It has been quite a week. The word “humbling” comes to mind — mixed with a healthy dose of humour, I hasten to add. And every day has brought something new, unusual and fascinating.
It makes me think of my friend, Susan who, after spending four years teaching English in China, said that, no matter how confused, overwhelmed or distressed she may have felt, she always felt ALIVE.
Picture us sitting (shoeless) in a small classroom with our two fellow volunteers, Meghan and Eliza, making sounds like seals barking at the rocks, while trying to correctly pronounce a vowel in this strange language called Khmer (but pronounced “Khmai”).
“Er” does not sound like “eh“. And “oo” is not “eu“. And then there’s “nga” and “ngo” which sound like nothing a western voice has ever said before.
We go around the room, err-ing and ng-ing and ahy-ing, with a combination of frustration, embarrassment and (as the morning goes on) rolling-around hysteria. Our teacher, Panga, earnestly and urgently urges these strange sounds from our throats and doesn’t leave us alone until we have perfected each “eu” to his liking (which, in some cases, takes quite some time!). He’s quite the Khmer Nazi of the spoken word and seems hell-bent on making it his business to send us out into the streets of Phnom Penh sounding correct.
Then there’s the writing. Sure, it’s interesting to be able to recognize characters when we see them on signs around town, but how on earth do you write something that looks like a British pound symbol combined with a flying double wing? And how do you put together the “”nga” symbol (which looks like an elephant) with the flying wing “ay” — would it be “ngay“?? It’s can be fun drawing squiggly lines but I honestly don’t ever see myself writing anything in this language other than “help” (or would that be “oo-err!”)?
The most important part is, of course, the language itself, which takes up three hours of our day every morning. So far we have whizzed through more than 100 words and we’re now starting to put them together and figure out how they work in sentences. “Khnom trowgaa tuk” means “I need water” and (my favourite) “Ponchaneetan no eyenaar?” is “Where is the restaurant” (try saying THAT fast!). Some of the words are impossibly challenging such as “today” (t’ngaynih) and “yesterday” (pee masallmun) and then there are those which are pretty simple – kafe is coffee, dap is ten and (Skip’s favourite), man means right (hmm..).
It’s a supremely frustrating process but we’re starting to get the hang of a few words and I was very impressed when Skip told the tuktuk driver to khang chwayen (turn left) and then to som chop (please stop).
However, we’ve had quite as bit of spare time between classes and, in the meantime, are discovering all kinds of interesting things around town.
Last night, we were introduced to the Meta House – an arthouse run by the German Goethe Institute which shows English-subtitled movies on the topfloor of their building every night. After climbing a flight of stairs from the street, you find yourself in an open-air space where a large screen hangs on a white wall and 40 theatre seats are arranged in front of the screen. While looking out across the street with an evening breeze and dozens of bats as your companions, you select from the menu of drinks and spend an evening watching a good film. We saw “Castaway on the Moon”, a fabulously-entertaining Korean film and there’s a huge variety to choose from — political, artistic and even American at times. The price? Free.
We’ve also discovered the Living Room, a balconied western-style cafe where you can sit among leafy plants on wicker couches sipping mango smoothies and baguettes. And the Lunch Box, a gourmet sandwich bar where we had fabulous sandwiches seated in a flowery patio off the main street, under fabric-covered canopies. There’s also a book exchange in the restaurant where you can bring your used back and take another.
Our local lunch spot near the guesthouse is a place with no name, located on the corner of the street complete with signs advertising buses to Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City . We’ve been there a few times when we don’t feel like venturing too far and, for a mere $1.50, feast on huge plates of delicious stir-fried vegetables with rice, bowls of noodles or steaming tom yum with shrimp.There’s certainly something to be said for eating like a local when it comes to price (or visiting the local spas where one-hour massages cost no more than $8, even at the most costly spot).
Earlier this week, in search of comfortable pillows to replace the bricks we’ve been sleeping on at the guesthouse, we found ourselves at the Sorya Mall – a multi-storied whirlwind of shops selling hair ornaments, clothing, electronics, sporting equipment and much more. We found it somewhat overwhelming with dozens of escalators weaving crowds of people between floors, but it served two purposes — we now have lovely soft pillows and we discovered Lucky’s gelato bar and indulged in mango, hazelnut and chocolate scoops to revive us from the heat.
So, as we continue to discover more hidden (and not-so-hidden) spots, we’re starting to get a feel for the city and find places which make us smile.
After all, we do need an escape from the kanghaal and the kiake and the bantubtik and the salareen.