It’s been a while between posts, so this one will be a bit longer. I’m still in Cambodia, and have spent the last month in a rural Cambodian village, 6km outside of the city of Kampong Cham. I’ve been working as a volunteer English teacher at OBT, a locally owned and operated NGO which provides free English, Maths and music classes to local children. I found OBT on workaway, while I was in Phnom Penh. I teach 4-5 classes a day, and help with general things like answering emails and updating the website. I stay with a local family in a bamboo house who feed me two meals a day, and much to my own surprise, I am finally sick of eating like a local.
Most mornings I begin to stir at 6am, noise hitting me from all sides. Trucks, tractors, and ox carts drive by; birds chirp, and voices chatter. Smoke from the fires of people cooking their breakfasts seeps through the bamboo slats, pulling me from my sleep. At 6:30 I get up and cross the road to eat breakfast. I’m not really hungry yet, but they stop serving breakfast at 7am. As per usual the white man with one leg and a ginger beard gets a lot of attention from the locals. I take a seat at the breakfast shop and they ask me what I want, I think; they speak in Khmer. I point at another bowl, then rub my stomach. They repeat a word, like a question, “Bo bo?” “Baaaht, aw kun.” I reply. Yes, thank you. They serve me up some fishy rice porridge and add the condiments. I eat in silence as the kids stand and look curiously at my leg, most too shy to touch it. I finish eating and hand over what I’m expecting the meal to cost. They give me change and I calculate the cost of the meal. 25 cents.
My first class of the day is 8-9am, with early teens ranging from 11-13 years old. After class I’m free until 2pm, so I plan lessons, read, sleep, or ride a bicycle around the village. We eat lunch sometime between 10:30am and midday. My classes from 2-5pm are a mix of ages from 7 to 12. All of my classes in the afternoon have a local assistant to help me with any translations that are required, which is sometimes a pain because they translate too much, and the kids don’t need to try to understand what I’m saying. In the evening I generally have either conversation class, or 2-3 times a week I teach Business English to the District Governors outside of the city. (Apparently I’m a Business English teacher now, too.) On the weekends we all pile into a van and go to the city where the kids play music and dance on a tourist boat. One of my other roles as a volunteer is to mingle with the tourists and give a speech to everyone about OBT. Apparently donations go up by about 60% when a volunteer does the speech. I have some very fond memories of those loud, hot, bumpy van rides – yelling and singing a lot of the way.
Learning to teach was an interesting experience. I had completed an online TEFL course, which was essentially useless – I would have been better off keeping the money. My first class I was handed a piece of paper with vocabulary on it, and said to go, so I went with it; jumping like a frog and roaring like a lion. With my more advanced morning class I graduated to teaching things like comparative adjectives and some basic grammar. All in all, I’m pleased with the progress that I’ve made and what I was able to do. I do feel that it would have been of great benefit to have some actual training, as I’m sure I could be doing a lot better. Things were made more difficult by the classes often containing students of varying levels of proficiency, meaning I had to choose between teaching toward either 70% or 30% of the class. The classes in the afternoon are very hot. The afternoons can get up to 37 degrees, and I’m usually dripping sweat.
Village life is interesting. I shower from a bucket of cold water from the Mekong, which I also use to wash my clothes. There are always things happening, motorbikes zooming past, cars honking their horns as they drive through the village. Kids run around, some clothed, others not; people cook, people shower outside, underneath their houses. Most of the villagers are farmers, and can often be seen peeling corn husks or carrying baskets of vegetables from the fields. About 200 families live in the village, and about 10,000 in the general commune. There are a lot of people around, but everyone knows each other. The area that I’m in is all populated by members of the same family. 10 houses or more on each side of the street. I find it fun to think about who looks more like who as they walk by. It’s also very isolated, as a bike ride into town takes about 40 minutes. It’s not too far, it’s just so hot, and the bikes are so clunky, that you really need a good reason to go. I’ve only been about 3 times. As such, I am limited to what I can eat based on what is sold in the village. There are a couple of shops which sell some little snacks, generally Vietnamese crisps and nuts or fruit, but there are no restaurants. The people here don’t go to restaurants, so they simply don’t exist.
Being so isolated has made me miss some things. I haven’t felt homesick exactly, but it’s the closest that I’ve come so far. While life isn’t uncomfortable here, I do miss the general comforts of Western culture. I miss coffee (that’s right, no coffee this month), and I miss variety. I miss being able to choose what I eat, and at what time.
Now, the food situation. When I first got here there were four other volunteers, and we ate some really nice food. They left after a week, and I was by myself for the rest of the time. The food by myself was quite different. The family was serving me what they would normally eat, rather that what they cook for volunteers. Being all about authentic cultural experiences, I was right into it. We had small fried river fish, chopped tomatoes and chili. We ate soups, grilled eggplant, and baby sweet corn. It was always served with rice and it was all reasonably tasty, but there was one problem. Prahok. Prahok is essentially a fish paste which is fermented. It’s made by chopping up Mudfish and then putting it in a jar for 2-3 days. After the fish swells you drain the liquid and wash the fish, then return to the jar, this time with salt, for 6 months or more. The jars sit in the kitchen, and the kitchen stinks. What is left over is an extremely strong, fishy paste. It turns out Prahok is the corner stone of the village Khmer’s dinner table, the eleventh herb and spice. The first time I tasted it, I liked it. It was mixed with pork mince, ginger, chili and lime. Apparently this is still not authentic, and they normally just eat it as it comes. It also seems to make it’s way into every soup or curry. I’m normally a seafood fanatic, but this is too strong even for my tastes. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’m looking forward to chowing down on some Western food back in Phnom Penh. Maybe a burger, or a cheese steak.
This month seemed to be wedding season. I have lost count of the number of weddings that have happened while I was here, but I attended two, and was invited to one more. It’s the kind of thing you always hope for when you are traveling, a local inviting you to something that is just super local. The weddings were fun. I put on a pair of pants (the first pair in a long time) and a long sleeve shirt, and we head off down the road in a tuk tuk. We were handed lollipops upon entry, and I gave a $10 gift and walked past the blaring speakers with tables in front of them. We were given a bag of ice for the table, and a few cans of beer. I call them the never-ending cans of beer, because once we started pouring, there were endless amounts of people coming over to toast with us.”Chul muoy, chul muoy!” We yell as we bang our glasses together. A local kid sits behind us cutting up a slab of ice with a machete (there is no refrigeration, so the beers are warm).The food fare was grand, stacks of lovely meat and seafood, a whole cooked chicken in beautiful sauce, stir fried noodles with more meat, pork (or dog?) and rice. Lots of rice. We eat for what feels like a long time before joining the dance floor. One of the weddings was right underneath my floor. The mega loud speakers were shaking the house for two days straight.
We dance the Romvong around a table in front of a stage. On the stage there is a young group hired to sing and dance. They dance modern style, with sensuality. On the side, a crowd of people gather on the side of the road and watch us dancing under the tent, they all have straight faces. It’s all an odd mix of contrasts, but a lot of fun.
Here’s a short video of the Romvong, email readers please click here to watch the video.
My homestay mum, Sokah, is a Math teacher at the local Khmer school, so often doesn’t have time to cook. If she’s not around, one of her 8 children will do the cooking instead, while her husband smokes cigarettes and watches TV. One time when I tried to take my plates to the kitchen, I was told not to do it – because I was a boy. The family and community dynamic here is so interesting. Once children are of a certain age, maybe 7, they basically are expected to take care of themselves. They make sure they eat enough, from whichever house, they bathe themselves outside in the well water, and they get themselves to sleep and school. The sleeping arrangements are interesting, children don’t necessarily sleep in their own houses. It’s very acceptable to just sleep wherever. One of the boys here, Rosa, sleeps on the bamboo floor because he says he doesn’t like the bed. Often there are children that are not Sokah’s eating and sleeping here, and likewise her children are not always here. It’s feels like a big community where everyone takes care of each other. Children don’t seem to have a lot of rules, but likewise are not lacking in respect for their elders.
Here’s a video of some of my kids goofing around with my GoPro after class. Email readers click here.
All in all it’s been a fantastic experience coming here. When you’re traveling around, never spending more than 4-5 days in one place, it feels like a long time to sit down for a month. But even giving a month feels like almost nothing when I compare it to how many more months of education these children need. Places like this need people to come for longer. I’ve read a fair bit about the psychological effects of short terms volunteering on children, and tried to be mindful, trying to maintain emotional distance. I feel like it is hard at times, when they’re as wonderful as they are. More than a cultural experience, it was also an experience in people. People can be really something, and I’ve been truly humbled by some of the people I’ve met. Living this life, even for a short period makes me very aware of how fantastic life in a Western country really is. There are so many things that we could do without, and I hope that this will drive me to make some basic changes to my own life and habits. I’m not exactly sad to be leaving, as I’m ready to move on. But a part of me feels like I could, or should do more.
I’m spending 10 more days in Cambodia before I fly to Tokyo to meet Alexa. Many fun times still ahead.