26 December 2010

Christmas Cambodia style

Firstly, Christmas eve ...
'twas the night before Christmas and at Anjali House
ALL the creatures were stirring, even the mouse!

After their tests on Thursday, my intermediate kids were allowed a stress-free day, with no real lessons just craft workshop and lots of play. In workshop they made posters with photos provided by volunteer Tash, whose last day this was, plus lots of glitter -- these kids are addicted to glitter and, as you can imagine, it gets everywhere! We made more friendship bracelets and Christmas decorations, kites were flown, football played, and general mayhem ensued. I did spend some time marking their tests but they won't find out the results until next week, as these are added to weekly test results to find each child's average score and to determine who will move up to the next level.

The climax of the day came at 5.30pm when the Christmas party started. First we sat and ate, though some of the kids were so excited, they ate standing up and ran around talking to their friends between scoops of  the delicious food. They all had a bottle of soft drink -- coke or sprite or a pink-coloured fanta -- and the sugar-rush drove most to the edge of craziness, because when the disco music started, they went wild. The boys, in particular, are quite uninhibited and real little show-offs, so they were dancing like little Michael Jacksons.

It seems to be a Cambodian thing to dance in a circle, often around a table or central object, so the dance floor (normally the concrete football field & volleyball court) was one huge pulsating conga line. I haven't danced so much in ages! It was huge fun!

The party finished at 7.30pm with everyone singing Jingle Bells. Who knows what time the kids calmed down enough to sleep? M and I went back to our guesthouse to clean up, then headed into town for a quite drink with a volunteer friend we met last year.

Christmas Day dawned bright and clear, and M and I and a Taiwanese student from Sheffield in England, Wen Sung, went templing. Having seen the main Angkor Wat temples last visit, we headed further out of town to Beng Melea, a sprawling jungle temple covering an area of one square kilometre. It was a two-hour journey in a tuktuk, but on good roads and I always find it fascinating getting out of the city to see the real Cambodia. People here tend to live right by the road side, so you can easily get fascinating glimpses into their private lives ... and some great photographs!

The temple did not disappoint. It's mostly ruined, and quite overgrown with strangling trees, but being so far out of town, it is lightly touristed.  At one point Wen Sung and Marianne went clambering over rocks Indiana-Jones style, leaving me to spend some time alone, taking in the feel of the place and listening to the leaves fall. It was magical!

And Christmas night was our long-anticipated reunion dinner with Australian and English volunteer friends from last year. Aussie Rachel has come back for a 3-week holiday, bringing 4 members of family with her, and Simon and Colin finally managed to escape snow-covered England to visit us here for a few days before going on to holiday in Laos and Vietnam. We enjoyed delicious food and chatted away as if we had just seen each other a few days rather than a year ago. It was a truly memorable Christmas!

23 December 2010

Angels at Anjali

My first week back at Anjali House is nearly at an end, and it's been an absolute delight to see all the children again. There are a few new faces but most are the same children I worked with and got to know last Christmas.

Most are taller, though a couple seem almost to have shrunk -- one 10-year-old boy, who's been sick recently, looks more like he's 5 or 6 and he's certainly not the cheeky little rascal he was a year ago. Most are more mature, though there are a few whose maltreatment and misfortune have obviously scarred them and left them mentally damaged. Most have improved their English skills, though not as much as you might expect for the amount of time that has elapsed. Most seem happy, though even the brightest have sad moments and need a comforting hug. Most seem healthy, though there are also a few chesty coughs and colourful runny noses. Most seem well-treated, though I did notice some rather alarming bruises across one little girl's back as she was changing into her school uniform today.

Such is the lot of the poor children of Cambodia. I wish I could do more to help them but it would take much more than one woman and four weeks to make any significant difference.

The good news is that I can help them improve their English a little, just by talking to them and spending a little one-to-one time with each of them. This week we've been revising present tenses and prepositions (and even my Upper Intermediate students at home struggle with those at times!) and practising forming questions. And today was their BIG end-of-year test, to see which students can move up to the next level. They were all nervous about it and most had problems understanding the test instructions, let alone answering the questions.

But Anjali isn't just about learning English. We teach General Studies lessons as well, so have revised last week's lessons on natural disasters, worked on their reading skills using the fable about the tortoise and the hare, and tried to expand their knowledge of Cambodian geography -- not easy with kids who think the moon is closer than Phnom Penh because they can see the moon but they can't see their capital city!

We've also sung Christmas songs, played some crazy games, made some very colourful friendship bracelets, and made Christmas decorations, which left more glitter stuck to the lunch tables, the kids and us teachers than to the coloured card they were using. Maybe the best thing I can do for these kids is to help them have fun, and it's certainly a delight to hear their giggles and to see their beaming smiles.

More fun tomorrow evening as we're having a Christmas party ... I'll tell about that next time.

20 December 2010

Bouncing along to Battambang

My first weekend back in the Cambodian kingdom was spent travelling to Battambang and back again, via a small village in the back of beyond where my friend Marianne's adopted family comes from. She supports four children, two of whom now study in Siem Reap, while the two younger children still live in their home village. We took one of the boys with us from here and picked up another at the village, so we were a merry party of travellers.

We had the luxury of travelling in an air-conditioned car but even that was no comfort when we turned off the main highway, abandonned the tarmac and started dodging potholes the size of moon craters on the back country dirt roads to the village -- dancing roads they call them here, but it doesn't feel much like dancing, more like a rigorous workout at a gym!

It's rice-harvesting time here so in the fields workers toiled under the melting sun to gather the last of the rice, and the roads were lined either with piles of rice straw or with thick layers of rice grains spread on blue tarpaulins to dry. We negotiated a couple of cow jams and at one point exited the car while the driver edged his way over a plank bridge, but eventually made it safely to the village, where we were treated like visiting queens! They don't see many female barangs (foreigners) out in the sticks, so the locals were out in force to check us out. And we were warmly welcomed by Marianne's other children, their mother and 80-year-old granny.

An hour later we were back on a slightly less bouncy road. We stopped for a lunch at a roadside eatery and were again a source of fascination, though our novelty value soon wore off and all eyes returned to the blaring television screen. We reached Battambang mid afternoon, where we stayed in a luxurious hotel with the biggest bed I've ever slept in. M and I went for a short walk around the town to check out the French colonial architecture and the huge market, then we all headed off for a ride on the bamboo train, so called because the 'carriage' is actually a flat bed made of slatted bamboo which sits directly on top of the two wheel axles and is thus easily dismantleable when you meet other 'trains' coming along the track. The 'carriages' provide a useful transportation service for local villages and the canny locals make extra dollars from the barang tourists crazy enough to pay for a breezy spin along the tracks. It was a bone-jarring teeth-chattering ride but the boys loved it!

Back in town we enjoyed a delicious dinner -- ALL the food here is divine! -- then crashed exhausted relatively early, but were up at sparrow fart the next morning for more physical punishment. This time we headed 25kms south to Phnom Banan, a hill-top temple with 5 towers similar to those at Angkor Wat, though significantly more ruined. There followed a laborious, steep climb up the 320?, 384? 359? steps to the  top -- the number varies according to which guide book you read and I was too busy climbing to count! As our guide reminded us, the road to enlightenment is never easy. However, we were accompanied by our own personal muscle-pummellers - two women who massaged our legs and backs and fanned us whenever we stopped for a rest, and placed a supporting hand under my arm when this fat old barang looked like she was flagging! From the top we had a hazy view of a countryside where we dared not step as there were 'Danger Mines' signs pinned to the surrounding trees.

Snoozing our way home

Our return journey to Siem Reap was smooth and relaxing, with a couple of short shopping stops, one at some roadside stone-carving stalls. A huge stone Buddha would not be an easy souvenir to carry home, but the mouth-watering products of Senteur d'Angkor certainly are. Their range of sweet smelling candles, soaps, joss sticks, spices and teas were impossible to resist, especially after our tour of the factory where it was all being produced and charmingly packaged by teams of local women.

It was a fabulous weekend and I couldn't have wished for a better welcome back to this wonderful country! More soon ...

05 December 2010

Just 10 more sleeps!

Neat piles of clothes – mine and donations for the kids – surround me as I write this. It’s the only way I can get a good idea of how much I have to pack in how little space! Luckily, Singapore Airlines has agreed to allow me an extra 15kg for the things I’m taking for the children at Anjali House; otherwise, I’d have to pay a huge amount in excess baggage, or not take anything extra for them. I’ve still to buy an extra bag to tote that stuff in – hence the piles to help my brain calculate the space required!

There’s not much else left on my ‘To Do’ list. There are a few more things to buy: rehydration salts – very useful last year to give me some much needed energy after a long sweaty day’s sightseeing – and another tube of Bush Man’s heavy duty insect repellent – the Cambodian mosquitoes are fierce and I want to avoid malaria or dengue fever, if I can. Oh, and I’ve still to book the shuttle to the airport; take a couple of photocopies of the main page of my passport; print out my e-ticket and itinerary …

Just 1 more haircut, 1 more movie with Rosie, 1 more weekend, 9 more days’ teaching, 10 more sleeps!

04 December 2010

Hilarity and horror

Our topic in my pre-intermediate afternoon class this week was animals, and we started the week with an hilarious lesson on the verbs we use to describe the sounds animals make. My students happily clucked like chickens, roared like lions and barked like dogs, and we laughed a lot.

On Tuesday and Wednesday we covered animal habits, habitats and body parts, finishing with a fun game of ‘Go Fish!’ as students raced each other to get the most sets of animals with fangs, tusks, hooves, wings, gills, scales, etc.

Thursday afternoon was fun too, as a Japanese girl instructed us all on how to make origami cranes and frogs. It required acute listening skills, reasonably dextrous fingers and quite a lot of patience on the part of our instructor! Once again, we laughed a lot, but the results were beautiful, and if you press the frog’s bottom with just the right amount of pressure, it will do a complete somersault. I’m still practising with mine!

The first session on Friday afternoon, however, was more horror than hilarity. One of the discussion questions I had set the students was ‘What’s the most interesting animal you’ve ever eaten?’. With students from such diverse countries as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy, Japan and Korea, I knew it might produce some interesting results but I was not prepared for one Korean student’s horrific description of how his countrymen prepare dogs for the plate. Apparently, the best way to ensure the meat is tender is to hang the live dog upside down and beat it to death. My student quickly assured me that he thought the process was disgusting and he had never eaten dog but, as a long-time animal lover and animal-rights supporter, I was still shocked.

We quickly moved on to what I thought was a much more pleasant question, about what pets the students had. But even that produced a shock. The same Korean student related, with much sadness, how he had had a lovely little dog for 4 years but when he left home to attend university in another city, his mother had sold his pet for $500 and kept the money. A quick hug from me stemmed the tears that were welling in his eyes and, luckily, it was break time so he had time to recover before we finished the week with a board game about animals – ending with more fun and laughter as they all competed for first place.

Sometimes, teaching produces these unexpected moments and, when I first started teaching, I very quickly learned that you need to think on your feet. But that dog story almost had me dumbstruck.

At times, I feel more like a mother than a teacher and, in fact, one of my Saudis calls me ‘Mum’. It makes me feel old, but I am also flattered that he thinks so well of me. I used to think teaching was about instructing but, actually, being a teacher is a truly multi-faceted profession: you have to be part actor, part motivator, part comedian, part friend, mother or older sister. Probably the smallest part of all is instructor. In spite of moments like the Korean dog story, teaching is certainly the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

25 November 2010

Making a mountain out of a molehill

Mikiwikipikidikipedia at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html),
 CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0
We were studying the perfect tenses in class yesterday and as part of that I gave my students an activity based on a small sampling of the thousands of proverbs we have in the English language. 

As we checked the answers, I questioned whether they had similar sayings in their languages. They do, of course, and it was interesting to learn how the sayings change as they cross cultures.

For example, the mountain in our proverb ‘Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill’ morphs from a mountain to a bull to an elephant to a stallion, a donkey, a camel and a hen. And the molehill becomes variously a mouse, a fly, a flea, a mosquito and a feather.

Here are some of the variations I discovered:
§         to make a mountain out of a molehill – apparently English people were using this expression as early as the mid-1500s
§         to make a mountain out of a mouse – Hebrew
§         to make a bull out of a fly – Finnish (because, in Finnish, bull rhymes with fly)
§         to make an elephant out of a fly – in Portuguese, French, German, Russian and Estonian
§         to make an elephant out of a flea – Hungarian
§         to make an elephant out of a mosquito – Dutch and Afrikaans
§         to make a stallion out of a mosquito – Romanian
§         to make a donkey out of a mosquito – Serbian
§         to make a camel out of a mosquito – Icelandic
§         to make a camel out of a flea – Turkish
§         to make a hen out of a feather – Swedish
§         to make five hens out of a feather – Danish
§         to make a garden fork out of a needle – Polish (no animals)

There were other interesting proverb alternatives too. The English ‘storm in a teacup’ becomes ‘a storm in a glass of water’ in Italian, Swedish, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Turkish, French, and Catalan, but in Arabic, it’s ‘a storm in a coffee cup’.

And then there’s the Turkish equivalent of our ‘Don't count your chickens before they hatch’: ‘Don’t roll your pants up before you see the river’.

Language, and how we use it, is truly fascinating!

21 November 2010

25 more sleeps

I‘ve spent a little time this af’noon reading my recollections from my last trip to Cambodia, to whet my appetite for this year’s – as if that was needed. I’ve been looking forward to going back since I stepped on the plane to leave!

Some of my impressions, in no particular order:
©     the HEAT!
©     my room’s resident gecko entertaining me with its amusing antics, racing round the walls and serenading me to sleep with its chirruping.

    ©   teaching Buddhist Khmer kids Christian Christmas carols about sleigh rides in the snow, and a Christmas eve party with them singing those carols to the American Mormon family who sponsored the party
    ©   cute kids with big eyes and even bigger smiles
    ©   signs of a small world: a Kiwi having Mexican enchiladas for dinner with Irish, English and Japanese women in Cambodia
    ©   my friendly, like-minded, dedicated, international, fellow volunteers
    ©    the wildlife: tree frogs on doorframes, locals eating deep-fried crickets, lizards with bright orange spots
    ©    villages where everyone weaves baskets, villages on stilts, villages floating on Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Asia
    ©     the end-of-harvest wedding season, with bunches of bananas decorated in silver and gold, and loud speakers blaring out till the wee hours
    ©     incredible ancient temples, amazingly beautiful sculptures, unforgettable Apsara dancers
    ©     the kids’ constant chatter, Khmer’s constant smiles

You know your holiday is getting close when you get your suitcase out of storage and start making ‘To Do’ lists!

19 November 2010

The way to Paradise

Yesterday we held a debate in my Upper-Intermediate morning class; the topic was: ‘It is better to be a man than a woman’. As you might suspect, this prompted some interesting arguments.

The team arguing in favour of the topic presented some good points about the predominance of men in business and politics, about men’s superior physical strength and spatial abilities, and, one argument that provoked a lot of laughter, how it was easier for men to save money because women have to spend a lot of money on clothes and matching accessories, cosmetics and hair care!

From the team arguing against, and so arguing that it’s better to be a woman, we heard well-researched statistics about life expectancy, and the importance of women’s nurturing and communication skills. One student spoke passionately about the importance of his mother in his life, and another provided us with an old Turkish proverb: ‘The way to Paradise is through the bottom of your mother’s feet’.

Though I didn’t quite understand it, I thought this was a lovely sentiment, so I later googled it. The meaning had got a little lost in translation; it seems usually to be translated as ‘the way to Paradise lies under the feet of your mother’ and appears, in fact, to have come originally from the teachings of Mohammed. In one version, reported by Ibn Majah (Sunan, Hadith no. 2771), it is said that the Prophet told someone, ‘Be at your mother’s feet and there is Paradise’.

Regardless of its origins, the sentiment crosses all cultural, national and religious boundaries: honour your mother, serve her and take good care of her. It may not be Mothers’ Day, but today – and every day since she passed away – I remember, love and honour my wonderful mother.

Mum and I, January 2006

17 November 2010

The rabbit in the moon?

Teaching is a learning experience, and not just for the students. Every single day since I became a teacher, I’ve learnt something from my students. And today was no exception. For the very first time, I heard about the rabbit in the moon.

Like most Kiwi children, I was brought up on stories of the man in the moon, which probably stem from such childhood nursery rhymes as Mothergoose: ‘The man in the moon / came down too soon / to ask his way to Norwich’. But my Japanese, Korean and Mexican students see the moon differently – they see a rabbit, not a man.

In the Japanese and Korean cultures, the rabbit is believed to be pounding the ingredients for rice cake in a mortar and pestle. But the image my Mexican students described was of a different rabbit – no mortar and pestle, just the bunny. Presumably this is because their country is further south, so their view of the dark areas, the lunar seas or maria, and the lighter highlands of the lunar surface is different.

In our class discussion about the different images, we decided the reason was because Japan, Korea and Mexico are in the northern hemisphere, whereas New Zealand is in the southern, so we see the moon’s surface from different perspectives. 

That all seemed very logical at the time. But, of course, the Mother Goose rhyme is a northern hemisphere creation, and the idea of a man in the moon is, in fact, a longstanding European tradition. Roman mythology depicted him as a sheep thief, and Christian traditions variously describe him as a man caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers XV.32-36) and as Cain, eternally destined to circle the Earth.

When I followed up these ideas on Wikipedia after class I discovered that a great diversity of moon characters have been seen and mythologised, including a woman, a frog, a moose, a buffalo and a dragon. Here in New Zealand, the Maori people believe they see a woman and a Ngaio tree.

The next full moon is due on 22 November. I’ve set my class the task of taking a good look at the moon that night so we can have another moon-image discussion the following day. It had better not be cloudy!

12 November 2010

Go fly a kite

In Stones into Schools, Mortenson talks about the Draconian regime when the Taliban held power in Afghanistan. Some of their more bizarre edicts included forbidding people from listening to music, laughing in public, and flying a kite.

To me, these were truly soul-destroying prohibitions. Listening to music can invigorate lethargy, calm anger, cheer sadness, and so much more. And you have only to witness the huge numbers of people walking around with earphones virtually embedded in their ears to know how very important music is in people’s lives.

And who could live without laughter? There is nothing so good as the genuinely overwhelming belly laugh that results in tears streaming down your face and leaves your diaphragm feeling pained, your body exhausted. To be prevented from sharing a public laugh with a fellow human being would be so demoralising, and who hasn’t smiled involuntarily at the sound of someone laughing?

I read Mortenson’s passage about the Taliban prohibitions in bed one night this week and the very next day one of my Facebook friends posted this quote from Ana├»s Nin:
Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.’

The coincidence of the kite image struck me immediately. Forbidding someone from flying a kite seems like forbidding them from following their dreams.

So, my wish for today is for everyone freely to listen to some music, to laugh in public, and – I mean this is the nicest possible way – to go fly a kite!

11 November 2010

Three cups of tea

Anyone familiar with Greg Mortenson's book will realise where the title of this blog originated. My local library's copy of that book (Three Cups of Tea) was out last time I checked so I've been reading his second book, Stones into Schools instead. It's truly inspirational!


Working through his nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI), Mortenson has worked to promote peace through education by establishing over 145 schools, most of them for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Perhaps his success stems from his simple philosophy. He believes young women are the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world, a belief that stems from an African proverb he often heard during his childhood years in Tanzania: 'If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community.' (Stones into Schools, p.13)

And he achieves his success through building relationships with the local people. As he writes, the title of Three Cups of Tea refers to a Balti saying: 'The first cup of tea you share with us, you are a stranger. The second cup, you are a friend. But with the third cup, you become family -- and for our families we are willing to do anything, even die.' (Stones into Schools, p.17)

Don't get me wrong here. I have no intention of heading into the back of beyond to build schools. That is for stronger souls than mine. But I do find it uplifting that one man can make such a difference in such a multinational, multilingual, multicultural world.

*** Update
Since I wrote this blog, Greg Mortenson has been revealed as a lier and a fraud. Click on this link to read the latest. SHAME on him!

09 November 2010

Generous friends and strangers

I’ve always been uncomfortable about asking people for money, which may stem from my days as a Credit Manager. In my opinion, there never was a more thankless and soul-destroying job than debt collection!

So, I’ve avoided seeking sponsorship for my volunteer work in Cambodia and have funded my trips from my own savings and from selling personal possessions on Trade Me, New Zealand’s version of eBay. I’ve also been using Trade Me to buy second-hand books for the Anjali kids and to buy embroidery floss for my friendship bracelets project.

And it never ceases to delight me when strangers, upon learning of the reason for my purchases, freely donate additional items. One kind woman, a former teacher, included several extra books she thought might prove useful, as well as Boris, an incredibly cute and hairy hand puppet – I know he will be an instant hit! Another woman sent twice as much embroidery floss as I had paid for; she was clearing her deceased mother’s possessions and felt her mother would approve of the donation.

My friends have also been generous. Sue, and her daughter’s family, have given me a bundle of clothes the children have outgrown, Rosie has donated gold thread to give the bracelets an extra sparkle, and Carol has lent me books from her volunteering days to glean extra craft ideas.

The generosity of these friends and strangers is heart-warming.

06 November 2010

Getting crafty

One of the volunteers’ tasks at Anjali House is to run workshops twice a day, the same workshop each time, once for the morning children and once for those who come in the afternoons.
Anjali kids wearing their crowns
These workshops include arts and crafts, games and activities, and reading time. Much of the time we spent on arts and crafts last time went into making throwaway things, like Christmas decorations, masks and crowns. It was fun and the children enjoy any kind of creative activity, but I’ve been searching for more lasting, less environment-polluting activities for my next visit.

When I was checking out the Volunteer Service Abroad website recently, looking at longer-term volunteer assignments, I came across a news item about Project Friendship, their annual fundraising drive selling friendship bracelets. The seed of an idea was planted!

I don’t want to encourage the children to produce bracelets for sale, as that might lead to their absence from school, but I know their bright, imaginative minds will enjoy choosing the colour combinations and their nimble fingers will soon master the knotting techniques.

However, I had no idea how to make the bracelets, so first I needed to tackle my own learning curve. Googling soon produced some excellent websites, complete with instruction techniques and free patterns. And a trip to my local library produced some excellent books, with easy-to-follow diagrams.

I had some embroidery floss from a long-abandoned sampler, so have been using that for my first efforts. I’ve only mastered two easy patterns so far, but I’m pleased with my efforts to date and I think this will be a winner with the kids at Anjali.
My bracelet-making efforts so far.

02 November 2010

43 more sleeps ...

When I went to Cambodia last December, my motives were many ... I wanted to escape the crazy razzamatazz of Christmas and the loneliness of a season traditionally spent with family, I wanted to pass on to those less fortunate some of my good fortune in life, and I wanted to explore a new country to discover more about its people and culture.

When I was first contemplating where to go and what to do, I had no specific ideas. I googled, checked out various travel company websites, saw something about volunteering in Vietnam and quite liked the idea of that. Then I posted a comment about the ideas that were spinning round in my mind on Facebook. Almost immediately a friend, Christine, told me about a friend of hers, Anna, who was then in Cambodia, volunteering with the UK-based charity Globalteer. Christine put me in touch with Anna, emails were exchanged, Anna recommended Globalteer highly and was enthusiastic about Cambodia.

In just 24 hours my decision was made!

And I knew I'd made the right decision when everything just fell into place over the following few days. I applied and was immediately accepted as a volunteer, my travel agent cousin found me a good airfare, and very soon I began counting the sleeps.

Little did I know then the lasting effect the trip would have on me. I shared delicious meals, incredible sightseeing adventures, and beer-soaked pub quizzes with like-minded fellow volunteers from around the world, many of whom became my friends. The crew at Globalteer impressed me with their affability and professionalism in often-challenging conditions. The people of Cambodia overwhelmed me with their broad smiles, warm welcome and eternal optimism in the face of sometimes extreme poverty. And the delightful children of Anjali House touched my heart, with their incessant chatter, cheeky grins and unstoppable energy.

Even as I stepped on to the plane to come home, I knew I had to go back. And now I have just 43 more sleeps till I once again tread the earth of the Khmer kingdom. I can hardly wait!