March 6, 2010

Khmer-style and a durian tangent

Breakfast in Kratie Town was two of the most pleasant hours I've had in Cambodia. I nabbed a bamboo-wrapped roasted sticky rice for a little over 60 cents and crossed the the street to peel out the delicious mixture while overlooking the Mekong. Rice, beans and coconut milk make nearly the ideal breakfast food as the combination is sweet, but not-too-sweet, and appropriately filling. Satisfied and thirsty, I also decided that such a magnificent morning deserved an iced coffee. A little overwhelmed by the market, I enlisted the help of the cheekiest of CWF staff members. Soon, I was holding a tiny plastic bag full of ice, sugar and espresso. Yes, a bag with a straw—that's to-go Khmer style (pronounced “Ka-MY Style”).

It seems (and appropriately so) that everything in Cambodia is Khmer style. The mini-bus ride from Kratie to the boats at Sambo District was certainly Khmer style. Though lacking the roof-riders of traditional Khmer transport, we were packed like Khmers, fitting five large butts where normally three sit—thank goodness for a/c. The roads were true to Khmer style as we bounced, swerved and honked our way through the 45-minute journey. The ever-blasting Khmer radio hypnotized us into a new state of mind where things that seem essential at home suddenly aren't, and where the broken wall clocks reflect the easy pace of life.

Our meals in the village were served, how else, Khmer style. On the floor of the home, two parallel lines of place settings—enough to serve nearly 20. Several vats of rice, a few bowls of fish soups, stir-fry, and fried bananas (mmm!!) were ready to fill our hungry bellies. In the intense heat (upwards of 38 C or 100 F) of Cambodia, one trick is to douse the food with chilies to force your body to cool off. Even though it's a bit torturous going down, a few minutes later, the cooling effect is wonderful. The meals were excellent considering the circumstances, and the rest/nap periods on either side of the meal were much needed. If you have never experienced Cambodian heat, it's something to behold. Every day, it's the hottest summer day you can remember, plus humidity and no air-conditioned retreat. The knees of my cargo pants had white marks from the all the salt I had sweated out. Normally, I would have been very turned off by the intense climate, but the weather is an integral part of life here. The people move at a slower pace, they take life one nap at a time, because it's just too hot. In the words of another volunteer as he shut his eyes for a nap, “Now I know why it takes three months to dig a hole...”

During the absolute hottest part of the day, we visited the island school. I thought of my brother as we crossed the dusty school yard to the classrooms. We added our monstrous shoes to the pile of teeny flip flops before we filed into the sauna-esque classroom. Each volunteer had contributed a few dollars to buy school supplies for the kids, so after the children sang welcome songs, we gathered them outside to present them with a notebook and pencil each. What a great feeling to see so many children smiling and enjoying a new notebook. I was starting to understand the importance of my work at CWF, and the impact that even a small amount of time or money can have on someone's life. I have taken education for granted for so long that I have a hard time unpacking the idea that not all children go to school, and that schools are not the same everywhere. Time to wake up and smell the durian Jena.

Okay, durian tangent—It is only food too strong for wacky food expert Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods. The durian is a soft fleshy Asian fruit renowned for its revolting odor. It took me nearly two months to realize that the durian was the main culprit of the nauseating stench at all markets. Many believe it to be an aphrodisiac, but after having several unfortunate spoonfuls in my dessert in Kratie, the only thing I wanted to do was brush my teeth and avoid ever, ever, ever eating it again.