Stalking a monk and gatecrashing a wedding

I nipped out this morning to collect my laundry ($1 a kilo, washed and ironed) and on my return saw a monk standing silently outside the entrance to the guest house.  I was very taken by his robes with perfectly co-ordinating umbrella, but didn’t like to photograph him face on, so I followed him to see where he went.

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He went to the next house, where a woman came out to give him alms, and then he chanted prayers for her.

As he moved off, I noticed what looked like a marquee being erected in the middle of the very narrow road just beyond the hotel, and I could also hear the tell-tale music alerting those in the vicinity that a ceremony is in the offing.

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I resolved to return after school to see what it was.

When I got back the wedding was in full flow.  The marquee had been furnished and decorated, and gating erected at one end.

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Apparently, if they don’t block off one end, motorbikes often drive right through the middle, weaving between the tables of guests.  But you can’t really blame them, as the marquee takes up so much room in the narrow road that they have to squeeze between it and the fence in order to get past.

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Having inspected the marquee, I poked my head inside the house, where I could hear music and saw the bride and groom on a dais at the front, flanked by bridesmaids and young men, being filmed and photographed by all and sundry.  I decided that they wouldn’t notice one more photographer, and casually wandered in.

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They say that if it rains on your wedding day, the marriage will last.  If that’s true, then this bride and groom will be glued together for all eternity, as there was the most torrential monsoon downpour about half an hour later – I imagine that the water must have been flowing between the guests’ feet as it ran down the road.

 

The purple Pringle

A couple of months ago I watched a programme where the sprightly septuagenarian Angela Rippon skipped around the world looking for the secret of eternal youth.  She found it on an island in Japan, where the average age of the inhabitants is about 150, and the secret ingredient in their diet is the purple sweet potato.

Rather disappointingly, not even Waitrose appeared to stock the purple sweet potato, only the bog-standard, non-life-expectancy-enhancing orange variety, so I was resigned to foregoing the chance of releasing my inner Peter Pan.

But that was before I went to the local supermarket in Siem Reap and discovered …

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… the purple Pringle!

Not only is it the magic ingredient, but it’s cooked and packaged as a convenience food – what’s not to like?

My only issue now is how to get a lifetime’s supply shipped over to the UK.  If anyone would like to go halves with me on renting a container ship, please let me know.

Computers, geography and rain

On Monday mornings the children all have to pick up the litter from around the school site.  The two different groups – the morning and the afternoon groups – each do it twice a week, and it really needs doing because Cambodia seems to be covered in plastic.  There are empty drinks bottles and old plastic bags everywhere, and there seems to be no recognition of the value of recycling and re-using.

Then it was the favourite lesson of the week … computers!  There is a room at the school with 17 HP20 computers, which a philanthropic Australian persuaded a company to donate to the school, and the children love them.  The families don’t have computers at home, and their government school, which they attend for the other half of each day, doesn’t either, so Grace House is very lucky to be able to give them this opportunity.

We had to balance along a narrow strip of low wall to get to the computer room because the ground on either side of it was flooded.

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The first task was to type up the new words learnt last week.  I was interested to see that even in this different culture the boys and the girls have the same approaches to presentation as they do in England.

This is a boy’s list:

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and this is a girl’s:

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Using a computer is such a novelty that I even saw one 12-year old boy happily playing on Anna’s Nail Salon, painting the toenails of his e-clients in a variety of exotic shades:

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Then came my first geography lesson, on the topic of South-East Asia, and I used the inflatable globes donated by Matron in our school boarding house.  They were very successful and helped me too, as I was none too sure of the exact location of Borneo, Taiwan and the Philippines … but I am now.

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At the beginning of the afternoon class a girl walked in with the most enormous insect on her head, and nobody reacted at all, apart from me.  I briefly wondered what it would taste like fried in butter, but decided to settle for a photo instead.

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It rained all afternoon, turning the school grounds into even more of a quagmire.  This is the view from the computer room – plastic shoes are essential here; they get left out in the rain several times a day.

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On the way home I was able to observe the various solutions the locals have come up with for travelling in the rain.

First there is the rather fetching plastic poncho:

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or the more stylish, but less practical umbrella:

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And finally the raingear-is-for-wusses approach:

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The rain is so warm that it really doesn’t matter if you get wet, although I’m hoping that trench foot is only a problem if you’re wearing army boots and not flip-flops.

In which I am struck down with mediatas limen discrimine

I have had a very strange, kafka-esque sort of day, involving both a strange awakening and insects.

I woke up this morning to discover that I had developed a full-blown male mid-life crisis (mediatas limen discrimine) and was desperate to book myself on a motorbike tour – ok, a vespa tour – of the night food markets.  Then when my vespa arrived, I was thrilled out of all proportion to discover it was red.DSC_0788I began by saying firmly ‘not fast’ to Sokay, my driver, and then I clung on to him as we whizzed through the streets towards the night market.  But I noticed that the other passengers on the tour had their hands by their sides or in their lap, and they looked much cooler than me, so I let go of Sokay and assumed a nonchalant expression, whilst clamping my knees around his thighs in a vice-like grip and jabbing him in the back with my camera.

The first stop at the market was the fruit stall,  where we tried all sorts of things I’d never even heard of, like spider fruit and jack fruit – and several others which didn’t even have a name in English.

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Then we tried green mango served with sugar and chopped red chilli, which was very good.

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We moved onto the next stall, where I did my bit to keep down the local insect population by eating  fried crickets and grasshoppers, and silkworms marinated in soy sauce and garlic.  The insects weren’t too bad, truth to tell, crispy and salty – you just pull the head off and then crunch away.

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Then we moved on to some tiny fried frogs, eaten whole.

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Then, after the tapas, we sat down on a blanket under a canopy for the barbecue.  There was sticky rice cooked inside a bamboo cane, roasted corn basted with coconut milk – and finally the meat … barbecued stuffed frogs.  They were stuffed with spiced pork, threaded onto skewers and cooked to a rich, golden brown.DSC_0840

I thought this was the main course, but it turned out to be merely the hors d’oeuvre, and Sokay and I then whizzed off to a restaurant, where we had cows’ intestine cut in strips (front right in photo) and served with a sauce of fermented fish with peanuts, chilli and lime, and beef with red ants (front left in photo).

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We finished up at a rice wine distillery, where we tried eight different flavoured rice wines, with a selection of sticky rice and tapioca desserts.

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I felt that I held my own very well, and I tried everything – unlike some others on the tour who claimed they were full up after a slice of mango and one tiny grasshopper.  Any one of the dishes on its own would have been fine, and I could probably tuck into a few silkworms again one day, but all the dishes together were a bit too much, and I staggered rather queasily to bed, vowing to stick to pizza for the rest of the week.

School lunch

School is morning or afternoon only, so in theory there’s no need to serve school lunch, but there are about twenty children at school who wouldn’t get any lunch if they went home, so there are two school cooks who make lunch for them every day.

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They have a sort of stew with rice, and eat in one of the classrooms as there’s no dining room.

The volunteer staff walk up to the main road to eat at a little cafe.  It’s the sort of place I would never have dared to go on my own, but the food is freshly cooked and very good.  Lunch is eaten between 11 am and 12 noon, and at 11 o’clock all the pots of food are put on a huge table at the front of the cafe, and you choose what you want, then when it’s gone, it’s gone.

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The food costs one US dollar for a main course with rice.

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Khmer curry, which is sweet not hot, with chicken and vegetables.

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Fish amok, which is fish with coconut wrapped in leaves to form a parcel and then cooked.

Both these dishes are delicious, and nothing has been as searingly hot as I had feared … yet!

Next, the Games Teacher …

My day started at 5 am today, with very loud, tinny, tuneless music playing somewhere nearby.  As it was still going on two hours later, I asked the staff at breakfast what it was.  They told me that for any type of special ceremony such as a wedding or a funeral the music is played for about three days.  This prompted two thoughts. Firstly, who on earth needs three days to get ready for a wedding? And secondly – it’s rather tough on the rest of us who haven’t been invited – couldn’t the guests just listen to it on headphones?

Anyway, I arrived at school only to find the same loud music blaring out there too.  A complete coincidence and a totally different ceremony – Fridays must be a popular day for ceremonies.  The school director told me that the people organising the ceremony turn the speakers away in the opposite direction so they don’t hear the music … very sensible, I thought.

But on the plus side, I was very cheered to discover that, as a games teacher, I would not be compelled to wear a very short skirt designed to show off my muscular thighs and then stride about wielding a hockey stick menacingly.  In Cambodia, games lessons include board games and jigaw puzzles, and since the field is rather soggy in the rainy season, more sedate types of game are preferred.  That suited me fine and we played bingo, hangman and did jigsaws with my morning group.

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The afternoon class descended into the usual chaos, made worse by the constant music, so everyone had to raise their voices to be heard.  They didn’t want to play bingo, they wanted to play football, so half of them disappeared from the classroom and the other half scribbled aimessly on their whiteboards while a few random chickens pecked around outside.DSC_0775

The music also created havoc during the English listening test.  The sound system is tiny and not very loud; every child has to have it on their desk to hear it, so the test had to be played umpteen times as the machine moved around the room.  In the end I offered to read the transcript of the test aloud – gamely playing both roles myself, leaping from side to side as I changed character.  I don’t really think the children found my rendition any easier to understand, but it was far more entertaining.

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The art lesson

Why did I ever think it was difficult to be an art teacher?  The answer to that is obviously propaganda and misinformation from currently-employed art teachers who don’t want the rest of us to find out what a doddle it is.

I turned up this morning in some trepidation for my first art class, consoling myself with the fact that as the classroom has no walls, I could at least run away if it all went horribly wrong.

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I quickly produced my masterpiece on the whiteboard:

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and they got it immediately AND understood all my drawings.  Then they set about producing their own with all sorts of things that they like (bees, butterflies, AK-47s) and don’t like (lions, snakes and bicycle accidents), and I was rather proud of their efforts.

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When the afternoon class of horrors arrived, I immediately turned into The Bardenator – a name once given to me by some of my naughtier pupils – and spent the lesson alternately glaring and confiscating rubber bands, rubbers, string and everything else they’d rather play with than get on with their work.  And even this lot managed to produce some decent pictures.

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So that’s art done and dusted … just geography, maths, science and games to go.

There’s a lot of choral repetition at school here, and with open classrooms there’s no soundproofing and you can hear every class around the school bellowing unintelligibly like some sort of under-rehearsed Greek chorus.  But at the end of the day they all chant the same thing in every classroom. ‘Thank you, teacher, see you tomorrow.  Good luck for you, good dreams for me.’ I think that’s rather lovely.

 

Grace House

I spent my first day observing at Grace House.  The first rule is: always remove your shoes before entering a room … including a classroom:

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This is the easiest thing in the world to forget if , like me, you’ve spent a lifetime walking into rooms without giving your footwear a second thought.  I keep walking into a room and then shooting out again to take my shoes off – I can see now why everyone wears flip-flops; I don’t imagine there’s much of a market for Doc Martens in Cambodia.

Another surprise was the communal, compulsory toothbrushing session, with a good old spit-out into the gravel afterwards.  The class set of toothbrushes is kept in the classroom and the teacher doles out the toothpaste to each child in turn.  According to the project manager, these children come from families teetering around the poverty threshold which is 2 US dollars a day per family, so toothbrushes are not very high on their list of priorities.

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The lesson I observed this morning was maths, and the children all got on with their work very sensibly.  They are 11-12 years old, and their English isn’t too bad.

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But the afternoon class was quite a different matter.  A much larger and more lively group, I didn’t dare take any photos in case I provoked a riot.  They spent the lesson hitting each other with rulers and throwing pieces of paper around the classroom.  The rooms are all open on three sides, so the children can’t be contained, and one boy disappeared and then returned with the hose from a vaccuum cleaner, presumably in a bit of weapon one upmanship, while the poor teacher struggled to make himself heard.  It will be interesting to see how I fare with these horrors tomorrow when I teach my first ever art lesson.  I just hope I don’t get an overwhelming urge to jab one of them in the eye with the end of a paintbrush.

Discrimination against hedgehogs

I went down to breakfast this morning and noticed signs all over the guest house asking guests to be quiet, which seems a not unreasonable request, but also banning hedgehogs, which was frankly baffling and got me wondering whether the locals have a habit of smuggling hedgehogs into hotels:

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When I asked about this I was directed to point 12 of the Hotel Regulations which states ‘Fruits with strong odor such are not allowed in the hotel’, and this picture is apparently not a hedgehog, but a very smelly fruit.  As this rule comes directly after the rule telling us that ‘Weapons or explosives are forbidden not to bring inside the hotel premise’, I can only assume that this fruit is highly dangerous.

I had my town orientation tour today and we got into Mr Vibol’s tuk-tuk and chugged past the pagodas, the cows and the bicycles to have a look at the town centre.  The market has piles of fruit I don’t recognise, and there are so many different types of rice, you could probably have a different one each day of your stay.

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The eating out area is appropriately named Pub Street, but there is also Bug Street, where the speciality is Insect Tapas  – I’m very keen to go but think I’ll wait a few days to acclimatise before I visit.

Tomorrow is Day One at the Children’s project – I’ve been told today that my class has a lot of lively boys and that their permanent Khmer teacher is not good on discipline, so I’m wondering what I’ve let myself in for … so much for the manual that led me to believe that teachers are so highly revered that they’re practically worshipped over here.

The British Airways hotline to heaven

I’ve always known that there are three steps to heaven, but I hadn’t realised before today that British Airways was quite so closely involved.

I turned up at Heathrow with an extra suitcase full of all the toys and other materials donated by friends and colleagues for the children’s project in Cambodia, quite prepared to fork out the extra £65 to get it all over there. But when the check-in clerk put all the luggage through, there was no extra charge for it on the system. We agreed that BA must somehow know that this was excess baggage for a worthy cause, and not the sloppy packing of a woman who simply empties her entire wardrobe into suitcases rather than being selective about what to take.

We arrived in Bangkok in brilliant sunshine and boarded what looked like a cartoon plane, covered with pictures of palm trees, fish and star fish.

The cartoon plane in the sunshine
The cartoon plane in the sunshine

Unfortunately, it didn’t look quite so jolly when we landed in the pouring rain in Siem Reap.

The jolly cartoon plane in the rain

Mr Vibol met me in his tuk-tuk at the airport.

Mr Vibol and his Tuk Tuk

He was dressed in waterproofs from head to toe, and he handed me into the tuk-tuk where I sat gingerly on a very soggy banquette for half an hour while we toodled into town. Everyone seems to be on bikes or motorbikes – everyone except the cows, they’re just wandering up the street.

The Cambodian Teacher’s Wardrobe Dilemma

I received the instructions this week from the community project school where I will be volunteering as a teacher.  I have learnt that the Khmer culture requires modesty, and in addition teachers are highly respected in Cambodia, and must dress in an appropriately dignified way – and in particular must not display shoulders, knees or cleavage.  I suppose it’s the same sort of rules that the Queen adheres to in the UK, but unlike the Queen I have to contend with a tropical climate – so natural fabrics only.

Having taken advice and plumped for linen, I have scoured ebay and have come up with a couple of possibilities.  First is the Bohemian Arty look, with Tie-dye linen smock and cropped trousers:

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Secondly is the Nehru look, with linen trousers and long  flowing top:

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I shall continue to work on this – perhaps Lawrence of Arabia next?

But I don’t think I can go for bright colours like the Queen, as they apparently attract mosquitoes, so I will have to look dignified in a muted sort of way … the Farrow and Ball approach to dignity.

Getting to grips with maths

The last time I did any maths was a GCSE in 1991- and I mean real maths, not splitting a bill, checking my change or counting children on school trips.  But even these things are done using my own idiosyncratic method and I don’t show my working.  So I probably wouldn’t get any marks for them in an exam, even if I arrived at the right answer and realised that 37 – 1  meant that I had left a child in the service station 20 miles back.

So I thought I’d better put in some practice before I have to start teaching maths in Cambodia next month, and I got out the list of topics.

Topic number one: complementary numbers.  So I googled it and learnt that ‘a complementary number, in number theory, is the number obtained by subtracting a number from its base. For example, the complement of 7 in numbers to base 10 is 3.’

So I googled base number.  Apparently it is ‘a number which is going to be raised to a power.’

So I googled power.  This tells you how many times to use a number in a multiplication.

I think I get this last one, it’s like squared or cubed, but the other two are definitely still fuzzy … I can’t help thinking of numbers raised to a power as being despotic – probably plotting a violent coup and fighting me every step of the way as I struggle to subtract them from their bases.  If it comes to a showdown between me and the numbers, I’ll put my money on the numbers winning – although I will be able to use my idiosycratic methods to check my winnings and make sure I haven’t been short-changed.

I have decided to abandon complementary numbers and start with number patterns instead, as they sound far less threatening.  I will post a progress report next week.

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Cambodian Research

Last summer I decided to take a course to learn to teach English as a foreign language.  One year on, despite passing with flying colours, I still haven’t found an opportunity to use my new-found skill.  So, with ‘use it or lose it’ firmly in my mind, I have arranged to spend seven weeks in Cambodia this summer volunteering in a children’s project in Siem Reap.

This week I received my teaching instructions, and my class is ‘Tigers and Rhinos’.  I’m hoping that this is just the name of the class, and not a zoological classification of the class members.  I will be teaching them English (good – I’m prepared for that), Geography (erm … not exactly my forte) and maths (gulp … definitely not my forte).

But with my customary enthusiasm I have thrown myself into the necessary research.  The geography module is all about Siem Reap province, which is slightly worrying as they live there and I don’t, so they should probably be teaching me about it.  But thanks to Google I am now au fait with the reverse water flow of the Tonle Sap River and the problems facing the giant catfish who live there.

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The maths is a different matter.  One of the topics is doubling, which seems fairly straightforward – we can work in multiples of giant catfish – but there is also complementary numbers and non-numerical patterns on the scheme of work … more googling required, I think.