Siem Reap – where I left a part of my heart

Standard

IMG_0063

Recently, I spent three months as a volunteer ESOL teacher in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve left a part of my heart behind. Some people said, before I left, what a grubby little tourist town Siem Reap was and that I wouldn’t like it. How wrong could they be? I loved it. I love the red dusty roads that erupt whenever the rain falls; the smell of the Monsoon and dust, the sound of motos, the choreography of traffic, tuk-tuks, motos, cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional big black Lexus.

IMG_0073

I love the resilient spirit of the people of Siem Reap, their optimism, in the face of endless rejection – from the girls on massage lane to the tuk-tuk drivers – always hopeful, up for a chat, and the cries of ‘teacher-teacher’. Where else could I possibly find so much (possibly undeserved) affirmation and respect? I can’t imagine being embraced so affectionately at my local coffee bar back home, nor having my eyes wiped by an attentive waitress (who just happens also to be my student), when I choke on a chilli over dinner. Or to go out alone, and find each time I enter a café, that one of my students is waiting tables there and I’m suddenly the most important customer.

IMG_0423

IMG_0342

I loved the one dollar out-door foot massage where I watched endless reruns of the story of Angkor Wat on a large open-air screen… the foot scrub for two dollars, the pedicure that ended up a brighter pink than I chose, and the nail polish that was very poor quality, so the finish was less than smooth, but the effort and focus gone into painting my toes far outweighed the less than perfect outcome.

The people of Siem Reap put their hearts on the line for the tourists. They offer up a piece of themselves for a small price. They work long hours for little return and the tuk-tuk drivers spend more time waiting for customers than they do actually driving anywhere. In the heat of the mid afternoon they sling their hammocks and rest. They are waiting for the balmy evening when the tourists will begin swarming down to Pub Street and maybe they can nab a newcomer and sell them a trip to the temples tomorrow… always tomorrow … the locals here believe in tomorrow in a way that is heart-warming and admirable.

IMG_0408

Madame, you want tuk-tuk, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the temples, not today Madame, but tomorrow maybe, you call me, you have my card, tomorrow, tomorrow, I take you to the temples, Madame, Madame…

It’s one sentence, because they anticipate your rejection and already they’re moving with a smile to the next potential customer.

I loved the Old Market, the Night Market (there are several Night Markets) and the food – the food loved me too. I ate the juiciest mangoes I’ve ever tasted, sweet pineapple, longans, dragon fruit, and I never tired of the Khmer vegetable curries and the chilled 50 cent Angkor beers, not to mention the one dollar Margaritas on Soksan Road.

IMG_0704

I found French pastries at the Blue Pumpkin, a designer cupcake café and the New Leaf Book Café where they make the most delicious banana blossom salad while selling second-hand books. And too, minus the food, D’s bookshop (both second-hand and new).

D's Bookshop, Siem Reap

IMG_0338

IMG_0337

I admired the ‘flower girl’ as I christened her. The same girl every night, plying her flowers along Pub Street, her witty patter, her sassy street-smarts and who knows, she looked fifteen, but perhaps she was older. I admired too, the young man (whom I decided ran away from the circus), who ran his own one-man-band sort of circus, swallowing fire, and juggling outside the cafés in the balmy evenings, his shiny naked skinny torso and the young boy who made the chocolate banana pancakes with such flair, one hand wiping, the other hand swiping, cooking and cleaning at the same time.

And yes, I stood with all the hundreds of other tourists at dawn, waiting for the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

IMG_0174IMG_0182

But it wasn’t so much about the temples for me, as the local people. I enjoyed a cycling alone to the temples on the school bicycle. The first time I’ve ever cycled close to an elephant or a monkey for that matter. I tried to imagine a quieter time, when the temples were abandoned and overgrown but not with tourists, the eerie mix of nature and man-made stone grandeur, uninhabited.

IMG_0233

IMG_0273

IMG_0223

One of the highlights for me wasn’t the temples, but the evening I rode pillion on a student’s moto into the balmy late afternoon-straight-into-evening – along the canal to Road 60 for a Khmer-style picnic with one of my classes (barbecued chicken with yummy seasonings from the local roadside stalls) and being one of only a handful of barangs.

As for the circus. If you never do anything else in Siem Reap, go to the Phare Cambodian Circus which describes itself as uniquely Cambodian, daringly modern. Be startled and astonished by the amazing acrobatics, the sheer energy, talent and something else… delight at its best, in its best form – delight from the performers and delight from the audience. This is what I found in Cambodia – you think you’re giving when mostly you are receiving.

But most of all I loved waking at 5.00 am to chase the frogs from the kitchen after the Monsoon and once too, a cheeky rat ran out from behind the portable gas hob. I would make porridge and drink black tea in the make-shift outside dining room. I’d feed the school cat in the hopes she would keep the rat at bay. And then, after gathering my lesson plans, at around 5.50 am each morning, I would pull the shiny yellow curtains in my bedroom open and see my always-early student Phanna, on his moto heading towards the school gates. He never failed me. And soon after, the rest of the class. At 6.00 am the Elementary One class would begin, with the fans going and the doors wide open. I would watch the dawn break as I taught. That moment between dawn and morning, the shifts in colour. Magic. But more than that, the amazing energy and affection that my students rewarded me with. There was no ‘class management’ required, I had rapt attention from hard-working, motivated, interesting and hugely admirable young adults. What more could a teacher ask for?

What I most admired is the extraordinary spirit of my students and all their golden hopes for tomorrow. I felt humbled by their resilience, their hard work, their generosity and their humour. It is hard to imagine a country with such a recent tragic history, where there is such a spirit of optimism.

I’m not forgetting though, there is much more to Cambodia than Siem Reap and my students. I saw the poverty between Siem Reap and Phnom Phen when I took the Giant Ibis bus journey between the two cities the weekend of the water festival. The way people live with their rice crops drying at the side of the road, no fresh running water or electricity, relying on oxen and water buffalo instead of modern-day farming methods. I was reminded of Cuba. I know the Government is corrupt, the recent elections weren’t fair and that people live in abject poverty. I read Joel Brinkley’s ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ before I left for Siem Reap and while I was there. It is without doubt a very sobering account of Cambodia’s history. I know it’s time for Hun Sen to go and democracy to have a fair chance. But somewhere in my heart, I have great hope, if the young people I taught, are an example of what lies ahead.

Advertisements

Cona coffee and a club sandwich, please

Standard

We were talking last night about food fashions.    I recalled how back in the late seventies, the height of cool for us, in our wee Brooklyn apartment (Wellington, not New York), was cracked pepper pâté on Vogel toast – yum – Friday night, after a week at work, and then home to an easy dinner.   Dead cool, delicious and yes, high fibre toast and something as exotic as pâté.    Well, you might smile.   But you may not have grown up in the 50’s when the closest thing to high-fibre bread was a ‘brown loaf’ or Nu-soy bread and pâté well…

It reminded me of an essay I wrote back in the nineties about the changing face of New Zealand cuisine, and how the tables had turned (so to speak) from the early 70’s when we lived in Norway, to the 1990’s, when our Norwegian friends came to visit us in New Zealand.

Cona coffee and a club sandwich, please

We came back from our OE in the mid seventies armed with our Moulineaux – a smart, European sounding and superior coffee-making machine.  It worked by filtering freshly ground coffee beans through a sort of blotting paper and we added mustard and salt to add flavour and flair.   We were sophisticated travellers who now knew how to make real coffee.  We’d learned in London about milky instant coffee and in Norway about brewing coffee on a stove, but our Moulineaux was an advance on all of these options. We even purchased a Spong coffee grinder (think of your mother’s meat mincer) so we could startle our friends with freshly ground coffee beans.

Growing up in small-town New Zealand, our first taste of coffee had been Gregg’s chicory essence followed by Gregg’s instant.  And then there was the subversive Dutchman who opened a dimly lit coffee bar in Richmond, replete with candles burning in Chianti bottles and coffee was over-brewed into the wee small hours (probably as late as ten in the evening) in a Cona Coffee pot with a mysterious glass stopper.

In the eighties as world travellers, we would cross the Tasman for our cappuccino and marvel at the hot froth, delighted by the dusting of cinnamon or chocolate.  Choosing between cinnamon or chocolate on your cappuccino, being one of the defining moments of trans Tasman travel, back then.

And gradually (or was it all of a sudden?)…  the coffee industry began to infiltrate (excuse the pun) New Zealand.   People abandoned their cups of tea for coffees and the options began to grow.    You could still buy Cona coffee, and you could enjoy filter coffee of various varieties, but now the cappuccino was gaining favour.   And another competitor entered the scene – the plunger!    People argued in favour of and against the plunger.   People argued about the size of the grounds required for plunger versus filter coffee.

Cafes came and went – as good as their last lukewarm latte.   We marvelled at the flat white and debated the difference.

A cappuccino was now passé.  The latte bowl was in.   People sat in cafes all over New Zealand worshiping a white bowl of not too frothy froth.  It took two hands to hold and it required concentration and a teaspoon if you wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth.   People, who normally had good manners, could be seen spooning coffee from enormous white bowls, their noses no longer powdered with cinnamon or chocolate, but possibly dipped in spume.

Then somehow, when we weren’t looking, chocolate crept into the equation.  Peopled nonchalantly ordered moccachino’s and worse than that…decaffeinated flat whites…   Even barristers cringed at this new fad.  What was the point of coffee without the caffeine?

And then, from out of the blue, we had word from our friends in Norway that finally, after thirty odd years, they were coming to visit us.  When we first left home in the seventies and lived in Norway, we were gob-smacked by the variety of food and the taste of coffee in Europe.   And so, we couldn’t wait to show them our beautiful mountains and we hoped, some authentic kiwi fodder.

We set out on our journey to the South Island on the fast ferry (normally crossing Cook Strait on a ferry guarantees you a look at authentically awful Kiwi food) – but fashion had overtaken us and the food was passable even quite good.   It reminded us of the food we had eaten on the hydrofoils in Norway thirty years ago – salad sandwiches and pastries.   But we still had high hopes of finding the real thing.

In Blenheim we visited the vineyards and our Norwegian friends were astonished at the variety and quality of our wines.   We recalled working in the mountains in Norway serving European wines, most of which we had never heard of before.  Many of the guests were wealthy oil and shipping magnates from Haugesund and Stavanger.  The most popular dinner wine was Egri Bikaver (which means bulls blood and has something to do with the Turks, the Ottomans, and Hungary) and for the wealthier (oil and shipping) guests the prestigious (we’d never heard of it back then) Châteauneuf de Pape…

Thirty years later, we watched, as our Norwegian friends sat, eyes closed, breathing in a Mudhouse Sauvignon as if it were the equal or more exotic than Egri Bikaver.

We ate in Nelson and almost drowned in haute cuisine.    But still we hopes.   We would seek out the club sandwich, the mini mince pie and the chocolate éclair.   We were determined to enlighten our Norwegian friends.

Instead, on the West Coast, we ate whitebait patties the size of dinner plates at a salmon farm and even our take-away pizza at Fox Glacier was edible.  The glacier rated, even with our Norwegian friends who were awed by the rapid movement forward of the glacier, the accessibility and the pretty, but dirty blue of the snow.

Then, driving through the Haast, hubby and I marvelled at the uncanny prehistoric canvas that enveloped us, while our Norwegian friends slept in the back of the car, sated, resting, and ready for the next gourmet experience.   Which, as it happened was not that far away, when we found Saffron in Arrowtown and although the mains (minus vegetables) were thirty-five dollars each and upwards, our Norwegian friends (converting the kroner to NZ dollar) didn’t even blink or notice that we did.  Leaving Otago, we popped into the Gibbston Valley vineyard…

The Gibbston Valley Pinot was the Eiffel Tower and the Prado rolled into one as far as we could tell from the glazed and glorious expressions on our guests’ faces.    They slept through the Lindis Pass and missed a moving feast of Graham Sydney landscapes.  I think, but cannot be absolutely certain, they did glimpse Mt Cook, but possibly they slept through this, digesting and resting.  We headed for Christchurch and out to Banks Peninsula.   At Little River, the old store had burned down and a new and modern tin shed had risen from the ashes and instead of just oversized pumpkins and Swandris, we found doormats made of river stones that even Aucklanders would drool over.

We set off for Akaroa, imagining their awe at Onawe, and instead they discovered Barry’s Cheese Factory.  Please, please, no more – our stomachs groaned, but our Norwegian friends were amazed.   We couldn’t convince them that when they first met us, our most exotic cheese experience was smoked cheddar quarters in foil wrap.   We had been impressed with the goat’s cheeses in Norway back then – the peanut butter colour of them – the textures and flavours, the sheer range of cheeses… not to mention the awful smelling gammel ost (literally “old cheese) housed in a glass cover to keep the pungent smell at bay.

And then Akaroa in all its French quaintness invited us in.   We stayed with an old sailing friend who had restored a French Colonial historic home to former glory and planted hundreds of roses.  Each bathroom basin adorned with a freshly picked rose, themed bedrooms and, dare I say it, European, exotic… our Norwegian friends were delighted and so were we, but we had hoped for a small colonial cottage with no frills, or at the very least, a Spartan L-shaped motel with candlewick bedspreads.

Dinner was yet another taste-bud extravaganza on the waterfront with a roaring fire and endless good wine and food.  It wasn’t that we really minded, it was just we wanted them to know how bad it had been – and we had hoped to find some remnant…some shreds of evidence of a former civilization when the pubs closed at six pm, and people ate our for the first time on their twenty-first birthday at the local hotel…where the menu might have said roast lamb, or roast something…when dessert might have been Pavlova and when the best wine might well have been a very sweet German Riesling (even a green Nun would have done).

Breakfast at our B & B (no over-fried bacon and rubbery eggs) was fresh salmon or poached eggs with hollandaise…and yet another rose.

And so, we hoped and prayed that our favourite South Island town Kaikoura would not let us down.   It was November and it snowed, and the sun shone and we rocketed from almost sub-zero temperatures to almost mid summer.    We booked the White Morph, determined to give our Norwegian friends a truly memorable and authentically New Zealand experience but instead of authentic Kaikoura old-style crayfish in newspaper from Nin’s roadside bin …we were in for another gourmet treat, courtesy of the White Morph’s new chef.      We were thwarted once again and our friends were now convinced that we had been keeping New Zealands’s fine cuisine and amazing wines a secret for thirty-odd years.  The roadside cray bins weren’t selling crays that day…it seemed their catch had all gone to the restaurants.

We tried to explain about the New Zealand roast, the Cona coffee, the lamingtons and the pies…but they didn’t believe us…  They left New Zealand promising to return…but not for the scenery…  they had vineyards in their sights, and they hadn’t tasted our oysters or scallops yet…

It was weird to think how sophisticated Norway had seemed back then and to see now, how sophisticated and “European” New Zealand had become. How exciting it had been to pour European wines and eat from the smörgåsbord for breakfast and lunch.  Pickled herrings, smoked and hung and dried meats, and at lunch-time after skiing in the morning, a Pilsner.   And, now New Zealand was afloat with boutique breweries and we couldn’t even extol the virtues of Pilsner, or their extra strong (with a health warning) Christmas beer Jule øl .

We laughed about the fried egg joke – which was the meal that any good hotelier in Norway would place on the bar while you drank your beer (the law said you had to eat when you drank)…and then put away again, uneaten, for the next guest.   Of course with our six o’clock swill still a recent memory, we hadn’t thought too much about this.   But, now our friends from Norway were astonished, and delighted that we could take wine with a picnic to the Botanical Gardens in Wellington and enjoy the summer evening concerts without getting arrested.

Norway doesn’t even make wine (not unless you count the rosé, that we used to drink made from old jams at Easter time by Bestemor (Grandma) at the hotel we worked at – it kicked a fair punch indeed, was a gorgeous colour and texture, but hardly Ata Rangi), and in thirty years, we’ve gone from Villa Maria Rejoa by the flagon, to prize-winning Pinot Noir from Otago; from Velutto Rosso in a cardboard box (not bad in mulled wine), to endless choices in a bottle… from corks to screw tops.

It was odd, but I still hoped we’d find a little café with over-brewed coffee, sausage rolls, and prize of all prizes, a carefully cut, lovingly filled, slightly soggy, cheese and pineapple club sandwich.

Cuba, Cuba, Cuba, I Love you

Standard

We were planning to visit Japan. Our son and his wife live in Seoul and it seemed like a great scheme to fly there via Japan in the season of blossoms. Alas, the now historic earthquake struck, followed by a tsunami and we decided to change our travel plans (thinking perhaps that Japan did not need tourists right at this time).

So, where do you go, when Japan is off the itinerary? We decided it was time to visit Cuba – a place we had hankerd to see ever since Ry Cooder rode his motor cycle around this country and discovered the Buena Vista Social Club. And so, we went, via Panama, as you do, because you cannot on a commercial airliner, fly direct from the USA. How odd this is when you think seriously about it and how entrenched the squabble is, when after all, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I’ve been to Berlin and to the Stasi Museum which is a whole other story.

We flew the 11 hours to Los Angeles, and transited there, which required a full body scan (I’m a grandmother now, so what do I care) and then we flew to Panama, another six hours. Panama is a fascinating place all by itself and perhaps worthy of a separate blog. It was exciting to be there because it features large in many Kiwi lives during the 60’s and 70’s en route to the big OE and the UK. I came home in the mid seventies via the Suez Canal (which had just re-opened), but did not go to England via the Panama. And so it felt like some sort of belated rite of passage, standing there, watching the locks rise and fall.
But, our destination was Cuba.

Oh Cuba. Where do I begin? I think the photographs that I am going to post will probably speak louder than anything I can say. These photographs are the work of John Rainey-Smith, my partner in life and I’m delighted to share them with you. There is so much to say about Cuba and I don’t think anything could really capture the spirit, the colour, the delight, but I think his photographs are indeed eloquent.

Enough to say, that we were enchanted, and you know how it is, sometimes when you have wanted for a long time to visit somewhere and the imagination is greater than the event – in this case, it was not so. Cuba is colour in every sense, and Cuba is history in a crazy time warp. Cuba is testament to the madness of the United States foreign policy, a study in intransigence – how silly can we be. But Cuba triumphs too. Of course, Fidel is not blameless and I’m not a political analyst, just a tourist. Oh what a dream that a doctor from Argentina had… Che; immortalised on tee-shirts and billboards, a rally cry to all young radicals, his memory somehow woven into the Cuban psyche.

We stayed in Havana, at the Hotel Nacional (home of the Mafia really in those heady early days).

Oh, the incongruity of Cuba, the crazy dichotomies of grandeur, of passion, of salsa and sleaze, of social reform now on ice and melting, like the daiquiris that Hemingway sipped.

I can remember with vivid clarity, where I was when the Cuban Missile Crisis impacted on the world in the sixties. I recall standing in my Waimea Intermediate gingham red and white all in one button-through frock, wearing my Panama hat (except now I know that actually it was an Ecuadorian hat that people wore in Panama)… my hands were on my bicycle handlebars and I was looking down the asphalt driveway towards the bike sheds with fear in my heart… I had left home that morning after the radio broadcast and my parents conversation – that possibly, just possibly, Word War III was about to begin. (Yes, we lived sheltered lives back then and just as McCarthyism was rife in the USA, we too were terrified in the working class suburbs of New Zealand).

At the airport, en-route to Cuba, I was looking for a book about Cuba which I could not find, and on impulse I grabbed instead, with no real intent or knowledge, ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ by Sebastian Faulks. It is a tender, terrific love story based in the United States during the McCarthy years. And of course, there are very few writers of Faulk’s ability who can render love and history in such a compelling fashion. It turned out to be the perfect book to be reading really while travelling through Cuba, caught in a sixties time-warp. It seems inevitable me that the USA must, sooner, rather than later, open the door to Cuba and what a travesty if Coca Cola and McDonalds begin to colonise Cuba. For the past fifty years, the Cubans it seems have farmed organically, being unable to afford the chemical fertilisers or indeed the mechanisation (we saw men ploughing fields by hand and with bullocks pulling ploughs) – imagine if Trader Joe’s in the USA could buy fresh organic produce from Cuba – black beans for starters, strawberries, fresh lobster…

Our trip was booked through Intrepid Travel, although intrepid is perhaps an exaggeration. We were entirely comfortable, well fed and safe, for the entire journey and apart from miserly squares of tough toilet tissue that you have to pay for at most local toilets, everything else was probably quite luxurious in comparison to what I had imagined. Our accommodation was a mixture of flash hotels (think Mafia style palatial) and home-stays (humble, yet spotless and welcoming Casas). And of course for a writer, Havana is so much fun.

I’d heard of Fidel, of Che, but not of José Martí and so I found on-line a translation of his poem ‘A Sincere Man’ and these following lines of the translation seem particularly pertinent.

And seen butterflies emerging
From the refuse heap that moulders

I shall be seeking out more translations of José Martí’s poetry.

And now, my own poem and John’s amazing photos…

Dear Cuba;
I love your faded glory
your broken cobbles
the pink, pink and green of you
and too, the blue
your crumbling
buildings
the Malecon
where cool winds
speak of Cuban love
at night
star-bright on old Habana
mint in our Mojitas
Hemingway on our mind
music in our hearts.

Viñales;
the Casa Tamargo
a blind singer and salsa
the way we danced each foreign beat
from three to five
to rest on four
facing full length mirrors
on a dusty floor.

Cienfuegos;
your square
the rotunda and
El Palatino, outside
where I danced
with a drunken old man
seduced by his toothless
smile,
and a Pina Colada.

Trinidad;
with your crazy cave disco
hinting at grandeur
thumbing your nose at decay
setting grand tables
visible through shuttered windows
lace and linen
fine wine even
cobbles worn to slippery
our suitcases
sliding on marble

Santa Clara;
here, where
an Argentinean doctor
who believed
he could change the world
piece by piece
(beloved friend of Camilo)
is buried.
Che
an eloquent star burns
bright in your tomb
a light
for a dream
frozen in time…

José Martí; a sincere man
on your white horse
in your black jacket
defiant to the end
the seeds of
revolution
in your legend

Cuba, I love you
the heart of you
the music in you
the colour of you
you are
art among the arts

I feel John’s photographs are the real highlight and so I’m going to open a gallery for those of you who wish to take a peek at Cuba.
Some lovely candid people shots (he mostly asked permission!) – scroll through and enjoy.


<<a href=”https://acurioushalfhour.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/dsc_578-141.jpg”&gt;