Note: This post was written in retrospect from the cozy perch of my favorite chair in my new go-to cafe at my permanent site. I am going to honor the chronology of the blog thus far and finish up on the last few posts about PST before beginning to to post about my new home – half because there was so much from PST that I feel I have to share and half because I am still trying to find my place here in my new village. There will be plenty to share soon, I swear. Now, for the latest post…
The previous few posts have been on the heavy side, and not without reason. Given that we are with our pre-service training families for only 8 short weeks, it feels sometimes like we exist in a pressure cooker with the magnitude of every interaction and decision amplified ten times over. This past week, however, was serendipitous.
As mentioned before, my mai makes the most bomb breakfast in the village. Gooey tee-oh (Chinese rice noodles) with peanuts, vegetables, and hot chili sauce. One of the few breakfasts that we trainees have discovered which contains actual plants. Holler at some rare, precious dietary fiber. Mai’s noodles are a delicious departure from the standard local breakfast of bai s’eye-k chrook (rice and pork). This week, Mai taught four friends, my language instructor, and myself how to make her sweet, firey noodles. It began, of course, with a trip to the market.
The market in our training commune is always bustling. The narrow walkway between stalls also serves as a thoroughfare for motos, bikes, large banana-grilling contraptions and there are mings shouting for your attention (and dollars) from every direction. “My dragon fruit is most delicious! Her cakes are awful! Come eat MY vegetables!” Hopefully the following video will give you an idea of the carnival-like atmosphere. Some things to note: the variety of goods (from packets of fabric softener to sweet pork sausages and salt-dried fish to fresh coconut and persimmons) and the routine practice of swishing a plastic bag back-and-forth over exposed raw meat to deter hovering flies.
We scoured the various stalls for the fresh produce for our recipe, admiring the broad spectrum of colors and shapes of unfamiliar crops. The meat and seafood section is always intimidating but beautiful in its own way. To watch these women chop, gut, and scale a fish is an act of art. Yes, some of the meat is crawling with flies. Yes, she just used that same blade on the previous customer’s chicken. Yes, this is our new normal. Once our ingredients had been dutifully collected and we were weary from the almost-contact sport of haggling, we loaded up our book-bags and biked toward home.
Between mai, bahng srey, and our instructor, Kannitha, we got to WORK. These mighty women guided our pathetic childlike hands as we fumbled through every stage of noodle-synthesis. We were also cooking some curry at the same time, Kannitha’s recipe, which made for haphazard production. But the steps were these: chop the cabbage and spuy kancok (“chopstick greens”), boil water, and hop out of mai’s way. She showed us how to blanch the veggies and let us witness the magic of her noodle prep. Further observation revealed the secret ingredient of the magical sweet broth that mai ladles over her noodles every day: sugar. White, pure sugar. I knew it all along. But some times keeping things from yourself can be healthful. Emotionally healthful, definitely not bodily healthful in this instance.
When all was said and done, mai and bahng srey pulled a classic Khmer family move. They insisted we sit, relax, and eat but somehow disappeared immediately when food was served so as to leave us alone to eat. Seven weeks in and I have yet to eat a meal with my mother. But, I can say without a doubt that this day was the most I have ever seen her smile in all of our time together. She was so thrilled to teach us how to make her signature dish and even encouraged us to take the recipe to America and tell “everyone” about it. Working on it, mai, working on it. I will never get over the generosity of this family. To welcome a group of five gawky, foreign children into you home and clean up after their every blunder all in the middle of the usual family nap time is the surest sign of hospitality. And you guys… these noodles. Ours were good but still somehow not quite as good as mama makes ’em.
This week held one more adventure for mai and me. One day after lunch, I was helping bahng srey Tan prep breakfast ingredients for the next morning (i.e. mostly peeling 101038947 garlic cloves) when mai walked over with a random proposal. What if we went to Kampot on Sunday? I flipped out. Kampot Province is home to stunning beaches and sheer cliffs overgrown with wild forest, known to be scaled by lovely monks in their stark orange robes. And the seafood is renowned. Luckily my group for our final project was psyched for me and encouraged me to go play. Thank you, team.
It all began at 3:30 AM. I put on my nicest samput (formal Khmer skirt) and blouse – wanting to make mai proud as hell – and met her in the kitchen while the rest of the family slept. She burst out laughing at me. [Khmer] Go put on pants, child, you need to be comfortable in the car for hours and hour and hours. I dressed down and lounged while she prepped some food for the road, but my persistent confusion about our actual plans and resulting fear that I might somehow be left behind if I dozed off prevented me some sleeping. To my delight, my older nephew, Leng, would be joining us. He ran in and gave me a huge hug then also proceeded to put on a slick get-up, only to receive the same admonishment from mai. Ha! We sauntered over to Shanniqua and Morgan’s house as our families would all be traveling together. It was perfect! Us three gals would get to hangout and practice some essential Khmer for our individual health education practicums this week. Us American kiddos crammed ourselves into the tiny back “seats” of the pick-up while everyone else hopped in the truck bed. Despite our misgivings about this arrangement, it was quickly made clear that these logistics were firm and arguing about them would only elicit loving slaps in the face. So. We were off!
The drive was stunning: lush green fields for as far as the eye could see, speckled with handsome cliffs and mountains here and there. Our first glimpse of the ocean was a breath-taker. We first stopped at a shoreside market where our senses nearly shut down from overstimulation. There were fishing boats directly next to the market, pitching fresh catches into the arms of saleswomen and men. Mai’s grasp on my hand did NOT budge for a second as she led me through the market. I bought her some seafood of her choice (squid and shrimp, after insisting that yes, I also want to eat them, mom) as well as some fancy fish sauce with chilis. I was standing in awe of the bustle when I caught myself wondering what we then intended to do with two large bags of raw seafood. Just then, an aged woman appeared from the shadows and exchanged clipped Khmer with mai. We followed this woman to a darker end of the market where the wall was lined with fire pits of various configurations, each tended by a wrinkled, lovely fire granny who steamed, boiled, or poached your fresh catch for a handsome sum. The food was good and steaming, thus it was beach-time.
This beach felt like the first beach of my life. More white and alive and humming with joy than any before it. We parked our belongings and the moms got to work. It was a bonafide feast. Everyone brought a little something. Fat and happy, we were ready to toddle into the water. Being the modest Khmer women who we are, we submitted to our moms’ wish that we all change into our bathing suits (read: sport shorts and t-shirts) beneath a giant sarong suspended by our sisters. Had to protect our virtue, yanno. Then, it was all ocean. The warmest, most wonderful water. We were genuine children. Given that most Cambodians do not swim, nor do they know how, it is more common for people to refer to wading or swimming in the ocean as “showering” in the ocean, as our families did with us. While our families were having a blast with us in the water, there was a general sense of anxiety about going out much further than chest-depth. In fact when Shanniqua’s mom shouted at her to come back, don’t go so far! I reassured her that Shanniqua knew how to swim to which her mom responded, [Khmer] “Not in Cambodia, she doesn’t.” To be fair, it did fall on some sharp, sharp rocks and bleed a lot of blood which prompted laughter from all the Khmer moms in the vicinity. My own damn fault. But the war-wounds did not overshadow the beauty of the day, running into fellow Trainee Brady by total coincidence, and playing with the kids in the sunny shine for hours.
This day and every other positive Cambodian experience in my life to date was brought about by one special woman: Mai. The tough, tender mother who sat in the shade and smiled while we played like dopes all day. What could she have been thinking about, grinning as she lounged? Was she proud? And of who? Us doofuses, modest in our not-quite-bathing suits but so clearly in love with her country and its people? Or proud of herself? She who lived, died, and lived again as a different woman, orphaned by Pol Pot and stripped of her humanity more than once, on this day perched like the queen of all she surveyed but not too proud to tie my wet clothes up in a water-tight plastic sack for me.Sunned and sated, we returned to the truck. It was a long slog home but the day slinked below the horizon with as much vibrance as it had emerged that morning. There was a long week of final projects ahead of us but my mind would spend the night turning over the many angles of our muhleng (visit, literal: “go play”) to the beach. The toll taken on our general exuberance was exemplified by nephew Leng’s morning, afternoon, and evening naps the next day. The sweet baby.