Cambodian Spirit

So the blog’s had some time simmering whilst other fish been fried. But here we are again. Happy New Year Everyone. May it be a rip roaring affair.

We had Tim’s folks and bro came to town for the holidays. They said Battambang grew on them after 2 weeks, which is a considerably longer time than the usual 2-3 days tourist trail stopover. They came to get an insight into our life and catch up on half a year of grandsons’ cuddles.

One of the best days was full of biking, paddy fields and food. We set off from Kinyei Cafe (great lattes, a precious commodity in a sea of instant flakes) on well heeled mountain bikes. A fit, tall guide expertly needled the traffic. We, a long line of fleshy bicyclists weaved through motos and SUVs following our fluro clad beacon. Soon we were meandering along the river, first stop a local rice paper maker.

 

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Matriarch Sreyvin , a spinster who works 7 days a week even at 62 years old. After surviving the Khmer Refugee Thai Border Camps through those dark years (1975-1979), she returned with her brother to her homeland in Battambang. Her family had some paddy fields that they were lucky enough to reclaim. Something that many families were unable to do and were left to start over. But as fate had it, she had to sell the rice fields a short time later to pay for her sister’s breast cancer operation. Medicine is heinously expensive and without any government safety nets, people have to make their own way.

Sreyvin in position over the hot skillet

A large bag of rice husks rests upside down on a precarious angle but purposefully arranged to drip feed the fire. These hard coatings have many lives. Also used as fertililiser, building and installation materials. Rice grains are made into a paste much like pancake batter. Sreyvin deftly drops some on a smoking skillet and flips it with one hand, whilst removing a cooked one with the other hand. Not wasting a drop she churns out 2000 beauties a day. Her brother works in unison, taking the sealed paper and placing it out matted boards to dry off in the sun.

The hours pass like this and they make a total of US$5 per day. This may not seem a lot but it is enough to educate the children in the extended family. By going to school they can choose another life. The average income for a Cambodian family is $950 per year. So relatively these guys are doing ok.

Next stop, fish factory. Some sensitive flowers on the tour (mostly men) declined this stop. But Tim’s spirited Ma (darling GG), a Scottish lass and I forged ahead.

About 13 ton of fish

About 13 ton of fish

First sight at the dock was about 13 ton of mud fish getting rolled into large wicket baskets. Fresh catch from the Sangke River, it’s hard to believe there are any fish left. Khmers love fish paste-  a crushed, salted and fermented fishy mix known as prahok.  It’s added to every meal and given as gifts at festival times.

Roasted Rat anyone?

Roasted Rat anyone?

These sacrifices were drying in the sun. Tim, Beau and I tried some of these sweet babies just the other day. We must be turning Khmer- none of us flinching as we gnawed into some crunchy rodents.

All in all, a ripper of a day on the Sokasbike Tour, highly recommended day out. Even Quinn at 7 managed the 30km round trip. Beau on the other hand rode in style with his grandparents.

Tough work being chauffeured around in tuk tuk

Tough work being chauffeured around in tuk tuk

From my colleagues at work, I see an incredible Cambodian resilience. A positivity in the face of hardships past, and a people rising Phoenixesque grabbing opportunities given to them with long fingernails.

Some of the local NGO staff work 5- 6 days a week, up to 10 hours day. And moonlight in evenings studying English. Chantha, my dear Khmer counterpart survives on 4-5 hours sleep per night. Up at 4am to revise her English university studies before putting in a full 10+ hour day (working with kids!) then goes to classes til 9pm and studies close to midnight. Like most 23 year olds, she can survive on less sleep but not because she’s out partying. The Cambodian Work Ethic is a force to witness.

Survival instincts  have never waned here. Unlike in the West where years of material comfort and government’s generous hand holding have eased our path, people here rely on their wits and ability to turn trash into treasure. Recycling works out of necessity not out of principle. From the dude emptying and cleaning out PET bottles to sell, to the guy who’s cycling around town all day on his food cart spriuking his potato cakes and fried banana. Morsels he’s made in his earthen floor hut the night before.

In words that don’t suffice, these people’s smile and spirit has touched my heart.

Indomitable Chantha

Indomitiable Chantha

What’s Your Story?

On the weekend after another trip to the hospital, nothing serious this time Beau split his toe open when a heavy wooden chair left backwards on to it.  The kindly security guard with good English always has a joke about life philosophy. Beau slept through the dressing and rectal suppository. Not requiring stitches, we’re ushered home again.

An old shed from the outside but what a find..

An old shed from the outside but what a find..

Quinn and I took off for Mother and Son time whilst the other two were shacked up at home. We discovered a swish, indoor skatepark minus the skates. A concrete maze of curved waves, jumps and pillars. Bikes and rollerblades were the choice. Quinn took his bike for a spin and even tried his hand at blading. Not a bad first effort, especially considering his guts weren’t great.

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I’ve barely made it through the door when the owner, a middle aged Khmer with a pleasant round face asks me the obligatory question;

‘Where are you from?’

His eyes lit up as he shares his story:

My father live in Melbourne. I call him 5 years ago except he say he’s not my father.

What kind of curlie is this?

I search for him on internet. He has same name and from photo he looks like my father. And people I know who knew him in Cambodia believe it is him as well. I haven’t seen him for 35 years.

Geez this guy has such a sweet face. He keeps talking.

He escape during Pol pot regime because Pol Pot was going to kill him.

We’re all versed in the horrors. But hearing it firsthand and seeing the fallout all these years later really brings it home.

What about your mother? Does she know if it’s him? I ask

She doesn’t like talking about it much. He left her.

He’s on a roll now:

So I call my (not) father, I speak to him and ask him if I am his son. He says no. He has new wife and family in Australia now. His new wife doesn’t want him talking to me.

Why don’t you write him a letter? I suggest.

He shrugs not believing the letter will reach its rightful owner without interception

I don’t want money. I just want to know‘.

He has 3 school age children and a shiny black Lexus parked out the front. Even though he has obvious pain around this large question mark, he looks peaceful. He can discuss this with a contagious calm. Maybe he gives him some solace disclosing it, or maybe he’s an expert poker face. The conversation turns to DNA tests and possibly another phone call. I get this uneasy vision of the father who is over 70 now confessing on his deathbed in a ramble of delirium.

But what’s the truth? Maybe it will never be known.

Leong Bo’s story reminds me of meeting my own brother when I was 26 for the first time. The joy around finding a long known but not discussed piece of a puzzle. I knew I had a brother who lived on Norfolk Island. He had a name but I hadn’t seen his face.

As the hedonistic, self absorbed university chapter closed, I remembered the baby photograph sent by his mother in 1987 of a chubby, blue eyed babe in what looks like a Christening gown.

Unsure where to start, I call the telephone operator on Norfolk. I ask what PJ Wilson’s number is?

A bonny madam replies ‘Auy, PJ! You can call him on Pelly and Dinty’s number, 6475839.’

I’m scrawling down this gold on a tightly held paper. Within minutes I’m yards closer and I can’t quite believe how easy and quickly this is all happening.

The oil still spitting in the pan, I dial the number.

A spritely, strong female voice answers. Hello. I introduce myself.

A bit of a pause, and then ‘Oh Amy. Hello! I’m PJ’s mum Dinty’.

An easy conversation follows. I find out PJ now lives on the mainland. His proud mum tells me he got a scholarship to uni. I get his direct line.

Dinty and I taken at PJ's wedding

Dinty and I taken at PJ’s wedding

It takes me another week to digest it all. When I’ve worked up the courage, I’m sitting on a park bench in Glebe, the grass lush from summer rain. He answers, I’m up on my feet pacing circles under the trees.

I remember hearing the warmth and excitement in his voice that first time. His Ma had given him a heads up. But what struck me so clearly…was the ease of it all. We must have spoken for half an hour. Filling in our stories. Talking about his uni, friends, life at college. Our shared love of horses.

We arrange to meet, a necessary step to complete the journey. With Easter bunnies jeering from supermarket shelves, Tim and I fly north. We stay at a friend’s place in New Farm, a treehouse built high on a hill, its deck amongst the banana palms. Art books line the shelves, a dishevelled, lived in feel. The smell of coffee grains, peeling paint on the kitchen table.

PJ and I plan to meet at Queen Street Mall outside Hungry Jacks. What a romantic place! Ha. When in doubt find a fast food landmark. I remember responding to a foot model advertisement once with an ‘interview’ at McDonalds involving a dubious character salivating over my sandals. I digress…

The day arrives, I can’t walk slowly instead I stride out with nerves leaving Tim in my wake. He is sensitive enough to leave me to it. I spot the glaring red/yellow sign and I can feel the spike of tears forming. By the time I reach the spot I see a tall dude with jet black hair and a beaming smile. I already know who it is. I’m crying and we give each other a huge hug. I’m home in my brother’s arms.

Family resemblance?

Family resemblance?

We spend the rest of the day cruising the Brisbane River on a ferry. Non stop talking as we catch up on a lifetime of news. We have similar crinkles around the eyes, snub noses and flashing whites. We disclose our dreams, his to improve Norfolk’s environmental practices still stuck in the 70s where rubbish is burnt or worse ends up in the sea . I speak of my love of art and artists. He meets Tim. I hear about his homeland: 35 square kilometres of rock in the Pacific Ocean nearly 1500 miles from my birthplace. Only 2300 ‘odd’ people live there- a courageous, heavy drinking, outspoken lot with resilience in their veins. PJ talks with love for his clan not by blood, but forged through childhood, birthdays, bruises, work and acceptance.

'Odd' lot

‘Odd’ lot

Our friendship has grown. PJ has stayed at my house several times, meeting both my sons after their births. I’ve seen his Norfolk and met ‘Pothole’ (named because everyone wishes to avoid him) and his childhood bestie. We went to his wedding last year in Sri Lanka. I have a beautiful sister in law Ashley. Life is richer and reflecting on having made the step to meet him, I’m thankful to have answers and for those answers to be easily found.

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Work Life

This blog has been focused on sharing stories about Cambodian life from a personal perspective.  But I get asked a lot about what work we are doing here. Tim and I work as unpaid volunteers for a local NGO, established about 8 years ago by a young Australian woman, a mover and shaker. The NGO provides much needed social support to Battambang’s poorest families. It was once an orphanage but quickly decided to move away from the model due to the perils of institutionalisation and the knowledge that children are better off with family members. Relatives such as aunties or grandmothers have been tracked down and in most cases, they are happy to relocate to Battambang where they get support to care for the kids. For those children who are legitimate orphans without family, they are cared for by devoted foster aunties and uncles who have been working with the organisation for a long time and understand the life long commitment of raising children. In two words: remarkable humans.  What has impressed us most about the NGO is their child protection policy is bullet proof and international best practice, the benchmark (and the reason I can’t plaster the kids’ gorgeous mugs here).

Me in work mode

Me in work mode

There is a saying ‘Cambodian Time’. A phrase that refers to being patient as things take time, plans change and do complete somersaults only to land back at the beginning. This has definitely been true of the culture shock and adjustment for our family. You can basically double the figure you think it will take and add some. And this is primarily why I’m so glad we didn’t come for a short time (we are fortunate to have no set return date) because you are always working to that date and as it draws closer you begin to mentally withdraw from the place you’re in. In the past, I’ve always travelled to a deadline (like most of us do!) but more than that, it was like I had to cram all these things in (tick it off the list) which is so different from letting life and the journey unfold naturally.

I have been teaching English over the past month as we eagerly await the opening of the School in the Cloud classroom.  It’s been a great foundation to get to know all the kids (all 80 of them). First I taught yoga over the summer break and now we sing songs, incorporate yoga and practice English. These kids have had no formal English lessons. The local public schools are fraught with problems. So the level of education is dubious.  As is so often the case across the globe, teachers are poorly paid so they often moonlight in other jobs and their attendance rates are low!  Often they don’t show up and the class sizes are large, they feel pretty overworked and under appreciated, I’m sure.  Again the cycle of clever graduates who could help improve the quality of education choose to work in banking or for foreign corporations where they get more dosh.

The School in the Cloud classroom - it now has walls

The School in the Cloud classroom – it now has walls

The space was previously a cabana where I taught yoga and a much needed shady place for sweaty football players mid afternoon.  The design is quite simple and uses easily sourced materials like concrete. But since the School in the Cloud program is about encouraging creative thinking and inspired by Earthship Cambodia the top part of the walls will be recycled bottles letting fractured light decant the space.

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We want to put vertical gardens around the exterior walls. The computer stations will have curved edges much like surfboards.

What is The School in the Cloud?

School in the Cloud is the brainchild of an Indian bloke Sugata Mitra who is one inquisitive guy posing lots of big questions about how children can learn for themselves through the use of technology. Let’s face it we are in a period of unprecedented change and the education system needs a face lift. He has his critics (mainly from the academic fraternity who want to see proof) but I’m willing to get involved in the experiment and see what happens. Part of my job is to document observations throughout the SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environment) sessions and funnel this data back to India.

We’ve begun testing the kids’ English levels this week to get a baseline from which to chart their progress over the course of the program.  Some of them are so hungry for knowledge. Painstakingly trying to identify letters even though they’ve only learnt the alphabet via the ABC Song and can barely recognise individual letters.  It will be very interesting to see where their knowledge goes from here. Another part of the testing is to gain qualitative data relating to their aspirations. All in Khmer, I work with an awesome Khmer counterpart, Chantha who is so perceptive and caring and gets the nature of the work, allowing the kids space to explore. She asks them the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. The answers range from ‘”cook rice” to a painter (it “makes me happy”) to the usual suspects of doctor, nurse and teacher. The point of this exercise is to see if their dreams change as a result of access to the internet and School in the Cloud philosophy, and in what ways they transform.

The Mighty 'Buffalo' at work

The Mighty ‘Buffalo’ at work

Tim is working on the building helping Buff who is his Khmer counterpart. These two, as thick as thieves, both with a killer sense of humour and matching Buddha bellies (Tim’s is fast shrinking though). For first two months before Tim got his own bike, these two were spotted cruising around on the one moto sourcing potential materials and sites. Tim is also infiltrating the local arts scene working at the NGO’s gallery and undertaking an artist residency (another post).

As you can see we are busy and there is loads we can do.

For any education nerds, you may find this video interesting. A light bulb moment for Tim and I- sparking us to embark on this journey and giving us confidence in our own kid’s education.

Happy Wednesday x

Whacking Technique

Sangke River- complete with local fisherman

Sangke River –  spot the local fisherman?

Here in Battambang it’s been an unusually dry, rainy season. There is sometimes a pitter patter at night but not guaranteed. The heavens often frown with a shade of grey/brown only to tease us with sunshine once more.

When it rains, Quinn makes the most of it ! Street outside our house

When it rains, Quinn makes the most of it! This is our street.

The town’s water levels are low causing the water supply to be quite erratic. Last week, we had no water for 3 days. It coincided with an outstanding water bill that was going brown in our mailbox since August unbeknownst to us. A grumpy government official turned up at our house whilst we were at work. The nanny who comes to watch the kids for a few hours every day, tried to work her charm but he would not be deterred. Water mains switched off.

And as life sometimes has it….the Gods have a giggle…Murphy came a knockin……Tim went down with dysentery the next day. Copious diarrhoea and no running water is not a winning combination. We had the bucket and scoop technique down, using bought drinking water (you can’t drink the tap water throughout Cambodia) to flush away most of the damage. Soon sage incense was burning in every toilet in the house.

But as Tim worsened ending in a trip to the hospital (we didn’t get lost this time All in a Day) where they mainlined his veins with rehydration and antibiotics, I decided that we better address this water situation asap. In the midst of calling our boss who is far enough up the fishing pole to make a difference, ie. if he lodges a call at the water department, they listen; our resourceful nanny Sreypheak armed with two pieces of bamboo tried the good ol’ whacking technique. BiNgO. Nothing like a good smack to set things straight. The pipes chugged to life.

Beau has the 'whack attack' technique down pat

Beau has the ‘whack attack’ technique down pat

This technique is used liberally to fix just about anything here. When a motorbike is being temperamental, a hard slap on its engine is the first port. I never cease to be amazed how resourceful the Cambodian people are. The reuse, recycle, restart, retie, retry, reinvent method is everywhere you look.

Kite made by the neighbours- plastic bags, skewers and cotton reel.

Kite made by the neighbours- plastic bags, skewers, rubber bands and cotton reel.

Coming from the modern disposable culture, this is refreshing to see. It is not that they don’t have disposable products here- they are as ubiquitous as air, but the disposable part isn’t understood by people who have learnt to survive on nothing but their wits. Understood by a look at their history, being cut off from the world during Khmer Rouge days and the legacy that left, literally beginning at Ground Zero with memories of starvation fresh in their minds.

Tim stayed in a cot bed for 2 days sandwiched between two families nursing their palliative parents. I was warned by the nurse not to bring our boys into visit as Beau had the trots the week before, and who knows what germs he could catch in there. This knowledge was appreciated but didn’t put my mind to rest. Tim had many long hours in fetal position as the neighbouring Cambodians kept asking where his family was. Even though this is the best hospital in Battambang, patients’ families do most of the legwork from emptying catheters, showering, changing linen, cooking food to even administering medication. Loved ones camp out around the clock keeping a constant vigil at their bedside. Nurses are present but often on their mobile phones. It was a case of googling what drugs Tim was having to get any information. The Khmer doctor was approachable but very difficult to understand.

It makes you realise how far Cambodia has come from the KR days where all the medical knowledge was lost with the desecration of qualified doctors. Western influences shunned including the supply of medicine used for prevented diseases such as malaria. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! 21% of the total population from 1975-1979 were wiped out mainly due to starvation as everyone were herded from cities and expected to toil in the soil.  The idealists in power believed that agricultural reform and total self sufficiency would help return Cambodia to its former glory days of Angkor Kingdom. Yet another historical example of extreme ideology defying logic. And possibly shows how countries need to trade and be interdependent, just like no one person can operate as an island. This fanaticism was spawned out of hardship- Cambodia had years of foreign occupation (Thailand and France had a go) and the brutal disregard for the Khmer people who had more US bombs dropped on their homeland throughout the Vietnam War years (1965-1973) than any other country.

These rascals have so much fun being....rascals

These rascals have so much fun being….rascals

I’m pleased to say Tim is back home with us. A thinner and more subdued version but thankfully cramp free. He reckons he got an insight into child birth! He found a weighted keyboard in a junk shop covered in dust. He’s been teaching himself. Enjoy!

 

Hope you’re health full where ever this finds you x

 

 

Learning to Love

Life is sometimes murky. Not always perky.

This content may be depressing for readers. Read on at your own discretion.

This content may be depressing for readers. Read on at your own discretion.

I get this zipped up feeling in my belly and my head cogs get stuck on sticky tape when I hear the word depression.

It’s like being at a party and you put your foot in it, the saliva dripping off your toes. There’s that pause, shuffling feet moment .That’s what depression can feel like….awkward, anxious, uncomfortable.

And what sucks ball is that it isn’t easy to laugh.

There is nothing better than just after you’ve shoved your foot in it, by stating your dislike for someone or something (not realising the familial connection) they agree with you or were playing you… and there’s that raucous release as everyone recovers. And usually a closer connection has been made. Humour being the best bloody medicine.

Well it can be hard ..

To get out of one’s head.
It’s often easier to get off one’s face.

I’ve spent most of the last decade riding the roller coaster that is becoming a parent. The new level of responsibility that dawned on me when I first held my little prince. And from the moment I was taken back to the maternity ward, and spent that sleepless, exhilarating first night alert and buzzing with disbelief and happiness that this holy baby was ours.  I felt so much and slept so little. And questioned what I did and was I doing it right? And what if he got left to cry, and I didn’t want that so I remain forever vigilant. On duty. Poised for action.

And all this responsibility. Giving and responsibility. Two things that a parent is expected to do into eternity. And sometimes you just don’t feel it, or have it or feel overwhelmed by it.

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My shoulders grew wide balancing the dumb bells, scared to look up in case they fell and snapped my neck. So I ploughed on trying to keep busy in case stopping meant they fell. I sought help in the conventional avenues. Shopped at therapy world. Became a Eastern medicine consumer. Regular dives in chlorinated waters connecting with my inner dolphin. All of which have helped and remain in a tool bag. I haven’t taken medication but it is another useful tool to get out of a rut.

At first, I basically didn’t want to hear anything about depression. What good can come of dwelling on it by talking about it. I grew up in a family that bloody well got on with it. No point in talking about something that doesn’t exist.

You’re a “Wilson” and we’re Aussie Battlers.  Herefords with thick hides.

One can live or half live trapped in a man size zipper, your throat choked, even if a smile is plastered on your face. You can see the beautiful people in your life. It’s like having a curiosity cabinet full of quirky, artistic trinkets and beauty right in front of you, but it ‘s behind glass. And you, fogging up the glass wanting to reach out and embrace them but can’t. And the more the word can’t is parried around, mostly silently to yourself, your feelings of self doubt and failure grow in the quiet, dark places.

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It is hard to understand this unless you actually been there. And if you’re there, it’s not an easy place to even recognise.

You feel like a cold fish in a warm pond.  And knuckles white like Santa’s beard. And you’re wishing for Christmas to come and maybe with enough wishing and hoping, they’ll all come at once to jumpstart you into action.

Coming to Cambodia was part of this action- fulfilling a long held dream and a fresh canvas. In many ways it is providing a space for self reflection (as you can read!). A space I expected to fill with giving and volunteering and thinking about others. As an antidote to depression, giving to others helps. It does. When I am with the kids at work, I feel joy. I get cuddles and smiles, contagious ointment for my mossy soul. But then the old feelings arise again, I head for the fridge to soothe my fears. I eat fast, trying to choke down feelings of inadequacy.

It is such a waste. If only….if only I could snap out of it. And there are daily moments I do, seeing a bubbly cloud in the sky and a flash of warmth in a smile. Hearing the kids call ‘hello’ as they wave and run behind my bicycle. I am very lucky to be here in Cambodia. And that gratitude has a positive effect.

 

The concentration of lego sessions- 13 kids joined us last week

the concentration of lego sessions- 13 kids joined in last week

I see I have a responsibility to admit to myself (and now to the world) that yes. It is real and it follows one wherever they go. So no more denial. It is a process of learning to breathe through the uncomfortable feelings when they come. Often by slowing down rather than speeding up.

And finally learning to love, truly love myself and the darker side of the moon moments. Because the fighting, running and hating only fuels rather than forgives.

My friend who has battled the black dog for many years once told me, ‘You have to work on yourself.’ No one else can do it for you. And you have to stop and look at the pain, embrace it, love it and from there, you can begin to let it go and move on.

Thanks for listening dear friends.

All in a day

So we’ve been enjoying the food in Cambodia. Meat, meat, meat is what the Khmer love. Rusty, dissected petrol drums at roadside stalls with the sweet aroma of burning flesh… are a common sight. Chicken and pork being the most popular and easily accessible meat.

We inherited one of these beauties with our new house and I love nothing more than going to the local market early on Saturday morning to buy fresh pork ribs; marinating them all afternoon and throwing them on for a Saturday night barbie.

Our number 2 son, Beau loves his food.

Beau having his fourth bowl of chicken soup on a school excursion to a nearby village

Beau having his fourth bowl of chicken soup on a school excursion to a nearby village

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His teacher was so delighted by Beau’s appetite, he took many photos to prove it

Another famous Khmer dish is Fish Amok- everyone has a family recipe for this steamed fish curry, served traditionally in a banana leaf. The curry is a heady mixture of ginger, garlic, turmeric, chilli, lemongrass and galangal cooked with coconut milk.

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 The local Sangke River (the life force that Battambang town girdles) is home to small, tasty but bony suckers, the common fish used in the dish.  On my bike ride to work every morning people often flank her banks with extra long bamboo poles trying their luck.

 On Friday night we sat down at home to this delicacy. Saliva pumps started as we all took out first mouthful. Beau immediately gets a bone that he proudly pulls out of his mouth to inspect. Dad is doing the commentary to go with the show:

We don’t eat bones so put it on the side of your plate

On cue when our nearly four year old hears the word don’t , he does.

He pops the bone back in his mouth to see what will happen, he swallows. Gulp. Ahhhhhhhhh

It lodges itself in the back of his throat.  Faaarrrkkkkk!

Already on my feet after the initial bone sighting, annoyed that it had slipped through the security check. I’m hugging a slobbering mess- he’s dribbling and crying (a good sign) at least he’s not turning blue and gasping. I watch as Tim and Quinn continue to keep eating. It was delicious mind you. But my stomach is in knots and I’m amazed they can do it.

Tim calls our local Aussie nurse friend who asks how big? Oh 3 cm.. but it looked thin…

We need to find a hospital and get it taken out.

I’m running around, Beau in my arms bits of fishy goop on my chest, vague thoughts of medical insurance and passports in my brain. I grab the passports but can’t find the medical insurance papers.

We all pile on the family moto. Quinn up the front between Dad’s legs. Beau and I backseat trying to console each other. He’s managing to still talk (another good sign!):

 I’m gonna tell that fish bone to go away Mum.

Ok beautiful. Then he’s crying again in pain.

Not so Baby Beau

Not so Baby Beau

Google earth isn’t working and finding places in daylight amongst the scribbly Khmer language is a tough task. Now, with all our stress levels elevated, Tim sets off in the opposite direction. We head out along Highway 5, all madly trying to keep our wits.

I start bumble bee breath (known as ‘Omming’ and humming) just as much to calm my racing thoughts of unsterile gadgets going down Beau’s throat or contagious diseases he may never recover from. Every time I start to think I hum louder. I used this in child birth, maybe it was this memory or the moto engine but soon Beau is asleep! We are still looking in the dark for the only reputable medical centre. The others aren’t worth the risk – we stopped outside one and all the anti-hepatitis signs scared us off. Whenever the bike stops, Beau is disturbed and crying spasms start again.

So more humming later, Tim speeding and playing chicken with some trucks until I start barking at him to slow down. We finally find the right medical centre. On cue Beau MIRACULOUSLY comes to, looking refreshed from the snooze, with a

‘I’m alright Mum’

I can’t believe it so I ask him three times. I didn’t believe in God until now. I was sending some windy prayers to my dead grandfather (who I never got the pleasure to met) since  it was his birthday, I thought he might be up having a party.

We enter  the medical centre to get him checked out only to be sent out 5 minutes later with a

‘We don’t do throats only bones and fractures’

This centre really is exclusive!  And empty, it has that sterile, pristine, rich smelling sheen, only used by foreigners or obscenely rich Cambodians. Even if it is a classist establishment, they won’t check out his gob sending us to a private ENT clinic in town. With shady directions we find the clinic closed, but the Western ice cream shop next door open.

Assessing our options, Beau still perky telling me

‘The bone’s broken Mum and gone into my foot’

Feeling somewhat put at ease by his 3.5 year old prognosis, we decide food therapy may work. We all drop into an American-esque diner booth and enjoy a sundae.

Brothers in arms

Brothers in arms

Dodging bullets is hungry work.

Schooling on the Road

My boys and now a bike

My boys and now a bike

 

We decided to embark on this adventure  as it would peel back the kids’ eyelids. The nitty gritty of schooling was glossed over after a web search popped up a few options.

First port of call when we arrived was checking out the French Montessori School. This was right up our alternative yet still structured alley, and in French only added another feather to its cap.

As all well laid plans or should I say imaginings often pale into a gooey stickiness of reality,  we discovered that for our older son at 7, it was not Montessori method but French Classical System. At this point, a small bell rang in my head, especially upon reading the material list required a slate (!) but I pushed it aside. Our son was not showing any linguistic leanings, if anything the opposite and that’s in his mother tongue. We ploughed forward, in the face of parental schoolyard gossip about other schools ranged from:

(1) a breeding ground for colonial superiority whereby foreign cherubs get carried up the stairs

(2) equally frightening, touts sell energy drinks to kids on their way to the toilet

After week 3, Quinn was showing the strain, dark circles under his eyes even after a full night’s sleep. Each day I would probe him getting a blank expression which I imagine he’s had since morning when he began retreating into his world of go cart design and fortification building easier to understand than the banter around him.

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Coming from ‘Stralia’, a second language isn’t necessary (no direct neighbours) and maybe we’re all lazy, the Board of Studies has scrapped it from the primary school curriculum altogether. Obviously there is an adjustment phase to second language acquisition and it takes some good ol’ digging deep until you can start making daisy chains out on the frontier.

In the face of Quinn requiring up to 5 afternoons of private tuition just to make some headway, I did some quiet soul poking and saw that this was my dream not his.  He prefers to be drawing in his ‘creative book’ that lives under his pillow or stalking muddy puddles on his bike. It was something that the Director of the School said to us

We need to set children up to succeed

Playing to kids’ strengths to build confidence can have spin off effects in areas that niggle them. I also realised that my zeal for him to achieve may actually overshadow his happiness. And even if being well meaning and passionate about education, especially my own kids is not a bad thing,  my interest now gets interpreted as pressure. I’m like a single woman’s biological clock ticking and Quinn, a confirmed bachelor.

Me (add white wine) at a friend's wedding- My captive's face says it all

My captive’s face says it all

 

Not one to let myself off easily, I probed the onion skin to see a mouldy fear still there from my school days. How the carrot and stick system is geared for little over achievers to get self gratification in every tick on the page or a teacher’s sweet smile. How I became like Pavlov’s dog hooked on praise. Look I could have got into some harder shit than teacher pleasing and studying hard, and yes I got an education, a good one and doors opened, but emotionally, all that striving only reinforced that I needed to be a try-hard.

To feel worthy.

Who knows why I felt this, lack of nurturing in childhood ? genetic makeup? sensitivity ? Maybe there is no singular reason, but recognising this as an adult, is liberating. And now as a parent, I want to take out my own trash and hopefully the stench won’t waft up Quinn’s nostrils.

Where to now? Tim and I will share the roll out of Quinn’s education. And he can go to a local school for socialisation in the afternoons. The literacy book seems to send our potential perfectionist into groans. So the other day, we decided to ditch it and head outside.

In our garden

In our garden

I took a deep breath and allowed Quinn to lead me. Soon he was digging and we planted tomato, basil, rocket and parsley sent by his beloved Godmother. Soon we were on our haunches making clay men and  elephants out of mud.

'Mum and Me'

‘Mum and Me’

 

'Elephant Man' -  not a piece of poo

Elephant Man

It was a wonderful morning listening to the birds, making up stories to go with our creations. Quinn showed his bravery for worm wielding (they’re huge here!) and told me how that meant we have fertile soil. I feel we do sweet Quinn. And that if I learn to trust that your future will be bright, I will hold your hand and be led along into the unknown. Know that with a full heart and an open ears, I have your back as you tread your own path in life’s learning journey.

Greener Pastures

So for those who’ve been here since the beginning, you may remember my post about our landlords and their attitude to children, in particular noisy children.https://bangonaboutbattambang.com/2014/08/20/peace-in-paradise/

After Beau managed to put a dart through a fly screen; pull a wicker cupboard on top of him smashing the mirror on his head, beautify the wall with crayon, get trigger happy on the bum gun one too many times, we’ve parted ways. The landlords eager to find us a new place and us eager to feel like we weren’t living with our parents.

 

Our New Digs

Our New Digs

According to our previous landlords, this place was just waiting for us. The owner is a judge who moved to Phnom Penh a while ago, not desperate to rent the place remained elusive. That was until our previous landlord desperate to find us a new domicile accosted her calling up to ten times a day and a deal struck.

We now live further out of town amidst paddy field green and buffalo tracks. The kids can play rough and tumble in the garden lined with 4 dragon fruit trees (large succulent sculptures), mangos, limes and passionfruit. We have an extra bedroom that’s swiftly been utilised as a kid free zone as it has a lockable door. This is where I’m shacked up to write this piece.

These beauties in our garden

These beauties in our garden

The local neighbours are Khmer and have already inquisitively scoped out our joint. Quinn and Beau can be found out the front with any number of sticks or swords in action.

Goat Curry ?

Goat Curry ?

These four legged friends were seen on our first bike ride to the market. The market being a cross between an abattoir, a farmer’s market, hardware store and a bargain shop. All live or not so lucky critters (eels, crabs, insects, chicken, goose, duck, pork, beef, snails, snake) and fresh vegies/fruit are rolled out on grass mats for your perusal. Best to get there early because after the sun is higher in the sky, so are the number of flies.

Quinn turned 7 this weekend. It feels like quite the milestone for all of us. He’s growing into a thoughtful, sensitive and artistic young man. He was full of home made pinata and commando course building ideas for the party. None of which actually happened…but water pistols fights and pass the parcel sufficed.

Chocolate cake! Quite a rarity

Chocolate cake! Quite a rarity

We had quite a turn out. Tim being the social broadcaster he is- invited everyone we’ve met since arriving 3 months ago. It turned into a beautiful motley crew of Khmer and Expat- from the hotel owner and porter from the Royal Hotel where we stayed when we first arrived, to our old landlords, to work colleagues, new French friends from Beau’s preschool to the entire staff from our local, backpacker bar Here Be Dragons. 8 kg of barbecued meat later and eons of coconuts, beer and sweet cakes, everyone was suitably porky. Even a souped up ice cream van Cambodia-style came who must have got the call up.

Suzuki City cum Mr Whippy

Suzuki City cum Mr Whippy

So we are adjusting to our new digs peacefully. It feels like a new chapter has begun for our time here.  Whenever, I leave our walled garden and ride my bike along the country lane, I feel like I’m in a movie- the seated fishermen by the irrigation ditch with their home made fishing stick; the local jetty made out of a few pieces of bamboo easy to replace after heavy rains, smells waffing from outdoor ‘kitchens’ of the neighbouring corrugated huts.

What year is it? What century are we in?

Pchum Ben Festival

For 15 mornings the alarm clock has been the sounds of monks’ chanting to ghosts at the gates of Hell.

This ancestors festival is a huge celebration, second only to Khmer New Year.  The monks sing all night without sleeping as the gates open ghosts reprieved from their time of purgation escape whilst other unfortunates only get a temporary leave pass but must return to more repentance.  Piles of food are laid at the feet of the monks by locals to gain ‘merits’ that indirectly benefit their family dead. Some locals throw rice balls into the air  via direct post leaving out the middlemen. Whatever your beliefs about your ancestors’ fate, some souls obviously made it to heaven, it is a time of celebration with all spirits, pious and devious benefiting from the attention.

Choo Choo: Waitya, Quinn, Waitya's sister, Beau

Choo Choo: Waitya, Quinn, Waitya’s sister, Beau

We were invited to a friend of Quinn, Waitya’s house to stuff our faces on Cambodian cakes, a mixture of sticky rice with any combination of banana, red bean, shrimp, pork, nuts, honey, lentils, corn. We arrived to a feast of oranges and fruit, our mouths never empty, before the cakes came out…and then the curry and rice. With pants popping we managed to extract ourselves from our plastic chairs to go on a village tour to visit relatives, and eat more cakes.

 

 

 

Walking through palm fringed tracks only wide enough for motos and bicycles. Cars not a common sight.

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We stumbled across the boys’ teachers house- a modest hut with the extended family all on the frontal platform. Grandma, aunts, uncles, brother, sisters, grandchildren- one being 3 year old whose parents are working as construction workers in Thailand, Grandma who looked 80 but may have been 50, taking up the slack. As I stood there, talking to his sweet teachers in Khmer English realising that just because someone speaks good enough English to get a job in a school, doesn’t mean that it is a well paid. Nor does it mean this husband and wife teacher team live in their own home. Like 40 year old virgins in our culture (that they are not, their cute daughter toddles at their heels) they live in the family home, their salary going into the communal pot.

 

Outside Teacher Pin and LeMong's house

Outside Teacher Pin and LeMong’s house

We are finding the Khmer such warmhearted people. Their generosity is without boundaries. I speak for all my boys, we feel very welcome and at home here. Even with our

Tik Tik Khmer

which means ‘I don’t speak much at all’, we get smiles at our jumbled attempts and nods of appreciation that we even try.  Take away speech, body language is the radio channel and so often I find that if I initiate a smile, I get a HUGE one in return. It is easy to see that home truth in action you get back what you give out.

 

Boys will be….boys

A wise friend doing the Battambang life with kids recommended we get outta town regularly. With school holidays limping into their third month, it was definitely time.

We packed ourselves into the back of a taxi for the 3 hour drive to Siem Reap with 2 hyper boys practicing head stands on the back seat. This city is a cultural mecca being the home of the Mighty Angkor Wat and many lesser known cousins.  A must see on anyone’s bucket’s list. Its ancient architecture whispers of a forgotten kingdom, patriotically kept alive in the minds of the Khmer as a time of strength and power. Even today a pulipal energy radiates as Buddhist monks still visit shrines daily keeping the spiritual fires lit.

The Bayon- Tim's favourite pick

We left the boys poolside in an innocent housekeeper’s care. All went surprisingly well, except for receiving 6 missed calls to say the kids were ravenous and needed to order pizza. Ce La Vie.

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We so enjoyed the quiet togetherness. Moving away from family, you rarely get time to relax with one another, rather we tag team our breaks. And try not to bicker over who gets more sanity savers.

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 We are still adjusting to our new life. From other expats I’ve heard it takes up to three months to acclimatise, but from Battambang locals, who have lived the high and lows that occur on a daily basis, it is more like six months. So whatever the magical figure may be, it is where we are at right now.

The boys still in the throws of missing their friends keenly, and without school or routine AND living in a strange new world, they are emotional. Their sibling relationship showing the strain of being only friend, brother, sparking partner and side kick. Beau has regressed in his toilet training big time which may be influenced by the size of the cockroaches in our bathroom or never knowing what kind of squat, pit, hole or seatless throne may be on offer. Quinn has retreated into this fantasy world of fighting and weapons…whereby he is slaying ninjas in our street every night, and by day hitting plastic swords on a pole, or punching clothes hanging on the line.

Having two boys I’ve witnessed some aggression but it is definitely magnified at the moment. A coping mechanism?

So when Quinn got wind of the War Museum, he came alive so I acquiesced. The word was that it was a government rip off who bullied the more informative Land Mine Museum into moving premises out of town.  We arrived to an open field of rusty tanks ready to attack if only they had wheels.

Friendly Staff members play with the boys

Friendly Staff members play with the boys

With no conservation signage, safety measures dependent on how adventurous you are, the boys clambered over the tanks like monkeys. That was until they spotted the gun exhibit- a bungalow with rows of rifles that you could freely touch.

OMG!

OMG!

Quinn yells with characteristic Elvis thrusts as he strokes an AK-47, affectionately known from then as ”Gun-ji”.

Heaven on Earth

Heaven on Earth

I was reminded of the gun racks in my Uncle’s bedroom at my Grandma’s farm. And how I never wanted to sleep in that room, let alone touch them.

Tim and I had the whole gun conversation early on, our consensus being no toy guns in the house. But like water wears away at stone, a wooden handcrafted (that makes a difference, right?) toy rifle slipped into Quinn’s clutches at aged 4.  I can only describe the whole process as seeing an avalanche coming towards you, and deciding to calmly step out of the way.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said things about war, and what it means, and how hurting people is bad. They kinda listened the first time but now it is like trying to get your kids attention when they are glued to a screen.

So the boys were in army heaven fondling all the paraphernalia, one of the guides wanders by, I smile and say:

‘My boys love guns. I tell them war is bad’, looking defeated.

As the sky changes to yellow, the same guide returns beer in hand. We are still in the hut, hours gone. I’m scrawling in my notebook, snatching precious time, the boys still enthralled.

He gestures to the boys and tells me I’m a good mother for letting my sons go.

‘Your boys ok, they come from you, they will be good, you must believe that. ‘

Maybe I’m easily flattered, or enjoy validation whenever I can get it, but I was touched by his words. With linguistic limitations and a traditionally patrilocal culture, you don’t get too many conversations with blokes on any deep level.

He continues:

‘I loved guns as a boy. I play with his father’s gun and make him worry. Then at 13, I join the Khmer Rouge, for 14 years’

As a boy soldier for a notoriously brutal regime, he saw what no person, let alone child should ever have to witness.

I lose everything. All my family dead. I see war. Not good. You tell your children that.’

Do you have kids I ask?

’After war, I want for nothing. I become drunk guy’.

With that he’s gone, raising his bottle in a quick salute. And I’m left in that space where someone’s shared a part of themselves that leaves a mark.

As the sky turns to pink, I touch the sleek cold metal of a M-16, feel its secrets and know its been used for real, not just in boys’ war games.  And I promise to keep sowing the seeds for love and peace in my little soldiers’ hearts.  Teaching compassion for all things, and dropping those crumbs hoping that my boys will always know that it is wrong to hurt others. Maybe it was unwise to let them covet these weapons. But watching Quinn I get a sense of his own dad as a child, who wanted to join the army but has never been in a fight.

I can’t change where their present passions lie, only trust that by allowing them to explore them, they will tire of them and move on, hopefully with equal zeal but less violence. I’ve seen those kids deprived of television, who once they see one, have no self control or discretion, they watch shopping channels verbatim.

I don’t vouch to know what I’m doing most of the time, but raising boys is like a biology lesson. Neither Tim nor I encourage violence. I teach yoga and enjoy Buddhist philosophy. What I’ve been working on is acceptance of my self, no matter what to stay soft and listening. And I’m realising this extends to my kids.