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!