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, July 21, 2011

new apartment and shopping in the markets

After only one week of living in a hotel room, Stephen and I moved into our new apartment in Phnom Penh. We had lots of helping hands moving our luggage so I didn't have to do any heavy lifting and the transfer from hotel to apartment was done in a half an hour. The final leg of our international move from Portland, Oregon, USA to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Southeast Asia.
Our new apartment is fully furnished and since we are the first tenants in this unit, everything is brand new. The mattresses still had their plastic on them.
Most of the furniture is solid wood so it is very heavy and a bit of a challenge to move. But it's beautiful. Teak wood stained cherry I think. Some highlights of our new home include: the living/dining area with its tall (screened!) windows, wooden dining room table with a glass top center, the terrace, and the three quiet very effective air conditioners. :) The floors are all tile and the countertops are all granite. We have 24-hour security at both entrances to the complex which open into the parking garage where we will park our vehicle when we finally get it. And there is even a fitness center on the first floor with brand new equipment! Needless to say our living accommodations are lovely.

Though we didn't need to buy furniture we did need other things: dishes, linens, cleaning supplies... We decided to be like the locals and buy those things at the informal markets. There are several of them: the Orrusey market, the Russian market, the BKKI market, and Central Market to name a few. Central Market was built in 1937 and at the time it was the sixth tallest dome in the world. It was designed to let light in but defuse the heat so it's about 5 to 7 degrees cooler inside than outside. Recently Central Market underwent a huge renovation requiring vendors to move all their wares to temporary locations and back again, section by section. I have already shopped in three different markets and Central Market is by far the most pleasant to shop in. Well...maybe "pleasant" is a bit of a stretch actually.
Almost without exception, prices are far better at the informal markets than in the air-conditioned mall or the also air-conditioned Lucky Market. So that's the upside. The downside is that shopping where you bargain on every single item is time intensive. Stephen and I priced a Panasonic steam iron in the mall at $45. I ended up buying that exact iron in Central Market for $26. But this is how it went.

ME: Do you have a Panasonic steam iron?
VENDOR: (points to all her different brands of irons, I don't see panasonic or any other brand with steam)
ME: Steam, steam iron?
VENDOR: (shows me another brand that has steam)
ME: (pointing to the word steam) steam iron, but Panasonic?
VENDOR: (shows me Panasonic dry iron)
ME: Yes, Panasonic but steam
VENDOR: (crawls into her storage space and brings out a Panasonic steam iron)
ME: (face lit up in delight) Yes! How much?
ME: (frown on my face) oh no too much $22?
VENDOR: cannot do (gets calculator types in $28)
ME: (take calculator and type in $24)
VENDOR: (shakes head, takes calculator and types in $26)
ME: ok (smile)
VENDOR: ok (smiles)

This is how it went for every single thing we bought. In some cases, the vendors (mostly women) just would not bargain and stuck to their first price. In which case I said "thank you" and walked away. So after nearly three hours on Sunday we had 4 small plates, 4 large plates, 4 soup bowls (which I thought we had decided not to get), 4 cereal bowls, 4 rice bowls, 4 drinking glasses, 4 sets of silverware, 1 pan, and 1 pot with lid to show for our efforts! I was exhausted! And this was even with help from one of Stephen's staff who offered to bargain on our behalf! In the states this shopping experience would have gone something like this:

Go into Target
Locate dishes
Choose pattern
Pick up box and put in cart
Push cart to check out
Swipe credit card
Sign (if over certain amount)
Carry bag with dishes to car
Total time: 15 minutes

Why the difference? We don't exactly know. But there are advantages to both vendor and customer with the informal markets. If business is slow one day and the vendor needs to make a sale they can lower her prices as an incentive to buy. Customers benefit too in that case. Also it allows for stratification: those who can afford to pay more, do. In the states we shop at Walmart or Nordstrom depending on what we are willing to spend. Another advantage is that informal markets are easy to get into. You don't need a lot of capital to get started and you can build up over time. In the states, you mostly need to start with a chunk of capital to run a business. At any rate, shopping at the informal markets is something that will take some getting used to. Fortunately for us, we can choose to shop at either the formal or the informal markets. I think next weekend it will be Lucky Market for me.

We met Stephen's staff member (I'll call her Sarah to make telling my story easier but that's not her name) at 10am, when we finished shopping at 1pm I just wanted to go back to our apartment take a cold shower (my word, the sweat!) and nap or at least rest for the afternoon. But that was not the plan. :( First of all Sarah disappeared to buy fruit so we sat down and waited for her. Turns out she bought it for us. Earlier in the day, I had asked her what a lady was carrying in a basket on her head and how you would even eat it. So Sarah went and bought some of those fruits for us. She then proceeded to peel the hard skin with her fingernails revealing the cloudy gelatin looking fruit inside that she then popped in first Stephen's mouth and then a second one in mine! I was totally freaking out! THE GERMS THE GERMS! I frantically found my bottle of hand sanitizer with alcohol and started to rub it on my hands. I overdid it a bit and alcohol was dripping from my hands to the ground which caused both girls to stare at me strangely. What I needed to do was drink the stuff! All the while my brain is having a panic attack, I'm smiling and thanking Sarah for the fruit.
Now I'm really wanting to go, but as a thank you to Sarah and her friend who joined us, we wanted to buy them lunch. But this is not as simple as it seems. I don't think Sarah or her friend eat out that much. Finally we decided on the food court in the mall since Sarah had eaten there before. Think about our food courts in the states, a lot of the food is fried and pretty much looks the same right? Well that's how all this food looked although nothing looked familiar. It took me forever to decide on anything because I was beyond tired and not even hungry and not a thing look appetizing. I ended up with some fried chicken and rice with egg. The chicken was all kinds of bits: part of a wing, gizzard, liver. The utensils Cambodians use to eat are fork and spoon, no knife typically. So I was siting there trying to separate small pieces of meat from the sad little chicken leg with the spoon and then eating some rice. Just to be polite. All I really wanted was frozen yogurt. Which I did get at the end of the meal. The girls had not tried frozen yogurt so I asked if they wanted to try it. They agreed so Sarah's friend and I went to get yogurt for everyone. Self-serve frozen yogurt. Sarah's friend got a dish each for Sarah and herself and I got a dish each for Stephen and me. When we brought the yogurt dishes back to the table as soon as I sat down Sarah said, "Share!" and scooped some of her yogurt into Stephen's dish! Oh my gosh! I then felt like I had to share with Sarah's friend who was sitting across from me so that's what I did. :(

(Pictures will have to come later. I was either too occupied with bargaining or too tired to take any pictures the whole time we were at the market or the food court.)

When we finally got in a tuk-tuk bound for our apartment, Stephen asked me how that experience was. I was kind of speechless. For him, it was just another adventurous afternoon. It is now Thursday and I'm still recovering. It probably will come as no surprise that I have the worst cold that I've had in at least two years! And I've been forced to curb my over-zealousness about starting any kind of English tutoring. Sarah did mention it again at our lunch on Sunday. On Monday I was starting to make a plan and even perused the TOEFL (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language) books at the bookstore. But by Tuesday morning I had a cough. Clearly, this transition has been more of a strain than I thought. So this week I put on the brakes. The original plan of doing only art at first was a good one and I'm sticking to that for the near future.

I guess not only art. I am a sounding board for Stephen as he processes everything about his new position in this foreign culture. I am his support system. Success of people in the field is generally higher for those who have a support system. Stephen is doing well. Every day seems to bring some new information, some new challenge, some new task to add to the list. It's taxing and he's worn out by the end of the day. But things feel good for this early stage, he's enjoying his work, and we both are trying to take the long view.

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