Monday, February 28, 2011

Morning Coffee, Same Old Routine

I hope you are all having a good start to the new week. It's already Monday morning over here, so I've put the kids on their van to school and I'm going through emails and having a coffee before I walk to work. We're sliding into a pattern that's becoming well-worn, so that I listen for the sound of the rooster behind our apartment that wakes me up after my cell phone alarm wakes me. Then we have our cartoons and breakfast. We get downstairs to wait for the van at the same time another little girl across the street gets onto the family motorbike with her mom and her backpack and heads to school. The same guy with a cart of coconuts passes, another dirtier looking guy with a cart collecting recycling to re-sell passes squeaking his little horn, the same lady lights up a stove to barbeque meat for sale on the corner, the same few internationals walk by with their shoulderbags to work.
The big boys really needed this weekend, cause it's been a super busy week for them. Ernest is extremely diligent, so his teacher's penchant for detailed projects is keeping him up sometimes past ten o'clock. And the school is placing a bit more emphasis on Bible memorization than even the Catholics care to do (it's a bit more on the evangelical side of the spectrum, so the three older kids are responsible for memorizing Biblical verses each week, and Ernie has to recall details of multiple chapters). He has made dioramas of Navajo dwellings, bar and circle graphs of group data, essays and poems and a comic strip depicting Moses and the Israelites in Exodus. Yoshi seems to have less of this, but math homework is still causing some drama. And then there are the lessons and assignments that I’m giving them in math and grammar to keep them up-to-date on skills for next year back at Catholic school in the US. I ask our babysitter, Atey, to get them working on when they first get home until I come home from work. The late bus after swim team on Mon/Wed is tiring for them, since it takes kids to all kinds of neighborhoods, and doesn't deliver Ernie and Yosh to this building until around 7. Anyway-- they are busy boys, and so most weekdays we stay in the apartment together and plow through all this stuff.
They have linked up with friends all very quickly. Ernie has Joseph, a 5-year expat who's the son of a missionary and very nice; David, who's Chinese and a buddy; Yoshi has Narith, Seongyo, Darewin, Logan, David and Ricky. I was just asking him if he knows where his friends are from so I could share, but he says he has no idea. Tika has Joy, Ion, and Gabe. Puck doesn't tell me who his friends are, but he has started bring home schoolwork where he has written his name multiple times, and made some paper airplanes (they did a "unit" on airplanes). He sings the days of the week, and counting by tens, and tells me that it's important to sit on the place that says P-U-C-K on the floor. He is very fond of his new teacher, Mrs. Walker, who is a very sweet lady.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Visit to Tuol Sleng, and then the Cambodiana Pool

Today has been another mixed bag.
Shortly after moving into our apartment, I noticed on the map that we live on exactly the same street, Street #113, as the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison and Genocide Museum, to which where more than 20,000 people taken and never returned during the Khmer Rouge regime--it's about 10 blocks away. It gave me a dark impression of our street, but then you have to grapple with that history just about everywhere in this country, and anyone over the age of 30 must be touched by that history all the time.
This morning, I took the kids there to learn more about this dark time in the country's past.  I talked the boys through it on the way there and Tik was pretty scared as we got out of the tuk-tuk at the gate. Ernie knows the history pretty well now-- that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, and at first everyone was so excited about the revolution. Then they started killing all the people with money and education and social connections and urban background. They took over this school-- the Tuol Sleng High School-- surrounded the place in razor wire, and used the classrooms as cells for interrogation and torture. More than 20,000 people were killed in 4 years from this place, mainly Khmer Rouge officials and their families who were accused by the party of conspiracy against the party. The place isn't sanitized or arranged at all like a museum, just rooms with pictures of the corpses that the Vietnamese found when they took the place over, and torture devices laying on the floor and metal frame beds and bars on the windows. One floor of the place is now arranged with bulletin boards covered with the mug-shots of prisoners as they were brought it. The kids were really sad to see how many of these were children and babies. I had to remind Tika that it's a museum and we're only here to learn about what happened, that nobody is doing that here today. Ernest has had some soul-searching about how people could be capable of this kind of violence, and at the same time, how many former Khmer Rouge are just ordinary older-people today, and how the rest of Cambodia seems to be optimistic and loving children.
 In the afternoon, we headed over the Cambodiana Hotel, a big old Soviet-looking concrete structure along the river just where the Tonle Sap combines with the Mekong and the river is super-wide. The hotel has a pretty pool deck with lounge chairs and a cabana, and kiddie pool with a concrete slide that looks like Breshnev designed it. But surprisingly enough, after I splashed some water on it, the kids could slide down it pretty well, and so they did this for most of the afternoon. We also took a walk down to the hotel's covered docks along the river for a break. It's a wide, silty, slow river, dotted with barges and fishing boats and little tour boats. We watched a guy in a rickety boat pulling up fishing net, and a bunch of gardeners planting shrubs for the hotel near the water.
When we got back to our part of town we stopped by the tailor to see if today is pick-up day on Tika’s dresses. It took 4 people to relay to me that they won't be ready for three days still. I feel like a moron when I try to communicate here, because I have only figured out that Sosi-deh means Hello and Okoon means thank-you.
We've got a lot to learn about this country, and we're very fortunate to have this opportunity to see and hear and learn.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Getting Clothes Made, and the Asian Hope Fun-Fair

As you may know from looking inside the labels of your underwear and t-shirts, Cambodia is a big garment producer. In fact, garments are 70% of Cambodia's export trade. But since energy costs are about triple here what they are in Vietnam, and since the ports and roads are so bad, Cambodia hasn't been able to work up the value chain from underpants and t-shirts to sweaters, jackets and handbags like Vietnam and Sri Lanka, for instance. I'm curious about the garment-makers and also personally interested in the options for getting clothes made-to-order here (which seems to do better for the garment-maker's profits than factory work). And it so happens that one block to the left of our front door is a fabric and tailoring district. So as a first try, we took Tika, our little guinea pig, to the fabric shops on Saturday morning. We're going to get some dresses made to order for her. After a few failed attempts at explaining "dress" and "please make" and "this girl here" to people who spoke no English, we landed in one store that let me have a pen and sketchpad. They measured Tik, and she got to look at the fabrics and choose. We have ordered two cotton summer dresses, and I think they'll be ready in the next day or two (I couldn't understand that part of the discussion, either). Anyway, with fabric at $4 and labor at $4 per dress, I feel a little bad to be getting such a good deal on them. But I also thought it's one small thing we can do to employ people.
 From the tailor, we headed to the Asian Hope Community Fun Fair, that had nice, family-friendly games, bake sale, balloons and stuff. All the proceeds go to the umbrella organization that runs the kids' school and another program for Khmer orphans. It was just good wholesome fun, and also nice to be in a place where the kids could run free for a while.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Picnic in Kean Svay

Tika and Puck and I are writing this post together, and they are sharing the chair with me and telling me what they want to write about. We send hugs to all our family!
 We had such a big morning. This morning, we went with driver, Phin (that's "Pin") in his jeep a few miles east of Phnom Penh to a little village called Kean Svay, where we went to an outdoor market. Ernie and Yosh were pretty impressed with the weird stuff for sale. We saw roasted snakes, roasted frogs, and boiled turtles. Of course, we just took pictures of those. We bought some jackfruit and chicken and rice and bananas, and we got a spot on a covered dock out next to the river to have a picnic. Tika was a little bit nervous, because we had to walk out there on a narrow plank, and the dock was made out of bamboo. But then Ernest and Yoshi noticed that there were a few kids following us there who stood around watching us eat. They were pretty good climbers, and they could scale the raised docks up and down from the water. Some of them were waiting to get our cans, because they were collecting cans to recycle. Ernie and I liked the roasted chicken. While we were eating, a guy in a covered canoe came paddling up, because he wanted to give us a ride. So after our lunch, we took a canoe ride with him, and saw some more picnickers, and also some water lilies. He picked a few for Tika, and now they are on our kitchen table, next to the big bunch of bananas.
 While we were riding back to Phnom Penh, Ernie and Yosh were wrestling in the back seat. But they were also getting a good view of Cambodia outside of the city. Houses are sometimes like shacks, and sometimes like mansions, and mostly they're built on stilts. People can fit anything on a motorbike, including one guy who had a whole toystore mounted on the back of his bike. We also learned what Buddhist monks look like. They're not ladies in orange dresses, like Yoshi first thought.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Market Day, and First Trip to Church in Phnom Penh

Today we didn't have a chance to take pictures. It was market day. These kids put in a heroic effort to walk with mommy to the Orussey Market (that's the Russian market--I guess it used to be frequented by Russians), and they helped me lug around bags of rice, beans, milk, fruit, and veggies all the way out to the tuk-tuk drivers. It was hot, and stinky, and close, and sweaty in there, and Yoshi said he wanted to throw-up. The fish section probably did it to him.
This evening was our first trip to church in Cambodia. There's an English speaking 5pm mass at World Vision charity near the corner of Mao Tse Tung and Sihanouk Blvd. Ernest thought it was really interesting, and Tika said it felt like our church at home, but not as fancy, because the windows were ordinary windows, and the chairs were plastic. But the songs were the same, just with a guitar. We also noticed how many different kinds of people were in there. That was the first time we saw lots of African people since we got here. Also, there were Filipino and Vietnamese people, and some white people. The priest is an American with a southern accent. Pretty neat, huh?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Excitement and Jet-lag

We're here in Phnom Penh safe and sound, and the kids even managed to sleep until 5:30am! We tried skyping with the family, but they’re not used to this yet, and nobody is leaving the skype logged-on. After much dubbed-over cartoon watching and snacking, we are ready to head out to the kids' new school to meet everyone, and then over to the office, and then on to a realtor. Phew! It's going to be an exhausting day. Luckily Friday, though, so after all this we're going to have a weekend to relax.
We’ll give the skype another shot in 12 hours or so, and will have more news to report by then.
The kids are really thrilled to be here. Yoshi is happy to have seen a tuk-tuk first hand, and Ernest has taken me aside to tell me how happy he is that we are doing this together. He is such a sweet, thoughtful boy. Tika and Puck are rambunctious as ever-- although with their energy levels rising and collapsing, getting over jet lag will be hardest for them, I think.
OK-- we're off to meet our driver and head to school! I'm excited for the kids!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Departure Day!

Departure day! My family and friends are more nervous than we are. Once everything is boxed and taped, appliances unplugged and gas turned off, you get to the point where you’re sitting on the couch watching the time go by. The big kids have been out of school for a week now, watching Netflix, building snow forts, and taking full advantage of a bonus vacation. Yesterday was my last day in the Washington office, and I have been getting ready for the move. It felt great to put the laptop in my bag and walk out of there.
Tika and Puck are in their usual routine, or maybe they know something is afoot but won’t let on. They are fighting over a balloon that Tika’s class gave her as a good-bye. Now they are carrying it out the front door and around the tree in front. Uh-oh! And it is blowing quickly away over the neighbors’ houses! They are screaming and pounding each other, stomping back into the house. But we are leaving in 45 minutes! They are deaf to my reasoning. They will pout and kick and point out the window even to the last moment.
I am exhausted and wired and hopeful for adventure. And all the while my kids remind me, this will be a journey in motherhood. Puck has long strings of booger running from his nose and he’s slapping the front window. Yup—we’re in this one together.