“There is nothing like a foreign place full of smiling faces, speaking nearly incomprehensible sounds to demand one’s presence in every moment.”
With class Monday through Saturday, we are left little time to just be humans. That is why the Lord (Peace Corps) grants us Sunday. Twenty-four glorious hours – minus the two for “optional” language review” – to languish in our utter depletion.
…YEAH, RIGHT! Sunday is the day for ALL the fun! This past Sunday was hands down the most magical of my life. I shall tell you why.
6 AM: Bahng srey coos my name through my door. Time to get up and go to the Wat (pagoda)! Christy and I dress to the nines – new crisp shirts and custom tailored samputs. Mei was also dressed to kill her in finest white blouse. To adorn/conceal our indecent bodies, mai lent us both some crocheted shawls. After some Chinese noodles with vegetables and peanuts, we prepared to what we thought would be a quick walk down the street to the nearby pagoda. Nope! Mai had a tuk tuk awaiting us. We clamored in, elated, and off we went. To our surprise, mai was taking us to a different Wat, further and much more grand than the one near our home. It was massive and empty, save the handfuls of young monks and their two elderly matrons. Mai led us into the main hall where we took off our shoes, bowed thrice to Buddha, and set some prepared rice and other vittles before the singular young monk on the grounds who had yet to eat breakfast. We bowed while he chanted and blessed the food with two stray kittens scaling his arms all the while. Mai said lengthy prayers for us. Although in Khmer, Christy and I discerned that she was blessing our time in Cambodia, wishing us safe travels, and beseeching the powers that be to help us learn her native language… We need all the help we can get. Mai proudly paraded us around the peaceful grounds and encouraged us to take many photos (“for America! for America!”) including a few shots of the young monks which we formerly thought to be forbidden. Mother knows best. We snuggled up to all the most ferocious statues and marveled at the detail and granduer of the grounds. I left humbled and beaming at mai who was clearly pleased with us. We, did after all, skip yoga with friends for this excursion, but it was hardly a tough choice. I would choose the same again, one thousand times over.
8 AM: Hop across the street to ming’s (auntie’s) place where she gifted me some complimentary coffee and rice cakes to butter me up before asking that I tutor her daughter in English. Every day. Ming, I love you, but I cannot. I offered two days a week, one hour at a time, and her eldest daughter agreed to help teach me Khmer. With weekly coffee and cakes to sweeten the deal? Win win win. I stayed awhile longer for phon srey’s first English lesson before Ming delivered me safely home, twenty feet across the street.
10 AM: Met a new relative, tiny baby girl who laid on my belly and pleasantly drooled for an hour or so while littlest brother, sister, and I did some coloring and general goofing.
12 PM: Light reading, heavy nap.
1 PM: When I have the time, I love to walk my bike to school. We are doing more than our fair share of sitting and my legs need a reminder to function whenever they can. It’s about a 25ish minute walk and the slow pace along the main road affords me countless opportunities to greet local families and make connections. There are always clusters of eager kids just waiting to try out their English salutations, rivaled in their enthusiasm by my ready Khmer greetings. Folks always ask me if my bike is broken, if I am okay. Yes! I say. K’yom cholchut dahu muhl. I just like to walk and look around. They find this silly but it often turns into a meaningful interaction. This walk to school was a little extra special. A family was having an outdoor party on their lawn and one woman motioned me over. A little shy and highly skeptical of a gaggle of strangers, I kept my distance and exchanged pleasantries. The ming (aunt/woman older than I but younger than my mother) who called to me was pink in the cheeks from the daytime imbibing and quickly came over to put a welcoming hand on my arm. She sat me down with the family and poured me a beer. At te akun! No, thank you! I said with pain – the cold glass was sweating and I wanted terribly to drink it… but, it is far from the norm for young women to drink in Cambodia and I was not about to break customs. The family laughed and sensed my apprehension, so they quickly tried to make me more comfortable. One relative who spoke very good English was inquisitive about why I was in Cambodia. After some Peace Corps/Health Education Volunteer shpeal, he welcomed me to his country and thanked me for coming. It felt good. Very good. I exchanged numbers with many of them and we took photos together (“SELFIE!”) before I thanked them and scampered off to school.
2-4 PM: “Optional” Language Review, AKA We Will See You at Language Review. The LCFs take turns teaching small prepared review lessons. This week it was everything from Minor Injuries to the macarena. Yes. The Macarena, led by none other than my most superior LCF, Savin.
4-6 PM: The eldest of my two little brothers (phon proh) is ten years old and a real bossman. He led Christy, Carlen, and me on a splendid bike ride through the rice fields near our home, all the while checking over his shoulder that his three delicate female wards were intact. The fields were vast and so green it was stupifying. Phon proh took us down some little rabbit/foot trails to a few ponds full of lotus blossoms. One of our neighbors and her daughter was plucking the stems of the flowers – a common addition to many Khmer dishes. The stem is called “slaaw” and each of us ladies was given one stem a piece to take home to Mai. Back at home I helped prep and peel various ingredients for the breakfast Mai would be selling tomorrow. It felt so nice to help. Often we are asked to relax and enjoy ourselves like guests but we ache to pitch in at home. Mai even let me do some dishes. Touchdown.
The Evening: If described on paper, the post-prandial hours might seem insignificant. In practice, they are when the most educative connections are made. After a nice cold “shower” (the term is used generously here… more on this later), we all gather – banhg srey “Mai,” both phon prohs, phon srey (little sister), Christy, and my older brother and we keep the TV on in the background so that our conversation is peppered with hilarious outbursts from the nightly Khmer soap operas. I help my little sister practice her ABCs and sketch in my notebook with my little brothers. When I can, I try to practice my Khmer with the older siblings. This relaxing little bubble gently bursts when either Christy or I yawn a little too deeply, prompting bahng srey Mai to usher us to bed.
These days I hit the sheets covered in bug spray, sweating at the temples, and humming with a million thoughts all at once. I have so much to download every night, so much I attempt and fail to pack in neat compartments in my mind. There is nothing like a foreign place full of smiling faces, speaking nearly incomprehensible sounds to demand one’s presence in every moment. At least I can feel progress, a little every day. One step back, two steps forward. A girl can get places as such.