn’t want to miss out on getting to know the group, but I admit I was worried about coming back on my own. It’s quite a way. One of my neighbours had his very good camera with him, so he agreed to come home with me at some point so he could dump his camera and then carry on partying. It was kind of him, and I wasn’t minded to decline.
Next stop, was the night market. Oh my god. That was such a hoot. It is frequented by both locals and tourists.Even walking there was an adventure. The staff member from CWF, who is just lovely, sort of naturally took hold of my hand as we walked, and then later looped her arm through mine. Again, culturally it feels very different, but it’s nice. It’s warm and affectionate, really looking after us, but not something I’d do to an acquaintance at home! Chance took me and a couple of the other volunteers on a trajectory with our two local guides who were a hoot. We were seduced by a jewellery/watch stall. Where we got variously cool shades; massive hooped earings and watches. Gamely, one amongst us tried to negotiate in Khmer, much to the hilarity of the staff. I wanted to know if any of the watches have a leather strap, I’ve got a rash from the one I got from the Russian Market for $10. Here I got one with much bigger numbers that I can actually read, for $3 – our Khmer friend paid the same for hers, and it’s definitely worth that. I ended up just asking in English ‘do you have any with a leather strap?’ of course the stall holder replied in immaculate English, but that just added to the amusement factor. We browsed onwards, delighted with our purchase. I was fine with the low-hanging improvised plastic roof, taller members of our group were bent double under the sagging coverings. Inevitably, we, with the two locals, were late back to the rendezvous point, which amused most and annoyed others! Also, at the market, live singing on a stage, side stalls with ice-cream, loads of places to sit and eat. The traders here don’t really harass you, it’s not that kind of place. It was way more fun than other markets I’ve been to, where you get to the point you don’t want to stop or look at anything because then you become a sitting duck for any or every stall holder in whose range you fall.
Reunited, I had the good fortune to witness a touching and entirely spontaneous moment when he room-buddy of the woman who had been robbed earlier, handed her a splendid volunteer she had bought her by way of consolation. It was very touching to witness, and what follows is not at all a staged re-enactment of that moment of offering up support and comfort.
Some took this natural break as an opportunity to depart, I opted to continue, and we trooped en masse to a riverside bar. I really don’t know what it was called – tell a lie, I have my receipt! It was the Riverside Bistro, which is a shame as I simultaneously never want to return because of the groping owner, and think it would be quite good to do so. There was some shenanigans about whether or not they’d be able to fit us all in. I left the group to do the negotiating, whilst I nipped to the loo, where I found out how to write ‘please do not put toilet paper down the loo’ in Khmer, so that’s obviously fab! Here you are:
I returned to find the group gone, but located them at an upstairs bar area, which after a bit we had pretty much the whole area to ourselves. There was a sort of balcony bit, which over-looked the stage below, where two Cambodian singers valiantly trotted out songs. They were actually pretty good, the woman in particular had an amazing voice. On either side of them, large screens broadcast shots from some sports channel, so you might have a Stevie Wonder cover song to the accompaniment of people doing ski-jumping for example, and why not? At various points, the poor singers had to contend with a rather repulsive, older white guy with sweaty blubbery skin, and thinning greasy hair hauled back into a grim pony tale. He would take over the microphone and in a Trump-esque like display of alpha male misguided sense of entitlement, demonstrate to them how to sing ‘better’ (he didn’t). His behaviour was at best obnoxious, I speculated (correctly as it turned out) he had to be the owner, I don’t think anyone else would have got away with his drunken oafishness. He pressed the male singer to try his cigar, which the poor guy felt compelled to draw on, and then nearly choked. It looked like bullying behaviour, bizarre. He stumbled away and let the singers take over again. By this point a sub-group of us had become fascinated by the spectacle. There were sweeter moments too, the chinese (I think) couple who tenderly danced together in quite a ballroom style, as if they too, had nobody watching.
Intoxicated by over-excitement, fatigue and in my case a mango man-eater (think rice wine with mango concentrated fruit juice in it and mint leaves – no, I wouldn’t order again, palatable, but unsophisticated, sort of alcopop but with fruit juice), we felt compelled to join in. We clapped and whooped after every song, did lots of hand waving and swaying in unison and eventually gave in to dancing. The upshot was the duo ended up directing their set to us for much of it, and even dedicated that classic James Blunt ‘you’re beautiful’ song to us in the balcony. How happy we were you can only imagine. It was hilarious. We got into dancing and messing around and it was a really good way to break the ice and relieve tension too. At one point a ‘new’ person joined our established group of dancers, and as they hadn’t yet been trained up in our sophisticated choreography there were a few collisions and near misses with full glasses, but nothing that couldn’t be rectified. A great night out! Nice photo bomb in the shots that follow. Also a street sellers stall of children’s santa clothes. A bit niche you might think, but there is clearly a market for such commodities!
So then, it was time (for me) to go home. I peeled off, as did another CWF member on a promise, and my escort home. Mistake on my part, I skipped downstairs to the bar only to find myself in grabbing distance of the gross owner. He was slurring and had blood-shot eyes. He grabbed my wrists, quite forcefully, with both his hands, trying to secure me for some point or other. It wasn’t so much a sexual groping, more a proprietorial power thing, he was repulsive. Trying to drag me over to meet the singers, and paying me ‘compliments’ whilst all the time I tried to disentangle myself. He was drunk, I was not. Also, I have done a self-defence course and know how to free myself from an arm grab, (move your arm upwards at the point where their thumb and forefinger meet – it’s the weakest bit. Also, finally, all my profuse sweating had come into its own. It’s hard to grip an arm lathered in sweat. It was a real shame, and embarrassing. His ‘cook’ came over, and he was saying I own this bar (and by implication the staff) and this woman has been here 50 years. Poor woman. She could see me writhing away from this lecherous fool and stood immobile, but clearly disgusted by him also. How arrogant would you have to be, not to realise that people around you have so few choices that they will work for you, but regard you with disgust and repulsion, they do as you bid because they need your money, not because you are ‘the big man’ whom they respect. It wasn’t a great end to the evening. I was trying to pay my bill, and the waitress handed me a slip and then my change – ‘you should tip,’ he said ‘my poor staff earn nothing‘ I did tip, for her benefit, not his (don’t know if it was an appropriate amount, I just wanted to get away) but said ‘well, why don’t you just pay them properly?’ He looked uncomprehending, I saw my saviours in the form of the two guys leaving at the same time as me, and made a swift exit. It was overall a fun evening but the potential bag-snatch was way less vile than the groping old westerner. I hope he ends up choking on his own vomit in a lonely side street somewhere someday. We all have our dreams, permit me mine.
Quick negotiation for the tuk tuk. $7 back to the apartments and return. The tuk tuk driver wanted $8 and seemed begrudging at our offer ‘but it’s such a long way’ it is really, but the force of his argument was somewhat lost when he then had to ask a fellow driver where it was. I surrendered my card for the block, I must get some more, they are a god-send.
Home by 10.00! It felt like midnight. I had to phone the UK, it was a long call 25 minutes, and my phone didn’t cut out. Maybe the mysterious promise to convert my $1 = $30 is actually true. I don’t know how to work out how much credit I have on the phone, so I’m topping up quite frequently. I’m scared of being caught out.
So a lot to take in, but a lot achieved. That was a great many adventures to pack into one day. I’m sure there are many more to come. I hope all end well, and I hope there is less bag-snatching and groping and more laughing and dancing. We shall see.