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30 Oct 2010

Home (not so!) Alone

My experience of homestay...

...and Sam's.

As 80% of Cambodia’s population live in the countryside it is important for us to have some experience of what that lifestyle entails. To this end VSO have forged a link with a village in Kampong Cham province where all new volunteers spend a night with a host family a.k.a. ‘Homestay’. Ours started at 8.30am on a Sunday when VSO picked us up in a mini van and drove us along an amazingly bumpy road to a village about an hour outside of Kampong Cham town. We all nervously and expectantly met the commune leaders and were then handed over to our families.

The mum in our family was about 60 and led the way across the road to a very posh looking house on stilts with a massive garden but then we kept walking behind the house, through a small forest of different fruit trees (I suppose it could have been an orchard rather than a forest...) and along the river, side stepping a couple of cows and chickens to our family home for the night.

Feeding time for the cows

There were about four houses in a row and lots of people and animals milling around outside. It was never made clear to us exactly who was part of the family but everyone was very friendly and we got to practise our Kmai. It was good to be the two of us together as we’ve had two different teachers so know different words/phrases. It seemed that we were generally understood and when one of us couldn’t understand, normally the other one could so it worked very well.

This was our house for the night.

Here's some of our family although I'm pretty sure the guy on the right is not actually a member of the family!

The first thing that happened while sitting and chatting to everyone was a couple of mangos were presented to us with a knife and some salt and chilli to go with them. You’ll all be pleased to hear I politely ate the mango though I declined the salt/chilli dip. Luckily they eat the mangos here before they are ripe so it didn’t really taste too much like a mango!

Look how happy I am eating my mango! 'Toothy' is on my right facing the camera.

We then ate lunch (they must have been mind-readers as they served up my favourite, Beef & Ginger!) and were ushered upstairs to the living room area, given a mat to lie on a left alone to have our afternoon nap. I slept brilliantly, especially as it started to pour so it was nice and cool. Sam, for once, was unable to sleep as he said he was being attacked continuously by mosquitoes! Sam’s little face does actually fill up with fear whenever he sees a mosquito...

Sleeping tight and hoping the 'bed mosquitoes' don't bite!

After the rains and all the cows have been brought home...

After more chatting to various families and helping some of the students practise English we went back into the house to have quick showers before dinner. The bathroom was a separate room outside and round the side of the house. The mum had been trying to get Sam to have a shower since about 3 o’clock that afternoon. It wasn’t clear if it was because she thought he smelled or because they had been told foreigners like to wash all the time. We then had dinner and chatted to some other people who just seemed to wander in and out of each other’s houses which is quite nice.

Sam busting out his Kmai phrases with the ladies, note the socks and flip flops look...

During dinner we got better acquainted with one of the older villagers, a 74-year-old lady with no teeth. She had declined our offer of some mango earlier on the grounds that her dental setup would be prohibitive to chewing. Sam promptly nicknamed her ‘Toothy’ for this reason. She was a real laugh and we learned a lot about her, her family (mostly dead now) and asked if she wanted to hear some music with Khmer lyrics. She was very enthusiastic and had no hesitation in following Sam up to the main room of the house (she doesn’t live there though) as he went to fetch the iPod and speakers. We sat for a while listening to the band Dengue Fever which Dan gave to Sam before he left. Toothy and another lady really enjoyed it, even singing along to a couple of the tracks which were covers of 1960s Cambodian rock songs. Toothy was our favourite villager and she had a great habit of repeating everything we said in Khmer to all the other villagers while laughing e.g. “he just said he comes from England, ha ha ha”.

'Toothy', still cycling at 74 (and she's in the other picture above on the right).

Then it was time for bed. We had been prepared for bedtime by a volunteer who had briefed us before our homestay, managing our expectations very adeptly so that we were more than prepared for what lay ahead. We were sleeping on a thin woven mat on the wooden floor with some pillows and a mosquito net. A short distance away on a mattress were the mother and father of the house under their mosquito net – it was all very cosy. The daughter slept in another room and one of the sons slept downstairs on the kitchen table/bed. We were in bed by 8pm! The front door was locked and bolted which was rather annoying as the toilet was outside and down the stairs. I had stopped drinking water at about 6pm in preparation for this.

The mat on the floor from earlier now with (honeymoon suite) mosquito net.

We were woken at various points throughout the night by: the father coughing his guts up and spitting on the floor; the father going outside for a cigarette; one or both of them frequently weeing into a metal bowl next to their bed; and a cockerel who though 2.30am was morning time. The first time the father got up, Sam used to opportunity of the open door to make a dash to the loo. When he came back I asked the time, thinking it must be nearly morning – it was only 11.30pm! Another choice moment in the night was getting text from Dave, one of our group staying in another house in the village. His house had a similar potty in the main room set up but we had obviously been spared the number twos as his text read: "There's someone poo'ing in my room and it's not me". We should have counted ourselves lucky!

After what felt like a very long night the family got up at 5am and we dosed for a bit before getting up at 6am. I do have to admit my neck and back were hurting a bit from spending eight hours lying on the floor!

After we’d eaten some noodles for breakfast we suggested to the son that maybe we could all go for a wander around the village. This was met by protests that everywhere was far too far to walk to, however he could take us on his moto. As we didn’t have our helmets we said we couldn’t go on the bike but how about a walk along the river. He still declined this suggestion on grounds that we weren’t quite clear on but thought perhaps it was due to the heavy rain the day before. After re – phrasing our ‘çan we go for a walk’ sentence many times he finally understood and asked if we wanted to go for a ‘da laying’ (literally translated as ‘play walk’ i.e. a stroll or wander). We eagerly accepted and off we wandered along the river, threw the orchard and onto the road. As we walked along everyone shouted out in acknowledgement of our ‘da laying’ and I think we both felt like we had learned a new and very useful word. During our wander we got to see the growing of many Cambodian fruits and took some pictures of them.

A fruit we now know the Kmai name for but not the English so we still don't know what it is!

Cow scratching head, Sam was more impressed by this than I was.

We were collected by VSO again at 8.30am on the Monday and were driven back to our hotel in Kampong Cham to share are varied and interesting stories of our homestays. Having been a little apprehensive following our briefing, we really enjoyed the experience and it was a huge eye-opener in terms of the differences in lifestyle between the villages and towns in Cambodia. But also the even greater disparity between rural life in a developing country compared to what we’re used to in London. For example, the entire commune of around 13,000 people do not have access to any form of healthcare facilities unless they can make their way to the town. No doubt this is the case in many places here and one of the reasons VSO have a strong focus on health issues in Cambodia.

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