Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Meandering: A Post About Siem Reap

Many of the enterprises we set up in our lives are temporary. We take hold of an idea, give in to a burst of inspiration, flow with it for a while, and just as easily let go of it when the meandering gets too much.

But some rivers find us again.

In the two months that I've been here, I've been working to develop the monitoring and evaluation framework for an agricultural microfinance programme, making sure that what we envision on paper is what we have on the ground. A conversation I had today reminded me of immensity of the task at hand. Who knows where the whole setup will stand in two years? Who knows whether we will have trained enough farmers and rolled out the microfinance project well enough to call ourselves a success? Is this organisation (and by dint of my involvement, am I) any better than the rest of the voluntourists who come in to 'developing' countries, throw their money or skills and some English lessons around, and then leave?

I hope so. I want to come back, I want to stay involved, and I hope I will be able to. Siem Reap is beautiful, and I have found much warmth in my time here (sometimes literally). Though I am most definitely a farang (or barang, as it is called in these parts), I find myself faced with curiosity rather than the blank animosity I felt sensitised to as a teenager growing up in Western Europe. "Ah, you're from Indieaaar" - cue endearing look - "Much of what's in Cambodia comes from India" (The religion, the claimed genetic makeup, and even the coconut trees). So there's that.

Then there's the food. I jest to my mother that I subsist on a diet of fish soup and rice, and to a large extent, that is true. Sam lor and baai for lunch. Sam lor and baai for dinner. It's a healthy existence. But there's also the fresh fruit (usually served with cries of "fresh from my farm!"), raw vegetables, fresh pickled salads, and hot red chilies in fish sauce that complete each meal. There's green rice noodle soup with light coconut broth, banana blossoms, mung bean sprouts and mint, basil and cucumber shavings (nom banh chok), rice paper rolls freshly packed with rice noodles, whole tiny shrimplings, shredded pork, wrapped in iceberg lettuce and topped with some nearly-not-intense-enough garlic and peanut sweet sauce (nime chao), yellow crepes filled with much of the same and served up with fresh, raw salad and more light sweet peanuty sauce (banh chao). And there's coffee. Oh, coffee. The best I've had it was in a market cafe in the Rolour village this weekend, seated on a very well-polished wood trunk watching Canadian boxing live on TV with a morning breakfast club of twenty-three men. The coffee was smooth, black and strong, served fresh over ice with half a can of condensed milk and a spoon to stir it all up with. Twenty-five cents for the lot. No wonder everyone is always smiling.

So like them all, I'm enjoying my time here, ambling the bylanes, finding smalltown marketplaces and poolsides to spend my weekday breaks at, and making friends with people I sometimes share maybe just fifty common words with. This past week, I've been sneaking in some last glimpses before I parcel myself up in a giant mechanical bird headed to Manila, filled with thoughts of the worth of my 'contribution' to the local agricultural scene in a village 27 km from Siem Reap city. Pangs-iety.

What about all this moving, then? In the seventy-odd days I've spent here, I've managed to flip my life 180° (cold to hot, world-renowned metropolis to the middle of a chicken farm somewhere, NY Fashion Week wardrobe inspiration to the more appropriate travel boho chic) and keep close tabs on myself through it all. Travel must be getting to my head.

But somewhere out there, there's a riverbank waiting.

(Click on the photos to view in large!)