Pictured above are some of our Khmer dance buddies at their breakfast club. I think we are now officially part of the group. The shared soya milk gloop cemented it, possibly literally as well as metaphorically, it had a weird but pleasant look and texture to be sure.
Things have moved up a level in our pursuit of olympic dreams. We decided this week to go to the Olympic Stadium three mornings. I have abandoned the Phnom Penh sports club now. It’s official. We have broken up. I loathe going, the rice on the floor and general filth of the place turns my stomach. I concede defeat, it’s not helped my running training and it’s not fun. Only the daily dousings in chlorine have any conceivable health benefits, and that’s probably dubious. It was good on a social, gym, swim, breakfast level, but nothing more. I like the olympic stadium outings. They always offer up a micro adventure, getting up in the morning is horrific, but it is always worth it. Three outings it would be.
Monday’s trip was great of course, with our discovery of the urban landscape of the olympic pool against the rising sun. When we went again on Wednesday, it was just a twosome heading out. I was a bit worried how I’d cope. My cold has moved into quite a, well let’s say ‘productive’ phase, plus I was worried how well my pelvic floor muscles would hold up with all my coughing. Oh well, you have to try these things I suppose. We rendezvoused and headed off up the road in the dark to the stadium. It’s brilliant in the early morning. Streets quite and coming to life. You still see people sleeping in their hammocks at the road side, or up and about, sweeping their forecourts or lighting cooking fires in anticipation of breakfast business. I’d love to be able to share those images with you, but really it’s an overall impression. At this time of day Phnom Penh feels safe, but exciting and inviting. YOu want to explore and engage and you also feel like you are discovering it for the first time. There aren’t other ex-pats about at all, only locals, and so you see it all very differently.
As we walked, we shared stories about our valentine’s day adventures various. I heard of a fellow volunteer who had only minimal attendance. Two who came then said mysteriously they ‘needed to go to the bathroom’ and they disappeared off together for half an hour or more, reappearing later with a lovely bouquet of flowers which they’d headed off to purchase. The same volunteer had a small group for her next session, and as I do, offered the choice of going off book or doing something different. One of her students took the opportunity to try to explain to her about the Khmer Rouge. They explained that they were 12 during this time. It was terrible, they were starving, and working all the time. They told a story of how they were taken away from their families and how hard life was. In desperation he stole an orange but was caught. Horrifically beaten and chained up on a hard floor. Of all the children in the unit where he ended up, he alone was reunited with his parents. I don’t know how. What I do know is that even though this account was repeated to me second-hand, it still gets you in the gut every time. I don’t know how old that student was, but I’m guessing I’m his contemporary. This is not old news, it is ‘history’ from living memory, the impact continues. What was especially interesting I think, was that this person really wants to share his story. I hear such conflicting comments apropos of this, those who prefer silence and those who feel compelled to bear witness I suppose. I think it is important to hear those voices, but whose voices? The ‘perpetrators’ of atrocities were often ‘victims’ too, children. I’m not equating the too experiences, but I am acknowledging it’s complicated. I am left wondering if that is why some wont talk. Maybe it isn’t only horror at what they witnessed, or trauma they experienced, but horror at what they themselves did. I can’t get my head around what happened, but the aftermath is everywhere, maybe even in evidence at the Olympic Stadium on this outing… Afterall, who can you trust?
So. This Wednesday sojourn was especially joyful, and possibly risqué even. The elastoplast man put in another appearance. (He who’d had a band-aid on his nose on Monday and was flirting rather outrageously with the instructor). He was very friendly, and turned out to have exceptionally good English. Well, comparatively anyway. We had our usual enjoyable session, and then, towards the end, there were some innovations in the free-form twisting and dancing at the end. The new addition acted as some sort of choreographer, getting us into two facing lines, and then later a circle into which first one of us and then the other were thrust as, well, probably exhibits quite frankly. Others joined in and it was like some break-dancing (is that reference aging) or rap-fight fest. Locals came up against us and there were friendly goading contests to twist as low as possible, or do the most extravagant jazz hands. It was hilarious. Always is. Maybe I took it too far with the ‘who can kick the highest’ competition, because although that attracted admiring oohs and aaaahs of appreciation, no-one really took me on, which is a shame, as I don’t often get the chance to check out my kicking heights these days. I didn’t know I could still do them. My hips have more rotational options than I’ve had a cause to access in a very long time.
One of the weirder outcomes of today was a rise in the levels of curiosity and documentation of our presence. Rather late in the day we have been acknowledged as a permanent fixture – the irony that this is just a few days before we will vanish does not escape me, but does sadden me. It’s like the intimacy levels have been raised. The guy with the English probably helped with this, as the others in our dance troupe could see we were interacting in a friendly and positive way, though I do think he was looking for something of a proprietorial relationship perhaps. He was asking our names, and what we did – he knows CWF. His own story was harder to follow. He said he ‘always comes’ – I think he was implying he is also a key member of the business, which actually belongs to our feisty woman whose name we don’t know . He kept saying ‘we are like a family’. He has been away working in the provinces for the last two months but now back with a vengeance. His story is fascinating but hard to comprehend. So he is studying for a Masters in Law; apparently (though this I may have misunderstood) some sort of involvement in this fitness class; he also runs a pawn-brokers business (that was an awkward moment of linguistic confusion); plus he is involved in ‘important charity work’ and he is a party official. A Cambodian People’s Party Official.
Now that’s the bit that makes me nervous. Lots of people work for the Cambodian People’s Party, if you are asked to do so you don’t have much choice. But the overwhelming majority of people who have been willing to discuss politics regard the party as extremely corrupt, that the recent 2013 elections were fixed, voices of opposition have been removed – no-one believes that the critic Kem Ley killed in a shooting last year was a victim of a botched robbery. There are also proven links back from the current PM to the Khmer Rouge. Our new friend was lovely and friendly, but the knowledge he is an active party official just made me put up my guard. I’m so naive here. I genuinely don’t if that also might impact on how he is viewed by the other dancers. In our own way we have formed little connections with many in the group over the last couple of months. I wouldn’t want them to be frozen out or excluded if we seem to have an accelerated allegiance to this new presence on the basis of his English skills. It’s hard. On the one hand I’m really excited to think that a local friend could show us around, on the other, I don’t know enough about the political situation and nuances of interactions to read the situation. It makes me cautious.
Anyway, upshot was, we went with the flow today, but I think we will have to navigate what unfolds with some care.
In cheerier news, there was a bizarre, but incomprehensible exchange with one of the guys who appeared to have taken a video of my feet whilst dancing. He seemed to be trying to play it back for me to see (a doomed initiative with light on his phone screen and my poor eyesight) he was counting. I couldn’t work out if he wanted me to repeat the exercise, or was trying to teach me. I had another go, and he sort gave up in frustration. Shame, we had no comprehension there, but hey, good to know someone has a video of my feet dancing badly eh?
After some faffing, and video-related interactions, we weren’t sure what to do. Our new friend had been telling us about their post workout breakfast club on a Saturday. Could this be Cambodia’s answer to parkrun? I do hope so. We decided we should exit a different route. Not many days left now to explore. As we did so, we found ourselves alongside a little cohort of our dancing buddies. Sat on red plastic chairs overlooking the stadium. We were warmly welcomed. Seats were made available for us, we started by sharing one, but another was produced. Next, the initiation test. A bubbling bowl of black looking gloop was present. Gulp. It was a large bowl of stainless steel with one of the little stainless steel short-handled spoons you see everywhere. We were told it was soya milk with cinnamon – though I’ve since heard its more like sesame seeds. Fortunately, it was absolutely delicious, or maybe that was relief giving that sensation. Not too sweet, just soya gloop, warming and filling.
We sat and chatted, our new friend offered to take us to Diamond Island, out clubbing, show us around. It was really good, but… just a bit too much. Some of those ideas are seriously enticing, but we don’t really know him and I don’t know whether it’s appropriate for us to do those things. Plus I don’t mind exploring in daylight, but I don’t want to head off on the back of his bike to lord alone knows where to somewhere there might be drinking. MY head says it would be fine, but my gut instinct is to be wary. For the immediate present though it was a glorious way in to a shared breakfast. When the time came to pay we found others had treated us to the 1500 reil treat. It was really a special thing. I felt we were an accepted part of the group. We are clearly regarded as bizarre additions, but not unwelcome ones. It was good to be able to communicate a bit more, and understand that the group has indeed a social dimension. They go on outings together, and on a saturday always have breakfast. We should try to do that really. That would be a grand finale for our olympic trips.
Because this was indeed an auspicious occasion, our host initiated an enormous number of selfies which he subsequently sent to me on Facebook. What was really funny, was that I then naively but these on my facebook page, tagging him as a courtesy – well, it hasn’t quite gone viral but it has got over 80 likes after he shared it, so that feels like a way wider audience than I anticipated, contributing to my suspicion that to be in a picture with us is some sort of strangely desirable trophy. I don’t mind at all, I find it hilarious, but very odd. The pictures are fab though are they not. See, we are indeed living life like the locals, hanging out with our soya gloop post our morning dance workout!
Everyone scattered quite quickly. Also like parkrun once breakfast at the Endcliffe Park Independent Cafe has been concluded. We decided to continue our plan to exit via a new route. It was a good call. As we wandered around the stadium, we spotted new corners that we had previously left unexplored. We descended a back stair case, and found ourselves amid the aftermath of the previous day’s Valentine’s Day couples run. It looked so much fun. Enormous hoardings proclaimed promises of a free backpack, free t-shirt – and lots of gifts from sponsors to those who took part. It was $9 to enter, as my students had told me, and we found ourselves near the start and finish arches. I think the course was literally a run around the outside of the stadium, not more than a couple of km, though to be fair I’d struggle to do that in this heat. Couples had to run tied together at the wrist. I don’t know if any two people could rock up and run together, or if you had to be a mixed sex couple. I will never know. I was so sad not to be able to go, what a spectacle. The large signs didn’t give any times though. I am inclined to believe my students who told me it was around 5.00 or something – smack in the middle of my teaching commitments. Oh well, next year.
So we headed back home but of course we had mini-adventures on the way. We are branching out to street food, and so far so – well, not exactly good, but not catastrophic either. I would really recommend eating street food here. The interactions just involved in trying to buy some are entertaining, and eating is an entirely new experience when it takes on an element of real surprise. You don’t know what you’ll get, is it sweet, is it savoury, will it be palatable or gut turning,. Always an adventure.
Our test for Wednesday was a stall that had somethings that looked like bananas cut in half and deep-fried, but also had some balls of what looked like rice, that she was dropping into a vat of boiling oil. It wasn’t exactly that it looked appetising, that would be over-stating it, but it did arouse our curiosity. Fortunately, it tasted way nicer than it looked. It turned out to contain hot banana on the inside, with rice outside and a batter sort of coating. Like a Cambodian interpretation of a scotch egg perhaps. We experimented using our limited Khmer to make our purchase, whilst the tolerant vendor looked on in patient amusement as it was soon apparent she spoke perfectly good English. Many vendors do. I’ve been slow on the uptake here, and it is hit and miss. It seems to be all or nothing. My coffee woman has none, though recently she has uttered a shy thank you to me a couple of times. However, some have really a lot, and I suppose I’m realising that actually, setting up your own business selling whatever shows entrepreneurial initiative, and some are very proactive individuals who have studied English a while and see it as a necessary skill in their trades. You can’t assume it though. I’ve ended up with many things that weren’t quite what I wanted to consume because it isn’t worth the complex negotiations required to clarify what’s gone wrong.
We subsequently made our own entertainment by going to a 2500 reil shop where everything was – guess what – 2500 reil and we were followed round by a shopkeeper who was practically sitting on our shoulder as we browsed. I think it was to be on hand in case we needed to make a purchase. Perhaps she was the one with English? I noticed when we left the shop, so did she, leaping into a tuk tuk and speeding (I use the term loosely) away. We were very tempted by large fake tattoos, but really, I don’t have enough exposed flesh to merit such an investment. Tempting though, very tempting. I wonder if they’d just slide off in my sweat though?
The most exciting purchase of Wednesday morning though was that of a baseball hat. My dancing buddy was in search of one. The first early choice looked like forehead of Klingon due to some stitching peculiarity. I rejected it. Then we found one with mysterious Cambodian writing on it. This was always going to high risk, who knew what it was said (well, every Cambodian, but neither of us) but what a snip at only $2. Quite a crowd got involved, as she debated the purchase. There was no mirror, so she tried to look at her reflection in my sunglasses until a nearby coconut vendor offered the services of the mirror on his trailer for her to check out the look. The original vendor kept offering new caps by way of alternative, and others nearby looked on and offered potentially helpful, but alas incomprehensible to us advice and commentary. It was all highly communal. The purchase was made. The random Khmer wording, we found out later means something like ‘child of Cambodia’ which she rather obviously is not, but that sounds fairly OK, as far as we know. Just have to hope it’s not some political slogan or other. We finished our morning at the Trav Coffee Shop which is pleasingly just near to my apartment. We were warmly welcomed, and had a large tray of tea brought to us again, so that was good.
Over breakfast, we discussed what to say in our unexpected debrief meeting with the CWF director. How candid to be? Will feedback be welcome? Unlikely. But some feedback is needed. Specifically is this an NGO or a business now. Who are the beneficiaries.
So that was Wednesday’s pre-breakfast Olympian adventure. It was really good. We were left a bit unsure about the extent to which to engage with our new Cambodian friend, but it definitely helped to accelerate our acceptance into the group … even if it is some members now wishing to assert their prior claims. So, time moved on, and we went back to the Olympic Stadium again today, Friday. We debated the latest Trump astounding pronouncements from the epic press conference. How is it possible that he is president of America, and given he is, how come the whole world hasn’t yet imploded. We also debated whether we needed a ‘safe word’ to beat a retreat if our new friend was a bit too proprietorial. In the event, he did come, but had to leave early. We were both a bit relieved. By some miracle I avoided drowning in a soup of my own hypocrisy as I shook his hand most earnestly and expressed disappointment at his rapid exit.
We approached a new route, up a long ramp, that gave glorious urban views across the stadium with ‘our class’ silhouetted against the sky line’. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy living in a city as such, but up on high this urban landscape is really something in the morning light.
Our class was quite hypnotic today. Astonishingly we have picked up one or two of the dances now, and it’s sort of like meditating, doing the slow moves to the traditional music. I felt warmly welcomed. We had nods, waves and smiles of recognition. I am coming to realise we greet different people in different ways. There is an older woman who taught us the formal greeting so we always use that with her, there is a flamboyant woman who does a double-handed, over head wave; others do shy smiles. It’s great really, and although I like to think I’d have found this little sanctuary of loveliness in Phnom Penh all on my own, I doubt I’d have had the courage to persevere, it’s good to have a buddy to share it all with.
I was going to say being there was like getting a virtual hug. But actually it was like getting an actual hug. It seems we have got physical now. One older woman in particular gave us both the most enormous hug, all three of us together. It was somewhat surprise inducing, but quite nice too. Our instructor also asked us our names as we paid. ‘You come so often, but I don’t know you’ we exchanged names, I was as usual, an epic fail in pronouncing hers. Amongst the new sightings today, was a male/female couple in matching baby powder-pink t-shirts proclaiming ‘couple run‘. I should have been there! I finally looked up the couple run, the website info is great, here’s an extract- alarmingly, you there is a ten minute slot for marriage proposals at the end…
BOUT COUPLE RUN
COUPLE RUN is a topic of fun run event. Having said that it doesn’t mean only wife and husband, girlfriend and boyfriend or female and male. We also allow all people to join as pair as long as they can form a group of 2 people.
COUPLE RUN is an popular in some countries around the world.
> WHY WE MAKE IT HAPPEN?
1st MAIN REASON
Kantha Bopha Hospital is the main reason that make us to create this couple run event. Dr. Richner spent almost his whole life to help children in Cambodia. Why don’t we do something we can do help them?
2nd MAIN REASON
14 Feb is a bad day for old people’s thought (sex day) so lets do make it as a day for charity
Valentine’s Day is a beautiful day to show love to beloved persons such as family, parents, brothers and sisters, couples and friends
So let’s lead people to do something good for society and for themselves
3:00 PM : Arrival and Registration
3:30 PM : Welcome Speech and Program Announcement
5:00 PM : Run Start
6:00 PM : Finish the Run
6:10 PM : Leg Couple Run Game
6:50 PM : Concert (Original Song Singers)
8:30 PM : End
So back to our twist and turn finale. It was as always grand, and so after the obligatory whoops, new name checks and quite a lot of hugging we departed. As we were debating which way to go home, one of our dance buddies spotted us hovering at the side of a busy 8 lane road, she grabbed each of us by the hand and firmly escorted us across the traffic. Giving the evil eye to any driver who looked likely to take us out. This little interaction was all the more wonderful because she is absolutely tiny and also looks ancient. It was complete role reversal of ‘helping a little old lady across the road’ scenarios you may have seen, participated in or imagined. Emboldened by our acceptance of her services, she put her arm around my waist and chatted away to us as we walked on together. We had zero idea of what she was saying, but just responded with ‘we love the dancing’ ‘thank you for helping us’ and ‘what fun!’ And it was fun. These little forays out into the early morning are always fun. Micro adventures are adventures nevertheless. The city feels full of possibility and promise. It is truly a wonderland for these two hours only. Sleep through them at your peril! We parted at a suitable corner, I think she was disappointed we didn’t stay with her, but as there was so much mutual incomprehension it’s just as possible she was relieved.
We paused for a coffee at a random place, just because we wanted to branch out of our comfort zone and go where locals do. This wasn’t entirely succesful, as we couldn’t order anything to eat, and my companion can’t tolerate coffee, though she can apparently tolerate rat, strange but true.
Turns out we were nearer to my road than I expected, and once at the corner of my street, we spotted a vendor who seemed to have some of those deep fried dumpling things with uncertain bean sprout contents. I got four of those to share. I stood the bill, my companion was grateful, not realising that my ‘gift’ was actually conditional on her being my official taster for poison or meat or just generic repulsion. I overpaid but was handed back two times 500 reil notes by very honest vendor. This is good, but does reinforce idea that we have previously been overcharged and over paid. I realised today for the first time it is always the women who hand back money if overpaid. No male vendor has ever done so, is that just coincidence, or is it that the women either as money holders recognise the value of the money or is it simple decency or is it some sort of sisterly solidarity I have literally no idea. Maybe I haven’t overpaid anyone else… I doubt it.
The dumplings were absolutely delicious! Hooray, a new cheap breakfast option, just a few hundred yards from my flat. Not exactly healthy, but I’ve pretty much abandoned the pursuit of healthy eating as we each the end stage of this Cambodia marathon.
So that was that, end of the Olympic sojourns for the week. Love it. Probably we’ll only fit in two more outings. We need to think of some farewell strategy. Card and shared sweet treats probably. I don’t want us just to vanish, especially after they have been so kind. If only we could communicate, they seem genuine and caring. I have no idea what they think of us. They are definitely puzzled, but accepting. I hope they’d get the same welcome if they randomly rocked up at some exercise class in the UK, but it’s hard to think of an equivalent. I suppose if it was parkrun they’d be fine. British Military Fitness I’m thinking less so, but what do I know.
So, summary. We like the Olympic Stadium a lot. We had breakfast with our new friends on Wednesday, grey soya gloop. Today, Friday we were physically embraced. Dear Reader we have found acceptance. It is late in the day, but it is not too late. I feel honoured, nurtured and happy. A grand start to the day. This facet of Phnom Penh will be genuinely hard to leave. All my best memories of the city have been forged here at the Olympic Stadium. A glorious vision in concrete and steel. I love it.