Eventually, I got tired of being mosquito bitten and having toilets that were always packed with poo because people clogged them and bailed. I decided to look into a homestay, to get a better taste of the Cambodian life. I looked up a few online, but they were all very expensive, at $30 or more per night. I emailed one that looked promising and didn’t have the price listed. I hoped it was a work exchange homestay, as that’s how it appeared online, named Khmer Homestay. Unfortunately, when I heard back, the price was quoted at $25 per night. I asked if there was a way to do more volunteering and pay less, and was told that the lowest price per night was $15, without breakfast. I agreed to come, and took the Seila Angkor Khmer Express minibus for $10, which probably would have been less if I had requested my stop in Baray before I paid for the ticket. Ah well, live and learn.
The minibus company sent a tuk-tuk to pick me up from the hostel in the morning, and when I arrived, I, as well as 11 others crammed into the van, with our baggage mortaring us in place. There was AC, but the seats were so old the padding was worn to nothing right where your backbone connects with the horizontal inner-seat support. Not only that, but the main road is barely a road at all, consisting of almost pavement, potholes, gravel, dirt road, and construction. The van flew down this path, jouncing at every dip, almost bouncing us all out of our seats, and honking each time it overtook someone on the road, which was often. As I climbed back into my seat after our one stop, I noticed small beetles scurrying into the crevice between my seat and the next. This transit is quick, but it is harrowing.
The van pulled over to the side of the road–it was dirt–in between a couple buildings, looking like a pioneer town in the 19th century. I had arrived! I took a motorcycle taxi the few hundred meters to Khmer Homestay, and overpaid by about 250%. I was allowed to select a bungalow to sleep in, and chose the one lodged in a tree, with no back wall, just an insubstantial driftwood banister.
I was given the full tour of the facilities by a friendly young Khmer woman named Pollam. The homestay property was quite extensive, consisting of several stilted bungalows located in a walled garden, as well as a wing of separate bathrooms, and the main house. Behind the property lay a less used dirt road and a few meters down that road was another area. This, Pollam informed me, was a hostel for youths from far out areas who wouldn’t normally be able to attend school. They lived here, worked around the main house, or paid, I suppose, and went to school. If I needed to borrow a bike, motorbike, or practice my Khmer, I could come here.
That night the meal was brought to the house in a series of small, interconnected, round tins. It featured rice and some other entrees. Another girl was also staying at the homestay, from Malaysia, Yee-Pei. In Malaysia, they are taught three languages: English, Mandarin, and Malay. The owners of the homestay all spoke Mandarin as well, being either Chinese, or from a Chinese-speaking nation. The grandfather figure of the ranch had already adopted Yee-Pei, and was constantly pushing more food on her, and, she said, lecturing her on business, economics, and other things, for what reason she wasn’t sure. Neither Yee-Pei nor I knew his real name, so we called him “Grandpa”. We were assigned to help Grandpa finish his chicken coop.
I’d been hooked on pork and rice breakfast (bai sach chroup) in Siem Reap, so I asked one of the owners whether I could find this dish nearby. She made a sharp left hand motion and said I could find it in the morning. After dinner, one of the owners said we would have a meeting at 9 to discuss the job. When I woke up at 8:30AM, I walked about a half mile down the road, without finding any bai sach chroup. Arriving home, I couldn’t find the Grandpa, Yee-Pei, or any of the owners. I went to look for one of them, and walked down the aforementioned back dirt road. It came out in the middle of a small village, i.e. in between some houses.
There was a group of people standing near one of the houses, and I approached, asking if they’d seen any of the women. They didn’t understand, but immediately began dimpling their cheeks with their fingers and pushing their noses around, talking and laughing to each other. One woman tried multiple times to communicate with me, but all I could do was smile and nod. Eventually, I was led across the street to an old man sitting with some others. He, too, tried to speak to me, and spoke some numbers in French. I tried French, but it was clear he only had numbers left him. They wanted to know how old I was. Then they wanted to know if I was married. No? Ah yoiee!
Ah yoiee! is the Khmer equivalent to Ai-yah! or Ai-yoh! as heard in Chinese speaking nations, or Chinatowns all over the world. Sort of a negative exclamation.
Arriving back at the pad, there was finally someone available to take me to Grandpa’s chicken coop. Apparently the 9 o’clock meeting had been the night before, and work had started at 8:30AM this morning. Whoops! I twined chicken wire onto fence posts for a few hours, then it was lunch break! After lunch, we went to see an orphanage.
I have never seen, or even heard of an orphanage nearby at home. We arrived to a single building, looking like a gymnasium, with a covered porch out front. On the porch were several tables, and some sweaty children. Trying out my Khmer on them didn’t seem to generate any interest, so I wandered away. There was an unattached bathroom, a well, a half-broken clothes drying rack, and a kitchen. It is very common for Khmer kitchens to be outside, or at least apart from the main house. Cooking is done en plein aire, and served at the table.
It turns out we were going to be building a duck coop for the orphans, so they could sell the eggs and eat the ducks. After sizing up the site, we drove into town to a hardware store, then to another hardware store, then to a wood (bamboo) store that also sold charcoal. At dinner, there was an elderly Malaysian couple who had come to teach Cambodian teachers how to teach English. Said the woman, “Cambodian schools don’t begin teaching English until Secondary School (sounds familiar). By this point, the children’s mouths can’t make the necessary sounds. They can’t say fish! They say ‘fis!’ It’s shocking.” To me, I felt these trilingual Malaysians were going a bit hard on the Khmer, as many Cambodians do reach a passable level of English, whilst how many of us ended up with good, unaccented Spanish, French, German, or Japanese?
The next day, I got up at 6:30AM to make sure I got my breakfast. Then we went to the orphanage. We were building the coop from scratch. Grandpa, who spoke basically no English, was in charge of construction. He laid pieces on the ground, and somehow communicated what we should do with them. First, we had to nail 20 ft lengths of bamboo to 4 – 5 one meter bamboo posts. Bamboo is exceedingly springy, if you didn’t know, and the normal method of nailing doesn’t work. You must deliver as much force as you can in a single, accurate hit.
The orphans gathered around to watch us attempt this feat. Calling to them, asking their names, and trying to introduce ourselves fared better today. Soon, we were being handed nails. Then after being given the opportunity to pound nails, they began to do it themselves. I’m not sure if they enjoyed the diversion, or if they wanted to help, or if they felt they must help; the only way to stop them once they started was to take away the hammer. Then they stood watching you, or handing you more nails.
Midmorning, the children braved up enough to take some of the long bamboo rails and hit the cashew fruit out of the tree towering above us. In case you didn’t know, cashews are not nuts, but are the seed of the cashew fruit, growing on the bottom of it. The fruit has a most unusual mouthfeel–effectively depriving you of all moisture as you chew the stringy flesh. Not sweet, not bitter…very strange.
For lunch, the children had rice, soup, an egg omelette, and another dish. We had the same, and I was pleased that the children ate first. There was no running water–clean water was poured over a hunk of fabricated ice in a cooler and drank by a communal cup. The well was used for washing dishes. After lunch, we were allowed a siesta, and passed out on one of the four wooden beds, covered with a slim padded mat. Awakened by my own temperature, feeling hotter after sleeping than I had before, I stumbled out to the back porch where there was a small clutch of seated children.
Feeling horrible because I had nothing to offer them, I brought out a stack of postcards. The girls drew some pictures and showed off their smarts. Then we drew in my sketchbook, and I learned a lot of Khmer. The girls knew the English and Khmer for many words, and the boys chased Yee-Pei around trying to tickle her. When we left, we tried to give hugs. The Cambodians are normally very physically affectionate and touchy, but the children did not seem overly comfortable with the demonstration.
The next day was Sunday, so we got to hang around. I’d been plucking and ripening mangoes from the many trees on the property, so I sat in a hammock reading and peeling mangoes. Yee-Pei and I went to the youth session of church. A friendly girl named Ruth, the pastor’s daughter, sat by me and translated. She was very well-versed, and very helpful. After the service was over, Yee-Pei brought out her Polaroid camera and made snaps for everyone. The Cambodians were so pleased, and many, many photos were taken.
Later in the week, we went to tour some schools, giving tiny English lessons, and seeing how things were done. I thought the method of teaching letters was quite well done. The classes are polite, and the children are clever and willing to participate. Overall, it seemed that it was almost always a girl with the right answer, and the boys who were messing around, but it could have simply been the age. At one of the schools, we saw again the children from the orphanage. They performed very well in class, and I was so happy to see them again.
Did I mention that everyone calls you “sister” in Cambodia, if they don’t know your name? Bawng-srei is big sister, and boon-srei is little sister. I think it’s lovely.