a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

For a holiday trip Stephen suggested Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam. While we are living in Cambodia, we plan to visit and tour as many of the other Asian countries as we can. Ha Long Bay has been a Unesco World Heritage Site for a number of years but this November it also received the distinction as one of the "New 7 Natural Wonders of the World".
The tour included two nights on a modern "junk" and kayaking around the bay. The water was absolutely beautiful! And smooth. Kayaking was a blast.
Two person sea kayaks are much faster than the individual recreational kayaks we had in the states. And the junk was much more pleasant than a huge cruise ship.
To get to Ha Long Bay we first flew to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. The flight route has a short layover in Laos so I can add two more countries to my list of countries visited. After a couple of nights in Hanoi we took a 5 hour bus ride to get to the bay harbor. In our group of 16 there were tourists from Japan, Canada, France, Australia, and the US. Sharing meals at large tables allowed for several opportunities to visit with our fellow travelers, an unexpected bonus to the trip. The family from France made me laugh. When we all went out kayaking, the dad wanted to trade life jackets with his son because his was small. The whole family alternated between speaking English and French. When he spoke to his son he spoke French but he used a word we also have in English "minuscule". That struck me as very funny because in English that means tiny. The dad was wearing the jacket that he wanted to trade, it wasn't as if it was made for a mouse.

It was interesting to me the wide range of languages and culture mixed into our small tour group. One guy was from Australia but spoke fluent Taiwanese and English. The Canadians spoke some French and could therefore understand some of the dialogue the French family had with each other. The Japanese women spoke some English. And one of the other Americans was living in Vietnam and learning the language like Stephen and I are doing in Cambodia.
Hanoi and Ha Long Bay are much further north than Phnom Penh so the temperatures were much cooler and Stephen and I needed jackets for the first time in six months. The cooler air was so pleasant after months of heat and humidity. Also nice was the quiet calm of the bay. Such a nice reprieve from noisy city life.
Hanoi felt more developed than Phnom Penh. There were freeways with guard rails and drivers obeyed traffic rules more consistently. However, driving is much more aggressive and fast-paced than in Phnom Penh; much more honking and at night people flash their brights repeatedly to get slower traffic to move out of the way.
Though we didn't stay in the fanciest hotels we still noticed a significant difference in the workmanship of the construction. There must be a more highly skilled workforce in Vietnam compared to Cambodia. From the development aspect, Hanoi is more comfortable for foreign travelers like us. But one advantage Cambodia has is the friendliness of its people. Cambodians are very quick to smile. The Thai share this quality. Perhaps this comes from the type of Buddhism practiced in both Cambodia and Thailand that's different from the type practiced in Vietnam. And Cambodians have a unique graciousness they bring to their hospitality.
As of this year Stephen and I have now spent the Christmas holidays on three different continents. And we've also visited two of the 7 Wonders of Nature. Maybe next Christmas will be in Argentina where the Iguazu Falls are located. One more wonder of nature and another new continent. :)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, an 8th wonder of the world (there are other wonders beyond the official 7 that compete for 8th wonder status), is located in Siem Reap, Cambodia. These ancient ruins are incredible, built 860 years ago! Stephen and I spent three full days driving to different sites and walking around and through the ruins, and still we did not see everything. Stephen's favorite is Bayon. I plan to do a painting (or several) of these towers with carved faces on each of the cardinal points.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat is stunning! Well worth getting up before dawn for. That's saying a lot coming from a person who would much much rather sleep in most mornings. The advantages of the early morning are the picturesque sun rising over the temple (of course), but also cooler temperatures, and (away from the main temple) fewer people. Exploring under these conditions is quiet and serene, magical even.
To save time in the morning, we skipped breakfast at the hotel and instead asked a Khmer woman cooking over coals if we could buy "ansome chake" from her. It's sticky rice mixed with coconut milk laid out on a banana leaf and then rolled around a grilled banana. The whole thing is warmed over the coals in its banana leaf cover. So yummy. Our Khmer language tutor brought some to us to try one day and we have since become fans of this Cambodian dessert.
Siem Reap is my favorite place in Cambodia now. It may even be my favorite place in the world, at least at this moment. As soon as we drove into town, I started to fall in love with this little city in Southeast Asia. Actually the attraction started a few kilometers out, where the road is tree lined and smoothly paved.  Phnom Penh has recently hung banners calling it "the charming city" but I think that title more appropriately goes to Siem Reap. The streets feel less cluttered and chaotic and many of the store fronts are inviting. In Phnom Penh and in Sihanouk Ville, two of the other big cities in Cambodia, it's often difficult to tell what is inside until you actually go in.
Our "boutique guesthouse" was a sanctuary with a most pleasant salt pool that we swam in every night after trekking through the ruins. To accommodate the tourists, there are many restaurants with tasty food. Even Mexican. But I find the Asians really make Asian food the best. :) Loc Lac is a Cambodian dish with cubed beef over fresh tomatoes served with rice. The pepper lime sauce that comes with this dish make it crazy delicious.
The informal economy supports the majority of Cambodians and Siem Reap has an abundance of informal workers:  tuk tuk drivers, night market sellers, people walking around with baskets of goods. I bought paintings from a man in a wheelchair, cards from a seventeen year old boy on crutches, more cards from a man who lost his leg because of a landmine. Stephen and I also bought clothes, seat cushions, and coasters at the night markets. I feel like I've become a decent bargainer, generally getting the price I have in mind. My most effective technique is to say, "I'll have to think about it," and then start to walk away.
The drive to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh is 6 hours, mostly because roads are narrow and rough and cannot support the high volume of traffic. Because of the intense flooding in recent months, the roads are even rougher. Also because of the floods there were make-shift shelters along the roads. People and their animals were temporarily displaced to higher ground, which is next to the roadway, until the flood waters abate. As we passed these temporary structures sheltering people and their animals, my predominant thought was "what a lot of work".
I look forward to our next trip to Siem Reap. Stephen is designing a project for a province just north of Siem Reap so it's likely we will have ample opportunity to enjoy this little gem of a city in Southeast Asia.

Friday, October 21, 2011

maybe dreams come true sometimes...

This week was a tipping point for me. Launching out in a radically different direction is filled with both hope and apprehension. There is hope that things will work out as you dream or envision based on what you know. But there is apprehension about the fact that you don't know what you don't know. I've been to several foreign countries for varying amounts of time. Although I enjoyed some aspects of every country, I never felt "at home." This move to Cambodia seems to be different.
We have been working in our jobs for awhile, past the first impressions and into the real work with real people. Our Khmer is coming along slowly. We have our favorite restaurants and have enjoyed some of the entertainment available in the city. I have my own personal tuk-tuk driver who waits outside my apartment complex and drives me to school every Wednesday. Stephen's staff wash our car every week and take it in for any repairs it might need. It's beginning to feel like we have much of what we want from the Western lifestyle but also get to enjoy the unique benefits of Cambodia too.
Coffee shops are a good example. My two favorites are Gloria Jean's Coffee, an international coffee chain based out of Australia, and Brown Coffee which is a Cambodian company and has three locations: two near our apartment and one near my school. Both have great customer service and excellent coffee. I love coffee and I love coffee shops. Where ever I am in the world, I seek out the good coffee shops. Phnom Penh has a pretty awesome coffee shop culture. For sure many of the customers are expats but just as many are Khmer. The other day I was correcting papers at the Brown coffee near my school. Country music and pop Christmas carols were piping through the speakers and at every table around me a variety of languages were being spoken, mostly not English. In the middle of this mix of the strange and familiar, I experienced a moment of peace and contentment.:)
I've described how comfortable our living arrangements are in previous posts. Having comforts doesn't always translate into actually being comfortable, though. And this is how it was for me up until this week. But after what will be 4 months next week, I'm starting to settle into this new life. It's starting to feel good. And good without qualifiers. It's not just good for an international experience. Or good compared to the time we spent in South Africa. Or good despite the heat.
Yesterday I was lying on my couch looking out my living room window when I realized that from that angle all I could see were tree leaves set against the blue sky. No buildings interrupted my view. We live in the city and yet I can experience the expansive feeling and beautiful colors of nature. That pleasant view triggered a realization that there are many good things about my life now. So many of my dreams are coming true. My job, Stephen's job, my health, learning a second language, my art, this whole experience of living abroad...
Of course there are things we do miss from our life in the states. There are no good microbreweries here like the McMenamins pubs in Portland or Hale's Ale's in Seattle. We don't get to kayak in clear water or ride our bikes on trails specifically made for bicycles. I don't drive our car and I love to drive. The leaves don't change to orange and then red in the fall and there is no snow in the winter. And we are thousands of miles away from all our family and old friends.
But in just under 4 months, Cambodia has shown us a life where we actually might be living in the middle of our dreams.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

a language barrier isn't always a barrier

This past week I had my first parent-teacher conferences with Khmer families. In preparation I spent the weeks before sorting and assessing all the written work I've given to my preschoolers during the first term. I also gathered my observation notes for each child so I could share individual stories with their parents. All this took many extra hours outside the classroom and I would end each day exhausted. But by Wednesday when I had my first early conference, I felt like the extra effort was all worth it. The range of English proficiency among my parents is from basically no English to fluency. But words are not the only way to communicate and so I tried to show more than tell. I have alphabet words up on the wall above the whiteboard, and then on a different wall individual papers of the students using those alphabet words. On a third wall, I have a large alphabet with both capital letters and small letters printed on different colored cardstock and laminated. Some of the vocabulary we have been practicing is up on this "word wall". The individual students' names are on their cubbies, the tables, the floor circle and the wall. Poems we read together and songs we sing together are on the walls also written in bright colors on large sheets of heavy drawing paper. When the parents first came in, I walked them around the room explaining briefly what we do during the day. I only had about 10 minutes for each conference so it was not nearly enough time to share all that I wanted. But several of the parents thanked me for my time and for explaining so much of what we do and how their child was doing in particular.

I was quite excited to talk with these parents because I am so impressed with all of my little preschoolers. Amazingly these three and four year olds come to a strange setting (it is often their first experience at school) and spend their mornings with strangers (teacher and teaching assistants) and one very foreign stranger at that. But they are not afraid, they are happy and comfortable and learning many new things including a foreign language!

I have a set of twins in my class and at the beginning of the term, for quite awhile really, they were quite unsure of me. They would stick close together, holding hands always. Whenever I would ask them to put their books away or sit on the carpet they would frown at me and move away. Day after day I just kept smiling and asking them to follow directions and slowly they stopped frowning and actually started smiling so that now they are actually giggling when we get ready to sing songs or when they are playing at play centers.

So that felt like a success for sure but still, telling the twins apart was a challenge. They wear the same clothes and fix their hair the same way. But on top of that, they don't help. I can call one of their names and both girls will make a move. One of my assistants discovered that one of the girls had a freckle on her cheek so we started using that to tell them apart. I thought we were finally doing well. I started calling them consistently by the same name. Then at conferences their mom had a funny story to tell us. She said that Teresa (not her real name) had started carrying Pamela's (also not her real name) folder and vice versa. The mom said, "You are Teresa not Pamela." And Teresa responded, "But Teacher calls me Pamela." So it turns out I can tell them apart but I was using the wrong name for each girl! Their mom brought them into the classroom and showed us who was who. And also that Teresa is the oldest and the leader, not the other way around.

This mom also said that she was very happy to know that her girls were so comfortable at school now. She said that last year she tried to put them in school but every day she would get a call that they were crying so much she had to come get them.

Starting school is often a scary thing for children of course. I remember when I started kindergarten that one of the other girls in my class was crying really hard. But in this case the teacher spoke her language. I can't speak these children's language but luckily we can communicate without words. Tone of voice, body language, facial expression can convey maybe even more powerful messages. Yesterday one of my little boys had grabbed away some blocks from another little girl causing her to cry. I took him aside and on his own he plopped in my lap and start explaining to me, in Khmer of course, his side of the story. I spoke back to him in English except using one Khmer word "sowm toe" which means "sorry". This little boy often tells me many things. I just don't know what they are because he speaks in Khmer. But he only wants to tell me. If I ask the assistants to translate for me, he won't repeat what he said to them. He struggles so much to know how to play with other children. His mom told me at conferences that he only has older brothers, 12 and 14 years old. So he doesn't have younger siblings to teach him how to get along.  One day he came running to me. One of my assistants translated that he was saying that Teresa had hit him. So we walked over to where Teresa and the other assistant were. My other assistant saw what happened. Teresa didn't hit him. She had just told him she didn't want to play with him, and because he was disappointed he said she had hit him.

Another one of my boys knows that I can't understand his words, so he used another way to get his message across. We had just all walked to the assembly area to wait for the parents, when Victor (not his real name) purposefully took my hand and started leading me back toward the classroom. I sensed that it was something important so I just let him lead me. We walked back to the classroom, carefully avoiding a puddle on the way. Victor led us wide around the puddle so we didn't step in it. :) Finally in the classroom he took his bag out of his cubby and put it on. Victor is only three years old but he was being responsible for his own bag. He also maybe knew that he needed me to go with him because another adult might stop him. He wasn't supposed to be in the classroom at that time.

On Friday night Stephen and I attended a performance of Khmer modern dance in the Chenla Theatre. Two men made some announcements before the the start of the performance. One man spoke in French and the other man translated into Khmer. Stephen whispered to me, "Glad there's translation." No English at all. Though there were small sections of dialogue and a couple of songs, most of the show was pure dance. We enjoyed this performance by a small dance company that mixed modern dance with traditional Khmer elements.

Language is useful in communicating, obviously. But living in this foreign country, where we can't use language as much to understand and communicate, gives us unique opportunities to experience more ways of communicating and connecting with people. And I like that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

teaching preschool in Cambodia

It has been one month since I accepted a teaching position to teach preschoolers at American Pacific School. It's been a tremendously busy month for me, leaving no time for blogging, though there was plenty to blog about! Finally I have a few minutes to write a post about my newest adventure within our adventure. :)

About four weeks ago, Stephen happened to go to a church service where he met a man from the UK who told Stephen he was the principal of a school here in Phnom Penh. He also told Stephen that he had a position open for a part-time preschool teacher. That afternoon Stephen told me about the service including that he'd met this principal and that there was a preschool opening. At the beginning of August we had only been here a little over a month. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I really did not want to commit to a huge project early on. But this position was something just too interesting for me to ignore. In the last year I've had a particular interest in early childhood education, preschool age. And part-time was what I wanted. I knew that with my having lupus, part-time was more than enough for me to commit to. And the name of the school had the words "American Pacific". How strange is that?! I'm an American from the Pacific Northwest. Still it took me a week to make the decision to talk to the principal about the job. I decided against it several times but then always felt compelled to reconsider. It felt like I was pulled toward this job.

School had already started when I agreed to take the part-time preschool job. My students were without a regular teacher for a week and a half. But now that I've been working with them every day for a month, I wonder if it seems to them as if I've always been their teacher.

Wow, has it ever been a jam packed month for me. I've been putting in the hours of a full-time job even though I see the kids for only 3 hours. Though there are way more materials and supplies at this school than there were in South Africa, I'm still creating a ton of curriculum. There are even some teacher/office supply stores here where I've found labels, pastels, markers, and large sheets of drawing paper. I have 21 students and my room is kind of small for that many, but we are managing. It's definitely better than 60 kids to a class with no space other than for all the individual desks. Plus I have two Khmer (Cambodian) teaching assistants. Which really is brilliant! When I taught in the public schools in the states I didn't even have one assistant. My teaching assistants help with management. They have decent English proficiency so they can help explain directions in Khmer to the students. Plus they make copies and help me prepare materials for activities.

Though the last month has really been a stretching experience for me, and at times I thought maybe it had really been too much too soon, I love preschool children! These little babies are adorable and fascinating.  This developmental stage is really really fun to work with. That's not to say there aren't challenges. Like how many of them are not potty-trained. The other day one of my youngest boys came over to me so I could help him with the clasp on his uniform so he could go to the "toilet". But just as I helped him out of his shorts, he started peeing right there. We all just watched as the little puddle developed on the ground. What could we do? We happened to be outside playing just before going home so at least it was outside instead of in the classroom on the carpet or on the tile so we are all sliding in it. (Both have happened with other children.) Such is the life in the world of preschool.

There's a lot of joy in these little ones. They absolutely love to sing songs and do motions along with the songs. We do "Head, shoulders, knees and toes", "I'm a little teapot", "Five little monkeys jumping on the bed", "If you're happy and you know it". I incorporate English directions like "stand up please" and "sit down please" between each song. So when they sit down some of the little boys hug themselves and twist back and forth saying, "sapbye, sapbye". In Khmer that means "happy, happy". :)

They also are super observant and copy the things I do and say. I say "good" a lot! And when I'm really pleased with something I say it three times in a row. Now my little boys give me thumbs up and say "good good good"! It makes me and the assistants laugh, so of course they want to keep making us laugh.

I think one of the most surprising things about this job is that I am teaching an entire class full of children whose first language is not English. And I would say we are doing quite well. That's fascinating to me. I think it's an advantage for me that I'm teaching children who are at the critical oral language acquisition and mastery developmental stage. In fact it almost seems as if the younger ones are able to copy my pronunciation better than the older ones.

So preschool has basically been my life since I took the job. But Stephen and I are still taking our Khmer language lessons. We aren't very good students yet though because we never have any time to study between lessons. Even so, we are learning. It's pretty cool to learn another language, though it's definitely taxing. And once we have some basic proficiency it will definitely help us do our work better.

Stephen is doing well in his job. His busy writing grants, meeting with partners, mentoring staff, and developing health projects. He really enjoys the work and living in Cambodia. He has traveled to other provinces for an overnight trip and he will do more of that within country and maybe to neighboring countries as well in the near future. When his travel falls on holidays, I'll go with him but mostly he will travel alone or with staff.

So that's the latest from Safari Cambodia. :)

Friday, August 12, 2011

a drive to the country

This was the first weekend where we had our own car so Stephen wanted to take advantage of that and take a drive into the country. He decided we should take drives on the national highways in order. So on Sunday we drove out on highway No. 1. :), which is driving east out of Phnom Penh toward Vietnam. We went about 30km just to see what we could see.

As we were driving out of the city, I saw a sight that is extremely common but still never fails to amaze me: women sitting side-saddle on the back of a moto with one sandal dangling. I can hardly imagine staying on a motorcycle straddling it, but balancing side saddle? It's a law that the driver has to wear a helmet but the passenger is not required to. And obviously protecting your feet is not a big concern. During Stephen's motorcycle training in Portland, his instructors taped up his ankles because he was wearing shoes and not the required boots.
Just out of the city we started seeing traditional houses. They are built up on stilts to minimize flooding damage during the rainy season and to provide a shaded cooler area during the hot dry season.
And we noticed more ways in which motorcycles are versatile vehicles in Cambodia. People use them to carry so many things we in the states would think you'd need a truck for: chickens, pigs, family of four or even five people.
When we started seeing fields we also started seeing lots of cream colored cows. Brahman cattle. I've never seen these floppy eared cows before so they were really interesting to me. I started taking pictures of every cow we saw and Stephen teased me that our drive to the country had turned into a cow photo shoot. 
And though it was Sunday we saw people working everywhere. Several of the pictures above show people working. Cambodians work hard. Six-day work weeks are the norm but people work seven out of necessity. This field was full of workers on a Sunday afternoon.
It was a short drive but at least we got out of the city for the first time. I want to paint some scenes of the Cambodian countryside so I look forward to our next drive and more photo opportunities.