Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Second Chances and Time for Rumination

I wrote a post on IRV last year about Cambodia where I posted just three of the many photos I had taken in the few months I lived there.

At the time, I thought against sharing the others publicly because I thought they were unremarkable. But while looking through them recently, I had second thoughts, because hey, life is mostly unremarkable. That's why we take photos, isn't it? Out of some sense of wanting to preserve the inherently, inexplicably beautiful life force in each moment.

So here's to the photos that almost made it. And to second chances, which I've recently come around to embracing as the door God opens when you think the only available one has closed.

As always, click the photos to view in large (and to bypass any dull commentary that accompanies).

I. Getting there


The plane ride over from New York to Cambodia was all about the sunrises. It was perhaps the only flight I have ever taken where so many people were standing in the galley for so long despite the length of the flight (12 hours) or turbulence, despite constant seatbelt signs and warnings and the fact that we were essentially in a delicate mechanical bird up in the earth's atmosphere. Bless those old Chinese men and their commitment to the dao life.



When I got there, this is what was to become my everyday:



Farm on the right, farmers on the left. And...

II. Chickens, (un)glorious chickens!




And some more.



Duncan, the CEO of the organisation* I went to work with was one of the key people who made things happen across four countries and two continents. He visited frequently when I was there, and we had some wonderful dinner conversations about microfinance projects he has done around the globe and the things only experience can tell you about development life. (TLDR; it takes a toll!)

*NB: For the purpose of this post, the microfinance NGO I worked at will only be referred to as 'the organisation'. With a bit of research, you can probably figure out which one it is, but I assume most people are already in the know/not bothered enough to do that.



Did someone say chickens?



And finally, dead chickens farmers! The picture below has some of my lovely farm friends at the Saturday farmers' market. Yes, they carried the chickens from farm to table on their motorbikes like badasses. Yes, they 'maintained the cold chain' in 42 degree celsius heat using simple painted thermocol boxes. No, I never ate a farm chicken.

Why? See directly above. 



The organisation also worked with some Japanese donors to build a school in a remote community near the Thai border while I was there. Nearly 800 children of all ages in this village had just one wooden shack to share among themselves. We helped build them a few stronger and more weather-resilient classrooms.

Here is the Buddhist opening ceremony for the school. As the token foreigner, they asked me to say a few words. You may remember that I don't speak a whole lot of Khmer. Well, they didn't speak English either. Lots of smiling and bowing, my friends. Lots.



As I said, it was a remote village, and it had a classroom view to match. Good luck keeping the students' focus on maths in these surroundings, teachers!



Mr Sophal, our farm manager, is such a chilled out roots and trees man. It was an absolute pleasure to be around him as he ran the farm's day-to-day business, and sometimes he took me for great Cambodian coffee and on motorcycle rides through ancient temples (literally). Here he is explaining the benefits of rare wild herbs found onsite.


But you know, you can't always make everyone happy. Maybe it was my face?


III. Around town:


Siem Reap is essentially a tourist town built on the global fame of Angkor Wat and the good old image of the exotic east. Lots of spas and an absurd mix of hippie medicinal products and services crammed along the two main streets that made up downtown Siem Reap. I have no pictures of that, but here are some more pictures of the markets that the locals actually went to.

Local markets (psar) in Siem Reap are usually high-ceilinged sheds with everything from shoes, restaurants and fresh fish to fruits...


chillies and fresh-peeled garlic


and beauticians, all crammed into one large space. In the words my sister used for a city in India, they are an assault on the senses.



This lady, so fash. You couldn't imagine that just a few feet away from her glambox, a man was frying the catch of the day and scooping rice and veg out of large vats for hungry customers. Asia is full of these practical solutions.

On the more touristy side of things, smoothies for a dollar were a big thing downtown. My preferred fruit smoothie blender was one of the nicest, most generous and hygienic vendors I saw while I was there. She wore gloves, had stall decorations, and put in a ton of freshly cut fruit in the smoothie. Go see her if you're there!



IV. Home life


While in Siem Reap, I lived in an architectural palace in the middle of nowhere. I'll be honest; I didn't have a destination address on me when was getting to Cambodia (sorry, Dad) but it's at least partly because this house doesn't even really have an address. That aside, it was an amazing construction built by this Khmer architect who had studied in France and was the at-the-time Programme Manager's brother, so knew he could con the organisation out of a fair bit of rent for the time I spent there.

I can't complain though. The construction was an insanely well-thought combination of the elements: every single part of the house was built to receive light and air circulation, and the outside of the house had different water bodies running alongside all three levels to keep temperatures moderate during the extreme seasons, including a fish pond with the pedicure fish and other nibblers at the entrance! Plus, they had mango trees, domestic mosquitoes, nymph families...

In seriousness though, I had everything. Internet, hot water, a not completely sane landlady (his wife) -- a good house would be incomplete without one --, an open plan bathroom right within my bedroom, and meals with the family.

Oh, meals with the family. Between (i) barely piecing together sentences in Khmer, French, English, and Hindi, (ii) the landlady's constant paring down of her daughter's meals ("stop eating so much rice, you're getting fat!"), and (iii) the frequent power cuts that shut down all the water, (electric) cooking stoves and practical functioning of the house, we enjoyed a lot of great meals together, especially when said landlady's mother arrived and fired up the traditional coal stove outside.


This is how we made that fish you see on the table. Slow cooked in a banana leaf all old school.


Below: freshly marinated mushrooms about to undergo the same treatment, and fish soup. Fish, vegetables, water. That's it. No wonder Khmer people are tiny.




V. The Temples


One of the few times I went to visit the Angkor 'Wats' was during their annual lunar new year celebration. Lucky me! The temples were free for all locals during the festivities, so all I had to do was pretend to be Khmer for a few hours/ at the checkposts.

My solution? Motorcycle helmets.


Thank you, good humans for road safety deception tools.

My partners in crime were my neighbours: Terry and her siblings. Or maybe I was their partner in crime. Anyway, Terry had worked as a ticketing agent at Angkor Wat for a while and her sister did something similar, so they actually understood English and knew what I was saying without the exotic hand gestures and tribal dances I usually resorted to illustrating all my statements with. They were possibly the only people to fully be able to do so for the nearly three months I was there.

That's a long time for no one to understand what you're saying, my friends. A very long time.

Anyway, they were really sweet! Here Terry is below:



And here is a random lady. The reason she is covered from head to toe and umbrella-ed to boot in upwards of 40 degree celsius weather is because, well, tanning. Asian women in Asia, sigh.


These are some random tourists of 'can-you-take-a-photo of us?' variety mutual to my Cambodian friends.


Terry chips away at a sculpture.


Mary contributes. Look, art!**

** Also, the peace sign and Hello Kitty! Asia, we have arrived!


Angkor Wat fades into the background.



And butterfly princesses emerge.


All in all, we had a great time! History, music, games, food and drink, and I didn't even go to Khmer prison. That's a successful trip!

So well, you know, there's something to see in everything. Have a good week!

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