We have now been in Cambodia for almost two weeks, and all is very well, all things considered. It’s been a very big week with a whole lot of change, and I’m bursting with pride at this whole crew of Kildays. The boys started school on Monday, and both were named “Student of the Week” on Friday. Despite just arriving in a new continent, the eldest just came home from several days and nights away at a camp/retreat for her age group at school. She received rave reviews from teachers and adult leaders, who have already figured out how special she is. (How could they not?) Thais and I officially started with IJM on Tuesday, where we have already been thrust into meaningful and impactful work, alongside some real heroes who have been on the front lines in the fight for justice for a long time. On top of it all, yesterday our family moved from our temporary digs into the new apartment we will call “home” for the remainder of this year. So much has changed for our family so quickly, and everyone is handling it all really well.
So, what is it like to live here? What is different? What is surprising? What is the same? We’ll try to give you a glimpse.
1. The weather. It’s the dead of Winter down here, but the temps have yet to dip below the 70s. Highs have been upper 80s and low 90s. We have enjoyed the warmth. We have played Marco Polo with the kids in the pool. In January and early February. At night. Good times. (But we've actually seen locals in long sleeves, sweaters, and even a scarf!)
2. Currency. We have been surprised to learn that U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere we have been. At least here in the city, dollars are the main form of currency. But there are no coins. When you get change below one dollar, you get folding money only, in Cambodian riel. The numbers are eye-popping at first, when you find yourself holding hundreds or even thousands of another nation’s currency. But the excitement fades quickly. A 100-riel note is worth just slightly more than 2 & 1/2 cents. A 1,000-riel note is worth just over a single quarter. Within two days, I had to pull all riel notes out of my misleadingly fattened wallet, which was starting to resemble George Castanza’s. All riel notes now reside where pocket change used to be – in my front pocket.
3. Chek Kong Moan Bananas. These guys are tiny, but they are awesome. Sweeter than our bananas, and a bit more tangy.
4. Cost of Living. A big unhappy surprise has been that groceries (at least grocery items we recognize) are very expensive here . An ordinary sized box of cereal (not “family size”) runs 5 to 9 dollars. (!) A very small jar of spaghetti sauce is 5 bucks. A very small jar of peanut butter is about 5 bucks. A two liters bottle of milk is more than 4 dollars, and it’s often already spoiled the minute we get it home. Expiration dates are meaningless. We are regrettably having to adjust the budget, and in the wrong direction.
5. Cost of Living, take two. We have been delighted to find that restaurant food is typically much cheaper than at home. Lunch is usually in the range of 3-6 dollars, with outliers above and below that. On Friday we ate Indian food and settled our bill for $5 for both of us, including the tip. (And it was pretty good!) We have been told there is a noodle bowl place not far from work that sells lunch for a dollar a bowl. We will be trying that very soon.
6. Traffic. Some of you have undoubtedly seen Facebook posts about this, so apologies if this is a rehash. Except for the busiest intersections, there typically are no traffic lights or stop signs. And people very rarely stop. Motos, tuk tuks, cars, bicycles, and the occasional pedestrians just merge, meander, and maneuver through and around each other at intersections, and somehow this happens without anyone getting killed. The guiding principle seems to be: just keep moving forward, and assume no one will hit you. I have no idea why this works. Thais analogizes it to water rolling around rocks in a stream, or schools of fish when they encounter each other in the ocean.
7. Sidewalks. They don’t exist. There is a narrow area between storefronts and the road, but it’s not for pedestrians. This is where everyone parks their motos. Pedestrians have to just walk around the melee, which is usually in the street. (Again, just keep moving forward, and assume no one will hit you.) Here is an example of a Phnom Penh “sidewalk”:
8. Sugar. It doesn’t come from sugar cane down here, and it is not white. Most sugar in Cambodia comes from the sap of a palm tree and is reddish brown. (You Longhorn fans would absolutely love this stuff.) We have also seen banana sugar, and we look forward to giving that a try. For now, we are serving tea with Thnot organic sugar made from the sap of the Borassus Flabellifer palm tree. Yes, all of those are actual words here. It’s good stuff – a bit of an earthy flavor, as though you are drinking an actual tree with your tea.
9. The glass door. Here’s my most embarrassing Cambodian story so far. In the temporary apartment that we just (mercifully) vacated yesterday, there was a glass door separating a covered, mostly enclosed porch from the kitchen. I could not seem to get it through my thick skull that this was a door, and not an open walkway. (No one else in the family had this problem.) The first night in the apartment I smacked myself right into the glass door, face first, busting my lip and putting a lovely welt on my forehead. Fun times. (Fortunately, I don’t tend to bruise, and the welt diminished substantially by the next day.) In some sick form of equipoise, I pulled off the same feat on our last night, nearly breaking my nose in the process. It’s a good thing we've moved out of that place. Otherwise, Darwin would have eventually found a more draconian fix.
10. Washing the produce. All fruits & veggies here need to be washed very carefully to remove bacteria to which the locals are accustomed, but to which we most assuredly are not. Our youngest learned this the hard way on our first day, when an apple remained in his system only very briefly before finding its way to the surface of Sihanouk Boulevard. The grocery store sells a special wash for fruit and vegetables that kills off the bacteria without killing the flavor. How is this product used? Good question. We wondered that ourselves. Fortunately, there was a sign, written in both Khmer and English, to explain. While we are truly grateful for the thoughtful efforts of our Cambodian friends to translate this explanation into English, the instructions puzzled us. See if you can follow this:
11. Water. This precious resource flows from the tap, but it’s not for drinking. All consumed water is bottled water. We have had to adapt to brushing teeth with bottled water, cooking rice and pasta in bottled water, washing vegetables in bottled water (with maybe a poon of coffee!), keeping mouths shut in the shower, and declining ice at restaurants. This item ranks high on the list of how we have learned we were spoiled back home.
12. Bread. For just less than a century, Cambodia was a French colony. While Cambodia gained its independence in 1953, it retained the French custom of making amazing bread. Baguettes are readily available. I’ve had perhaps the best croissant ever, and from a very plain source (the grocery store bakery).
That’s more than enough for now. Enjoy your week, and enjoy the Super Bowl! (We’ll be on our way to work Monday morning around the middle of the second quarter!)