This evening at 5pm, I found myself sitting on a wall shadowed by the majesty of the Angkor Wat temple. Dark grey clouds billowed above as the last vestiges of the day disappeared and the only sound was the clacking of hundreds of frogs in the watery grass.
It was a moment of beauty, stillness and joy.
Two hours later, I climbed down from the PSE van after being driven in circles for the past 20 minutes trying to find a particular restaurant. Hiking up my trousers, I waded through five inches of filthy rainwater into a plain, discouraging eating spot where the only non-meat product was the omnipresent noodles and vegetables that I’d been eating all week.
A little different from my Angkor Wat moment.
It was the last stage of our two-week excursion across Cambodia in search of desserts (and stories) for the book on traditional recipes I’m working on with PSE. And, while there have been many moments where I thought the wheels were coming off and there was absolutely no organization whatsoever, it’s an experience I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
However, there’s usually one time every day when I feel things are falling apart and realize the word “plan” is a dirty word in the Cambodian vocabulary.
For instance, on Monday we rolled into Battambang and were due for the obligatory meeting with a representative from the Ministry of Tourism. Savuth (the chef), called him and invited him to join us later that night for dinner (it was 5:45pm).
When Savuth hung up the phone, he said the rep may not come to dinner as it may be raining (huh? It’s rainy season and this is Cambodia). Two minutes later he told us we had to leave.
The chap from the MoT was waiting for us at the restaurant.
We hot-footed it three blocks to our designated spot as no Cambodians dare to keep officials waiting. Twenty minutes later there was a phone call.
He wasn’t meeting us for dinner. He’d meet us for breakfast instead.
There go those plans!
Next day, the moment of truth came when we drove across town to meet a woman who we felt was a sure gem for our project. Not only was she a dessert maker but she also worked at the Ministry of Culture. A double header!
We arrived in a torrential downpour (after first getting lost, of course) waded across the dirt road into her home and sat with her outside on her straw mat.
Savuth and Kiw (the other Cambodian chef) chatted and talked and conversed and nattered. None of which was in English and none of which was being translated.
Twenty minutes later we discovered the trip was useless. She worked at the Ministry all right but had no clue about making desserts and was a total waste for us.
She gave us the right person, we drove some more, got lost again, found a streetside stand selling Cambodian desserts (caramelized potato and banana) and stopped to eat a bowl.
We finally made it to her home and she was happy to show us the dessert process but there were about nine kids, our photographer, three family members, Savuth and Kiv and Alex (from PSE) and me. I was the only one trying to get information so I could write the article but everyone was trying to talk or cook or translate at the same time.
After a moment of panic where I felt I’d never get the meaning of anything, once again it all worked out. I found a good story, ate some really nice sticky coconutty syrupy thing and had had a great time playing with the kids.
And so it continued.
Luckily I’m not the type to get too stressed but I had to remind myself several times during the week to relax and slow down and that everything would work out.
I’ve also learned so much about letting go and trying not to control things. Realizing that the Cambodian way of “figuring things out” actually does work most of the time. And that our western ways of planning, organizing and having a direction don’t always work best.
There have been too many memorable moments to list during this wild ride, but there are a few which stand out:
- Yesterday in Pailin (a dusty little one-horse town), there was huge consternation among our Cambodian colleagues when they learned they (and me) would be left without a car since Alex and Vincent (the photographer) were taking it to the waterfall. We were going to the market and couldn’t possibly manage without wheels. There were no tuktuks and we couldn’t use the rep’s car from the MoT. What to do? Only after I asked multiple times about the location of the market did I discover it was two blocks from our hotel. (Anyone out there heard of walking?)
- Conversation with Savuth in Kratie as we waited to take a boat across the river:
Me: “Savuth, can you swim in this river?”
Savuth: “Not if you can’t swim”
Me: Ï mean is it safe to swim in the river. Can you do it?”
Savuth: “Can I swim in the river?”
Me: “No, Savuth. Can anyone swim in it ?….Like those people on the boat”
Savuth: “Those people come from the island across the river”
Me: “I don’t mean THOSE people. Can anyone swim here? Is it OK for swimming?”
· I’ve learned that time among locals is somewhat different to ours. Nobody is ever on time. It’s a full-time project to look for a place to eat, no matter how little time we have in the day, and nobody ever knows how to get anywhere. We stopped several times for directions from Banteay Meanchey to Siem Reap (hey, isn’t Siem Reap a pretty well-known destination?) and Kiv swore up and down it took four hours to get from Battambang to Pailin yesterday even though we all knew we left the hotel at 9am and arrived a little after 11am, after stopping twice to take photos.
· Local dining is fun and I’ve had some great times sitting on a plastic stool with dogs sniffing around my feet while a cow spins on a spit outside. The food is always extremely cheap (between $1 and $3 for a meal) but I’m getting just a wee bit tired of the same fried rice, fried noodles, egg and soup three meals a day (yes, even at breakfast)
And, while I am loving most moments of this wild and wacky tour and I know I’ll remember more about these days than many other trips, there may be a subconscious attempt in my mind to escape from sticky rice, coconut milk, slimy things in buckets and goopy stuff in a bowl.
Because last night I dreamed about chocolate cake.