Don’t get me wrong, I think Jessica Ennis and Paul Sinton-Hewitt (or Jees and Pash as I like to call them) are pretty awesome, it’s just that now I’ve got bigger fish to fry. I’m over them. I have decided not to become embittered by ‘what might have been‘ but rather to celebrate the awesomeness that surrounds me here. This morning dear reader, I have been dancing amongst the stars and I mean that LITERALLY people, not just metaphorically. – Though the ‘stars’ are in the sense of ‘celebrities’ not ‘celestial bodies’ so try not to get confused. Look, just keep up will you, it’s not all that complicated if you just show a bit of patience and concentrate, all will be clear!
This morning, I decided a trip out to the Olympic Stadium was in order. Background is I’ve been feeling a bit grumpy knickers lately. I don’t know if that is partly because I’m sort of detaching in anticipation of returning home; maybe it’s because I’m run down; or maybe I am getting a sort of belated culture shock; or maybe I’ve become a bit disillusioned with the set up here – (CWF have now separated from CRDT who they were previously partially funding, and although new links are being made with Teuk Saat 1001, I’m not convinced the charity arm and NGO status are all that they might be…) – but all in all I’ve been quite down. I decided I needed to be proactive to change this. I have only a few weeks left, I don’t want to waste them. I tried to think what is it that brings me joy here and doesn’t break the bank, and of course the only possible answer is The Olympic Stadium!
Apart from the 5.00 a.m. start which remains horrendous, I feel only joy at the whole endeavour of heading out in the early morning to join the sky-high exercise classes, it always lifts my spirits, and today was no exception. In fact, it was quite possibly the BEST EVER such outing, and that is really saying something, as it is my favourite thing to do here ever, out of may wonderful things.
So, after another shite night of sleep, I clambered out of bed at 5.00 and pootled pre-departure at 5.30 a.m. Today there was quite a posse of security guards at the entrance for some reason, so I was able to exit ok to a chorus of slightly perplexed ‘morning madam’s. It was ridiculously hot as I padded to the corner rendezvous point, where I could hang out with red cement mixers watching the world go by whilst waiting for the silhouettes of my two olympic stadium buddies to appear from the night. It is still pretty pitch at that time in the morning. There is life on the streets though. We picked our way along the road to the stadium comparing teaching tales. It is good to have these kind of informal chats as you can otherwise get isolated in the classroom. I think many of us imagine everyone else does nothing but provide stimulating, innovative and highly educationally focused sessions every time, and it is only us who have off days, or disappearing students. In fact, my students are currently playing mind games with me, by suddenly appearing en masse for classes after a couple of weeks of erratic attendance, albeit they have been sending apologies. I didn’t have enough handouts yesterday. Six out of six in one class (which is pleasing, but very difficult for Cambodians to say) and nine out of eleven for the second. While I’m on the topic of teaching (yes, I am), you might be interested to know that the day before I had only four in one class, but they were amazing. We were doing some tedious and pointless exercise or other – oh yes, on telling the time, they just can’t do it at all, I don’t think they use watch faces here. Anyway, one of them started asking me about Brexit, and then they were wanting to talk about Trump and what’s going on in the world. I was surprised and delighted in equal measure.
I was surprised, on two counts. First, because I was astonished at their linguistic skills – it was rough around the edges true, but we could communicate; and secondly because it flew in the face of the stereotype about Cambodian students (people?) avoiding talking about politics and lacking critical thinking skills.
I was also delighted on two counts. Firstly because I am bored rigid with the text-book now and happy to be diverted from it, and secondly because they were so engaged and curious about the world and I felt it was a really worthwhile and meaningful conversation and result. Who cares that they still think quarter-past six should be expressed as fifteen minutes past? They’ll still be understood!
There were a lot of insights here. A lot of curiosity too. It was moving really, hearing about their dreams for seeing the wider world, to travel and learn overseas potentially. Later on I posted a load of stuff about international scholarships (Chevening scholarships; misc scholarships and how to find out about USA opportunities from Cambodia) and also workaway. It’s tricky, because it is very difficult (and prohibitively expensive) for most Cambodians to travel overseas. I know this. However, I don’t want them to think it is absolutely impossible. They could get to Thailand or Vietnam – a couple turned out to have relatives living in America, which was a surprise. I know that right now they couldn’t meet the criteria for the scholarships – English IELTS for a start would be too low, but I do think some might in the future if they know it’s an option. One of them is only 16, he has two years before university, he has time to make this a goal if that’s what he wants. I actually wonder if that’s why I got a good turn out the next day at class, it has piqued their interest. I’m not minimising the scale of the challenge, but then again, when I was their age (they are mostly from 16 – 25) I had never traveled out of the UK either, who can say what might be possible for them over the next three decades?
I’ve also started writing up loads of possible job interview questions on the white board at the start of the first class. One of the students has started to apply for jobs as he’s about to graduate. All of the students are fascinated by these. I have no idea if they will be appropriate in Cambodia, but it doesn’t really matter, as the questions provide linguistic practise and intellectual challenge. I can’t believe these are just ‘beginners’ they are only level 2. I think what I have given them is confidence to use the language they have. They say they feel relaxed and comfortable in the classes, this means they’ll work hard to express themselves and we can find ways to communicate. When it works it is hugely rewarding, and it just goes to show. What exactly, it’s hard to be quite sure, but I think it goes to show that just because someone can’t tell you what time a bus leaves in English it doesn’t mean you can’t have a pretty decent exchange of views on contemporary international politics. I’m just saying. Take nothing for granted. Assume nothing.
So as I was saying (yes I was), we headed off to the Olympic Stadium, sharing teaching tales as we went. I spent a lot of time yesterday teaching my students to say ‘don’t worry about it’, ‘ignore them’ and ‘that’s easy for you to say’. Should have done it on session one, it’s a brilliant way to get over the ‘they are speaking Khmer/ messing around/ being annoying type issues and avoid being side-tracked by unhelpful and un-fun tangents. (Fun tangents should always be taken).
On arrival, some confusion, but mostly joy. Our usual class was in full flow, but the instructors appeared to have swapped. The feisty woman, who normally does the dance, was taking the aerobic part. It was a bit full on to be honest, phew, some work out. Then later, the twerky man (who normally does the aerobics) started off leading the dance. It was good actually, I like things stirred up a bit now and again. Another innovation was floodlights. A lamp had been erected behind the group, lighting up the lines of participants like a chorus line, it was great. The light was especially beautiful as the sun came up (I’ll try not to dwell on the fact I think this was largely because of the particularly dense pollution turning the sky pink). The stadium was crowded. The track was especially busy with uniformed teams, sprinting, doing hurdles all sort. It was just joyous. Most joyous of all though, was that as we did our shuffling dance and aerobics steps, the middle of our group was a thoroughfare for all and sundry. I’ve mentioned this before – people promenade through; hawkers on bicycles push into our midst with baskets of bread or peanuts hoping for trade; walkers; joggers, the ‘whole world’ seemingly traipse through. Normally we are sufficiently focused not to be distracted by such comings and goings, it is simply a delightful backdrop to our sporting endeavours, today though. Oh My!
A troupe of noticeably more fit than is usual runners, kept going to and fro through our midst. Teh olympic stadium is not a complete circle, rather it is a sort of amphitheatre at the rim. This means that runners (other than those who incorporate the steps into their workouts) run from one end to the other, and then turn around and come back as they hit each dead-end. This also meant that as our workouts coincided with their running, these seemingly ‘elite’ athletes kept passing us. Now, astonishing as it may seem, we haven’t entirely blended in with our fellow dancers. I like to think this is because of our ethnicity, we stick out as the only whites in the troupe, and not because of our tendency to convulse with mirth combined with our inability to face the same way as everyone else of complete the steps in the conventionally expected order. For whatever reason, the athletes seemed as curious as to our presence as we were to theirs. It meant that with each passing they and we got bolder. A couple of them had fluent English. Initially they went for simple smiles and nods, but it quickly escalated to laughing and observations ‘you’ve got the moves‘, ‘you work it!’ that kind of thing. I tell myself they must have been hugely impressed by our prowess and expertise. (eh hem). I tell myself a great many things. I know in my heart of hearts not all of these things are strictly true… It was very funny.
As our class ended – and we had some new routines today, and not the rude song unfortunately, we ambled across the top of the stadium rim towards where the team were continuing their workout under the eyes of a rather sombre looking coach. En route we passed what was Officially The Best Sigh EVER, and is now my favourite Cambodia shot (see above) and then looked on in awe as the group started to do squats, with a twist. The twist being you do a squat whilst giving your team-mate a piggy back. Apparently this is also good for male bonding. I can’t imagine why? It was ridiculously hard. Some of the team were all muscled up, but some were really not, and they were lifting team mates way too heavy for it to seem to be an entirely good idea! Impressive though eh?
I mean really? That is ridiculously hard. We decided it was a bit weird to stand their gawping (though not before we had done quite a lot of standing and gawping) so we ended up trying to do a bit more of a work out on the stadium steps, this involved attempting press-ups, abandoning in favour of doing planks, and then convulsing with laughter. You probably had to be there to understand why this is/was so funny.
Eventually, we plucked up courage to actually ask them who they were. Well, dear reader, let me tell you , it was only a PROFESSIONAL CAMBODIAN SOCCER TEAM which is actually football. I mean Jess and Paul are all well and good, but they aren’t professional sports peoples are they. We were so impressed. My only regret is that we didn’t tell them we were professional singers or actors or something, oh well, next time. The upshot is, this is what the early birds get. Our reward for a pre-dawn rising (which is not a battle term by the way) was to get to dance with the stars indeed. These are stars of The Beautiful Game after all. It matters little that my only previous interest in football was feigned interest in the performance of WBA (West Bromwich Albion? I don’t even know) in order to ingratiate myself to a boss many years ago, the point is we were mingling with celebrities before breakfast. Not a bad way to start the day if you are of a shallow disposition and easily impressed. Oh actually, I’ve remembered another football link. I was actually team captain for a five a side football team for two consecutive years purely to make a point. We were shocking, but I hold the record for goal scored. I scored the only goal our team ever scored in our two seasons of play. We lost most games around 30 nil, so my goal was infinitely better than anyone else’s performance. I’d just like that on the record. To add to our ridiculousness, we were loaned a team, this led some of our opponents to labour under the misapprehension we could actually play, which was embarrassing when the umpire (sorry referee) had to stop one of our matches to explain to us which way we were supposed to be playing. Oh well, it’s not whether you win or lose right? See if you can spot me here… it was a long time ago, granted.
Eventually, we cottoned on to the fact that their coach wasn’t altogether delighted by our distractive qualities. So we moved on. Our official photographer was in a rush and went off, but we two women in search of Cambodian adventures took our time. We decided to buy some non-identifiable food items from a passing barrow. They were broadly speaking ‘baked-goods’ but beyong that who knew? My companion did query the wisdom of unknown purchases on account of me being vegetarina, but I pointed out she is not, and I’d just decided she could be official taster. We overpaid for the items. I use this word advisedly, because I don’t think we were over-charged, he asked for 1000 reil and we thought (OK, I thought) it was 1000 reil an item, but it was together. I proferred the money and he hesitated for long enough for me to realise what I’d done but to feel it would be mean to snatch it away, it was our fault not his. If we are so rich and stupid we don’t know the value of stuff, we deserve to be overcharged (it’s still only 25 cents an item). We walked off, and each took half of the first concoction. ‘Hmm, it doesnt actually look that good close up – I wonder if it will taste better than it looks...’ observed my companion. We both bit into our respective halves simultaneously and pretty much did synchronised choking and guffawing. No it didn’t. Although weirdly, that didn’t prevent us polishing it all off. You become habituated to eating things that normally you wouldn’t entertain in your mouth here. I was hungry too. We took our weary carcases doubled up with laughter across the road to the cyling coffee shop which also pleases us, where we had some sort of iced coffee (me, and it wasn’t sweet which was a first) and a passion fruit tea thing (my fellow traveler) and enjoyed watching them all manouvre a car out of a seemingly impossible spot, past our chairs and tables. Amazing.
So a very fine morning indeed thank you for asking. It totally transformed my mood. Quick shower, then to school for our final teaching workshop which confused me hugely. I think grammar is not really my forte. Shame.
So, you want to dance with the stars, hang out at 5.30 a.m. at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, and sporting celebrities are yours for the taking.