Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pig scales and eating packing material: My first few weeks at site.

I arrived at site on September 27th, fairly confident that I would get along fine the first few weeks. I was right in some respects; there were no incidents which deterred me from liking the place or for people here to consider me an “ugly American” (or if there were they were quiet about it). Mostly it was just awkward. Three weeks later it is still awkward only now my family and most people in my village recognize that I cannot speak fluent Khmer. Patiently they have taken time to teach me some Khmer words that I failed to learn in the first two months (surprisingly I did not know the Khmer words for “to clean” or “schedule”.. I wonder if this was some kind of Freudian slip?).

My first step to become a resident of Rumeus Hek was to buy a mattress. I have a very small bed frame at my host family’s house and was looking for something equally as small. There were none to find. I had to go ahead and buy one that was equal in length but twice the width for a whopping $30 (for a volunteer who makes less than $4 a day…it is a lot). Every night I have to be careful not to move around to much as to fall off and take all the bedding with me – a big pain in the butt considering my mosquito net takes up almost the entirety of my room and gets caught in my hair when I try to move around the out skirts of it. My family has been helpful with getting me settled in. For the first week I had no money and had to rely on their generosity. I was especially thankful to them when I heard from a volunteer in another province that her family had withheld food from her because as she had not been able to pay them yet. Equally frustrating for her was that her town had been affected by a hurricane and did not have any electricity, so even if she could withdraw money from the bank she would not be able to (we all had to wait until the 1st of the month for money to arrive in our accounts).

It has been surprisingly easy to make friends here. For the first few days my host sister and I went to a seller near the market to eat some Cambodian sandwiches for breakfast. The seller is a very friendly woman who unfortunately likes to give her three year old large doses of coffee to the detriment of her customers. Mostly this child just cries bloody murder until it gets the coffee and then after the coffee is consumed screams for more. This is depending on the time of day; often if I go in the evening (and many doses of coffee later) the child is screaming that it doesn’t feel well. I have yet to find out whether or not it is acceptable to tell this woman that giving coffee to a three year old is not a good idea. It was only last week that we swapped phone numbers and on Sunday she called me to see if I had done my laundry. I think we are getting closer to that level in our relationship… but maybe I’ll wait a month or two…or maybe I’ll never tell her. She makes the best Cambodian sandwiches in town and to jeopardize that relationship early on in my service would be fatal to my Peace Corps career. What is a Cambodian Sandwich? I assume it is like the Vietnamese sandwich on the crusty roll but as I’ve never had it I can only guess that it is similar. It is a toasted baguette with pork, what I call “rooster sauce” or spicy ketchup, cucumber, and other delicious sauces and spices. It is 25 cents a sandwich (or 1000 riel). Usually I accompany this with a shot of coffee with a bit of sweetened condensed milk which costs me 700 riel/20 cents. All together a great breakfast for less than 50 cents : )

Not surprisingly I acquired other friends while looking for food. Peace Corps has encouraged us to go out and meet people and really get to know the community during our first few months here. I always seem to need a destination or reason for going anywhere and thus interpreted it as “go and buy food and other things and make some conversation along the way”.

As I was passing the entrance of my market I made eye contact with a woman selling fruit. She recognized that I was wandering and invited me to sit down. I ended up sitting there for two hours. She kept giving me delicious fruit for free (Mangos, bananas, Lychee fruit, and oranges) and, because nearly everyone going to the market passes by that particular spot, after about 10 minutes of me sitting down we had a pretty decent crowd around the fruit stand. She has three children that live at home; a daughter (24), a son (22), and a 3 year old. I have become quite good friends with the 24 and 22 year old and we have gone on a few bike rides together. They have made it their mission to teach me Khmer and said that within 5 months I will know Khmer fluently– I hope they’re right. Before I left the stand that day the family, unsatisfied by the 2 kilos of fruit I ate, came out with some kind of packing material that looked somewhat like wax paper. The 24 year old woman, Nary, put it in her mouth and offered me a sheet of packing material as well. I thought it looked interesting and – carefully (it had sharp edges and treads) - put it in my mouth. At first I was certain that it was some kind of joke; “Look at the foreigner, she doesn’t know anything – she can’t even recognize that she is chewing on a large piece of plastic!” Luckily they sincerely eat the stuff and had given me some waxy paper material made out of rice.

My weekly schedule consists of working at the public high school with a coteacher, the health center, and having lots of free time. I work at the school 16 hours a week and at the health center 4 hours a week. There are practically no women teachers in my school and as I feel uncomfortable here around large groups of men (maybe this will change once I become proficient in the language?) I usually navigate towards the students. This not only helps my relations with them but helps me gage their language ability. On my first day there a group of 11th graders approached me and wanted to practice their English. They had the usual questions how many brothers and sisters do you have? What do your parents do? How old are you? How much do you weigh?

Nearly every person I have met has asked me how much I weigh. My family owns a pig scale and brought it out the other night to see if “maybe I would like to weigh myself in front of everyone?” I said “no thank you” and that “I do not want to know how much I weigh”. This last statement delivered some very quizzical looks but the fact is I can almost guarantee I am the heaviest woman in Rumeus Hek. This has recently been confirmed by working at the local health center. About once a week I go and observe the nurses in action (once my language gets good enough I will be hope to do more – just last year a volunteer became a midwife!). My time there is mostly spent watching the pregnant women come in, get a brief check-up…and get weighed. The average weight has been about 45 kilos or 100 lbs. I try to boost myself up with thinking that if anything they are jealous of my weight because after saying “you’re fat” they usually follow it up with “you’re beautiful”. But, me being an American woman, I am VERY self-conscious about my weight and would rather not weigh myself in front of everyone or tell all the people in my village how many kilos I am. Maybe that will change over time…

…especially if I try to keep up with my running schedule. We are currently in the midst of the rainy season and as there are no paved roads in my village, running is a very messy ordeal. I have limited my running to mornings following dry nights. It has been over a week since I have been able to go on a run : (

My experience thus far has led me to conclude that the people in my village are very generous and thoughtful. Here are a few examples….

Example 1) The other day I rode my bicycle to the market (as always) and forgot it in the hot afternoon sun. When I came back to where I left my bike it had been moved, thoughtfully, under the awning of the market and in the shade. I was so thankful, the seat of my bicycle is black and when left in the sun it becomes unbearably hot. I looked around to see who the Good Samaritan was, but they could not be found.

Example 2) I was invited to my student’s house to drink a Coke and talk with them in English. As we were conversing, they asked me how many teaching skirts (sampots) and shirts I had. I said two but that I was planning on buying one more. My student’s mother overheard that and asked me to follow her into her house. She had me try on a few of her sampots and shirts. At her insistence she tailored her own skirt to fit me right then. That day she gave me, a perfect stranger, a shirt and a sampot.

When I am not co-teaching, at the health center, or wandering the streets of Rumeus Hek, you can find me reading. And reading A LOT, like hours at a time. I have already devoured three books (Pillars of the Earth by Follett, Me Talk Pretty One Day by Sedaris, and Undaunted Courage by Ambrose) and am unfortunately left with two books to last me two and a half more months. That is when I am officially off what we Peace Corps Cambodia Volunteers like to call “Lock Down”; the mandatory three months we must stay at site without going into another province or Phnom Penh. Unfortunately for us in Svay Reng, Phnom Penh is the only city nearby (without crossing a border) where we can find decent English books or American food (Burgers!!Pizza!!!Cheese!!!!). This is not the case for those lucky enough to be placed in Kampot, Battambang or Siem Reap (think Angkor Wat) Provinces. I have tried to take my reading in small doses but cannot stop. I feel there may be dark days ahead.

The time spent here thus far has been fairly great. Of course I miss home and, especially, speaking English. I can already tell that I am becoming bit more Khmer and a little less American to my detriment or not. Evidence is everywhere. Such as the other day when I decided to use the toothpaste that the mouse chewed up and when I ate an entire frog head and everything. In the Unites States I would have thrown the toothpaste away thinking that I could get the Hanta-virus from it.And I would have never eaten a frog… ever. My coworkers at my school joke that they will get me too eat dog one day. I hope that day will never come. No matter how successful of a volunteer I am - the experience will be worth it.


  1. Ha ha Kell:) I'm so happy that everyone is welcoming to you! Please don't ever eat dog. Harlee would be scarred for life. I wish i got you more books. Buttt i hope you get my package soon, because there is tons of stuff to keep you busy! And somewhat immersed in english:) I love you and miss you tons!

  2. Kellee, you're writing is beautiful as you invite your readers to join you on your journey in Cambodia. I am so proud and excited for you as you navigate a new language and culture. I would love to be with you doing what you're doing- but jealous is not the right word, mostly just inspired! I would encourage you not to focus on your weight if you can- you are healthy and need not become malnourished to fit in the bodies of those who grow up eating little but rice, they are just curious about you and practice their little english. BTW Cambodian sandys sound a lot like Vietnamese Ban Me Sandwiches...that's one positive legacy of French Colonialism- baguettes! I love you lady and may look into this peace corps thing. You Go Girl- let me know if you have English Language questions I've loads of books on grammar etc. XOXO May you be blessed with love, health and strength when you grow through the months in your community.