Friday, March 17, 2017

Cambodian Sickness and Industries

Though I've been sick the past week, I've been following the stories of Soth Rey and leprous indigenous people from the countrysides of Cambodia. Most people I grew up with didn't think that leprosy still existed, (and it doesn't have to,) so seeing the pictures and stories of these heartbreaking diseases leaves you with quite a bit of perspective. (If you haven't heard of Soth Rey's story, or how she is doing now, you can find it clicking the links. If you want to help, go here, but beware the graphic before/after photos.)

This is a definite side of Cambodia: heartbreak. Amidst the smiling faces and generous people there are so many issues left in a country still recovering from a bloody past and struggling to build a middle class. The two largest industries here are textiles and tourism. While the economy has been growing since 1995 when the government changed from a planned economy to  a market-driven economy, any political unrest slows that down. As there are to be elections soon, we will see how it goes this time.

Here's an online photo from the textile section of the Russian Market: One of the famous textiles is the silk Ikat. They remind me of the Guatemalan traditional woven textiles.

Speaking of industries, did you know (according to Google) over 30,000-60,000 tons of cashews a year are grown in Cambodia? The majority are shipped to India and Viet Nam for processing, though. In 2015 (at least) there was a push for support of local farming AND processing to create jobs locally and there's a cashew peeling factory in the Kampong Thom province. Hopefully the job market will continue to grow.

Cashew trees show a completely different part of Cambodia than the city. While we've avoided the country until the baby was born, since people usually get sick from mosquitoes there, perhaps we will get to see more of it soon. (And take a good mosquito repellent.) 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Eating Lotus Blossoms: More Khmer Food and Baby Update

Here are a few more interesting Cambodian/Khmer foods:

This is a lotus blossom. It is sold on the side of the road and eaten in Cambodia. You push the seed out, peel the outside off and eat the white, nutty, middle part. It tastes similar to a peanut.

Do you have an opinion on tempura battered mushrooms?
Ben thinks they taste like fried chicken, Ezra eats the outside and spits out the mushroom, Talia loves them, Elias turns his nose up at them all together, and I like them! The boys like tempura onions (I totally introduced the concept of onion rings to the Cambodians here: they were amazed!) and zucchini, just not mushroom. 

It's a big, flowering, white clump of mushrooms that grow  together- I don't know their name...

Although it looks like a doughnut hole from the outside, with its sugary coating, this is no ordinary doughnut. The inside is stuffed with what tastes like cheesy mashed potatoes in a unique Cambodian spin on things. I think the outside dough is made with rice flour because it is very chewy. The mixture of savory and sweet is a little different. Also sold near it was a flatter-looking version without the sugar coating. That one had a sweet potato filling.

I'm thankful everyone has been well enough to go to school and work this week! Zoe is almost 6 weeks old today. She's very active all day long, here she was trying to tell me something, but she sleeps most of the night only waking to nurse a couple of times. 
I think all of my babies look very similar, but Ezra looked the most like me and got my mom's Swedish roots. The other three got their father's dominant genes. Can you tell who is who?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cambodian Buddhist Funerals and a Stomach Virus

First, something pleasant:

These beautiful orchids grow on our second story balcony. That is the most beautiful spot out of the entire house.
This week we were able to witness a side of Cambodian culture that we haven't seen before: a funeral. The Buddhist approach to death is very different from what is normally witnessed in the States. Sunday we noticed the old lady who lives in a house at the end of the street walking up and down the street assisted by two family members. Then monks started arriving. Her husband had died, supposedly in the night. Very soon afterwards, this tent was going up on the narrow alley that composes our street:
Monks chanting, a recording of a wailing lament and clangy music with drums was played at full volume most of the time after the tent was set up. This particular funeral went until Wednesday, though the people here say it depends on how much money you have. If you have a lot of money, it usually lasts a full week. Every morning during the funeral people would be up preparing for the day and music would start soon after 4 a.m. This would continue throughout the day and then in the evening people would come and eat at the tables set up under the tent. Children would run around playing and people would be socializing until around 10 p.m. Then, on Wednesday, everyone showed up in white clothes (the color of mourning here.) When it was time, the coffin was pulled on a cart with wheels and the people walked in procession holding unopened lotus blossoms and carrying a bowl of something white. Not long afterwards, the tent and tables disappeared and life went on as before.

For us, this week has been full of sickness. Ben and Ezra were home with a stomach virus at the beginning of the week. (Ben commented on the appropriateness of feeling like death and listening to a death chant all. day. long.) Poor Ezra can't catch a break. The vomiting and diarrhea from the beginning of the week has finally lessened but we're keeping an eye on his fluid intake to make sure he stays hydrated. You can tell he doesn't feel well when he lays around, because he's normally a very hyper little guy. He's been lethargic this week and not wanting to eat. Talia has also been home with the same symptoms, but seems to be recovering faster.
Zoe has made it to one month old!
Hopefully everyone will be feeling better soon.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

If You Need an International Midwife.... and an Update After Zoe's Birth

A lot has happened after Zoe's birth, as I'm sure is normal in families with 4 children abroad. One thing we have had to figure out has been getting Zoe's birth certificate after a home birth. It turns out to be much less complicated than we expected. I'm going to leave that post for Ben to write, as he's been dealing with most of the paperwork and can explain it better.

We, sadly, had to say goodbye to our midwife. She helped by catching Zoe, the way midwives do, but she did more than that. Just being here as another (mostly) sane, English-speaking, fellow mother after one of the most life-impacting times abroad (as birth generally is) made the transition smoother and our lives better. Her sense of humor, (when Ezra drank her mouthwash for one of many examples) adventurous spirit, (showing me parts of Cambodia I haven't been able to visit yet!) helpfulness (she taught me how to make ricotta and other things) and adaptability (Cambodia can be hard, but she didn't complain) make her special. I miss hearing her wise viewpoints on life, but I'm glad she made it safely home. If you'd like a good midwife who is willing to go abroad to help you, I highly recommend Fair Flowers Birth Services.

My sister also came and left. She doesn't like her photo online, but she took photos for us while she was here.We had fun visiting different places around Cambodia, and she especially liked bartering at the market! We miss her a lot, too.
The kids had fun taking pictures with baby Zoe. Now that everyone has gone home, we are figuring out our new normal for routines with 4 children, one of whom needs to be held most of the time right now. So far, the craziest part has been getting breakfast and kids ready for school in the mornings, but even that is smoothing out after a little bit of time.
Ezra has been struggling with breathing issues about once a month. Previously, the doctor refused to give him anything stronger than a saline nebulizing treatment as asthma is difficult to diagnose in children under 5. However, I had done everything he recommended and none of it was working. The worst part of having children is to watch them suffering and not be able to help. When Ezra comes home from school with a runny nose, he usually is struggling to breathe a day or two later. I hate going to the doctor for every little thing, so if we can take care of something at home, we do. When your child is gasping for breath, though, and the saline treatment isn't helping, a doctor is the right option! I'm thankful we have access to healthcare when we need it. This time the doctor decided it was time to have something available for when Ezra has an asthma attack and it gets this bad and gave a prescription for medication to put with the saline in an emergency. Ezra is the only one who has suffered with this so far, and every doctor he's seen expects him to grow out of it as his bronchial tubes mature. Ezra was back to his normal hyper mischief the very next day, so I think it's working, thankfully!
Zoe is growing quickly! She has gained about a pound a week and is curious about everything around her. Her schedule seems to be slowly aligning more with ours as she gets bigger and can sleep for longer periods between nursing. Talia loves having a sister and the boys are still very protective and slightly awed by the smallness of a baby. It's adorable to watch them hold her with little smiles as they exclaim "she's so cuuuuuuuute" every single time! I'm sure when she's old enough to mess with their things this will be a harder sentiment to find, so I want to remember them this way.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Zoe's Birth Story

Last Monday I walked to my last work meeting before maternity leave at 37 weeks 6 days. There, we rode motorcycles down the road to see the new offices we will be in when I get back. The rest of the week, I was to finish up by working at home. Well... I did, but Tuesday I also started getting stronger contractions and losing pieces of the plug. Since the midwife wasn't to arrive until Thursday, I was counting down the hours and asked my family to pray for the baby to wait. 

Just because I can birth by myself doesn't make it optimal and it would  have defeated the whole point of paying the midwife and preparing for the birth if we'd had to go to a hospital. After being forced to use the hospital in Abu Dhabi, one of the good things about being in Cambodia was the freedom to birth at home. The cleaner that Benjamin got to help me haul laundry to the fourth floor to dry while I'm pregnant has told me her stories about birthing in the hospital here. There was nothing natural about it as the doctor took charge making a nurse push the baby out from the top of her stomach while he used a suction machine to pull the baby out from the other side. No wonder she was in so much pain and doesn't know if she wants to have another baby. Unfortunately, when third world countries copy the United States on many things, that usually includes many needless hospital interventions during birth that increase the chances for major abdominal surgery, maternal death and depression from inhibited bonding with the baby. They usually keep these practices long after they've been dismissed by the States.
She's been praying for a little sister for 6 years.
I am convinced that the prayers of my family and friends helped the baby stay put. Diane, my midwife, made it in on Thursday, got to get a good night's sleep that night and the next before I needed her. Friday night as everyone else was asleep my contractions got increasingly stronger. I slept as long as I could, but when I couldn't sleep through them any longer, I knew I would do better to keep myself moving. I washed the rest of the dishes, did a load of laundry, folded a load, hung a load to dry and made pancakes for the kids to have the following Saturday morning. When a contraction would surge, I would stop and let it work and monitor it on the app I had on my phone to know how close together and how long they were lasting. Through the night they were about four minutes apart.
"I think I've found my calling" -Ben
That morning I told Ben I didn't think he would be able to go to the event his school was hosting for the students as we would likely have the baby that day. He was excited. I tried to make sure to drink a lot of water and eat when hungry to keep my energy up and laid down a few minutes to rest. When the contractions wouldn't let me sleep longer than 12 minutes, I started walking again. Birth is one of those special times in life where pain isn't an indication of a problem, but in the beauty of transformation. Each surge of pain means that you are getting closer to your goal, it indicates progress. With the first two births, I had more fear getting in the way of appreciating the journey, then in Abu Dhabi I just wanted to get. that. baby. out. so they wouldn't force me into something I didn't want and since the water broke on that one, everything progressed more quickly. This time was slower, more like Elias' birth, and I could appreciate the process better. I used the time to pray and be thankful for all of the prayers God had answered in this child's conception and development, birth options and so many more things.
Ezra is so proud of his baby sister.
Around 11 a.m. things began to feel differently and I could tell that transition was on the way. Contractions were one minute apart and increasing in intensity. I asked Benjamin to take the kids to my friend's house from work. I knew the kids would like to play with their kids and pets and toys they hadn't seen before and I was just thankful God had provided a family I could trust to let my kids spend time with during the birth. From then, things kept getting more and more intense from the tell-tell nausea and then the beginnings of the pushy feelings and contractions that allowed concentration on nothing but breathing through them. While in this stage, I completely understand why women want a medicated birth. However, I know from experience how much that impacts after the birth and that if I can just get through that part, everything else goes sooooo much smoother.
"I love the baby." -Elias
Baby Zoe came out around 3:30 p.m. with her hand up by her head, so she took a little extra pushing. This time, instead of just rushing to get her out, I tried to let my body do more of the pacing and listen to when it was ready to push. (Your body can birth a baby while your brain is in a coma... just listen to it and you'll know when it's time to push.) Ben and Diane's support made such a difference to me. I knew there were people there who believed in my body's ability to birth and who weren't going to push me into something unless absolutely necessary. They prayed with me when I needed encouragement right before pushing Zoe out. Ben was my balance as I pushed.

Zoe came out healthy and with a strong nursing reflex. She was born at 38 weeks 4 days, (but as developed as a 40 week baby, so maybe my cycle was off.) She was 8 pounds 15 ounces and 22 inches long. I didn't need stitches or have any complications. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for the completion of the whole 9 months of anticipation, that the only thing I could do for the first few moments was say "Thank you, God."

I have never known so strongly that God was real, loving and very much concerned with me as much as I have during each birth. I don't know why every single little detail of this birth was answered with "yes, I can do that for you" when so many people struggle with just getting pregnant. I don't understand why I get to have four healthy children with good, uncomplicated births and so many women have to have interventions to live or have their child live. I don't know. I know I don't deserve any of it, but I am so very thankful for it all.

The kids, not to mention Ben, are all so in love with her. We are so happy she's here!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Thinking Outside the (Oven) Box

A way I typically cope with homesickness is through baking. It's my favorite thing to give as a gift or a just-thinking-about-you sort of thing. Since, unlike running or hiking, it's something I can do while very pregnant, it's something I've missed more than normal lately as I near the 37 week mark. (Think of all of the postpartum freezer meals you've seen that require an oven... Much of it just doesn't work well without it.)

Ovens are rare in this side of the world. The expense of the gas, lack of many traditional baked things, and cheap bakeries for the things you do want baked, keep many from exploring this style of cooking. Some of the newer apartments that are aimed towards foreigners (you can tell by the prices) include an oven, but it's definitely not mainstream.

This doesn't mean, however that everything baked is impossible to make; you just have to think about cooking it in a different way: cookies flipped in a skillet pancake-style, a double boiler with brownies in a pot, microwave mug cakes or pudding, finding different ways to make similar flavors when something just won't work... It's all possible.

The gas ovens that typically ARE available here are very gas-inefficient, non-convection and have lots of places for the heat to escape. This means a recipe that normally takes 10 minutes in an electric/convection oven takes more like 30 minutes and is likely to have the bottom burned and the top not browned. Our gracious landlords gave us one they weren't using and we found out for ourselves just how quickly it could go through a 3 foot canister of gas. (About 3 weeks, instead of the normal 3 months, baking about 4 times and otherwise doing normal stovetop cooking.)

In India, a unique solution to baking on a stove top is a type of double-boiler- like pot that I haven't seen before: the bottom pot holds salt or sand to evenly disperse the heat and the top pot is greased and then filled with anything from cake to pizza crust and cooked over (usually) a medium flame.
Here is a favorite chocolate mug cake that we make with the kids for a special occasion. It makes enough for 4 small mugs, (it rises so only fill halfway.) We got the recipe here: And modified it because we didn't have self-rising flour.

2 tablespoons melted butter
1/4 cup milk
1 egg
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup flour
1pinch of salt
Powdered sugar to sprinkle on top

Microwave one minute then let it sit until cool enough to enjoy.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Street Vendors in Cambodia

A popular way to make a living here in the city seems to be to strap a cart to the side of your motorcycle and drive through various neighborhoods looking for customers. Up to 10 different vendors come turn around in our particular dead-end street in a normal day.

Many vendors sell food: coconut batter waffles, steamed corn on the cob, rice cakes filled with greens and served in broth and chili sauce, fried bananas, steamed sweet or Irish potatoes, and many, many more things. Some non-food items I've seen are a guy with a loud speaker system selling pirated CD's and one who had set up his motorcycle to display parts for fans. As its hot and not many can afford AC, the fan guy probably does fairly well. Another frequent vendor drives through with a large cart full of brooms, dusters, plastic bowls, sieves and a variety of odds and ends needed around the house.

A prime example of the lack of business privacy here was when my husband purchased some fried bananas and they came in a paper to catch the grease that had previously been a companies inventory of something. It had individual's names, addresses, telephone numbers, how much they purchased... And it does make you wonder where they get the paper. Once we got a copy of someone's CV, photo and all.

Like all selling, you need a brand, a label, a schtick. In Cambodia this means each vendor has a special sound proceeding them so people know what they are selling. Sometimes it's just their voice calling out their wares in Khmer. Many times it's a recording of their voice on a speaker. Then there are all of the musical carts with different tunes and a guy who comes down the street before the lady selling soup who beats a wooden drum set. One particular vendor plays something I thought sounded just like a goat. I thought the neighbor's had added a goat to their chickens until I figured out where the sound was coming from.

Recently several monks wrapped in their orange robes and carrying their trademark umbrellas and market bags have been coming through the neighborhood, I assume for donations.  They are quite bold and walk right up to the door if it's open, which it usually is if the kids are playing outside.

Because the typical houses here generally have glass windows on the whole front bottom floor, (and no yard, so the kids are usually playing out front where the street ends,) there's never any sense of privacy at home. This is compounded by being foreign in a country of staring people. Perhaps a good part of that is that the kids will be used to people staring and not as self-conscious as someone who grew up with the luxury of privacy. 

In the mean time, I guess we get to see a lot of interesting vendors.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

December Happenings: Wrapping up 2016

2016 is drawing to a close and, though we are on "winter" break, it doesn't really feel like winter here, though it is cooler. The rainy season is mostly over, with only an occasional outburst and the weather is low 80s and high 90s each day.

We tried a traditional Khmer restaurant because of their excellent prices the other day. It reminded us a lot of Abu Dhabi's traditional way of eating: dense cushions on the floor with really low tables. Of course, I doubt these cushions were filled with camel hair, like in the Middle East. (I'm not sure how Cambodians in their third trimester comfortably sit that low!) The drink was jasmine flower tea and we had a chicken curry with rice and a beef soup with a dominant kafir lime flavor in the broth. The menu included things like frog, snake head fish and other things.
The kids have been playing with a neighborhood cat since it was a tiny kitten. I think Talia especially has it almost tamed. It belongs to a neighborhood store, so we don't care for it, but it's the perfect pet for expat children: you get to love it but not worry about it if you have to leave or pay for the medical/food and other expenses.
The kids were really excited to open presents from their teachers at school. We hardly ever buy candy, so finding chocolate was very exciting.
We've been chopping it up a little at a time and using it in recipes to make it last longer. Talia made chocolate chunk, oatmeal cookies with part of it.

I'm at almost 35 weeks with our little girl on the way. We are all getting really excited to meet her next month. Looking back at all of the changes that have come from moving from Mexico to Cambodia and the new cultures and challenges associated with that, we are content to close this year feeling it is stuffed as full as it could be. And, as 2016 comes to a close, we already have a lot to look forward to in the New Year!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Cambodian Market Food

So I have this friend who is persuaded that it is her job to make sure I experience Cambodian cuisine. It seems like every time she goes to the market, she brings home something new to try. Here are a few things that were new to me:

Persimmons: these were bright orange with a smooth, firm peel on the outside and the inside, tasted to me, a lot like a peach. I've been wanting to try these for a while, so I was glad she brought one.

This seems to be a typical breakfast food: Tapioca with sweetened milk of some sort, toasted sesame seeds and plantain.

These grilled bananas on a stick were brushed with something like soy sauce, because the outside was crispy and salty. It also came with a potato that had been boiled, mixed with vanilla and sugar and then formed into a patty and grilled like the bananas... it was interesting. The kids preferred the potato and I preferred the bananas.
This was another version of tapioca; this time with sweetened sweet potato, not quite mashed, but giving body to the soup. It also had egg, like in the version you would find in egg drop soup. I was starving, and it was a filling, if un-thought of combination for me.
On the top of the plate you will see a banana that has been battered and fried. The batter includes sesame seeds and I think vanilla and sugar from the flavor. As a bonus, when you get these, the little batter pieces that fall off into the hot grease and cook are put in the bottom of your bag so that in addition to the bananas, you get a bunch of crunchies. These are my children's favorite thing to eat here, so far... they get it every once in a while.

I'm sure there are a lot more things to discover when it comes to market food. I'm not interested in the bug/snake options, but when it comes to vegetables combined in interesting ways, I'm a lot more open to trying it. Would you?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Elias Turns 5!

Elias has been looking forward to being 5 for several months now. Play places are scarce here, as public parks don't really exist, especially around where we live. For his birthday, we went to a mall that had a fun play place inside and the kids ran and played for a long time.

Another fun thing at this mall was the stuffed animal-like child version of motorcycles they could ride around a non-developed floor of the mall.

Instead of cake, he asked for doughnuts from the bakery. The kids enjoyed theirs on the way home in the Tuk Tuk. Elias and Ezra crashed as soon as we got home. That is birthday success, right there!

Something Elias has been wanting for a while was this exact book of a collection of Curious George stories. My grandmother had given that exact thing for us to bring in our luggage before we even knew that's what he wanted. It was hard not to laugh, then, when he mentioned wanting it while I knew we had it hidden. He was very happy and has been reading it constantly since he received it.

Happy Birthday, Elias! We love you!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What's Rude or Not in Cambodia

Things that don't seem to be rude in Cambodia:
1. Staring.
2. Standing in front of people at a social function regardless if the people behind you can see.
3. Talking about someone's physical appearance.
4. Going the wrong way down a highway.
5. Parking wherever you feel like it, regardless of how it impacts traffic.
6. Feeding random kids food without asking their parents.
7. If you are male; walking around with a bath towel tied around your waist at any time of day.
8. Letting your male children play naked in the street until the age of about 9.
9. Honking loudly at anything that has less wheels than you to let you pass. (The exception being a car honking at a tuk tuk.)
10. Asking personal questions about finances.

Things that seem to be rude to a Cambodian:
1. Not taking your shoes off before entering a home.
2. Not inviting someone to join you in the meal if they show up while you're eating.
3. Showing the bottom of your feet, especially with shoes, to someone (ottomans are not understood.)
4. Showing anger.
5. Not making way for wrong-way traffic.
6. Touching other people, especially hair, without permission.
7. If a non-Cambodian male, staying home while a Cambodian female cleaner is in the house. (But a Cambodian female cleaner can be alone with Cambodian repairmen or any ethnicity of woman.)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Some Tips for Flavorful, Budget-Friendly Soups

One of the best budget meals when you have two burners and no oven or crockpot is soup. It allows you to spread out a small portion of meat while the entire dish absorbs its flavor, to bulk up with cheap vegetables and to add a wide variety of vitamins and minerals depending on your access to varied-colored vegetables. However, when bland, it's not at all a joy to eat. Here are a few tips I've learned to stretch meat, vegetables and flavor. (All opinions. All optional.)

For us, it is cheaper to buy meat once or twice a month and then freeze it into portions for one meal. This means it must thaw or be allowed time to cook longer. Regardless of if it is frozen or thawed, you can still begin the same way: browning the flavor-enhancing vegetables. For us, that means onion, garlic, ginger and/or red peppers (as everyone but me doesn't care for the raw pepper flavor.) There are two reasons that I do this: If you throw onion or garlic in without browning it first, you lose a lot of delicious flavor and end up with a more raw version of their tastes.

Once these veggies are brown, I always brown the meat next. The basis of any soup with meat is the broth. The broth will have so much more flavor if you brown the outside of the meat first. After it is brown on the outside, I fill it up with the required amount of water and dried spices or soy sauce and let it simmer for at least two hours on low. (Dried spices can possibly be a cheap option for flavor. Here, sometimes they are expensive depending on what you get.) Another tip if you want tender meat is not to rush it: low and slow renders it much more tender than a rapid boil. For a good broth, it is best to use the bones from previous meals and boil until you get the good stuff out, but since I usually have frozen meat, I make sure to leave any bones in until the last minute as they augment the broth and then I separate them out. (Here in Cambodia, it's very common to leave all of the bones in even when served. I don't do this because my little ones are likely to choke on them, but they do like the bones and will chew on them if available.) I usually makes sure the meat is in small pieces so that it can go all through the soup and everyone gets as close to an equal amount as possible.

After you've figured out which direction you want to go with your soup flavor profile, you can choose the cheap filler-veggie to accompany it. For us, the cost-effective choices to bulk up a soup include lentils, black beans, pulses, potatoes, chickpeas, acorn squash, and sweet potato. Then, to this in a smaller quantity I usually add things like greens (spinach, cabbage, bok choy), flax (for omegas), carrot, or any other colorful option.

Last, one of the most important steps is to taste the almost finished product and adjust your seasonings. Not enough salt leaves all of your delicious flavors hidden, while the right amount highlights them. I save my fresh herbs until last as they are too delicate to hold up to boiling. Usually Khmer cilantro, parsley, lemon grass, or basil are available. An exception is Kaffir lime leaves, they will hold up to boiling well. Also, if I use lime/lemon juice, I add that during this step.

 I enjoy the challenge and ability to be creative with combinations, and thankfully, my family hasn't complained about it either. Usually, we pair the soup with cous-cous, rice, dumplings or possibly baked potato if it's more of a thick stew or chili. Soup can also be thickened with a cornstarch or flour-water slurry added at the end, but that's not usually necessary. These are always our supper option, so there are other ways to fit in vitamins and minerals during the day, through fruit and raw vegetables. There are a myriad of options one can use in combinations, but following this method with any of the options has really helped me get some delicious products.

As I don't have professional chef training, I'd love to learn from you: How do you make soup flavorful yet budget-friendly?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Woodworking in Cambodia

This handsome guy has been working a lot mentally with his doctorate and job as a principal, so finding ways to work with his hands is something he finds satisfying, he tells me. For him, that means woodworking.
Something that can be challenging for woodworking in Cambodia is finding good equipment. Even if something is labeled as a name-brand item, many times it's a fake and starts smoking at the first hint of work. This happened with several electric saws and screwdrivers. (Not to mention that cordless tools are almost non-existent or really expensive here.) But, not to fear, strong muscles and manual tools helped get things finished. 
Finding comparable wood to what we are used to working with in the States isn't always possible either. Good plywood is still something we've got our eyes open for. However, there are different kinds of wood, like teak and rose wood. Rose wood is very hard! That's what he built the boy's bunk bed with.
Besides the bunk bed, he has worked on practicing his tracing with a skill saw. First, he asked me to draw a camel because their lines weren't too detailed to start on. Besides cutting off the tail because it was too flimsy to stand up to the saw and the hump and mouth being a little pokey, it was a fun experience for a first try. Our neighbors were more than happy to laugh and ask if it were a camel or a turtle.
His next project was a Brontosaurus for the boy's room, and it turned out even better. Then, perhaps harking back to his days tracing a map with all of his free time in the class room (because he's a genius and always finished everything quickly) he decided to work on a map of Cambodia. He used old pallets and sprayed it with a finishing stain.
I'm really proud of his country cut-out the most. It's nice to be married to someone who isn't addicted to video games or selfish endeavors, but someone who tries to learn new things that he can work on with his children. The kids loved being involved in each of these projects and I'm sure they will give them wonderful memories with their father for later on.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Some Ways Cambodia has Forced a Healthier Lifestyle

One can never move to another country and expect everything to be the same. If we would be honest about it, we would also have to realize that each country changes us, as well. Cambodia is no different.

When you are on a budget, typical food from the Standard American Diet isn't available. There are cheap street food options, but if you want to avoid food poisoning and amoebas, much of that isn't a good option. (There are exceptions, depending on what they are cooking, how well you know them and how fresh the food is.) This has helped us eat more healthily. Cheese and most dairy is scarcely an option because it's expensive. However, seasonal produce, rice, beans and fruit are super affordable, especially in rainy season.

Not having an oven limits things even further. There are down sides to this, as my favorite thing to give people are baked goods like cinnamon rolls, but there are also advantages. Not having access to all of those baked items I usually make, even though I try to make healthier options for my family such as banana bread, has limited our processed foods and carbohydrates even more. When I can get a kilo of sweet potatoes for .50 cents, their rich satisfying flavor curbs any carbohydrate cravings I might be missing from baked goodies, and with less sugar and processed stuff. (Then, there's the delicious battered and deep fried bananas from the market, but we don't get those often.)

Meat is something you have to be careful with in the markets, especially pork. Because of the price, we have been sticking to cheaper cuts of beef and chicken thighs. Being in Cambodia has taught me many ways to stretch a chicken thigh to feed 5 people. With a 2 burner hot plate, many dishes for one meal aren't ideal, so lots of soups with rice and tons of veggies have been gracing our table lately.

While adjusting to these things was uncomfortable and I still have times I'd really just like a regular stove, overall I've come to see it as a blessing. I've been able to learn to make do with the ingredients available. (Thanks, mom, for teaching me to cook. I have no idea how people who don't cook can make it on a budget.) Our family is able to afford protein at every meal, while so many can't here. I've been able to learn some Khmer soup recipes and enjoyed learning to enhance our meals with cheap but flavorful new herbs. I have a new appreciation for my husband who is dedicated to making the budget work and also not picky about food, and even complimentary about what I cook. I see it as a blessing that this occurred though the biggest part of my pregnancy, helping maintain a healthier pregnancy weight in a country where walking is almost impossible (but the four flights of stairs certainly come in handy for that.)

So, I'm not promising anything, but if you want to lose weight, you might want to try an extended stay in Cambodia on a food budget. :))

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Cars in Cambodia

One thing Cambodian roads are not built for is cars. The tiny lanes between houses make it very difficult for more than one car to go through at a time. Small Toyota Camrys are huge in comparison to the space allotted and the ever-favored status symbol in third world countries, the Lexus ATVs are gigantic. Being able to afford a car in Cambodia also seems to give the owner a sizeable sense of entitlement as well on the road. Everyone must be patient in Cambodian traffic, but if someone is going to be honking, it's usually a driver behind shiny Lexus armor. Any driver in a Tuk Tuk or on a motorcycle has been forced to the edge of the road by a horn-blaring car or truck. 

[sarcasm warning] Can you blame the car drivers, though? They aren't able to enjoy driving their pollution-free, air conditioned car with any sense of accomplishment. Every turn is swarmed by the faster and less bulky motorcycles, deep pot holes the huge cars can't avoid and a myriad of wrong-way-traffic and cart-pushers. I can imagine being frustrated by owning a vehicle capable of so much that never makes it over 50 miles an hour on a good day. Perhaps that rage is what built up until a former teacher riding a motorcycle was purposely mowed down by one. He lost his leg, but the poor car owner is stuck in the same frustrating situation with perhaps some guilt on top. Usually, in cases where a car causes an accident, they pay the person who was hurt enough for a hospital bill, (health insurance doesn't exist for normal people here.) My friend's brother who drives a Tuk Tuk was rammed by a car and as a result, had his thumb amputated. The car-driver gave him $50 and disappeared.

In a country where the infrastructure can not support large vehicles, the insistence of citizens in getting them anyways may slowly change what road structure is available. In the meantime, everyone has to wait in the bulk of traffic created by them. (Unless you have a motorcycle, then you can usually get around anywhere while the cars are left behind to duke it out.)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Cambodian Fishing Trip

Where we live is mostly concrete and mud. Grass and nature are limited to a few trees at the end of the street and the kids play in the cul-de-sac with neighborhood kids instead of in a backyard, all of which are things we've adjusted to. However, when presented with the chance to see more nature and get out of the city a little, we were all for it. Ben came home one day talking about a fishing trip he had signed up for along with a guy from his office. The kids were really excited. 
The boat was bigger than he had anticipated, with two levels and room for a table in the middle and a small bathroom behind the steering part. Several other boats floated by on our way out. One was a floating hotel, another was a floating banquet hall for what looked like a wedding. The kids were excited to see a police boat go by. Most of the boats, though, were narrow little boats with a curved piece of plastic or metal over the middle to provide shelter. Families lived on them with a rack of drying clothes hanging on one side, steering on the other. I suppose they fished for a living.

 I never did understand what exactly the name was of the river we were on, only that it was a place where four rivers joined.  The guide anchored the boat by throwing the rope to a boy who tied it to a tree. Behind the boy was an orchard full of  longan and banana trees. Longans are really common to see here, often offered on the small shrines outside of almost every house beside incense.
The muddy river was a little stinky and once we saw a dead dog floating by, but the kids liked being on a boat and holding the rod and reel. The line kept getting stuck in foliage on the bottom of the river, but we managed to catch about 8 really small fish about this size:

That's all that they cared about, that they had caught something! We went home exhausted, sunburned, but happy for a change of pace.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Pests in Cambodia

There are a lot of things that thrive in a rainy-season country: interesting fruits, vegetables, trees, rats, mice, frogs and all sorts of insects.

Houses here are built of cement block covered in cemented-on tile for the most part. Windows are always barred, but front doors are often open except at night as there's no central air. With most kitchens outside, that usually keeps the rats outside too. Usually. Any little crack and they can squeeze their way inside. Because they are smaller, mice can squeeze in under normal metal doorways. Since upstairs Windows can be more of a downward, open vent, terra cotta tile hole, things can climb in that way as well. 

One corner of one of the screens came loose in our kitchen...
And a rat got in. I hate rats. We got it screwed in tightly as soon as possible! Mice, however, are almost impossible to keep out. Ben has suggested getting a cat to help with the mice, and who knows, that might be the best choice after the baby is born.

Spiders, flies and mosquitos are everywhere and also hard to keep out. Thankfully, most of the diseases passed by mosquitos are caught outside of the city in the countryside when people go home on breaks, so we're avoiding that kind of travel until after the baby is born. 

In a water pipe hole in our kitchen lives a medium-sized frog. Every night he comes out, but dashes back in if you get too close. Ezra always says "bye bye frog" when we close up the kitchen at night. (To make sure nothing goes from there into the rest of the house.) 

We always make sure all food is stored in air-tight plastic-lock containers, in the fridge or freezer. It's also important to sweep and do dishes religiously to keep pest invasion to a minimum. With toddlers and big people that aren't me who like to snack in lots of places, that gets challenging.

In addition to rodents, there are many lizards running around on the walls and ceilings here. They're fairly easy to ignore, at least.

Thankfully, we haven't had issues with snakes, though I've heard of a few issues in the city.

All of these things we call "pests" have been turned into delicacies by Cambodians. You can get snake on a stick, fried rat, dried frogs, and insects in different ways in the market. While I find that disgusting, I admire their ability to persevere and make money out of something most people would just try to kill.

The Awkwardness of "Affluence"

I've never thought of myself as rich. At all. I recognize several factors working for my good, however: My parents are wonderful at making a plan and saving up for it. They stuck together not letting divorce sap our family of financial and emotional resources. My dad learned how to fix anything that broke to save money on hiring someone. My mom learned how to cook anything that was on sale and to shop around and get good deals for the freezer. They passed those things on to us. We worked to pay off our college as we went and didn't get into debt. We saved up to buy a good used car cash instead of getting a loan. Instead of putting everything on credit, we learned to stick to a budget. We learned that delayed gratification was worth it in the long run to crazy debts ruling your life and marginalizing your ability to give to those in need, because they were really good at that, too. The ongoing theme of my upbringing was, "when you use wisely what is in your hands to bless others, God will fill them again." So while my parents tell stories of barely having enough sometimes: of my dad selling watermelons on the side of the road to pay off my birth; of him bringing home (with permission, they couldn't be sold) the dented cans from the produce department where he worked, of the lawn care business we worked at on weekends and evenings as a family, of the beautiful and delicious cakes my mom made and sold on the side- we were never without.
A myriad of electrical wires hang between poles.

When I come from that background to a third-world country I have many conflicting feelings. We first encountered extreme poverty in Guatemala; it was definitely there in a smaller way in Mexico and now I see it every day in Cambodia. These are places where governments are so corrupt and self-centered that they can not pass laws or find ways to help the people of their own country as much as they need to. Both Guatemala and Cambodia are still marked by very bitter wars that make them wary of governmental involvement as well. Both are also countries with a booming middle class, small high class and majority lower class.
The muddy joining of four rivers in Phnom Penh and city skyline.

It bothers me when people look at my white skin and assume I am rich. (Ben and I have joked about how just walking on the street in Guatemala as a white person is advertising that people can either charge you more or just walk up and ask for money, if you're lucky. Sometimes it meant getting robbed.) The fact that we can afford protein in each meal, even a little, proves that I am rich. The fact that each of my children go to school and that I can actually afford to have four children without starving proves that I am. The fact that I did get a college education proves that I am. A million other things- up to the fact that I can afford transportation, medicine if my children get sick, toilet paper, and baby clothes- things that I find hard to live without, people deal with every day here.
A downpour makes the heavy motorcycle traffic more crazy as streets hold up to 6-12 inches of water.

Of course the pressing need encourages ingenuity. People work hard here. Still, there are many things in the way. One of the biggest issues is a very high child-to-teacher ratio and very low teacher pay by the government in the public schools. Many children can not afford uniforms or school supplies, continuing their cycle. This became very apparent the other day as I heard a woman discussing how she couldn't send her child to the $30 a month school, but had to opt for the $10 one that was farther away. This isn't a problem that you can just say "work harder" at and see go away. It will take years and compassion and education.
Everybody seems to live behind a gate, but unlike Guatemala, those fences aren't always topped with spikes.

I know that I don't have enough experience to know all of the factors contributing to poverty in post-war countries, but as a fellow human I can still have compassion. I want everyone to have enough to at least survive. Something I've come back to each time I'm in a country where poverty has smacked me in the senses, is that I can't let contact with it numb me. I have to keep caring. This doesn't mean letting an overwhelming sense of despair immobilize me from doing anything about it, but it does mean I have to retain the capacity to feel for other's hurt.

Despite being so poor, Cambodia has a lot going for it. It has very little crime and a very friendly population. It is filled with NGOs (one of which, I work in.) Rising tourism and commerce have helped the economy. Things will change slowly, but surely. In the meantime we have to keep ourselves open to the chances to affect change within our own spheres of influence.
Police making sure we had permission to live here.