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.