After only one week of living in a hotel room, Stephen and I moved into our new apartment in Phnom Penh. We had lots of helping hands moving our luggage so I didn't have to do any heavy lifting and the transfer from hotel to apartment was done in a half an hour. The final leg of our international move from Portland, Oregon, USA to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Southeast Asia.
Though we didn't need to buy furniture we did need other things: dishes, linens, cleaning supplies... We decided to be like the locals and buy those things at the informal markets. There are several of them: the Orrusey market, the Russian market, the BKKI market, and Central Market to name a few. Central Market was built in 1937 and at the time it was the sixth tallest dome in the world. It was designed to let light in but defuse the heat so it's about 5 to 7 degrees cooler inside than outside. Recently Central Market underwent a huge renovation requiring vendors to move all their wares to temporary locations and back again, section by section. I have already shopped in three different markets and Central Market is by far the most pleasant to shop in. Well...maybe "pleasant" is a bit of a stretch actually.
ME: Do you have a Panasonic steam iron?
VENDOR: (points to all her different brands of irons, I don't see panasonic or any other brand with steam)
ME: Steam, steam iron?
VENDOR: (shows me another brand that has steam)
ME: (pointing to the word steam) steam iron, but Panasonic?
VENDOR: (shows me Panasonic dry iron)
ME: Yes, Panasonic but steam
VENDOR: (crawls into her storage space and brings out a Panasonic steam iron)
ME: (face lit up in delight) Yes! How much?
ME: (frown on my face) oh no too much $22?
VENDOR: cannot do (gets calculator types in $28)
ME: (take calculator and type in $24)
VENDOR: (shakes head, takes calculator and types in $26)
ME: ok (smile)
VENDOR: ok (smiles)
This is how it went for every single thing we bought. In some cases, the vendors (mostly women) just would not bargain and stuck to their first price. In which case I said "thank you" and walked away. So after nearly three hours on Sunday we had 4 small plates, 4 large plates, 4 soup bowls (which I thought we had decided not to get), 4 cereal bowls, 4 rice bowls, 4 drinking glasses, 4 sets of silverware, 1 pan, and 1 pot with lid to show for our efforts! I was exhausted! And this was even with help from one of Stephen's staff who offered to bargain on our behalf! In the states this shopping experience would have gone something like this:
Go into Target
Pick up box and put in cart
Push cart to check out
Swipe credit card
Sign (if over certain amount)
Carry bag with dishes to car
Total time: 15 minutes
Why the difference? We don't exactly know. But there are advantages to both vendor and customer with the informal markets. If business is slow one day and the vendor needs to make a sale they can lower her prices as an incentive to buy. Customers benefit too in that case. Also it allows for stratification: those who can afford to pay more, do. In the states we shop at Walmart or Nordstrom depending on what we are willing to spend. Another advantage is that informal markets are easy to get into. You don't need a lot of capital to get started and you can build up over time. In the states, you mostly need to start with a chunk of capital to run a business. At any rate, shopping at the informal markets is something that will take some getting used to. Fortunately for us, we can choose to shop at either the formal or the informal markets. I think next weekend it will be Lucky Market for me.
We met Stephen's staff member (I'll call her Sarah to make telling my story easier but that's not her name) at 10am, when we finished shopping at 1pm I just wanted to go back to our apartment take a cold shower (my word, the sweat!) and nap or at least rest for the afternoon. But that was not the plan. :( First of all Sarah disappeared to buy fruit so we sat down and waited for her. Turns out she bought it for us. Earlier in the day, I had asked her what a lady was carrying in a basket on her head and how you would even eat it. So Sarah went and bought some of those fruits for us. She then proceeded to peel the hard skin with her fingernails revealing the cloudy gelatin looking fruit inside that she then popped in first Stephen's mouth and then a second one in mine! I was totally freaking out! THE GERMS THE GERMS! I frantically found my bottle of hand sanitizer with alcohol and started to rub it on my hands. I overdid it a bit and alcohol was dripping from my hands to the ground which caused both girls to stare at me strangely. What I needed to do was drink the stuff! All the while my brain is having a panic attack, I'm smiling and thanking Sarah for the fruit.
(Pictures will have to come later. I was either too occupied with bargaining or too tired to take any pictures the whole time we were at the market or the food court.)
When we finally got in a tuk-tuk bound for our apartment, Stephen asked me how that experience was. I was kind of speechless. For him, it was just another adventurous afternoon. It is now Thursday and I'm still recovering. It probably will come as no surprise that I have the worst cold that I've had in at least two years! And I've been forced to curb my over-zealousness about starting any kind of English tutoring. Sarah did mention it again at our lunch on Sunday. On Monday I was starting to make a plan and even perused the TOEFL (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language) books at the bookstore. But by Tuesday morning I had a cough. Clearly, this transition has been more of a strain than I thought. So this week I put on the brakes. The original plan of doing only art at first was a good one and I'm sticking to that for the near future.
I guess not only art. I am a sounding board for Stephen as he processes everything about his new position in this foreign culture. I am his support system. Success of people in the field is generally higher for those who have a support system. Stephen is doing well. Every day seems to bring some new information, some new challenge, some new task to add to the list. It's taxing and he's worn out by the end of the day. But things feel good for this early stage, he's enjoying his work, and we both are trying to take the long view.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Saturday was a "free" day, so Stephen and I decided to act like tourists and see some of the attractions of Phnom Penh. I took my first tuk-tuk (an open air taxi) ride when we rode to the Royal Palace.
The sights of this Cambodian city are pretty cool. Buddhists monks with their bright orange robes.
Children swimming in the muddy Tonle Sap River.
The Asian architecture of the Wats (temples) mixed with many French style buildings.
Colorful and crowded markets.
Although our intent was to visit the Royal Palace, we arrived just as it was closing. According to a tuk-tuk driver the palace closes each day from 10:30am-2pm. It didn't matter anyway because Stephen's shorts were above the knee and violated the dress code.
We knew that I couldn't wear a sleeveless shirt but that shorts were unacceptable too was new information. Maybe next weekend we both will don appropriate attire, time our visit so we arrive before 10:30, and then hopefully get a chance to tour the Royal Palace.
The waterfront/Royal Palace area is definitely a tourist area. The tuk-tuk drivers were much more persistent than the ones in the BKK1 area. Though we said "no" several times, also saying "We aren't tourists. We live here now," one driver kept following us even exclaiming, "I see you again!" And if we didn't want a ride now, "maybe later?" Two drivers showed us laminated typed cards with various tourist sites and their descriptions. They were offering a personalized tour of the city. I want to learn the Khmer words for, "I like to walk." and maybe add, "I need it. I'm fat." Ha! Pointing out the obvious and being a little humorous. In the BKKI area, on one of the days last week, after Stephen and I had declined a ride the driver said, "You like to walk." I turned back, nodded and smiled. Other expats have maybe said this to him.
On the topic of exercise, in a park along the river there are exercise machines. That's exactly what I need! Exercising outdoors in this heat and humidity! Yikes! There is a signing warning you to stop if you feel faint. The English is quite interesting. "User must be 8 year olds and plus." "Please consult with your doctor before exercise if you think that it could affect your health."
We had three tourist sites on our list for Saturday but the only one we really experienced was Central Market. It's an informal market place where bargaining is expected. When I visited Thailand, we went to markets similar to these in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I remember that the most successful bargainers were people who approached it like a game. They were good-natured and smiled as they negotiated for a better price. So on Saturday I gave it a try on a few items. I'm sure I was still charged a lot more than what a Cambodian would pay but at least I negotiated down some from the first price. :) My best strategy is to walk away. I was looking at some paintings out of curiosity but no real intent to buy. The man first said "4 dollar". I shook my head. Then he said "3 dollar". Again I declined and started walking away, "1 dollar" he called out to me. Just being at Central Market is an experience. Motorcycles belonging to both merchants and customers extend out in long neat rows.
Children are bathed out in the open.
After Central Market we walked to the bottom of Wat Phnom which in on the hill for which the city was named.
A giant clock sits just below the Wat.
In the park was an elephant we could pay to ride on through the city. I've already had more than enough elephant riding in my life, but I enjoyed watching this one eat and swat flies. An elephants trunk is quite versatile!
To actually see the Wat, we first had to climb up the hill and once we reached the top more walking was involved. I was pretty drained at this point so we opted not to visit this time. Another site still on our list for a later time.
For lunch we stopped in what seemed like a nice place. But the prices in the restaurant also reflected tourist influence. Our meal was twice as expensive as most other meals we've had out. And the food wasn't even good. It looked good. Beautiful presentation. But the steak in my steak sandwich was inedible. I simply could not bite through it. I've ordered steak twice since we've been here and both times it was extremely tough. I think I'll forego any more steak in Cambodia, unless I buy Australian beef and cook it myself.
At a bakery called The Blue Pumpkin, Stephen and I did get some delicious drinks though. I had maybe the best chocolate milkshake ever. :) Stephen had a mango smoothie that tasted like mango puree; it was so fresh.
After only about half a day walking around in the heat, I was definitely ready for a rest so we returned to the hotel, took a shower (showers twice a day is our general practice now) and just hung out in our room until dinner. Not a bad half-day of sightseeing. At least we have a lot of pictures to show for it!
Friday, July 8, 2011
Something we've noticed already about Cambodians is that it appears they value timeliness and good follow-through. This not only makes our lives easier, as it matches our own culture, it also makes it easier for Stephen to do his job well. We've had two examples of this so far. One is when we first arrived, we only had to request twice to have our hotel room safe's batteries replaced so it would function. Another example is our new apartment. We were told it would take 7 to 10 days before it was ready but Stephen informed me yesterday that we are moving in after only 6 days. It makes a huge difference living in a city as compared to a rural village. In Tugela Ferry, the most routine of matters (in our eyes) could take just an inordinate amount of time to be dealt with, making living there challenging. By comparison Phnom Penh is a dream.
So after he wrote down a few different phrases in Khmer for me, we just had a chat in English. Though he had a decent vocabulary, I often had a difficult time understanding his English but he said, "I would like for you to correct me." So I did my best to understand, asking him to repeat himself many times and then once I got it I repeated it back to him. In one instance he was trying to say, "flash disk" to explain how he saved his school work and he was saying something like, "flas dis". Once I finally understood, I repeated it back to him with emphasis on the "sh" and he copied my pronunciation. He told me that his family is very poor and that he came to Phnom Penh to get a job and take care of himself, "but the salary is very low". $65 a month is what he told me that salary is. He said he's been in Phnom Penh for 4 years and he's been going to a private school during that time. He works at the hotel in the morning and goes to school in the afternoon. I asked him what kind of classes he was taking and said he only takes English classes. When he graduated from high school he was given a "scholarship" but he couldn't pass the "scholarship" so he couldn't get into the state school. But the private school will take him, he just has to pay. When he was writing English spellings of Khmer words he wanted to know if I thought Khmer was harder than English. I said I couldn't really say about Khmer yet but I know that English is very difficult. He pointed to the different languages and said, "two languages, one spoken only in Cambodia, the other one spoken all over the world." He said, "It is easy for you to travel to my country. But it is hard for me to travel outside of my country." I agreed with him. He said he would be willing to travel "abroad" to get a good job. Towards the end of the conversation I said I was American. He said, "I've been thinking about you, that you are American because you are fat and your skin is so light. It is not like this in my country." He already knew I was American because I'm fat and fair skinned. It's true what he says, "It's not like this in my country". 36% of Cambodia children under the age of 5 are underweight from malnutrition. 40% of all children are stunted which means underweight for their age and 11% are "wasted" which means underweight for their height. Malnutrition is a significant health problem but also an education problem because when the body doesn't get the right nutrients neither does the brain. Malnutrition is one of the 4 major areas Stephen wants to do work in.
My conversation with the Cambodian hotel employee added more fuel to the fire: although I don't yet know how it will work out, I believe I will teach English much sooner than I planned. Students who are as motivated as this young man are fun to teach. And his current English proficiency would make it possible for me to teach him before I've learned Khmer. What he needs a lot of is to listen and speak to a "native speaker" as he said. It's exciting to think about my tutoring other Cambodians who are just like him.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Monday morning we both went to the office to meet the Cambodian office staff. We were greeted warmly but how much we were understood is uncertain. The staff have varying degrees of English proficiency. One of the staff yesterday said she would teach me Khmer (pronounced Kam eye) and asked me to help her with her English. I said to myself before arriving in Cambodia that I wouldn't commit to major projects early on, but already the wheels in my head are turning around the possibility of teaching English to the Cambodian office staff. As a volunteer I could provide some "staff development" in the form of English language tutoring sessions. It could be really fun but right at this moment I have no idea what I would do. I guess just dive in and figure it out as I go.
I am typing in Gloria Jean coffee shop right now but yesterday I went to Cafe Fresco for lunch. I overheard a conversation among maybe a British woman and a couple of Khmer students. The woman was running some kind of program and these two students were in it. She was emphatic that the girl practice her English every single chance she got. She seemed to feel she was helping them but at the same time she was warning that should they not maintain or improve their English there could be quite severe consequences. I felt for the Khmer students. Such a cold world out there really. It's not easy to learn a second language but they have to try the best they can to master English; their mother tongue it not enough. I only know one language but that has not prevented me from acquiring an advanced degree, securing a well paying job, or having countless opportunities to pursue whatever kind of life I want. I can't change the world but I can give some Cambodians English skills that could open up opportunities for them to participate on the world stage if they want to. Recently I listened to a speech by Ted Danson and he said when we walk by problems, when we become aware of problems and we don't do anything, we kind of take a "hit to our soul". He said you don't have to work on every problem. But as soon as you start to work on solving one of the world's many problems "you can breathe again". I can relate to that. I definitely feel the "hit" part. And I want to feel the "breathe" part.
Simply being in Cambodia makes me feel like "breathing" is just around the corner. And I think I'm going to like it here. Phnom Penh has many western comforts. As I am a soft westerner, these comforts take away a significant chunk of challenges. There are so many things involved in assimilating to a new culture; having some of them put on hold helps me focus on a few at a time. Like learning the language, and finding my way around the city. I am able to control to a degree the amount of newness and unfamiliarity I want to engage in on a particular day. Because at almost any point I can pop into a western style coffee shop and order my latte (in English) and then enjoy my well made western tasting coffee in an air conditioned environment. I think the knowledge of that is almost as helpful as the reality. It could be that I have some experience under my belt, or it could be that Phnom Penh, particularly the BKK1 area, caters especially well to expats, but whatever the reason I am finding Cambodia to be quite nice actually. Stephen and I were remarking at dinner how much more relaxed we are about the whole thing this time.
This morning as I was sitting on the 6th floor veranda of our hotel sipping some coffee, I could hear a mixture of traffic noise, construction work, and bird songs. Surround me in hanging pots were orchids of different colors. The air was humid but not too hot. On my walk to the coffee shop I stopped to take a picture of some tropical flowers cascading over the concrete wall and saw a giant black bumblebee flying from flower to flower. The young Cambodian men, guards for different entrances, were watching me with curiosity. I think they were amused that I would be interested enough to stop and look at a bee. :) It feels good here in this southeast Asian country. I think we are going to do alright.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
We made it! We are here in Cambodia. Our second international move has started off much smoother than the first. We learned a few things from the last experience and I think that has helped. Interestingly we have more baggage this time though! 10 bags in all, 9 that flew with us and 1 we sent ahead with a coworker. Last night, the Cambodian staff member who picked us up from the airport was quite astonished at all the bags. He kept commenting and laughing. "Good thing we have a big truck", and "you have one more at the office" (chuckle chuckle).
Our flights were surprisingly comfortable, even though I started out the day with a slight cold and fewer hours of sleep then I would have preferred the night before. Stephen and I were both nervous and had some trouble sleeping several days before our voyage across the Pacific. But our 11 hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, South Korea went by quickly. We started out by watching almost 4 movies in a row. Movies are a really great way to pass the time. Even though I always take books to read I rarely get to them. It takes too much energy, I guess, plus I get nauseous. :( Stephen reads though. He can and does read everywhere. :)
We had only a short layover in Seoul but still, I was able to notice that Korean couples seem to enjoy wearing matching clothes and/or matching shoes. :) The flight from Seoul to Phnom Penh was on a smaller plane and we were two of the maybe 7 white people on the whole plane. Curiously we sat next to not only a fellow American but a fellow Portlander.
We arrived a little after 11pm local time which is just perfect because then we can go straight to bed and not have to force ourselves to stay awake to get on the right schedule. We are staying in a hotel in the expat area of Phnom Penh for the next week and there is a lovely pool on the 3rd floor. Our hotel room is totally comfortable and pleasant. The air conditioner works like a dream. :) :) Stephen and I both slept great. And I think I got the best night's sleep I've had in two weeks! Nice to finally have landed after so many months of anticipation.
It was a beautiful morning for our first morning in Cambodia today. The sun was shining and even with a hazy sky it seemed cheerful. This is a pleasant surprise since it is the rainy season and we were expecting "angry rains" as our driver said. Our hotel is in an area we hope to find an apartment to live in so after our breakfast we walked along the streets to get a feel for things. Traffic is quite calm here. Cars, motorcycles, and bicycles weave through each other. There are no strict rules of the road which oddly enough in Phnom Penh translates into very courteous observant driving. There are sidewalks but often cars are parked right on them so sometimes we walk in the road to get around those. There is some garbage lying around but for the most part it feels neat and tidy.
We were told last night that "Lucky Market" would be where we would shop for our groceries so we walked to it to see what kinds of foods are available. And what a pleasant surprise. There was such a great mix of similar brands and interesting unfamiliar products. Check out the strange fruits!
Coffee shops are easy to come by; in a 30 minute walk we saw at least 5 different ones. Cafe Fresco coffee shop was our first stop and what really looked good to me was all the fresh bread. Cambodia was once a French colony so French food is a remnant of those times. If we live in this area I can see myself taking my laptop to Cafe Fresco for some coffee and a croissant. Yum! Gloria Jean Coffee is an international coffee chain and it feels much like a Starbucks. Highly air conditioned, it provided a welcome reprieve from the mid-morning heat. I don't feel too uncomfortable yet but my face gives away just how much I need to acclimate to this new climate. With a hat on for protection from the sun, my hair quickly becomes drenched with sweat and sticking to my forehead. Pleasant.
It was a good first day in the country we plan to call home for awhile. :)