A market with soul

Spent lots of time this weekend with friends, a necessary thing as I really wanted to be with my family.  I just got the news of the death of my uncle.  A man who has been an important person in my life.  Both COVID and physical distance on the planet mean I won’t be able to grieve with family so keeping busy and leaning on my new friends here has been so important.  So, while this is not a platform to share my grief, it colours my adventure this weekend.

As will become tradition the staff headed out for drinks after work.  Passion fruit margaritas in an urban park made for a great Friday night.  We ran the place right out of all the fruit for making their wonderful drinks so I will have to wait until the next visit to try the mango or dragon fruit version. 

Saturday many of us spent all morning and into the afternoon at a local clinic getting our health checks done.  It had elements of a clinic at home and yet there were definite signs that it is not the kind of place that is on the leading edge of technology and modernity.  Low ceilings, simple reusable tools.  Staff onsite to analyse the blood, vision, EKG and urine.  The staff showed the same quiet kindness I have come to love about the Khmer people.  The doctor with his folder of paper, printed tests and hand written notes was professional and patient.

After we all finished up there, we were starving and so headed for lunch.  We picked a restaurant that was near where we all wanted to explore after, the Russian Market.  The market was mostly as advertised.  I say mostly because it was virtually empty.  Clearly even here in the heart of the capital city COVID has wreaked havoc on local business people.  Many food stalls were closed, and there were few enough customers that our group of seven was able to split up and find each other again.  Considering the photos and videos I’d watched online the place should have been jam packed full.  While it made exploring the stalls more enjoyable my heart was a bit bruised for the locals.  Some were napping in their stalls, others sharing a meal, or trying to catch the attention of the few people wandering by.

One of the wider aisles for clothing

Produce and meat vendors

A little bit of everyting

The large white bucket contains the pancake like onion batter that make these yummy smelling grilled onion buns

One of the seamstresses. She was kind enough to let me take a photo.

The whole aisle here is ladies at their sewing machines

A whole area devoted to all things auto, moto and tuk-tuk

One of the really fancy salons stalls

I had not yet gotten my bank card to work so was hesitant to buy anything, and honestly a fair bit nervous to engage the vendors in the game of bargaining.  I have never been any good at it and while I know I have to try it is tough, I’m just not wired that way.  Seriously, ask my husband.  I did find one small item that day, a pouch that will allow me to comfortably hold all the paper money that is so essential here.  With no coin used I always seem to have a mitt full of bills, different currency and different size most traditional wallets just don’t cut it.  I picked the style I enjoyed (yes, a touristy style but hey I am not really a local gal) and asked for the price.  A couple back and forth, I turned to walk away and ta da!!! I talked her down from $1.50 to $1.  You’re laughing, I deserve it.  Honestly, I was proud that I negotiated and was able to do so calmly.  I’ll get better with practice, but for now I am just proud that I did it at all.

Sunday, many of the new teachers went out for brunch.  I had a Cambodian dish called lort cha.  Noodle, bean sprout and pork stir fry this restaurant added baby bok choy and a deep peppery sauce topped with poached egg.  This picture I offer you is not my own, I was too busy visiting and talking and forgot to grab a picture for all of you.  It was fabulous!  Something I would love to learn how to cook. 

From there I headed out on my own back to the Russian market to do some real shopping.  I found a corner that I had not really seen the previous day and was pleasantly surprised to find a little stall of lights.  In looking at her items the lady and I begin talking, well really, she was selling I was curious how it would go.  The more I looked interested the more she offered.  I had her take down items from higher up, asked about colours of shades, could I change the bases…Ultimately, I landed on her making me two bedside lamps, blue water lilies with wooden bases.  I’ll share photos of the purchase on Facebook once I have them.

The market is really a whole community in tight quarters.  There are salons, mechanics, seamstresses, clothing, cloth, kitchen and household items, food stalls, produce, meat vendors and more.  I could not believe the ladies in the little salon cubbies.  They would fit two or three people in there to wash and cut hair in most places I could not get a good photo of the size because I could not back up to take the shot.  In some of the clothing stalls the vendors were literally sitting atop their stacks of clothing.  The seamstresses had a space hardly bigger than my bathroom.  My next purchase was a diffuser and some fragrances (sorry my love). 

One stall that seemed to have lots of selection I begin to talk with the vendor and her nine-year-old daughter starts talking to me.  At first, I think its cute and endearing but quickly I catch on to this game.  This well-spoken little girl will make one hell of a salesperson when she grows up as she hardly missed a beat with me.  Every sales line you could imagine came out of that little girl’s mouth.  She wanted me to test all the oils, checked again and again if I needed other items like incense, body oils and maybe a second diffuser for the bedroom, made suggestions for me, told me what others seem to like…seriously!  Her little sister (5 years old), 14-month-old brother and the husband came around when we had wrapped up the sale.  Truly this little shop likely was the primary income for the family.  As the baby toddled up with his dad my newfound bargaining skill evaporated and I paid almost full price.  Pangs for my family soothed a bit seeing this happy group play and work together in the market.

A smile on my face I was off to track down some linen to liven up the apartment.  I had seen a stall the day before that had a few things that caught my eye so I headed back there.  Here linen was stacked to the roof in such a way that you felt like you were walking into a hideout when you stepped inside.  The woman here had so much to offer her gift to sales clearly was up selling.  I had a list and was sticking to it, but may in the months to come head back and pick up a few gift items.  I walked away with two throw pillows and covers and two table cloths.

Shopping list tackled I headed home. My interactions with the locals were just the things I needed.  They are savvy salespeople never forget that for a second, but there are not abrupt, loud or rude.  It is a gentle negotiation full of smiles and kindness. All told I spent $60 and have lots to show for it, I hope my purchases helped in some small way these families while the tourists are gone.

Headed home and tackled the finding the pool.  This should not have been a difficult thing, but, well Cambodia.  You seen Olympia City is huge.  There are 5 condo towers, a hotel, a mall and a spa.  With very little signage and no idea where to go I did manage to find the spa.  The lady there was kind enough to walk me through two buildings to the other pool and I was finally able to go for a swim.  My timing was not ideal as I ended up swimming in the rain and can’t offer any photos of the pool just yet. 

My success at the market and a good workout left me feeling much better than I would have expected given the news of my uncle.  I am feeling braver by the day and am looking forward to finding a few more local spots.  There is an Indian restaurant nearby that is supposed to be really good and also a smaller local market that may have to become my provider of local produce. 

A country of contradictions

Its been two weeks of real life here in Phnom Penh and there are a few observations that I’ve made.  I am living in a country of contradictions.  Before I share my thoughts and a few photos let me offer you a very short history lesson (trust me it will be short as I am not a historian by any measure, those of you who are forgive my many simplifications) as it will offer an explanation to my observations.  This amazing country has a history that while long has also been troubled.  (Check out this guy, he has great short videos on many countries…he explains better than I do)

Most westerners know of Angkor Wat.  This is the largest temple complex in the world and was the crowing glory of the Angkor-Khmer civilisation.  At its peak in the twelfth century it covered most of the territory we know as Cambodia, some of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and into the Yunnan province of China.  The capital city, Angkor, could boast a population of over a million people.  To compare, the same time period Europe was still in the Dark ages and Paris had a population of about thirty thousand.

A general decline occurred over several hundred years marked by conflicts with their neighbours.  This period also sees the rise of European exploration and colonisation.  In Cambodia it was the French who arrived and exerted their influence.  This influence remains evident in many aspects of culture today, food, architecture and the general prevalence of bakeries and French language speakers and schools.

The Vietnam war rages for almost 20 years and draws in both Laos and Cambodia.  Ultimately, the war ends and the Americans and their allies leave but the wounds of war are evident.  The Khmer Rouge a communist party lead by Pol Pot takes power in Cambodia and begins invoking exacting, grim and cruel policies.   Between 1975-1979 over 2 million people were killed (21-24% of the population).  The main targets of this genocide were professionals, intellectuals, monks, journalists, and ethnic minorities.  Cambodia sadly remains on of the most heavily land mined countries in the world.

Since the removal of Pol Pot there has been significant international foreign aid and redevelopment, though there have been made road blocks to this endeavor.

So, what have I seen?  What is it like here?  First, I have to say that the Cambodian people are gentle and kind, their smiles as genuine and easily offered.  From shop keepers to tuk-tuk drivers to the locals who work at the school I have been treated very well.  But I spoke to you of contrast.

There are virtually no old people.  The genocide killed so many adults that this is a very young population, the average age is about 25 (compared to Canada’s 40).  This has been a strange thing to see.  Despite logically knowing this before coming over I think the vision of the great Angkor Temple in ruins covered in roots from the jungle had fossilised the concept of old in my brain.  The people while generally young belong to an ancient and amazing civilisation.

Then you take a look at the buildings.  There are towering modern towers of condos, hotels and offices.  The cityscape is full of cranes building more in any city view you can imagine.  Immediately beside these towering examples of modern life there are shop houses build during colonial times and almost as soon as you set foot outside the city life is as has been for ages. Our staff enjoyed a boat ride along the Mekong.  We boarded along Riverside on the Tonle Sap near the Palace.  There was no dock, the boat simple pulled up to the concrete angled shore and let down a gangway and we boarded.  It was great to visit and get to know some of the people I will be working with.  Once we turned into the Mekong, we passed a community of locals who clearly make their living off fishing the mighty river.  Children were playing barefoot in the dirt, cooking fires, nets and laundry hung on lines.  People gathered and life was simple.  Behind this group towered sleek modern skyscrapers and cranes.  It is a bit jarring to see such simple life in the foreground and modern super structures in the background.

I had to leave work one day this week to go open my local bank account.  My driver and human resources translator took me to one of the modern office buildings, my account was opened with little fuss.  On our way out we hit the lunch break.  So many people working in this sleek, marble building headed straight outside to grab lunch at one of the street carts crammed beside the construction wall of a new building site. Ladies in heels and men in shirt and tie gathered around these carts to enjoy hot food while the coffee shops and restaurants inside were fairly quiet.  Another example is every morning as I wait for my ride a fellow walks by with his cart offering breakfast items for people on the run.  He walks along the road pulling his cart as Lexus’, motos, and tuk-tuks race past him.

This city has so much to offer a foodie, and trust me when I say I will do my very best to try it all!  Neighbours Thailand and Vietnam have very well-known food styles but the same can not be said of Cambodian.  My experience is that it is fresh, healthy and no where near as spicy as its neighbors.  The contrast is that I rather expected a refined Khmer food style, rather the food scene is so incredibly international I feel like I could travel the world just by going to all kinds of different restaurants.  I will keep you posted on this front as there is lots more I want to try. The variety of restaurants stems from the large expat community, historical interactions with its neighbors and its geographic proximity to other flavours.


Pandan coconut raisin bread…yes its green! Supper yummy!

A part of the pub and restaurant scene in Bassac Lane. Lots of little places on several floors the alley/walkway may be small but inside its full of fun and laughter.

The last contrast I have to mention is the currency. Cambodia has its own currency, the Riel. the bills are colourful and have illustrations of important landmarks and people on it. But this currency is much like coin change as anything that costs more than a dollar is paid for in USD. This has taken some time to get used to, even for a math person like me. It is kept simple by having a “working” value for exchange. 1USD is 4000 Riel in stores and restaurants. Automatic payments can be withdrawn as either USD or Riel and payments in stores can be made in a mix of currency. For example a 6 300 Riel tuk tuk ride could be paid in 1USD and 2300 Riel. It can be hard for many people to make change for large bills so it is advised to withdraw $90 at a time from the ATM so you don’t get stuck with a $100 that no own will accept.

I arrived a month ago and I have to say that already this country has found its way into my heart.  The contrast that confronts me daily is thrilling and exhilarating in a way that I have never experienced before.  The energy of this young population is palatable even with their gentle and calm nature it shines through.  I am really excited to learn and experience more about it and to be apart of its 21st century development.

Cambodia/COVID school year

This is the main reception for the school. Located in the one of the two centre buildings. Very impressive!

This is a model of the campus. Four main buildings. Far left is the elementary building, centre left is the community centre, centre right is the sport centre and far right is the high school building.

This is the view into the centre area of the high school building. Hoping that the main and first floor are complete for Monday.

So, what to share with all of you about my first two days at work in my new school.  First of all, it must be said that this is simply the strangest start up of my career.  Certainly, there are a crazy number of health and safety rules and guidelines we must follow.  These rules were agreed on by the school board and various ministries here, having these clearly stated to all stakeholders is what is allowing our school to open.  Everyone is to wear masks, everyone will have their temperature taken at least 3 times daily, classrooms are to be vented three times daily, extra sanitizing will be done through the day, there are procedures for hallways, lunch, use of bathrooms, entrance to and exit from campus.  It is going to be a challenge but we are open and kids are coming so we will all learn how to make it work or we risk getting shut down.  

COVID has also made filling the school with things like furniture, library books, student desks, textbooks and virtually anything you can think of a major problem.  COVID disrupted virtually all supply chains into Cambodia so we will likely be starting with lots of important missing items.

It is an amazing staff that has been hired.  People from Australia, US, UK and several Canadian provinces.  This offers me the opportunity to consider things from a different perspective than I may have in the past.  It also offers the challenge that I am one of the very few who have both training and experience in reading and executing the demands of the Alberta Curriculum.

The school campus itself is UNBEIVABLE!  It feels almost like a small college.  There is lots of construction still being done, so there are no photos I can share but here is a list of some of the spaces that we will be able to use …eventually:

  • 6 lane competition pool with electronic timing system
  • Full theatre, capacity about 500
  • Indoor gym large enough for 2 full court basketball games
  • Maker space
  • Multi use library with green room and breakout spaces
  • Orchestral room with numerous recording studios
  • Art space including room for photography and pottery
  • Dance studio
  • Full fitness (machine, weights and HIT) centre
  • Outdoor soccer field (full size, natural grass)
  • Ninja course
  • Butterfly garden
  • Cafeteria with seating for 300

I have likely forgotten things, but you get the idea…its incredible, but unfinished.  I am getting used to riding in a tuk tuk.  It is very interesting how quickly that happened.  There seems to be a natural flow to traffic.  It is not crazy and fast like I had imagined, rather it seems like water flowing.  Horns are used to let other drivers know where you are and not blasted in anger.  Lanes are general suggestions only and it is not uncommon to see a new Toyota Prius beside a remorque style tuk tuk. 

A life apart, two weeks of self-isolation

It has been a week since I left my government selected quarantine hotel and landed in my own apartment.  I am well located in the heart of the city, surrounded by busy roads, temples and markets.  A week here would normally mean I have hit the streets to explore my neighbourhood, however, being in self-isolation means I have not done any of the regular on arrival activities and have been virtually alone.  I say virtually because while I have interacted with a few delivery people and spoken via video call or text with friends back home, I am on my own and alone.  There are those who say it is liberating, having no one to answer to, but it also can make it feel disconnected, cut off.

My little galley kitchen. Counters are lower than at home and I have low water pressure but everything I need is here.
Main living space. Will probably look for a table cloth, some cushions and a few pieces of art for the walls to make it feel more like home.

I have experienced the privilege that allows me to safely quarantine.  There are those here, and at home, that do not have the means to keep themselves or their families safe.  At home, both income earners of my household were able to continue working and drawing paychecks from home.  We were able to have groceries and sundries ordered, picked up or delivered.  Our community allowed us space to safely walk and get outside exercise, our yard offered us outdoor space in which to play with our dog.  While there were some adjustments, we were able to care for all our basic needs.  At home, with Kevin and I both at home, life was modified but flowed naturally.  I was still apart of the community and felt engaged with it, though at a distance. 

The process I would have to go through on arrival here was known to me before I left, so I was able to plan a few things.  I brought along a couple of small craft kits (diamond dots, paint by number and cross stitch), loaded the Kobo with books and loaded games to my laptop and tablet.   I’ve even signed up for a MOC (massive online course) through the University of Alberta on Indigenous Canada.  Here in Phnom Penh, I have less space so the element of exercise is more of a challenge but has been doable (I desperately need a yoga mat!).  I am tending to my mental well-being by engaging in crafts, online courses, reading and video games. 

What I have not been able to anticipate is feeling apart from everything.  It is strange, and I really don’t mean home sick.  I stand on my balcony and watch the city below me.  People, mottos and tuk tuks going in every direction, occasional honks and sirens, the sound of call to prayers from the temple nearest me.  I am only watching however, apart, not participating in the regular movement and energy of daily life in the city.

The entrance to Preah Puth Mean Bon Temple. View from my balcony and zoomed in a bit as I am on the 20th floor.
The green space that I can only admire for now.
Watching the streets from my balcony.

At first, it felt rather luxurious to be alone, no demands, no rush, no deadlines.  Just the noise of my radio or TV show.  Then there was the exhilaration of the feeling of “time to figure things out, get the lay of the land”.  This exhilaration is normal when I travel, I’ve felt it every time I arrive in a new place.  There is something special about the newness of it all that makes exploring the world my addiction of choice.  This time, I had to extinguish the excitement, stuff it down and make promises to myself that soon I would be free to explore.  Self-isolation no longer feels luxurious.

Google maps was able to tell me what I was looking at below, the name of the temple, the name of the market, nearby shops.  Some texting with others in my same situation little messages about how to work the stove, where to take the garbage, how often the delivery people come to the wrong entrance.  Video calls and emails are great, and I love every minute of them, but it is so very evident that either end of the call is a world away.  Good morning here is good night there…simple but also clearly marks a separation between life in Red Deer and life in Phnom Penh.  I have a bird’s eye view of life but am apart from it.

The red marker is the Temple, to the right the yellow marker is my building. It is one of several in complex urban community called Olympia City. I can also see the roofs of the Orussey Market from my perch.
Thanks Google Maps for offering this image. I am in the red building, all the way at the top. This would be the view from the Temple entrance looking back and up at my place.
Thanks Google Maps for the image. This is the entrance to the Temple. I will learn more about the place when I am free to explore and will post more.

I have encountered hic ups, but each has been dealt with in time.  My Korean TV box was eventually reset to English, I identified my frying pan as no good for induction (there are no symbols on anything), I know what to do with garbage (no compost or recycling at all), dealt with panic as the electricity randomly turns off for a few minutes and I will continue to edit the details for drivers about where the lobby to my building is (not a single one has arrived at the right place without at least a call or two).  I’ve even identified the weird clunking noise that happens when it rains (it’s the building pumps).

None of these activities and challenges really allow me to feel like I am here, that I’ve arrived.  I am held apart in self isolation watching the hustle and bustle of the city below.  I’m not bored, but I desperately want to engage in life here.  I want to smile at locals on the street, I want to decline, over and over again, tuk tuk drivers asking if I need a ride, I want to look at and smell the food before I order it and I want to hear the locals speak in Khmer.  I don’t even know what is in my building!  I can see a green space below me, have seen the pedways that allow you to cross the street, I was able to glance a peek at the mall.  There is a pool in the complex, I’m certain not far but none of my little sorties to fetch deliveries in the lobby have given me any idea of where that might be.  I want to melt in the hot humid air and get soaked having been caught in an afternoon shower, rather than stay hidden in my little climate-controlled apartment.

So, for a few more days, I will live apart from the world.  I am not bored and this is not home sick, it is simply the strangest way to arrive in a new country that I have ever experienced.  COVID has certainly made things different and I guess for now different means I sit here and type rather than put my shoes on and walk to the market or go for a swim in the pool (it’s a beautiful 33C feeling like 38C with the humidity, perfect pool day!)

I know the school has lots planned for the 17th when us newbies have to report to work, but at least for the next three days I must sit apart from life only watching.  My first outing of course will be to take the last (hopefully) COVID test on the 13th, then with any luck I will be free to roam and engage in life here more fully.  What will I do first? I’m not certain, any suggestions?  For now, I live my life apart.

Travel during COVID

I’ve traveled enough to know what normal looks like, even when it goes sideways.  Travel during COVID is a different beast altogether.  Rules are more stringent, more complicated and everyone is acting scared and overzealous.  Despite this I have arrived and am ready to get settled into my new home and while I have to wait it out 14 days, I am ready to get to know my neighbourhood and new friends.

So where to begin? I not intended to publish anything about my travel day, but since so many people asked about it, I’ve changed my mind.  To begin, in order to enter the Kingdom of Cambodia you need a visa.  As things stood when I applied you needed a letter of invitation, return express envelope, passport, $120CND processing fee, proof of $50 000USD health insurance that includes COVID coverage, a $3000USD deposit (to pay to COVID testing and government assigned quarantine) and a negative COVID test.  All of this was fairly straight forward except for the last, the COVID test…well that was another matter.

Once it became clear that CIS was unable to help get the visa (because of the changing rules) I sent in all the required documents to the Honorary Consulate in Toronto.  At that point I was asked to get a COVID test (test #1…keep count as my story unfolds).  Off I went, throat swab and I wait. Rule change…no longer need that test and the visa is on its way.  The rules changing is also a theme in this travel adventure.  I do still need a negative COVID test and the requirement is strict.  From the time of the test to my arrival time in Phnom Penh no more than 72 hours can pass.  You can well imagine that when the travel time is about 28 hours this doesn’t leave much time for the test and the results to get back to me.  You also need a letter from a doctor, signed, stamped (not in black, I know weird rule) so I also had to time a doctor’s appointment.

I booked a test, flight time changed, booked another test to ensure everything was lined up.  Packed my bags, printed documents, said all my see you soon’s and got ready to leave Canadian life behind.  A surge in COVID cases in Alberta meant that it was taking longer to get the results back and despite my many assurances from health link the local testing team would absolutely do nothing to expedite my test results.  I crossed my fingers and prayed that the results would be in when I arrived at my doctor’s office 17 hours before I had to leave Red Deer.  No luck, results were not back.  No way to help them along, no way to be certain they would be entered by the time the office closed.   Both Kevin and I went on a phoning spree, pharmacies, health link, ER you name it we called.  Over and over we explained why we needed the rush on the test, over and over we were told sorry, can’t help you.

I called a friend and asked for a professional favour, a rapid test and after-hours meeting.  This wonderful human obliged and at midnight (only 6 hours before I planned on leaving Red Deer) I had my COVID test documents.  Have you been counting? This rapid test was the fourth COVID test.  I went home to close my bags and check in electronically.  Having had an exhausting day chasing down the test I decided to upgrade the long flight, turns out this was a very good decision.

Arrival at the Calgary airport was uneventful and fairly normal as it was the full flight to Vancouver.  The only thing out of place was that all the attendants wore masks.  A late departure meant that I really had very little time in Vancouver.  Was just arriving at the gate when my zone was called so I just walked right on.  First time on the new 787 Dreamliner.  Beautiful plane.  The upgrade meant that I had a larger seat with more room between rows.  The breathing space on an 11-hour flight was a gift.  I also had the row to myself and no one behind me.  This makes it easier to move around, recline, shuffle items to and from my bag…generally everything.  Three meals, 4 films and a few games on my phone the time passed quick enough.  Service was a bit different.  No longer were there choices of meals and snacks, you were handed a bag on entry with sanitizer, masks, gloves, pretzels and water.  Meals were fully boxed, each item sealed and presented all together, not good if you are a picky eater.  All in all, this flight was delightful.

(The windows on the Dreamliner lightened and darkened at the push of a button. I may have played with them a bit)

Arrival in Seoul was smooth, as I exited the plane there was a service agent there with my name on a sign who escorted me through the health check, fill out a form please, temperature taken, then through security again and then through the airport to the transfer check in counter to get my boarding pass.  Feeling fairly good because everything was going so smoothly…I should have known better.  The agent at the desk begins to go over the documents, lab report – good, doctor note – good, insurance letter – good, $3000 deposit – what is this? Nope no good.  She asks for a credit card; she asks me to purchase a return to Seoul ticket; to both I declined.  My school had made arrangement to act as my guarantor and I didn’t need to pay a thing, just needed for this agent to understand. What’s App had all my school (CIS) contacts in it so I sit down and start texting.  The other CIS teachers flying with Korean Air had no problems and were sitting in the same airport at the same time enjoying Starbucks while I wait for the problem to get sorted out.  I get an image of a bank slip, still the agent will not accept it, more texts.  In the background I have two local ladies working their magic.  After I am sure a flurry of phone calls including the lady who owns Canadia Group and I finally have a boarding pass.

A nap in the boarding lounge was just enough to let me know just how long I had been traveling, 20 hours so far.  I was looking forward to sleeping on the next flight.  Boarding this last flight included another temperature check and visa check, again the row to myself and we’re off.  I slept for about 4 of the 5-hour flight, woken once by an attendant passing out forms, three to fill out before arrival.

Arrival in Phnom Penh!  Hourray!  Can’t read a thing, can’t understand anything so I march along following the rest of the passengers.  I see a sign with my schools’ logo on it and immediately feel a sense of relief.  They, a team of three meet me and help me with the various stations and processes.  First, health documents checked, then deposit slip from bank, then immigration (here they keep your passport until you get your hopefully negative COVID results), customs declaration, baggage claim and off to line up for a COVID test.  The school rep get me a SIM card, some USD cash and tell me how the next steps are to go.  As they were unable to follow me to quarantine, they head off having gotten me through the worst of the processing.

Every foreigner must have a COVID test before leaving the airport.  This was a bit surreal.  The old 50’s style metal office desks provide space for another form to be filled out and each of these stations is separated by old fashioned looking bamboo screens (probably quite modern but to my western eye it seemed like something kitsch).  Two people at the desk with the form and two workers taking samples at each of the nine or so health stations.  The people drawing the swabs were decked out in full gear.  Booties and gloves tapped over their outer scrubs, the inner suite pulled over their head and zipped to their chins.  Face masks, goggles and face shields completed their outfit.  Throat swab and two nasal swabs and I am headed out to the bus.  No signs, no one directing I’m just following the other travellers who seem to know more than me.

I find the bus for the foreigners, but have to abandon my trolley and deal with my two very near 50 lbs suitcases, carry on and hand bag on my own.  It wasn’t too far, maybe twenty feet, so I was good.  About thirty minutes ride and we arrive at the hotel.  The ride was uneventful as it was too dark to really see anything, though I smiled when we passed some night food stalls.  They look exactly like what I had seen on YouTube travel videos.

The two buses bound for quarantine were escorted by police and on our arrival we all poured out to the sidewalk, suitcases and all.  Again, no trolleys no helpers.  I gather my stuff and follow the herd.  Down what seemed to be an alley, clean but dark.  I can only make out the closest of details, wires strung from building to building and awnings jutting out. 

(photos of the road I took the next morning as I left. It was not an alley at all, just a regular neighbourhood road)

We are crammed into a little lobby, suitcases were sprayed (so were you if you were near the bags) given another form to fill out and begin to check in.  I get to the counter and hand my paper to the clerk and am told no single rooms, go back and wait.  I was tired so this bothered me more than it should have.  A gentleman about my age offered to share a room so we hand the clerk our papers together, the clerk takes one look at the papers, looks at us and says no, not woman and man together.  Apparently, this was outside the bounds of decency.  So, I wait.  The man I tried to room with calls over a few minutes later and points out a young girl just entering.  I talk with her and we decide to try rooming together.  My first friend a young lady from California.

We head up to our room and after unpacking, showers and getting electronics hooked up we fell asleep.  Awake very early because of the time change we headed off to breakfast.  I had assumed that food would be delivered during this quarantine time but no we all headed to the 14th floor for the buffet. Rice porridge (bor bor) was the new item for me.  Runnier than a typical oatmeal and savory in flavour from the chicken and vegetables in it (topped with fresh black pepper, fresh lime and green onions of course).  Yummy and hot so it really hit the spot.  We spent the day watching TV, talking and taking a nap.

(Hotel lobby was decked out in beautiful wood carving everywhere, two shrines, pillows…Bor bor for breakfast and papaya salad at lunch. The salad I had heard about and was looking forward to it. My roommate assured me this version of the salad was lacking so I didn’t feel too bad about not really liking it)

About 11pm the hotel calls and lets us know we are clear and can leave.  This means that all the foreigners on our plane tested negative and we were allowed to head to our own residences.  My roommate left by tuk tuk right away and I waited for the morning to have the school representative come get me. She and the driver help me with my bags and we are off to my apartment.  I still have to stay put and inside for the next 12 days but at least I can unpack and get used to my new home.

So, that is how far I have gotten.  I have managed to get the right apps going for ordering food and groceries.  My Internet is working on all my devices and I have mostly found a good home for all my stuff.  Since I can’t go shopping for the few things l’d like in my apartment, I am making lists, yes, making lists makes me feel good.  At the end of 14 days I will go with a representative from the school to get my last COVID test and if negative can venture out into the city and meet people face to face.  Over the next few days I will begin some school work, figure out how to sign out and back in again to Netflix on my TV (its all in Khmer), work on the craft projects I was wise enough to bring with me and read some of the books loaded on my Kobo.

Did you count…?  How many COVID tests did I have done?  A long story to be sure, sorry for that.  I have been saying often these past days, its complicated.  That is what travel during COVID is, complicated.

A short follow up…I made it through to my home many others have not. A colleague is stuck in Canada with getting a COVID test with the right timing, another had their guarantor document questioned until the flight was missed and a whole group are stuck in hotel quarantine as a person on their flight tested positive, these poor folks can not leave their rooms for 14 days.

What is it to be courageous?

People are calling me courageous; I don’t think I am.  Adventurous, gutsy, intrepid and spirited yes, but not courageous.  Having given some thought to why this seems to be a common adjective when people talk about my choice to change things up, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the matter.

Merriam-Webster online defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty”.  There are several elements to this definition that do not apply to what I am doing.  I am moving overseas, this is not unique, difficult or challenging.  Many people from all cultures from all over the world do this on a regular basis. 

So why does this word come up again and again?  I am 46, well established in my profession, wife, mother…I have been moving through life as one might expect for a typical Canadian woman.  I had my overseas gap year in university when I lived as an au-pair for a family in France.  I’ve traveled with my family to places like Disneyland, Yellowstone, New Orleans, Vancouver Island, Mexico and Europe.  I own a home, have a dog and enjoy regular social activities with friends and coworkers.  This is a predictable life, a normal life, it falls clearly within the bounds of what society says I should do.

But I have flipped that predictable world over.  It is not expected that after 20 years in a profession that one would take a leave and move to the other side of the planet.  This is not a promotion and the compensation is not what I receive here.  I am going alone; my son has recently moved out and my husband will continue his work here.  Making this move is, in some ways, snubbing the normal, expected path of a middle-aged woman.  I think this is why people say I am courageous.

I said at the beginning that I would describe myself as adventurous, gutsy, intrepid and spirited. I have never shied away from new things, have even taken measured risks on occasion and no one who knows me would say that I am meek or quiet.  It takes guts to pursue your passion especially if the path to do so flies in the face of the normal (expected) course of things.

If you have traveled with me you would know that I research deeply before heading off.  I have done as much as ever for this adventure and feel certain that while there will be challenges, I have nothing to fear, there is no life-threatening danger.  While many elements in my life will be different than home, I am excited for the change and don’t perceive them to be difficulties, just daily adventures.

Perhaps the only element of courage that I feel applies to me is the part about mental strength.  I can acknowledge that it takes guts and fortitude to make this change.  Second guessing my decision, worrying about all the what if’s and wishing COVID-19 had not messed things up royally have plagued me since day one.  Yet, in spite of all those thoughts I am heading off. 

Call me adventurous, gutsy, intrepid and spirited if you must but save courageous for others.

Check out YouTube and website for Drew Binsky.  I have followed him for ages and love how he tells stories of real people from all over the world  https://drewbinsky.com/

Photos taken while my mom (Denise) and my sister (Raina) were spending some girl time together in Banff before I leave. The wild alpine flowers were unbelievable and Lake Louise is always picture perfect.

My First Blog Post

Time minus 14 days

Well here it is!  Finally, I have sorted out how to publish a Blog.  I am sure there will be technical difficulties as I learn more about how to use this platform, but for now here we go! 

Two weeks to go!  I have taken care of just about everything you would imagine.  Finances, vaccinations, shopping, doctor, dentist, optometrist, you name it!  Now, I am down to the last few essential to dos. 

I have booked my CoVid test and made an appointment with my family doctor for him to write the all important CoVid negative letter that I need to present at the Cambodian border.  I have to be especially careful over the coming days to stay safe and virus free or all my preparations will be for nothing (and if I am honest, I am totally freaked out about the possibility of getting sick with this bug).

Time now to pack my life into two suitcases.  Not easy packing up your life and fitting it into two bags.  What do I leave behind? What do I buy when I get there? What about my classroom and professional things?  I have woken at night many times thinking about how I will spend my time, both on regular work days and alone during my 14-day quarantine so I feel like I have a good handle on what to take…but will it all fit?

The Kobo is full, podcasts have been downloaded, channels have been subscribed to.  I’ve also bought a few craft projects (of the very small size variety) to help keep me busy; there really is no way I could sit in a hotel room for two weeks and only watch TV.  Once I am out of quarantine, I have plans to take a city tour and a food tour just to get my bearings.  The school also has experience getting their staff situated so there may be some fun activities organised by them as well.

A few classroom items as well need to get thrown in; things that will let my room really feel like my space.  My ceinture flécheé, some Canadian paintings posters (Emily Carr and the Group of Seven), a small Newton’s cradle, my Einstein desk figure and a few office supplies (namely my erasable gel pens and fancy pink binder) that make me happy.

So, while I feel like my preparations are well in hand, I am increasingly seeking time with family and friends.  This is the really hard part.  It is expensive to travel and it may not even be possible.  The state of the world has really made it impossible to know if I will get to see those I love live and in person for a good while.  At least we have all had lots of practice with online meetings recently so at least I will be able to plan some video calls.

A huge thank you to all of you.  I would never have found the courage to take a chance on this opportunity if I was not surrounded by your love and support.  You lift me up and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Carpe Diem my friends!

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

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