Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas in a strange land

It’s not been at all like Christmas, but I’m hoping that my first New Year of 2012 is going to feel like a real New Year for a change.  I’ll have 3 New Years, Chinese New Year in a couple of weeks and Khmer New Year in a few months, so if I cock this one up there will be other chances. 
The end of term meant test time, and thankfully most of my students passed.  Their success was a real reward for me.  I’m a fun teacher, and my lessons can be a little off the wall and pretty creative, but I often wondered if anyone actually learnt anything.  I’m happy to say that it seems they do.  There was a lovely Christmas party on the roof of a hotel and then everyone basically left town.  It seemed sometimes that I was the only ex-pat in town.  I went from spending nine hours a day with other teachers and students to spending all day on my own.  I also went from spending nine hours a day in an air-conditioned room to spending all day in the sunshine.  I finally have a tan.
Anh came back from her travels, bringing with her a friend from England.  We went out for dinner and I had seafood noodles.  It wasn’t the best food I’ve ever had, and sure enough 2 hours later, whilst sat in Memphis, it began to take effect.  In all of my wild youth I never threw up outside a night club, but sure enough the squid took its revenge next to a tuk tuk.  You would think that the prospect of a customer doing a Linda Blair from The Exorcist in the back of his vehicle would scare him off; but no the guy dropped me at my flat and cheerfully wished me a happy Christmas.  It wasn’t happy at all for most of that night, and I will not be recommending Boat Noodle to anyone.  I spent Christmas Eve in bed with dreadful Khmer karaoke blaring from the shopping precinct next door, which wasn’t helping my recovery at all.
The karaoke was in aid of a clothing sale, and began at 9am and finished at 9pm.  It started on the 21st December and went on until the 26th.  Merry f***ing Christmas!!!! 
I recovered enough for Christmas Day, hitting the Russian Market with Andy and his Mum, and then visiting the blind people for another massage.  I think the massage worked wonders!  We went to FCC for a drink, because you haven’t really been to Phnom Penh if you haven’t been to FCC.  Watching the river from the breezy balcony in this beautiful old colonial building I realised something: I’ve acclimatised and it’s bloody cold!  We had dinner there in the evening and it was even colder.  Warmed up at The Cambodiana, but that was full of locals and the atmosphere was weird.  I don’t know who decided that 11pm in a local hotspot is the place for an 8 year old’s birthday party, but someone did.  The band sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the kid, and they lit some sparklers before letting off silly string.  Not a sensible combination, but somehow the family survived.  I think the place was full of gangsters and their molls, and some pouty rich young things that couldn’t be seen to be enjoying themselves.  The band was wonderful as usual.
All in all it was a strange Christmas, maybe next year I’ll join the ex-pat exodus and head for a beach somewhere.  Maybe Australia……… 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eastward Ho!

It's been a very busy week!  Not only is it end of year tests for the students, but I am also house-hunting.  I am never one for addressing one problem when I can take on two.  Now that I have been here a few months I realise I was paying far too much for my apartment.  However, I have a little time to write, as I sit here in Java having a leisurely Sunday breakfast.  The Java cafe near the Independence Monument has the loveliest balcony over-looking the park and the Prime Minister's house.  This morning there's a cool breeze and I feel positively chilly - I've definitely acclimatised.  The weather is perfect at the moment, and the breezy, slightly chilly mornings remind me of summers beside the sea as a child.  The sun is shining but I still have goosebumps.  Westward Ho!  and all that, except here it is Eastward Ho!

There was a total lunar eclipse last night, which was very beautiful.  On my walk to the bar the Khmer I passed just grinned at me and pointed to the sky, to which I beamed back and nodded.  The moon was salmon pink for about an hour in Phnom Penh.  It might have been bright red but for the light pollution.  The pagan in me was very excited.  I think it may have been an auspicious sign, as my day was pretty good.

One of my colleagues has left for a couple of months, so she had a leaving party.  It was a good mixture of Khmer and Westerners, and we ordered a beer tower to get the party started.  I wasn't that drunk, but pleasantly tiddly which is not good on a school night!.  We persuaded the Khmer to join us at Memphis to watch a band.  Our admin manager is a big flirt and is a lovely fella, but like all Khmer a little traditional.  It probably wasn't the best idea to jump up and down singing along to a cover of Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name of'.  Singing 'F*** you I won't do what you tell me' in front of the boss is never a good career move!  I think it might have been something to do with the full moon, but every man in the place appeared to be attractive.  Amber said I was wearing beer goggles, but I think that they were all just incredibly tall, and it was a combination of foreshortening and the dim lighting.

Last weekend it was the Phnom Penh bike hash again.  We cycled through some gorgeous countryside out in the sticks.  The trail was a little tricky to follow as the locals thought that the hares were marking the properties that would lose land due to the construction of a major road, they obliterated all of the paint.  But most of us made it back to the start, though we did lose Armpit on the way home.  He is the one who usually leads the singing but Leaking Duck made a fine replacement.  The food was very good and this time we didn't get caught in the rain.  The next day I went further into the Cambodian countryside on a day out to Kirirom National Park.  Inevitably the bus broke down and we were stuck on a road in the middle of nowhere for two hours.  Fortunately someone found a little place that sold coldish beer and we sat there waiting for the replacement bus.  We didn't get long in Kirirom, which is a shame as it looks like a beautiful place.  The bus journey back was played out to a soundtrack of 60's rock music and we all sang 'American Pie' as we crawled down Kampuchea Krom in the Sunday night traffic.  

I often watch the tourists wizzing through Phnom Penh traffic on motorbikes, or on the back of motorbikes, who aren't wearing helmets and wonder where they think they are.  I used to think it was confident, relaxed ex-pats that do it, but now I know better.  We know the dangers and we wear a helmet.  Do the tourists on their gap year assume that their skull transforms into granite the minute they hit South East Asia?  Two of the guys I work with have had accidents in the past two weeks, and I have witnessed 2 more.  The second of my colleagues has broken his collar-bone and has had to fly to Bangkok to get fixed up.  There are a lot of charming things about Cambodia, and it is a wonderful place to live.  It's not a good place to be if you get injured though.  There are no decent hospitals here, and if you end up in accident and emergency with anything other than a broken bone, you've pretty much had it.  If you come to Cambodia, get good medical insurance and wear a helmet.  You don't look cool without one, you just look like a potential corpse.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Homesick at last

Post-Water Festival the city has settled down to it's more normal madness.  The fairy lights have gone from the Independence Monument and the crowds have disappeared.  We are back at school, and the spectre of exams is looming.  I've started being 'Evil Teacher', as I have explained to the classes, because they need to start thinking for themselves as I won't be able to help them in the tests.  Frankly their written English is shockingly bad, and I am worried.   They don't seem that worried though, and Cambodians have similar ideas about punctuality as the Italians.

Last Saturday I went to the fabulous Friends Restaurant for dinner.  The food was delicious as usual, and the vibe of the whole place is really lovely.  Met a gay couple from Australia while waiting to be seated (the place is always packed and we didn't make reservations), and started chatting about things to do in the city.  They wished they had booked longer here as they didn't realise how great it is.  I got a little burst of pride over the fact that I live here.

After Friends we went to the famous Foreign Correspondents' Club, or FCC, for a live Cuban band.  They were amazing, and I danced for about 2 and a half hours.  The place had a great mixture of ex-pats, locals and tourists of all different ages dancing to the Latin beat.  I crawled home at around 1 a.m. really tired.  Sunday morning I went to get my hair done, and kept dropping off during the dyeing process.

The students went wild for my new haircut.  One chap said I looked 'weird', which I hope means that I look 'different': there are a few vocabulary issues here.  He did add that I looked 'awesome' so that made it okay.  The Tuesday evening class, which is big and has mostly younger students, went crazy, screaming at me.  I felt like a rock star!  Really the cut isn't that different, just a bog standard bob.  It's nice to cause a stir though. 

I've had a busy week and I also handed in my notice on my flat.  On the move again!  It is far too expensive, I like it, but it doesn't have anything in it.  The landlady promptly dropped the rent by $150 a month, which makes it tempting to stay.  But I'm going to have a look around at what's out there, and then I can decide.  The landlady's manager just let himself into the flat without permission on Friday, which made me really angry.  I could have been in bed, in the shower, anything!  It makes me want to leave even more, and I've started locking myself in by putting a kitchen utensil through the door handles.  I'm still bubbling with anger now.

I suppose it was that combined with taking a weekend off from partying that contributed to a sudden bout of homesickness.  Facebook is full of X Factor updates, and Strictly updates, and I'm a Celebrity updates, so I feel a little out of touch in my alien world with no tele. The Cambodians are very culturally isolated.   I had to explain this week that Frank Sinatra was a very, very, very famous singer, they have never heard of Madonna and they have no idea what's going on in the world.  I also miss the racing, and I downloaded Kauto's win in the Betfair Chase and watched it with a tear in my eye.  March is going to be difficult this year, no Cheltenham, and apparently it'll be hotter than hell here!

On the other hand, when I was 2 and a half months into my Sicilian stay I was so stressed that I was in tears everyday, the locals wouldn't speak to me because my Italian was too poor (and it's a hundred times better than my Khmer!) and the school I was working at was awful.  So at least it's a lot better than that here.

The Internet has been up and down this week like a tart's drawers, so I hope that this will post okay, and I'll be back with you in a better mood next week!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Beside the Seaside

I had almost a whole week off for the Water Festival last week, only working on Monday.  Tuesday I cleaned the flat and generally pottered about.  It was a glorious day, and I walked over to Anh's in the midday sun - mad dogs and all of that!  I've taken to walking a lot more lately, and it really helps me to find my bearings.  I'm pretty happy these days to walk into oncoming traffic, I just hope I don't try it at home: cars and motorbikes won't try and avoid you there.  Which place is the truly civilised one, I wonder?

The school paid for us to head off to the beach for some team building.  It did mean getting up at the fart of a sparrow to get a taxi to the school.  We had strict instructions to be there at six thirty sharp.  They had closed my street because it was Independence Day, and I live near the Independence Monument, though why anyone should feel the need to close the street for a parade at 6am is beyond me!  The taxi picked me up nearby and we collected a couple of other people on the way.  Now 6.30 sharp for a Brit means getting there just before 6.30 in readiness to leave at 6.31 promptly.  But not if you're Khmer!  It means hanging around for 3/4 of an hour, waiting for the extra bus to arrive, chatting to your mates, and trying to organise something that doesn't really need organising.  I can't tell you how many extra times I had to go to the loo (though those of you that know me well will know that it was a lot!)

Eventually we headed off in our charabanc forming a convoy of pink and blue buses like some kind of Barbie and Ken go on holiday movie.  The streets were getting pretty busy by now and it took forever to get out of Phnom Penh, but finally we were on the road to Sihanoukville (or Kampong Som as the Khmer call it).  I settled down to listen to my shite-pod and perhaps catch up on a little sleep.  A voice from the back of the bus, 'Gin, is that a spare seat by you?'  I confirmed it was and Tom made a satisfied noise.  'I might send one of my kids down to sit by you in a bit.' He said.  I informed him that I don't do kids, and that seemed to make him quite gleeful.  'Go and sit by your Auntie Gin, Ellie'  He suggested.  Luckily Ellie is a smart kid and declined the offer.

Sleep, though, was not to come on gossamer wings.  No sooner had we left the environs of Phnom Penh than the chief doof of our bus stood up and declared that the games would soon begin.  I groaned and turned The Cult up louder to see if Fire Woman could drown out the South East Asian tunes being played on the tv on the bus.  Some bloke on the screen was wailing because his woman had left him, which is pretty much what all of their songs are about.  The games commenced, firstly a Q and A with prizes of biscuits and crisps.  Oh goody, I thought, that won't make the children sick then!  Then someone had to tell a joke, only it was in Khmer and it went on for about ten minutes, at the end no one laughed, so he told it again to see if it was funnier the second time.  It wasn't!

After two hours of games we reached a toilet stop, much to my relief!  Though it did start to hammer it down with rain when we'd stopped.  The bus drove about five minutes up the road, and then ground to a halt.  It had broken down, though it wasn't all bad news as we had stopped right next to a toilet.  About an hour later we headed off again, the rain had stopped and Rottha was sitting next to me.  I told Tom I was really sorry but his kids wouldn't be able to sit next to me after all!  Finally I fell asleep.  I count it fortunate that I didn't see the up-turned bus, the two dead bodies or the up-turned truck on the road.

After an age we arrived in Sihanoukville and checked into the Seaside Hotel.  I've done adventure travel, I've even done a Dragoman trip through India and had to share a double bed with a complete stranger, and that bed was none too clean, but I have never had to share a twin room with three other people before!  I'm sure the Khmer are used to it, but then they are all a size zero (maximum), four Westerners is another matter.  It was a tight squeeze!

I crossed the road to the restaurant for lunch, and was accosted by someone who didn't really know me, and who asked me to sit at his table.  We then had to wait ages as the restaurant wouldn't serve us until the table was full.  The other's had been waiting ages for us, and I was hungry and grumpy, just woken up, no coffee, and breakfast had been many, many hours ago!  The seafood was pretty good when it finally arrived.

The image I had of Cambodia's deserted paradise beaches was quickly dismissed as the place was packed.  I wandered up the beach with Meena and we found a couple of deck chairs and bought a coke between us.  The sea was warm and full of Khmers with inner tubes shrieking with laughter everytime there was a wave, and, it being the sea, there were quite a lot of waves!

From the sea I could only watch in horror as a twelve year old Cambodian boy reached into my beach bag and ran off with my purse.  I shouted at him, and the little fecker looked up and saw me, unfortunately running out of the sea to give chase is like running through treacle.  I'm pretty certain that the waiter told him where I kept my money as he only stole my purse, and I would recommend The Fisherman's Restaurant/beach bar on Ocheteaul Beach should be avoided at all costs as it is the centre of a crime ring!

Everyone from the school was very helpful afterwards.  I was accompanied by 4 Khmer staff while I reported it to the Tourist Police, though the police were as much use as a chocolate beach umbrella.  My new teaching colleagues lent me money and really rallied around.  If you are going to get robbed, (and you are if you stupidly take your purse to the beach!) it was quite the nicest way for it to happened.  Amber lent me money, Caitlin phoned my landlord when she got to Phnom Penh the next day, and Meena came back with me in a tuk tuk and made sure I could get into my flat.

After the beach barbeque in the evening there was a disco and yet more games.  I declined to take part in the games, though it has been a long time since I played musical chairs.  The Khmer won almost all of the games, though I am proud to say that an Englishman held his own in the 'swinging an aubergine between the legs to move a plastic bottle' game.  When it comes to comedy vegetables we are a great nation!  There was a lot of dancing and some of those buttoned up Cambodian colleagues of mine can really shake their tail feathers!  It might have been the free beer but some of them were damn attractive too!

We left the beach the next day in our little charabancs and visited a water fall before arriving home in the middle of a traffic jam caused by the Water Festival.  I spent the rest of the week marking 70 writing assignments, going blind because the writing is too small, and losing the ability to form plurals or use the letter 's' in the third person present simple! 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Use the Force.

I finally lost my temper.  I decided to go to a pool for a little splash about and a spot of sunbathing; too much time spent in the staff room in air conditioning means that I don't look like I live in the Tropics yet.  I left the house about quarter to ten, hoping to get to the pool for about ten o'clock for a couple of hours and then get out of the sunshine for midday.  As soon as I arrived at the edge of the pavement a moto pulled up. I told him I where I wanted to go to and which street it was on.  He looked blank, so I waved him away.  The next guy said he definitely knew where I wanted to go, so I got on the back, and we headed off.  Then he had to fill up with petrol, and while he was doing that he started asking them for directions.  This wound me up and I reminded him that he had told me he knew where he was going.  Then we headed off again, back the way we had just come, and then he turned off the main street and started driving in completely the wrong direction.  I shouted 'cheop, cheop', which means stop, and got off.  Then I berated him for lying to me, and stormed off without giving him any money, which he didn't deserve as I was no where near the place I wanted to be.

I finally reached the end of my tether with these guys who set themselves up as taxis but don't even know the main streets in the city.  If I don't know the way, and they don't know the way, how the hell am I supposed to get where I'm going?  Use the Force?

This week there has been a sad loss!  My flip flop exploded on the street when I was walking back from the bakery.  The toe-post gave up the ghost.  I have seen many lonely flip flops meet their fate on the streets of Phnom Penh.  The problem for me was that I had to walk back to my apartment bare foot, which included crossing six lanes of traffic on Norodom Boulevard.  Still if the monks can do it then I can do it.  My feet seemed to be permanently dirty anyway.  I have at least three cold showers a day, and still my feet are dirty every time.  It's a pretty polluted city.

I was initiated by Anh into the Phnom Penh Cycle Hash this week, though it very nearly didn't happen.  We went to one cycle hire shop, only to be told that all fifty of his bikes were already rented, though they were still all in the shop.  We then had to make a mad dash across town to hire bikes from The Vicious Cycle.  The truck taking us to the hash picked up from there, and we drove out past the airport and into the countryside for our cycle ride.  It was a little chaotic because the directions painted by the hares earlier seemed to have disappeared.  We missed a large chunk of the route out, but that was just as well, as we had delayed the start so much that it was getting pretty dark.  It was so great to get out of the crazy city and see some countryside.  The kids shouted 'hello' and waved to us all of the way around.  The hash itself was followed by 'The Circle', and Anh's boss Chris is the Grand Master.  Everyone seems to have a nick-name and Chris's is STD (Sex Tourism Director ).  The Circle involves drinking down quantities of beer in one as a punishment for various crimes committed.  I had to drink for making everyone late, for being English (yeah, sorry about that one!), for being a Hash Virgin, and I'm pretty sure for something-else too.

I would like to point out to all of my Facebook friends that a cycle hash is about following a trail, not cycling whilst off your tits on weed!!!!!

The rain started to fall in a pretty normal fashion at first, which was just as well as I was travelling in the back of an open-top truck with the bikes (and the beer!), singing filthy rugby songs, and sitting on the cool box! I got back to the flat at about 9pm, wet, dirty and a bit tiddly.  After a shower and a quick change I phoned my tuk tuk driver Ra, and I think I got him out of bed!  As I was leaving the flat for a night out the rain really started to come down, and Thor was definitely having a power shower this evening.  Maybe he came on the Hash too!  There was a rather attractive Scandinavian bloke with long hair there.

I picked up Amber and Mara and we set off for the Saturday Club.  By the time we got to Tikei's the streets were a foot deep in water.  Normally when it rains the motorbike riders all suddenly appear in bin-liners usually blue, pink, or yellow ones with a little hood.  That night the streets were pretty much deserted.  We were zipped into our tuk tuk like it was a little tent on wheels.  Certain members of the Saturday Club were already the worse for wear when we got there, but it's aways good to see other people drunk!  "Hi I'm Bill,"  Said one.  "I know, I met you last time."  "Did you?  Was I here?" Tikei greeted me affectionately, kissing my hand for about ten minutes, then half an hour later he came over and said, "Hi Gin, I didn't see you arrive."  Chatted to Tom for a while, his world weary cynicism is great conversation.

about 2 solid hours and everywhere out of town was flooded.  The tuk tuk got through using the main streets but the side roads were impassable.  They built the Central Market in the 1930's on a lake, which they drained.  Now they have a huge development happening on Boeung Kak Lake in the city.  The water has no where to go now but into the streets.  By the time we left the club at 1.30 the side streets around the Royal Palace were about two feet deep in water.  I'm just glad I live on a main road.

I cycled the bike back to the bike shop the next morning, only slightly scared of the traffic, and the water had all gone, just leaving sludge and rubbish in its wake.  The rainy season should be over by now, but it hasn't stopped yet, and the river's current changes direction this week (that is what the Water Festival celebrates), so I hope that doesn't bring more misery to this flood hit country!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sparkle and Fireworks

I do realise that I go on about the traffic a bit much, but really it is insane!  Just when I thought I'd got the hang of the traffic, the holidays hit.  It was the anniversary of the Coronation yesterday, and it is the King Father's birthday tomorrow.  The alien space craft that is The Independence Monument, it really looks like something out of Star Gate, has little trees with fairy lights all around it.  It looks beautiful, and all of the surrounding trees are strewn with fairy lights too.  There were fireworks at about 6.30, they were over by the river, but I could see them from my window.

I was heading to The Pickled Parrot for a party, so I left the house at about 6.50 thinking it would take about ten minutes to get there.  The moment we reached the Monument the traffic became extremely busy, and the nearer to Sisowath Quay we got, the worse the traffic became.  There were a few police men dotted here and there, waving fluorescent lights frantically and achieving very little.  The road was just a river of tuk tuks, motorbikes and cars and I was a part of this huge flow of humanity.  It was very exciting.  The people trying to drive in the wrong direction had no chance and crossing the flow was impossible.  A few people tried it on foot, but even the Cambodians looked afraid of the traffic for a change.

With the exciting prospect of a long weekend I headed out on Friday night with Anh, her sister, my  'adopted daughter' Hein and another of Anh's friends Polina.  We went to The Cambodiana hotel to check out the live band.  I had a couple of mojitos and a dance.  The band were great, and did Western covers.  There was great excitement in the room when they covered a Thai song about a woman waiting for a thousand nights - South East Asian songs generally follow the theme 'he left me, oh God!'.  I had a surreal moment when the band covered Waka Waka - so I'm listening to a song about Africa, originally sung by a Peruvian woman, covered by a Filipino band in a Cambodian nightspot?  Can this be real?  The band came over to meet us between sets, excited that we had been singing along, and dancing to their music.  Nice people, I must go there again.

Saturday night, after The Pickled Parrot I went to Memphis (again!) for some live music.  Most of the usual suspects turned up, and Ngu bought several gigantic Germans wearing lederhosen with her.  We were having a pretty good time until the thrash metal band arrived on stage.   I like thrash metal as much as the next person, but it's not something the South East Asians do well!  Time for a sharp exit, so we piled into a couple of tuk tuks and headed to nearby Pontoon night club.  It was like night clubs all over the world: packed, loud, smoky and I was drunk. 

I have to say I felt a little the worse on Sunday, but it was cured by a good strong coffee and some excellent toast, made in the bottom of the pan as I don't have a toaster, or a grill, or a kettle.  I ventured out into Phnom Penh and declined the offers of a tuk tuk or moto every three yards.  I had a quiet day but the weather was beautiful: 32 degrees and a cooling breeze.  I forget it's October, it just feels like summer.  I relaxed by the pool Monday morning, though there was a bit of a scrap with a pool boy who didn't want to put my umbrella up because it was too windy.  'I'm from England Sonny, this isn't wind!'  I told him firmly.  The river is still so high, though it hasn't rained for a few days.  We've had some amazingly beautiful storms, and I must be getting acclimatised as I felt a little chilly on the back of the moto in the rain.  After chilling by the pool, and then walking in the park (well that's what the call the grassy bit by the Independence Monument!)  I went with Anh for a Seeing Hands Massage.  The place doesn't have the trickling water features of a spa, but then that just makes me want the loo anyway, and it's very basic.  All the same it was the best massage I've ever had and only $7!  I think my back is probably completely straightened out now. 

So it's back to work for five days, Sunday off, then just Monday before another holiday.  I'd appreciate the holidays more if I was getting paid for them!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cracking walnuts

Well I've been in Phnom Penh just over a month now and it feels like ages.  I don't feel at all homesick and I'm hoping to stay for quite a while.  I've already become a regular at Dosa Corner, and I get texts from my tuk tuk driver saying that he hasn't seen me in a while (that'll be a week Ra!)  I can walk around the local streets and see people I know.  Frank and Leonie called out to me from a passing tuk tuk as I was out walking yesterday.  Then ten minutes later I ran into Phil strolling past The  Golden Gate, and saw Kathy from school a few minutes later.  I have lunch on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with Tikei, Tim and Vicki at the Khmer restaurant opposite the school, and I have opened a local bank account.  I feel at home and I have a social circle, something I was worried about when I first got here.

This is now home then.

I'm still making schoolboy errors!  This week I needed to buy shower gel and, despite carefully reading the labels, I still managed to buy one that was 'whitening'.  I don't want to be whiter!  I've spent years damaging my skin so that I can go brown more quickly.  I also left an empty can of Pepsi on the floor overnight and had a plague of ants again the next morning.  On the plus side I have acquired a gecko.  I've called him Dai, short for diarrhoea, because he's brown, he's fast and he mostly lives in the bathroom.  He's a nice little fellow, and he eats mozzies so he is welcome in my home.

The city looks so different in the daytime to the night.  When I travel to work in the morning it is bustling with motos, tuk tuks and SUVs, and all of the businesses are open.  At night, when I leave, suddenly it is full of neon lights, and food stalls have sprung up on all of the pavements.  I love reading the neon signs advertising the local restaurants: Good Beef Soup seems straightforward enough, but Golden Cattle Seafood Restaurant may have come out wrong in translation!  On every other street corner there is a little moto repair place, and somehow even the tuk tuks look more picturesque at night-time.  I love the city at night, and on Friday night it feels like everyone is out, and the bustle and energy is heady.

I have to work on Saturday mornings, so I save my partying for Saturday night.  Yesterday I met Anh and we went for a massage.  My goodness, those women have strong fingers.  I think they could crack a walnut between their opposable thumb and forefingers!  Instead they mostly cracked me!  I think they broke me in a couple of places.  At one point I appear to have survived a Vulcan Death Grip.  It's weird how something so painful can also be relaxing.  It's so cheap for spa treatments here, and I decided that a facial was the order of the day this morning.  It's been a gloriously sunny day, just the sort of day to spend lying in a darkened room with a pot of yoghurt on my face.  Or for standing in a dark bar watching the All Blacks almost snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!

I wandered down St 278 yesterday, which is full of bars and restaurants, and lined with tuk tuk drivers waiting for a fare.  Every two steps someone shouted 'tuk tuk Madame?' or 'Moto?'.  I usually just smile and say 'no thank you' but it was wearing a little thin by the end of the street.  A Western guy passed me and joked 'tuk tuk Madame'.  He was quite cute so I managed to laugh.  My regular tuk tuk driver had 'problem' Saturday night so he sent his brother to fetch me.  It was a shame because Ra earnt $3 last week for dropping me around the corner, Ra's brother earnt three times that driving me to the outer-spiral arm of the Western Universe, or wherever it is that Tikei lives.  Up on the Roof ( I think there's a song about that!) there's the Saturday club which is mostly a bunch of ACE teachers drinking beer and listening to music on the laptop.  Anh and I stayed for a bit and then took a tuk tuk back to town, grabbed some food, and went to listen to live music at Memphis.  They have an excellent Cambodian band playing covers of Western songs.  I've been twice now and I really like it there: could my clubbing days have returned?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Embracing the Madness

Well now that I've mastered the art of crossing the street, I have started exploring my local area.  Mostly working in concentric circles from my house.  I can now easily walk to the restaurants around the Golden Gate hotel, and I can get to Lucky Supermarket and back.  Everything here seems to be either Golden, Lucky or Happy! 

Last Sunday I mooched around the local shops buying things for the flat, and then strolling past a hairdresser, I decided to go and get my roots sorted out.  I walked into one that looked friendly and pointed to the area of concern.  The next moment I found myself covered in layers of towels and having dye applied to the root of the problem.  This was all fine, but then I had to sit for ages waiting for the dye to work.  During this time a baby was brought in by the hairdresser for my inspection.  I'm not much into babies, but this man had my crowning glory at his mercy, so I smiled and cooed with suitable fervour.  After an age a young lady began to unwrap the towels, and then gave me a neck and shoulders massage.  Nice!  Then she washed my hair 3 times, each time giving my scalp a right good scrapping!  If anyone has need of my DNA at anytime, most of it is under the fingernails of my hairdresser!  She then gave me a lovely head massage, before walking me back to the chair and giving me another neck and shoulder massage.  Whilst my hair was being blow dried I received an arm and hand massage.  All of this for $25.  Bargain!  I have to say that my hair looked marvellous, well at least for a few hours, until it was crushed into a motorcycle helmet, and had to contend with the humidity of Phnom Penh.

I wouldn't be English if I didn't mention the weather.  It is hot!  I'm told this is cool season, but I lost about a 1lb in sweat just sweeping and mopping the floor of the flat Friday morning.  It is also really stormy.  We have had torrential rain everyday this week, and thunder and lightning too.  It's like someone turned on a power shower when it rains here.  It's had pretty serious consequences.  There's been at least 247 people killed in the Kingdom, and the rice crop has been almost completely destroyed.  The situation is so bad that the government has cancelled the Water Festival in November.  This is a huge festival, and about a million people pour into Phnom Penh from the provinces to watch the boat races on the river.  The government says the river is too high for the boat races, and the money can be better spent on flood relief.  Last year there was a stampede that caused 350 deaths, and I think the government is worried about that too. One of the other teachers at school said that the Prime Minister had to cry on National TV for five minutes last year, and he won't want to have to do that again. It really is an unprecedented step though.

On a lighter note I've been watching the rugby at the local sports bars.  I'm so glad that I like sport as it really helps to grow your circle of friends.  I walked into Gym Bar this weekend and there were around 10 ex-pats that I'm acquainted with now.  Anh arrived later with her crazy sister, and even more cousins.  I was going to adopt most of her family, but having seen the amount of food they eat I'm just not sure I can afford it.  'Where are the kids?'  'Oh they're eating again!'  Not sure if big Tony was kidding when he complimented me on my big family.

I feel like I'm getting to grips with my locale now.  There is a little shopping complex next door, so I thought I would keep the locals friendly by going to Khmer Beauty for a manicure and pedicure ($3 I ask you!), and she was so chuffed I was using her she took my photo.  Not a flattering shot I'm sure!  I am also next door to the Willi Shop but I think I'll save that one for another time; it sells baby clothes.  It's been a real scorcher today and I've caught the sun during my wanders.  However the beauty regime is being constantly thwarted by the ruddy mozzies.  One of them even had the temerity to bite me on fresh deet!  Mozzie's don't really like me so they tend to eat and run, a thing I put down to a steady diet of marmite and chilli. 

I've enjoyed teaching this week.  I'm pleased to say that after two weeks of teaching them, I have now a clearer understanding of the future tenses.  Whether the students get it is anyone's guess.  I did have a student use 'stuck' as a verb.  'I am stucking in a traffic jam' and I quite agree with her, it should be a verb.  I taught my 'Monster Raving Loony Party Lesson' to lighten the atmosphere as we had been talking politics in the previous lesson.  I have a lady who works for the government in one of my classes and she looked a bit disapproving.  The students loved it and thought it was hilarious.  Thank you MRL for the manifesto.  My Khmer has now extended to a few words, mostly used with tuk tuk drivers, 'thank you', 'straight on' 'stop, STOP!'  My tame tuk tuk driver, Ra, texted me at 10.30 last night to tell me he was tired and I should find my own way home.  It was all very polite and he ended it with 'I am sorry madam bye, goodnight'.  Bless him!  I don't know if dropping me off at a gay bar was the last straw for him.

Oh yes!  I've been here almost a month, and it has taken me this long to find a gay bar.  The Blue Chilli is fabulous, and I think it could be my late night drinking spot from now on!  I should have been a gay man; they all just love me.  If I had the same effect on straight men that I have on gay men I would have been married more times than Elizabeth Taylor!  I knew that I was in my comfort zone when the waiter asked me to follow him, and then did the full supermodel catwalk mince to the sofa at the end of the bar.  Thank goodness he didn't ask me to 'walk this way'! 

After the campness of the Blue Chilli Anh took me and the family to a Vietnamese Karaoke bar.  Oh the campness of it all, at least I'd been watching rugby earlier.  Here we drank beer, and said 'cheers' a lot, and the family ate something really stinky that might have been dried squid.  It was past midnight and I was dead on my feet by now.  Ngeu (?) sang a couple of songs.  She has a really good voice, though I have no idea what she was singing.  Most South East Asian songs seem to have the theme 'He left me and I'm really upset'.  After the karaoke the whole family squeezed into a tuk tuk and they dropped me off at home.  I'd taken it steady this time, and didn't have to crawl up the stairs, though I did stop to chat to a passing gecko, so I might not have been entirely sober.

Anyway well done to the All Blacks, and lets hope they pulverise the ruddy French in the final!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Settling in.

When you arrive in Phnom Penh it feels quite provincial, the airport is small for a capital city, and the little row of people filling in your visa seems incredibly sweet.  They each have a job to do in the visa line, it's all very Fordian I suppose, but it seems to give the maximum number of people employment.  At the end of the line someone shows your passport photo to everyone in the queue, and says your name wrong.  That's okay, I say most of their names wrong too!

The traffic takes a bit of getting used to.  The only solid rule in the Cambodian Highway Code is 'don't flatten a monk'.  Otherwise anything goes.  Driving the wrong way up the street is not just fine, but practically compulsory at least once a day.  Cars do seem to obey red lights at junctions, but tuk tuks and moto's just go when they think they might not cause a pile up.  The drivers are incredibly patient, they just slow down politely when someone cuts them up, and this makes it work. 

When I arrived I decided that I would never be able to cross the street, especially the one in front of my apartment which has four lanes of traffic (though if you count the traffic driving in the wrong direction then there are six lanes!)  However I now cross the road without worrying too much that I am going to die, and I only have to have a sharp intake of breath every now and then.  The secret is to walk slowly into the traffic, and hope it drives around you.  So far it has worked fine.  Breaking into a trot is a complete mistake, as you don't give them time to miss you.  Using a monk as a shield works well if you can find one.

I travel to school by motobike taxi now.  It's a really good way to wake up in the morning, just wait for the adrenalin to hit!  I have a regular driver, and he is quite old.  He looks about fifty, which probably means he's my age.  The first couple of trips he went quite slowly; I was clinging on for dear life, and I think he could smell my fear.  Now I'm much more relaxed, so he goes quite a bit faster.  He's a nice chap, and I pay him a little over the odds for the journey.  Hopefully he can save up enough to get his teeth fixed, possibly at the 'Shine up for Charming Smile' dentist.  We pass it everyday.

I've settled into my flat pretty well.  I can see the traffic bombing up and down Norodom Blvd from my room, and the Independence Monument, which looks stunning and very alien when it's lit up at night.  Phnom Penh is an incredibly beautiful city.  There are ugly bits, as there are in every city, but most of the time when I travel around by tuk tuk it just takes my breath away.  The city is full of wide boulevards, green lawns and trees.  The colonial architecture is beautiful, and all around me there are pagodas and palaces.  It is just so romantic!  Especially after dark and in the rain.

Teaching here is wonderful so far.  My students are very respectful, which is a marked contrast to most of the European kids I taught in the summer.  No Belgian or French attitude here.  I have learnt most of their names, though I have rather a lot of Roths (pronounced Rot), Riths, Boths, Meys and Teys!  One girl asked me to call her Whore, which made me pause for a second, but whatever!  I did my crazy questions lesson (thank you to Aga for that one!) as the ice-breaker, and I think most of the students now think that I am rather eccentric.  Heaven knows where they got that idea!  We have all struggled with the future tenses this week, especially the teacher.  I wish I'd learned to speak English properly!

It was a long week and I finished it off with the great pleasure of watching the bloody French stuff us at rugby!  Thank you very much the England team for being utterly atrocious!  It was just fab sitting in the sports bar listening to the Marseillaise being sung fifty times, supping Angkor beer, and recovering from a tough first week. On the plus side calling the bar Score was inspired. It lets me use the line 'I'm just off to Score'!  Oh well, I'll be supporting Wales for the rest of the tournament.  Dad was born in Wales and we spent every holiday there for the first twelve years of my life!  

Well I'm going to spend the rest of Sunday as lazily as possible before returning to the madness next week.  That's if I can get across Norodom Blvd in one piece of course!