Sunday, January 31, 2010

Living in Cambodia on 75 cents a day

After returning to site from my glorious 10 day trip to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, I came back to site with about $80 in my pocket. The following two weekends I proceeded to go to my provincial town and then Phnom Penh. Needless to say, when I came back from PP, I was broke as a joke. I had enough to get back to site with $10 left over and two weeks until my next "pay day". Could I survive at site for two weeks on 75 cents a day?

It took some heavy budgeting and a severe case of diarrhea but I made it with a dollar to spare:) Not only did I spend all my money in Phnom Penh but also picked up a lovely intestinal bug which kept me at home (and near the toilet) for four days. You could light about 10 houses for a week on the power I unleashed in that 4 by 6 foot room. When and if you ever come to Cambodia, take this advice seriously - DO NOT eat fresh fruit and vegetable without peeling them or washing them in bleach first AND always pick places you know will take food prep seriously. The upside of not doing these things is that you may get very ill and not want to eat. And if you don't want to eat then you won't spend any money. And if you don't spend any money then you might be able to afford the $20 entry fee into Angkor Wat.

Enough about my cash strapped, volunteer life. The next two weeks the entire high school where I teach will be taking their semester finals. As a volunteer, I do not need to be present during their exams and so I will be sitting under a mango tree and doing what I do best, studying Khmer, reading and/or staring into space. Having learned my lesson about going to Phnom Penh too often, I am opting to stay at site and only go into my provincial town when absolutely necessary.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Cambodian Christmas

Well Christmas in Cambodia can both be a blessing and a curse. There are no Christmas displays, ads and commercials, or pressure to buy the perfect presents for my family and friends (if I had the funds that would be different). There is nothing even remotely Christmas-like in Cambodia; or at least in the provinces. With the exception of the other volunteers, the downside of it all is I have to bear through it relatively alone. Although it doesn’t feel like Christmas, I surely know its happening back home and it is hard not to think of eating delicious pies and cookies with good friends and family. The one place you can find Christmas in Cambodia is Phnom Penh. That was the surprise awaiting me and some of the other volunteers when we arrived on Christmas evening. The restaurants catering to foreign guests had all the lights and embellishments (TINSEL!) that we had been deprived of. We soaked it in. After our three long months of “lock down”, many (if not all) of the volunteers were ready to celebrate – not only Christmas but their freedom. We ate pizza and drank margaritas and danced like Americans. It was the most un-Christmas Christmas I have ever had.

Given the choice to return to site for two days and then come back to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (for New Years), I opted for annual leave so I could stay on and eat more cheese, and potentially lay by a pool (or two). It made my Christmas and New Years vacay a total of nearly ten days, and it was wonderful. I admit, after three months of limited (to almost no) electricity and no running water, I was ready to spoil myself. What is there to do in Phnom Penh? For me it was eat American food and go shopping. I ate to my hearts content, pizza, macaroni and cheese, quesadillas, bagel pizzas, bruschetta... the list goes on. The only thing I can truthfully say I did NOT eat was rice. It did not make sense for me to spend money on something I have to eat three times a day, seven days a week. Instead I focused on my favorite three food groups – cheese, bread, and pasta. Atkins has nothing on me.

On the 30th I packed my bags and headed to Siem Reap, a 5 or so hour bus ride from Phnom Penh. Siem Reap is famous for Angkor Wat and some other, beautiful and terribly old, temples. That was not my reason for going there though. Knowing that some friends and family will be coming to visit within the next year I opted to focus more on the city itself. I did not want to burn myself out on the temples before my loved ones had a chance to see them – it just wouldn’t be fair to them. So I stuck with what could never get old to me – shopping and eating. Five other volunteer girls and I bought new dresses for New Years Eve and that night had fun dressing up as though we weren’t in the Peace Corps but foreigners on vacation. It was a BLAST. As hundreds of other people on a crowded street in Siem Reap started counting down to 2010, we counted along with them. Six months in Cambodia down and with nineteen left to go, who knows what the New Year will bring to this small group of bleeding hearts halfway across the world from everyone else they know and love. For that night we were excited and happy and danced the night away; hopeful of a wonderful and successful year ahead. It was one of my best New Years so far.

I returned to site on the 3rd, happy but broke. Why does happiness (i.e. air conditioning and cheese) have to cost so much? My host family seemed happy to see me after my ten day disappearance. Unfortunately my bed was covered in dead bugs – a surprise because my mosquito net covered it entirely during my time away – and I quickly set about shaking them out and straightening up my room. Tomorrow I would teach again, and it would be much easier if I had my stuff together.

The students were better behaved than I remembered. Maybe it was like the old adage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Or maybe it was the short week ahead which brought about their remarkable upbeatness in the face of English grammar. The 7th of January is the day when, in 1979, “Vietnamese troops captured Phnom Penh establishing the People's Republic of Kampuchea.” The official rule of Pol Pot’s regime was over, although they continued to hold onto parts of Northwestern Cambodia until the late 1990s. Although my town celebrates this holiday on the 5th, because that is the day when they were liberated from the Khmer Rouge, we also have the 7th off. Out of my four day workweek, I would be teaching two days. It is no wonder why many people say that Cambodia has the most official holidays out of any other country in the world. Teaching was a breeze that week.

Currently I am in Svay Reing catching up on any internet time I did not get in Phnom Penh while also compiling a list of English names for my students to choose from. How appropriate do you think the names of Apple, Coco, Pax, and the Hulk are? They reflect people's names for our generation in the English speaking world. My Cambodian students should be made aware of them and prepared to meet people with names like these. It is only fair.