I really wasn’t expecting all the straddling and stretching to be honest, but then I probably hadn’t done my research.
So Christmas dawns in Phnom Penh. I woke about 5.30 with a thudding headache, raging sore throat, broken air conditioning and an alarmingly low quotient of clean drinking water to get me through the day. Joy to the World indeedy! Still, feeling grim on Christmas Day is in it’s own way a yuletide tradition that has no doubt reached down across the centuries. Why would it be any different just because I’m in Cambodia?
Although I was feeling rough, and even though I never exactly embrace Christmas, I find it a difficult time of year as many of us do for all sorst of reasons – I still felt that staying in the flat all day would be a big mistake. Sunday is still a day off after all, and anyway, no (reliable) internet limited communication options. I would head out. First I ate an entire pineapple, a small one admittedly, but a whole one nevertheless. I bought it from the Russian Market yesterday, and from the fridge it was quite good. Then I went in search of water. I couldn’t find the woman I normally pay for it a she wasn’t in her office, instead the security guard/ maintenance men helped me out. The interaction was tortuous, I don’t think either of us had the faintest idea what pleasantries were being exchanged, but I did hand over my 6,000 reil and a guy came up to my flat lugging one of the 20 litre water containers on his shoulders whilst I walked ahead with a fixed grin of excruciating embarrassment. It is very disempowering being unable to communicate. I feel bad that he carries this load for me, but today I wouldn’t have been able to manage it. Then there is the ‘am I supposed to tip?’ angst. I haven’t because I don’t know what would be appropriate, and maybe it’s part of the service that is standard. I don’t know.
I did some uploading of photos onto facebook, which took ages, and was time entirely wasted as the upload failed. Oh well, worse things happen at the seaside eh?* I headed out into the sunshine with my headache and social paranoia, and headed to Deja Cafe on 454 street. I like this place. It has powerful air conditioning, is spacious AND they have plug sockets next to every table. I ordered an omelette $3.50 and a hot latte also $3.50 for my Christmas brunch. It was very good actually, it came with garlicky tomatoes, potatoes and a big hunk of non-specific cheese melting in the middle. I did have a sneaking suspicion that the bits of red onion may have been bacon, but you know what I let it go. I do feel bad in a way, but I also feel I have to eat, communicating about being vegetarian is really hard. Yesterday we went out for a Christmas Meal at Corner Bar near the Russian Market. For $12.50 a head. We pre-ordered our meals, and 7 of the 15 of us ordered vegetarian option which was offered as available, but not elaborated on. When it came to it at the table, we were just asked to choose between the chicken or the pork or whatever, which did not go down well. Eventually salads were brought out which was fine, but also indicative of the issues. I wondered if they’d just said ‘yes’ to the veggie option originally to be polite, without any grasp of what they’d agreed to. Oh well.
Cafe Deja also has really powerful internet. I could have stayed a while. My original intention was to do some lesson planning, tomorrow I start on Cambodian Fruit and Vegetables. I’m really not feeling the love for this. I am worried because I have no idea what the fruits various are anyway and I don’t see any conceiveable way to make the topic interesting. I’ve thought of vague memory games but that’s it. I felt quite low. I decided to take action. I would follow through on my other plan for Christmas, which was to do something I wouldn’t normally do, and be a bit decadent too. The plan was to go to One: Day Spa and Beauty Salon on #54, Street 454 and check out their pedicures. I had googled where to go near the Russian Market and this came up with mosty good reviews and one scathing one. However, it won my business (lucky them) because it is so near, and also it is another of those social enterprise projects helping disadvantaged women in rural cambodia, as well as profit sharing the income amongst the women who work there. Sounded promising.
I headed over, and was welcomed by a petite and immaculately presented trio of Cambodian women. No appointment was required, I simply pointed at the English language menu and was asked to remove my shoes before being led through to a calm waiting area where I was given a wet flannel and a class of cool drinking water whilst they prepared a seat for me. As I waited, I browsed their brochure/ menu. At the front was a bit about the project, and quite a lot about the women not being for sale, and anyone making inappropriate approaches would be asked to leave, reported to the authorities and the women supported in taking any necessary action. It is weird seeing this written down. Again, a reminder of how vulnerable many people here are. It is of course great that this business takes a firm line, but how prevalent must such attitudes be that there is a need to write this down alongside the descriptions of sea-salt scrubs. It depresses me. The thought that we, many of us travel here, comparatively wealthy and end up exploiting local people’s talents, lives, souls even. Here is a business catering exclusively for ex-pats and tourists, I doubt local people could afford the rates, and here am I spending my money here, but unable to communicate, it is odd, and it is complicated. I hate to think of those poor women doing their best to provide an impeccable service with their beauty skills and finding themselves in the front line for sexual harassment even here. Gawd it’s depressing. Too often the world over, women who provide any service are presumed to be available for sexual services too, ho bloody ho and Happy Christmas everyone!
Enough English was spoken to talk about the pedicure requirements but not enough for small talk, which suited me fine. I was seated on a comfy, squishy armchair on a sort of podium, the woman knelt in front of me sat on a little stool and peered at my sad white distorted hobbit feet without outward judgment. I felt like an ogre next to her. I wonder what she really thought. Is it disgust, or was it more like I feel if I have a sweaty muddy horse to give a bath. The ability to bring about a transformation is its own reward, the worse the starting point the greater the contrast between before and after. Two other western women joined me in adjacent chairs. They were poring over their mobile phones, so we didn’t chat beyond basic pleasantries. I established one works at Amatak, and they still have their offer on so maybe I should take that up. We didn’t even say ‘happy christmas’ to each other. I was lost in thought mostly. Sort of quietly amazed I was inhabiting this parallel universe where I can have a spontaneous pedicure on Christmas Day. This is not something I’d ever do at home, so I have no basis for comparison. It was sort of OK. It was nice to give my poor neglected feet some attention, and it was undemanding. I felt like I was fulfilling my obligations by setting foot out of the flat, but not having any demands made on me.
The pedicure was $10. Once it was completed, I opted to have a head, neck, back and shoulders massage for another $12. I was taken up some steep stairs – all stairs are steep here, so that is probably tautology! Into a darkened room with scented candles and a sort of raised bed. There was a large wicker basket. I was instructed to remove my shirt and bra and put my clothes in this enormous basket – it would have happily accommodated a duffle coat, which is good to know if you were Paddington Bear in search of a back massage in Phnom Penh.
Honestly, I’m not sure about the back massage. It was an ‘experience’. I remembered too late that I’ve hated every massage I’ve ever had (about two admittedly), I like the idea of it, but in reality I go rigid and find it painful. The masseuse kept asking if I was OK, probably feeling the muscles round my spine go into spasm in response to her touch. I kept saying ‘fine’ because I hoped that maybe her fingers would work their magic and get my muscles to relax, but I guess fifty years of tension cannot be so easily displaced. The eucalpytus or tea tree scented oils used were good for clearing my head. At one point though, I was lying face down on the couch when there was a little scampering noise behind me, and the next thing I knew was the woman had completely straddled me which was somewhat alarming. I mean is that usual? I have no idea. I was doing the lying down equivalent of sitting bolt upright, eyes wide open as much as is possible whilst peering through a hole in a massage couch. It was odd. I suppose, because of the gap in communication skills, there was no warning of what might happen next. The whole thing maintained an uncomfortable element of surprise throughout. It wan’t really relaxing, I think that’s a reflection on my lack of body confidence and unfamiliarity with the whole process rather than the practitioner. I felt so lardy and huge alongside her lilliputian frame, fearful at any moment her tiny hands would be swallowed up in my rolls of superflous flesh.
At the conclusion of the massage, she had me sitting up, and again straddling the couch behind grasped my hands one at a time and sort of yanked my arms backwards whilst furiously punching each of my vertebrae in turn. I have no idea if this was to vent her frustration or whether it had some mysterious practical purpose. If it did it was rather lost on me. There was also a particularly strange mid-way procedure when she stroked oil onto my arms in a circular motion but it honestly felt to my disorientated mind that she had an extra hand manouvering in there. Very peculiar. Conclusion, I’m not sure I enjoyed myself, but I’d have been dead pissed off to have missed it.**
It ended abruptly. ‘Finished now’ and she disappeared, like the fancy dress shop owner vapourising in Mr Benn. I dug around in the dark to retrieve my clothes, and then picked my way down the stairs to go and pay. It came to $22 and I was there a couple of hours. I’m glad I did it, but don’t know if I would again. It is probably good value. I paid $24, and the smiling women who waved me off seemed glad of that.
Stepping out into the street was strange. I felt so rough. I really wanted to go home, but did a quick detour for coffee and internet at Cafe Joma, where I bumped into first two and then a third of CWF volunteers. We did say Happy Christmas to one another, but I got the impression the couple were sharing some quality time, and the third took herself to a quiet corner so I took that as body language for ‘I want to be alone’ – but maybe I was giving off that vibe too? There was a move to go to see Elf at a cinema nearby ‘The Flicks’ I did want to go, but my head is banging and I think bed is a better option. I’m fretting about tomorrow to be honest, I need to lesson plan, but right now the overwhelming compulsion is to sleep. Oh well. I guess today and tomorrow will come and go. Time passes quickly here.
So that’s it. Christmas in Phnom Penh. Surreal. Right, need to top up my phone, and get back to base. Maybe lesson planning inspiration will grab me when I’m back at the ranch!
- * niche EWFM referene. Happy Christmas! 🙂
- ** and again