So I just returned to FLO from the most ridiculous tuktuk ride. This guy, Srom, is an utter anomaly among tuktuk drivers: sweet as all things holy, but the slowest motorist on several wheels (it just occurred to me that I have no idea how many wheels a tuktuk has. I'll have to count next time). [Edit: there are four wheels on a tuktuk; two on the moto, and two on the trailer.] Upon my word the only vehicles that didn't pass us were bicycles. On the positive side, I saw cows grazing on a median and another group of cows milling about a car lot (presumably shopping). Silly cows! Good ol' hilarious cows.
Even from an extraordinarily slowly-moving tuktuk, however, I truly enjoy spying on Phnom Penh. I dig the city, I do. Perhaps it’s the grit. Many of you know already that I'm an absolute sucker for a gritty city. PP was the natural next step following Chicago, and before that, Tacoma, the Gritty City of Destiny. While it's true that I don't know Phnom Penh well (at all) yet, I just have a good feeling when I get into town. It's probably a combination of that gritty city affection and the minivacation that just relaxes me that much when I make the occasional jaunt off the orphanage compound. FLO’s a really great place, to be sure, but we all need a change of scenery once in awhile. Some of us more than others . . . and myself, perhaps, more than most. It’s an attribute of myself I’m learning to deal with.
So the time I've spent riding in numerous tuktuks, biking, and moto-ing (Indeed! I drove a moto myself!) about in Phnom Penh, Saigon, Hanoi, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Siem Reap has given me a lot of insight into oh, every stereotype of Asian drivers I’ve ever heard alluded to. There is one main difference between driving in the US and driving in SE Asia, from what I can understand based on my limited experience: in the US, driving is a competitive sport; in SE Asia, it’s a cooperative effort ~ by this I don’t mean (at all, really) that anyone is working together, but that everyone on the road is operating with the understanding that they are surrounded by a lot of individuals in constant motion. I can’t really say it makes driving any safer, either. When I was in Portland visiting Famous Michael (Hey Famous Michael ~ I miss you!) we (mostly he) talked to a man from India who was telling us (him, really) that India is the freest place in the world, and the first example he cited was that you can drive as fast as you want. Hmmm . . . .
Anyway, my point is, Mom, Auntie, Addie, others who show regular and understandable concern for my shocking propensity towards physical malady resulting from my utter lack of coordination and magnetic attraction to clumsy situations, don’t worry: all moto drivers and passengers wear helmets all the time in Cambodia. I, of course, wear a helmet whenever I’m mobile. And in the tenderly rocking arms of a nearly immobile tuktuk like Srom’s I can get around Phnom Penh in perfect safety. Very slowly. Ahem. (What can I say, I desire to be a quickly moving lady!)
Needless to say, I prefer Chansy’s moto. Driving a moto is fun, but it’s more relaxing to ride along, and I (am going to sound like the biggest nerd saying this but it’s true so I’m going to say it anyway) feel so cool riding with Chansy! This is in large part due to the awesomeness of Cambodian people. The culture here is so warm. Before coming out here I didn’t know anything at all about what people in Cambodia are like, and I’ve been so frequently blown away by the sincere joy that comes from welcoming someone around here. (Of course the kids are the very best example. But there are plenty of others, too!) But a person, just any person on the street, if they don’t smile immediately upon seeing you, give them a smile first ~ a reaction in kind is guaranteed.
Oh, not long ago my Mom (look, Mom, it’s like a whole blog post dedicated to you!) asked a few questions about some general things in Cambodia, and since maybe a few other people have the same questions I’m going to answer them here. Also I don’t remember if I ever emailed back regarding those questions. (Sorry!)
Khmer is the name of the language most commonly spoken in Cambodia ~ you can pronounce it either k’mer like the first syllable of mermaid or k’mai like the first syllable of the name Maya; either is acceptable. Khmer is also the name for the major cultural ethnicity of Cambodia. Some 97% (?) of Cambodian people are ethnic Khmer, so generally the terms “Cambodian” and “Khmer” can be used interchangeably, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing. For example!
On my first trip into Phnom Penh on Chansy’s moto, we met her friend Moni to guide us around the Royal Palace, and the three of us were meant to hop of the moto to go to the National Museum. I’m a giant here, so I was worried that we wouldn’t all fit, and said so. Chansy and Moni laughed and Moni said, “We are Cambodian!” (And we all fit ~ rather easily. The most people I’ve seen on one moto is six. So far.)
When I was staying in Siem Reap and Chansy, Sieng Eng and Bora brought lunch back to Min (I can’t spell her name; it sounds like “mean,” but she isn’t) and me, we were presented with rice, salty fish and watermelon. When I eat at FLO, fruit is usually served at the end of the meal for dessert, so that’s the role I assumed the melon would play. However, Bora told me to eat the melon with the fish, in one bite. I paused with my mouth full. As this suggestion met with incredulous disbelief, Chansy and Sieng Eng insisted, “It’s Khmer style.” (And tasty!) Yull?
I’m doing my best to pick up some Khmer while I’m in Cambodia, and it’s been slightly easier than I’d feared due to my having as many Khmer teachers as I have English students, but the language is Difficult. One of the girls in my writing class (Emily, the one who is your little Cambodian sister!) told me today that there are 23 vowels and 32 consonants in the Khmer alphabet. What?! (Angkor Wat, the kids reply. The jokers.) I’m trying to learn to write, too, so whenever anyone teaches me a word they also have to teach me how to write it. The kids think it will be easier for me to learn to write word by word, but I want to learn the alphabet so I can take the words apart and figure them out. Hah, I’m sure I am going about this in an entirely hackneyed manner. But I’m working hard at it! I have plenty of encouragement and motivation, though: everytime I use or write a word correctly (in class or out), the kids positively erupt into applause and grins, and Wanee, one of the girls who works here at FLO, tells me I look more beautiful when I speak Khmer ~ and eat Khmer food. So, okay, good deal, I’m in, is what I’m saying.
Alright, I’ve already written much more than I’d planned but I’m going to include one last bit of news: I’m going to a Cambodian wedding! Wanee is getting married next Sunday, and she invited me to her wedding! I’m stoked. It will be the best Valentine’s Day ever.
In other, less exciting news, my morning classes were cancelled today. The sort of thing I just love learning when I walk into the classroom. More time for Khmer lessons and less formal kid hangabouts!