I can't remember the last time I wrote a blog, or spent more than an hour on the computer for that matter- watching endless hours of 30 Rock which my mother sent me for Christmas does not count. That's not to say that this is all I have accomplished in the past few months, I would even go so far as to say that I have been so busy lately that I have been too exhausted when I come home at the end of the day to do much more than watch DVDs. Home; that's a new word that I'm sure I have not included in my past blogs and for good reason. Home is what I define as a place I feel at home
, a place I want to go back to after a long hot day, a place where I can find privacy after numerous awkward conversations in Khmer and an entourage of kids that may never tire of “Hello barang!” The search for a new house began a few days before Thanksgiving when I had my first site-visit by the Program Assistant Tharoth, a sweet Khmer woman in her 30s
. We drove around the neighborhood looking for signs advertising spare rooms for students, took a tour of Scott's place that was deemed too expensive for my poor volunteer's allowance, and stopped and asked random people if they knew of houses for rent- I will never take Craigslist for granted again. With not much luck I suggested checking out a house that the Aussies had mentioned where an Australian and Korean volunteer had previously lived. The Australian girl had lived in a small bungalow beside a massive cement house, each house having its own separate driveway and gate. After a bit of sleuthing on Tharoth's part, we were able to get a young woman in her late twenties to let us inside the compound. Turned out she and her husband had been renting the bungalow for about a year and she began to regard us with suspicion once Tharoth started asking about rent and utilities. I poked around the back and side of the house as they talked. Tall mango, jackfruit, lime and tamarind trees separated the two houses; coconut and banana trees shaded the back and front of the house with their massive fronds, the entire compound enclosed within a large gate- and no shack-full-of-boys in sight. No wonder the woman looked at me suspiciously, I had desperation and longing written all over my face.
The owner of the compound arrived shortly after and floated over on her bicycle
. She a woman in her early 50's with striking facial features and confidence who you could tell was gorgeous in her younger years and currently aging gracefully, a look that is rare here in the countryside from years of war that has aged many beyond means of guessing. She flashed her perfectly straight white teeth in a charming smile and I knew three things: this woman is head of the house, controls the money, and has dealt and negotiated with foreigners before; she looked at me like a piggy bank. She was already sizing us up and I wondered if she could sense my desperation. Tharoth, unfazed and difficult to read, explained my situation and asked if there were rooms available in the area. The woman led us into her large house and seated us in her living room, setting a few bottles of water and bananas on the table in front of us. I was confused why we were there at first, only catching snippets of Khmer, then realizing slowly that she and her husband lived in the large house alone and she wanted me to rent the upstairs. Surely my meager $100 allowance wouldn't allow me to rent there, most of the houses we had looked at were asking over $100 and they were slightly run-down and teeming with mice. She gave us a tour of the house, showed us the three upstairs bedrooms with large windows and connecting bathrooms, two massive balconies on the front and back of the house and a small modern kitchen downstairs but mentioned something about building another. Tharoth smiled and nodded politely, asking questions here and there then became completely serious when she asked about the price. I cringed in anticipation but the woman said she would have to speak with her husband before she could give us an answer.
I left ecstatic and hopeful; Tharoth left doubtful and worried
. Sure enough the woman called later that night; $115. Now this doesn't seem like too much of a difference but there's no way I could scrape by paying that much. Basically, PC volunteers receive $100 for housing BUT that includes one meal and after three months of eating alone in my room and having a curfew if I went out to dinner, I was eager to buy food and cook for myself. Tharoth apologized, said she had already negotiated, told me to keep looking, maybe I'd find something in another month? Stressed and at my wit's end, I pleaded with Scott to go to the house with me and try to negotiate with the woman (negotiating is hard enough in English, Khmer is just painful). After some hard-ball and a bit of begging, we got her down to $95, still not really low enough but there was no budging her below that. Back at Scott's place, I figured that I would have about $2 a day for food, which is more than enough here in the countryside and trips to the city would have to be kept to a minimum. It took a bit of convincing Tharoth and the staff but I was moved out before by Christmas Eve (wasn't easy, I felt awful in the end leaving my yay and her grandchildren who I had grown to really like) and moved into my new home after New Years.
Adjusting to my new house and host family hasn't been without it's snags
. I had spent Christmas in Phnom Penh and New Years in Siem Reap before I returned exhausted from travel to spend my first night in the new house. The landlady (I call her 'Ming', a title of respect which means aunt in Khmer) and her husband (I call him 'Loke', title of respect for a man, or by his name, Saythaa) introduced me to the house by showing me the intricate system of locks for the doors and front gate and gave me my own set of keys; all four of them. I had arrived from Phnom Penh rather late in the day and the market had already closed so Ming invited me to eat dinner with her that night (Loke ate dinner at a restaurant that night, pretty common as I am slowly learning). She made a dinner of prahok,
fermented fish paste, served with raw vegetables, sliced mango and fried pork and fish (served with steaming bowls of rice, of course). It was a great dinner and she was very talkative, switching back and forth between her broken but impressive amount of English and my equally broken Khmer. She told me about her family; how the war had taken two of her brothers, how she remembers the days of starvation and back-breaking labor, her pride in her two married daughters and four grandchildren and the loss of her only son, only 25 when he was killed in a traffic accident in Phnom Penh that seemed to be the only time in our conversation when she looked uncomfortable and pained by the memories.
The next day, I dove back into teaching English, slightly overwhelmed from exhaustion, not having taught since before my Christmas break and exchanging notes with my co-teacher about the format of the upcoming semester exam. I went home for lunch and collapsed into bed, too tired to eat. I woke up three hours later, body aching and waves of nausea starting to build; I knew it was going to be bad. I spent the next 12 hours vomiting, confined to my bedroom and slightly panicky as the medical officer tried to diagnose me over the phone. She decided I needed to be checked out at the health center in Prey Veng before I could be sent to Phnom Penh. Less than a day in my new home and I was already a burden on my new family. Ming kept apologizing for serving me prahok
(which is completely my own fault; fermented fish paste and raw veggies? Really? Have I learned nothing?!) and they called a friend who knew English pretty well and had a car. They decided not to take me to the health center, which is a rather scary site; rice mats lining the halls with the sick and dying and the smell of sickness all around. I've always worried I would have to go there. Instead, they took me to a small private clinic with only one doctor, one nurse, and one small cot with dirty linens. The doctor took my vitals and diagnosed me with food poisoning, quickly shooing me off with the wave of his hand; intense vomiting is far from rare in Prey Veng. Nonetheless, I was in a private taxi to Phnom Penh within the hour which turned out to be for the best since I ended up staying for the whole week, had an ultrasound and several blood tests and was finally given giardia medication to kill whatever the heck was growing inside me that refused to allow me to enjoy the rarity of western food in the city.
But here I am two weeks later, sitting in my hammock amidst the canopy of mango trees on the front balcony, swaying in the breeze of this unusual storm that has brought rain and “cold” for the past week bringing temperatures down to the 60's at night, watching the kids on their bicycles stream by on the street below, a pair of orange-clad monks with their matching parasols heading back to the wat not far from the house and I'm wondering for the first time since I got to to Cambodia if I truly appreciate how amazing this country is. Sure, not everyday is like this, and rarer still that I am not frustrated at least once a day for obvious reasons that come with living in a third world country. I haven't even written yet about my teaching at the RTTC which has become the highlight of a day and so rewarding when I can see the progress that my students are making. But I finally feel at home in Prey Veng. It seems appropriate that today marks six months spent in Cambodia, only a year-and-a-half left until my service is finished and now it's apparent why two years are required in the Peace Corps. So much of my time so far has been devoted to learning, adjusting, and moving through the different phases of culture shock and only now do I feel that I can be a fully effective volunteer and teacher for my students. I am ready
for the next six months....maybe not April....please ignore my pleads for a plane ticket home in April...oh God help me, it's gonna be hot!