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!