Musings, Travel & Adventure

Stolen Inspiration

I love learning about new cultures. But one thing that this trip to Southeast Asia is showing me yet again, is that although the world contains its cultural differences, the people in the world are really not that different. Everywhere I go, there is love and laughing; there is pain and despair and things we don’t understand and will probably never understand. My time in Cambodia was heartbreaking at times with its level of poverty, especially in rural areas. Some of Thailand’s kids, like my little friend Dtang-Mo, need more than just English lessons every day — and they are so adorable that it hurts. To the southeast, our neighbors the Philippines have been slammed by “super typhoon” Haiyan, which has killed and displaced thousands.

The struggles extend beyond Southeast Asia to the rest of the world, to America, to North Dakota, the oil boom, friends and family, my home, your home, everywhere.

That’s why I like this poem I’m going to share with you. I stole part of it from a decorative sign at a Minnesota lake resort last summer. I liked it so much that I recently did some research about its origins and in doing so, stumbled across the rest of the verses. I’ve learned that it is actually a hymn based on poetry written in 1919 by a young woman named Annie Flint Johnson.

Some stolen inspiration for you:

What God Has Promised

God has not promised skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through
God has not promised sun without rain
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain

God has not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe
He has not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.

God has not promised roads smooth and wide
Swift, easy travel, needing no guide
Never a mountain rocky and steep
Never a river turbid and deep

But God has promised strength for the day
Rest for the labor, light for the way
Grace for the trials, help from above
Unfailing sympathy, undying love…

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Little Watermelon

I know I’m not supposed to pack the kids from school into my bag and take them back home with me, but I can’t help but want to, just a little bit. Especially one tiny little girl named Dtang-Mo, which translates literally into “watermelon.”

Dtang-Mo is about 2 years old, has dark eyes, dark curls and chubby cheeks. She is missing her front teeth prematurely. She grins at us every time we make eye contact with her and every time she sings. She loves singing. Her favorite song is “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider.” Sometimes when we are sitting on the floor, coloring or playing a game, she sits close to me, begins doing the actions for “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” with her little chubby fingers, and whispers the words to me, or at least something that sounds sort of like the words. When I sing it softly with her, she holds up one index finger at me at the end, which means “one more time.” When we get to the end, she holds up one index finger at me again. I could sing “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” with her all day long.

When we color, we sit on the floor like all the rest of the kids. The school doesn’t have many school supplies, but it does have a bag of crayons and the kids get only one or two colors each. She sticks out her tongue when she colors pictures of lions, spiders, and gardens. When she is finished, she points at the blank white back of the coloring page. I draw a flower. “Flower,” I say. “Fwow-a,” she repeats. The next day, she finishes coloring and points at the white space again. I draw a flower. “Fwow-a,” she says excitedly, and begins pointing to all the white space repeating “fwow-a,” over and over again. Pretty soon, her paper is covered in flowers. This happens every day for a week. At least I know I taught one word, flower, to at least one student, Dtang-Mo, if I accomplish nothing else on this trip. I could draw flowers with Dtang-Mo all day long.

When we play duck-duck-goose at the end of the morning, she gets picked sometimes. Seeing her little grin and her chubby little legs as she bounces around the circle makes me bubble up with laughter inside. She never tries catching the kid who picked her. She just bounces. I could play games with her all day long, too.

I would take this little watermelon home with me, if I could.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Handle with Care

Tommy and I are having a great time teaching and traveling here in Thailand. I’m pretty lucky to have my younger brother as a companion. We make a good duo with our similar yet different personalities. We are alike in many ways: We both like good food and good books, we like to explore, we have the same sense of humor, we enjoy conversation but can also go for hours without speaking and be perfectly content, and we’re both pretty good about rolling with the punches when plans change. We have different personalities, too, in good ways. I get things done; Tommy keeps things calm and cool.. I arrange the details and book the flights and hotels; Tommy follows along cheerfully. I score 1% higher than Tommy on the Thai language Test; Tommy scores 1% lower than me on the Thai language test. (Oh wait, that really has nothing to do with our personalities. I just had to throw it in there.)

Anyway, it works out.

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But let me just say, that every once in a while, Tommy is pretty good at tuning me out when I chatter away.

And every once in a while, Tommy can get a little bit ornery. When this happens, the situation must be handled with the ultimate delicacy and care. The rest of my family can attest to this fact. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, I failed.

On Saturday, after a long week of teaching and Thai class, we jumped on a bus from Pattaya to Bangkok. We booked a hostel, met up with a couple friends named Jackie and Carlton from our program, and starting exploring the city. I have to say, I hadn’t given Bangkok enough credit. It is busy, yes, but really it’s more like bursting — with life, energy, and of course, food.

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I don’t need to bore you with more descriptions of street food and street markets — Bangkok has plenty of those. One market in particular, though, turned out to be pretty cool. That’s because this one wasn’t exactly on the street. The Dumnoen Saduak floating market, a couple hours’ drive out of Bangkok, is entirely organized within canals and shopping there can only be done by boat. To get there in time to visit the market, we were told we needed to get up early, take the Sky Train to Bangkok’s Victory Monument, and locate a minivan to take us there for a couple dollars. Jackie and I planned the excursion and arranged the details. When we informed the boys we were leaving the hostel at 6 a.m., they enthusiastically agreed. Or at least I thought they did.

Remember when I said Tommy tunes me out from time to time?

And remember when I said he can get a little bit ornery?

And remember when I said these situations should be handled with delicacy and care?

Here is how that morning went:

  • 5:30 a.m. Wake up and get ready.
  • 5:55 a.m. Realize Tommy is still sleeping facedown while the rest of us are ready to go. Wake him up by shaking him and saying, “Tommy, we are leaving now!” At this point, I was not handling the situation with delicacy and care. Mistake #1.
  • 6:02 a.m. Tommy is still sleeping facedown. Ask impatiently if he is getting up or what? Still not handling the situation with delicacy and care. Mistake #2.
  • 6:05 a.m. Realize mistakes #1 and #2. Decide to be patient and leave Tommy alone to get ready. Try to make amends by asking if he wants me to buy him a bottle of water. No response. (Tommy definitely appears to be grumpy.) Ask if he can lock the door when he comes. No response. (He still appears to be grumpy.) Ask again if he wants me to buy him a bottle of water. Finally a mumbled “yeah, sure” in reply. Leave the room carefully with no more questions for Tommy.
  • 6:20 a.m. Finish breakfast and coffee with Jackie downstairs. No sign of either boy. Try to maintain patience.
  • 6:23 a.m. Appear in the doorway of the dorm room. Give the boys the evil eye. Tommy still appears to be grumpy and is throwing piles of clothes out of his locker angrily and shoving other things back in. He is muttering to himself. I am by now a little nervous to approach but I declare anyway, “Um, we were supposed to leave at 6?” He glares at me and replies, “I didn’t know that. You never told me that.” Do I tell him that I did in fact inform him? It’s at my own risk, but I go for it. “I did too tell you.” More glaring, muttering and throwing of clothes. I leave the room wishing I had handled the situation with more delicacy from the beginning. Remind myself to never wake up Tommy in anything but a gentle manner.
  • 6:27 a.m. Leave the hostel with ornery Tommy trailing behind. Although he doesn’t smile much, I think by the time we get on the Sky Train that he might be warming up. Or waking up. One of the two.

Several hours and a van ride later: Tommy is back to his cheerful self and we have a great time at the floating market.

Lesson learned.

Here are some pictures from the floating market so you can see that Tommy did, in fact, start smiling again. 🙂

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Ah, there’s that smile. It was a fun day.

And my traveling companion? Well, he’s still awesome; I can be a bossy older sister, after all, and I understand feeling ornery from time to time. I got a few good laughs out of the morning at any rate. (Although I tried not to laugh at him until I thought he was a little more cheerful. Remember… delicacy and care.)

More on teaching to come soon!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tommy and Rachel Walk to School

Thailand is not all beautiful beaches, relaxing massages, and delicious food, although it certainly contains all of these things. Thailand has indeed seen rapid economic growth and development in the last two decades, making it fall under the category “newly industrialized countries.” However, it is still a country of low wages and a significant level of poverty once you look under the surface of all the glossy guidebook photos. In the mornings when we walk to school, we do not walk toward the beach and the nightclubs and the classy malls, all popular tourist spots. Instead, we walk ten minutes the other direction, but a direction which I find much more interesting. Our “kindergarten” is a low-income school for small children in a neighborhood that many tourists do not visit. The school does not have tables, chairs, desks, or an abundance of school supplies. The kids do most of their coloring and tracing on the floor and rely on volunteers for English lessons.

One morning when Tommy and I walked to school, I brought my camera along. This post, “Tommy and Rachel Walk to School,” is a tribute to walking in the other direction. You will see photos of the streets, the street stalls, the outside of our low-income kindergarten, and Thailand’s questionable electrical wiring. Enjoy!

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And one more for my Dad, because he thinks he is a packing expert. Dad, see the real experts:

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

No Tarantulas In Food Heaven

Tommy and I have eaten a few new things since coming to Southeast Asia: Tarantula, cobra, and crocodile, to name a few. Now, these creatures-turned-cuisine might not exactly tempt you to get in a plane and fly over here, dying to sample the local fare. But have I mentioned that when I stepped out of the van into Thailand, I stepped straight into heaven?

Oh, yes. Food heaven.

Everywhere I look, there are food carts loaded with frying, sizzling, tempting tasty treats — and no, not the 8-legged hairy kind. I had heard rumors about Thailand’s food; that it is a haven for foodies with all of its spice and flavor. I guess I just needed to see for myself. Now that I’m here, I can fully, truly, 100% confirm these reports — and I’ve barely even touched the surface of all the things you can eat here.

Let me give you a few tiny little examples: You can have fresh seafood — lobster, crab, fish of all kinds, scallops and mussels and shrimp. You can have pulled pork and fried chicken and fish grilled on a stick. You can choose from more fresh fruit than you’ve ever seen in your life — bananas, pineapple, mango, dragonfruit, papaya, apples and oranges, grapes and pomelo, and several fruits I cannot even identify. Coconuts practically fall into your lap however you like: shredded or blended in a shake or handed to you whole with a straw poked into the top and brimming with coconut water. If you want a local flavor, you can devour fried rice, coconut curry, or pad thai off the street (or you can merely eat these things like a civilized human; I of course did the devouring), or if you want something with a European flair, eat shepherd’s pie at the local English pub or sample fresh French croissants from a local bakery. You can stop to buy a cup of steamed corn straight off the cob, a sliced banana folded into a paper-thin crepe and drizzled with chocolate, or my personal favorite, the Turkish kebab, which is made from a huge slow-roasted slab of meat, slices of which are rolled into a wrap with vegetables and sauces. I’ve eaten four kebabs this week. The one night I didn’t eat one, I was actually disappointed, but was too stuffed from the pad thai previously devoured to even think about attempting it. If all of these tantalizing offers don’t capture your attention and you’re just craving something familiar, there are of course several McDonald’s, a Subway, a KFC and a Pizza Hut all within walking distance. But don’t do it, my friends. Don’t do it.

The experiences of eating are almost as enjoyable as the food itself. Standing around a street stall, sitting in plastic chairs along a busy street, or strolling the market are all fun ways to enjoy Thai cuisine. A favorite food experience so far was a great little restaurant in Pattaya called Shabushi that we visited with our friend Marilyn. At Shabushi, you pay a flat fee and then choose a seat along one of many conveyor belts that wind through the restaurant. In front of you sits a little pot on a high-heat burner. On the conveyor belt, countless tiny plates pass by in front of you, each one containing a small portion of some interesting ingredient. When you see something you like, you simply add it to your pot. Cook as long as you like, and by the end you have a savory dish of your own making. It might be spicy; it might be garlicy. Be careful though — your time limit is one hour! My pot had noodles, shrimp, chicken, cabbage, egg, water morning glory, garlic, chilli pepper, and some other unidentifiable things. (I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better when you just don’t know.) Oh man, it was good. And such a fun experience!

They say a watched pot never boils but my pot at Shabushi sure did:

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Oh, right… I was just going to give you a few tiny little examples. Oops.

But really, this insane amount of food is not good considering one of my greatest loves in life is eating; I am trying to limit my intake of fried things and also limit my output of money. But since I have to walk to get most of this food, I figure I am justified. I am not quite lazy enough — or perhaps too lazy — to go figure out the bus system, so I am also saving money by not paying bus fares. So walking to get food kind of cancels out the food, right? It’s like I never ate it…

Here is just a sampling of the many, many good things we have been feasting on since arriving almost two weeks ago.

Piles and piles of fruit:

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Fried chicken better than KFC’s (and healthier, I’m sure):

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Don’t want to carry around whole pieces of fried chicken? Buy it grilled on a stick instead:

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Ice cold coconut? Don’t mind if I do!

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Speaking of coconut, this shake contains fresh coconut, pineapple, and banana:

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Pad thai, so good it’s gone in the blink of an eye:

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Grilled corn on the cob, which you can also buy in the form of kernels smashed into sweet potatoes and rolled into balls. Oh yummy:

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And my two biggest weaknesses of all:

Weakness #1: Banana crepes. HOLY SHMOLY:

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Weakness #2: The Turkish Kebab. I think this is #4. Or maybe #9. I lost count:

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This is all quite inexpensive, in case I haven’t mentioned that before. Tommy and I have gotten to the point where if we see a meal for more than three or four dollars, we say, “Nah, too expensive,” and walk away. Three dollars is actually a splurge; usually we are in the one to two dollar range.

I think you are getting the picture. I don’t need to rub it in anymore. But if this doesn’t convince you to visit Southeast Asia at some point in your lives, then I don’t know what will. If you’re looking for me, anyway, I’ll be stuffing my face at some food stall in Thailand. Possibly eating my 178th kebab. It’s too soon to tell.

Probably not eating my 2nd tarantula, which is fine with me.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Free but Priceless Lesson

As part of our language training, we were instructed to go out into Pattaya, find someone of the local culture, and offer them a free one-on-one English lesson. What? This type of thing is not in my nature. I am not good at small talk with strangers and I also fail at everything related to sales. In college, I held a job for a while where we called and asked donors for scholarship money (basically: telemarketing). Every time I made a call, I wanted to apologize. “I’m sorry that I have to ask you this, but…”  Apologizing is not a good quality for a salesperson, but I hated asking. Those four hours a week were torturous.

To go out and try to get someone I don’t know to hang out with me while I attempt to improve their language skills for an hour seemed dubious. Plus, this would not work well in America. How would you even approach this? “Excuse me, but I notice your language skills aren’t up to par? I would love to help you out.” People would not only be offended, but would also be extremely suspicious of what we really wanted and get out of there as fast as possible.

However, we were told that English language lessons are highly valued by many people here. To take English classes costs money; to hire a private English tutor costs even more, anywhere from $10 or $15 on the low end to $50 or higher an hour. And wages in these Southeast Asia countries are very low, hence the inexpensive travel costs for Westerners. They want to learn English though. Knowledge is considered valuable, and as the influx of Western tourists is a large industry here, stronger communication in English is seen as an asset.

So, after a couple days of scoping out the area, I chose a young Thai waitress nicknamed Gif at a small local restaurant whom I had tentatively befriended. We had been there once or twice and she was bubbly, adorable, and seemed hesitant to speak very much English to us. Although locals have a much stronger grasp of English generally than we do of their language, some don’t want to embarrass themselves by speaking incorrectly. So one day when Tommy and I went in for lunch, I offered her the free hour lesson. (I didn’t even apologize while offering. Good job, Rachel.) To my surprise, she really did jump at the chance.

We met after Gif was done with work the next day at 9 p.m. She showed up, bubbly as usual, and as we conversed it became clear that she had stronger English skills than she originally let on. We had a great time talking about her life in Pattaya, her job at the restaurant, and my life in America. She had never heard of North Dakota, not surprisingly, but she seemed unusually interested in Texas. She also likes action movies, going to the beach with friends and misses her family, who live in another province. We worked on some of the pronunciation of items on her menu in English and also on some of the strange usage in our English language: For example, why does “down” mean to go lower, but if you say “down the street” you do not mean lower?

She also graciously taught me many words in Thai. Of the two of us, I was definitely the less advanced student. I know how she feels about feeling hesitant to completely butcher someone else’s language. She praised me for my every attempt though, which only made me like her more.

Here was my favorite part. At the end, I asked if there was anything she wanted to know in English. She said adamantly, “I need to know about buildings.” This threw me a little. What did she want to know about buildings? She wanted to know “who makes buildings.” So I explained, as best as I could, about architecture, about the building process, about contractors and construction crews. This seemed to satisfy her, but I just had to ask why she was so interested. She happily revealed that she has an American boyfriend named Patrick from Texas (which would explain her earlier questions), whom she met in Pattaya when he was on vacation and who works on building projects in different parts of the world. When he gets time off, he flies to Thailand to see her. When they communicate by phone or Skype, their only tool is her somewhat limited English as he knows no Thai. She claims that they really don’t understand each other a lot of the time.

Ah… Suddenly it makes sense why she jumped at the chance for this free English lesson.

But this Patrick better be a decent guy.

Because I feel like my new friend Gif is a pretty awesome girl. So I might have to step in and/or make some pretty serious threats if this Patrick is anything but nice to her.

This lesson wasn’t just beneficial for Gif. It forced me out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I signed up for when I came over to Southeast Asia. I wanted several months of new experiences and I’m getting them. And they’re turning out to be worth it in every way.

Here is me and my new little friend (I can actually say “little” for probably the first time ever):

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Thank Goodness for the Hokey-Pokey. Oh, and I’m in Thailand.

We arrived in Pattaya, Thailand, on Sunday night. It was an interesting trip. The seven of us going to Thailand took a van from Sihanoukville, Cambodia, to the border. The gravel roads twisted and winded through mountains, containing potholes as big as the van itself. I have to give kudos to the driver. I am positive I would have gotten the van stuck in a hole somewhere. We would probably still be there, in fact.

When we got the Thailand border, it was mass chaos, as we had to hand over our suitcases and backpacks to people we didn’t know, fill out cards, collect visa and passport stamps, dole out Thai baht for fees (which none of us had except one wonderful woman in our group named Marilyn, bless her heart), exchange our U.S. dollars, pay more baht just to use what they call a “squatty potty” (look it up; it’s really quite amusing), and somehow locate our suitcases again along with the proper vehicle. I think we all breathed a bit of a sigh of relief when we all made it into the van with all of the correct luggage. Amazing.

Then came the brand new shock of entering Thailand. People who have experienced both Cambodia and Thailand have said that Thailand is different than Cambodia, more developed and more “Westernized.” I wasn’t expecting these comments to be so true. The second we crossed the border, the scenery changed. The roads changed from winding and bumpy gravel to smooth four-lane paved highways, the cars became bigger and nicer, the motorbikes dwindled and the shops and houses grew bigger and fancier. If it weren’t for the Thai signs everywhere, it almost felt like being in the U.S. as we made our way to Pattaya, where we have started our time in Thailand. Pattaya was originally a fishing town but, during the Vietnam War, gained notoriety as a destination for military personnel and then gradually became an over-packaged family vacation destination. It is now a giant Vegas-like resort town full of tourists and expatriates, sketchy clubs, and neon lights. At least near our part of town. I have to say, I miss the culture of Cambodia. And I REALLY miss all the tuk-tuks! But other parts of Thailand are less night-clubby and resorty, so we are excited to go see those places in our upcoming travels. Until then, we are teaching English for a time and learning the Thai language here in Pattaya.

Which brings me to my next update: We started volunteer teaching today! We have been assigned to a low-income “kindergarten” about a 10 minute walk from our apartment in Pattaya. This “kindergarten” is actually more like a daycare of 1- to 6-year-olds in which they get an English lesson in the morning and a Thai lesson in the afternoon. We are in charge of the morning English lesson.

Oh my goodness.

Let me just say that they are absolutely adorable. Thirty sets of huge brown eyes watching us? I’ve always been a sucker for brown eyes. They are some of the cutest darn kids I have ever seen.

However, let me also just say that I’m not used to this! I am a secondary teacher. My students back home are taller than me and know how to sit in a circle and stand in a row. These kids are tiny. They don’t sit. They don’t stand in a line. They need help with everything. Furthermore, they don’t speak my language. Thank goodness for songs: they love the hello song and the goodbye song and the hokey-pokey — what? If I tried to do that back home, I have a feeling American high schoolers wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic. But, I always love new experiences, and I’ve found one.

This should be interesting.

We did have most of the older kids saying “monkey,” “tiger,” “lion,” and “elephant” by the end of the day though, so I think we’ve made progress.

Yikes.

And awesomeness.

At the same time.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be wiping noses and singing the hokey-pokey in Thailand…

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Good Decisions, Good Friends

Our last weekend in Cambodia, we headed south to the beach town of Sihanoukville off the Coast of Thailand. It was a pretty awesome way to conclude our first two weeks of training and transition to the next two.

After a four-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, we arrived Friday afternoon and caught a tuk-tuk to — well, we didn’t really know where, so we just told him to take us to a “beach.” He gave us several options, noted our confusion, and just took off with us in tow. It’s just better that way sometimes.

On the drive, I was struck by the difference between the bustle of Phnom Penh and the relatively open streets of Sihanoukville. After living in Phnom Penh for two weeks, Sihanoukville seemed almost quiet in comparison. Almost. The tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at Serendipity Beach, the most crowded beach in town. It is lined by a row of thatched restaurants, so after a couple of coconut shakes and one too many vendors trying to sell us goods, we were ready to move on. We caught another tuk-tuk to Independence Beach, which turned out to be the best decision of the day. It was open, clean, and uncrowded, free of vendors and sporting only one or two quiet restaurants — basically everything Serendipity Beach was not — and to boot, showed off the most beautiful sunset I have seen since arriving in Southeast Asia. See evidence:

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Saturday was the real treat. We had seen signs everywhere advertising a boat which would take us from Sihanoukville to the island of Koh Rong and back. (Personally I was especially drawn in by the offer of free food and coffee on the boat!) Sixteen members of our group signed up to go. The boat left at 9:30 a.m. and, after about an hour and a half, anchored to let passengers jump off the top of the boat, snorkel, or swim. Then the boat continued on to the island for the afternoon. This was definitely the best decision of the weekend: Greeting us was a gorgeous little island with white sand beaches, a handful of bungalows and an open-air restaurant or two. My only decision at this point was which awesome thing to do first: Swim? Hike to a waterfall? Have a cocktail? Eat my first cheeseburger since leaving America?

In the end, I ended up doing all of these things, almost in that order. And the cheeseburger was amazing.

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The only bad decision I made was somehow putting sunscreen everywhere except the back of my knees. What the heck? I am Norwegian. And sort of a redhead. I don’t mess around with sunburns.

Speaking of decisions, I think the best decision of all was decided to come over to Southeast Asia and do this whole adventure thing. So far, it’s been amazing. I loved my time in Cambodia, and I have made some pretty awesome friends in the process, whom I hope to keep in touch with throughout our travels. That was a bonus I wasn’t expecting when I signed up to do this.

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From here, the adventure continues: Teaching in Thailand!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Why I Love Cambodia

Tonight is our last night in Phnom Penh. From here, we head to Sihanoukville for the weekend and then to Thailand on Sunday. In Thailand, we will begin our volunteer teaching placement and also get the opportunity to take a Thai language and culture course. It’s hard to believe we have been here almost two weeks already! I am sad to be leaving Cambodia so soon. After the initial shock wore off, I began to really enjoy it here.

So, to commemorate the end of our time in Cambodia, I thought I would create a little list titled FIVE REASONS WHY I LOVE CAMBODIA:

1. The Khmer People: Without a doubt, this is the best part of Cambodia. The people here are the friendliest group of people, as a whole, that I have ever encountered. They are smiley and easygoing. In fact, the only Cambodian person that I have seen even remotely upset is the one woman on the motorbike that chattered a bit angrily at Tommy after she almost ran him over last week. It was Tommy’s fault, and he learned his lesson about looking both ways, so really, I think her anger was just concern for Tommy’s well-being.

The Khmer people are very helpful. People who know little to no English have helped us find things more than once. (That is because we are lost a lot.) They are also polite and personable. One of my favorite people here is the man who runs the little Mini Mart next to the university where we have been taking classes. Every time I walk in, he grins and says, “Same?” which means a large iced coffee with milk and no sugar. I thought it was pretty neat being a regular after only a couple days. The only Khmer word I know, which sounds like aw-coon, means thank you, and this man smiles and nods generously every time I attempt it in my awful American accent.

2. The Other Western People: We have made instant friends from day 1 with our program mates, coming to Cambodia from the UK, Australia and the U.S. — New York to California and everywhere in between. Furthermore, my friend Andy from college and his wife Kirsten live in Phnom Penh, and they have treated Tommy and I like family. They have entertained us, fed us, showed us around, loaded our cell phones and let us do laundry at their apartment. Tommy said last week that “playing basketball with Andy was the first time I knew I was enjoying myself on this trip.”

Thanks a lot, Tommy.

But that just goes to show how awesome Andy and Kirsten are. Hopefully we can pay them back someday for everything!

3. The Markets: Markets crowded with people, brimming with food, and packed with goodies in every stall. Need I say more? We even got up an hour early yesterday to go to the “Russian Market.” (I am not completely sure what makes it “Russian.”) It’s a good thing we had to leave and go to class, or I would have spent my weekly budget all in one morning. Bartering is also great fun. I think life in the U.S. would be more enjoyable if we got to barter for everything there, too.

4. The Tuk-Tuk Rides: I LOVE TUK-TUK RIDES. Catching tuk-tuks is fun, talking to tuk-tuk drivers is fun and, as I have discovered, the most fun of all is trying to explain, in English, to someone who doesn’t speak English, where we want to go, when actually we have no idea where we are or really where we are going. It’s quite a thrill, really. It’s also when I curse myself for not knowing any other languages besides a smattering of Spanish.

I have two stories to illustrate:

Story #1 (Saved by Accident). Here is how it went on Tuesday on the way to Andy’s apartment: I showed a slip of paper to the tuk-tuk driver with street names written on it. Tuk-tuk driver peered at it for a while, excused himself, went inside the hotel and had another Khmer person translate it for him. We rode around for what felt like an hour, and when the tuk-tuk driver started doing U-turns, we realized we were very lost. However, tuk-tuk drivers do not want to lose business and will do whatever it takes to get you where you want to go rather than admit defeat. So, tuk-tuk driver pulled over and asked other Khmer drivers for directions about 15 times and did about 25 more U-turns. At one point, he looked back and said, “Do you want to get out here?”

I looked around and didn’t recognize anything. “No!” I said adamantly. The only “landmark” I knew of near Andy’s was a VIP store, so I kept repeating “VIP! VIP!”

“Wee-I-P” tuk-tuk driver repeated back to me each time. After that, when he stopped to talk to other Khmer, I would hear what sounded to me like “Blah blah blah — Wee-I-P — blah blah blah.” (Again, why don’t I know any other languages?) Eventually, we got Andy on the phone and truly by accident, happened to be going by his apartment at that exact moment. Saved! I loved the whole experience. There was really nothing to do but laugh.

Story #2 (Saved by KFC). Last night, we wanted to go the river for a boat ride. We caught a tuk-tuk and showed the young driver a hastily drawn map with street names; again, with no other means of communication between us, he peered at it for a while and got his friends to help try to figure it out. I knew no names associated with the boat dock we were supposed to go to, but I happened to know there was a KFC nearby. Finally, I said tentatively, “KFC?” All four of them lit up and began nodding furiously. “Ah, KFC!” Our tuk-tuk driver jumped in and drove us straight there. It was also awesome. Apparently I owe a little gratitude to the Colonel! (Fun fact: This KFC is the classiest KFC I have ever seen, and also has free Wi-Fi.)

5. This One Needs No Words:

We will miss you, Cambodia!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Sweating Bullets at Angkor Wat

After Tommy and I recovered from spider eating, we continued on to Siem Reap, where we stayed at the Freedom Hotel with our fellow trainees. The hotel was a pleasant surprise after a long, hot journey on bumpy Cambodian roads. The rooms were clean and spatious, the outdoor pool looked inviting and the lobby was full of comfy-looking couches and chairs. I slept as hard as I’ve slept since I’ve arrived in Cambodia.

On Saturday morning, we woke up early to visit some of the Angkor temples. Angkor Wat is the name of the largest temple but is often used to refer to a series of ancient temples in the area built between the 9th and 15th centuries. At that time, the Angkor region of Cambodia was the seat of the powerful Khmer empire. The most popular temple, Angkor Wat, is Cambodia’s premier tourist attraction, said to be the largest religious monument in the world. It was built by King  Suryavarman II in the 12th century and, after falling into ruins for centuries, has now been restored to some of its former glory. It really is beautiful.

We visited several temple ruin sights on the way to the main attraction of Angkor Wat, including the Bayon Temple, known for its several huge stone faces:

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And Ta Prohm, the “Tomb Raider Temple” for any of you Angelina Jolie fans. Ta Prohm is especially notable because of all the giant trees growing out of the stone everywhere you look:

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Angkor Wat itself was gorgeous, a perfectly symmetrical, massive stone complex surrounded by a large moat and accessible only by walking across a wide causeway. Monkeys darted here and there across the walls and through the grass. Stone pillars and archways towered over our heads. It was like a dream. A rain shower added a hazy element to the scene for about a half hour in the afternoon, and when it cleared, the stone towers reflected back to us clearly in the pools of water, doubling the beauty.

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Up until now, this has been a pretty pleasant story, right?: Touring famous temples with a nice group of people on a beautiful Saturday, crawling among the rocks, exploring ancient ruins of a fascinating civilization.

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That’s because I haven’t been completely honest.

Here is the true story:

In fact, I am pretty sure I almost died of losing half my body weight in sweat. I had heard about the heat in Southeast Asia. I had read about the heat. I tried to prepare myself for the heat. But I am from North Dakota and WE DO NOT HAVE THIS KIND OF HEAT! The real problem is, I am the sweatiest person I know even in North Dakota. So put this North Dakota gal into the heart of hot and humid Cambodia, amongst heat-radiating stones, and make her hike up and down all day, and you will see sweaty like you’ve never seen before. The stones create something like a giant oven, slowly baking the human tourists from the inside out. Plus, women are supposed to wear long pants and cover their shoulders in order to be allowed into the temples, so wearing shorts and a tank top was not an option. I drank at least three liters of water, but it wasn’t enough.

Can a person die from sweating too much?

Halfway through the day, I couldn’t stand the soaked hiking clothes I was wearing any longer, so I stopped by a tent selling clothing and bought a white airy shirt and breathable-looking elephant-printed pants for four dollars apiece. I convinced the Khmer woman who sold them to me to hold up a blanket so I could change behind it. It would have been much simpler if my original clothing wasn’t plastered to my skin. Eventually, however, I struggled into my new clothing and felt, oh so much better. For about a half hour, until I also sweat through my new clothes. It was worth it though, just for that half hour of sweet, sweet relief.

Also, I now have elephant pants.

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The rain shower that showed up in the afternoon would have been disappointing, except I was no more soaked after the rain shower than I was before the rain shower. It just gave me an excuse for why I am sopping wet in everyone’s pictures. I am not exaggerating, you guys.

That said, however, the trip to Angkor Wat was worthwhile, and something I will remember as long as I live. The temples were truly an amazing, amazing relic of a fascinating ancient culture. Human capacity never ceases to amaze me, and it only increases with every trip I take to a new part of the world. The temples’ amazingness was only rivaled by one thing: the cold shower I took afterward.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be chugging water in Southeast Asia.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Eating Spiders

On Friday, I did something I’ve never exactly had on my bucket list: I ate a tarantula. Our group stopped in Skuon, nicknamed “Spiderville,” on our way to Siem Reap to try the famous (infamous?) fried tarantulas. Tommy and I discussed this beforehand: Should we or shouldn’t we? However, it seemed like one of those things a person should do while in Cambodia, just to say she did.

That was until I got off the bus.

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Awaiting us at Skuon was a wide variety of fried bugs, literally everywhere. The bus ride had been hot and bumpy, I wasn’t feeling so great, and, seeing great piles of black crispy spiders and other insects all over the place,  suddenly my desire to eat a tarantula “just to say I did” was diminished to nothing. Plus, a handful of kids were running around selling fruit to the silly American tourists and also, scaring the silly American tourists with live tarantulas.

The good news is, they targeted Tommy and not me.

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The kids at Skuon are incredible salespeople. First of all, they are remarkably persistent. Second of all, they employ tactics such as crying, pleading, and chattering your ear off to get you to buy a dollar’s worth of fruit. There was one little girl whose pineapple I didn’t buy, and she gave me the most attitude I’ve ever seen from a tiny person — hand on hips, eye rolls, the whole works. Attitude clearly transcends language barriers. She also followed me to the bus when we were leaving, found my window and glared at me until we pulled away. I have to say, for two feet tall she was actually kind of intimidating.

One little girl who latched onto Tommy, however, simply employed the friendly tactic. From the moment Tommy got off the bus, she shadowed him. She showed him around, talked to him about America, and also made some hilarious comments about his eyes. “You have really blue eyes! You have long eyelashes! And they are curly, like a girl! Do you wear makeup?” She was quick to point out that she and I both had hearts on our bracelets. And she even helped us when we finally decided to eat a tarantula.

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Yes, we did finally try one. And Tommy bought a bag of pineapple from her just to wash it down. Her friendly tactic worked pretty well in the end.

It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but it was, not surprisingly, pretty weird. It tasted like burnt char with a flavor that I can only assume is unique to spider, considering it was unlike anything I ever tasted before.

At least now I can say I did it, right?

Before:

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After:

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Getting Settled in Phnom Penh

Things have changed.

A week ago, there were threats of snow in North Dakota, most of my meals were coming from the basement freezer as I tried to frantically pack and wrap up the last few days of my job, and my little Ford Escape took me everywhere I needed to go. Now, there are warm rain showers every day, most of my meals include noodles or rice, and we ride everywhere in tuk-tuks.

I love all those pieces of home, but Cambodia so far has been pretty awesome. Tommy and I are hanging out in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, for two weeks for TESOL training before we go to volunteer teach in Thailand. We have class every day from 9:00-5:30 and get the evenings to hang out at the hotel, explore Phnom Penh, or do homework. Here’s a little update on what I’ve experienced in Phnom Penh so far:

FOOD: We have been trying some of the local food since we got here: amok, lok lak, and some strange little salt-and-sugar rice cakes I found at the convenience store, to name a few. My favorite so far was Tommy’s lok lak dish, basically a pile of beef, rice, sauce, and a fried egg on a plate. Oh man, it was good. My stomach has been a bit gurgly the last few days, but I was expecting that. At least I haven’t gotten food poisoning yet. With my luck, it’s probably inevitable at some point.

TRANSPORTATION: As for getting around, we have been escorted everywhere by tuk-tuk, which is basically a four-person carriage pulled by a motorbike. Most of the locals, however, drive motorbikes, or motos. The traffic is absolutely nuts. There are lanes painted on the roads but no one pays too much attention to them; they are more like general guidelines. The moto drivers cut each other off, travel in huge swarms, drive down the wrong lanes and pull in front of oncoming traffic all the time. They actually have amazing skills. They are within inches of an accident at all times and never even blink. They text and drive, and they phone and drive. They ride two or even three or four to a bike. We have actually seen a family of five driving down the street on one motorbike. Twice. (And people think my family is crazy.) The amazing thing is, none of them really get mad. Cambodians are cheerful. This would not happen in America: road rage would run rampant.

I am not the first Westerner to marvel at this incredible transportation system, nor will I be the last. However, Tommy and I have both agreed that the traffic is our favorite part. Especially since we’re not driving. (Then my amusement would probably turn into utter terror.) The motorbikes do look really fun, but these drivers have mad maneuvering skills which I’m pretty sure I don’t possess. They say many tourists to Southeast Asia have died or been seriously injured by renting motorbikes. Considering I really haven’t driven a motorcycle much back home, I don’t think I will try to learn how in Cambodia.

WEATHER: Cambodia is currently nearing the end of its rainy season, meaning the weather is generally humid, the temperature is in the 80s or 90s, and at least a couple heavy rain showers hit every day, lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour or more. Don’t worry; this doesn’t affect the volume of traffic. Instead, all the moto drivers come out in full force wearing brightly colored ponchos. I even saw one zooming down the street holding an umbrella during yesterday’s heavy rain.

RANDOM TIDBIT: We were quite amused to find out that you can go to the local shooting range right down the street, and for $10 you can fire off AK47’s, for $50 you can toss a grenade and for $350 you can shoot a rocket launcher. We haven’t done this yet. Maybe I will toss a grenade before I come home.

Or maybe the traffic is a big enough thrill for now.

Hope all is well back in the states! Don’t worry about me in Cambodia. For now, I’m perfectly happy eating rice and zooming around in a tuk-tuk.

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