Friday, April 23, 2010

. . . and counting.

'lo everybody!

It's Saturday, April 24th in Cambodia and that means that I'll be departing Cambodia in under a week already, next Wednesday. And I sure can't believe it.

I also can't believe that I misspelled "mango" in the title of my last blog post. In the title, really Ann Marie, that's awesome. And yes, I realize you can go back and edit and change these things, or just hope no one notices, but gosh, wouldn't that just be a coward's way out? I think it would. I choose, instead, to draw attention to it, and then to pretend that there are actually two fruits that I eat every day, mangoes and magnoes, and each day the magno I eat is tastier than the mango I ate the day before. What, you guys never heard of magnos? I guess they don't grow outside Cambodia. Maybe not even outside FLO. Weird.

Khmer New Yearsing in Chansy's hometown was an experience full of all it's own mangoes! (No magnoes there, either. How evidently noteworthy!) Chansy and I spent much of our time meandering from house to house, visiting her family and neighbors, bathing multiple times a day, and eating all the food we could. Cambodians know how to treat a guest: with plenty of food! And, I suppose, plenty of baths. KNY falls on the hottest part of the year, just as the dry season is having enough of itself and about to turn things over to the rainy season. Spending a bit of time in the countryside and bathing so frequently made me think of a few things I've gotten better at during my stay in Cambodia. Among them:

All sorts of bucket showers. And there are all sorts of bucket showers.
  • A bucket shower is totally no problem.
  • A bucket shower in a sarong ~ Trickier, but still doable.
  • A bucket shower in a sarong in the open air ~ Very tricky! Doable, still, but . . . very tricky! Even seasoned Cambodians like Chansy agree!
  • A bucket shower in a sarong in the open air in the dark ~ Trickier and easier for all the logical reasons. For a bucket shower pro, though, no problem!
The Khmer language. Alright, that's sort of a lie and sort of not a lie. I’m not sure I can vouch that I’ve gotten any better, really, at speaking Khmer, though of course I pick up a few new words and phrases every week. I’m just as confounded as ever by written Khmer, and the alphabet will indeed remain a mystery to me until I get some good book~learnin’ in. (Speaking of goals ~ okay, we’re not speaking of goals yet, but trust me, in just a paragraph or so we will be ~ I fully intend to take on some Khmer classes when I return to the US in preparation for my return to Cambodge. And mistake me not, I shall return.) But improvement! Right. I’ve gotten a lot better at understanding Khmer. Given that I know the topic at hand, I can usually follow about 20% of a conversation. If someone just walks up to me and says something, there's about a 50/50 chance I'll be able to figure out what they've said, but really only because there are only so many things that people just walk up to one and say. For example, if a random Khmer dude in Phnom Penh walks up to me and says something, he probably wants me to employ him as a moto driver to take me somewhere. If one of my students walks up to me and says something, they've probably just told me I'm beautiful. (I'll miss them . . . ) Oh! Remember, Visal, the little guy who never called? When everybody got back to FLO after KNY, I went over to say hi to the kids, and he tried to sneakily tell me in Khmer that he loves me. Little did he know, I am completely capable of understanding that statement!

I might, just might also contend that I’ve gotten better at understanding Khmers, or if I haven’t gotten better at that, I’ve realized more that I don’t always understand Khmers. Sometimes I think we (we westerners, maybe) get so caught up in reminding ourselves of all the ways in which people are the same that we forget all the amazing and special ways in which people (or peoples) are different. There are so many interesting and noteworthy idiosyncrasies about Khmer culture, Asian culture (oh any culture, but I'm in Cambodia right now!) that I couldn't do them justice even in a blag entry entirely thus focused, but one that jumps to mind immediately is a focus on appearances. I'm so used to thinking about appearance~consciousness signifying superficiality at best, but it's actually kind of nice to be around people who notice so much about how things look. People are frank about appearances in a number of ways that are actually much more comforting than disconcerting. It's so interesting what people notice, too. After an afternoon and evening of dancing in Chansy's village, all the older ladies kept telling me I looked Khmer except for my nose!

Oh! I've gotten much better at Khmer dancing. All my kids will vouch.

(Before I veer completely onto another topic, I'd like to note that giving and accepting items with two hands is a conscious action I've really grown to appreciate.)

Attention to the needs of others.
Four or five summers ago, I decided to make some goals for myself. This was the summer following my now legendary goal to eat ice cream every day, which transformed from a summer goal to a way of life (I’m pretty sure I ate ice cream every day until I started trekking on my trip to NZ last year). Spurred on by my success, I decided the next year that since I’d warmed up to this whole goal~setting/attaining process, I’d give it a slightly more serious go, and set three goals for that summer:
1. Notice beauty in more things.
2. Focus more outwardly. (You know, be less self~absorbed.)
3. Create something. (Hopefully something beautiful ~ though I guess goal number 1 would be helpful in finding the beauty in whatever I could come up with to create.)

I made a little progress on each of these goals that summer, but the time I've spent in Cambodia has done more for me than any experience prior to help me become aware of what I can do for the people around me. I'm sure this made me a much better travel companion than I would have been otherwise for my auntie when she graced me with her visit, and hopefully it's made me a more effective teacher. I'd actually be really happy if that awareness has helped me to be a better person to have been out here, because . . . well, I've been here for awhile now, and I certainly hope to return. So I've got to get better at doing things for folks somehow, even if it's just by throwing myself back in here, over and over again.

I think that's a nice note for a blag to go out on. Oh hey! I'll throw in a couple photos, too.

love love love

Monday, April 5, 2010

Every day I eat a magno that's better than the mango I ate yesterday. That's not even a metaphor.

Su s'dai, loved ones!

Sorry (once again . . . ) for the delay in writing, but things have been effing (sorry Grandma White Bear, Ron Tom, and all the other respectable persons I'm constantly forgetting are reading this) crazy around here! Fortunately, that does provide me with some tasty stories upon which to update you all. Prepare to be updated upon!

Some welcome obstacles to the regularity of my online communication were a few wonderful guests who popped into FLO for a week. Four incredibly lovely young ladies from the UK & US came to volunteer and hang about with the kids, and I had a blast hanging about with them as well. I believe they would all be obliged to vouch that I talked their ears apart without ceasing ~ but I couldn't help myself! They were the first native English~speakers with whom I'd conversed face to face in over a month! We probably all know I'm ever willing to converse with anybody, but the kids just don't play the preferred amount of attention to all that clever wordplay I'm always employing. Thanks, ladies, for putting up with well over your fair earfuls. Your company was so appreciated!

Near the end of the week the ladies were staying, still more exciting visitors made their way to FLO: a few foster parents, a few visitors along with them ~ one of whom just became a foster parent! ~ and my own foster parent: my auntie! Look at that, foster parents of all sorts. I had a blast touring my auntie around a bit. We gallivanted off with a couple of kids and families to Kirirom, a national park in between what I believe are the Cardamoms and the Camelback mountains, although I might be completely wrong. Tim, I think you're the only cartographer who's reading this. Someone tell me if I'm wrong on this one; I lack the internet capacity to check up on my own geographical statements.

The auntie and I also took a lovely trip up to Siem Reap so she could check one more wonder of the world off of her "to see" list. Meandering among the temples of Angkor, we were lucky to run into half the quartet of rad ladies who'd visited FLO the previous week. We ate touristy foods, stayed at a touristy hotel, got the whole tourist experience!

Upon our return to FLO and Phnom Penh, we meandered into the city for a couple days to take in the must~sees of PP. Rather than scheduling a sad day in Phnom Penh and a happy day in Phnom Penh like I did for myself, with my auntie and I split up the sobering and rather painful stops with more fun, exciting, interesting places to see like the Royal Palace and the National Museum. My second viewing of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S21 Khmer Rouge prison) was not so . . . just hard as my first, but that will never be an easy place to visit. It's just too enormously tragic.

I kept my auntie captive around FLO for a few more days before allowing her to return to the US. She's been gone about a week now, and things have just continued to be nuts around here. Like they will. Most of the kids went to their homelands this week to celebrate Khmer New Year with their families. KNY is the biggest holiday of the year: basically the cities shut down completely and the entire populace makes their way to the countryside to celebrate. Whole villages gather at pagodas, where the festivities only begin with offerings to monks for good luck in the new year. (It's the year of the tiger. Brace yourselves, everybody) As the day wears on, there will be lots of music, dancing and traditional games. Traditional game~playing is one of the only venues in which it's acceptable for Khmer teenagers to flirt, so the whole social scenario should be rife with potential for entertainment . . . and, dare I suggest, romance?

In fact, just to practice for KNY, we had quite the shindig here at FLO on Saturday. A whole afternoonful of traditional games followed by a lovely dinner and a dance party that rivals any other I've ever attended. If you're lucky, my Next blag post will involve some snappy KNY photos or all sorts.

Happy Khmer New Year everybody!


Friday, March 19, 2010

A day in the countryside, a night in the city. . .

First things first: I felt bad for telling a story about Veasna and not including a photo of him before, so here's one. Veasna's the stripey one ~ man he looks like such a scalawag! And aptly so. He's a total scalawag.

Anybody want to hear about some more cute things that my students write? Sure you do!

So, Chansy informed me that when one is speaking Khmer and referring to a very young child, one might correctly use a gender-neutral pronoun (like 'it') rather than (the Khmer equivalent of) 'he' or 'she.' This functioned as an explanation for some of the sentences we've seen on the kids' homework. Still, when the subject is 'it' I just can't help imagining some mysterious androgynous creature ~ now, given Chansy's additional information, a younger version of said creature. Some of the sentences have looked something like this:
It can play volleyball. (Volleyball is everybody's favorite sport in Cambodia. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that It likes to play, too.)
It can play badminton. (Perhaps this doesn't look nearly as adorable if you don't know Rasann, who employs badminton in Every Sentence he composes. Not only can It play badminton, but He can also play badminton! In fact, They can play badminton. We can all play badminton!)
It can eat Italian food. (This image just makes me giggle.)
It would like a Coca-cola. (In a similarly adorable manner, most kids call Coke 'Coca.' I dig.)

Sometimes, when I give kids writing assignments, they seem to mistake the instructions to "Write about your morning" for instructions to "Impress me with how closely you observed me today". I accompanied a few of the kids to high school on Monday morning, and as all of my (afternoon) writing students had state school in the morning, they all wrote about seeing me there. My personal favorite was Sineth's account:

I went to school. A beautiful lady walked by my class. It was my teacher.

Another recent adorable and very appreciated endeavor of my students was to write Happy Birthday notes to me mam (her birthday was the 16th). The lady of the day, incidentally, definitely cried. (Good work, kittens!) Mam, don't even bother denying it, I know you did. Also of note: I have the best rentals ever. My mom and dad are my emotional and intellectual role models, and every day I'm happy and grateful to have been raised by two so wonderful people, who I still learn so much from all the time.


A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to take another lengthy day trip into the countryside with Chansy. We motoed almost 3 hours (no idea the actual distance, sorry blog-following cartographers) from FLO into Kandal province, toward Takeo province and Mt Takeo (which was unfortunately too far for us to travel on that day. Another day, though!). We stopped in a village and sat down to nyam (favorite Khmer word, nyam, means eat) some dessert and I was immediately hooked up with a bowlful of dessert, a tangy mango, and a frosty mug of Angkor beer. By frosty mug, I of course mean mug filled with Angkor beer and enormous chunks of ice. It's just how you drink beer in Cambodia, otherwise it's darn near impossible to keep cold. So our visit was clearly off to a brilliant start. We were at the home of Chansy's teacher, who also is the father of one of my students, Choury, and Wong, one of the older boys at FLO. Choury showed me all around her home, introduced me to her (expansive) extended family, including her adorable grandmother, and her best friend took us for a ride on a rickety rowboat (Choury complimented my bravery on accepting a ride ~ as though I could help but accept!). While we were gamboling about the river, several other guests arrived: the same pile of older FLO boys who attended Vanni's wedding. We shared a delicious lunch of some sort of fish (sometimes you don't ask) which, I was told, will protect me from diseases (and then you continue not to ask). We lazed about in hammocks, walked about the village (Choury got all dolled up to attend a wedding across the river), snacked on some mangoes, oh! and the highlight: went for a swim!
In this ultra-summery Cambodian weather, I've just been aching to go swimming, and this weekend getaway provided the ideal opportunity. And ladies (hey, why the heck not, gentlemen too), might I most highly recommend bathing in a sarong. It's awesome! All the reckless abandon of swimming fully clothed so artfully combined with practical modesty! In all seriousness, I'm 26 and I don't think I've ever owned a bathing suit in which I felt comfortable appearing in public, but everyone looks pretty in a sarong! (You, too, gentlemen.) Not to mention that sarong-swimming marked the second occasion on which I've been told I'm officially Cambodian now. And being Cambodian, from what I can tell, involves some really pleasant swimming.

Another recent adventure involved a night in Phnom Penh with a new friend, Estelle, who works at FLO on Saturdays. It was an utterly unique night and a total blast, one of the only evenings I've spent away from the orphanage in a good long time. We went out for dinner (Mexican food!) drank cocktails (cocktails!) and chatted the night away. Estelle was good enough to have me stay at her lovely home, with her two crazy kittens (actual kittens), and the next day we shopped around, dined at the finest marketplaces, and just out and out enjoyed a sunny day in Phnom Penh. At the end of the day I met up one of my former students, who is studying in her second year at university and just got a job in a dental office, so she moved out of FLO to live with her sister. I'm so proud of her! It was great to see her place and spend some time walking around her hood, too. In fact, here's a photo of me being proud of Sokuntear and Sokuntear smiling:

Another recent time I was told I've become Cambodian was when I accompanied Chansy on an errand in the city. She needed to pick up some supplies for the handicraft shop, and I love riding a moto, so off we went to some crazy market (They're all crazy) to pick up some enormous bag of stuffing (like for stuffed animals and pincushions, not turkeys). Both Chansy and I could have easily fit into this bag. And the two of us transported it by moto! Just like real Cambodians! It was a treat ~ accompanied by drinking icy~cool treats (fruit shakes!) on our way back. All sorts of treats, for real Cambodians!

Well, that looks like about enough out of me for a week. This girl misses you, everybody!
P.S. My auntie arrives to visit in less than a week! I'm beyond stoked

Monday, March 15, 2010

A+ is for Amazing

Shall I say it again? My brilliant students keep me in constant awe of their potential and capabilities. They're so wonderful. I'm so proud of every single student in my writing classes.

Also, remember how I said I'd seen geckos in love, but not making love? I can actually scratch that as of this afternoon. Totally walked in on two of the little guys (well, I guess one little guy and one little lady) in my bathroom. So Rob (it was great to talk to you today) . . . looks like you're not the only one studying reproduction.

More to come (hopefully less regarding gecko reproduction, which is, in all honesty, kind of terrifying),

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's come to my attention

that this blog contains just a shamefully small amount of evidences to the extreme adorability of my students, which is criminal, because they do cute things All The Time.

As my own dear Homie commented recently, I have quite the doting students. It's true! Seldom does a class (or any interaction, for that matter) fail to begin with at least one girl exclaiming, "SisTAH! You look so beautiFUL!" You might think this would get old, but nope, it really doesn't. On the rare occasion I even receive the utterly unanticipated compliment: One of my writing students walked into class and told me I looked "beautiful, like the Buddha." I'll never forget my immediate feeling of bewilderment and 'aww shucks.'
It's not just me, either: these crazy kids will dote wherever they're allowed! I was grading monthly tests in my elementary English class, and in the section where they were asked to write a paragraph about themselves, every single student (I kid you not, 100%) wrote about how smart, funny, and/or beautiful their English teachers are. (It helps that Meata ~ my student intern co~teacher ~ is certainly one intelligent, awesome and gorgeous lady.) Here's a photo of Sopharey, one of the doters in Meata's class, all decked out for a dance performance.
Visal, one of my favorite students (not that I have favorites) noticed that I had checked the time on my (awesomely terrible garbage) cell phone telephone and asked for my phone number. I'd like to further illustrate this situation by adding that Visal is 9, which means he looks about 5 to an American, with floppy straight black hair and ENorMous brown eyes. While I recited the number to him, he concentrated so hard on copying it down I wouldn't have been surprised to see him sticking out his tongue. After he copied it down he scampered off so happily, you'd think we'd made plans for dinner and a movie. Visal occasionally comes up to me before or after class to recite my number back to me. And yet, he never texts, never calls . . . my poor heart. Here's a photo of the little ladykiller.
Veasna, another star student in the same class, was helping me give an example of creating a conversation beginning with a question using the word 'can.' It went a little something like this:
Veasna: Can you tell me the time please?
Ann Marie: It's about six thirty.
Veasna: How do you know? You're not wearing a watch!
Tricky little trickster.

Alright, whoever's being good enough to read up on my adventures, this is short because I've been trying to post for almost two weeks now and the internet's been awful around here and sometimes I just don't know how much to write over a given passage of time, so I'll certainly write not the proper amount. But I did post three cute anecdotes and two photos, and now I'm going to list at least two things that I've improved at since arriving in Cambodia:
1. My Khmer has improved! Nobody get excited, it's still Awful. But I'm also trying to learn Khmer script ~ which I'm unabashedly proud of, because it's crazily difficult. The point is I'm actually pretty bad at both speaking and writing in Khmer. But darn it if I won't give it a try!
2. De-boning a fish using only a spoon. I feel a lot more like a kitten than I typically do as a result of eating so much fish off the skeleton. No complaints there, it's pretty enjoyable to feel like a kitten. It's also worth mentioning here that Chansy has been providing me with some amazing meals. I have tempura fried mushrooms and eggplant slices, fish grilled with ginger, all sort of things that don't sound nearly as impressive when I write about them but even remembering them makes my stomach growl. Yum city.

Oh! More good news! It's sweet mango season in Cambodia, which is fantastic news for this lady. My students have continued to exploit my fondness for this fruit, and even if that means they're stealing from the trees on the compound, I'm not even going to try to stop them. As ever, I'm a slave to my love of fresh fruit. What can I say?

Alright, I'm going to read to children. You all have my long-distance love!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Make me an instrument . . . maybe a sralai?

A few of you who know me well may also know my fondness for making lists. Nothing practical like a to-do list (I'm not what they call a planner . . . ), but lists that just help me arrange my thoughts, kind of inspired by Brod's list of sadnesses in Everything is Illuminated, which approach a sort of poetry (Brod's list, not mine). If not poetic, hopefully mine are interesting enough to be worth reading.

Songs I think I hear being played on the sralai (a Khmer oboe, unlike any oboe you've ever heard before!) which are assuredly not actually being played on the sralai:
  • The Battle Hymn of the Republic
  • Simple Gifts
  • Peter and the Wolf (the oboe part, of course, although I forget what animal that is. The duck?)
  • Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy
  • The overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Things the kids call me (just a sampling):
  • Sister
  • Teacher
  • Ann Marie (harder than it seems, believe me)
  • Marie (much easier, evidently)
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • Merry Christmas
  • Reat-bot-rei (as close as I can come to approximating the Khmer word for princess . . . the little charmers)
  • P'kah (Khmer for flower, once again, aren't they the sweetest?)
(Mostly) Green foods I'm (still) really enjoying:
  • Maaannnngoooooooes (preferably with chili salt which is not green, but extremely delicious)
  • Tomatoes
  • Eggplant (As we all know, the eggplant is the king of all vegetables. It is also featured prominently in my favorite Khmer meal.)
  • Tiny eggplants! (Perhaps the princes of all vegetables?)
  • These little olivey-type . . . fruits? I think they would technically be fruit. They're savory, even a little bitter, and they make dining more delicious.
Reasons Chansy's awesome:
Please, do we need more of these? Yes, of course, absolutely!
  • She gives me hot, black coffee (Coffee in Cambodia - and Vietnam - when you can drink it unadulterated, is incredible! It's so rich it's almost like drinking liquour, and nice and strong. Taking in the aroma is almost as good as a sip.)
  • When Chansy and I go out to Phnom Penh, we eat ice cream.
  • Twice!
  • She doesn't question the number of chilis or any other spicy flavor enabler I enjoy in my food
  • Chansy does so much all around FLO. She teaches a class with me, works with the handicrafts, and feeds me, just to name a few of her many duties
  • She is a model of beauty (outward and inward), charm and composure; while being a 100% Cambodian lady she remains admirably capable of friendship with a crazy foreigner like me
  • Chansy is pretty much just straight up the best. I adore this lady!
Creatures with whom I'm sharing living quarters:
  • At least twenty geckos
  • At least one th'kai (another approximation for a Khmer word for a big ol' lizard who makes alternately lucky and unlucky croaking sounds, whenever he wants to)
  • Several frogs, some sticky, many just slimy ~ and for the most part, the frogs live downstairs, actually. One talented little guy regularly sneaked into the corner of my room and formed himself into a perfect circle, just a little drop of a frog, usually just waiting for me to find him under a shoe or backpack. What shenanigans! I miss him.
  • Only occasional mosquitoes, and certainly no yellow fever of any sort
  • One nighttime butterfly
  • Oh, some spiders
Rules about spiders in Cambodia:
  • Spiders in Cambodia must be either fuzzy or capable of leaping great distances, or both (The other day I walked out of my class in the library and saw a spider jumping all over everybody's shoes. "What a cute jumping spider!" I said to myself. I'm not as squirmy around spiders as many folks, but I'd never had a thought like that before. Evidently I've been in Cambodia a little while now)
  • Spiders are not, however, required to have all eight legs. I have a medium~sized fuzzy yellow roommate right now who only has 5 legs. Clearly he's been through a lot. We get along well, although I'd prefer if he'd stop sleeping in my towel. All roommates have their problems, though, I'm sure we'll get through it.
  • Just like you've heard, spiders are edible. I haven't been offered any spider yet, but if I am, and Chansy tells me it's delicious, I will eat one.
Things I've seen geckos do:
  • lack a tail
  • lack most of a tail
  • appear blue (as a prize-winning French bulldog)
  • be in love (NOT making love, although I guess I can only imagine that that was the result; gecko sex is really not an activity I hope to observe. There are a lot of tiny geckos wandering about these days, and I like to imagine that they're babies, although it's just as likely they might be a tiny variety of gecko.)

Perhaps also of interest:

One of my more resent notable interactions with animals involved a particularly persnickety monkey outside Wat Phnom. Chansy and I were snacking on some eggs (with some baby ducks inside them) when a monkey ran up behind us and snatched the empty eggshells off our plate. When he realized they were babyduckless, he crushed them in his hands and threw them on the ground, lept back onto the bench and snagged a (full) egg! He ran off, shook it up and slurped it down right in front of us before preparing to approach again. We bought a bunch of bananas to feed him so he'd leave our eggs alone, but he would have none of it! This monkey was interested only in baby ducks, no banana would appease him. (Leaving Chansy and I to eat the bananas like good monkeys.)
Wat Phnom is also the home of Phnom Penh's only elephant. You might think there'd be more (there is, after all, an elephant hitching post at the royal palace), but there aren't.
The most common ingredient in Khmer cooking is rice, spluh. ('Spluh,' it should be noted, is not an expression of disgust, but a supercoolfuturistic pronunciation of the term, 'duh.' Spluh.) The second most common ingredient, from what I've observed, is salt. I would need to say the word 'salt' or 'salty' three times just to list what I usually have for breakfast, and I've become accustomed to eating fruit with salt, which is amazingly delicious. Chansy gets all happy when I ask for salt with my fruit and tells me I'm Khmer style (the highest of compliments, of course).
Yesterday, in the excitement of all mine and Chansy's adventures mot0~ing about Phnom Penh, I got sunburned. On my nose. The kids think this is just hilarious. Last year, when I was in New Zealand in January/February, I know it was the first time I'd ever had a sunburn in January (or February, for that matter), so I've been trying to recall whether I've ever been sunburned in March before, and I think this is a first for me.

Well there you have it, I updated my blag. I think I'll throw in a photo of Chansy with me, since a lot of this writing is connected with Chansy-related activities. A lot of food, and animals, sure, but sometimes it's just a little too distant to get into the thoughts that fill up my head most of these days.

If you're reading this, I really like you for it!

Also, I miss you all.

Til next time,

Friday, February 19, 2010

In the US, I'm told, good students give their teacher a shiny red apple.

My students give me green mangoes (and the occasional coconut!), and the good ones give me chili salt to go with it. Sorry American teachers, I'm afraid I win this one.