1. Riverside location. As with Kampong Cham the town is set on the East bank of the enormous Mekong River. This not only means that fish is the order of the day but that we get all the benefits of living close to the open water. Above is a typical scene and below is what happens at about 5.45pm when the sun descends behind the West bank. Nice!
2. 'Tuk Crow-Lock'. My language training now allows me to order one of these from the many riverside 'cafes' serving up noodles and egg from about 11am each day. This is the standard accompanying drink and one of the best discoveries to date. It's a fruit shake made of pineapple, mango, darian, dragon fruit, condensed milk and crushed ice. In the heat of the day, or while watching the sunset, there is nothing better to refresh yourself than one of these ice cold, vitamin packed little beauties. The price? 2,500 riel, approximately 50p, which is actually quite expensive here!
3. 'Ban Chow'. Sticking with the Food & Drink theme you can't go wrong with one of these for lunch. It's served up for 1,500 riel (less than 50p!) by a lovely lady on a stall near the market. It is actually a Vietnamese dish and consists of a bed of green leaves and sliced cucumber covered with a thin pancake folded and stuffed with meat and vegetables. This is then covered with ground peanuts before the whole bowl is drizzled with a lemon/lime and water dressing. It makes for a very flavoursome and light lunch and is worth every riel.
4. The Hospital. Abi, who is 6 months into her own VSO placement, took us around the hospital where she is working to develop existing and student nurses. This wasn't a highlight in the same sense as the first three but more of a shock and reality check on what we're doing here. Parts of the place reminded me of scenes from a war film with dirty wards, dogs wandering around and some beds (virtually none with mattresses) located in the yard - apparently because patients who want to spit can't do so inside and also because some believe it is cleaner outside, which in some cases could be true.
It is hard to believe that such a disparity between what we are used to in the UK and what I have seen here can possibly exist, but it does. It has really brought home to me the severity of the situation in this country and reinforced the need for the work that we and the 100 or so VSO volunteers are doing. We can only hope to scratch the surface, if that, and, without more radical changes at a global level, I can only see change happening at a snails pace.
5. Cinema Club. It was great to meet the other volunteers and they were very kind in inviting us to things, including the Kratie premier of Sex & The City 2. This consisted of heading round to Abi's house on Wednesday night where a white sheet was mounted to one wall and a projector set up for the screening. The choice of film wasn't entirely up my street but it was a fun evening and a great taste of the Kratie social scene. I also indulged in a couple of cans of Black Panther, the local 8% stout which will surely become a familiar taste for the next two years.
6. Volleyball. Those who know my lilac coloured polo shirt will also know that it was my prize for being one of the winning team in the 2003 Xmas day volleyball tournament in Haadlad Resort on Koh Pangyang in Thailand. Well, the good news is that volleyball is the most played sport in Cambodia, the top 'spectator' sport being English premier league football on TV. I quickly located a regular game among the staff at CRDT via their VSO volunteer and it was great to break into a real sweat and begin the gradual redevelopment of my serve and spike from seven years ago. Expect prizes to follow...
7. Our house. One of the purposes of the placement week was to find a house to live in and we were surprised by the types of places we were being shown - all considerably bigger then our flat in London and typically with three bedrooms. We had whittled our choice down to two properties when we heard of one more that we could look at. It is close to the centre of town, has three bedrooms, a veranda, a shower (something of a luxury!) and a lovely main living area. A photo of the outside is below, we have the top floor and our landlady lives underneath. We can't wait to move in!
8. Our landlady. Having haggled her down to the VSO budget of $150 from her initial asking price of $180 per month we wondered if we might have scuppered our chances of befriending the landlady, who had an outwardly stern demeanour about her. The following exchange, via an interpretor, changed all that:
Gilly: Please can you ask her if we will have privacy in the house and that she will knock if she wants to visit. (This might seem an odd request but is listed in the VSO guidance notes on renting a house because Cambodians have a very communal way of living and it is common for landlords to walk in as and when they feel like it, often to the surprise of VSO volunteers.)
Landlady: Of course, they will be the only ones to have a key and I will knock if I ever need to access the house.
Excellent, just the response we were looking for. There was then a brief, slightly awkward pause before the landlady said something in Khmer to the interpretor. This was relayed as follows:
Interpretor: She wants to ask you if she is allowed to knock when she has cooked some snacks that she wants to share with you?
Gilly (slightly reeling from this extremely kind gesture following what amounted to our request to be left alone): Of course, of course, we'll also bring her some snacks when we receive them from England.
I'm looking forward to these snacks and also practising my Khmer on the landlady and her family.
9. Cambodian recruitment. Surprisingly I have already done a days paid work teaching English/English Culture at the only university in Kratie, UME. Getting hired was a bizarre experience. On Wednesday morning, while Gilly was busy conducting proper competency-based interviews with five candidates for her volunteer assistant role, I decided to take a walk around and see what places might be able to offer me work. One of these was the university and they seemed very happy when I walked in offering my services as a teacher, either of English or any other subject they thought I might be suitable for.
They told me to email my CV which I didn't do straight away because we were quite busy on that Wednesday afternoon and all day Thursday. On Friday morning I updated my CV, wrote a covering letter and downloaded this and two written references onto a memory stick. I took this round to the university where I was almost reprimanded by the chap I'd met on Wednesday for not emailing him. He quickly downloaded my documents onto his computer and I was then ushered into the director's office where I was given my working hours, rate of pay and told that my first two classes were on Saturday, i.e. the very next day (7.30-10.30am and 1.30-4.30pm). All this without actually opening the documents I'd prepared or anything resembling an interview beyond me saying that I had a masters degree and a year's teaching experience.
The lessons went well, I got paid in cash ($42 for the day) and when I return later this month I'll be sure to be wearing proper shoes and my own tie - I got issued with a very dodgy one and they found it inconceivable that I had showed up for work without this essential piece of kit!
10. Cucumber. On our last night we were invited to the leaving party of Claire who has spent the last two years working with CRDT, an NGO focussed on promoting sustainable livelihoods among rural communities in a number of the provinces near to Kratie. There was food and drink laid on, some crazy dancing, lots of 'cheers' and also a couple of games, of which one particularly caught the imagination. It was called Cucumber and hopefully this little drawing will help bring the following description to life...
The a, b, c of Cucumber.
a. All contestants (we had four) affix a length of wire to a cucumber and tie this around their waists so that the cucumber is hanging between their legs just above ground level.
b. Place a lime just in front of each cucumber and, a little further away (c.2m), place two straws about 15cm apart to form a 'goal' for each contestant.
c. Count down from five and let the race begin. The race consists of nudging your lime with your big swinging cucumber (no hands allowed) in order to send it rolling through your goal.
Fascinating stuff and great entertainment for all those watching. The prize was a bunch of bananas and I'm going to get into training so that I can take part in any future contests!
So, all in all, Kratie was great. There is so much more to tell but right now it's back to the language training in Kampong Cham before we head back for good on 24th October. With three bedrooms we'll certainly be able to take visitors and we should also be able to get internet in the house.
Lay High! (See ya! in Khmer)