Living in Cambodia: The Watermelon Way

When I lived in the Cambodian jungle, there was no store. Not. one. single. one.

There was no “I have a craving for (insert junk food) and I think I will hop in my car and go get some.”

Once our maid departed for the day, any late night craving meant boiling water and eating ramen soup. So when a fruit season would hit, I was the first one at the source, scrounging.

I could independently feed myself with le fruit du jourĀ and imbibe all day long! This was exciting stuff. Breakfast, lunch, supper and snacks. Never got boring, ever.

On the odd day that we crossed the mighty Mekong River and went shopping, I would find more of the same fruit. Like lots more (see photograph above). Thankfully some Australian chocolate (which the mouse in my house would eat) and french fries could also be mustered up.

Fruit became my saving grace… all of it… except for one.

Papaya.

Just say no to papaya!

(Eating watermelon today reminded me how much it used to mean to me. And how cheap it used to cost! It also sparked a creative way to use watermelon leftovers on a hot day. Yes, this is he who is a goofball, of the best kind. However, I hope he refrains from such watermelon use in Cambodia when we go this year. He may feel cool, but he doesn’t look it!)

What food saved your day when you were travelling or living elsewhere? Is there any kind of fruit you dislike?

W is for Wary

What had the latest higher up in some office, far away from reality, dreamed up this time?

Wary, I took a look at the freshly arrived load off the boat from the Mekong.

Radios, used radios from God knows what era. As I sifted through them, I found one reminiscent from my teen years, a yellow banana shaped radio that you could carry on your wrist on the way to the beach. I had used it for a summer or two and then discarded it along the way. Still useful but no longer cool, it met its demise. Or so I had thought.

Where had the United Nations found all these old radios? Had they gone from thrift store to thrift store or put out some UN announcement that Cambodia was in desperate need for radios?

Wary, but not worried, I told the workers to store them in my house until we decided what we were going to do with them. Swamped with our work as we prepared the local population for the imminent election, we returned to our office. The radios, out of sight, out of mind, or so we mistakenly thought.

Later that evening, resting at home sweet home, I heard loud pounding at my door. No way to check who it was, I opened it up to find two men in military gear (very common in my Cambodian district – soldiers? police? renegades?) with AK-47s. Sensibly, I let them in. As an objective party in the midst of an election, this wasn’t too unusual. However, I was alone and unable to communicate with them. And then it began…

Whipping their guns around and yelling at me in Khmer, I went to get my cook who looked terrified. Through sign and gun language, I deciphered that they wanted the radios in my living room. Now the fun starts. In Khmer, I try to get my point across (please leave and come back later…much later) but they see this as a sign to start opening boxes and check out the radios. I call for back up on my radio and thankfully, one of my interpreters comes.

Deciding that correct protocol is not worth our lives, I cave and hand over 2 radios. Within minutes, I have a hoard of anxious radio protesters on our porch. Word is out and we are being bombarded. My interpreter tries to negotiate but fails. The porch frenzy quickly turns into a living room frenzy and officially, Radio Hell, has begun. Radios are flying as people push and shove to get into the boxes. More back up arrives, this time armed, and we finally succeed in quashing the thirst for radios… temporarily.

A quick solution is needed. In a Buddhist country such as Cambodia, monks are revered so off to the Wat we go. Radios in hand (well… actually under cover) we happily pass them over for them to decide their fate. Seeing the prized merchandise, the monks decide to keep all the radios for themselves. We then knew that the monks would be well-informed of the upcoming election and our district would, at least, have a good monk/voter turn out rate!

NO, it wasn’t the Khmer Rouge death threat letters, NO, it wasn’t malaria, it was those frigging old radios that almost killed me!

Cheryl from the Family C travelling from A to Z.

Have you ever felt fearful when you were living or travelling somewhere?

A Barn Reincarnated into an Office Brings Hope

Yes, this was a barn that then became my office in Prek Presap, Cambodia.

It takes a bit of interior design to transform a barn full of pigs, chickens and who knows what else… into a fine proud UN institution (which we didn’t quite accomplish) worthy of bringing hope for a democratic future.

Being 22 years old and with only the limited summer work experience of most Canadian university grads, it was no shock that I had zero clue what I was getting into. It was most definitely, a tiny one step at a time kind of year.

The photo shows our opening day.

Word had got out that we would be arriving and that maybe interviews for positions might begin. My UN partner and I had 2 interpreters and 2 drivers. We had no idea how to begin to interview the numbers that showed up or what the criteria should even be. This was not a job that came with a guidebook.

Once we got into the flow of things, we learned how to use our interpreters to interview quickly due to the huge numbers of people waiting in line.It is tough to know for sure if decisions made are the right ones when communication is lacking.

It turns out we might have made one big mistake; hiring a former(?) Khmer Rouge to have a key role on one of our electoral teams. Oops. Not good. We brought in the UN security guys to deal with that one.

In the end we hired more than 300 people. But… a big But..we discovered that we had unknowingly hired many teachers leading to the school being shut down (temporarily until we fixed that slight problem). Not exactly the goal we were setting out to achieve.

How to convince people to return to old jobs such as teaching when ours paid so much more? The influx of money into a district that was previously isolated from such a world threw everything out of balance.

One guy who was doing the same job as me in the neighboring province was killed by a disgruntled person who apparently had not been hired. Never had I thought what this kind of responsibility and I guess, power, could lead to. Scary. Given the option to leave and return to Canada, I chose to stay but the knowledge of what could happen was now present and rumbling in my mind.

I don’t regret staying, in fact, it was an incredibly rewarding year, despite the fact that the electoral process did not go according to plan. The Khmer Rouge threw some twists and turns into it but our amazing staff persevered through all the challenges.

Their success shone that day when Cambodians walked miles and miles to get to the nearest voting station and proudly marked their ballots; signifying that their voices would finally be heard.

My Favourite House Ever on the Mekong River

This is my house where I lived in Prek Presap, Kratie. Notice the truck out front; one of four that we owned. Why? I don’t know. How do two people really drive 4 trucks? The most cars I will ever “own” at one time. The house had an open concept living area (it was ahead of its time) where the local people would come at night to watch movies on our VCR/TV as we had a generator; a first for this district. So electricity was a big deal…and we were happy to share it.

This is my front yard which was an amazing sight as each and every morning the monks would walk by and receive alms.

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This is my backyard. A good reminder that my job was probably one of the easiest ones around the neighborhood.

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How a Law Degree Led to Being Pen Pals with the Khmer Rouge

So a looonnnngggg time ago, in a far away place, I found myself working with the UN in rural Cambodia. I was officially called a district electoral supervisor and civic education trainer. I was living in a Garden of Eden kind of place called Prek Presap on the Mekong River in Kratie. We were renting a barn as an office and someone else’s home as our home. I had civilian police and soldiers to protect me and the work we were doing. We had drivers, translators, toyota trucks and boats at our disposal. Oh and yes, as a Canadian, I was there because I spoke French (well… sort of) and had a law degree. I had hit the jackpot; won the job lottery and I was only 22!!!

Over the course of the year, so many things happened. Landmines went off, monsoons hit, trucks got stuck in the mud, many wedding invitations were received and danced at, Christmas celebrations were held with fellow Colombians, Buddhist traditions were learned, relationships with the local monks were formed, used radios were delivered to the people, Cambodians were registered, tons of la vache qui rit was eaten, millions of baguettes were consumed, our cat Unnie learned how to kill the mice that were foraging through my chocolate stache, driving a standard was “mastered”and how to knock off the door of said standard backing up, sleeping in a hammock was learnt, the BBC became our friend as it told us what was actually happening in the country where we lived, and oh yah, the infamous arrival of the letters.

Now the letters that arrived to our house were written in Khmer so that was kind of pointless for me. Upon delivering them to the team of UN experts, it was discovered that they were the genuine authentic deal; actually written by the Khmer Rouge and informing us that we were in danger; thanks to them of course.

So sadly we left our Garden of Eden and so our daily commute down the Mekong began as we had to relocate to the capital city of Kratie. Our district wasn’t quite the same; it felt a bit tainted as we were no longer as safe and secure there. Unfortunately as the election got closer, the security situation waned and our barn, known as our office, became a bit of a fortress complete with sand bags, guns, look out posts, MREs (meals ready to eat that had indeed expired), and flak jackets. Fortunately we had a high voter turn out rate in our district on the election days and only one landmine went off and the person on her bike was injured; but not killed. In Cambodia at that time, that is considered a success.

It has been years since I have lived there or have visited this Garden of Eden and I hope to return to it some day soon. I can now visit YouTube and see how the capital city looks and see the number of hotels and restaurants that have been built so tourists can go to see the pink dolphins situated close by. How strange! I lived on and off there for a year and didn’t even know of the dolphins at that time. I guess I had a different focus back then with electoral plans, security plans and evacuation plans on the go. I must admit I am relieved to see that YouTube however, has not found Prek Presap yet and I hope it stays that way.