Sunday, February 23, 2014

Trip Advisor(y)

We've been in Cambodia almost 3 months now, and although we've had the occasional close call (or two), we've remained accident-free so far. Whenever possible, we walk to wherever we're going, which you'd think would be the safest mode of travel, yet this is where we've (I've) had the most near disasters.  

When I'm in North America, I seem to have have little trouble putting one foot in front of the other, yet all too often here I find myself suddenly stumbling and lurching forward. To onlookers, I must be a ridiculous sight ...arms and legs flailing gracelessly, desperately fighting gravity in an attempt to right myself before I leave my new dental work embedded permanently in Cambodia's landscape. 

So why am I such a klutz here? Perhaps when I'm at home the routes I walk are fairly routine, and I rarely meet anyone, so there's plenty of time to pay more attention to where I'm going. Here I am surrounded by new sights and sounds at every turn, and often forget to look down. When I'm at home I also wear proper walking shoes, and here I wear flip-flops that often 'flop' when they should be 'flipping'. One thing is for sure..the walkways at home are just plain safer than they are here. See for yourself....

In Siem Reap, walkways are typically tiled....

....or non-existent...

The road  that leads to the main road from our guesthouse
is a dirt road in desperate need of upgrading.
In the meantime, they use rubble to fill in pot-holes.
No problem if you're
 a mountain goat.

Often there are deliberate valleys built into the side of the road
which make walking a challenge....unless you happen to
blessed with one leg significantly longer than the other 

In places where the walkways are tiled,
it's important to watch for uneven areas that jump up and catch
the bottom of your shoe when you're not looking

In places where there are no tiles,
one section of concrete might extend out to be even with the road
while the next one drops off without warning

Sewer access portals are spaced strategically along the walkways,
providing yet more obstacles of varying heights and dimensions.
The covers are made of thick slabs of concrete. We NEVER walk on these,
since there is a very real possibility of accessing the sewer unintentionally.

Many areas of the sidewalk have been
cracked and caved in by cars parking on them.

A perfect example of a walkway dropping off at  an adjacent property

Most times, tiles are embedded in sand.
Occasionally they go missing.
Sometimes it's only one...

...and sometimes it's more than one

Even when tiles are laid over concrete
they somehow go astray

This year a Christmas light display was suspended across the road
on either side of the Siem Reap River for about four weeks.

They removed tiles and embedded sleeves of PVC pipe in the ground
support the poles. Now that the display is gone, the supports remain.
In some cases the PVC pipe sticks up about an inch above ground.

Sometimes there's an extra tile in the pathway.
This one is strategically located near a sewer cover
just to add interest to the obstacle course

Here, in front of a shop, several tiles are unevenly spaced
and placed at various levels, perhaps to ensure that only
serious shoppers will bother to enter.

In many parts of Siem Reap, large trees line the walkways.
Actually they grow up out of the walkways.
Here, a garbage bin is paced strategically next to the tree
to provide an additional obstacle.

Some property owners like the trees so much
they have planted little gardens around them,
necessitating pedestrians to walk in traffic.

Sometimes these trees die, and rather than fill in the tiles,
a gaping hole is left in memory of the tree that once grew there.

The roots of these trees often rise up from the ground in huge carbuncles.
When they are well camouflaged with sand, as these ones,
they provide the perfect impediment to unsuspecting hikers

Here a carbuncle has been enshrined
in the centre of a concrete and tile walkway 

This stretch could probably be named 'Carbuncle Alley'

Sometimes things other than trees
are in the middle of the walkway.
Easiest just to walk under this sign.

This signpost appears to be on a movable concrete block.
I didn't try to move it.

The trunk of a palm tree adds interest

I always wonder what happened to the other shoe...

Cars often park on the sidewalk
Unless you want to walk out in busy traffic,
it is necessary to find a way around them

Same goes for motos..

....and carts..

Perhaps the most ominous of all are wires that snake across the path.
Are they live?

This one, in a city park, looks as though it might lead to something..

This one is partly disguised by leaves, sand & shadows...

This one looks like a snare..
Watch out!!!

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is the big holes that are just 'there'.
This is one of those sewer boxes, which appears to have no lid at all.
Some very nice soul has tried to disguise that with plastic sheeting..

Here another one of those sewer covers has broken away.
I assume the stick with the plastic bag is the equivalent
to a red flag or 'caution' sign.

This hole is in the middle of a walkway
that crosses a narrow bridge.
When we first saw it, it was just a gaping hole.
Then one of our volunteers fell in on a dark night.
Fortunately, she wasn't seriously hurt.
Since then, they've wedged a huge tree limb into the hole.
Now only small children can fall through.

What you've seen here are only a few of the obstacles we encounter on our daily walks. Safely rules and laws just aren't a part of Cambodian life. I suppose they feel if you stumble, fall, or hurt yourself, it's just part of your karma.

Fair warning...If you come to Siem Reap, mind your step.... 
And if you do happen to lose your footing, have a good trip!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Going Batty

When we visited the city of Battambang in 2009, our tour guide took us to a park to show us 'fruit bats'. I'd never heard of them. They're a species of bat that feeds on fruit, which is plentiful in Cambodia, especially mango trees. As we stood beneath the trees, I wasn't really sure what I was looking at (or looking for) until he threw stones up into the trees to disturb them. When a few took flight, I was amazed at their enormous wing span!   I've since learned that fruit bats are also known as 'flying foxes' or 'Megabats'. (click on the word 'Megabats' to read about them in Wikipedia).

Even though this is our fifth time in Cambodia, and our fourth long-term stay, I never knew there were fruit bats in Siem Reap, until this year. Not too far from our guesthouse, there is a huge park opposite the Royal Residence with wide pathways and beautiful gardens...and towering trees where bats roost during the day. Funny to think I've probably walked or driven past that park several hundred times already, but never walked through it. People kept saying it was an amazing experience to see and hear the bats, so I decided to check it out for myself.

They were right! It's difficult to describe the eeriness of it all. From a distance I could hear a sound that was similar to a flock of birds.  As I approached, the tree canopy blocked out the sun and  it got darker. In the air the smell (which I assume was bat poop) was overpowering, like rotting fruit, but worse. The sound of 'birds' became reminiscent of the horror film 'The Birds', more squealing than chirping. Here's a video that's very similar to what I saw and heard. (click on the word 'video'). Lucky for you they're not putting smell sensors in videos yet.

Those things hanging down from the branches are not fruit.
They're bats.

Yep, bats.

Here's a closer view

There were about 20 or 30 trees. This is only one .
How many bats can you count?

If you think that's a lot of bats, brace yourself! About a week ago, we travelled to Battambang. This time our tour guide pointed out the opening to a bat cave near the Killing Caves. Around 5:30 pm, he stopped our tuk-tuk on the road nearby, and we waited for the bats to exit the opening on their nightly flight.

I cannot begin to describe the magnificence, the wonder and the absolutely unbelievable sight we beheld. I don't know how many bats emerged. Some people say there are millions. I wouldn't doubt it. We watched in stunned silence for almost thirty minutes as they flew out in thick streams.

If this is what we saw in the nano-second that it took to shoot this frame,
how many bats could we have seen in thirty minutes??

Too bad the battery on my camera died out just after this.
I could have taken shot after shot.

Click on the word video to see a video from youtube of bats streaming out of the cave. If you go to youtube and search for 'bats Battambang', you'll see several videos there. The sights and sounds are absolutely jaw-dropping.

Speaking of dropping... It's supposed to be lucky if you're hit by bat droppings. I got lucky four times that day.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

It's About Time

It's been a couple of crazy weeks since my last post! I've been busy living, experiencing and touring, and I've only been able to grab a few minutes here and there to sit at the computer. There are at least a hundred ideas bouncing around in my head for things I'd like to write about, but before that happens, I promised myself I'd rise to a challenge that was offered to me by one of my readers. I've been given one word to write about - the word 'Time' - and what you are about to read is my interpretation of that word, and how it relates to me living in Cambodia.

When I was still working, my life was governed by a clock. I had to get up at a specific time to be at work at a specific time. I took my breaks and ate my lunch at a specific time. I got home at a specific time, ate dinner at a specific time. If I wanted to take a course, go to a movie, participate in a club, I had to watch the time and be on time. I wore a watch, had a clock in my car and one (or two) in most rooms of my house. They were all synchronized, and being late could be disastrous.

Now that we're retired, my life is much less dominated by clocks.  We still own them (one in nearly every room of our house), however their purpose has changed.  On days when we have appointments or commitments, they're around to keep me informed or on track. On days when our time is our own, I often forget to wear a watch, and  I am ruled by my body rhythms, and whatever task I get engrossed in. I sleep as long as I need, and eat when I feel hungry. The lengthening and shortening of the days make it difficult to tell exactly what time it is, and Daylight Savings Time throws me for a big loop twice a year. There is only one thing in our quiet little village that remains constant. It's a siren that goes off every Tuesday at 6:30 pm, as part of the drill for the volunteer fire brigade.  I honestly think if it weren't for that, it would be very easy for me to lose track of time altogether. 

This 'tour of duty' in Cambodia, we are working (volunteering) half-days and take a tuk-tuk out to Honour Village at noon. It requires us to be somewhat mindful of the time from Monday to Friday. Even so, I find I rely much less on clocks here than anywhere else, for the simple reason that in Cambodia we hardly see them anywhere.

Most places (restaurants, guesthouses, shops) don't have clocks on the wall, and there are no town clocks here that ring out the hour. In a country that is primarily Buddhist, there are no church bells within my earshot that chime, not even to announce services. If I were to ask someone here for the time, they would be more likely to check their cellphone than their watch. It's been my observation that most Cambodians don't wear watches.

We have no clock in our room and our travel alarm died a few days after we arrived. The only watch I brought along has a broken strap and is seven minutes slow, and I can't adjust the hands because the stem broke off several weeks ago. I haven't bothered to buy a replacement because a cheap one from the market would probably be a wasted expense, so I often go days without wearing my watch now. It hasn't been a problem in the least. If I'm in my room and need the exact time, I check my computer. If the computer is off, or I'm out somewhere, I've learned to tell the time by observing and listening to cues all around.

Damaged by sweating, moisture and Cambodian dust,
my watch is almost ready for the garbage.
It's not a good idea to bring a good watch here.

The windows in our guesthouse are poorly fitted and I can clearly hear street noises, which often wake me well before sunrise.  This city comes alive long before daylight.  Every morning without fail, a young man drives his moto out of the yard across the road and waits for hs wife beneath our window, idling the engine. It always stalls at least once, and makes a high pitched squealing cough each time he restarts it. Once his passenger is seated, he opens the throttle, revs the engine, and drives off.  The first time I watched this ritual fom our balcony, I noted the time.  Now when I lay awake in the dark, those noises let me know it's 5:00 am.

Because Siem Reap, Cambodia is only 13 degrees north of the equator, there is very little fluctuation in the time of sunrise and sunset throughout the entire year. During the months we're here (December through March), the sun rises at 6:15 am, plus or minus 15 minutes, and sets at 6:00 pm, plus or minus 15 minutes. If I lay very quietly and listen intently, I can always tell the exact moment of sunrise, because in the distance, the voice of the muezzin chants out the call to prayer at dawn from the mosque in the Muslim district. So when I hear that chant, I know  it's around 6:15 am.

The mosque in the Muslim district of Siem Reap.
About five percent of Cambodians are Muslim.

Every morning without fail, monks walk down the road past our guesthouse to collect their meal for the day. On their way, they stop at most doorways to give their blessing and receive alms. I am mesmerized by the sound of their chant, a monotone prayer in Pali, which seems to reverberate between the buildings. When I hear it, I know it's about 7:00 am.

A woman receiving blessings from a monk

We spend most mornings simply. We eat our breakfast, then spend some time reading or on our computers, catching up on emails or the news. We like to get some exercise by taking a long daily walk, stopping to buy carrots and cucumbers for our lunch. We've got our routine worked out fairly well, and when we return to the guesthouse on weekdays, it's nearly time to change into our volunteer T-shirts, gather up our gear and leave for Honour Village, which is around 12 km away. It's the one time of day we check the time on our watches or computer, but whether we leave a bit early or late is not critical.

Our tuk-tuk generally leaves between 11:45 am and noon (plus or minus a few minutes). Sometimes the driver is ready to go, and sometimes we have to wait a while to get one. Sometimes traffic slows us down along the way, and some days we breeze right through. The Honour Village children ride their bikes to school, and leave at 12:15 pm to make it on time for 1 pm classes. Even without a watch, it's easy to judge what time it is by noting where on the road we meet them. We wave and shout 'hellos' to one another as we pass. The closer to Honour Village we meet them, the closer it is to 12:15 pm.

Riding bikes to school

Once we arrive at Honour Village, Gordon heads to his 'workshop' and I head to the library to help out before my classes begin. Sometimes I go to the teacher's room to prepare lessons for my classes. I teach kindergarten to children under age five between 2 and 3 pm, and to the 'under sixes' between 3 and 4 pm. Some of the classrooms at Honour Village have clocks, and not all of them work, so I have to rely on my (unreliable) watch or listen for cues if I forget to put it on. Fortunately, I can always rely on the school bell for the correct time. It's rung at 10 minutes to the hour to signal that the next class begins soon, and once again on the hour, to mark the beginning of classes. When I'm at Honour Village, that bell alerts me that it's time to start and end my lessons.

The school bell is made of a ten inch length of cast iron pipe,
with a metal rod that hangs down inside. 
It makes a lovely clanging sound. 
When the teacher rings it, he starts off with a slow gong,
continuing faster and louder until he stops it suddenly.

It's a good thing we have that bell, because from the first day I arrived, the wall clock in the Kindergarten classroom never worked.  I kept telling myself I'd replace the battery, and I kept forgetting. One day, just as we were set to go home, we heard a loud bang and the tinkle of glass. A child had tossed a soccer ball in the kindergarten room, sending the clock crashing to the ground, smashing the face. After helping to clean up the mess, I rescued the shattered timepiece and took it home to see if I could get it working. Even though I straightened out the bent hands and tried inserting a new battery, it was hopeless. It would run for a few minutes, then stop. I finally gave it up for dead, and tossed the carcass into our garbage can, leaving the bin outside our room for the staff to empty. That night, one of the cleaners proudly showed off the clock which she'd salvaged. To this day, it ticks effortlessly in the front reception of our guesthouse. Go figure.

From Monday to Friday, two of the staff members go to school in the evenings to learn English. Rosa leaves at 3:45 pm and returns at 5:15 pm. Huy leaves at 5:45 pm and returns at 9:15 pm. Their classes are so important to them, they'd never miss one. I often find myself mentally noting time in the evening by their departures and arrivals. 

Rosa is the senior female staff member.
All three girls share in the cooking, cleaning and laundry.
I don't know how she finds the time to study!

Since we've been here, we've been to all sorts of parties...three Christmas parties, a New Years party, three 'going-away' parties, a wedding, and a Chinese New Year party. 

One of three Christmas parties that we attended..

Dancing at Cambodian wedding

One of several 'going away' parties
for our volunteers

Chinese New Year party in the countryside

Cambodians have many festivals and holidays that are different from our own, and they've adopted some of our western holidays as well. Despite their tragic past (or perhaps because of it) Cambodians always seem to be celebrating something or other. One thing for sure I do know about 'time' in Cambodia: 
No matter what time it is, it's always a good time to party.