(warning- seriously long and wordy- but with pictures!- post ahead!)
Is it Day 4 or Day 5? Do I start counting from when I left the States (5 days ago) or when I arrived here (3 days ago) or when I actually found myself fully awake (today)? Who knows? We’ll just call today Friday, even though it will be well into Saturday here by the time this gets posted.
First, I have to say this, and maybe you just have to be an American traveler in the Third World to appreciate it. But would someone, please, for the love of Pete, write a [picture] book teaching Americans how to use non-Western toilets and showers? I’m not saying there’s been any international incidents (so far), but an instructional guide would have helped a few times.
Now, moving on.
I had a great day today. It was my first day on the job at Riverkids. That place is so amazing. I can’t begin to tell you how blessed and happy I am that of all the orphanages in Phnom Penh (and I believe there are over 60?) I was (not so randomly- I have to believe the Lord had a hand in it) placed at this one.
Let me back up and explain that again. I volunteered/signed up to come here with an organization called Projects Abroad. PA has projects all over the globe. I am living and eating with other PA volunteers. However, we are all “placed” at different NGOs around Phnom Penh. Some of the volunteers are journalism students working at an Italian newspaper. We have a human rights volunteer who is doing amazing things rescuing women from human trafficking. And we have several nurses and therapists working at hospitals and orphanages. And there are several many more of us doing “teaching or care” at the orphanages. I think there are about 20-25 volunteers in our little collection of apartments. (Every day I see another new face, and honestly, I can’t keep track of everyone. Basically, if I see a white person walking through my apartment house, I assume she (there are only 2 males in the bunch) is a fellow volunteer.) Anyway, back to my point. Out of roughly 15 teaching or care volunteers, we are spread out among probably 5-8 different orphanages that Projects Abroad works with. And out of all the odds, I got placed at Riverkids.
Why is this one so special and different to me? Simple- it is exactly the type of place I want to set up in the future. My long term goal over the next 5 years is to start my own orphanage/program that doesn’t just take in abandoned children. But instead does everything possible to help keep families together, serve the community, and prevents orphaning. What I want to do goes much deeper than that. And what Riverkids does goes much deeper than that. But I hope there will be some exciting news to share in a few days, so I’ll just leave you in suspense for now.
So why did I have a great day? First, I just really discovered how blessed I am to be at Riverkids doing exactly the kind of work I have always wanted to do. This just makes me happier than words can express. But again, more on that later.
Next, all the volunteers went out tonight. It was my first really social experience in town, and it helped a lot. Traveling abroad always leads to a little loneliness and a tiny bit of anxiety trying to get your feet wet and get comfortable. I’ve been somewhat separated from the other volunteers this week. (I work alone, and I don’t have a roommate which equals a lot of boredom sometimes.) (Oh and that whole thing where I don’t drink alcohol is a bit of a barrier. I find I have nothing to add to the Australians conversations about beer. And they have a lot of conversations about beer. And about half of the volunteers are Australian. Ergo, I don’t have much to say.) So tonight was just a lot of fun. Half the group went out drinking, the other half went out to a “fancy buffet.”
Most days I spend roughly $1-2. However, tonight I spent $20. Our buffet cost $16, and the rest went to tuk-tuks and Coca Lights. The buffest was the best $16 I’ve spent in a very long time. Our meals are provided to us here at home and cooked by our house mother. And while she does a good job, the food is a bit monotonous. I think she thinks she’s keeping it simple by serving us a vegetable cooked with meat, and rice. Nothing too extraordinary, although I’ll admit I haven’t recognized many of the veggies. Thankfully, I have recognized the meats. Which is why I laugh when I say tonight I ate duck tongue and pig nerve. I have no idea which part of a pig is the nerve. Nor do I care to know.
The rest of this already lengthy post is all for my sister, Natalie, who specifically has asked for pictures and stories about the food.
For some completely insane reason I put rice on my plate. The one time this week I didn’t have to eat rice, and I went and put it on my freaking plate. The other volunteers looked at me like I was crazy before it even hit me how tired I already am of eating rice, rice, rice.
Besides the rice you will also see (starting in the upper left hand corner moving clockwise)- a little green seaweed wrapped white thing with what appeared to be cheddar cheese on top. First big surprise of the night- that wasn’t cheddar cheese. It is some sort of fruit that I keep getting served, and yet I still have no idea what it looks like whole. I actually really like it. It is quite sweet and tastes like an apple carrot hybrid, but has the texture of I have no idea what. The white stuff is a rice paste, and is also very sweet.
In the little bowl next to it there is fried meat of something with fish sauce on it. It could have been a chicken nugget it was so normal tasting.
See the little white crusty thing next to the bowl? That is a deep fried puffed rice patty. It does not taste deep fried. Nor does it have any taste at all. Think Rice Krispies with no sugar.
Next we have a little fried ball of something. It claimed it was rice pudding. It lied. It was a creamy ball with corn in it. Being deathly allergic to corn, I had to spit it out. Sadly, before I did that I discovered it was delicious.
I was skeptical of trying the sushi at first. Mostly because I’m just scared of getting sick here. However, I convinced myself they probably do sushi right in a fancy place like this, and ate it anyway. Best.sushi.ever.
Now for the green blob of something. Please see the enlarged picture below. This is a green vegetable of some sort. It looks related to tomatoes maybe? However, it tasted awful. One bite was one bite too many.
Hey, look! Rice.
Next there was a completely all together decently averagely made chicken wing.
Then there was this pasta Italian-cambodian hybrid thing. Rice noodles with tomato sauce, ginger, and spicy olives. Not that great. Not that bad.
Next we have a picture of Susann’s plate. I have no idea what any of it is. I only show it because she has a large piece of the orange fruit we keep eating. Susann is in a different apartment from me, but eats meals with my apartment. She’s right out of high school and from Denmark. Sweet girl!
You’ll also see the pink, white, and black dotted fruit on her plate. That is dragon fruit. It is growing on me. I have no way of describing the flavor.
Oh hello little bowl of pig nerve. I have to admit this was totally anti-climactic. I first took the larger, darker piece on top and bit into it. I was expecting meat of some sort. What I got was a mouthful of mushroom in gravy. The surprise actually made me gag before I was able to swallow it. This had the other girls laughing at me before I got to the actual “pig nerve.” All I can say is it was somewhat rubbery and chewy, and tasted a lot like mushroom gravy.
Now for my favorite picture of the night. Susann and I picked up this sticks somewhat skeptically, just to find out they are potatoes! They were actually really good. Just fried potatoes on a stick with a little bit of whatever spice it is that they use so much of here. (Someday I will figure out what it is called. But for now my house mother/cook disappears at meal times so she’s never around to ask.)
Okay, so moving on to plate #2!
We have the fried potato stick (you can see the red/orange spice on it), a small piece of blood orange (I love it!), a yellowish lump of fruit that I did NOT care for (texture of a kiwi, but tasted like dirt), a fried lump of something (I’m so good at this, I know!), a shrimp (complete with head, eyeballs, and tail), and those two round spring or egg roll looking things.
Let’s just say they were not egg rolls. One (the longer one) was duck tongue. The shorter one was beef brains. Both deep fried and wrapped in rice paper. The beef brains actually tasted pretty good. The duck tongue was quite chewy and salty.
Finishing up the plate we have something fried on a stick. Possibly duck, possibly not.
With the exception of a sushi roll, the other green things are desserts. Another one of the cheddar cheese that is actually fruit things. The spiky looking one with brown on top is actually candied coconut on a ball of rice paste, with a gooey candied coconut center. It was really good. The lighter green thing looked like eye balls (but were actually rice paste balls) and tasted a lot like paste.
Oh and that rice pudding thing in the corner? Those little black things that look like raisins? Not so much. Try black beans. Sweet rice pudding with black beans in it. Very odd combo indeed.
Some of the cute volunteer ladies. This group had 3 Aussies, 1 German, 2 Danes, and me. I’m the only American in the whole group.
I did not eat this thing. It was a fried shrimp patty. The shrimp are still in their shells!
My Aussie friends inform me that these little fruit berry like things are probably related to something they all called “lychees.” They have a pear like skin (rough and dry) that you peel off, and the inside looks like a grape. However, there is a gigantic marble sized seed in the middle, and you suck the fruit off of the seed. It tastes like a muscodine sort of.
Did you see all of our fun drinks on the table? The fruit juices here are amazing. Susann had watermelon juice. I had pineapple juice. The fruits are all very fresh and very good. At home our house mother gives us a plate of fruit after every meal.
Overall the food was great and very “interesting.” I find I say the word, “interesting” about a few hundred times a day, and I’m getting tired of using it. Time to find some new words!
After dinner we headed to a nice lounge where we had more drinks and just relaxed. It was great to sit in a calm, quiet, and soothing atmosphere for a while. If there is one thing I am convinced of it is that there will never be silence in Phnom Penh. This place is louder than New York City. It just never stops! But the lounge was plush and quiet, and very welcomed. But best of all the ladies and I all had a chance to sit and talk about what it feels like to be humanitarian workers here- what we see, what we feel, etc. There was a rather frustrating moment though. As we sat discussing the problems in Phnom Penh with prostitution, HIV, orphans, etc, we got a first-hand lesson in it outside of the lounge windows. There we are a group of women who have given of our own time and money to come help prevent such things, and we could see older white men (in other words, “Westerners”) walking hand-in-hand down the street with MUCH younger, scantily clad, Cambodian women. Well, Men, all I can say is, I wish you all the diseases you deserve to catch tonight. How sick and perverted are you?!
We moved from there over to another nightclub to catch up with the other volunteers. I lasted about ten minutes before I wanted to leave. There were just far too many older white men (dressed in boring older white man clothes- khakis and a button down shirt) attempting to “dance” to Euro-techno on the dance floor with the young Cambodian women. Shame on these men. It was just disgusting! There were plenty of younger “Western” white men in the club as well, but trust me, they were not there to check out the foreign aid workers at my table.
At least now I know what I am working against. The sex trade is alive and well not just because of the local men, but because the Western men take advantage of it too. It makes me so mad. Do these men really not understand what they are doing to these women? Do they not get that by using a prostitute they are perpetuating poverty, disease, and abuse? These women are hardly ever prostitutes by choice. They are almost always forced into it at a very young age, “sold” by their own parents to bring money home to the family. In many cases their mothers were prostitutes as well, and they sell their daughters because it is the only life they know.
I will take a deep breath now and not continue my rant on this subject. I have much more to say about it in a few more days. But for now, I’m ready to go to bed. The karaoke bar next door is in full swing. And let me tell ya, there is some seriously bad singing going on tonight! The moto-taxis are circling around our block, revving their engines, waiting for someone to come out. It is good to know we have a security guard outside our gate, keeping us safe on the inside. Too bad they can’t keep the noises out too.
It was a good day. And I am looking forward to tomorrow!