Bye bye Blighty
Sadly my usually meticulous preparation feel down at the first hurdle which was checking in at Heathrow. Having left Lloyds TSB and cut up the card I booked my flight with I was told there was no way I could board the flight without it. The emotional side of leaving (or not, as seemed to be the case) boiled over and there were tears at the Thai Airways help desk. (In Cambodia this would amount to me losing face in such a public display of emotion.)
Following counsel from my brother and Gilly I forked out for a brand new ticket, ate a healing fry-up and boarded. I'm now in the process of trying to claim a refund on the original. (I think that my initial ordeal in checking in led to them overlooking my bag weighing in at 29kg when the limit should have been 20kg - no hand luggage only for this trip sadly!)
So Saidai Cambodia!
The flight consisted of Karate Kid (Jackie Chan version), Prince of Persia and the new A-Team film, broken by periods of light sleep. Following a brief stop over in Bangkok I was no sooner on the next plane than it was pulling into Phnom Penh airport with views of the Mekong river.
As with all arrivals in the tropics it was the heat and smells that hit me first and it was great to have a VSO staff member, Soklain, to ease me (at no cost) through my visa and customs process. After some food, a shower and a cup of tea at the VSO office I was aboard a tuk-tuk and headed to the bus stop for the (supposedly) three hour bus ride to Kampong Cham to meet Gilly.
Seat number 16 on the bus was next to an old boy with a few gold teeth and he seemed chuffed to have a 'barang' (foreigner) coming to sit with him. This led to my first experience of the Cambodia language, Khmai. The conversation went something like this:
Old boy: "Anglais?"
Sam: "Oui, vous parlez Francais?"
Old boy: Shake of head, no.
I had read somewhere that some older Cambodians, of which there aren't many, can speak French because it used to be taught in schools. What I didn't know was that the Cambodian word for English is exactly the same as the French and so he was basically asking me if I was English but in Khmai rather than in French.
This initial impasse didn't stop us communicating and we were soon exchanging signs and smiles which covered topics as diverse as: the Mekong river getting narrower as we headed away from Phnom Penh; the bus going more quickly once it had got through the gridlock caused by the visit of some Indian dignitary to the capital; the good taste of my fruit skittles (interestingly he sucked his rather than chewing so I finished the pack before I could offer him seconds!).
We got to Kampong Cham a little later than planned because of the earlier traffic and there was just enough time to freshen up before a healthy portion of fried rice and fish. I'm not much of a fish man back home but over here it is part of about half my meals and it's very tasty. I got a lie-in on my first full day while Gilly was off at her language lessons and then spent the rest of the day taking it easy in the early afternoon heat before hitting up some volleyball in the evening and having a few beers with the other assembled volunteers.
Hit the road [father] Jack
Day two consisted of a 7-hour, 50km, cycle ride in the heat of the day which has been covered extensively (with photos) by Gilly, Paul and John on their blogs. After this I was completely whacked and very grateful that I was spared any sunburn due to my early morning purchase of a wide brimmed hat in the market ($1) before setting off.
Days three and four have been dominated by language lessons and I now have a private tutor which is helping me to catch up with the rest of the group who have been learning for almost two weeks now. It's really tough to learn, especially because almost no words bear any resemblance to English or French (ca-fe and carrot are rare examples of easy words).
Between classes yesterday I took a stroll with Gilly and fellow volunteer Dave to pick up a replacement barrel of clean drinking water. I was taking in the market scene and breathing in the smells when I got the shock of my life. My right leg had landed on a wobbly man hole cover and landed me up to my thigh into the hole with the swinging cover wedging me in. Gilly and Dave came to my rescue, managing to remove the boiling hot concrete cover so that I could ease my now heavily grazed leg away from whatever might have been lurking down there ready to pounce on my bloodied limb. Despite the humidity it has fortunately scabbed up quite nicely and I reckon it'll heal fully within the week.
Today I have the day off from my language tutor so have been catching up on email, the blogs and football results (mixed emotions after a late equaliser at Sunderland but then spanking Spurs on their own patch in the cup). Gilly will finish class in an hour or so and then we'll get lunch in the market before the 1-3.30pm rest period. As you can imagine I am loving the early afternoon siesta time and can't wait to move into our house and hang my hammock for just this purpose. On Sunday we'll get to visit where we'll eventually be living before three more weeks of training ahead of moving there proper.
So far, so great, just beware the wobbly manhole covers!