Another week, another blog post. I can hardly believe that I have been in the Kingdom of Wonder for three weeks now. Considering how rocky this adventure began, I am proud, in a slightly arrogant way, of my transformed perspective. Not only do I now have the emotional strength to handle Phnom Penh’s bustling lifestyle, but I am also starting to recognize the beginning of another personal metamorphosis.
Since coming to Cambodia, I have been tested. I have been stressed, I have cried, I have felt depressed, doubtful, and anxious. But I have also learned how to relax, how to embrace the chaos, and how to go with the flow.
I walk on dusty floors, despite being somewhat of a clean freak back at home. I get dressed without being able to see my outfit, even though at home I would change four times before leaving the house. I change my class lessons within seconds if I realize things are not going smoothly, when back at home even the thought of altering some carefully crafted plan would send me into a bumbling burrito of stress.
Cambodia is teaching me how to how to be more easy going. And while I may not exude it in a way that strikes a stranger as happy-go-lucky, I know that in comparison to my usual tightly wound self, I feel like an easy, breezy, beautiful cover girl (America’s Next Top Model anyone?).
But enough rambling of self transformation and personal growth… On to the weekly rewind…
On Sunday I spent the day relaxing. The morning began with some personal drama, but was quickly remedied with Nutella toast for breakfast followed by a day at the pool. My friends and I spent the afternoon lounging in the water, soaking up the sun while simultaneously trying to avoid the heat, chit chatting the whole way through.
After a few hours of feeling like I was on vacation, we packed up our poolside belongings and set out to find lunch. We walked around in what felt like circles for a bit, but eventually found our way to a restaurant called Root’s Burgers. I consumed the best burger I have had in Cambodia yet, though I am surprised to realize just how many different times I have gone out for western food on the weekends in the three weeks I have been here. Then again, when the week is full of rice and vegetables, enjoying a meal out twice a week is hardly over indulgence.
With full and happy bellies, we continued on to the movie theater, where we opted to have a very girly and embarrassing evening watching “50 Shades Darker.” I attended the movie solely to stare at Jamie Dornan, one of my longtime celebrity crushes, and laugh at the unfortunately horrible acting the movie promised. It delivered. I spent the movie blushing and laughing, and it was completely worth the $3 I paid to get into the movie theater.
The day up to this point had been full of carefree fun, but ended with an unfortunate event. On the tuk tuk journey back home, one of the girls got her bag snatched. It happened so quickly, and left us all terrified and clutching our own bags for dear life. Motorbike theft in Phnom Penh is real. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from coming to the city. To paraphrase the words of another travel blogger who wrote about a similar experience, you are safe, but your bag may not be.
After another fun filled weekend and a sad goodbye to the volunteers I first arrived with, going back to work on Monday felt especially hard. I went in alone on Monday morning, since the new group of volunteers would not be joining me until the next day. Since I ended the previous week feeling uneasy and wanting to change my placement, the classroom struggles typical of a Monday did not go over well with me. My students refused to listen and fought me every step of the lessons. I felt a bit defeated by the end of the day, but I quickly jumped out of my slump around dinnertime.
With new volunteers meant a welcome dinner; one of the most delicious dinner’s we get to consume at the volunteer house. All us veteran volunteers waited like vultures around the table as the food came out, and then swarmed, filling our plates with noodles, french fries, and other tasty dishes. I ate my sorrows from the day, and at the end of it my full and happy belly gave me the confidence to take on whatever challenges Tuesday’s classes would throw me.
On Tuesday two new volunteers, an older American couple from Georgia, joined me at my placement. I spent the morning walk briefing them about what I knew about the school and what they should expect.
Little did I know they would be told an entirely new set of information than what I had been given during my introduction meeting. While the last round of new volunteers at the Happy School (Lauren, Paul, and I) had been told we must each teach a separate class and had set schedules and curriculums, the new volunteers were told they could teach together if they wanted and could have more flexibility with their hours for the days… And the most dramatic difference of all, that they could teach in whatever manner worked for them.
I had been given a curriculum, set classroom times, and four different grades to myself. Now I was learning that others not only got to teach less hours, but teach together and alter the curriculum? I felt quite angry and very bitter about the situation. Even though I love my students, I would love the luxury of having a teaching partner a lot more. Sure with another person means more coordination and planning, but with how hectic and overwhelming my classes can be, having another person just to back me up when I share stories about what happened in class (and then get stares that make me think that people think I am a controlling child hater) would be incredible.
Wednesday provided the same feelings as the previous days. I loved teaching, I love my students, but that does not mean that I enjoy every moment of either.
However I did have a particularly interesting hour with my first grade class. On Wednesdays, my first grade class deviates from our normal lesson plan of learning a letter and instead we explore “Art in English.” That day we were learning body parts. I drew a person on the board, and spent around twenty minutes labeling “head, shoulders, knees, toes, eyes, ears, mouth, and nose,” attempting to drill in the words with the students so we could then sing the song. I felt like a proud mama when they picked it up quickly, and we soon progressed from singing the song to getting on with the “art” portion of class: drawing themselves and labeling the body parts.
I passed out pieces of colored paper to each student, and let them each pick out three colored crayons to fashion their masterpieces with. I crammed myself into a tiny plastic chair, and humored my students as I sat with them and also created my own picture. For fifteen minutes, I drew and also praised and marked stars the work of my very cheerful and excited students.
In the last five minutes of class, one of my students brought me her drawing and I almost spit out the water I was drinking. She had very carefully drawn a man, already a red flag since I had asked them to draw themselves… And in her drawing, she had included a very colorful and anatomically correct body male body part. I fought to maintain my composure, and it took all the strength I had to look at her beaming face and smile while marking a star on her drawing. Kids do the darndest things…
On Thursday I had my first day teaching where I genuinely enjoyed myself. I spent the morning singing songs with my students, teaching them my old summer camp favorites like “There was a Great Big Moose,” “Baby Shark” and “Alice the Camel.” We laughed, we sang, and I nearly lost my voice. I finally felt like I had hacked teaching.
However, on Thursday I also learned that my previous week’s request to switch placements had been granted. Starting March 6th, I would be moved to volunteering at a local NGO called YCC. Upon hearing the news, I felt instantly excited, but also a bit guilty. I loved my students, and I felt like I was finally getting through to them. But I also really wanted to transition into working what originally inspired my move to Cambodia. By the time I change, I will have spent a month teaching, and gotten a solid taste for what it was like. While I plan on writing a full reflective post on it later, I will say now that I am so thankful for the time I spent teaching. It taught me so much about myself, and forced me to find strengths I did not know I had.
Thursday’s good news did not end there; a group of volunteers also went out to Indian food as a goodbye dinner to some friends leaving over the weekend. While the dinner’s reminder that the time with some of my friends was running out was sad, the Chicken Tikka Masala and Naan I ordered was delicious, and my sorrows were quickly drowned in spicy Indian goodness.
On Friday I spent the majority of the morning teaching the school director how to use crowd funding websites, and trying to contain my amusement at his amazement that such a thing existed.
Fast forward several hours and a packed backpack later, and myself, Rebecca, Laura, and three of the new volunteers, crammed into a tuk tuk to make our way to the Giant Ibis bus station.
Yes, after three weeks this Travelsmith would finally be venturing outside of Phnom Penh. Earlier in the week, we had booked a night bus to take us to Siem Reap for a weekend of temple hopping and hotel luxuries. I will admit, I was very nervous about going to Siem Reap. From trying to sleep on the night bus to figuring out how I would survive a day of sight seeing with my backpack in tow, I was a bundle of nerves. While I plan on writing a full post about Siem Reap, the temples, and the night bus journey later, I will say for now that they are a great invention and a cheap way to travel… but also one I would prefer to avoid in the future.
So as not to give away too much details about my fun filled weekend, which will be revealed in a blog post of their own later this week, I will simply say the following about Saturday: twenty thousand steps, nachos, pink paint and late night dancing.
It was my favorite day and night in Cambodia so far.
Despite my very action packed Saturday, I woke up Sunday feeling alive and well. I enjoyed a complimentary breakfast, an afternoon by the pool, and a day exploring Siem Reap with Laura, Rebecca, and Annika. By the end of the day my feet were tired and my belly was full of gelato – a perfect way to end the weekend.
However the end of the weekend also meant a final goodbye to my Estonian friend Annika. I said goodbye feeling sad, as her quirky and vibrant personality had brought me so much laugher and joy in the past three weeks, but also hopeful that I would see her again in Europe one day.
Rebecca, Laura, and I then found our way to the bus station to spend another night in transit. Saying goodbye to Siem Reap was difficult, not just because it meant going back to the everyday routine of our volunteer placements, but because I really enjoyed the city’s atmosphere. Siem Reap looked like what I originally imagined Cambodia would be like, and getting to experience that feeling felt truly incredible. While I do like Phnom Penh, I must say I definitely would like to return to Siem Reap again during my time here.
And there ends another week in the life of my Cambodian adventure. These three weeks have flown by, and I am beginning to feel like my time here is slipping through my fingertips. Recognizing this feeling is forcing me to be present, to say “yes”, and enjoy all the beautiful moments and friendships that Cambodia is offering. As I mentioned earlier in this post, Cambodia is transforming me, and I am more than ready to sit back, relax, and enjoy completing the metamorphosis of self that my remaining 21 weeks will bring.